Ashish Valentine, ECE ILLINOIS
Intricate connections between people parallel the vastness and complexity of the networks between the high-tech computer systems in Silicon Valley. At the center of this intricate web of human networks is Prashant Shah (BSEE ’89), managing director of the TiE LaunchPad. Shah leverages his contacts in successful tech positions to put budding entrepreneurs in touch with mentors who can advance their companies and get their ideas funded.
The TiE LaunchPad is an accelerator for enterprise startups. It is part of TiE, a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring, educating, and funding startups. Founders of these new companies come to Shah at various stages in their companies’ development, ranging from startups that have ideas for products but need funding to companies that already make revenue but need to know how to make more.
“Our charter members are usually the first people to get calls from startups. The process generally involves a company getting referred to the LaunchPad from those charter members. We find out about their background, and I try to figure out what skills they could use to make themselves successful,” Shah said. “I’ll suggest a few dozen mentors … that they can talk to, then they find their match and the mentor works with the company on a weekly basis. They share know-how, contacts, and potential customers, and I stay involved in the process, making sure everything is going smoothly and providing assistance when required.”
The TiE LaunchPad invests $50,000 in these startups from a fund set up by the charter members. Part of the returns from these investments are directed back TiE, which was started by successful South Asian entrepreneurs who wanted to pay forward their success and assist others in developing their startups.
As the managing director of TiE LaunchPad, Shah organizes TiE’s vast community of successful entrepreneurs, and puts startups in contact with some of the organization’s more than 300 charter members he thinks can help them the most. Charter members are entrepreneurs, investors, and tech executives who have already achieved success and demonstrated a willingness to pay that success forward. TiE invites them to be paired as mentors with startups and to share their experience, contacts, and funding with them.
“I run the program and manage the fund, and it’s my job to corral our organization’s charter members to help these companies however I can,” Shah said. “The skills required for this job really at the end of the day are about pattern matching. I find the right entrepreneurs handling the right market, then put them together with people I know who can help them. This requires an understanding of who’s who in the TiE ecosystem, and being able to pick up the phone and call the right charter member for the job.”
After earning an MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, Shah took a highly unorthodox route to get to where he is today, and certainly wasn’t expecting to be doing the kind of work he is now when he started in Silicon Valley.
“Most people get into venture capitalism later in life, when they’ve been an entrepreneur or successful CEO once or twice, and the investors that invested in them will ask them to come join as partner,” he said.
“I’m the worst example of how to get into venture capital,” Shah said. “Before I joined TiE, I never even planned on doing this kind of work. I was at a startup that got acquired, then met with a venture capitalist firm called Hummer Winblad Venture Partners for what was supposed to just be a short two-year position. After two years, however, instead of my exiting and starting my own company, they asked me to stick around more. That ended up turning a two-year thing into a 10-year position at the firm, and eventually I made partner. Later, I joined TiE and headed their angel investing group, which turned into a managing director position at TiE LaunchPad.”
The joys of Shah’s job involve taking a startup from the very early stages of its growth to its establishment as an enterprise-level startup. From the beginning, at which a founder hopefully presents him with ideas, he loves watching the startup grow, its members gaining experience, its resources benefitting from infusions of contacts and capital, and its ranks swelling as the startup burgeons into an enterprise-level entity in its own right, and knowing that he was an integral part of making that happen.
“One company, for example, came in and didn’t have any revenue yet, so the mentor and I suggested CIOs for them to talk to, and they were able to get their products to market,” Shah said. “Another company already had a little revenue, so we helped them reposition how they talked about their product and put them in touch with the right investors, and now they have millions of dollars in seed funding.”
“After working with a variety of companies, what I’ve noticed that’s different about TiE LaunchPad compared with my days at the firm is that the companies we work with here are at a much earlier stage in the development cycle,” Shah said. “Being able to gather and plug them in to the right resources to help them grow is just a great rewarding experience, as you get to learn from people constantly and expand your network, and that just makes it a ton of fun when you meet new people every single day. The key to success for what I’m doing is matching, finding the right set of companies, figuring out how to add value to companies, and in my case, tapping into the TiE network to do that.”
Shah also loves the vantage point over the tech industry that his job affords him.
“I have the rare opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of what’s going on in the landscape of startups,” Shah said. ”I love seeing different entrepreneurs find different markets, and get to see fads or waves of what people are all working on. When I was starting out there was the dot-com wave, then a mobile wave that’s arguably still going on, and now waves around Big Data, and the Internet of Things. I see these waves of technology development come and go, and it’s interesting to find patterns and use my knowledge of what’s catching on in the industry to find the right entrepreneurs who come up with new companies.”
Shah’s ultimate goal for the TiE LaunchPad is to fund the next Google.
“The more successful the companies we assist become, the larger the return on our investment and therefore the larger our fund becomes to help even more companies get off the ground,” Shah said. “If we can assist in creating an incredibly successful business on the scale of something like Google, we’ll obtain a huge endowment that will really help us go even further in helping entrepreneurs. I want the whole world to know that TiE is the place where great startups go to get funded.”