The Rollercoaster Podcast with Nikunj Kothari

Karan Talati - CEO of First Resonance

January 14, 2021 Nikunj Kothari Season 1 Episode 5
The Rollercoaster Podcast with Nikunj Kothari
Karan Talati - CEO of First Resonance
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Nikunj chats with Karan Talati. Karan is the CEO of First Resonance, a company that is developing the next-generation manufacturing software platform for modern manufacturers . Prior to this, Karan was the first engineer at Sense360 and before that an engineer at SpaceX. In this episode, Karan talks about his journey to founding First Resonance. Some highlights being:

  • Being influenced by technology and globalization very early in life
  • Shifting his focus from mechanical engineering to software in college
  • Being an early engineer at SpaceX and Sense360
  • How the rise in hardware startups led him to start First Resonance
  • Surviving 2020 and sharing what the future holds

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Music: Nowhere land & Wholesome by Kevin MacLeod.

Nikunj: [00:01:16] hi Karan. Welcome to the podcast. Happy new year. How are you doing today?

Karan Talati: [00:01:22] Happy new year, Nikunj. It's great to be here. Thanks for having me on. I'm doing great.  It's a Tuesday , we have a lot going on this week, but I don't have any complaints. I'm very much looking forward to speaking with you. And this new year

Nikunj: [00:01:34] Likewise to begin. I'd love to learn a little bit more about your childhood. Can you share a bit about where you grew up and who's in your family?

Karan Talati: [00:01:44] I had a pretty standard suburban upbringing.  Guess that was the middle of it. The beginning. It's a bit hazy, my parents were both immigrants that came to America without much at all. I grew up, when I was young, it was like a one bedroom apartment.

And I used to hear my parents coming in, at 3:00 AM, from like night shifts, working at a convenience store.  Yeah. Reflecting back on that it just seems very distant.  I got to benefit from my parents achieving the American dream and watching that process go along and so I'd say I'm pretty fortunate from where we started as a family to, to,  where I am now and where my family is.

Nikunj: [00:02:20] That's great to hear. And it seems like you were exposed to technology and globalization early on courtesy of your dad moving around a lot. What effect did that have on you and your extended family?

Karan Talati: [00:02:36] Yeah, so my dad worked at Motorola for  over 25 years. And that's how, I spent most of my childhood in Illinois, which is where Motorola was headquartered. It was very interesting through the nineties, right? My dad was a his big break was getting a job  as an assembly line technician at Motorola.

And then he grew from there, but through the nineties, as he had grown in rank, Motorola also started this bigger trend of globalization and outsourcing it's manufacturing first, throughout the entire world. So it was localized manufacturing.

So European markets had European manufacturing, Asian markets had Asian manufacturing, but then that started to consolidate into first Southeast Asia and, and then to China specifically It was very interesting for me. My dad was traveling a lot. He'd be gone for weeks at a time.

And  this endured for a longer period of my, let's say like early teens. So not great. We were confused. We were excited, dad gets to travel the world and whatnot, but of course being a kid in retrospect now as well for a parent to be gone for an extended period of time, like that definitely was not the best.

 But of course that gave me a lot of time and insight on how technology was developing and evolving globally. And for me now it's fun to reflect on how I'm involved in manufacturing. We'll talk about first resonance later and what globalization trends are changing and shifting from what I witnessed  from my childhood.

 Nikunj: [00:04:17] was your dad a big influence and you taking up engineering as you were thinking about high school and even college.

Karan Talati: [00:04:25] Yeah, definitely. He was. Working in Motorola he used to bring home the latest and greatest prototypes of phones and, this is pre iPhone, right? So I think everybody hopefully maybe not the younger listeners, but maybe most of the listeners will remember the razor and, just that Kind of dynamic era of the, late nineties, early two thousands of these like flip phones, candy bar phones, slider phones, and whatnot.

And I very much got involved with this underground phone hacking scene as well. This is, pre-reddit these forums of like-minded individuals that were hacking and customizing things is just I think  everybody doesn't technology now, like it has some story and connection to some sub community like this.

