As far back as he can remember, Nikhil Kundra was going to become a doctor. Both his parents were physicians in Florida, and medicine wasn’t just in his future, it was his future.
He had a degree in neuroscience and behavioral biology from Emory University in Atlanta, which he graduated from in 2011. He was studying for his MCAT, and had publications coming out for research. All signs were pointing toward the University of Miami’s med school, the school of his dreams. He was about to do his parents—Anita and Navnit—proud by becoming the first of his siblings to get an MD.
Then he became a broke startup guy.
“My older sister Anjali always saw me reading Gizmodo, TechCrunch, like all these tech blogs instead of studying,” he says. “So she said, ‘Dude, you’re never taking time to read PubMed . . . Why don’t you take a year off before med school?’”
So Kundra enrolled in the University of Florida for a master’s degree in . . . entrepreneurship. He went from, as he tells it, “studying the neuroanatomy of the eye at a graduate level to, like, creativity.” In 2011, despite having little actual software experience, he signed up for a hackathon called 3 Day Startup, which is sort of like Startup Weekend: You brainstorm ideas on Friday, build whatever you come up with on Saturday, and then pitch your idea to investors on Sunday.
That’s where Partender was born.
You might not have heard of Partender (unless you’re a Bar Rescue fan, one of the highest-rated cable reality shows around, but more on that in a bit), but it’s one those boring apps that solves a real problem. Bar inventory has historically been an agonizingly slow process. Partender shrinks bar inventory time—which, depending on the size of your bar, could take anywhere from two to eight hours—and condenses it down to about 15 minutes. Instead of using a pen and clipboard, you tap a picture of, say, a bottle of Hennessy to indicate how much liquor is left.
Its algorithms do the math for you, and you’re sent a spreadsheet of how much alcohol your bar has left. Kundra claims the app saves businesses big and small thousands of dollars a month. Partender is now used by big corporate clients, too, like Buddakan, TGIFriday’s, and Hilton Hotels & Resorts.
I caught up with Kundra to talk about what it was like to leave behind a career in medicine for a bar app—and what it was like breaking the news to his parents.
Do your parents give you a hard time about Partender?
Um, yes. Yes they do.
I always wanted to go into interventional radiology, which is like this really core piece of medicine. I was always fascinated by the level of vascular technology that’s used there. Scopes. Things they do with stroke research. Stuff like that.
Going to bar inventory wasn’t really like a sane concept to explain to my parents. I think we’re at two or three Thanksgivings now since we started Partender. And my parents are still like, “So . . . what do you guys do, exactly?”
The funny thing is the core of our team, my sister Anjali and I, we barely drink. We’re really bad drinkers. I was much better at drinking in high school and college than I am now. My mom is like, “Can I come to bars with you?” And I’m like, “Mommmmmmmm.” This is work for me. I don’t want my mom following me around with a Mai Tai or something.
What does she think Partender is?
I think she thinks that it’s just an app that counts stuff. Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I haven’t taken the time to explain all this nerdy math stuff.
At what point did you say to your parents, “So . . . I think I’m going to do this startup thing full time”?
Honestly, it was literally the day after the hackathon. This was back in November 2011. I pretty much hadn’t slept that weekend. We won the hackathon. We did well. And there’s only so much market research you can do in like 54 hours or whatever. But I remember waking up the next day—I totally skipped class on Monday—I called my parents up and was like, “I went to this really cool thing called 3 Day Startup. I kind of started this thing called Partender. It’s this little project, and I think I want to do this for the next few months of my life. Maybe even longer if it goes well.”
What did they say?
They were actually all for it! But I think they thought I was going back to school in May 2012. [laughs] Then I had to have a more serious conversation.
What was that “serious conversation” like?
That November right after the hackathon was when I started, um . . . asking them for some seed money.
Yeah. I was trying to say A) I’m not doing med school anymore, B) I’m not going back and doing my publication, and C) can you give me money?
I had this whole grand scheme. I was going to be like, obviously we need to do more market research, because we didn’t do enough at the hackathon. But hey! If you guys can spot me $50k, I can cover my apartment. I can relocate to San Francisco and hire some cofounders. I can do a lot of stuff with that. I can go to more bars and learn what the inventory process is actually like.
