Co-founder & COO, Nova Credit
Nicky Goulimis is the Co-founder & COO, Nova Credit, a company that provides lenders, property managers and other businesses with real-time international credit reports in order for them to acquire immigrant consumers from around the world.
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Rohit: Hi, I'm Rohit, I'm the Cofounder and CEO of Stilt. And today we have Nicky with us, and she is a truly amazing founder, I've been waiting to interview her for a while. Nicky is originally from Greece, and studied in the UK, went to the University of Cambridge for her Bachelor's and then worked at Bain & Company. Then she came to Stanford for her MBA and after graduating from Stanford, she cofounded Nova Credit with her classmates, Misha and Loek, we'll talk about that. Nova Credit locates, transfers, and translates people's credit from around the world so that people who move can get the products they need. Nova Credit was a part of YC Summer 2016 and has won many, many investing awards. [00:02:54 - inaudible] more than $20 million from top GIBCs, from firms such as General Catalyst, Index Ventures, NYCA, and Y Combinator. Welcome, Nicky.
Nicky: It's a pleasure to be here.
Rohit: And I'm excited for our conversation. So, let's start with your background. You're originally from Greece, and you studied in the UK. You're from a non-tech background?
Nicky: I'm very much from a non-tech background. It's politely saying that I studied English Literature as an undergrad. So actually, it's funny, because both my parents are computer scientists. My mother is professor at Imperial College in London and my dad started a software company, so you can imagine how angry they were when I told them I was dropping math. I actually love math, but that was my form of rebellion, which turned out to be the most pointless thing possible, I regret it every day. But no, I studied English Literature which was wonderful. I loved it a lot, I was fascinated by languages, how we communicate, how human thought translates over time. So I had a wonderful time studying that. I never really thought much about tech at all when I was an undergrad. And then I worked in international development and then I worked at Bain, as well, as you mentioned. And so both of those were very non-tech focused jobs. And for me, really, just like the entry point into tech was mostly accident. I came to Stanford for business school, and I didn't come to it because I was interested in tech, I came to it for a number of the other programs that are amazing there. But then you sort of end up in Silicon Valley, and boyfriend then, my fiancée now, he was working at Twitter, and I was like, oh, that's kind of interesting. And then my classmates were all talking about tech, and then this guy Misha and this guy Loek, oh this look at this project, and things sort of snowballed from there.
Rohit: Cool, so just to understand, so you did English Literature, and then you worked as a consultant. Did you work with any tech clients in your consultancy?
Nicky: I worked with distressed European retail events, primarily. So, you can call that tech. We did some tech transformation work. But it was not quite Silicon Valley.
Rohit: And your choice of Stanford for your MBA, I'm sure you got accepted into multiple programs...
Nicky: Sure, thank you, I'll take it...
Rohit: Coming to Stanford is more also a personal decision?
Rohit: Because you wanted to be maybe close to your boyfriend? Or something else?
Nicky: No, I obtained the boyfriend later. No, I came to Stanford, and actually it did feel like a really significant decision, but I think it feels even more significant later, because at the time I was like, oh, it's just grad school, which one seems the best? Which one am I most excited to go to? Actually I think a lot of it is about where you're going to be. I talked about Silicon Valley impacting me geographically. Now I live here, I started a company here, it's end up having a real big impact on your life, and it's very far away from my family, for example, so I don't know, it's a big decision and I think at the time what really drew me in was I really valued that the program really focused on individuals, so you could cater a lot of your own curriculum, there's very little fixed curriculum. There's a lot that focuses on interpersonal leadership and growth. There's a lot, I was really interested in agriculture at the time, so I could take a bunch of agriculture classes. So I was like digging on the Stanford farm, so for me it was a lot about where would I feel most excited about exploring, where would I connect with the people.
Rohit: Did Stanford give you the opportunity to explore various industries, agriculture being one, did you explore other industries?
Nicky: Yeah, very much so. I think part of the reason was, so we started Nova as a class project at Stanford.
Rohit: Right, right, let's talk about that. How did that come about?
Nicky: Actually it's funny because Misha had sort of the earliest side of this idea and he called me up and I was on holiday, and he was like, Nicky, do you want to do this class project with me? And I remember saying to him, no Misha, I'm actually really busy right now, I just a found.
