Manoj Khani, specializes in building consumer experiences on mobile, web and smart TVs for the last fourteen years in information technology. Having held various impactful posts in companies like MYSPACE, YP and Earthlink, Manoj was always driven to do something out of the box, to change the norms and challenge stereotype job opportunities. His first start-up Pawalla did exceptionally well inspite of some later stage financial set-backs, but he was able to do a serious comeback with a photo productivity application, PhotoPanda. Join him as he shares the learning curves of his startup life.
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE EPISODE
- Though he didn’t have a final plan of settling in Los Angeles, it caught his fancy. This is where he belonged.
- His revolutionizing idea for PhotoPanda drew many fans from the Asian background for the Manga aspect.
- The very place he went, to learn the nomenclature of entreprenuership, called him back to mentor other entreprenuers.
QUOTES AND TAKEAWAYS
- “Startups are very popular now a days and seem more exciting than traditional jobs, but you have do it for the reasons that are right for you”
- “Not only we approached users at coffee shops to get their feedback, we even went to bridal shows to get feedback from brides to be”
- “If you want to be increasingly successful as an entrepreneur, you will need to learn and grow faster with time”
TELL US MORE ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD AND THE INSPIRATION BEHIND YOUR CURRENT STATUS AS A WELL-ESTABLISHED ENTREPRENEUR?
I grew up in New Delhi and went to an engineering college in Pune. Back then in India, you only had two respectable career choices, either be a doctor or an engineer and I was too chicken to dissect frogs.
My dad had by then been in US for many projects and loved the educational system. After his frequent requests, I decided to come out here for a masters degree in Computer Engineering. Compared to my bachelor’s degree curriculum of 34 credits per semester, I found the 9 hour “full load” during my M.S rather easy and started looking for something more challenging.
I was lucky and soon I found a Software Engineering role at a Enterprise Software company (Progress Software) close to school and started working full-time, in additional to attending school. However, the excitement eventually withered off when I finished taking all my master’s credits and learned that I needed to be sponsored to move jobs or stay long enough in the same one to get the permanent resident card. I’ve to be honest here, this is the one of the few times I choose stability over uncertainty and till this day I feel like it stalled my career for 3 years (the time it took for the green card to come – it can take a lot longer).
As soon as I was granted freedom to work for anyone, I decided to move to my favorite city (Los Angeles), even though I knew exactly zero people in all of Southern California at that point. I liked building things and I knew LA was an up and coming place for entrepreneurs.
By 2007, I was working for MySpace. At this point, I started moving to product management from engineering, learning other sides of the business, since I knew I wanted to make my way by creating meaningful businesses.
WHAT WERE YOUR INITIAL CONCERNS AND THE FALL-BACKS YOU FACED WHILE SETTING UP YOUR START-UP IN USA?
My very first entrepreneurial experience was Pawalla. I was always fond of animals and through this website, each month our subscribers would receive various brands of organic or natural dog and cat food and accessories at a discounted rate. If they liked it they could purchase a-la-carte from our shop or use the subscription service for discovery.
Pawalla had a competitor called BarkBox, started by founder from Meetup, so we knew we were against some stiff competition. However, that worked to our advantage and we were able to raise over $ 400K in seed funding. Again, the excitement was short lived as we soon found ourselves in this winner takes all mentality, and started to burn out our cash really fast. Our one year runway got squeezed to seven months and forced us to look for more money before hitting our goals for the next round. As this point, we had cash left to operate the company for 2 more months. All the founders decided to stop taking salary and my co-founders and I went on a mad dash to raise money pitching to several angel groups and VCs.
Right away we met with skepticism and hesitance and under pressure to reach the subscription number milestone, we ended up doing a fateful deal with LivingSocial to acquire customers quickly. Unfortunately, this resulted in a double whammy, where we not only weren’t able to keep discount conscious consumers from continuing their subscriptions, but also ended up miscalculating and building over 10,000 Pawalla boxes that seemed like were going to likely perish in our warehouses. After amassing sizable debt, early investors and employees bailing out, we decided to call it a ride and returned back all of our assets to our creditors and customers. This was emotionally (and financially) very challenging for me.
WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO GIVE IT ANOTHER SPIN AND START AGAIN?
