The founder of HackerRank tells the story of how he and his cofounder went from multiple failed businesses as brand new founders working from India to the creators of one of the most influential websites for programmers and tech companies.
What's up, everybody? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com, where I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I ask them to share the behind the scenes stories from how they got started and how they've grown their companies, so that the rest of us can learn from their experiences.
Today, I'm talking to Vivek Ravisankar. He's the CEO of a company called HackerRank, who's mission is really to make the process of getting a job as a programmer a lot more fun and enjoyable, something that I can personally get behind because it's pretty terrible.
Now, HackerRank.com — unlike most of the people that I talk to — is a VC-funded company that has raised millions of dollars. But, Vivek and his partner went through a very similar story to what you will go through as an indie hacker starting any sort of business.
They spent years really just trying to find the right business model, the right product that customers would like, and in pivoting their way over, and over, and over again until it eventually became a successful product.
There's a lot to learn from hearing Vivek's story, and from listening to the advice that he has to share. So, with that, let's get into the episode. I'm here today with Vivek Ravisankar the co-founder and CEO of HackerRank. Vivek how's it going?
Good, how are you?
I'm doing excellent. Thanks for taking the time to come on the show, I realize you're a very busy guy. But HackerRank is a fascinating company, and I'm really excited to have you on because I think that there is a lot that people can learn from your story.
Absolutely. I'm excited to be here, I've been following Indie Hackers for a while so thank you for inviting me.
So, for people who don't know, HackerRank is really a market place. For developers, it helps you practice via coding challenges, you can see how you stack up against other developers. It also helps you find jobs at companies that are hiring developers.
And, for companies, it's the opposite. It helps companies find talented developers, screen them using custom sets of tests and challenges, and even interview them remotely. Is that an accurate description of HackerRank?
Yeah, I should probably take this and put it on our pitch tent. Yes, that's pretty accurate. That's how HackerRank works.
All right, cool. How big is HackerRank? I ask just because it gives listeners some context, and helps them better understand your story. Even if you don't share your revenue numbers publicly, I think other metrics can be tallying.
Sure, so, from our community sites we are getting close to three million developers, who have at least attempted one challenge on our site. We have over a thousand paying customers across different industries, Stripe is one of our customers when we signed up recently from the internet, software companies to financial services like Goldman Sachs, and retail, Best Buy. So, we have customers across the globe so that's the scale we are looking at.
Awesome. I mentioned that HackerRank was a marketplace earlier, where you're really connecting two different groups of people, developers on one hand and companies on the other. And the challenge here is that no market place is useful to one group, unless you've already got lots of people using you from the other group.
So, you can't exactly help companies hire developers if you don't have developers on your site, and it ends up being this really difficult chicken and egg problem. So, whenever I have somebody on the Podcast who's got a marketing place, I like to ask, which side has been the most challenging for you to grow over the years, and how did you juggle this chicken and egg problem, and sort of see-saw your way to were you are now?
Yeah, it's a good question. I don't know if I have the perfect framework or generate a framework on how to solve a chicken and egg problem. But the way that we did, and we didn't think of this very deeply. We figured okay, if you have a software and go and sell to companies because they already are interviewing a lot of developers and it's a very inefficient process.
So, just to give you a little bit of background about me. I used work at Amazon before this as a developer, and I did a lot of technical interviews. I think at one point of time when we did the math, we were doing about a hundred phone screens to get one offer.
So, there was a crazy amount of time in terms of hours spent, and the efficiency or lack there of. That's what helped us, "Okay, let's go ahead and build a product that can help companies optimize their whole recruiting process and make it way more efficient." So that's how we got started.
And then as companies started to sign up and the developers started to appreciate this mode of evaluation because they didn't necessarily have to be in the top, you didn't have to go to a top school, or you didn't have to have the greatest pedigree in order for you to get an interview at all of these different companies, because you need to show your skills.
And a résumé is actually going to do a really good job in showing skills so, developers appreciate it, companies started adapting, and then what started as, "Okay, let's just put up a fun little site where we can just have a few challenges just for practice, ended up growing this large community."
So, frankly, we've actually never spent or, I wouldn't like to say never, but we have probably spent very, very, very, very little in the order of less than maybe $10,000 over the lifetime of HackerRank. I've trained a choir of developers to join the community so it's largely been organic and word of mouth.
That's super impressive. All your effort really is going to getting companies on the platform and not developers.
That's correct yeah. We have a standard go-to-market model for companies and what we're starting to see as effects of the developers community is, as more and more developers come . They are also starting to say, "Okay, this sounds fun, let me go ahead and ask my company during transit to use this matter of evaluating developers for our own company." So that also acts as a way for us to continue to grow our company base.
And I like that you mentioned that HackerRank is fun. You're one of the few companies that I've had on the Podcast, where I've actually used your product before having you on the Podcast. I use ConvertKit now with Indie Hackers and after I talked to Nathan Berry, I started using Meet Edgar after I talked to Laura Roeder. But, besides you I think only Zapier is the only other product that I've used. And that's because HackerRank is pretty fun.
I've always been an entrepreneur. I've never even wanted to apply for a job, but I thought it would be fun one day just to sit down at HackerRank and take challenges just to see where I stack up. I'm a competitive person so maybe I'm projecting a little bit. But, I think it's just inherently fun to see where you rank, and to see how good you are compared to other programmers. Was it your goal from the outset to create a website that was fun, or did you initially want to create something that was competitive for the programmers? Or did you take kind of a windy path to get to where you are now?
