Sramana Mitra: Tell me more about the transition from being a PhD student to becoming a startup founder.
Manasi Vartak: As with all startups, it’s fun and hard. While I was wrapping up my PhD, I had been reasonably connected in the VC community in Boston. I was on the student team that ran a VC program, so I got exposed to the VC world. I started gathering information and talking to people who might want to buy the system we were building. Also, trying to learn about fundraising and building a team. It was many months before I incorporated and got things rolling.
Sramana Mitra: How did you learn in terms of finding people to talk to and validate your thesis and understand how to build a product? Who were these people? How did you decide which segment to go after?
Manasi Vartak: I had two or three channels. One was that people knew me because of my research. I was reaching out to them. They tend to be from larger companies. I also cold-emailed and messaged people on LinkedIn. Then warm intros can go a long way. I asked people to introduce me to other people. That’s the typical way that people do it.
Sramana Mitra: What segment or use case were you getting traction in?
Manasi Vartak: I started super broad. We build infrastructure software, so we are a horizontal platform by definition. It’s great because you can apply it to a lot of places. It’s not so great because you can do everything and it’s hard to focus. I focused on solving a particular problem in the model lifecycle which was managing models and operationalizing them.
I ended up focusing on that pain point and less on a vertical. That’s still the case at Verta. Some of our earliest customers have been Silicon Valley companies. They are just more open to working with smaller startups and taking those risks.
Sramana Mitra: By the time you went out to raise money, what was in place?
Manasi Vartak: Very little. VCs take a bet on people. When you’re raising your seed money, make sure to take a bet on someone who believes in you because things will change a lot.
Sramana Mitra: You were a solo founder raising money?
Manasi Vartak: Yes. I was working with my current CTO. He wasn’t able to join immediately. I ended up raising money by myself and got to invite him back.
Sramana Mitra: How much money did you raise?
Manasi Vartak: This is where I would say if I were to do it again, I would do it differently. I didn’t raise a ton. I raised $1.7 million.
Sramana Mitra: This is actually a pre-seed round.
Manasi Vartak: These days, seed rounds that I’m hearing about are much larger. Engineers are getting paid a lot of money. Raise more than you think you will need. You can always hire more people and build a better product.
Sramana Mitra: The first comment I will make is that not everybody is an MIT founder like you. They don’t have the option of raising seed money.
Manasi Vartak: I agree. I have seen both sides of it where being a female founder, I don’t think I was equipped to do this. That’s where the privilege was lacking. If I had been a man, I would have raised more.