24-year-old Khallil Mangalji is a happy guy. He just closed a $US1.8 million round of venture funding for his two-year-old startup, Fiix, and got some good news about his health.
The cancer tumour he’s been fighting for the past year while launching his startup is in retreat and the prognosis for a full recovery is good, he told Business Insider.
His young life is a reminder that good things often require hard choices, teamwork and, sometimes, fighting with everything you’ve got.
An annoyance leads to a startup
Mangalji is CTO and one of three cofounders of a Toronto startup called Fiix, which sends licensed mechanics out on house calls to do minor auto repairs like installing new brake pads and changing tires or oil.
Fiix was launched two years ago by Mangalji and his two college buddies Zain Manji and Arif Bhanji, who would hang out and dream up apps to generate some cash while they finished their computer science degrees. They had already tried a few things, none of them successful, like an “Airbnb for weddings” and “a magnetic weight lifting app,” Mangalji tells us.
But on this particular day, one of them had to deal with getting snow tires put on his car. The local shops were all booked up, so he was forced to hire someone off of Kijiji, Canada’s version of Craigslist, who was coming to his house to do the work.
When the mechanic was done they looked at each other and said, “That was much easier than going to a shop. What if we could build an app to do that for everyone?” Mangalji recalled.
And so their startup was born, initially called Tire Swap. The guys rounded up some licensed mechanics, built an app to send them to people’s houses to change tires, and were shocked that in the first week “80 people paid us to use the service,” he said. By the end of the month, it had serviced “hundreds” of customers, he said.
Soon customers started asking if the mechanics could do more stuff, so Tire Swap became Fiix. Today, Fiix has completed 4,000 repairs for people, is on track to do $US1.2 million worth of repairs this year, and keeps three mechanics so busy they left their shops to work for Fiix customers full-time, he said. All told there’s 15 mechanics registered on the system, he said.
Fiix is only in Toronto, but with that nearly $US2 million in seed money led by Javelin Venture Partners
(backers of Thumbtack and a bunch of other auto-tech startups), the founders hope to start expanding to other areas.
Snapchat leads to $US20,000 and Y Combinator
Fiix bolted onto the startup scene in a highly unusual way.
Mangalji was initially going the traditional route with his career. In college he landed prestigious internships at Pivotal Labs, Apple, BitPesa (a bitcoin/blockchain startup in Africa), and Facebook.
When he graduated he landed job offers from Facebook, Uber, Medium, and others, he said.
Mangalji is convinced he landed so many offers because he could show them Fiix. They were interested in how it was built and were especially impressed it was earning revenue.
While a friend of his advised him to blow off a job and work on Fiix full time, he ignored that advice and accepted an offer from Uber.
But right before he was going to start the job in May, 2016, Justin Kan announced he was accepting pitches for a Y Combinator Fellowship via Snapchat. Kan is best known as the co-founder of live video platforms Justin.tv and Twitch.tv. Scrappy startups were sending Kan Snap video pitches laden with bad attempts at humour. Just for kicks, Mangalji, Manji and Bhanji made their own.
They were shocked when Kan’s followers, who were voting on the pitches, chose Fiix among the best of the bunch. This won them an interview for a YC fellowship spot, which they aced. They were told to be in California the next day. They literally booked their airline tickets from Canada to San Francisco on the cab ride to the airport.
And Mangalji made the hard choice to call up Uber and turn down the sure-fire job. He was going to focus on Fiix instead.
They ended this first YCcombinator experience with $US20,000 and a bunch of Amazon Web Services credits.
But the real break happened without them knowing. In early June, a top “Product Hunter” saw their YC pitch and posted their app to Product Hunt. Fiix became the second product of the day on June 6, 2016. Visits to their site shot up 6,000%, and more customers started rolling in.
A cancer diagnosis
Things were going well for the Fiix team when Mangalji received the devastating news that he had cancer.
His first response was cheerful determination.
“I went in with the attitude, I’m going to be able to do this. As a cofounder, you have to have mental toughness. I thought, if you have a problem, as long as you mentally feel you can overcome it and never let that change, you will,” he told Business Insider.
But he hadn’t counted on being cut down at the knees by the cancer treatments themselves. They drained him.
“Everything gets deteriorated. You start to lose more than energy and strength. The hardest thing to lose is the mental freedom. My thoughts started to loop more,” he said.
The treatments were in three-week cycles — from easy weeks to hard weeks — over three months. On those hard weeks, he couldn’t eat or hardly get out of bed, much less focus on work. So his cofounders carried him on their shoulders, put in the extra hours when needed, and just did his work for him, he says.
More Y Combinator, more bad news
The treatments ended and Fiix got accepted into the full Y Combinator program. The three of them moved to California. Mangalji describes that time like the HBO show “Silicon Valley” as in, “a bunch of sweaty dues living together in a house drinking a bunch of Soylent and trying to build a billion-dollar company.”
Then, his cancer came back.
As a Canadian, his treatments were covered by the national health system (even the care he needed in California). But when the cancer returned, he had to go home for another three months of chemo.
He posted a heartbreaking YouTube video on that day, saying “I’m not really that worried about it. It’s just like another thing to get through,” although he was clearly discouraged.
Flash forward to today, and the cancer is in retreat and Fiix is still growing — the cofounders have hired three more people.
Obviously, for Fiix to become a billion-dollar startup, it will need to grow from one city to a national or international market. That’s no small task and few startups have done so successfully.
But for Mangalji, just being able to try is a joy.
“I appreciate our opportunity to do something that matters. Most people don’t have that opportunity to do things that matter. They have to worry about getting food every day or getting shelter,” he says.
“There were times when I couldn’t eat enough or couldn’t stand and I didn’t have the freedom to work on Fiix. But in times like now, when we can work on Fiix, it’s a luxury.”
Here’s the video.
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