In an industry that’s male dominated and has known biases against both women and minorities, it’s safe to say that the fact that Aarthi Ramamurthy is crushing it in spite of the odds is incredible to see.
Aarthi is the Founder and CEO of Lumoid, a Y Combinator-backed startup that provides rentals for drones, photography gear, and home audio systems, as well as try-before-you-buy boxes for wearables, headphones, and bluetooth speakers.
Aarthi believes our retail system is broken. Why spend a ton of money on a boxed up gadget that you’ve never touched before, or one that you’re only going to use once or twice? With Lumoid you can avoid bad spending decisions by renting gadgets instead of buying them, as well as trying out products before you buy them to figure out what works best for you.
Being a woman building a successful startup comes with its challenges, but no obstacle is too grand for Aarthi, who puts persistence above all.
Her Agenda: Where are you from? When you were growing up, did you ever think you’d be where you are today?
Aarthi Ramamurthy: I live and work in San Francisco, but I moved from Chennai, India nine years ago. That’s a very interesting question – yes and no. I honestly did not have plans of moving [here]. This relocation and having a new life here is not what I thought about and definitely [was] not in the [original] plan. However, having my own company and being an entrepreneur is something that I’ve thought about for as long as I can remember. I wanted to build my own business and do something meaningful.
Her Agenda: So how did you gain an interest for technology?
Aarthi Ramamurthy: I started writing code when I was 12 or 13. I liked writing code because you can do so much. I really enjoyed the process of being able to create. I started when I was really young, took a computer science class when I was in HS, and then in college I graduated with a Master’s degree in software engineering and I never looked back. I never wanted to do anything else at any point. I was very convinced I wanted to work in technology, be able to write code and build applications that many people will use – that’s how I started working at Microsoft.
Her Agenda: What excited you about taking positions at Microsoft and Netflix? Has anything from your past work experiences prepared you for your work with Lumoid?
Aarthi Ramamurthy: The Microsoft position was kind of a chance event. I was a student ambassador for Microsoft, which meant I was going to other colleges and teaching other kids how to go write code. I did that for a while and they took notice and they asked me to come interview (and this was even before I graduated). I got a full time offer and it was really exciting for a student who didn’t really think that all of this was going to come together.
My college was in a really small town in India so this was a fairly big deal back then. It changed the way I was going to do things in life. Microsoft brought me to Seattle and I started living there and started learning about how the U.S. was and that led me to Netflix down the road. So Microsoft was a true catalyst for me. Microsoft gave me the education and [experience] of working in large teams, building and managing a team. Netflix, more directly so because my job at Netflix was to work with hardware companies, like Samsung and SONY and integrate Netflix movie player software in their devices. I learned a lot about consumer electronics.
Her Agenda: Where did the concept of Lumoid come from and what were your goals when you first started?
Aarthi Ramamurthy: When I was working at Netflix, this was something that I was thinking about. We wanted to change the way retail was working especially for consumer electronics. Today, this new generation is no longer looking in physical stores, buying something and returning it. The whole process if fairly messy, it’s not optimized and so we wanted to fix that. So we said what if we [allowed people] to try before they buy and if you like it, you can buy and if not you can send it back. At the end of the day all the consumer wants is the option to be able to test out and try devices and pick the one that’s best for them, and that’s what we’re doing. We started early on testing the goals for Lumoid, we wanted it to be really easy and affordable for consumers to try out gadgets before they commit to buying.
Her Agenda: You are a solo founder, a woman in a typically male-assumed industry, and you are crushing it! How did those things impact your progress as you built your company?
Aarthi Ramamurthy: It’s an interesting question because being a solo founder there’s a lot of things to do especially when you’re so early and you’re not entirely convinced that this is going to work. Having a co-founder [helps in understanding] what should we do, what works best. There are so many days I’m explaining how it’s going to work and other days when I don’t know what I’m doing. So having another person to share the burden with you that’s great. But if you don’t have that person then the next thing to do is have a really great first set of employees. I think I lucked out there, the [initial team was great] and we keep hiring really good people. And I also lucked out in a sense that most of my management team are women. It’s very rare in San Francisco to build that kind of a company and typically consumer electronics is not a female-centric place but I’ve honestly haven’t found that to be a big challenge. At the end of the day it’s the company, the numbers, the revenue – that speaks for itself.
