Business development / PennApps

Former PennApps head Pulak Mittal went to SF to join Y Combinator [Exit Interview]

Shortly after shutting down his startup Emerald Exam, Pulak Mittal left the city.

Penn grad Pulak Mittal shut down his Dorm Room Fund-backed startup last spring. Shortly after, he left Philadelphia. Now he’s onto the next thing: running special projects at accelerator Y Combinator in San Francisco.

Mittal, 22, is best known for his work on pioneering college hackathon PennApps. (He also inspired the Twitter bot @pulakyelling.)

Under his leadership, PennApps grew from a 100-person Penn-only hackathon to a thousand-person “behemoth,” as he put it. College hackathons are now “a huge movement,” he said.

Below, we talk to Mittal about why he shut down his startup, what he’s working on right now (it involves bigwigs like Marissa Mayer and Peter Thiel) and when he wants to return to Philly.


When did you leave?

I left right after graduation — we stopped working on Emerald [Exam, his startup] in mid-March and spent the remainder of senior year taking part in senior year activities with all our friends. After graduation, I went back home with my family to Seattle and when this job opportunity came around, it was too good to pass up.

What’s the new gig?

I am the head of special projects at Y Combinator, which basically means I am working on a variety of one-off projects, working pretty closely with Sam [Altman, Y Combinator president] and helping take firms to the next level. Right now, my primary focus has been this class that we’re teaching at Stanford called how to start a startup, with a variety of high profile guest speakers: Marissa Mayer, Peter Thiel, Marc Andreessen. We’ll be recording the lectures and running them online, working with 300 to 400 universities to share them with students there. Sign up here.

Could anything have kept you here?

For me, it was a question of where I was going to learn the most. As much as I still do love Philly and hope to return at some point in the future and maybe help the community out in a way, for example, like Josh [Kopelman] from First Round Capital has, I’d love to do that when I’m further down the road. I’m speaking ambitiously and optimistically but I think that would be awesome.

Why’d you shut down Emerald Exam?

For the most part it was a realization of what had kind of been there all along. We had been hoping we could get around it. It wasn’t a high margin business. The more we worked on it, the more we had people use our product and talk to them and get their feedback, the more obvious it became just how long it was gonna take to make each sale and how little we were going to be able to make from each sale and that combo isn’t conducive to a high growth business.

Part of it may just be we didn’t execute as well as we could have. The problem we were solving is going to be solved by someone. It wasn’t us.

What was your proudest moment here?

Almost singlehandedly growing PennApps from a 100-person or so hackathon to a 1,100-1,200 behemoth with students from 100 colleges around the world. We really did build an awareness of hackathons and of this great way to build a hacking culture and spread that around the world. There are a good 50 or so college hackathons this year — that’s a modest estimate — and 95 percent of those were directly or indirectly inspired by PennApps. It’s a huge movement.

Can you share a lesson you learned during your time here?

Learn how to work hard. I have consistently been surprised with how much the extra effort set me apart, and helped me achieve things I didn’t think were within reach. And because you’re only going to want to work hard on things you really care about, you’ll inspire others with your vision too.

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