Interview by Michael Bennett.
Prasad Kopanati is the founder and CEO of ManyShip, a peer-to-peer social shipping and delivery platform that connects people sending things around the world to travelers going to those destinations. Michael Bennett joined ManyShip officially around 5 months into their beta, and finally had the pleasure of conducting a full interview with Prasad about his journey from a student in Hyderabad, pushing through the US immigration process as an international, and pursuing his dream of founding a Silicon Valley startup.
What drove you to initially to come to the United States?
It started when I was doing Mechanical Engineering at Osmania University in Hyderabad, India. Seniors had two choices, take an entrance exam and then complete their Masters degree in India, or do the GRE and come to the US to do their Masters.
Many of us always wanted to get an education in the US because the quality was top notch, but the bigger drive of being educated in the US was ultimately, the opportunity to work in the states.
At that time, the universities were more open to Asian and Indian students. I took the GRE, applied to five schools, and was awarded scholarships to three of them. University of Cincinnati was the best school among those, and they gave me a scholarship, but it was in mechanical engineering. After one semester, I knew I did not want to do mechanical engineering, but wanted to do computer science instead. So I ended up moving to Chicago to attend Northern Illinois University in December 2000, as Microsoft and IBM recruited from the area, and I had friends living in the area.
So you graduated from NIU with a MS in Computer Science. Were the next steps to go work for a big technology company like Microsoft?
I ended up being more interested in working for a startup, so I went to work for a company in the Chicago area called TE Technologies. I was very excited to be part of the startup because they were just founded, and I knew I would be learning the skills to start my own company. At the same time I would be put to work, instead of just getting a set amount of work in my area of expertise. Working for a startup would allow me to venture into so many other areas.
At TE we were building a system similar to what Microsoft has for automatic updates now, basically an update suggestion engine. This was in 2001, when Microsoft and the Windows PC had a ton of applications, but did not offer suggestions for the updates to those apps. This is something that is of course integrated into every type of software now.
Were you able to get your visa then? Today there are still a lot of immigration issues for smart and driven international students.
Back then I was on my optional practical training. They were unable to process H1 because they were still a startup. I joined right after their initial round of funding, I believe it was a seed or Series A, at that time I was not tuned into the business aspect of startups. They had promised to do H1 if they got further funding, but unfortunately, they were not able to raise another round and had to shut down the company. Both the dotcom bust and team issues contributed to the reason we were not able to continue as a company.
I was the first non founder employee, and we added three more technical/product employees after. One of the two founders was solely an idea guy, took care of the sales, but did not have any sense of product, and wasn’t strong enough in business to provide a lot of value. Another problem was that the team was more focused on building a complete product than doing an incremental product.
It took 7-8 months to get to an initial product that could be tested. This was a long time for 5 people working on the product.
Between the dot-com bust, lack of lean startup methodology, and having the one founder only generating ideas and not be hands on in building the company, it eventually led to our failure.
The company folds and you don’t have a visa. What next?
I had to find a job. I ended up being hired in Louisiana by a company willing to sponsor my H1 and green card. So I moved there and did software engineering and development for this company which was creating accounting software for petroleum marketers.
When I first came to the US the visa process took 2-3 years, but things changed. From 2000 on a lot people starting applying for green cards, so the US government put a cap on the number of people accepted per year. Indian green cards have slowed down considerably. The process ended up taking 6-7 years.
During this time you founded your first startup I believe. Tell me more about it?
In 2004, I started my own company called Xemantex (derived from the word semantics) while working for AIMS in Louisiana. I built a product that allowed you to double click on a word in a news article, and it would pull the dictionary meaning of the word. I had taken a Princeton web dictionary, parsed it and then created a database. These online dictionaries are commonplace now, but in 2004, no one was really working on this problem.
Like ManyShip, it was created to solve a real problem I encountered in my life. I was not a native English speaker and at times had a hard time understanding the context of articles due to not understanding the words that comprised the content.
Unfortunately, my green card process like many others was delayed, and I realized I would not be getting it any time soon. Starting a company can consume your whole life, and I was not able to leave my job and take my product and small company on a bigger trajectory.
So you had to let go of that opportunity?
Yes, unfortunately I was simply not able to commit the time and effort to making it work. I eventually was awarded the green card a few years later.
But you never lost interest in becoming an entrepreneur?
Never. I had three dreams that have been constant in my life since I came to the US: buy a BMW; move to Silicon Valley; and build a million dollar company. Through the entire time in Chicago and Louisiana, I was focused on one day having my own American dream, owning my own company.
So its 2008 and you finally have your visa? Was this when you started your family?