I think at the core of it, I wanted the whole job interview process. I still want it to be way more transparent and way more merit based. I felt the it would not fully solve it. It's still very stressful, and it's not fun. Nobody thinks of going to an interview as a fun thing to do. In fact, you almost say, "I need to write my code on the white board, and I need to practice all of these things."
I still feel the whole process of applying to a job, and practicing, and honing your skills should be fun at the core level. Have we solved it? No. But, that's the path that we are on. So, at some level I think it was deeply rooted in us that we wanted to make this a fun place for developers to do it.
That's such a cool mission because, there's almost nothing fun about applying for jobs. And I've sort of based my entire career as a developer around never having to do that.
Yeah, yeah, it is a bit stressful for multiple reasons. One is, most of the application process seems to be like a black hole. If you apply to a company, are you sure you're going to hear back from them? Did it even reach them? If at all it reached and you got an interview call, are you sure of what they're going to be asking? What are the tools that they're going to give? And frankly, I think one of the companies that have done well, and I'm not saying this because I'm on Podcast, is Stripe.
I think Stripe, they've done a really good job of, I think there was a PDF that they published on, here is what you can expect in the interview. Here are the different skills that we could evaluate on, and you know what, bring your own laptop and go ahead and code it on that. Like to make it comfortable. So, I think that's the direction in the right way of moving towards better interview process.
Yeah, I hope so, because like you said it's stressful. When I see developers preparing for interviews, the number one thing that they seem to be feeling is just stress, and worry, and anxiety. "Am I going to be good enough? Am I going to get in?" A lot of bitterness when they aren't excepted.
So, I hope you guys make some head way in solving that problem. But, I want you to walk me through kind of the beginning story of HackerRank. Were you worried about this particular problem in the very start? What was your motivation to get started?
I think, and I mentioned this a little bit earlier. So, I was very annoyed at the number of hours that I spent on interviewing, and résumé is a very poor indicator of skills. I knew that none of the developers in our team really like doing the interviewing. Doing an interview was like throwing an exception in your code. It's just right there in the calendar and sometimes even spoils the day. People used to either put the interview as the last to do item on the list or just finish it off right at the beginning that so they have more time to go ahead and code.
So, nobody liked doing interviews, but everyone wanted great developers. And résumé is but a poor indicator of skills. The intersection of all of this was, "Okay, there's a problem that needs to be solved so how do we go ahead and do it?" The early innovation of the product, we had a lot failed ideas by the way, when we got started. I think the first evolution of HackerRank was this product call Interview Street.
The way that product worked was it's actually mock interviews. So, let's say you're going to interview at Amazon, you could come onto our site and attend a mock interview with someone who's been through the interview process of Amazon, or is working at Amazon, or is an ex-Amazonian, to get a real understanding as to how the interview worked.
So we used to charge two, three-fifty to a piece. This is in Indian currency so, it wouldn't be fair to compare to US dollars, but since the audience is global, so I'd say it's about $10 or so, or probably less than that. Two-fifty a piece to the interviewer. We used to pay the interviewer because you're conducting the mock interview, and a hundred a piece goes to our pocket.
So, that was our very first business model. I still have the excel where we project a billion dollars of revenue, and I think after a year and a half or so we neared about a thousand dollars. So that was a big lesson that you can do any magic in excel, that you can just put a formula, and just scroll it right through all the rows and you get large numbers. But it's really hard to execute.
I think we learned a tremendous amount of lessons through that. I don't like to blame the market, external ones, there were a lot of things that we could have done better. I don't think the payment infrastructure, something about Stripe. The payment infrastructure in India was very poor at that time. It was so hard to set up a bank account, set up something online. We had to go to individual colleges and we'd collect money in cash in person from all of the candidates.
Wow, what year is this?
This was 2010. That's when we got started. And then of course, the amount we paid for interviewers, who were working at companies like, Google, or Amazon, or Microsoft. It wasn't really interesting. Do I really need this and spend an hour to do it, I'm not really sure. There was not a good, some kind of market place where I don't think there was a good supply and demand match.
And we applied to Y Combinator during this process. We got turned down. So, we then iterated to another idea where we wanted to help students who are applying for masters. This was a sort of a tangent to our original idea because that failed, and it's a big deal when-
If you let me interrupt for just a second.
Why did you start with the mock interview idea?
So we thought, okay, the way to fix this whole interview problem is to just claim candidates. There are two ways to go ahead and do it. One is, you could give the product or the solution to companies, or the other option is, "Okay look, you can actually help candidates prepare. Hey, here is what you need to be good at." And just like any other preparation you can go ahead and do it. We didn't know, which one to choose. So we just went ahead with choosing the candidate side.
That makes a lot of sense. Why did it take you, you said a year, or a year and a half, to figure out that it wasn't going to work, and that you weren't going to hit your super optimistic billion dollar revenue target?
Yeah, so the billion dollar revenue target was definitely over a course of five to six years, so it would've been pretty crazy to do it over a year and a half. But, why did it? I don't know, it's really hard to know when the idea is not working. When you think about stories of Airbnb and others you see that they worked three years with I don't know, ten bookings or twenty bookings or something, really tiny and then it suddenly grew.
That's one thing I don't think there's a perfect framework for determining when do you stop working. I don't think there's a pretty good logic on which we stop doing after a year and a half. Maybe we were just tired, "Okay this doesn't seem to be going anywhere."
That makes sense. Do you remember having a conversation with your co-founder about when you guys got to the point of being ready to pivot and being ready to quit? Did you see it in advance for a number of months or was it kind of a sudden epiphany, we should stop doing this?
Actually, we never really stopped doing it. So, our pivot was, okay, we'll just keep this in one tab, in a hidden tab on the website, and we'll do something else on the homepage. If somebody comes to that let them go ahead and do it. So, it was not a hard pivot.
