One of the biggest decisions that a person makes in his/her life is the decision to get married. And indeed, choosing the right life partner is immensely important. Banihal is a startup that helps you take the right decision when it comes to selecting your life partner. Banihal, which is named after a small town between Jammu and Kashmir is a matchmaking startup based out of Cupertino, California. The company was co-founded by two software engineers – Ishdeep Sawhney, ex-Apple and Upender Sandadi, ex-Microsoft in the year 2012.
The company, competing in the crowded matchmaking marketplace, is unique in the way that it uses a neuroscience based algorithm to give users a list of 5 recommendations that are likely to lead to marriage. It does so by following an algorithm that is pretty much similar to how a human brain functions when meeting someone in person, and creating a model for each user to find the best 5 matches from all the existing profiles. Banihal is available for the users to sign up either via web at banihal.com or through their Android and iOS apps. The company has also recently announced its seed funding from Dr. David Cheriton, the billionaire Computer Science professor from Stanford University, who also wrote Google their very first cheque when they were looking for investors in the year 1998.
Give us a snapshot of your professional journey till now.
After my masters at the University of Washington, I had worked at two of the big companies here in Pacific Northwest: Boeing and Microsoft. I met my co-founder, Ishdeep Sawhney, while working at Microsoft. Ishdeep had just graduated from North Carolina and we both joined a team responsible for core kernel design and implementation for embedded OS. We worked together for six years, which was a lot of fun and I would say that was the prime time for us in terms of professional and intellectual growth. After Microsoft, Ishdeep moved on to Apple where he was part of the original iPad team and the iCloud team. He stayed there until we formed Banihal.
When & how did the entrepreneurial bug bite you?
I would say for Ishdeep, the entrepreneurial bug was always there. While working at Microsoft, he authored a paper on making the phone work like a PC in 2005. Remember this was way before iPad or iPhone. That paper was read by Bill Gates and he started a whole team to pursue this idea. This idea got into Windows 10 recently in the form of Continuum and Ishdeep was awarded a patent for that. My only stint at startup world was the two years I worked at a small company, Webforia, which designed tools for users to create community pages. I cherished in that environment as it adds a lot more freedom and responsibility. Our embedded OS team at Microsoft was also very small, so I can say we ran the team similar to a lot of startups.
What were the early days at Banihal like?
Excitement. Anticipation. Anxiety. Fun. I won’t pretend it was all roses when we started Banihal. It is always a tough battle when you are working in a consumer startup where there is a problem of bootstrapping initial set of users. We realized that early on and in our first iteration, we provided a simple service to the users which did not depend on how many users we had. And that was to create a beautiful pdf document for users of their marriage profiles so that they could share with their friends and family. It solved the problem with sharing Word documents which most people did but were difficult for users to open in India. We provided a service to convert them to professionally created beautiful pdf documents.
Can you please describe what a typical day at office is like?
Our team is spread across different parts of the world. Core design and development is done here in the US and majority of marketing effort is centered in Delhi. We brainstorm on the difficult problems in the morning with everybody pitching in their ideas. The problem we are solving is at the intersection of neuroscience and computer science, and it is about melding ideas from different domains so we need to collaborate to build the solution. We build solutions for these problems and then try them out to validate their effectiveness. We are looking for solutions that are 10x to 100x better than what exists, so everyday is challenging.
Can you tell us about the technology stack used at Banihal?
We host our entire solution on Amazon Web Services (AWS). We rely on a lot of open source technology. The core stack for the website is built off LAMP (linux, apache, mysql, and php). In addition we have REST servers to support our two app platforms: android and iOS. In the backend, we do tons of processing with machine learning algorithms for profile clustering and recommendations. These enable us to provide the best recommendations possible for our users when they signup @Banihal.
Is there any technology that you’re personally betting on to help you scale up?
Everybody at Banihal has prior experience in building systems software so our DNA is to write scalable and high performance software. We have experience building Windows and iOS kernel and networking stacks so from the very first day we architected the system for quick iteration and easy scalability.
How are you using Business Intelligence and analytics at your company?
We rely heavily on data analytics to drive improvement in our feature set. Some of these include Mixpanel, Google, and our in-house analytics. These data points serve as a silent feedback from users on what is working and what needs improvement.
How else does technology help your company stand apart from its rivals?
As far as we can tell we are the only company who is betting big on neuroscience and artificial intelligence to solve the problem of matchmaking. Recent advances in neuroscience has made us understand better how and why we make certain decisions. And one of the biggest decision you could make in life is – Who you should marry? Given this, it made natural sense for us to invest our time and energy into developing a solution based off neuroscience. At the same time, we strongly believe on the technology side the best way to model human decision making is to use the neural nets and that is what we are shooting for.
What has been the biggest technical challenge you’ve faced while running Banihal?
For us the biggest challenge has been to bring together several fields: neuroscience, artificial intelligence, modeling of human decision making, and minimalistic design principles. It is both rewarding and challenging to connect these together and solve a problem which has not been attempted before.
What are some of the attributes you look out for in prospective technology employees?
I think the biggest one I would say is curiosity and be able to think across disciplines. In a startup you are never told to do something specific especially when the team is small. So for the early stage, you want employees who are looking at current solutions and thinking hard to improve or make quantum leaps towards completely new solutions which radically change the landscape.
How do you keep up to date with the latest happenings in the technology world?
News, blogs, and books.
What gets you excited about coming to work every day?
This may sound cliché but what excites all of us coming to work every day is the thought that we could make a positive impact on millions of people looking for a compatible match. We look at technology as the tool to get there but our eventual goal is to provide best possible recommendations for ‘shaadi’, knowing how important that is to build a happy family.
What sets Banihal engineering culture apart?
The company culture at Banihal is honesty, collaboration and individual excellence. The problem that we are solving requires people with expertise to come together and build on each other’s ideas to deliver a solution for our users. We look for individual excellence and create an environment to harness it by giving freedom to everyone to take risks.
Which Banihal value resonates best with you?
I would say ingenuity. We really need to think across disciplines for the problem we are trying to solve and this forces us to leverage research across many fields and that is something which is easier said than done.
Any piece of advice for the techies out there?
Keep the curiosity alive! That is the only way you can really learn something and feel good about it at the same time. As long as you are curious, you will find an interesting problem to solve. Good luck!