Dr Jayanth Neelakanta – Chief Executive Officer at Equip Professional Interview

TheCconnects: Can you tell our readers a little about your professional journey & how did you come to your current role/position?

Dr. Jayanth Neelakanta: I earned a Ph.D. in Physics from Syracuse University, and returned to India to work in EdTech. I didn’t know much about coding, so spent 2-3 years learning how to code and building some eLearning products. I didn’t have a team then but had a few paying customers. That was a really formative experience because I learned about Product, Engineering, and Business Development all at once.

My big break came around COVID when I realised that exams will move online and there would have to be a way to ensure students don’t cheat online. I was able to quickly build and launch AutoProctor, which prevented cheating on online tests. This was June 2020. Within 3 months of launch, it had 700,000 users and I was still the only person handling it. COVID may have been the lucky break, but if I had not spent the previous 3 years slogging away and picking up all the skills, especially product and engineering skills, there is no way it would have taken off the way it did.

Once AutoProctor started seeing growth and revenue, I hired an engineering team. We have conducted almost 15 million tests on AutoProctor to date.

We saw that a lot of AutoProctor’s users are actually recruiters who are ensuring their candidates don’t cheat on online tests. So, we launched Equip to help them screen their candidates, across a variety of skills. While AutoProctor may not grow as fast post-COVID, Equip is something recruiters will continue to use as most companies have made the switch to remote hiring.

TheCconnects: Who has influenced you the most in life and why?

Dr Jayanth Neelakanta: At a personal level, many people have influenced me, of course. At a professional level, the person who influenced me most was my PhD advisor, Cristian Armendariz-Picon. Like many other entrepreneurs, one of the reasons I chose to be an entrepreneur is because I don’t really like working under others. But, I would any day work under him! The 5 years I spent learning from him were the most fulfilling experience in my career.

A lot of who I am professionally is due to him. His work ethic, his empathy ,and his easy going nature are things I endeavour to follow. He was extremely approachable as a human, and however busy he was, I could walk into his office any time and ask him questions. He is immensely knowledgeable, and yet has no airs about it. And whatever he does, he does it properly and the best he can.

The best part of all this was, he never sat me down and said, “Do X. Change Y”, etc. I could see him doing things the right way and I just imbibed it. Instead of “Learn by doing”, it was “Learn by seeing someone else doing”! It is in neither Cristian’s nor my nature to make an effort to stay in touch, I suppose. So, I haven’t spoken to him lately. But, in the very very unlikely event you are reading this, Cristian, “Thanks a lot, again!”

TheCconnects: What are the biggest challenges you have faced in your life & how did you overcome them?

Dr. Jayanth Neelakanta: The biggest challenge, especially for tech entrepreneurs, is in selling their products. We may be good at product design and engineering, and may have a far superior product to what is on the market. But, making it popular and getting people to notice and buy it is much more difficult to do. As people who are naturally inclined to be introverts, Sales just doesn’t come naturally to most early-stage entrepreneurs. I am still grappling with it, though I am getting better I suppose.

The first step to this is to understand that this problem has been faced by tens of thousands of startups already. Very few of them have solved it successfully. So, you must try and learn, at a high level, how they solved it. You look at the go-to-market strategy of such startups, especially in your industry, and you learn from it.

The other thing that I find challenging is being in the public eye. I am feeling uncomfortable talking about myself even in this interview! But again, you look at entrepreneurs who started off similar to you and are ahead of you. You notice that, oftentimes, it is because they are being vocal about themselves and their product. And it is getting them attention.

On talking to them, you learn that they don’t particularly like doing it either, but they are doing it because it is required. That is a good enough reason to put aside inhibitions and start posting on LinkedIn!

TheCconnects: What lessons have you learned from your professional career?

Dr Jayanth Neelakanta: There are the standard ones about no replacement for hard work, playing the long-term game, staying focused, etc which I don’t want to repeat because most people know them already. I don’t mean that they aren’t important, they are very important. It is just not worth repeating!

One lesson I have learned is that you must have the courage of conviction to succeed. This means you need two things: a conviction about something, and the courage to stick to it! In quite a few instances, I had a thesis about something that wasn’t shared by experts and mentors I spoke to. But,

I was convinced enough about it that I went on with it. And was rewarded. Of course, in a few instances, you fail, but that is fine. I prefer to be in a situation where I blame myself for failure in doing something, to a situation where I blame someone else for disallowing me from doing something that would have actually worked.

The other lesson is to pay attention to detail. A single product is basically a compounding of hundreds of tiny decisions. And because product development is fairly simple now, especially in tech, your differentiation with respect to similar products, are those tiny details. It is true that, especially at the early stages, one mustn’t over-optimize a product. But, one must be aware of all the different choices one is making, and how that may impact things downstream.

I personally think “Don’t sweat the small stuff” shouldn’t apply in the early stages of a company. The Company’s make or break may well depend on a few of these “small stuff”s

TheCconnects: What do you see as the biggest challenge for brands in the digital space?

Dr Jayanth Neelakanta: Differentiation. There are so many different brands doing fairly similar things that it becomes difficult to stand out. Ads and other marketing material must be short because users have very short attention spans. But, the shorter an ad is, the more difficult it is to communicate exactly how you are different.

If you become even mildly popular, ten other copycats spring up and it becomes even more difficult to guard your territory. As a software developer, I still prefer to market and sell my products online. But, an advantage physical products have is, that you need to set up a proper distribution channel and develop relationships with your retailer, etc. This is a lot of work, but once it is set up, it is a huge moat.

When it comes to digital products, a college undergrad can buy a domain, set up a landing page, and start running ads in a few hours. Starting something new is very easy in the digital space, but continuing to grow it and defending it against the new competition is much harder.

TheCconnects: How your product/solution can help to resolve the pain points of your customers?

Dr. Jayanth Neelakanta: Equip helps recruiters screen candidates on skills with its automated skill assessments. As the hiring process shifts online, the number of candidates applying for open positions has increased massively. Recruiters are finding it difficult to identify relevant profiles because they must spend a lot of time manually parsing each CV or getting on a call with every candidate.

Our automated skill assessments help recruiters filter candidates across roles like engineering, data science, sales, and support, etc. By specifying the relevant skills and desired experience, a recruiter can create a shareable assessment in less than 2 minutes. The candidate takes the assessment on Equip and the recruiter uses this score to screen them.

On average, recruiters shortlist only the top 3% of the assessed candidates, and so we help them save 97% of their time!

TheCconnects: Do you have any advice for those who want to become a chief executive officer?

Dr. Jayanth Neelakanta: Opinions may be divided on this, but I think having a couple of years of work experience at a startup before your first company will be very beneficial. If there is one thing I would have done differently, it may have been this. I mean, the advantage of going straight into entrepreneurship like I did is that you have to learn everything from scratch in a very raw manner so that you will retain the lessons viscerally.

But, if you spend a couple of years at a startup, you really learn a lot about startup culture, the jargon, the priorities, and so on. Most important, and I cannot stress this enough, you build a network. That has been a huge handicap to me.

When you want to hire your first engineer or designer, it is so much easier if you can tap into a network. Plus, I guess you can save up a bit during your employment and that comes in handy during the first couple of years of your new startup. Because unless you are lucky enough to raise capital with just an idea, your bank balance depletes rapidly!

You can connect with Dr. Jayant Neelakanta on Linkedin here

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