Rohit: I love agriculture.
Nicky: Yeah, exactly, that was sort of true. And then I was like, oh, okay, life is too short, let me try this out, this could be fun. No thought that this would be what I'm spending my time doing. So we started this class project, things started to snowball, I started really enjoying the project, really enjoying the team, and at the same time I was applying to my dream job, and I remember I got my "dream job" in agriculture and it was a head and heart moment. I would go and see my friends and I would say to them I got my dream job, and I'm so excited about this class project. So I sort of realized I was really excited about it and decided to take the plunge. But yeah, I would have never done that unless I had taken this class, unless I had gone to Stanford, you know, you can continue that extrapolation forever.
Rohit: Yeah, the serendipity is amazing.
Nicky: Yeah, or just like the number of branch of paths you could take, there is a completely other Nicky living a completely different life in all these parallel universes.
Rohit: I'm sure this universe's Nicky is the best one.
Nicky: Oh, I don't know about that.
Rohit: I would believe so. So, Misha called you up for this class project. Did you know Misha before that when you started school?
Nicky: Yeah, Micha, Loek, and I were classmates and friends, as well. We had done some other projects together too, so we knew we worked well together and all that.
Rohit: Got it, you are the two MBAs who get to boss Loek around.
Nicky: We're the two MBAs who desperately beg Loek to work with us. I think it's a little bit of a parody, but for the folks who are watching who do business school, there's always a bit of a joke that the business school kids are trying to desperately get the technical folks to join them, and Loek somehow was persuaded and has been incredible.
Rohit: That's awesome. And when you guys sort of worked together on previous projects, give me a sense of, were those smaller class projects or something in agriculture? What did you guys work on?
Nicky: One thing that we did, and this was with Misha and actually some other folks, as well. We a class study trip of economic development in Mongolia, which was incredible. So, we went to Mongolia and actually, so Mongolia was this incredible experience, we visited some of the mines there. Professor Lazear who is a top economist at Stanford came with us, and we did all these visits. We were studying mines and economic development and on the third day there, Misha and I remember we had to submit our YC video, so we filmed this from the Mongolian mountains, but the internet kept cutting out, because we were organizing this trip, we would always wake up before all of the other participants and then go to bed after them, because we had so much organizing to do. So we were up at 5 a.m. in the morning and our YC video is like the two of use pulling open our eyes, hi, and there's the rest of the team in different locations.
Rohit: Yeah, it's fascinating, so the YC video, was Loek with you guys there?
Nicky: He wasn’t in Mongolia, no, he was dialing in, it was a whole disaster.
Rohit: Okay, but it worked out...
Nicky: It worked out, you never know.
Rohit: I think YC must have seen the conviction here, people on a Mongolian mount recording a video.
Nicky: Yeah, and we'd be like, these are pressure prompted people, they should be entrepreneurs! Create ridiculous deadlines.
Rohit: Yeah, it's always like you have to submit the video at 8 p.m. and you started recording at 5 p.m.
Nicky: Of course, three hours is so much time.
Rohit: We can do five videos. No, that's awesome. So, you chose Stanford, you did projects with Misha and Loek, and this is the one you guys decided to go to YC with. Did you consider other projects that were interesting that you thought could be startups and why pick this one to be a startup.
Nicky: I think we had lots of ideas, I think Misha had many, many ideas, actually, which was awesome. But ultimately I don't know that I would have done this if it had been for another idea or another area of business. I don't know, there's something so fun which I hadn’t really known about before, around working a startup and just kind of build something from nothing. That said, there are also going to be tough times, and you need to have conviction in what you're doing. And so I think this was an idea that we really connected with. Similar to you, we're very adjacent. Here's a future customer. But ultimately what we do is a challenge that we've experienced, a challenge of not being able to access credit, rent apartments, get a post paid cell phone plan and beyond, because of not having credit here in the US and a credit history here in the US. And so I remember applying for a credit card and getting rejected, trying to get a cell phone plan and actually this wonder guy Jason Scott family plans, thank you Jason, or similarly with my apartment, I had this flat mate, she finally set up all the utilities and did all that, because I couldn't really access them. So having to rely on these duct tape solutions and then being insufficient, that's just thinking, okay, how can we make a systemic innovation here to change this program. But yeah, I'm so interested, actually, if I can ask you a question.
