Kumar Rangarajan says he found his startup inspiration in a mid-life crisis. The computer science engineering graduate had joined GE Medical Systems straight out of Madras University in 1996. This was followed by a succession of jobs at various tech MNCs. “Working at a larger company deprived me of my purpose, and it was definitely a mid-life crisis when I was at IBM. I wanted to work with a smaller team to see the end-to-end impact closely,” he says. This mid-life crisis, as he calls it, led him to think of joining S7 Software, a small services company started by close acquaintances. Kumar joined as a Senior Architect at S7, where he ended up managing various projects and became Director of Engineering shortly.
Fast forward to January 2012, and he started Little Eye Labs. However, the journey was short, and his company was acquired by Facebook in January 2014. Kumar then moved to Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters in California, where he worked for three years on various performance tools and corresponding products, and how they could integrate with each other. But the entrepreneurial bug bit again, and he and co-founder Giridhar Murthy quit Facebook and returned to India in 2017.
They had conceptualised a better-performing voice-to-action SDK (Software Development Kit) that could solely run commands with voice, without manual intervention. This led to the birth of Slang Labs, which today is working on improving the experience of voice input and output by removing the burden of language translation from apps, so that Indian vernacular users can just speak their native tongues.
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Encouragement in the face of uncertainties
But the early days were fraught with the usual pressures of starting up. What offered Kumar perspective was that his wife was a doctor, who dealt with life and death situations every day. “ I realised that no one would die if we screwed-up. But with her, somebody could. Every day. Every time. Now that’s pressure. What we were going through was largely self-inflicted pressure,” he says.
But Kumar refused to fall into a cycle of negativity and focussed on two mantras that motivated him to keep going. First, he had this deep urge to be the first globally recognised product company from India. “For too long, we have been using things that were built from the West. We wanted to build something that the West could consume.” Second, was working with rational and level-headed co-founders who liked to do things by principle and not just rush into things.
Some days were more challenging than others and it was support from his wife and co-founders, whom he calls his biggest pillars of strength, that kept him going. His wife especially was extremely encouraging when he wanted to quit his well-paying job and join a small startup way back in 2006, even though they were already expecting their first child.
Kumar also remembers encouragement from Rajesh Sawhney, Founder of GSF Accelerator, who always had words of encouragement each time they met. Their investor and board member Sateesh Andra, was more of a co-founder than a VC, and his confidence in them really strengthened Kumar. After just their first meeting, he agreed to invest in their business. "I still remember the words he spoke after the meeting. He said, "I don't know if you guys will succeed but companies like you need to happen and I want to bet on you guys"," says Kumar.
He was able to achieve success in his entrepreneurial journey because all of these individuals chose to stay by him and believe him, even in the face of doubt and uncertainty.
Giving up on what weighs you down
Kumar believes that any challenge can be overcome if one has certain personal hacks in place. He says these help him keep his eyes on the prize and enable him to find discipline within. “I look at people who are suffering worse than me and tell myself that what I am going through is nothing compared to them. I am lucky to be where I am and I don’t have any reason to crib or complain. I just need to get my act together and solve it,” he says.
Kumar believes that people keep emotions and insecurities bottled up and suffer unnecessarily. Sometimes, it’s just about talking it out to someone, be it your spouse, partner or co-founder, to magically find solutions to your problems.
It’s also important to quit self-doubt and negativity. Kumar found the strength to ‘quit’ from the “Innovators” book. He believes that if you land up in a situation or with a habit, where you feel helpless, you typically have three choices:
- You can try to influence things that will change your situation in a way that will make you feel better
- If you feel it’s not changeable, you can consciously choose to move away from the situation to a new one
- You can keep doing the same thing (or not do anything) and keep feeling bad that the situation took place
“Many people end up being in the third bucket and suffer needlessly. Be conscious about these choices and make sure you do either the first or the second,” says Kumar.
Integrating health hacks into work life
Kumar sometimes goes to Mother’s Center (Aurobindo Ashram outposts) to enjoy a few minutes of calmness and silence, and identify solutions to his problems. He also loves taking a stroll in the morning, which he feels is the best time to think deeply about issues that are affecting him and come up with ways to solve them.
When it comes to fitness hacks to stay focused, he says it’s difficult for him to set aside time explicitly for health, but he tries to fit it into his work schedule as much as he can. He has a Fitbit and sets a high goal of 20,000-steps a day. To achieve this, he does most of his 1:1 meetings while walking around, instead of sitting inside a room. He also doesn’t take calls sitting down, opting to walk around while conversing on the phone. He walks to the Metro and back and avoids using the elevator. As soon as he drops his kids to school, he tries to have a short walk in the park nearby, because once he gets home, he knows he’ll get stuck with work.
“These small hacks in my schedule help me hit my target. It’s not perfect, but it has helped me to stay fit even with a poor diet regime,” says Kumar.
Kumar’s choice to quit the things that hold him back and choose positivity and healthy habits are what is powering his entrepreneurial journey.
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