Who are you, and what do you do?
I’m Savraj Singh, and I’m the founder and CEO of Wattvision. Wattvision makes it easy for small business and homes to save money, by giving users a live graph of their energy use on the web or their phone. I am also a co-founder of the Seattle Sikh Retreatand I often post content @SikhSwim - a personal stream and blog about my experiences as a Sikh American.
What is your story?
My parents grew up in Kenya. My dad went to school in England, my mom went to grad school at Punjab University Chandigarh. My great-grandfather came to Kenya as an Engineer on the British Railroad from Punjab - which I think was pretty cool.
I was born in London and moved here to the US in 1982. I’ve been an American living in New Jersey since then.
I went to middle and high school here in New Jersey and got accepted into Princeton where I earned a BSE in Computer Science. I have always enjoyed computer science and engineering. After college, I got a job at Microsoft in Seattle, where I earned two patents as a Program Manager on the new tabbed interface for Microsoft Office 2007. After some time, I wanted a bigger challenge, so I entered the startup world with a few friends and the support of YCombinator. The first company I started was Contest Machine - which does contest giveaways for small businesses and bloggers. After that, I pitched the idea of Wattvision to investors, and that’s what I’m doing right now.
What are some things you like and cherish about your community?
Growing up my parents were big on Sikhi (the Sikh way of life), and my brother and I learned Kirtan (singing hymns from Guru Granth Sahib) and did Seva (volunteer work) in the local gurdwara(sikh place of worship).
I choose to identify as a Sikh American. I have a mix of American, Punjabi and strong Sikh values due to my upbringing in this country and culture. I have never been to India so I don’t really identify with India - but definitely with Punjabi culture and language.
One of the greatest traits I have seen in the Sikh community is generosity. It is a trait that has largely disappeared in most other cultures. Generosity is one thing I admire the most and I’m proud to have in my heritage – I hope that I too can exemplify this trait. It is not often that we see a culture of very selfless generosity and spirit of giving with nothing expected in return.
One of our areas for improvement, in the Sikh community, is critical thinking and analysis of our own beliefs. Let’s dive into what the gurus taught, and then live that life. The more we can understand gurbani (Sikh scriptures) and the message the gurus (founders of Sikhi) gave us, the better we are as citizens of the world. Many in our community are just caught up in maia (worldy things), and missing the core message of lifestyle that is Sikhi. So the first message is that we have to be more engaged. Too much of what we do as Sikhs is just accepted routine without understanding what’s behind it.
The second thing is that we need to put Sikhi and Sikh way of life at a higher priority than ourselves. We have this sense of generosity and self sacrifice built in to our community culture, but many times we forget – we often do what suits our own needs and act to serve ourselves or or friends, rather than doing what is best for the Panth. By putting Sikhi first in our actions, we are actually reaffirming what we - as Sikhs - stand for in our communities.
Gurdwaras are one of the best places to engage our community. There are number of things we can do.
First, we need to engage the sangat at more intellectual level in the gurdwara - whether we have speeches in English, or have a Sikh History minute or katha where a young Singh or Kaur gets up and shares his/her understanding of Sikh history. If today most gianiji’s (sikh priests) in our gurduaras were to pause and identify those listening, I think most people would ask, “When is lunch?” I’m painting a stark picture for emphasis, it’s not actually that bad. The longer the gurdwaras emulate gurdwaras in India, the longer we miss the boat. As a consequence, we raise a generation of Sikhs who identify with Sikhism as a religion of their parents rather than an intentional way of life. What is happening in the gurdwaras should be relevant and engaging, as it was when Sikhi began.
We have so much to learn from other communities. If you go to any church or synagogue, you will find youth leaders. Every youth leader is paid, full time, to engage the youth. I don’t mean the little kids - we do a great job teaching little kids about their paath (reading Sikh scriptures) and keertan (singing Sikh scriptures). By youth I mean teenagers and young adults – kids who often skip out on Gurdwara. When I was in Seattle, we started the Seattle Sikh Retreat to engage youth on an intellectual level, in the language they understood, using logic and reasoning that everyone learns in school. The nationwide retreats are at the vanguard of progress for the Sikh community in America. The goal would be to create gurdwaras like what we have created in these one-off retreats like Saanjh or the Seattle Sikh Retreat.
What is your advice for youngsters who want to follow your profession?
As an entrepreneur, I would say if you have an idea or a concept, just do it. The world is full of two types of people – doers and talkers. Doers make up about ten percent and talkers make up ninety percent of the world. If you have an idea and you think it is interesting, just go for it, try it out. I would recommend sticking to the domain that you know best - because you know the technology and the tools required. Its also better to take risks when you are young, because you can always get a job. :)
Now let’s say you have an idea, can you find someone who is willing to pay you for it? If the answer is yes, great. If not, then you need to reevaluate. I would recommend for most folks to start with an idea which makes money from its first customer. In the end we are trying to make business and business world has existed before tech world - so selling product and getting it in users’ hands is really important. If you have an idea, think about who is going to pay for it. Then find those people and sell them your solution. Congrats, you’re in business.
Any books/films/resources you want to share…
First read the essays by Paul Graham. They have good ideas on what tech entrepreneurship is all about.
I recommend these books for anyone thinking a startup -
- Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston - Stories of a number of tech startups.
- Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone et al - How to have conversations with difficult people through conflict and find resolutions.
- Bargaining for Advantage by G. Richard Shell - How to bargain.
For engaging myself with the teachings of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, I often sing shabads by Bhagat Kabir Ji, because they are easy to understand and grasp quickly.
I would also recommend watching the 1999 film The Matrix - it a great analogy both for Sikh way of life as well as the startup world.
I have a 2007 Macbook Pro and I use Textmate for writing code. I often use Django, Rails, or Google App Engine as my programming framework for writing web applications. Twitter Bootstrap is an amazing recent tool that I use in my design workflow. I read Hacker News everyday religiously.
UtiliKey is an indispensable tool that I keep on my keyring. I’m also lost without access to an Arduino, a Makerbot (we have one in my office), a soldering iron, my Leatherman Multi-tool, my RipStik skateboard, a snowboard, and a Frisbee. I use Amazon Prime to get free two-day delivery of goods purchased from Amazon for an yearly fixed fee, and of course I have been a lifelong Apple Fan since the Macintosh SE.