It took hours for Atin Kothari to convince his parents-in-law that they should be glad their grandson was leaving college.
Degree or no degree, Ajay Mehta was on a roll. He had taught himself front-end Web design, caught the attention of blockbuster technology blogs TechCrunch and Mashable and seen an app he helped build crash under the weight of viral international interest — all before the end of his freshman year.
He was studying in London last fall, partway through his second year at New York University’s Stern School of Business, when he learned that he and fellow Interlake High School classmate Wesley Zhao got accepted into one of the hottest startup incubators in the world.
Now all eight of Ajay’s grandparents — both his parents have remarried — plus dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins from here to Europe, Hong Kong and India are users of the site he and Zhao left school to build, a promising private social network called FamilyLeaf.
“If it had been time off to travel,” Atin said with a smile, “I would’ve had a harder time with that.”
I met with Ajay, his mother, Sona Kothari, and Atin, his stepdad, in the family’s home in Bellevue. Sona offered me pumpkin bread and two pens when I realized I’d forgotten mine. It can’t be easy, talking to a reporter about your son’s immense ambitions. She’s a psychiatrist. The whole family, it seems, consists of doctors. But Ajay, whom she raised as a single mother for years, can “think outside the box,” she said.
So while most of his friends were home from school for the Thanksgiving weekend, he was home from building a company.
He has extraordinary support. In the tech world, that startup incubator he joined — Y Combinator — is a kingmaker. It’s located in the heart of Silicon Valley and counts hits like Dropbox, Airbnb and Reddit among its alums. When they started work on FamilyLeaf this year, Ajay and Wesley, who are now in San Francisco, shared a house in Palo Alto, Calif.
Yup, that’s the same place Mark Zuckerberg took Facebook from its Harvard birthplace.
Like anyone working in the social networking space, Ajay has a complicated relationship with Facebook. He uses it to share everything from Instagram pics of the view from his roof to that crazy time during a Moscow business conference where he ended up listening to Richard Branson while sitting next to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
But, as you hear from so many people these days, it’s one thing to connect online with friends and another to connect with family. Facebook is a pretty inefficient way for a relative uninterested in following dozens of friends to see family photos.
Even if you use Facebook Lists to share some content with just your family, as I do, they still see all the content you post to your wider network of friends. Ajay’s friends call him “A-jay.” His family, “Ah-jay.” What if you don’t want those worlds to cross?
FamilyLeaf is a gamble, and its theory is this: Facebook got everyone comfortable with social networking. Now there’s room for private social networks to fill in the gaps.
FamilyLeaf isn’t the only company building a place for families, but it appears to be on the right track. FamilyLeaf’s interface is clean, its features simple, and, when possible, extra-accssible. Email uploading and messaging means even relatives unfamiliar with social networking can share photos and see updates. It even teaches you what to share to spark conversations with family members. One optional feature sends you text message prompts to share tidbits from your day with your family: “How’s your day going?” “What’s the weather like?” “What are you reading?”
Ajay, Sona and Atin had a way of talking over but not against each other that gave me a sense for how they must connect over news of an aunt’s injury or video of a niece’s dance performance. Ajay’s grandfather, an 82-year-old medical radiation physicist in Pittsburgh, shared a photo of himself wearing one of those costume nose and mustache glasses on Halloween.
For a big, disparate family used to connecting mostly at weddings or with quick phone calls on someone’s birthday whenever time zones permitted, they said, it was a nice change.
As we talked, Ajay got a serious look on his face. They should be building in birthday reminders, he said. I could almost see him carve the mental note.
More than his achievements, his ideas and the incredible connections he’s made through Y Combinator, Ajay has two things going for him.
One is persistence. When he got wait-listed from a senior year at New Hampshire’s prestigious Philips Exeter Academy, he pleaded with teachers he knew from a summer program to vouch for him until he got in. The first time he and Wesley applied to Y Combinator, just months after their earliest tech dabbles got them into those big name blogs, they failed the interview and woke up to what Ajay admits was their own naiveté. But no biggie. They just tried again.
Ajay’s other strength, appropriately, is his family.
He began the interview by telling me how his family’s support means everything. An easy thing to say. Later, when he marveled at the faith his backers have in him — “We’re 20 and people are investing in us” — Atin butted in. “It’s not faith!” he said, almost angry. Sona nodded. “You convinced them!”
That, I later realized, convinced me.
Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.