Things will go wrong so many times, and you will get many nos. Just keep working towards your missions. We have failed to get into numerous accelerators and incubators. I heard no from a long list of potential partners, employees, and investors back in the day. It will take time to find your product-market kit, and failures are expected.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gaurav Aggarwal.
Gaurav Aggarwal is a co-founder at Sleek, an AI-based virtual queuing platform solving the horror and ubiquity of waiting in lines. An engineer-turned-entrepreneur helping small businesses survive and thrive with AI; he co-founded Sleek after spending a summer at LightSpeed Venture Partners as a fellow. In his past life, Gaurav led highly technical teams on multi-billion dollar products at Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Google and stayed at the forefront of the latest technologies with a keen consumer focus. Gaurav was listed in Forbes 30 under 30 2021 list for Consumer Technology.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
Sure, I was born and brought up in a middle-class family in Delhi. I was a shy kid who loved watching discovery channels on TV. From an early age, I was highly interested in understanding how things work, and sometimes in that pursuit, I also broke apart things to dig deeper into the inner workings. I was also always looking for new opportunities and possibilities. I remember seeing a text message on my father’s phone which said, “Make money sitting at home” which intrigued me. This was a time when getting access to a computer, let alone the internet, was super difficult. Most businesses were still offline, and the internet was seen as a source of information rather than a door to opportunity. So it wasn’t easy to believe that this text message was legit. But my father, who believed in my ability to find new opportunities, found ways to get me what I needed to pursue my dreams, no matter how stupid they may sound. As it turns out, that text message was spam, but it put me on the path to explore the internet for opportunities. This finally drove me to get a degree in computer science and work at some of the biggest tech companies in the world.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Not a book, but a TV series on the Discovery channel made a huge impact on me. It was called “I shouldn’t be alive”. It was a documentary series that featured accounts of individuals caught in life-threatening scenarios. As the name of the series suggests, one would not expect that any person stuck in such a scenario would survive, but these individuals did. And it is their grit, the courage they showed, and most importantly, their strong desire to succeed ingrained in me that I can achieve anything I want. It made me a highly optimistic person, and I believe this optimism and character strength have helped me pursue and achieve all that I have desired in my life.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I will keep it simple. For me, making a difference means Putting a smile on someone’s face. To be humble, it could be as simple as helping an older person cross a road. Now since my time on this earth is limited, I look for ways to bring as many smiles as possible. Technology is a great way to achieve this goal. And through Sleek, that’s what we try to achieve everyday. I remember once talking to a user. We were doing a test pilot of Sleek in Presidio park in SF. A lady came over and told us how she was able to get snacks for her three kids from a food truck without standing in line for 45 minutes. Instead, she spent that 45 minutes playing with her kids. In the end, she thanked us and left, but her story gave me profound happiness. This is what I call putting a smile on someone’s face.
Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Sure! Sleek is reinventing the way users wait in lines. We take pride in creating a delightful guest experience that saves the inconvenience of waiting in lines while adding newer streams of profits for the venues & events. In short, we are adding dynamic pricing for the physical world and making queues obsolete.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
This was around the time when I was a Fellow at Lightspeed Venture Partners. Sometime during the fellowship, all the fellows were invited to a Broadway play. Before the play, we could reserve food and drink, but I forgot to opt-in. So I had to go during the intermission to get a drink, and I saw a huge line at the bar. It was near impossible to get the drink in time before the intermission was over. And at this time, I realized that I have a ticket worth 180 dollars, but I have no option to get a 10 dollars drink. This frustration led to the desire to find a way to improve the user experience of standing in line.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I love solving problems, and I have explored many problems before. I think the “Aha moment” was made up of two events — one, I genuinely believed in the problem. I faced it firsthand, and when I look around, I see almost everyone facing this problem regularly. Second, it was the support from my family. Being an entrepreneur is an exhausting journey, and I knew that my family is not just willing but highly capable of supporting me in this journey. So it was the culmination of these two events which motivated me to take the plunge.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
Every entrepreneurial journey is unique. So instead of talking about steps, let me talk about principles that I follow.
First, add a structure to your journey. This means defining goals and timelines. If you find it difficult to create a structure, pick any open startup curriculum. Lean launchpad course on Udacity or Startup school by YC both are great choices. Second, talk to people, all kinds of people. Really know the problem and the user well. Learn from others’ experiences and their mistakes. Third, build a stellar team. Get great people in your corner as your teammate, mentor, or advisor. You would not believe it, but people love to be part of something bigger. Fourth, and I think the most important one, keep moving. So many companies fail not because they did not have a good solution but because they could not execute.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
It was more of an unfortunate hypocrisy story. When we were pitching our idea to people, they were offended that it is unfair to let people skip the line. I had to take a deep breath and remind them big companies such as Starbucks or Uber have their versions of skip the line — which people love. I can pre-order a coffee through the app, effectively skipping the line. If you are ok with big companies implementing this, why are you judging SMBs and mom-and-pop shops to implement the same system and maybe even make some money from it?
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
Yes, we underestimated our product-market fit. This happened during one of the pilot tests. The number of orders through our app went up the roof. This led to a system overload on our side, and the food truck was overwhelmed with orders. We quickly removed all the marketing material so that new customers would not know about our system, but our product became so famous that it spread through word of mouth. We eventually had to shut down our service. We always prepare for failure scenarios. This incident taught me to be prepared for super success scenarios as well.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
We have mentors and advisors for several areas. I think one of the biggest impacts that our mentor made was by helping us simplify our story. Once we learned how to communicate our simple but impactful message, it became much easier to raise money and get customers.
Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
One of the small food truck owners was able to earn 20% more with our system without impacting customer service. I think this has been one of my favorite impact stories. The fact that it happened during the pandemic amplified our impact.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
These are three things:
Help SMBs get back on track after covid. It is super disheartening to see so many restaurants being shut down. If the govt can help them get back on foot, we can help them with better revenue.
Help with potential partnerships, especially outside of the US. Countries such as India with huge populations face this problem on a much bigger scale. If we can find partnership avenues in these countries, we can make a much bigger impact.
Digitizing experiences: Many SMBs, especially outside of the US, are still not online. If those can be brought online, we can easily integrate with them.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).
- Things will go wrong so many times, and you will get many nos. Just keep working towards your missions. We have failed to get into numerous accelerators and incubators. I heard no from a long list of potential partners, employees, and investors back in the day. It will take time to find your product-market kit, and failures are expected.
- It is about people. A company is successful not because of the fancy tech but because of the people running the company. So get great people on board, people who are driven and are versatile. By having awesome people on board, you are just increasing your chances of success.
- Have great trusted mentors. They can give you years of wisdom in a few minutes. Secondary research is good and should be done, but in many cases, the actual insight from someone who has worked in a domain for 20 years is mind-boggling.
- Focus on Speed over Accuracy. Most times, moving fast and being nimble is the only really differentiator for a startup compared with an incumbent.
- Ruthless Prioritization. Prioritize yourself as a resource. Do not spread yourself too thin and solve something that really matters. With the limited resources of a startup, staying focused on the right thing is of utmost importance.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Humans are emotion-driven animals. You might think money would bring you lots of happiness, but that’s not true. For most people, money is just a number or leverage to achieve their goal. Pure money rarely brings happiness. It is what you do with that money and influence matters.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would like to have lunch with Elon musk. He had put all his hard earned money from Paypal into his next ventures. I want to know what gave him the courage and conviction to take such a bold step.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!