Pulse founders exemplify Silicon Valley startup culture

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Engineering alums Ankit Gupta and Akshay Kothari developed mobile news aggregation app Pulse as Stanford students.

Stanford Engineering has been the incubator of numerous well-known Silicon Valley companies. But that remarkable legacy of success has less to do with proximity than with the way engineers are taught and how their entrepreneurial aspirations are nurtured at Stanford.

A perfect case in point is Pulse, the mobile news aggregation app that did not exist three years ago and sold recently to LinkedIn for a reported $90 million.

The story of Pulse is the quintessential Stanford story – equal parts smarts, energy, interdisciplinary collaboration, entrepreneurial spirit and old-fashioned luck. It began when two kids from India, Akshay Kothari and Ankit Gupta, met as first-year graduate students in a machine learning class taught by Professor Andrew Ng, director of Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Lab.

Kothari had come to the United States as an undergraduate to study engineering at Purdue University before venturing to Stanford and Silicon Valley, where he was introduced to the startup culture.

“After Purdue, I was going to do what a lot of grads do and go into management consulting,” he said during an interview in the cafeteria of LinkedIn headquarters in Mountain View. But then a friend and Purdue alumnus in Silicon Valley with his own investment fund, urged Kothari to reconsider. “He said, ‘Why don't you come to California for the summer? Just spend six weeks here.’ And that was it. I flew the next day.”

Ankit Gupta and Akshay Kothari

Ankit Gupta and Akshay Kothari recently sold their mobile news aggregation app, Pulse, to LinkedIn. (Chloe Aftel)

On a whim, he applied to Stanford’s graduate program in electrical engineering but wasn’t sure that was the right direction. Then his student visa ran out. He found himself in a lottery for a much-coveted, hard-to-obtain H1B work visa. The prospect of losing his right to remain in the United States made his acceptance letter into Stanford Engineering’s graduate program – and the student visa that went with it – look more attractive by the day.

“I was in this precarious situation, and Stanford offered a solution, so I took it,” Kothari explained.

Gupta’s path to Pulse took a different route. The son of an Indian entrepreneur, he graduated from the India Institute of Technology (IIT). While at IIT he was on a team that took top honors in a nationwide product development competition sponsored by Google India. The winning project was a Survey Monkey-like polling platform.

Like Kothari, Gupta had also been accepted into Stanford Engineering’s graduate program in computer science.

“I applied to three graduate schools in the U.S., and Stanford was the only one that accepted me because, I think, my application was so entrepreneurially focused. I wanted to start a company,” Gupta said. “It was Steve Jobs’s commencement address in 2005 that got me hooked on Stanford. I kept watching it over and over.”

It wasn’t until both students learned of the d.school – the design program in the School of Engineering founded by mechanical engineering Professor David Kelley – that things really clicked between the two.

“The d.school is just a different way of thinking about products and empathy with people,” Kothari said. “I promised myself I was going to take a d.school course every quarter.”

In fact, he holds the curious distinction of having managed to complete his master’s in electrical engineering taking only computer science and d.school classes. “I don't think you can do that anymore. I think they changed the rules after me,” he said with a grin.

It was in the course called “Launchpad” that the two students found their groove. The class began on the same day the iPad was officially introduced at an Apple special event in 2010. It was not just a new computer but also a new format for which no other developers in the world had programmed.

For Pulse, that meant a level playing field – first and best products to market for the new format were likely to have a huge competitive advantage. By the end of the Launchpad class 10 weeks later, they had their product.

During that quarter, Kothari and Gupta could regularly been seen together at a Palo Alto coffee shop revising code and handing an iPad to customers for their immediate feedback. That intense product development cycle proved invaluable.

“We almost got kicked out of the coffee shop because the owners were upset that we were bothering their customers, but it was perfect test lab for Pulse,” Gupta said.

It led to an elegant product that gathers news from the reader’s favorite sources and presents stories in a multi-tiered, visually driven array that is simple and intuitive to use.

First to market, best to market, Pulse was hard to beat. Lightning stuck for Akshay and Ankit when Steve Jobs demonstrated Pulse on stage as one of the premier apps in his keynote at the Worldwide Developers Conference just a few months later in June 2010.

Kothari and Gupta offered Pulse for $4, and it was an immediate sensation. The two developers amassed a small nest egg, and the Silicon Valley venture capital community began to take note. In 2013, LinkedIn came calling.

Kothari and Gupta were reluctant to speak about plans for Pulse’s future as part of LinkedIn except to say it will remain a brand name, not be subsumed into the LinkedIn ecosystem.

Still in his 20’s, Kothari seemed genuinely surprised to be asked what advice he might give a slightly younger group of developers eager to produce the next Pulse. After a brief pause to think, he offered a bit of wisdom that might have sounded as though it came from a much older man.

“When you’re at Stanford, there is an expectation you have to start a company,” he said, “because everyone else is doing it, but it's not necessary. I think being in control of your life is key. Whether you want to play the ukulele or go to Rwanda, it's important to use your time well, to have a lot of experiences and meet new people – to take your life very literally.”

With their future still stretching out ahead of them, Kothari and Gupta both sound like men with their fingers firmly on the pulse of Silicon Valley.

Andrew Myers is a freelance writer for the Stanford University School of Engineering.

Last modified Tue, 13 May, 2014 at 10:17