How I Got Here: Episode #8
Why Founders Need to Think like Scientists
with Akshat Thirani, McCormick ’16
Founder and CEO of Amper
Akshat Thirani, founder & CEO of Amper Technologies. Since he was in high school, Akshat was always looking for problems that he could solve and potentially commercialize. When something didn’t work, he moved on to the next problem he could find. During his junior year of college, Akshat moved into an apartment where he began paying an electric bill for the first time, and began wondering which appliances were consuming the most energy. So, he began teaching himself how to engineer and build a product that could provide this information – an idea that quickly caught the attention of investors, won competitions such as the MIT Clean Energy Challenge, and helped him land a spot in the Hax accelerator program in Shenzhen, China. Despite all of this validation, Akshat began discovering that the product was not feasible for a variety of reasons, and on a serendipitous trip home to India, decided to pivot the product to serve factories and manufacturers. Since the pivot, Akshat has raised millions of dollars in venture capital, built out a robust customer base, and grown the team to 15 employees. Akshat discusses the lessons he learned along the way from avoiding solution-attachment, talking to customers early on, and raising venture capital. This conversation is brought to you by The Garage at Northwestern.
“Working on Amper and being able to power through the really challenging times and really enjoy the good times, I think it required just so much tenacity. And I think I was really obsessed with the problem, the market, just the manufacturing industry. And I think that really fueled a lot of passion and conviction to keep going at it.”
“…find a problem or a space that you’d want to invest the next couple of years working on. And the other is at the end of the day, the folks that really carry you through are your colleagues and your teammates. And so, I think that’s a kind of a given, but really picking great folks to work with obviously goes a long way.”
Welcome to How I Got Here, a podcast from the garage at Northwestern exploring interesting journeys of young professionals working at exciting companies and the role that entrepreneurship played in getting them there. My name is Mike Raab and I love dissecting nonlinear and non-traditional career paths and the lessons that we can all take away from those who forged them.
In this episode, I’m joined by Akshat Thirani, the founder and CEO of Amper technologies. Akshat founded Amper as a college student interested in understanding his electric bill, but after winning competitions such as the MIT clean energy challenge and attracting outside investors, he realized that he needed to pivot the product to serve industrial manufacturers instead of homeowners. Since that decision, Amper has raised millions of dollars of venture capital, grown to a team of 15, and helped customers manage their manufacturing lines.
In this conversation, we discussed pivoting a startup, fundraising from venture capitalists, and why as an entrepreneur it’s important to “think like a scientist”. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Akshat Thirani.
All right. Well Akshat, thanks so much for being here with us today.
Yeah, it’s good to be here, Mike.
We’re happy to have you. So, obviously I want to focus most of this conversation around Amper, which is the startup that you founded as a college student and have scaled and grown and now raise millions of dollars and run it full time. But you had actually had it a couple of ideas and projects and startups prior to Amper. Can you talk just a little bit about those ideas that you worked on and maybe why they didn’t know end up working?
Yeah, absolutely. So, I’ve been trying to start different ideas and products since my freshman year, pretty much, or even in high school. And I’ve always loved the idea of finding a problem, building a solution for it, and my freshman year of college, the immediate problem that I faced was really expensive textbooks. And so, wanted to build basically some kind of textbook exchange where you could buy used text books and not have to pay hundreds of dollars for it. It was really exciting to kind of start to build out the wire frames and all this, but that never really took off. And throughout college I played around with different ideas. Anytime I’d come across a problem, I’d want to kind of instinctively build a company around it. Maybe not the right approach for every problem, but that was just my mindset about building a product and commercializing it.
Yeah. And it sounds like you’re obviously excited by the prospect of commercializing solutions to problems that you face personally, but it sounds like you also weren’t discouraged when those ideas didn’t take off, you just kind of looked for the next thing is that right?
Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I mean, some things… It’s a personal thing around are you passionate enough about a problem to really see it through? Sometimes those problems are really core and can keep you fueled for the long haul and sometimes it’s just not the thing you’re most passionate about. So, I think, yeah, it’s interesting. It was always an exploration.
