The “strangest thing that’s ever happened” to Elaine Gaddam wouldn’t have come about if she hadn’t followed Rakesh “Rocky” Agrawal on Twitter.
In early May, Agrawal had a meltdown on Twitter.
Long an outspoken figure in the mobile payments space, Agrawal had taken a job as PayPal’s new director of global strategy. He remained in the position only two months before sending in his resignation letter one Friday evening.
He then launched into a Twitter tirade that started with drunken insults to a few of his former co-workers (two of the since-deleted posts said “Duck you Smedley you useless middle manager,” and “Christina Smedley is a useless. Piece of shit.”) and continued cryptically (and at all hours) for several days, including hints to his whereabouts and promises that whoever found him would be hired for a new company he was launching.
The eyes of the tech world were transfixed to Agrawal’s Twitter feed. Amazement co-mingled with concern as people wondered if they were watching a man become unglued.
After-the-fact, Agrawal claimed to Business Insider his strange behaviour and erratic tweets were the result a series of usability experiments he was conducting without telling anyone.
Agrawal would present his followers with puzzles, asking them to explain some UX problem or guess what his new company would focus on based on a picture of bunch of products laid out on a table.
Finding herself with some free time at her administrative assistant position at the attorney generals office in Vancouver Island, Canada, Gaddam started answering a few of Agrawal’s puzzles.
After one of her responses, Agrawal followed her back on Twitter, and sent her a DM asking if she’d be free from June 9 to 13 to come out to San Francisco for a recruiting week of the new company he had been hinting at on Twitter. She didn’t know if he was serious or not, but she said yes. By the end of the month, he had sent her information about her plane ticket.
Gaddam was one of seven people from across North America invited to attend Agrawal’s recruiting week for his new startup, reDesign Mobile. Three others — lawyer Chuck Marshall, non-profit employee Sara Nordmann, and marketer Victor Marks — had also won their invites from satisfactory answers to Agrawal’s Twitter quizzes. Agrawal had met another — Michael Gilbert — at a puzzle store called Marbles, after Gilbert had impressed him with his customer service skills as he rang up Agrawal’s more than $US500 worth of gifts and helped him ship them across the country. He randomly met former-model Sam Jones in Santa Monica when she was there for a friend’s birthday, and the two clicked. He and Mark Rogowsky knew each other from the Q&A site Quora.
Those seven people were about to embark on a five-day whirlwind of tests and activities as they tried to win a position at a company that they knew next-to-nothing about. Gaddam said that Agrawal and the recruits didn’t talk about what reDesign Mobile would actually do during that week, and even now Rocky refuses to concretely define his company’s plan or business model.
Agrawal didn’t ask for anyone’s resume or job history before inviting them to San Francisco for an all-expenses paid, week-long interview. If it sounds like an unusual strategy, well, that’s the point. Agrawal revels in the group’s diversity and quirky backstories, enthusiastically explaining how one member lived in a car for three months and never went to college, while another had never worked in tech but had a passion for consumer rights.
“Silicon Valley writes off all non-22 year-old-white Stanford males, but you can build a great team from around the country if you know how to look,” he told Business Insider in an email.
Agrawal also says he’s fed up with the recruiting processes of the major tech companies in Silicon Valley and that they’re generally only “a test of how good a bullsh*t story you can come up with” in an interview. Agrawal wants to prove that his less conventional methods can unearth “brilliant people” who can build a long-lasting company. (Time will tell.)
Despite the out-of-the-blueness of the offer and Agrawal’s controversial online footprint, all of the people invited to the recruiting week showed up.
When Gaddam arrived at the airport in San Francisco on Sunday evening, she felt excited, but like the whole experience was surreal. She still had no idea what Agrawal’s mysterious company was all about, but here she was in a new city about to spend a week with complete strangers. When she got to the hotel, she expected that the recruits would bunk up, but found they’d all been put up in huge suites to themselves.
The seven recruits met up for the first time the next morning to make their way to Agrawal’s house together. Several described the vibe that week as in some ways akin to summer camp.
Agrawal had jam-packed the week with activities, but one of the most critical parts was getting to know each other and working together.
Sara Nordmann, who flew in from New York City, told Business Insider that the week felt time-warped due to business, but that “the social element of figuring out the other people and determining if we liked them or got along” was one of the most overwhelming parts.
“You really learn a lot about people when you’re with them eight to ten hours a day, going from activity to activity,” class-action lawyer Chuck Marshall told Business Insider.
