Starting things with others

Do you have a tough time starting new things? Do you fear failure? Starting new things is hard. Starting new things while working with other humans, even tougher. Starting new things well is a superpower worth cultivating.

 Starting things you consider hard can be overwhelming. Starting a company is one of them. If we are able to start things with a group, we can achieve things that we will never be able to achieve by ourselves. This is rewarding.  Do it well and teach it to others. It buys you lifelong access to people with who you can start new projects.

 Over the past fifteen years, I’ve studied in two universities and worked at five companies. The number of existing employees, when I've joined, have ranged from 0 to 2 million. I’ve had to start things with a variety of people and a range of prior art at an organization. I've been fortunate to do work spanning roles, technologies, people and cultures. I started a new job last week and was reflecting on how I’ve evolved my process of starting.

 Early in my career, if someone asked me to make an app, I would make an app. Write a Python script to do something, I’ll do it. I worked assuming my manager knew the priority of everything. I repeated this process for a couple of months. I started wanting a greater return on investment of my time. How do I get more impact with lesser input? Isn't that the whole point of technology and productivity? I started asking leaders and peers about my work. Why are we writing this app? What is the purpose of the script for the customer? How much is the customer paying for this? Every question led to a useful lesson. It taught me how to think about the situation from a different lens. Do things well first then ask questions.

 In my next job, I started getting things done. I learned that the focus of the company was to enable sales. This meant I started helping sales teams understand the technology. This helped us get new deals and made our existing customers happier. The size of the organization (~1500) meant that I had to stick to my technical focus and teach others about it. Learning the business context and teaching the technology put me on a growing path.

 I jumped into starting Explorer.ai (Shout out to my partner Rohini Vaze who supported me through it). I wanted to control my own destiny. A self-driving startup meant competing with multi-billion dollar investments. Problems of fund-raising, product and hiring blew up in my face. I lacked experience in every area. I had no clue how to make decisions. Things turned out okay. We made hard decisions based on our shared values. In retrospect our implicit shared values made things work out. We got acquired. It taught us that no one understands reality completely. We all need to do our best to make a difference. People put in their best based on the stories they tell each other. Stories emerge from the values we hold as a group. Shared values, though implicit, kept us together.

 My next job was at the acquiring company. Joining a new company after an exit is tough because of the difference in values. I found a lot of early success. This was due to my understanding of business reality.  I ran into a roadblock where many people in the company saw the reality with a different lens. As time progressed, it became harder to achieve a shared understanding of reality. I realized that my values will never align completely with that of my employer. Understanding values exhibited by a group takes some time. It takes time to understand the dynamics of a group. You need quite a few data points to understand the extent of disparity in values. Lack of collective action made me unhappy. It was a result of different values.

 "When we care for others our own strength to live increases. When we help people expand their state of life, our lives also expand. Actions to benefit others are not separate from actions to benefit oneself. Our lives and the lives of others are ultimately inseparable." - Daisaku Ikeda

I started a new job last week. A big part of my decision was the alignment of values between the people during the interview. I am spending time understanding the values of the team. It will help me drive action based on a shared understanding of reality.  I care about creating value with others. I resonate with Daisaku Ikeda's view of helping others. He shares, "When we care for others our own strength to live increases. When we help people expand their state of life, our lives also expand. Actions to benefit others are not separate from actions to benefit oneself. Our lives and the lives of others are ultimately inseparable."

 If you are part of an amazing team, appreciate them. If not, keep searching for that team and do great things. Life is too short to not do amazing things with other humans.

The Pitching Skill

What’s the secret to unlimited opportunities? Why do some people get more opportunities than you? We grow up learning that you need to work hard and smart. It will result in more time, money and freedom. We can then work on whatever we want. We undermine the role of pitching our ideas and ourselves.

