By Elizabeth Weil, Founder & GP, Scribble Ventures
When I first got into VC, I was struck by how often investors described their portfolio founders as “world class”. It seemed like a cliche at first. But as I started building my own circle of friends in tech — entrepreneurs and investors — I noticed that many of us had an unusual passion outside of our careers into which we’d dedicated countless hours, over many years, toward mastering.
It wasn’t just about being good at something — it was an internal drive to be the best.
Recently, we surveyed our Scribble founders about their hidden talents outside of startups. And what do you know…once again, there was a clear pattern of world class individuals in everything they chose to do.
One that stood out was Kesava Kirupa Dinakaran. At 11 years old, he set a goal to become the best Rubik’s Cuber in the world. At 16, he reached it, beating the Guinness World Record for Most Number of Rubik’s cubes solved in one hour, a title he still holds today. Now, the founder of Luminai, a customer support RPA-like tool which last year announced a $16M Series A, Kesava’s life story paints a much better picture of what a “world class” founder looks like.
Kesava’s hidden passion is a testament to our philosophy at Scribble — for us this isn’t business, it’s personal. Because it’s that human side of the equation — the unexplainable drive certain people have to push their own limits and become the very best at something — that’s needed to build a world changing startup.
Elizabeth: How does someone become a Rubik’s Cube World Champion?
Kesava: It’s been more than seven years since I broke some of the world records I did. What’s so surprising is that they’re all still standing. And even though I’m in a different world now, Rubik’s is still very much something that I do. I fidget with it to stay close to the community and to remind me of my roots in many ways.
I started solving Rubik’s as a kid in India after running into a friend who was into it. At the time I didn’t know these things were actually solvable. I had just turned 11 and I wanted to learn from him. He told me about this competition that was six hours away. I decided to go with him. I walked into this room filled with CEOs, musicians, artists, engineers, and doctors — people from 30 different countries. I was in awe — I didn’t know there was such a community behind this. I’d come up with the impression that in India, most people just become doctors or engineers or farmers…something very centered. And so when I saw these people, I knew I needed to spend more time there.
I started to get good at it over time. And then I just really fell in love with the community and wanted to just be part of it and contribute to it. Rubik’s cubes is now an insanely large community but when I started it was much smaller. Everybody celebrated each other’s records, even if they were breaking each other’s records! It was a form of making progress for the community. Because of that, it was quite a magical place to be.
It then started to get very large a few years after I got involved. We’re talking in the millions and 10s of millions of people, the number of cube solvers in the world. And what that meant was that you had to be world class to even qualify for worlds.
For me, what that looked like was two hours in the morning before going to school, and then four hours of practice after school for seven years, basically.
Elizabeth: How do you practice Rubik’s Cube — what does that involve?
Kesava: It’s a routine. In the mornings, I spent my time studying — figuring out the most optimal set of algorithms that you could do for certain types of like patterns and certain scenarios. What’s fascinating is that there’s something like 43 quintillion — which is 43 followed by like 18 zeros — possible combinations on the Rubik’s cube. So the likelihood of you interacting with a pattern for the first time that a human has ever interacted with that pattern is very high.
As a cuber, you sometimes have to build your own algorithms, figuing out the most optimal ones. This took up the majority of my mornings. Then my evening were spent tracking how I’d done for the last six months. It was almost like weight loss, keeping track of how many milliseconds you’re shaving off on a daily basis.
To go from a couple of minutes to 20 seconds took me two and a half months. And then from 20 seconds to 10 seconds took me a year. And then 10 seconds to seven seconds took me five years. That’s the trajectory.
A lot of it is like hand eye coordination. It’s learning these finger tricks.
But once you get to 5, 15 or 10 seconds, after that it becomes a mental game.
Elizabeth: What are the competitions like? And what goes on in your brain during one?
Kesava: Basically a scrambled cube comes in, and you have about 15 seconds to inspect the cube. and then you start mentally solving it. You’re just kind of seeing what the initial scramble looks like so you’re able to figure out the first set of moves you’re going to do. After that you start solving it. You have a hand timer — you put your hands in, it starts a clock, and you start solving. Once you’re done you put it back in, and you stop the timer. That’s the mechanics of it.
Traditionally, in most competitions you’re judged on an average of five — the actual is an average of three technically, but you do five solves, and then they remove the best solve and the worst solve and take an average of the other three. That’s what’s recorded.
They have World Records for everything including averages and for single times. I was India’s fastest cuber on the average and the singles. The world records were more the marathon version of it — for example, how many solves you can do in one hour. This is the one I spent most of my time preparing for.
In many ways an endeavor like this is similar to starting a startup — it’s not an adrenaline rush sprint. It’s an endurance run.
Once you start solving a cube, it’s like any sport. I’ve been watching a lot of tennis recently and it’s so relatable because they’re all phenomenal athletes but when you look at the top 10, skill level wise, they’re almost the same. The reality is that the ones who end up winning are the ones with the strongest mental strength.
Rubik’s is the same, suprisingly. It’s a skill set and sure, some people are exceptionally better. But in the final rounds, it all comes down to how well you control your nerves.
In the first 15 seconds, what’s going on in my mind when I open a cube is “What are the first sets of moves I need to make?”. But I’m also breathing and calming myself down so I’m about to solve this cube as quickly as possible. The difference between an 8.1 second solve and an 8.0 second solve could mean me being 15th place or first place. So I’m preparing for that, ensuring that I am not letting my hand shake or my nervousness lead to losing. There’s hundreds of people watching you.
