SaaS Founder Interview with Reetu Gupta, CEO & Co-Founder of Cirkled In
Cirkled In is a portfolio platform for students to get discovered by colleges by showcasing that you are more than just a test score.
Tony Zayas 0:00
Hey, everybody, welcome to the SaaS Founder Show! We are back for another week. This is Tony Zayas, Andy Halko, my co-founder. How you doing, Andy?
Andy Halko 0:02
Good. How are you doing, Tony?
Tony Zayas 0:03
I’m doing great! Doing great.
Andy Halko 0:19
I assume we’re gonna have a huge audience because there’s no other live streaming events happening at this very moment.
Tony Zayas 0:26
Slow news day, nothing going on in the world. So we’re tuning in here to hear from another great SaaS founder today. So with that, I will introduce Reetu Gupta, who is the CEO and co founder at CirkledIn, so Reetu thank you so much for joining us. We’d love to hear a little bit about CirkledIn and then we just want to dive in and into your story.
Reetu Gupta 0:55
Absolutely. Thank you for having me, Tony. And me, looking forward to this chat.
Tony Zayas 1:00
It’s great. So tell us a little bit about CirkledIn what the platform is all about. Obviously, I’ve gone around and read about it. It sounds fantastic. Really cool.
Reetu Gupta 1:09
It’s fantastic. So think of CirkledIn as LinkedIn for Gen Z. Right now, we are connecting students with colleges. So students maintain a very detailed profile and portfolios like you and I do on LinkedIn, in a very secure manner and made for them. Very engaging, a little bit of gamification. And for things that they do: academic, sports, music, volunteering, and then they can share it with any application they apply to from college and scholarships to internship and summer job. We have brought colleges and universities making a good fit match between the two creating win-win, and hopefully making higher education more effective, efficient, and equitable. That’s what we believe CirkledIn is and our mission is to be the de-facto platform like you and I talked about LinkedIn. Kids will say, Oh, send me your CirkledIn so 2 billion kids on the planet on CirkledIn.
Tony Zayas 2:08
Is that the goal, 2 billion?
Reetu Gupta 2:10
That’s the goal.
Tony Zayas 2:11
Andy Halko 2:12
That’s good. That’s fantastic. It’s the platform sounds amazing. I’m curious of always going backwards of, you know, how did you get into it? What’s the origin story? What, what brought you to the idea? And then you know, how did you start making it into real life?
Well, I will say the seed for this was planted when I was eight years old.
Reetu Gupta 2:34
Wow. Um, and what that came about was when I was eight years old, my mom started in elementary school in our home, my mom is a teacher. And she had young kids she could she had to leave the job, just to be home. And but she’s very strong leader, very career-oriented, and ambitious. And she said, I’m not going to waste my education sitting at home. So she started an elementary school. And this was in 80’s. I’m dating myself here in India, in a small town when education was not a norm. So we had to go knock on people’s doors and say. Hey, send your kid to this elementary school, we teach them read or write. And people looked at us funny. He’s like, oh, who was gonna work in the farm? Who’s going to herd the cattles. So through that experience, convincing people the value of education, I think that went deep in my DNA. And I had a very humble beginning. Like I said, mom was not working. Dad was literally fresh out of college, if you will. And so from there, I knew that I need to get education. So I went and did my engineering, masters of engineering, and then started my career in software industry. Fast forward education in the US, k-12. system, especially, I feel is absolutely underserved by technology. It’s dated 200 years old. I have kids now, as they are going through that. And I’m growing up again, all over with them. And I’m thinking man, as a parent, as a technologist, as a businesswoman, and as an educator, I call myself. I saw so many opportunities to make education better over the years. And this one opportunity, just so much. It was in my face as like, Oh, god, this is a billion dollar idea. I need to drop everything and I need to do it, so.
Andy Halko 4:30
And I think with the pandemic and everything, it’s even exasperate exasperated. That it’s, you know, challenge of technology for that K through 12. I see, I have two kids as well, so I see it myself.
Reetu Gupta 4:43
Yeah, absolutely. And COVID actually has done a really funny thing to education. I think there’s a short term impact and there’s a long term impact. And I think it has brought education finally into 2021. So we are not in 1950s anymore, which we before COVID, when it comes to technology. Like now every teacher, every professor has to be online, has to be on zoom. And they are more open to technology. Now, if you present something to them, they will listen to you. Before that, that was not the case. I’m a history professor, I don’t care about technology. Well, now you have to because you are teaching on technology. So it has definitely done that from overall higher education or education perspective, especially for college admissions. It has just disrupted big time, current process was so inefficient $10 billion are spent by colleges, colleges, in recruiting kids, which most people don’t know. You and I, as parents do not know that. And on that $10 billion, they only get 1% return. There are better ways of doing things, just bring them to 2021, you’re talking to Gen Z, it has to be online, you can’t send this paper flyer to my daughter, for all boys college, for my daughter. So that’s what is happening today. And that’s what we are disrupting. And with COVID. Everybody’s a lot more open to technology, as well, as they’re seeing the need. There’s no escape from technology anymore.
