An Interview with Real-Life Student Entrepreneurs

Ashwin Bharambe and Shashank Pandit are Computer Science grad students at Carnegie Mellon University. They are also the founders of, a popular online shared-expense tracking site that has grown to support a lot of personal finance functionality. They have been covered by the Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch, Lifehacker and NetBanker just to name a few. In fact, just last week, Online Banking Report named them "OBR Best of the Web" as a new innovative "social finance" site. Currently, they have over 28,000 registered users and counting. Oh, and did I mention that they have accomplished all this in less than 9 months (they started the site in October 2006)? Without further ado, I present to you, Ashwin and Shashank.

ISPF: Hi, guys. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me and my readers. Let’s start at the very beginning. What gave you the idea initially to start a shared-expense tracking website? What made you go public and pursue this as an entrepreneurial venture?

Ashwin: The site grew out of our own needs in grad school. We used to go out for dinner in a group almost every single day. So it was incredibly painful to keep splitting the tab at every restaurant - all we needed was a simple ledger to record who paid when. Just saying "I will cover it for you this time" does not work when expenses are too many, too big or when many people are involved. So we wrote a small script for this purpose, I sent it to my friends and it kept spreading. That was when we realized we could put up a website and let everybody use it. That's how Buxfer was born.

We liked our own site because it made money management so simple for all of us. Gone were the days of worrying about who owed whom how much and being tensed because somebody felt they were being taken advantage of. In effect, it took away the guilt out of borrowing from friends. This realization convinced us that what we had built could be valuable to many people and become a base for our entrepreneurial venture. Luckily, we were also covered by the Associated Press around the same time which gave us a lot of confidence and many users. That's when we decided to jump into the fray!

ISPF: You mentioned to me earlier that being accepted into the YCombinator program was an important factor influencing your decision to step into the entrepreneurial world. Can you please share with us more details about what the YCombinator program is and how it works?

Ashwin: Sure. YCombinator is a seed-investment firm which invests a small amount of money (roughly $15K-$25K) to fledgling new companies. They invest in batches - two per year. The summer program is held in Boston, MA while the winter program in Mountain View, CA. All startups funded in a batch need to move to the corresponding location for about 12 weeks. Every week, there's a dinner where some luminary in the entrepreneurial world gives a talk. The real value of YCombinator is in two things: working with the YCombinator partners (Paul, Jessica, Trevor) and the other startups can do wonders to your product and your thinking. Secondly, you get fantastic connections into the tech and investment world instantaneously. Also, YCombinator has now funded quite a few companies - we can tap into the networks of these companies as well.

ISPF: I am sure starting something like this is a lot of work. I have no doubts that the grad program in CMU is equally demanding as well. How did you manage to balance the two?

Shashank: It is indeed a lot of work, but when you are passionate about something, it doesn't feel like work :) We made it a point to work on research during office hours and focused on Buxfer during our free time on weekdays and weekends.

ISPF: There are a lot of youngsters out there bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and want to quit school to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. Since you have been on both sides of the fence, what would your advice be to such people?

Shashank: I wouldn't advise people to quit school, at least not the under-graduate program. But sometimes, like in our case, an opportunity can just come calling - they should just go for it then. From my experience, I'd say that tends to happen when you build something first to solve your own need and it turns out to be useful for others as well. As Paul Graham says, good hackers should just start companies. The web has made starting companies much easier, and I think there's nothing like first-hand raw experience at such a young age.

ISPF: You were close to graduating from school. And yet, you decided to take a leave of absence from school and pursue full time. Was this a difficult decision?

Ashwin: You bet! Incredibly difficult. In fact, my parents and relatives are still in a state of shock :) However, if you think carefully, it is not that much of a risk. If we fail, we will know that soon, we will learn a whole lot that no other job will teach us and we can go back and finish our studies. At a young age, we can afford such risks.

ISPF: You have had a lot of success in a very short span of time. Any secrets to your success? :)

Ashwin: There's a simple secret, if we can call it a secret, to whatever we've achieved till date. Paul Graham describes it very succinctly as MSPW - Make Something People Want. That's it, period. Focus on the user. Stop thinking about marketing deals and other irrelevant business-speak - you must do all of that, but only after you have a good product. Just realize that your product can never ever be perfect. There's ALWAYS something you can do to make it just a little bit better.

ISPF: What is involved in a successful venture like this? What are some of the typical things that you have to do in a day to make sure that the momentum keeps increasing?

Shashank: All we really do is just relentlessly innovate and improve our product. We have always focused firmly on the user and on the value Buxfer is adding to his/her life. This is simple to say but incredibly hard to implement since there are many factors pulling a startup in wildly different directions. There are many hats we need to wear, as you suggest. Talking to users, develop marketing partnerships, raise money, etc. But at the end of the day, we believe that the most important thing which will help us keep going is just pure innovation. Every single day.

ISPF: Now let’s talk a little about your background. Did you always dream that you would start a successful entrepreneurial venture? Are there any inspiring stories from your past that inspired you as a youngster to go for entrepreneurship? Any role-models?

Shashank: Personally, yes. Sometime during my undergraduate years, I developed an aversion towards doing a job in a giant company and started having this feeling of building something new myself. I can't really say some person or incident inspired me, I just felt from within that this was the thing I want to do. And since the day I got started with Buxfer, there has been no looking back. The satisfaction of building something new, and doing it on your own is immense. That itself is the biggest inspiration for me to keep moving forward. I really admire some people whom I have met during my short entrepreneurial life-span. Paul Graham possesses some kind of sixth sense for product design and understands how a product should feel to the end-user. His design and development philosophies have influenced me heavily. I also have great regard for Larry and Sergey (who doesn't!), and they are the closest to being my role-models in terms of what I want to achieve.

ISPF: So what is in the future for Buxfer? If someone offered you $100,000 for it, will you sell? How about if it were a million dollars? :)

Ashwin: We want Buxfer to become THE place on the web where people can track and understand their finances. Given this vision and our speed, I'd say a million dollars is not enough at all :)

Thanks a lot guys for taking the time to answer these questions. And Good Luck for the future! I hope some day in the near future we will talk about the two of you like we do today about Chad Hurley and Steve Chen :)


If any of you readers have questions for Ashwin or Shashank, feel free to leave a comment below and I will forward it to them. If you are a registered user of Buxfer, do share with us about your experiences using the system.

I really enjoyed that interview. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you might have noticed that I am a big fan of weekend entrepreneurship. I love success stories, especially ones like these where people with regular day jobs go on and start something on the side and become really successful at it (if you think school is not as hard as a day job, either you did not go to college, or you went too long back and have forgotten the drudgery :) ). Such stories fill me with hope and kick off a desire to do something, instead of whiling away time in front of the TV. If you have a success story to share, you are welcome to send me a guest post or participate in an interview. Please no spam or site promotions though, and no paid posts either!

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1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

I have been using buxfer for over a month and I like it very much, much cleaner interface than Billmonk.

I am still getting used to all the special features and depth that it has. Great job guys.