I needed a job quickly to support myself again (I didn’t have a family in town to fall back upon), which didn’t take long, but I kept thinking about how could we have done better and what it would have been if we had survived. You know going from zero to one is the hardest battle and we had already accomplished that.
In the following year (2014), I started working with a couple of friends to work on a B2C idea. Some of my early products at MySpace were around photos, so we started to build a platform where old-school print shops could connect with consumers directly. We started with two shops, one in LA and the other in Orange County. We built a website for consumer to order magnets and posters and started to make revenue from the beginning.
Around that time I realized I wanted to learn more about scaling a company, so I applied and got into an accelerator program called Founder Institute. Going through the program, the many great mentors I got to meet like Scott Painter of TrueCar and Jilliean Hellman of Reality Moghul made me realize we needed to move away from printing. Soon after, we pivoted to a digital only product that helped people find their best photos on social media, using image recognition and machine learning.
This time we focused on early user input. Not only we approached users at coffee shops to get their feedback, we even went to bridal shows to pitch and get feedback from brides to be.
GUIDE US THROUGH THE FUNCTIONS OF THIS SITE. WHAT MADE YOU SWITCH TO A MOBILE APPLICATION?
We started realizing that by definition best photos can be very subjective. You can have a photo with your partner who you might break-up with after six months and their goes how you felt about the photo. Plus, we knew that an average millennial has more photos on their mobile phone than social media. So we started focusing on mobile and pivoted once again. And started developing a new application PhotoPanda. Instead of best, PhotoPanda finds your worst photos, like dark/blurry/duplicates and helps create more space and time for enjoying the good ones!
Within 12 weeks, we had a great looking and functioning MVP live on the app store. US mainstream media soon picked up our project, featuring stories both domestically, but also internationally, especially in Japan, France, Netherlands and Italy
We started getting more popular in south-east Asia too. I remember thinking this was perhaps because of the Panda, the manga aspect being popular in some Asian markets. All of a sudden we were acquiring users organically all over Asia. We even outranked Google Photos in some markets.
We took this opportunity and translated the app in Japanese and Chinese. Around this time, Founder Institute called me back to be a mentor as well.
YOUR JOURNEY HAS BEEN VERY EVENTFUL. WHAT WERE YOUR KEY TAKEAWAYS FROM THIS JOURNEY?
Startups are very popular now a days and seem more exciting than traditional jobs, but you have do it for the reasons that are right for you. If you find a pesky problem that impacts you personally and for which you don’t see a reasonable solution and you believe a lot of other people are impacted by it as well, then you can try building it yourself.
Technology helps us to scale with lesser resources. As my friend Kyle Hill, CEO of HomeHero says, almost everyone now a days has used AirBnB, but how many people actually know of someone who works for them? Similarly, Whats App had a ratio of 10 Mn users to each employee around it’s sale to Facebook in 2014!
The failure rate of startups is going to increase because there are more startups now than ever. But instead of Unicorn or nothing approach, more startups will evolve to micro businesses.
AN ENTREPRENEURIAL JOURNEY IS FULL OF HUSTLES AND SYNONYMOUS TO A ROLLER COASTER RIDE. HOW NECESSARY IS IT TO HAVE A WORK-LIFE BALANCE?
Being an entrepreneur is not a sprint. It is a marathon. And if you want to be increasingly successful as an entrepreneur, you will need to learn and grow faster with time. Impact as many people as possible in a positive way. So it is important to have somewhat of a work-life balance, because if you burn out too early before you reach your full potential, then you cannot do everything you want to.
WHAT IS YOUR MESSAGE FOR OUR YOUNG READERS WHO ARE BUILDING THEIR CAREERS AS AN ENTREPRENEUR?
Early twenties is a great time to startup because your responsibilities and cost of living are low. However you will need to ascertain, whether you can sustain yourself without an income and for how long? Do you have the networks and connections that are needed?
Don’t start it to get rich quick or be your own boss. If my one customer is unhappy, I have to respond. If my development team is facing a problem, I have to respond. If my potential investors or partners have questions, I have to answer. They are all my bosses.
And most importantly, you need to start for the right reasons. Think of the things that are important to you in life. Now think how working on a start-up will make them better. If there is a clear answer, you might be ready to take the first steps. Let’s go!