Right. I also feel like sometimes founders are really obsessed with a problem because they think they can build a business out of it not for any other reason, but it’s like, “This is my opportunity. I have to like build this.”
Right. Right. And that solution attachment is very easy to fall into especially whether you’re an engineer or someone who’s like part of this idea, so totally get it.
Right. I like that phrase solution attachment. So, I believe it was your junior year that you start working on kind of the original idea of what Amper was. What was the Genesis of that?
Yeah. So I moved off campus my junior year and started paying utility bills on electricity use and all. And started out with a simple question, which is, oh, I wonder what’s really using electricity? How’s this bill generated? What’s composed of it? And I think it was a very basic question. And at the time I was really, really into renewable energy and the grid in general. And so, I just found it like a fascinating problem to understand both how home energy is used and also its implications at a grid level. And yeah, essentially started to pull on this thread and came up with this solution of a smart circuit breaker where basically we would measure electricity using a few sparks or a circuit breaker in homes and found it to be a pretty interesting point to measure because you could tell which rooms are using how much electricity, which appliances are using how much electricity. So, it was just a very interesting thing that I kind of stumbled upon and definitely had fell victim of that solution attachment over here. But it was just a fascinating problem to be honest.
Yeah. Super interesting. So, essentially you wanted to know my refrigerator is costing me 20 bucks a month. My air conditioner’s costing me 30. And just like understand how much all of your appliances were costing on your monthly electricity bill.
Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
And did you know if this was technically possible? Like what was kind of your process from this is something I would like to know to discovering and researching the feasibility of it?
Yeah. At that point, I didn’t even think as thoroughly around how do we launch this as a complete product? I was like, “Oh, I wonder what the electrical patterns look like of different appliances at home.” And so, kind of took it inch by inch where I started to kind of build a basic prototype, see what is happening, and at the time I also started going to a lot of hackathons, which are these events where for 24 hours or 36 hours you’re just kind of building stuff. And so, it was an interesting enough product or problem to build out on where I started taking this to two or three different hackathons and kept building different components of it. And funny story there, I actually ran into the folks from 1517 Fund who used to run the Thiel Fellowship and they found the idea super interesting and that led to some more conversations and ultimately a grant by the Thiel Foundation on that same idea.
Wow, so you’re getting some like initial interests and funding it sounds like very early on.
Yeah. It was a pretty small check, but it was enough to make me feel like this completely validated and really excited about the idea. So, I thought it was a pretty cool thing to be working with these folks and to have that support from them.
For sure. And at this point, we haven’t covered yet what you’re studying in school, but is this stuff, as far as what you’re building, that you’re learning in classes or are you learning it online or teaching yourself or where are you getting the knowledge and experience to build kind of the MVP of this product?
Yeah. A lot of this was just not related to coursework. Like it wasn’t a school project. Wasn’t part of a course and things that I was learning was like how do you design PCBs and different web applications. I could have taken a course theoretically, but it was just building it out and learning from different resources online.
Got it. You’re just teaching yourself at your own pace rather than like waiting for a 10 week course or something.
Yeah, no, I’m going to wait until next winter quarter.
I love that. Okay, so you’re working on this idea. You kind of have some external validation and a small check. And let me know if I’m jumping ahead here, but you decide over the summer to turn down an internship offer that you had to Google to work on this full-time. How has that experience and is it what you were expecting as far as kind of working on your startup full-time?
Yeah. I was really excited to explore this. This was in between my junior and senior year of college and I felt like there was no good reason not to do it. It felt like there was enough of a nugget of an idea that I really wanted to put in the time and really explore at this problem. And I will say it was a pretty challenging summer to be working this solo in apartment. This was before the garage really existed. So, I think I learned firsthand just the challenges of doing the solo, but at the same time I didn’t want to kind of give up on this. It was really interesting. And at the time I partnered with one of my friends Phil House to build this out further and just kind of share a bit more from here. In the fall of my senior year, had the opportunity to attend one of these stocks by someone who was from an accelerator.
