In conversation with Ramsri, Founder, Questgen.ai – An ed-tech startup to generate school quizzes like MCQs etc. from any text using AI. & Supermeme.ai – A meme marketing tool for individuals and brands to generate original memes with AI.
Let us read through his inspirational story of currently building two revenue-making NLP SaaS apps…
YC – Hello Ram, Welcome to Yellow Chapter. The idea of the interview is to talk to you and understand the choices that you have made in life. What were the learnings? Can we start from the very beginning, please? Where were you born? What were the expectations from you while growing up? About your siblings, dinner table conversation etc.?
Ram – Sure. So I was born and raised in the small town of Wanaparthy, around 150Kms from Hyderabad. My father was an economics professor. My mother is a housewife. She dedicated a major part of her life to taking care of us. We were a simple family.
My father comes from a very rural background. Back in his village, people still live the same way, dealing with the struggle of rural village life. My father got educated and got out.
I was enrollment #1 in our school. The school started with us. The zeal to learn, grow, and excel was relatively high. We were motivated a lot for self-learning and reading.
Our parents wanted us (my sister – Dr. Vahini, working with Gandhi Medical College, Secunderabad and myself) to do well in our studies. But there was never too much pressure. Frankly speaking, living in Wanaparthy, we didn’t know much about the competition in big cities like Hyderabad or Bangalore. For most of my life, I would say I lived in oblivion. But the good thing was in our small school I was performing well 🙂🙂.
Frankly speaking, my dad wanted me to be a doctor. They were not hell-bent on it, but they were strongly suggestive.
When we shifted to Hyderabad in grade 11th for better education for my sister and me, I realized Physics and Maths were what I enjoyed most.
Physics + Maths = Engineering.
My sister was left with no choice (🤪🤪…just kidding); she chose Medical. She always wanted to be a doctor. We, as kids, lived up to our parent’s expectations most time. So there were no ideological conflicts.
2007 – Birla Institute of Technology and Science (Goa Campus) – Electrical & Electronics Engineering (Hons).
I choose Electronics, but to be honest, I would have chosen Computer Science if I had a full view of how the world operates. + I did not have any mentor.
Learning – Having a mentor is very important. It can be an elder sibling or relative, or an acquaintance.
Most of the people who do well and get into top tech jobs have some or other mentors, like an elder brother or cousin etc in a similar field.
I was the first engineer in my family. I didn’t have strong guidance or mentorship which would have accelerated my journey, looking back now. Perhaps the best vision I had was to get a stable government job or private sector job at a large company.
YC – Based on your engineering experience, what would you suggest to B.Tech students? How can they make the best of engineering for an excellent professional road ahead? What should one keep in mind while applying for their first job?
Ram – Suggestions….
1. Network very well – I distinctly remember one thing I lacked when I was back in college: networking, except for my small friend circle. I did not even realize the power of networking, knowing seniors, and developing good relationships with seniors so we could get some guidance.
2. Explore – Get into campus clubs, and try out different things. In my first year, a stark realization of living in a bubble struck me. I tried to get into these campus clubs – dancing, singing and poetry etc. and could not get into any of the campus clubs. Then I realized how much I was lacking in extracurricular activities and my general competitive spirit. Life gives so many challenges; doing well in academics is only a minor part.
3. Have great goals – It was a black box for me. My goal back then was to get into my first job and settle there for the rest of my life. Fortunately, I was in a good college with great peers and a growing economy.
But having aggressive goals can push you to excel in life. You will not realize your true potential until you think big and plan and work to fulfil it.
4. Keep pace with the trends – I have realized you just need to spend one year or two years to excel in any Technology you wish with enough guidance. But the bigger problem is people don’t know what they want to learn. Sometimes they chase Technology X, then come to Technology Y, spending almost a decade attempting to do that. Getting broad exposure and keeping up with the trends will help.
5. Work on acquiring leadership and social skills -Being a techie founder, I have realized that to get ahead in life, you definitely need it. Just coding in front of the screen is not enough.
6. Do Internships – They will give some exposure to various roles in companies + soft skills. I struggled big-time with the communication required to present views, seek help and question the process in my first job.
