Indian American Entrepreneurs Are Big Hits Online
Four young entrepreneurs combine high-tech elements and social networking to launch novel ventures.
Here’s an exciting concept: use e-mail to share information with others. Sound about two decades too late? Not to Sachin Agarwal, co-founder of Posterous, a company with a very simple idea: post any kind of information online by attaching it to an e-mail. That’s it. Posterous does the rest, creating your own Web site or personal blog.
“E-mail rocks. We’re betting the company on it,” Agarwal says in his blog (http://sachin.posterous.com).
Agarwal was one of “30 Under 30” top, young entrepreneurs named in July by a U.S.-based business magazine called Inc. Four of them are of Indian background. The others are Ooshma Garg, founder of the diversity recruitment firm Anapata; Naveen Selvadurai, co-founder of Foursquare, a geolocation and social networking application; and Vikas Reddy, co-founder of Occipital, which developed RedLaser, a bar-code reader for mobile phones that has become one of the smart phone’s hottest apps (slang for applications).
Aside from the high-tech element, the most striking characteristic of these four individuals—and all of Inc.’s choices for that matter—is the importance of social networking. To learn about Reddy, Garg, Selvadurai or Agarwal, you must enter the world of online blogs, Facebook, Twitter, mobile phone apps, even YouTube videos. As with many of their generation, the boundaries between their work and social lives blur in their dynamic and constantly evolving online communities.
“Simply put,” Inc. magazine said, “they are growing their communities by building communities.”
Selvadurai and Foursquare
Perhaps the hottest high-tech market out there now is “geolocation” or location-based social networking—and Foursquare, based in New York, is right in the middle of it. Foursquare exploits the Global Positioning System found in the current generation of mobile devices, allowing users to share their location with friends and comment on shops, restaurants and other attractions.
Foursquare also incorporates game elements that allow users to earn points and win online “badges” by checking in frequently. Record yourself at a café or other location more than anyone else and you become Foursquare’s “mayor.” The $2 Foursquare app can be downloaded to the iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, Palm and other mobile devices.
Since Foursquare’s founding in 2009, its growth has been explosive, leading many analysts to call it the new Twitter. In August 2010, the number of Foursquare subscribers reached close to 3 million—almost triple what it had been in April—and the company has continued growing at 100,000 new members a week, according to Inc. magazine. Foursquare has attracted $20 million in venture capital as well.
Naveen Selvadurai was born into a family of engineers in Chennai. At age 8, he sailed for eight months with his mother and father, a marine engineer, aboard a large cargo ship as part of his father’s last voyage before retiring. Selvadurai came to the United States in 1991, earned degrees in computer science, and became a U.S. citizen in 2006. After graduate school, he joined friends in New York City to work on mobile applications for Sony Music before co-founding Foursquare.
Selvadurai says none of the 30 entrepreneurs recognized by Inc. magazine “expected to be where we are now.” He acknowledges that rapid success has brought big challenges, from expanding customer service to simply setting priorities. “We have notebooks full of great ideas, but we have to decide which ones to put our engineers to work on.”
The rewards are equally great in Selvadurai’s view. “Foursquare is unique because our users are really engaged, they love the product and they constantly give us feedback and new ideas.”
Photograph courtesy Foursquare
Agarwal and Posterous
E-mail can seem downright dull next to the excitement surrounding mobile phone technology, but as Sachin Agarwal has blogged, “E-mail is the most powerful, flexible, open and free messaging platform out there.”
Agarwal was born in Britain but grew up in Southern California, where, he admits, “I started feeling the typical Indian pressure to become a doctor.” He actually applied to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, as a pre-med student, but realized that computers and software programming were his true passion.
After graduating in 2002, he worked at Apple Inc. for six years before joining software engineer Gary Tan to found Posterous in 2008.
One surprise has been the range as well as the amount of work that success has brought. “I check my e-mail and I have new work to do, sometimes things I’ve never done before,” Agarwal says. “I have had to dive into finance, law, human resources and a number of other areas. But I love it all.”
The attraction of Posterous is its simplicity. You can post texts, photos and videos without any formatting necessary. Posterous will also send your information, automatically, to other social networking services such as Facebook.
Posterous, located in San Francisco, has drawn plenty of attention. It has attracted more than $5 million in venture capital and is growing at an estimated 20 to 25 percent a month, according to an industry observer, TechCrunch.
Looking five years ahead, Agarwal speculates that he may still be with Posterous, or into another Web publishing venture.
“I love building software to solve problems that I have myself,” he says. “No matter what, I’ll be building something that I personally use every day. That’s how you can be really passionate about your work.”