So, the startup program HAX, which is a startup program to help hardware companies launch their products. One of the partners was on campus at Northwestern giving a talk. And after speaking with him one-on-one after the talk, he gave an offer on the spot to join the startup program. That was really exciting. It felt like the whole world changed in that moment to an extent. And here’s someone doing it as a side side gig and suddenly it becomes a company to an extent by getting an investment offer and joining us start a program. That is a big turning point. But yeah, I mean, my fall of my senior year, I was pretty determined to see this through and do this full-time this just was honestly a matter of luck as well.
Yeah. So, it sounds like the kind of summer before you realized how kind of lonely it can be being a one person startup. And I think sometimes there’s just a lack of the balance of someone’s having an up there down day, but you find Phil, bring him on, then your fall quarter, you’re getting again, more external validation from smart people who want to invest and help Amper grow. So, at this point, like where’s the product? Do you have customers yet? Like what kind of progress had you made? And how are you thinking about it? It sounds like you definitely were not thinking about doing recruitment or looking for other jobs after school, but you were kind of all in on making this work. Was that the case?
Yeah. So the state of the business was that it was a prototype and it was able to do at a very MVP level, the end to end of measuring electricity and basically telling what appliances [inaudible 00:11:16] in a house. Now that’s maybe doing it too much, giving it too much credit, but there’s a semblance of a prototype that seemed to work and obviously a long, long way from being able to sell it to homes and replace safety devices in circuit breakers. And at the time, we got into the startup program and gone like January, February, March is typically when a lot of startup pitch competitions happen in colleges. Like whether it’s a Rice Business Case Competition or even at Northwestern. And that time was really consumed in pitching and not as much in building. So, that is a pretty unique time.
Interesting. So, kind of the second half of your senior year is mostly entering these pitch competitions to win some significant cash, but less so on building product or selling customers or that type of thing. And you actually ended up winning like the MIT Clean Energy Challenge. You won some money from the Northwestern competition. So, I assume that’s like a very motivating and exciting process. How are you feeling? Again getting more and more external validation here.
Yeah. At the time, it just felt great, right? Like really smart people have validated your idea. You’ve gotten some form of venture investing through the startup program. MIT’s Clean Energy prize. You’ve kind of won some prize there. And I think that actually warped reality more than it should have to an extent for me, which is, I just felt like, “Yeah, this has got to be one of those things that just works out.” So anyway, this flights booked to go to Shenzhen for four months, be part of the startup program, and graduate.
And there’s this weird like two, three month period before the startup program actually starts and piece by piece that whole startup program… Sorry, the startup idea is invalidated, meaning it’s a safety device as a circuit breaker so you can’t just launch it. You’ve got to go through a ton of regulation. Home electricity bills are pretty cheap for most people. So, saving a few bucks here and there is just not a compelling enough reason to change your habits. And just the sales cycles of replacing electrical infrastructure is multi-year, right? Unless you have reasons for renovating. And so, it became clear that this is an idea that an early stage startup is probably biting off more than I can chew. And I still believe that that product should exist, but probably by a different scale of a business to launch it.
Interesting. So, there’s kind of this dissonance because you’ve been working on this idea for over a year at this point. You’ve won and earned a bunch of investment, gotten external validation, but you personally on the ground who’s doing the research and building this and are discovering that it’s not feasible. How does that feel? You’re still supposed to go to HAX in Shenzhen right at this point?
Are you nervous, anxious? Do you have imposter syndrome? What’s your kind of mindset as far as everyone’s telling me this is a good idea. I’ve personally validated that this isn’t going to work? What’s your next step?
