Where did the idea for Cogno AI come from?
In the months of May, June, and July 2016, I was in Palo Alto, California, for my tech internship at a startup called Rubrik. My third year had just ended and Rubrik was indeed the best internship opportunity that I’d have got. I was working with their File Systems Team, working on migrating their backend database from one DBMS to another. I was working with some really smart team members and learned a lot.
However, during the internship, I realized a few things:
a.) I can’t stay away from my parents. Given that my parents won’t move to the US, it is best for me to stay in India.
b.) The learning experience at Rubrik was great and so, I thought that I should also explore starting up on my own.
My 7th semester at IIT Bombay was starting around late July 2016. I spoke with a couple of college friends, explaining my desire to start something of my own. One of them suggested that I should explore courses in DSSE (Desai Sethi School of Entrepreneurship) at IIT Bombay. IIT Bombay has such a large academic infrastructure that it is nearly impossible for anyone to know everything that the institute offers. I had spent 3 years at IIT Bombay and I had no idea that we had something like DSSE in the Institute.
I wrote to their Project Manager and the Professor in charge and expressed my desire to start a company. In spite of my being late for the enrollment date, they were kind enough to allow me to enroll in the ENT101 course – Introduction to Entrepreneurship.
When I came back to India around the end of July 2021, I started attending the ENT101 classes and I thoroughly enjoyed them. In a typical course in an engineering college, one expects slides, lectures, assignments, quizzes, and pen-paper-based exams. ENT101 was totally different. In this course, senior alums of the IITs took sessions, explaining various entrepreneurship concepts through their own entrepreneurial journey. These professors were not academic professors. They were themselves, startup founders and entrepreneurs, some of them even being billionaires themselves. They took classes to pay back to the institute.
They didn’t take any exams. The mechanism of the evaluation was to see how much a student is investing time in talking to customers, building a minimum viable product, and eventually building a startup of their own. The professors focused purely on the end outcome rather than on written exams.
I got an opportunity to listen to the success stories of industry veterans as well as young founders. One particularly striking story was of an IITB 2014 batch Alum (let’s call him Mohit). Mohit was just 3 years senior to me and had created a multi-million dollar company. I was extremely inspired to hear his story. I thought to myself – “Mohit is just 3 years senior to me. If he can create such a successful startup, why can’t I?”
An important lesson taught in the ENT101 course was that ideally, one should partner with a co-founder when starting up. Not that solo founders don’t do well, just that partnering with a co-founder makes life a little easier. I started thinking about who to partner with. A natural choice was to find someone in the friend circle. Most of my friends, including myself, came from a relatively humble background and so, convincing someone to forget about the thought of a high-paying job, and start a company, was quite difficult.
I realized that if there is someone who would not think twice before leaving the idea of a job, then that would be my friend Soham, who stayed 2 rooms away from me at Hostel 3 – yes, the same Hostel 3 that you saw in the movie Chhichhore. I had the privilege to spend 3 years of my life at Hostel 3!
I spoke with Soham and as expected, he was up for the idea. Both of us had internships from fantastic companies and both our companies had extended us pre-placement offers. This meant that we had a full 1 year of time (the 4th year of college) to experiment on various startup ideas.
One important thing we learned was that startups are built around problem statements. We, engineers, tend to think that if we build a cool technology, the market will buy it. In reality, the reverse happens.
One needs to understand what the market wants, and then one should build a product (or technology) around it.
This single important lesson changed our thinking perspective and we both started looking for problem statements. One interesting problem statement that came up was that in spite of so many apps for ordering food (Swiggy, Zomato), purchasing items (Amazon, Flipkart), or ticket booking (IRCTC, MMT), parents still can’t use these apps easily and rely on their children. I personally faced this because my parents always take my help in such things.
We started validating this problem statement. We spoke with a bunch of people including our parents, friends, professors, etc. We figured out that the problem statement is quite a large one. This whole problem statement discovery exercise was a part of the course Technology Venture Creation. For the course, we started presenting this idea as the project.
We started thinking of solutions to the above problem and an idea that struck us was that we can potentially create an IVR (phone call) based mechanism where parents can simply call a standard 1800 kind of number, and talk to an intelligent voice assistant, and speak their query. The voice assistant would be powered by Natural Language Understanding (NLU) technology and would be able to help parents order food, book a cab, order from Amazon or Flipkart, and book tickets.
When we presented this idea in our course Presentation, the feedback we got was that we will have to stretch ourselves to acquire customers and it will require heavy funding. Therefore, we should consider licensing this technology to businesses that already have acquired customers. The idea sounded quite interesting to us – not only would we avoid the hassle of acquiring customers but also we will be able to monetize easily.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
A typical day starts with:
a.) Waking up at around 7 AM.
b.) Running and exercising for a while, followed by breakfast.
c.) Reading books (I have a library!), listening to podcasts and audiobooks.
d.) At around 10 AM the usual day starts – meetings, review calls, customer calls, handling escalations, conducting interviews, etc.
e.) Day ends at about 8 PM.
f.) In the evening I spend time with my parents, have dinner and go for a walk.
g.) I sleep at around 11.30 PM.
