How Life as An Immigrant Helped Me Launch a Startup

May 2, 2017

8:30 pm

Being an entrepreneur is scary, exciting, and gratifying. Entrepreneurship elicits so many emotions mixed into one. The same is true about being an immigrant.

Momchil Kyurkchiev, originally from Bulgaria, is the CEO and cofounder of Leanplum, a marketing cloud built for the mobile era, with offices in San Francisco, New York, London, and Bulgaria. They’ve raised $46M in funding from top-tier VCs like Canaan Partners, Kleiner Perkins, and Shasta Ventures, and won VentureBeat’s GrowthBeat Innovation Showdown. Momchil has used his life experiences to help prepare for startup life. Momchil shares how being an immigrant has helped him launch a startup.

Jump Off the Cliff

It was 2003 and I had just arrived in the US from my native country, Bulgaria, ready for my freshman year at The College of Brockport in upstate New York. With only two suitcases containing the contents of my entire life, clothes, and my memories, I had everything I needed for a start fresh.

Nine years later, as a founder, I was again back to nothing and constantly reminded that 90 percent of startups fail. Layered on top of this stress, my Google employee safety net had vanished. With the odds stacked against me, and terrified that the life I had built in America could evaporate in an instant, I knew I had to make my startup work.

Rely on Friends, Family, and Fools

My scholarship covered tuition — but the rest was up to me. To attend university, I borrowed the complete savings of my parents, including their 401ks, and took gifts from extended family. I scraped together enough to cover room and board for my first year, roughly $5,000.

Raising funding is a similar experience. You have to rely on friends, family, and fools to get enough seed funding for your first product or service launch. It’s a skill set that may feel awkward, but is essential to survive.

Become An Efficiency Machine

Shortly after starting school, I landed a job as the “smoothie guy” in the school cafeteria. It was the graveyard shift, from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., earning 50 cents per hour more than the day shift.

I worked 20 hours each week, the maximum allowed to work on campus as a full-time student, all while triple majoring in math, computer science, and computational science. I had time only for working, studying, eating, and sleeping.

Between university and founding Leanplum (Techstars Seattle ’12), I worked at Google for five years. When I left, I knew I was giving up the security of a work visa and paycheck, both of which I’d come to heavily rely on. In a way, it felt like I was a 19-year-old immigrant again, beginning from scratch with no resources. And when I started Leanplum, I was right back at it, coding, talking to customers, eating and sleeping.

Rely on Your Wit

As busy as I was at university, I was also the happiest I’d ever been. Why? I felt empowered to pursue my dreams with nothing but my vision — a belief I would need nearly a decade later as an entrepreneur. The thing about entrepreneurs who are also immigrants is we’re relentlessly resourceful — the number one entrepreneurial characteristic.

In Bulgaria, there’s a folklore character named Hitar Petar, or Clever Peter, akin to Robin Hood. Clever Peter relies on his resourcefulness to succeed, and there are plenty of stories that showcase his wit. His essence lives on in Bulgaria, a nation that may not be the most affluent, but one that is certainly resourceful. It’s this trait that has helped me flourish, both in school and in Silicon Valley.

Risk It All

Once you jump off that cliff, you can’t look back. As a student, I was thousands of miles from my family, and terrified of failure. At the end of my four years, I worked hard and graduated Summa Cum Laude. But standing there with my two suitcases that day, I didn’t know that’s how my time at university would play out.

Five years after launching Leanplum, I’m proud to have built a company that is every bit as successful as I could have hoped. We raised our Series C funding last October, continue to triple our revenue and employee growth each year, and work with the biggest brands in the world, like Tinder, Macy’s and Lyft.

It was my experience as an immigrant that made this all possible — an experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

Read more about pursuing your dreams at Tech.Co.

This article is courtesy of Techstars, the best global ecosystem for entrepreneurs to bring new technologies to market. From inspiration to IPO, Techstars empowers the world’s most promising entrepreneurs throughout their lifelong journey by providing a global ecosystem made up of tens of thousands of community leaders, founders, mentors, investors, and corporate partners.

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Momchil Kyurkchiev is the CEO and co-founder of Leanplum, a marketing cloud built for the mobile era, with offices in San Francisco, New York, London, and Bulgaria. Momchil has raised $46M in funding from top-tier VCs like VCs like Canaan Partners, Kleiner Perkins, and Shasta Ventures, and won VentureBeat’s GrowthBeat Innovation Showdown, which showcased the most promising startups in the marketing tech space.

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