Sonal is a remarkable woman who wears many hats – a daughter, a mother, an engineer, and now a founder. With Zingg.ai, she has earned herself a reputation as a trailblazer and pioneer in modern data stacking, and her product is a testament to her vision and hard work.
From her early career choices to her latest venture as a founder, Sonal’s journey has been about continuous learning and growth, driven by a passion for innovation and a commitment to excellence.
We had the honour of connecting with her as she walked us through her incredible journey to success.
YC: Hey there, Sonal! Glad you could join us for the Yellow Chapter. Today, we aim to learn more about you, your life experiences, and your choices. Additionally, we’d like to understand Zingg.ai better.
Sonal: I was born and raised in Agra into a typical business middle-class family in UP. My father is an exporter of handicrafts, and my mother is a homemaker. My elder brother, Nitin, also has a blockchain startup.
Although girls in such families were not typically encouraged to pursue science and maths, my parents always supported my interests and dreams. Initially, I aspired to become a doctor, but I soon realised that biology wasn’t my forte. Despite this realisation, my parents continued encouraging me to pursue my passions, eventually leading me to discover my love for science and maths.
Thanks to my parents’ philosophical influence, I have learned to prioritise actions over results and to do what’s right rather than following the crowd.
Their constant encouragement to pursue what I enjoy has helped me achieve my goals. Growing up, my parents instilled in me a robust value system and emphasised the importance of emotional connections with our family. My parents played a critical role in shaping me into who I am today.
I scored 450 in JEE and 160 in Roorkee. When choosing my college, I had options like Chemical Engineering at IIT D, Computer Science at BHU, or CS at the University of Roorkee. Ultimately, I chose IIT, which I believe would offer the best opportunities and education for my goals.
Finally, I got into 1994- Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi – Bachelor’s Degree, Chemical Engineering.
YC: The next question is about advice for engineering students on how to make the most of their four years of B.Tech & pick or switch jobs.
Sonal: College days🎓🎓:
1. Active Learning and Skill-Building: To get the most out of your college education, it’s essential to prioritise your learning and make skill-building a top priority. While it may be tempting to take a more relaxed approach and simply get by, this can limit your opportunities for personal and professional growth.
2. Explore and find your true calling: Uncovering your authentic career path in life can be an ongoing pursuit, but college provides a unique occasion to discover your interests and enhance your abilities. Whether your interests lie in programming, finance, management, or a specific type of technology, engage in discussions and seek out resources to build your knowledge and develop a point of view.
3. Having a mentor: Look for someone who has succeeded in areas you aspire to and whose values and principles align with your own. When establishing a mentor-mentee relationship🤝🤝, be open and receptive to feedback and guidance. Be proactive in seeking their advice and insights, and apply what you learn to your personal and professional growth.
Suggestions for job selection:
1. Prioritising Pay Packages over Career Growth Can Lead to Bad Career Choices: While pay is undoubtedly an important consideration when choosing a job, it should not be the sole determining factor in deciding a career path. Focusing too heavily on salary may lead to poor career choices that ultimately leave you unfulfilled.
As someone who entered the industry when programming jobs were scarce, I learned early on that pursuing a career based solely on financial gain can be a recipe for dissatisfaction. Instead, I followed my passion for working with computers, which I developed during my school years, and found great fulfilment in building a career around that passion.
2. The Importance of Assessing the Job Market and Skill Development: It’s important to consider whether the job is in a vibrant market and will enable you to develop skills in your area of interest. A thriving market will allow you to work on projects that align with your interests and passions, and the skills you acquire will help you in your long-term career development.
3. Focus on Job Requirements: Looking beyond the company brand is essential when considering a job. Many job descriptions provide a comprehensive list of responsibilities and qualifications needed for the position. By taking the time to understand these requirements, you can determine whether the job aligns with your interests and career goals.
4. Consider Job Satisfaction Over Burnout: Many jobs require long hours, and you may eventually burn out if you don’t enjoy the work. It’s essential to consider whether the job is a good fit for you and whether it will provide satisfaction and fulfilment.
YC- Could you tell us about your professional roadmap and its associated learning?
1998-2000 – Analyst @ Webtek Software (Arm for Dresdner Kleinwort Benson, an investment Bank) – A complete IT Solutions company serving all over the globe.
