Tarush Aggarwal is the Founder and CEO of 5X, the modern data stack as a managed service that enables companies to answer business questions without having to worry about building data infrastructure or bringing in the right data engineering team.
Chad talks with Tarush about the modern data stack movement, choosing things that make sense on behalf of their customers, and building a team culture at a company with a fairly large time zone distribution.
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CHAD: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots Podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Chad Pytel. And with me today is Tarush Aggarwal, the Founder and CEO of 5X, the modern data stack as a managed service that enables companies to answer business questions without having to worry about building data infrastructure or bringing in the right data engineering team. Tarush, thank you for joining me.
TARUSH: Chad, thank you so much for having me on the show. Really looking forward to being here and hopefully adding some value for your listeners.
CHAD: Yes, I'm sure that they will. I think many companies are either thinking about how they build their data infrastructure or thinking about how they leverage data for their business now. So 5X provides a path for them to do that, and I'd love to dive in. How does 5X, like I said in the intro, enable companies to get started without having to worry about building this infrastructure themselves or this team themselves?
TARUSH: Yeah, totally. It's a great question. Just to kind of zoom out for a quick second, the data space has been really hot for a few years now, and there's this area often called the modern data stack, which is really led by a few vendors mainly around this concept of the data warehouse, reporting tools, and modeling, and ingestion. And this is really a new area for the data space, which has really become popular. So you also have, you know, ten years ago, you had Hadoop and Spark, and all of these different data tools, which in general have become less popular, and the modern data stack movement is one of the big movements happening.
So at a macro level, we have this new movement. If you zoom in, this movement happens to be one of the most fragmented movements. So what that means is for each different layer, you have different vendors. And so, even if you want to do something today as simple as building dashboards, you have to first ingest this data. In your average company, you've got [inaudible] at different sources. You need to put it in. You need to then store it, you need to model it, and then you can build a dashboard.
CHAD: You also need to make all the different choices about which ones you're going to choose at every level.
TARUSH: Exactly. At each of these levels, you have multiple billion-dollar companies today competing. So the thing about fragmentation of the space and, you know, I think data along with maybe DevOps and security are probably the most fragmented spaces. The thing about fragmented spaces is that they are great for extremely savvy customers; think of large tech companies who have 100% data teams. But for 90% of businesses, if you want to get value from data, it makes it much harder because you have to sign multiple contracts with these vendors, architecture, set up security.
So what 5X very, very fundamentally is doing is we're business-focused. We allow you, you know, in a month or two, you better go to 5x.co and add your credit card, and you will have business analytics out of the box. And we can help you make some of these decisions as to what are the best vendors for your price points, for your use cases and give you an end-to-end platform so that you aren't worrying about signing these bills and sort of setting it up. You're focused on your business outcome and your business use cases.
CHAD: Where did...I happen to know, but because I did my research for the episode. [laughs] But you were at WeWork leading data at WeWork, right?
CHAD: So I imagine you faced this problem and saw this problem firsthand, right?
TARUSH: You know, I've been fortunate that I've spent my career in the data space. So back in the day at Salesforce and now and most recently at WeWork. And companies like this, in general, are aggressively hiring and aggressively growing these teams. So at WeWork, we had 50 people working on stitching together the platform and finding the best vendors, and being involved in that. So at WeWork, we were really focused on building our own version of the platform.
I think what's interesting is ever since I left and especially over the last 24 months, where the sort of startup space has become so active, I'm still getting pinged on LinkedIn like every day or two with companies looking to get started. And over a period of time, you see the trends that everyone is reinventing the wheel. What do I do first? What's the first use case? What infrastructure do I need? How do I set this up? So the idea of this really came less from WeWork, where we had the team and the expertise. It came more from the other 90% of the companies that don't have the resources that WeWork had, at least at that time.
CHAD: So what do your customers of 5X typically look like then? Are there particular industries or data needs? Or on the tech side, on the development side, what do their development teams look like interacting with 5X?
