Ankur Goyal of Impira: “Put your feet up”

Put your feet up. Chris Fry, who has been an engineering mentor of mine for a long time, gave me this advice as I started my management career. It’s incredibly important as a leader to optimize towards doing nothing so that you create opportunities for the people that work with you. As a part of our […]

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Put your feet up. Chris Fry, who has been an engineering mentor of mine for a long time, gave me this advice as I started my management career. It’s incredibly important as a leader to optimize towards doing nothing so that you create opportunities for the people that work with you.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ankur Goyal.

Ankur has spent his life thinking about how to make data more accessible to people. He holds several patents in database technology and, as employee number two and vp of engineering at MemSQL, he built and scaled the engineering team. But one thing troubled him: while companies have figured out how to maximize value from structured data, how can they take new unstructured data forms that are rapidly growing in companies, and enable employees to extract, analyze and make data useful? That was the inspiration for Impira, which Ankur talks about more below.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I studied computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and dropped out in 2011 to join a tiny startup called MemSQL after realizing that I could learn more in the startup world than at school. The pressure of innovating and developing new technology that had to work in real customer environments was addictive, and I increasingly found myself drawn each day to the challenges of building a startup. After running the engineering team for a few years, I left to figure out what was next, and started exploring interesting companies and ideas. Machine learning was just starting to become popular, and I was fascinated both by how valuable it could be to unlock difficult-to-use data (like PDF documents) and also how difficult it was to use. The idea that you needed to be a tech nerd to run these powerful solutions seemed at odds with the pace of work and the importance business users — not technologists — played in business processes that could really be impacted by machine learning. On a trip to Kenya, I tried analyzing my safari pictures with a pretty simple computer vision model, and ended up turning that into a demo which I showed to a few customers on the way home. That was the genesis for Impira, which was born a few weeks later.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Our product is disruptive because it enables our customers to rethink how they operate critical processes that have historically been manual, slow, and difficult to scale. Processing financial statements is a great example. Customers who use our software to automatically read and analyze financial statements not only save precious time — or the money it takes to outsource the function -from data entry, but also have the capability to run advanced analytics that were otherwise too painful to run manually. This kind of scale can have a meaningful impact on the top line of the business. And just as importantly, you give people the time to work on interesting, creative tasks, boosting their morale. Our goal is to offer our customers a fundamentally new way of running their business.

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?

Early on, while formulating the company, I was too shy to talk to top-tier VCs. I figured you needed all the answers before you wentin and pitched to them. Barry Eggers was different:he reached out and insisted we meet. I quickly realized that great early stage investors want you to succeed and will even help you form your pitch, which makes sense because the journey to figure out your company does not stop after you fundraise — in many ways, it’s just beginning. The takeaway was to seek out the very best investors early on, and find ways to get their feedback while you form your company and pitch.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I’m a function of all of the incredible support and advice I’ve gotten over the years from some incredible people (too many to name), especially our incredible board members from Lightspeed, Coatue, and General Catalyst.

I met Merci Grace just after she left Slack and have worked with her closely at Lightspeed. A year or so ago, we started experimenting with a self-service go-to-market motion that was a highly disruptive idea with a lot of potential. She spent hours with me first absorbing everything about our existing product and customers, and then sharing her battle-tested frameworks for how to add value to individual users, conduct real customer interviews, and position a self-service product. A few months ago, unprompted, she signed up for our product, told me why it sucked, and sent me a recording with tons of specific feedback about how to improve the experience! She’s a mentor who cares so much that she’ll go out of her way to help me succeed, even when I don’t ask.

Elad Gil has been another close mentor for many years. When I left MemSQL, I was anxious to immediately start my next thing. Elad recommended that I take several months off, because the next time I’d have the opportunity to take time off might be several years later under completely different life circumstances. I ended up taking six months off and, during the tail end of that, I met the love of my life and developed the idea for Impira.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

The appeal of disruption can often captivate the hearts and minds of people but result in a poor economic outcome for the business. Ultimately, disruption should ultimately create a positive economic outcome for an industry.

Open source is a very disruptive delivery mechanism for software. It democratizes access to very sophisticated technology, and allows companies to form and build real products much faster than before. I’d say overall, projects like Linux have had a very positive impact on the world and disrupted the old school licensed software model pioneered by traditional enterprise software vendors.

However, like Facebook or Google’s “free” products, there is a hidden cost. Compared to their proprietary equivalents, most open source products are harder to use, buggy, and ultimately have a higher total cost of ownership. For example, Hadoop’s free and open appeal created a lot of mindshare but I’d be hard pressed to argue that it resulted in real outcomes for companies. Ultimately, proprietary technologies like S3 and Snowflake won out because they offer a much better TCO.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

A startup is an experiment, not a company. Yanda (Erlich, a member of Impira’s Board of Directors and managing director at Coatue) talks a lot about this. It’s important to remember that as a startup, your job is to prove that your company should exist, not assume it should. This has a huge impact on how you prioritize your actions.

Put your feet up. Chris Fry, who has been an engineering mentor of mine for a long time, gave me this advice as I started my management career. It’s incredibly important as a leader to optimize towards doing nothing so that you create opportunities for the people that work with you.

Exhaust the moment. Ryan Nece gave me this advice. The idea is that you should ask yourself whether you’re truly making the best of each opportunity (and moment) you have.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I firmly believe that our new self-service offering is the first and only automation platform that gives businesses the ability to streamline any internal process that revolves around files like documents and images. On top of that, it’s been developed for business users — you don’t need an advanced degree from MIT to use the platform. To date, we and other companies have done this with a top-down enterprise sales motion. I cannot wait to see what people on the front lines dream up with our product once they play with it and start automating and analyzing previously unusable data.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I keep going back to High Output Management by Andy Grove. I started reading it when I became an engineering manager, and every year since draw new insights from Andy’s wisdom. Management is more art than science, yet Andy has a way of teaching it in a way that appeals to a logical brain like mine.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”. — Thomas Edison

I’m no genius, so this quote has always inspired me to achieve things. Growing up, I was never the smartest kid around, but my parents consistently pushed me to work hard. I developed a chip on my shoulder, because I often had to work twice as hard for the same result but, around college, I started realizing that I kept learning and growing while others were stalling. Every year, I see more and more people stall as they slow down their hard work. I still carve out 3–4 hours a day after work to write code, talk to fellow founders, and do just about anything I can to keep learning. I’m hoping I’ll gain experience two or three times faster this way.

You are a person of great 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. 🙂

I am a huge believer in the impact of education. Given how much of our economy is fueled by innovation in technology, I think we should teach kids the fundamentals of discrete mathematics, statistics, and computer science at a much younger age. Calculus is powerful, but it does not encourage the right intuitions to think about software development and, for the most part, can be automated in code.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’m available in all the standard places: Twitter, LinkedIn, and good old fashioned email (my first name

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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