The Million Dollar Tech-ian
Zenefits- A name that has been echoing throughout the halls of startups, for playing things the SaaS(sy) way, since 2013. Starting from offering cloud-based Software as a Service (Saas), they have had grown consistently ever since to include core HR functions like time tracking, onboarding and employee record keeping. THE BRIDGE brings you excerpts from an exclusive interview with one of the role models for young aspiring entrepreneurs, the man behind it all – Mr.Lakshminarasimhan Srinivasa Raghavan (Better known as Laks Srini), co-founder and CTO, Zenefits.
To know more about him, read: From CBE to Silicon Valley
From D.E. Shaw to SigFig to Co-founder and CTO of Zenefits- it has been quite a journey. How would you describe the entire experience?
The journey actually started with the completion of my software engineering course here in PSG Tech and my first internship at D.E.Shaw, after which I joined the company full time. It was indeed an interesting experience and had its own perks like getting to work in New York for a while alongside some extremely talented people. The surge in self-confidence when you find yourself working with some of the smartest minds makes you pat yourself on the back, thinking “You are as smart as the people around you”. In spite of all these perks, the job satisfaction factor was missing. At that time, there were plans for a new start-up amongst my peers, the result standing tall today in the form of Arcesium – a post trade technology and professional services firm. The satisfaction in seeing the fruitfulness of my involvement in those discussions had an impact in my career decisions. So, between choosing to work for another company and doing an MBA, I decided to work at a startup (SigFig), which gave me hands-on experience in this sector; the learning more or less equivalent to that of a master’s degree. SigFig being based in San Francisco was another reason for my choice. I was also one of the eight core engineers in the team. In addition to that, SigFig was the place where I learnt how top management works, which eventually led me and Parker Conrad co-founding Zenefits. We did have a clear idea of what Zenefits was going to do and how useful it was going to be, but its popularity and success right from the outset was quite astonishing. I would say the whole experience has been nothing less than a roller coaster ride.
How was your experience at the TechCrunch Disrupt startup battlefield? How did ending up in the top 7 have a positive impact on your development?
At the time, nobody really saw the potential in Zenefits and what it could be. It was an interesting experience which pointed out a couple of minor issues. I’d rather say Y- Combinator, Winter 2013 was where we really outshone the competition.
Every successful startup has a unique work culture. Can you tell us more about the work atmosphere at Zenefits and about ZenNation?
Of course, work atmosphere is really important at any workplace. Considering the present day scenario in startups like ours, work balance between the employers and employees has changed drastically. If an employee is not happy with the current job, he has a plethora of options to choose from. Criteria like position and salary do matter, but the real botheration of an employee is the improvisation of his learning curve and recognition of hard work. We,at Zenefits prioritize those points, keeping the work atmosphere warm and competitive at the same time. We have been calling it ZenNation only for a short while now, but the culture has existed right from the beginning.
At one of your talks, you said that you believe in the mantra- ‘Make new mistakes’. Like most start-ups, Zenefits too, had acquired mixed feedback at the start, admitted their mistakes and has undergone rapid transformations in the recent times. How did that ideology of yours help in the betterment of Zenefits?
We had an amazing start with the revenue shooting up to 60 million dollars in just three years. Starting from the initial team of just 400, we were recruiting around 100 people a month in our third year, which was when building a proper framework and decision making became difficult. It is quite natural to have problems when the growth is this rapid. So, when many issues were taking a toll on us, all we could do was to hold on to the wheels tight and hope they wouldn’t come off. During tough times, belief forms the silver lining. The trust our customers had in us kept us going. To err is human and the lessons we learn from them are valuable. Making new mistakes is important, because we learn not only from our mistakes but also from others’ in the same field, making sure that we don’t repeat them; which is one of the perks of being in the Silicon Valley.
We have observed that you maintain a low profile. Given your stature, why so modest?
(laughs) It is a matter of choice. The real deal is whether people know Zenefits or not. I don’t bother much about personal branding. Maybe, in the next few months, you might see more of myself online.
Which was the lowest phase of your career? How did you get over it?
Highs and lows are a part of every individual’s life. If you ask me what the dullest period (he wouldn’t call it the lowest) in my career was, I would say it was my last year at D.E.Shaw. I realised that my development had stagnated and I was so much into my comfort zone that I feared whether I had lost my penchant for learning new things. That haunted me for a few months before I took the plunge and switched jobs. As far as Zenefits is concerned, I wouldn’t call those (referring to their turbulent times) ‘low’ phases, as they were more like life lessons to me. As I mentioned earlier, we did have some issues with the company and there were days when we were left with money just enough to pay our employees for one month. We must always strive to find our way out of the maze, shouldn’t we?
Yet, founding a company is not a cakewalk. Failure is celebrated in the silicon valley, but personally, it hits me quite hard. I would rather work hard, discover the right path and succeed.
Can you elaborate on the companies you regard as your competitors, and what makes Zenefits stand out from the crowd?
There are a few companies like Paychex, ADP and newer ones like Gusto that can be considered as competition. But what I think sets Zenefits apart, is that we focus more on the employee experience. That is, even though we sell our product to companies, the users are HR employees at the end of the day. So, we focus on making their work hassle-free by providing them as many integrations as possible, like with Gmail and Slack.
You have been directly involved in the recruitment of employees as well. What are the qualities you expect while scouting for new employees? Being a student of our college, what do you think our students have to improve on, in order to shine in the global market?
Honestly, I don’t think there is a major gap as far as skills are concerned. The most important quality which I look out for is the way they perceive the world. The curiosity about what is happening around them and the eagerness to learn are a few things that distinguish the best from the crowd. Being able to accept your mistakes and learn from them is paramount. The MSc courses offered here consist of numerous training and internship opportunities and are comparable to those offered in the University of Waterloo, whose graduates are some of the most sought-after people in the Valley. This is one of the reasons why I am sure that the students here will shine in the global market!
How do you see entrepreneurs who strive for nothing less than a billion dollar evaluation? And what message do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Well, I don’t think that funding is the only thing that matters. It is, of course, an advantage, but getting the basics right is far more important. Learning the fundamentals right, knowing your customers well, hiring smart people, coding well, working with irrefutable zeal, and staying competitive are factors that take precedence. Sleep well, so that you can take clear decisions. Exercise to stay fit, both physically and mentally. Everything else will fall into place eventually.
You have been associated with so many things here in college – a violinist, a member of the college basketball team, a part of Tek music, alongside being extremely proficient on the academic side. Can you share your fondest memories?
Overall, I had a very good time here. Tek Music days were great and the passion I had for music only increased. Especially the shows that my sister (HARINI S. RAGHAVAN, M.Sc. Software Engineering, 2003-2008), and I did together will always remain close to my heart. She is now a full-time musician at Berklee (Read Engineering Music : From Tek Music to Berklee ). I used to enjoy playing basketball in the night. Midnight hunger pangs always led us to the snack bar and we had lots of fun there. One more thing which I remember vividly is going to Wellington for chai, before exams. The whole department was closely knit and we spent a lot of time together. We still try to meet whenever possible. The department faculty were all amazing and I learnt so many things. Even today, if given a choice, I would prefer this course and college to any other option. PSG Tech has a good share in having made me what I am today.
Team Bridge would like to express our gratitude to Mr.Laks Srini for his valuable time and wish him all the best of luck in his future endeavors. We would also like to thank the faculty of Applied Mathematics and Computational Sciences department who made this interview possible.