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Summer Stories – Raj Ramachandran, Discovering What You Don't Want

This article is about my summer experience with a cloud computing startup in Silicon Valley and what I learned about the industry, the geography, and my own interests.

When I first met with my career coach, he asked me the ever-present question on the collective RC conscience- “What do you want to do?” After mentioning technology and startups, at the end of my answer, “Venture Capital” slipped out. “Did you say VC? Well, you have something in common with 899 of your classmates!” Aside from his dubiously encouraging remarks, the nature of my career coach’s inquisitiveness would soon strike me as peculiar. In fact, almost everyone I ran into my first week of classes- classmates, professors, family, and friends- all would ask me what I wanted to do after HBS. Why didn’t anyone ask me what I don’t want to do upon graduation?

When I first met with my career coach, he asked me the ever-present question on the collective RC conscience- “What do you want to do?” After mentioning technology and startups, at the end of my answer, “Venture Capital” slipped out. “Did you say VC? Well, you have something in common with 899 of your classmates!” Aside from his dubiously encouraging remarks, the nature of my career coach’s inquisitiveness would soon strike me as peculiar. In fact, almost everyone I ran into my first week of classes- classmates, professors, family, and friends- all would ask me what I wanted to do after HBS. Why didn’t anyone ask me what I don’t want to do upon graduation?

I had come to HBS after a career in investment banking and software development, and like many RCs, the option value of every career path was high. After talking with a number of people at HBS as well as industry, I quickly narrowed my career interests to tech startups and VCs, but had great difficulty deciding between the two. As I struggled to find a way out of this dilemma, a solution finally dawned on me- instead of trying to pick one, why not try to eliminate one? At first this seemed counterintuitive- after all, one should have a reason for doing something other than “I eliminated everything else.” This was also very different from how most others framed my career search for me. When I looked at the problem this way, it became very clear that my summer internship was the perfect opportunity to try the option that was inherently more risky- the startup.

The more I spoke with different companies, the more intrigued I was at the prospect of trying something new for the summer. I found myself gravitating to options that I knew I would never try 5-10 years out of HBS- but I had to be sure. In March I chose to work for an early stage software startup called Zonbu www.zonbu,com based in Menlo Park, CA. Zonbu had 14 employees and was founded by a couple experienced entrepreneurs who collectively had 4 exits (2 IPOs and 2 acquisitions) between them. For one of them, Zonbu was one of three startups he was currently pursuing. Given their results, I figured I could learn something from these guys. The founders of Zonbu sought to create a hassle-free computing experience. The company’s product consisted of a lightweight, robust operating system, a suite of applications, and services such as data backup and tech support targeted at the overserved Microsoft customer (read: My Dad). All of this was based on open source, and cost about $15/month. I was somewhat intrigued that this tiny startup had chosen to take on my former employer (Microsoft) in multiple areas simultaneously.

My first day was classic- the “office” consisted of a small desk in a 1-bedroom apartment. The CEO got the bedroom as his own office, and the rest of us worked in the living room. PCs, disk drives, and cables were strewn about, and I had to maneuver carefully to get to the bathroom or the kitchen. Though stocked with snacks and drinks, Zonbu was definitely a bit early stage for foosball tables and happy hours- I quickly surmised that this group was working feverishly on the next product release. In the morning I met with the CEO, who gave me a few projects to take a look at and asked me to select one for the summer. Once lunchtime rolled around, one of my colleagues handed me a FedEx envelope with takeout menus from all the local restaurants so that I could decide what I wanted- he then left to pick up lunches for the entire office. After lunch, the office seemed to take on a different character. It almost seemed as if the pace picked up as the sun went down. By the end of the day, I had selected my project and left for home at 8:30 pm; the engineers were still going strong.

For the summer I would assess the opportunity for Zonbu’s computing service within the small business space. Over the next couple months, I was given free reign to talk to prospective customers, observe and document their technology usage, and attend relevant conferences as necessary. In the end, I developed a recommendation for Zonbu to enter the small business space, along with a demo, website content, and positioning and messaging framework that was customized for small businesses. I found the work exciting and confirmed my interest in early stage technology. The best part of the internship was watching experienced entrepreneurs in action. I loved how little time we spent in meetings and how easy it was to suggest something and then go “make it happen.” I also learned quite a bit about how to bootstrap a company- I must admit I didn’t know there were so many ways to save money at a nascent startup. Finally, the pace at which decisions were made was incredible. To see these guys at work tossing over an idea and pull the trigger at warp speed – often times with no detailed analysis and no lengthy power point justifications- was fascinating.

The summer was not without its bumps, however. A couple weeks into my internship, I learned that a senior executive on the business side was moving on to take an exciting role with Mozilla (makers of Firefox, the web browser). This came as a surprise given I had gotten to know him quite well prior to joining Zonbu. In this way I experienced in my opinion one of the drawbacks to working in such a vibrant technology community- opportunities were plentiful and loyalties often came into question as individuals charted the best career paths for themselves. Yet, at the same time, everyone seemed used to such events. In another interesting incident, I listened to an irate customer call to complain about the product. “Customer Support” was in the same room as the rest of us, and sometimes our team was out on customer visits, which meant that our answering machine would pick up any missed calls and messages. When anyone left a message, it reverberated through the whole office. Needless to say, this customer’s tone caused a stir and resulted in an immediate response from the customer support team. As I watched this unfold, I thought to myself how interesting it was to see all this take place, since these activities would be hidden from me at most larger companies.

In two short months, my internship came to a close and it was time to reflect on my summer experience in preparation for the onslaught of questions once back on campus. “How did I like my internship? Would I go back to the same company?” And so on. Despite taking a few risks with an early stage tech startup, I liked the job and the people at Zonbu very much. I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed business development/marketing at a startup and was even more drawn to it than before the summer began. Conversely, I did find myself leaning towards opportunities at slightly more mature startups with more resources and people to learn from. The Bay Area, on the other hand, was a different (and rather unexpected) story. I went into the summer fully expecting to land in the Bay Area after HBS. Though I had fond memories of San Francisco when I was a single college graduate, now that I was married with a newborn, I was less intrigued with the prospect of settling down there. Without question it has an undeniable energy about it, but ultimately I decided that
in addition to the Bay Area I want to consider a few more tech havens such as Boston and Austin. Among the key factors were my preferences for a smaller, more personal community, not to mention a lower cost of living. In fact, towards the end of my summer, I ended my internship a week early to go visit a few friends and companies in Austin. Going forward, I still remain interested in both startups and VCs, and plan to approach the year looking for opportunities in both. We’ll see where the chips fall next year.

In short, the summer proved valuable in learning not only what I want out of my next job, but also what I don’t want. So what were my key takeaways from the summer?

If you’re sure about what you want, go do that for a summer to confirm once again. If not, think about trying an option you might be able to eliminate through a summer experience.

Take some risks- this is exploration time that comes with a “get out of jail free” card
Don’t hesitate to course correct in the middle of the summer- this is about figuring out what YOU want.

September 15, 2008
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