A World Without Constraints: 5 Questions with Alumnus and Entrepreneur Sundeep Kumar
When Sundeep Kumar graduated from the Cockrell School with his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2014, he had no idea that just two years later he would be leading a startup. He joined Dell as an operations project manager for their server business and quickly excelled in his role. But a chance encounter led him to leap into the world of entrepreneurship. Today, as co-founder and chief operating officer of LoftSmart, a startup based in New York City, Kumar is leveraging his engineering background to help students find off-campus housing via a one-stop-shop web platform.
In fall 2016, Kumar and his co-founder Sam Bernstein secured LoftSmart a spot with AngelPad, a startup incubator and accelerator in New York City. Since going through the program, they have raised $1.7 million in venture capital during the seed round and hired a team of five employees, including fellow Cockrell School alumnus Adi Sundararajan (B.S. EE 2013) and UT alumnus Jimi Jones (B.S. Sports Management 2014). LoftSmart currently offers student housing listings around 21 college campuses across the nation and plans to expand.
We sat down with Kumar to learn more about his path to LoftSmart and how his experiences at the Cockrell School prepared him for success.
How did you get involved with the startup?
My co-founder, Sam, started LoftSmart at the University of Virginia as a database for student housing reviews, and he moved to Austin to test the idea in a new market. When I met Sam and heard about LoftSmart, I immediately saw great potential in his ideas, and, as a UT alum, I was excited by the opportunity to help students. A few weeks later, I joined LoftSmart part time, and we began developing his initial idea into what the company is today.
At first, I was working at Dell and LoftSmart simultaneously, putting in 12–15 hour days between the two. I quickly realized that every win I had at LoftSmart felt 10 times better than the wins I was having at Dell. At LoftSmart, I was defining the route of the business alongside Sam, and that meant everything to me.
When we got the call from AngelPad that we’d been accepted into the program, we were thrilled — and shocked. AngelPad expected us to be in New York City the following day. I gave my notice at Dell, completed my last two weeks remotely, and then it was off to the races with LoftSmart.
How is your company changing how students rent housing?
Almost everyone I know has had a frustrating or downright bad experience related to off-campus college housing. For example, when Sam was in school, he signed a lease on an apartment not knowing that a freight train went by three times a day, making the entire apartment shake. LoftSmart gives students a safe and secure place where they can do everything from explore rental properties with verified reviews to submit applications, get screened, submit payments and sign leases. This year, 18 million students will spend over $130 billion on housing. We knew that if we could tap into even a small fraction of that, we could help a lot of students and also build a successful business.
How did your experience in the Cockrell School prepare you for life as an entrepreneur?
In the entrepreneurship world, you always have more questions than answers. And as an engineering student, it was the same way. The Cockrell School taught me to take the answers I do have and use them to figure out everything else.
In my mechanical engineering senior design class, I gained skills that I use on a daily basis. After our team picked our idea and decided what problems we wanted to solve, we went through the process of brainstorming, white-boarding and determining what would work and what wouldn’t. It was an exciting opportunity to build and create. The experience taught me how to work with a team, where each person has different roles and responsibilities, and it taught me design thinking, which is crucial for success in a startup. As an entrepreneur, my day-to-day is as open-ended as that project was.
Being an engineering student is very challenging, but you graduate with the ability to approach and develop solutions to any problem. My experiences turned me into the person I am today — someone who won’t quit and who will always find a way.
Can you give an example of a problem you’ve had to solve while building the company?
When we were at AngelPad, LoftSmart had about 400 listings with one or two pictures per listing. In one of our first meetings with the incubator’s founders, they told us that we needed at least 5–10 pictures per listing to make the experience beneficial for students. We had two days to make it happen. Finding 1,500 pictures in less than 48 hours seemed like an impossible task, especially given the other things we were trying to accomplish. But Sam and I pushed through to find a solution. We went online and found a data analyst freelancer, who wrote a script that allowed us to pull together the pictures.
What advice do you have for students interested in starting companies?
Don’t be afraid to give yourself the opportunity to do something big. Sometimes, engineers and other smart, ambitious people don’t realize how much you can accomplish if you spend every day focusing on something you’re passionate about. It was a difficult decision for me to leave my job at Dell, where I had great support and a strong career path. But I believed in the idea of LoftSmart. So I took a leap, and it’s been amazing what we’ve been able to do.
My second piece of advice is to get rid of the idea of constraints. In engineering, we’re often given a sandbox, so to speak, and a set of tools to work with. Then, we work to solve problems within that sandbox. But in the entrepreneurship world, the sandbox doesn’t exist. For every problem you encounter, there are a million ways to solve it. Once I got rid of the idea of constraints, there wasn’t anything that could stop me.