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Interview with Startup RigBasket’s Founder

 

A few weeks ago I mentioned we were going to do a series on founders and startups and promised you interesting people to meet.

Art Trevethan was the first and today I want to introduce you to Ali Hasan Raza, one of three founders of Houston-based RigBasket.

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The interview was conducted by my colleague Artem Nadikta , in Houston.

Artem: Tell me a bit about your family, background, roots and where you are coming from educationally, personally, etc.

Ali: OK. I was born in Pennsylvania. I come from a family of doctors. I actually grew up in Saudi Arabia for nine years and then nine years in Pakistan.

I studied chemical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, but even then I was more interested in the pharma and genetics side, rather than energy. When I graduated there were more opportunities in oil and gas, so, although I didn’t know much about it, my research professor was a big fluid transport guy, so I thought it might be interesting to explore hydraulic fracturing design and operations and here I am.

In terms of entrepreneurship, I’ve been selling all kinds of stuff since I was 12 through student council and have had this innate need to sell. I didn’t know this behavior was called entrepreneurship until college.  I was an intern at a startup in 2009 called TapInko, which gave me exposure to the US innovation ecosystem. . After graduation, I joined Schlumberger as an engineer, which gave me a grounding in oil and gas.

I could see many inefficiencies in the corporate world, which meant opportunities to change how things are done, and that’s what led me back to the entrepreneurial world again.

Artem: Interesting, if a bit convoluted.

Ali: It’s funny how the dots end up connecting.

Artem: Absolutely. Where and how did you and your co-founder meet and how/why did you guys decide to do a startup?

Ali: Khizer and I have been running into each other since about 2007. Although we went to college at the same time, Khizer was studying robotics and economics guy and I was primarily a chemical engineering guy, so we never worked together or even talked that frequently. We have a good common friend.

I joined Schlumberger and by 26 was the hydraulic fracturing field operations manager for both Pakistan and Yemen after stints in the United States, Russia, UAE, Saudi Arabia, etc.

I was also spending most of my weekends figuring out what was going on with our assets and where all the stuff was, so we could make our target margins and not have to lay off people. I realized I was spending 50 to 60% of my time figuring out inventory and thought there had to be better ways then just me making gut decisions on what/when/how much to order.

After leaving the corporate world this all hit me and I called around to validate my thesis. One of those people was Khizer. I asked Khizer if it was the same in manufacturing, especially since he had worked at Toyota.

He said they used Six Sigma in manufacturing and there were all these books for continuous improvement and other stuff and that I should consider using it. I said OK, send me all the tools you’re using and I’ll use them. But Khizer said to actually use Six Sigma you need to become at least a green-belt, more likely a black-belt, and that takes from six months to two years.

When we looked at automotive, pharmaceuticals, finance, and realized there were literally very few boots on the ground from millennials solving big inventory problems. That was the seed for our operation today.

As we talked, we thought we could solve the inventory problem by packaging C.I. methodologies and sell the subscriptions to the algorithms and publish the dashboards that could help multiple layers and segments of any organization. There’s a lot more, but basically, that’s how RigBasket is what it is today. A company dedicated to solving inventory problems that allow more throughput.

Artem: Nice! It’s always better to solve a real-world problem you know firsthand, than to build something cool and then look for a problem.

Tell me about your company culture.

Ali: Recently we had a big meeting to address this question. When you start a company you are focused on building really cool tech, but building tech isn’t enough; you have to build a solid business and a solid company, which means a need for alignment around a purpose and values.

Recently I’ve been reading a good lot of Verne Harnish and Jim Collins about building culture around your values. We decided on these six values, since we focus on Six Sigma.

  1. Ethics first; do what’s right, period. That’s the culture we wanted to establish from day one.
  2. ”Wow!” That’s what we want to hear from all of our stakeholders. We’d be bored if we didn’t.
  3. We practice what we preach and sell, which means continuous improvement, because we’re all about continuously improving using the predictive models we build.
  4. We believe perspectives should have no boundaries, so everyone in the company has the right/ability to be heard or make a case (using data). This is important to the upcoming workforce of Millennials and Generation Zs.
  5. We promote well-being.  
  6. We work hard to establish trust. Trust allows us to share different opinions/solutions and try them without bias.

