#16 Aneto Okonkwo: The Humble Visionary Solving One of The World’s Biggest Problems

updated on 20 January 2021

It’d be a shame if I didn’t use my skills to solve inequality. That’s why I decided to take that leap.

The feeling we had after the interview with Aneto was unusual, something we had never experienced before. Our minds were sharp, our thoughts were clear, and we were at peace with ourselves. We spent an hour chatting with someone who’s achieved a lot, more than most people could dream of, but it felt like our conversation could have happened with a longtime friend. Aneto is a charismatic entrepreneur, but he speaks with calm, confidence, and serenity, without hesitating, captivating us instantly while reassuring us at the same time. Magic.

Aneto is currently the founder of Chatdesk, a NY based startup that is revolutionizing the customer service industry. Before that, he worked for Google in both its California and Zurich offices. Oh, and small detail, he’s also a graduate of Stanford School of Engineering.

But that is only one part of the story.

At Venture Insider, we strive to undress the ups-and-down, the late nights, the early mornings, the failures, and the victories.

In a few words; we want to share the real stories.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Everything in Italic symbolizes the voice of the writer, aka, us at Venture Insider.

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Introduce yourself — tell us a little bit about your journey?

I’m currently the co-founder and CEO of Chatdesk. We are a software company based in New York, founded in 2016 with the mission to improve customer service and create jobs.

On a personal note, I grew up in Nigeria and went to college at Stanford, where I got my Bachelor’s and Master’s. After college, I joined Google as a product manager in California. I also worked for McKinsey as a Management Consultant in Chicago, developed a music app for a year, and then rejoined Google in 2010 in the Zurich office, in Switzerland.

What did you dream of when you were a kid?

This was a tough one (laughing). I started programming when I was 14 years old. I was building computer games, websites, and cool projects. One of them was a social networking site for African Youth. This triggered my interest in high-tech entrepreneurship. I actually wrote my college essay about high-tech entrepreneurship. For anyone who wants to get into Stanford, you guys know what to write about!

How was it to grow up in Nigeria?

Growing up in Nigeria was great. My parents are both university professors, and I naturally grew up on a university campus. I have four older sisters who are excellent role models. They have all focused on careers where they have an impact in healthcare, philanthropy, agriculture, and service to the greater good. For example, my eldest sister is a medical pathologist, and the youngest is a marketing executive who is very active with the local food bank in her city. I was able to follow in their footsteps.

One thing that Nigerians are really known for is being very hard-working and entrepreneurial. This environment contributed a lot to both my work ethic and drive.

And the grail — Stanford University?

I was inspired to apply to Stanford because my sister did a summer fellowship there, and I also saw this documentary on CNN in 1999 about Silicon Valley. They featured Stanford and interviewed Elon Musk and the Yahoo founders.

I said, wow, these people all went to Stanford. This seems like the place you go to do these kinds of things.

One thing to note is that it’s very competitive to get in. My mom had a lot of foresight and pushed me to another school first, Clarkson University, where I was able to get good grades and prepare myself for Stanford.

What passions did you nurture at Stanford?

I studied abroad in France and China. I wish I could have gone to more countries, but Stanford actually has a limit on the number of times you can study abroad.

On top of that, I was also doing a lot of extracurriculars. I strategically sought out leadership experience.

I looked at the school and said: ‘what are the roles that I can take which will give me large scale leadership experience?’

One potential opportunity was the head of the student newspaper. The second was being the vice-president of the student body, where I learned a ton. I was the leader of an executive cabinet and had to manage a $50,000 budget. We had some specific goals to execute. I also had to run a small campaign.

Overall, Stanford was amazing. Some of my best friends are from school, and a lot of my network is from school.

Top schools have a mixed reputation in the US. What did you dislike the most?

I wish more people could get in. Everyone should have the opportunity to go to such places and achieve her/his full potential. So yeah, I’m one of the lucky ones, but it shouldn’t be that way.

