Arjun Bhatnagar '14 Shares His Lessons on Leadership and Success
Arjun Bhatnagar '14 is a self-described venture capitalist, product designer, solutions architect, senior developer, and innovator. He has accomplished more before high school graduation than most people do in a lifetime. And his latest venture, Cloaked, an app that helps keep your personal data private and protected in the digital space, has attracted the interest of internationally acclaimed entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.
Bhatnagar is driven, passionate, and visionary. But what sets him apart is his generous spirit and a sincere desire to share what he has learned and help others — and everyone is invited to join his inner circle. He's also not afraid to fail. As an undergraduate at Babson College, Bhatnagar published a blog post: Why You Should Tell Everyone Your Ideas — a concise manifesto for every up-and-coming entrepreneur on the art of getting comfortable with sharing knowledge and ideas, failing, and moving forward. "We hold our ideas near and dear; the very thought of another ambitious entrepreneur stealing our idea makes our bones cringe and heart melt...but you should tell everyone your idea because if you do not, you will likely be forever stuck in the idea generation phase," says Bhatnagar.
At a young age, Bhatnagar already had a passion for technology and bold ideas, and he "wanted to build something really cool," so he learned to code, designed a video game, and built a website platform to attract players. By age eleven, 1,500 people from around the world were connecting to his laptop to play his game, and as players began asking for new features, he quickly learned new code and developed his game. Around this time, in the mid-2000s, there were still plenty of businesses without a website — and Bhatnagar saw an opportunity. "After successfully building my website, things snowballed. I began by picking up the phone and cold calling business owners to tell them about this thing called the internet and offered my services to build a website. I remember sitting in my rocking chair, sipping a juice pouch, and calling business executives, trying to come off as an adult," he laughed. Young Arjun got customers and launched his first business as a website builder.
"I earned my first paycheck at 12 years old and had to use my parents' names to set up a PayPal account," admits Bhatnagar. "I've never been afraid to say yes to something. Even if I have no idea, I know that I'll learn how to do it, especially if I know it will help others," he says. "I saw technology as a way to do that, and it still drives me forward."
At 13, Bhatnagar landed a job fixing computers, which led him to overhear a conversation among a few of the company's top executives and the CEO. Their clients were having difficulty communicating and collaborating — Bhatnagar saw an opportunity to help. At the time, Facebook was still relatively new, and he pitched the idea of integrating the company's B2B software with a customized social network.
"There's this thing called Facebook, and I can build a social network for you that will help your clients communicate and work together," he said to the company's CEO. "I had no idea what I was doing, but I learned how to do it, and over a few months, I rebuilt a Facebook facsimile, and the company ended up securing a $2 million grant with my software," he says. "I was super happy. I wasn't in it for the money — I just wanted to help and push myself to learn.” A few years later, Bhatnagar interned at a company and was the lead engineer on a team that hacked Siri to make it work on the iPhone 4 and thus became a sensation among the Twitter crowd. “I was briefly famous," recalls Bhatnagar. "A lot of girls were really jealous of me because I had so many Twitter followers," he jokes, but from his point of view, he was just solving another problem to help people.
At the end of his freshman year at North Andover High School, Bhatnagar convinced the school's robotics teacher that his programming skills would be an asset to the class, a seniors-only elective. He was the only sophomore in the class, but at the time, no one took the course seriously, and the robotics team routinely came in dead last in competitions. But that was about to change; Bhatnagar saw yet another opportunity. He started staying after school every day to work on the robot — so late that night school students began to arrive. After a long school day, and with both parents working, he had to wait at a local McDonald's until eight or nine at night when his parents could pick him up. "It was a big pain. I once walked home, but it was not a good idea - I had heavy textbooks that day!" recalls Bhatnagar.
Kids began to stay after school with him to work on the robot. Pretty soon, everyone in the class was working on it. "It was my first taste of being a leader," says Bhatnagar. "No one took this class seriously before, but little by little, everyone realized that we had a real robot. I was so passionate about this project, and the growing feeling of excitement was contagious," he recalls. The team was featured in a news story because they all took their February vacation to work on the robot, putting in 12-hour days while the school was closed, working in their winter coats because the heat was turned off. “Everyone got involved, either working on the robot or taking notes — we all had a stake in the outcome. Our robot won every competition, including the state championship!”
"I'm most proud of how I helped bring the team together. I effectively became the team leader — I've never had that feeling before. Everyone was in it — that was the most rewarding part," says Bhatnagar.
