Rahul Vohra: Rapportive live
Rahul Vohra started Rapportive to make beautiful software. Since he was a child, he loved software and always knew that he would build software that many people would use. Rahul and his startup partners in Rapportive want to leverage online communication to provide useful information about your email contacts. Part social media, part CRM, Rapportive is a Gmail plug in that provides dynamic contact previews including picture, bio and links to other social networking profiles. Today, users look up over 65 million contacts through Rapportive every month.
Rahul says that so far the Rapportive ride has been surprisingly easy. He attributes this to his focus on user experience, ensuring that what his team is building is not over engineered but is a product that people want and that they will use.
The beginning. Rapportive co-founder, Martin Kleppmann, identified the problem the space of social media and CRM. Rahul identified the product idea. He was working on gaming and social media. As he tells it, “I wanted to build a product to make things easier. In Gmail we show you what people look like, their tweets, what they are into, their social networks, etc. We add a lot of context to Gmail.”
The company was founded by three really smart computer science graduates from the University of Cambridge, UK. Rahul admits that he is the least technical of the team.
The three moved to San Francisco early in 2010 because they found it easier by far to be a startup there than in England. As Rahul tells it, “In one week we accomplished what would have taken us a month back in Cambridge.”
The fledgling company applied to and was accepted as part of Y Combinator (YC). But their path differed from most applicants. As Rahul recounts, “Part of the application process is to give them the URL of your prototype. They ask that you not password protect it. So we did that, but we weren’t prepared for what happened next.” Independently, the press found them and they had 10,000 users sign up the first day. Rahul continues the story, “I called up Harj, who I knew from Oxford [Harj Taggar was previously founder of Auctomatic, which was funded by Y Combinator in 2007 and was acquired by Live Current Media in 2008]. I told him that we got all this traction and that VCs and angels were asking me how much money we needed. I knew that I could raise a seed round right now, but I also wanted to be part of the Y Combinator experience. What do you want to do, I asked?” So YC broke with their own process and interviewed Rapportive a month early over Skype, which was the second time that happened – only Heroku had done it before. Rahul finishes, “We applied, accidentally launched, got into YC, and then raised our seed funding during this period.”
Rahul raised $1M in August 2010 from an impressive line-up of who’s who among angel investors: Gmail creator Paul Buchheit, Scott Banister, Jason Calacanis, Gary Vaynerchuk, David Cancel, Dharmesh Shah, Shervin Pishevar, and Roy Rodenstein. Also participating are Dave McClure’s new fund 500Startups, Nivi & Naval Ravikant’s VentureHacks, Charles River Ventures, Kima Ventures, Zelkova Ventures, and BOLDstart Ventures.
Rapportive today. The company today is very much past beta. At 6 people, the team has doubled. Rapportive has grown the user base many times over. Users today look at over 65M contacts per month. While Rapportive has no revenues currently, the company is getting ready to launch premium products that they will sell to busy professional users. Rahul states proudly, “Users adore what we do.”
Background. Rahul has been making software for ages. He started programming at age 10. Back then he made lots of physics-oriented products and downloads. Everything he made he gave away for free because he loved programming; he loved making things for people, products that people actually used. However, none of these was a business. But the kernel of entrepreneurship started then…
The idea that he could grow a viable software business came from his observation at age 15 of a retail store where he bought games which grew from one to a few hundred locations in a couple of years. “Starting and growing a software company seemed very doable to me,” he recalls.
Rahul grew up as a privileged child of two over-achiever parents from India who are successful and driven in their work. His dad is a surgeon who also has a PhD; his mom is an anesthesiologist. The couple immigrated to the UK a few years before Rahul was born. Rahul studied computer science at the University of Cambridge.
Rahul believes that school is an optimization game. He needed to do the best he could with his course of study, to be the best that he could be at the university, so he focused only on CS. He did no other requirements and admits that he is “not well rounded.” Rahul talks about the fact that even as a child he never had to do anything he didn’t want to do: “Because I didn’t have to learn to mow the lawn or help with chores [because his parents had help], I learned how to code and to build great software.”
