Nayeem Hussain has stood in front of the sharks, but on Tuesday he stood in front of another school of fish: college students looking to learn how to become the next great entrepreneur.
“What impressed me was the variety and the diversity in the content of the questions,” Hussain, 34, said. “Whether it was from hiring strategy and what we look for as someone who is hiring, which I think is a smart question, to the culture we’re trying to build — that’s something that shows the level of engagement.”
Hussain, a 2005 Smeal College of Business graduate, spoke Tuesday at the Information Sciences and Technology Building as part of Penn State Startup Week, sharing his experiences in a standing-room only classroom. It was his first time speaking at the universitywide showcase for entrepreneurship and innovation.
The classroom was a different stage from “Shark Tank,” the hit ABC show that puts up-and-coming business ideas under the Hollywood spotlight. Two years ago, Hussain and Keen Home co-founder Ryan Fant pitched their startup on the show, garnering a $750,000 investment from “shark” Robert Herjavec for 13 percent of the company.
Since then, Herjavec’s investment has paid off. Keen Home’s product, a wirelessly controlled air vent called the Smart Vent, has grown from about $1 million in sales before appearing on the show to a projected $5.8 million in 2016, according to Forbes. In the early going, the company struck a deal with Lowe’s Home Improvement for 35,000 units — a windfall of more than $2 million in future sales, Inc. reported. Being the weather god of each individual room, the duo found, was appealing to consumers and investors alike.
Hussain and Fant conjured the idea while students in New York University’s MBA program. Originally, it started as a class project.
“Even when I went to graduate school six, seven years later after graduating from Penn State, I didn’t go in wanting to be an entrepreneur,” Hussain said. “I was always very satisfied with my professional career… But I went into graduate school with an open mind.”
Several students with their own startups asked Hussain about taking their companies from the kiddie pool into the deep end. One asked him about striking the first deal.
To that, Hussain responded simply: “You get used to hearing ‘no’ a lot,” he said. “It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life is raising money as a first-time entrepreneur.”
Hussain estimated he and Fant put in $50,000 to $75,000 each of their own money to get Keen Home off the ground.
But scoring the initial deal with Lowe’s was a product of serendipity. The pair pitched Kenn Home at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2013, the final year of their MBA programs. An elementary school classmate of Hussain’s saw him while livestreaming the event.
The former classmate worked for Lowe’s.
“Start networking,” Hussain told the crowd. “It’s sometimes uncomfortable because of the sheer magnitude of it, but go to meetups, go to hackathons… and meet cool, smart people.”
Andrew Simpson and Kenny Dundorf, two of the co-founders of Someonew, a social app that brings strangers with common interests together, asked Hussain about moving from State College to New York or San Francisco, places where they hope to enroll in an accelerator program for startups.
“The question centered around we’re uprooting ourselves and kind of going into the unknown,” Dundorf said. “It’s kind of a question of where to start in this huge, daunting process.”
About a month ago, the company received its first venture capital investment. While it buoyed the co-founders’ hopes, it also reiterated the high risks and rewards of entrepreneurship.
But it’s a path that Hussain took. Going into his MBA program, for instance, he had envisaged staying in finance, his academic and professional background up until that point.
But then the class project came around. The idea became a company. TechCrunch Disrupt happened. To the chagrin of his wife, he turned down a lucrative job offer to pursue the business full time.
“I was planning on advancing my career on that track, but keeping that open mind helped me discover entrepreneurship,” Hussain said. “I haven’t really looked back.”