#41 Rajith Shaji: The Persistent Founder

published on 28 October 2021
Screenshot 2021-10-28 at 08.54.39-ckux8

What matters is not what you build but whether your customers love it.

Rajith has the natural gift of making people feel at ease. But we’re not going to lie; this conversation was different. To make it happen, we stretched over three continents: North America, Europe, and Asia. While it was late at night in Vancouver, it was early morning in Rotterdam and noon in Singapore. However, Rajith injected the conversation with good vibes from the first second, making us feel awake and inspired. It was the perfect way to start and end our day!

Rajith is the co-founder and CEO of Volopay, a Singaporean-based startup building a financial control center for businesses. Rajith founded the company while at Antler, scaled it during Y Combinator, and took it to the next level after raising $2.1M in seed capital. Their vision: to help businesses control spending and organize financial transactions for better visibility and savings. But, it was not always a clear road ahead for Rajith, and his journey is truly one of being persistent and believing that anything is possible. 

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What did you dream of when you were a kid?

I've always been fascinated by space. I grew up in a tiny village in India, and every night I stared at the sky filled with glittering stars. I spent countless nights sleeping on the roof (laughs). Naturally, my dream was to become an astronaut. However, everything changed when I got my hands on a computer for the first time. I started spending all my time creating websites, and my dream quickly changed into becoming a computer guy.

Rajith as a kid 
Rajith as a kid 

Where did your passion for computers lead you? 

It was pretty hard to get your hands on a computer back then. My dad took me to his office every weekend to let me play with all the machines there. After a couple of years, and as the technology became more affordable, we finally got one at home. That made me pursue a degree in computer sciences. 

Rajith playing one of his favourite games
Rajith playing one of his favourite games

However, as I was pursuing my University degree, my motivation plummeted. I didn't enjoy the way they taught the course, and the competition was brutal. Luckily, I got hooked on e-sports, which ended up catapulting my entrepreneurial journey forward. I actually met the co-founder of my first company while playing DOTA. It was an exciting period of my life. 

What happened after graduation?

I got a job at one of the biggest companies in India, TCS. I wasn't particularly excited about it, and I kept on continuously brainstorming ideas with a good friend. I also began teaching myself Photoshop and all-things digital marketing. 

We both wanted to start a company, so we would build websites every evening after work. After a couple of months, we convinced a hotel to give us a shot. We created a booking platform for them, and suddenly, we received tons of customers. It was an "oh sh*t" moment, and we both quit our job the following week. 

This was the time you started your first company? 

Yes, and luckily my parents were very supportive. We started the company in Bangalore, and we had no clue on how to make money. But we were very good at making websites, so we went full steam ahead, and after a while, more and more clients came on board. This was the start of my entrepreneurial journey. 

What were the main lessons from this first founder experience? 

Interestingly, 95% of all products fail. Therefore, what matters is not what you build but whether your customers love it. That was by far my biggest takeaway. 

What happened after your time building the agency? 

After working for a couple of years at the agency, I felt like I needed to experience something bigger. I wanted to be part of a fast-growing organization, and see what it takes to build something that impacts millions of people. I managed to land a couple of cool startup positions in fintech companies in Bangalore, Hong Kong and Singapore. There, I learned all the ins and outs of the industry, and I loved it. 

Volopay. Can you provide us with the aha moment and how everything started?

I travelled a lot for business, and I had to sit and file all my business expenses manually at the end of the month. It used to take me a couple of days as I did not have a corporate business card, which was very frustrating.  

I investigated the problem deeper and realized it was complicated to issue corporate cards. I created a website with a description, and as soon as it was live, a lot of people reached out asking for the product. The only problem was: I had not built it yet (laughs).

My co-founder Rajesh and I worked at the same company. So, one day I showed him that website, and the next thing we knew, we were working late hours on actually making it live and building an entire product around it. 

Rajith and Rajesh building Volopay in the early days
Rajith and Rajesh building Volopay in the early days

What problem does Volopay solve, and what’s the vision of the company?

We started solving one niched problem: employee credit cards. But, after speaking to hundreds of finance people, we saw other pain points, such as international payments and accounting. Volopay is a system that solves almost all the financial operational problems of modern business, such as accessing credit, global payouts, domestic payouts, and pretty much everything in between. The vision of the company is to build a robust financial ecosystem for every company in the world.  

