Viswanath Kashi, CEO & Co-founder of Last Link, based out of Portland Oregon, with a remote team connecting from Europe and Asia. He joined us for an exciting conversation about the life of a tech startup founder. Last Link's mission is to help event organizers help virtual event attendees network and collaborate.
Viswanath is a serial entrepreneur who describes himself as a ‘tech and economics nerd’ and is previously the founder of Phoneshake - a technology startup focusing on building tools for professional connections and relationships.
He began his career with his first startup at the age of 19 in college and exited in less than a year. He went on to work for an Austrian Water Technology company and later to a fellowship at Intel Corporation after his education. Subsequently, he founded an education technology startup ‘Uple,’ with his college-mates while at Oregon State University.
Vish holds a BTech in Mechanical engineering from SASTRA University, India, and an M.S. in Industrial Engineering from Oregon State University. He focuses on Product Development, Strategy, and Fundraising in his current startup. In his free time, he enjoys reading about technology & economics, finding hacks to problems, and helping entrepreneurs who share the same passion.
“I am the CEO and the janitor at Last Link. I focus on three main areas for our startup. One is product, and then the second one is strategy, and the third one is fundraising. Mostly my day-to-day typically looks like three blocks in my day. Morning is always products, the afternoon is with customers, and working with my team on marketing. And then end of the day always ends up with all the menial, boring, tasks that just have to get done.”
We’re a team of six, we have a very remote team. Two on the West Coast, two in Europe, and two in India. For the most part, we were already a team. We used to work on a previous startup, so the whole team kind of came together.”
That close working relationship with his team started early in the startup journey for Viswanath and his colleagues. As an undergrad at SASTRA University, he and his friends spotted an opportunity to start their own business - Troika - in 2009.
“It just started off as a discussion with my really good buddies from college. I don't think I even knew the term ‘startup’ at that point in time. We just started, it was very hard to start, just to get stuff done with no systems or anything like that. It was just a plan I wanted to follow and that's how we went into it. And those were sort of good sleepless nights. In about two months’ time, it really kicked in well. And, in less than a year, we were able to sell off that business to the institution itself. It was a student services business, and the institution was super interested in it. So that made sense.
That was my first venture, but the reason I really got into startups really was because of my uncles. Primarily, I did not grow up with my parents. I grew up with two of my uncles. They are super entrepreneurial although they almost always had full-time jobs. They always had these side gigs, which were very entrepreneurial, and they used to do entrepreneurial things at their work as well. So, they were very inspiring to me at all times, even today. That's how my journey started.”
Following his early success and discovering a love for following in his uncles’ entrepreneurial footsteps, Kashi tried his hand at a regular job for an Austrian Water Treatment company before making the move to the US, or ‘land of the startups’, and landing a position at Intel.
“I came here to study, do my masters, and briefly worked for Intel which was in new product development for smartphones and tablets. That was a super fun journey. That's what got me into software and hardware and a lot of really interesting things as we developed new products. But I always felt like I actually wanted to go back, and I do a lot more learning and really fun stuff in entrepreneurship. I had met my co-founders Taqi Sleel and Pavan Thanai from college doing my master’s degree, and I proposed to them Uple and we jumped into it. Uple stands for ‘university people’, not a really good name, but it was something I came up with on a Friday evening, and that's how we started that.
Uple did reasonably well for about three years. At that point in time, we didn't get a lot of the pieces right and we had to shut that down, that was a pretty big thing. We had a team of 12 people at startup and we quickly grew but it just did not work out with one of our co-founders and we had to let the rest of the team go. Two of the co-founders who are still my co-founders on Last Link, came together. We wanted to continue to work together and two other members who were part of the team previously also stayed. We had the team dynamic really going well and here we are today working on this.”
There is a running theme in the companies that Kashi and his co-founders have been involved in, that they all revolve around connecting people and enabling networking. Most notably Phoneshake, and then Last Link founded in March 2020. I asked Kashi what drew him to the online networking space in particular, and what potential he sees in the industry and the solutions that his team has developed.
“Phoneshake was more of a physical world platform, it was more of technology evolution and less to do with actually connecting people. It was the underlying technology that we wanted to make. Today we have Bluetooth, we have Airdrop, and things like that. We wanted to do something a little more agnostic and not specific to a manufacturer like Apple or Samsung. We basically tapped into audio waves; you can think of it almost like an audio QR code. We wanted to make connecting a little more agnostic and take that same concept and apply it to multiple areas. And so that's where we went in - it was more of a patenting route.
After the pandemic hit, we were in the process of testing this whole product out. We realised nobody's going to need this for now, and that’s not going to happen for some time in the future. So that's when we switched to using the same software platform, we were actually building something else in the background. We realised we could leverage what we've built so far. People are still going to connect online, but they just have to figure out how. Often today people join Zoom or Google Meet calls with 50 or 60 people on a call. And you find at least 10% of the subset of the population on that call saying, “Hey, my name is Vish connect with me. This is my LinkedIn,”
So that's what's happening. That was a behavior that I noticed early when people started moving online. We realised there is a lot of room there despite LinkedIn being LinkedIn and being the go-to place. People were not meeting on LinkedIn, but all other platforms. So, we had to build an experience that is a little closer or felt nicer. Once the call is done, boom, all the contacts are gone. You cannot connect with them anymore. We want to kind of build continuity after that call as well.
