Shahed Khan is a kind of VC wunderkind at the moment. At age 20, while many of his peers are either attending college or living with their parents, he’s working as an entrepreneur-in-residence with a noted team of investors at NFX Guild, a new accelerator program in San Francisco. (We’d written about it here.)
Now the spotlight is on Khan to see if he can produce.
Khan and three cofounders – all of whom are currently working at other startups — are building an enterprise software tool that allows companies to receive feedback on their product and its usability from product experts. For example, a company might be trying to understand why users are dropping off during its onboarding flow and can benefit from the knowledge of a UX designer who has designed similar flows at a company like Slack.
The company is currently in an alpha stage, with Khan and the others bringing on new clients each day to test the product. The question is whether Khan can stand out for his achievements and not just for his youth alone.
There’s reason to think he will. As a teenager, Khan, the youngest child of Pakistani and Indian immigrants, spent the bulk of his spare time online, teaching himself site design and making money here and there by jazzing up the online storefronts and other web pages of people who stumbled across his Twitter profile.
He might have left it at that, but at 16, inspired by Peter Thiel’s 20 Under 20 program — it invites teenagers to forgo school and work instead on a big idea in exchange for a $100,000 stipend — Khan decided that he wasn’t too young to become a serious entrepreneur. He started by designing swag for small businesses, then finding a cofounder online and cold-calling investors about the duo’s would-be business, Viatask, which aimed to enable people to outsource their errands a la TaskRabbit.
One of Khan’s outbound calls was to Terry Howerton, an entrepreneur and CEO of TechNexus, a Chicago-based startup incubator. Impressed by Shahed’s moxie, Howerton provided him office space and a ticket – along with airfare — to TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco. Once in town and sleeping on the couch of a stranger, Khan says, he made the most of the 2011 trip, wearing the same color green shirt as TechCrunch staffers and slipping backstage to mingle with the likes of investors Ron Conway, Kevin Rose and Mark Suster.
New friendships were struck, including with a Y Combinator founder who helped him land a job out of high school at Weebly, the site-building company. A year later, Suster also took Khan’s call, and when Khan asked to learn more about the venture industry, Suster offered him a contract role as an analyst.
Suster imagined it would last two months but confirms that Khan spent 10 months with his venture firm, L.A.-based Upfront Ventures, leaving in April when Khan decided he’d rather live in Northern California. By summer, Khan had been hooked up with NFX.
It’s all been an exciting ride, says Khan, whose extroverted nature, poise, and, well, beard, lead many to believe that he’s at least five years older.
Though he still can’t drink legally and has “no friends who are my age or younger than me,” he clearly treasures the network he has created for himself in recent years, one that includes mentors like Suster, venture capitalist George Zachary of CRV, and NFX founders James Currier and Stan Chudnovsky, who sold their business, Tickle, to the jobs giant Monster for $100 million in 2004 and have been launching companies ever since. (Khan has spent the last several months supporting their portfolio companies, helping them to host events, and pitching in to help with NFX’s next class of startups.)
As for whether the kindness of others has kept Khan from a college education that might help him in the future, Khan says he might still decide to go some day. Before the Weebly offer came through, he was planning to attend Indiana University, and it sounds like his parents are still keen on the idea.
“I do think people underestimate what it means to drop out,” he tells me over coffee at a San Francisco café. “If you believe it’s right for you and that it will create more opportunities for you, then I recommend it. But for some people, it makes sense to drop out – like if you can get a job offer from Uber or Google and your goal was to graduate and get a job at Uber or Google.”
It’s a fair point.
If your eventual goal was to become a founder and a VC and you didn’t need college or business school to do it, you might just forget about school, too.