Great, so, you were describing the next product that you guys started working on. What was that like? And, what was it?
Yeah, the next one was, again something tangential, by the way, I'm probably just glossing over a ton of tiny details that we continue to do over the year and a half in terms of iteration. First was figuring out payment, second was figuring out scheduling, what if the interviewer had some other meeting at that point in time. How do you communicate that to the candidate? And then, figuring out the scheduling part of it. I don't know if it still exists or not, it is pretty expensive to call somebody in India, especially if you don't belong to the same state.
So in the US it's very different, you can call from here to New York, and there's no extra fee or extra charge compared to you calling somebody in California. But, if you were to call out of state it used to be pretty expensive. So, then when we used to match that candidate from one state and an interviewer in another state, who is going to bare the phone expense? Our margins are very tiny, and so if you add the phone expense to it, it becomes even smaller.
So, who's going to bare that? And we continued to iterate a lot, we found that, and we found a really good audio confidence facility, which was cheap and it also had WiFi. So, over the course of one and a half years, it was just a series of iterations trying to figure out what could work and figuring out how do we do the match.
So it was not a hard pivot, it was just, "Okay, I don't think there's any logical iteration that we can figure out to make this work. And so, let's try and figure out how this whole idea of connecting students who wanted to do their masters program in the US work." The reason for this was, as we continued to work on the first idea, we talked to a lot of students. We asked them what are their pinpoints. Of course interviewing and getting a job was one of them, but then, if not equal there was probably more.
The bigger pinpoint was, "Hey, I want to go to a university in the United States for doing a masters in computer science and I have no idea. How do I pick a school?" It's a big, big deal in India to come here and do your masters. And of course the application process was intensive and expensive. Each application form used to be around $100 or so, which is even pretty expensive just in the US denomination, but if you look at India it's way more.
Then, what that means is you can't apply to 10 schools. You can only apply to five because you had a limitation on how much budget you were willing to go ahead and spend. If you could only apply to five, how do you choose, which five? So, we used to connect people here to students who were already doing their masters in Carnegie Mellon, in Purdue, in MIT, in Stanford, and others who can review your statement before pressing your résumé and tell you, "Okay, here are the areas that you need to improve. Here are the areas that you need to get better at, and here you have a good shot at it, here you don't have."
So, that started to work pretty well in the early days, and there was a good uptake. And after a couple months, the traffic was almost down to zero. Turns out that you can only apply twice a year. So, we didn't know what to do for the rest of the year. So, that also failed. And we again applied to YC. I think within this time and of course we got turned down because we didn't have a product that was either a really good idea, or we screwed up the application process. So that was our second pivot, yeah.
It sounds like you really, now like when you are describing what you were working on, you do a really good job describing the problem that people had. Or how difficult it was for them to apply to go to the United States and go to school, and how they weren't able to apply to as many schools as they wanted to because it was so expensive.
I think it's very smart to look at your business in terms of what people want, or the problems that they have, rather than just the features that you want to build. Were you thinking about those things the same way back then, or is this kind of now that you have more knowledge as an entrepreneur you can look back and frame it in terms of the problem?
I think we continued to get better at that. Even now whenever a customer asks for, "Hey, I need this particular feature." I think everyone thinks in a very, very narrow manner or environment where, "Okay, I need this so that it would make my life better." And that's the right way, I can't blame them for that. But, we need to really understand what their problem is.
And so, related to that, when we started to pivot to the HackerRank product, which is our enterprise part of selling to companies where they could create their own custom challenges to hire developers. We got much better at it because, when we went and talked to different companies and different recruiters, they really wanted us to solve, " Okay, I'm going to give you a set of résumés. Please write a résumé parser that can tell me who the right developer I need to interview."
So, we would've ended up building a résumé parser if we didn't get to the core problem, and the core problem was, I can't identify who's the right developer, based on a set of resumes. So, our solution was completely tangential, which was to build a code checker module where people can write code, compile, and evaluate on complexity, on correctness, and a bunch of different parameters that we are starting to extend on, and see who's really good. I think that was an example of where we dug deep into understanding what the real problem was instead of just implementing, "Okay, here's what we need to go ahead and do."
Yeah, that's so interesting, and it reminds me of like the most cliché Henry Ford quote I think in the world where he says, "If I asked customers what they wanted, they would've told me they wanted a faster horse." Where he kind of highlights the difference between focusing on the solution and focusing on the problem. When you focus on the problem, you can come up with more novel solutions that actually do a better job solving that problem. How much of your early development and all these pivots and changes you were going through early on. How much of that was driven by talking to customers, and how much was driven by your own intuition for what people would want?
I think until we got to a really strong product-market fit, I think it was driven a lot by customers. I think once we identified and we got a really strong product-market fit, and especially on the HackerRank product, it was also driven by customers but I would say the intuition of, "Okay, where should the whole market go, or where is the job industry going, or what is the future of interviews going to be?" Is a lot driven by intuition and experimentation. So, I think the balance has shifted a little.
And actually, it's a lot more fun when you can go by intuition experimentation.
Yeah, it's fun as long as it works. If it doesn't then it's not good. But yeah, if it works then it's great, yeah.
So tell me about the early days of HackerRank, when these people were asking you for a résumé parser. What did you guys do next?
We were never interested in building a résumé parser frankly. I think we sat down to write code for it, but I don't think neither of us were just bought into the problem. What would it search for? If it's garbage in, which is, if everybody is going to claim that they're an expert, which you have to claim, why would you claim you're a novice in a résumé. How can you get meaningful signals out of that, when you write a parser on top of it? We were never really convinced about it.
