Podcast Episode 47

Leading with Purpose: Building and Scaling a Tech Startup

In this insightful podcast episode, host Ryan Davies engages in a captivating discussion with Ashwin Madhavan, CEO of vidBoard.ai, exploring the theme of “Leading with Purpose: Building and Scaling a Tech Startup.” The conversation delves into Ashwin’s entrepreneurial journey, emphasizing the importance of staying grounded, adapting to market needs, and prioritizing customer feedback. They highlight the pitfalls of overreliance on external funding and underscore the significance of focusing on niche areas within the tech. Ashwin shares valuable insights on the role of Generative AI in vidBoard.ai’s vision to revolutionize video creation processes, aiming to provide a user-centric solution for scaling content creation efficiently and affordably. Throughout the dialogue, practical advice and thought-provoking perspectives abound, making this episode a must-listen for aspiring entrepreneurs and tech enthusiasts alike.

Listen to the Episode Now


Ryan Davies:  Welcome everyone to the Tech Business Roundtable podcast show. This is a podcast show dedicated to shining a spotlight on tech innovators, entrepreneurs, founders, and the compelling narratives behind the movements they’ve established. I’m your host, Ryan Davies. I’m hosting today’s discussion on Leading with Purpose: Building and Scaling a Tech Startup with Ashwin Madhavan. Ashwin. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Ashwin: Thank you so much, Ryan.

Ryan Davies: This is going to be a really cool story and journey with Ashwin. We were talking before we started recording here. It’s just so, so great to hear his journey and such a great take on the tech landscape, being a founder and really just taking, you know, what you love doing and kind of putting it into a different area and kind of having that light bulb go off. All those for our listeners. Ashwin is the co-founder and CEO at vidBoard.ai and really has been on a decade-long journey as a serial entrepreneur. He has a passion for technology and innovation and, prior to founding vidBoard.ai, played a pivotal role in establishing Enhelion.com, which was a bootstrap venture that burgeoned into one of India’s largest online legal education platforms. Incredibly impressive court portfolio under Ashwin’s leadership trained over 50,000 students and collaborations with prestigious institutions and companies. He’s a prolific author, having penned three books on business, intellectual property, and cyber crisis management. It’s garnered recognition from renowned publishers a dual master’s degree in law.  I think you said you have three law degrees, and we were talking before in technology and law from, you know, around the world, Dalhousie and Halifax at the University of Oslo. He’s a world traveler. You know, a World War Two enthusiast, I think, is just a student of world history by the sounds of things and really just immerses himself in extensive reading around military history, politics, and business on a daily basis. Ashwin, I think this is going to be so much fun. You’re going to take us on such a great ride here. I don’t know if there’s anything else in the intro to cover there. But I think beyond that, let’s just jump right in and talk a bit about your background. You know what inspired you to become an entrepreneur in the tech space?

