Sridhar Ramaswamy (Co-Founder & CEO at Neeva; Partner at Greylock)
Sridhar on the future of search, the importance of protecting your personal data, and more.
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Interview Guest: Sridhar Ramaswamy (Twitter: @RamaswmySridhar)
What is Neeva?: Neeva is an ad-free, subscription-based, and deeply personal consumer-focused search service built with privacy at the foundation.
Previous: Prior to joining Greylock and co-founding Neeva, Sridhar spent a remarkable 15 years at Google. As the company's SVP of Advertising and Commerce, Sridhar oversaw all of Google's advertising and commerce products, including search, display and video advertising, analytics, shopping, payments, and travel.
Quick Note: This interview was recorded via a Zoom call between Sridhar and Roshan (that's me) in early August.
Roshan’s favorite quotes from the interview:
On starting Neeva: “Our thesis was that we would be able to create not only a product without ads but a product that was superior in many categories. A little bit of our byline is: giving you the correct answer, right on top, every single time matters.”
On the gathering of our personal data: “The fact of the matter is if you go to what you and I would generally agree are reputable sites, like CNN, you'll find that there are tens, if not hundreds, of companies that have tracking cookies on these sites. This data is then disseminated to thousands of companies. Think about it, that's deeply creepy. All you or I did was go to CNN to read one article, and all of a sudden, thousands of companies know that you and I did that.”
On the future of search: “You and I pay for the water that comes out of our taps –– we don't think about it. That's because it is so inexpensive that we don't need to think about it for the most part. I think of a foundational function like search in a similar way: it should be affordable for everybody on the planet.”
On important skills and traits of founders: “I'd say all of these qualities are important, which are: listen to people, look for opportunities, create potential solutions for opportunities, and get people motivated about working with you on these opportunities.”
On exercise: “I decided to make some long-term changes to how I went about life, with physical activity being important. Generally speaking, I can count on my two hands the number of days a year that I don't exercise in some way, shape, or form.”
Roshan: What exactly is Neeva? How did you come to found it, and why did you keep it in stealth early on?
Sridhar: Neeva attempts a very different take on a problem that's very familiar to all of us, and that is searching for information. Whether it's a piece of email, or a stock quote, or the answer to a question that just popped up in a conversation or a movie, we turn to search engines to find results. We take it as a given that these search engines have to be ad-supported. I worked on the best search engine that has come out in the last 20 years, Google. But, over the years, I started feeling like a very different take on this problem might be very interesting and could, over time, be really useful for lots of folks.
So, we started Neeva as a customer-focused search engine paid for exclusively with subscriptions –– subscription fees that customers would pay. Our thesis was that we would be able to create not only a product without ads but a product that was superior in many categories. A little bit of our byline is: giving you the correct answer, right on top, every single time matters. That's sort of why Vivek and I started Neeva.
We kept it in stealth early on because we knew that just working on a problem like this will generate a lot of attention. We wanted to stay focused on creating the v1 of our product, and that's why we went about it quietly for about 18 months before coming out of stealth.
Roshan: I definitely expect search engines to have ads these days, so it's refreshing to see one without them. Speaking of Google, can you speak a bit about your background and how you got to Google?
Sridhar: I'm a computer scientist and software engineer. I have a Ph.D. in computer science from Brown. After that, I worked at a set of research labs, including the famous Bell Labs, where the transistor was invented, for a few years. That was great. It took me a while to realize that I didn't want to be doing basic computer science research in the long term. I like creating things a bit too much, so I moved to the valley, joined a different company (a small company called E.piphany), and learned a lot about software engineering and what it took to create a company before moving to Google. In 2003, by happy accident, I started to work in the search ads team at Google and kept growing with the team. I guess you can think of me as a reformed academic.
Roshan: Going back to Neeva, where do you see Neeva in 5 to 10 years?
Sridhar: Our aspiration is that we are a meaningful player in the search market overall. This is not to say that there's not a space for ad-supported search engines –– Google will continue to exist for a very long time –– but the bet is that we will have a double-digit percentage market share, at least in a dozen countries where people can afford to pay subscriptions for these kinds of things. Of course, our aspiration is more scale and more significant impact. Still, given that it is 22 years since Google started, in 5 to 10 years, if we can begin to think about double-digit market share in the top dozen countries in the world, I would say that's a great place to be. That's our aspiration. There's a lot of hard work between here and there.
Roshan: Why should people be concerned about their personal data that is being collected by most search companies?
