Raj Nijjer is a passionate believer in the power of technology to boost economies and communities. The 37-year-old Phoenix resident, who is VP of community relations at digital location management service Yext, is an angel investor who regularly partners with small-to-medium-size technology startups and advises them on how to grow their businesses.
Nijjer shared his thoughts on the Phoenix tech scene, as well as gave his advice for startups. You can also hear him name his five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley in a video.
What brought you to Arizona?
I was born and raised in India, and I was 12 years old when we moved to America for the opportunity. The climate in Arizona was warm, and we came from a warm climate. The cost of living and opportunity was great outside of the usual immigrant stalwarts, like San Francisco, New York and L.A. We still wanted to be close to the coast, and we had a little bit of family here for some support.
I went to Shadow Mountain High School and graduated from Arizona State [University] several times. The first time was for a bachelor’s degree in computer science, then I went back and got a bachelor’s for international business. I did my MBA at ASU two years ago, which was such a great experience, and I now mentor undergrads.
What has your career evolution been like?
I started my career as an intern at a small startup called NeoPlanet in software engineering. I held many roles in big companies and saw enough that I never wanted to work at a big company again. After a few years, the CEO of NeoPlanet ended up becoming the president of GoDaddy, where I later worked. Working at GoDaddy gave me the chance to innovate a lot. I filed over 20 patents around software, search, website building and ecommerce while I was at GoDaddy, and I have been issued three so far.
At GoDaddy, I started off as a software quality engineer, then became a lead engineer then had a management role, then a director role, then a senior director role. While there, I ran a few businesses. I led the online presence and marketing product lines. I learned how to really conceptualize a product and scale a business that grows at a predictable pace.
When I left GoDaddy in 2014, I got involved in angel investing, inclusive of advising founders. My passion is connecting offline with online, which led me to Yext, where I lead partnerships and community. Yext lets enterprises drive customers into their stores, engage them while they’re there, and drive repeat traffic after they’ve left.
Yext is the global digital location management (DLM) leader, helping over 500,000 business locations reach mobile consumers across a network of 100-plus app, map, directory, search engine and social media partners including Apple, Bing, Facebook, Foursquare, Yahoo, and Yelp.
What is your work like as an angel investor?
I look for the right people. As much as it is about building innovative technology, it’s imperative to have a differentiated business with the right mix of people. It’s got to be the right mix of founders and the right idea they’re willing to test out. I like to work with founders who are charismatic and innovative, ones who don’t shy away from hard work. They have an idea, and they know how to execute that idea, but they’re flexible in terms of listening to advice and scaling a business.
I focus on the SMB [small and mid-size business] and marketing space. In an angel round, startups are usually unproven ideas with a few employees, mostly comprised of founders and key employees. I usually help with the concept, design or go-to-market plan. As an advisor, one of my goals is to help build channels and networks for founders.
I’m an advisor and an investor in a couple startups, called Frederick and MessageUs. Frederick is focused on building a fully automated marketing automation for local services, a $600 billion market. MessageUs is focused on building a real-time mobile commerce platform for consumers and businesses. Both startups are founded by incredible talented teams and are based out of San Francisco.
I’m not looking for investing in quantity; I’m looking for quality and differentiation. I want to dedicate quality time and help craft strategy and guard against distractions that can derail execution. Working with founders is like a roller coaster — they have ups, and they have downs. When they have downs, it can be an hour-long phone call talking them off a cliff, and when they have ups, it’s a text message with lots of emojis for kudos. I am selective in my partnerships. I see each advisory role as a chance to build a lifelong friendship.
What makes you passionate about angel investing?
I don’t do it for gigantic returns. The success rate in angel investing is abysmal. I have been successful because I take on a few roles, and personally work with founders to ensure success. It’s not for the faint of heart, especially when you’re deploying your own capital. My investments vary widely in size. Any time you put money in, you have to look at it as though you’re kissing that money goodbye.
The reason why I’m passionate about it is because I want to make a difference and make lives easier for small businesses. The passion of cofounders is something I feed off. They’re solving real problems. Not only is there a reward in the end, but also, you get to be part of something very special.
How would you describe the Arizona technology ecosystem?
To be perfectly candid, I think it’s lacking. Aside from a handful of companies, I don’t feel we have the leadership in the private space or have much of a tech ecosystem. I don’t count on public leaders to drive a lot of innovation, because the public sector doesn’t create high paying technology jobs — the private sector does. Arizona’s private leadership needs to step up and establish the states’s value everywhere — as in San Francisco, New York, Austin, Seattle, where there’s a ton of innovation happening.
