Prior to joining Sidepact, Amit Kumar had just graduated from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business as a MSx Sloan Fellow. He previously worked as full-stack engineer at a number of prestigious advertising agencies including Droga5 and R/GA, and previously founded an automated hydroponics company. Currently he is the founder of Reciprocity, a networking platform that helps community members find and offer help.
In the interview below, Amit tells the inspiring story of how he founded a company in order to leave a legacy. Amit also provides insight into why he joined Sidepact given his deep technical talent and strong network at graduate school.
When did you know you wanted to start a company?
I'm 35 now and the first time I knew I wanted to start a company was in my early 20s. Especially being a software engineer where it's possible and you see stories of people that succeeded. Mark Zuckerberg was a big inspiration, not in a sense of wanting to emulate him, but in the sense that he was my age and also a software engineer and he created something huge.
How did you become a software engineer?
My dad is a software engineer. He taught me the basics of programming when I was five. We would make computers together. He and I would play by putting together computers instead of putting together Legos. We’d go to Fry's Electronics and scope out all the components. It was really fun picking your own RAM and CPU and hard drive to build exactly what you need.
Computers for me were always a place of solace. I was a pretty socially awkward kid, and computers were places where things were entirely logical, where things made complete sense in terms of how I thought. I understood computers, and I felt like they understood me, because we both spoke logic. I didn't feel like I had that connection with humans.
And then in college was really when I got more into programming. I went into college as a cognitive science major because I was trying to solve my lack of understanding humanity. You can imagine me as Data from Star Trek: "I understand logic, I don't understand people. I need to solve humans.”
I gravitated towards the more technical classes of cognitive science. I took A.I. courses, the LISP course, the foundations of computer science series. Through that experience, I started to form a belief that the best path to better understanding something was to turn the knowledge into code. Turn it into something reproducible, traceable, quantified.
I realized that coding is my superpower.
In those classes and among the 20,000 other students at UCLA, I realized I was uniquely good at coding and software engineering. Because it was fun (because it's puzzle solving all day long!), and because I realized I was uniquely good at it and it was something that had a lot of potential out there in the world, it felt like the skill that I could use to make an impact more than anything else I was capable of. That seemed like a necessary ingredient: to have an impact at scale would require technology. And I definitely wanted to be somebody that had an impact at scale.
What inspired you to transition from engineer to founder?
Working at companies that were dysfunctional in various ways and feeling like I knew how to solve it, naive though I was at the time. I was also inspired by developing enough skills in my early career to realize one of my other superpowers is an understanding of the human connection aspect of technology. So the importance of design, empathy, the importance of having a feeling within the technology we created and imparting that feeling to your users.
Realizing that I had these other skills around design was the building block to look beyond "I am just an engineer." That was in my mindset for a long time: "I am comfortable in my narrowly-scoped role. I know I can do this thing well, and I don't imagine myself as anything bigger than that." Because the successful leaders that you hear about before you're in an industry… they seem like magic. They were born to do XYZ. But after actually working in industry I realized that everything is kind of figure-out-able, and that as a basic intelligent person, I could figure things out pretty well. Not that I could do things better necessarily, but I could definitely grok a lot of things beyond just engineering. That was the beginning of, "Okay, I need to be thinking how to utilize myself to the best that I can be. I shouldn't be limiting myself to just being an engineer.”
But getting back to dysfunction, the first major project that I worked on was at a company. It was in 2004, it was the beginning of Web 2.0, the beginning of Ajax, the beginning of the seamless web where things went beyond page reloading for everything. Google Maps had just come out, and that broke the paradigm because before that was MapQuest where even trying to move around on a map required a page reload. There was no dragging! The company I was at wanted to rewrite their whole web application to be Web 2.0. So we embarked on this redesign.
Long story short: it ended up being about two years of working on this thing, and in the end, they killed the redesign. They decided to just iterate on the original product. We were operating in a “waterfall” approach back then. The design team did their giant batch of research and work, and said, "Okay, this is what the new product needs to be." And then we went and spent a year developing that, and then when it came time for QA to start testing things, they were like, "This doesn't do everything the old thing did." And then we got into the cycle of, "Okay, now we need to completely reproduce everything that the old thing did also."