Andy Halko 6:14
Yeah, I agree. It’s something that really interests me. And we’ve talked with a lot of founders about mentors. But the interesting thing that you brought up that you kind of hinted at, that we’ve never talked about is family. So your mom, your dad, your other family, can you talk a little bit about the influence? Or, you know what, what even that story of your mom starting her own school. That, how that influenced you and has helped drive what you’re doing now?
Reetu Gupta 6:47
Well, everything I am today, and I know people say that it’s a cliche, even if she was not my mom, she is the strongest woman I have seen in my life. Just to give you an example, when she was young, when she… After her 12th grade, she was not allowed to go to college. She snuck out of her home to go to college every single day. It took her seven years to do a three or four year degree. That’s my mom, you know, that’s the woman she is. Somehow I don’t know how she got this bug for education, but she knew that she has to get educated. And that’s what she did. And the if you look at, especially for women in India at that time, that’s whole another conversation what society was like, and even today, what it is like. There were no rights. There’s no equality with male. And so my mom had to stand up for herself a lot. And we grew up seeing that. And other thing is I don’t have any brother. So we were special target of Indian society. For they’re just like, looking at us like. Oh, poor, you, you don’t have a brother. Oh, poor, you, you don’t have a son. So I told my parents, I’ll be the son you don’t have. And I tried very hard, my whole life. I used to work with construction workers in my home, because that’s what kids did, or boys did. And I want you to do that. I changed electrical wires with my dad just so I can prove that I am that son. You don’t have to feel bad. And of course, all that made me very strong. All that made me think there’s nothing you cannot do. Nothing. And my mom is a huge philanthropist as well. So when she was running the school, in every society, there’s income disparity. So there were these low income kids who were definitely behind than typical kids. So she called them in our home after school in the evening, to teach them extra. And she dragged me and my sisters to teach them. Imagine being 10 years old and teaching an elementary five, six year old kid, you have to get stronger. You have to get that philanthropy in your head. You have to have social mission, and just this tenacity to do things. Like nothing can stop you. You know?
Andy Halko 9:13
I love word tenacity, I think for any founder, anybody that starts a company tenacity is one of those, you know, required elements of the equation. I’m curious, where. How, much do you think family and you know how you grew up influences starting a business or this entrepreneurial mindset. My dad was an entrepreneur and owned a business for 35 years. So I grew up around it. I’m curious from your perspective, how you think that influences not just you, but just generally the entrepreneurial, you know, ecosystem.
Reetu Gupta 9:51
I think I know what there’s definitely influence. But influence is not always positive influence, right? So my mom was a strong woman. She at her school. Ay dad is a, um, attorney. It’s not same as here, like rich attorneys. It’s very different in India. So almost like his own practice. So everything is entrepreneurial. And I got that. I can tell you, my daughters are not going to be an entrepreneur because in me working my tail off 100 hours a week. So influence definitely is there. But sometimes it becomes that reverse psychology is like. Oh my god, ‘I’m not gonna do what my mom or dad are doing’. And sometimes it’s like, ‘Yes, I want to be like my mom, I want to be as respected and as strong as she is.’ So it can go either way. But definitely, there’s an influence. And I tell everyone, irrespective of entrepreneurship, we are what our experience have been. We are made of our experiences, you have one bad experience, you are going to hate that thing for the rest of your life. You have one great experience, you’re gonna love that thing for the rest of your life. Most of the times. so experiences make us the person we are. And we become.
Andy Halko 11:06
Yeah, so interesting.
Tony Zayas 11:08
Makes a lot of sense then. For her having that influence, given where you’re at now, with a focus on technology, obviously, you were raised with the absolute importance of education. And that tenacity to dive in and build a business. I really like to hear how did… Where did you come up with a concept for CirkledIn?
