Updated: May 9, 2019
This episode features Dr. Ravi Krishnamurthy, former Chief Product Officer at Lucidworks, a platform integrating search and AI to create smart data experiences for enterprises. Ravi drove Lucidworks’ business transformation from consulting to product and delivered many major platform releases. Ravi received his Ph.D. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in electrical engineering and holds 17 patents in video analysis and computer vision.
Ravi shared his career path from an engineer to a product lead and entrepreneur, as well as his view on the cultural differences between U.S. and India.
Highlight 1: Why understanding sales is important for developing attractive products?
Highlight 2: The cultural difference between U.S. and India
Watch the full interview:
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Wenli: Let’s start with a quick Q&A, I have lots of questions for you, but I want you to answer each of them in one sentence. Where did you grow up?
Ravi: Chennai, India.
Wenli: Who did you want it to be when you grew up?
Ravi: When I was very young, I wanted to be an engine driver than I wanted to be somebody like George Washington.
Wenli: What did your parents do?
Ravi: My dad was a professor, my mom was a homemaker.
Wenli: Were you an A student?
Wenli: What’s the common criticism that people give you?
Ravi: What’s the common criticism - I’m not always bringing forth everything I can bring forth.
Wenli: Who do you consider as your mentor?
Ravi: My good friend. Gopi (Gopinath Ganapathy, founder and CEO of Enlite Networks) was one of my mentors. There’re many, it’s hard to pick one.
Wenli: Do you think so far you’ve done a good job on work-life balance?
Ravi: Reasonable. My wife might disagree.
Wenli: Let’s go back to the questions. You grew up in India and you wanted to be George Washington?
Ravi: I'm always very passionate about freedom. So basically, George Washington is a pioneer, he’s one of the guys that established it. And I’m also very impressed by the fact that he voluntarily gave up power. He reached very high heights, but also knew when was the time to walk away from it. I don't know if I would ever become like that.
Wenli: Giving up power?
Ravi: Yes. Getting it is also important. Giving it up is also important.
Wenli: Does it have something to do with that you recently quit your job?
Ravi: No. That's a very different situation.
Wenli: Why did you quit?
Ravi: Because I’ve been there for 5 years. It's been a long time, I’ve gone through a lot of cycles. Life there was comfortable. But I have some ideas that I wanted to develop.
Wenli: I think you have entrepreneur spirits in you?
Ravi: Yes, I enjoy it.
Wenli: You are a co-founder of a company. And you worked in India as a co-founder. And that was back in 1991.
Ravi: That was back in 1999 - 2000.
Wenli: Tell us the story. Why did you decide to go back to India and start a company?
Ravi: That opportunity kind of came to me. I was an R&D engineer working at a high tech R&D firm. And then through some social network, I actually met the other founder. And I really liked the vision of what he wanted to build. And I knew that it was something I enjoyed doing. It was data application. The funny thing is, we were so far ahead of time that some of those ideas we had in 1999-2000 were actually built in Lucidworks. Like in the last three, four years, the technology was not there at that time for some ideas. Because the idea was really about taking all of these immense amount of data that is available within a semiconductor design process, and bring that out, so that people can get visibility and insights so they can make predictive decisions. We set up our engineering operations both here and in India.
Wenli: I was curious, did your co founder come to you with his idea, and you realized that idea fits your goal?
Ravi: Yes. He came to me with this idea the same ways as I was thinking as well. And then that's how we ended up working together for several years.
Wenli: What kind of relationship did you have with the other founder?
Ravi: The chemistry is critical, and you have to trust, there has to be trust. There has to be a shared vision, there also has to be some difference. You can’t just be identical, that also won’t work. You have to have enough overlap, so you will have a shared vision, you trust each other. But you bring something that other person does not have, another person brings something that you do not have. And so as a team, you become stronger. That's what you look for. But ultimately, it's a feeling thing as well. I mean, it’s not exactly like it, but it's a little bit like falling in love. I think the key, the chemistry is trust. You actually end up spending more time with your co-founders than your own family. You need to know that this is somebody you want to spend that much time for two, four, five years.
Wenli: It’s basically like the first date. You need to find the right chemistry and the right goal that you're working towards. You are always on the product side, after being the the consultant and the solution engineers, and then you ended up in marketing.
Ravi: Actually, I ended up in product after this, in this company which we talked about. Because what happened was I was the first layer of the engineer and architect. So I built the product. And then I went because we were installing, like an alpha version at a big company, a very big semiconductor company bought it. So we were installing an alpha version. So I was one of the few guys who could make it work. I got really excited by seeing how customers use the product. So for me, what I found was building it, I enjoy, but actually watching people use it and get value out of it is really what I enjoy the most.
And that's what product is about. It's about finding things that make people go “Aha, this is what I want.” And then building something that people are like, I cannot live without this. That's your dream as a product, is you build something which people cannot live without.
