As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashish Singhal. Ashish is the Co-Founder and CEO of CoinSwitch.co and CRUXPay. He is a hacker to the core and has won almost every major Hackathon in India including those hosted by Sequoia, Google, Amazon and LinkedIn. While working at Amazon as a Software Development Engineer in 2014, he led the internal team in building Amazon Prime’s 1-hour delivery model. Ashish was a Technical Advisor with Reap Benefit — an NGO in Bangalore aimed at encouraging India’s youth to become actionable citizens. He holds a Bachelor of Engineering in Computer Science.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Iam a hacker at heart and was naturally inclined not to accept the status quo. So trying to find a new and better way of doing things always gets my brain ticking. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work with some great people from the start of my career who helped me hone these natural instincts and broadened my horizon. What you see today is a result of the same. Curious about crypto, I saw a problem which I thought I could solve in a far better way than the available means at the time, and CoinSwitch was born.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
Leading is not only about having a clear vision but also getting your team on the same path and realising this vision. However, sometimes it’s easier said than done because sometimes you can become the bottleneck on that path. Being able to realise that, and then act on it has been one of the major learnings I have had.
Being a “techie” myself, I was always hands-on and involved deeply in every aspect of the features and products that we were building. However, over time I realised that there was too much unnecessary dependency on me which was slowing down the teams. Hiring the right people and then just getting out of their way to let them do what they are good at, was the best thing I could do and results are better than I ever hoped for.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
Listen to your customers. The path to success is not in solving the biggest number of problems nor the most technically endearing problem, the path to success is in solving the most critical problem.
At CoinSwitch and CRUXPay, we have been successful in cultivating an environment where every member of the team thinks customer first. Talking to our customers and taking their feedback is a norm, which I follow religiously before building new features. It has helped us to avoid wasteful development and correct our course frequently. Rather than building products overwhelmed with features, we build products whose power lies in their simplicity.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Customer Obsession: “Make things that people want” is something which seems intuitive but a lot of people often miss. Simple products which target the user’s most critical problem are more successful than products trying to solve several small problems.
2. Ask for Help: Many problems we face, be it scaling, customer acquisition or brand building, have been faced by others before us. Reaching out and learning from these people rather than reinventing the wheel is something every founder should do more often. Most founders in my experience are very helpful and willing to take time to share their knowledge.
3. The good, the bad and the ugly: Doesn’t it feel good to share those awesome numbers and graphs with your team after a successful launch? Of course it does, but what about the failed experiments and not so well received projects? As a founder, I have learnt that sharing failures with your team is equally important. It helps set the notion that failure is okay and that you shouldn’t be afraid of it. You just need to learn and do better the next time.
4. Prepare for a long journey: Building, validating and scaling your startup is a long journey of grit and perseverance. Make sure that you don’t burn out. People can make suggestions and help you along the way but only you can prepare yourself for this long journey. People usually only talk about the start and the finish but nobody really prepares you for the in-between. Every phase has its own challenges and the best way to make sure you endure this is by making small victories count.
5. Revenue Matters: Most startups today rely on VC funds and growing fast is not a bad thing but it’s crucial to also keep a close eye on revenue. Having a healthy revenue stream can give you more room to experiment and give you the most important thing that every startup needs, time.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Striving for bigger and better, and pushing oneself constantly are traits which every entrepreneur shares, but these traits have a tendency to take a toll. My advice to my colleagues would be that while you are running towards your dream, try to pause and celebrate the small successes along the way. Starting from scratch and becoming successful is a long and arduous journey usually with more failures than successes. It takes time and energy — and is both intellectually and emotionally demanding. Celebrating these good times not only makes you realise how far you have come but also rejuvenates you for the next set of problems coming your way.
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?
I have had multiple mentors who have helped get me to where I am today, but the individual I am truly grateful to is one who pushed me to take the leap and start my first company. Setting foot into unknown territory can be pretty daunting but being a founder himself he understood what it takes and was able to guide me throughout my journey.
There have been multiple instances where I was unsure of the path ahead or was even doubting myself, but his opinion as an outsider has always helped me to clearly analyze things and refocus on the things that are significant.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Starting a company, no matter the result, is a unique experience. It is bound to leave an impact on you and make you wiser, smarter and better. Going through this journey myself I often think about the time when I had just begun, the people who had helped me and the things I wish I had known before. Although every entrepreneur has his/her own journey, something that I would personally like to do is reach out to more people who are just starting out, share my experiences and help them to grow.
Professionally, my sole focus is getting the next billion users on CRUXPay. I truly believe that CRUXPay can be a game-changer in getting mass adoption for cryptocurrencies by making the crypto user experience at par with digital payment systems such as Paypal, Venmo and ApplePay and that’s the goal I wish to achieve.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
A robust financial system is the backbone of any thriving economy. However, in terms of accessibility, traditional systems like banks, credit providers etc are still very restricted. Moreover, they have very little incentive to build anything for the under-served members of the community. As a result, someone who does not have the means to become part of these systems finds it extremely difficult to break the deadlock of poverty and lack of opportunities.
One of the many reasons I was drawn to the idea of cryptocurrency is that it has the potential to become a global financial system which is low in cost and accessible to everyone. The catch though is that ‘ease of use’ is one of the biggest barriers today for people to become part of this ecosystem. It is for this reason that at CoinSwitch and CRUXPay, we are always striving to create products and experiences which mask the complexity of crypto transactions and breaks that entry barrier for the common person leading to adoption from more and more people.
If my humble steps can one day lead to financial inclusion for all, I’ll be happy.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I believe education is the great equalizer and gives people an opportunity to be independent and make a better future for themselves. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have the chance of formal education. If I could, I would start a movement where the educated individuals of society give up some time to educate others. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a full school curriculum, but the basics required to help set up those among us that are less fortunate for success.
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