Being a founder, entrepreneur, or a business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur” we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. 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 dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Gaurav Aggarwal: I am an engineer turned entrepreneur. Originally, I come from a middle-class family in India. And in India, you first become an engineer and then decided what you want to do with your life. I followed a similar approach but by choice. I was one of those few who pursued engineering by choice and not under any duress. From an early age, I was super curious, and this curiosity motivated me to build new things as well as take them apart. And it was this same drive that took me to some of the biggest tech companies in the world. But over the years, I realized that users do not care about the complex engineering behind products. I discovered the joy of making life easy for end-users, which helped me develop empathy for end-users. It frustrated me when companies made decisions largely on the technical criteria without listening to the end-users. This drove me to solve real humans’ real problems and make their life better in some way which motivated me to explore my own ideas.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Gaurav Aggarwal: Sleek’s “Aha Moment” came when I was a Fellow at Lightspeed Venture Partners. During the fellowship, all the fellows were invited to a Broadway play – The Hamilton. Before the play, we had a special arrangement for food and drinks, and we could reserve our drink for the intermission. But I forgot to reserve my drink, and I found a 0.2-mile-long line when I came out to the bar during the intermission. It was practically impossible for me to stand in that line, get my drink and be back in my seat before the play resume. I wondered if there is a better to do it. How cool would it be to reserve my drink or, even better, if I could pay extra over my $180 ticket for an expedited service?
In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?
Gaurav Aggarwal: I was not a born entrepreneur. Far from it, I was an extremely shy and introverted person. But I was a natural problem solver, and with my curiosity, ambition, and growth mindset, I grew over the years. I learned a lot from my friends, peers, and mentors. Over time I developed the needed skill.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
Gaurav Aggarwal: My parents and my wife are my pillars of strength. They have supported me through thick and thin. A stable personal life can really help an entrepreneur in their professional endeavor, and I am lucky enough to be in that boat. On a professional front, I am a big fan of Bill Gates. In his first inning as a tech leader, he led Microsoft from a small startup to a tech giant. In his second yearning as a philanthropist, he led several worldwide initiatives in health care, nearly eradicating Polio.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Gaurav Aggarwal: An interesting incident happened in the early days of Sleek when we were testing the product-market fit. A lady walked up to me and thanked me. I was perplexed! I asked her: Why are you thanking me? You just paid $9 extra for a $30 order. She told me that without Sleek, she would have waited by physically standing in line for at least 45 min with her three kids. But with Sleek, she can enjoy the picnic and play with her kids instead. Sleek’s interest is aligned with both the merchants and consumers. That is the unique thing about Sleek. We only make money when a merchant makes money and customers want to use the product. We are not charging a monthly subscription or a flat fee which is common in our industry. Sleek allows any vendor/establishment where people wait in line to digitize the line and add “surge pricing” – enabling people to pay to skip the line. The value proposition to vendors: use this, costs you nothing, and you make more money. The value proposition to the consumers is a “free” version to hold their spot in line and a “paid” option to skip the line for those that value their time more.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Growth mentality: With this exploding knowledge of this 21st century, You can never know it all. Instead, try to be a learn it all person. Have the mindset, confidence, and ability to pick up new skills in a short span of time when needed. Especially as an entrepreneur, you need to juggle multiple hats, which requires learning a myriad number of skills on the job.
- Perseverance: Failures are imminent. I have failed more times than I have succeeded, but it does not matter. Most ambitious people try their hand at a lot of things, and when you try to do too many things, you will fail are a lot of them as well. But we need to persevere through the failure and not let it bog us down.
- Going the extra mile: People underestimate attention to details. Small thing matters in almost all aspects of running a business. From building an intuitive product to supporting customers well in need to investing in your team. At times many entrepreneurs become fixated with short-term goals that they lose track of the high-level vision e.g., raising a venture round should not be a goal but a means to build a legendary company.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Gaurav Aggarwal: I always wanted to go back to grad school. But I was not very keen on taking student debut for a master’s degree. One of my mentors recommended me to pursue a master’s degree in parallel to a full-time job. Having done that for about 2.5 years. If you want to get a fully immersive grad school experience, then I strongly advise against it. Doing a master’s degree and working full time in a big tech company puts a lot of pressure on you, and you miss out on a lot of opportunities.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?
Gaurav Aggarwal: With COVID-19 and remote work has made it had to avoid the overwhelming feeling. Employees do feel isolated and under pressure as work and home boundaries blurred over the last year. We have consciously tried to reduce stress and promote a healthy work environment for our employees. We set aside some time to bring back the social interaction in this remote work situation by introducing TGIFs meetings, drop-in meetings, etc. We followed a buddy/mentorship system for ramping up new employees and setting them up for success. We have found that promoting a healthy work-life balance with the right amount of social interactions can really help.
What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?
Gaurav Aggarwal: Walk the talk. Be clear about what are your and your company’s core values. People can easily detect a hypocrite and a hypocrite rarely gets the credibility required to run a growing enterprise. Openly communicate what you stand for and inculcate a culture of openness where people are not afraid to speak their minds. Lead by example and prove yourself by delivering strong results. Meeting your goals without compromising on your values will help you gain trust and credibility from both: your customers as well as your employees. Sharing your knowledge in blog posts, podcasts, and keynotes will also build your authority as an industry expert.
Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?
