In Conversation With Balaji Viswanathan, The Most Followed Writer on Quora
Also, the CEO of Invento Robotics
“When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favour”
— Elon Musk
A true entrepreneur is someone who focuses on achieving goals not just for short term business gains, but to impact the world at large. One such person is Mr. Balaji Vishwanathan, who many know as Quora’s top viewed writer, with over half a million followers. Apart from his Quora achievements, he has co-founded several startups in various domains including the likes of Robotics, Finance, and EdTech.
We asked Mr. Balaji Viswanathan a few questions exploring his entrepreneurial journey so far. Read on as he shares his perspective with Probe, NIT Trichy about his successes and failures in this spectrum of his life.
Q 1) You are Quora’s most followed writer, with more than 500,000 followers. Can you shed some light on how it all began? What attracted you to the platform?
Balaji: I was an active blogger since 2005 and have been actively writing since 2001.
When I first got on to Quora in 2011 it was not very engaging — wrote a couple of answers and moved on. In 2012, my wife suggested that Quora has become more interesting and I wrote a couple of more answers in July 2012. Those became semi-viral and got featured in multiple places. That got me hooked. By this time I was already doing social media consulting for a lot of companies, and building content strategy for many organizations. I was fairly familiar with how to build upon the initial momentum.
Q 2) MOOC platforms such as Coursera, Udemy, etc., have gained huge popularity these days with a wide variety of people using them to upgrade their skills. NalandU, a MOOC platform that you started almost a decade ago, was unable to achieve a similar level of success. What changes occurred in the last decade that resulted in this difference?
Balaji: I was a little early to the market back then. When I started NalandaU in December 2009, there was nothing in the category. There was no 4G and the best bandwidth you could get at home was 2Mbps [it felt super fast that time]. I didn’t have a co-founder too and thus didn’t have enough energy to go for the long haul. By the time the Edtech market became a thing, I had given up and moved to fintech [and was too early in that category too].
The 4G connectivity and later Jio made a lot of difference this decade for the Edtech startups. Also, a lot of investor attention helped companies go long haul. Back in 2009–10, there was not much investor appetite for this category and without VC investments it is harder to build the cash burning, market building strategies that later companies adopted. In hindsight, I should have hung on and built more patiently.
Q 3) You are the founder of Invento Robotics, a company that attempts to revolutionize the robotics industry in a way that the Personal Computer industry was revolutionized several years ago. Do you believe that this is possible given that Robotic assistants tend to be very expensive? How long do you feel it will take before every household gets their own robotic assistant?
Balaji: Every major computing revolution starts at the enterprise. PCs and Smartphones started in offices. Same with robots. It will take 4–5 years for robots to get mainstream in home. In the enterprise, our robots are not as expensive relative to the services they provide. More than the cost, it is in effectiveness and the end consumer comfort where the battle is. Like in every tech sector, the costs would drop significantly as the scale goes up. By the time it gets home in 4–5 years, the costs might not be much higher than a MacBook.
Q 4) Zingfin , a fintech company that you co-founded, used data from Social Media platforms such as Twitter to predict changes in the stock market. What inspired you to think about social media as a possible source of data for the Financial Market? Was it possible to achieve high accuracy in predictions by doing so?
Balaji: Stock markets were all about using the wisdom of the crowds and using the collective data & opinions to price a stock. You could know some insight or important information on why a particular company is more or less valuable. As you start acting rest of the market could follow your lead. Traditionally most of the chatter happened in closed ecosystems like in Bloomberg Terminal. However, by 2007 a lot of the conversations started moving to social media and that is where the wisdom of the crowds shifted. We built algorithms to identify who talked about particular stocks, how accurate their past predictions were and used that data to have weighted sentiment analysis on a particular stock. Again, when we're doing that time, the appetite for fintech was not there as much. Once again, we made the mistake of not lasting long enough.
Q 5) Despite the success of some of the startups that you have found, you have chosen to pivot elsewhere. An example of this is “The Agni”, which was a successful venture. What was the motivation behind such decisions?
Balaji: I have been interested in a lot of different things. As an entrepreneur in the mid-20s, we are more prone to the “shiny object syndrome” where a lot of different things look attractive. Age and wisdom bring more focus and stability.
Q 6) You have co-founded a number of startups in different domains. What is the one biggest lesson that you’ve learned from being an entrepreneur? What is your advice for budding entrepreneurs looking to start their own venture?
Balaji: The biggest lesson is to survive longer than market trends and do everything for survival. That would mean having the right team and having revenues. If you have those, you can discipline yourself to be in a particular domain and keep building even against the wind. At some point, the trade winds reverse direction.
Q 7) The Tech industry is currently undergoing an AI revolution. What long-term impacts will be felt in various industry domains as a result of this?
Balaji: A lot of the AI revolution is hyped up. For many, this is the new snake oil. 20 years ago the same happened with dotcom companies. Everyone was saying they are on the Internet and they have e-commerce. Most of those are gone. That said, there really is a revolution going on using data to build insights and personalization. This would impact how we interact with the rest of the world. Already you might have noticed that your Gmail is getting smarter and auto-populating suggestions on how you should respond to an email. AI revolution powered by voice, vision, and data will make the world around us more contextual, smart and personalized. Doctors can use that to diagnose diseases well and also know ahead of time what epidemic is going to blow. Governments can use that to react quickly to terror attacks. Disaster rescue operations and policing will get more effective. And the information transfer will be through easy ways like voice rather than us typing things. That would further democratize how people access data.
Q 8) What is your advice to college going students who face a dilemma in choosing a suitable career?
Balaji: Do stuff to cut the peer pressure — remember that the first salary quantum is not as relevant as the learning you will make. Whatever you do now will have a 100x multiple. Put in on high-value stuff and prefer companies that will allow you to learn, allow you to take great challenges and surround you with people who can push you forward. Those matter to you long term than the salaries. Your 10L or even 1Cr CTC is not going to be as significant in the long term as you think.
Q 9) You are among those who have had the opportunity to have close interactions with former President Dr.APJ Abdul Kalam. How did those interactions impact you?
Balaji: Those were magical moments and among the highest points of my career. As a teenager, it gave me a lot of confidence.
Balaji is currently the CEO of Invento Robotics, a startup based in Bengaluru innovating to bring about a revolution in robotics. Their flagship product Mitra is already available for sale/rent.
Apart from being a celebrated Quora writer and a serial entrepreneur, Balaji has also authored a book on contemporary Indian history titled, ‘From Tryst to Tendulkar’.
He has previously visited NIT Trichy to give a Ted talk on education in India, the video of which can be found below.
Probe, NIT Trichy is immensely grateful to Mr. Balaji Viswanathan for sharing his wisdom and experiences with us. We thank him for his time and wish him success in all future endeavors.