[Techie Tuesday] Hailing from a small town in Tamil Nadu, how AlphaSense’s Raj Neervannan went on to redefine search algorithms
As the co-founder and CTO of market intelligence platform, Raj Neervannan is responsible for all things technology and more. However, this tech veteran and serial entrepreneur has always believed in the power of building products. With AlphaSense, he has worked to build an algorithm that would work with the search engine, and think like a human.
Citing an example, he explains, “If I key in one word, how can the search engine be more efficient to find different terms related to that one word, and give a bigger picture for whatever search you do.”
Hailing from Arakonam, a small town in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, Raj’s father worked for Indian Railways, and the family was always based in the quarters provided.
“When you have little resources, you are made to do with what you have and create your own happiness, with the small set of friends and whatever you have. From there, I learnt the importance of going back into your inner resource to go back to what little you have and create new things,” says Raj.
After a few years, when Raj was in middle school, the family moved to Chennai. It was here that Raj says he realised how people had moved ahead in life simply because they had better resources, “and that just meant I had to catch up.”
“Doing something out of nothing was powerful, and taught me how to be a stronger techie and entrepreneur,” explains Raj. In fact, he says, in the 2008 and 2009 financial crisis, the training gained from the early days of building things with little resources helped.
The learnings from BITS Pilani
It was this curiosity and need to build things that got Raj to look closely at engineering as a career option, and he joined BITS Pilani in the late 80s. While moving from Aarukam to Chennai was revealing in itself, going from Chennai to BITS Pilani was at another level altogether.
“It opened a whole new world. While small towns teach you resourcefulness and drive, going to another state and college opened my eyes to other parts of the country. BITS is highly merit driven. Whatever you may have done, it doesn’t matter, you simply have to be the best,” says Raj.
He explains it was where his core educational strength, coding, questioning and analytical thinking, came into play. This led to the foundations of Raj learning any subject from scratch and focusing on the foundations and problem solving every aspect. After his five-year programme in mathematics and computer science, Raj bagged an internship at CSIR in Chennai.
But he wanted to study more. Raj says he wanted to learn more about computer science and operations research. Thus, he landed in the US in the 90s and joined the Bowling Green State University, Ohio.
Raj during his BITS Pilani days
“It was my first flight ever. By the time I finished my course, it was 1995, and I was very lucky to be in the US in the early days of the internet. It was the year of Mozilla. I was super excited and felt I was entering a whole new revolution. I felt I had missed out on all other computer revolutions - like the microprocessors and PC revolutions. I always wanted to be a part of it, but I wasn’t able to get out and do things on my own. I wanted to build something of my own. And that is when I focussed on completing my education and getting my green card approved,” explains Raj.
He had seen that the world around had been encouraging people to startup and try new things. It was the first time Raj had seen people raise funding and try new ideas and build new products. Eager to try something of his own, in 1999, he set up his first startup - Expeditrix Corp in the US. The idea was similar to what 99acres is today.
“In 1999, we believed that you could find homes online, transact and even buy homes online. While the vision was big, it also opened my eyes to what we could and couldn’t do. We realised that focus is needed. We raised significant capital and sold the company in 2001. I went on to do a couple of other small initiatives. I helped another small company grow and scale, upto their acquisition path. It was a PolicyBazaar kind of startup,” says Raj.
These included- Framesoft, LLC, Zettaworks (now Perficient), ePolicy Solutions, ChoicePoint Inc and MajescoMastek (subs Mastek ). At these companies Raj worked for an average of a year, and helped build multiple products, either on a consultation or CTO level.
After six years of working in different organisations and startups, Raj decided to explore the world of education further with an MBA.
Raj during his early Days in the US
An MBA and a new startup
“Many people say an MBA is not needed to run a business. While true that it isn’t necessary, I believe there is something to be learnt. You can keep experimenting, you can also learn from someone else’s experience. In 2006, I joined Wharton, and that is where I met my current co-founder, Jack Kokko, who also had an analyst background. We had met in a study group in Wharton, and he had also set up a startup in a difficult market,” recalls Raj.
The duo felt their skill sets were complimentary. Putting their talents together in 2008, they started AlphaSense.
“We were in our mid 30s. And I feel entrepreneurship, like any other profession, takes a while to build skills like managing people, projects, other stakeholders, and sometimes, some startup founders do get lucky to find the right partners early on. But the best founders are those that stay on and keep to the vision all the way through, instead of handing out the CXO responsibilities to someone else quickly,” adds Raj.
Since both founders had had the experience of starting up before, they knew the pitfalls. Most companies fail for the same reason - they run out of cash. “Thus, this startup we built in our late 30s was more sensible in terms of how we managed it. We focussed on product market fit and customer problems, as opposed to raising money quickly. We focussed on the early clients and products who really believed in the product,” says Raj.
The idea of AlphaSense came to the duo from their experiences in Wharton and a combination of their backgrounds. The duo had realised during their MBA days that when trying to dig for information, despite the multiple tools, there was still something lacking.
“But if you really want to understand a company, and how they worked, information was sparse. Most information available out there was the company’s version, and there was no single place where you got all the details and accurate data. There was nothing on market dynamics, people's standpoint and how they functioned. This meant research reports and articles. That is when we felt market intelligence was lacking and there was a need for a clear dimension of a proper search engine,” says Raj.
Making search more intelligent
Google was more of a search engine. Raj further explains that to analyse a business, you need to keep digging in. It is about understanding if a particular company of a certain scale should enter this market or not, pricing etc.
“And this information isn’t in the balance sheets. It is spread across different articles. We realised that people hunt for information based on one keyword, and typically the search results too are based on those keywords, and when you look for information, it is beyond just the specific keyword, but one based on semantics and intent, ” explains Raj.
Citing an example, he narrates how for a pharma company that is looking for clinical trials on a new cancer treatment, it isn’t enough to just look at the surface level. You need to go deeper, for which people need to depend on human intelligence.
Thus, the idea was to build a search engine that would really understand market intelligence. The team worked on breaking the paradigm of giving top 10 clicks, and the new idea was to build a new interface for search. “People don’t have time to go through 100 pages in one document for one relevant factor. The idea is to build a search engine that intelligently understands the intent in the search you are looking for,” says Raj.
Today, while hiring, Raj looks for confidence, and an ability to communicate effectively.
“I think engineers are a lot smarter today. There is a lot of information available. So, it is important to find people who are not only be good in their skill set, but who also have good reasoning and problem-solving skills,” explains Raj.
Advising all techies, he says, “Don’t take no for an answer. Only you know your potential, don’t let others define your potential for you.”