Democratizing Investing in India: Prateek Swain on GreenTiger’s (YC S’19) Founding Journey
Prateek Swain is the co-founder and CEO of GreenTiger, a startup that seeks to provide Indian citizens with the ability to invest in US capital markets with zero commission trades. GreenTiger graduated from Y Combinator’s summer 2019 batch. In this exclusive interview, Prateek shares how the idea came together and advice for other student entrepreneurs looking to apply to Y Combinator and break into the startup world.
Business Today (Grace Hong): Can you share how the idea and team for GreenTiger came together?
Prateek Swain: During sophomore year at HackPrinceton, my co-founder Tyler and I were both finalists. I was building something completely different with a couple of my friends from Princeton. Tyler comes into Princeton with another project. That’s how I got to know him. Afterwards, we bumped into each other at different hackathons like YHack and became friends then. Last summer, we were both working at Microsoft, and as luck would have it, our desks were right next to each other. While we were working together that summer, one thing led to another, at the end, we decided to build something.
With regards to the origin of GreenTiger: I loved using Robinhood. I was one of the first people to sign up in 2013 when I was still in India. As an Indian citizen, I couldn’t open an account, so I only got my account two years ago when I got my SSN. After that, I decided to use it to start managing my parents’ money because US capital markets makes a lot of sense for Indian residents for investing. When you take into account the interest rate differential between India and the US, you will have much better returns if you’re trading in the US stock market. My parents were interested, but I couldn’t open a Robinhood account for them and I couldn’t use mine for tax reasons. I called several brokers to figure out who was offering US stocks in India, and it turns out there were these two old hundred-year old banks with hundred-year old processes in India offering US stocks, but they were not at all user-friendly. You had to physically visit a branch, submit multiple documents, and then pay them a fee to get started! And they used a website from the ‘80s – it was atrocious. On the other hand, most of the US brokers did not offer an option [for those in India]. There were only Charles Schwab and TD Ameritrade, but they had super high minimum deposits and commission, which just seemed wrong to me. I was talking to Tyler about this, basically ranting about how difficult it had been, and he was like, “We should just build this out.” That’s how we started building GreenTiger.
BT: You were a computer science major in college. What were the challenges of learning about the regulations and legal frameworks surrounding brokerage?
PS: Someone once told me this, and I’m completely convinced this makes sense: “No one anywhere reads anything.” When we started out, everyone told us, “This is not possible, you can’t do this.” What we essentially did was deep dive into all the regulatory documents. We would spend the weekends going through dense materials that aren’t exactly casual nighttime reading. Reading through the documents, we were able to figure out a path of how [GreenTiger] could be made possible legally. Even though I studied computer science, what helped me the most were my humanities classes and the hours I spent writing papers, critically thinking, being able to get through dense reading material – that’s what gave GreenTiger its start.
Beyond that, product and engineering are pretty straightforward; my co-founder is an incredible engineer. When we started working on a mobile app with React, it was a bit buggy and not super optimal. So he picked up Android on the fly. When you’re working at a startup, especially doing Y Combinator (YC), there’s a lot of pressure on you to do well. You’re surrounded by some of the most brilliant founders from all over the world that have been working on incredible products and incredibly awesome companies. Being part of that environment really helped us go into high gear and push ourselves to our limits. That’s how we ended up figuring out a lot of these things quickly.
BT: What has been the most exciting part of running GreenTiger so far?
PS: I think it’d be the resonance the product has had with consumers. Going into a product, you can go by the book and hold a bunch of customer interviews and such, but you will never know if things will work out or not. You can interview 75 – 100 people to see if it made sense or not, but that’s nowhere close to reflecting whether this will be something a million— or ten million — people will use. We still don’t know that, but we kind of got an idea after the initial positive reception we received a few weeks ago after launching on Product Hunt. In one day, we became the most popular Indian product on Product Hunt ever. People were being very generous with their outpour of support and excitement, which was meaningful to us as we realized, “This may not have been just a problem that I had faced, but this is something people actually want.” That has led to a lot of doors opening, and there were so many people constantly emailing us for early access and asking when the product is going live. They were sending so many kind email messages, and on LinkedIn, these people were rooting for us. That’s been the most exciting part of the journey.
BT: Every startup encounters success and failure. Can you speak to how you addressed setbacks you’ve encountered?
PS: I can’t really remember a specific setback because every day, for the last few months, has felt like we go one step forward and five steps backward. Every time we fix a problem, we run into multiple other issues that come up, whether it’s regulatory, legal, or product. There’s just so many moving parts involved, and working seamlessly takes a gigantic amount of effort. Doing YC never felt like we were making progress; it always felt like we were barely staying afloat. From the outside, it may have seemed that we were making a ton of progress, and at the end of the YC program, we did realize we made a ton of progress.
