By Ruochen Huang
*This post is part of Berkeley Startup Central’s Startup Sessions series, a collection of interviews with Berkeley-affiliated founders and the startups that they have built.
Elucify is a free and crowdsourced database of business emails created out of the desire to help salespeople more effectively and efficiently connect with leads.
Founded in 2015 by Mihir Deo (Cal ’14), Naveen Krishnamurthi (Stanford), and Gerald Fong (Cal ’13), Elucify recently participated in Y Combinator’s accelerator program and had their product featured on ProductHunt.
A few days ago, I talked to Mihir, co-founder and COO, about how his experiences at Berkeley and as an early salesperson at Dropbox influenced his endeavor to becoming a non-technical founder.
Ruochen Huang: With a non-technical background, you co-founded a company. In your experience, how do non-technical founders best add value?
Mihir Deo: One of the key things as a non-technical founder is to make sure you have a skill to bring to the table.
I was an early salesperson at Dropbox — one of the first 50 salespeople. I was there for two years helping to work out their sales processes.
Essentially as a non-technical co-founder, what I personally believe is that work experience is really important when starting a startup. When you’re working with two other technical people at a company, whether that may be marketing or sales, you want to be able to know how to do these things because it can help a whole lot when going through the process of a startup rather than just learning on the job.
When you look at engineers, they’re technical and have the background, and can immediately come out [of college] and start a startup, but for non-technical people, you need to know how the business side works and how to actually get sales done.
When you’re starting a startup, you want to know what each person’s skills are: engineering, product, design, etc. You also want to know that you have a skill that you can offer instead of simply knowing that you’re a smart person that can figure things out.
RH: At what point did you realize that you wanted to take the leap of faith to go from a stable technology company (Dropbox) to founding a startup?
MD: The way how it starts for founders is what I like to call an “itch”. For me, the “itch” was that I saw a problem that was annoying at Dropbox.
I started noticing that finding contact information was really difficult — even at a big company like Dropbox. At these big companies, they have sales people who spend hours and hours trying to find contact information. No matter how big their budget is, it’s difficult to find that. It’s not like Google where you can simply “google” Dropbox and find people.
I found that others had this problem too, so [the idea] was born out of a need, and because the issue kept on annoying me every day at my job.
I knew Gerald and Naveen as well and we started talking about problems in the space. They had already left to try to do a startup of their own, and I started helping them out on sales for their engineering consulting firm. They also realized that it was hard to do sales and find contact information through a resource where you can contact people.
That’s why we decided to build a company in this space. It’s scary leaving your first job, but [I had this] itch to solve a problem that I saw every single day rather than just wanting to be a founder and dropping out a company.
RH: What was one of the biggest challenges to starting Elucify from a young entrepreneur’s standpoint?
MD: One of the biggest challenges was having the right advisors around you especially if you’re early on. When you’re younger, you want to assume that you don’t really know anything about anything. As you start exploring whether you want to do a startup, the first and foremost thing that you would want to do is try to find people in the industry and advisors around you that know the industry and whom you can bounce ideas off of and get feedback from.
The last thing that you want is to be in a room with two other people –– a vacuum of a room –– who think that the idea is a brilliant and cool idea. Just coming up with things in a vacuum and not having advisors or people around you to validate that idea can be a death knell for startups.
Talking to as many people about your idea and not getting dejected if it’s a bad idea is key, and when you’re a young entrepreneur, don’t be afraid of advice at all. You want to get other perspectives to at least know what other people are thinking in their minds as well.
You have to build what people want and you’re only going to figure that out if you talk to people around you, and as a non-technical co-founder, that was mainly my job.
RH: Having gone through Y Combinator, what was one of the most unexpected lessons that you learned through founding a startup and then getting that validation from startup veterans?
MD: Not necessarily unexpected, but one of the lessons that I learned is that starting a startup can be a lot less glorious that you build it up to be in your head.
When you’re in school and you see companies getting acquired and people building products that other people love, you start dreaming and hypothesizing.
One of the most unexpected things that we learned was that starting a startup comes with hustle — you just need to hustle.
For one of my earlier tasks, we had a lot of data and we had to manually clean it up and do data entry for hours at a time. There are basic things like this that you just need to grind and hustle it out and get them done.
It’s not glorious work. You’re in the trenches and doing all this work for a higher goal, but all our advisors were telling us that this was how you do a startup. You have to work really hard.
With all these founders that have become successful later on, you just hear about the end part where their product is successful and they’re doing really well. But it’s not like it magically happens — there’s a lot of hard work, a lot of hustle.
This was something that I was aware of, but it was really driven in through [our experiences] at YC.
RH: Given your experiences, if you were to restart your undergraduate career at Berkeley, what would you have done differently to set you up for your current entrepreneurial path?
MD: I wasn’t really involved in the entrepreneurship scene while at Berkeley. I was an ASUC senator, so I was more involved with getting elected and being a part of clubs like BPR (Berkeley Political Review). However, these are all skills that can translate into working at a startup.
Looking back, I would have gone to more entrepreneur events to learn from speakers so I had a better sense of the world before I started working.
For me, I started learning more about the world and how the ecosystem works while at Dropbox, but I had more of a limited amount of information for how things actually work than I would have if I had gone to those [entrepreneur events] at Berkeley. However, at the same time, when you talk to big speakers who are too high up, it’s sometimes hard to relate because they talk very high level, so I would have liked to be around people who were two to three years out of school starting startups and talk to them about how they see the ecosystem. Being able to talk to them would have been a lot more valuable.