And so, it was back to, " Okay how can we go to the other side?" All of our thinking has been, "How do we train candidates? How do we prepare candidates for interviews?" And all of that. But, can we flip to the other side where we can say, "Hey company, here is a product that you can use to asses developers. Can we go ahead and do it?" It was more about flipping to the other side and experimenting with it.
In terms of how we came up with the idea really, I think both Hari and I were competitive programmers back in college, and we actually wrote our code checker in college, that used to power all of the different programming content. So it was sort of a home territory for us. We said, "Okay, let's go ahead and build this and see if companies are interested to buy this."
That's interesting, you had a background in competitive programing. Do you think you would have thought about this idea if you didn't have that background?
It's a good question. Sometimes I think it's a bull, because it helped us get started. Sometimes I think it's a con, because I don't think the entire world of developers, all clearly the entire world of developers is not competitive programmers. It's probably a small subset of that. So, you need to make sure if we want to build a large developer community, and make sure that the job interview process is merit based for developers across the globe, then we have to get away from the competitive programming rates that are locked. So it's both a pro and a con.
Yeah, it's difficult to navigate being a founder and building a product that's supposed to reach many thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions of people, because no matter what your own personal experience is, they are never going to be representative of what life is like and what other peoples goals are for that number of people.
Yeah, like you mentioned, I think one of your intrinsic motivation and probably your personality is like that, is to, "Okay, I'm going to code and see how I rank against other developers." In fact, what we found was over 50% of developers actually just wanted to continue to improve their skills and see how well they're doing, not even trying to benchmark against how well I'm doing with other developers in my country, my region and things. I want to do this because I want to personally improve. And it's a very different mindset from a competitive one. And we specifically tried to ask questions, or try to distinguish these two sets.
The competitive mindset is more about, "I need to be there in number one on the leaderboard." And neither of that is right or wrong, but it's just a different mindset. So being a competitive programmer as a background, sometimes it's a pro, sometimes it's a con.
Yeah, totally. People are completely different. I work with my brother, we're twins, but he's the exact opposite of me in almost every way. A good example, is if we are playing board games, I will for example jump in, play a game that I don't know how to play, lose a bunch of times and try to get better, whereas he is more of the mindset that he won't play until he knows all the rules, and has seen a bunch of other people play it so that he can come in his first game and look confident.
So, it's just interesting to be a founder and to deal with the fact that you're probably at your core very different than most people, and it's difficult to know what they want and how they tick unless you actually talk to them and spend a lot of time around them.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Agreed.
I was just trying to say, both of you have different AI training algorithms.
Yeah we do. But I think it gets us to a similar place in the end. How did you find your first customer for HackerRank? And beyond your first customer, your first few customers?
It was a lot of struggle. So we did a bunch of things. I think one of them was of course tried to ask my ex-manager at Amazon, "Hey can you go ahead and try." Of course Amazon was not willing to try out a product that was just built buy a couple of guys in a garage. Well, sort of in a garage. We really built it in Hari's, my co-founder, Hari's.
So, one hack that we did was we created, okay I think I can say this, it has been a while. We created a fake résumé which had the greatest credentials right, that your mom would be so proud of. It had IITs the equivalent of Stanford or an MIT in India. So we put it as, Ookay we went to IIT, we had the highest GPA, we went to the tops schools, we went to the top companies, we worked at top companies. This was a fake résumé. And then we just put it up in all of the different job boats.
So, what we got was a house of inbound phone calls from recruiters. Because, they all wanted to hire this person. And then whenever we used to receive to phone call, we would say, "Hey you know what, I'm not that person. I want to be honest. I'm not that person. But, if you use our product you can help find people like that." That's one way where we used to generate demand and it actually worked. I think we got Zynga, was one of our early customers. And I think we had a call from one of the recruiters at Zynga, who wanted to try this product.
I think it was a combination of, okay let's get a few of our friends who are working in companies to try it out. I think this hack worked pretty well, and then once you had some proof points then we started to get a lot of customers there.
Yeah, that's such a ingenious hack, because it really flips the equation on it's head. And instead, we are having to do a ridiculous amount of research, and spend all the time making outbound calls to these recruiters, you just had people calling you, which is the exact situation you want to be in.
Yeah, exactly. It was just a really easy way to try and do that, yeah.
I think there are often times early on in a company's life, and a company's history, there are times where you have to do things that are sort of unscalable. I know you went through Y Combinator so you probably heard this mantra a lot of times, 'In program, do things that don't scale.' Were there anythings that you guys did early on that didn't scale? Where you were putting in a lot of manual effort to do something that you knew later on that you would probably automate or outsource?
Yeah, I don't think, there's a really good article. Well I'm not sure. Well I'm not sure, and maybe I should ask Patrick or Brian Chesky from Airbnb is, "Does that stop?" I think that the article was more on, "Hey, the early stages you got to do. But, I feel sometimes, even now, I know I'm doing things that is not going to scale but, I have to do it because something is broken." So it's a balance.
So, earlier on, I think one of the things that we did was, in order for you to really create a good programming challenge, what you needed to do was you needed to have a concise clear problem statement, you needed to generate a bunch of test cases, and when you choose different languages, let's say you choose C++ Java, Python and you needed to have good code steps. You want the developer experience to be great. So, all the developer needed to really do was to just complete the function and start worrying about, "How do I think it's being put, is it from a CD, and is it from a file? Do I need to read from some other API?
