Sidharth Kakkar had no idea at the time, but the genesis of his multimillion-dollar venture capital-backed education startup began when he was 14 years old. As a freshman at West Windsor High School in New Jersey in 2000, Kakkar took a programming course, and “I remember in the first week, my teacher started talking about hexadecimal numbers. And I was just so freaked out. And I was like, I’m just going to quit this because there is no way I’m going to understand what he is talking about.”
But Kakkar’s parents had other plans. They encouraged him to stick it out a little longer. And they were right.
“By the end of the first month, I was in love,” Kakkar, now 30, tells Poets&Quants in a co-working space his education software startup, Front Row Education, is currently over-running. Since moving to the converted warehouse space owned by SOSV, another of San Francisco’s incubators that gives young professionals with jeans and flat-bill hats a place to toil on their Macbooks, Front Row Education has seen remarkable growth. In two years, Kakkar and his co-founder, Alexandr Kurilin, have increased their staff size from four to 35 and nabbed seed and Series A rounds in VC support totaling $6.6 million. Front Row’s two apps, which help students from kindergarten through eighth grades improve their math and language arts skills, can be found in more than 41,000 schools in all 50 U.S. states, seven U.S. territories, and more than 25 countries. All told, some 5.3 million students are using the apps.
LEARNING WEBSITE PROGRAMMING FROM A HOMELESS MAN IN A NYC STARBUCKS
Front Row’s success can be traced to (at least) two unlikely — and profoundly random — occurrences. The first was Kakkar’s unforeseen love affair with programming. “I was a nerd without any friends, so I had plenty of time to do that stuff,” he laughs, noting that he became “enamored” with building computer games and projects after that freshman-year class, then took the school’s other programming options before enrolling in the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
“I never thought I wanted to be a career programer,” Kakkar now says. “I just really enjoyed doing it, so it felt like the thing to study.” True to those sentiments, after graduation he took a position with Goldman Sachs as an analyst on Wall Street. “I wanted to live in New York and I wanted a job,” he says of his decision. But he quickly became bored, an he missed programming. “In undergrad, you don’t learn the practical stuff, you learn more theoretical stuff — at least, I did,” Kakkar says. “I didn’t know how to make a website after undergrad.”
So he did what any bored programmer trapped in an investment banker’s career would do: He hired a homeless man on Craigslist to teach him web design.
‘NOTHING IS $10 AN HOUR IN NEW YORK CITY’
Cue random occurrence two. After putting an ad on New York City’s Craigslist page asking for web programming training, Kakkar only heard from people wanting to build him a website. But Kakkar wanted to learn how to build. “There weren’t really any programming bootcamps at that time,” he recalls, noting the year: 2008. “There was no real way to learn web programming.”
That is, until a homeless man wanting $10 an hour replied to his ad. “This is New York City,” Kakkar says, still sounding surprised. “Nothing is $10 an hour in New York City. He had a laptop, backpack, he often slept in shelters, and he helped me at Starbucks. Because, you know, they have free Internet there. He taught me how to make a web app in PHP (hypertext preprocessor).”
But as mysteriously as the programming guru came into Kakkar’s life, he left. “We had done 14 hours together and on the 15th lesson he didn’t show up,” Kakkar remembers. “And I never heard from him again.”
THE ENTRANCE INTO B-SCHOOL
Kakkar had learned enough to begin making random websites. He also was shaped by living through his position at Goldman Sachs during the economic crisis of 2007 and 2008.
“You learn more from the bad times than you do from the good times,” says a still optimistic and upbeat Kakkar. “Right away in 2007, things started to go south. And then in 2008, things started to go really south. There were days and weekends we came in to run a bunch of risk analysis stuff to make sure our books would survive if X event happened or Y event happened. And that stuff is cool. At the time it wasn’t cool. At the time it was extremely stressful. But in retrospect, it’s cool because you don’t get to learn that from such an intense situation every day, you know?”
Still, by 2010, Kakkar had become unsure about what he wanted to do in his professional life. So he did what he says many in his position do — he applied to elite MBA programs. After being accepted into the full-time MBA program at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, he enrolled in the fall of 2010. “I wanted to be a consultant because it sounded cool,” Kakkar says. But his admissions essays said differently. Kakkar wrote that he wanted to eventually start and run his own software company. “That was always the ultimate vision,” he recalls.
Kakkar stayed the consulting course at first, notching a coveted summer internship at Bain. But when he returned to Kellogg for his second year, he found himself “hacking” things together again. He created an online community called 10pens.com that allowed users to receive feedback on writing and application materials. He created another app with a professor at Northwestern that helped people meet up for social events. “Random stuff like that,” Kakkar says. “Kellogg was really good for giving me room to experiment. Business school isn’t as taxing as a taxing job. But if you are going to try to make the most of it, it will give you room to make the most of it. You can totally coast through if you want, but you can also take advantage of the people, professors, and things around you.”
THE ENTREPRENEURIAL MAGIC OF ‘TORQUE’
Kakkar believes two things led to what happened next. Both stem from what Kakkar says his friends describe as his “torque.”
“It’s this idea that everything I do has an impact on the outcome that I’m going to have,” Kakkar, whose father has run a food processing business from New Jersey and India for the past 30 years, explains. “And the second part is, the outcome of my work has to have meaning. When you start a company, that is maximum torque. Everything you do has an effect on the outcome.”
Aiming for maximum torque and meaning, Kakkar found a natural fit in education, always an important — and controversial — topic in the U.S.
“The reason education appeals to me is that I find it a high-leverage place that you can make a difference in society,” Kakkar says. “What I mean by that is, there are a lot of fifth-grade classes out there, for example, with kids who are working at a first- or second-grade level.”