Back to McDonald's. Bhatnagar grew tired of waiting for a pick-up after long school days (sometimes in tears), so he convinced his parents to let him apply to boarding school even though they couldn't afford it. He chose Govs because he believed the Academy would allow him more freedom to balance his entrepreneurial interests with academics. As excited as he was to begin his new chapter as a boarding student at Govs, Bhatnagar admits to having experienced the typical high school problems — dating, making friends, handling the pressures of his new life. But he put himself out there and attracted some attention. He started the Productions Club, built the school's first app, and on the rare occasion when he needed quiet time, he put a sign on his dorm room door: "Sorry, I'm too busy fulfilling my dreams!" Other students made fun of him, but he didn't let it get to him. A turning point was when Bhatnagar went on stage with the Hypnotist, a popular event among Govs students, and let himself be vulnerable. He was funny, and it was a start. He learned that putting plenty of extra chairs in his dorm room invited others in. Bhatnagar quickly became known and liked, and though he was not running for school president, he was nominated (though not elected) by his peers. "I was so nervous speaking before a crowd — I used to shake before going to high school. No one who knows me now can believe it!" says Bhatnagar.
In his senior year, photography teacher David Oxton P'03,'08 recognized a spark in Bhatnagar and purchased a 3D printer to see what his young student could do. It was like the robotics experience all over again. Students would come and watch Bhatnagar create things on the printer, and soon, a teacher at a nearby school contacted Oxton seeking help for his disabled son, who needed a prosthetic hand. Bhatnagar got to work. He researched and learned, figured out the mathematics involved, and created the prosthetic hand on the 3D printer. "I'm not good at talking about what I do. I'm just happy to do the work, help, and move on to the next challenge," says Bhatnagar. Thanks to Oxton's support and PR efforts on Bhatnagar’s behalf, the story was picked up by local news outlets, including The Boston Herald, and PBS produced a segment on the project.
Arjun Bhatnagar holding the prosthetic hand he made for 3-year-old Max Lehrer on Thursday, April 24, 2014.
Photo credit: Patrick Whittemore, Boston Herald.
Bhatnagar found many willing mentors during his time at Govs. "Mrs. Gold, Mr. Rokus, Dr. Quimby, and Mrs. Guy — they were all huge. They gave me opportunities and helped shape my character. Mr. Ogden sharpened my writing skills, and Mr. Kelly was my cross country coach — he was tough! I really hated running back then, but I love it now and really enjoyed the team experience at Govs," Bhatnagar says. Dr. Scheintaub P'00,'02,'05 unwittingly helped set Bhatnagar's career in motion when he accepted him into a Govs summer internship program at the MIT Media Lab in Boston. "Honestly, I disliked the actual work in the lab. It was so boring to me! But Dr. Scheintaub was so cool. He let me walk around campus and seek out other opportunities," he says.
Bhatnagar wandered the halls until he found the StarLogo Nova team, (StarLogo Nova is a programming environment that lets students and teachers create 3D games and simulations for understanding complex systems). "I wandered in and said I worked with Dr. Scheintaub and asked if I could help. After geeking out over Java for about an hour with the team leader, he let me join the team. He gave me a project that should have taken about a week to complete, but I finished it in one day," he says. Bhatnagar did well and soon found himself leading the team. But he also learned another lesson in leadership: humility. "One guy on the team hated me. Here I was a 17-year-old kid leading a research team at MIT. It took a while, but I chipped away at it day by day and gained his trust. By the end of that summer, we became best friends."
While an undergrad at Babson College, Bhatnagar sold his first company in his junior year. He started a new company right away, but after his then-fiance passed away, he went into a dark period. He sold his new company, started a non-profit two years later, and a brand new venture that failed. He found himself young, alone, and with a mountain of debt. "Looking back, I should have taken time to grieve before launching another startup. But I had to get out of debt quickly, so I got two jobs and worked very hard to pay it all off," he said. "One of my skills is that I can take a lot of pressure and keep going. But it cuts both ways— sometimes I work too hard and make myself sick. I even forget to eat," he says. Lesson three in leadership: let others help you when you need it.
With his new startup, Cloaked, Bhatnagar has a dream team in place. With his brother as co-founder and business partner, they look for team members who share their passion and energy, and a desire to change how the internet works — and put consumers back in charge of their personal data and privacy.
Bhatnagar has also learned that he needs to take a break now and then. For him, that means going for a run, going out with friends (he loves to dance), traveling, and building two non-profit schools in remote, underserved areas in the Philippines (he did that).
"Exposing yourself to a lot of things is important, and it's great when you're young to start a business. But this is a long-term commitment that you're embarking on. It's something that you want to love if your goal is to make a big impact and change lives," says Bhatnagar. His advice to young entrepreneurs is to go big if that feels right, but it's ok to start small with one idea. Pitch it to just a few, but start something. Bhatnagar has had his share of failures and disappointments, but he's not deterred. He has faith that he's on the right path.
"I bet on myself a lot because I'm not afraid of losing," he says. "My mother is also an entrepreneur but still wishes sometimes that I was a doctor. However, they have always let me find my path in life. My father also owns his own business, and he and my mother always give 100% to everything they do, including helping me."