TARUSH: That's a great question. And again, at a macro level, data is a global phenomenon. It's not industry-specific. Now, different industries have different requirements. So obviously, as a consumer, what you need to collect, the tools and infrastructure you need are quite different from a B2B business. So there is this concept that for each vertical, what stack makes sense, and that's, again, something which we can do. Typically, our customers have found some sort of a product-market fit. They have a business, and now they're looking to go scale the business to get to either entering growth phase, or an optimization phase, or a profitability phase. And in each of these phases, data plays a vital role.
So they are at this point where they know that they want to get value from it. They might even have a data team with 4,5,10 people. And they really might have figured out their first use cases and had the basic dashboards. And, inevitably, they come to this question of what now? What do we do now? So that's one large sort of vertical. And then the other one is they want to go do it. They want to go invest in data, but they have no idea how to do it. And in that case, they're looking at us not just the platform, but we also have this concept of on-demand talent.
Today, we're interviewing thousands of data engineers a week. We get to hire the top 1%, and we pre-train them on different stacks. And then, companies can integrate these lead engineers at a weekly level or completely on-demand and use that to go build out the dashboards. We have never thought of replacing data teams for companies. But it's really interesting to see that some of the early-stage companies are using our platform and our on-demand talent to literally do end-to-end data as a service.
CHAD: So at 5X, you're actually providing those team members, those consulting services?
TARUSH: Yeah, so we look at it less from the consultant point of view, you know, a consultant typically you would go, and you have your statement of work, and that's going to be a three-month project, and it might be a fixed price. And sort of inevitably, they're looking to...they don't work with hundreds of thousands of companies, a few of them might, but in general, we work a little bit differently.
So we have this concept of on-demand talent. So we have these engineers who we hire, and we pre-train them and essentially build software to basically allow people to add these engineers on top of the platform and sort of use them. So they work in one-week sprint cycles. It's fully on-demand. So you can have a group of engineers for one week and the next week not have that. And typically, consultants don't work in that way. And we don't really do the statements of work, and here's what's going to happen.
These engineers are sort of put into these things what we call pods, and pods are three engineers and a product manager. And they operate on these one-week sprints. You can use this end-to-end team or these engineering pods to go build out your use cases, which is similar to what a consultant on the services model does, but we do it in more of a platform-first approach.
CHAD: That's really interesting. I've had some guests on before where they talk about doing consulting or doing services on top of the recurring revenue platform that they've built or not doing it because it's not interesting to them or that their investors say like, "Don't get into that TNM business time and materials business. You want to focus on recurring revenue." How have you balanced that in your business?
TARUSH: The reality is that it doesn't matter which vendor you are in the modern data stack space. You might be Snowflake, or you might be Tableau, or you might be Fivetran or DBT. These are just some of the popular ones. Each of these vendors is just one small part of the stack. And what that means is that they don't have a services model and [inaudible] investors happy.
But in reality, it's because they don't have end-to-end stack exposure; you know, there's no company today which knows what their stack looks like. Snowflake doesn't know what their entire stack looks like. I mean, Snowflake [inaudible] its success in engagement because they just want [inaudible] And what 5X is is, you know, we've had to spin these stacks up from scratch for mid-market companies. You'll be able to map your stack. So you might have a few pieces. We can help you see what's missing.
But again, because we have visibility end-to-end, having that services model, if you want to call it, makes a lot of sense because, ultimately, we're focused on adding business value. And no one's doing data for the sake of doing data. And no one is doing it to build a 50-person data team. They're doing it ultimately to enable the business. So given that we have this end-to-end scope, we look at our on-demand talent as a massive value-add of using the 5X platform is that you have this ability to get engineers end-to-end that are pre-trained on the platform. So we like it a lot. And we think it's a competitive advantage for us.
CHAD: How opinionated is the 5X stack, the default stack? Can you make a lot of choices within it? Are you using lots of different things? You already mentioned Snowflake, Tableau. So it sounds like you're choosing the things that make sense on behalf of your customers.
TARUSH: Yeah, so for launch, we're focused on the core BI stack, which is ingestion, storage, monitoring, reporting, and in this stack, also we have picked the best-in-class vendors so Fivetran, Snowflake, DBT, Preset. In some ways, the usual suspects which you think of as you're looking at the stack. Now our goal and really what we're building is this program called the Certified 5X Program, and that's for vendors. And that program allows us to integrate with different partners and do things like account provisioning, configuration, user management, our billing agreement, workflow setup.
