Venkat Venkataramani is co-founder and CEO of the real-time indexing database in the cloud company Rockset, which partnered with Sequoia in its seed stage, and he was previously an engineering director at Facebook. When he is not busy with Rockset, you can find him playing cricket with his kids, tending his vegetable garden, and working his way through every recipe in Peter Reinhart's cook books.
On a scale of 1 to 10, I think care and empathy need to be at 11 right now. Everyone at Rockset is dealing with different challenges—maybe you have a one-year-old and you’ve lost your childcare support system, or you’re a new grad who just joined the team and still hasn’t been able to meet your coworkers in person. A strong sense of community has always been part of our culture. But when you don’t see each other for months, you have to find new ways to connect.
We used to get together and play board games every other Friday, for example—and we tried, but it wasn’t the same online. So we’re doing different things now, like show and tell. People have shared their experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in St. Vincent; showed off the village they built in a video game; taught a class on pasta making; led the entire company through a Bangra dance class. Our one-on-ones are different too. I’m meeting once a month or so with everyone on the team now, not just my direct reports, and just trying to be there for them. I can’t say, “Everything will be fine next week.” But I can listen, and make sure they know they’re not alone.
Care and empathy have been key for me at home, too. We have two boys, 8 and 9, and they miss running around on the playground. They miss their friends. So we’re making it a priority to do playdates on Zoom or organize a drive-by birthday party. And we’re having a lot of family dinner conversations, making sure they get to talk about what they want and what they’re worried about—and know that all of those feelings are okay.
Have conviction and trust your gut. The idea for your company was a product of your experiences, which makes you uniquely qualified to understand the problem you’re trying to solve. The early days in particular aren’t very scientific; it’s hard to collect all the right data or do all the right user interviews or get the right advice. You’re going to have to make decisions when there’s no clear right or wrong. Those are the times when you need to follow your intuition.
That said, it’s very important to know what you’re good at and what you aren’t, and to surround yourself with people who complement you rather than share your blind spots. You should all be aligned on vision, but your team should have different experiences and perspectives, so they can be a gut check for you. That cognitive diversity will help you make better decisions.
Of course, you need people who not only can give you those insights, but will—you have to make sure they feel safe to do so. As Sheryl Sandberg used to tell us at Facebook, when someone gives you feedback, the first thing you should say is “thank you.”
Candidates often ask me about our company culture and values—what’s important to us and what isn’t. Ultimately, I believe culture is about what your team values and sees as taboo, and you get more of what you celebrate.
In the first couple of years at Rockset, for example, we didn’t have a vacation policy. We just said, “If you need a break, take one.” But that ended up being a disaster, because people saw that we founders weren’t taking much time off and felt like they couldn’t, either. They were doing all these crazy things, working from Europe or Hawaii for a week, when they should have just been off.
So eventually, we wrote a vacation policy that said, “You are entitled to this many days of time off every year, and we expect every one of you to use them.” We even send out reminders before the holidays every year for anyone who hasn’t taken all of their time. Writing that policy didn’t take much time and sending those reminders is easy—and these small changes had an outsized positive impact on our culture.
My father was also an entrepreneur, but he didn’t have a penny of venture capital. He just quit an entirely comfortable job and started his company all by himself. Leading a startup is hard, but it never felt impossible to me because I’d seen everything that he and my mom went through. She deserves equal credit; it was often her wages that were putting food on the table and paying the rent. Any struggles I’m dealing with are nothing compared to the battles they’ve fought.
When I was 11 or 12, I remember asking him, “Why are you doing this?” Having a regular job just seemed so much easier. He said, “There are 70 people who have good jobs because I chose to take this risk, and 70 families who have good homes. I get more satisfaction from that than I ever would from even the highest-paying job.” I still remember everything about that moment, down to where I was sitting. It took me a decade or two, but now I fully understand what he meant.
My favorite one is, “Tell me about a highlight from the last few years.” You learn something about how the person thinks from the way they answer, but the actual highlight they choose says a lot, too. If they tell you all about solving a really difficult technical problem, for example, you know they like building things. For a manager, it might be when they helped a team member who was struggling.
Sometimes, I follow up by asking them about a lowlight, as well—in the same way, you learn what they really don’t enjoy. If they’re interviewing for a management position, for example, hearing that performance reviews are their least-favorite part of the job would be a red flag. You don’t have to love doing reviews, but it’s important to give your team that feedback. Someone who aspires to lead should see it as an opportunity, not a burden.
EQ matters at least as much as IQ, if not more. My wife gets a lot of the credit for helping me learn that. I used to think all that mattered was what I said. If I told you what I thought about something and you didn’t like it, that was your problem, not mine. But my wife has helped me understand that how you say it matters, too.
That’s true at work, as well, especially when you’re a leader. When I was an individual contributor and saw something I didn’t like, it was easier to get away with simply saying, “that’s not going to work.” But as a manager, if that’s the only feedback you give your team, they aren’t going to know how to process it. And eventually, they'll probably avoid asking for your feedback entirely. If instead you approach problems collaboratively and work to solve them together, you’ll save a lot of time and get much better results.
I have an eight-year-old and a nine-year-old, so almost everything I’ve read lately is for kids. But one book that was really helpful to me as a first-time founder was Never Split the Difference, by Chris Voss. He was the top negotiator for the FBI, so he has a lot of interesting stories, and it’s also a super practical guide to human psychology. The book isn’t just about negotiation; he talks a lot about person-to-person communication and how people make decisions. One of my favorite takeaways is “mirroring,” which is when you’re talking with someone and incorporate a few words they just said. It signals that you’re truly listening and makes them want to tell you more—and usually, it’s far more effective than asking a direct question. It’s made all of my conversations better, from customer calls to one-on-ones.
- Trust your gut
- Celebrate what you value
- How you say it matters