Reetu Gupta 11:33
Yeah, absolutely. Like I mentioned that I have two kids. So, many years ago, my daughter was applying to middle school. I believe it was with a private middle school. And it took us three weeks to put her application together. And even after that, I did not know what will click with recruiters because then we all are human. We just talked about who you are, what your experiences are. So I sent them her writing sample. Here’s a video clip. Here’s her science fair project. So she got accepted. But I lost access to the platform. And next application start all over again. And then thinking, Oh, my God, what about college? I did not do undergrad in this country. I do have MBA I did MBA from University of Washington. But undergrad admission is nothing but a nightmare. So I thought I need to start at least accumulating all her stuff for her college admissions. And I thought, Oh, it’s 24 being 15. There’s got to be something you and I have LinkedIn, there must be something for kids. To my surprise, I didn’t find anything. And I’m thinking. ‘Wow, we are leaving all this generation behind when it comes to professional storytelling. Professionally, showcasing themselves. So as a parent, businesswoman, engineer. I was like, oh, everything is there. All we have to do is bring the Lego blocks together. It’s not rocket science that we are doing. Technology is all there. Cloud is there. You know, people are used to Facebook, Instagram, all of that- no teaching and learning is required. Why don’t we have that? So I said, There’s got to be something. And of course, there are certain criteria when you’re building a product for teenagers. One, it has to be super engaging. If it is not engaging, nobody’s going to use the app. Two, it has to cater to their needs. LinkedIn is not the answer for them. They don’t have patterns and awards and employment. for them. It’s like, Oh, I volunteered at homeless shelter. Oh, I played piano in, you know, for three years. I participated in orchestra. I was in soccer. How do you tell that story? So towards the end provides where they can put all their records, they can keep all their media files, and their story: what they did when they did, in seven different categories that encompasses their whole life. And then they can share it with any application that they are applying to. Going to the social impact. So we are social enterprise as well. There is, there is huge disparity in this country. And especially COVID has exposed that to an extreme. But even before COVID, I know that at risk youth go to college at 30% lower rate. So we made our mission for ourselves that in five years, we want to shrink that by two percentage points. So bringing these kids onto the platform, and then exposing them to the information. Not everybody is going to go to four year college. We, yes, I get that. But that should be a conscious decision not an oversight. Not because there’s nobody guiding Johnny that hey, there are options. And we cannot say financials are the reserve. That’s baloney, if you asked me. Because over $2 billion in Pell Grant was unused left on the table, whereas, imagine how many kids we could have gone through the college with a $2 billion? Because nobody even knows there’s that money sitting around.
Andy Halko 15:10
Yeah. I think I just read for Harvard that their endowment produces enough like profit every year to pay for every student. Plus, they’ll make some money. You know, and it’s, it’s… There, there’s money out there, trust me, but… I’m kind of interested in who the target audience is for you, you know, is it the parents? Is it the students? Is there a certain age? You know, you talked about the social enterprise. You know, how do you break that barrier of, you know, kids that are already have good access to technology versus those that don’t? So can you talk a little bit about that?
Reetu Gupta 15:50
Yeah. So when you talk, when you think about audience with CirkledIn. Actually, we are bringing the whole ecosystem together. So the whole ecosystem is our audience. And that ‘K’ in our name is because kids are the center of our circle. And then on one side, you have families, schools, K-12, schools and nonprofits. On the other side, we have colleges and eventually employers that we will bring to the platform. So how we work with students or how we reach them is actually through high schools. Our initial target is high school. Even the platform is K through 12. So in high school, that’s when urgency of like getting your act together starts no matter what you’ll be doing after high school. So we reach out to high school counselors, and we say, Hey, we have this cool platform, it’s free for students, and they love it. Counselors have become our biggest evangelist, and they share it with kids. Kids use it, it’s free for them. And all of that stuff, then we have also built an offering for schools themselves. So there is a sort of a private network, if you will. Foundation is same student portal. Above that you have teachers and counselors. Above that you have school login. There is value proposition at every level. I’m sure we don’t have time to get into that. But a K-12 can use so much more efficiency today in their operations. And that’s exactly what CirkledIn brings to the table. We’ll call them, teachers and counselors can learn about every kid in 30-second quick view of the profile, and bam, they know who this kid is. And they can personalize the learning, they can do a whole bunch of other stuff. So that’s the school site. And then of course, colleges bringing them to CirkledIn and showing them everything about Johnny, everything about Sarah. If you are, let’s say a stem school, you are Cal Poly, you are not going to go after kids whose intended major is literature. There’s no point, right? now if you know the intended major of a kid, or if you can see that this student is more musically inclined or sports inclined, you can make the decision not to chase after kids who are not going to be successful at your campus, who will not be coming to your campus. So with this rich data, or 100 plus points, we give lot more information to colleges to find the best fit and most likely to succeed for their campus.
Andy Halko 18:21
It’s interesting. Sounds like the platform is really robust. Can you tell me how you went about building, was it bootstrapped? You know, did you work on it yourself or hire other folks? Did you raise capital? You know, what was kind of that process for you?
Reetu Gupta 18:38
Yeah, absolutely. So one word I will say is pivot that, many people may hate and because it’s hard. Initially when we started. So I have software backgrounds, software of engineering. But after I learned to MBA at the University of Washington, graduated in 2010. I moved on to business side. I had not coded for a longest time. Now fortunately, my husband is also a software engineer, 22 plus years. So I remember one winter break, whole December. This is all we did literally. In our day, we slept on the floor if we had to. I was already frustrated in coding, because the I had, I didn’t have skills. So when he went back to office, I will spend all day eight hours to read one tiny thing and he come home and say, Oh, that’s what this is. And I was so frustrated. And I said I’m not gonna code. That’s not my core competency. It’s not my time. So we have tapped into a lot of interns at the University of Washington. We have tapped into high school interns, even for the reason that we want them to approve the product, because eventually it’s going to go to their peers. By engaging them in the process. We have built product lot more engaging for every student out there. We did do bootstrap. And we launched first actually, with the schools. So we went to schools and elementary and high schools, and we said, your kids need to have this portfolio. Honestly, they looked at us funny. They’re like, ‘Who are you? I have never heard of you?’ Believe it or not in two years, we had 3,000 Kids.