And for me it was the cell phone hacking community.  Yeah, and that was because my dad worked at Motorola and I had the opportunity to get exposed to those from a very early age.

Nikunj: [00:05:15] I remember pre app store. I had a black and white Nokia phone and I would go on these forums to find new games to put on and try to like side load them. And I remember the age of those forums and people have it easy now they have an app store. They can add whatever they want. Those were the days.

But you decided to go to university of Illinois, Urbana champagne to pursue mechanical engineering. What were the early days there like?

Karan Talati: [00:05:41] Yeah. And I know that Nikunj that's also your Alma mater.  It's great to always connect with fellow Illini out West as well. For me, I went to college to study mechanical engineering because of a few reasons. One I loved cars at that time. I was a teenager that loved fast cars and that's what drew me to mechanical.

But another thing there was while I was very much into this like kind of hack culture programmatic kind of things. I didn't want to spend my life in front of a computer. Lo and behold, I think that's what a lot of us ended up spending our time doing this past year, if not more.  So yeah, went to college to study mechanical engineering because I was very interested in cars and didn't want to spend so much time in front of a computer.

Quickly learnt that my expectations for mechanical engineering, weren't exactly what I had thought mechanical engineering was. I thought it was, designing  cool new, sexy designs, cars, aerodynamics,  carving the clay model. It turns out it was a whole bunch of stress calculations.

And if you didn't have your vector notation you were going to fail the test. So demoralized me, but I like kicked on with it. And luckily enough, I found other things to excite my interests at university of Illinois. So it was just a great place to be.

  Nikunj: [00:06:57] I remember being in computer labs and I was an electrical engineer and I'd be there until one o'clock, but I would listen to all my MechE friends being there  four o'clock playing with the smallest things on CAD. And  I remember those days thinking I'm glad I'm not an mechanical  engineer, but you ended up learning a bunch of computer science in college as well. 

Karan Talati: [00:07:16] Yeah, absolutely. So, interesting now, early 2010s, right?  A lot of information, a wealth of information started spreading through the internet around how you quickly bootstrap these applications. 

I, luckily enough was at U of I where there's a very strong CS. Background in history and heritage as well. So being surrounded with friends who were studying CS, going to hackathons with them that was very much what my junior senior year ended up being. When I became disinterested in mechanical engineering, or at least I was maintaining a hybrid interest in both.

I once had a summer internship where it was so boring and I won't name the company, but it's so boring that I got the chance to just learn Python through the summer. As well as Korean. So learned two languages in a summer. And that was a lot of fun.   And then having just gone through that exploration in college, I ended up bringing that into the workforce, which was pretty exciting. 

Nikunj: [00:08:11] You graduated in 2013 and ended up, with your first full-time job at SpaceX. That seems like the ideal fit given your mechanical engineering and computer science background. What were your years there like? 

Karan Talati: [00:08:26] You're right. It was a pretty ideal fit. And I didn't even know. I'd made a really good friend at the university of Illinois during my senior year of college, Jason Roslyn who had turned me on to this company in Los Angeles that are building rockets and is going to send astronauts to the ISS soon.

And at that time I said, sure, why not? Was actually afraid of LA and didn't really know what I was getting myself into. But then as soon as I got there, the rest is kind of history. I, got to space X in time as it was really catching public attention.

 And of course like solving these major technical milestones and achieving these major technical milestones. From the time I got there just the first commercial launch, a Falcon nine V And for anybody that follows the kind of rocket lineage will know that no one rocket is the same, but at the same time, was really that big leap forward for space X in terms of its new engine and architecture and everything.

So from the first commercial launch of that too by the time I was leaving landing orbital class rockets on land and, in the ocean that's just technical production, manufacturing, quality man, we did a lot during those few years and of course space X has continued to so, that was just an incredible adventure and a time that I very much look back on fondly.

