Since 2006, Immad Akhund has been building startups.
“I’m a real startup nerd, or whatever the term is, so I’m always thinking of ideas and problems and [asking] why can’t this be better?”
One problem he ran into consistently as he built his startups was working with banks. Often, startup founders open their business bank accounts at banks that handle their personal bank accounts.
And while most banks offer products for businesses, the vast majority are not tailored toward the needs of startups.
“They don’t know what a startup is,” Akhund says. “If you raise a million dollars, they’ll probably block your account and say, ‘What the hell happened to your account? You have a million dollars.
You just started this business.’ They just don’t understand the startup space.”
That’s just one of the many issues that led Akhund to create Mercury, a fintech company that offers banking for startups through its partner banks. Mercury launched in 2019 and is now reportedly valued at more than $1.62 billion.
“Going to a bank that actually gets it and will celebrate your million-dollar raise and not shut you down is important,” he says.
More recently, Akhund and his team launched Mercury Raise, which works with young startups to help them raise money.
Akhund is also an angel investor in more than 300 startups, many of which have become successes in their own right.
But before Mercury, there was a decade of starts and stops for Akhund. He launched three other startups with varying levels of success and started his journey as an investor.
And that’s what it’s always been about for Akhund: the journey. While the success of Mercury is nothing to sneeze at, Akhund has always enjoyed the learning process and the problem-solving each startup has put him through.
“To me, it’s always been [about] the journey,” he says. “I enjoy making things. I enjoy having customers and talking to them. I think if it’s always about the end result, you will be disappointed.”
Building Trust in a New Service
To build a brand-new banking service, Akhund had to overcome three major hurdles.
First, he had to learn all about fintech, having never worked in that space before.
Second, the company needed a banking partner that was aligned with the needs of startups.
“To provide banking services, you need to have a bank partner,” he says. “Most people who do it are not banks themselves. And Mercury is not a bank. We actually work with two different partner banks right now.”
It took Akhund and his co-founders about a year and a half to launch, a process that was delayed when they had to switch bank partners because of a lack of support for non-U.S. resident startup founders.
But delaying the launch meant that they had more time to perfect the product. Instead of launching your typical minimum viable product (MVP), they launched a product that had already been through several iterations.
“I actually think that was part of the reason we were successful because people were just so impressed by how much work we put into having this extremely polished product.”
The third step was to build trust with an audience who had never heard of them, an audience they hoped would entrust their money with them.
“You’re actually asking for a lot of trust. It’s not a software product that you can just try out,” he says. “You have to put in real money. You have to send the money somewhere, and you have to hope that they do a good job with your money.”
For that, Akhund and his co-founders turned to startup influencers and Twitter. In fact, for the first couple months, Twitter became their primary growth channel to attract customers
He managed to attract 60 angel investors in his initial round of fundraising through introductions or existing networks, two of whom tweeted about Mercury to their large followings. They were Twitch co-founder Justin Kan and Elad Gil, co-founder of Mixer Labs.
“Those two tweets made quite a big difference in not just spreading the word but also making people feel like they could trust us.”
That was what kicked off the company’s reputation. Now, they focus on building good customer relationships and encouraging customers to spread the word. Because while getting attention from big-time founders and investors is one thing, it will only take you so far. Trust from customers will indubitably attract new customers.
“There are a lot of users we have that use Mercury, and they’re big proponents of us, which is obviously even better than an investor because a user is actually using it and they have a real experience,” he says.
What Makes a Strong Investment?
When it comes to investing, Akhund has sat on both sides of the table. To expand Mercury’s reach, he tapped into his network of investor friends and started Mercury Raise, a program that helps connect early-stage founders with quality investors and provide guidance on fundraising. Currently, more than 300 investors are associated with the program, which funnels them leads on worthy startups.
Once every quarter, they invite founders to meet with VCs and other founders to share tips and best practices around fundraising.
Whether it’s for Mercury Raise or his own investments, when Akhund looks for startups to invest in, he’s looking at the entrepreneurs behind them and four key elements in their business approach.
The first is deep knowledge of their vertical and their product. “They should be able to answer any question you pose to them and have a really thoughtful, meaningful answer,” he says. “You should be able to really engage and have a deep conversation around their topic.”
The second is chemistry. One of the implicit promises Akhund makes as an investor is his complete availability to founders.
“If I invest in someone and they send me an email at 6pm and they need some advice and can they have a call, I will say yes. I really want to invest in someone where I can say yes and look forward to that conversation,” he says.
The third element he’s looking for is perseverance.
“Being an entrepreneur can be a real grind, and you can feel like the whole world is against you. So how have you shown that you can overcome that and have that kind of strong fortitude?”
Finally, Akhund looks for forward-thinking founders with ethics and a worldview similar to his own.
By checking off these boxes, he paves the way for a good relationship between himself and the company in which he’s investing.
Akhund’s 17-year journey as a founder and investor has relied heavily upon the relationships he’s built, not only with investors and customers but with co-founders and his team.
Through it all, he’s taken with him the people who can work through the highs and lows of startup life. And while he admits that it’s a tough road, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
After selling his first business, Heyzap, he didn’t rest on his laurels or take off to enjoy his newfound wealth. Nor does he rely on passive investments. He remains heavily involved in building new companies, including his own.
“It’s a grind. It’s not easy. It definitely would be easier to relax on a beach. I guess even being an investor is a lot easier,” he says. “But I think it’s important not to optimize for easy. I think it’s important to optimize for something that you can be excited about when you wake up in the morning.”