Andy Halko 20:25
Tony Zayas 20:26
Reetu Gupta 20:27
It was pathetic. It was, and I was hitting wrong every single day, you know, like, you know, it’s literally boots on the ground. And then in, I think it was 2017, I was giving a talk at South by Southwest. And that’s where I heard Mark Cuban give another talk. And he said in next five years, companies that are data, AI, and ML-based will succeed, rest, everything will perish, which I think was overstatement. But a light bulb went off in my head, I’m like, Oh, my God, I’m sitting on this billion dollar idea, waiting for schools to adopt us. Came back home, went to the drawing board, and started working on how we are going to position it differently in the market. I want to go direct to Tony, direct to Andy and reach out to their kids or their kids directly. And that was the hardest part, I will say that those three-four months, you are running your current business, you’re still trying to work with those prospects and customers. And you’re doing this whole new business if you win, very very hard. But then in August, we came out with a new business model, new product, it’s same product, but how we are going to target. New go-to market strategy. Put that in front of angel investors and raise about half a million dollar. They loved that. One thing I did, of course, before that building these relationships, because you can’t just walk into an office, ask for a check and then give you. No, they have to know you for months and months before that, even years. Raise that round. And we launched what we CirkledIn 2.0 in January 2018. And again, went to high school counselors, we said hey, use it for your kids for free, give it to them. And it took off. It took off. Like we beat all our goals. We, in 2018 reached 100,000 kids with zero ad spend, so far. We have not done any ad. Everything is organic. Everything is word of mouth, if you can still use that word these days, but no ad spend. And that’s when we knew we are on the right track. And then of course, our existing investors came back and said, Oh, we want to put more money. And you know, we are almost at like $825,000 so far. And now we are in an extra VC round for growth, basically. Yeah, that’s that’s where we are. The path to monetization and path to profitability and path to billion dollar is not easy.
Andy Halko 23:04
What is the revenue model for the business?
Reetu Gupta 23:08
So we have three revenue streams. Very first one is the college. Remember that $10 billion colleges are spending, they’re going after piece of that pie. So colleges pay for access to the platform. Access to students. And it’s a SaaS-model subscription. Every year, you have three years in Europe and contract and and you can increase and decrease. There are multiple price points, three price points to be fair, and you can pick any price point and then you can use the platform. Second one is high schools, that private network I mentioned. High schools and nonprofits. So since we are social enterprise, how we reach those at rescued, we do that through nonprofit organizations. And let me tell you one thing, not all nonprofits are poor. They serve kids, but they are not poor. There’s plenty of budget there plenty of money to be made there.
Andy Halko 24:00
Reetu Gupta 24:01
There are some that don’t have money, and we give them for free when they can’t afford. In fact, all Title One schools are free. Any free and reduced lunch population percentage that you have we give that discount to every school. So that’s our second revenue stream. And then finally, we are launching the subscription version for students. I’m sure you and I can pay $100 a year. And almost like Robin Hood, you know? Not every kid has to pay, but people who can, yes, you will have these additional services and you will pay $100 a year.
Andy Halko 24:34
Tony Zayas 24:35
I’m curious, too, about the virality of the platform because it sounds like you said you know that ‘word of mouth’, we can call it Did that happen kind of organically or did you guys put certain things in there with with intention so that it was easy to share, easy to spread and obviously that’s super important to bring in new users?
Reetu Gupta 25:01
Yes, absolutely. I mean, just because you put virality on your whiteboard, doesn’t happen automatically towards that.
Andy Halko 25:09
If only, right?
Reetu Gupta 25:11
Yeah. So first thing is, like we narrowed our focus. Yes, we have students from all over the country, but we are not going to call counselors all over the country, that will be stupid. So you go region wise, and we targeted 22 states in the country, even now, that’s what we are continuing with. East coast, west coast. Is what we call smile states. And there’s Texas in the middle, and reaching out because when, in one particular region, believe it or not, all the counselors talk to each other. All college dean admissions talk to each other. So if you can capture that region, you get your foot in, you will spread from there. So that was one strategy. And the other one is incentives. So we have gamification built onto the platform. And for students, It’s points. And they work. They work, it was funny recently, points worked on me, and I’m thinking, Oh, my God, I’m an adult. Why do I care about points, but just because they said, ‘Oh, you went number one on our platform, this week, I went and checked.’ So points work for high school kids. So they get points by inviting friends, inviting teachers, and asking teachers to write a recommendation. If teacher has to write a recommendation for the kid, they have to create an account. And that’s how we get access to teachers as well. And teachers are, teaching is that noble profession, that teachers will do anything to make their kid successful. And we want to partner with them. We want to make their job easier, because we all know that how much work they have. So that’s, that’s our goal with that. So virality comes from these different, some strategies, some incentives, gamification, and stuff like that.