Sridhar: I would enlarge that a little bit and say people should be concerned about their personal data being collected by lots and lots of companies. The fact of the matter is if you go to what you and I would generally agree are reputable sites, like CNN or any other newspaper outlet, you'll find that there are tens, if not hundreds, of companies that have tracking cookies on these sites. This data is then disseminated to thousands of companies. Think about it, that's deeply creepy. All you or I did was go to CNN to read one article, and all of a sudden, thousands of companies know that you and I did that.
It is this level of what I think of as surreptitious, people not understanding the magnitude of data gathering, that I think is highly problematic. We want to, in some ways, envision a simpler world. Where you come to Neeva, we provide you with a service, we guarantee that we don't do anything else with your data, that your data is safe, and really, that's the end of it. The example that I give to people is not so long ago, you or I could sort of walk out to a newspaper store, buy a newspaper paying cash, come back home, read the newspaper, and put it into a recycling bin. And you know what, nothing happened. It is a very ordinary event, except that there is zero chance that you can spend 10 minutes on the internet today without hundreds of companies knowing every little detail of what you did. It's more that kind of familiarity. There are various phrases that I don't always use, that people use to describe stuff like this, surveillance capitalism and stuff like that –– but to me, it is the very simple act of letting simple personal things be private. And that's one of the foundational principles when it comes to how we think about Neeva.
Roshan: What led you to decide to run Neeva on a subscription-based model?
Sridhar: I told you earlier than we wanted a product that was firmly aligned with the customer. So, we wanted a business model in which we, as a team and company, had all aligned incentives to always give you the best result. If you're looking for critical medical information or election information, you don't want to take any chances with stuff like that. That stuff is critical. We wanted there to be a strong business alignment for always showing you the right answer, right up on top where you can't miss it. We decided that the best way to do that was to create not only a low-cost subscription service but also a clear foregoing of other options to make money.
What I mean by that is not only do we say we will charge you a subscription, but we make a commitment to you that we will never show you an ad. We will never strike side deals with other people for money. We will never show you an affiliate link on Neeva. This just completely aligns incentives with always doing right by you. We think this lack of a conflict of interest is very important for a deeply personal product like search. If a site wants to show you an ad, or a good result, that's a basic conflict of interest. There's no good answer to what the right thing to do over there is. So, we wanted to create a product with no conflict of interest whatsoever with its customers, and that's why we picked a subscription model to the exclusion of everything else.
People offer subscriptions, but they also show you ads. We said, "no, no, the purity of the model is important." Search is a big deal. Some of our most intimate questions go out to the search engines, so we wanted a very aligned, very loyal business model.
Roshan: I'm a huge fan of the subscription-based model myself. Given that users are accustomed to having free internet access, do you expect many mainstream internet users to transition to Neeva's subscription model? Or is Neeva focusing mainly on academia, equity analysts, researchers, and other more niche segments who could see a significant productivity boost from your product?
Sridhar: If you think about innovation in scale, even over the past century or more, products have always started as being affordable only to the elite. This is true for everything from ice cream, which a few centuries ago was something that only kings could afford to eat, to automobiles. Sure, very expensive to start with, but it's really scale that made these innovations available to everybody else. We think of Neeva in the same fashion, which is: yes, in the beginning, it might be specialized occupations or the well-off that get a lot of value from Neeva, but again, it's our aspiration that as we grow, the power of scale helps us offer the service for less and less, enabling more and more people to become subscribers. You and I pay for the water that comes out of our taps –– we don't think about it. That's because it is so inexpensive that we don't need to think about it for the most part. I think of a foundational function like search in a similar way: it should be affordable for everybody on the planet. But to me, having it be completely free comes with a bunch of baggage that I'm not sure is right for the very, very long term. But like I said, it's likely the case that there will be an ad-supported search product as well.
Google will be around for a very long time, and we see us happily and mutually coexisting in these scenarios. But I do want to dispel the notion that just because something is paid, it can't have a massive impact. You can have a massive impact even for things that we take for granted and want available to everybody, even if it's a small price.
Roshan: Moving on to some advice-related questions, most of our audience at The Takeoff is comprised of college students, both grad students and undergrads, like myself. What advice would you give a current student interested in starting a company either while still in school or post-graduation?
Sridhar: To me, what is really exciting about the time that we are living in, and for the fields that we are engaged in, which you can roughly describe as technology, is that it is still undergoing an enormous amount of change. There are still tons and tons of opportunities. Hundreds of enterprise companies are born every single year. To me, it's very exciting to be in these times, where the field that we are working in is having such a significant impact. That's not always the case.
