By Sydney Ballard (Duke ‘23)
Imagine this: you’re about to graduate college, a global pandemic causes you to be kicked off your college campus. No graduation, no official close to this chapter of your life, and on top of that, the world as we know it is changed (seemingly overnight). That’s the situation Rahul Sengottuvelu faced early last year, and he managed to turn it around completely by founding Cohere. We talked with him about the process of getting a startup off the ground in hopes of demystifying the process a bit because Rahul isn’t superhuman, he just worked there (ba dum tss).
Cohere had its humble beginnings in what seemed to be a last-ditch effort roughly around the start of the first round of covid quarantines. Rahul decided to enter the Pioneer Hackathon (which he won) with an idea that would grow into a full-fledged startup after one of the hackathon judges advised him and his cofounders to pitch their idea to Y Combinator. Rahul Sengottuvelu is currently living in India working long, funky hours (grrr timezones) on the company with his co-founders — Yunyu Lin and Jason Wang. (Thanks to remote work, he has also been based in California, New York, and Florida all in the past year while working on this amazing startup!)
Rahul’s journey as a startup founder definitely didn’t start with Cohere. Over the course of our chat, we learned about his experience with side projects throughout college and the friendships he built that overtime evolved into the business partnerships that have been integral to launching such a successful startup. From the beginning of his time at Duke, Rahul was intrigued by computer science; he pretty quickly abandoned his initial plan to major in physics, having decided he was far more interested in CS after taking a data structures course (CS 201).
Continuing on this new academic path, Rahul became involved with Duke’s Electronics and Electrical Engineers (IEEE) organization which is a subsidiary of Duke’s Foundry (a project lab for Duke students focused on promoting “mentorship, projects, and networking with industry to promote student innovation”) working mostly on hardware projects. It was during the latter period of his time at Duke that he began focusing on software projects. Along the way, he befriended Jason and Yunyu; overtime, these friendships would morph into professional relationships as well, being that the trio co-founded Cohere (and its predecessor versions) together.
As of last year, Cohere has gone through Y Combinator and has accrued investments (of a currently undisclosed amount) through a successful round of seed funding. We excitedly await the success that they have to come, and in the meantime want to share some highlights from our conversation with Rahul.
Q & A
What is Cohere’s Mission?
After originally launching Cohere as a browser feature (in its beginnings it was a chrome extension), the team realized they were finding most success from corporate users whose use case was centered around user support and training for their own products. Rahul and Yunyu were able to pull from previous experience they had at Superhuman and Ramp, respectively; they both had first-hand experience witnessing on-boarding specialists struggle to walk customers through troubleshooting. “This was a problem that was personal to us” he revealed.
This ah-ha moment of recognizing unfilled niches in an industry is common to all successful companies; without providing true value to your users, there isn’t a genuine need for your product. For this reason, Cohere has been able to grow overtime into a more specialized service that is able to act as the crucial facilitator between a service provider and their user. This mission has become particularly important since the age of remote working due to covid.
“The market was asking for something like this… we felt this pull that we hadn’t felt before.”
How has your internship experience influenced where you’ve found yourself today?
Rahul outlines the key differences he noticed from working at smaller startups and bigger companies. He cites his time at Superhuman and Facebook as being influential in the process of pivoting his professional goals.
“When I worked at Superhuman, it was about fifteen people in one big room. Facebook had like thirty buildings.”
Being at a startup lends a sort of intimacy to the work you do — you are able to grow closer relationships with co-workers, you can personally get to know and regularly interact with c-suite executives (Rahul actually became pretty close with the founders at Superhuman, who later became investors in Cohere), you have a greater understanding of the direct impact of your work, etc.
“If you’re in a small team, you understand what’s going on in the company, you get a lot of visibility.”
Obviously, working at a startup has pitfalls and risks, but these are pretty well-mitigated when your experience with them is limited to internships. This sort of short-term experience is crucial to help a person decide what type of company they want to work at (if they want to go into industry). Rahul, for example, recalls thinking to himself: “I wanted these very extreme experiences before I graduated so I knew what I wanted to do longer term.” Ultimately, his time at both Superhuman and Facebook lent enough experience for him to recognize that he enjoyed the startup culture so much more than what a career in big tech would look like.