Tony Zayas 27:02
And then on the side of engagement, because overall, you know, you’re dealing with, you know, youth, so young users that are in there, we’re in the, I like to say it’s the post information age, right? There’s too much information. So we gotta filter. And so how do you, you know, develop and improve a platform to hold more attention and retain the users, get ’em coming back, engaging.
Reetu Gupta 27:27
First of all frame of reference, we are not Instagram, we are not Tiktok, we are not here to give you the pleasure of gaming. That’s just who we are not. That’s where the noise is. And if you want to be a signal, you have to be a very strong signal. We are not that. What we are, you are in a very different mindset. As a student, you are thinking about your studies or thinking about school, you’re thinking about college, maybe next internship, maybe summer job, whatever that is. You’re not thinking fun, you are thinking more your your life as a whole in a serious manner, though, it’s good for it to be not so, hard to deal with, you know, making it easier, easy to use, and little bit of fun. And actually, that’s what 11th grader said one time, he said, Oh, I didn’t know it’s so easy to use and almost fun. And I’m like, okay, we’ll take that almost fun from a 17 year old. So the idea is that when you are working on CirkledIn, then you are in different frame of reference to be worked with counselors, and we recommend that spend 20 minutes every other week or at least once a month with your classroom. Because you can set as a teacher that will come…
Andy Halko 28:43
Uh oh, are we having some internet issues?
Tony Zayas 28:54
Looks like, breaking up a little bit…
Reetu Gupta 29:00
Yeah, you both were frozen on me. But I think now you’re back.
Andy Halko 29:04
Yeah, we’re back.
Reetu Gupta 29:05
Can you hear me?
Andy Halko 29:06
Reetu Gupta 29:08
Okay. Yeah, so it is including the adults in their life and going to a space in their mental space that’s not Tiktok, or Instagram. And what we are seeing, so we use Google Analytics, just like 90% of their companies probably. And Google puts you in our category. So our category is job and education. You can change that if you want to, but Google puts you in a certain category. In our category of size of the company. Our students are spending three times more time on CirkledIn than benchmark, which is amazing. Our bounce rate is like half of industry average. It’s yeah,
Tony Zayas 29:56
Andy Halko 29:58
Tony, ‘it’s yutes, not youths,’ as Joe Pesci would say.
You mentioned your husband being involved. What’s the team look like right now is that you know, so in the family, have you, you know, how have you expanded? who’s involved? And how has that changed?
Reetu Gupta 30:19
Well, even if you expand, families always involved, so not every conversation is always just CirkledIn. And so yes, my husband is still part time CTO, good as to be good, fine and the cheapest, we don’t pay him. He cooks dinner still. Really awesome CTO. So we have him and we have our sales and marketing team in US and engineering team in India. So one thing we have been very, we have been very scrappy and very frugal as a startup. That’s what you have to do, right? If somebody asked me, Hey, can I have that subscription for like, $100 a year? Or $100 a month? Okay. Tell me what return I will get for that $100. How much will I get back? Every $100 has to give me back 300 or 400. It’s just like investment. So those type of conversations and to stretch our dollar further we, we open an engineering division in India. As you can imagine, we are based in Seattle. You cannot get a software engineer for less than $120,000. Right? In India, you can get for 20,000. So literally one fifth, one sixth of your current price. If, for one engineer, you can have a team of six. So we have right now five people in India, which is equivalent to one person in the US. And we have salesperson and marketing, we’re actually recruiting for one more salesperson right now. And
Tony Zayas 31:53
I saw that you’re looking, you’re hiring for sales, right? So what is that when you’re looking to hire, what are sort of attributes that you’re looking for, in that person you want to bring into your team, because you have this vision here, and you probably want people who are in alignment, get the mission, and are going to move forward? So who are we looking for?
Reetu Gupta 32:13
Yeah, so um, it’s funny, like, even before this, I did, hiding my whole life and fighting. And in those 20 years, when I was in corporate America, hard skills are a minimum to compete, you have to be able to do the job. Soft skills are the differentiator. And in startup, you like hard skills are yes, minimum still minimum to compete, but to a lower level, lower degree, because soft skills have gone at a much higher level. One very first question I asked them, Why CirkledIn? You have to have passion for the industry, you have to have passion for the market we are serving, that’s one thing. If you are, let’s say if you’re a video gamer, education may not be your thing, right? If you are cannabis, if you are, enterprise cloud, education is not your thing. So don’t waste your, my time. Second thing is working in a startup. If you have been working in a big company, that’s actually a negative on your resume, if you are looking for a job. Because I want to see you can wear different hats, you have growth mindset. And you’re not gonna complain about that scrappy office space that you’re gonna be using, where other people may think, not necessity, you know what I mean? So, if you had that luxurious mindset, startup is not for you. You have to be ready to do whatever it takes. I call myself Chief Everything Officer, from janitors to President and everything in between. From our employees, I don’t ask them to be janitor, but you have to be able to wear different hats. We only have two departments in the company, engineering, and everything else. So either you are writing code, or you are doing everything else. Sales, marketing, Biz Dev, PR, whatever you want to call it, everything is all in one. So there’s no one set of hard skills. Because if you look at hard skills, they will only have one or two. They are not going to have like five different expertise area. So the skills that you look for, can they learned. Do they have growth mindset? And of course, very first thing, are they passionate about the industry, about the space? And what is their experience? What’s their story? Like? You asked me why did I do that? I want to know some story from their life personal experience where education became higher on their priority list. And then just this tenacity and one thing I’ll tell join us at the ground floor and then let’s build an elevator to the to seventh floor. That’s what you’re signing up for. It’s a long term wealth benefit, even without that, your learning is going to be so massive, so massive. Nobody else can teach you that. No college, no degree can teach you what a startup can teach you. I have my certain engineering, I have MBA, but what I have learned the last four or five years, I could not have learned in five lifetimes. Everything from legal to PR, to sales to, you name it, you have to do everything.