A glimpse into a meeting at Volopay
A glimpse into a meeting at Volopay

How were the early days of the company?

Just the two of us building the entire platform from end to end in the early days was too taxing. While I worked on the product design, he single-handedly took care of the tech side. That's how we built Volopay in India. 

The most challenging part was getting visas to Singapore. Rajesh and I applied many times, and it always came back with a rejection. It was by far the hardest time of our lives. We had this fantastic product, but nothing mattered unless we got to Singapore. 

It was not easy at all, I felt very vulnerable. But we learned that it is important to have faith in your vision and not let anything deter it. 

One day, I heard about Antler, and their entrepreneurial program. If we managed to get in, we would receive visas. It was the biggest aha moment ever, and we immediately got in touch with them. Luckily, they saw something special in us, gave us visas, and funded our seed round. 

It was one of the best moments of my life, and if it weren't for Antler, we would have most likely given up on our dream. 

Rajith’s first days in Singapore. 
Rajith’s first days in Singapore. 

Then, you also got into Y-Combinator. What was special about your application, and how was the experience? 

What they liked about our application was that we had spoken to hundreds of people. We had unique market insights about all the pain points of the industry. We strongly emphasized that we were the right founding team to solve the problem, and by being honest and transparent, we got in. Note that we did not know anyone at YC, nor did we have a network of founders. 

The small flat where they attended the remote batch of YC. 
The small flat where they attended the remote batch of YC. 

The program itself was very challenging, primarily because of the 15 hours difference between Asia and San Francisco. We were also the first remote batch and one of the few companies located in Singapore. Yet, it was the best thing that could have ever happened to us. The fact that we didn't have to be there in person saved us tons of money and allowed us to be close to our customers. 

I’m not going to lie, the sessions being around 2-3 am,  we didn't sleep much (laughs). 

What are your main takeaways about the program?

The biggest takeaway was the power of the YC-founders network. It is very strong, and you get access to the most intelligent and most driven folks in the world, period. Everyone also pushes you to become a better version of yourself, keeping you constantly on edge. In short, YC is a pressure cooker environment but in a good way. 

How did you convince the co-founder of Tinder to invest in Volopay? How was that conversation? 

Justin had already invested in a couple of similar companies. I didn’t have to convince him, as he understood what we were building straight away. It was a funny conversation, and it only lasted only for a couple of minutes (laughs). 

Singapore. What made you start your company there? 

I wanted to test my idea in a small and controlled environment, and I didn’t want to repeat the mistakes that I had made in the past. It’s also ten times less complex and risky to start a company here than in India. When it comes to starting a company, Singapore is extremely facilitating.

If you’re serious about launching your own venture you should consider moving here. 

If you could change one thing in your journey, what would it be? 

Starting my agency was probably not the wisest of the decisions. I had to figure everything out by myself. Instead, I could have joined an interesting startup earlier on, met great folks, and networked a lot more. The best advice I could give is to get your foot in the entrepreneurial ecosystem as soon as possible. 

Rajith enjoying the mountain life 
Rajith enjoying the mountain life 

How did you manage to overcome it? 

I kept myself motivated by keeping in mind that my backup plan was not that bad, even if it felt like it at the time. Also, I stopped comparing myself to others. I had to block all the noise about which companies raised money and what our competitors were doing. As soon as I stopped caring, I felt much better.

What would you do if you only had 30 days to live?

It’s a tricky question (laughs). I would go back and thank a lot of people for having been there during my journey. I owe my friends, colleagues and family a lot, and I would be grateful for the next 30 days. 

Do you have an inspiring figure? 

My grandfather. He was an entrepreneur and started a lot of cool things. He is my biggest inspiration, and one of the main reasons why I am a founder today.

A newsletter we should follow?

Not boring by Packy McCormick

If you were to start another company today, what would be your one-billion-dollar idea?

There are a lot of cool things still to be built in the gaming industry. I would personally look at the emergence of the metaverse and NFTs.  

Inspiring story Rajith, thank you very much.

Rajith and his co-founder Rajesh Raikwar
Rajith and his co-founder Rajesh Raikwar

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