1. Breaking Age Barriers: Webtek was different from your typical company. Even at 21 years old, I applied for a job there and was allowed to prove myself. The company typically only hired students from prestigious institutions like IIT and IIM. Despite the rigorous selection process of six tests and three interviews, I was able to break through and become part of a team that valued talent above all else.
2. Encouraging Creativity and Innovation at Work: The high pay was undoubtedly a draw for many young students, but the company’s philosophy drew me to Webtek. Instead of micromanaging its employees, Webtek believed in hiring smart people and giving them broad problems to solve. This philosophy created an environment where employees could explore their ideas and contribute significantly to the company’s growth. Being part of a team that valued creativity and innovation was more important than any salary.
3. The Importance of a Holistic Approach to Problem-Solving: Webtek’s emphasis on understanding both business and technology was crucial to their success and has had a lasting impact on my career. By taking a holistic approach to problem-solving, I have created effective solutions that address business challenges meaningfully. This approach has been invaluable in my career, and it all started with my time at Webtek.
4. Unleashing the Power of Creative and Critical Thinking in Problem-Solving.: At Webtek, thinking creatively and critically was not only encouraged, but it was also essential. This approach empowered employees to take ownership of their work and feel a sense of pride and satisfaction in their accomplishments.
Rather than being given a task and left to figure it out independently, we were encouraged to think outside the box and use our knowledge and skills to develop innovative solutions. This approach led to better outcomes and fostered a sense of collaboration and creativity within the team.
During my time at Webtek, I had the privilege of working under the leadership of Al-Noor Ramji, the CTO of the company. Even though he has moved on to Prudential, we still stay connected. Al-noor is a phenomenal visionary who often shared business insights with us. He encouraged us to learn new things and reminded us that we were all smart people who could achieve great things.
I also made several lifelong friends at Webtek, including Lokesh Jha, who managed the Indian operations. I am still in touch with Lokesh, who is exceptional at his job.
Webtek was a fantastic company with cutting-edge technology. However, I had to leave to move to North India.
2000-2001 – Analyst @ Etrade – Financial Corporation is a financial services subsidiary of Morgan Stanley, which offers an electronic trading platform to trade financial assets.
During my tenure at E-Trade, I had the opportunity to work on the rollout of their Hong Kong and Sweden websites, which involved a lot of backend work. It was an enjoyable experience, but unfortunately, E-Trade closed its operations in India, and I had to find a new job. This led me to join Sapient.
1. Change is the only constant: It is important to adapt to different environments and embrace new opportunities that come with change. It is inevitable in personal and professional life, and staying resilient and open-minded to navigate these transitions successfully is essential.
2001 – 2003 – Sr Associate Technology @ Sapient
Sapient was a game-changer for me, as I was introduced to a dynamic and collaborative team-based environment that I thoroughly enjoyed. This was quite a contrast from my prior experiences at Webtek and E-Trade, where I primarily worked as an individual contributor.
1. Professional Growth through Challenging Responsibilities: During my time at Sapient, I was tasked with greater responsibilities than my previous roles and had to work twice as hard. However, this experience proved to be invaluable in developing my time-management skills and instilling a solid work ethic, which I carried with me throughout my career. I also learned the importance of taking on new challenges and responsibilities, often leading to personal and professional growth.
2. The Significance of Well-Defined Processes in Improving Team Productivity: At Sapient, the emphasis on processes initially seemed excessive, but I soon came to appreciate their importance. A transparent and standardised approach to team communication and collaboration proved crucial for our productivity. This experience gave me a deeper understanding of the value of well-defined processes in achieving business goals.
3. The Art of Effective Team Structuring and Division of Labor: Having worked at Sapient, I learned the significance of efficient team structuring and managing the division of labour. I gained insights into which tasks were repeatable, could be delegated to junior members, and required the expertise of senior team members. This experience enabled me to appreciate the importance of organising teams in a way that maximises productivity and outcomes.
4. The Value of Senior Leadership and Mentorship in Driving Team Productivity: My experience at Sapient reinforced the importance of having experienced senior members on a team who can provide guidance and mentorship. I witnessed firsthand how their expertise could help resolve complex problems and increase team productivity. This experience helped me recognise the value of having strong senior leadership and the positive impact it can have on team performance.
Side projects: Although I was content with my employment at the time, I also did some technical consulting on the side whenever I had free time or was between jobs. While I had no intentions of starting my own business, I enjoyed this side work and found it fulfilling.
