February Alumni Spotlight: Adutya Agarwal (CS'03, '04)
As a young entrepreneur and innovator, Aditya Agarwal has already led an amazing career, from being one of the first Facebook engineers to selling Cove, a startup that he cofounded, to his current position as a young VP at Dropbox. Learn more about Aditya's career and his advice to young entrepreneurs at Carnegie Mellon.
How did you meet your cofounder, Ruchi Sangvhi? Was the decision hard or easy to become cofounders?
We met while we were both at CMU. It was an easy decision to become co-founders because we had both worked together and greatly respected and trusted each other’s skills and ability to create great products.
Cove was in stealth mode before being acquired in early 2012. Tell us a little bit about Cove.
The vision behind Cove was to re-imagine how different kinds of communities could effectively and efficiently communicate and coordinate amongst themselves. We felt that there were many aspects of our lives (conferences we attended, sports clubs we were part of, alumni associations, etc) that weren't well mapped out in the digital realm, and that there needed to be a product specifically designed to allow these kinds of communities to come together and feel more connected.
Before you started Cove, you worked at Facebook and helped make it what it is today. How did you know it was the right time to leave and pursue your startup?
You never really know for sure when it’s time to leave a seminal company like Facebook, especially when you feel like you played a big role in helping it become what it is today. It’s also incredibly difficult to leave behind a set of individuals who feel like family because of the sheer number of shared experiences you have had with them. All that being said, after having been there for close to 6 years and seeing it grow from <10 people to over 2500, it just felt like time to take on a new challenge and to entrust the next chapter of Facebook with the new set of folks who were ready to take on that challenge.
What memorable experiences at Facebook helped you when starting Cove?
That’s a tough one to answer because a lot of what I learned and applied at Cove was inspired by my experiences at Facebook. Perhaps the one that stands out is that you should attempt to set up a system that is completely optimized for time-to-delivery. At Facebook, we would email the entire engineering team the first time someone brought down the site so we thought we would go one further and just programmatically set that up at Cove! We designed our systems such that all changes made to the codebase would automatically get pushed to the live website.
Why did you decide to go with Cove’s acquisition by Dropbox? Was it a hard decision?
It’s absolutely a difficult decision to go down the acquisition route with a company that you conceived, started and nurtured from the first day of its existence. It is a highly emotional decision at that. The main reason why we decided to go down an acquisition route was because we felt that it was the best way to make the largest impact we could – which is ultimately what starting a company is all about. We saw an amazing product, company and set of individuals at Dropbox, and we were really excited by the prospect of working closely with them to integrate the technology and product that we had built at Cove to reach hundreds of million of users.
What is one piece of advice you received about startups that has stuck with you and helped you with Cove and your career?
Build something that you are not sure you know how to build. Embark on something that a reasonable person might describe as irrational. Aim really, really big.
What CMU professor had the greatest impact on you and why?
There were a number of amazing professors at CMU and all of them affected me in ways that I only realize now that I have more perspective. Everyone from Steven Rudich who taught me that a physical limitation was no barrier to achieving great things to Mark Stehlik who showed me that caring about people and relationships is probably the biggest force multiplier you can have in your life.
What is the one thing you miss most about being at CMU?
The many seasons of Pittsburgh! It’s tough to complain about the weather in the Bay Area but it’s nice to have a bit of variety, even if that means freezing your ears off in the winter.
Describe one thing you think an aspiring student entrepreneur should take advantage of while still at CMU.
Leverage the amazing multidisciplinary setup we have at CMU that allows students to learn from world-class leaders not just in one area like Computer Science but also Drama, Creative Writing, etc. Starting a company requires having a number of disparate skills so make sure you leverage the opportunities you have at CMU to meet a diverse set of individuals and personalities. These relationships will serve you well down the years.
The Alumni Spotlight Series is part of our quarterly e-newsletter. Check out our most recent edition.