Interview with Fireflies.ai CEO and Founder Krish Ramineni.
On the latest edition of the Silicon Valley Momentum Podcast, Roland Siebelink of midstage.org spoke with Krish Ramineni, the cofounder and CEO of Fireflies, an AI voice assistant. Fireflies has similar functionality to systems like Siri or Alexa but is designed for the workplace. During the podcast, you will hear from Krish about how Fireflies is the perfect workplace assistant while so many people are working remotely amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
You will also hear the whole conversation between Roland and Krish that covers topics like:
Roland Siebelink: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Silicon Valley Momentum Podcast. I'm very lucky today to have as our special guest Krish Raminemi, who is the co-founder and CEO at Fireflies.ai, one of the most compelling voice assistants out there. Hello, Krish, thank you for joining.
Krish Ramineni: Hi, Roland. Great to be on the show and thank you so much for taking the time to have me here.
Roland Siebelink: I'm so excited to have you here because in these pandemic times that we're currently living through, we've seen some amazing traction with voice assistance and everything that supports remote work. I'm looking to get into that very soon. Krish, when you would describe Fireflies in just one quick elevator pitch, what problem do you solve for which target group and what's your key differentiation?
Krish Ramineni: Fireflies is a meeting assistant that joins your meetings across various video-conferencing platforms. It's able to capture, transcribe, and help you essentially complete work in systems that you are already in. Whether that's a CRM like Salesforce, a chat system like Slack, or a project management system of your choice. Our whole goal has been to be able to help people focus on their conversations and let AI complete work in the background and perform tasks for them.
Roland Siebelink: You're not the only voice assistant in the market at this stage, right? What differentiation do you have compared to some of the other companies in this field? Those that shall not be named, of course. Do you target a different group of customers? Do you have a specific feature that others don't possess? What's your differentiation?
Krish Ramineni: I think the market is very uniquely segmented. On the consumer end, you have the Siri, Amazon Alexa's of the world, Google home, which don't directly compete with what we're doing. They are really at-home assistance. What we are essentially doing is bringing some of the same capabilities and functionality to the workplace. Specifically, your meetings and the work you're doing. The use case is very much on the B2B work side. The other areas of voice, in general, have been a very interesting space. A lot of the core technologies people are investing in ASR, the speech recognition transcription, I think there's going to be commonalities on how technology is built. A decade ago, everyone was building on mobile. Or, 20 years ago, everyone was building on cloud. But I think one of the key differentiators in terms of what we focus on is helping with workflows and allowing people to complete tasks versus primarily focusing on any single vertical and doing analytics. I think there are tools out there that do a great job of performing sales analytics or customer support analytics. Whereas for us, we take more of a direction of how do we help people complete work and tasks across different verticals. Whether you're in sales, whether you're a product manager, whether you're an engineer or someone in ops, it's more of a work assistant.
Roland Siebelink: Okay. Would that mean that you're trying to sell to an entire company at large or just any employee that finds you? What's your go-to market, Krish?
Krish Ramineni: For us, we focus on the end user and the individual user needs to have an incredible experience. For us, if you go to our website, our pricing is transparent. People can sign up and start using Fireflies immediately. And they can bring it to their teammates and their colleagues and start inviting their teams as well to start using it. And from there, Fireflies proves its utility. There's different use cases people explore with it. And then over time, the goal is you start seeing Fireflies spread end to end within an organization. You might see cross functional teams using it. You might see small organized, small departments using the platform. There really isn't, I think, a restriction in terms of how it spreads. It truly is a horizontal platform with numerous use cases, very similar to the slacks of the world or the zooms of the world.
Roland Siebelink: Awesome. I definitely want to get back to that a little bit when we talk about traction. But maybe also for context, can you tell us a little bit about how Fireflies came into being? I believe you were founded at MIT. Is that right?
Krish Ramineni: Yeah. Both my cofounder and I had started Fireflies in Boston. Before that, I was a product manager at Microsoft, working on the collaboration suite and it was just a wonderful experience. Afterwards, I was actually planning on going to grad school and I had a little bit of time before going to grad school. And so I went back to meet one of my friends, who I had met several years ago while I was in college. He was finishing up at MIT, Sam. Sam, my co-founder and CTO. He was doing machine learning, deep learning. A lot of interesting things in that space at MIT. And we got started there. We spent some time in MIT, in Boston, to get the company rolling. And then we moved out to San Francisco, where I'm originally from, to set up our HQ.
Roland Siebelink: You already mentioned the technology investment in ASR and other voice technologies. What other trends and changes are you seeing that you're capitalizing on? And how would you describe your future market and your future impacts?