2003-2006 -Technical Lead @ BayPackets (Acquired by Genband)- A communications software company providing IP multimedia subsystem-compliant multi-network voice and data solutions.
I decided to leave Sapient because I was eager to dive deeper into more complex technical work. Although I had worked on a challenging middleware project there, after five years in the industry, I wanted to tackle even more intricate projects. However, I needed help finding such opportunities in the type of projects that Sapient was involved in.
That’s when I joined Bay Packets, a product company specialising in telecom software. As a part of their team, I worked on a virtual private network product that was both complex and fascinating, with a particular focus on voice work.
1. Leadership and Teamwork: BayPackets had an excellent management team with deep expertise in telecom and a positive work culture under Sanjay Singh’s leadership. Despite the challenges of selling telecom software and a complex product, the company had a low turnover rate due to their strong team and compensation. The experience taught me the importance of effective leadership and teamwork in achieving successful outcomes.
2. Founders’ impact on company growth: During my time at Bay Packets, I had the opportunity to meet the founders, who flew in from the US, to discuss the company’s growth and the impact of sales on engineers and other parts of the company.
This was the first time I had seen firsthand the significant impact that sales had on the lives of engineers. I was impressed by the founders’ dedication to fostering a strong company culture and ensuring that all employees understood the role of customers in the company’s success. This experience helped me appreciate the importance of sales in the technology industry and how it intersects with other aspects of a company’s operations.
3. Navigating the Uncertainties: Unlike my previous company, where the projects were more predictable and followed a clear path from ideation to execution, at BayPackets, I was exposed to the uncertainties that come with working in a product company. There were constant discussions about the company’s viability and whether the R&D work we were doing would ever see the light of day. This experience taught me the importance of agility and adaptability in a constantly changing industry.
4. Lessons in Overcoming Uncertainty and Achieving Long-Term Success Through Collaboration and Adaptability – While there were moments of uncertainty and worry about the company’s viability, Bay Packets eventually managed to pull off and do well. Through this experience, I came to realise the vital role that hard work and collaboration play in surmounting obstacles, especially during times of unpredictability. It also reinforced the significance of taking calculated risks and being adaptable to changing circumstances for long-term success.
2006-2010 – Shifting to Consulting: Balancing Career and Motherhood
Freelance Consultant – Provide proof of concept, technical feasibility analysis, design, implementation and other software services for small and large companies.
In 2006, after becoming a mother, I searched for greater flexibility in my work schedule. Unfortunately, at the time, I did not come across any organisations that offered remote or flexible options. It appeared to be an unfamiliar concept to them despite discussing the possibility of managing my work hours between the office and home with a few companies.
As someone who enjoys tackling interesting challenges and problem-solving, I recognised that my career presented an opportunity to do so. However, I also wanted to prioritise caring for my child by working from home. Therefore, I decided to resign from my job at BayPackets.
Fortunately, I secured a consulting project that enabled me to work remotely and visit the office for brief meetings once a month. This marked the beginning of my consulting journey, which I continued until 2010. During this period, I acquired new skills in sales, marketing, and technology that sells and learned how to negotiate higher compensation for my services as a consultant.
I was very selective about the projects I took on, choosing only the ones that interested me. From 2006 to 2010, I worked on various long-term and short-term projects, gaining valuable experience and knowledge.
2010-2020 – Founder @ Nube Technology – Cutting-edge data science and data engineering consulting for niche problems.
In 2009, I primarily worked independently. However, during one of my projects, I developed an interest in Hadoop and big data as distributed technologies started to emerge. In February 2010, I created an open-source framework around Hadoop.
My framework quickly gained attention, leading many companies to reach out to me for work opportunities. However, as the projects grew more extensive and international, they expressed the need to work with a corporate entity rather than an individual based in India. As a result, I decided to incorporate Nube.
Our primary focus was on distributed computing and machine learning projects. We initially started with Hadoop-based projects where clients requested us to build data lakes, set up Hadoop clusters, and create an analytics pipeline using tools such as Cascading, Apache Pig or Apache Hive. Our work mainly revolved around cloud-based and Hadoop-based solutions.
As our expertise grew, we evolved into a boutique consulting company providing specialised services in distributed computing and machine learning. We expanded our focus to include cloud computing, machine learning, and AI services.
2021 – Present – Co-Founder Zingg.ai – Scalable data mastering, deduplication and entity resolution.
