Interview conducted by Janina Morrison.
Have you heard of Dot? If you haven’t, it’s the latest tech project taking Kickstarter by storm. Within 12 hours of launching, it met its goal of $20,000 and has been featured on sites like Digital Trends and Product Hunt. I had the pleasure of interviewing Kunal Chaundhary and Rahul Ramakrishnan, the Haas seniors behind the physical push notification product.
JM: Let’s start from the beginning. How long have you two been friends and how did you meet?
Kunal: Rahul and I met during second semester freshmen year in a consulting club called Venture Strategy Solutions, which is a consulting club that focuses on startups. I came into college wanting to do startups (which has been 3 years now), and Rahul was also interested as well so I’m always pitching him ideas. He’s also my roommate and we’re both at Haas, so those are some of the things that drew us together.
Our first company was Stash, which is like an Airbnb for storage, and we launched that the summer before our Sophomore year. It did pretty well; we were able to secure $5000 worth of space, sold about 10,000 sq ft of space, which is about the size of a warehouse, and had a couple hundred users. Unfortunately, the team fell apart since we all then took summer internships and didn’t put as much time and effort into it because of that. During that same summer, I came up with a new idea and approached Rahul with it. When we finally decided to work on it, we were picked up by the Citris Foundry, they invested about $30k into [us]. This past summer I went full time with it and now here we are today.
JM: So that last idea you pitched to Rahul is what we now know as Dot?
JM: So when did this idea of Dot first start?
Kunal: I’ve been sitting on this idea for probably 7-8 months-while we were still doing Stash-before I even told Rahul about it. It was pretty rudimentary in that we were just using the light to replace different notifications. For the longest time the only use was for the weather.
Rahul: It was a very idealistic idea. In the beginning we thought, ‘We don’t want people to use their phones at all.’ Kunal was telling me about something called “no-interface design,” this movement where instead of people just having screens and interface in front of you, getting rid of all of that and having a light that can flash on or off, with binary information to tell you what your phone would tell you, and you wouldn’t have to use your phone at all. That’s how it started, and that’s the main ideal situation. Then through different iterations, we decided that we needed to make it contextual, make your smartphone smarter.
Kunal: It was a long development of the idea, that’s really what last year was about. It really came about because we are both avid Sci-Fi fans who played a lot of video games in high school. A lot of this idea comes from those two worlds, worlds that aren’t constrained by physical limitations. If you’ve played video games, when you’re controlling your character, the way that developers relay information when you walk into a new area is by having a pop up on your screen, and there’s no real world equivalent to that. In Sci-Fi, computers are very aware of their surroundings, they can interact, they can consume data as much as we can. It was kind of inevitable that we came into this cross-section when we did.
JM: So is there a particular movie, TV show, or video game that inspired Dot? Especially since you mentioned that you both were influenced by Sci-Fi?
Kunal: Ideation is an interesting idea, because it’s very difficult to pinpoint what exactly the inspiration was. If I had to say what passively influenced us, for me I’d have to say Star Trek, mainly Data from Next Generation.
Rahul: You can draw analogies to Dot being like a smart secretary or something, like C3PO in Star Wars who updates you on information.
JM: What is something that you know now about starting a project that you wish you knew at the time when you started this journey with Dot?
Kunal: It would’ve shaved off 8 months of our development time if we’d realized that we don’t have to build the entire product out when you get on Kickstarter. You can just get a functional prototype and then get the marketing assets. Marketing is extremely important. In this sort of climate with all the noise, you need to really hype yourself up. The most successful projects on Kickstarter, they are less developed than what they seem to be and the rest of it is just beautiful artwork and visuals, etc. You really have to sell your product before you make the product otherwise you’re just wasting people’s time.
JM: Oh interesting, I didn’t know that’s how it worked on Kickstarter. When I saw yours I thought, ‘Oh, they have the product, they need funding to put it into production.’
Kunal: Yea. We have a workable prototype and everything we’ve demonstrated in the video are all things that we’ve been able to do and replicate. To finish it, we require money and more importantly we require a lot of time. We realized that we can’t do this in school anymore; we’ll just hate our lives since it’s too stressful. The reason you do entrepreneurship is for the customers, the people, and when you go that long without really interfacing with enthusiastic people, it’s demoralizing and emotionally draining. If I had to do it over again, as soon as we got into the Foundry I would’ve gone over to Jacob’s, printed out a couple Dots on their high quality 3D printers, taken pictures of those, put them up, built the prototype and then launched before the semester ended.
JM: Where do you see DOT in 5 years? 10 years?
Kunal: We’re just trying to make it through the next month and then the next year! If Dot is still around in 5 years, we’ll probably be ditching the hardware and just becoming a big software platform that works with a lot of these interconnected devices. Hardware is really cool in the beginning but it’s difficult to scale, and the tech is moving towards a trend where we probably won’t need the hardware in a couple years. So our idea is just to become a software company.
JM: Where do you guys see yourselves after Dot?
Kunal: My thing for entrepreneurship, at least my take on it, is to start off with stuff that’s easy doable. My goal is to continually tackle harder and harder issues with technology and do something more and more complicated every single time. It’s unlikely I’ll get back to consumer hardware, I’ll probably move on to stuff like solar. It really depends on what the climate is like after we exit, our company fails, or whatever happens. Based on that, I’ll might go back to school, finish my degree, get masters, get an MBA or something like that, and then get back into the game.
Rahul: My take is kind of different from Kunal. I like taking internships at corporate companies; not the huge companies that move slow, but the faster moving ones. I think I learned a lot from the product managers. The past two internships I’ve had in product management, and it’s very relevant in terms of how to build product, release mbp, how to scale and learn from your customers, and move forward. By doing those I learned a lot about how these successful companies make new products, change them, and how they iterate on them. I take that information and put it back into startups. That’s what my approach is. Starting with easier technology is better because we’re college students and we’re learning about all of this new technology. Just applying what we’ve learned in the classroom with real world problems is really fun. It’s really rewarding to see what you’ve learned put in action and helping people around you.
Editor’s note: By September 21st, Dot raised over $115K on Kickstarter
*This post is an excerpt from the interview that Janina conducted. Keep an eye out for the full interview, which will be posted on the HBSA website at http://www.berkeleyhbsa.org/ in the near future.