Less than 10 years after graduation, 2007 Wharton and Engineering alumnus Karthik Sridharan has a multi-million dollar business.
Last weekend, the Weiss Tech House along with the Technology Entrepreneurship Club hosted the Penn Innovation Conference, where leading entrepreneurial success stories came to offer advice to Penn’s future innovators. One of the speakers was Sridharan, whose startup Kinnek recently raised $20 million.
Kinnek was founded in 2012 by Sridharan and Rui Ma, a Cornell 2008 graduate, after they met at a JPMorgan summer internship. The two built an online marketplace for small businesses to purchase goods, ranging from brewery equipment to centrifuges. The company, which employs almost 30 people, about half of whom are Penn-affiliated, has now gone through both Series A and Series B funding rounds. It brought in $20 million in the last round, partnering with Thrive Capital, whose founder and managing partner, Joshua Kushner, joined Kinnek's board of directors.
Sridharan came out of Penn with degrees in computer science and finance, wanting to pursue a career that allowed him to utilize all facets of his interdisciplinary education.
“It was kind of the peak of the finance bubble when I graduated, so I went to go work at this quantitative hedge fund, AQR Capital, started by a Penn alum, so they recruited pretty heavily from Penn, making it a cool place to go after graduating," Sridharan said. "After a couple of years though, we [Ma and Sridharan] had that itch to go do something on our own, to do something that could make more of an impact.”
The idea for the marketplace came from Ma, who in his previous consulting job had been responsible for improving purchasing processes for huge businesses. Ma and Sridharan, talking to hundreds of businesses in the New York area, soon realized that small businesses didn’t have the consulting resources that these larger companies did and, as a result, were losing money through inefficient, antiquated purchasing techniques.
Sridharan and Ma saw that providing technology to improve operations could be a successful business venture, and they set to work building it, eventually completing the highly selective AngelPad startup accelerator program in Silicon Valley. After seed round funding, the duo moved back to New York to further develop the company. Again, Sridharan came face to face with the advantages of Penn’s alumni network.
“The alumni network has been ridiculous. So powerful. When it came to getting advice for how to grow our company, figuring out which industries to target, the network was amazing. People are so open and helpful. You know, we got a lot of fundraising advice from other Penn alums in the tech and VC community, some who even invested in Kinnek early on,” Sridharan said.
When it came to growing the company, Penn connections again proved to be fruitful. According to Sridharan, six out of the first eight employees were from Penn. One of these first employees was Andy Choi, a 2006 College graduate.
“I actually heard about Kinnek through my best friend from growing up who also went to Penn, who worked with Karthik at AQR. Before Kinnek, I worked at a company where I was actually working on an online product for founders at venture-backed startups," Choi said. "After a couple of months of talking, we thought that there was a good fit there [at Kinnek], and so I joined as the second business hire."
Choi in turn brought in Charles Pan, a 2009 Wharton graduate, who worked with Choi at his previous company and was also looking to make more of an impact through his career.
“I think I really wanted to go to a place where I could make more of an impact, and I wanted a place where if I had a good idea, I could try it out and see if it worked,” Pan said.
Having such a large contingent of employees from Penn with an abundance of shared experiences has created a unique workplace dynamic at Kinnek.
“Penn really sets you up well socially, you know. Penn kids love having a good time, and when you go to a startup that’s one of the most important things," Choi said. "Most startups fail — so if you’re going to take that risk, you want to work with people that you enjoy, that you’re able to have fun with."
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