 Nikunj: [00:09:51] I still remember watching that first video and sitting there in amazement on how we're able to land rockets back and now it feels Oh, yet another rocket what's the big deal.  We just take it for granted. But you spent three years at space X and I think decided to scratch your startup pitch and became the first engineer at sense three 60. Why did you leave your dream of working for this  space company and joining a consumer behavior intelligence company?

Karan Talati: [00:10:18] In just a matter of a few years, space X had more than doubled in size. I had the opportunity to get involved with so manythings from automating the space simulation lab to getting involved with the reusability refurbishment data flow and how we were going to use the data from manufacturing to empower those refurbishment flows.

 And in the meanwhile the company had grown so large. I had been growing myself quite a bit and I frankly, just hit ceilings in terms of my growth and what I wanted to do with my technical technical growth on the software side, as well as, yeah, I, kinda, you just mentioned it.

I had a startup itch. I did since college. And so with the company growing as much as it did definitely started feeling less like a startup than it was in when I got there. So I decided to go head first join a small startup a small office above a FedEx six people didn't really know what I was getting myself into at all.

And when I got there, I was really like, wow, what did I do? I used to have cold brew on tap and free fro-yo. And here we were grinding from no customers to something and, I was ready for a new challenge. So I made that jump.

Nikunj: [00:11:27] And you were the first engineer there, right?

Karan Talati: [00:11:30] Yeah, that's right, I was the first engineer there. And at this time the company is tiny, right? We had no recurring revenue. We had zero customers and one of the, one of the things that I really appreciated the CEO Eli Portnoy what he did was every customer that we got, he put up a shirt of that customer on the wall.

 Watching that go from a blank wall to a wall that was full of customers that was incredible from a business side. So I got to watch, the trials and tribulations and the curve road that, that it took to get there.  As well as the technical getting from our concept of a data pipeline in intelligence, into a repeatable and scalable data pipeline that was powering some, really large companies and being there from  the ground floor of building up that analytics product that was a pretty incredible opportunity as well.

Nikunj: [00:12:22] In hindsight, this seems like the perfect opportunity or learnings to prepare you to start your own company. Did you feel that way as well?

Karan Talati: [00:12:31] in hindsight, it does. And, in hindsight, I definitely appreciate what I got to experience and the team that I got to work with that sense three 60 to get me ready for  building first resonance. Yeah, I didn't have any sort of expectation then. Of that. I didn't know that I was going to found a company at all but having seen what it really takes and the conversations that are had and the tough decisions that need to go into what that very earliest stage of company building looks like.

I am so grateful that I got to see that because I think my expectations just would have been misaligned. Had I just gone from a, a 6,000 person company to starting first resonance now.

Nikunj: [00:13:14] From cold brew coffee and fro yo maybe catered lunch to nothing, that's thing.

Karan Talati: [00:13:20] exactly. And now I'm just on my way to working back up to the cold brew now.

Nikunj: [00:13:25] But you do decide to leave sense 360 in a few years and start first residence in 2018. For folks listening, tell us a bit more about the founding story and what does the company do?

Karan Talati: [00:13:37] So in 2018 and a little bit before that I started getting very excited about all of the things that were happening in this new space market. And then beyond that, you take in other streams of innovation, things like autonomous vehicles, drone technology, delivery, electrification. Luckily a lot of the friends that I had made at space X had now gone on to this next generation of companies and that just got me really excited at first, I was like, great.

 Always had this thesis that, companies like SpaceX and Tesla would be like the Facebook, the apples, the Googles of the hardware industry. And we're very much seeing that pan out, but I actually wanted to join one of these companies initially. Started looking around and found that most of these companies were very much in their initial side of R and D, but some were really starting to experience the pains of what that inflection point between R and D and quote unquote production look and just.

A lot of those same themes, the same challenges that I had been very intimately involved with at space X were recurring and just realized there was a huge gap in people solving for what we believe now at first resonance to be a shift in how hardware is built and how it's delivered.

