You’re tougher than you think. Persistence has always been my virtue and I don’t usually take ‘no’ for an answer, but the last four years revealed that I’m really tougher than I thought. I never knew that I could stomach rejections, biases, unexpected curveballs, gut wrenching roadblocks, and eroding bank balances at the scale that entrepreneurship demands. And you have to keep the faith (and the enthusiasm). I have found the energy to keep my enthusiasm amidst the darkest of times. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has kept us innovating. As leaders, our enthusiasm or lack thereof is contagious in the team. Fast recovery from down moments became non-negotiable for me.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vidya Narayanan, co-founder and chief executive officer of short video app Rizzle, which allows users to create short episodic content and series (both scripted and unscripted) in minutes. Before starting the company, she worked as an engineer at Motorola, Qualcomm, and Google. Vidya holds more than 75 issued patents (with more than 100 additional pending) and frequently writes and speaks on issues relating to women in tech and entrepreneurship.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’m building the world’s best short video platform, Rizzle. I’m currently wearing the startup founder/CEO hat, but I started my career as an engineer in 1998 at Motorola, where I worked on early mobile architectures. Since then, I’ve built a reputation for my work in context-aware computing; I’ve built teams from scratch and shipped products that hundreds of millions of consumers worldwide have experienced.
In 2007, I built the context aware research team at Qualcomm from scratch, created a scientific advisory board with some of the world’s sharpest minds in academia in machine learning, context and semantic web and changed the way Qualcomm viewed software. If you own a phone with Snapdragon chipsets (chances are you do!), you have experienced some of this technology my team and I brought to location and other parts of the stack. From there, I went to Google, where I built an always-on location and context team for Android that focused on bringing 24×7 context sensing and interpretation. I championed Google’s effort on building the dedicated context hub — hardware running highly optimized algorithms for efficient sensing. If you’ve ever carried an Android phone, you’ve experienced some of this technology through location services, sensors, Google Now, Google Fit or through some of the plethora of apps that use the APIs we built. I have around 75 issued patents and over 100 pending patent applications.
An an aside, my dad was an engineer, but engineering was not my first choice. In high school, I wanted to be a doctor, and when I didn’t make it into med school, I did the second-best thing Indian parents wanted and became an engineer. As I look back on it, though, I am absolutely in the right profession; I’ve always been more of an analytical problem solver than anything else. I’m definitely in the right place!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Ghosted by high school teens who sought out to be brand ambassadors (after 100s of text messages, some 8 people showed up for a meeting) — you learn that credentials don’t matter when it comes to users — they will do what invokes their passion, they don’t have an obligation to please anyone. Those interactions were humbling and taught me a lot about how the user is always right in the world of consumer tech.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My co-founder lives in India and running a company together while separated by 12 hours in timezone has been challenging. In the early days, we used to get upset with each other about how the other person wasn’t enthusiastic about something we’re discussing. Then it hit us that one person’s start of the day is the other person’s end of the day and that both of us can’t quite react with the same enthusiasm at the same time. Before we understood this, one of us would feel a lack of empathy from the other and this feeling would just take turns. Once we realized that dynamic, we had a good laugh about it. Now, we’re very mindful of the long day the other person might have had and work with this reality.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
There have definitely been moments of intense pressure where you’re not sure you can deliver. So far I haven’t come to the point of wanting to quit, primarily because I have a very interesting co-founder — we work to lift each other up; when one is feeling the pressure, the other tries to highlight the positives. In other words, the sum is greater than the parts. The most intense pressure is probably around fundraising — you know, in watching bank balance fall to levels I’m not comfortable with. But that’s the ebb and flow of entrepreneurship and working in a startup.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
That person would, again, have to be my co-founder. He definitely pushes me beyond my comfort zone to get better and better every day. That’s what got me to where I am — whether it’s reviewing presentations and blogs or the constructive criticism he brings to the table. He always sees my capabilities and pushes me to go beyond.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ve got two! Here’s the first one: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” — Albert Einstein
This is a mantra I live by, and it is really important to keep reminding yourself of this as an entrepreneur. If you tried something and it didn’t work, you really have to think about what you are going to change — sometimes, these may be small changes, but it is definitely not about doing the exact same thing and expecting different results.
