Following last term’s Tycooons of Tomorrow series, this term I’m going to be interviewing four successful entrepreneurs (arguably, tycoons already!) on the pivotal year in their respective careers. The idea for the series came from a conversation with Paul Carr – we thought “A day in the life of” was going to need to be romanticised too much to get anywhere, but most people who have ‘made it’ can attribute a significant amount to one particular year.
In the first interview of “The Year That Made Me” series, I spoke to Kulveer Taggar where he shared his journey of studying at Oxford, to Investment Banking in London, to dot-com millions in Silicon Valley – all in just over a year!
Which was the year that made you?
2006, the year after I finished my PPE degree at Oxford. It was when I left my graduate job at Deutsche Bank to work on my start-up full-time and moved from London to Silicon Valley.
What was your situation at the start of 2006?
I graduated from Oxford in June 2005 and started at Deutsche Bank that August, a couple of months later. My final year at university was tough as I was the President of Oxford Entrepreneurs Society, doing my finals and had started up Boso.com (a marketplace for students) with my cousin Harjeet Taggar.
What were the main challenges you were facing at this time?
The real challenge was to maintain the business and try to take it forward whilst working full-time in the City. Access to outside email was blocked and it was tough to manage everything using only my BlackBerry (as well as doing my job there properly!). We had no income from the website at that point and had to raise some investment as well.
What were the key events that took place over the next 12 months?
I’d come to the end of my six months mandatory period in February, and then decided that if I was serious about becoming an entrepreneur, I should take the plunge before getting too deeply submerged in the world of banking.
Luckily, I had a really supportive boss and he gave me his blessing to leave (and a cheque for £16,000 to get started!).
I flew out to the US to meet Evan Williams (founder, Blogger.com and Twitter.com) and Max Levchin (Paypal) in May to ask for investment advice and general strategy, and returned with Evan becoming an advisor to the company, which at that time was really useful as we didn’t have a great network in London and not as many people were doing start-ups as there are today.
In August that year we ended up raising almost £180,000 in angel investment, and in November we took investment from Y Combinator, an investment firm based in Silicon Valley. That was significant because it helped us relocate to San Francisco, and exposed us to a great network of developers, investors and entrepreneurs.
You left your investment banking job in February, 2006. What finally made you take this decision?
Despite being really determined to make something of the start-up and work on it full-time, it was still very tough to leave the bank. My boss had just sent me to New York for the month in January to learn about the oil business (I worked in Commodities) and I was starting to like earning a healthy income. I remember drafting my resignation letter and failing at my first two or three attempts to bring it up with him.
One thing that gave me a push was the Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford conference I attended the previous November. I ended up going for drinks with the panelists after the event (some who I knew from the same event a year before) and they commented on my appearance and general lack of enthusiasm for my new job as a banker. Mike Malone, a journalist from Silicon Valley, in particular was pretty forthcoming that I should do the right thing and follow my dreams. His words stayed with me.
Soon after getting funded by YCombinator, you decided to divert your attention to a new idea – Auctomatic. Was this a difficult decision?
It was a difficult decision because it meant acknowledging that the first idea was wrong. We’d been working on Boso.com, a marketplace for students, for almost two years at this point, and had raised money for the idea as well. Being an entrepreneur is tough as you have to really believe in what you’re doing, almost to the point where it’s blind faith, but at the same time be critical about what you’re doing and keep an open mind about any changes you have to make.
What we realised was there was demand out there for a simpler way to sell things online than eBay, which is why people used boso.com in the first place. So we decided to tackle this problem in eBay itself. Auctomatic was a website that simplified the process of selling things on eBay.
What happened next?
We went through some significant changes. First we met 19-year old student Patrick Collison through Y Combinator and he became our third co-founder & CTO and dropped out of his degree at MIT. We then raised some investment from Paul Buchheit, the creator of Gmail, and Chris Sacca, Google’s former Head of Special Initiatives, and ended up launching the site in late 2007.
Very soon after launching, you received acquisition offers from some big West Coast companies. How did these come so quickly?
There was a lot of good fortune involved. The Live Current CEO had been reading my BBC Viewpoint pieces and met up with Patrick by chance in Vancouver and floated the idea of us joining them. Live Current was growing quickly and they saw value in the software we had developed for their e-commerce properties.
There were other companies that were very interested in working with us, and once word got out that an offer had been made for us they also jumped in.
You decided to take Live Current’s offer of $5M. What made you choose that over the other companies?
Live Current was most start-up like out of the offers we’d received. It was definitely a very tough decision to make, but in the end we trusted our gut instincts that this was the correct next step for us.
To trust your inner instinct was advice given to me by Evan Williams. Ultimately if you have a lot of good options you can go crazy trying to analyse them and so sometimes it can be better to just do what feels right.
Prior to the acquisition, I understand that you were running out of the angel investment you had received. How did you deal with this?
Even though we were incredibly cost-conscious, our expenses had increased once we had expanded to five full-time people. We needed to raise some more money but at the same time that wouldn’t have made sense if we were going to sell the company. So we were in tricky situation. There was one period where we had only $50 in the bank. We’d buy really cheap food to cook at home, and cut costs wherever we could. The extreme of this was 5 of us all living together in a two-bed apartment to save on rent!
This period must have been a real emotional rollercoaster ride. What difference did having your co-founder (and cousin) Harjeet go through it with you make?
The entire startup process is an emotional rollercoaster. Having Harjeet made a huge difference. We would typically experience our highs and lows at opposite times and balance each other out. It must be really tough to do it on your own.
Which entrepreneurs do you still find inspiring?
Several, but most of all Max Levchin for his energy and continued ambition to create another billion dollar company with Slide after selling PayPal.
Last question, what’s next?
I’m now a Director at Live Current and have ended up focused on Cricket.com, where we are building a fantasy cricket game. We also bought the digital rights to the Indian Premier League in a $50M deal over 10 years, so it’s a very exciting opportunity. I live in Vancouver now, which is where our office is but may relocate to Mumbai depending on how things go.
You can read the print version of this article in issue #15 of The Gateway newspaper