We never got to a level where anyone was comfortable launching the redesign because it became this giant momentous question of, "Have we covered everything? Are we ready to risk the entire company on flipping the switch?" And no one would ever want to pull a trigger that big, right? So years of my work just went poof, and I was super frustrated. We were cutting edge Ajax, we’d poured our hearts and minds into this, and all that work just went poof. That's not the first time my work went poof.
That was also a big driver in wanting to create my own startup. Skipping forward a bit, my career shifted into being an independent consultant, mostly for ad agencies and creative agencies in New York. A lot of what I worked on was ad campaign-type stuff. Here's a new product, here's a temporary experiential site that we're going to have up for three months, six months, or a year, and so a lot of those things ended up disappearing from existence after their time was done.
And so looking back on my career 15 years in, 90% of what I've done doesn't exist anymore, which sucks. I want to create something lasting, I want to create something that needs to last, that is so important, so impactful, that it needs to continue to exist and grow. I want a legacy. I want to live beyond my time here on Earth, and for me, that’s through what I create.
When did you first try to start a company?
My first attempt was 2011. This was a couple years into my career after I had had that first experience of the sunsetted project before the sunrise. And then I had a few years in consulting, working at ad agencies, which was actually super cool because I got to deliver super fast and everything went live, which was very encouraging. And I got to be working with cutting edge stuff all the time. Agency work in New York kind of pushes the field, showing people mind-blowing experiences with software that has to be written super fast and scalable.
I got to really level myself up in terms of being an engineer and delivering. But I felt like I needed to do more, and around this time was when I felt I had the capacity to build a company. I felt like I was ready to give that a shot.
Around this time too I had kind of a quarter-life crisis where I was like, "I feel like I've been holding myself back from things. I feel like I'm not a version of me that I could be or that I want to be." I had this period where I decided to try everything I ever held myself back from, and reconnect with some of my original passions in life. I got back to gardening (which is actually a thing I grew up doing; I grew up growing my own vegetables in our backyard), and I always really loved having a lot of plant life around me. But living in a New York apartment at the time, it was impossible to do that. I happened upon hydroponics as the solution to indoor growing, and I started growing all kinds of vegetables in my apartment.
Hydroponics became a new passion of mine. But it was a very manual field. You needed to cobble together and build your own grow system, your own grow beds. You needed to have a suite of sensors where you’re checking your pH everyday and writing stuff down to see trends over time and whatnot. And, so I, being a technologist, was like, "This is hella manual work that could be automated. Why isn't this automated?" I started to work on automating it for myself, and that's when I started learning hardware. I took a class in Arduino, I took a class in electronics, I took classes in woodworking and metalworking and all kinds of stuff so I could make cooler things, like better grow systems and what-not. That was the start of building my own automated hydroponic gardens.
And I thought if I want this, other people would probably want it too. I can't be unique in wanting this. I got to know hydroponic store owners and got to know the field of hydro. Inklings of automation were happening back then. I talked with people around me about their experiences growing plants or wanting to grow plants. “Is that a desire? Have you tried it? What have been the causes of failure?” The consensus from my informal user interviews was that people would love to have more plants in their life, but they don't because they kill them, or they're too much work. I felt like I could solve that. So I saw this nexus of, "Okay, there's something that I'm really good at, which is engineering, there's something I'm really passionate about, which is gardening and plants. Let me see what I can do about combining my love and my skills to make something new."
I continued to work on the prototype and enrolled in this program called ITP Summer Camp. ITP is a Masters program at NYU. It's their interdisciplinary engineering and art and design program. They have a “summer camp”, which is short versions of a bunch of classes, run by professors and fellow students. It was a super stimulating time. Met a bunch of fellow creatives and engineers. I met a guy that became my co-founder. He had just graduated from ITP and was also working on a similar goal of automated hydroponic gardening.
He had more skills on the hardware side. He'd been a Arduino hacker for a couple of years. It seemed like we were complementary. "I'm a software guy, you're a hardware guy. We both want to make this thing. Let's work together on this." I embarked upon that. It was kind of a shotgun co-founder marriage, which ended up being not great. There was a lot of friction in our approaches to how to build product and build a company.
I worked on it for three years as my full-time thing. I was freelancing on the side about 20 hours a week and working on the startup for 60 to 80 hours a week.