At the time, there was definitely like, I felt a little sad that the idea going to kind of make it. It just felt like it made sense, but kind of came to terms with it. And pretty much immediately the focus was like what’s next? Because we’ve committed to this. Phil just quit his full-time job and is working Amper and we’ve got to make something of it. So, the question was what’s next? And it’s funny, even when we showed up to the program in Shenzhen, we didn’t really have an idea of what’s going to be next. So, we just kind of ran with the old idea because we didn’t want to get kicked out of the program. And then fortunately, and like say 30 days or so we made a pretty good pivot to the industrial space.
And just for context, I grew up around manufacturing all my life. My family’s been doing it for multiple generations. I grew up seeing the shop factory floor firsthand. And my dad, even right now, he runs manufacturing companies in India. So, to me, it was funny that it wasn’t the first place where I even started the company, but a very natural place for it to have ended up where it just made a lot of sense. And I knew the problems really well first hand. So, we made the pivot in the first month of the startup program from home electricity monitoring to instead using kind of the same approach, which is any machine has an electrical signature that tells you something about it. That’s really interesting. And let’s apply that to industrial assets where there’s a really compelling and sizeable business case around.
Right, but I want to emphasize this kind of pivot comes from a bit of like a serendipitous trip that you took while in China back home to India, right? Like it wasn’t something that you just had a light bulb moment. It was because you were in Shenzhen and visited home and talked to your dad about what you were working on.
Yeah. I mean, that’s just how it works out, right? So, some weird visa related reason I had to be back in India and it was like a short four day trip, and this was still in the motions of soul searching and figuring out what we’re going to work on next. And at that moment in time, Amper did not have a product, a market, or an idea what to do next. While I was back in India at my dad’s factory, it kind of clicked looking at the various problems that were there. So, for example it was so clear to see the amount of pen and paper and manual data tracking that was being done, the amount of emphasis that was in being competitive and having cost reductions and lean manufacturing. So, just being in that environment cause of a random visa related trip kind of just made the two worlds kind of click and it made sense to pivot to that industry.
Right. That’s amazing. And so, you end up pivoting to this kind of manufacturing analytics product. Walk us through what happens going back to HAX and what’s next for you guys?
Yeah, so it was a little awkward. So, it’s like everyone, we’re actually not doing this whole idea that you invested in. We’re doing a completely different idea that we have no idea how to actually build out, but we’re doing it anyways. And they were super supportive. The folks that HAX and the following two, three months we built out an MVP. And what’s funny is at the time I became a lot more reluctant, just scarred from being so wrong about home energy monitoring. And so, I think we had conviction in the space and the size of the problem, but the solution and the approach largely became a hypothesis. So, that is kind of the mindset, which is okay though, we have conviction of the problem, the kinds of customers we want to work with, but in terms of the specific solution that we’re building, we think it’s right. But time will tell and we need to run more experiments.
Yeah. That’s super smart. Again, not being married to your solution. It sounds like you learned your lesson from the first iteration. And so when you have a hypothesis for a solution for this new product, how do you test that? What’s kind of your scientific process as far as getting that validation.
Yeah. So at this point we were pretty clear that we needed to speak with a ton of customers before writing any code, building any more product. And at the time I actually joined another startup accelerator called Alchemist Accelerator, which is based in San Francisco and they’re heavily sales and fundraising focused. So, that was a great experience to kind of also learn how to really do that sales validation and product validation process. And we essentially had a ton of interviews, try to do some experiments in cold emailing to seek out the resonance, a lot more market research, and spoke with anyone and everyone we could to get as much feedback and signal on is this the right problem to be solved? And is the right solution or approach to the problem?
Right. So instead of building the product kind of in secret and then trying to release it and being like why don’t you guys want this? You really I’m focused on getting input and feedback from potential customers on what they were interested and willing to pay for in the first place.
Exactly. And that in the following months, this is in 2017, we had a handful of pilot customers that were like proof of concept. So, devices that were actually deployed in the field, people interacting with a pretty basic app, but it gave enough feedback and small case studies and proof of concepts, customer validated that we knew there was something there we just needed to build it out.
