There are some defining moments in your life, but they are mostly not a single-event experience when they happen. It’s more like a particular thought crosses your mind, which excites you. You contemplate and weigh the pros and cons of your idea, and then finally, you end up working on it or abandoning it. This kick starts a chain of thoughts and actions that eventually leads to the outcome you envisaged at the beginning or something similar. The point is: it is not a single thought process or activity that leads to the life-defining moment.
Tarkeshwar Thakur is an ex-Googler. He says he was pretty much like any other engineer until he was in Google - 95-100% of his entity tied to being an engineer. “Google teaches you or conditions you that if you do engineering right, then everything falls in place,” he says.
At some point, he realized a part of him had some inclination towards business as well. There were a lot of ideas brewing in his head. At one point, he convinced his wife that he would take a year-long break to work on one of his ideas. It’s been four and a half years since then, and he is still wearing the entrepreneur’s hat.
And, thus this led to the birth of Chatimity, a social chat application in the B2C (business to consumer) space. It ran into challenges due to being in the B2C space, and the team pivoted to serve the B2B domain. This was when they came across Freshdesk, the previous avatar of Freshworks, which acquired Chatimity. Tark's team helped build a chat application for the Freshworks' B2B side of offerings.
At Freshworks, Tark led several hi-tech teams - he helped build the data platform team and AI team called Freddy. He also led Freshsales through the launch and success. After his stint at Freshworks, he teamed up with Alok Goel to build Drivetrain.
Drivetrain is a business navigation software that aims to help companies who have achieved product-market fit grow their business. Essentially, based on an organization’s current position, it shows a list of future possibilities, a set of options to get there, and their costs and benefits. Since it helps a company in the growth stage play out different scenarios, it puts the management teams of those companies in a good driving position to help navigate the following route.
No prizes for guessing, but that’s how Drivetrain derives its name.
Read on to know how Tark managed to create strong and successful Google-like teams in his startups and which factors worked in his favor.
Given the complexity of the product, the co-founders did not expect to build it in such a short time. They started in January 2021 and banked on making it in a year, given that the competing offerings in this area for enterprises by more prominent and entrenched players took decades.
At the inception stage, the thought process at Drivetrain was - “How much of this (what’s already available in the market) do we need to build before our customers accept it as a credible alternative?”. To their surprise, the team reached the stage of “completeness” in about half the time.
The startup has 15 members, of which 12 are engineers. Except for one employee, the co-founders set up the team within the first three months. They hired some through the co-founders’ common connections and the rest through the usual route of screening/interviewing within two weeks. Tark says this was a conscious decision.
He says this is the sweet spot for culture to be molded around the existing set of people, and they decided not to hire any more. They hired one person after they hit 14 members. The team wants to get their chemistry and their dynamics right. This includes their ways of working, what actions matter, how the team should approach engineering and product, and how they should coordinate between those two functions.
Once Drivetrain nails that, they plan to go for the next round of team expansion to ensure that they grow as a cohesive unit. Otherwise, Tark says there would be too much pressure on a few people to disseminate the kind of culture they want to build, and it may get diluted in the process.
He also adds that effective communication between the members is essential since they are building a complex product. It doesn’t necessarily make the work easier if the co-founders hire more people. This means the team needs to get the framework for communication between people right. The co-founders need to ensure that the employees understand the essence of what the team is building, how they should make it, and the company’s guidelines and apply them to problem-solving and product shaping.
Tark and Alok, Drivetrain’s co-founders, focus on looking for potential candidates with the following criteria:
Good software developers: people who are very good at programming, data structures, and algorithms
Problem-solvers: those who can solve a variety of problems, especially the ones they’re unfamiliar with
Good communicators: folks who can speak well and (especially) write well have an added weightage because it is a sign that they can think in a clear and organized way
Good colleagues: people who are fun to work with.
Tark says that these might sound a bit vague but having done numerous interviews, he can now tune into signals that people give out during their conversations. Quoting a Silicon Valley saying, “We don’t hire as much for the intercept as for the slope,” Tark explains that this means that the value of an engineer comes from the growth they display as they work on a particular problem over time. It is essential to assess how much they know before they begin working on the issue but less so when compared to the slope of the learning curve.
Drivetrain looks for folks who have such potential in terms of learning while working on a particular problem. Since Drivetrain is not Google, it has to optimize for a smaller intercept but what’s important is to pick people who have the hunger to learn. He says lots of exciting things happen when you bunch together a set of intelligent people to work on an interesting problem.
The co-founders did two rounds of intensive hiring in two weeks, where they interviewed roughly five times the number of people they hired (15). Though interviewing so many candidates at one go was a bit crazy, Tark says it was helpful. He equates it to fundraising.
The concentrated efforts into hiring helped to engage better with recruiters (Drivetrain worked with external agencies) because they could see the pace at which Drivetrain was hoping to bring onboard new employees.
This frenzied hiring process also helped engage the candidates better because this is a bit different from the usual practices of the interview taking place a few days after the initial screening and the offer letter being given a few weeks later. This rapid selection process, in a way, helps the candidates to understand the company better, says Tark.
Drivetrain could also track the number of offers made in this period - all the candidates accepted to join except one. Tark says this is amazing compared to the acceptance rate of around 50% in Bangalore, often touted as India’s Silicon Valley.
When a startup founder is building their initial team, do they have a set of factors that they need to tick off before hiring the first set of members, or do they hire one by one based on their capabilities and then bring them together?
Tark seems to lean towards the latter. He says one can do only so much in an interview. If a potential candidate is competent and interested in the product Drivetrain is building besides meeting the criteria explained in the previous section, they are likely to get hired. The co-founders would then figure out how best they can fit them in a particular area.