And as we integrate with more and more vendors, the idea is to really have a single form for the modern data stack. So, in ingestion, for now, we might be using Fivetran since they're the [inaudible], but the idea is we're also talking to Plausible, and Airbyte, and Stitch, and all of the other vendors. So at some point, we really kind of pick and choose between any of them. So the idea is, again, there could be a set of different stuff for a company, which is extremely budget-conscious, and if you're looking more for enterprise capability to use a different vendor in that same category.
So ultimately, we're enabling customer freedom in the next few months. At launch, we'll have a smaller selection. But as we get into Q4 and as we get into the next year, we have the next 10-15 vendors lined up who are going to be part of the certified 5X program, and that allows us to add more and more optionality in terms of existing categories. And then, we also will focus on adding new categories like reverse ETL, or data lineage, or augmented analytics.
CHAD: I love the idea of being focused for launch, saying these are the biggest things that we need to hit. How long did it take you to get to launch? When did you start working in earnest on 5X and get to a public launch?
TARUSH: We've been working on this since last June. So we're 11 months old now. What we really did initially is go build relationships with these vendors. And the first thing we did is we started off more as a services business where we sort of built this automatic interview process where we were interviewing hundreds of engineers a week and adding these engineers and training them on the platform.
We would go set up the platform for the customer in a semi-automatic manner. So we have been operational. We're probably working with 15-20 customers at this point, but we did it in a sort of semi-automated way. And over the last few months, as we understood more and more what their needs are, we are transitioning to a platform-first company instead of a services-first company.
CHAD: So that means that you were able to be public and start getting customers fairly early on in your journey. It's only been 11 months since you started. And when did you get your first customer?
TARUSH: 11 months ago.
CHAD: [laughs] So at what point did you find investors and raise money and start to build a team?
TARUSH: We've been fortunate enough that we were producing revenue on day one just looking at the services aspect of the business. So we needed a very tiny fundraise back in October, a very small amount. And now that we're getting closer to the platform launch, we might be announcing something soon.
CHAD: What did you take money for if you were revenue-generating? Was there something specific that caused you to take it and that it was for?
TARUSH: So if you kind of zoom out again and look at this whole concept of building out, you know, I think if we focused on services and focused on growing that part of the business organically, there's no real need for that. But the idea now is we're having a 20-person platform team, building out these integrations, building up software for even things like board management, hiring. The main task today is sort of engineering. So we raised capital to double down on the platform vision and become a platform first.
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CHAD: So, when it comes to building a team, we're talking today, and you're in Bali. Is that where you spend most of your time now?
TARUSH: I wish I could spend more time here.
TARUSH: I'm pretty nomadic, which I really like. And I think we were born in COVID...a fun story; I got stuck in Bali for two years. I came here for vacation, and we were locked up. And it's not the worst place in the world to be stuck, and I felt very lucky that it was not somewhere else. So, in general, we started building the pilot while we were still remote. We have folks in 11 countries now. I spent six months of the year around America. That's where our clients are.
About 80% of our business is from American companies today, and then I spend some time in India, where our engineering teams are aggressively growing in the Southeast Asian market. And 5X is a Singapore company. So we spend time in Singapore, and if I have some time, I come back to Bali. But in general, we are pretty nomadic. And I think as part of our culture, and how we attract people, one of our core values is what we call the hammock value where if I can build it or if you can build it while lying on a hammock in some part of the world, we're not interested in going back to an office.
CHAD: With a fairly large time zone distribution of the team, how do you build a culture? How do people work together? Are people shifting their hours? Or do you build a culture of working asynchronously?
TARUSH: We mostly work asynchronously. In general, the engineering teams are based out of India. So engineers who are working on the platform are in the same time zone. In terms of our pods, what's really cool is today, we hire in South America, we hire in Africa, we hire in Southeast Asia, so three distinct time zones. So you have Europe, you have the Americas, and you have the Asian time zone.
And when we assemble these pods, and a pod has got three engineers and a technical project manager, we try and have at least two different time zones in a pod. So at least two of the engineers are in separate time zones, which means that for our customers, they have more around-the-clock support. They have more hours where they can get work done, which is great for productivity.