Quote 2: “Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” — The author of this quote is controversial and not confirmed (attributed to Churchill and Abraham Lincoln sometimes…)
I’ve definitely looked at every failure as a stepping stone — otherwise, I’d have given up a long time ago! There is only one way to be an entrepreneur — believe in your ideas and vision and execute with optimism and positivity.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Rizzle is a short video platform that makes it easy to create a short series, scripted or unscripted. From vlogs to talk shows to scripted stories, people can create short episodic content all using their phones, in minutes. Creating a professional series on Netflix or even YouTube is a long and fairly expensive process. Professional actors, talk show hosts, and filmmakers who get spots on Netflix or other streaming platforms are very few. Other talented creators may find smaller opportunities or may post their content on YouTube — but this is high effort and low ROI, since their content is almost never discovered at the scale it deserves to be seen.
Rizzle is a place for talented artists to experiment with creating new series and get visibility for their content. We’re democratizing the short series industry, allowing hundreds of thousands of talented creators to easily create their own talk shows or series.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Rizzle is democratizing content creation and leveling the playing field for everyday people like you and me to pick up their smartphone and efficiently create and host a talk show or series with episodic content. Our platform combines 60-second original, user-generated video content with a response system that allows the community to talk about what they’re viewing in real time and at scale. Over two million videos have been created on the platform since it formally launched in October 2019 — and that doesn’t happen without deep user investment in the app’s growth.
Our users — “Rizzlers,” as they like to call themselves — are really varied. range from actors and filmmakers to vloggers, stand-up comedians, YouTubers, DJs, and everyday people like you and me. Rizzle provides the entire ecosystem of support and resources necessary for creators to build content, from in-app design tools to licensed background music and sound effects to regular creator webinars. We are focused squarely on original, user-generated episodiccontent — which nobody else is doing in the space — and the Rizzle community consists largely of organic creators.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We were born of the idea that everyday people can pick up a smartphone and create compelling, engaging content on the Internet. Web series are currently made by very few creators, and even fewer outlets exist to discover that content. We wanted to change that.
From the beginning, we set out to provide the entire ecosystem of support and resources necessary for creators to build. We like to say we’re democratizing content creation: it’s no longer necessary to live in LA or New York to make art that moves people. All you need is your smartphone — and the Rizzle app.
Earlier this fall, we announced the hiring of Thom Woodley as our first-ever Head of Creative and Content Development. Thom brings an incredible depth of experience creating award-winning work in digital, traditional, social, branded, and experiential channels to his role, and his fingerprints are on some of the world’s most well-known campaigns. (He also produced some of the very first web series to be created — and to go viral! — back when YouTube was in its infancy.)
Thom heads Rizzle Studios, our creative arm, and his immediate goal is to dramatically widen the aperture of what people view and do on the app. Thom is already green-lighting interesting, challenging, and never-before-seen work from creators with a mix of both scripted and unscripted content, striking partnerships with film festivals and talent agencies, and developing on-demand educational courses from instructors in writing, directing, and acting to really help our users grow.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
No, I’m not satisfied with the status quo — I wrote about this before. I believe that the introduction of tech as an option for young girls must start at a very early age. Women in tech who have made it should be mentoring middle school and high school girls to improve the understanding of choices in tech. Colleges must have industry mentors specifically for women candidates wanting to pursue or pursuing tech. The change starts early. We’re not there yet.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I’ve written about this quite a bit. To be frank, tech can be pretty sexist. There’s an implicit bias that women don’t have enough time to dedicate to a startup. There is this idea, sort of propagated by Y Combinator, that founders need to live together in Silicon Valley to develop an idea. Um, that’s not possible for a lot of women with families. And why should they be punished for that? Incubators like that were also historically known for funding young men entrepreneurs because they believe those are the people who can focus big time on delivering other startups — so there’s this implicit feeling that women in general may not be up to spending the time it demands.