Rohit: Yeah, sure.
Nicky: What was the moment for you with Stilt? Why this business?
Rohit: Stilt's idea originally was actually a nonprofit that I wanted to do when I was at Columbia. So, I had to think really hard about coming to Columbia because my family is middle class, and had to sort of take a huge loan, and Columbia is not cheap, and neither is Stanford, especially the MBA. And after I came here, I realized that there are more opportunities in the US than I thought there are sitting back in India. Some of my friends who had been here, one of my good friends went to Georgia Tech, he was doing his master's and I talked to him a lot and was trying to get confirmation if I plunge 50, 100,000 dollars into a master's education, would it be worth it? When I came to Columbia, when I saw the opportunity, and then I kind of realized that I can make it. I can pay back the loan, I can get a job, I can do whatever is needed, but a lot of my friends back in India who was smarter than I am, who are more hard-working than I am, are not able to do this, because their families are either not able to take a loan or they themselves are not sure if they can take such a big loan to come to the US for an education. And I know for a fact that if the financing problem can be solved for these people, then there will be 5x, 10x more people coming to the US for higher education and doing really well here. These people, there is a 996 term being thrown around now. People work 9 to 9 six days a week, these guys are like 12,12,7. They work 12 hours a day 7 days week, and they are highly capable, it's just the financing thing is a bottle neck, especially the uncertainty after the financing. So I thought if I can start a nonprofit where after I got a job and paid off my student loans and I have some savings, I will put money in a pool and ask a bunch of my friends to put money in a pool and fund someone's education who will come to the US, get a job, and add more money to the pool, and as people do it, the pool keeps growing over time, and what we like to call network effects, in terms of how many talented people can you bring to the US, and then continuously grow that pool of money to fund these highly intelligent and hard-working people to help them build a future. So, that was the original idea, which I wasn't able to execute on, because I had other problems to take care, and then that idea went into my idea book. I even created a website, and just didn't go around asking people for money. So, that was the start. And then when we moved to San Francisco, we actually tried to create a new credit score, from that idea, we tried to create a new credit score, which again seemed to be difficult in terms of selling it to people. And then the idea sort of evolved into why don't we just lend money to these people, then we have to find debt capital, and my cofounder, Priank, basically said I'm going to put the first dollar down, let's just start lending from our own savings. And I couldn’t counter that because everything that we were doing, we were running into to dead end. We had full time jobs, and H1-B visa, so we can't really go around and work time on this company, it was like a side project for us. So, we started lending our own savings, and that's how we got started, and then we took money from friends, and then my girlfriend, we took money from her, now she's my wife. Then we took money from other friends who were working in the Bay Area, and then we got into Y-Combinator, and then we started working fulltime on it. So it was more of an evolution of this thought, that the problem, we see the problem, we have lived the problem, we see others facing the same problem. And we were trying to find out the right solution. Then there are multiple ways to solve it, one is importing credit histories from other countries, the other one that we went after because you were not able to sell credit score, was actually giving their own money to people, and that just started the flywheel of sort of proof, and it's continuing until today. At that time we didn't feel that we would be give so much money out, and the demand is so big. Now we have served people from 100 different countries, immigrants from Cuba to Zimbabwe, to Rwanda, to every possible country that I can think of, I think we have helped immigrants from those countries.
Nicky: It's really amazing. And I think like you said, it's such a big market, and we forget how big it is, because we get accustomed to people integrating into the US, and starting to act more and more like they are native born, but people move all the time and the world has been built by people's movement at different points in time, and so people's movement is never going to stop, it's only going to grow. And so the questions of how do we truly serve these people and facilitate not just their movement but all that they bring with them, the richness of their cultures, their history, all of that. I don't know, I'm excited that there are a few different businesses tackling different angles of it, and opportunities also to participate. I think that's what's super neat about fintech, so much of it ends up being an ecosystem.
Rohit: Yeah, yeah, I think it's difficult for one company to solve this problem. Now there are a lot of other tech companies that are helping you apply for visas in a technical way, so they have to spend thousands of dollars to that.
Nicky: Yeah, they're awesome. That's a tough market.
Rohit: So, let's see how things go. So, moving on, Misha sort of had this idea. I also remember you guys did a lot of research, you went and talked to a lot of people at Stanford. What did you find in that research? So you had your personal experience...
