Mokhtarzada Brothers’ Startup Success Story Comes Home With New Student Venture Incubator at UMD
Photo illustration by iStock.
Idris Mokhtarzada ’10 took his first computer science class at the University of Maryland before he even started high school.
“His feet didn’t even touch the floor when he sat down in the chair,” recalls his older brother, Haroon ’01. “He was that tiny.”
Tiny, maybe. But Idris’ experience made a big impression: “That really jump-started my knowledge about programming.”
In the years since, Idris, Haroon and their brothers, Zeki ’01 and Yahya ’06, have become startup superstars. Their latest venture, the finance management app Truebill, just hit a million customers. And as angel investors in more than 100 startups, the Mokhtarzadas have helped other entrepreneurs launch their businesses as well.
This fall, Haroon, Idris and Zeki returned to College Park on a different mission: They’re funding a new startup incubator in UMD’s Department of Computer Science to help students turn their entrepreneurial dreams into viable, sustainable ventures.
“We’ve always wanted to be involved in some kind of incubator,” Haroon said. “We believe technology companies are really the future of entrepreneurship, and it’s the computer science majors that are building technology companies.”
The Mokhtarzada Hatchery, located in the Brendan Iribe Center for Computer Science and Engineering, every year will provide up to four teams of student entrepreneurs with seed funding of as much as $10,000, plus working space and mentoring and networking opportunities.
“There seems to be this gap where you have student groups who get a lot of support early on to develop an idea, but that transition from this idea to a business that is going to get a serious round of funding is missing,” Zeki said.
It’s just the kind of challenge the Mokhtarzada brothers love.
Two Continents, Two Generations
The connection between the Mokhtarzada family and the University of Maryland crosses two continents and two generations.
Their parents, Mohammad Mokhtarzada ’70, M.A. ’74 and Ilhan Cagri ’00, Ph.D. ’05 met at Maryland. She is Turkish and grew up in the U.S., and he was a foreign student from Afghanistan. After Mohammad finished his second degree, they returned there until after the Russians invaded.
The couple raised their children in the Maryland suburbs and ran a business out of their home to help people get passports and visas.
“They had computers and I just always loved it,” Zeki said. “When I was in my teens, my father encouraged me to start getting involved in programming and the database software that the office was using, so I just got the exposure and I always enjoyed it.”
While Idris shared Zeki’s passion for computers. Haroon was interested in entrepreneurship, starting businesses for lawnmowing, magic shows and snow shoveling.
At UMD, Zeki and Haroon began their first venture together: a do-it-yourself website company in their dorm room that eventually became Webs.com. Yahya and Idris—who wasn’t even in college yet—pitched in.
“We bootstrapped the company for a while and we raised venture funding,” Haroon said. Ten years later, they sold it to Vistaprint for about $120 million.
The brothers stayed with Vistaprint for a few years, but by 2015 they were ready for something new. From Idris’ basement, they formed the Floundry, Haroon said, “where we would literally flounder on ideas.”
“The first idea was kind of like a Peloton with virtual reality, so you could be on an exercise bike and do virtual reality,” Zeki recalled. “We started developing that idea, but then it was like that won’t work, it’ll get all sweaty, it’s going to take us a year to develop.”
Then Haroom started thinking about how people are paying for subscriptions they aren’t aware of. The brothers didn’t have to look far for examples: Haroon was paying for an alarm company every month on a house he no longer lived in. Zeki was paying for Audible monthly without even knowing it. Idris and Yahya had the same problem.
Together, the four Mokhtarzadas co-founded Truebill, an app that helps users manage their bills and online subscriptions. Six years later, the company has done several rounds of funding, most recently raising $45 million.
“We have thousands of customers signing up every day. We’re in a place where we can say we advocate for consumers’ financial health,” said Zeki, who now works as an advisor to Truebill and as CTO at Tenovos, an online software company in digital marketing.
Never Forgetting Where They Came From
Even after all these years, success is not something the Mokhtarzadas take for granted. They are grateful that they were able to leave Afghanistan when others were not, and are committed to turning their good fortune into something meaningful and good. Launching the Hatchery is a way to do just that.
“I don’t think you could do this at just any school,” said Idris, who is Truebill’s CTO. “At Maryland, you have an incredible program, incredible professors, incredible students, incredible alumni. Plenty of alumni have gone on to do great things. We want to continue that and make that happen more often.”
Haroon, who is CEO of Truebill, said it allows the family to pay back the University of Maryland a little bit and pay it forward in the UMD community.
“I think this is missing in the D.C. metro area,” he said. “There’s a reason people are going to San Francisco and that’s because they have incubators that are very focused on getting entrepreneurs out and building companies. That’s something that we’d love to replicate closer to home.”
Their dream became easier to achieve in 2019, when Truebill’s headquarters moved from San Francisco to Silver Spring, Md., and UMD opened the Brendan Iribe Center and offered the brothers space for the Hatchery.
The goal: foster success, one student venture at a time.
“There are a lot of lessons that people in the startup world have learned that college students haven’t and (that) they don’t teach in college,” Idris said. “You need that sort of community, and if I can help push that forward, that’s a really cool thing.”
Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.
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