Being a startup exec is demanding, yet TimeXtender’s Romi Mahajan finds time to advise 30 other companies

The self-made man, the person who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps, is revered in capitalism. Romi Mahajan says that self-made man is a myth.

“I’ve never seen that myself,” said Romi Mahajan, sitting comfortably in his corner office in a Bellevue high-rise. “Everyone has parents or friends. Many people think they made it on their own, but the government subsidized them. We’re all subsidized in some way, whether it’s the love they give you, or you have a spouse at home doing the housework.”

Mahajan knows this, because he lived it.

The chief commercial officer of Bellevue-based TimeXtender, Mahajan has a presence; he’s a mane of dark curls who doesn’t shy away from multiple prints and textures in his clothing. He’s calm, confident, and warm, which allows associates to feel immediately comfortable and at ease. Speak to Mahajan, and you can almost see the wheels turning in his head as he takes in information and sifts through his mental library for advice that could be useful.

At 16, Mahajan left his family home in Pflugerville, Texas, a rural burg just outside Austin, to attend the University of California, Berkeley. Marketing wasn’t his original plan. Instead, he wanted to be a scientist like his father, but soon realized that was not where his true talents were.

“It wasn’t that I was bad at math and science, but the assiduous focus you needed for them didn’t fit with who I was then,” Mahajan said. “I was flitting about making friends and hanging out. I noticed that my skill really lay in dealing with people, and in being an effective communicator.”

20160831_romimahajan_256

Photo by Rachel Coward

Mahajan graduated from Berkeley at age 19 and later enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin to obtain a graduate degree and become a professor. Yet his attention drifted to the 9-to-5 world, so he left grad school after one year. He later returned, but only at a point in his life when he felt his education was something he wanted to fulfill, not simply because it was a step in a predetermined process.

“It’s interesting that when you read about anyone, with a few exceptions, it can look like it was very focused. But in reality it was meandering,” Mahajan said. “And it was decisions made along the way, some mistakes and some great things, and I’m very happy where I landed.”

This meandering path is why Mahajan calls himself an “accidental marketer.” His current diverse and successful career wasn’t the product of conscious design. He simply recognized his skills and abilities and set those talents to work for him.

“It was clear that if I applied my native intelligence to (marketing), I could be pretty good at it, and I could make a difference for people around me, whether in the corporate world, in the startup world, or even in the nonprofit world of social justice. Communication is just tantamount,” he said.

Mahajan ended up at TimeXtender, which sells a platform that automates data warehousing. Mahajan’s glass-walled office looks out both to the rest of TimeXtender’s open office and also across downtown Bellevue, with views of the Cascade Mountains on clear days. The company’s signature orange covers a wall and a few office accessories, and the bright office suits its occupant. Mahajan greets coworkers cheerfully, jokes with them, and quickly offers kudos for jobs well done.

In total, Mahajan worked for a decade at Microsoft, leaving for good in 2011. Now, he’s a full-time executive at a startup, yet still makes time to do something equally demanding: advise startups. He currently advises, in one capacity or another, more than 30 companies, including Seattle-based El Gaucho Hospitality, Bellevue-based Limefy, Redmond’s Payboard, India-based Tripoto, and California-based Zuberance Inc. He even runs a boutique marketing consulting firm, KKM Group, and continues to author articles and books about sociology, history, and class through a marketing lens.

It’s easy to make a case that Mahajan is overworked, but in reality, he says he’s careful about the projects he works on and sees value in having many irons in the fire. He receives inspiration from startup cofounders and enjoys the process of developing ideas and putting them into the market. It’s why he keeps coming back for more.

“It’s part of what makes me who I am, so I would argue that even being the chief commercial officer of TimeXtender, I do it better because of the other companies I’m involved in, and vice versa,” Mahajan said.

Some would say Mahajan took a risk by leaving Microsoft and its steady paycheck, and a well-defined role as worldwide director. But he doesn’t see it that way. To Mahajan, risk is not about quitting a comfortable job, joining a startup, or investing time and money into other startups. It’s about being true to himself and what makes him happy.

“I have one life, and I have to live it in a happy way and be enthused every day. So the risk of not living it the way I want to is the scary part,” Mahajan said. “To me, it’s a risk of me not being fulfilled, and if I’m not fulfilled, I’m not going to be a particularly good friend or a good husband or dad or coworker.”

He shares this point of view with the startup cofounders he advises and invests in. Mahajan’s startup connections are built in his typical meandering fashion. He’ll meet someone, talk through ideas, and eventually he may receive an invite to be involved in some fashion. Mahajan said his connections and partnerships almost never begin with the intention of a business transaction, but instead with simply getting to know interesting people doing interesting things.

“A lot of startups want to work with me because I’m quite networked,” he said. “I know a lot of people. Whether it can be someone else who can advise them, a buyer, a partner, someone in the media, et cetera, there’s that notion of connecting them to other people.”

Well-constructed networks are of particular interest to Mahajan. To him, it’s more beneficial to know a variety of interesting people in a variety of industries than it is to surround oneself with, say, only tech executives. This approach emphasizes knowing anyone who is engaging or involved in something unique, rather than focusing on those in perceived positions of power.

“You never really know the degree to which somebody that you’ve met has decision-making capability, or has some wisdom to give you,” Mahajan said.

Sometimes the wisdom Mahajan offers is blunt. “You have to be able to look at things and call your own baby ugly. It’s very hard,” he said. “Most entrepreneurs think their company is the best thing in the world — they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t think that.”

Aseem Badshah was an intern at Microsoft when he met Mahajan. The pair had similar interests, built a good professional rapport, and became friends. In 2012, Badshah started building Socedo, a social media lead-generation platform, and reached out to Mahajan for advice. Badshah was told that his baby was, well, ugly.

“I think for some people, that kind of up front feedback and frankness can be tough, but that’s really why he’s so valuable to have in your network,” Badshah said. “He really does care enough to shoot straight with you, and really be frank and aggressive, and get things done.”

Badshah still works with Mahajan; he’s on Seattle-based Socedo’s board of directors. Even though Mahajan is involved with numerous other companies, Badshah said he never has felt neglected, or that he held only part of Mahajan’s attention.

As positive as the attention sounds, being a Mahajan protégé has its drawbacks. For example, Mahajan has a tendency to fire off text, Skype, and email messages all times of the day. It took Badshah a little while to learn that the messages are not items that demand immediate action. Rather, they are Mahajan’s streams of thought.

“It’s up to you to manage the data and take in what’s useful and get back to him,” Badshah said. “He’s one that I don’t have to ask for help. He’s thinking about our business constantly, and he’s always in my ear. It’s a constant partnership instead of a sit-down meeting once every quarter.”

As far as the Mahajan connection-making magic goes, Badshah said he’s met partners, vendors, and investors thanks to his well-networked friend. But what’s been most important to Badshah has been Mahajan’s advice regarding health and life balance.

“Romi is super empathetic,” Badshah said. “He really looks at you as a person. He cares about your stress level and what’s going on outside of work and your work-life balance. … He’s the only advisor that will come to me and say, ‘This weekend, this Saturday, don’t work. Give yourself a break.’”

Mentoring startups is a process that Mahajan loves and says he won’t be quitting anytime soon. Perhaps the best advice he gives to his plethora of startups and connections is to not compromise your non-negotiable values, in life or in business.

“There are many people I know in corporate America who had a great time the first couple of years, and now are not happy but feel stuck,” Mahajan said. “There’s nothing wrong with corporate America, but if you’re not happy, then move on.”