Shashank Pandit always knew he wanted to start a company. "I was not sure exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew that I wanted to do something of my own," he says, shuddering at the thought of working for a company that would dictate the hours and work environment for him. But, like many aspiring business-owners, Shashank first needed to come up with an idea.
"It was a small problem that we faced, so we wrote a program for it, and somehow, one of us said 'this is an important thing."
He and two friends had their "light bulb" moment in 2004 when they were graduate students working towards PhDs in computer science at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University. They were frequently sharing expenses when they ate out, so they created a computer code that would help them divvy up their restaurant tabs and keep track of who owed the others money. Shashank explains that "it was a small problem that we faced, so we wrote a program for it, and somehow, one of us said 'this is an important thing.'"
Shashank and his cofounders, Amit Manjhi and Ashwin Bharambe, left Carnegie Mellon toward the end of 2006 to focus on launching their business, a money tracking site called Buxfer. All three have computer science backgrounds (in fact, they all attended the India Institute of Technology for college and met during graduate school), so they needed to learn more about the legal and business side of launching a company.
Friends told the trio about Y Combinator, which funds young startup companies during sessions in Cambridge, MA and Silicon Valley, CA. They applied and started working with Y Combinator in the winter of 2006, an experience that helped Buxfer go from a series of computer code to a full-fledged company.
In addition to funding, Y Combinator also provides business advice and the chance to learn from other entrepreneurs. The founders attended weekly dinners with other Y Combinator participants. As Amit says, "we came to know the people behind other Y Combinator companies from our batch as well as previous batches pretty well."
Through Y Combinator, they also met Paul Graham, a successful computer programmer and entrepreneur who helped them get the company on its feet. Ashwin says Paul "did a splendid job in educating us when we started."
On top of the usual paperwork about incorporating their company, the three Buxfer founders have also had to deal with immigration issues, since all three are from India. Shashank says this is his least favorite part of the process, since he'd rather be building the site than talking to lawyers. "I hate getting involved in the legal and the immigration work," he admits.
Still, Shashank enjoys knowing that Buxfer is helping people manage their money and keep tabs on their budget. "I'm the happiest when I get a response from a person saying good job," he explains. "When we launched a feature for tracking personal expenses, the whole week we got fantastic fan mail! That made me very pleased."
The other two echo Shashank's sentiments. Amit says he enjoys being "able to understand and address the concern of a user who sends us feedback, [and then she] sends a satisfied thank you note to us."
"I'm the happiest when I get a response from a person saying good job."
Ashwin says his "favorite part is coming up with nifty tools? to streamline the development process. The one I am especially proud of is a web-interface to our shared music collection so the three of us could put all our music on one disk and stream it so any one of us could listen to it? [It's] slightly off-track from Buxfer, but I think it still helped us increase our productivity."
Working as a Trio
On top of working together, Shashank and Amit share an apartment, which also happens to be Buxfer's corporate headquarters. Ashwin lives next door with his wife. The three spend long hours together writing code and perfecting their site. "You need to have people that you like being with," says Shashank. "It's not just about these three people. It's about coming together and building new ideas."
"Whenever there is a conflict of opinion, we just go with a majority rule."
Of course, despite their shared commitment to making Buxfer the best possible finance tool, there are occasional disagreements. According to Amit, "whenever there is a conflict of opinion, we just go with a majority rule: for example, if Ashwin and I think that a particular change is going to be liked by the users but Shashank disagrees, we go ahead with the change."
This strategy seems to be working well for Buxfer. As of June 2007, the site was tracking over $30 million in transactions and had just received a mention in The Wall Street Journal
, as well as Online Banking Report's
Best of the Web.
Currently the site is free, making it an ideal fit for college students and young professionals on a budget. According to an online survey conducted on Buxfer.com, more than half of its users work full-time and 89% are between ages 22 and 29. Right now the focus is on building the user base, but the founders have several ideas about how they can generate revenue in the future.
"We could potentially [create] advertisements or tips on how to save money," Shashank explains. "The financial data in itself is a gold-mine; for instance, 'how many people in California use Comcast versus Verizon?'" There's also discussion about partnering with another site to offer online money transfers (users can already log in with their facebook or Google accounts and send information to their Buxfer account using a cell phone).
So, what would the three Buxfer founders say to others hoping to start a business?
Amit and Ashwin advise budding business-owners to focus on the product. "If
you just succeed in making something that people want, everything else follows," says Amit.
According to Ashwin, "we used to worry about our lack of business experience and how it could
severely impact the company? The most important thing in today's age is just having the most fantastic and constantly improving product you can make!"
you just succeed in making something that people want, everything else follows."
Shashank adds that a good idea will only take you so far. "The most important thing that you should have is the attitude. You might not have the skills, but you can always pick them up," he says. "Ideas change along the way. You want to have people with you who are willing to change. Focus on getting a good team together."