Ashwin: All right. So thank you so much, Ryan, for having me here. I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I saw my grandfather build his company, and I saw my father build his companies, and there was always this inkling in the back of my head that I would one day do something of my own. But as luck would have it, Destiny took me in a direction where entrepreneurship was not the first thing that students would do. I joined law school, one of India’s premier legal education institutions. The day I joined, I realized that this place is not for me, but that thing of, you know, getting out of law school and coming back home and saying that, hey parents, I’m not interested in the law, that didn’t come, it was, it should have come that time, but it didn’t,  it didn’t strike. So, I took five years of my time trying to understand where I can fit into this legal world. 2008 I joined law school in 2005, and by 2008, I befriended a very well-known, leading, very humble, fascinating human being. who is my mentor. His name is Rodney. He’s one of India’s leading technology lawyers. He and I really hit it off from day one, and his interests were history. My interests were history, and his love for traveling, his love for photography, and his love for discussing politics and intellectual stuff really matched with mine. We never discussed anything about the law. We only discussed about these things. That’s how our friendship started, and with that friendship, we decided to take the plunge into entrepreneurship. So that’s how my entrepreneurial journey began, while the entrepreneurial journey started with small projects here and there. I also wrote my first book with him on intellectual property and business again, a non-law book and that book took me about six years to write and research along with him. Meanwhile, while I was doing this, I finished my undergraduate graduation in law, and I went to Canada on a full scholarship. I did get through into the elite law schools in the United States, including the likes of Berkeley but then I wanted to get admission and say no to them. There was this kick that I had that I had to say no to these people. So I got admission, and I said no and I ended up in Dalhousie. While pursuing my first master’s, I decided that it was high time that I should start venturing into the space of the entrepreneurial world, but then, still that time, the inner me was telling me that no, I should become a lawyer, and I went through a lot of interviews across based street firms in Toronto, in Ottawa and in Halifax and all of them rejected me. So then I decided to finish the law degree, and I said, OK, fine. Now it’s high time that I finished this, and I decided to pursue another master’s degree in law which was in the University of British Columbia while pursuing that degree. I finally realized that law is not for me. So I decided to say Adios Amigo, and I came back to India, and that’s how I started my first entity in the legal education space. Now, why we started that was we knew that there was this big problem in the Indian legal education system, which is that the majority of the law schools do not teach you what is actually supposed to be taught in a law school. They are; unfortunately, the students are taught everything that is not supposed to be taught, like legal theory and, you know, boring stuff that 99% of the time you don’t use in your daily life. So we decided to bridge that gap between academia and the profession by launching these capsule programs, on-demand learning programs that are quite popular in the West, but they were not structured in our part of the world, and to our surprise, it really got along well and with the student community and we did extremely well. That’s when this business, this legal education business, started taking an upward trajectory, and by 2020, when the pandemic hit. We were flooded with a lot of requests on launching more and more and more courses, and to our horror and shock. We didn’t have the necessary wherewithal to record so many lectures at one go and to invite experts from all across the country in our office to record those lectures because we just didn’t have the money and the means to create those lectures to create those recordings, if I say. That’s when the idea of the second start-up, vidBoard.ai, came in wherein. I bought the idea was very simple: how to create videos from written text and how to make a front-facing human photograph talk in multiple languages without making you step into a video studio. So that was a mandate. So I met my friend, he’s a very dear friend of mine. His name is Tushar Bhatnagar. You have interviewed him in the past a couple of weeks back. So I met Tushar, and I told him, listen, this is the mandate. Can we do this? So he looked at me for a couple of minutes, and he said, yes, it can be done, and today, vidBoard.ai is in version two. We are about to launch our version three of the platform in the month later, half of Jan, December, or early January, where we are trying to reduce the time that a person takes to create videos at scale from, say, a number of hours to less than five minutes. So, by bringing in Generative AI and design skills, all rolled into one. So, we are trying to ensure that people can create videos in a jiffy without spending too much time, money, and effort. So that is what we do and this is what, where we are right now. 

Ryan Davies: Yeah, I think it’s absolutely incredible. It’s so amazing where you’ve got these engaging, you know, avatars of insects that are, you know, it really shows the evolution of AI what’s being done to be able to empower other tech founders like yourself to be able to be more productive and professional and get their message across and just as part of their marketing and communication efforts, it’s such a, such an amazing platform. When we talk a little bit more about, you know, building that company, building that vision, you know, how did you approach building such a strong foundation for vidBoard.ai in the early stages? And were there any kind of pivotal moments or decisions that you would say really shaped the trajectory of vidBoard.ai or any of the other start-ups that you’ve been working on?