Burning the candle at both ends for three years, 90 hour weeks straight, no days off. We launched a Kickstarter campaign in the early days of Kickstarter, in mid-2012. We raised $23,000 on there from 250 people, which we thought would be enough to do our first production run.
Our plan was to do a small batch run of 100 units and then use that to continue bootstrapping the subsequent production runs. We also had two additional team members, fellow engineers that were former colleagues of mine, and one software/hardware hacker that joined us from a hardware meetup. We had a decent team of four, and an extended team of another three UX/design colleagues. I had some of my branding and design friends pitch in some free work.
Long story short, hardware was hard. We ran out of money and resources before we could really solidify the product to get to a shippable state. Just had continuous errors in the firmware and the hardware that we couldn't debug. We kind of spun our wheels for a year plus, trying to solve these issues that we just didn't have the skills in our team to solve. And at that point we didn't have the resources to bring in those skills.
By 2014 we had run out of the Kickstarter money and I had run out of all savings. Because we'd been working on it for two-plus years at that point and we were in New York, we didn't have investors around us that were willing to invest in this kind of a thing. For one thing, most investors didn't understand the space, and I think most investors try to invest in things that they know about. There was just no one we could find in New York that understood hydroponics or the gardening industry.
Also, we didn't have enough proof of traction. Beyond the Kickstarter we did not have enough evidence of demand and sales. There were a number of reasons that we couldn't pull in the resources to pull out of that. Plus, I was just burnt out after years of that level of work.
The company folded in 2015. The end result was just inspiration to try to do better next time. And a lot of learnings. The end result was me deciding that I needed to address what I felt were my shortcomings from that time around, which included a lack of network and a lack of resources in terms of people and money. Not to mention a lack of know-how, in terms of how to address the challenges that we had in building a company. Not just building product, but building a company.
I spent about 2 years just recovering mentally and financially. Just working a lot of consulting gigs and paying back all the debt that I was in. I also refunded all my Kickstarter backers. Paying back the backers wasn't painful. The failure to deliver was painful. Paying them back felt good, like I was able to hit the reset button and try something new.
That's why I decided to come to Stanford GSB. To try to continue to grow and be able to be more. To be able to see an idea to its fullest fruition and not be limited by past mistakes.
Why did you apply to Sidepact?
Engineers. Connections. Connections into the VC world. Guidance on some of the true on the ground, nitty gritty stuff. At B-school a lot of what you learn is, "Okay, I already have a team. How do I solve this management issue?" Or, "How do I solve this accounting question?"
I was like, "Okay, what's a good choice for a law firm? What's a good choice for expense management software?" The nitty gritty. Being around fellow founders, where the program was led by Sharon and Kevin who had founded stuff. As a technologist, building a software based product and a startup, even just on the engineering side, it gets tough to stay motivated. We talk about it's tough to stay motivated as a founder, but also just as a coder it's hard to find that drive operating solo.
For me, it was really interesting to be able to get to be around a cohort of talented engineers where I could be learning from everyone. As good as I believe I am, I know there's a ton of stuff out there that I don't know.
The times in my career and my life when I've been the most excited and energized have been when I've been around really talented people that are really good at what they do, and that I get to learn from.
Sidepact definitely lived up to that. I had inspiring conversations with everyone I talked to in Sidepact.
What was the most influential advice you received while at Sidepact?
You know, to be honest, regarding the advice portions of things, there wasn't really anything new for me in Sidepact compared to business school. I had a ton of classes taught by VCs and we talked about the startup journey. How to track metrics of things, focus on customers, solving their problems, what are their pain points, iterate towards something, lean startup approach. That's the Sidepact method, but I'd already had that. Concretely, the most influential piece of advice was like from a fellow Sidepacter where he was like, "You should be using GraphQL." We're moving towards that now.
Did you have a business idea prior to joining Sidepact?
Reciprocity came out of my year at GSB. Its origins were September 2017. By the time I came into Sidepact, I was full steam ahead. Like, "This is my startup, this is my product. I'm looking for engineers to come into this thing." I mean, for me the main challenge of life is finding your tribe. I think Sidepact is a chance for ambitious engineers to find our tribe.