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How an ex-Googler grew a geospatial startup from zero to Global Top 100: A Conversation with Ajay Bulusu, Co-Founder of NextBillion.ai

Written by
Aaron Oh
Published on
March 26, 2024

Getting fired from Google, a dream job for many, turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Ajay Bulusu. It’s a decision that forced him to re-evaluate his career path. But little did he know, this would be a driving force for him to launch NextBillion, a company leveraging AI’s power to map a future where deliveries, rideshares, and logistics flow smoothly, even in confusing cities. In this candid discussion, Ajay connects the dots in his startup journey, highlighting the importance of focus, the power of resilience, and the need for unwavering passion in arriving at success.

Aspire: NextBillion.ai as a company name truly underscores the scale and impact of your business and industry. What was the one thing that helped you validate your ideas in this huge market and turn it into an enterprise-level service in such a short time?

Ajay Bulusu: For the past decade, we've been doing a lot of work in this space, learning about maps, spatial data, and location tech. While at Google Maps and Grab, we saw these problems firsthand. Without analysing whether the problem was big enough and if we could solve it, we jumped in. And once we did, things took off one after another. It was very quick after that.

For NextBillion, we just jumped in, and that's also wrong. We didn't validate our thesis or our hypothesis. 

If I were to do a startup again, I'd do things differently. Because we are a SaaS business, I'd talk to 30, or 40 companies to understand buyer personas, identify the core problem, and solve it really well first before expanding the market. Instead of trying to eat the whole elephant at once, it has to be piecemeal. 

Aspire: Drawing from your personal experience at Google, how would you advise startup founders to navigate unforeseen setbacks, such as layoffs, and maintain resilience in the pursuit of building and growing their ventures?

Ajay Bulusu: All startups, even big companies, have their own setbacks. It all comes down to your perspective of what a setback is. We’ve had months with zero sales, no new customers sign in, and even team members leaving. But it didn’t deter us. As long as you believe you’re solving an important problem fundamentally well, you're being very ethical about how you're doing it, and you're not in it for the wrong reasons, everything else is fine.

It's okay to fail too. At NextBillion, we believe in doing our best and trying to predict what will happen next. However, if things don’t go as planned, there's no harm in admitting we made a mistake, as long as the steps we took were the right ones. I think resilience will come on its own.

On a personal level, I was actually laid off when there were no layoffs at Google at all. But I am very happy it happened because even though I knew I had potential then, I got too comfortable where I was. I would have never quit if they did not force me out. So when I left Google, I took all the positives and learnings with me and figured out my path.

Aspire: NextBillion.ai is pioneering a new era in the mapping ecosystem. How do you approach educating the market about the value of AI-powered mapping solutions for enterprises?

Ajay Bulusu: What we are doing is a bleeding edge of how we envision maps will be in the future. If we’re decentralised, crowdsourced data will be free. Software and AI will build the components for your building blocks and it’s been around for a long time. At Google 10 years back, computers were generating roads without humans even touching them. It's because they have enough Android probes to generate roads. These deep models that Google's been building, they don't talk about it a lot, but I've seen this a decade back. 

For AI to extract data, that’s easy. But for AI to package the data, process it, and make it valuable for an enterprise? We’re not there yet. That is what we are building. If I have a lot of GPS (global positioning system) data in my company, what can I do with it? Can I build speed profiles and detect roads from them? How do we ensure any company with access to phone data can easily detect any road in the world and determine the speed of cars travelling on them? And how do I use the speed and road information to improve my accurate ETA (expected time of arrival)?  

While reinventing the wheel is great and we have super cool tech, it's not extremely sellable. I think in the future, it will be. Every auto and trucking company, and many others, will require a way to access, maintain, and manage the freshest maps, potentially with additional data layers. So, even if not today, in five or six years, I know the fundamental infrastructure we've built will become very critical. 

Aspire: What are some of the lessons you've learned from building and managing a global team, particularly when dealing with challenges in communication, collaboration, and cultural differences?

Ajay Bulusu: In my opinion, remote work doesn't work for everyone. Companies now have realised that we need to return to the office. It’s not just about being physically present; it’s about building personal relationships and trust with your peers. In-person collaboration is still the best.

Effective communication is also crucial. We maintain open channels via Lark and WhatsApp, and hold quarterly town halls and monthly syncs. I frequently meet with teams to motivate them, understanding the insane energy employees draw from founders. Building emotional trust is key. Because if they don't believe NextBillion is a good company then they'll never put their heart and soul into it.

Aspire: You highlighted the importance of focusing on a specific product and market instead of spreading too thin initially. Can you share more details about the specific challenges faced and lessons learned during this phase?

Ajay Bulusu: We started building mapping technology horizontally. For example, anyone who moves anything — people, pizza, parcel trucks, bikes, trikes, etc. We’ll build you a map and give you the technology on top of it. 

With that, what happens is as you go in-depth into each one of these verticals, they each have their language, problems, constraints, and solutions. We ended up building a very generic platform, but there was not one vertical that was scaling. Every vertical had one or two customers. And we could not go deep into anything because then the platform was built too horizontally. 

There's an issue with going too vertical also. If you go too vertical and say, ‘In the hyperlocal space, I will serve only something,’ then there are only as many companies in the hyperlocal space. So it's very critical that we have a very fine balance — you’re able to solve more verticals, but you’re also solving enough verticals in time. 

Our biggest mistake was trying to solve everything. We were scaling multiple products across various geographies simultaneously, including Europe, China, India, Asia, and the US. Each of my sales guys was saying, ‘In this vertical, in this country, I want this,’ creating a complex five-by-five matrix instead of a simple one-by-one or two-by-two approach. You get nowhere trying to solve it all at once. 

My advice to new startups is to focus on one market first. If it’s the US market, for example, talk to its people, companies, and customers. Understand their problems, speak their language, and build a solution tailored to their needs.

Aspire: Considering the connection you highlighted between promotions, team size, and growth in big tech in your LinkedIn post, how do you see this dynamic influencing innovation and efficiency within teams?

Ajay Bulusu: Half of the world now prioritises ‘soft relevance’. Rather than solving a problem and working towards their end goal, people ask, ‘If I solve this problem, will I get rewarded?’ I feel this creates a paradox for innovation: wanting to keep innovating inherently means you shouldn’t have a hierarchy, but as you grow big, things won’t move without one. There’s no perfect solution. It’s a necessary evil but still critical.

Fortunately, our company structure allows us to avoid titles and promotions. With only 50 people and one manager, we maintain a flat team. We don’t hire too much as I feel that if your product is good, you don't need too many people. The product sells itself. 

Aspire: What is the single most important factor that has contributed to NextBillion's success?

Ajay Bulusu: It’s our obsession with maps. It’s not an easy problem to solve. The real world is dynamic, but maps aren’t. Merging a static world with a physical one and making it as live as possible is an ever-ending challenge. Yet, it’s so fulfilling, because every action we take in this space impacts someone’s life.

Learn how NextBillion.ai is transforming routing and navigation with their industry-leading powerful APIs and SDKs.

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About the author
Aaron Oh
is a seasoned content writer specialising in finance, insurance and tech industries. With a writing history at S&P Global, EdgeProp, Indeed, Prudential, and others, Aaron leverages finance knowledge and business insights to help businesses improve productivity and performance.
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