Her Agenda: Was there a need for funding and building partnerships while building Lumoid? How did you get what you needed to launch?
Aarthi Ramamurthy: We definitely had the need for funding and the funding was mainly because we had a lot of products that we [needed], all the photography gear and all of these gadgets. We had to stock them up so building inventory was the biggest reason for us to go raise funding. Lumoid came out a startup incubator for Y Combinator and it’s a prestigious incubator from Silicon Valley so that made the fundraising process a little easier for us. Y Combinator also invests money and at the end you have a demo and the investors get to see your presentation and be a part of the whole thing. So being a part of this in the early days was definitely helpful, and it really helped us build a team and just grow really quickly.
Her Agenda: How do you think Lumoid will change the way people shop for and review products?
Aarthi Ramamurthy: There is no other service today that covers what we are trying to do. Lumoid has a fundamentally different way of thinking about how people buy gadgets. Today the experience is you go to a store, find a product, take it home, set it up and install it, and if you don’t like it you take it back to the store or you ship it back and wait for the money to come back - that’s the process. It’s so cumbersome and tons of gadgets have left the market and manufacturing has become more or less a commodity. People have a ton of choices and they aren’t really sure which one to buy so when it comes time to buy it [can] lead to a return, and manufacturers hate returns because now they can’t sell it for retail price.
For us our goal is, from a consumer standpoint, what is the easiest and quickest way for you to just try out choices, take it home and really play with it? All of this happens at a fraction of the cost and you can try it out for a week or however long you want. Especially with the younger audience, for us this has been huge because it’s the idea of having access to items without having to own [the] items. We’re moving away from this ownership mentality to being able to [access a lot of things]. That’s why Lumoid makes sense for a lot of our customers because it just makes the idea of ‘I just want this item for this price range, to test it out; maybe I’ll buy it, maybe I won’t’ but it’s really, really simple.
Her Agenda: Did you have any female mentors to help you when building your company or even in your early career?
Aarthi Ramamurthy: Not for building the company, but we do have some good advisors. Katrina Leak from PicStitch, she’s one of the advisors and she’s extremely helpful and really inspirational and helps us figure out really complex problems. She’s built a company from scratch and she understands what we go through, so I’m really thankful to have her.
Her Agenda:What advice would you offer to a first time founder?
Aarthi Ramamurthy: I’m sure a lot of first time founders get a lot of advice as is, but I think the biggest thing is [to keep in mind] advice is all free and you can take as much as you can [but] at the end of the day you have to make your own decision. Not a lot of advice is useful and most of them will conflict with each other and there is no real right way to do things – it’s just you pick the path you take and follow it. The biggest thing for first time founders is to make decisions quickly and seek help. The one thing I would tell myself back then is to go out and seek help quicker – help with hiring, help with fundraising, and help with just getting out the business. Every time I hit a problem, I thought it was a problem unique just to me but it wasn’t and other founders went through the same patterns of problems. Seeking help earlier is definitely helpful, it’s not comfortable but it’s definitely helpful.
Her Agenda: What’s your motto that guides you through difficult decisions?
Aarthi Ramamurthy: Almost to a fault, I’m a very analytical person. I have to break it down into ‘Okay what it is the issue, what happened, what are the implications, what if I did this, how would that fix it, if I did something else, etc.’ The analytical thinking for me has been really effective because in reality most of our decisions don’t really matter – most decisions in the larger scheme of things don’t have many implications. I think just resetting expectations and thinking: ‘if I had to do it all over again would I make the same decision? And how would I go about fixing it?’ For me that has been really helpful and it’s helped me make decisions in a very challenging environment.
Her Agenda: What would you say is a phrase or a motto that you live by?
Aarthi Ramamurthy: I don’t have a motto but persistence – not giving up and keeping at it. It’s one of the things that I’ve seen other founders have – just their ability to persist in the face of any kind of challenge, big or small. At Lumoid, we just don’t give up and we keep at it. Not all days are great but you just don’t give up.