Working in data consultancy provided me with many enjoyable challenges. Although we enjoyed doing niche consulting, building a product allowed for a higher level of creativity and the ability to serve a larger audience with the same technology. However, at that time, many of the tools we have today were unavailable, so I spent a lot of time evaluating ideas against my criteria. I would weigh these ideas by exploring whether I could build them without a large team or significant investment, the potential for innovation and differentiation and whether the concept would be enjoyable to build.
It was during this time that the idea for Zingg emerged. While building warehouses, we struggled with unifying data from multiple sources, and there needed to be a better tool to ensure consistency between records. This was a significant problem because we needed to understand our customers, suppliers, and potential risks to our business. I realised this was a tough problem without a good solution, and it is like a large market problem that many people would need once the building blocks were in place.
In 2019, I shifted my focus from consulting and began building the Zingg product to solve this problem.
The goal is to create a tool to unify data from multiple sources, identify inconsistencies, and provide a more accurate and complete view of a company’s data.
Zingg builds trusted views of core business entities, which become the foundation for sales, marketing, risk and compliance.
YC: SaaS founders face three major challenges: achieving product-market fit, marketing, and sales. Based on your experience, what is your take on each of these?
Sonal: PMF – Building a great product is essential, as is achieving SMF (sales market fit).
Marketing and Sales: I completely agree that distribution is crucial for SaaS founders, and start thinking about it from day one is important.
1. Focus on Inbound Marketing: The Power of Word-of-Mouth Recommendations – At Nube, our charter was to work only on things we enjoyed and were passionate about. We were highly focused on solving specific problems, and all our work was inbound, based on word-of-mouth recommendations and contacts.
2. Open sourcing the product: an effective distribution strategy – I initially didn’t prioritise distribution due to my tech background. However, after seeking advice from Joydeep Sen Sharma, the founder of Qubole and author of Apache Hive, I realised that open-sourcing Zingg would be an effective distribution strategy.
This approach made immediate sense because it allowed people to discover the product and aligned with our strengths in building and evangelising the problem.
3. Building Credibility through Community: For Nube – I was active on several relevant mailing lists and contributed to open-source projects. This approach led to people reaching out to us. Our team’s skills were relatively rare, and by the time they became more common, we had already established a strong presence.
For Zingg – It has been a very organic growth as this is a very clear gap in the data stack so we get a lot of notice.
4. SEO – (a) Identify your go-to-market strategy: The approach to SEO and blogging depends on your strategy. First, understand your target audience, key channels, and goals before diving into specific tactics.
(b) Leverage open-source channels: With an open-source product, unique SEO and blogging opportunities exist. Participate in open-source forums, events and podcasts focused on technology to leverage these channels.
(c) Emphasise your product’s uniqueness: Highlighting our product’s distinctive characteristics and advantages have played a vital role in its triumph. It is imperative to convey these aspects unambiguously while developing SEO and blog content.
(d) Write articles for leading publications: Consider industry-specific publications and relevant general outlets to get your product to a broader audience.
(e) Partner with other companies: Consider collaborating with industry peers to boost SEO and blogging efforts.
YC: Based on your experience, which marketing effort has been the most effective for your company, such as speaking engagements, events, podcasts, blogging, writing articles, or being open-source? What would you suggest if a solo founder had to prioritise their marketing efforts?
Sonal: Our open-source approach has been a crucial part of our market strategy and has been successful in helping us gain visibility and recognition.
However, it’s important to note that more than having a great product alone is needed to succeed in the open-source world. Effective community building, engagement, and support are just as crucial, if not more so, for building a sustainable open-source project.
That being said, attending events, podcasts, and other speaking engagements has also been effective in increasing our visibility and reaching potential customers. Blogging and writing articles have also helped us establish ourselves as thought leaders in the industry and provide valuable insights to our target audience.
If solo founders had to prioritise their marketing efforts, our suggestion would be to build a strong community around their open-source project. This can help generate organic growth and user adoption.
YC – Can we talk about typical SaaS numbers for Zingg.ai?
Sonal – I will share what best I can right now.
Users – We currently have over 320 active users on Slack and more than 700 individuals who have started the Repo. Our diverse customer base includes Fortune 500 companies, public sector organisations, and US federal agencies, which we are proud to serve.