Nicky: Yeah, and we still do, we're always trying to use it in degrees all the time, and it's really easy, especially as a company that's B to B, it's been easy for us at times to sort of focus really on the B to B side of things, but ultimately our mission is around the actual consumers, it's around the people who have moved country and how can be close to those. So we've done hundreds upon hundreds of user interviews, I think I've done at least a couple hundred, if not more, and doing some more soon. So we did lots of those visa interviews across different ethnic, socioeconomic, cultural, et cetera groups to understand like hey, what were the challenges when you moved. And it was so universal hearing this challenge, that was what was striking. It was also so, you know, how tightly bound those communities area, and how much word of mouth, I think that's why Stilt is so successful in many ways. Like there is mouth around the product, around specific communities, and you just drive that traction. It's powerful just seeing how connected those communities area, how uniform that platform is. And then also, in parallel, I remember the time we would create printouts of credit reports and we would walk into random bank branches and ask them, would you underwrite this. And they would sort of look at us and be like, what are these kids doing. But what we heard was basically, yes, we want best data around the world, we just don’t really know how to access it, we don’t know how to interpret it, we don’t know if it's compliant or secure, or not fraudulent, and that's where we started to conceive more and more building this global credit bureau.
Rohit: Right, that's awesome. And now you have partnerships with many credit bureaus across India, China, Mexico, UK, Brazil, South Korea.
Nicky: Yeah, and we're just testing Nigeria right now, so yeah, I would say our country strategy is a little bit like we've got to catch them all. We want to serve anyone, no matter where they come from, or inclusive of where they come from. So, we are partnering with as many countries as possible. Integrating into different credit bureaus in the world is tough and complex, and I'd say a lot of our innovation is increasingly around the actual data architecture that we build. So we take all of these disparate data sets from around the world, different credit bureaus have different, my UK file is formatted and structured extremely differently than my US credit file, and so we map everything to a single data dictionary where we use a lot of latest, like risk and analytics in terms of structure and delivering that data, and then delivering it in a model that is compliant, consistent with US laws, so that in our system a Mexican bureau looks just like an Indian bureau, looks just like a Chinese bureau file. It's meant to be an apples to apples comparison.
Rohit: Got it, and I'm sure the problem is exponentially hard here, because every country can just the data dictionary when they want. Those countries are evolving and developing their own credit system.
Nicky: For sure.
Rohit: So that becomes a challenge to keep track of these things. I totally understand the problem. So, when you decided to start Nova after Stanford, it took a pretty risky jump...
Rohit: So, I'm not 100% sure, but a lot of people actually have to take these big loans. Stanford is not cheap, as is not Columbia.
Nicky: It turns out, yeah.
Rohit: And then they would want to get back to jobs first, pay off their loans, and then do something risky. But you decided to jump right into it and start a company. How did you think about your personal risk in doing the company right after Stanford?
Nicky: I'm going to say something that maybe is a little bit, well, I guess here is how I thought about it. At the time I told myself that you can do this for a few years, and worst case scenario, you'll go back and get that cushy job. I think everyone in the Bay Area thinks one day they're going to work at Google. And I don’t think that's true, they are very hard jobs to get. And I think I applied and got rejected. But the story in my head was maybe, one day, if we fail or after a year or two we decide this isn't really working, then there is this other part. So it didn't feel like very real risk. And again some of my dreams were like I was applying for a fellowship in Tanzania, very far away from the big city. So the way I thought about risk was of course there is the immediate financial risk and looking at, just seeing the dollar numbers of the amount of money that you owe and technically have spent on university is huge, but I think about it a lot in terms of what is the impact on my future earnings potential. It's an arrogant and frankly very privileged place to start, to be like, okay, my earnings potential will be fine if I do this startup, but I felt like actually it would teach me enough experiences that it would be valuable. And that's probably the rational side of things, and then there's also just the interactional side of things, kind of just being really excited to do it, and not really getting excited about anything. And so I just wanted to follow that.
Rohit: Cool, it's always fun to do your own thing, you're just so much more involved. You're always thinking about it and you see something happen. Let me ask this, what was your feeling as a team when you signed your first partner?
