[S1,E4] “Whenever you are looking for a co-founder, always have that person have some skin in the game other than their sweat equity.” — Neelam Chakrabarty creates Nextdoor for schools and parents

“Sweat equity comes very easily and you can walk away with it as easily, so I made sure that the next co-founder I was willing to go with, had to invest money. Money is hard to part with and is one of the reasons you want to stay. Make sure the other person is equally financially involved and is in terms of your working arrangements”

In the newest Valley Talks interview I am happy to welcome Neelam Chakrabarty – co-founder and CEO of Oroola.com. Oroola is an innovative collaboration platform designed to connect parents whose kids attend classes in the same school. The website offers dedicated tools to help parents take part in their children’s school lives, exchange information, share ideas and work together on school projects or even field trips while maintaining a great level of privacy that other social platforms do not offer.

“Oroola is like NextDoor for parents but parents are just one target audience. Other audiences are home-school parents and businesses which target parents, such as classes, camps, tutoring companies. They also use our platform for collaboration amongst the parents. So yes, we do call ourselves NextDoor for schools and parents.” – Neelam explains.

She built the project based on her own experiences as a parent and understands the difficulties behind raising children and the social needs every parent has. One of the main strong points of Oroola, as compared to Facebook for example, is the high attention to privacy and information safety for both the children and their parents who choose to connect with each other on Oroola. Parents can feel much more comfortable when using Oroola and be sure that the information they provide will not exit the specified circle of interest covering the child’s class or school.

“As for competitors, there are many other platforms, but they are very fragmented, catering to only certain areas. There are a lot of mommy clubs, catering to the parents of younger children, and a lot of parents also use Yahoo Groups. They need something more modern than that, they are used to Facebook and other social media. They want similar experience but need something more conservative and safe for them.”

Oroola is open for nationwide coverage but in terms of marketing, Neelam is focusing on smaller scale promotion and is currently targeting local Bay Area audiences. She plans to expand to Southern California and other areas very soon. As of now, the platform’s database includes around 150 000 schools within the United States.

“I started working on this in April 2015, we went live late August / early September and have been seeing a lot of positive response. In fact, the second audience that I mentioned – the businesses who want to use our platform for their collaboration needs – just came to us asking if they can use the platform. We did not even think about that and we are very happy that people are coming to us. That way we know that we are fulfilling the needs, the pain points out there.”

Neelam moved from India to Silicon Valley 15 years ago. She was a freshly graduated software engineer during a time when the Internet was just starting to grow big. Along with her friends she was looking for an opportunity to come to the United States. Thanks to the high demand for software engineers, a company she was working for was looking for software staff at their offshore branch in Silicon Valley.

“I got here legally on a plane, not on a boat! (laughs) My company sponsored my H visa, next I got a green card, a citizenship afterwards and now I am an American citizen. Once I came here I was working for quite some time. I also had another startup, which I bootstrapped with my husband. It just started all of a sudden when I got laid off from a job at IBM. We did not plan that and I was a two-week old mom back then with my second baby. It was time to try something new, so we came up with an idea to start generating leads for the mortgage market and real estate businesses. We had a very successful run for four years and as real estate market went down, we shut down our business. Then I landed in Intuit Software, from there I joined HP, and here I am.”

Neelam greatly understands the difference between startup life and working for corporations. She thinks that both areas have their own merits and disadvantages but, as her kids are growing up, she wanted to have more time for them. Professional corporate job may turn difficult in providing good work-life balance. When Neelam completed her MBA degree at University of California in Berkeley, she felt the itch of getting into something new. She focused on her close connection to her kids, her sense of collaboration, and came up with the Oroola.

“Finding my first co-founder was almost like a witch hunt. I have a technical background but I left coding long time ago so I knew I needed a technical co-founder. I could not find anybody for a while and then this person came around. I worked with him very briefly before and when I called him to ask to join me on my startup, he instantly replied “Yes!” I was excited and a little scared because he did not even know what my idea was. We met later on, talked about my idea and what I was looking for and he stayed in the project. We worked together less than a year. After some time I found out my co-founder was not as serious and dedicated as I was. He was working part-time at another company and that was one of the biggest challenges. It was not working well together and he also had some personal problems that distracted him. We were growing, needed a team, so he introduced a number of friends to the project. But everyone was involved part-time, so it was very difficult to manage and control a team of 10-12 people who are often busy elsewhere. I found myself spending 80% of my time with the team, while I still had so much work to do.”

At some point Neelam realized she was unable to manage the workflow within such team and noticed the product to be too big for their needs. She decided to simplify the tasks and change the course of the project. That was when her co-founder decided to resign from the project, taking the majority of the code with him, which resulted in pushing the whole concept back significantly. Neelam regrets, that she did not have the necessary documents formed at the time of agreeing for partnership.

“I guess we did have some place like NDA, but, though we had a lot of verbal discussions of what would happen if we’re fired, it was all in a very friendly way, when we were in good mood and very optimistic. You never give a thought to what would happen if we ever break up. No, we did not have that agreement.”

Fortunately, part of the code was kept at a contracting company and Neelam was able to leverage it to continue her work. She was very upset because of the difference in the amount of financial investments to the project between her and the resigned co-founder, but eventually she managed to find a new co-founder with completely new mindset.

“Whenever you are looking for a co-founder, always have that person have some skin in the game other than their sweat equity. Sweat equity comes very easily and you can walk away with it as easily, so I made sure that the next co-founder I was willing to go with, had to invest money. Money is hard to part with and is one of the reasons you want to stay. Make sure the other person is equally financially involved and in terms of your working arrangements”

“My new co-founder was working on a different idea at that time and she did not want to work on two things, so she passed the opportunity at first. We continued to exchange our problems, discussed a lot of things. After some time she realized that she was not able to continue working on her idea, she was also a parent of two kids and in the end she decided to join me, because she found the project to be a great and useful solution. And there I was with her, it has been over a year now.”

Neelam feels very fortunate that she was able to successfully bootstrap so far, invest her own funds into the project and that her new co-founder provided equal financial investment. Thanks to the concept of the idea she was able to do a lot of work with very little money at hand and use the dollars very efficiently. She did not want to switch to the funding mode too soon because she understood that finding investors is a full-time job and she did not want to get distracted just yet. It was a conscious decision to not look for funding until the company reaches a stable stage.

“Now that we are getting very good response from the market, we are starting to look at funding, trying to meet investors, build our network. There is no magic to it – we leverage our connections and it does not hurt to network into new organizations where you can ask for recommendations, connections. And if you really ask nicely, people are willing to help (…) We have a couple advisors and we are looking to form a full advisory board, but we are just getting started so there is a lot of work we have to do.”

Growing a startup is definitely not an easy task and Neelam is very aware of it. As she explains, the hardest part is having enough time for everything that needs to be done. Once the hypothesis turns into physical idea, it takes a lot of time and patience to establish a stable ground for the product. A founder should not expect immediate success and should allow the company to grow before the money comes in.

Neelam is now ready to focus on the marketing and funding sides of the Oroola project. I wish her the best of luck and I am deeply cheering for her success! Enjoy watching our conversation and I hope to see you around in the future for more outstanding guests at Valley Talks!

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