The early days of creating a question was literally, we would go to the company and say, "You know what, I'm just going to make it super easy, just send a word doc. Just write down a very high level overview of what you want to achieve in this question, it doesn't have to be so detailed. We will do the manual work of making sure that we put in all the constraints, make it very clear and concise, create all the test cases, put all the code stubs." And then I think it was getting painful after a point of time, we of course had some internal tools that we built, and this was one of the things that I can remember, in the early days where we did things that clearly wasn't scalable.
Yeah, it's good that you describe it as painful, because I think a lot of people don't realize that yes, doing things like this is painful for you. But if you don't do it, then it's going to be painful for your customers. And we were super earlier on, you cannot really afford to make your customers jump through hoops to try to use your unproven, untested product that you are not even sure if it's not gonna work.
Yep. I agree.
Okay, so you found your first customers using this ingenious hack. You're doing a lot of unscalable things. How did you grow and mature HackerRank as a product, and what were some of the first changes you made?
Again I think it sort of depends upon, and varied a lot on different phases. Just from a company perspective, I think a lot of the changes, a lot of the things that I had to learn continued to evolve myself as a founder and CEO as the quality and the importance that you give to the executive team. And this is just on the company side of it and how important it is to hire the right executive team who can help mature the company.
On the product side specifically, we got to continue to improve our usability and how do you make sure that your time to value to a customer continues to decrease, the time to value. But as we start to go selling to larger and larger companies, there are a lot of things, specifically that we needed to do to cater to the needs of a large enterprise company. If you're going to sign up a company like, a customer like Goldman Sachs or Bloomberg or VMware, you have to help them give the ability to deploy to large parts of their organization, which means whether that's integration with their existing tracking systems like Workday, Taleo or Single Sign-On or Pins Management, and all of these things, which you wouldn't have really thought.
And it's actually not even something connected to the core of your product, which is, "How do you evaluate a developer really good." You start to think about all of these things as you start to mature as an enterprise company. So I think at different stages of the product evolution, we had to work on different things.
Yeah. That's a lot of stuff to learn. And I'm curious how many people you were working with. You've mentioned Hari, your co-founder who you seem to have known since working on Amazon together?
No, we went to the same college. So we knew each other from college, and we did a bunch of things together. And for what it's worth, at least on the record, Hari is a way stronger, better hacker than me.
Well, when did you guys first start bringing on other people besides just the two of you?
I think right after we got into Y Combinator. Well frankly, we didn't have any money, you know, for that so Y Combinator was our first investment, dollar investment really. So we hired our first set of developers after we got into YC.
Tell me the about the story of getting into YC. You got rejected twice, and then you finally got accepted with your third idea, HackerRank.
I really wanted to come to The Valley. And I think, I thought, and I still think it's a magical place and greatest for building companies. The cost of this is insanely high though, but still, at least for building companies, I think it's a pretty amazing place. I had multiple paths that I plotted in my mind. One was, "Okay. Let me try to do my masters in computer science at some college, and study there and work at a company for a couple of years, and then start up to do my own company here. Or I could continue working in Amazon and then move to Seattle or California or something within Amazon and then try to go ahead and start a company here."
And the third one was, "Is there a faster path?" You know the first two paths were just, "Okay I have to spend, three full years to then figure out." And there were so many different variables, and so many things that could happen in the four year span that I didn't even know if my dream can come true. And Y Combinator seemed to be this amazing path, and it is a great passport for you to go ahead and start your own company. And so, I was very determined to come here and start and so, I think that, "Okay, you know what? I'm just going to keep applying till these guys say yes and fly me in."
Yeah, that persistence seems like it really paid off.
Yeah, it was really interesting. That was my first trip to the US. I think I landed on a Thursday morning or Thursday afternoon, and I had my YC interview on Friday. And I think it was the last day of the interview because I didn't even have a visa. And I don't know how much you know about immigration and things, but you can get a visa only after you get an invite letter, or something of that sort from Y Combinator or any conference that you are attending.
And of course the window of interviews was only two weeks. So I got an invite letter on Monday, and then it takes another five to seven day, five to seven working days for the consulate to process the invite letter and get the visa. So I had to just figure out a way how to rush that through, and I think I flew in on Thursday, and I think I had the interview on a Friday.
So I was just checking my location stats on Google Analytics before we sat down and started recording and something like 60, 65% of all visitors to Indie Hackers are not from the United States. And even if you add together traffic from the US, Canada, and the UK, it's still, I think less than 50% of the traffic.
So if we assume that the Podcast is a pretty similar ratio, then that means many thousands of people listening in are trying to build businesses in places other than the United States and they'll probably learn a lot from your experiences. What kinds of obstacles have you run into, starting and growing your business from India, and how have you overcome those challenges?
I think India has changed tremendously. I think there have been real giant vinners or companies in India, like Flipkart and there is Ola, there is Paytm. I think the whole market has changed tremendously over the last four to five years. But when we started, yes it was pretty hard as I said, just to figure out, "How do you get people to pay on your website." It used to be this long process and where you had to fill hundreds of forms to try and get an okay, instead of just having, "Here's your Java Script snippet. Go ahead and embed it on your code and get this up and running."
So I think it has changed a lot, but I think the biggest thing that still remains to be seen or to be known is the talent. And when I say talent, when I try to figure out, "Okay. I need this problem. Okay we want to scale from 20 million in revenues to 100 million ARR and we are an enterprise size company." So how many such VPs of sales who have done that and scaled that exist? I think the odds are much higher that you would find more people here than in India who have done that in the past, and who can actually help you go ahead and do it.
So I think that problem still remains to be solved, and I frankly don't know how you can solve it unless you actually go ahead and build large companies, and it's going to take a while. I think that's the shortcut of why people try to move to Silicon Valley because the people who have solved problems, who could help you get from point A to point B, the odds of you finding them are higher here.
