Startups have big dreams. A small set of people who start a journey, aiming for a moonshot. Cucumbertown is one such startup that wants to change the way people cook and have been building this network of cooks since 2012. The aim is to have a closely knit tribe of cooks curating recipes from the world over. Backed by investors in the valley, Cucumbetown has a very solid team (see how they started) working on a product that is trying to create a new market (how they built a company with roots in India and US). And this vision is shared by our Awesome Startup Employee of the week, Ankit Jain, the VP of growth and marketing at Ct. We had a conversation about his journey and here is what he had to say:
The Road to Ct
I have been fascinated with computer technology since childhood. My first brush with programming was as a 14-year old. It was like learning to make imaginary worlds come alive and it felt like having a superpower!
After completing Engg from IIT-BHU, I started my career with Talisma (Enterprise CRM) - one of the few software product companies operating out of India at that time. My love for programming found home at the energetic startup culture at Talisma. It seeded my love and admiration for product-based tech companies. After Talisma, I worked with Adobe, developing an image processing product, now facing consumer market.
I then pursued MBA from IIM-A and joined a Private Equity firm. However, my passion for technology continued. I dabbled with launching a tech startup as a moonlighting project. I coded considerable part of the product at nights, even while I was busy analyzing balance sheets & business models for investments during day. Though the venture did not do well, I felt pride in seeing our web product being used in the real world.
In Cucumbertown, I again saw the opportunity, not just to 'use' web products & experience how they change my daily life, but to 'make' such a product and bring change to lives of others.
What's exciting about Ct?Ct is a network for home cooks. The product excites me at 3 levels.
First is the problem we are solving. Ct allows a home cook to become a ‘star’ in their own right. The platform allows a person good at cooking to showcase their skills to the world. The user does not need to know technology, design and online marketing. Ct provides a ready platform to begin your journey to stardom with a supportive community right from the start.
Second is that Ct is a product for which there is no apparent demand. Nobody will feel pain of not having such a product available unless they have used it. That is a fortunate situation to be in (or, unfortunate, depending upon what excites you) since it allows one to tease out a use case where none exists in eyes of most people. Ct users come back to us after few months of usage to say, "How did we ever live without this?"
Third is the long-term vision for the product. We are creating a tech platform in food & cooking domain. All Internet tech companies which have hugely impacted our world - socially, culturally, politically - are all platform businesses. Be it global majors like Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Twitter, LinkedIn; and even top Indian tech firms like Flipkart, Justdial, inMobi, redBus, etc. Platforms, when they scale, can change the very way people think about how ‘stuff’ is produced, distributed and consumed. There is no telling what myriad use cases can develop on top of Ct’s platform.
I love programming and have earlier co-founded a web product startup. Also, I was part of a PE firm for 5 years helping make investments. With these 2 varied professional experiences, I found myself straddling multiple knowledge domains - coding, web products marketing, business strategy, investor relations, even accounting. So, while my primary responsibility at Ct is of 'Growth Hacking' & monetization, I am equally involved in product management, investor relations, budgeting and discussing tax calculations with our auditors.
Soon after joining, I was able to take load off the shoulders of Cherian of continuously looking at product performance and user behavior. I discovered new insights on consumer interactions with the product. Using this as base, we together took timely decisions towards a better product positioning and a strong Product/Market fit.
After this, I have been scaling up the product in user base - it grew more than 15x in last 1 year. Growing a 2-sided network like ours requires developing strategies to carefully utilize other existing networks with similar target audience. I have been identifying such opportunities. This further requires trying out unscalable manual tactics and automating via in-house developed tools based on learnings. Along with this, I lead a team for content marketing across many channels.
Even more important than growing user base is to keep the users engaged sufficiently so that they keep returning to use the product. Right engagement loops, built by understanding consumer motivations, retains and multiplies the user base. I refer to thought leaders on building highly engaging products and make use of their guiding principles in Ct’s context. While implementing such new features, I keep the team disciplined in "build-measure-learn" iterations of UX design.
I like to imagine what is the greatest impact on world a tech product can bring about, even if that currently looks improbable or far-fetched. Like, Ct can change the way people cook. As simple to state but so impactful, maybe very improbable looking at it right now. That keeps me going, even if journey is made up of thousands of tiny, uninteresting steps. On a daily basis, tasks can seem so ordinary- running a report, doing an A/B test, optimizing page load time by 100ms. But no product which became a verb from a noun reached that stage bypassing these thousands of steps. I am motivated to see technology improve things for people, and do it efficiently, repeatedly and at scale. Making the world a better place, one for-loop at a time.
Some lessons over time
- In traditional businesses, information is very closely guarded. But, with Ct at still a very young stage to not get tied down by such thinking, being open in helping others in the ecosystem goes a long way in building good karma which eventually pays off.
- One should create a team which is more intelligent than oneself and empower them to unleash their best. This helps in growing value for all; and should be done even if one is feeling a natural but most probably unfounded fear of losing turf.
- Chase good mentors with same hunger as you may chase users and funding. An insightful advice at the right time can save months of non-impactful work. Information-only products like Ct can apply almost all best practices from Silicon Valley directly in Indian context. Making connections with the right people - VCs and domain thought leaders - takes a long time and should be treated as an investment in oneself for the long run.
- Maintain balance in micro and macro thought processes. Alternating at right frequency between minutely executing ideas and being able to look at the big picture is an art. It is easy to get lost on either sides. Similarly, big ideas and big news from 'tech entrepreneurial world' will keep floating around. It is easy to get distracted and chase new shiny objects. Be watchful of that tendency.
The road ahead
I have shared our big vision for Ct. That will guide me while I tackle short-term objectives. It will be a proud day for me when Ct users build a brand for themselves via Ct and start making a living off it. Already, some users have found their recipes being syndicated by meal planning and ingredient delivery companies.
I consider myself lucky to have started my career in software product development when there were very few such opportunities in India. But, now the opportunities for young engineers are wide open. I love to help those who are venturing out from my journey so far. If you are a product development startup, ping me (@ankitjain) and I will be happy to help.
Apart from that, it will be my privilege to be part of conversations within the tech community on how tech products can change the world for better and keep working on such ideas in future. I am specially interested in promoting learning of programming as I strongly believe that everyone must have this skill whichever profession they are in. There will be a day in your career when you will realize that it is a superpower.
So, what are you waiting you? Do you want to transform your life by choosing to work at a startup? Find some handpicked jobs on our Jobs Board. For more such Awesome Startup Employee stories, read here.