Right. And at this point you’re also kind of living the San Francisco young founder life at this point, right? What was that experience like?
It wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds. That’s for sure. Lived in three different apartments at the time in San Francisco, like Craigslist and all that. It was just such a unique time because our company just didn’t have a lot of money and we had to be insanely frugal while trying to raise a seed round of funding as well. And just a quick note on that, I just remember raising our seed round and we’re building this weird manufacturing company. It has some hardware involved. Now, a lot of VCs obviously focusing on the industrial space and there’s a lot of excitement and energy around IOT and industrial technologies. But at the seed stage when we didn’t really know much about the venture industry, it just felt pretty challenging to raise a round of capital. But after two months of fundraising and about 90 rejections after meetings, this is after having a conversation, we were able to pull together a seed round that is led by Slow Ventures. Again, a huge inflection point for the company. I had the resources to really build out the product. Yeah. That was a crazy time.
Yeah. To get 90 rejections after meetings and still have the motivation and momentum to keep going is impressive. But I think necessary if you’re going to be a successful entrepreneur. What would you say looking back, what were maybe some of your misconceptions about fundraising from venture capitalists or what would you have done differently if you could have a do over that kind of first round?
One, I think we could have used a better website. I think design matters, but I think what was really helpful for me was some conversations I had where essentially really understanding why venture works the way it works. What is the meaning of having enterprise value? What is a high quality business? Why do startup businesses get startup funding and really understanding both the short term aspects around high growth, but also the long-term businesses that haven’t built. So, I guess all of this to say really understanding why VCs have a bias for certain kinds of businesses and almost looking at that most as inspiration for building a high-quality, high growth business instead of looking at the negatives of it.
Right. So, understanding why investment decisions are made and kind of tailoring your narrative and the business you’re building?
I would say firstly, the product and the business tailored to building a longterm and high quality company and around that building a narrative and a business plan that that is high quality. So, I think the business and the product have to exist before any pitch.
Right. So, okay, at this point, you’re a couple of years in, you just raised, I believe at $1.5 million for this first round?
Yeah, that’s right.
So, you’re set up pretty good. What’s what’s next for Amper?
So, we just closed this round and now there’s a big decision, which is to be in the Bay Area or move back to Chicago. A couple of external events over there, but overall, we made the decision to move back to Chicago after raising that round of funding in San Francisco. And it was definitely the right decision. The reason was we were much closer to more customers being based here in Chicago selling to manufacturers, not a whole lot in Northern California, long story short, we moved back to Chicago, built out an initial team of engineers to really get the product up and running. And yeah, it was a pretty exciting time.
Yeah. And so were there milestones or KPIs when you raised that first round that like your goal is to hit at that point? And how do you think about the strategy to get there? Or is it more okay, we have all these resources we’ll figure it out on the go?
Yeah, that’s a good question. While the goals were there, the initial focus was really identifying what use cases made sense for our customers and what kind of product value we could bring. So, it was less so around straight up growth and top line revenue, but we were still very much in the product market fit discovery phase. And at the time we were really focused on understanding what kind of use cases and applications would really resonate and be most impactful. I will admit that I kind of made the mistake of skipping that and trying to rush for revenue growth. And that obviously is a very hard thing to do before you have product market fit, but essentially that phase was really focused around finding value.
Right. And it sounds also like what you had learned in your experience so far was understanding that you have a bunch of assumptions and then setting out to either prove or disprove those assumptions.
So, yeah. How is Amper doing today? You’ve been through a lot, it’s been a winding journey. Sounds like there have been a lot of ups and downs. How are things going?
Yeah. Certainly lots of ups and downs. And I’m really excited about the point that we’re at right now. So over the last two, three years, we have built a really interesting and impactful product and really glad we focused a lot more on customer success and product development early on. At the end of the day, that’s really the foundation on which you can build any sales machine or look to acquire new customers. And at this point we have a team of about 15 people and really grateful for the resources, the team, the customers that we have, and yeah, the nature of questions to be asked or the problems to be solved has definitely evolved quite a bit. So, as I mentioned when we raised the seed round, the question was very much open.