Andy Halko 35:27
Yeah, starting a business is a crash course. I started our company when I was 22 right out of college. You know, and I agree. I’d been, the first couple years, it’s just a lot of mistakes and, and learning a lot. And that’s probably one of the fantastic things about being an entrepreneur is, you know, the rate that you learn. You mentioned growth mindset, you mentioned soft skills. And even, you know, that expectation of what the culture is like, I’m just kind of curious, from your perspective. You know, one, do you feel like people are coming out of college and into life with those soft skills and growth mindset? And then to how do you think the influence of other companies in their culture of, you know, free meals and, and haircuts influences what they think I think a startup should look like.
Reetu Gupta 36:24
And that is one thing I tell everybody: media has completely glamorized startups and it’s nothing but that, okay? You cannot call Facebook or Google or Amazon a startup where you have ping pong table. Ping pong table is a very typical symbol of startup. And I start with that saying, we do not have a ping pong table, you know? Or free meals or laundry or dry cleaning and everything, you know, ready for you at the at your workplace. So definitely, I mean, that’s where the differentiator is, actually, if anybody is driven by that, not a good fit for my company. It’s that simple. In fact, that gives me very clear indication. I recently interviewed someone, he was a teacher. And then he moved into Amazon, Amazon sales. And he claimed that Oh, our group was also like a startup, had conversations and just the questions they ask you, you know, it’s not a good fit. ‘Oh, what is the PTO? Oh, what is the benefits? What are the benefits?’ Or, you know, just stuff that you don’t even think about in a start up? You know, these are all either big companies benefits are whatever that is. That actually helps me differentiate. Who knows about startup and who does not? Yeah…
Tony Zayas 37:50
So, those are great points. And it totally makes sense. How do you articulate to those candidates? The idea of, you know, to start with me at the ground floor, let’s build something amazing. How do you articulate your vision, where you see things going, because I think hearing what you want to do could be super motivating to the right person.
Reetu Gupta 38:13
And I say just exactly that, actually. Let’s, join us at for ground floor and let’s build an elevator together to 70th floor. And even if you don’t get to 70th floor, the learning is going to be massive. And that is why it depends on who you are targeting going back to. So what we are doing is, we are targeting people who are three to five years out of college, or the other end of the spectrum who have 20-25 years of experience. So these are the people. I don’t have baggage, I don’t have too much, you know, mortgage and car payment and all of that stuff. And I can work, I want to work I’m hungry, I want to learn. So because they’re just starting off their career, they want to do what they need to do. The other end is the opposite. I want to do, I want to do, I’m done doing what I needed to do. So I’m on the other end of the spectrum. So those people are again, very different values they bring to the table, a lot of energy on a fresh grad, a lot of experience on an experienced person or seasoned person. So those are the people you target. And very clearly you say, this is a startup and this is what we are buildin. If they are motivated by the industry, by your mission. And then if they fit one of those buckets, and then third one becomes that, hey, I’m hungry. I’m telling you yesterday I interviewed this one guy, three years out of college. Has been a driver for Amazon deliveries. Could not get any break. Okay, but on the side, he has been doing a whole bunch of stuff. his resume spoke to me. I don’t know why. And I had my first meeting with him and now we are doing Interview two and three. And I’m thinking that he’ll probably come join us. He has all the skills that we want, hard skills, and that hunger. Imagine having a four year degree and driving prime truck for two years, just to pay the bills. But you want to do more than that. You want to do marketing, you want to do content creation, you want to write articles and PR and SEO and SEM. This is a break, he gets a break. He is going to work so much and so passionately. That’s exactly what any company wants and needs.
Andy Halko 40:37
I’m curious for you, how do you think you’ve changed and evolved from the day you scribbled the idea on the napkin to now? What, what both role mentally kind of emotionally? What’s that journey been like?
Reetu Gupta 40:56
Oh, it’s a totally different person. Totally different person.
Andy Halko 41:01
Yeah. Tell me a little bit about what’s changed. And, you know, what drove those changes?
