It is worth noting that, as I attempt to put words to the captivating Prakash Chandran—startup consultant, entrepreneur, and user experience whiz—I have two parallel windows open: one, to a search for the video game, “Doom.” The other, “Quake.” As I weed through our hour-long conversation, covering everything from modern adolescence to the hilarity of Santa Barbara “traffic,” I am simultaneously navigating the skeleton headed, giant eyeballed, and fiery armored virtual reality that Prakash credits with cutting his tech-world teeth. A competitive player, young Prakash eventually published game strategies onto an emerging internet canvas; and much later, after forays into the tech hierarchy (hello, Google) and founding his own startup, honed in on the common denominator beneath his pursuits: operations management. Helping others get places in a streamlined, balanced, and productive way; which, notably, requires a willingness to be balanced in oneself. But more on that later. “Since I was small, I have always been driven to help people get to answers quicker,” Prakash shares. “I’m all about making things more efficient.” More efficient, meaning more easeful. With more fun. And, undoubtedly, several more opportunities to play “Doom.”
Born in L.A. proper, Prakash was raised in Malibu: the not-so-quaint seaside offshoot where one is more likely to reference a helicopter, not mouse, when using the word “pad.” Comparatively, Prakash was from a lower socioeconomic rung, and formed a close group of friends who managed to “dodge” the level of entitlement that many peers were born into. As the son of immigrant parents, Prakash was born into his own matrix of expectation: that he would go to a prestigious institution and get perfect grades. “They thought I was wasting my time on this thing called a computer,” Prakash remembers. As his parents (not to mention, mainstream education) continued to mistake academic grades for an accurate gauge of intelligence (whoops), Prakash—who “didn’t get along so well” with standardized testing—was denied from nearly every college he applied to; however, “being an underdog” only “drove [him] to want to prove people wrong.” After accepting admission to CalPoly Pomona, Prakash dominoed from computer science to graphic design—familiar stomping grounds, given his years as a low-key teenage “Doom” strategist—but, because he was “working in it,” soon realized he knew more than his professors, and switched to operations management in the business school. In realizing that experience IN a field weighs more than a multiple choice test, Prakash landed a job at… you got it. Google. Maybe you’ve heard of it? At any rate, his parents had; and, to their credit, retracted their earlier statement about computers. “They didn’t know,” Prakash smiles. “They said, ‘we didn’t know this thing would make it easier to succeed.’” To be fair, most didn’t; just as Prakash couldn’t have anticipated how his educational mosaic would give him the exact pieces he needed to become a leader in his field.
At the time that Prakash joined Google (2004), it was still up-and-coming; however, the eight years that he spent with the company were defined by its colossal expansion. If he was raised in Malibu, Prakash “grew up” at Google: in his time there, he worked as a lead user experience designer for “Picasa” and Google Calendar. “I felt very gratified,” he shares. Not unlike his coming-of-age at Malibu High, Prakash was confronted with the complexities of wealth: only this time, he was the subject. “It’s worth mentioning that you think a lot of yourself when you work at Google,” he reflects. “You’re making too much money. You kind of start to believe it.” Not one to believe any limiting narrative for long, Prakash began examining his “insane” work hours, and questioned whether they might be better spent on his own endeavor. Enter Zabinet: the startup born from his post-Google years, which gave him both the “real lessons and real confidence” to commit to operations management and the vital role it plays in good user experience. Between Google and Zabinet, however, Prakash makes a point to reveal that he spent nearly a year in France: “doing absolutely nothing. It was amazing.”