Nicky: Oh, it was incredible, and fast revenue, that was amazing, I still remember that moment. I think I made everyone in the office get up and jump, I was so excited. Yeah, I think the feeling is very special and actually maybe for me, also, because I hadn’t really, l hadn’t even interned at a start up, I didn't really know what a startup was. It was just this internal question, can I actually do this? Can I actually make this? And so it was very intriguing.
Rohit: Awesome. I also remember, our feeling was more of fear, because we were giving money out, and is this money going to come back? Will we drain our savings? But when it came back, it was okay, something is happening, people are paying back, and that was good. So, you decided to go full on with Nova. Did you accepted to YCZ before you graduated from Stanford?
Nicky: Yeah, I got accepted to YC before. Actually our first week of YC was the week of our graduation, so it was a bit of a crazy week.
Rohit: And you were all in the same class, so you all graduated at the same time?
Rohit: It's cool. And over the last, let's see, 2-1/2 years?
Nicky: Three years now.
Rohit: Three years now, you are building Nova Credit. What kinds of challenges did you guys face that you did not expect. I'm sure there was a lot of learning. What were some big one?
Nicky: I think the first challenge of business which actually was an expected one, and its core, our business is effectively a platform. We have a supply of international credit bureaus, data institutions that we partner with, and then we sell that data to financial institutions and others. And so to get financial institutions and others and property managers and so forth, interested in our product, you have to have a supply of data to give them. And to get your data suppliers to work with you, you have to say here is how we're going to sell your data and make it worthwhile. And so that's just structurally hard to begin. The unexpected challenge in our go to market came later. We had initially envisaged that we would start working with a bunch of small customers, start getting more traction there, and then we'd for medium customers, then large customers, and eventually we go really large, just classic plotting our way across scale and really building up that sales muscle. And I think what we found is actually that we went from directly to very, very large, and the structure in the financial services industry where actually the bulk of the lending is still done, you know the top 10, 20 banks, and also because actually it's an industry where a lot of signal comes from the major players. So it's not necessarily that the medium players are easier to sell to or have fewer barriers, which is great, you sell to bigger players than you were expected. That actually means that suddenly you're starting this business, and we're going to draw this line of growth over time, and it's going to go up and to the right. Actually it's going to plateau for a really long time and we're putting all our eggs in these two to three sales cycles which are incredibly long. And so that level of risk and orientation towards the long term.
Rohit: So, you're whale hunting in a sense, so if you get a really big whale, once you get a really big bank, then they have thousands or millions of customers...
Nicky: Yeah, once you've caught the whale it's great. But you don’t know that you're going to succeed, and that's like a hard piece to live with. And so that morphed into more of an unexpected challenge. And then I think the other thing is, and this was just like me being really naïve, I thought at some point in time you fully arrived or you fully had done the rational analysis and you knew your business was going to work, but I think the experience of being a startup for me has just taught me about constant change, and constant change not only in the things that you do externally, but actually how you operate internally, as well. So, externally, you pictures change, your product evolves, your go-to market evolves a lot. We are now going after Telco, there's just different strategies and things like that, and that's one thing. But the other thing is that how we do all hands has changed, how we send emails has changed, our slack norms have changed. And that's actually kind of thrilling, because you never get to great, you're constantly refiguring out, but that changes as your company grows and the different stages that you're in, or what you're trying to achieve. Now we're trying to build different muscles, I've been talking to you a lot about marketing, how do we speak to users and consumers, or user research, those pieces have evolved a lot. So, that constant change versus something being perfected, which is something I didn't really know.
Rohit: Got it. So now, how many people are you, 30, 32?
Nicky: We're about 35.
Rohit: About 35. And did you manage people before?
Nicky: I had, but not in a startup role, for sure, which is different.
Rohit: Yeah, so 35 people, and how many people did you manage before?
Nicky: I think the maximum I managed was four a time.
Rohit: Four at a time, so now it's a much bigger company and you are in the chief operator officer role, so anything you say, people just scramble to do it.
Nicky: That would be nice. That doesn't seem a reality, but we'll get there.
Rohit: Did you have to learn managing people, and how did you figure out how to manage, coming from a different background?
Nicky: I think what's really different is that previously working with people, there had been areas where I had been an expert on something. Whereas I think working a startup, often you're working with people who are more experienced than you. I didn't know anything about marketing or customer satisfaction sales, or really anything else that we do...