Reetu Gupta 41:09
Um, I mean, some changes are good. Some changes are not so good. I will say. One was a huge thing that I think that happened to me. Substance in life that came, like, Oh, my God. These luxury cars and vacation. And these houses don’t mean a squat. I don’t know how I enter that Nirvana, if you will. So when I was in corporate America, it’s like, you know, oh, we want to do what Joneses do. Our car is bigger than Joneses, right? That rat race? Yeah. This was always their fancy vacation. Did you go to Hawaii? Or did you go to Mexico. And we, I was part of that rat race, even though I was always like little bit, considering where I’m coming from, I was a little bit off. But there was still like, okay do you want to go to Hawaii, or Mexico, let’s go to Mexico, because we could afford and we could do. During this whole experience, I have not taken a salary. We have put our own money, hundreds and 1000s of dollars, whatever we had, into the company. So everything the budget got to get cut, you just can’t be living at the same level. And the thing that I think I have learned the most, I and my kids. Everything they asked for, for example, I’ll say do you want it or do you need it? Now they don’t even ask what they want. They only ask for what for they need. So it’s the differentiation between what is fluff, and what is substance? We can’t go to Hawaii anymore. So vacation is every now and then ordering dinner and watching a movie together. After I started CirkledIn for three years, we literally ate less than five times a year outside. It was all homemade food. Yeah, we didn’t want to waste money. And that gave that fiscal responsibility into my kids. And it brought a lot of substance in my life as well. All these fancy stuff does not matter. What matters is what you are going to leave behind, once you leave the world. And then on the professional side, all this learning. One other thing, one change, I’ll say, when I was in corporate America, I had big brands names with me. When I was hiring, I could literally, salary was never even a good negotiating point. Right? If we want somebody, we got that person, you could just add on and on and on all the benefits and money and bonuses and all of that and you got who you wanted. Not so much now. It’s literally working with people I would have never ever worked in my previous life. I work I have worked with those people that are in my company. Why? Because I can’t afford a six figure salary. I get people who are 40, 50 60,000. Which means you in some ways you get what you pay for. So which means you have to work with them. So a lot more mentoring, lot more helping, a lot more guiding, and all of that stuff, and a lot more patience. I have learned to be a lot more patient as an entrepreneur versus before.
Andy Halko 44:23
Yeah, I think every entrepreneur has a little bit of that sacrifice story, you know, whether it’s time, it’s money, relationships, whatever it might be that you know, it costs something to do this. So I think there’s always some sort of sacrifice story,
Reetu Gupta 44:38
Oh yeah, there has to be. There has to be I mean, without sacrifice, you’re not gonna survive for too long like that. That means you are not putting your best. Like you have to, you have to stretch yourself. That’s what startup and entrepreneurship is all about. Cost of entrepreneurship is very, very high. Like if I was in corporate America, in five years, I would have easily made a million dollar. Would have gone to any indication would have done, you know, attended every soccer game of my daughter. Nothing. Now I’m working 100 hours a week at $0 salary. No vacation, normally is nothing. I went from a luxury Lexus cars to a Prius. You know, that’s the change that entrepreneurship brings to you.
Andy Halko 45:26
It’s part of the journey in many ways.
Reetu Gupta 45:29
Tony Zayas 45:31
So what would you say is on the horizon here for 2021 for you and CirkledIn?
Reetu Gupta 45:39
Yeah, so for CirkledIn, we want to be adopted by a lot more colleges and universities to use CirkledIn. Like we were talking before COVID has disrupted college admissions a lot as CT a CT are out the window, which means that colleges will need something else to evaluate kids. Do I take Johnny, do I take Sarah? So the holistic portfolio is that thing there has been movement towards that even before COVID. COVID just has proven to be the final nail in the coffin of Sapa city. That’s what I say. So we are looking to have a lot more adoption by colleges and universities looking to raise our first we see around: first institutional loan and growing the team and, and be able to do some ads and some marketing and some branding for our students for our b2c market with funding we’ll be able to do that. So that’s that’s what we are looking to do. COVID has also brought new opportunities and new use cases for certain ways that we were not thinking before. International expansion became a lot more urgent than before. Because if you see education as tech especially is exploding in India. Buys you $10 billion valuation raised to $1 billion. Multiply that by 70. Because that’s the conversion rate from US dollar to Indian rupee. I mean, it’s insane amount of money, like even if you burn every day, you will have heat for whole year in your house. That much money. So which means that the the geographical boundaries are blurring even more world is shrinking even more. So we are evaluating our plans for international expansion as well.
Andy Halko 47:28
Okay, so you’re currently right now really focused on the US. But you do want to expand?
Reetu Gupta 47:33
Yes. After that.
Andy Halko 47:34
Yeah. How do you think about that strategy and vision for the future? What’s your process? Are you very, you know, do you think big and 10 years down the road, and then try and figure out how to get there, or more structured with a process to determine, okay, this is our one year goal, and how do we break that into objectives? How do you do your strategic planning and envisioning for the organization?