Entrepreneurial Journey and Strategies

Ashwin:  The first thing that I thought very, I would say deeply, was the fact that not to take external capital because if you take external capital, right? In the beginning, you are actually, I would say, restricted from thinking beyond what the board wants you to think because when you take external money, you tend to be at the mercy of the board. No matter what, even if you take a little amount of money, there is always this controlling factor that is at play. So that is something that I did not take in my first start-up and also in the second start-up, I’m not averse to taking money, and what I’m trying to say is that it is important for any entrepreneur to think initially before thinking of capital, and the external case should at least have made some money, deployed his own money and the money that the business has generated into further developing the product and then seek for external capital because that way he will know where to put money, where to spend, how much to spend, what to do, what not to do because entrepreneurs who don’t bootstrap from the beginning, they take external capital. What I have found is that they get carried away by the fact that they are getting millions and millions of dollars in that account, but that is not the business money. It is actually steroid money. So when you get steroid money, you tend to use it in a way that is not supposed to be done, and that’s how businesses flounder. So I always felt, and I think that is something that I would advise every entrepreneur that learns to bootstrap and start small. Rome was not built a day, built in a day, and let’s face it. It’s not necessary that you have to be an Elon Musk or, I would say, Mark Zuckerberg. It’s not necessary that everyone has to be that small is beautiful as well. It’s not necessary to be big and huge. It’s not required. You can be small, you can be beautiful, and you can make lots of money for yourself, for your investors, and for the people who work with you.

Ryan Davies:  I love that perspective, right? Of just understanding, you know, being comfortable with not needing to be the next Apple, the next, you know, the next Google, the next, whatever it is, and really just being understanding like, you know, what do I wanna do? What’s gonna make me happy? And I think, you know, that’s a great point that I hear a lot and I think needs to be reiterated is around the fact where it’s like great to get funding. It seems really wonderful. You can reach all your dreams and scale at this unprecedented pace if you want to do it, but for a lot of people that want to be a tech entrepreneur, that takes the entrepreneurship out of it to a certain extent because now, once again, you’ve got someone to answer to, right? Like you’re really at somebody else’s will and whim, and sometimes it really changes what you can do. So, ask yourself that question. There’s nothing wrong with, of course, saying no, like I wanna scale, I wanna be huge. I wanna do that, but for a lot of people, you know, don’t let that be, oh, I won because I got funding or whatever it is, be able to understand where you’re comfortable at.

Ashwin:  You’re absolutely right there. What I don’t understand in people is that they say, oh, my idea will work if I have funding. So, this funding concept is very new. Now, when we were kids and when you were a kid, we were taught in school that a businessman spends what is a business? A businessman is a person who spends $10 in the morning but earns $12 at night by night time, and the $2 that profit is business, but what is happening in the VC space is you are spending $1000 to earn $2. That’s not business. That is something else that I’ve not understood. I don’t want to. I’m not saying it is wrong or right. Maybe tomorrow, 5-2 years down the line. Five years down the line, vidBoard.ai may seek funding but seek funding only when it is required not take funding just for the sake of taking funding. It’s like saying I need $10.10 dollars to run a tea stall, but the investor is giving me $500,000 and telling me that, hey, now you’ve got $500,000 now spent. That’s ridiculous. I mean, that’s what is happening. And it’s good that today, after the fund, after this funding winter thing has started, it’s good that people are beginning and they have finally understood what business means. It is not spending $10 and earning $1, no business. Good businesses are spending $10 and earning $12.15 dollars or $25 or $30 if you’re lucky, and when it comes to the fact that we always have this fascination about being a unicorn, I’m of the other school of thought. I would rather be a camel. I don’t want to be a unicorn. A unicorn is an imaginary thing. I’ve never seen it. I’ve seen a camel. I know that camel is brilliant. He is the ship of the desert. He will only have water when he sees water, and he will have so much water that he doesn’t need to have water for the next ten days. That is a bootstrapped entrepreneur.

Ryan Davies:  I love that.

Ashwin:  Not a unicorn. Who is? Imagine thinking on Excel sheets that, oh my God, I’m a billion-dollar company. But for God’s sake, I mean, are you really a billion-dollar company? No, I’ve got billions of dollars in cash parked in my bank and, you know, multiple revenue billion dollars, multiple valuations, all that crap. I mean, it just doesn’t make sense. 

Ryan Davies:  Yeah, it’s that goal of, you know, winning the lottery type of a thing, too is a strategy. Being a unicorn is a strategy where it’s like, is it realistic? Are you actually? I love the reaction. I love the answer there, and I love that comparison. I know I saw in the show notes that you actually wanted to point out that you love dogs and camels and pigs, and I love that you brought the camels into this. So you’re just to kind of give us because I was going to ask that question. Like, what’s the, why? That’s an odd show. But yeah, I totally love that. You’ve drawn the analogy for me and connected those dots.