Do you think that you would still care as much about being in Silicon Valley if you weren't a VC funded company?
Yeah, for the talent. Yes, I mean, in terms of finding the people who can help me grow, and help the company scale, yes.
You know, your journey is kind of interesting because it seems like earlier on you guys weren't really depending on funding, not until you go into YC and you had years before that where you were working on different things.
Yeah well, our brand rate was really low, we were just staying at our house. We had free food from my mom, and well we had laptops already. All we had really to pay was for the internet. And it's not that we didn't try, of course we tried, way and ins around of financing and VC. I think we talked to a couple of VCs, but we frankly didn't deserve, I would say. We didn't have a product that had a lot of traction or so. So I wouldn't really blame them. But it was also hard to raise any kind of financing in the idea.
Yeah. I think back in those days, like 2010, 2011, there was sort of a bigger debate, although it still exists today between bootstrapped companies and VC funded companies. I was also applying to Y Combinator at the same time that you were. And I on one hand, really admired what YC was doing, and really admired companies like Facebook that were able to grow so fast.
But I was also listening to these guys from Basecamp, or I guess it was 37 Signals at the time. DHH and Jason Fried. I saw them talking at start up school, and the message that they were delivering was, "Hey, why not just charge money upfront with your products. Why take the risk of having to raise a bunch of money and become a billion dollar company or burst." Is that something that you struggle with? Were you aware of both paths? Or were you more drawn towards fund raising from the very beginning?
I think I was drawn to Y Combinator primarily as a way for me to get an entry into Silicon Valley and of course it's one of the most prestigious networks that Indian associated are connected to. But then I think, once you get into Y Combinator all the philosophies of DHH just goes out of the window, when you start to do the demo day. I think it's really hard for you to imagine going to the demo day and saying, "Hey, heres our traction. We are really good and by the way we are not trying to raise any money."
I think at some level, the peer pressure of, "Okay, who is getting the highest valuation and who is getting funded?" Or so pushes you to go in that direction. And I'm not like trying to blame YC in any way, but I think you get into YC, on demo day you start to think on that. And once you are there, there is your first round of financing, I started to believe this, you're just in that loop. You're just, I don't know, stuck is the right word. But you are just clogged in that loop and you would probably continue to raise more financing from VCs there.
Yeah totally, I mean, I think moving to Silicon Valley and especially joining Y Combinator is a pretty big first step towards making that decision, that, that's the kind of company that you want to be, whether you wanted to or not before hand. A lot of people, I think are themselves, trying to decide what they want to do with their companies. Do they go the fund raising way out, or do they try to bootstrap things, and maybe grow a little bit more slowly. How would you say that raising money has affected your goals and your visions for HackerRank?
I think there are two things. One is what comes with the money, if you're not going to get any sort of strong advice or if you are not going to have a strong VC or a board member who can help you think through the problems. Who can help you navigate through challenges, who can help you recruit a great team. I think that that kind of money, it's hard to debate how valuable that is.
But if the money plus the aspect of somebody who can help you navigate through the challenges and help you be a strong partner to delivery your company, I think that's very powerful. Especially, if you are a first time founder, if you are a first time entrepreneur, that can be really valuable.
Okay. So I want to get back into the story of you growing HackerRank because a lot time has passed between when you first got into YC and what HackerRank is today, I mean, I think you guys have grown at least 10 or a hundred times since then. Is that accurate?
Yeah. Although the base was really small, yeah, so yeah.
What kinds of things went into that?
Yeah. I've never really looked back at that, but I think at every stage, we had a very clear goal of, "Okay, we want to make sure." I think at some level you need to identify yourselves as, specifically in the market place, "Who is your primary audience?" And I think there was a great article. I think she was in Airbnb or she was a consultant in Airbnb. It's a great article on how do you prioritize this. So if you have drivers and writer, what does your company stand for and how do you lean toward. You of course need both the players, but how do you go ahead and do it.
So I think from early on, we were a very developer-focused company. We of course needed to have a good balance between developers and companies. But at the end of day, it was more, "How do we make sure that we can." Our mission is to match every developer to the right job. So even in our mission statement, the primary thing is, "How do you make sure that you can connect the developer to the right job."
So a lot of the things that we did on the product side, in terms of growing was consistently based on, "How do we make sure that the experience of developers is great." Which of course could help companies a lot because if you get more signals about a developer in terms of how they did. And if you continue to enhance your editor capabilities, if you continue to enhance the types of languages that is supported. All of these is going to help developers, which is in turn going to help companies. So at a very core thing, we were a developer first, or a developer oriented type company where we tried to improve a lot on the direction.
On the global market side, initially it was just a lot of trial and error where I was a first sales person, and then the pricing, well it was just completely pulled out of thin air. And we didn't know what was the right kind of pricing model. So we went ahead and pitched all of our companies, figured out, "Okay this works. This doesn't work." So initially it was just me doing a lot of sales, and then we started to hire our first few sales people. And then trying to get the right head of sales, and continue to up-level the team in terms of how they pitch. How do you build a ready repeatable sale cycle. How do you make sure that your message is consistent across the board.
So I think at every stage of evolution, you need a slightly different, slightly enhanced go-to-market strategy. So it was initially trial and error. Even now it's at some level it's a trial and error, but I think it's been a clearer path on how we've evolved.
So at this point, you guys are killing it. You've hit part of market fit, YC has invested, you're growing like crazy and people like what you've built. But was there ever anything that really worried you, like an obstacle that you guys thought you wouldn't be able to overcome, or some sort of a stopping point in front of you?