Like what kind of customers you want to work with? What is really your product? What are those top two or three use cases? And it was definitely an adventure and a journey of a lot of experiments to really dial in on what works. Similarly around the sales aspects too, which is how do you really grow and what are those efficient channels or processes to drive growth? So, lots of experiments, lots of learnings. And if anything, I think the big takeaway is you’ll always have problems if you have any aspiration for growing and just having an approach that is somewhat repeatable to solving these problems and building a better product, fixing your process, I think that’s really been the big takeaway for me personally.
Yeah. That’s that makes a lot of sense. And it’s also just clear that you personally have grown from the perspective of your early days of the first iteration of Amper of, well, I’m getting all this external validation. So like I’m just going to keep going down this path to no, I have assumptions. I’m going to talk to customers. I’m going to make them happy and like that’s how we’ll grow.
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And somethings that were especially impactful for me is things like just the whole concept of jobs to be done, for example, that people hire your product to do tasks that are maybe challenging or complex. And it’s really identifying the true use cases of jobs to be done for our customers. Secondly, on the revenue growth front, having a really systematic and process driven approach to repeatable scalable sales. And so our company, we have like a lot of process, a lot of documentation and a lot of metrics that we track internally to make sure the leading indicators and the lagging indicators are looking the way we want them to. Yeah, it’s been a big, long journey of learning, but super grateful and excited for where we are.
For sure, and so now on this side of it looking back to when you were a freshman in college or even as you mentioned in high school, trying to build businesses around the problems that you saw, what would be your advice to a young entrepreneur today as far as what you’ve learned in how they should approach solving a problem that they’re interested in.
Working on Amper and being able to power through the really challenging times and really enjoy the good times, I think it required just so much tenacity. And there was so many points that I think were pretty reasonable to like maybe not go long or whatever. And I think I was just like really obsessed with the problem, the market, just the manufacturing industry. And I think that really fueled a lot of passion and conviction to keep going at it.
And so I guess like the takeaway is definitely find a problem or a space that you’d want to invest the next couple of years working on. And the other is at the end of the day, the folks that really carry you through are your colleagues and your teammates. And so, I think that’s a kind of a given, but really picking great folks to work with obviously goes a long way. And as someone in college, it’s really hard to find in a sense folks that you have worked with in a professional sense for years and years, but it’s also kind of one of the easier points to find potential co-founders or colleagues. So, I definitely would encourage people to find those people that are really passionate and have a lot of tenacity for solving problems.
Yeah. I think that the college ecosystem is not only a great time to try starting your own startup, but a great resource for all of the diverse and different people that you have access to.
And I do want to call out the garage for a second because I really do consider it the place where we founded the company and folks like Melissa and Billy were so key to those early days and pushing us to ask those questions and invalidate the 1.0 idea. Even after we left Northwestern, we had the opportunity to get an investment from NU Seeds to get customers, get advisors. So just want to say how grateful I am for the garage.
Well, thank you. We appreciate that. And obviously we’re proud of all the great work you’ve been doing, and appreciate you sharing your perspective and wisdom with us here today.
Yeah, you got it.
All right. Thanks so much Akshat.
If there’s one lesson I would take away from Akshat, it’s the importance of avoiding solution attachment or being married to what you think customers want without talking to them. Akshat discovered that by talking to potential customers at the earliest stages, he could get input and feedback directly from them about potential solutions for the problem before starting to build a product that they might not be interested in and wasting valuable time. If there’s a problem you’re trying to solve with a startup, I encourage you to talk to as many people currently facing that problem as you can and be open-minded to what your ultimate product might look like. Even if it isn’t what you had originally envisioned. How I Got Here is a podcast from The Garage at Northwestern and is produced by Melissa Kaufman, Ben Williams, and Elisabeth Wright. If you enjoyed this episode, please rate and review us on your favorite podcast platform.