Qasar Younis ‘04 is a recipient of the 2016 Entrepreneurial Achievement Award. View the full list of 2016 Alumni Award winners.
A user has three options when they visit Google’s homepage: perform a search in the text box in the center of the page, click on “Advertising” in the lower left corner to create targeted campaigns or click on “Business Solutions” to develop a comprehensive marketing and engagement plan to promote their small business. Qasar Younis ‘04 was in charge of the latter as the product lead of “Business Solutions” for the entire multi-billion dollar company.
Younis started at Google in 2011 when his company was acquired by the search giant and his accomplishments at the internet mogul are impressive, but not as extraordinary as the journey that transformed him from an automobile-focused student at Kettering University to a Silicon Valley investor and Chief Operating Officer for Y Combinator today.
The Younis family immigrated to the United States from a farming community in Pakistan. His parents were farmers but his uncle was a chemical engineer at General Motors (GM) and sponsored them to come to Michigan.
Younis graduated from Sterling Heights High School in 1999. As a high school student, Younis worked part-time at his uncle’s law firm in Troy. The same uncle who worked at GM for 18 years began studying law part-time until he finished his degree and opened his own firm. Younis told his uncle that he wanted to work for GM and that’s when he was introduced to the possibilities at Kettering.
“So the work component was definitely the most attractive,” Younis said. “I researched Kettering and did a tour of the school and I was done looking because I could start working right away.”
Younis majored in Mechanical Engineering with minors in Economics and International Relations. He became heavily involved in the school and was elected B-section Student Government President. He completed his co-op at GM locations across Michigan but when it came time to decide on a full-time job, a potentially shaky domestic automobile industry along with advice from then Kettering President Dr. Jim John changed his course of action.
“I had offers from GM. Dr. John asked me what I wanted to do,” Younis said. “I said I really want to go abroad so he told me about this program at Bosch.”
The rotational program at Bosch would allow Younis to try different positions over multiple years culminating with an opportunity to work overseas in Germany.
“I decided not to go to GM,” Younis said. “It was one of the most difficult professional decisions that I’ve ever made because they treated me so well. If it wasn’t to move abroad, who knows how things would have turned out.”
After graduating in 2004, Younis joined Bosch in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Professionally he was ahead of schedule and was invited to travel to Japan in 2005 before potentially heading to Germany. While working in Japan, Younis decided to apply to business school.
“One of my managers said no matter how good of an engineer you are, you need to know the non technical parts of the business,” Younis said. “Then I found out that you can apply to HBS [Harvard Business School] multiple times. You don’t get knocked for applying so I decided to apply until they let me in.”
Younis got in on his first attempt. He started at Harvard in 2006 and graduated in 2008 with his MBA. At this point he had a choice. Either go back to traditional industries or attempt to create something original on his own. The decision came down to a lesson he learned from his father in high school.
“When I was in high school and watching my dad, I learned that the thing do is be the owner of a company rather than an employee,” Younis said. “The value of the company is represented as equity.”
Younis interviewed with Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon after graduating from Harvard but ultimately chose an alternative path. In 2008, he joined Andrew Cronk ‘05 and formed a crowdfunding t-shirt company in Chicago part-time. Full-time, Younis worked for Sears Holding, a holding company owned by the hedge fund that operates and invests in large-scale retail shops such as Sears, K-Mart and Lands’ End.
"Trying to do both sounded like a great plan but in hindsight it wasn't,” Younis said. “Also I think it would have been better to start the company in Silicon Valley right away."
In 2010, he gathered his retail experiences and discovered challenges in the process of purchasing in that it requires a cumbersome exchange of capital for goods and has a potential lag time. So Younis moved to Silicon Valley with two close friends and together they spent seven months in 2010 working on a mobile wallet. However, their true break was a byproduct of this application.
While they were pitching their idea to a large corporate restaurant chain, they concluded the meeting by asking a very simple question: what other challenges do you have? The company was sincere in its answer. They had trouble gathering feedback from individual store locations across the country because they were currently requesting customers to complete physical comment cards, which were then confidentially sent to a third-party evaluating firm, who then compiled the data and sent back a report to the corporate headquarters. Considering the scale of the restaurant chain, this process was labor intensive, potentially subject to corruption by middle management and produced a low yield rate.
“Big companies do feedback at scale,” Younis said. “We can blow this out of the water with a couple of simple applications.”
Recognizing the problem and the potential solution, Younis and two of his friends quit their jobs in Chicago and moved to Silicon Valley in 2010 to work on TalkBin, a digital feedback mobile application initially designed for restaurant owners. They received their first round of funding from Y Combinator and TalkBin evolved into a platform where a potential customer can directly interact with the owners of a business through text message and then through iOS and Android apps. The purpose was to bridge the gap between customers and businesses. What they found was more important than feedback itself, was just the ability to message to businesses directly from your phone.
“You should be able to text any business at any time on any square inch of the planet,” Younis said. “That was the thesis of TalkBin. Every single square inch of the earth has an owner that could be contacted.”
In 2011, Younis and his team were approached by some senior managers from Google Maps. They were very interested in TalkBin and its potential global applications. The meeting with the investors lasted a couple of hours and concluded with a promise to discuss a potential acquisition.
“The acquisition offer was a surprise, we thought we were there to talk about a partnership. Google was pretty aggressive and it made sense for us,” Younis said.
Starting in Spring 2011, Younis began a 3.5 journey working for Google as part of the acquisition. At the end of these three years, Younis was leading hundreds of people and was the product lead for everything on the business facing side of Google Maps.
“Our team’s success was mix of luck and competence, like everything in life,” Younis said.
In 2013, while still working at Google, Younis often returned to Y Combinator, the original investor of TalkBin, to mentor start-ups. He invested his free time to help ideas materialize into businesses and often personally invested in the companies he believed in.
“Y Combinator is a small organization,” Younis said. “At that time you are talking 10-15 people.”
In 2014, he left Google and became a full-time partner with Y Combinator. In August 2015, he was promoted to Chief Operating Officer to manage events, operations, software, and advise start-up companies.
Y Combinator funds companies in batches and often this start-up money gives founders and opportunity to potentially quit their full-time jobs and focus exclusively on their entrepreneurial project. Michael Duncan, Younis’ fellow 2004 graduate from Kettering, is the founder of Bankjoy which recently received funding from Y Combinator.
“You can have an application with zero users and have 100 million users at the end of the six months and that’s never been a possible in the history of mankind,” Younis said. “In the next five years, there’s a good chance that there will be a company worth a billion dollars that has one or two employees.”
Younis believes that Kettering has a role to play in this start-up ecosystem that is potentially resulting in a new billion-dollar company being founded each month.
“Very clearly highlight that Kettering is not a normal University,” Younis said. “You want to build a company, you can build it here at Kettering immediately. You can start working on your company right away. It’s a truly marketed advantage.”
Younis hopes that Kettering will continue to build deeper relationships with the entrepreneur community just like they have done with co-op partners over the past several decades. One day he envisions an investment office at Kettering to complement the co-op office.
"There is no reason to believe that in the future, startups will only exist in Silicon Valley,” Younis said. “The huge amount of engineers in Michigan along with institutions like Kettering create a great environment for new technology giants to emerge."
Written By Pardeep Toor | Contact: Pardeep Toor - firstname.lastname@example.org - (810) 762-9369