Sandeep Jain is Founder and CEO of Leela Labs, whose free Leela app enables users to discover, review, and stream podcasts and spoken audio content. We asked him about his time earning his MBA at Haas, and about some of his startup's challenges and opportunities.
Q. What have you carried from your Berkeley experience to your work in innovation/entrepreneurship?
A. My education at Berkeley helped me to make fewer mistakes in real life. By understanding complexities of sales (distribution channels, pricing), marketing and business strategy, I found it easier to understand why things around me are the way they are -- this is really important as most of us [in the MBA program] have tons of business ideas in our heads. Understanding which ideas to say no to and picking the right one (for you) is what a great education helps you do. Most important, Berkeley taught me to never give up and always be the best.
Q. Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently at Cal, or what programs/activities/etc. would you have taken advantage of to prepare for your career in innovation?
A. As a startup founder, you have a singular goal -- to get early traction, be it company traction (e.g., through funding), product traction (through customers) or even media traction. An MBA degree prepares you to understand the basics of funding (convertible notes, equity, pre-money etc.) but I believe the most time needs to be spent on understanding and executing funding strategy -- how much, when, who and how. Product traction requires defining a narrow segment of customers and building just the bare minimum product. Media traction is a completely different ball game. Knowing what I know now, I would have started a business while at Berkeley so that I could make direct use of my MBA education and school resources. In fact, I'd argue that it's a must-do for anyone going through business education anywhere in the world. In terms of courses, irrespective of your intellectual bent, I'd recommend taking courses in pricing, sales and contracts.
Q. What advice would you offer students just beginning their careers in the startup world, either as founders or as early team members?
A. First, I'd advise you to go through this wonderful writeup on emotional cost of being a founder (https://www.startups.co/articles/emotional-cost-startup-founder) -- this will help you prepare for the journey a little better. Second, if you are a solo first-time founder, I would advise bringing on a co-founder early unless you feel that you can get some product traction (either by building product yourself or through contractors). Third, make sure that your initial customer segment is very specific and that these users will be wowed with some aspect of what you are doing. When we released our first mobile app, one of the challenges we had was that it was for a broad audience and we had difficulty getting traction. Once we narrowed that down to kids/parents, our traction increased well beyond our wildest imagination.
Q. What’s the hardest thing about your work in a growing company? What keeps you up at night?
A. Growing a company requires hiring people… the best people. With tough competition in salaries from the big whigs in Silicon Valley it is hard to recruit talent at early stage, especially pre-funding. We have found great folks to work with in Eastern Europe and Asia -- some of the very brightest talent. These folks have one thing in common -- they are hungry for success. Nothing was handed over to them, they are fighters in their own way, and they have the right attitude... [it's] a great combination of skills.
Q. Is it better to join a startup, or to start your own company? How do you evaluate your employment opportunities?
A. Starting your own company requires [...] thinking about funding, creating a team, finding the right idea to go after, etc. Some of us may not be cut out for that, but the rewards are proportionally higher. Joining a startup is best suited for folks who want to gain the right experience first and are not comfortable going into completely unchartered territory. This could sound like a defeatist option but it is not -- in fact in terms of minimizing risk and maximizing returns, this actually is a great option! Many folks have made a good fortune this way. The key is to pick the right startup. My advice is to pick the [company] where you believe in the Founder, even though you may not understand their idea fully. In other words, always bet on the person.
Q. As an entrepreneur, you're told to push through barriers and face down rejection. How do you know when it's time to pivot or sunset a project you're working on?
A. Lack of meaningful and sustainable traction is a key indicator of things not working out. It could be due to several reasons -- the product itself, the selling approach, pricing, market conditions, etc. The founding team needs to find the root causes (through a combination of both data and intuition) and continuously iterate -- doing weekly, not monthly iterations. If there is still no traction, it may be time to sunset the project.
One mistake I have seen founders make is that they close the project entirely without thinking how to best make use of the company assets. I bet that there is always someone looking for what you have built. A big company might be willing to aqui-hire you. Getting rid of your paycheck and showing confidence in building something on your own is a skill that big companies desperately need. In short, don't ever sell yourself short.
Q. What’s your (or your company’s) biggest challenge or hurdle at your current stage?
A. We have gotten very good traction with our mobile app, Leela Kids; we are the World's First Kids-Only Podcast App on AppStore or PlayStore so we reap the benefits of first mover advantage. Our challenge is how to most effectively capitalize on this momentum and increase our user base both in the US and globally.
Q. What’s the most exciting opportunity at this stage?
A. For us it is to become the #1 platform for people to consume spoken audio content. There is spoken audio content on every topic imaginable! The biggest reason why 40% of Americans do not currently listen to podcasts is that access to them is complicated. It's like what the Internet used to be before Google came along. We want to make it really easy for people to find and instantly play content on the topic of their choice. We are seeing increased engagement from our listeners in terms of time in-app consuming content, sharing episodes with friends, sending emails about new content they'd like to see, and likes/shares on Facebook. Parents are writing to us about how they are giving Leela Kids a place in their media-free home. It is frankly very humbling to see what we've achieved in just 6 weeks since our launch.The radio ad industry is worth $18B. The podcasting industry is around $200M. There is so much room to grow here!
Q. What resource/s would be most valuable to you to help you attain your next milestone?
A. We are talking to organizations that are producing spoken audio content and are looking to expand their listener base both in the U.S. and abroad. We haven't raised funds yet -- we would consider it once we feel that money is becoming the biggest bottleneck in achieving our growth.
Q. Where do you want to be in 3 years?
A. My dream is to make Leela Labs into a growing and profitable public company.
Lastly: You've chosen to make the Berkeley Founders' Pledge. What inspired you to do that?
A. There are several reasons. I learned a lot from the top education I received at Berkeley, and Berkeley is an integral and critical part of the success of Silicon Valley. With public funds becoming increasingly scarce for public universities, it is even more critical for people to pledge their support to public schools and universities in any way they think is feasible. For me, the Founders' Pledge seemed to be the right vehicle for doing it. This way, the school benefits as we grow.
Interested in joining Sandeep in his commitment to Cal? Make the Berkeley Founders Pledge, like he did, and have an impact from Day One of your latest venture.