I think Silicon Valley, I don't want to blame Silicon Valley but just the perception is, it gives a tremendous amount of credit for high growth, and which is good. High growth company is great. But sometimes, what that also means is you need to balance that with extremely good fundamentals. Or good foundation. I've talked through this a lot, and specifically I think somewhere between 2014 and 2015, where were hiring like crazy. We were actually also growing like crazy in terms of anyone who looked at our revenue and things.
But I always had the feeling, "Hey, is our foundation right? Do we know exactly what we are selling, and do we have a clear product road map to support that? Do we have the right engineering ore? Do we have the right product folks to go out and built that?" And I think I was particularly caught by this whole thing of hyper growth. "Okay you need to. Whatever it takes, you need to double your ARR, otherwise you are not an interesting company at all."
And I think that beat us as bit. That beat us at 2016 and so we had to make sure that, "Okay, we need to have our foundations and fundamentals right." And frankly the company right now is, I personally feel is in a much, much stronger, healthier state for us to grow and scale faster. And I think that, and it's something I admired about Stripe. I remember in my YC class, there was Braintree that was just growing like crazy, and I remember there an email from somebody saying, "Hey, Braintree is offering us $15000 in free credits." And I think it was Patrick or someone saying, "Hey, by the way, we were working on this product called Stripe." I think it was probably called Debt Payment or something, and just hold on to this.
And this was 2012. Or late 2011 or early 2012. And if you just think about the growth today, it's probably Braintree was growing at a much faster rate. But I think what I admired about Stripe and Patrick in a lot of his interviews is the fact that how much time he took in ensuring that the first 10 people were really important, were really like, took about a couple of years to make sure that, that foundation was good, and now you can continue to grow and scale. I think that's been a great lesson. I felt I've learn it a bit late, but I think our company is in a much stronger position state right now.
What other lessons would you say you've learnt a long the way? Because, I mean you started off in a situation where it wasn't at all clear that you had achieved a lot of the load of success that you've had today, that you would manage as many employees that you have today, and generate as much revenue. What has surprised you, or what have you encountered that's much different than what you initially expected?
I think I was very naïve, when I started in terms of understanding what it takes to build a company. I was under the assumption that, "Okay, I'm a developer. I can code. Hari can Code." You know, that's 70% done. But then there's out there, you build a product and people go ahead and buy the product. Because you never really, of course, coming from India and admiring Silicon Valley, you start off admiring Zuckerberg, Larry Paige, Max Levchin and now they really look like sales folks. They were all strong developers and okay they built a great product. Continued to get it offshore and they make a lot of money in sales.
I think my biggest, the interesting thing is, my determination or courage to do things has been sort of our persistence or how you want to frame as being far, far, way more tested than my intelligence or IQ to do this. It was a completely different, I would have never thought that, okay if you needed to get from this point A to point B, you need a level of IQ for sure, but the biggest determinant is going to be, "Are you just determined to do that, or are you persistent to do that?" And it was really surprising, yeah.
It's clear just from listening to your story. We've been over it, but you got rejected from Y Combinator twice, you've had multiple businesses that you had high hopes for, that ended up failing, and yet you kept sticking with. You didn't quit. And we've mentioned Airbnb, which is like the canonical 'Never quit. Keep sticking with your dream' story. But it's in reality much harder to do.
And based on the people that I've talked to, the number one reason that companies die isn't because the founders aren't talented or because there in a space with no customers, but it's because people eventually quit, if they get tired of the challenge, and go on to something safer. What do you think has been the difference that's allowed you to stay motivated, and what are some tips you have for other people who might be going through rough patches?
I think it's some level of being lucky to have a great co-founder like Hari. I can speak to someone openly about some of the challenges and get real advice. You know, you don't get that a lot. So I do think it's important. And this is probably, I'm not sure, this is probably why YC is so hell-bent on, "You need to have a co-founder." Because at these low moments when you don't have someone whom you can talk to, who will exactly understand the situation you are in, it's probably going to be painful.
The second one is likely, I have not given it that much of thought, but the second one is likely, "I really want to solve this problem." And so there is no sort of external motivation or anything of the sort. "I really wanted to solve this. I still want to solve this." And so you just have to keep going. So it's probably not the best answer, but those two are likely the reasons.
No, I think it's a great answer. I think it's really easy to underestimate, especially earlier on when you are at 100% optimism and you haven't started yet. It's really easy to underestimate how hard the hard times will be, and how important it is to have somebody to talk to, ideally a co-founder who knows everything that you are going through. But the very least, like a community of founders, or mentors or advisors who you can confide in.
I wish there was some data on it, but I would back the companies that have multiple founders or companies where the founder at least has some advisors end up lasting a little bit longer than companies that are run by a solo founder who is not talking to anybody.
Yeah, yeah. I definitely think that logically, that makes a lot of sense, and I think the whole question of determination and persistence is also not just till you get the product-market fit. I think every year it becomes harder and at least one thing that invalidates it from others is, "Yes. They also say it becomes harder. Okay good. I'm not the only crazy one."
And so you have to have that level of determination to continue to grow onto the next level. So what I mean to say is, it never stops. It never ends. So you can be the most persistent guy, till you get the product-market fit and after that you can start losing it. It would still not lead to a large company. So I think it never stops and this is probably one of the reasons, I remember PG telling, not me, but some other. He was advising another person during one of the office hours.
"You have to choose your idea carefully, because one of the things that's just going the low times is whether you really want that idea to come true." And that was a very profound advice because I didn't think of it that deeply, because at that time we were on this real high, we got into YC, these customers are buying and so on. But it really helped me. When you are going through that lower rough patch, if you are not personally super, super committed to the mission, it's going to be very hard for you to get up and say, "Okay, I really want to do this."