Rohit: Yeah, or software compliance.
Nicky: Yeah, exactly. So, I think you learn a very different muscle and not being able to rely on being the subject matter expert. Also, I think another dynamic is not being able on just fixing things yourself or going in and changing things. And so I think it's much more about spending a lot more time defining what are our goals, what's our strategy, how do we get to where we want to be, and then creating the right space for others versus being an expert, and then helping them get the bigger picture of what people are doing and how that fits in. I probably have a long way to go actually. It's an ambition of mine to become a great people approach, and I think it's a long way to go with the. I think startups often miss a bit of an opportunity there, where they forget about that side of things, but it is really important. So we're trying to build more of that into Nova, building in more development plans for folks and doing performance reviews and things like that, just to ensure that people are getting feedback and opportunities that they can, particular their managers aren't going to necessarily structure something for them or have quite the same industry expertise.
Rohit: Got it. It's really fast learning, and every six months you are just redefining what you're doing. Because you have 35 people in three years and managing four people is different from managing 30 people. You have to learn a lot of skills really fast. By the way I think you would be a good people skills, so.
Nicky: Oh, thank you, thank you.
Rohit: So maybe get on that path. So the other thing in addition to management that immigrants may find difficult to do is actually building a network. You came to Stanford so I guess there was a starting ground, and you have your classmates and others who you started building a network with, but did you face any challenges or have any learning in terms of building a network of good people, like finding mentors, for example. How do you go about that?
Nicky: I think that is so important, actually, and I think in the early days it was very apparent to us, just like the number of gaps that we had. So, think about it, we're selling to banks and none of us knew anyone who had a job at a bank. And so a lot of it was going to random events, going to conferences, getting comfortable with being more extroverted than we usually are, making a lot more eye contract than we usually make, say hi to a lot of people. And frankly, some of our biggest deals to date came from a cold LinkedIn. First Round was one of our investors and they were really great about actually connecting us to coaches. So I remember for about a year I worked with a sales coach. Just because it wasn’t something I had ever done before, it felt extremely uncomfortable, it was like, oh gosh, am I turning into a snake oil salesman or something? Actually it's such an important skill, networking is sales. And actually it doesn't have to company sales, selling to employees, potential employees, selling to customers, selling to investors...
Rohit: And the remaining half is customer support.
Nicky: Correct, which is another form of sales, just with higher stakes. So, yeah, I think that the networking side of things required a lot of work and attention. And actually the other side of our business, you have all the international supplies, like international bureaus, we're literally emailing people in China and saying hey we're a company in San Francisco, do you want to be our bureau partner? So I think a lot of it has been about focusing on creating high value interactions. Actually our sales coach taught us this, he was like, what you need to do is every time you have an interaction with someone, you create value for them. And I think I had gone into the model, just like, I'm just going to keep following up with people and asking over and over again, actually it's like hey, here's something I thought about, here's how I can help you and support you. And the other part is marketing. Even as a small startup, so much of the B to B world is based on trust. And showing that you can deliver, be trustworthy, and are real to them, it matters.
Rohit: Yeah, I guess it would be challenging for these big companies to be convince that you're going to be around...
Nicky: For sure, that's a question we get both directly and indirectly, what's going on here?
Rohit: Yeah, how much money do you have in the bank? Cool, so in building all of this and starting Nova, you must also have to jump through a lot of visa hoops.
Nicky: How would you know? [laughter]
Rohit: And your story is more interesting than a lot of people, so why don’t you tell us, how did that go, you were in F-1?
Nicky: I was in an F-1 for grad school, I then did an OPT for the year after, so I had a one year OPT. We had three co-partners, Misha has US citizenship, so that made things a little bit simpler there. And then Loek who is our CTO, he had studied mathematics, so he has the three year OPT, so he is chilling. I remember when we were talking about company formation, all of that, and it was actually part of the reason we decided to do something like YC, that was also just we had heard that it helps, you need a lot of signaling for your visas and support, so we did that part. Anyways, so about a year in, as my OPT was expiring, I applied for an H1-B, I got rejected in the lottery, and I applied for an O-1 and actually got it approved; O-1 is the visa which is like the extraordinary abilities one, I think it's issued to about 50,000 people a year, is it?