Over the next five days, Agrawal would lead Gaddam, Gilbert, Marks, Nordmann, Jones, Marshall, and Rogowsky through dozens of tests and exercises conducted through a series of activities, including exploring the California Academy of Science, sipping wine in a Sonoma vineyard, comparing transit times for Uber and the BART transportation system, and going to a Giants-Nationals game. The entire time, Agrawal kept an internal log of how well his potential employees were working together and demonstrating critical thinking. Some nights he stayed up until two or three in the morning going over notes or trying to fine-tune the process for the next day.
“The exercises had us thinking about things we probably wouldn’t have recognised otherwise,” says Michael Gilbert, a 20-something from the U.K. who majored in physics and moved to LA to be a musician, before getting a job working for Marbles The Brain Store. Agrawal had the crew take notes on different user experience issues at the science museum, and Gilbert says he noticed things that would normally slip under his radar.
How do these kinds of observational exercises fit into the grand plan of the fledgling startup?
Agrawal is still fairly vague in describing what ReDesign Mobile will actually do. It’s a complex new business model, he says, and but the goal is to build great products, help other companies build great products, or work with other companies that are “doing harm to consumers” to “try to fix that.”
Samantha Jones, who describes herself as Agrawal’s “right-hand man” and will be running PR for the company, says that reDesign is kind of like a consulting firm, but plans to trade its services for equity in companies it deems as having great potential. Other recruits told Business Insider to expect more details to “roll out soon.”
Another vague subject is the matter of funding. Agrawal tweeted asking for investments and about securing funding way back in May, but he tells Business Insider now that though there are some angel investors that have already committed, there are some that he’s working to get committed.
“We are still finalising the round,” he later said via email. “I need to circle back with everyone to actually do the paperwork. So far, I’ve funded everything out of pocket just to get up and running quickly. I’m just now working on funding paperwork for outside investors.”
Agrawal says that he spent approximately $US12,000 total for hotel rooms, meals, the vineyard visit, the baseball game, the museum, and — for some of his recruits — the flights, noting that $US12,000 is “a bargain” when you consider that a recruiter would charge $US30,000 for one hire. Agrawal says he can personally afford such expenditures because he has worked in tech for nearly 20 years and is “a smart investor in the public markets.”
As the events of the week played out, the recruits and Rocky really got to know each other. Marshall said the group began to feel like a small family. Then, on Friday, Agrawal held a brief personal meeting with each individual recruit. He walked everyone through a hypothetical Hunger Games of sorts: They had to name the one other person that they’d most want to work with. Then the two other people they’d most want to work with. Then three, and so on, until one person wasn’t picked. He wanted to figure out who each person thought was the weakest link.
Of the seven people invited, six got on-the-spot offers for either full, part-time, or freelance positions. Gaddam didn’t make the cut, partially, she thinks, because she didn’t speak up as much as some of the other recruits.
“At the end of the day I had a good experience,” she told Business Insider. “But I would have liked to be given an offer.”
Right now, only Samantha Jones and Victor Marks will work full-time. Michael Gilbert plans to work part-time, keeping his gig at Marbles, Sarah Nordmann wants to freelance on reDesign projects while keeping her non-profit job in NYC, Chuck Marshall will focus mainly on the startup but will still occasionally take cases through his firm, and Rogowsky’s role is yet to be decided. That, plus Rocky, is the reDesign team in its entirety. (In May, Agrawal tweeted that his former assistant Amy was an employee and that he’d hired a woman named Sarah who found him at a New York City restaurant, but neither still works with the company.)
The employees and Agrawal all declined to disclose their salaries, but Agrawal says that hiring them was “remarkably cost effective based on people being passionate about the company.”
On the surface, Agrawal’s experiment in non-traditional recruiting methods seems to have gone better than his experiment in non-traditional Twitter uses, but it will take more than a few weeks to see whether his nebulous-sounding company with nebulous-sounding funding will be able to last.
“I think that there’s something interesting about finding new ways to hire and build a new team, especially when you do it from scratch,” says Gadi Shamia, CEO of Magneto, who was brought in to speak during the recruiting week. “Time will tell if it’s a good system or not. Nobody can judge it right now.”
Although Agrawal has admitted that he wishes that the whole scenario with his PayPal resignation and the many tweets that followed had gone differently, he doesn’t think his reputation has been burned too bad.
“I think that the people who are the smartest people in the valley get that what I’m doing is interesting, and that they should be part of it,” he says. “I think, in general, Silicon Valley is a really conformist culture, and even before all these things happened I was a nonconformist.”