However, he knew entrepreneurship was in his future. In his first week at university, he went to an entrepreneurship seminar about the basics of building a business. But he decided that the timing was wrong, that this was something that he could come back to. 2 years later he came back and studied entrepreneurship. One of the guest speakers asked who in the audience was into software, “The guy wanted to speak to those 4-5 people that could create software because he was building a company that had funding and he wanted CS students to build the product.” Rahul and several buddies, one of whom is his partner now (Sam Stokes) worked on the project over the summer. But it didn’t work out. As Rahul recounts, “Too much money was spent too quickly. We should have spent more time with users, really understanding what they wanted.” That lesson has stayed with Rahul.
After graduating in 2005, Rahul started a venture to make phone apps which capture Sudoku puzzles from photos. This was years before the iPhone and app stores. What he actually did was make the technology to make this possible. He had to negotiate with mobile manufacturers to do a pre-install, not an easy thing to accomplish. When the deals fell through, Rahul let the technology languish for a while. There is a funny story here, though. A few years later, Rahul heard an independent pitch for almost the same technology: “So, I pitched to them that they could just license my technology and I could help them get to market 6 months sooner than they could otherwise.” Today, that company is MagicSolver. Rahul is still peripherally involved.
Rahul also spent two years running Cambridge University Entrepreneurs (CUE), where he helped entrepreneurs start companies. “Cambridge is incredible for entrepreneurship,” Rahul reports. He continues, “The CS dept has produced more companies of value than the whole rest of the university.”
At the same time, Rahul started a PhD but soon realized that was not where he wanted to be. For CUE he ran business plan competitions, raised money, and mentored entrepreneurs. “And that’s what I wanted to do,” he states firmly. “A PhD is not the best way to start a company. The best way to start a company, is in fact, to start a company!”
He then co-founded a software company called mo.jo with Sam, their second venture. He tells the story, “We had great customers including Cancer Research UK [the largest cancer charity outside the US], and Ordnance Survey [the UK’s national mapping agency]. The issue that we were solving was that large companies were bad at innovation and starting companies and we were great at it [from CUE]. So it was a combination of selling processes plus online software to help them do this right.” But they wanted to be a product company and they found themselves as a service company. Thus they moved on…
Rapportive was the next idea. They identified the problem and knew that they could build a solution.
Challenges. Nothing keeps Rahul up at night because he is fundamentally happy doing what he loves. But he has the typical startup tensions. Rahul tells me, “It is very difficult to balance urgency and importance. Everything is urgent in a startup. And you have to train yourself to focus on what is important and not let things slip through the net. You always think about those things and it’s easy to get worn down over time. You have to keep an eye on the long term and where you are trying to get to.”
Early on, he faced challenges of balancing communicating with investors vs. building the product. He found it difficult to hire, particularly since he had no experience with the recruiting process.
This summer posed a high-threat competitive challenge when Google launched the people widget that integrates with Gmail. “In some ways, it’s quite like Rapportive,” Rahul recounts. “The press sensationalized it, saying that Rapportive would die. But, of course, we didn’t die — competition very rarely kills startups.”
In addition, the trio faced immigration issues. All three are British and faced our terrible US immigration laws that limit innovation by making it very difficult to start your business in the US if you are not a citizen or already with a green card. However, their clever immigration lawyer, Malcolm Goeschl of Goeschl Law Corporation, found an advantage because there were three of them; any two could sponsor the H1B visa application for the third so that technically none of them was sponsoring themselves.
Lessons learned. “I am now following my passions,” Rahul tells me. “I just love building experiences that delight users.”
He got some of that attitude from his parents. He calls his dad, “fundamentally very entrepreneurial in the way that he looks at the world.” And his mother used to give him advice: “Think about the things that you are passionate about: building products and programming. Why are you passionate about these things? Because you are better than others at those things.” She was right. Rahul knew to “pick something for which I am optimized for success.”
That principle still guides him. “It doesn’t really matter what the topic is,” says Rahul. He is not that passionate about social CRM. But he is passionate about the fact that it is a problem that he understands. He is passionate because he knew that he could excel in it. And Rapportive is busy proving that he is right.
Good luck growing Rapportive, Rahul!