They were like, “No.”
So how did you get them on board?
I worked with one of my advisors—Marty Schaffel, one of my advisors from grad school, who sold his company for like $250 million—and had conversations with him to prep for going into meetings with my parents, to get them to be okay with the idea. And then Anjali came around and joined Partender. Rahul [Vohra, a cousin who founded Rapportive and sold it to LinkedIn] came around, and kind of helped smooth out talks with my parents.
After that happened they became extremely supportive. They’re some of the best investors we have.
So did getting seed money legitimize what you were doing in their eyes? Or do your parents still think Partender is a phase?
Well, they were the first seed money! So I hope they are taking it seriously.
But I think it was really after we got into 500 Startups. I knew how big that was, my team knew how big that was; but my mom was like, “What’s 500 Startups? Why do you have to go to San Francisco? It’s so expensive there.”
Mind you that was a couple of years after the inception of the idea.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to ask their parents for startup money?
I was thinking of using the line, “Well, Jeff Bezos from Amazon got money from his parents!” And then I was like, logically my parents would then refute me by saying, “Are you the next Jeff Bezos?” Maybe not the best thing to say.
Honestly, I think it’s more about just having a genuine conversation with your parents about where your interests are and where your passions are. Trying to have them truly see what you want to do in life.
So having a passion for bar inventory helped a lot?
I think so. I was like the nerd when I was eight years old disassembling computers and putting them back together, buying stuff off the Internet. Like: “I want to replace this fan with a different fan! Hopefully I don’t burn out the motherboard that my parents just dropped 3K on with this huge Dell computer.”
Being Dell tech support of the household—I think that went a long way to help me ask my parents for money.
But I think for anyone else it’s just having a genuine conversation. It’s always risky or weird. I’m usually averse to the idea of taking investment from family. That’s a difficult conversation that can have really disastrous consequences if it’s not handled properly. But I think it can be a bit different with parents. The whole “you’ll love me forever, right?” idea hopefully plays through pretty well. [laughs]
So have loving parents. Gotcha.
When they visited us in the Bay, we were like living on the floor and eating Cheetos. And our money from 500 Startups came slightly late. We were literally living on the ground in this dilapidated piece of shit in Mountain View. It was ridiculous.
There was this one time my mom came through for us. It was Diwali, and she visited us and came into our house and saw like me, Anj, and my dog Buddy. She just saw the three of us sleeping on the floor, literally with like dust and dirty bugs and whatever coming around.
And she was like, “Okay, you guys can’t do this. I need to buy you a Diwali present.” And she like bought us futon mattresses. It was awesome.
And you’re on Bar Rescue now?
We’re on Bar Rescue now.
And you know Jon Taffer?
I work a lot with Jon Taffer on Bar Rescue.
What’s that like?
He’s an awesome guy! You know what’s so funny? Being in the whole mission control room and seeing him go. He’s like the most eloquent and passionate yeller I’ve ever met. It’s like a gift.
It’s cool to be on the show with what we’re doing. Because I’m doing most of the Bar Rescue stuff with our younger sister, Monica. Here’s the crazy part: She’s like the brilliant child of the family. Perfect SATs and ACT scores. I feel like she’s my parents’ best dream of getting one of us into med school.
She’s so brilliant that she got into the straight med program at the University of Miami right after high school. There’s only a few folks every year who get into that.
But now every summer, since she’s already in med school and doesn’t have do the same publication stuff, she’s been helping out with Partender a lot. She’s like doing all the Bar Rescue stuff. She’s like constantly talking to Jon Taffer. She has the coolest internship ever.
Does she like working for you?
We started filming Bar Rescue in July. And it was like on this family cruise. And Monica was like, “Mom, I think I’m going to take a year off before I go to med school to help out Nik and Anjali at Partender.”
And my mom looked at me and gave me a death stare. She was like, “Don’t you dare. One of you has to be a doctor.”
The interview has been edited for clarity.