Earning

27-year-old tech CEO had to convince banks he wasn't 'just a kid' — now his clients include Capital One

Courtesy Kishan Patel

In 2016, less than a year into founding his financial services consulting company, Kishan Patel, then 24, was close to landing his first half-million-dollar contract.

Even though Patel's company, Kunai, had already passed through several phases of vetting, the potential client had one final request: a site visit. At the time, Kunai had 10 employees, most of whom worked remotely — and the "office" was basically a school desk and school chairs. "It looked like a dump," he recalls.

The CEO had to improvise, and fast. He spruced up the office and called in a big favor from dozens of former coworkers: He asked them to work from his office for the day.

"The client walked around and saw that we were a small, but bustling team," Patel says. And his company landed the contract.

Patel, now 27, has founded a total of three companies and learned a lot about how to be taken seriously as an entrepreneur even when you're young. Here are some of his key takeaways.

Push past your fears

By the time Patel founded Kunai in 2015, he had two prior ventures under his belt. In high school, he launched a website to promote independent music. ("It failed miserably.") And along with one of his professors at the University of Southern California, he started an e-greeting card company incorporating video clips. ("It didn't work out, either.")

As Patel was winding down that second company in 2014, he met with Monsoon, an app-development agency focused on start-ups and other companies in the San Francisco Bay area. But six months after he joined the agency as a partner, Monsoon was acquired by Capital One.

This meant that Patel was out of work — but not out of ideas. He saw an opportunity to fill a void.

He realized that banks and other financial services companies have come to rely on technology to serve their customers. Because that's not their specialty, they need help. "These large companies often struggle to be as nimble and fast-moving as their fintech counterparts," Patel says. That's where he envisioned Kunai, named for a weapon ninjas use, coming into play.

While Patel had been building websites since he was 15 and felt comfortable navigating tough technical topics, he didn't know what was needed to start the business he envisioned. He says he spent "inordinate amounts of time" doing research and Googling questions like, "How do you set up a tech consulting company?"

When you're sitting alone in your bedroom trying to figure out what's going to happen next with the company, doubt starts to creep in and pretty consistently.
Kishan Patel
CEO, Kunai

His first six months in business, Patel says he constantly thought about giving up. He was running the company with one other partner who he didn't see very often. "When you're sitting alone in your bedroom trying to figure out what's going to happen next with the company, doubt starts to creep in and pretty consistently."

Rather than focusing on what would make money, bringing in clients, Patel says he worried about everything else.

"You lose all sense of rational thinking because you've taken what feels like the biggest leap in your life and there's no safety net beneath you," he says. "But you need to push past it by realizing it's just a part of the journey. Self-doubt and feeling lost are not phases, they're constant."

Hustle to get traction

Patel came to realize that Kunai's success depended on his hustle. There was always another call to make, another meeting to secure, and he had to "completely exhaust those options" before throwing in the towel: "If you don't land, it's back to where you were before, working at a company you don't love." So Patel became "very scrappy" about getting meetings with potential clients.

Selling some of the world's largest banks on a two-person start-up based in Oakland, California, with developers in Ukraine? That was unconventional, Patel says: "We had to convince people."

And there was an extra hurdle. Most of his potential clients were headquartered in New York, so Patel had to travel across the country to try to get new deals. On several occasions Patel mentioned he'd be in New York, even though he didn't actually have a trip booked. The bet often paid off; if the other person suggested they meet, Patel would go ahead and book a last-minute flight.

Courtesy Kishan Patel

His commitment came at a cost, however. "Financially, things [got] really difficult, especially when [I was] hustling to get traction," he says. While the company made about $30,000 after taxes in 2015, Patel put his salary on hold to keep the business afloat. He also turned to other extreme measures he doesn't necessarily recommend.

"I found myself scrambling to figure out how I could use loopholes in my personal credit cards, Venmo, and a bunch of moving money around to keep my landlord, my utilities, and my internet going," Patel recalls. He watched as his once near-perfect credit score tanked to subprime levels and one of his credit card issuers sent him to collections: "It was rough."

He was also trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to scrape together extra money: Buying cheap watches and reselling them on eBay, crowdfunding an inflatable couch with friends, and trying to start a meme Instagram account. "Most of it was nothing more than a distraction," he says.

Craft your image

As Patel began meeting with more potential clients in New York, he faced a conundrum. He wanted to distinguish himself from the big consulting companies that employ 100,000-plus people, but he didn't want his age to become an issue.

"In those early days, I was wearing the most ridiculous clothing," Patel recounts, including "terrible" shirts with fish on them or Members Only jackets in "obscene" colors. On the other side of the table? People in suits.

Patel's attire was intentional, though. "If you speak their language but dress differently, there's an inconsistency that clicks in their mind," he says. "They think, 'He's saying the things I want to hear and need to hear, and he's using my terminology, but he knows some other world that I don't.'"

It's hard telling large publicly traded companies that your little company can help them build cool technology. It's especially hard if they think you're just a kid.
Kishan Patel
CEO, Kunai

Since many of these meetings were with senior level people who were two or even three times his age, though, Patel needed creative ways to avoid small talk about his personal life that might reveal just how young he was. He'd made up stories previously, a decision he regretted because he didn't want to lie or have to deflect questions about a wife or kids with jokes.

So he went shopping.

"I ordered a cheap ring off Amazon in the hopes that clients would notice it and wouldn't go there," Patel recalls. "It's hard telling large publicly traded companies that your little company can help them build cool technology. It's especially hard if they think you're just a kid."

Learn from your mistakes

While many of his peers are still working their way up the corporate ladder, Patel has been grappling with the responsibility of being a CEO for years.

Three months after starting Kunai, Patel had to lay off a team of 30 — people he'd brought on board from his prior job — because "it just wasn't working out," he recalls. "It sucked. I felt like I let them and the team down," even though he offered the workers two months' notice and helped them land new jobs.

Thanks in part to landing that $500,000 deal with the new client in 2016, Patel started paying himself a salary that year, and his credit score began bouncing back. Family members who'd previously asked, mostly in jest, if he needed to go look for a job started taking his venture more seriously, especially as he began working with companies they recognized.

Building the business nearly five years in isn't necessarily easier, but it's "decisively less hard," Patel says. "Once you have a few notches on your belt, it's a lot easier to talk about the good work you've done and to focus on the results you've created for your clients."

Growing the company also brings other pressure: "It's constantly on my mind that we're responsible for 65 people and their source of income."

Once you have a few notches on your belt, it's a lot easier to talk about the good work you've done.
Kishan Patel
CEO, Kunai

What's next

Today, Kunai has offices in Oakland and Brooklyn as well as in Europe and Asia and has worked with half of the top 10 U.S. banks, biggest accounting firms, insurance companies, credit card issuers, and the major payment networks. Clients include Capital One and Bloomberg, while Kunai counts among its workforce former employees of places like American Express and IBM.

There are growing pains, too. While he's proud that Kunai stayed scrappy as long as it did, Patel wants to make sure it doesn't abandon techniques that have fueled their success, like cold calling prospective clients: "We gotta figure out how to get back to our roots because that's the way we got to where we are."

Today, Patel's age no longer feels like an issue. "The late nights will age you faster than bad milk on a hot day," he jokes. And when Patel turns 30 in 2022, he envisions his company working with all of the big banks and that Kunai is recognized in the financial services industry.

"If you're in a bank and working in digital and you hear our name, you know who we are," he says. "That's my goal."

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