The only thing the twins Swapnil Shinde and Snehal Shinde, cofounders of travel assistant startup Mezi, disagree on is their choice of Hindi movie superstar. Swapnil is a Salman Khan fan and Snehal, the older one by five minutes, is devoted to Shah Rukh Khan.
Put this detail aside and you have a Bollywoodisque story of twins with pretty much similar life experiences—from going to the same colleges and companies and sharing a love of sketching and painting to the ups-and-downs of entrepreneurship.
“One advantage we had was we never had to look for a cofounder,” said Snehal Shinde. The Pune-born brothers have just sold Mezi, their second startup, to American Express in an all-cash deal estimated at $125-150 million.
Their success began with a film-like plot twist that pushed them towards starting up.
The Bollywood buffs were doing their Masters inComputer Science at The University of Southern California (USC) and terribly missed listening to Hindi film songs. So they built a music-streaming website called Dhingana in 2007 that became hugely popular.
Their success has not been entirely down to chance. There has been a lot of careful planning and execution.
Snehal joined Yahoo in 2006 and was a part of the team that handled services such as Yahoo Finance, Sports, and News, gaining insight on how to build scalable platforms. By 2007, he had roped in Swapnil when he found an opening in Yahoo’s web-building team.
“They are very complementary. They can finish each other’s sentences and know what the other guy is thinking,” said Ash Lilani of Saama Capital, which backed Mezi during its series-B fundraising round in2016. Lilani said of his meeting with the duo that it was “the fastest I have made my mind about making an investment.”
In 2011, as the number of users for Dhingana grew manifold, Swapnil and Snehal decided to quit their jobs at Yahoo and work on the music-streaming business full-time. But music streaming is a tough business and they sold the company to US-based Rdio in early 2014. Rdio itself filed for bankruptcy in 2015.
Dhingana gave the twins great exposure and lessons that set them up for success with Mezi.
“Clearly failure teaches a lot. In Silicon Valley, there is saying that one failure is needed, two failures are ok to get to success, but if there are three failures then there is something wrong,” said Jishnu Bhattacharjee of Nexus Venture Partners, who has known the brothers since their Dhingana days.
Nexus led Mezi’s two fundraising rounds.
More than half of the core leadership team of nine people at Mezi had also worked at Dhingana.
The algorithm they built at Dhingana for throwing up the right recommendations to users was tweaked to cater to users at Mezi. “At Dhingana, we built an algorithm… a genome… if you keep liking a certain kind of song, the next one will be something you like. The core of Mezi comes from our learning in Dhingana,” said Snehal Shinde.
There was one more interesting takeaway from Dhingana for the brothers at their second venture. At Mezi, they decided to build the team in parallel—up-down and bottom-up, rather than only bottom-up as they had done at Dhingana. This approach turned out to be very useful at Mezi, making it easy for them to grow the team.