Meet the Innovators with Vijaye Raji, founder and CEO of Statsig

| Tom Davis

Logo for Statsig and portrait of founder Vijaye Raji

Everyone’s journey to entrepreneurship is different. Some start their first company while they’re in high school and then wash, rinse, repeat through several startups until they find one that works. Others take a longer way round. This week I had the great fortune to sit down with Vijaye Raji who founded Statsig after 20 years in corporate high-tech.

Earlier this year Statsig announced that it had raised $43 million in Series B funding in a round led by Sequoia Capital with participation from Madrona Venture Group. It seems like Vijaye’s timing was spot on. I had to ask him what, finally, made him take the leap and become an entrepreneur.

“I guess every entrepreneur out there has a little bit of crazy in them. I spent my first 10 years out of college learning everything about software building at Microsoft. The decade passed by in a flash, and as I was starting to look for my next move, Facebook was an exciting-looking startup, so I went and joined. That’s where I learned about org building, people building. I learned a lot about hiring and nurturing and growing businesses into large, maybe even billion-dollar businesses.

Another 10 years passed in a flash, and I asked myself, “What are the next 10 years going to look like?” When I looked at my family situation, my work situation, and my financial situation, I realized the time was right to do my own thing. I know a lot of people start with an idea that needs a company to make it real. I started from the other end. I knew I wanted to start a company and I had to find out where I could add value, where were the needs I could fill.”

It’s less unusual than you might think for someone to know they are going to found a company before they know what the company is going to be. Whether it’s because they’re a serial entrepreneur looking for their next gig, or someone whose career has helped them develop the skills and insights necessary to build from the ground up, sometimes the will comes before the way.

I asked Vijaye how he turned that will to start his own business into a company that could attract employees, investors, and customers.

“The idea to go build product-building or experimentation tools came while I was at Facebook. I was meeting people who were starting companies and having to rely on tools that were far behind what we took for granted at Facebook. I felt that this was an opportunity to add value to a huge variety of companies by making such tools available to all.

Then the questions start. What should we build first? Who should I build it with? Who can we convince to leave their jobs and join us?”

Vijaye must have found the answers to some of these questions given the meteoric rise of Statsig in less than 18 months since he founded the company. I quizzed him on the challenges he had faced so far.

“I think the stages of self-doubt are the same for many founders. First you start building in a vacuum. You may have a vision and some faith but essentially you are jumping off a cliff with instructions on how to make a parachute.

Three or four months in I started getting anxious. I needed people to use our product and let us know whether we were on the right track. We were telling people they could use the product for free as long as they gave us feedback. We got through that. People started using the product and we got the feedback we were looking for.

Then the next worry is whether your users will carry on using. Are they getting value from your offering? Will they be willing to pay for it? We went through all these stages until the first real contract was signed. That was a huge moment of relief for us.”

It’s telling how these periods of self-doubt affect every founder, even one with the wealth of experience that Vijaye brought to the role. Founders are often insecure about their chances of success. They carry the guilt of having convinced others to join them on their journey and the expectations of their investors.

I wondered if Vijaye ever really hit a wall and started thinking he may have made a bad decision.

“I spent the last two decades learning a lot about product, engineering, product design, research. But when it came to marketing, there’s a whole lot of stuff that I didn’t know. I was out there selling, and I made every single mistake imaginable. One time I was pitching to a CTO, and he stopped me and told me I was a terrible salesman. He cut the meeting short and recommended a book for me to read!

I felt horrible. But I went out and bought the book, The Mom Test: How to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you, and I read about every single error and blunder I had been making. I think that was a transformational meeting for me!

Finding out what you don’t know can be very humbling, but if you’re open to getting better it’s a great opportunity to learn and improve. After that episode, I ended up selling pretty much all of our contracts for that first year.”

That’s as terrifying a story as any founder has ever told me about a pitch meeting gone bad! I can only admire the way Vijaye took on the criticism and used it to make him better at the very thing he’d been criticized for.

I know that as Statsig continues to grow and succeed, Vijaye isn’t still doing all the selling. I quizzed him about what the experience of growing a company and sharing some of the responsibilities has been like.

“I was fortunate because I had grown organizations before, albeit inside a large company like Facebook. I’ve taken teams from eight people to more than a thousand. Part of that journey is learning delegation. One of my friends, Rajeev Rajan, who also is a veteran of Microsoft and Facebook, explained his thermodynamic rules of management when it comes to growing a team – conduction, convection and radiation.”

Thermodynamic rules of team management

Conduction

Conduction is for a small team when you have direct interaction with everyone. You get one-on-one connections to understand the problems they each face and you can coach them with ways to overcome.

Convection

Then as your org grows, you have to rely on convection where you manage through managers. You must learn this new skill, effectively relinquishing control and focusing on cultural elements and direction.

Radiation

Finally, when you’re in charge of a massive org you use a different set of tools and a different kind of philosophy to radiate your vision and manage by influence

“I’ve grown Statsig from eight people up to 32 now. I’ve hired some great managers who are capable of building large orgs. Part of that involves giving them ownership, authority, responsibility and accountability. You have to set the direction and then believe that they will take it further.

We need to be scrappy. One of the things that I want for my managers is to actually feel the pain before delegating it out. If you’re a product manager, you should know what it’s like to write the design document. If you’re an engineering manager, you should have written some code. That’s part of the attitude I look for when I’m hiring.”

We see plenty of instances of entrepreneurs bringing a scrappy startup mentality to big companies, so it’s fascinating to listen to someone apply everything they have learned about management in a huge corporate environment to the experience of managing a startup. As talent continues to cross-pollinate from startups to corporates and from global giants to early-stage minnows we find that every experience is valid and valuable.

I have no doubt that we are still in the first chapter of Statsig’s story, and I look forward to hearing more from Vijaye and from Statsig in the future.

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