Jay Bhatti has held almost every possible kind of high-powered tech industry job over the past few years, including product manager at Microsoft, startup founder of the successful Spock.com website, and now founder of his own venture capital firm, New York-based BrandProject. Early in his career he went to one of the best schools in the country, Wharton, to get an MBA to prepare him for the business world. But it wasn’t as helpful as he thought it would be.
“When it comes to starting your own company, there is no education that prepares you for it,” Bhatti says. Now he advises anyone interested in going to school to start their own company not to bother unless they can get into one of the top schools. He says the connections and access to the faculty at top-tier schools makes it a worthwhile use of time and money, but that anyone can learn the basics of how businesses work out of books for much cheaper than a college course.
Bhatti will speak at StartupGrind Princeton’s meeting on Thursday, November 19, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Tigerlabs, 252 Nassau Street. Tickets are $10. For more information, visit www.startupgrind.com. Startup Grind is an organization founded in 2010 to help early stage entrepreneurs, with local chapters around the world. The group, which holds “fireside chats” with business luminaries, boasts 215,977 members in 175 cities.
Instead of going to school, Bhatti recommends becoming an expert in the field in which you are going into business. And instead of going into debt to pay for an MBA, he says would-be business founders should do the opposite: get into a solid financial position where you can go for the next two years without bringing in any cash.
“People who do startups are people who either have nothing to lose so they can go full fledged into it, or people who have enough of a cushion behind them that they can go in without being worried about it.”
Bhatti certainly didn’t have a cushion in life to start off with. He was born in India and his parents moved to the U.S. when he was young, settling in Old Bridge, where his mother worked on an assembly line at a toy factory and his father managed restaurants in New York City, starting at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was, as Bhatti describes it, a tough background.
His upbringing in a working class neighborhood was put into perspective when Bhatti went to Wharton, where there were scions of wealthy families and children of Middle Eastern dynasties who more or less owned their countries of origin. There were also students who grew up in abject poverty or in war zones. Despite this sharp divide, Bhatti saw nothing in the way of class division while at Wharton. “No one really looked down on anyone,” he said. “We were all trying to better ourselves.”
Both groups were in their own ways the best of the best, but Bhatti believes that when it comes to being an entrepreneur, a hardscrabble background is better preparation than a silver spoon. “Two things come from a tough upbringing,” he said. “Kids who come from more modest upbringings learn not to give up because they don’t know any other way. It focuses you when you grow up in a tough place.”
For example, Bhatti said he was overjoyed when his company was sued for the first time. That meant his business was important enough to be noticed.
Equally important as being prepared for a fight is knowing when not to pick one. The second advantage of hard early years, according to Bhatti, is that “You know how fast things can go wrong for you,” he said. “You can’t have much of an ego, which is very important. It rubs your employees the wrong way and it rubs venture capitalists the wrong way. You have to be diplomatic. You realize you need to keep your ego in check in a lot of situations.”
One of the goals of Startup Grind is to promote the startup community of the Route 1 corridor. Bhatti says the university and local businesses seem to be making good efforts to nurture high-tech ventures. “I think they’re doing all the right things, but it doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “Tigerlabs is really impressive,” he said of the startup incubator. “What Princeton University is doing with the eLab is really impressive, too.”
Bhatti said it will take time for the startup culture to truly flourish. Much of its success will depend on whether any of the small companies founded here will grow into powerful entities on their own. “HP and Intel were extremely influential in creating Silicon Valley,” Bhatti said.
He said the entrepreneurship efforts of Princeton and Rutgers were on the right track, but that Princeton had done more as an institution to help startups. Central Jersey has all the right ingredients to become a high tech corridor, he said, especially given its illustrious history as the home of Einstein, Bell Labs, RCA, and other glories of the industrial age.
“It’s kind of surprising not to see more innovation coming out of the tech world in New Jersey,” he said. “There is a lot of potential for that, and it’s just a matter of having the right level of focus.”