Ashwin:  That’s why I was telling you I was before we started. We are selling that when I was on a holiday in Morocco, I befriended a camel. Her name was Izzu, and she was observing her. I mean, I was like, what a wonderful creature. I mean, she is not seeing or here. I don’t know whether it was he or she; I’m assuming it’s a she, and it’s such a fascinating creature. It knows that it has this much grass in this vast desert; it will eat it, and it will survive till it finds or finds the next patch of grass or the next patch of water or the next oasis that is a bootstrapped entrepreneur. That’s how we are wired inside. I will always think twice to spend the next dollar. Like today in the morning, one of my developers told me that Ashwin, for building the website, I will charge you $2000 or something. I heard her on the phone. I said no, I will not spend that much money. I switched the phone up. I called up another developer. I said I would want you to do it at $300. Is it ok? I’ll do it. Now, there is a difference. Now, see you now, from a bootstrap perspective, I’m always careful about where I have to spend that $1 or $2 or $300 or $500. Now, if this guy says, no, I cannot do it for $300, I would do it for $700. I’ll say, ok, do it for $700, but I will not pay $3000. Yeah, I’m careful, but when you are in a funded start-up, you are not careful because it’s not your money, for Christ’s sake. It is somebody else’s money. So you will not be careful, and that leads to your downfall, and it happens. I mean, people see that out of 100 funded start-ups, only one succeeds and the 99 just get destroyed. I’m trying to tell the audience that 99% of that do get destroyed because they do get destroyed, and you are seeing examples of many companies right now in the United States, Canada, and India that are just floundering.

Ryan Davies:  I think that’s, again, another wonderful analogy. I think it totally makes sense, and again, you hear it all the time: you have investors that are coming to you, and if you were to go back to your investor and say, why isn’t this done, and they say, well, you know, I got this for 2000 so I had to call someone else so that they’d be like, I don’t care, I gave you the money, just get it done, right and it’s like, that’s great, but you’re gonna need that for something else, and it’s great to accelerate because, you know, again, you’re on someone else’s timetable, you’re on someone else’s terms and then it becomes like you said, it can be a reckless repeatable strategy of just get it done until you turn around and go. Where did the money go? I thought there was still money here, whatever it was, and then you’re like, well, I guess we’re done now because I’m out.

Ashwin:  If, for example, some buyer comes and company, they buy the company out. The founders don’t realize that the founders will get the money last. First, the investors will and they’ll get it at a premium, and only the leftover part will be divided between you and your co-founder and your employees, right? People forget that. They think, oh, my start-up got sold for $100 million, but how much did the founder make? Have you asked that question? For that, you need to read, and you need to watch youtube channels. You need to see these are important things for young entrepreneurs who think that entrepreneurship means quick money and becoming rich. It doesn’t work like that. I mean, let’s talk about all the famous business houses in the United States today. The Rockefellers, I mean, they started their business in the 16 hundreds to the 17 hundreds, right? They’re still going strong. Look at Microsoft in 1979. I don’t know when they started. Look at them; they’re still going strong. Look at Apple, they’re all these legacy companies and the fundamentals were right. I’m not saying that funded start-up fundamentals are not right. No, I’m not saying that I’m saying that if you have to do business the right way, you have to accept and see the good case studies rather than the bad case studies and say I want to be like Elizabeth Holmes or whatever that lady’s name is who got was sent to jail. Yeah, so that is not an entrepreneur. That’s fraud. So, there are things you need to do as young entrepreneurs. We have to keep thinking, and we have to keep reading about these things because that is how we will be grounded.