And so we started the company. With this thesis that manufacturing and hardware is fundamentally going to be shifted and change with with the information era. So while manufacturing came up on the industrial era, now we're in the information era and that means that things are going to just get, turned right upside on its head.

We are leaning into that and empowering those types of companies. That are using data from across their design, manufacturing and operations to fuel those workflows. So whether you're a manufacturing engineer, quality engineer, design engineer, being able to very quickly and collaboratively exchange data to build a better product, a safer product and build that faster to get to market.

 That's what we empower and that's what our manufacturing platform ion is being used for now. Across companies in aerospace, automotive, robotics and some very interesting other verticals as well that we're very keen on. 

Nikunj: [00:15:55] To someone who's not super intimate with  manufacturing , is it safe to say it's like Figma?  Figma used to be just a design tool that designers use. Figma made it democratic so that everyone in the company can use it and see how things are getting effected.

Would you call it something similar to that? Or is that simplifying it too much?

Karan Talati: [00:16:14] Yeah, no, I think I love that you bring up that example because at first resonance we love Figma and we're huge users of it.  I hadn't thought about it that way.  But I think you're spot on there in manufacturing. And this is the same thing that has happened in software too.

And the whole dev ops movement in the past 10, 20 years. Of taking a release engineer to a quality engineer, to a site, reliability engineer and folding that into a unified workflow and empowering, engineers to to solve problems. That's what we're doing. And that's, I think what Figma has done for design.

So in manufacturing, you'll have your design engineers, and even within that mechanical design engineers, electrical design engineers, fluids aerodynamics and then downstream, you have mechanic manufacturing, engineers, quality engineers, process engineers, industrial engineers.

I could go on and on what Ion does is bring them to a collaborative space where they could quickly define and exchange that information. And what ion does for companies is, and this is what we've heard from customers. Is it it shifts their vocabulary. To be much more product oriented and goal oriented as opposed to process oriented.

And that's the big innovation and the big change that we see happening in the information era, just end to end, we happen to be in an industry as well that has a huge heritage in innovation being in the process. So you could think of things like six sigma and lean and Kanban and all these coined terms.

 In aerospace and automotive, documents that are hundreds of pages, thousands of pages, and all these pages are actually just being appended anyways.  With new regulations happening with what does it mean to not have an airplane that has passengers take off from an airport, but rather having a a few people inside of an electrically powered composites aircraft flying through a dense urban environment.

So all these things are going up in the air anyways. And the huge opportunity and exciting thing that we get to work on with our customers is that how do you replace all of that heritage in thousands of pages of documents with a streamlined workflows and efficient data exchange to significantly accelerate time to market for these new types of products.

Nikunj: [00:18:29] I'm always curious about hearing some of those hard moments in the early phase of a company's journey. Can you share a few of those moments with us and what did you learn from it?

Karan Talati: [00:18:40] Yeah, absolutely. And I think I'd be lying if I said we're over those moments and all those moments are, just something to be looked back on. We're very much experiencing moments as we go. 

Something that I'll mention here is as first time founders going into a fundraising process and the really accelerated learning there from what innovation means what the customer needs and then what venture capital needs, to put it a little frank there. It's somewhat opaque to, to first-time founders.

And I don't think that the. Information is quite out there, to really understand what one is getting into. The reality is that a lot of companies getting into tech, it means more than just innovating. And solving a problem. It goes beyond that it's innovating and solving a problem in a certain timeline that helps you get to the next phase or milestone.

That was a very hard learning for myself and my co-founder who, we're both first time founders. It is a choice to get into that. And I wish somebody had told me that sooner. Nevertheless, I think as part of that, learning journey it was still the right choice for us and we made that choice consciously.

And we're excited about taking the best of, what that innovation model and that venture, model looks like and bringing that to manufacturing again, it's tough, but it's not necessarily wrong. It's just a choice.

Nikunj: [00:20:01] How has first resonance evolved over the years? Has your  founding thesis or insight that led you to start the company stayed the same?