In general, as a brown woman I feel like I have to work harder to prove a baseline which is almost a given for another white man. I don’t tend to dwell on these things; I tend to prove myself anyway. Dwelling on these kinds of inequities can bring you down and be counterproductive. I’m aware of them, but I don’t let them bother me. But I do think as a woman you have to work harder to prove the same baseline which is almost a given for a man.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
You cannot sustain exponential growth forever. When you are in a growth phase, you need to think ahead and see the plateau coming. You don’t grow forever. It’s more about anticipating those plateaus and working ahead of time to minimize their impact and coming up with ideas to leapfrog and grow again.
When Rizzle really started growing, the TikTok ban happened in India. Our site visits were exponentially growing — but we knew ahead of time that that would plateau off. Not everyone would be looking for a TikTok replacement forever. Inevitably, we saw that happen so we were able to pick back up into growing patterns in September and October. And with our RSeries and Rizzle Studios initiatives, we are currently on
track to green-light 1,000 shows by end of year, which is phenomenal (for context, professional series are at around 50 a year on Snap Originals and Quibi launched with 50 shows and were going to grow to 175 in the next year). But again, we have to work ahead to avoid the plateau.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Sales and marketing teams must be outward-facing and bullish on the product or features they’re selling. If they’re tentative, there is no way to make the customer feel good. The best thing companies can do is to hire salespeople who are passionate about the product and vision and will themselves be users of the product.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
We’re building a social media platform. Our users are brutal. They have many places to spend their time, and they will not stick to a platform even for a minute if they did not think it’s worth their time. In this world, we built a community that adores the platform, where creators create 30+ videos a day! You can watch some of their stories here.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
Build a product they love to use
Give them something that uniquely adds value to their lives
Always put the users first, they are always right!
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
At Rizzle, we’ve always worked hard to retain our creators. We offer classes as part of the Rizzle Studios initiative for free to creators. These classes in acting, directing, storytelling, and other areas enrich their lives as video creators. We also offer contests and other incentives to monetize their creativity. We run a Discord server for our users where they can reach us anytime and get responses and updates from us. All of these make the community incredibly valuable to our creators!
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- You’re tougher than you think. Persistence has always been my virtue and I don’t usually take ‘no’ for an answer, but the last four years revealed that I’m really tougher than I thought. I never knew that I could stomach rejections, biases, unexpected curveballs, gut wrenching roadblocks, and eroding bank balances at the scale that entrepreneurship demands. And you have to keep the faith (and the enthusiasm). I have found the energy to keep my enthusiasm amidst the darkest of times. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has kept us innovating. As leaders, our enthusiasm or lack thereof is contagious in the team. Fast recovery from down moments became non-negotiable for me.
- Move on when things aren’t working. Over the last four years, we’ve worked on hundreds of features, big and small, most of which did not make the cut. Many of them were good ideas, but for one reason or the other, did not work for us. If it’s not a fit, it’s not a fit. It is important to assess, analyze, and let go of things that are not working.
- Don’t regret what you let go. In my last startup, we spent six months building stories and filters on a map (it was beautiful!) that we had to scrap after we realized it didn’t bring us the growth we expected it would. We had to make a decision to throw all that hard work away and move on to focus on other things. We made that overnight (with supporting data) and never looked back. Three months after we scrapped our Maps feature, Snap purchased Zenly, the company behind the Snap Map, for a reported sum of 250 dollars–350M dollars! While that was heartbreaking (we had filters and stories on a map before Snap did and we didn’t work ourselves towards a 250M dollars acquisition, clearly!), we didn’t carry regrets. We just kept moving forward.
- Spot the needle in the haystack. When there is so much hay, it’s hard to find the needle. When there are hundreds or thousands of things that don’t work out, it is hard to find the bright spots.
- Know what advice to ignore. Especially when things are not working, unsolicited advice is abundant. Having the courage to stay our course and discard many pieces of advice will prove essential to progress.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
At Rizzle, I championed the #ThisIsMe Million Voices Project to inspire a million stories — I believe that when we hear and see other people’s stories, it humanizes us, instills empathy, and brings us closer as the human race. With 150k+ voices and 2B+ views, this is going strong!
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!