Wenli: I think that along your way, you also built up and collected necessary skills as a product guy. What are some important skills that you learned along the way that helped you to become a successful product person?
Ravi: I think the most important skill and I'll say this is not just for product, but as an entrepreneur, that you need to have is, you need to know how to sell. I know a lot of engineers, which is unfortunate, think that sales is not good or it’s sleazy. There’s this prototype of a used car salesman, and all of that. And I will say if you have that prejudice, you have to overcome the prejudice, because the single thing I have learned very early in my life, somewhere I read that, if you want to be an entrepreneur, you need to know how to sell. Because you think about it, there are businesses without technology, but there's no business without sales. It’s not possible. And because the only way I like to learn is to do it. So I actually carried a bag as a salesperson for over a year. Even though I have a very strong technology background, I actually was a salesperson for 6 to 12 months.
Just because that's how I want to learn. The reason is, you're always selling. As an entrepreneur, even if you're not the head of sales, you need to sell to investors, you need to sell to employees, you need to ask employees to join you. You’re selling the vision, you're sending the idea, you’re selling the concept, you’re selling why this is great for their career. You’re selling to good investors as why they should invest, why they want to get back. You want to find a co-founder, you're selling. And in this sense, I mean, sales is really about figuring out how what you have can add value to the other person. That’s what good sales is. So I would say the number one skill that you need to develop is to understand sales, which means understanding the business side, understanding why people are excited, how do they value things and how do they think about that. And then if you understand that, then you can work backwards from there to figure out how to make the product attractive, how to price it right, all has to be driven by what to sell, what will people buy.
Wenli: Working backwards from sales to engineers, that's the first time I’ve ever heard this idea. Because lots of times that the salespersons have a gap with the engineering group is the sales group guys are promising things, and then engineers are like: That's a problem, we can't deliver it.
Ravi: All companies have tension, they should have tension because sales is trying to sell hard, engineers want to build the best thing. But left to themselves, engineers will always polish. I have done like you want to add one more button, you want to do all these things, left to themselves. Sales left to themselves will promise more. Tension needs to be there, because otherwise, people will promise things that can’t be delivered. And on the other hand, otherwise people will be bringing things that nobody will buy. This is somewhere the role of product manager to balance the two. Here is this tension between the market and the engineering. And so your job is to maintain that tension in the right place, you got to keep tuning it.
Wenli: I think opportunity didn't just come to you. I think you had a good plan. To be honest, I think you know that the most important thing for CEOs and for entrepreneurs is learn how to sell. So you spent your time and you learnt how to sell?
Ravi: I agree with you. Because what I would say is when I say that particular opportunity came to me, my view is always this. The other advice I would give is never stop learning. Like there is never a point when you have learned everything there is to be learnt, I don't care if that’s the wisest person in the world. No one would learn everything. There's just too much out there. So it's to continuously keep learning. And I think if you keep learning, then opportunities will come. And opportunity when I say came, I agree with you. I mean, I say it that way because I didn't find it on a LinkedIn page or a job board and go look for it. But I was networking and I was talking to people and thinking about this. So in that sense, this opportunity just came, because I worked for it.
Wenli: I think sales is really important as well. My dad is a businessman, and he wanted me to be a lawyer when I grew up. Because he was in law school, and he was always like trying to persuade me about being a lawyer. And I felt like sales wan’t like the most prestigious option that you had, because you are an engineer, you have your PhD.
Ravi: Sales is not prestigious. So I'm not saying you need to become a salesperson. But a good salesperson is critical, very valuable to the company. Because at the end of the day, when you build stuff, if it is not sold, you will not get a paycheck. Even good lawyers know how to sell their point of view, especially courtroom lawyers. You have a point of view, you always want people to see your point of view. That’s also a part of sales.
Wenli: Yeah. Everyone who is trying to be successful in their careers knows how to sell. Like my dentist is trying to sell me that my teeth filling is serious.
Ravi: It is a critical piece.
Wenli: Speaking of sales, you're saying that talking to investors are also sales. You raised more than a hundred million dollars. Any interesting investing stories when you were talking to investors?
Ravi: The story for us was we always executed really well. I think Lucidworks as a company is operationally excellent, which is why investors repeatedly invested in us. Investors who invested early doubled down, some of them made bigger investments than they usually make.
Wenli: Going back to who would you consider as a mentor, and even though you said there are a lot, but especially your friend Gopi?
Ravi: I would say he was actually a founder of that company which I worked at. And the reason I consider him a mentor is I learned a lot about selling from him personally. So in that sense, in that that area, I consider him as my mentor.
Wenli: What are the really valuable lessons that your friend Gopi and your partner taught you?
Ravi: So one of the things I learned in the field, you have to present excitement. As an engineer, you tend to be pretty flat on how to say things. It’s not like I’m not excited, but as an engineer, even you’re excited, you don't show excitement. It's not something you do. But in the field, you have to show excitement. So I think that’s one of the things I tend to be more down-to-earth. It’s a criticism but some people like it.