Elizabeth: We interviewed an Olympic runner recently and she talked about her methods for staying calm before races. How did you keep a presence of mind when the pressure was on?
Kesava: I’ve been meditating almost 12 years now. I think that’s one big part of the story. The main thing is learning to not go as high in the highs and not go as low in the lows. It’s learning how to be stable.
I remember this competition when I broke the national record for the single solve. It sounds good but my average that round was terrible because I was so high from that record. I realized that I cannot let these things get into my head. It’s okay to win, and breaking the record is great. But you want to win the competition, too. That’s what we’re here for.
So learning to go through that is a big lesson. You need to be disciplined when you’re winning.
Elizabeth: How do you psych yourself up to compete at that level? Or do you carry a secret pair of socks in your bag or something?
Kesava: I focused on competitive tactics. For example, I would never wear a hoodie. I always wore t-shirts because I wanted my hands to be the most able to move. Also if it was cold, I had these hand warmers to ensure my hands were in the best possible state.
I did a yoga technique before final events — it was something my mother teaches. It involves breathing in very long breaths and then letting all of the air out very quickly. My mother was a huge part of my Rubik’s career in the most non-Tiger Mom way. She just really tried to keep me grounded.
The most important event I competed in was the main 3x3 cube. Even if I’d broken a bunch of records throughout the three days of the competition, to actually win the competition it all came down to winning that final round. All the players and spectators came back just to watch those final five solves. I was generally in the top two seats and I knew what I needed to do to win. Still, there were some people who pulled rabbits out of a hat and won out of nowhere. I’ve lost multiple times in those kinds of situations. But knowing how to stay calm is key.
Truthfully I didn’t come off my Rubik’s career at the top of the game. I had this peak for like three years of pure domination. And then I think I got too much in my head. Around 2017 I started to lose a lot more, ending up in second or third. I realized I wasn’t putting in as much effort as I used to because I’d already reached the top of the league. I was 17 or 18 years old, and I’d become a lot more interested in tech, so my life was changing.
Still, all these learnings about staying calm and not riding the highs and lows are extremely relevant to my day to day now as an entrepreneur.
Elizabeth: To what extent is Rubik’s Cube a memory vs. spatial domain? Are you just a really good spatial learner?
Kesava: Memory is a small part of it and that’s mostly muscle memory. You learn these algorithms and you remember them. You recognize the pattern, and your hand automatically does what you need to do.
It’s definitely more spatial. For example, I didn’t know that a large portion of people can’t visualize shapes. If you showed me a Rubik’s Cube, I can memorize it and close my eyes. And then solve it in my brain. I can move the cube in my brain. I can also solve it blindfolded. It’s all about being able to hold it in my head. I didn’t know that was abnormal.
But at the end of the day, winning is actually an unsexy pursuit — it means hand-eye coordination plus an intense amount of work for a long period of time. It’s so simple. And so difficult.
Elizabeth: How did you maintain your coping mechanisms when all the eyes were on you? Did you ever get spooked?
Kesava: It took practice. For the first couple of years, I was super scared. But a big part of it was confidence. I got to a point where I knew I was the best and no one could beat me as long as I kept my cool.
When fear started to play in was when I started to lose. Part of it was me wanting to move on but another part of it was seeing that people were catching up to me. If someone’s running 100 meters in eight seconds, and the next person is at thirteen seconds, they realize they can make a few mistakes and still win. But towards the end of it, if I was running at eight seconds, other people were running at 8.2 and it started to get in my head. That’s when I started to lose.
Elizabeth: Looking back now on your career, do you see what made you obsessed about a Rubik’s Cube? Could it have been something else, like the piano?
Kesava: One part of the story is that whatever I choose to pursue, I wanted to become world class at it. With Rubik’s Cubes, similar to startups, there was a very clear understanding of what world class looked like. I knew if I became number one in the world, no one would deny it. Whereas with things like the piano or any artistic endeavor, while I have a full respect for it and the effort makes sense, it’s a little more unclear. Like what is a world number one piano player? It’s more subjective whereas I like the quantitative.
Elizabeth: Has this superpower of yours factored into hiring? How do you think about candidates and talent?
Kesava: If you look at our team, a lot of them are athletes and competitors. We have someone who is an ultra marathon runner, a national soccer player, and someone who’s built mini-planes for the first 15 years of their life. They’re all people who have been through intense work over a very long period of time in whatever they chose to pursue.
I think this shows up in your culture too. The other day, one of my engineering leaders commented that everybody is working incredibly hard and they’re so happy. They’re putting in 15 hour days, and everyone’s just so joyous and happy to be around each other. I think it all tracks back to who these people are — it’s an important insight in hiring.
Elizabeth: What’s your favorite interview question to ask candidates?
Kesava: “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever worked on?”.
It will tell you their order prioritization. One person on our team who was a national football player said — “I wanted to be an artist. I was a shit artist. And my goal was to display 10 portraits at an art gallery. I wanted to sell each piece for at least for $1,000 each”.
And he did it in 24 months. This question will tell you a lot about a person.
Kesava Kirupa Dinakaran is the CEO & Co-founder of Luminai, a workflow automation tool that simplifies CX processes and reduces repetitive, manual tasks with no engineering support needed. He is also a Guinness World Champion Rubik’s Cuber who grew up in India.