Tapan Kataria, 25, started out DJ-ing in high school out of necessity — to make ends meet and pay for college. But, it turned into his first business venture, and since then Kataria has continued to launch his own startups or help other founders achieve their dreams.
“I grew up in India, with twelve people in a three-bedroom house. I came from a humble background,” said Kataria who migrated to the United States in 2008, when he was 12-years old.
Kataria started playing at Indian weddings, recognizing a market for an unfulfilled demand. This early experience taught him a lot – how to cater to customers, how to deal with stress, how to be detail oriented and get this done in a high-intensity environment.
When Kataria got to college at Michigan State University, he became involved with MSUHatch, a co-working, incubator space for students at the university. Here he learned about grants and received advice — as well as time — to focus on his own idea for a business.
He worked on developing a company called Zest Meal, an online marketplace that connected home-chefs to foodies. Through Zest Meal, Kataria aimed to bring out the story behind the recipes, giving chefs a chance to share a homemade meal with those around them. His enterprise started to gain traction six months in and he was faced with a difficult decision: whether to go into business full-time or focus on school.
“Every business is a competition, there is someone working harder or longer,” said Kataria. “My value proposition is time — I can hustle harder. I can always go back to school, but I won’t have this opportunity.”
Kataria did go back to school years later, recently receiving his degree in advertising, but his path wasn’t traditional. He acknowledged that in Indian culture, dropping out of school is a big deal. With the support of his parents, he was able to filter out the advice of people who didn’t matter. And he gave himself two years — if nothing worked out — he would go back to school.
But the journey was just the beginning for Kataria. After wrapping up the business, he joined Techstars Accelerator in 2018, a global platform for investment and innovation, and he has been there for the past two years. Kataria has also been named to the Crain’s Detroit Business “20 in their 20s” list in 2019. He’s now added 30 startups to his investment portfolio including companies like Healthy Roots, Tambua Health, and Zohr.
In his role with Techstars, Kataria has helped put together Detroit Startup Week as the Chief of Staff, and that’s where he met Komal Choong, 29, the founder and CEO of Zohr, a tech enabled tire service company.
“Tapan is a hustler in its purest form,” said Choong. “Whenever there is an issue or he sees an opportunity he really runs after it. One of the things I’ve been impressed with is his ability to connect with people.”
Choong described how Kataria helped him build relationships with mentors and investors in Detroit, some of whom he is still in touch with. Even now, if Choong reaches out to Kataria with an issue, he said that Kataria will know just the person to call in his network.
“He adds a tremendous value to companies,” said Choong of Kataria.
Choong and Kataria connected from the start — both drawing on their families’ backgrounds in entrepreneurship. Recently, Kataria has helped Zohr brainstorm and build a narrative to help raise a new round of funding.
Both Choong and Kataria echo that the startup world isn’t easy.
“Ideas are great, ideas without any action are pretty useless,” said Choong when asked what he’s learned through his own experience starting a company. “One message for anyone out there who is thinking about starting a business or has an idea is that you have to be able to take some level of risk and action.”
Kataria has both learned in school and through his own lived experiences. He said that school helped him with structure and discipline, but real life is where he learned his story. “What you do outside school helps you be who you are,” said Kataria. “It helps you realize through failures that you might not know what you like, but you know what you don’t like.”
It’s a constant learning curve, and Kataria knows there can be ups and downs, coupled with long hours. But, he is motivated by a desire to create opportunity for folks back in his hometown in India.
“This job give me the privilege to bet on founders that can genuinely build the foundation of the ecosystem,” said Kataria. “It’s a front row seat to help founders create the future.”
Throughout his work, Kataria looks for those intersections in the market of “a space that is crowded, yet small,” and he focuses on building relationships.
That’s something he’s appreciated about being based in Detroit.
“Everyone is hustling, everyone wants to help you,” said Kataria who talks about meeting people like the founders of successful ventures, such as, Rocket Fiber or Bamboo Detroit. “Detroit made that happen. If I was in any other place, I wouldn’t get to sit down with the CEO of a company making millions of dollars. Detroit gave me that opportunity because of the people.”
As he sees people starting to leave San Francisco and New York, he’s optimistic about what’s coming for the city of Detroit. He said he feels the future is bright, it just needs a bit of time.
For more information on Kataria’s investment portfolio, visit iamtops.com.