It isn’t always apparent when the ripple effect of a local success story like AOL enriches a startup community. If you panned the crowd of the DC Chapter of Startup Grind fireside chat at iStrategy Labs in March, you might have missed one. Khurrum Shakir is founder of iGrabberAutos, a search engine similar to Kayak.com, that gathers information on car listings from multiple portals. Type in your information once and search them all. He recently caught up with Cvent CEO and founder, Reggie Aggarwal, at a fireside chat he learned of the day before at a Tech Breakfast and decided to attend with long-time friends and now, colleagues, Phil Howard, Director of Operations and Sales and Ronald Fraser, Chief Engineer. Though Khurrum and Reggie both have Asian roots what binds them is closer to home: northern Virginia and less than six degrees of separation from Steve Case.
During his “chat,” which he commandeered by bringing a slideshow, Reggie smiles wryly when he tells the group that as the son of two Indian engineers, his choice was to be an engineer or a doctor. Instead, he unsettled his parents by going to law school and then by becoming a bootstrapping entrepreneur right before the dot.com bubble and 9/11. They’ve come around now that Cvent is on the way to becoming the largest event management software company in the U.S., with 1,100 employees and used by 150,000 event and marketing professionals in 100 countries plus $136 in venture funding from an impressive list of business leaders, including Steve Case. But not before Reggie says he hit bottom as a 33-year-old nearly bankrupt entrepreneur who owed nearly every top executive in town and lived in his parent’s basement. It’s a darkest-before-the-dawn sound byte that captures at least as many headlines as Cvent’s growing success
Aspirins vs. vitamins?
“Is it better to sell aspirins or vitamins?” Reggie quizzes the Startup Grinders. (Hint: You know when you need an aspirin.)
Khurrum and his friends nod and smile, knowing that iGrabberAutos was an aspirin, inspired in 2010 by Khurrum’s personal pain and frustration in filling out forms on multiple sites like Carmax, AutoTrader and even eBay in search of a GMC Denali sport utility vehicle. Since the site went live on November 15, 2012, in the first two months with no advertising or publicity, iGrabberAutos had over 1,500 users per month.
Reggie emphasizes the importance of maintaining the entrepreneurial culture of the business he built at great personal cost. Who can blame him for interviewing everyone that Cvent is looking to make part of the team? He earned it. Personally, he tells the group: “To nearly fail is one thing; to nearly fail publicly with speculation in the press is gut-wrenching.”
Khurrum thinks hard about assembling the right team. His tech team came to him through a referral by a local friend and he recalls the night he invited Abdul-Malif Ahmad, Chief UI Developer/Designer and Deepak Pillai, Chief Software Architect-Developer to his home office. “We had a great conversation and I thought, let’s call it an evening,” says Khurrum, “but they were so passionate to start they asked me to show them the prototype to identify its problems and see if they could fix them. Once they saw the back end they were like kids in a candy store and they kept working until 1:30 in the morning.”
As the fireside chat continues, Khurrum and his colleagues take it all in, exchanging glances as Reggie recounts familiar struggles, mistakes and victories trying to figure out the right avenue to solve a problem or create something new? BtoB…BtoC…How to connect with the right investors? That’s still a question as to date Khurrum has funded iGrabberAutos through his personal savings.
What’s the Steve Case connection?
Khurrum, raised in Norwalk, Connecticut, is a natural storyteller who needs to get warmed up before sharing that his father and grandfather were actors. His father’s advice was to find his own path after college. That path, blazed by Khurrum’s brother, Usman Shakir, led to AOL’s offices in New York City, where Usman served as Director of Finance. After starting out at GE and taking on a finance role at a small company, Khurrum joined AOL in 2006 as marketing program manager. Within a year he was promoted to join the business development team and AOL relocated him to Leesburg, Virginia to the home in which he now runs iGrabberAutos.
As a business development lead for AOL, Khurrum was responsible for supporting AOL Latino and AOL marketplace and commerce, which included a division called AOL Autos for which he “had the pleasure of doing deals and negotiating partnerships for AOL autos, commerce, travels and personals.” Over his three years with AOL, Khurrum learned a lot about structuring teams and putting together agreements with perspective partners. He learned to introduce innovation through divisions of AOL autos, such as Wheels TV, which integrated videos into an audio platform that provided a narrated, virtual test drive alongside coveted cars such as audis and Ferraris.
Khurrum left AOL in December 2009 and by January 2010 was hit with the idea for iGrabberAutos. He ran with it. At last year’s Everywhere Else Conference in Memphis, he met Scott Case, the founding chief technology officer of Priceline.com, who warned him of the tough road ahead but said he had a fantastic concept that he saw doing very well. And, no, Scott Case isn’t related to Steve Case but he was named CEO and board member of the Startup America Partnership to which Steve Case is pretty darn connected. [See Steve Case, Wikipedia.]
At the end of the fireside chat, Khurrum lingered, connecting with fellow entrepreneurs and ending up near the end of the line that had formed to meet Reggie. The guest speaker had been running late at the start and the sponsors needed to flick the lights on and off to signal the evening’s end. The remaining people moved towards the elevators and Khurrum found himself standing next to Reggie. He turned, shook his hand and had his moment as the elevator doors closed.