Later in life, I realized you need to find something that you’re passionate about + it should have value in the world. Life is like a Venn diagram; you need various overlapping subsets to settle right and to do well.
2011 – 2013 – Arizona State University – Masters, Image and Signal Processing
2013 – Viblio is video-based private storage, sharing and social networking service – Was my first job. Based on my experience getting my first job, I would suggest :
1. Blog + Live product – Have something practical to show apart from just a resume. I was blogging on AI and Computer Vision. The team saw my content and offered me a job. I was fortunate to work directly with the founder. Humongous learning working with a small startup + in the space I always wanted to do deeper. Looking back, I didn’t live up to my team’s expectations, it being my very first job.
Long-form content helps in better articulation + helps in understanding the thought process of a blogger better.
2. Earlier getting a job was very stereotypical. Uploading resumes on job portals and getting calls from recruiters. But now, with options of #building in public, establishing portfolio online, contributing to open source libraries etc., students should make use of these. All these things have become big and will become even bigger further.
I usually advise students to be very active on social media platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, Medium or Youtube. Whatever you’re learning, keep posting about your journey + learnings. It just shows the kind of dedication that you have.
3. Gather information/Research – Find out about the team (managers + colleagues) you will be working with. Learn about the scope of work. Your experience is going to be very defined by your manager and the team that you have.
4. Understand your mindset – Startups usually have a high learning curve, but they have certain risks as well. Plus, they are very high on ambiguity. Big companies come with a lot more stability and sometimes with the maintenance mode of legacy code.
5. Planning long-term – Which technology would you want to grow and go deeper in? You wish to be a generalist or an expert (both are good and have an equal scope).
YC – Can we talk about your professional life and learnings?
Ram – Learning from Vibilo :
1. Learned how to communicate. Articulate and present.
2. Build diversified strengths. I strongly recommend this. As a first employee, I handled multiple things – coding + getting exposed to the customer side etc.
3. Good teamwork – Collaborative working is the key to good work and great outcomes.
Unfortunately, Viblio eventually did shut down its operations. When I was out of the company, I was also on a student visa and had very less time in hand to find another job. I started investing in strengthening my knowledge in computer science through online courses and looking for a job.
I applied for Intuitive Surgical as the work was in computer vision but honestly speaking :
1. I did not have the leverage to scout deeper simply because I ran out of time.
2. It was just my second job; I was still an amateur. I didn’t have the means and confidence to scout deeply about the team + scope of work.
Suggestion – But I would suggest researching the company which you are planning to join. As said earlier, your experience is going to be very defined by your manager and the team that you have.
2014 -2018 – Software Engineer – Vision Team @ Intuitive Surgical – An American corporation that develops, manufactures, and markets robotic products designed to improve clinical outcomes of patients through minimally invasive surgery, most notably with the da Vinci Surgical System.
Learnings from Intuitive Surgical –
1. There was the most significant delta shift in my thought process post this role. Every manager would give tasks to their team with the exception of final delivery. My manager was no different. I learned to take tasks + ownership + deliver end to end.
2. Innovation – Beyond the given tasks, I had free time initially on the weekends. To improve the current workflow at my work, I did a lot of online courses + learned new web technologies + AI. All of these helped, and I could deliver some amazing results.
3. If you don’t ask, you don’t get it – I was always very honest with my manager. I was very clear on the kind of work I would deliver and the promotion or salary hike I was expecting. I was tough on the manager because he had to go back to higher authorities and ask more for me every time. But it all worked well for everybody = Good work = Satisfied manager = Growth + Promotion + Salary hike.
2018 – 2019 – AI Artist – Artificial Intelligence powered blogging\publishing platform for writers.
Intuitive Surgical was my biggest transition; everything was going well. I had a very comfortable and luxurious life in Silicon Valley. I had a valid visa as well. One day, I walked up to my manager and told them I was quitting and going back to India. It was a shock to my manager, colleagues and my friends.
Reason for quitting – I could foresee potential use cases of AI. The innovative mind in me was very active, + I was energetic. I wanted to try out various things, and my job was limiting me.