To make the day productive, I tend to:
1.) Use a lot of Software and tools to track the work.
2.) Make a lot of notes.
3.) Delegate the non-core activities.
How do you bring ideas to life?
In the morning, when I read books, I get a lot of thoughts and ideas. These ideas could be around anything from learning how to communicate better, or around better team management, better metrics tracking in business, etc. The idea depends on the book that I am reading.
During my evening walks, I pick one of these thoughts/ideas, and then I dive deeper into it until some conclusion comes out as to where this idea could be useful.
Say if I have learned about a way to better track the productivity of the team members from a book, then during the evening walk, I will repeatedly think about how this could benefit our team. Because I walk for about an hour, I get enough time to get into the finer details. By the end of the walk, typically, I get clarity about how to go forward. The next morning, I document the thought in an email and float it to the concerned person in the team to take it forward.
What’s one trend that excites you?
The adoption of SaaS-based offerings by large enterprises is growing really fast. I think it has a great future ahead as large companies move from on-premise custom-built static software to on-cloud standardized software.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
A lot of entrepreneurs are swayed away by all the shiny things happening around them and they lose focus. For instance, I have seen many entrepreneurs look at a TechCrunch post and say “Woah, that sector is growing so fast and that startup just raised $50M funding. What am I doing with my life?”
They then tend to lose focus from what they have been doing, and start to chase this new “shiny object”. This leads to a continuous fundamental change in the business which increases the chances of failure.
Whatever “overnight” success story we see, has almost always a decade-long story that we don’t see. For an entrepreneur, it is extremely important to decide what not to do as against what to do.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Start early and do not lose focus. Take bold decisions and stick with them for 3 – 5 years of time to see the results. Don’t get impatient.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Many people don’t start up or even don’t join a startup because they fear failure. People think that startups are too risky and if they fail, society will think negatively of them. In reality, a failure doesn’t happen until one actually decides to quit.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Focus, focus, and focus. Less is actually more.
I always try to keep as less number of tasks on myself as possible. Each task might be a big one, but the number of tasks should always be less. It is very difficult to switch context from one task to another – the brain takes a lot of time to absorb and that leads to wastage of time and mental energy. Therefore, it is better to do less to be able to do more.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Focus on one sector – Financial Services.
Our Customer Experience Platform is quite generic and can be used by companies across multiple industries. However, we didn’t have deep pockets to go and compete with the large incumbents. So, we said – let’s forget all the other industries and focus on BFSI (Banking, Financial Services, and Insurance). We worked towards converting our platform to a BFSI-specific product offering and that paid off really well.
We were able to win over large players purely because we focused on a specific problem statement (Customer Experience for BFSI) and nailed it really well.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
In August 2018, my co-founder quit the company with barely a notice of 2 days. That was really a difficult situation for me and I was left with 1 employee and 1 intern. A co-founder quitting is a disaster for an early-stage startup. I had almost quit at that time.
However, I decided that I should not quit and rather find a way to persist. I called up Harshita who’s my college friend and explained the situation. It took a lot of convincing, but she ended up leaving her job at Citibank and joining me as a co-founder. Today, we are almost 110 members at Cogno.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
How about a tool to automate campus recruitment?
Currently, the way companies recruit from campuses is that they connect with multiple college campuses and share the details and job openings with each of them. In return, the campus shares the relevant candidates along with their dates of joining, etc. Then the placement coordinator will coordinate with the students and the recruitment team of the company to set up interviews.
This whole thing can be automated via Software and can save a ton of time.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I bought a bunch of books recently and am now, spending time reading them. These are all self-improvement books – Hit Refresh, Tools of Titans, No Rules Rules, Masters of Scale, Blitzscaling, Factfulness, The One Thing, How not to be wrong, Hooked, Grit, High Output Management, Deep Work, etc.
These books have taught me a bunch of skills that are needed to become a better person and more specifically, become a better entrepreneur.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Amazon Audible is simply amazing. I use it to listen to a lot of books. It is not always possible to carry a physical book. Also, it is difficult to read on mobile since it strains the eyes. Audible has solved this problem beautifully where one can simply plug in the earphones and start listening to some of the best books.
I use it extensively and would highly recommend it to everyone.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Atomic Habits by James Clear.
Habits help us perform tasks subconsciously. Our brain comprises of 2 minds – the conscious mind and the subconscious mind.
Our subconscious mind has practically infinite bandwidth, while the conscious mind has only a finite bandwidth. So, if some task can be done by the subconscious mind via building a habit, it will save our mind space of the conscious mind. This means, now our conscious mind can take up other more important tasks helping us increase our productivity.
The book teaches the formula to achieve what I mentioned above.
What is your favorite quote?
Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
- Focus on doing less to be able to do more.
- Read a lot of self-improvement books to become a better person and a better entrepreneur.
- Don’t quit.
Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.