Ryan Davies:   Yeah, exactly. You don’t want Theranos to repeat the story. What did she do there? I love that. Again, I think there’s just so much here to take away. Like you said, do your reading, do you know, go to YouTube, come to the Tech Business Roundtable podcast show, and have people like Ashwin help us guide you, right? To help you understand things like this is exactly why you’re here, and why we do what we do is to be able to understand exactly that, right? Like to get a message across and to understand what you hear and maybe what those, you know, what you think the trends are not necessarily right for you or the right way to go and certainly you’re going to have your failures and your setbacks and like you said, it might be longer to go between those waters or those patches of grass but that really is what’s going to help, build that backbone from that bootstrap perspective and keep you in control, right and I think I wanna pivot slightly here. I know we’re already at the time, but I just, I have so much, I love talking to you about here, and you’re in the Generative AI space, you know, and we’ve been talking about this ability to, should be, you know, adaptive and that’s part of what the fundraising perspective or non-fundraising gives you that ability. This is an ever-evolving landscape that you’re in. How are you able to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to innovation? Do you have any advice for founders who are looking to really identify and capitalize ways to stay ahead?

Role of Generative AI in Startups

Ashwin:  See, the time has come for Generative AI start-ups to focus on use cases rather than building new technologies because starting an AI start-up is very, I would say it’s cost unfriendly. You have to spend a lot of money instantly when you start something. Let’s take the example of OpenAI and ChatGPT. There are so many use-specific start-ups that have already created their Software around the OpenAI API keys. I would tell all entrepreneurs, including myself, every now and then that I cannot, if at all, I have to start something in the Generative AI space. I would focus on your niche, focus on niche areas and then harping rather than, you know, creating another ChatGPT because that I can’t do. It’s just not possible. You need to have hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars of funding, plus some things which people don’t talk about is that you need to have lots and lots of water supply, right? It might sound like you have to have a lot of water supply to ensure that your servers remain cool because GPU servers if they are run 24 hours a day, there is a lot of power being used. A lot of electricity is being used and a lot of water has to be used to ensure that the systems become. They don’t melt over that matter. They don’t become they don’t because GPUs if they are running at maximum capacity and maximum speed and maximum usage, they tend to become very hot. So, founders don’t think they say, oh, we’ll build another OpenAI. It can’t be done for God’s sake. You need to have friends like who are willing to billion dollars or $10 billion and put it in OpenAI and say, ok, let’s do it together. It’s not realistically possible, in my opinion, in my opinion, I’m not saying there can’t be other open a type of company. There can be, but it’s not that tomorrow there’ll be 10 OpenAI companies we will succeed. No, you need to have lots and lots of pockets and deep pockets.

Ryan Davies:  I mean, there’s so there’s so much to unpack. I’m just so, as I said, when you go for so long here and just talking about, you know, some of these ideas, the last one I kind of want to cover kind of, I think, combines the both of them, right? Because you mentioned about like the funding winter, you mentioned about some of the changes that we’re seeing and not just the rapid incredible changes we’re seeing from tech, but the changes we’re seeing in funding, the changing that we’re seeing from being a market-centric or a customer-centric approach and understanding, you know, focusing on market, focusing on the use case, right, not on technology. So there’s so much going on here. We’re talking about tons of rapid changes, business strategy, and shifting that to this industry change. Can you talk a little bit about the need to be adaptive to pivot and to recognize, you know, as you said, maybe it’s, you know, funding has changed, the use case has changed whatever it is to really continue to grow and fit your niche and grow to your customer in your market.

Ashwin:   See, in order to do that, the only thing that I, as a first-time Generative AI start-up founder, would do because it’s my first as well. Is that to listen to the audience that you are catering to, especially to the ones who have paid to use your tool because they will tell you what you need to do? Not the other way around. You will not go and tell them, hey, I want to do this. No, they will tell you what you need to do because, technically, you are because you are there because of them. So the initial users that come to you and use, you use your product, they should tell you what you need to do where you need to go, and that’s how we have evolved since we launched, say eight months back and to where we are today and for that business strategy wise if you are running a Saas platform, the first thing that I would say is that make an MVP immediately and launch it after launching it, ensure that you have a great UI/UX or a good decent UI/UX and launch the tool on a market places kind of platforms such as Abso and you know, there are many other marketplaces, software marketplaces that are out there. That way, you will be getting instant validation and instant traffic, and people will start using your tool. Then, you can seek feedback from them because they are the ones who are putting in money and using your tool at a very discounted rate, though. So then you can ask them, hey, how do I improve? How do I do it? How do I do this? How do I do that? They will feel happy that, hey, look, listen, a founder is asking me for help. So you have to understand from his psychology that a father is trying to talk to me. Although you are not some big messiah, you are all a human being liked him, but the thought process of the customer is, oh my God, the founder is talking to me. Let me give him my two cents. Let me give him my ideas on how we can improve his business. So, in a way, you’re not only helping him, you’re helping your business as well. So that is something that I will always tell anyone who’s in the SaaS field to go out there and just launch a tool and get it on these marketplace platforms to get the first traction.

