Robi Ganguly ’00: Software, Seattle, Success...and a Novel Philanthropic Idea for Sagehen Students

Robi Ganguly and alumni friends photos on bulletin board

Robi Ganguly ’00 with fellow Sagehens and Apptentive co-founders Mike Saffitz ’02 and Andrew Wooster ’02 in 2011 at the company's start and at Alumni Weekend together in 2022.

A politics, philosophy and economics major at Pomona College, Robi Ganguly ‘00 decided to change his course from law to entrepreneurship after a summer internship piqued his interest in tech. He graduated with a plan to launch his own company one day and a strong commitment to give back to Pomona. Ganguly, who volunteered with Admissions after graduating and currently serves on the Alumni Association Board, co-founded the software company Apptentive in 2011 with two other Sagehens. After selling the highly successful company in 2022, he became General Manager of Mobile at Alchemer. Ganguly credits his Pomona experience and alumni connections as playing a major role in his success. And he’s looking to pay it forward with an inspirational giving idea—Netflix style—for current students and new graduates.

What was Pomona’s role in reaching your entrepreneurial goal?

Most importantly, it gave me two of my three co-founders and friends for life: Mike Saffitz ‘02 and Andrew Wooster ‘02. Through a summer internship after my sophomore year with a small company called RealNetworks, I was introduced to Mike Saffitz ’02. He caught my name in an introductory company email and saw I was attending Pomona College. He emailed me within five minutes saying he would be a freshman at Pomona in the fall, and since he’d never met a Sagehen in the wild, he hoped we could get together. So, we had coffee and struck up a never-ending conversation about what needed to be built. I later met Andrew Wooster ’02 after college at an alumni gathering in the Bay Area. We kept running into each other at startup conferences and discussing what it would look like to build something great. Without those Pomona connections there wouldn’t be an Apptentive.

In addition to leading me to my co-founders, Pomona exposed me to a variety of courses outside of my major. It gave me leadership opportunities through student government and by being involved in depth during my time as a student. It’s important as an entrepreneur to be self-starting. You have to try and create a community and network. And in my case, it was a founding team of four people, three of whom came from Pomona. You have to learn how to lead and organize around solving problems that you may not know the answer to but have to try and work towards. 

Coming into Pomona, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer and then get into politics—like there was some articulated path for making change. But being on campus around so many people with different goals and interests and considering all the ways in which our education prepared us for the future, it became clear to me that law was not the direction I wanted to go. By the time I was a senior, I was fairly sure I wanted to build a company with a team of people. I think all of this came together in a pretty meaningful way for me during my four years in Claremont.

What eventually led you to start your own company?

Mike and I were summer interns at Real Networks in 1998, and I remember the CEO at an intern dinner talking about what the company did and the future of digital media and streaming. Mike and I thought, well, if that guy can make a company and be successful then so can we. That was a pretty important moment, in a lot of ways. 

To get myself best situated to start a company, I went into tech investment banking after graduating to gain a better sense of how tech companies ran and grew. I next worked for two tech companies, WebEx and then Yahoo, where I learned a lot internally about how to build and sell product and how the digital tools we were building were shaping future consumer interactions. 

In 2008, it had been 10 years since I’d had the idea of starting my own business. Having saved and landed in good luck with a WebEx investment, I thought it was the time to leave the Bay Area and return to Seattle. In December, I asked on Twitter if anybody wanted to join me on a road trip; Andrew said yes (we were really early adopters!). During that road trip in a U-Haul moving my stuff up to Seattle in a snowstorm, we conceived the idea of making software to allow app developers to talk with their customers. Mike joined us for dinner two days later, and there were three Sagehens sitting there talking about the road trip and this software idea. But we all had current commitments at the time. It wasn’t until two years later in March of 2011 that we actually ended up building the thing. 

Meeting Mike when we were interns, meeting Andrew later at an alumni event, that road trip and the dinner that followed…these were all important moments that led to us developing our idea and launching our company, Apptentive—and to our eventual success with it.

Given your career trajectory from finance to software, how do you think your experience at Pomona prepared you for that diversity of knowledge?