Yeah, I think that's excellent advice, and it's one of those things that's so easy to talk about when you are in the situation. You have like a really cool company like HackerRank. Or even in my situation, I think Indie Hackers is pretty cool and I agree with the mission. And I talk to a lot of other founders who are kind of stymied by the challenge of coming up with an idea that, not only is a viable business, but also something that they are passionate about.
'Cause if you were sort of make a then diagram, there's not a lot of overlap between those two circles for a lot of people. If you had to start from scratch right now and come up with a new idea that couldn't be HackerRank or couldn't even be on the same space, how would you go about that process?
I think the first one, I don't think I would change much about how we got to a product-market fit. I think I would still continue to, firstly I would probably choose something that I'm personally really passionate about in terms of a problem that I really wanted to solve, and I wouldn't change much about approaching customers, getting their feedback and iterating a lot on that.
The things that I would be more careful is making sure that we don't do a lot of things earlier on. I do think our first product was not really an MVP, it had a lot of different things that were going on which is possibly one of the reasons why we said, "Okay, I'm going to create questions on my own, you just forward us the doc." It could have been way more simpler. So one thing I would change is, we are going to do just this one thing, because that's what customers want, that's what we are passionate about and we are going to do this one thing we really, really, really did well, that everybody loves.
And I think WhatsApp is the perfect example of that. Such a simple, simple product. It doesn't even require your email. It doesn't even require a sign up or a log in. All you need to do is just a phone number and all you can do is just send a text. Of course, I think now they might have broadened it more, but they didn't have audio, video nothing of the sort earlier on. So I think that would be one thing that I would change.
The second thing is, I think we were somewhat lucky in our first hires. We hired a couple of people from our network, and the people who came onboard who were not from our network worked out incredibly well. But I think we were just lucky. I think if I were to think through, I would put in much stronger emphasis on who we want to be the 10 people that we are going to hire. I think that changes on the impacts and trajectory of the company a lot.
The third thing is, I would probably try and put the core values of the company much earlier in the life cycle in the evolution of the company. I think we are just actually starting to, I mean if I the core values. And we are going through a very vigorous process of talking to our early employees and figuring out what makes our company work and why are there people who are performing well and so on. So we are going through a vigorous process but what we are starting to really end up is core values are just ending up like personalities of Hari and me.
Which I think at some level makes sense, because it's this kind of the company. I think I would have done that way earlier, written it down and make sure that every hire who came in had to, had to absolutely have all of these values embodied and specifically had an interview focused on this. I think those are some of the things that I would have changed, or that I would change if I were to start all over again.
Do you think that focusing on culture and your core values is something that, clearly something you wish you had done earlier. Do you think it's something that you can do before finding product-market fit or do you think your bases really has to start working before it's something you should prioritize?
Yeah. My recommendation would be not to do anything except just you and your co-founder, until you get product-market fit, and it's hard to exactly define what that line is, when you found product-market fit, is it when you have paying customers? Is it when you have 10 data customers who really love your product. And it's hard to find but I think it's somewhat and intuition, "Okay, customers are willing to buy this. And then go ahead and start to do." I don't think you should try to over-engineer your company before product-market fit.
I know we are running short on time, so I want to wrap up with just one question. We've spent some time focusing in on some of the challenges of being a founder and how regardless of how big you get, it's always going to be hard. You are always going to be doing unscalable things, and it's always going to feel, like maybe you might not make it to your goal. What are some of the positives aspects of being a founder and what are some of the things, some of the ways that your life has changed for the better, having started the company?
I think you start to realize what you can do as a person, and I never thought I'd be able to go ahead and sell, to a customer. I mean, I'm a developer, and all I did the whole of my college life and at Amazon, everything was just sit in front of a MAC and code. I think it gives you a perspective of the things that you can do, and frankly it gives a lot of confidence that you can go and do things that you didn't know how to do before. Which is a really good sort of confidence that you can try and develop.
And for me having value, delivering value to customers is just my caffeine shot. When I go and meet a customer, and they talk about how great the product is, and how much they've saved time or when I talk to a developer. I was in this school, it's called The Zipcode. It's a coding school in Wilmington and there was this girl who walked to me after the talk, and she said, "I had no background in computer science. I worked so hard for the last six months, almost 18 hours, straight, coding. Building an app, working on HackerRank. And I got a job at this bank."
And it was so great to hear that. And I think those are some of the things that you get to experience that are the positive side of, "Okay. You are adding real value to the world, to customers." I think those are some of the positive things that you are able to do. And I wouldn't say this as a last. It is just incredibly fun to work with a smart team. It is a topology. It sounds obvious, and every founder will probably claim that their team is the smartest among everyone else.
But it is really good when your team tries to push you to become better, and you have really strong conversations of how to solve a problem. It's very stimulating. It's mentally very stimulating discussions that you can have, so yeah.
Yeah, it can be tremendously rewarding just to push yourself and to see how far you can go as founder. The things that you can learn, and the skills that you can pick up that you never would have imagined you'd be good at. And then it kind of multiplies it when you surround yourself with other people, because you built out a team of others who are similarly skilled and who are doing the same things alongside you.
And then with that, I think we are on the upside. It's been really great having you on Vivek. Can you tell listeners where they can go to find out more about you and about HackerRank?
Yeah. So you can go to HackerRank.com, I do write blogs probably once every six months now. It's decreased a lot. It's on rvivek.com and you can email me [email protected], I am on Twitter @rvivek, I'm not active so much on Facebook but happy to help or answer any questions.
All right, thanks so much for coming on the show Vivek.
Okay. Thank you so much.
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