Five Questions For … SnapStream Founder & CEO Rakesh Agrawal

Houston—Houston-based entrepreneur Rakesh Agrawal is the founder and CEO of the media tech startup SnapStream, which has developed technology capable of recording television programs and combing through them in order to flag specific words or phrases identified by customers. For example, SnapStream’s tools allow one of its customers, “The Daily Show,” to mine congressional hearings broadcast on C-SPAN for video clips that could turn into fodder for a montage.

Recently, the company has focused more on social media as an important “second screen,” as reported by the Houston Chronicle a year ago. The company’s Social TV software helps engage consumers who are engaging with sites like Facebook and Twitter while watching TV.

Agrawal is also a mainstay in the city’s tech community, mentoring younger founders and investing in some of the ideas he finds promising. He’s a regular attendee of Houston-area demo days for accelerators at Rice University and the University of Houston, and has attended Y Combinator’s demo day in San Francisco each of the past five years. As an angel investor, he’s invested in more than 60 startup companies such as Cruise and CircuitHub, and Houston health IT companies BrainCheck and Procyrion.

With the start of the new year, we are restarting a recurring Xconomy Texas feature called “Five Questions For,” with the aim of bringing you the stories of Texas innovators. Last year, we featured entrepreneurs such as Rise founder and CEO Nick Kennedy, surgeon and inventor William Cohn, and University of Texas at Austin professor Robyn Metcalfe. We aim to bring you a different story each week. Today’s installment includes thoughts from Agrawal on leadership, key tools for being stranded on a desert island, and his “anti-portfolio.”

Xconomy: What leadership lessons did you get from your parents?

Rakesh Agrawal: My Dad has always been a disciplined note-taker.  He used to only wear shirts with a breast pocket and he’d always keep a small Mead notebook and Cross pens in that pocket. And on the weekends, at home, he would transfer those notes into larger notebooks at the dining table, organizing his thoughts and to-dos. I have some of this note-taking discipline in me. I love this quotation from Lee Iacocca: “The discipline of writing something down is the first step toward making it happen.”

X: What career advice do you give to new college graduates?

R.A.: Optimize your choice of what you do for growth and learning, not only for money or perks or convenience. One way to maximize growth and learning comes from joining a mid-stage startup. Another way to do this is select what you do based on the boss or leader that you think you’ll learn the most from.

X: What’s your biggest failure as an entrepreneur or investor?

R.A.: As an investor in early stage startups, the companies that you missed investing in are your anti-portfolio. So, three companies in my anti-portfolio, companies that I saw and spent time with (all from my first YC demo day) but ultimately didn’t invest in: PlanGrid, FarmLogs, and Zapier.

X: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

R.A.: I don’t know if I ever thought about what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I guess I thought I’d do something like my Dad, who was an engineer and ran a business he started. But I always had an interest in technology—I learned to write programs in BASIC and then Pascal in elementary school and middle school. I was into bulletin boards (BBSs) when I was 12 or 13. So I guess it’s not surprising that I ended up working in technology.

X: If you got stranded on a desert island, what’s the one thing you would have to have with you?

R.A.: My coffee setup. I love good coffee and start most days making myself a cappuccino at home with beans from either Houston-based Amaya Roasting Company or Oakland, CA-based Blue Bottle Coffee (I subscribe to one of their beans-by-mail subscriptions.) What’s that you say? The desert island doesn’t have electricity or potable water? Welp. I guess I’m screwed then!

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