I started AI Artist – An AI-powered tool to generate illustrations for any written content used.
Why AI Artist?
I am a writer myself; I always felt having illustrations along with the content would make it nicer.
I was very fascinated with the apps that worked like magic. Even I wanted to build such an app which could deliver magic at first glance + deliver value to the world.
AI Artist was my first idea. And I was not afraid to fail. I had a few interns in my team. We had a very basic prototype and a low burn rate. I had some great learnings from AI Artist, some of them being:
1. Tech doesn’t matter to the end user.
2. Discuss your idea. With AI Artist, I went to Hong Kong and presented Rise Conference -The largest tech gathering in Asia. But as I met a few experienced entrepreneurs and a startup accelerator, the idea got shut down very fast.
3. Who will pay for this?
4. Is it recurring? TAM?
5. Will you be able to deliver human-scale performance?
6. Solo Entrepreneurship is tough. With AI Artist, much R&D was pending on the technology side, + finding PMF was another challenge.
To work on the areas I need more experience and knowledge, I joined a startup accelerator – Entrepreneur First.
Jan 2019 – Oct 2019 – Aurora – AI-Assisted Assessments – It uses AI to automatically generate assessments (Multiple Choice, Fill in the blank, True/False etc.) from content for evaluating subject mastery in education.
This was my first venture as a funded startup.
Why Edutech + AI?
I met a co-founder (Karishma) with a great domain expert on EdTech. I knew I could bring in AI, but to build a good product, I needed someone with domain expertise. We talked to almost 50 Edutech companies all around the world. I was trying to identify problems in the Edtech space with an open slate. Identifying the intersection of AI and Edutech.
We ran Aurora for ten months. Some of our achievements:
(a) Secured pre-seed funding from Entrepreneur First.
(b) Reached monthly customer revenue of 2000$ USD.
(c) Secured verbal commitment from 2 lead VCs for a 1 million $ seed round raise.
Unfortunately, due to some internal conflicts, we decided to shut down.
Sales – I made sales for the first time. Being a techie guy, I never knew that sales were also an iterative process. You simply have to talk to many people and identify your customers.
Post Aurora, I took off for some time. During this phase, I started actively blogging and open-sourcing whatever small tech we built at Aurora.
I realized I loved the creative side, which I had not explored till then. I started on my creative journey (creating courses and writing content around AI) + consulting part-time.
2021 – 2022 – I made almost $20,000 selling just courses – Learn Natural Language Processing the practical way! I thoroughly enjoyed creating courses + part-time consulting, + building micro SaaS. I grew my social media presence a lot on LinkedIn, almost to a 40,000-plus audience and a little bit on Twitter and Medium.
Problem – To use bacteria genome sequencing and AI to identify drug susceptibility, that is which combination of drugs are to be administered to the TB patient based on the infected bacteria genome sequencing so that we cure it faster.
Oct 2019 – Questgen – AI Powered Quiz Generator, an extension of Aurora. I realized, though, as a solo developer, that I was doing quite well and could achieve some growth with $540 MRR; still, I was catering to a niche segment, i.e. teachers and Edutech companies.
Back then, we estimated the assessments (EduTech + Corporate’s compliance documents, online tutoring chains etc.) market to be close to $5 Billion.
Current customer base – 15 active paying subscribers monthly. Fifteen more people bought one-time credits.
1. Building in public.
2. SEO in recent times.
3. Attending relevant Edutech seminars, talking to people and connecting them with them later.
Ideal customers for Questgen.ai – Teachers, Tutoring chains and Edu Tech companies who want to create these quizzes and assessments at scale.
Many Edutech companies have fixed question banks, and generating new quizzes from new content is not easy. You need to understand the content and then generate MCQs.
Questgen.ai solves the task where you can generate MCQ with any amount of content with one click. Now you need to curate it; you can delete the bad ones and keep the good ones. And you have a quiz ready in almost three to five minutes instead of one hour.
Jan 2022 – Supermeme.ai – Generate original memes powered by AI in 110+ languages.
Why this space?