Reetu Gupta 48:03
I take the first process, actually, I start big, and then backtracking, like, working backwards from there. Personally, as well as for for the company. You know, take personally, for example, when I was in corporate America, anybody said, What’s your plan for next five years? I said, let me first tell you what my plan is when I’m 65 years old. So I will be on cover of Fortune magazine as CEO of the year back track from there, what does it look like in 20 years, in 10 years, in five years, in two years? So that’s how I plan as personal life as well as company. I’m looking at ringing New York stock exchange value in you know, 10 years or so, let’s back work backwards from there. What does that look like? International expansion is one big part of that. To get to that we need to raise funding to get to that. So it’s always this sort of domino effect to the next step. But one of the things my leadership Professor taught at the University of Washington, there’s this word called BHAG. I don’t know if you have heard that or not.
Andy Halko 49:07
We use it all the time.
Reetu Gupta 49:09
Yeah, I do, too. So big, hairy, audacious goal. If you don’t have BHAG, you’re not doing justice to yourself. SMART goals are for average people. You want to be extraordinary. You have to have BHAG. So have a BHAG and then work, back from there. That’s the approach we take.
Andy Halko 49:32
That’s awesome. Yeah, we use BHAGs every day with our, you know, ourselves, our clients. I’m a big fan of that as well. Or even, you know, just Big, Hairy, Audacious Ideas we’ve been starting to do with folks but um, do you use any business methodologies like to run the business?
Reetu Gupta 49:59
Yeah, so in the engineering side, for example, they use Scrum, which is like every two weeks planning. And then that’s more like second approach probably that’s more like for day to day operations what you do that. So our CTO uses that two week planning, two week sprint. And that’s how he works with the team. And on business ideas, everything has to be lean. So on six sigma, Green Belt certified that came from thanks to Honeywell aerospace. So everything in my mind is a project. And how can you make the project more efficient, and cut out the fat cut out things steps that are not needed, everything I treat, as a project, whether it’s fundraising, whether it’s my life, whether it’s, you know, launching this in Georgia, or North Carolina or South Carolina, whatever that is. So if you take it from that approach, and you think everything is a project and be as efficient as you can be, so we rely a lot on data. I use data every microsecond of the day, I cannot function without data. How many calls we made, how many demos we got, how many sales we did. So this whole pipeline, for example, for sales, has to be there. If I don’t know, what is my conversion, from calls to demo, demo to closing? What am I doing? Like, I have to be able to answer that question. So things like that. Being data driven, is definitely has been very helpful. And then looking at how to make any process any task lot more efficient. And cut like we even count, number of clicks you have to do in your CRM. Even for our product, one of mine requirement to engineering team is anything student has to do should not take more than three clicks. If you’re hitting three, that’s too much already. It cannot go to fourth, things like that. So it’s efficiencies.
Andy Halko 52:02
No, that’s great.
Tony Zayas 52:04
For sure. We’re getting close to the end of the hour here. So this has been fantastic. And yeah.
Andy Halko 52:14
Yeah, hey, you know, I’ve been asking the same question to all of our founders this year, and I’m gonna go through the whole year. But I’d love to know, if you went back in time and had coffee with yourself at the start of all this. What is the you know, one or two pieces of advice that you would give to yourself about, you know, what’s coming and where you’re, where you went?
Reetu Gupta 52:41
Yeah, I think the only thing I will tell myself is develop that tortoise shell now. Do not take anything personally, there will be lot more rejections that will come then you have ever seen in your life, ever. I was not used to failures. I got everything I wanted, meaning I worked my tail off. But I got in every college I wanted. In fact, like, for example, for my MBA, I said, Oh, I will have my GPA. I had full time job. I had two kids. And I was doing MBA, and I got 3.98. There was no reason it was just my personal goal, BHAG, if you will. And I wanted to achieve that I was testing myself. So entrepreneurship, I will tell myself that be ready to be a teenager. You want everyone to love you. And you will do things that you will not do. You have to draw up your ego like anything. Like it’s not about you. You are not representing yourself, you’re representing your company, your business, your idea. So everything has to come through that funnel. And that’s one thing I’d say because getting used to rejection was hard.
Andy Halko 54:01
Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s a great piece of advice. I mean, I know having my business for 19 years now, man, is that a lesson of being told no, or working through hard things? And so I think that that’s great for you know, yourself and for our audience. So that’s fantastic.
Reetu Gupta 54:20
Tony Zayas 54:21
Yeah, excellent. So Reetu we just want to say thank you. Once again, this has been a you know, great story and we wish you all the best in your growth. We’ll try to stay in touch with you. For our audience, please go visit CirkledIn.com and see the exciting things that are happening there. And we will see you next time. Reetu, thank you once again and have a great day.
Reetu Gupta 54:46
Bye. Thank you for having me guys. It was pleasure talking to both of you
Andy Halko 54:50
Yeah, same thank you. Go check out CirkledIn
Reetu Gupta 54:54
Andy Halko 54:55
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