When Dipesh Desai arrived in Houston from his native India in 2004, he was 15 years old, didn’t speak English and had only $7 in his pocket. He learned the language within a year, but his father had died, and without a family car, Desai walked miles each day escorting his two older sisters to their jobs at two different Walmart stores, each in a different direction from the family’s apartment.
“Every day when I was walking, I would look for spare change. Whether it was a quarter or a penny, I picked it up,” Desai said. “I knew every penny had value.”
A few years later, Desai’s situation had dramatically turned around. He had earned an undergraduate degree from The University of Texas at Austin and was on his way to medical school when he decided to enroll in the M.B.A. program at The University of Houston’s C. T. Bauer College of Business “to kill time before medical school.”
That decision changed his life. Desai, who earned his M.B.A. from UH in 2011, became an entrepreneur instead of a doctor.
“I knew somebody else could take my spot in medical school, quite possibly someone who had more passion for it. I was replaceable as a doctor. In entrepreneurship, if you’re not the guy doing it, your ideas may never come to life.”
David Cook, director of the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship, welcomed Desai to assist at WCE, where Desai became a teaching assistant.
“I think he felt that he had finally found his ‘tribe’—people who loved solving problems, being their own boss, creating something from nothing, bringing value to others and connecting people, technologies and solutions,” said Cook.
Today, Desai is part of another “tribe.” His latest startup, BillTrim, launched earlier this year as part of Batch 21, the 21st group of fledgling companies at 500 Startups, the largest accelerator in the world, self-proclaimed as a “badass, global family of startup founders, mentors and investors.” It is fiercely competitive and for good reason—it has produced three $1 billion-plus companies, or “unicorns” as they say in the world of startups.
Desai hopes BillTrim will be the next unicorn.
“The concept is simple: you upload your monthly bills to BillTrim, and we’ll reduce your bills through negotiation,” said Desai, the company’s CEO. “We negotiate using professional negotiators as well as chatbots and artificial intelligence. Customers keep 75 percent of the savings, and we keep 25 percent.”
Desai said Americans pay $500 billion a year more than they should on routine bills— utilities, cable and other recurring costs. It is something he learned the hard way when his electricity was unexpectedly shut off last year. The credit card he used to automatically pay the bill had expired.
“Sitting there while looking at my electricity bill, I realized I was paying more per kilowatt hour than I should be. The rate was not competitive. I found the same thing for my cable and auto insurance. I had gotten complacent in paying my bills, because I didn’t want to hassle with it. I called every one of my service providers the next day—it took all day—but it saved $4,000 over the course of a year,” said Desai.
The experience sparked BillTrim, which launched in January. By July, BillTrim had nearly $30,000 a month in revenue and was hiring 20 more employees—primarily negotiators and customer service representatives—to keep up. Desai predicts revenue will increase five-fold by the end of 2017. “We find discounts, promotional rates and use competing services to negotiate better deals for our clients, but what sets us apart is technology. For many of the negotiations we can use chatbots. We’ve also built technology that allows us to bypass the red tape—we are able to get return calls with the manager on the line.”
Desai co-founded BillTrim with “genius coder” and chief technology officer Anu Sura. He recently added Tanvir Hussein—a friend and fellow Cougar from the M.B.A. program—as a partner to run operations and help the company grow.
Desai was first introduced to the idea of entrepreneurship when he arrived at UH. While still a student, he started ExcelNow!, an online training program for Microsoft Excel certification, and InstantGrader, a program that helps professors automate grading for their courses.
He credits his experience at the University of Houston and his own mentors, like Cook, for his success.
“I come up with a lot of ideas,” said Desai. “I pass them by my mentors. The beauty of having amazing mentors, they won’t sugar coat it. They will tell you.”
Cook said Desai exemplifies the best in entrepreneurial spirit—the curiosity to uncover problems and sincerity in wanting to solve them.
“Dipesh has an enormous interest in life. He couples this curiosity with an amazing ability to get things done. He has developed relationships with key partners that enable him to turn his innovation into commercial businesses. These relationships are driven by their deep trust in Dipesh,” said Cook.
Desai and his family have come a long way. Both of his older sisters earned degrees from UH; Priya studied accounting and finance, and Shraddha studied engineering. Desai often thinks back to those long walks between Walmarts and how much each penny meant.
“I was embarrassed that I got to a point where I was throwing thousands of dollars away each year. It’s not fair to yourself. You could be using it on other things or saving or donating it,” he said.
Desai is currently in California’s Silicon Valley raising capital. The accelerator taught him and other entrepreneurs in Batch 21 how to grow and scale their companies. Desai said BillTrim will keep its technical talent in Silicon Valley and grow its operations and negotiating team in the Houston area.
“In a very real sense, Dipesh is living the American Dream,” said Cook. “That pioneer spirit of coming to a new country, not speaking the language, without resources and creating enormous success for himself and others is a compelling story that is part of the fabric of our country.”