While in Louisiana, I had applied for a job in Pleasanton, California and got it. That March, I went back to India, and like many Indians, got married to a girl through a family arrangement from Hyderabad. Luckily, she is awesome (wink)!
Wow…so you just got married and finally are ready to move to Silicon Valley?
Yes, but when I told my wife I needed to go to work in California she didn’t want to move there at first. She basically told me “pick the job or pick me”. Of course I picked her, so we compromised and moved to Phoenix. We were able to get her a visa, and I started doing contract work for a bunch of top companies and firms including CapGemini and Wells Fargo.
I only signed a three month lease on the house we rented, because I wanted to move to California immediately. We ended up having my son and daughter, and that lease ended up being renewed a bunch of times, and we stayed for a total of four years. During that time I also completed my first goal of buying a BMW.
When were you able to stop the leases and finally move to Silicon Valley?
It came to a point where I sat down with my wife and told her I needed my two other dreams to be completed. As soon as my daughter was born in September of 2011, I started to look for jobs in California. I got a job doing software consulting for a healthcare company, and I moved in December 2011 to Silicon Valley, and brought my wife and kids three months later.
You were now in the Valley, finally! How did you break into the scene here?
I began by sitting in on conferences at Stanford to understand how people start businesses. I knew people created websites to solve problems, but wanted to understand how to turn that into a business.
I ended up attending an entrepreneurial event where Drew Houston, who is the founder or Dropbox, gave a speech, and he talked about how he created a business out of a personal need that he had.
By having a need, you create validation. I had the need and problem of sending things back and forth between family in the US and India. Drew said you should create a website around the need, and then start working from there in building a product prototype.
And you created ManyShip around this need?
Yes. After spending hundreds of dollars per year for the first few years I was in the US to send and receive things, it finally reached a point where a major postal carrier, I won’t name names, lost a family photo album with hundreds of pictures, which was never recovered.
So I was constantly trying to find friends traveling who could carry things back to my family and friends in India. It was a really big problem for me, and that generated the need to find a better way to send things. I wanted to encapsulate that need into a website.
I started to build the concept of ManyShip on the side, and in March of 2013, created a prototype. I released that so people could begin to use that. I think it is time to quit the job to focus on it full time. I officially launched a beta in July of 2013, and in November began classes at Stanford GSB in their Ignite Entrepreneurial program.
So what were your biggest challenges and those that other internationals and immigrants face coming from abroad to the US to found a startup?
The biggest challenge has and will continue to be guidance. Coming from India, not many people knew what was their 5 year plan. We were trying to create a plan for ourselves, and then go out and accomplish that plan.
What to do and how to do it were missing for us at the time. It still is for tens of thousands of people. Coming to the US was and is such a big step. Often times we were not willing to take guidance, or did not have the access to it.
Once we graduated, we were on cloud nine. In reality, it was only the beginning, and we should all look to do more at every step of the journey.
The other huge challenge was immigration issues. I had to abandon my first company because of the visa issue, which was a painful thing to do. I could not work for both the employer that was sponsoring my H1 green card and my own startup.
If I did not get the green card I would have had to go back to India. I would not have been able to get the same type of opportunity in India to start a business.
I saw others who started their own company, but ended up having to relinquish the green card and landed back in India. India is filled with bureaucratic issues, lack of mindset, and at that time a limit in the talent pool of entrepreneurs.
Things have changed quite a bit from when I came in 1999 to 2014.
There is still much more opportunity here but part of that equation is information. For example, when I first came, Google was still very young. The information we could get was minimal. There is much more information today on how the processes work, recruitment, programs, etc.
What advice would you give individuals from abroad wanting to start their own company in Silicon Valley, or entrepreneurs in general?
If someone wants to start a company, they need this to be part of their plan and make that their focus in life. No matter what the obstacles are they need to pursue the path.
For immigrants coming from abroad, laying out a plan to get a visa is a key step in this process. Many people begin with a large company right out of college, get sponsored, and after a few years, with some money saved up and an idea and business plan formulated, they can make a smoother transition into founding a startup. I had a lot of bumps early on in the journey, but we each have our own path I guess.
It took me twelve plus years to come to Silicon Valley and then start a company. Twelve years is a very long time. If I did not have that focus, I probably would have landed somewhere else.
On a technical level for entrepreneurs, you really need the right team, technical and product skills, and to be in the right place.
The common theme though no matter the individual is to have a bigger picture of what you want to do in life. It might take a lot of time, but you need a pursue it.
I want to build ManyShip into a million dollar plus established company here. Internet companies can be operated from anywhere in the world, which is a huge advantage for them lifestyle wise. Now that I finally have my green card, I can worry about the bigger challenges in front of me.