Muktabh Srivastava - Don't Be Stuck in Comfort Zone, Be Agile, and Listen to Markets Feedback (Chief Data Scientist and Co-Founder - Paralleldots)

The good thing about being a founder is you can delegate a lot of work and focus on the most important and hard tasks, the bad thing about it is the constant overhead of taking decisions about what is both hard and important and what should be delegated.

Tell us about your background, journey, and upbringing.

I am a first-generation entrepreneur. I come from UP’s Hindi Heartland where my family belongs to a middle-class community. My father is an engineer and so I have wanted to be one since I was a kid, the “doing my own thing” bug bit me much later when I was at my first job and I looked at success stories like Flipkart. 

I ended up mixing my engineering aspirations and startup dreams by becoming a tech founder. Win-Win in that way I guess. I did my engineering from BITS Pilani with majors in IT and joined my first job as a Data Scientist. That’s where I met my cofounders with whom I started ParallelDots in 2014. 

We pivoted many times and built many AI products from dental cavity detector in Oral X Rays to News Recommendation Engine to profile pic Virality Prediction consumer app in the past. Only in 2019 we finally arrived at the retail tech AI product where we could find Product-Market Fit and revenue. My parents and my wife have supported me in all ups and downs and are my source of strength.

When and how did you get clarity on what you wanted to do?

Just like any other human does, experimenting and making sense of new data points they observe as they move along with life. My aim as a kid was to make it into IITs, got into BITS. When I was an engineering student at BITS Pilani, possibly the only thing I wanted was to get a good high-paying job. 

Once I got a high-paying job, I thought, is this really what I worked so hard for, or do I at least try to make it bigger? That’s when I decided to try my luck at a technology startup. Once we were working on our startup, we tried out many different AI business ideas which we thought would be a hit. 

It took us time and many business pivots to figure out a product that was both a good AI business idea and something we as a startup team could sell, both to clients and investors. 

I am not super successful yet as a businessman so there are many things I still need to understand, but what I have realized is being open to new ideas and market feedback is possibly what makes one get more clarity. 

Getting stuck in one’s comfort zone stops one’s progress in the long run and not processing feedback makes one a tube light [BITS slang for understanding things late].


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What does your typical workday look like?

At my startup, I lead our AI technology team. Apart from 3-4 meetings that I have to do to set courses for my teams, I do find time to do my favorite things which are: write programs, work on retail Computer Vision research and plan new technology that we need to solve existing bottlenecks. 

The good thing about being a founder is you can delegate a lot of work and focus on the most important and hard tasks, the bad thing about it is the constant overhead of taking decisions about what is both hard and important and what should be delegated. 

A typical workday looks like my reading, programming, discussing, coming up with ideas, and taking decisions. As a founder, I have also made sales and pitched when the startup was relatively new, but as the company grows, we tend to take more specialized roles.

Several global companies have come out and thrown their support behind not needing a formal education. What is your opinion about this?

I don’t think formal education would matter as much in life if there was not so much gatekeeping and regulatory capture. Wisdom and Knowledge are what are needed in a successful professional. No doubt that these come from Learning and Education. 

But when we make formal education a proxy for knowledge and wisdom, we totally discount the smartest people, the ones who can self learn or can learn from informal education. These outliers are the ones who might create the largest disruptions and by forcing them to stay out, the society harms itself. 

There is no doubt that in our current community, formal education plays a big part, my BITS degree opened much better opportunities for me, ones which would not be available for someone who was from another college despite being as good a programmer as I was then. Lack of formal education should not be a barrier at least.

How do you handle someone who has lied on their resume?

Depends upon the lie. If someone has lied about their work experience, they might often not have expertise needed for the position they applied for. That’s the reason no company hires just based on the CV. If the person doesn’t qualify for recruitment assessments, they would automatically get rejected. 

Some people lie because they want to hide a gap year or because their previous salary was too low [and thus HR might not give them as much hike as they possibly deserve]. Such incidents can be looked at case-by-case I think depending upon how it impacts the employer. 

I would however recommend that people who apply be more upfront and CV screening process be less prejudiced for such cases, there is no point telling lies.

What are some of your typical challenges and how have they evolved over time?

Challenges evolve as the business does. We started our company with a very different business idea which was creating a news recommendation engine. Deep Learning just had started giving excellent results for AI tasks and thus we spent a lot of time understanding how to apply it to news text. 

We got traction but made no revenue, so the recommendation engine idea flopped. But we had accumulated enough expertise in AI to try and make different products and try things out. The first thing we had to solve after pivoting was what was a possible business that we could run and generate traction out of. 

We raised some money, kept building many proofs of concepts, and searching for early customers. We made healthcare AI products in dental health, consumer tech, and AI social media analytics products, failing fast many times until we figured out what was something we could actually create revenue from. 

Once we were clear we could make money from our retail AI proof of concept, we raised more money and continued building the product, attracting early customers. Serving early customers involves lots of effort by founders because there are too many uncertainties in technology, operations, and client service. 

Slowly and steadily, we solved uncertainties in serving early customers by retaining good people and setting up processes. Once that is done, now our company’s main challenge is to scale product and sales to process retail images across multiple continents and that’s what the founders are now focusing on.


What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs or those eyeing the top job?

There is just so much I want to share with aspiring entrepreneurs from my experiences and mistakes running a startup that this space won’t be enough. The two most important things that I have highlighted already are not to be stuck in one’s comfort zone and be agile, listening to market feedback. 

Agility and risk taking, however, doesn’t mean losing focus. One needs to set an aim and then be agile and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve it. One more thing aspiring entrepreneurs need to be very clear about is that a startup needs to be a high-growth venture, always make sure that traction/revenue is growing as fast as possible.

Which is your favorite book and why?

During the lockdowns, I read the Incerto series [and its free mathematical companion book which came out recently] by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and I think it's the best set of books I have ever read. Anyone who has a quantitative bend of mind would love the topics the books address. 

There are numbers and metrics you need to acknowledge and others you need to ignore when making decisions, the book gives you a frame of mind to be the judge. Other books I like are The Player of Games by Iain Banks, Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien, 23 things they don’t tell you about Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang, and Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner.

Bio - 

Muktabh is Chief Data Scientist and co-founder of ParallelDots. ParallelDots is a retailtech AI startup that helps large CPG companies and agencies to measure their retail execution. ParallelDots Deep Learning algorithms analyze shelf photos from super markets, kiranas and other retail spaces. and tell clients whether products and marketing materials are visible to customers. 

Muktabh leads the Deep Learning team at ParallelDots which is one of the leaders in Retail Computer Vision published at multiple international conferences and journals. During the COVID lockdown, Muktabh has also been trying to build OOGASHOP, an app which helps local shopping adapt to new normal for both consumers and small businesses. 

Muktabh is an active author on Quora where his answers have been read 3.5 Million times.

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