Q&A with Sridhar Ramaswamy, Neeva CEO and Greylock venture partner
Historically, searching the internet means handing over your private information and being tracked across the web. But it doesn’t have to. Greylock partner and former Google executive Sridhar Ramaswamy believes the public is ready for an alternative, which is why he co-founded Neeva with Vivek Raghunathan. We sat down with Sridhar to discuss Neeva’s mission to put consumers first with an ad-free search platform built on privacy.
What is Neeva?
In many ways, our core product is simple. You type in a search query: we give you results. It’s a concept we are all familiar with. But Neeva is search re-imagined. Vivek and I started Neeva to create a consumer first — and consumer only — search engine. Neeva focuses on getting the right answers and only the right answers for you.
When we show you a result, our only goal is to get you the most relevant piece of information right where you look for it: at the top spot. We will never show an ad on Neeva. We will also make it possible for you to bring your personal services like email and documents to create a central place for all the information that matters to you. We are in a limited beta now and when we launch later, we will charge a small monthly subscription fee which allows us to focus 100% on the user experience.
What led you to start the company?
Looking for information is one of humanity’s most instinctive and fundamental needs. Think news, weather, stocks, or that sugar free cookie recipe, along with the many other questions that we all want answers to. But I came to realize that traditional search and social platforms have business models where commercial interests are often conflicting with what is best for the consumer.
For 15 years, I was lucky to be part of the incredible team that created and scaled the amazing product called Google Search, which democratized access to knowledge for the entire planet. However, it became clear to me that an ad-supported search engine has limitations. The ads model has several unintended consequences, including ever-increasing ad-load, ads driven misinformation and harmful content, and practices that value profit over user privacy.
At the same time, I worried that there were never more than one or two viable search engines in any country, and that concentrates too much power in the hands of a few companies.
Neeva is unique because it has taken a very familiar but important problem and provided a fresh new alternative for consumers.
What makes your approach unique?
We are different from other search offerings in two crucial ways: First, we have no ads and don’t track people across the internet. Unlike alternative search platforms, we are subscription based. Not only do we not show ads, but we never monetize user data. So all searches are 100% focused on serving the consumer’s interests.
Second, we offer a much more personal experience for you, providing results that take into context the information you choose to connect to Neeva.
We also help you bring the context of your personal life—email, contacts, documents and more—into Neeva, making it truly the single place you come for information.
Finally, we work hard to ensure your privacy in this online world. The rise of advertising has unfortunately meant the rise of tracking: everybody, especially the big tech companies, try to keep track of everything we do. We have built technology to protect your privacy on the browser and on your phone.
How does Neeva’s search functionality really work? Can you give us an example?
Sure. If you type in the name of a friend, Neeva will paint a full picture of your relationship with that person: your recent emails, documents you have worked on together as well as important information from the public web, like their LinkedIn page or Twitter posts.
We really shine when you issue commercial and product queries. While traditional search engines are so full of ads that you won’t see an unpaid result on the first page of your phone, Neeva surfaces a visually rich page that focuses on getting you the results you need. For example, if you search “noise canceling headphones”, Neeva will prioritize comparison sites that help you decide which headphones to buy, along with the brands you trust, and with no paid placement or ads from headphone manufacturers or merchants.
How do you serve up results while respecting privacy?
Privacy is at the core of our culture and how we build our products. We know that the bar is very high when it comes to protecting privacy.
When you search on Neeva, that data is only used to serve you better results. If you choose to connect your personal services to Neeva, Neeva will only use the context of that data to make your search results better. Obviously, having a business model that is completely aligned with your interests allows us to focus solely on you.
There are also a number of things we do that allow us to personalize your experience while ensuring privacy. For example, we do use your IP address to localize results to you. With your consent, we can use your phone’s location to serve better local search results for you. In both these cases, we are careful to only use the minimal information needed to improve your experience — for example, we remove the last octet of your IP address and blur the location we get from your phone so that these can’t be used to identify you.
For those cases where you want nothing to be known about your searches, we offer an Incognito mode where your account isn’t associated with your activity at all.
As a company, we have forsworn the use of location history tracking; we think this is a dangerous feature that most applications should never use.
You were instrumental to building Google’s ad-supported business, which is the primary revenue stream for the company. Why did you decide to build an ad-free, privacy-first search engine?
The fact that I worked on ads doesn’t make me or the team beholden to only supporting that model forever. Especially in the context of search, which is primarily about consuming information, I felt that a model that put monetization before customer value needed an alternative.
While we think there’s a place in the world for big platforms that rely on ads and tracking, we also think there’s room for a new paradigm that offers an alternative —an ad-free experience that doesn’t track you across the internet and works only for consumers. We believe the business grows as more people understand the value we offer in terms of no ads, privacy and access to both public and their personal information.
Why did you leave Google and join Greylock as a venture partner in 2018?
After 15 years at Google, I felt that it was time for a change. My best memories of Google were with small teams creating new products, so I was pretty sure that I wanted to work with small teams and companies.
So I left Google in 2018, joined Greylock as a venture partner and spent time advising a number of startups while thinking about what I wanted to do next. Greylock has a long history of partners who founded and incubated companies at the firm, so it was a great place for me to dig in. I strongly believe humanity is better served when you have more choice in the products and services you use. More choice and market competition, I believe, leads to a better experience for consumers.
That idea is what led me to pursue my vision for an alternative way to do search, which is why we created Neeva.
Do you think consumers are willing to pay subscription fees for a search engine, especially since they can get it for free elsewhere?
Consumers are willing to pay for services that bring them real value—they know what they get from Spotify or Netflix, for example, and are happy to pay for it. There has never been a search engine like Neeva that puts its users first, before advertisers or anyone else. We think many people will see the value of a service that has no ads, won’t track their behavior across the internet, and will be happy to pay a small monthly fee.
Over the past year, we’ve started to see a reckoning among startups—and now with coronavirus—it seems a very tough time to start a business. What makes you think Neeva has a shot?
There’s no doubt this is an extremely challenging environment in which to launch a company. But we also believe that, more than ever, people want to be able to find the information that is most important to them. They want an alternative to traditional search—search that is ad-free, that doesn’t track their internet behavior, and that can give them relevant results from both the public Internet and cloud-based services they choose to connect to Neeva. And especially in today’s “work from home” world, where we are all dealing with a flood of information, Neeva is able to find what you need in a simple, easy to use, one-stop interface.
What do you hope Neeva looks like in 3-5 years?
We’ve spent the last year and half talking to potential users, ideating and building out what we think can be a compelling reimagination of the search experience. I think it’s super important for us to stay focused and execute on the most important thing — which is how do we delight our customers and deliver a product that they can’t live without.