At Pomona, I studied politics, philosophy and economics, but I also explored other subjects and interests. I took a computer science class at Harvey Mudd and was very involved in student leadership and government, including as north campus senator my senior year. The ability to take other classes and have friends across several disciplines like computer science, English, history and psychology granted me exposure to different, latent interests. This ultimately helped me tap into something that had been interesting to me since childhood, which was how computers worked and how they were shaping the future.

Tell us about Apptentive. What was this company?

All four of us co-founders believed that there was an opportunity for companies to better listen, understand and respond to their customers. And in doing so, they could establish positive feedback and loyal customer relationships. We built a company that made software for the largest brands in the world to collect feedback from their mobile app customers. But it was also focused on the relationship we had with our customers and the relationship they had with their customers.

We all cared about the culture we built, as well. In some ways, we pioneered this sort of culture for customer care. We called it “Customer Love” and practiced it in our own company and passed it on to our customers through our software, winning several awards as a best place to work in Seattle and Washington state. By being proactive and deeply investing in the ongoing relationship with our customers, we were able to convince them to do the same—to reach out and listen more than they ever had before. Over the course of 12 years, we were proud to be responsible for giving over 1 billion people around the world the ability to be heard by the companies they relied upon.

You’re a member of the Alumni Association Board, and you’ve pledged to give back in other ways, as well. What motivates you to continue to give back to Pomona? How do you hope your contributions will serve the Pomona community?

I was a financial aid student all four years at Pomona. I graduated with debt and felt very fortunate that my parents could put what they did towards my education. But I also felt fortunate that the College was able to set up a financial aid package that allowed me to have the experience I did. I became involved as an alumni interviewer and also began giving as soon as I graduated. I've been involved in all my reunion committees, as well, including our 2020 reunion where we didn't have one in person.

I believe that because I was supported by financial aid, because I got so much out of Pomona and because so many of my closest friends to this day are people I met there, there's a truly great value in giving back to support those experiences and opportunities on an ongoing basis. And that support should exist as long as it possibly can. I’d been exposed to the concept of monthly recurring subscriptions when I worked at WebEx and became convinced that people would be subscribing to more services over time. When I found that available at Pomona, I began participating with a monthly gift and have increased my monthly giving as my career has advanced.

Now I’m interested in building a program that helps enable current students to step into that kind of subscription-style mindset with Pomona right out of the Gates. As students graduate and begin working, they'll likely subscribe to a Netflix account, a cable or an internet account, maybe a gym membership and so on. I want us to help Pomona graduates from the early days say, “Hey, one of those things I subscribe to, in life, is supporting Pomona College.” That could be a couple of dollars a month (like Disney+) or hundreds of dollars a month (like a gym membership), depending on what they are comfortable with and where they are financially. Starting that behavior and helping people be connected from the outset is what I'm interested in cultivating and building. I think that's part of how we make sure that Pomona lasts many, many generations from here.

What are your hopes for the College moving forward?

I think the ideal Pomona College environment is one where everybody feels respected and is able to pursue their course of education the way they see fit, without interruption. As an institution, we have to continue to create an environment that allows every generation to be educated, not only via textbooks but also through people. Textbooks don’t argue back—people do. The debates and discussions that happen about who we want to be as people are the places where my ideas always get challenged and grow the most. The interactions I had with extraordinarily smart, talented people led to friendships, a company and a view of the world much larger than myself. I hope we can continue to invest in a Pomona that can create that environment for generations to come. 

If you had to give one piece of advice to a current student, what would it be?

It’s never going to be easier to learn and explore what you want to than it is right now. It’s never going to be easier to make lifelong friends and truly challenge your beliefs about yourself and the world than right now. You get to set yourself on a path from here on that is about expanding your worldview, making connections and being curious about where others are coming from. Being able to navigate our shared values and to handle our differences with skill and compassion respectfully is a lifelong journey. Pomona grads often are more skillful at this because of how they learn to do it on campus, engaging in hard conversations and learning from people they live with and respect. It’s the proximity and constant contact with perspectives you might not share that helps make Pomona and The Claremont Colleges something special in the world. Bringing that energy to your time at Pomona will help you work in the world in a way that promotes humanity overall. That’s what it really means to be a Sagehen. If you can be respectful and honest and curious and intelligent and giving, you can make the world better for lots of people—and truly bear the riches for everybody.