Photograph courtesy Posterous
Garg and Anapata
Ooshma Garg, 23, grew up in a family of physicians and scientists in Dallas. Her father, born in New Delhi, first came to Texas in 1985. He is now the chief
of nutrition and metabolic diseases at
the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Her mother, also from India, is an anesthesiologist in private practice.
“One of the things I learned from them was following your passion, whatever it might be,” Garg says.
She attended Stanford University in California, majoring in biomedical engineering, and organized internships and career workshops as co-president of Stanford Women in Business. She witnessed the difficulties experienced by top firms as they tried to recruit qualified women and minorities to make their work forces more diverse.
In 2008, Garg, then a junior, drew up her first business plan for Anapata on a napkin with the help of a marketing expert. Her idea was a job-recruitment business focused on diversity and providing new opportunities for women and minorities. “Social media marketing was a hot strategy,” she wrote for the professional recruitment organization ERE.com. “However, social media recruiting was new.”
Today, Anapata has evolved from notes on a napkin into the first online recruitment service in the legal field that focuses exclusively on students from a wide range of ethnic and social backgrounds. Garg and her team chose the company name after three days searching in many languages for a word associated with achievement, success and fulfillment. She says the word is from an African language.
With Anapata, students can join organizations offering hundreds of job contacts and career possibilities and can subscribe to news feeds from prospective employers—for free. Law firms, which are charged an annual subscription fee, have access to a national diversity network of qualified applicants, can target their recruitment efforts, and can “brand” themselves by sending Anapata subscribers news about their firm.
Anapata, based in Palo Alto, California, links to more than 200 student organizations and diversity groups, including Muslim, Asian American, Latino, American Indian and African American law student associations. It also hosts about 800 employers, including many of the top-ranked law firms in the United States.
Garg is now hiring an executive office so the company can expand beyond the legal field. “We always had a vision of establishing a widespread network of diverse organizations that would become connected, including the medical and financial professions,” she says.
In her limited spare time, Garg goes rock climbing, sings or escapes to a coffee shop with a good book. For her, questions about balancing work and personal life miss the point: “Entrepreneurs like me don’t think about balance because your work is so much fun,” she says. “You wake up every morning so excited that you’re creating something exciting for so many people.”
Photograph courtesy Anapata
Reddy and Occipital
Occipital already has one hit product in RedLaser, one of the most popular applications for mobile phones.
Vikas Reddy, co-founder of Occipital, already has one hit product in RedLaser, one of the most popular applications for mobile phones. Occipital offers a window into the intensely competitive world of technology startup companies, where individuals with ideas but little money jostle for recognition from venture capitalists, individual investors and business “incubators.”
Reddy was born in Detroit, Michigan while his parents are from Andhra Pradesh. He recalls always having computers around the house to play with and program.
Reddy met his friend and Occipital co-founder Jeffrey Powers when they were engineering students at the University of Michigan. Powers left his graduate program to start Occipital, and Reddy, who graduated in 2006, left a startup in New York to join him. A few months later, they were accepted into a technology-mentoring program called TechStars, chosen “because of their incredible technical talent,” their mentor, Brad Feld, recalls.
When Reddy told his parents he was contemplating leaving school for a risky startup company before he got his degree, he says, “They told me they would support me in any way they could.”
By the end of their time at TechStars, Reddy and Powers had the makings of a project, but no funding. So, Reddy says in an online video interview, he and Powers decided to fund the company themselves, making a critical decision to move into mobile phone technology and the field of computer imaging, or computer vision.
Their shift paid off when they released RedLaser, a mobile bar-code reader for instant comparison shopping that became a roaring hit. Today, RedLaser is one of the most popular apps for mobile phones, whether measured by number of users or by total sales. It was recently sold to the online retailing giant eBay.
“Vikas and Jeff are the ultimate bootstrapping entrepreneurs,” says Feld, a managing director of Foundry Group, a venture capital firm. “They are incredible visionaries, super smart, and never, ever give up.”
Occipital, based in Boulder, Colorado, is hardly a one-hit wonder. Its most recent product is a $2.99 mobile app called 360 Panorama, which can take a series of still photos from a mobile device and create a single panoramic image, in real time. “What can your mobile device do to recognize and map your surroundings?” is the company’s core mission, Reddy says.
“Being a first-generation American, I always found myself moving between two worlds,” he says, “the world of my parents and Indian culture and traditions, and the world of being an American kid growing up in Michigan. I think going through this has helped me more easily adapt to other situations.”
Education, skill and drive have all been key factors in the rise of young entrepreneurs like Selvadurai, Agarwal, Garg and Reddy. So has opportunity. “I think one of the greatest things about America is that what has mattered is what I achieved or created, rather than my descent,” Reddy says.
Photograph courtesy Occipital
Howard Cincotta is a special correspondent with America.gov.