MEET Kamakshi

Kamakshi Sivaramakrishnan left Google in 2010 to found Drawbridge, which uses advanced machine learning to connect brands with people across multiple devices. An immigrant and female founder, she sees her story as an example of the possibilities in what she calls the meritocracy of Silicon Valley, where “success can come in any shape or form.”

What is something you’ve learned that you lean on daily?

Because I’m an engineer by training and nature, I had a very binary mindset early in my career, even when it came to people. A powerful lesson for me was realizing people aren’t binary. We don’t follow the axioms of mathematics. We’re imperfect creatures by design, and the best way to overcome those imperfections is to form relationships and connect with one another.

It wasn’t something I learned overnight; I had to practice daily. But the investment was well worth it, because building a company is a collective journey, not an individual one. Your relationships with your customers, employees, partners and board members are all critically important. So you can’t depend on the times when you develop good relationships naturally. You have to put in the effort to make those connections routine and repeatable.

What one piece of advice would you give someone starting a company?

There are so many things you need to start a company—passion, ability, market opportunity, differentiation, a strong core product. They’re all critical. But I think the most important one is to get the right team around you. That’s what will ultimately drive your success, because building a company is a marathon, but it’s also a relay.

Specifically, you need to invest in bringing in the right people across every function. Founders who have a technology background, like I do, tend to focus on finding the best CTO, the best engineering leaders, the best developers. But there are so many other aspects of the company that can’t be overlooked. The leadership roles outside your area of expertise aren’t easy to hire for, but that makes them all the more important.

You have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Because I’m not a marketer by trade or a salesperson by trade, for example, I have to accept that I might make mistakes when I’m trying to evaluate talent in those areas. I can’t be afraid of that. I also have to be willing to ask for help from the people on my team, and in my network, who do know those areas well.

What small change has made a big difference in your life?

I’ve learned to disconnect on a regular basis. Some people do that daily or through their vacations, but the cadence that works for me is every week. Saturday through Sunday morning or early Sunday afternoon, I step away from work. I haven’t been very successful at disconnecting from my phone entirely, but I will go for a hike, paint or cook. Anything that will engage the other side of my brain. For a founder, it’s tough. Sometimes I have to force myself. But not only does it give me more time with my family and friends, I think it makes me a better founder. Disconnecting gives me the distance and objectivity I need to see the things I’ve been focused on from a new perspective.

What don't you know that you wish you knew?

Even though Drawbridge is known as an innovator in AI and machine learning, I still wish I knew more about the cutting edge technology frameworks and advancements being developed in academia. When I was getting my Ph.D. at Stanford, I always felt like the more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know, and the same is true as a founder. Just like death and taxes, learning is certain. That’s humbling, but inspiring, too.

I also wish I had more specific knowledge of human behavior, especially organizational behavior and psychology. Founders are usually backed because they’re going after a massive market opportunity or they’re developing an innovative technology, not because they know how to bring out the best in their team. But those skills are so important. I’ve learned some things by experience, but I absolutely try to put myself out there and continue being a student of life. For me, the best way to bridge the gap is to surround myself with people who can teach me.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

I just finished John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood. There are so many books, articles and podcasts about successful founders and inspirational leaders, but the terrible mistakes can be just as educational, and Theranos is a stark example of how bad it can get. You see how people got carried away with the vision, and how debilitating it was that they didn’t have the right kind of board oversight. For me, it was a lesson in what not to do and what to never be part of.

I’m about halfway done with Factfulness, by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund, which is basically a fact-based argument for being hopeful about our world. There’s a tendency to think everything is gloomy, especially given the current social and political climate. But the authors bring in all the data points to show that our perceptions aren’t always true. Most people think global poverty is on the rise, for example, but it’s actually been cut in half in the last 30 years. The book not only gives you hope, but helps you uncover your biases, as well. I highly recommend it.

When did you realize you were wrong about something?

Many times! If one thing is certain about a founder’s journey, it’s that you will make mistakes. I think if you’re not often wrong, you’re probably not pushing yourself enough. My mistakes are usually about either hiring or strategy. There have been times when I chose the wrong person for a leadership position, and I think the biggest danger there is compounding the mistake by not correcting it quickly. You need to act with conviction, and if I make a hiring mistake in an area where I’m not an expert, that might take me longer to address.

One example of a strategy mistake was our data acquisition approach in the early days of Drawbridge. Because identity management is powered by data, we had to solve for how to acquire data at scale, and our first plan for doing that would have taken far too long. In that case, I was able to act quickly and with conviction. It was no more than a few months before we changed course.

Regardless of the mistake and when you can fix it, the important thing is to admit it and learn from it, individually and collectively. Acknowledging your mistakes to your team builds trust. And I think it’s particularly important for leaders to set that example of vulnerability.

What unit of time matters the most and why?

Time is the most valuable, precious resource in our lives, so I think the unit that matters most is the smallest revolution my brain can process. I try to live like every moment matters. That’s true for our product development cycle, for example. We have a very agile framework and operate on two-week sprints, so every second counts.

I think it’s even true for the performance process. There’s a lot of research to support the idea of a continuous cycle, rather than just annual reviews. When you’re talking about performance every month, that communication and feedback is always top of mind, and it actually gives people more opportunities to address growth areas and improve.

Hard-won advice