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After working 20-hour days and living cheaply for years while ransacking a company in San Francisco, Sam Udotong discovered something about his body. “I had trained myself not to really enjoy the food anymore,” he says. That meant he could feed himself fully on Domino’s pizza and the meal replacement drink Soylent and keep focus. “It made me work more hours every day.”
That was 2016. Meanwhile, years later, he expected life to be different – or at least with better food. He and his co-founder Krish Ramineni raised nearly $ 5 million in venture finance for the former bootstrap company Fireflies.ai, which is expanding rapidly around the world. But Udotong still drinks Soylent regularly because Covid-19 puts the founders back into 20-hour crunch mode. Fireflies.ai takes and organizes notes for people during meetings, which is very attractive for remote workers. “When the lockdowns started, I remember thinking, holy crap, our market was only up a couple of years,” says Udotong.
It turned out he and Ramineni were the right crowd early on. But that’s how they always worked – taking bets on the future and doing things a little differently.
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The story of how Udotong and Ramineni came about begins in an unusual way. They met in college … but Udotong was at MIT (aerospace and computer science studies), Ramineni was at the University of Pennsylvania (engineering studies), and they were virtually introduced by a mutual friend. The two clicked, started video chatting daily, and worked intensely on projects – a cryptocurrency, a drone delivery system – for 11 months before they ever met. Ramineni graduated early, got a job at Microsoft and then planned a Masters degree at Cambridge University in the UK. The summer before school started, Ramineni went to Boston to hang out with his co-worker – and then they came across Fireflies. ai. They were feeling up to something big, so Ramineni dropped out of his Masters program and moved to San Francisco with Udotong to focus on the startup. (Ramineni’s parents had a question: “Are you obliged to do this?”)
Your vision for Fireflies.ai was great. They wanted to build an artificial intelligence assistant for work. Many startups offer a version of this – with systems that schedule calls or bots to be installed on Slack. Ramineni and Udotong wanted to find an untapped market to enter, and they realized that meetings were a tremendous opportunity. When people talk all day – say, when a manager is checking in multiple projects or someone in HR is interviewing applicants – it’s difficult to take notes and organize. What if AI could do it instead?
Photo credit: Cody Pickens
This required looking to the future as speech recognition technology wasn’t very good in 2016 when the startup started. This was beneficial in a way. “If everyone believed in it, you’d see hundreds of companies,” says Ramineni. The question was, how far was the technology from being mature? They immersed themselves in research, studied the market and felt “maybe 70 percent certain” that it is worth betting. “If you want to build for a brand new market, you have to make these types of bets,” says Ramineni.
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From her perspective, her bot acted like a secretary – it attended meetings, understood conversations, and made and organized useful notes that could be searched at any time. This would require significant improvements in speech recognition technology, as well as an infrastructure to handle hundreds or thousands of meetings simultaneously. To achieve this, they stayed in beta for roughly the whole of 2018.
As forward-looking as they were, they overlooked one thing: “Quite frankly,” says Ramineni, “in the first two years of our existence we never used the words remote work.” It’s almost hard to remember now, but remote working was still considered experimental back then. Instead, the founders envisioned users sitting in rooms and accessing Fireflies.ai via a speakerphone. Ramineni and Udotong didn’t even work remotely themselves. You occupied a coworking space.
But they wouldn’t lag far behind the changing trends. They found they were more efficient at home and built a completely remote team spread across five countries. And when they launched their product to the public in 2019, they decided to refine it from the bottom up – first working with small startups, obsessively serving their needs, and expecting that word to spread. “It has to be adopted by people at the grassroots level,” says Ramineni. “It has to be something that people can learn, recognize and use without the need for massively expensive sales force.” Even now, they don’t employ salespeople.
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Coincidentally, they published their first major update last February just before Covid-19. beat. As the world receded away, the Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft teams that Fireflies.ai is integrated with increased user growth, resulting in a huge increase in users. Ramineni and Udotong were preparing for an operational challenge. Before that, their users were mostly in the US – meaning there was natural overnight downtime when they were able to post updates. Now people all over the world are using it and there is never any downtime. As a result, the co-founders are often in the weeds, and their engineers fix problems at 3 a.m. “It’s definitely an interesting transition phase,” says Ramineni, not only leading a team, but also being operationally good at what we do as a startup. “
A few years ago, Ramineni and Udotong bet on the future – and now, it seems, the world has caught up with them. Speech technology has improved dramatically and teams increasingly need a product like theirs. Investors have noticed and are calling with interest. Ramineni envisions a time when the team is big enough for the founders to step back from day-to-day coding and maybe even hire a sales team.
But some things won’t change, say the founders. It’s the stuff that was built into the beginning of their relationship when they were two college kids who hadn’t met in real life. “We’ve built trust over time through frequent communication and constant productivity,” says Udotong. “We always challenged each other to do better work. Our strategy now shows how we build trust in our fully dispersed team. These pillars are important to any business, remote or not. ”
Read more from our cover story on Young Millionaires here.