Mentor Speak: Talking Big Data with Vipul Ved Prakash

Vipul_2Vipul Ved Prakash is a serial entrepreneur and a pioneer in the fields of real time search, big data and collaborative filtering.

He’s also a Mix & Stir Mentor and we’re delighted to have him bring this expertise to our startups, helping them make the most of, the rapidly changing world of data and real time analytics.

Vipul’s most recent initiative speaks to the scale of his vision. He co-founded Topsy Labs, which currently operates the world’s largest searchable index and analytics platform for Twitter and other social data. It’s an incredibly powerful platform, giving people and companies instant social insight on a global scale. Vipul likes to think big.

We recently got to catch up about life as a founder and where he sees opportunity in the future of big data.

You’ve had an amazing career so far. Prior to Topsy, you co-founded Cloudmark, now a leading technology provider to the world’s largest mobile and telecom companies, so you’ve had the chance to start and grow several successful companies. What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned in your experience as an entrepreneur?

Well, one of the most important lessons is teambuilding. When you start out, you can get from an idea to an early product by yourself – but getting from that early version to a business requires a team. That means finding talented people in areas that you know very little about. You get a great team and great things start happening automatically. That was a very important and surprising lesson for me.

My background was open source software and I worked independently a lot. When I started my first company, Cloudmark, we were able to turn it into a large business. It was the kind of people we brought in along the way that defined the shape of the business and what we could achieve.

The lesson learned for me was finding and recruiting people outside of my expertise. It’s simpler for me to recruit engineers because I am an engineer – but I had to recruit people for business development, sales and marketing. Those are very important roles when you’re building a business.

What particular qualities do you look for when you’re hiring for one of your companies now?

One of the most important things I look for is attitude. With startups, you’re running into problems on a daily basis and those problems can basically end your company. Finding people who have both the attitude and the motivation to overcome problems and find solutions is really important.

Another key item is competence. You want to find people who are very competent and love what they do. If they have a combination of those things: a great attitude and competence, that’s usually a good hire.

Sometimes it’s hard because you meet people who are very competent but don’t have the right attitude, or are have a great attitude but they don’t have the right competence and you have to pass on them. It’s something that took me a while to understand and conceptualize but I follow it religiously now.

Any other lessons you’ve learned along the way that new founders should be thinking about?

Yes, founders often neglect how their products will be distributed. It is arguably the most important aspect of business for a startup – even a sensationally useful product won’t distribute itself.  Sometimes it’s necessary to change the product to something that will distribute with less friction, for instance: to build in viral mechanics, or to command a price that justifies the advertising and marketing costs needed to acquire customers.

Distribution deserves a lot more of founders’ creative cycles compared to new product features in the early phase of the company, but new founders don’t often spend as much time there. If you nail distribution, a lot of other stuff will fall into place.  If you don’t, you’ll likely have to spend expensive dollars on it later or pivot your business.

Lastly – founders need to be obsessed. Obsession is critical.

Startups are fragile. They can fail in so many ways when they are young and it takes focus that borders on obsession to keep them going.  As a founder you’ll end up having very little life outside the startup in early days, so make sure this works for you. In my experience, obsessive founders tend to convert ideas into successful ventures.  There is a set of life philosophy that encourages life/work balance, I think this can be a trap. Just accept that you have to work a lot to get a new venture of the ground. You have the freedom to create what you want; create something you love where you can channel your obsessive energies.

Things are changing so fast in the field of real time data. Where do you see the big opportunities opening up right now?

There’s a massive opportunity in real time data and social data. Products can now enable hundreds of millions of consumers to create new data sets. If you look at Twitter, our index has 250 billion tweets in it, which were created by a community of 200 million people around the world. If you look at what it is, a mobile app has enabled this massive dataset to be created. Foursquare is another recent example, all this check in data was just indexes before. An app and a platform enabled the creation of this dataset.

I think there is a great opportunity for startups enabling communities of people to create large amounts of real time data for each other’s consumption. I think we’ll see creative ideas for solving problems and for enabling communications between people who generate large data sets.

Another area opportunity where Topsy plays is doing analytics on data sets and extracting insights. During the last five years, it has become possible to look at data in a massive scale. Storage is becoming cheaper, computing has become cheaper and there’s a lot more data available. You can look at data at a scale that is orders of magnitude larger than what was possible before. I see a class of entrepreneurs that can analyze this data, come up with new insights and build products on top of that.

There’s a lot of interesting work going on in an area called data integration – where you take multiple different data sources and connect them together to find new insights. As more different data sources become available, we’re going to see more and more payback there. For example, hedge funds are using the data from financial markets and combining it with data from social sources to get a new level of insight into what’s happening in this industry. Data integration is another big opportunity.

You mentioned financial markets as one industry with big opportunity. Are there other industries where you see big potential on the horizon?

There is a lot going on in enterprise marketing, especially sales and customer support. This is an area I am particularly close to. Across industries, big data has become an important concept in industries ranging from financial and economic sciences to medicine.

At Mix & Stir, we are always looking for companies that are bringing a design driven approach to technology.  Where do you see the integration of design and big data having the biggest impact?

From what I am seeing, combining data and design is really very new. We are starting to see early systems that are doing that – a lot of it is still in research and development. There should be some exciting products coming out in the next few years that take this R&D into new products. 

One good example is a company called ESRI that’s doing a lot of visualization with geographical data. They are doing some great work, in particular with geo-visualization. They have their own datasets and we’ve been working with them on social datasets. One of the things you can do with the combination of design and datasets is to take complex information and present it in a way that insights are easily accessible. The work they are doing is really very cool.

If you were a young entrepreneur starting your career now, how would you shape it?

Collaborative phenomenon, system networks collaboration, data analysis, artificial intelligence – I’d be very interested in focusing on those areas.

Mobile is definitely a place where I think there’s big opportunity. Five years from now, we will have amazing mobile apps. A lot of stuff that we do today on our computers, we will be doing on mobile – doing things differently and better. If I were to start a company today, there’s a very high chance it would be mobile.

I think mobile is a real democratization of computing platforms because more people have the devices. There are number of cool apps but there is such a huge opportunity. There is a huge opportunity in enterprise systems that are mobile friendly or designed with mobile in mind.

Thanks so much Vipul, this has been a great conversation! Any last words you want to send out to people considering their own startup right now?

Just do it – that’s my advice. It’s a great time for it. Mobile and social are great opportunities. There’s so much innovation happening, it feels like the early days of web. It feels like mobile is at the same place.

So many more people will have access to the products founders are building today. There are billions of devices. So many more people are connected compared to 10 years ago. It’s a really very exciting time to start a company.


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