Wenli: I think that's the connection with sales. Because good sales are good storytellers. And being entrepreneurs, you have to be willing to repeat your stories and over over again, and how do you engage with investors and how do you make investors or customers believe what you believe, make them excited.
Ravi: That's the part that I think I learned a lot from.
Wenli: When I talked to lots of engineers, and lots of them are very humble.
Ravi: Getting excited doesn’t mean you’re to stop being humble.
Wenli: How do you get yourself excited?
Ravi: Humble is a different thing. Humble is being grounded in the facts. I think, to me, this is one of the things I learned that humility doesn't mean putting yourself down. This is a cultural thing I think Indians and Chinese share. In India, when we are growing up, we are taught not to boast about yourself. Humility is about being truthful, being authentic about yourself. I think that's not a dichotomy, being humble and projecting yourself. It’s just speaking what you believe. And you can be humble when you do that.
Wenli: You had extensive work experience in India. What’s the difference in the ecosystems between working in India and working in the US?
Ravi: In India, they tend to have more breadth than depth. What I mean is people learn a lot of things at a high level. But here they get much deeper like in technology, marketing. For example, in the US, you might find someone who has done Java programming for 15 years. In India, that person would have done two years of Java programming, one year of C programming, one year of something else. So (in India) there’s a lot more emphasis on breadth.
The other one I would say that is different culturally is people here in the US tend to take more initiative. Again, many of this is changing. The Indian working culture has become more and more like the US working culture over the last twenty years. So this has all evolved quite a bit. I do think people here take a lot more initiative. There's also a lot more emphasis on being yourself and putting out your opinion. Whereas in India, there's a lot more emphasis on being a part of the group. So there is a higher emphasis on fitting in, whereas here, there's a higher emphasis on standing out.
Wenli: Yeah, I think that's the Chinese culture as well, we are emphasizing on fitting in.
Ravi: Yes, there's a big emphasis on that. So you don't want people to stand out usually, the rare ones will make it of course. If you take the broad Indian culture, there are differences, there are very, very successful product companies in India, which is one of the reasons India, for example, doesn’t have as many product companies as in the US.
One is you need depth, you need initiative, you need to stand out. And so those are things that are culturally less valued in India. But the flip side is tend to be more collaborative. When there is a need for independent initiative, then you will find it more here than that. I'm not saying you will not find it there or any of that. But statistically, it’s more in that way.
Wenli: As a leader in big companies, do you feel the conflict with different cultures?
Ravi: You need to be aware of it. Because in the US, like a colleague or even your direct reports, if you say something that doesn't make sense, they will disagree with you right away. Whereas in India, they may never tell you because you're the boss. Working in India, you have to go out of your way to make sure to get opinions in a way that you don't have to do here. For example, in India, you don't express your opinion first, you ask for it before you express your opinion, because then people can just say what they want without having to disagree with you. So I think there are those things, I think companies do struggle with some of these cultural differences, because you're not used to it.
Wenli: I think for people with multicultural background, like you, you work perfectly well in both culture, because you're aware of it.
Ravi: Yes, but it still is hard, switching is hard. Sometimes you'll forget. I don't want it to be hierarchical, but it is more hierarchical. So if you forget, then that’s confusing to them.
Wenli: Which means that you have to switch your leadership style.
Ravi: You have to switch your leadership style quite a bit.
Wenli: How would you describe your leadership right now?
Ravi: My preference would be a collaborative style. Though at the end of the day, there are some decisions around mine as a leader. But I like everyone’s opinions to be put on the table. And I also like to distribute the decision making as much as possible. My goal always is obsolete myself. So when I start a role, I am like how soon can it be that Ravi is no longer needed?
I think in the past, you have a style, you could just hire people to work on that style, perfect tat style. Like I’m a command and control guy, I’m just gonna hire a bunch of people. Today in this competitive landscape that we are in, I think that luxury is very hard to get. So you have to learn how to deal with diversity at all levels, gender, race, but also styles.
Wenli: For some of people in our community, the engineers who want to be an entrepreneur, what are some of the advice that you can give them?
Ravi: Well, I always give you one, learn how to sell. I would say listen to people but also make your own decisions. Because for everybody, what people will give you is perspectives, it doesn't mean they know everything. Even extremely experienced people can get things wrong. So trust your instincts, trust yourself. Sometimes people come to me and say, oh, should I do this company. I would say don’t, because if you really want to do a company, you will not be asking people should you do it. You will be asking how to do it, not should I do it.
Wenli: So my last question is, I definitely still wanted to know, what's your next career goal?
Ravi: One of the things I want to do is to step back and look at it. I think eventually I want to get into the education space, something I'm passionate about. Like I said, I can bring some perspectives, especially the intersection of education and AI, because that’s the other skill set that I have. So kind of bringing those two together is sort of what I’m looking at.
Wenli: Thank you so much for coming here.
Ravi: You're most welcome. Thank you very much for having me.