The latest round of the Newton Lecture Series hosted Vik Singh and Razmig Hovaghimian, two former UC Berkeley students that have enjoyed success at large corporations, but also gone on to create revolutionary startups that are disrupting the industries that they operate in. The lecture was moderated by Elaine Lin Hering, a conflict management expert at Triad Consulting. The rich discussion which walked through the entrepreneurial journey of the two alums revealed great lessons for students, and emphasized the possibility of success using the UC Berkeley education and platform.
Vik Singh is the CEO and Founder of Infer, which delivers data science applications that help businesses win more customers. Prior to founding Infer, Vik was an Entrepreneur in Residence at Sutter Hill Ventures (SHV), where he helped the firm identify new ideas as well as evaluate early stage investments. Before SHV, Vik helped create and architect Yahoo! BOSS, an open search platform that runs over 1 billion queries a month. In 2009, MIT’s Technology Review listed him as one of the Top 35 under 35 Innovators for his contributions to search. He also worked at Google and Microsoft, both in research and products, helping ship Custom Search and XP SP2 Wireless. At MSR he worked with Turing Award Winner Dr. Jim Gray, co-authoring a publication about the SkyServer. Vik has filed 13 patents in the areas of search, social networking, systems infrastructure, and content optimization.
Razmig on the other hand, is the CEO and Co-Founder of Viki, a global TV site powered by a volunteer community of avid fans, now boasting over 40 million viewers. Prior to launching Viki, Razmig led international production incentives at NBC Universal, and also co-founded Embrace, a social enterprise that aims to help the 20 million premature and low birth-weight babies born every year, through a low-cost infant warmer.
Both entrepreneurs had very interesting lessons to share from their journeys. The largest emphasis by both Vik and Razmig was on the importance of hiring – ‘the challenge has changed over time,’ Vik remarked. ‘Hiring is one of the hardest things to do, especially in the cofounder stage – how do you keep your bar high, given you’re in a market where only average employees would be willing to work for you?’ The challenge for Razmig was equally difficult; it took him 6 months to hire his first worker outside to cofounding team. Both agreed that it is crucial to remain persistent to hire only the best possible workers; if type A employees settle for type B co-workers, the type B workers will bring in type C, and your work quality will consistently keep on decreasing. ‘It’s better to get one great employee rather than five mediocre ones,’ Vik advised students.
Having confidence in one’s ability as well as one’s business idea was another thing both cofounders stressed on – Razmig summed this up perfectly with the example of a dart board. ‘When you play for the first time, you can’t go in expecting to get a bull’s eye. You hope that you’re directionally correct, adapt, improve, and slowly reach your target. Startups work the same way.’
Razmig also emphasized on the importance of being able to say no. ‘It’s okay to say a lot of no’s – you can’t say you’ll go to conferences in India, China, and get distracted,’ he remarked – his opinion was that traction in early stages can often distract founders, cause them to lose focus, and hence it is crucial to be able to say no to people during the first three months. He also emphasized, that from personal experience, it is important to keep one eye on equity, but not from a perspective of greed: ‘focus on making the pie bigger, don’t stare at your slice of the pie and do nothing.’ He also emphasized that transitioning into startup culture can lead entrepreneurs to ‘chase shiny objects’ which often leads to a one step forward two steps back chain; Razmig was quick to emphasize the need to stay focused and eye what can be minted for value rather than what already has been minted, during multiple stages of the talk. Razmig was also adamant on developing the ability to make harsh decisions, such as laying off entire divisions of workers when cash-strapped, or acknowledging failures quickly and moving past them.
Vik also shared with students some important advice on what he believes should drive entrepreneurs. He emphasized on the importance of having passion, and clarity on the need to solve a problem – ‘if you’re not solving a problem you’re just making a feature. It’s pointless. A good litmus test is to ask yourself, “this thing that I’m working on, can I do it inside a bigger company, or does it deserve its own company?” – you must be honest about that question.’ He also created a philosophical parallel of startups to humans: ‘We’re all startups ourselves, in what we do in our daily lives – we’re all different. We just need to translate that logic to business.’
The talk was a great learning experience for UC Berkeley students, in the importance of being disciplined, inquisitive, and focused on solving problems and creating solutions.