I started my career working on custom boot and build systems.  I got the opportunity by sending out an email to a stranger on a mailing list. I sold them the idea through my profile that I may be able to solve systems problems. I demonstrated that I can solve a C programming problem and work through the solution. The reward for solving that problem was permanent employment with salary and benefits. My next goal in two years was to join a graduate program. This time I had to write a good essay to study computer science at university. I did not practice writing good essays for two years. I wondered, why I did not practice essay writing for years? I was not taught how to pitch myself.

Pitching became second nature when I started a company. If you pitch well, you can raise money and grow your company. Pitching teaches you a lot about yourself. A person we gave an offer to asked us, "Will you be able to support remote work?". I knew we lacked experience in managing a remote team member. I also lacked the ability to convince them otherwise. Every conversation felt like I had to convince someone else that our idea was worth it. A good pitch can give you access to an otherwise impossible opportunity.

The pitch-do-check loop will help you build credibility over time.

Pitching is to convince someone (yourself included) that your future work is valuable. Don't confuse pitching for doing the actual work. Doing the work makes your old pitch authentic. Your initial pitch will not get any takers, pitch anyways. Do the pitch and the work. Check your work and refine your pitch. The pitch-do-check loop will help you build credibility over time.

Do you have a rejected idea?  A pitch for your startup, book proposal, a new idea in your team. Start with any rejected idea. Do work towards it for a week. Refine your pitch. Share the new pitch with progress. Get feedback from another person. It takes time for your work to speak for itself. Pitching is a skill that helps you jump that queue. I was an outsider to computer vision. I spent a long time pitching and building products that use computer vision. The ability to pitch mixed with a lot of luck has helped me land great opportunities.

The important thing is to take that first step. Bravely overcoming one small fear gives you the courage to take on the next. - Daisaku Ikeda

A lot of individuals are never exposed to the benefits of pitching well. They've closed themselves to a large number of opportunities.   Daisaku Ikeda writes, "The important thing is to take that first step. Bravely overcoming one small fear gives you the courage to take on the next." Each one of us can take that first step. I would love to live in a world where each individual has access to the best opportunities. Pitching their grandest ideas and doing their best work.

Gaining clarity

The past one year has been a time for deep introspection about why I am doing what I do. How can I continue doing what I want to do and what my moral compass is? Three encounters evolved me over the past one year - Buddhism, Amit Varma and my curiosity.

One non-negotiable idea as a Buddhist is that each person is capable and enlightened. “A great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and, further, can even enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.”  - Daisaku Ikeda, The New Human Revolution. I’ve chanted Nam Myoho Renge Kyo over a large part of my life.  It's been a great way for self-introspection and challenging my fears. 

My writer friend Manu Pillai introduced me to the podcast,  The Seen and the Unseen . The title of the show itself was interesting enough to give it a shot. The conversations provided practical examples of cause-effect relationships. The podcast gave examples applying economic reasoning and probabilistic thinking. It helped that the guests and the host cared enough about each other and the subject they were discussing. It also helped that these people had lived experiences about the subject at hand.

My trust in Amit Varma based on his podcast made the course, The Art of Clear Writing a must sign-up course. I started logging in at 5:30 AM PT every Saturday of August 2020. All good instructors make you uncomfortable in a good way, Amit was no exception. He forced us to build a writing habit. He once shared the following, “I liked the way it began, with quick action and a sense of this lively girl in a precarious world. But then the piece became overwrought. One sign of that happening is when you have sentences that don't add anything new to the story, which happened a bit in the second half. From painting a picture, as the first half did, the piece became a sentimental lament, and that didn't work for me.” 

Amit’s final class had a recommendation of writing 200 words every day. It took me a few weeks to get started but here I am finished with two notebooks with my daily journal entries.

Here are a few journal entries from there



I am a curious person who is trying to understand myself and the world around me. In modern society separating the two is close to impossible. We are more dependent on each other than we were at any other time in history. This curiosity combined with a process of writing and chanting daily has taken me to the next step.

We are all on a journey to gain clarity in our life. Board the train of curiosity and you will enjoy the boredom. With consistency, you also will gain some clarity. 


I wanted to thank my family, clear writing community, friends and peers who pushed me to get this off the ground. You know who you are.