Playing with LEGOs to Building Industry-Leading Products, with Ayush Agarwal
You studied Software Engineering at University of Michigan and interned with Google as a software engineer, but professionally, you’ve focused on product management. What led to that initial shift?
I’ve always loved engineering and building. You’re given an idea, or you come up with an idea, and you're able to turn that idea into something that you can use for yourself, and that other people can use.
I often find that when you are so deep into figuring out how to get something built, it's often hard to step back and think about the end-user and the overall context. Also, as an engineer, in addition to the building, I also gravitated towards the psychology and the business opportunities which informed the engineering.
There's a big part of me which misses the problem solving and the mathematics of writing clean, fun code. Having said that, I feel lucky to have had the chance to experience the reward of using technology as a means to solving “human problems” by crafting products, and then working with engineers to build the products.
I'd also add that back when I was in school most of my education was in C++. The type of development tools that existed back then were quite unwieldy, which made programming an exercise in fighting the system. In recent years I've been writing some iPhone apps in Swift — modern development tools are just so much easier to use, so much more fun. The gratification is much more instant, and you're not fighting the system as much. Were I to go through college with access to modern development tools, I might just have ended up being a software engineer for more of my career.
Do you find that your experience solving development problems yourself informs the way you work with engineering teams as a product manager?
Absolutely. There are certain problems that seem really simple, but are extremely complex, and there are certain problems which may seem really complex, but actually are really simple. Because I know how to code, I have much more appreciation for exactly what engineers are going to have to do in order to complete a project, and it makes me a lot more effective.
Empathizing with users, as product managers often mention, is important. I think it's also very, very, important to empathize with the engineers who are building products and have an understanding of their challenges.
You’ve worked at so many companies at the forefront of technology. What initially drew you to a career in tech and entrepreneurship?
The rapid pace of innovation and technology. I think that even now, tech is the one industry, where you see constant innovation in everything from consumer electronic products to software. Nothing is static. As you know, Facebook changes dramatically every year; Google changes dramatically every year. Contrast that with, let's say, the automotive industry or, most other businesses. The lifecycle and the velocity of innovation is just incomparable. That’s my first reason: I love the speed, I love the degree of innovation.
Two, my love of products and technology: the problem solving aspect, the science, the mathematics, the engineering. Building great products requires design, psychology, business,mathematics, and so much more. I really like that.
Lastly, I think technology increasingly affects every facet of our life. I often think about technology as the modern electricity. Most people could get by without electricity, in the 1700’s and 1800’s. Today, it's just virtually impossible to imagine how anything would work without electricity, and I think that's where technology is headed. It's woven into the fabric of our life. As someone who wants to have a lot of impact, what better movement to be a part of than the technology movement?
I noticed that you worked at Madrona Venture Group. Was that position your first connection to venture and professional startup investing?
Yes, that was my first professional connection to the world of venture and investing. What drew me to it was the opportunity to work closely with entrepreneurs, to be a part of their journey, and to help them realize their dreams of changing the world. Entrepreneurs are by far my favorite people in the world. They are my heroes, and my time at Madrona gave me a chance to partner with them.
Does your time at Madrona inform your investment strategy?
Yes. I think it's more difficult to figure out what to invest in. It's much easier to figure out what not to invest in. Certainly both are important, and the lessons that I learned at Madrona about what not to invest in have certainly stuck with me.
For example, investing in industries or markets that are hesitant to change – that is one sector that I've learned to avoid. Within small businesses, for instance, there is considerable behavioral friction. Most small business owners are so busy running their companies that it's a big deal for them to implement a startup’s new solution. I find spaces like that to be challenging for a startup to crack, but at the same time, great entrepreneurs, by definition, figure out a way to serve those though industries as well.
You mentioned an interest in consumer-focused companies. Has your time building consumer-facing products at Facebook and Google impacted your decisions when evaluating which companies to invest in?
Sure. Most important to my decision is the team that is building the solution. How well do they understand the problem, and how deeply do they care about solving it?
My favorite companies to invest in are when the founder was trying to do 'X' – let's say they're trying to renovate their home, and they recognized a big pain point and decided to address it. I think about Houzz as a good example of that.
I recently renovated my home and I can relate to the narrative that the Houzz founders would have gone through, and I can see that their product decisions and their business decisions reflect a deep understanding of the space.
Another good example is a company I invested in recently, called Dil Mil. Dil Mil is a dating app serving South Asians. The founders, who are both South Asian, have deep insight into the brokenness of current offerings having experienced the brokenness first hand. Their user empathy coupled with their product and technical chops made them really compelling for me.
Are there any particular startup trends that are really holding your interest right now?
I’m really interested in conversational commerce, and more broadly in companies taking advantage of the messaging revolution which continues to happen and won't stop for a while.
I also remain excited about the enterprise space. I think there's a lot that's going to happen there, especially as the buyers of technology become more sophisticated.
If you followed your dream job as a child, what do you think you would be doing now?
Not too different from what I'm doing right now. As a child, I obviously did not know about Facebook. But in principle, I'd be building products that make people’s lives better in a meaningful way.
I'm super passionate about the convergence of technology, business, design, and of course, people. People are the center of it all. Improving quality of life in a meaningful way through bringing technology, business, and design together – that is very meaningful and fulfilling for me.
How did you view the convergence of design, people, and technology as a child? Can you think of an example?
As a kid, I had some really cool toys: LEGO and Tamiya. When I played with these toys, I asked remember asking myself, ‘Who's making them? How does this work?’.
I had it in the back of my mind that ‘There is a company called, LEGO, which makes this toy, and gosh, it must be a great business because LEGOs are quite expensive and people love the product.’
I compared the LEGO’s and Tamiya's to my other toys and I could just feel the difference in the craftsmanship and the thought that was put into the package design. The whole enchilada. You know, as a child, I recognized that I cared about the packaging and the design. It mattered.
Also, the learning aspects were phenomenal. Playing with these toys and building the toy cars taught me about how gear systems work, how mechanisms work. It was my first wow moment with technology, business, and design coming together.
That's such an incredible perspective to have from a young age.
As a kid I used to think about LEGO's business. At some point I wanted a remote control car, but I did not want to buy one. I wanted to make one, the same way that I made my other LEGO cars.
I use to think, ‘LEGO's business is so weak because they don't have the next set of products that I can grow into.’ I remember this distinctly because I was ten at the time and I was just thinking, 'gee, very soon I'll outgrow these toys. That is so silly of them to let me outgrow their product.'
Is there anyone you look up to, or who has influenced who you are today, and who is that person?
There are so many people to look up to in the Valley and beyond. Living in SF, I find that it's very easy to feel stupid in the Valley and I like that feeling – keeps me on my toes. One person whom I really look up to is Mark Zuckerberg. He's brilliant on so many levels.
His passion for people, for making the world more open and connected, and his authenticity are all very inspiring. He's also very bold, and I love how Zuck moves fast and is not afraid of being wrong. He's a personal hero of mine, and I feel lucky that I get to work at Facebook and get to be a part of the adventure.
Is his leadership what inspired you to take the position at Facebook?
Definitely. Mark's leadership and his ethos are a big part of what inspired me to join Facebook.
Having lived in so many places, do you have a favorite place to travel?
The Maldives, in the Indian Ocean.
It is just the most beautiful place I've ever been. It's one of those places where no photograph, no postcard, no YouTube video even came close to how beautiful it actually was. Quite often, in the age of photo editing, many things end up being the other way around -- Maldives was a big exception. I don't think any camera could ever capture how beautiful it really was.