So, what that means on our side is that we're really good at being able to communicate asynchronously. We have all this flexibility, and with that, in terms of accountability, the way we do it is we have daily updates. Again, it's asynchronous, so you can send that here's what you did, you know, [inaudible] by. At the end of the week, we do Loom videos really sharing what you've done. We sort focus a lot on like agenda --
CHAD: And Loom is an asynchronous video sharing. People can record videos and share it with everybody. Is that what Loom is?
TARUSH: Yeah, sorry, I should mention. Loom is a great video platform that allows you to screen share, and it's just a really cool screen-sharing tool that we record these asynchronous videos and really ingraining it inside our culture. Everyone at 5X knows the importance of sending these updates and agenda before a call and summaries in a Zoom video. So that's how we are able to do it.
CHAD: One of the things that we've not struggled with but dealt with at thoughtbot is we've started hiring all throughout the Americas, all throughout Europe, Middle East, and Africa. And we've got team members all over the place. And we want to treat people as employees and give them full benefits. And a lot of people want to work for a local entity and have employment laws and everything. But it's a challenge to do that. We don't necessarily want to set up entities in every country. So one strategy is contracting, another is to work with an international PEO or employer of record. How have you managed that?
TARUSH: We use an international agency which allows us to hire in any country. I'm not sure the name of the platform we're using. Karan, our CFO, would know that.
TARUSH: But it allows us on a macro level to be able to hire in all these countries as employees, you know, ask if you have the stock program. And it's also allowing us to give healthcare benefits and things like that, which we really want to have for everyone. And when it comes to the engineers on our network, at the moment, we're hiring them full-time as contractors, but again, we want to extend benefits to them and really, in some ways, give them that flexibility.
Do you want to be inside a local jurisdiction where you can have more healthcare benefits and integrations with local governments, you know, employee programs and things like that? Or do you want to take advantage of our culture and be more nomadic? And these are exciting things which we're sort of figuring out now as we [inaudible] some economies of scale around, you know, having this [inaudible]
CHAD: Yeah, that's great. And for what it's worth, that's the route that we've taken as well is to work with an international employer of record who actually employs people locally. And many people don't realize, like, you highlighted health benefits. A lot of countries have national health care. But it's really common, especially in white-collar or tech industry employment there, to augment that with supplemental insurance, which is not very expensive, but it is expected and oftentimes necessary to get the kind of coverage that you want to have.
TARUSH: I think the world is changing. We're becoming remote-first as well. And the two areas which I believe it's going to affect the most is number one, employment and number two, education. It's just a no-brainer that more and more companies are going to emerge in this space, making it easier to hire remotely and provide benefits and, in some ways, build that operating system for remote entrepreneurs. So I'm not sure if the tools today are great. I think they solve the problem for now. But I expect there to be a lot of innovation in this space over the next few years.
CHAD: Well, and I think that the pandemic has pushed that, accelerated that. There are companies now that existed before, but the scale at which they're able to operate now because so many companies have started to go remote and want to employ people everywhere; it's really driving that growth and investment in that area too. And as a result of that, there's going to be a lot of data [laughs] that these companies generate and need to get a handle on. So maybe they'll become customers of 5X, or maybe they already are.
TARUSH: Yeah. If you look in the last ten years, I think the last ten years were all about digital marketing with social and sort of advertising, making it very obvious that if you don't have a web presence, if you don't care about your customers think, and if you don't find ways to attract customers, you're not going to exist. So ten years later and all those companies which didn't set up websites and they didn't figure out customer acquisition online probably don't exist anymore. In the next five years or in the next ten years, a lot of these will get a lot more sophisticated. And certainly, data comes in as a competitive advantage.
So if you're not focusing on how a customer is using your product and how you personalize and being able to compare the way of spending money in terms of your lead acquisition and really, really optimize at it, what you'll face is that it will become difficult to compete because your competition is getting more and more sophisticated. So a lot of the investment in this is really predicated on becoming more efficient at these core groups of things like go-to-market strategy, engagement, optimizing internal operations as a way to find efficiencies which is typically what technology has enabled.