Rohit: Yeah, I think it's increasing now as more people get to know about it. It has gotten difficult compared to the last two years.
Nicky: No, for sure, there are a lot of statistics around that. So I applied for that, I got it approved, and then I went back home to London for my best friend's wedding, and I was there for about 3-1/2 months, rather than a week. It was a little bit of a surreal experience. I had it approved, I went for my consular interview, unfortunately they decided to reject it then, which is somewhat unusual. I think the consular interview is typically just a verification that you haven't committed fraud filling out the application itself.
Rohit: So it was basically you wanted to get it stamped on your passport.
Nicky: Yeah, and then it was in this weird limbo for a while, where this was being review for a while, then it got rejected, and throughout that period while you're waiting for review, unfortunately the only email you can write to is like [email protected] so it's quite a stressful period. And then eventually it got rejected, which was worse, and then I applied for another O-1, I got it approved again, then rand into some issues, because I bolstered my application to try an address any of the reasons it might have been rejected. So I got it approved again, and then the consulate wasn’t sure if they could approve it, because I had the previous rejection, so then I was in limbo for another period. And then finally it got approved. So I was extremely fortunate with the outcome and fortunate to have, like, our investors were extraordinarily supportive, and wrote to lawyers and supporters, trying to help me, and so I had a small army which was extremely lucky. But it was a really scary experience, because I had a partner in the US, I had an apartment that I was paying rent on, I had a company in the US, and I couldn’t enter the country legally. And the scariest part was that it's not like someone said to me, oh Nicky, you're going to be in London for the next three months, it was like maybe next week, maybe forever, who knows if you're coming in, who knows if you're not coming in. I remember at one point my now fiancée and I were like, well, should we get married next weekend? But I felt very disempowered, it was a weird period, so I was sort of working California hours, living at my parents, sleeping during the day, awake during the night, I was extraordinarily grumpy because of all that combination. So, it was like I regressed to being a teenager, and at times I was like, did I make all of this up in my head? Is my Silicon Valley life real?
Rohit: So, one thing, parents always have strong opinions on their kids starting companies, especially after taking a loan and graduating from school. What was their reaction? And they must have been like, see, I told you...
Nicky: Oh, for sure. My parents like to say the see I told you about technology, mathematics, computer science, whenever they can. I think they were excited for me, and I think they still are. They were mostly surprised, they were like, really? You? What? So, I think they were surprised, I don't know, maybe my parents are too diplomatic to tell me what they really think.
Rohit: They are professors, they deal with students.
Nicky: Yeah, when I was staying at home with them, they were like, okay, are you sure. But actually one of my most favorite Nova memories is when I came to the US, it had been a bit of an emotional period. I flew in and the visa long was really long, and it had been stressful, and then I arrived, and I got through, and my cofounder Misha was texting me, he, he had come to pick me up from the airport and he had to wait two hours for me to get through the visa line, and then I arrived, and he had this giant Budweiser and an American flag. And he drove me, and it was Halloween so he took me to a Halloween party. I think I felt a little alienated in that moment, I felt a little bit like, oh, I'm coming back to this place, but it's been so hard to get here, and it's so surreal, what is my life anymore, and I felt so welcomed in that moment.
Rohit: Great story. And Misha is a colleague. I actually talked to Misha around that time, and he is like, Nicky is not here. It's just also in addition to the personal challenges for someone who is not enter the US, you have a lot of important responsibilities here, like you may have a lot of meetings set up, it can completely derail a company, and that's where that strong cofounder relationship is really important as far as Misha picking up...
Nicky: Yeah, I think all our team, I think so much of starting a company is built on trust. There are so many says where you and your team, in which you can undermine or do horrible things to one another. I think I have Misha and Loek's bank account passwords and social security numbers, whatever, I can mess with them, but I think that trust is so important and I felt that so universally from our team. Everyone just stepped up and did parts of my job, everyone was really supportive, and I feel like that was going above and beyond. Because in my situation, again, it wasn’t that we knew, oh you just need to cover for three months, it was like, oh, one of our team members is probably not able to do most of her job for an indefinite amount of time.
Rohit: Right, and a really important team member.
Nicky: Thank you. But I think it's an incredible amount of support to just be like, okay, we're just going to make this work. That's something you don’t forget.
