“I put a lot of emphasis on rock bottom because I spent a lot of time there,” Sumay Parikh candidly acknowledges about a career that has spanned many ups and downs, hardships and lessons.
Meet Sumay Parikh, a Principal here at Quake Capital and a serial entrepreneur, whose latest venture, The Unsexy Startup, is a unique podcast that reveals the intensity of the challenges that entrepreneurs face when they’re just starting out. The podcast’s target audience includes early-stage founders who are living the process of building a venture from the ground up — they’re working 18-hour days and facing the unique and unfathomable challenges of bringing a business to life. To arrive at this moment, Parikh has personally navigated the rocky worlds of entrepreneurship and venture capital himself, from growing up in an entrepreneurial family and launching several ventures of his own to finally finding himself at Quake Capital and the co-founder of The Unsexy Startup today. It makes sense then, considering Parikh’s background, why he’d want to share lessons of grit and resilience that are the hallmark qualities of The Unsexy Startup; to understand Parikh’s motivations in launching this podcast and the importance it holds for seed founders, let’s take look at his complex and interesting journey.
Parikh’s first exposure to entrepreneurship was at a younger age than most people. It was the early 1990s, the travel and hospitality sectors were booming, and Parikh had just witnessed his parents quit their day jobs to open their first hotel just outside of Atlantic City, an operation they eventually grew to ten hotels. His earliest memories surround life at this hotel, where his family family had moved into a small room. Parikh remembers watching his parents handle every aspect of running a business, which proved to be a valuable learning experience for him.
“My childhood was seeing a lot of things come to life and seeing a lot of things progress at an extremely fast rate. But I’ve seen it from nothing, so I was blessed to not be born on a platform, but to actually see it grow.”
Parikh’s parents were also careful to instill values of hard work and tenacity in their children. Parikh vividly remembers being woken up at 6AM by his parents one day and being driven to a local Dunkin Donuts that his father owned. Only 10 years old at the time, Parikh learned how to sweep the floors and work the cash register, along with everything else in between. This process of working for the things he wanted, Parikh says, “built up the skill of working for it and it taught me hustle more than anything. I learned work ethic and hustle at a very young age.”
As he grew older, he developed a trying relationship with school, finding himself completely disengaged with his classes and teachers. At one point, Parikh recalls sitting in his high school guidance counselor’s office with his mother sitting beside him, as the counselor looks at his mother and bluntly says “your son’s never going to make it anywhere.” Bouncing back, he soon developed a sense of urgency to prove others wrong “when they started closing doors on me,” a trait that he’s maintained over the years.
Then the 2008 recession hit and Parikh’s world dramatically changed. He’d just graduated high school and saw his “father lose everything. Seeing everything go up and then within a split second [seeing] everything go down” had a lasting imprint on Parikh, and he described “life after the age of 18 as just seeing a lot of fires all the time.” Despite the challenges with the family business, or perhaps because of it, Parikh entered college and kept himself very busy with academics (which he was now doing very well in) and working 50 hours a week at the same time.
The moment Parikh graduated college, he went to his father and informed him of his plans to move to Texas, where many of his family’s hotels were located, because, in Parikh’s words, “everything [was] failing” with their properties. Despite Parikh’s sound intentions, his father “was very against” Parikh’s plans to move to Austin “because he didn’t think I was capable of turning things around. So I packed my bags the next week after college, bought a ticket, and moved down there without his permission, and all he said was good luck to me. I didn’t know a soul and I’d never been to Texas before.”
Parikh’s ambition, coupled with a work ethic years in the making through his involvement with the family business meant that he was able to bring about much-needed change. Parikh did everything imaginable, from refinancing and renovating to human resources and managing a board — all of which paid off, literally. He was able to dramatically increase revenues at those hotels and led significant changes in management which helped set up the hotels for long-term success, all because Parikh “understood operations like the back of [his] hand.” He recalls that “everything from my childhood up to now had prepared me for those two years.”
And then it all changed.
Parikh recalls that “I got pushed out of that company two years in and I remember just sitting on a couch thinking: what am I going to do now?”
