But, they dreamed big…
Ro Prakash decided he was done with medical school well before the family vacation.
In July 2012, on a family trip, he told his parents he wasn’t going to finish his final few semesters at UNC-Chapel Hill, despite more than a decade of study and well-received doctoral research at Stanford. Ro remembers his mother — a pediatrician, herself — being especially crushed.
That same summer, in Sydney, Australia, Nipul Patel left his executive advisor post. He moved halfway across the world into Ro’s modest Noe Valley apartment. The two best friends had dreamed of becoming entrepreneurs since they met soon after undergrad at a Halloween party in Washington, D.C.
Small Business Backbone
Both grew up seeing their immigrant parents work hard as entrepreneurs. Sometimes the family business thrived. Other times, it struggled.
Outside Charlotte, Ro’s mother’s medical practice, Concord Children’s Clinic, treated thousands of families. As a teenager, Ro and his sister tended the front desk. The experience gave him a keen insight into the complexities of running a business.
Nipul grew up in Memphis. His parents operated grocery stores, rental properties, and restaurants throughout the South.
After his father passed away in the late 1990s, Nipul was inspired as he watched his mother, Anne, bring the business back from bankruptcy. She now owns several hotels throughout Tennessee and Florida. Nipul still works the books.
All these experiences left the two determined to help those that shared that same passion and drive.
In the fall, both men spent time in far flung San Francisco neighborhoods — from Lake Merced to Fisherman’s Wharf — talking to any mom and pop proprietor that would engage with them. They were laser-focused on a kind of Groupon for the cash-strapped shops.
But all of their potential customers had much bigger issues than couponing: The deli across the street was facing staffing issues. The pet shop was concerned about rent hikes. The bar was worried about break-ins.
Worse: When asked if all these small business owners were speaking with one another, the answer was an inevitable, ‘No.’
Several months into the venture, the two were getting nowhere. They were living off family loans, credit cards and savings. They were ready to quit. One late night in December, the two hit a wall. After a particularly frenzied, alcohol-liberated argument they decided to scrap everything and start over.
Within a week, they sketched out the beginnings of Townsquared — a private, online community that would lessen the anxieties of a class of people they knew well by bringing them all together.
In January, Miwa Ikemiya, then Ro’s girlfriend (now his fiancée) began designing the site while working from some of the same coffee shops the startup would later court as members. A patchwork of programmers and engineers from India to San Francisco put together the rest. In August 2013, a year after the two entrepreneurs moved in together, the online community — forums at first, and later a series of online and mobile tools and alerts — emerged.
Not long after that, Townsquared found its first investor, a San Francisco restaurateur, Gene Ginsberg. The owner of Pasta Gina wrote a check for $10,000. He was among Townsquared’s first members.
More than $16 million in investment from the likes of Intuit, Sierra Ventures, August Capital, and Floodgate and the acquisition of another startup, followed.
The two best friends had dreamed of becoming entrepreneurs since they met soon after undergrad at a Halloween party in Washington, D.C.
So far, Townsquared has connected tens of thousands of business owners in San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, King County’s Eastside neighborhoods, and New York City. It’s become a space where many of those same people have networked and grown their ideas.
Unlike LinkedIn, Facebook, or even Nextdoor, the platform gives these modest engines of the economy the chance to think, share, and organize among their neighbors. All without the fear of revealing too much, or breaking one another’s trust.
Today, from a garage-cum-office in the Mission District, the startup has set its sights on expanding its community nationally.
To that end, it will soon roll out a set of tools for small business owners that will help them better manage their employees and vendors.
Even Ro’s mother has come around. She gushes at the mention of her son, though she still sometimes drops a line, here and there — nudging him to finish medical school.