Also, some of the typical stereotypes of Ivy League type of schools do not apply to Stanford. Everyone pretends to be very chill, like surfers on the beach, while in reality, everybody is working extremely hard. It’s the ducks in water phenomenon. Ducks do not seem to be spending a lot of energy to move around on the water, but, in fact, their feet are moving really fast. It’s the same at Stanford.

Another point to mention is that Stanford is unique in a way that the people who are good at sports are also brilliant, and even the people who are very rich, are typically also very smart.

Were you prepared to enter the corporate world?

I was quite intentional about the classes and leadership experiences I picked. I chose to prepare myself for the world.

There is a program called the Mayfield Fellows Program (with alumni such as Justin Rosenstein — Asana & Kevin Systrom — burbn/Instagram). The curriculum focuses on startup formation and the Venture Capital ecosystem. They bring entrepreneurs on campus to inspire students, and you even get connected with a mentor working in VC. You suddenly get access to this giant network, it’s crazy!

I knew about this program before even getting into Stanford, and I applied every year until they accepted me (laughing)Persistence is key guys!

Why did you choose Google?

I had heard about Google for a long time because the founders came from Stanford, and I had similarly applied to jobs there every year. Persistence guys, please!

I had gotten some experience in banking at Goldman Sachs and in tech at Microsoft. Still, I strongly resonated with Google’s mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible.

It was also relatively early days. In 2006, there were only ~13,000 employees. You still had some freedom and a lot more things to create than at bigger companies like Microsoft.

But?

I started to get disillusioned because I wasn’t getting to work on the things I’d hoped at that time. At the time, I wanted to impact emerging markets, but Google had other priorities. I felt like I could learn much faster outside.

Now reflecting, it made sense, right? In 2006, Google was still a young company with plenty to achieve in the US and didn’t need to focus on emerging markets.

I decided to go into consulting by joining McKinsey as an analyst for two years in Chicago. To be honest with you, I left a lot on the table. My income went down, not mentioning stock, but I did this intentionally. At the time, I wasn’t sure tech was the best fit for me, and I wanted to work on emerging markets.

One of the benefits of consulting is that you get to work across many different industries. I became much more polished as an executive, as a communicator, and as a problem solver.

Then going back to Google again?

I was missing the weather from San Francisco, just kidding (laughing). Actually, I wouldn’t say I like San Francisco’s weather that much. It’s chilly in SF, but the South Bay is much warmer.

Jokes aside, I got what I wanted to get out of consulting. In my eyes, tech was still what I really loved, and I felt I needed to get back to it.

I left Chicago and went back to San Francisco to work on a music app for a year. I made a lot of mistakes, but I learned a ton. The idea was to build a platform that would recommend songs based on your network on Facebook. If it had worked, it’d have been pretty cool, but I made a lot of mistakes, and it ended up being a failure.

After that startup year, an old friend from my time at Google invited me to a party at Marissa Mayer’s house. Marissa, who was my boss’ boss, was also employee number 20 at Google. She later became the head of Search.

I hadn’t kept in touch with her at all but, once I arrived there, she walked up to me and said: ‘Aneto, great to see you. I was talking about you the other day. We need more product managers to work on Africa and emerging markets’.

I’m very grateful because I then got the opportunity to work on what truly mattered to me: emerging markets and payments for several years. For example, I helped to launch a new payment system in Kenya and the Philippines. For this product, we staffed a customer service team and also built automation for self-service over SMS (e.g. checking your balance, blocking your account). I worked on Voice Search and then more recently, the Google Assistant.

Why did you start your own company?

After a few years, I was thinking, do I want to stay at Google, and continue on the Executive Path like Joris, or start my own gig and solve the problems in the world that I’m passionate about?

One of the most fundamental problems in the world is inequality, especially in terms of unemployment and job creation. The more I thought about this problem, the more I understood that it didn’t fit with Google’s mission of organizing the world’s information.

I had this big problem in mind, and I was thinking about ways to solve it. I made a list of skills for which I was uniquely qualified, based on my experience, like voice search and the customer service tools we had built. I saw some technologies that we could apply to the problem of inequality. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense, and that’s why I decided to take that leap.

It’d be a shame if I don’t use my skills to solve that problem.

What’s Chatdesk’s mission?

