Engineer Turned Entrepreneur: Story of An Immigrant

Gaurav Aggarwal
Photo credit: Gaurav Aggarwal

Gaurav Aggarwal is co-founder at Sleek, an AI-based virtual queuing platform solving for the horror and ubiquity of waiting in lines. An engineer turned entrepreneur, he co-founded Sleek after spending a summer at LightSpeed Venture Partners as a fellow. In his past life, Gaurav led highly technical teams on multi-billion dollar products at Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Google and stayed at the forefront of the latest technologies with a keen consumer focus. Gaurav was listed in Forbes 30 under 30 2021 list for Consumer Technology.

Prior to his career in tech and entrepreneurship, Gaurav graduated from Stanford University with a master’s degree in Management Science and Engineering with a special focus on AI and from Delhi College of Engineering at the top of his class with honors in a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science.

What is Sleek all about?

Sleek allows any vendor/establishment where people wait in line to digitize the line and add “surge pricing” – enabling people to pay to skip the line. The value proposition to vendors: use this, costs you nothing, and you make more money. Lines are everywhere. The value proposition to the users is a “free” version to hold their spot in line and a “paid” option to skip the line for those that value their time more.

Tell us a little bit about your background and how you started your business?

I am an engineer turned entrepreneur. Originally, I come from a humble family in Delhi, India, where I spent 20 years of myself. Sleek’s “Aha Moment” came when I was a Fellow at Lightspeed Venture Partners. During the fellowship, all the fellows were invited to a Broadway play — The Hamilton. Before the play, we had a special arrangement for food and drinks, and we could reserve our drink for the intermission. But I forgot to reserve my drink, and I found a 0.2-mile-long line when I came out to the bar during the intermission. It was practically impossible for me to stand in that line, get my drink and be back in my seat before the play resume. I wondered if there is a better way to do it. How cool would it be to reserve my drink or, even better, if I could pay extra over my $180 ticket for expedited service? My co-founder Spandana also had a similar experience at a music festival in Europe. We connected on a similar problem space, and Sleek was born.

How has the pandemic affected you or your new business?

Despite a few setbacks due to COVID-19, Sleek is currently live and serving with numerous essential businesses as part of their partnership with Roaming Hunger. The COVID-19 Pandemic severely impacted live events. There were almost no events after March 2020. We had to pivot from Live Events to essential businesses, which was a long process and took a few months. Now events are coming back as vaccines are rolling out, and we are working with key event organizers to be back in live events in late 2021. With great positivity and determination, we believe that Sleek will be a market leader in the live events space. We envision a world where no one is physically waiting in line as we will expand into SMB space.  Sleek’s Artificial Intelligence’s adaptability is unparalleled to its competitors, such as Clear, meaning it only allows only a small percentage of users to pay for expedited line service, and the price goes up if too many people are willing to pay the extra fee.

What were the top mistakes you made starting your business and what did you learn from it?

I regret not starting soon enough. With the power of hindsight, I feel that I should have started much before I did. I think I was just scared of quitting my stable cushy job and taking the plunge. I followed the wisdom shared by folks who say that you should first work for some established company before trying something of your own. But I think the best way to learn how to start a startup is actually to start a startup.

What is one thing that you do daily to grow as an entrepreneur?

I stay on top of new developments in my area. I read a lot and watch a lot of videos on Youtube. Although while growing up, I was not a reader, but now I am trying to cultivate my reading habit. I have subscribed to numerous startup and AI/big data newsletters.

What is the one thing you wish you knew before starting your business?

Starting a business can be an exciting time full of possibilities, but it can also get overwhelming. There are endless things you need to think about from tax laws and building your website, to marketing and customer service. Learning fast and learning as you go is a requirement for the job.

What has been your most effective marketing strategy to grow your business?

Content marketing has worked great for us. It’s because of it that customers are turning more and more to blogs and newsletters as a credible source of information. They believe these types of content hold freshness. These are just some of the reasons why content marketing is on its way to becoming a marketing must-have.

What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs?

As entrepreneurs, we face some of the most difficult challenges in life. Since starting a business is an incredible lifelong achievement, it deserves an incredible boost from your peers. I recommend that every aspiring entrepreneur should have a network of trusted peers and mentors.  There are many great reasons you might want a mentor. Maybe you’re working at home and want to meet new people. Maybe build a network o f successful peers to share ideas with. Or perhaps you want someone who can give you direct feedback on the areas that need improvement most.

What’s a productivity tip you swear by?

If you want to be more productive, then you need to plan your day in advance. To help with this, I have created a daily planner that allows me to track my time and become more productive. I plan 80% of my day and keep 20% for the unexpected “situations” that arise in startups. I work in deep focus mode for my planned portion of my day, including maintaining disturbances such as phone notifications to minimal. My friends joke that I am a five tab person- I do not open more than five tabs in Chrome.

What is your favorite quote?

“I never lose. I either win or learn”

— Nelson Mandela.

This quote has been a driving force in fueling my positive attitude.  Every time I fail, I analyze that situation and try to understand what went wrong. Was there something that I did wrong? Was there something I should have done differently? This approach has helped me achieve much more important things later on than what I failed to achieve early in my endeavors. Back in undergrad, I bombed Goldman’s interviews, only to later land a job at Microsoft. I was unable to get into so many startup accelerators, only to be accepted in StartX and listed as a Forbes 30 under 30.

What is your definition of success?

Everyone defines success differently. Success Is The Achieved Balance Between the Mindset Of A Winner And The Habits Of A Champion! Successful people don’t just happen. It takes determination, sacrifice and hard work to move from where most people are to where successful people are.

How do you personally overcome fear?

To overcome fear, I start by taking a deep breath and laying out my options. I lay out the best result, the worst result, and the most likely result. I analyze the impact of these results on me personally, and professionally then I try to convince myself that things will fall in place as they have in the past. With this approach, I have developed a “hope for the best but prepare for the worst” attitude in my life.

How is running a company different than what you thought it would be?

In a regular job, You are typically responsible for narrowly focussed tasks. Even as a manager in a job, you focus on one piece of the puzzle, be it engineering, marketing, hiring, etc. While as an entrepreneur, you are responsible for everything. Anything that goes wrong is your responsibility. There is a 100X strong sense of ownership. Impact and rewards are high, and so are the responsibilities and risks. Moreover, typically entrepreneurs also come from some specialty background, and they are learning about other aspects of the business on the job.

How can readers get in touch with you?

You can find me on LinkedIn and Twitter. Also, Feel free to reach out to me via email.

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Opinions expressed by interviewee participants are their own. 

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