So, first of all, we should be grateful that we know where we are. I mean, think about it, if you feel like, "I have a great new idea for creating a new car," well, you know what, unless you're Elon, there's not much chance that you and I are going to be starting car companies. It's just too hard, and, to me, that's why software and tech are very attractive. In terms of how you think about it, I would say it's actually a process of trying many different times at many levels of scale. It's not one of these things where one fine day you'll come up with the idea of Facebook, and it goes from zero to whatever the zillion that it is as one smooth arc. But to me, it's all about looking out for opportunities, hearing problems from people and visualizing what you could be doing to solve them, and maybe building prototypes for some of these problems.
So, to me, that essential element of looking at problems, visualizing potential solutions, and then being able to turn those answers into little like prototypes that can actually go about solving the problem. The more you're able to do this, the more likely it is that you will run into a real problem that becomes a real company and begins to have a degree of success.
Roshan: That's excellent advice. Related to the previous question, what do you think are the most important skills and traits of founders?
Sridhar: I'm a late founder. I'm 50. In some ways, I'm not sure I am the best person for this kind of question, but the quality that I do see in founders is being able to listen to people and then visualize potential solutions. To me, that is very important. Being able to listen to your friends, see how they use products, identify gaps in what they're doing, and brainstorm alternatives, brainstorm what it takes to go from an idea that they said to something that can take care of the problem. I would say the ability to work together –– at least in small groups –– and work well together is a really important quality that a founder needs to have.
As all of us realize, a company is necessarily about a group of people working together to create something bigger than themselves. I'd say all of these qualities are important, which are: listen to people, look for opportunities, create potential solutions for opportunities, and get people motivated about working with you on these opportunities. It's a bit of a mixture of different things, but I just said I would caveat all of this with the obvious fact that I'm a very late founder.
Roshan: Moving on to two more fun questions outside of work: what hobbies occupy most of your time, and how do you stay physically and mentally fit given the high demands of your job?
Sridhar: I decided about five years ago that I needed to better take care of myself. Like most adults, I was one of those people that put on a pound a year pretty much every year of their adult life. This is a depressing stat that's true for most people. Some people put on more than that, but you can reasonably bet that you can look at your weight when you're 20, you can keep adding a pound to your weight, and you will probably roughly gain that much. So about five years ago, I just decided that I needed to break out of it. I needed to be leaner. I decided to make some long-term changes to how I went about life, with physical activity being important. Generally speaking, I can count on my two hands the number of days a year that I don't exercise in some way, shape, or form. I do a lot of strength training because my knees are not in great shape. I also swim or walk, but every single day, I make it a point to do some physical exercise, and to me, that's an essential part of keeping my sanity. I read a lot, and I also write a lot of notes or explanations to myself about various things. When I read a book, I write a book review for myself, or when I read an article and write a summary of it to myself. I would say it's a combination of exercise and constant reading and writing that helps me keep my sanity outside of work. I've done other things like learning music, but I'm not doing that right now.
Roshan: That's incredible that you're able to stay active that much.
Sridhar: It just becomes something that, if you decide that you're going to make time for it every single day, and you just plan out your week, it just becomes routine. It becomes like cleaning your teeth in the morning; you just do it, and you don't think about it.
Roshan: I'll aspire to do that myself. So, you mentioned you like reading; do you have any favorite books or even movies, podcasts, etc. that have been a big influence in your life as a whole or in your work?
Sridhar: It's hard to point to just one thing that has been a big influence. I like reading, period. I like discussing books with people. I'm a big fan of history. I recently read one book on 18th century India called Anarchy that I found fascinating. Then I just read a book about the history of the Qing Dynasty and then previously a Lincoln biography. I love reading, and I love learning from it. I also like reading company history. One of my favorite books is Master Switch by a guy called Tim Wu. He's a Columbia law professor. The funny thing about that book is after reading it, you realize that us working in the internet space think of ourselves as being very special, and this current environment as being very special, but it turns out this media cycle has been done many, many times before. That was fascinating for me to discover. So, I read a lot of non-fiction, and I like learning from previous things that have happened and seeing how current situations or future situations could be similar to the ones that we are going through.
Roshan: I'll have to check out the books; the last one sounds especially fascinating. Thank you so much for coming on.
We hope you enjoyed the interview with Sridhar. We certainly learned a lot and hope you did too :)
You can find Sridhar on Twitter @RamaswmySridhar.
I’m on Twitter @roshanchandna 👋
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