Thus emerges one of the core themes at the heart of Prakash’s work—and in my opinion, one of the most valuable things he offers through mentorship. Here is a man with an education in operations management; which, for those not familiar with the jargon (raises hand silently), is the study of making activities more efficient. To the naked ear, that may sound like code for “faster,” or “making important phone calls whilst in line at the grocery store;” but in fact, true efficiency is about working smarter, not harder. It is about watching the queue at a coffee shop, and imagining the exact steps that would optimize the traffic flow… not just speed it up. It’s about understanding who is waiting in line and why they come to that particular shop in the first place. In order to provide the best experience, it requires slowing down to get a full picture, and pulling back from productivity long enough to know what drives it; and in his year overseas, Prakash did just that. Not only did he witness poverty up close—a rite of passage for any person, but ESPECIALLY one from the gilded tech field—he also realized the best way to help people make decisions is to learn about them. Which starts by learning about oneself. In summation: there is a paradox at the heart of Prakash’s approach to operations management and user experience, and it’s more valuable than most realize. To gain a true life hack, and move faster, one must be willing to slow down. “I think they go hand-in-hand,” Prakash shares. “Even if it doesn’t seem like they should.”
So: Prakash mastered the middle ground between efficiency and rest, and founded a wildly successful startup that went on to define his life. Right? WRONG. One of the best parts of Zabinet, the online-filing-system-turned-referral-tool that Prakash spent over three years evolving, is that—compared to Google—it wasn’t his most profitable endeavor. That said, it was by far his most successful. In his years steering the small-business recommendation platform, Prakash shares his most valuable lessons:
1. Not everything is as easy as it is at Google. (Sorry, teenage America);
2. How to raise money; “or more importantly, NOT raise money”;
3. How to fail. “A LOT”;
4. When to call it quits.
After taking Zabinet to “marginal profits,” Prakash attained what felt like TRUE accomplishment: a sense of ownership, as opposed to his gains at Google, which were largely informed by good timing. “I would never mistake that for my success,” Prakash shares. “What I went through at Zabinet is way more fulfilling and meaningful and valuable… I think that’s an important thing to take away.
“The experience and knowledge that I have because of it… you can’t buy it.”
Luckily for Impact Hubbers, you don’t have to! Prakash is now available on-site for personalized consulting in user experience, product design, go-to-market strategy, and more. As one who embodies the benefits of self-sufficiency, he expects clients to do things themselves; namely, he helps you avoid the mistakes he made, but encourages you to make your own. And learn from them. “I want to democratize that ability for the community,” he shares. The ideal candidate for his mentorship is one who is seeking to realign with their mission, and meet goals by remembering what drove them in the first place. So, don’t be surprised if the first line of action is to slow down… after all, it’s the way Prakash has been able to arrive at what he calls his “most balanced life yet.” Part of that equation? Working on a passion project called “Together SB:” an online mentorship platform for locals to set up a knowledge/skill exchange, in everything from parenting to wine pairing. Like online dating; only instead of a romantic partner, you get a mentor. (“And YOU get a mentor! And YOU get a mentor!”) The heart behind the project only beats stronger following the events of last winter, which coincided with Prakash’s move to Santa Barbara. In the midst of the devastating Thomas Fire and Montecito mudslide, Prakash witnessed the SB community coming together in unprecedented, meaningful ways; reaffirming the impetus behind his move, and driving him to create a platform for bolstering new layers of connection. “I always want to keep perspective of how lucky we are,” Prakash reflects.
Lucky for us, it’s a perspective he is willing to share. By bringing the USER back into user experience—not to be confused with one who feels used—Prakash is laying the groundwork for a new norm in business: one where rest, and personal growth, are integral layers of productivity. Where the experiences that shape us, positive and negative, are all fodder for true fulfillment. “Through all the struggles I’ve been through, it only makes me appreciate what I have so much more,” he shares, humbly.
“Figuring out what I’m supposed to be doing here has been this uphill battle… but now that I’m in that pocket, everything I’m doing just feels right.”
Addendum: The next time you see Prakash around the kitchen, say hi! He is currently booking clients through the Hub directly. If you feel connected to his approach to consulting, mention this article… you might get lucky enough to have him as your mentor. And, if you’re really lucky, get challenged to a game of Doom.