So that's what we are doing today. But that slowly has evolved also into almost becoming a virtual event space. There's a lot of demand for virtual events. We have a pretty big plan for Last Link. We are going after a very small niche today, but it has wider applicability, like for instance Slack or Microsoft Teams. They are specifically built for teams as a product. They don't cover functions of which are cross-organizational. Like for instance let's take the pharma industry. It's a very high-touch industry between clinicians, government bodies, and the pharma company. Those collaborations today are happening virtually, which used to be high touch. So, there are opportunities like that out there. Even if things go back to the old normal virtual collaboration is here to stay - there is a lot of room for growth into other verticals too. But we want to take it slow and get a good amount of learning in what we are doing today.”
The potential for future hybrid-virtual events is another avenue that Kashi and the team are exploring, with plans for a ‘stealth product’ to launch to the market when meeting in person is a reality for people again. It’s an exciting and invigorating discussion that many startup founders will identify with - embracing the notion of pivoting and identifying the problems and building solutions quickly.
While staying ahead of the curve and constantly innovating would be a challenge for most of us it’s clear from spending just a few minutes with Kashi that it is a process he enjoys. I was keen to find out what he’s found challenging in his startup journey so far, and what he’s been able to take from each experience.
“If I were to summarize what has happened in terms of challenges, you don't know what you don't know until you actually face it. That's something that is always hitting me every day and that's the best part of startups I feel, I really believe that. I can give you an example of that from this week, we had a product release for a client. Looked like everything was going fine. We had it running for two, three days, everything went fine. And boom, when it went live, ‘what's happening? Nothing's happening on the platform. What's going on?’.
Things were failing in some of the integrations, which was something nobody could have predicted. It was just a matter of communication between the client and their own API people and us. So, it was something completely unexpected. We took a couple of hours and fixed it really quickly, but that's something we couldn't have ever predicted. Once that was done and the pressure was off at 3:00 AM my co-founder and I were - we kind of giggle about it in the background once it is done. But I think that's one of the biggest things. Like, you just don't know where you're going to get hit from.
The second thing, I feel sort of lucky about this time around is already having a team to begin with. A team you trust to get stuff done. I believe that makes a huge difference because you don't have to have a curve to adjust to each other and get to know each other that accelerates things a lot.”
Being such an active part in the tech startup community since his days at Oregon State University, Kashi speaks with real excitement and fondness of fellow startup founders in the Pacific Northwest. While the whole world has shifted to work from home and remote teams, he still embraces the value of the local ecosystem.
“I’ve worked with some really amazing startup founders. I have a lot of good mentors from the Pacific Northwest. One of them being a Y-Combinator founder. In terms of collaborating with companies, I haven’t done a lot of that in the Northwest yet, but we have some amazing talent up here. I was just talking to somebody from Seattle yesterday; I always feel like I want to move to Seattle because of the kind of growth that they have and the kind of talent they have. But thankfully Zoom's the norm today so I still get to get a few conversations and get to learn from really inspiring founders.”
As a young startup founder Kashi is an invigorating person to speak to about leading a company - as he freely admits he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, but also comes with a clarity of vision of what he wants to achieve and how that should look.
“I'm not trying to push anyone, but I would love to inspire my team to work with me. There's a difference between working for someone and working with someone. That's how I see it. I am always working with people, that's how I think about it. And that's why I feel uncomfortable with the term CEO. When one of my friends says, ‘you're the CEO of your company, right?’ I say,’ yeah, but also the janitor.’ That's how I feel. I'm just another employee. Because everybody does their own part.”
As someone so hands-on in the world of technology in the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, I was keen to pick Kashi’s brain for his top 3 takeaways as a startup founder in the region.
1. Keep learning. I'm constantly learning, and I think this is a takeaway from one of my uncles. I like to dedicate at least 10% of my day to just reading. I need to know what's going on out there because I'm just stuck in my own space, so I need to keep updated.
2. When you really start working with someone, just trust them and -be there for them and they'll be there for you. That’s not just in terms of just internal people, but that applies the same to customers or the people you provide services to. Just be there for them and they'll be there for you.
3. Take risks and follow your passion. However hard it is, even if it doesn't make a lot of money today, it's okay. You’ll figure a way out.”
Wise words from someone with real-world experience and the perseverance required to make a startup work. Describing himself as ‘scrappy’, Kashi is the first to admit that he’s not always focused on the money aspect, as his strengths are in driving innovation and being adaptable in tricky situations.
“I wouldn’t call us a bootstrap startup. Some people really believe in bootstrap startups. I do too, absolutely. But we are not a company that's raised a ton of money for accelerated growth, there’s time for that. But early on, I feel like we still have to be super scrappy and that's a strength of our team. If we had money it could divert our attention and quickly divert into other things rather than staying focused. If we stay scrappy, we learn a lot more tightly. The fit gets a lot better and then we can scale from there.”
You can learn more about Last Link here: https://www.lastlink.us/