Based on my past learnings, I wanted to cater to a bigger TAM. I researched and narrowed it to entertainment. It has the highest TAM worldwide. I saw an opportunity to build something delivering AI at the intersection of entertainment.
Meme creating is one of the popular things that have risen in the last few years. Meme is a new way of marketing for brands and influencers. Also, memes are viral among Gen.
Creativity often hits some roadblocks. To help bloggers, Copy.ai – an AI content generator, delivers premium results in seconds. Similarly, generating humour and being relevant is not easy and often hits creative blocks.
So, we launched Supermeme.ai. Just aim to generate some potential memes with text + creative probes that you can work on and iterate on. You don’t need to have the creativity or that humour sense; the tool has.
Some of our achievements:
(a) #1 on Product Hunt!
(b) 13k Signups
(c) 3-digit MRR
Ideal customers for Supermeme.ai – Marketing teams, specifically social media marketing teams of startups and companies + Influencers.
(1)Brands marketing teams. For example, Zomato or Swiggy marketing teams create weekly memes and then push them on their social media platform to make them viral to increase brand awareness.
(2) Influencers – Who use memes to propel their personal brand and social media presence.
Ideal customers for Supermeme.ai – Marketing teams, specifically social media marketing teams of startups and companies + Influencers.
The biggest learning from Supermeme.ai :
(2) Keep iterating till you find PMF – We got 13,000 signups within six months of launch. But our signups to paid customer ratio is not that great. We are still iterating on product-market fit.
(3) Getting entertained and paid for it are two different things. You need to find that balance. You need to deliver value directly to somebody for them to pay for a service.
(4) Early movers have both advantages and disadvantages – Globally, we are almost the first adopters of this technology. People have attempted to create meme generation tools, but we have pioneered at a production level. Scale to generate humorous memes.
Apart from working on the technology, we also have to educate the audience about meme marketing. Unfortunately, the VCs did not find enough market for meme marketing right now. But we know that meme marketing will take a good chunk of the social media marketing budget. 0010
(5) Till you find the PMF, keep your CAC low – Being bootstrapped for the last two years, our CAC has been zero. We launched our product on our social media channels and Product Hunt. The positive thing is that we are profitable if you take out the developer costs. So it doesn’t hurt to iterate at our leisure and hit scale.
And otherwise, iterating on the product with a customer base of 14000 customers itself is good if you want to leverage that as we grow further.
YC – You are working on two products Questgen.ai + Supermeme.ai; why?
Ram – We are bootstrapped; we have to try things. As an AI developer, I see a lot of pocket opportunities every time a new technology evolves. And sometimes, I want to build a quick MVP, push it out in public, and see the reception. It’s about experimenting with multiple things and seeing which gives the most ROI for your time spent.
YC – Five suggestions for fellow founders?
Ram – 1. Iterate fast and fail quickly. Do not be fixated on one idea. Giving up is a skill that most of us don’t realize. But giving up at the right time is a beautiful skill; better opportunities might be waiting for you.
2. Customers are just looking for value. They don’t care about the amount of technical work behind the scenes. It could be the latest or the greatest. If the product cannot deliver value, they will not use it.
3. Find a co-founder who has a complementary skill set. If you are a tech founder, find someone with domain expertise and vice-versa. Having domain expertise is a must because everything is an assumption from a technical aspect.
4. Focus more on growth than raising funds. Because if you have a great product, it’s easy to raise funds. But, vice versa is not true. There are very few companies which can play the long-term game, which is to accumulate millions of users and later monetize them. But for most, let’s say first-time or second-time entrepreneurs, it might not be the ideal path.
5. As a technical developer, I would say if someone is good at sales and marketing, collaborate with them initially. In the meantime, keep building your network and talking to people about your product.
YC – Ram, I genuinely believe many people contribute to where we are in life. They are our family, friends, teachers, mentors etc. People you would like to thank in your journey so far?
My SaaS conversation exchange buddy Sai Krishna is a constant pillar of support.
Ram, it was a great conversation. Thank you for your time. Yellow Chapter wishes you all the very best in your future journey.