By Yitzi Weiner and Casmin Wisner
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ajeet Singh, CEO and founder of ThoughtSpot, a company that provides the industry’s leading search and AI-driven analytics platform. Ajeet and I spoke about his role as “chief coffee maker,” and what motivated him to found another company following his success co-founding Nutanix, his first start-up.
“Good startups are like an inverted pyramid management structure, with the CEO at the bottom, supporting the rest of the company.”
Thank you so much for your time. What is your backstory?
I was born in India and graduated with a chemical engineering degree from the Indian Institute of Technology. I planned to come to the U.S. to earn my PhD, but my father was having health problems, so I stayed in India and earned an MBA there. After a brief stint in management consulting, I switched to technology and began working at Honeywell in India, which later brought me to the U.S. when I was transferred in 2006. Following two years at Honeywell, I spent time at Oracle—managing database products—before I left to head up product management at Aster Data, which was later acquired by Teradata. My former college dorm mate Dheeraj Pandey also worked there. After a few years together at Aster, we came up with the idea of starting Nutanix, a cloud computing software company. Becoming a founder was a real leap of faith for me, because although I had Aster stock, I had very little savings, and my wife and I were about to have our second child.
After 3 years as CPO and co-founder, I stepped down from Nutanix and became an entrepreneur in residence at Lightspeed Ventures. It was during that time I decided I wanted to tackle some of the big challenges in the multi-billion-dollar business analytics market, and I founded ThoughtSpot.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I think of myself as the Chief Coffee Maker — a title that mirrors my management style. In ThoughtSpot’s early days, I had about 150 coffee meetings at the Starbucks near Google. Besides helping with recruitment, it made me realize that being CEO is a lot like being the Chief Coffee Maker. Good startups are like an inverted pyramid management structure, with the CEO at the bottom, supporting the rest of the company. As Chief Coffee Maker, it’s my job to identify a big market with a big problem, recruit the right people to solve that problem, and then remove barriers for them to solve the problem — whether that’s securing new funding, helping close a major deal, or getting them a cup of coffee.
What exactly does your company do?
ThoughtSpot provides the industry’s leading search and AI-driven analytics platform. Our solution helps large companies worldwide gain business insights by putting the power of a thousand analysts in every business person’s hands. With ThoughtSpot, business people can use a Google-like search to easily analyze billions of rows of data or automatically get answers to questions they didn’t know to ask — all with a single click.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Everyone I hire at ThoughtSpot has an entrepreneurial spirit, so I make it a point to give every employee exposure to all aspects of our business to see how it runs firsthand. For example, I had an engineer present directly to the board. While nerve wracking, it gave them experience interacting with a board. This way, if they need to raise money themselves one day, they will be comfortable in that situation. In fact, until we grew past 100 people, we ran our board meetings as all-hands meetings for that very reason.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you where you are today?
Rhonda, a member of our operations staff and employee number “minus one”. I recruited her to help with accounting before I even started the company, and she quickly became my operation’s Swiss Army Knife — versatile, sharp, and reliable. While most founders get bogged down with administrative stuff, Rhonda took on accounting, HR, leases, customer contracts, and so much more, which helped me be more efficient as CEO.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
ThoughtSpot helps anyone, even non-technical users, use data to improve lives. For example, we work with a major hospital network. Because they already know how to use search, all doctors, clinicians, and hospital staff can instantly analyze their different data sources. This helps them reduce readmissions, improve treatments, and ultimately save lives. It’s something they couldn’t do if they had to rely on custom reports or a tricky analytics tool.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I launched my startup,” and why?
- Money doesn’t serve as a motivator like it did the first time around. When I left Nutanix, a lot of people asked why I wanted to return to the startup grind when I could have retired or taken a cushy job. I didn’t start ThoughtSpot for the money. I did it because I love solving big problems. I put in the hard work day in and day out, not only because I want to solve the big problems, but also because my team — and their families — have made a big commitment to ThoughtSpot and I can’t let them down.
- It’s harder than you’d think to hire good engineers. ThoughtSpot solves complex problems, but does so with a very consumer friendly interface. The combination requires that we hire engineers that are able to work on an enterprise challenge, yet think like a consumer. It’s not easy to find those people.
- Learning to prioritize takes time. As CEO, I’m thinking ahead three to five years, and working with my team to execute in 3-, 6- and 12-month blocks. I’ve learned that I should identify one big thing I’ll try to do really well in a quarter, and maybe two big things in six months. Then every day, I ask myself questions on how I can best support my team to meet those goals.
- You need to say no. As CEO, you need to respectfully say no to some meetings. I book no more than 50 percent of my calendar each day. During the unscheduled time, I have ad hoc conversations with people about what they’re working on. Those conversations are invaluable. They’re where I can really make an impact.
- Solo off-sites are essential. Each month I schedule an off-site just for myself. I book a hotel room, create an agenda with objectives, and then spend the evening and the entire next day alone, focused on solving a ThoughtSpot-related problem or building a plan. When I’m done I’m exhausted, but very satisfied.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I would love to have dinner with Elon Musk. He’s both a dreamer and someone who can execute, which makes him my role model as an entrepreneur.