We help companies deliver excellent customer experiences by allowing anyone to become a customer support expert.

Anyone anywhere in the world can now do customer support for brands that they love and get paid for doing that. We’re the Uber of customer service. With us, a company can scale up its customer support team on demand.

We have achieved the vision of this idea and now we’re working on the scale. The objective is to have millions of people working on the platform.

Any advice to someone starting a company?

Be ready. It’s very painful. There’s a lot of rejection but if it’s something that you can’t stop thinking about, if you’d do it even if no one paid you for years, then you should go for it.

Most people think about a startup in this way: coming up with an idea, writing a business plan, raising money, building a product, and finally launching it.

This approach is very unlikely to succeed unless you’re Steve Jobs.

Instead, you should focus on whether there are customers for the problem you’re trying to solve. There are different types of customers:

  1. People who don’t know they have a problem
  2. People who have a problem and are looking for a solution
  3. People who have a problem and have tried to find a solution for themselves without success
  4. People who have a problem and have a budget to spend on this problem

If you find lots of people in this last category #4 and you have a way to distribute your product to them, then you have a business.

So, my advice is research, research, and research before any execution.

Once you have your concept, get feedback from customers. Your final product may become a variation of your original idea.

If you could change one thing in your journey, something you now have regret for, what would it be?

Being intentional about making the most of every opportunity. That’s a mistake young people sometimes make. They’re in a rush and think they’re going to live forever, but actually, all those opportunities fade away at some point.

For example, at Stanford, there were so many classes and activities that I could have participated in. At Google, there were many technologies I could have learned more about.

Since I became an entrepreneur, I’ve made it a point to say yes to every opportunity. If someone invites me to an event or offers to introduce me to someone, I follow up on it because it typically leads to something unexpected. This approach was the catalyst for finding our first customer at Chatdesk and eventually meeting our lead investor.

What are the milestones that are still left to be achieved?

The vision of Chatdesk is to solve customer service and create jobs. Our approach will create millions of jobs in the US and around the world. We’re building a company that has the potential to achieve $100M+ annual revenue and become a publicly-traded company. It’s going to take a few years, but we’re on the right trajectory at the moment.

The phase we’re in now is distribution. Many people focus on the product instead of distribution. How do you actually get millions of people to use your product? That’s the hard entrepreneurship problem of today’s world. So many things are competing for our attention, so how do you get in front of lots of people?

Let’s say you’re launching an app. You shouldn’t just build the app. It would be best if you actually started a newsletter that would get you 10,000 or 100,000 subscribers which will help you figure out what people are looking for. This will help you build an audience; that’s the hardest part!

Do that before you try actually to build the product. That’s my point.

Do you have an inspiring figure?

My sister, Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli, is a leading social entrepreneur. She selflessly dedicates herself to making the world a better place.

One book?

Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.

The one Billion Dollar Question: what’s your opinion on the debate about (dis)information, and how Google and other Tech Giants are handling this at the moment?

I’ve talked to some people who are in charge of these decisions, and I believe we are making this more complicated than it really is.

There are certain things in society that we’ve all agreed are bad. If you have that kind of content or you’re having that kind of conversation, your content should get banned. This is not a problem of free speech, nor a hard engineering problem to solve. If someone talks a lot about certain topics in her/his messages, flag her/his account.

What Twitter and Facebook are trying to do with displaying warning labels is actually a good solution. Things are trending in the right direction where people start to be accountable for what’s happening on their platforms.

It’s too easy to say ‘our platform is free and open, people can post whatever they want’. Our inaction is actually deciding for society.

Our Main Takeaways

  • Saying yes is better than saying no: dive into every opportunity at hand, you won’t regret it. This approach helped Aneto find his first customer and lead investor.
  • Research, research and research before launching: it is better to test the waters before moving ahead at full speed. One way of doing it is to find and understand your audience before starting to build the product.
  • The life of a startup entrepreneur is painful but allows for big impact: Aneto quit his job at Google to chase his dream of solving inequality and would do it again if need be because, at the end of the day, that’s what truly fulfils him.

Inspiring story Aneto, thank you very much.

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