Gaurav Aggarwal: It is surprisingly hard to stay consistent with your values as you and your company grow. There will be situations when you can compromise on your principles and achieve a quick win. Many people give into that. What differentiates good from great is achieving one’s goals without compromising on their values and principles.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Gaurav Aggarwal: You will be surprised at how many founders work on solutions no one cares about or try to solve the problems that don’t exist or no-one cares about. They keep wasting their time and investors’ money which leads to the question: why no one is buying their product. People defend this behavior by comparing themselves with Steve Jobs without realizing that Apple is a big-time follower of Ethnography based customer research. The customer research approach will differ by industry and product, but there should always be something. Understanding customer’s needs are vital to an entrepreneur. For B2B SaaS, it can be speaking with the industry experts or top executive, while for a B2C consumer product, it can be talking to a subset of users. I know that you will not be able to get to a statistically significant portion of your user base for the latter, but that is not a justification for not talking to anyone.
Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?
Gaurav Aggarwal: A regular job has a very narrow focus when compared to running a company. In a regular job, You are typically responsible for a few and similar types of tasks. Even as a manager in a job, you focus on one piece of the puzzle, be it engineering, marketing, hiring, etc. While as an entrepreneur, you are responsible for everything. Anything that goes wrong is your responsibility. There is a 100X strong sense of ownership. Impact and rewards are high, and so are the responsibilities and risks. Moreover, typically entrepreneurs also come from some specialty background, and they are learning about other aspects of the business on the job.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
Gaurav Aggarwal: We felt over the moon when we had our product-market fit moment. We were running a pilot in Presidio Picnic in SF where our product went viral, and it spread by word of mouth. Despite a very scrappy product, a buggy user interface, and a physical sign that wasn’t in the direct line of sight. Merchants working with us sold out well before time while making significantly extra money without any extra investment. The consumers were happy that they got their time back and didn’t need to wait in the line physically.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
Gaurav Aggarwal: Sometimes I wonder if all this is worth it? Leaving a high-paying cushy in Big Tech and staying thousands of miles away from my parents. Not spending enough time with my wife and friends. With almost no leisure time to travel and continuously thinking about my company. Sometimes I think about the opportunity cost I am paying for my choice of being an entrepreneur and wonder if all this is worth it.
Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?
Gaurav Aggarwal: I bounce back by telling myself about what I have learned in my tryst to be an entrepreneur and what I have achieved. I set up a regular dedicated time to overcome this feeling of FOMO. Also, I feel a great sense of pride when my nephew tells me that he wants to be like me.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Acceptance: Things will go wrong. There will be hurdles. You will try hundred of things and will fail in many of them. Accept it and get over it. This will help you maintain calmness in times of failure and increase your chances of a come-up. I learned it the hard way. I used to duel a lot on failures and developed imposter syndrome. Things will often go down to the wire (e.g., negotiating a deal), and the person with a cool and calm head has a clear advantage.
- Keep learning: Learn from your failures. Learn from your success or even your competitor’s success. Learn what is new in your industry. Be a student. You need to be on top of things. Have the growth mindset to learn new skills as needed. New opportunities arise from new information, and lessons learned from your previous endeavors will help you execute on new opportunities.
- Have a support group: Have a trusted network of mentors, advisors, family members, and friends that you can lean on in times of need. Spend quality time with people in your network and help them with no ulterior motive. If making an intro helps another talent entrepreneur, do take the 5-mins required to send that introductory email to the investor/customer. You will be surprised how much people appreciate your help and what goes around also comes around.
- Be passionate: Money should NOT be the only motivation for you to be an entrepreneur because the expected amount of money you will make as an entrepreneur is less than the expected amount of money you will make in your career in a multi-national company. When chips will be down, and things will not be in your favor, then you need a strong motivation to perverse through it.
- Don’t be a realist: Be an optimist and not a realist. The odds of success of typical startups are very low. Therefore, you need to have a positive attitude towards things. This positive attitude will help you go through the ups and downs of entrepreneurial life.
We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Gaurav Aggarwal: Resilience in my book is one’s ability to bounce back, i.e., to recover from a failure and march towards success again and again. In the words of Sylvester Stallone, Rocky Balboa: “Life’s not about how hard of a hit you can give… it’s about how many you can take, and still keep moving forward”. Resilient people are calm and patient in adversity. Their positive attitude, hard work, and growth mindset help them push through and come out on top.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?
Gaurav Aggarwal: As a teenager, I spent a lot of time watching I shouldn’t be alive on the Discovery channel. It gave me numerous inspirational examples of perseverance and resilience. It taught me that there is still hope even when all chips are down.
In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?
Gaurav Aggarwal: Being an entrepreneur, I am an optimist by choice as well as profession. Having a positive attitude during difficult situations is the key to business success. Positive thinking is contagious. If I, as a leader, am not positive about something, how can I motivate others? But I am also not perfect. I have support from an awesome group of mentors and advisors who, along with my family, help me maintain my positivity.
Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.
Gaurav Aggarwal: Positivity and negativity are both contagious, and both of them flow from top to down. A leader with a positive attitude will instill positivity within their team, making it easy for them to go through difficult times. A mediocre team with self-believe and a positive attitude has far more chances of success than an above-average team with a negative attitude towards everything.
Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?
Gaurav Aggarwal: “I never lose. I either win or learn” – Nelson Mandela. This quote has been a driving force in fueling my positive attitude. I always thought of myself as a person who learns by doing things. Every time I fail, I analyze that situation and try to understand what went wrong. Was there something that I did wrong? Was there something I should have done differently? This approach has helped me achieve much more important things later on than what I failed to achieve early in my endeavors. Back in undergrad, I bombed Goldman’s interviews, only to later land a job at Microsoft. I was unable to get into so many startup accelerators, only to be accepted in StartX and listed as a Forbes 30 under 30.
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with
this. We wish you continued success and good health!