This is the second interview in an ongoing series on innovative thinkers and business leaders. Firstpost will explore technical expertise to a lesser degree and focus instead, on what makes them outstanding leaders.
As one of the masterminds behind Pulse News, Akshay Kothari, 24, has been called "one of the new kings of apps" for designing what The Next Web has dubbed "the best newsreader ever." What started as a graduate student project at Stanford University has since grown into a product used by more than 3 million people and a company with 10 full-time employees. Kothari speaks with Firstpost about how he's benefited from mistakes, why it's good to not get what you want, and a new Pulse News product feature that will be released this summer.
How did Pulse News come about?
It came out of a class called "Launch Pad." At Stanford, there are a lot of entrepreneur classes from MBA to the Design School. The most unique aspect of the class is that we didn't spend time writing business plans or pitches. The intentional bias was toward action. You came in with your team and the only requirement was that you launch a product before you finish the class. We were working in a compressed time frame of 11 weeks.
Did you already have the idea when you started the class?
Ankit [Gupta] and I had completed our requirements at Stanford and we had a fun last quarter and we were resisting taking up corporate jobs. Both of us are really into the news space. We had seen a couple of trends and we were mostly looking at news consumption and realising that people are reading their news on their phone and now, on their tablets. And there is not a single news source that people go to; there are multiple sources. In general, we thought the whole idea of consuming news was very broken and that was the gist of the idea before we went into the class.
The first week of class is when the iPad got released. We decided that would be our first product, an iPad app. We started testing it at cafes nearby. Ankit would code up the app while I would go out with an iPad and test it with people around me. We would give the iPad to a person and have them play with the app, and look over their shoulder to see what they easily understood, and what they were having trouble with. We changed the product 10 to 15 times based on reactions from users. We came a long way from where it started by watching users closely. Along the way, we made a lot of mistakes also. These mistakes get corrected when you go out and test it.
Tell me about those mistakes.
In some ways, if you're not committing mistakes, then you're not trying that hard. We wanted to try to push the boundary a little bit and take bold steps. Along the way, we made our fair share of mistakes in terms of interaction or something we thought would be an interesting feature but ended up not being one. In the culture of our company is the idea that instead of developing the ideas in your head and building it, let the consumer vote. If we end up making a mistake, we are quick to rectify it.
In general, I don't think there's any other place that I know of that embraces failure as well as Silicon Valley does. I've heard a lot of venture capitalists are more interested and get more excited if someone fails, and where else in world would people embrace that? It's cool to actually fail; it's fine to. If you gave it a shot and failed and tried to start a company, people take it as a positive-at least that person went for it. And that's why so much good stuff happens here. You don't fear failure and you're not suppressing the ideas you have just because this area allows you to think big and dream in some ways.
How would you define success for Pulse?
If I ever feel like, "Oh this product is done, it succeeded," then it means I'm bored with it and I want to do something else. My thinking is I'm always trying to think of ways to improve the product. Even personally, I feel like if everyday I'm not learning new things then there's something wrong.
How have your expectations for Pulse changed?
When we first started, we had small dreams, which was to see a couple hundred people use this app, and to make some money. But now, it's become this amazing platform that over 3 million people are using, and our dreams have gotten bigger. Can we take it to tens of millions of people using the product?
From a product perspective, we are only just beginning. There is so much more we can do to improve news consumption that goes beyond design and user interface. We'll have new products released this year, and I'm excited about it.
Can you give us a hint about what those new products will be?
It will be best explained when it comes out, but on an abstract level, at the moment Pulse is a very personal and passive consumption experience, and we're hoping to connect Pulse users to each other, and build discussions around news stories. Exactly what those interactions will be will be released in the next few months.
Tell me about the path that got you to where you are now.
I was fortunate to get a lot of right opportunities at the right times. It's amazing how when you think that you missed out, or failed, or something didn't work out how you planned, things really work out for the better.
I wanted to go to Berkeley or Stanford for undergrad, but I went to Purdue, and I had a nice experience. It has lot of Indians there, and it's a university town. It was an easy transition, knowing there would be similar people around you. And then I ended up making my way to Stanford.
The reason I came was because I had a great job with a [venture capital] firm and in 2008 or 2007, there was this huge rush to get H-1B visas, and there were only 65,000 seats, but 150,000 people applied for them. They did a lucky draw and I didn't make the cut, but my back-up plan was Stanford and I got in. It turned out to be a good idea not to be in that industry for a couple of years because there was the economic meltdown. While I was at Stanford, I applied for some dream jobs but I didn't get them, so Pulse happened.
I think it's amazing when things don't happen your way. Because other things open up. As a young entrepreneur, you need to keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities that might not have come to you if you had done things as you had planned.
What are your future plans?
I'm going to give Pulse my best shot. My dream is to make it into a significantly big company. I'm going to give it my all, and then after this, I'll decide if I want to stay here or go back to India. In life, it depends on the opportunities that you get.
Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 03:47:59 IST