Rohit: Yeah, and for immigrant founders, it's just another dimension of this, you worked really hard, you do all the right things, you win so many awards, and build a really incredible company, and so there is one dimension of risk that you cannot do anything about, irrespective of how hard you work, and it's just at the whim and fancies of DHS. Yeah, but things are well now...
Nicky: Things are well now, I have my status, I'm not going anywhere, it's great. It's nice to be at the end of that journey. But I hear a lot of friends, and I'm sure you do, as well, who go through shades of that and challenges of that, and I think there's the system itself, but also there's just feeling helpless within the system, like not having someone you can call, for whatever it is, is particularly challenging.
Rohit: Right, we actually see this with a few of our borrowers, like they go to India for a vacation and they're like oops, we're stuck, so we can't make payments on loans and stuff like that, and so we say it's okay, we'll sort of waive off any fees...
Nicky: Oh that's nice, you guys are great...
Rohit: ...we try to be helpful in any way because this person has been paying their bills on time, and it's just a really unfortunate situation that they find themselves in, and there is no additional help, really.
Nicky: I remember when it happened to me I also felt kind of maybe a little bit embarrassed, it was like, oh, what did I do wrong with my application, or in some ways, why did this happen to me. I told everyone that I was fine, too, so that was a bit embarrassing, and then also with some of our customers and external pieces, we were trying to not alarm them too much, it was like, you know, oh we'll just do a call remotely, no need for me to be there in person. And I was so touched by the number of stories of people who just come out of the woodwork and say hey, this happened to me, and here's how I dealt with it. And so I feel so much empathy toward your borrowers who go through what they do, and it's very heartening to hear that you make it work for them financially.
Rohit: Yeah, totally. So, let's talk about now. So, things are going well, you're here.
Rohit: With a big Budweiser bottle and American flag.
Nicky: Yeah, exactly.
Rohit: Probably on your desk now.
Nicky: Yeah, exactly, I'm drunk.
Rohit: So, you have been through a lot of highs, some lows related to the visa situation. What would you advise other potential immigrant founders, people who are thinking about building companies in the US? A lot of people are questioning whether they should build a company, whether they should start a company if they're here. What kind of challenges may they face?
Nicky: That's a big question. I'd sort of go back to the numbers on this one. It's like 43% of Fortune 500 businesses were founded by immigrants in the US.
Rohit: 51% had an immigrant cofounder.
Nicky: Yeah, there we go. And so in a world where we're so focused on innovation and solving the world's biggest problems, it strikes me that there is such an opportunity for immigrants, newcomers, anyone who has moved country, to do that wherever they feel best. I would start with a strong dose of encouragement. I think the other part is surrounding themselves with other entrepreneurs who have moved countries, they can super helpful, informal advice networks are powerful. And then I think it's finding cofounders that they trust entirely, because stuff is going to happen. I'm trying to think if I have something more urgent to say than that. I would say talking to visa early lawyers early, doing some planning, like a little bit planning, like hedge, like apply for multiple visa types.
Rohit: Right, right, we were fortunate enough to get our visas approved in four days...
Nicky: What? You're particularly exceptional.
Rohit: We tried preprocessing and we didn't leave the country until we got our green cards. But that was actually a risk, and both me and my cofounder were talking about this, we were like we are going to do this, what if the visa is not approved? What if our status, because we were in H1-B so we had to get jobs and we were in limbo for like a month or so. Our lawyer was good, so we had already done all the prep work before, and as we started YC within a very short period of time, we applied for O-1 and at that time it was easier to get the visa, but it was certainly a big risk and we wanted to apply for it as soon as possible, to know what is going to happen. Because if we didn't get O-1, then we would have to go back to our jobs.
Nicky: Yeah, so I'm definitely not an immigration lawyer, but my understanding is that once you are in the US, there are many different options of visas and paths and so once you're here, there are a few options. Leaving the country always makes things a bit complicated.
Rohit: Yeah, so once you get here you talk to visa lawyers and figure out what you can do, and stay. Cool. This was, I think, one of the most fun interview I've had, we talked about Stilt!
Nicky: Yeah, it's an amazing company and an amazing future Nova customer. [laughter]
Nicky: There we go, I said I was uncomfortable with sales.
Rohit: Well, thank you for listening, and thank you for listening and thank you for talking to us.
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