Annual employee evaluations are truly reviled by many employees. ClearGears is working to improve that. It is a once-a-day employee assessment tool, which takes the real-time pulse of a company, measuring employee performance and sentiment. The company is founded by Arshad Chowdhury, a fellow Wesleyan graduate and NYC-based serial entrepreneur. ClearGears, which is currently in beta with around 40 enterprise customers, is Arshad’s third startup to date. He came into General Assembly today and spoke with us about the New York startup scene, building companies, and growing up surrounded by immigrant entrepreneurs.
What exactly is ClearGears?
ClearGears is a real-time performance review tool. It lets companies measure employee satisfaction and performance in real time, and shows trends through charts and graphs. More than that, we give employees daily insight into how they are doing. Data is collected through short and simple surveys, which are asked either daily, weekly, or monthly.
Where did the idea for ClearGears come from, was there a light bulb moment?
I’m a part owner of Crowd Interactive, a 50 person Ruby on Rails development company, based in Colima, Mexico. Cleargears was first envisioned by my partner over there, Adil Wali. It was originally a knowledge management tool for internal use. We iterated on the product until we found it useful for ourselves and our clients. Once I realized ClearGears could stand on its own as a product, I started a new company around it.
After coming up with your idea, what was the first step in getting it off of the ground?
The first step for ClearGears was actually several small steps, all involving iterating on the product until we had something users would love. We hypothesized about what the product should be, built a minimum viable product, then watched how our own employees used it. So the first step was to build a prototype, then get it in the hands of users, and then start and fund the company. In earlier startups of mine like MetroNaps,the process was reversed. We had a hypothesis, raised money, then built and tested the idea. That was an expensive and risky proposition. I recommend the prototype-first process.
So what was the process of getting your first company, Metronaps, off the ground?
I came up with MetroNaps while at Carnegie Mellon Business School, and graduated armed with not much more than a business plan. My first step was to reach out to family and friends to raise capital. I raised $300,000 to invest in the EnergyPod (a napping chair) and connected with my friend Christopher Lindholst, who came on board as co-founder. Together, we grew the business over the next five years. We scaled back dramatically in 2008 during the economic downturn.
You have been involved in three different startups, and obviously qualify as a “serial entrepreneur” – what were your earliest experiences with entrepreneurship?
I grew up in a house surrounded by immigrant entrepreneurs. Both my parents had lots of siblings, and virtually all of them lived with us at some point and eventually went into business for themselves. With their accents and limited connections, they found success working for themselves as owners of KFC franchises, convenience stores, and gas stations. Each eventually found success, but, I grew up watching them struggle, raise capital, and experience booms and busts. Like my family I love the hustle, but I have the benefit of no accent and degrees from Wesleyan and Carnegie Mellon. This means I’m not limited to running a lifestyle business; I can run high-risk venture-backed businesses. My career is just the next generation’s take on an old story.
What do you feel is the best part of running a startup?
My job is meaningful. At my company, we all have meaningful roles because what we do every day impacts the company, our customers, and one another. When I was working at Deutsche Bank, I wasn’t sure what impact my work had on the company and its customers. I had very little power; I wasn’t in a position to hire, fire, partner with other companies, brainstorm ways to improve banking, or decide on anything meaningful. But working in a startup environment I can meaningfully connect with people on many levels. It makes every interaction with people that much more interesting.
What do you feel is the worst part of running a startup?
The worst part is the stress and anxiety around money. This is both a personal issue and one that effects my company. Personally, I’ve had to rely on family to help me through rough times. For the company, the fundraising process is incredibly time-consuming and can be a real test of one’s fortitude and confidence. Since starting a company is expensive and often requires little or no pay, so the technology startup world is dominated by upper-middle class and well–to-do people. A lot of founders don’t take pay for extended periods of time, but not too many people are lucky enough to be in situations where that’s possible.
What is it like working at Dogpatch Labs?
Dogpatch is phenomenal. It’s super casual and it’s a really fun environment to be in, but it’s also a great place to network, meet people, and to grow both personally and professionally. Matt Meeker, the entrepreneur in residence who selects the residents, is exceptional at connecting like-minded people, making introductions, and advocating for all the companies he brings in. One downside of Dogpatch is that it’s almost all men. There aren’t enough women, which probably explains the chin-up and dip station.
How would you describe the New York startup scene?
I believe that the New York startup scene today is laying the groundwork for the New York of tomorrow. A lot of the other industries that defined NY have left the city. New York is going to have to offer lots of professional opportunities to maintain its position as a world-class city, and tech is one of the few industries offering a bright future.
What tips might you give to someone thinking of starting a company? What are some things to avoid?
Starting a company costs three times more than you think it will – even with your most padded projections – and takes three times longer than you assume to get traction and reach profitability, so be prepared. Beyond that, your team matters far more than your idea. Starting out with the right team, with people that can build both the business and technology, is so important. Chances are, your business wont work out, but with a good team you can test and make new iterations until you find something that does work.