Ideal Customer Profile (ICP) – Zingg has a wide range of use cases, and our typical ICP is a data scientist, data engineer, or data analyst.
Others learn about Zingg through the notebooks contribution by Databricks – https://www.databricks.com/blog/2022/08/04/new-solution-accelerator-customer-entity-resolution.html
We have also got covered as SD Times Project of the Week and, luckily got a lot of good attention early on.
Competition – While Zingg.ai has no direct competitors offering the same product, other products in the market share some similarities and overlap with our offering. For example, there are customer data platforms and master data management products that focus on data unification and quality. There are also IT resolution services that aim to resolve issues through third party data.
However, our product stands out in terms of its focus on data unification and consistency across various sources, emphasising collaboration and data sharing. We are highly scalable, which differentiates us from other products. Although there are specialised products that handle anti-money laundering and KYC specifically, our product is more horizontal and can be applied across a variety of use cases.
Team size – Currently, Vikas Gupta and I are the two founders of Zingg.ai. Vikas has more than 2 decades of working on deep technical problems. He is from my alma mater, and we have worked in common companies as well as with the same set of people. He and I are both hands-on technologists and work very closely on Zingg.
@ With Vikas
Plan for 2023 – Our team is dedicatedly working on developing the enterprise version of Zingg.ai. We strive to bring significant advancements to this version compared to our open-source offering. Our main objective is to work in close partnership with select design partners and get this product to the market.
We believe that the enterprise version will provide unique value propositions and benefits to our clients, and we are excited about its potential impact on the industry.
Moat: Our platform is focused on providing a complete machine learning-based solution that enables users to efficiently train their data and scale it to millions of records.
Goal – To build the entire workflow around entity resolution, including AI based golden records, model explainability, data improvement and features to add value to enterprise data.
One of the significant advantages of our platform is its versatility. It is designed to work with any entity, be it customers, suppliers, or B2B accounts, and can handle different data types, such as locations and accounts.
Additionally, our solution can be easily integrated into a user’s existing data stack, making it incredibly convenient for them to plug and play it into their workflows. This direct integration also means that users do not have to switch between multiple tools, resulting in a more streamlined and efficient process.
Funded – Yes
YC: Given your experience as an entrepreneur, suggestions for fellow founders?
1) Importance of Self-Awareness in Entrepreneurship – As a founder, I’ve learned that identifying my strengths, weaknesses, and preferences is essential. Building a successful company requires immense time and effort; with genuine passion and drive, it can be easier to succeed.
Therefore, having a good understanding of what you enjoy doing, what you don’t, and where your strengths lie is crucial. By doing so, you can ensure that you’re spending your time on tasks that you’re passionate about and that will yield the best results.
2) Strategies for Achieving Product Differentiation and Market Success: Differentiation and a clear value proposition are essential when building a product. It’s important to evaluate how your product will add value to the user and determine ways to accelerate their journey in getting that value.
Achieving product-market fit requires a deep understanding of the market and the user’s needs. You can stand out in a crowded market by differentiating your product from competitors and providing unique value.
3) The Importance of Positive Relationships: Working with people you genuinely enjoy collaborating with is crucial, especially when building a startup that requires high levels of teamwork. This is particularly important for the initial team and investors who support you.
Establishing a positive relationship built on trust is vital for success, as it allows you to take their advice, even if it may be tough to hear. It’s essential to have faith in your abilities and listen to what’s best for you, rather than letting your ego get in the way.
4) The Significance of Purpose and Impact in Entrepreneurial Pursuits: To me, building something valuable that positively impacts people’s lives is more critical than success or failure. Success will naturally follow if you’re doing something meaningful and adding value.
Overall, being a founder is a challenging but enriching journey. By understanding yourself, focusing on differentiation and value, and having a clear strategy, you can set your company up for success.
YC: What is your mantra🧘🧘 for staying motivated and pushing forward?
Sonal: I’ve realised I can pour so much time and effort into my work because I genuinely enjoy it. There’s no grand plan or strategy; I love what I do, and that passion fuels me to keep going.
I recently read – Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs – Ken Kocienda. I loved the unstructured approach that the team took while still achieving great results. The level of detail in the book was also fantastic.
Another book I would recommend is – Zero to One – by Blake Masters and Peter Thiel.
It was a pleasure speaking with you, Sonal! Your insights were truly valuable, and we appreciate your willingness to share your expertise with us. Best of luck with all your future endeavours.