The King of Karma: An Interview with Gokul Rajaram

//David Hirsch//

Gokul is a rare gem. Those that know him know that he’s one of the most gifted hybrid product/business minds on the planet. He’s very technical but also has strong customer intuition, understanding human behavior and its intricacies. He also happens to be incredibly generous with his time, working with and advising entrepreneurs and friends whenever they need him. I’m very fortunate to have had him as a friend and mentor for the past 13 years. We worked together on AdSense during our Google days and he has been an advisor to Metamorphic from day 1 (and for over 5 years now). I’m really excited to share some of Gokul’s wisdom as I’ve been fortunate and humbled to have had the opportunity to learn from and debate with the king of all karma, Gokul Rajaram.

You went from incubating Adsense, to running ad product at Facebook, to now running product and engineering at Square. In many ways you’ve helped write the script on monetization for search, social, and now SMB’s. When you think about monetization across all of these mega trends what are the similarities that come to mind?

The common thread running through all these services is data. Google, Facebook and Square all use data in compelling ways to help businesses grow revenues and acquire new customers. Ad platforms (Google, Facebook) use data to drive machine learning models that figure out the right ad to show to the right consumer at the right time. This helps make ads valuable for the consumer and drives awareness, engagement and revenues for advertisers. With Square, we’re focused on creating technology that helps sellers of all sizes unlock the value of every sale; with our core register offering this means providing real-time analytics and tools to track inventory and sales. We also offer supplementary services that leverage data including small business financing with Square Capital and powerful customer engagement tools that help customers improve their customer communications.

Having worked across multiple iconic companies in the valley since the mid 90’s, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned as it relates to product and product management?

Rule #1 of product development: Simplicity wins, every single time. Build products that are super simple to onboard and use, products where your customers can use them to their fullest extent without ever speaking with someone at the company. A number of companies make the mistake of tightly coupling product development to sales channel. They think that just because their target customer is a large enterprise, they need to build complex workflows and disregard self-service. I strongly believe that every product, regardless of how big the customer is or what your sales channel is, needs to have a self-serve onboarding flow. This philosophy pushes you to build great products. Everyone likes simplicity in products, regardless of size of customer. 

How important has your network been to your career and how do you best utilize it? What’s the best advice you have for people on building a great network?

In a world filled with technology, people and relationships matter more than ever. Almost every company / entrepreneur I’ve worked with has been through an inbound call or email from someone I have worked with, studied with or know professionally or personally. I cannot imagine professional life without a robust and expanding network. 

One very simple principle to building a great network: Don’t. In other words, don’t enter any conversation or meeting trying to build a network. Just be a good human being. Be respectful of people who you meet. Take a genuine interest in what they do (even if it’s something very different from the domain you are in today), learn from them, see if you can be helpful. You’ll see that this person will then introduce you to another great person, who in turn will introduce you to another awesome person, and before you know it, you have a tremendous network without even trying to build one! You can’t beat genuine curiosity and interest – that’s contagious energy that people inevitably want to be around.

You seem to be everywhere and so supportive of entrepreneurs and the greater ecosystem. How do you have time for it all? Have you prioritized this and what does helping founders mean to you?

Throughout my career, I have been helped selflessly by dozens of mentors and leaders. I try pay it forward. What this means: I always reply to everyone who contacts me over email or social media, and I try to do calls with as many people as I can. 

I have the highest respect for entrepreneurs – they are trying to build something in this world that did not exist earlier. If 30 minutes of my time could make a big difference to the life of an entrepreneur, it’s the least I can do. I do try to validate the inbounds to ensure it’s an entrepreneur or company who has a very clear question or problem that they are trying to tackle. This helps keep the number of calls to a manageable level. 

What’s the best advice you can give to founders when building out their monetization strategy?

Founders need to think broadly and test a few different revenue/monetization strategies before committing to one. There are several different possible business models, and what’s right for one company might not be right for another.

What startup and/or emerging technology are you most excited about right now (excluding Square of course)?

I believe the Industrial Internet of Things will be transformative. Intelligent machines will let companies monitor, manage and optimize their equipment and business processes in real-time, which will in turn help them drive growth, increase innovation, and change the experience for their customers in ways we cannot imagine today. I know you asked me to exclude Square, but the fact is that Square is part of this secular trend. By giving businesses a powerful cloud-connected POS and payments platform, we give them the superpower to understand their business trends and drivers in real-time, and take action to correct it. (eg: a retail store owner can happily take a vacation on a holiday weekend and still have full insight into their business to know whether or not to bring on more staff or order more supplies). And services such as Square Capital, Square Marketing, and Square Payroll use this data help drive growth and revenue for the business and help them save time and costs.