 Karan Talati: [00:20:11] Yes. And what's really amazing. The very fundamental core theses and principles of why we got into this, who the customers that we were looking to work with are what types of problems they're looking to solve. That's actually stayed consistent. It's amazing to show 

new resonators as we call ourselves, joined the company and point to a vision statement that  we've had, and there's a bunch more preceding this, but the last line of the vision statement says the sky tomorrow will look different than the sky today. That has somewhat turned out to be true with some of our very first customers building products that are, quite literally changing what the sky looks like.

And the problems that we had seen them run into from what does it mean to me manufacturer using new manufacturing methodology, such as additive manufacturing or composites manufacturing in a dynamic and distributed way that flows information from design into manufacturing and then into operations and servicing.

How does that look and what kind of problems are going to arise? We've dealt with some of those problems in our past lives. This was very real for us at space X and those problems are very real and we we're just entering this era. I think the 2020s is really going to be where a lot of these stories get told.

So we're excited to be just at the forefront of that wave.

Nikunj: [00:21:33] Speaking of 2020, how was COVID for you and the company? Did you have to change your roadmap or plans materially?

Karan Talati: [00:21:43] It's amazing reflecting back just a year. We had gotten our first commercial traction just at the beginning of 2020 in January of 2020 was when we got our first customer and our first revenue. So  it's wild to think back to that because we now have more than 15 customers and we've quickly grown from that to having multiple six-figure customers now, too.

So we're very excited about that progress. In 2020, we didn't change the product roadmap per se, because we were very much still building alongside our customers and building technically and functionally that said when March hit We definitely had an infrastructure roadmap effect, let's say so to empower some of our customers that were there used to using the software in their factories and having their engineers next to their technicians.

And for that to be completely changed. We supported them.  We had to make sure our application didn't fall down and like support that multi-site build out, but we're very lucky that, from the get go, we were building a modern technology and we were building cloud native, where out of the box, we were able to support those customers.

So it was just a matter of solving bugs throughout not so much a product roadmap changes.

Nikunj: [00:22:51] As you think about scaling from 10, 15, 20 customers to hundreds of customers. How have you thought about  going deeper in a particular vertical or helping a particular customer versus building more  generic features that's useful to all?

Karan Talati: [00:23:07] So as we grow, and as we understand more about our customers and their real problems, our market and how solutions have been historically deployed in the market and what innovation we want to bring to it. This gets very nuanced and we do at first resonance have a pretty methodical,  way of keeping track of what is an enterprise, a feature request.

What is a scale feature requests? What is a product functionality and feature parity? With a functional competitor. What does that look like? So I think we're still very much  in the grind of figuring out what the right prioritization is across that. And really having our customers ideally pay for whatever that next scale is, whether it is functional or infrastructure related and really sticking to those first principles.

 Going through 2020, we had some great advisors in our ears, including investors and people in our network that really just prepped us for aligning our strategies with business fundamentals and making sure that we were making good sound business decisions. Not necessarily rooted only in one customer or enterprise customers or our vision or dollars in, but really being very nuanced and making the tough decisions about balancing our cash, our runway, our growth, our targets.

With what we were trying to get done as a company. Through it all, by balancing that I'm lucky to be backed with a team that is capable of making some of those hard calls.  We picked up customers through 2020 that we're facing some of those same challenges.

And all of our customers are building hardware. So these are very real challenges for that and very existential challenges for them. So in a way, actually 2020 made it easier to communicate efficiency and alignment and making sure that we were there for each other surviving and thriving for when the world was, ready to get back to it.

 Nikunj: [00:25:05] As you turn the page on 2020, what should we expect from first resonance in this upcoming year?

Karan Talati: [00:25:12] We're very excited about this year because going from, what we feel as zero to one in 2020 if 2021 is anything like that, and we very much expect that it outpaces 2020. We hear a lot about this roaring twenties. I'm hopeful, let's get the vaccine out there and and, get back onto it.

