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Davis, California

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Davis inspires entrepreneurs, CEOs


Davis alumnus explains his experience running a successful startup company

Eight years ago, Sahas Katta, a former UC Davis student, dropped out of college to start his own company alongside his brother, a UC Berkeley graduate. Today the alumnus has not only become the CEO of a successful and innovational business, but also recently received $12 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz and New Enterprise Associates.

The company, named Smartcar, was started in 2015. Smartcar is essentially a platform for developers to build web and mobile applications for vehicles. The platform allows people to read vehicle data and send commands to vehicles of any brand through an extensive engineering process. For the past three years, the company has enabled app developers to create unique experiences for customers through car applications such as smart parking and car sharing. Today the company is located in Mountain View, Calif. and has 15 full-time employees.

Katta explained how the idea for his company came about and where is success can be traced back to.

“I was actually trying build an application for a car myself,” Katta said. “I realized that there wasn’t really an easy way to build apps for cars and there was no developer platform available. I wanted to build something that would help make applications for cars […] I wanted to build a standardized connected car platform so that people could build apps for any car of any brand easily.”

Katta described the purpose of Smartcar and his mission for the company for years to come.

“When you look at the whole transportation industry today what we kind of see is that the automobile made people’s lives a lot easier and it was great for the middle class,” Katta said. “But it left a whole group of people behind, people who are in a lower class or people who are disabled have a very difficult time accessing transportation, which has now become a necessity. We think that with this platform all these app developers have kind of made mobility more accessible to the masses and we think that it’s really going to change the way that vehicles are used, which is is something that we’re really excited about.”

Katta dropped out of UC Davis during his third year as a computer engineering major to pursue a full-time dedication to starting his own business. According to Katta, eight years ago Davis did not hold Hackathons, have a startup center or bring in a lot of investors, all of which Katta explained would have made a significant difference in his experience at Davis. Katta explained how he felt that Davis did not provide the environment he desired in order to become a successful entrepreneur.

“Part of why I dropped out was because I unfortunately did not find the support I needed at Davis,” Katta said. “Davis at the time didn’t have a supportive entrepreneurial community of culture and I had a lot of other friends at schools like Stanford and Berkeley who were starting companies and building apps. I was hungry for something similar and I simply was unable to find that excitement or enthusiasm while I was at Davis.”

Today Katta is the CEO of a successful startup, but his success was not immediate. After dropping out of college, Katta worked on his first project, which failed soon after. However, the idea for Smartcar developed while Katta was working on his original idea.

“If you don’t try (even if you fail), then you will never go any further,” Katta said. “I had to learn how hire and fire people, which was very challenging and I didn’t do a good job of managing people in my first company or properly manage finances. I also wasn’t very good at selling the product for customers, but all the trials and failures from my first company made it very clear on what I would have to do differently to make a company successful, so if I hadn’t  tried I wouldn’t really be where I am today.”

Katta offers his advice for any students aspiring to start a company based on his experiences over the past decade.

“Starting a company is a very lonely job and I would say quite honestly going to school would have been a lot easier, so unless you are absolutely 100 percent certain that you’re willing to go through way more trouble than necessary I would not encourage people to drop out,” Katta said. “Most people talk about starting their own business, but always find a way to not try and if you aren’t comfortable with failure and you don’t try then there is an absolute zero chance of you starting your own business. It’s all about focus, if you’re working on ten different side projects and campus leadership, classes and extracurriculars it’s challengeing to focus on doing really well on one thing so if you’re interested in starting your own business you really need to put every spare minute into it.”

Samarth Sandeep, a first-year materials science engineering major, aims to start his own company in the alternative energy field some day. Sandeep explained in further detail what skills are needed to run a successful business.

“To start a business I think you need to be able to lead people and to do so you need to have really good interpersonal skills,” Sandeep said. “You also need to have some sort of skill that you are selling because initially when you are trying to start your own company the investors look for those skills. Your product may never be in the full stage where it is ready to sell, but the investors will be a whole lot more interested in you and that might be because you’re a really good leader or you have really good technical skills.”

But is having a college degree necessary to obtain these skills? For Katta, having a college degree was not absolutely necessary, but that might not be the case for all aspiring entrepreneurs. Sandeep explained why a college experience might be beneficial to starting a company.

“I don’t think having a college degree is necessary to start your own company,” Sandeep said. “But I think being in an environment where you are leaning different skills is important I think for most people being in a college environment is the best way to get those skills. Being at a university gives you access to research funding from the federal government and opportunities to work with corporations which is good way to get the skills and validity you need to run a business, but it definitely isn’t the only way.”

But the value of college does not just stop at gaining said skill, Sandeep said. Other factors, including academics and club work, also play a huge role in the skills you gain when attending college.

“A lot of people forget that Tesla was a small startup,” Sandeep said. “After 10 years the founders were both Ph.D. students at Stanford who had a lot of engineering experience over nine or 10 years and before that they were still interested in projects through the school.”

Today, to many people attending college, it is almost a necessity to work and earn a decent wage. Sandeep explained why he thinks students opt to drop out of college to start their own businesses.

“The idea of a college education is that it is supposed to give you a very comprehensive look at everything you might need in your career,” Sandeep said. “I think college isn’t really doing that recently so that’s why we see a lot of people that think dropping out of school would be good for them. By dropping out of school they are able to work on a project that might give them a good income so they aren’t in huge debt and on top of that they can attend classes or work on their own projects to help them gain knowledge on what they want.”

Saahil Patel, a second-year managerial economics major and employee of ASUCD Creative Media, explained his experience while working at various companies. In the past year, Patel has worked as an intern at startups including Bounce, Journey Hop and Givebutter. With his extended knowledge of the analytical side of startup companies, Patel offers his advice to students who are considering becoming an entrepreneur.  

“Being an entrepreneur is really risky and if you read any articles even successful entrepreneurs are not going to recommend you drop out of college, no one is going to recommend that,” Patel said. “I think college teaches you skills that you can’t really learn by yourself and it might be very book savvy related skills, but it is necessary if you really want to run a successful business. A startup could be really successful in the beginning, but after a while it might plateau and that’s when the skill you might have learned in college will come in handy.”

Patel detailed what attributes he believes catalyzes a successful business with regard to having a college education in business or economics.  

“The key to running a successful business is having skills and expertise in a variety of things, but having a backbone in a specific field,” Patel said. “I think the value of college comes in hand when you’re majoring in something. The managerial economics major here is very broad and doesn’t get very specific […] I like that because that way when you graduate you kind of have a background in everything and if you want to do something specific you can always pursue a minor.”

Davis is a school known worldwide for its agriculture and veterinary medicine programs. While business might not be as well known, it remains one of the most popular majors among Davis students. Patel expanded on his experience as a student pursuing a major in business.

“To be honest I think the business major at this school is kind of small and I think at a lot of other schools the business majors are very specific,” Patel said. “Students at those other schools are given the opportunity to connect with people and professors who are strictly business management, whereas at Davis it’s more of a managerial economics focus. So even though you are learning the business side you are also learning the economics and research and if you want to learn things about businesses in the long term, then the managerial economics major here is really good for that.”



Written by: Sneha Ramachandran — features@theaggie.org



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