Different people have distinct personalities with varied expertise, working styles and sources of inspiration or motivation. The idea is to identify areas in which a particular person would shine and assign them responsibilities that match the aforementioned factors. Quoting Freshworks’ co-founder and CEO, Girish Mathrubootham, he says what works best is identifying the strengths in people and allowing them to play to their strengths.
Admittedly, some of the practices across functions at Drivetrain, including the ways of working, come from Google. They have a set of “rituals” that set a weekly cadence in the startup. To align on everybody’s tasks, the team uses a tool called Linear, which helps streamline software projects, sprints, tasks, and bug tracking.
On Mondays, the team has “Road Ahead” meetings where they take up tasks based on their expertise for the week. Prior to that, on weekends, the co-founders discuss and set the direction, be it themes and projects the team needs to work on. The team members choose tasks for the week ahead based on the bucket of priorities the co-founders create and their individual expertise, interest, and abilities. The Monday meetings also help set the context for the team as they pick up new tasks and sort out any dependencies among the members.
The week typically ends with “Pit Stop” meetings on Fridays, where the team gathers once again to take stock of things. Alok gives business updates to the team, and the members show demos of product features they worked on during the week. Both the business updates and the product demos are peer-reviewed. The startup does not have status checks, and Tark says they can “enjoy” that for at least a while now till they grow in size.
Though the co-founders set the direction, the working style is hardly manager-driven. The team places a lot of emphasis on individual excellence and ownership. People who have expertise in particular areas come forth with their ideas and execute them - in contrast to the style where the team member does a particular task because their manager asked them to do so. Both Tark and Alok speak a lot about this working style to the members to instill the culture of driving their own trains to achieve the overarching goals.
The co-founders have divided the team into smaller pods, each having a team lead and its own chemistry and velocity.
The team also convenes meetings to talk about something significant that they’ve completed. This includes things such as why they approached a problem in a particular manner, why they chose to do B over A, and how they solved a problem or built something. These meetings also help the members to learn from each other and ask questions - a deviance from the manager reviewing their colleague’s work and providing feedback.
Tark says the Drivetrain team is on par with an A-team at Google in terms of effectiveness and getting things done. Being among the top companies in the world, Google enjoys the benefit of hiring the smartest people without any budgetary constraints.
The key, however, is not just hiring intelligent people but also coupling them with other smart people and giving them important problems to work on. If you bring more than enough smart people together, even then, you may not get the desired outcome as you would have only as many significant problems to work on. This means some people would not be happy as they end up working on other “unimportant” tasks.
Google banks on the fact that if they hire ten people and even if one or two people end up doing amazing things, it would still mean an excellent outcome for the company.
Drivetrain or any other early-stage startup has to be more conscious about hiring and cannot aim for the kind of talent that Google can attract and retain. So, Drivetrain looks for people in the early stages of their career and not among the “top rung”. This means they need to look closely at potential candidates, figure out their attitude and make a good guess about where they might be in a few years if you invest in them.
Tark says the problem they’re working on is one of the best he has seen, including those he has come across at Google Tech and probably one of the best offered currently in the startup area. He says this clicks very well with the candidates, and that the team hardly see any dropouts.
Typically, after a point in time, Tark says you start seeing people ramping up. He says there have been instances where he discussed something related to what they want to achieve with his team members. A few days later, they would come back with a completely different approach to what they wanted to achieve and take him completely by surprise — something which he may not have thought about at all. That’s the point you realize the person is in full bloom, and they’re on their way to doing great things for themselves and the company.
At Drivetrain, Tark says they typically look for the following in the people they want to hire:
Hiring for startups in India has relatively become easier now compared to his Chatimity days, says Tark. Earlier, people had concerns about joining a startup, citing reasons related to job security, career advancements, and salary constraints. This got reflected in the fact that people were worried about their marital prospects if they got into a startup.
The coin has flipped now, says Tark, and many people are lining up at the doors of startups to grow and learn. This is all thanks to the likes of Flipkart and Ola, two of India’s biggest startup success stories.
Among some of the common questions Tark asks his candidates are:
What are the most complex projects they’ve worked on, and what made them interesting?
What do they think about their current jobs?
How would they like to create the shape of the future?
Technical questions where the co-founders assess how they react to a particular problem, how critically they think about the issue, how they enjoy the back and forth of solving the problem, and how creatively they think.
Some of the top factors that have helped Drivetrain attract great talent to their team are:
Since the current team at Drivetrain is relatively small, this is a more straightforward problem, but Tark says they are aware that this might become a bit more complex after they go for the next round of expansion. The co-founders constantly talk about the things the startup believes in and how the thought process at the company should be.
When communication needs to happen beyond one level, there’s a good deal of work to be done, says Tark. And, Drivetrain is already bracing for it. Whatever the members speak at Drivetrain is written down. The idea is simple: nobody needs to ask what’s happening. The key is effective communication: a concept often talked about but seldom acted upon.
The team strives to ensure that they write down the company’s tenets, the ways of working, and everything else, make it transparent and available to everyone at the startup. All their team meetings are recorded and uploaded. In addition, they tag the highlights. This is extremely useful for anybody who joins at a later stage to understand what has happened in the past, why a particular decision was made, and so on.
This is particularly crucial because the co-founders may not have the luxury of time to address all incoming questions by their new colleagues. The startup would be in its growth mode, and the roles and responsibilities of the co-founders would shift.
Right from answering questions on product decisions to stock options to health insurance, Tark says everything should be written down and made accessible to all in the team instead of it being in somebody’s head.
The co-founders are doing their best to instill this culture of writing down everything, creating snippets of all the meetings, and using tools to do this as effectively as possible.
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