From Bengaluru to Bay Area: Airbase Founder Thejo Kote’s story from a small-town boy to a successful American entrepreneur
San Francisco-based corporate spend management startupFounder Thejo Kote’s journey is as interesting as it is inspiring. He grew up in the quaint little historical town of Mysuru (about 150 km from Bengaluru) and graduated from a college in Bengaluru. He then went on to work for IT behemoth, , but soon realised that his calling lay elsewhere.
Building things and entrepreneurship fascinated him. He chased his dreams that brought him to America. His previous startup, Automatic, which he co-founded, was sold to New York-based broadcasting company SiriusXM for $115 million.
And his current startup Airbase is also making all the right noises, having raised $60 million recently, taking its total venture funding to $91 million.
The early years
Thejo grew up in a middle class, “academic” family where there was no precedence of anyone trying their hand at entrepreneurship or starting a business.
“The instruction was always to study, education was very important,” Thejo said, during a fireside chat at YourStory’s flagship startup-tech summit, TechSparks 2021.
And those instructions were indeed followed as he was “a pretty good student growing up”. He landed up at RV College of Engineering in Bengaluru and got a degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering.
He candidly admits that during campus placements the global tech incumbents such as Yahoo, Google, etc., didn’t even offer him interview opportunities since he didn’t have a computer science background.
The only companies that showed any interest were the TCS, and Wipro Technologies of the world. He decided to take up the Infosys offer because it had a good training programme where he could learn about software engineering among other things. A lot of the things taught at Indian colleges as part of electrical engineering have very little relevance in the professional world anymore and that’s the reason he was keen on getting that training under his belt, Thejo said.
Joining and leaving Infosys
Thejo stayed at Infosys for about a year and a half, realising early on that it wasn’t something he wanted to do long-term.
But, at the same time, he was deeply inspired by the then Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani, as well as the other co-founders of the fabled Indian IT services firm.
“While the work that I would have had to do on a day-to-day wasn’t as interesting or enjoyable to me, the one thing I took away from Infosys for sure was the incredibly inspirational founders, the sheer persistence and everything that they had gone through to build the business that it was, that was always awesome.”
In fact, while Thejo was at Infy he made sure not to miss any of the quarterly briefings that the then CEO Nandan would do at a dedicated room on the campus, which very few of his colleagues actually turned up for. His time at Infosys, especially these sessions, got him to reflect on what he really wanted to do over the next 20-30 years, and he figured that it was entrepreneurship that he wanted to pursue.
The decision was primarily influenced by seeing what Nandan and the other co-founders had built with Infosys. He quit Infosys and joined a startup to learn about “the company building process”.
So how did his family with its middle-class values reconcile with the fact that their engineer son was quitting Infosys to join an unknown startup, at a time (2006) when the term startup itself wasn’t in vogue yet?
“My mother thought I was insane! Who’d quit Infosys and join this ‘no-name startup’ that no one has heard of? But, my brother was supportive, he understood this a little more. He’d already gotten his MBA here in the US, he was a lot more informed than my parents were.”
The startup was supposed to be a learning ground and a stepping stone for Thejo to pursue his goal of starting up on his own, and that’s exactly how he went about it.
“Working at startups was something that losers did basically. If you didn’t get a job anywhere else you went and worked at a startup, that was kind of the mentality back then. Obviously, that’s changed, which is a really good thing in the ecosystem.”
The move to America
Back in the late 2000s, the Indian startup ecosystem was nowhere as robust and thriving as it is today. Thejo realised that location and the ecosystem mattered, especially back then. While working at the startup in India, he worked on a side project building an SMS-based product similar to micro-blogging platform Twitter.
He launched it after two weeks of Twitter launching in India, and while the San Francisco-based startup gained in heft, strength, and influence, his project never managed to measure up and gain the same kind of growth and retention. He figured being where the action was is important, and the action back then was in Silicon Valley.
“If I was an artist during the Renaissance period, I would have found my way to Florence. I wanted to be where the action was, which was Silicon Valley. Also, I wanted to fill the skills gap. The way for me to address both was to come to grad school here and that’s what I ended up doing.”
In 2009, Thejo left India to pursue his grad studies at the UC Berkeley School of Information. Graduating in 2011, he co-founded the San Francisco-based Automatic, a data-driven platform that enables vehicle owners to be safer and drive smarter. In 2017, it was acquired by New York-based broadcasting company SiriusXM for $115 million.
The same year that Automatic was sold, Thejo started his next startup Airbase. The startup combines bill payments, corporate cards, and reimbursements onto a single platform with approval workflows, accounting automation, and reporting.
It was during his previous startup stint that Thejo realised that there were widespread inefficiencies of accounting and finance, especially among small and mid-market businesses. He identified the most inefficient area as the non-payroll spend for which no one had yet designed a consolidated software solution.
Airbase is currently focussed on the US market. However, a majority of its product development (75-80 percent) works out of India. It has close to 200 employees in total who are spread across 11 countries. The company’s always been remote-first from Day 1.
Being a private company, Airbase doesn’t give out revenue numbers but says that the traction the business has shown has led to the funding rounds that have happened, a clear testimony to the fact that Airbase is building a meaningful and scalable business.
Airbase has been making all the right noises, having raised $60 million earlier this year (Series B funding round led by Menlo Ventures), taking its total venture funding to $91 million. The startup’s investors include the likes of Bain Capital Ventures, Menlo Ventures, and First Round Capital.
Other corporate-spend focussed startups in the US include unicorns (startups valued at/over $1 billion) Divvy and Brexx. Airbase was valued at around $600 million at the time of its latest funding round, according to Thejo.
The Indian startup dream
The Indian startup ecosystem has been on a dream run and has vastly evolved from when Thejo left for greener pastures to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams.
Over the last 10 months, investors have pumped in more than $23 billion into the Indian startup ecosystem, leading to the birth of 33 new unicorns during the period.
With 70+ soonicorns, 10+ impending IPOs, and 10+ soon-to-be decacorns, it’s safe to say that the Indian startup ecosystem is thriving like never before.
“In India, it’s changed dramatically from when I kind of decided I should probably be here (in the US) and be a part of this ecosystem to now. And I don’t know if the ecosystem was what it is today, might I have gotten on that plane and come here? Probably not! [sic]”
So, would Thejo ever come back to India to build something new from here?
“It’s definitely not beyond the realm of possibility...I am still an Indian citizen, I could have been a US citizen a while ago but I’ve chosen not to be. I’d probably sit down and think about why...maybe there is some deep-seated desire to go back at some point and do something there and I have my bucket list items of the kind of things I’d like to do.”
To log in to our virtual events platform and experience TechSparks 2021 with thousands of other startup-tech enthusiasts from around the world, join here. Don't forget to tag #TechSparks2021 when you share your experience, learnings and favourite moments from TechSparks 2021.
For a line-up of all the action-packed sessions at YourStory's flagship startup-tech conference, check out TechSparks 2021 website.