Krish Ramineni: Definitely when we were starting out, voice wasn't our first priority. We were thinking of building more chatbots and email bots that can help understand conversations. A few years ago, there was a huge trend around bots. And we saw the rollout of the Slack bot ecosystem and you see bots on websites when you go and interact with the website on their live chat. That was definitely our area of interest and building workflows around that. What we started to see was there was this saturation in the chat bot and email bot and workflow tools. But voice was a blue ocean. A lot of people weren't tackling it. But we also felt 70% of all the major conversations that ever happened in an organization happen inside meetings and voice conversation. That felt like a much bigger market, a much bigger blue ocean for us to adapt and dive into. It's definitely a much harder market because the underlying infrastructure and technology needed to do well in that market takes a lot of effort and time. But we felt that could be a great starting point to helping organizations unlock all these conversations and all these important insights and knowledge from this. That's why we decided to go the route of voice. And as a byproduct of that, the technology, the voiceover IP, the infrastructure, had to be built in order to be able to scale to that. Our initial hypothesis always was that there is gold buried inside conversations. There is knowledge buried inside conversation. We stuck to that theme, but there were many iterations and pivots throughout the process. I think the thing that you start seeing is before we even started building the product, we knew something like this should exist. There are large companies that wanted to make these things exist. Whether you look at the Googles of the world, the Microsofts of the world, I think there's always this vision of, "Oh, it would be incredible to have a meeting assistant that joins as a participant and does work for you like an AI secretary." That theme has been going on for, I would say decades. The interesting thing is how do you actually make it work? How do you actually market with something that provides value? And I would say the technology has also been trending in the right direction to enable this, right? Voice technology has come a long way in the last five years. Some of the work we do today, maybe five years ago, would have required a dozen PhDs to really dive deep into. Now you have the democratization of AI. You have better models. You have better GPUs and tools to run these systems on. And so now you're starting to see the commercialization of this technology. And so for us, it's also the technology wave that we're able to ride. It's definitely something even two to three years ago, the technology risk was very high. And it's not completely gone, but it's something that has dramatically improved, especially over the last two years.
Roland Siebelink: Okay. Is that also what gave you the courage, you and Sam, to go into this market knowing full well, as you said, that behemoths like Microsoft and Google? Microsoft you knew from the inside, of course, that they were also looking at that market as something that should exist.
Krish Ramineni: I think from the likes of Microsoft and Google, I myself wasn't working on anything directly related to this stuff at Microsoft. But there was always this fascination when you hear talk from folks about what does the future of work look like? And they talk about augmented assistants and I almost think every company has some sort of narrative related to this. It's just really cool to be able to go out and take that sort of grandiose vision, distill it down to the parts that matter, and then being able to build something out that people actually want to use, right? I think what I've learned through this whole process is there's things people do on the marketing front and the narrative there's that people sell that convinces folks. And then at the end of the day, great ideas just need constant distilling. You get down to the core parts and that's where, and then you go through that distillation and then you build the product and then you start realizing, okay. "Oh, there's a lot more that is now possible with this now that it's on the market." It's almost like an hourglass where it has to go through the distillation process and then execute on that. And then as you start scaling, you start realizing, "Oh, there's way more potential to this than we had initially thought."
Roland Siebelink: Don't leave your ideas just in your head or in your deck because you'll never actually get to learn the reality of the ideas before you have it on all the market in a prototype version, at least. That's what you're saying, I believe, right?
Krish Ramineni: Yeah. You don't know until the rubber hits the road and there's customer feedback where this is even going. And that's a lot harder than it sounds, right? Getting folks to product market fit and then beyond is definitely a very hard stage for a lot of startups, including ourselves when we started.
Roland Siebelink: What were some key things you did to get through that stage? Everyone struggles with finding product-market-fit and then getting to a scaling stage, as you say. What were some things, in retrospect, that you did right? And maybe there's also something you can share where you spent way too much time or effort on this and it didn't pay off to us in the end?
Krish Ramineni: I think from day one we wanted to build a product that was self-serve and that's something people can go use, realize value, get activated, and then swipe their credit card and start using. For us, that was a very big decision. We, today, don't have any sales people. That is something that might change over time. But it was really important for us that, in order for this technology to succeed at the scale that we envisioned, we needed people to be able to start using it and realizing value from it. We just hyper-focused on getting people to start using the product, discovering it, learning things. And then there's no silver bullet. You just have to keep chipping away, keep iterating away at all the bottlenecks. From the customer acquisition to the activation funnel to the recurring usage funnel. And then that's the less glamorous part. But that is also the most important part that you have to keep setting up and keep iterating on. I think it's very different versus if you have a sales-driven approach where you can sell the vision, you can have someone evangelize it, you can do solution selling, you can do a lot of interesting things in that regard and then go to market that way. There's no right or wrong answer. Given that we were very product-engineering-centric founders, we felt like that the best way is that we're going to build something that people find value from. And so that's the direction we went in. And that was, honestly for us, the best way to identify what people care about and what people don't care about.