It’s definitely not all rainbows and unicorns working at a startup (especially when founding one), though. Some of the pitfalls of working at a startup could be:
- Likely a lower take-home salary than what you would have at a bigger company (e.g. a FAANG company)
- Less guarantee of the company’s success
- Longer work hours
So, for those of you out there who don’t know whether or not you would be interested or fit for the startup life, definitely give yourself the opportunity to get a taste of it. The temporal nature of internships can help absolve more serious concerns that someone looking for a full time position might weigh more heavily. Ultimately, by garnering internship experience at a startup, you can realize whether or not you want to continue working at smaller companies or potentially start one yourself one day. For Rahul, his start up experience only seemed to corroborate and kindle his entrepreneurial spirit. For example, he recalls his time as an intern at Facebook as being spent working on projects that he wasn’t quite able to see clear application of (which can be the case for anyone working at such a massive company). It is just as crucial to garner experience in something you don’t enjoy as it is with what you do enjoy. With respect to internships specifically, Rahul mentions:
“No matter how bad it is, it’s done in three months.”
Tell us about your experience with Y Combinator.
For those who don’t know, Y Combinator is an insanely awesome startup accelerator based in Silicon Valley. Something around 10,000 startups apply to join Y Combinator every cycle — saying it’s hard to get accepted would be an understatement.
We were shocked to find out that Rahul wrote his Y Combinator application with his cofounders in an eleven hours sprint — they had actually spent more time on a previous application that wasn’t accepted — and that they submitted it outside of the standard application window.
Here’s an overview of their timeline:
- April 16th, 2020: Application turned in.
- April 17th, 2020: Interview request is sent.
- May 6th, 2020: They have the interview.
- May 7th, 2020: Accepted into the Summer 2020 YCombinator cohort.
(Hold on, let me catch my breathe.)
Rahul expressed to us that the validation that came along with being a part of YCombinator was pretty awesome, but that the acceptance was only just the beginning for Cohere. Considering many people view the startup accelerator as an “accountability framework,” you feel this inevitable pressure to grow and succeed. You enter a constant state of productivity — at any given point he was: prepping for demo day, iterating through ideas, building out new features, scrapping features, just generally improving Cohere, and pitching to investors.
The trio were able to close their seed round of funding a week before demo day, so they were able to take a more casual approach to what otherwise would have been a final attempt to secure essential funding to continue working on their product.
How would you describe the relationship you have with your co-founders?
“I feel like I’m married to two people.”
Rahul compares a co-founder relationship to marriage; a successful startup can only grow if its founders share a vision and have excellent communication with one another. The trio behind Cohere was able to form a solid foundation to their relationships by having first gotten to know one another as friends (he actually met Jason on FDOC), working on side projects together and having fun along the way before jumping into this most recent, more serious venture. Their close friendships have been integral to the success of their company to date; Rahul tells us:
“To get through the lows, you have to have some prior history of working together.”
In their YC interview, they were actually asked how they thought they would be able to handle conflict amongst one another. One of their interviewers actually told them that “history is not enough” in reference to his own past experience of a falling out he had with his own ex-co-founder (who had once been a close friend). Rahul, Jason, and Yunyu, though, have grown a sort of symbiotic relationship it seems; they all have developed strong communication with one another and are able to recognize the value in having a healthy degree of push and pull to their relationships.
“It’s really hard to navigate sometimes. It’s very important you have a close relationship.”
What has been your biggest disagreement with one of your co-founders?
“It usually depends on how strongly people feel. The really great thing is that [we] are 98% aligned on most things… almost always. When we disagree, it’s usually a matter of who feels the most strongly about it.”
Having three co-founders allows them to more effectively weigh decisions than if they were a pair, since one person can be the tie-breaker if needed.
What was your favorite CS class at Duke?
“I really liked CS 230… but this is a really controversial take.”
(Rahul wanted to shoutout Dr. Bruce Donald, his course instructor, specifically)
CS 230 — Discrete Math for Computer Science
What’s your favorite tech trend?
“Clubhouse is really hot.”
His honorable mentions:
- Crypto NFTs
- More specialized softwares — i.e., this lends to “more fixed and opinionated ways of thinking” that Cohere can help with!
All in all, our time talking with Rahuhl was tremendously valuable for giving insight into what the process of creating and launching a startup is like. From coming up with a brilliant idea to building strong communication with one another, these people at Cohere show a lot of promise with the work they’re doing and we can’t wait to hear more about their successes down the line.
In the meantime, if you want to stay updated on all things Cohere, make sure to give them a follow on their Twitter!