We believe people and things have incredible potential, but too often they aren’t respected or given full value or the ability to do all that they are capable of. Changing that is a function of continuous improvement. We work hard to do the opposite and hopefully can provide a place they can grow and become all that they can. That’s it. That’s our philosophy and values.

Artem:  That’s really impressive. How did you decide to pick those particular six points to become the core values for your team? Was it a logical or conscious decision, did it just kind of happen, or was it something that you guys believed in and believed that those are the values that have to be present in anything to make it true?

Ali: Partly they are the reflections and big parts of Khizer, Tina, and myself. We wanted to  make sure our culture enabled people to work in a healthy framework because the problem we are tackling is hard already. It’s just a reflection of the early experience of the three RigBasket founders.

Artem: Hiring is key to long-term success. Although you aren’t hiring right now, how will you do it in the future?

Ali: We have a specific metrics we want in our hires that includes experience, attitude, values, targets, milestones, beliefs about improving, etc.

Artem: So it’s a relatively formal approach that you plan to take?

Ali: We’re not going to subject people to Six Sigma algorithms for now. A lot of my hiring philosophy comes from my experience as a fracturing field engineer, where seconds matter in decision-making.  However, Khizer has his own criteria, so we have a lot of discussions.  Startups aren’t smooth sailing, so it is more important to hire resilient people who understand that and can think on their feet, instead of  people with multiple degrees who aren’t flexible or open-minded.

Artem: Makes sense. In one of your blog posts you talked about functional titles instead of positional. How do you think candidates will respond to that?

Ali: I think every title needs to be earned, whether you are CMO, CEO, CFO or whatever. There’s a reason why more 50 year-olds get CEO titles — they worked up to it. Until it’s earned I think functional titles make more sense, because it brings a sense of responsibility that doesn’t enable the option of delegation.

For example, my titles are People and Operations. Simple. Khizer’s title is Tech Lead instead of CTO. We don’t mind the term ‘founder’ once in a while. When you are 25 to 30 years old like myself, you walk around and see there’s so much learning to do in terms of leadership and management. But when you have the title, I think you see less of what you already don’t know. It’s still a learning process for us.

Artem: Yes, I meet so many 25-year-old CEOs who think that they are Musk or  Zuckerberg, because they have the title. I agree that functional titles make sense, but do you think of yourself as a leader of the company? And if so, why?

Ali: No. I think of myself as an enabler not a leader, a person who needs to be available to the company’s stakeholders at this phase. We often talk internally about what being an inspirational leader is like. What does that mean? To some, that means being a role model out front who leads from the front. I am of a different mindset. What, has worked best for me in the past was to take a backseat and see how the system ran without me, and that worked great. Of course in those rare situations where we needed irrational belief to complete a challenging task, that was a signal for me to both teach and lead the task to have everyone prepared for the next time.

Leadership is about creating systems that allows the company to run without you. I think that’s true leadership.

I was reading Jim Collins “Good to Great” last night and he was talking about the trends of tyrannical leadership. The kind where one really strong personality takes you all the way to the top. But when that one person leaves that’s it, because he was the company and without him there is no company.

That’s absolutely not what we want to create. We want to create something with the kind of continuous improvement that means the company could/would continue if Khizer or Tina or myself are in different positions or even without us. That’s what we believe in terms of leadership.

Artem: Yeah, that’s planting a very strong seed that can actually grow into something big. And when people think that way in the early stages of the company it’s more likely to happen.

That’s it; no other questions. Thank you very much for spending time with us. I think you’ve provided a lot of good ideas and food for thought to our audience.

Bio

Ali Hasan Raza is a BS/MS Chemical Engineering graduate from the University of Pennsylvania and has worked across energy, pharmaceuticals, renewables, waste, and startups. He served in various sales, engineering and management roles at GlaxoSmithKline and Schlumberger. Ali is one of three founders of Houston-based RigBasket, a startup focused on improving business operations in the industrial sector. The company uses the power of analytics to solve inventory problems and improve throughput. In his off-time, Ali travels to learn about the world, meet new people and follows Arsenal.

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