Roland Siebelink: Excellent. You said you have no sales people at the moment, right? So it's a completely product-led-growth model, as I understand it. Talk to me, a little bit, about the traction you guys have seen so far, especially in these special times with so many remote workers.
Krish Ramineni: Yeah. In the last six months, especially the current version of Fireflies and what it's been through - we rolled out the recent version in early January and then Covid hit in March. I would say we were definitely COVID beneficiaries for what has happened. There's this intersection of so many themes, right? Voice, like we talked about, remote work, and collaboration software. You've seen Zoom go through the roof. Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and all these platforms that are on the video conferencing site go through the roof. I read somewhere that in a very short period of time, 60% or more of the country just went into remote mode. And all of a sudden that has changed the nature of how people think about tools like Fireflies. And we were already part of crossing the chasm and then that got accelerated. I know that the remote workspace itself has been growing at almost 150% in the last decade. And this was before COVID hit. It's just, I think, a really interesting period in time that no one could've planned for. And it's funny because when we first started the company, we didn't even use the word remote in our products. We said, it's going to be something that helps people at work and a meeting assistant that joins your conference rooms. And we still have that. But it's just so fascinating when I go online and see people talk about the space, they include Fireflies in their market landscapes. And they say this is one of the remote work products that's become popular over the last couple of months. It was just great to see that the market pulled this out of us versus us having to engineer a market around what we do. That, honestly, is a blessing in disguise more so than anything. It's definitely something that took us by surprise, especially starting around February and March, as the acceleration happened. But it also was just part of our roadmap or our initiative that we were going after. And there's a lot more value we want to provide to businesses and teams that use Fireflies beyond what the system offers today. But it's a great thing to see. All we see is constantly having to keep up with servers and scale and just making sure that the system’s up all the time and go through growing pains, which is very common for a lot of startups. But it's only when you're in that hair-on-fire mode do you realize that, “Oh, it's the market that is really pulling this out of you.” You need to hire people. You need to delegate responsibilities and you need to move from just building a product to building a team that can handle all of this that's happening. I think that's definitely happened at a much faster pace than we had anticipated. And that's just a growing pains that you deal with.
Roland Siebelink: Yeah, absolutely. Can you talk to me a little bit about your team? I know that founders are typically interested in what kind of people do you hire? What profiles? What are you prioritizing? And also, how do you make sure that the people you hired are actually the right people for your team?
Krish Ramineni: Yeah, that's a great question. One interesting thing about us is we're a 100% globally distributed team across several locations in multiple countries. And so, from day one, even though we didn't use remote work in our pitch about Fireflies, we ourselves wanted to build a remote working team because that's how my co-founder and I started working for a long period of time. And it just felt like sometimes engineers just want to be able to focus. It was out of convenience more than anything that we started that way. And today, you see companies like Zapier, GitLab, adopted at a much larger scale. And so, we are a remote team. As a result, we also are one of the largest dog feeders of our product and are able to make improvements based on how our team grows and evolves. The team today is primarily engineering, product, and design focused. And a lot of folks, just thinking about voice, a lot of people are thinking about scalability and infrastructure. Our next goals are to hire for our go-to-market. Bringing in our first marketing hire or bringing in our first sales hire down the road. But a lot of what we've done has just been about refining the product and the overall experience. I think it also helps us hire a little bit easier because a lot of engineers and product folks want to join a company that is product-first rather than sales-first. For them, this is music to their ears in terms of how we give them responsibility and ownership in terms of driving things. And they are very close to the customer and hear the voice of the customer. For us, that DNA is there. We're very engineering and product centric. There's a time and place for us to translate that into marketing and sales. But I'm always a believer that sales and marketing becomes a lot easier if you're selling something that people really want and it already has a high demand for it.
Roland Siebelink: What I would say is that I hear from other founders that what they would worry about if they didn't have such emphasis on marketing and sales, is the competition going to catch the market before we do? How do you guys feel about that?
Krish Ramineni: Yeah, that's definitely a great question. I think because of our use cases and our horizontal application, we felt this is the right way to go about it. If we were focused on a singular vertical, like sales or customer success or support, and building a very tailored product for those use cases like some of the other folks in the voice market, it absolutely makes sense for them to double down on sales. Double down on the marketing and raising lots of money to be able to go do that. We're in an interesting market where we're focused on a lot of these use cases, a lot of bottoms-up adoption, and then there will be a lot of workflows and other opportunities for people to adopt the platform on. That definitely helps us in terms of this. And I think it's almost a blessing to have these sort of use cases and knowledge so that we can learn from it. I think, also, the other trade off is when you go down that particular vertical focus, which I think is great, you tend to have to price a lot higher. And you have to go after a user segment that's willing to pay a lot so that you can justify the sales and marketing expenditure. That also becomes an interesting thing where you play this pricing game. In terms of what we're trying to do, and in terms of how you can buy Fireflies today, an individual can buy it on their own credit card. A team can buy it on their team's expense budget for the month. There is a very different strategy that we're going. And we believe in the model like at Lacien and Slack where you go for volume. You go for a lot of users and lots of seats and lots of adoption. And when you can do that, that's when you get a lot of use cases in a user base that you can build on top of.
