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Avinash Gangadharan of Turo On The 5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App, SaaS or Software Business

An Interview With Tyler Gallagher

Build your core culture and values. Put in a lot of thought on what you want your team to be like. Consistent learning and growth are critical for a successful team.

As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Avinash Gangadharan.

Avinash Gangadharan has served as Turo’s Chief Technology Officer since 2018. He brings 20+ years of experience building the fundamental technology behind marketplaces, payments and retail. Prior to Turo, Avinash was VP of Engineering, Discovery, and Omnichannel at Walmart Labs, the technology arm of Walmart, where he led the engineering team focused on retail and e-commerce solutions. Prior to Walmart, he held technical roles at eBay and PayPal. Avinash holds a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Shri Govindram Seksaria Institute of Technology and Science in India.

Thank you so much for joining us! 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?

I did my bachelors in CS and after a short stint in India working for large consulting firms moved to the US in 2000. I had no direct family here back then. A new country, a new culture with only $300 of savings. I saw the best and the worst of the tech industry during that time in a very short period. The internet boom was at its peak when I came and within months the industry had the worst crisis it had ever seen prior to that. I worked as a contractor for a small startup building an internet payment gateway and joined them as an employee at the peak of the boom. The collapse forced us to close down our operations in CA and I moved to FL. I eventually came back to CA to work for UC Davis while living in the Bay Area as I knew that’s where the future of tech was. In 2004, I joined eBay, a company that was a dream place to work for me back then. The opportunity to learn how to scale and be part of the story was defining. I still carry those learnings with me and it still feels relevant though modern day software development and platforms have drastically changed over time. After several years of working at large marketplace/platform companies like eBay, PayPal and Walmart I bumped into Turo while searching for alternatives for traditional rental cars. Seeing that Andre Haddad led the company, backed by funding from respectable VCs, was the first gut check. I took the leap of faith and had a great experience as a guest with a first-time host. I fell in love with the product and its potential, which has always been a priority for me when picking what I want to work on next. Two years later I got the opportunity to work at Turo and have enjoyed every moment of it.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

The “Aha Moment” for me that made me believe that this idea was big and could redefine the space was when I booked my first car on Turo and had an amazing experience. My experience as a guest with Turo led me to deeply believe in the company and its mission.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

The start of COVID-19 was a tough time for me. I questioned my decision to be in the travel industry, which is often the first to be impacted in times of uncertainty. I gave myself six months to reassess where we can go as a company and how we can work towards decoupling ourselves from economic downturns. We made some of the boldest moves and focused heavily on unit economics and profitability. We also made some tough calls regarding downsizing the company, but with a smaller team we were able to operate with efficiency, drive and focus.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Things could not be better. We delivered on all our goals and now we are at a place where we are making big bold moves to grow further. Our team size has tripled since then. Our software development has matured significantly. Our focus on site availability, security and performance is better than ever before. We made product quality, including security, quality, reliability and performance, one of our top priorities. We now have teams that are dedicated to these goals and resolving years of tech debt and legacy.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

When I joined Turo, I came in with an excitement that I could change the world. One of my first messages to the larger engineering team was about exploring serverless technologies as the architecture for the future. I learned fast that I had to dial my excitement on understanding tech debt and growing the business appropriately. It was critical for us in engineering to focus all of our efforts to make our business bigger and better while managing our tech debt rationally. We have been doing just that, and are now in a place where we understand the importance of investing heavily in the future of tech as a company.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our culture undoubtedly stands out. Our four core values are: 1) being down to earth, 2) being efficient, 3) pioneering and challenging the status quo, and 4) being collaborative and supportive to each other. We demonstrate that every day.

An employee at Turo had recently referred a refugee from Ukraine. The whole team rallied to figure out ways to hire him as an engineer, and he did very well during the interview process. It was a display of the cross functional collaboration at Turo, and the kindness that we demonstrate in and outside of work as representatives of Turo. He now works in our Toronto office.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Building a strong culture based on a good fundamental value system is the key to success. It applies to all aspects of product development. Staying efficient, rational and being fully committed and focused towards the same goals is key for a team to succeed.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I am grateful to my whole engineering team. I had many blind spots when I joined Turo. I learned a lot from my team members and partnered with them through thick and thin. I am also grateful to the excellent leadership team of Turo. It’s truly rare to find such a mature, thoughtful and composed group of leaders and I’m thankful to be working alongside them at Turo.

Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

In the early days of Turo, guests were able to book as long as they could present a driver’s license and proof of payment. Since then, we’ve introduced a cohesive set of data features so the platform can assess and manage risks based on specific trip characteristics. Data features are based on variables that we need to consider, like location of a guest or vehicle, lead time before a trip is booked, type of vehicle, and more, that can help us assess the risk associated with a trip.

After many iterations and experimenting with adding countless data features, we’re proud of the current iteration of the proprietary Turo Risk Score, which is applied to every trip to broadly determine the probability of an incident and expected costs, so our hosts can feel confident about handing over the keys.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

Turo Risk Score is fueled by over 50 data sets calculated in real-time thanks to AI and machine learning, and plays a very critical role across the end-to-end customer journey, affecting acquisition and retention, optimizing monetization for every trip and enhancing the overall guest experience. Turo Risk Score, along with built-in messaging, payments, fraud detection, and host and guest protection plans, are designed to deliver a safe transaction and experience for the entire community. This has been working well for us and has empowered Turo to make informed decisions quickly, monitor business performance and sustain the company’s high growth and profitability.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SaaS? Please share a story or an example for each.

Always think from a customer’s perspective. As a builder and developer, it’s easy to be biased in assessing the simplicity of a product. Too many clicks, actions and options can deter a customer from getting what they came for.

Build your core culture and values. Put in a lot of thought on what you want your team to be like. Consistent learning and growth are critical for a successful team.

Always focus on the fundamentals. Quality, performance, security, availability and simplicity applies to all aspects of product development whether it’s features or architectures.

Early decisions like data model design and choice of developer tools and stack is critical. Once the product and service takes off, these early decisions make it extremely difficult to move away from. The biggest bottlenecks in scaling start with how data is modeled and organized. Monoliths are tougher to decompose if the underlying data models are not designed for scale. Similarly, the right choices in technologies are critical for acquiring talent.

There is a SaaS product for everything now. Be nimble when choosing between a SaaS integration and building to the basic needs in that moment of time. For example, if you are at an early stage startup and need tools to manage customer contact and efficiency, assess what the key pain points are for faster CS services before taking on a big CRM product off the shelf. Integrations increase complexities very quickly.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Builders drive this world forward. They bring new capabilities to products they build that have the ability to enhance human lives. I would start a movement that enables everyone to be a builder or creator in their own right.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Tyler Gallagher

Tyler Gallagher

CEO and Founder of Regal Assets

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