This is a terrific story of a team that has tremendous expertise in building and acquiring customers for consumer apps, and how they applied that unfair advantage to disrupt a domain (insurance).
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start at the very beginning of your journey. Where are you from? Where were you born, raised, and in what kind of background?
Karn Saroya: I’m a Canadian living in Silicon Valley. I was born in Canada in Vancouver. I was born and raised there. I went to Queens and eventually MIT.
Sramana Mitra: When were you at MIT? I went to MIT as well.
Karn Saroya: I was there in 2011.
Sramana Mitra: You’re a recent graduate. I was in 1993 to 1995 in the Masters program. I was in the Ph.D. program but left to start my first company. I kept doing companies and didn’t go back to finish the Ph.D.
Karn Saroya: I’ve a very similar story. I started in academia but ended up moving into professional services. I was a management consultant consulting specifically in finance and risk. I left that to start my first company. I’ve been building companies ever since.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s take a little bit deeper perspective into what you did. What did you do at MIT? What area were you studying?
Karn Saroya: I was in the Finance program. I thought that I would want to go work as a quant or perhaps in some other financial services discipline. Ultimately, I ended up in management consulting where I worked on stress testing programs for banks and solvency programs for insurance companies. At the end of the day, I had an itch to go and try do something outside of building models and acting in a supporting capacity.
I launched my first company. It was really tangential to what I was doing at that time. There was a lot of work being done with the connect sensor. Folks were strapping these things to drones and having them map rooms. We figured that together we could pull three of these things together to build a rudimentary body scanner. We built this body scanner thinking that we could help to inform sizing decisions for retail and e-commerce.
We built a body scanner. It turns out it was a really creepy thing to do. There wasn’t much consumer demand for these type of things either in retail or to support e-commerce. We went back to the drawing board. We had Natalie who’s actually my fiancée now. We recalibrated to build out a consumer-facing app called Stylekick. It was very simple.
What we had there were lifestyle influencers, designers, and outfits. We would make individual pieces at Shoppable. You would be presented with an outfit. You’d double-tap parts of it. We would understand what the unique structural elements, price point, and colors of that piece were. We would, in a predictive way, determine what you’d want to see next. We grew that to about a million active users and about 15 million pages a month.