CHAD: Especially small businesses or businesses that are just getting started, if you don't have experience with that, it can feel really overwhelming. And we talked about how 5X by coming to the table with a stack, with a team that can help do that, that's great. And it helps solve that problem. Say that I'm a founder or a CEO, maybe non-technical, and I really am just getting started, but I have a big need; how do I engage with 5X? What's the best way to think about that? And are there things that I might do as a founder that you would recommend, hey, I recognize you can't do everything, but do this, and you'll avoid some pain later on.
TARUSH: We have some customers today who use us pre-product. They don't have a product. They don't have any customers. They have no data. But they use us because when they launch, they want to have the right tracking and visibility and reports and metrics. So I would have never thought someone that [inaudible] 5X. But it kind of makes sense that you want to have the right [inaudible] knowledge.
You have pros and cons. I think the pros of it is instilling the data culture from day one. Data acts as a bridge between engineering and the business, Chad. It just connects the products from like the business goals. So there is an upside in bringing this on earlier on and building that and instilling that into your culture. I think the flip side of it is that if you don't have product-market fit, if you're shooting darts and seeing what works.
And in general, companies at that point are running more on intuition and trying different things to see what sticks. And having systems in place at that scale, very frankly, could also be unnecessary. And at that point, if you're spending $100, you probably want to spend 80-90 of them on bringing out your product and the design that you've got. And I think they'll want to sign to be able to acquire customers, and that sort of shifts then you see the data spending increase.
So again, we're obviously happy to help, and our technical product managers have a lot of experience. They're the ones who have been data leaders that are growing companies and businesses like Uber, WeWork, Alibaba, top tech companies. They've already been data team members, so they've always been part of that growth. So they're good people, the on-demand talent. You have expertise over there from someone who's seen this before. And a few of our early-stage companies leverage these people more and more, but the flipside of it is focusing on actually building a product first.
CHAD: I love that. I think that that's great advice. And so I assume that there are people who come and to your team or you start talking with them, and you say, "You're not ready for us yet."
TARUSH: Yeah, we sort of have done that. We have told folks, you know, Google this, this, and this, and once you have this in place and you're about to go to market, that's the right time to come engage. But at this point, honestly, it might not be the best time for you to start thinking about [inaudible]
CHAD: Focus on improving your user experience, getting new users, making the best product you can. That's really great advice.
TARUSH: On the flip side of that, I think the problem, not the problem, I don't know if it's the word. I think the mistake a lot of companies make is that they actually get into it too late. The typical fallacy is that the founders are sitting in this gold mine of data. We're just going to have a data scientist come, and he or she is going to start generating all these insights, and we're going to be a data-driven company. And the reality of everything in life is that things take time. You can have the stack from day one, and you can have amazing engineers. But it takes time for you to really understand what's happening in your business.
And initially, your data model that's sort of changing because the understanding of the business is changing. Visibility in your data leads to asking better questions. And with asking better questions, you start changing the mental models of what's happening. It takes three iterations before your data model starts to stabilize. And what that means very, very often is that the founder is expecting in three months that the data is going to have a positive ROI and the output the business is getting from the data team is going to be positive. And that's not really how it works. It takes six to nine months.
You'd have reporting in the first month and the first two months. But as you move from reporting to visibility and to actually optimization and using that data as an insight, we think of that as a three-quarter project. So number one, I think companies don't know that, and they expect that it happens much sooner. And number two is also the mindset around I'm looking at data to provide positive ROI within a small duration, which is also, in reality, not how it is.
CHAD: Tarush, that's really great advice, and I hope people take it to heart. If folks want to get in touch with you or follow along with you or learn more about 5X, where are all the places that they can do that?
TARUSH: So our website is 5x.co. Again, that's 5x.co. You can reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We're also doing a lot of stuff on YouTube. We're doing a lot of podcasts to educate on the data space. We make weekly videos on different topics on our YouTube channel. I'm sure you can just search for 5X. That's another great way to engage with us.
CHAD: Wonderful. You can subscribe to this show and find notes for this episode along with a complete transcript at giantrobots.fm. If you have questions or comments, email us at email@example.com. And you can find me on Twitter at @cpytel.
This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore. Thanks so much for listening and see you next time.
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