The most important thing to remember when hardships come is that every startup is default dead at the beginning. Everything sucks, and the goal is to be default alive, and that’s not going to happen for a very long time. You’re always having setbacks and challenges, but it’s really about your mentality. If you have a good state of mind, you can realize that you are in control of your destiny. If you can use that positive outlook and not let challenges beat you down and you keep grinding, things might work out. This might sound super cheesy and abstract, but this is the advice we got at the beginning, and at the end, it made tons of sense. I don’t know how to better materialize this advice, but everything feels broken all the time, except occasionally. You don’t have time to think about it—you just have to keep moving forward. If you keep doing that, things will start to look better.
BT: Can you talk about the process of finding investors? There’s a lot of information out there, and it’s difficult to condense it all.
PS: The best way right out of college is to get into an accelerator like YC. The amount of difference it has made has been huge. To give a personal example, when I was still in college, whenever I would work on a project and talk to VC’s about it, they would never take me seriously and would always try to convince me to join one of their portfolio companies. All of sudden, when you get into YC and let them know, it’s like the same investor looks at you from a completely different lens. Especially as a student or a first-time entrepreneur with no real experience or network, the branding that YC gives is incredibly impactful. What we also benefitted from is a program called “Early Decision,” which means you apply in the fall and you get it in the summer. That can help with the recruiting timelines. In general, fundraising was challenging but not very difficult because during Demo Day, there were 3,000 investors and less than 200 companies. Investors are vying for your attention. We got flooded with inbound emails; investors wanted coffee with us or were interested in investing – crazy things like people asking to invest over email. It was a very fortunate place where we were able to choose who we wanted to partner with, which we’re very grateful for, but that’s not how it usually goes. There’s a lot of subtle nuances involved in conversations with investors, do’s and don’ts, and it’s kind of like a dance that you have to do. The best way to learn how to dance is to get a teacher, and YC has been that teacher. I constantly ramble about YC, but it’s truly because of how helpful it’s been.
BT: How would you recommend students prepare for accelerators like YC and applying to these?
PS: Think really hard about what you are excited by and what you are interested in. There are a lot of great ideas out there, and anyone with a reasonable amount of capabilities can execute and get early traction, which is what you really need to build a company. A lot of times, people get into this mindset that they want to pursue something for the sake of doing something, but that’s not the right thing to look at it. You really have to pick at what excites you and gets you out of bed every morning. When everything’s broken, you should still feel very happy and excited to work on it. If you get that figured out, you should look for some early signs of progress, and you’ll probably be fine.
BT: How do you split up your day into the different activities required for GreenTiger to function?
PS: We’re technical founders, but Tyler is a way better engineer than me. The two main responsibilities to running a company can broadly be categorized as writing code or talking. It can be talking to customers which can be abstractedly funneled into everything from emails to product and research. Tyler does all of the coding, and I try to do everything else. Officially, we have one day we talk about the product and brainstorm, but since we’re sitting next to each other, every time there is a decision to be made, in which either of us think it’s important for the other to be looped in, we just talk face-to-face. I think that’s because we’re still in our early stages, and as we expand our team, we’ll have to establish concrete processes, but right now, it happens organically when we think the other person needs to be involved. Otherwise, we have a lot of autonomy in what we do.
BT: Is there any other advice you would give to students who are interested in founding a startup or are afraid to take that leap?
PS: Don’t start a startup for the sake of starting one. Start one because you feel excited about the problem. That’s the best piece of advice that I wish I had back in the day.
BT: What is a trend you’re excited about right now?
PS: In general, I think the Latin American market is getting super interesting. There’s a lot of opportunity to build great companies because it’s having its moment where all these ideas are coming out. Startups that go international are getting investors excited these days because a startup has two kinds of risk: idea and execution. If you take something that has been executed before, then the idea risk is low and you’re betting on execution risk. As an investor, you can hedge your risk. International markets are exciting because some of these are way bigger than the US market.
BT: Is there any book or podcast that has helped you the most in founding GreenTiger?
PS: I used to read Paul Graham’s essays a lot, and I still do. Because I read his essays, I wanted to apply to YC and get in. That would get us through, and it had a ton of good advice. Outside of that, Peter Thiel’s Zero to One was interesting and all the classic [startup] books. If you read these, you’ll get a ton of interesting ideas. Another book I read was ReWork, which was very counterintuitive to what everyone thinks is a standard model of a startup; it has a lot of great insights.
BT: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
PS: There are a lot of cool problems to solve, and we have one life to live. It’s too short to waste it working on something you’re not excited by and not live your best life. Go find what you’re interested in and do it.