About a month later, Parikh drove down to San Antonio and put together a business plan and pitch. By this time, he had noticed a “gap” in the real estate market, where certain hotel brands weren’t successfully catering to the local market, which is why he was able to convince two successful businessmen to go into business with him during that trip to San Antonio. He was pushed out of his comfort zone in the process, and learned how to work with a wide variety of people, from architects and engineers to mayors and developers. Then, “at 23, I raised $10 million to build a Marriott and realized I was capable of doing this. It was probably the most life-changing thing — I had bootstrapped this myself with two others, and that was crazy. Over the span of the next few years I built a Hyatt and a Hilton that are still under construction, and raised a total of $50 million.”
And then, about two years later, “I got pushed out, again.”
New York, New York
At that point in his life, Parikh felt hopeless and devoid of the ambition and sense of purpose that had guided him so far. He spiraled into a period of deep depression until his older brother “put things into perspective” for him and, after a lot of convincing, got Parikh to move to New York. Even years later, Parikh credits his older brother for helping him change his outlook on life, and that “if it wasn’t for my brother,” he wouldn’t be where he is today.
For the second time in his life, Parikh found himself in a new city and starting at the beginning again. He didn’t know anyone in the New York tech community, and so he channeled years of experience with talking to people and networked relentlessly, offering value to entrepreneurs and founders. Soon enough, he found himself doing small consulting projects, running product at a startup that was backed by GV, and developing key relationships in the tech world that led to the next thing for him, Vetty.
Vetty is a background verification platform that utilizes blockchain and deep learning bots — “a very unsexy business,” Parikh says, a nod to his podcast. He had met the cofounder through a mutual friend and decided to co-found the company with him after realizing the idea’s potential, making Parikh the Founding Employee there, and the duo grew the company to $900k in ARR after the very first year. Just recently, Vetty successfully raised a $2 million round and Parikh continues to be closely involved with the board.
Vetty was also accepted into Quake Capital’s first cohort of accelerator companies (Quake had only been founded 6 months earlier by our general partners Glenn, Adam, Brandon, and Chad!), and that led to a series of events landing Parikh a role as the first Principal here. At this point, Parikh was “running Vetty full-time, building out certain infrastructures of Quake full-time, and building The Unsexy Startup on the side.” He soon transitioned into a full-time role at Quake, and focused more on this podcast, the latest milestone in Parikh’s journey. Parikh also advises founders in their Series A and B on Product Development and Goto Market Strategy.
The Unsexy Startup
Parikh co-founded the podcast with Raj Singh, the founder of the world’s largest hospitality AI chatbot, Go Moment (recently funded by Google). To any entrepreneurs who are just starting out, or those in their seed rounds, The Unsexy Startup is an invaluable resource complete with honest discussions of the challenges that many people often shy away from discussing — this podcast is here to fully dispel long-held myths about entrepreneurship. Some of its recent guests include Modsy, Heartbeat, and Greenhouse.io. The Unsexy Podcast has completed its first season and is the process of putting together the second season (they start in the next month), and have already scaled to 3,000–4,000 in monthly listeners.
Parikh’s background of building several ventures from the ground up along with witnessing his parents launch their hotels makes him particularly attuned to the struggles of seed stage founders, and allows him to be particularly inclined to help early-stage entrepreneurs build resilience. “There’s no platform for vulnerability, there’s no other platform for [founders] to share the hell they went through,” he says. The lessons that emerge from The Unsexy Startup are particularly meaningful for Quake’s portfolio companies, who themselves are currently experiencing the challenges that the show’s guests provide resilience to overcome.
After being involved in the tech scene for some time now, he’d have one key piece of advice for founders. “It’s a marathon, expect that there will be a challenge with every win that comes,” and here, as in many other cases, the advice Parikh has for others seems to be, at the end, equally true for himself. “It’s good to celebrate, but it’s better to keep your feet on the ground, because what I’ve realized is that when there’s a certain milestone you achieve, you relax and take your foot off the pedal and stop putting the work in and then things start to fall apart. Whether you win or you lose, you have to keep putting in the work.”