Roland Siebelink: All right, very good. We also said something before about the virality. This time, not about the Coronavirus but about the apps spreading like wildfire throughout an organization, right? Can you talk a little bit about that? Because so many founders would love to have the B2B software that gets signed up by one, two individual contributors and then starts having that organizational virality. Any tricks they can learn from? Any insights that you can share?
Krish Ramineni: Yeah, I think there's definitely certain things that we've seen. Sharing is a very good indicator. If people are able to share their meetings or recaps with other teammates, that always helps light the fire. Number two is the value that a person receives before they even sign up for Fireflies. When someone else sees Fireflies in a meeting like this, and if I had never used Fireflies, I'm going to naturally ask you about what is the product. And if I'm able to experience the notes or the recaps and transcripts before I even sign up, then I've been activated. And that is always a great, great way to get people. And then like with anything, there's virality you can track through people sharing and people signing up or teammates signing up or other organizations signing up. And then there is something to be definitely said about virality through word of mouth. When people tweet, when people talk about the product, that, I think, is the ultimate sign. It doesn't matter if you're a bottoms-up SaaS business or you're a traditional SaaS business where you have free trials and you need to get people through. Those are definitely really important pieces of the funnel where you need people to be able to be your advocates. And we take every bug, every issue that's brought up very seriously. It gets straight to our engineering team and we try to work as quickly as possible to resolve those issues so that people have a really delightful experience. And I think our early customer base has just done a wonderful job of being vocal and helping us. They know we're a small startup and they know that there's a lot of things we can do, a lot of things we have to say no to. I think it's just great to have a community of folks that are using it at such a large scale and then providing feedback to help continue to improve that.
Roland Siebelink: Absolutely. Very good. We are almost at the end of this recording. What is something that you need from this audience? Are you primarily looking for new employees? Are you looking for people to sign up and try it out for themselves? What is the biggest need and where would you guide people that aren't listening to this podcast and have become excited about Fireflies?
Krish Ramineni: Yeah. I think that we are definitely looking for folks to join our team, especially on the go-to-market function. We're hoping to hire a first growth PM and a more traditional product manager. So those are two areas we're thinking about. We actually really like people from a B2C arena because our product, the way we build and track and measure our product, is very much like a B2C product, even though we're serving a B2B use case. There are folks out there that have worked at fast-growing B2C startups or even B2B SaaS companies that are bottoms-up focused, have a deep passion for growth, metrics, and all of the things related to that, right? The full stack; you should be curious about how growth works on a product level, how growth works from marketing ads, PR, SEO. The full growth stack, that's someone we're looking to hire for. And that is probably something we'd love from the audience. If they're interested, they can reach out to me directly or find me on LinkedIn, Krish Romineni. The best feeling is when I join a meeting with someone and they tell me, "Hey, I use Fireflies or I was in a meeting with someone else who used Fireflies." I've had opportunities where I've interacted with colleagues of mine or friends of mine, and they said I was in a meeting with someone they brought in Fireflies, and this is a total stranger, you don't know them. We just spent 10 minutes talking about how cool this is. For me, that makes all of the hard work - it makes up for everything. Those are the things, the moments I look for. If people are out there, they're building teams, they're getting tired of having too many remote meetings and need to better organize their meetings, we'd love for them to start using Fireflies as well.
Roland Siebelink: Okay. URL is?
Krish Ramineni: You just can go to Fireflies.ai, just the name of our company. It's two clicks to sign up and start using. And you can check it out and test it out for yourself.
Roland Siebelink: That's awesome. And, of course, we will put all those links in the show notes for this podcast as well. And if you know me personally, and you'd like to be introduced to Krish for one of those go-to-market positions that you mentioned, I'm very happy to introduce you. So, with that, Krish, is there anything else we haven't covered that we should absolutely still put in this podcast?
Krish Ramineni: I think we've gotten through everything. It was exciting and I'm excited to see what people think about it.
Roland Siebelink: Awesome, okay. With that, thank you everyone for listening. And if there's other founders of startups with traction that you see as a good candidate to be interviewed on this podcast, drop me a line as well. Thank you. And thank you, Krish.
Krish Ramineni: Great. Thank you so much, Roland.Roland Siebelink talks all things tech startup and bring you interviews with tech cofounders across the world.