A perfect example is Silicon Beach in L.A. now. A lot of folks from San Francisco migrated south, and now there are more than 300 startups in Venice and Santa Monica. There was an investment down south from Silicon Valley, buoyed by high-quality computer engineering grads from Cal Poly, UCLA, and USC.
We need similar — if not better — strategy to raise the quality of computer engineering grads from our local universities and encourage incubation of ideas. Our current strategy of luring call centers and scaling up to account management and customer service hasn’t been successful. It’s time to do something different. This requires us to be on the ground, in the Silicon Valley, pitching the advantages of Arizona. I recently saw U.S. News & World Report ranked Arizona State the top innovative school, higher than Stanford and MIT. We need to take messages such as these and craft success stories.
Arizona needs to be embedded in California. We need to be at every major event in San Francisco and talking up what Arizona can do for them, in terms of living cost, ease of innovation, the lack of stifling regulation, favorable tax rates and our educational institutes that graduate capable technology workers.
I’ve heard Arizona called the “Silicon Desert,” but I want don’t want it to be Silicon-anything — it should be unique. I want it to be a place founders in Austin, New York, L.A., and San Francisco consider for their projects.
What advice would you have for an aspiring startup founder?
Self-awareness is a key first step. You have to be tenacious and resilient. If you’re not those things, you should not be a founder and go on this path. If you can’t handle rejection, you should stop now.
Finally, connect with the right people, not just in Arizona, but regionally and nationally. Take the trips, and make that investment. Take some of your budget, and dedicate it to networking, go to conferences, and set up lots of meetings. Finally, find highly connected and respected advisors who can help accelerate unique functions like legal, finance, channel development and sales.
What are the most important qualities to look for in potential teammates for a startup?
Find people who are like you and unlike you. You need to find people who share the same passion and are bought in. The same checklist you apply to yourself should apply to them.
You want to find people who are a good complement. You don’t want a clone of yourself. If you’re technical, find someone great at business development who understands the technical side. You don’t want two awesome technical people who can’t sell.
What tips do you have for staying resilient amidst obstacles?
If you’re not entrepreneurially-oriented, it’s going to be even harder, because you’re fighting against yourself. You have to be able to brush off failure, learn from it, and keep going.
If you see something that’s leading you down the path of failure, cut it off right away. Look for things that will give you dramatic returns. Know what your key performance indicators are. What are you trying to prove out? Know that, and focus on that.
When I’m working with founders, I’ll throw out curve ball ideas, and I am looking for founders who will say no to them. Someone who doesn’t say no worries me. The ones who are really successful will work on on proving a concept and scaling that concept into a business model. A founder who works on something very broad tends to fail. You need to test components and put them all together to form something useful or something your prospective customers will pay for or make money with.
What advice do you have for getting investments?
Connect. It’s a game of numbers and finding the right people attached to the industry you want to be in. I really love founders who are falling in love with the problem and know every nuance of the problem. Then, they’re better able to articulate the solution to the problem.
Find people who have had successful exits in the space and who have had lots of previous failures. Find people who love giving advice. AngelList is a great place to find advisors.
You also want people who, from an investment standpoint, are willing to write a check. But, as a founder, you want someone who won’t just write a check, but someone who will be there for you to help with advice and help you review models and forecasts.
For someone who wants to work as an angel investor but doesn’t have the personal capital to do so, what do you recommend to get on that path?
I would say show you’ve created something, and another party found enough value to write you a check for it. You have to show you have experience leading, have a giant Rolodex, can advise people, and exit successfully. It’s a very tough space, but there are crowdfunding sites which make it easier and reduce the risk
The same things that apply to founders apply to those who want to get into angel investing — you have to connect with the right people.
Why are you passionate about the tech space?
Technology will power the next wave of innovation across industries and verticals. Uber is disrupting transportation. Tesla is disrupting automotive and power. A lot will change with power, utilities, package delivery and retail. Technology has democratized access and information, leading to shorter and continuous innovation cycles.
There will be obstacles with regards to heavily-regulated industries like healthcare and security. The power of the tech community will overcome such obstacles — we have the momentum on our side.
What are your goals?
I want to be happy and healthy. A happy place for me is making a difference, seeing others grow, and delivering measurable impact. The goal is to do what I love, and what I’m doing now is exactly where I want to be.