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Unexpected Startup Lessons: Fake Names, Good Listening, And The Price Of Time

Aarthi Ramamurthy has worked at companies both small and large, but none have offered as many lessons as being founder of a startup.

Unexpected Startup Lessons: Fake Names, Good Listening, And The Price Of Time
[Photo: Flickr user Richard P J Lambert]

Aarthi Ramamurthy knows a thing or two about growth.

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Though the software engineer has gone from working huge teams at Microsoft (as program manager for CLR and Xbox Live), to smaller groups at Netflix (as product manager for its Ready Device Platform), to a founding team of two at women’s-intimates startup True&Co., to launching Lumoid’s “try before you buy” gadget service on her own, Ramamurthy tells Fast Company, “The responsibilities scaled up.”

Aarthi Ramamurthy

In the 16 months since launch, Lumoid’s gone from about 10 orders on a good day to around 100 consistently. The company’s morphed from only renting photo and video equipment into distributing all kinds of wearables as well as drones. Ramamurthy says there are 4,000 people on the waiting list to take the Apple Watch out for a spin. They’ve recently moved from a 200-square-foot office to a spacious warehouse, and employ 10 full-time and four part-time staffers. Seventy percent of the staff is female, Ramamurthy says.

At its most basic level, learning how to build a company from scratch has included how to tackle everything from a printer out of toner to getting more inventory and setting up new merchandise partnerships. As such, here are Ramamurthy’s takeaways on handling all manner of growth.

On Making Every Day A School Day

When Ramamurthy landed at Microsoft in 2005, she was well-equipped to handle the technical aspects of the job, armed with a master’s in engineering from the PSG College of Technology in her native India. But Ramamurthy admits that when she landed in Seattle in November, having never traveled to a foreign country before, she was riddled with self-doubt. Pushing past the internal voice that asked, “What am I doing here?,” Ramamurthy took the challenge of making every day a school day.

“I am just terrible at most things,” Ramamurthy says with a laugh. “So when I’m really bad at something, I start learning, then doing more of it, then I get really good at it,” she explains. “It’s humbling constantly thinking, Wow, I suck at everything,” Ramamurthy says. “Then you realize when you are really good at [something], you are not being a good CEO.” Learning when it is time to hand things off not only helps others learn to take responsibility, but also allows Ramamurthy to move on to a new challenge, a key to growth, both personal and professional, she says.

On Letting the Customers Determine Your Direction

When Ramamurthy first conceived of Lumoid’s service, she had a preconceived notion that consumers were only going to rent, never buy. E-commerce was something other businesses would handle. But after the first few orders, it became apparent that people would get the product home and then tell Lumoid they wanted to keep it. Ramamurthy remembers saying, “That is not our business model. What are we going to do for the next set of customers who want our items?”

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She soon saw how it totally made sense. “We kind of felt dumb about it,” she confesses, adding that they should have watched the customers more carefully. But Lumoid soon remedied that and offered a buying option.

Being A Good Listener

In addition to gathering data on all transactions so they can better predict what to offer, Lumoid employs a chat interface for customers to talk to staff as well as field calls on the phone. As the company has grown, Ramamurthy still makes sure that all new hires spend a week responding to customer questions as part of their onboarding. “It came out of necessity for us,” she says, with a small staff and a growing number of customers, but morphed into an integral part of ensuring that each employee understands the needs of the customer even if they don’t know the answers to all the questions.

“Every time we have a few minutes, we log into the interface and chat with our customers,” says Ramamurthy, who is also at times at the other end of the chats. But customers won’t ever guess they are chatting with the founder. Ramamurthy says each person on chat assumes a fake name, in part to keep things simple and easy to spell, especially with a name that’s uncommon like Ramamurthy’s and the unconscious biases that hearing it might raise. The way she sees it, “you can complain about people making assumptions, or you can run with it.”

That approach actually turned into a tool for fostering feel-good vibes among the staff. Ramamurthy says they all hit the white board each week to brainstorm new names, and then the designated aliases get used, even offline. “One week they called me Annie,” she says, laughing.

Keep Time Sacred

Necessity has also stepped in when it comes to meetings. Ramamurthy says she’s been in plenty of meetings where “there is no real consensus, everyone chats, and nothing is really changed.” To take back control, both at staff meetings and the ones she has with suppliers and partners, Ramamurthy says everyone (including her) needs to be completely prepared before sitting down, and armed with the understanding that something will come out of the gathering. “If there is written material, you read it. If I go to new investors, I go prepared with what we bring to the table and what we are doing.”

As part of this process, Ramamurthy says she puts at least the same amount of time into preparation as the length of the meeting. “It makes me feel more confident that I’m not wasting everyone’s time,” she explains. “There is nothing more sacred than time,” she says, adding, “Money will come and go, products are new and then get old, but the time you have is the most sacred thing.”

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Putting Yourself Out There

In all these meetings, Ramamurthy does a lot of hand shaking and speaking. But don’t be so quick to call her an extrovert. Though she’ll admit she loves telling the story of how Lumoid is changing retail, she also confesses, “I am a fake extrovert.”

Understanding that the difference between extroverts and introverts is whether they are energized or drained from being around people, Ramamurthy says, “I can do the [conversation], and I am very good at that.” Still, she says, as much as she loves meeting people, “at the end of the day, I just want to stare at the wall, I do not want to talk to anyone.”

Yet she can’t deny the feeling she gets from telling people how far the nascent company has come. “Talking about the story is the most empowering part of it,” she contends. Another thing she’s learned about entrepreneurship: “It doesn’t matter if you are introverted or extroverted, you have to be a storyteller, to go out and get your word out.”

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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