But, we are very fortunate first residents to have a front row seat to what these roaring twenties might look like. It sounds a little bit cliche, but we're very much working with the companies that basically embodied, Marc Andreessen's it's time to build post. We went from zero to over 15 customers now.  We're working with customers that are building autonomous vehicles, electric airplanes, using new types of manufactured materials, right?

Rewriting the rules with the FAA and the air force of what those materials can look like. I think what you can expect in 2021 is really hearing a lot more stories from us as a company and our growth in the number of companies that we're working with. But more importantly, the stories of our customers and the problems that they're solving and the new types of efficient, productive, sustainable types of hardware that we're all going to interact with here.

 As the, the world turns the page on a pandemic and I'm an optimist, but a brighter, cleaner more sustainable world. And so we're very much looking forward to, as a picks and shovels business, ourselves sharing those stories from our end users, as well as, the huge feats that they're accomplishing in all of these endeavors,

Nikunj: [00:26:46] I'm really excited for this decade. I feel in maybe this is my view in 2010, we saw a lot of like software, like a lot of massive software businesses. There were a few hardware ones like Tesla and space X, obviously  doing big things, but I'm excited in this decade we can  have  really interesting hardware companies that are fundamentally change what we do.

We always end the show by asking our guests to share a time that felt like a roller coaster. And what did you learn from it?

 Karan Talati: [00:27:16] And I know we've talked about 20, 20 a lot.  But I'll bring it up here again. Anyways. I won't lie. 2020 was quite the existential rollercoaster. From getting our very first customer and, being late to that as it was right. But it takes a lot of work to get customers in an industry that is so quality critical.

So to ride on that high being at the top of the rollercoaster cruising through that in February and the March hitting us in the face we had to make some hard decisions as a company, unfortunately as a lot of companies did and it wasn't pleasant as we were just getting our stride to, for example let go of some of our valuable team members and bite the bullet on that.

And plan for the survival of the company for the case that the worst was yet to come so on and so forth. And I think the reality is nobody knew in March, April, what things were going to look like. I think the optimists thought that things would wrap up pretty quickly and we'd be back to it.

And the pessimists had had a much grimmer view. I think there's, health and societal kind of ups and downs that we face together as a society. And there's also economic. And I think the economic stuff has not necessarily let's say correlated with what the world is really seeing.

And so for us that has been a complete whiplash and a roller coaster of,  one interpretation of the world being, Hey, look how dire the healthcare situation is. This is all gonna melt down, gear up. This is this is going to be terrible. And then the other side, just being completely off of that.

And so building a company and getting your first traction through that and just hunkering down and just going through it, that has been an incredible roller coaster because on the one hand growing at all is I say a feat and it was for, from some lens. But that's still like managing, what does it mean to be like a venture backed startup and not growing fast enough like most people are right.

Like that has just in quite a rollercoaster for us for 2020, it's just like huge spoon of I don't really even know what to call it, but it was quite the ride and it continues to be, I think, as we all continue to check into the unknown.

Nikunj: [00:29:24] It would be interesting to see how 2021 plays out.  Thank you, Karan, for taking the time today and sharing your incredible journey. If people are interested in learning more about ion or first resonance, how can they get in touch with you?

Karan Talati: [00:29:36] Thanks, Nikunj for having me on. It's been incredible chatting with you about the ups and downs and looking back on the, both the goods and bads of of my life and and what we've been doing more recently at first resonance. If anybody wants to get in touch with me, feel free to reach out directly at karan at

If you're building hardware or even thinking about building hardware would love to get in touch with you. I'm very excited about the new innovations and what innovation in general looks like. I think we're just entering an era where you know moving beyond the single pane of glass and software and taking technology in immersing it into the world around us, like that's just starting were working with many of the companies that are doing that.

And we're very excited, to support those companies that are just starting on their journeys there. 

Nikunj: [00:30:26] Awesome. Thanks Karan. 

Karan Talati: [00:30:28] Great. Thank you, Nikunj