Ryan Davies:   Perfect. You know, I think closing off here, I want to kind of sum it up a little bit in terms of maybe some excitement that you have for the future of the tech industry, but maybe just even a little more granular and talk about vidBoard.ai and how you envision, you know, the role of your own company in shaping that future.

Ashwin:  VidBoard wants to be the one-stop solution for everyone who wants to create videos at scale using Generative AI in the least amount of time, spending the least amount of money, and using the least amount of human effort. So that’s what we want to do, and God willing, we are heading towards that vision, and hopefully, by next year, we should be completing that.

Ryan Davies: You’ve got some amazing organizations that you’re working with amazing companies. Definitely vidBoard.ai go check it out because it is incredible what they’re doing. It is wonderful how it can help you scale regardless of where you are, and you’ll see that again with some of the best companies that they’re working with. The pricing model is spectacular. So, I mean, it’s absolutely wild that it’s really what you’re committed to helping, and I think that alone is a testament to showing what you’re committed to. This isn’t some long-term crazy subscription model that you’re putting together where you get your hooks and it goes. This is a look. Come here, we’re gonna help you. This is gonna be an amazing product. We’re gonna be the leaders and really showcase your ability to do that. So definitely vidBoard.ai. Go check that.

Ashwin:   Yeah, and one advice I would like to give everyone is that there is no need to be the leader in your space. There can be many small leaders in your space. It’s like going to; there are many five-star hotels in your city, whichever city you may be living in. It’s not that there’s only one restaurant, one airline, one food shop, and food. So many, so you need to be focused on the customer. The customer is the Supreme customer. What you need to do? Focus on that.

Ryan Davies:  Perfect. I think that’s an amazing piece of advice to kind of close us off here in Ashwin. The last little bit is for anybody who all of our listeners here, you know, I’m sure there are people who are going to want to get in contact with you, not just about vidBoard, but just, hey, you know, you’ve got this perspective that I would love to connect with to ask you a question, anything like that. Is there a way our listeners can do so?

Ashwin: They can write to me on LinkedIn. I prefer having such a conversation, and I’ll be more than happy to get onto a one-on-one with them. My own Gmeet or Zoom or whatever channel suits them. I hate texting. So, this kind of conversation I love.

Ryan Davies:  Perfect. There it is, take advantage, folks. You know, I think this was just an absolutely incredible podcast. Ashwin, thank you so so much for your time and your insight here. I think we’ve got another, you know, so many other topics that we can continue to talk about in the future and follow the vidBoard.ai journey because I think, again, this space is ever-growing. The company is going to continue to grow, and we’d love to continue to check in and see how this growth story and this success story continue over time. So thanks, Ashwin, really excited to to have you today, and already I’m excited to have you back again. So, yes, definitely wonderful. So, with that final minute here to thank Ashwin Madhavan for this amazing podcast leading with purpose building and scaling a tech start-up and I also want to thank our listeners. We can’t do what we do without you. It’s as simple as that. So, until we meet again with another amazing TBR episode, I’m your host, Ryan Davies. Thanks, everyone, and take care.

About Our Host and Guest

Director of Marketing – Ekwa.Tech & Ekwa Marketing
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Co-founder and CEO @ vidBoard.ai
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” The time has come for Generative AI startups to focus on use cases rather than building new technologies because starting an AI startup is very cost-unfriendly. “

– Ashwin Madhavan –