FI Director Kamal Hassan On Mistakes, Once-In-A-Lifetime Chances, & Why Not To Start A Company

Kamal and his wife, Ilona.

Kamal and his wife, Ilona.

Our previous interview was with a startup founder named Harry, who dropped out of school to grow Medella Health. It’s fitting that Kamal’s story follows, because he’s a reminder staying in school isn’t poison to success. Kamal graduated top of his class at INSEAD (international school for business) and near top of his class at Queen’s (Engineering Physics).

He’s helped IMAX develop their 3D movie experience, lead a few kicka** companies, and now helps entrepreneurs grow their startups at Founder Institute (FI is taking applications now for its fall cohort, check them out!).

Fun fact: one of the companies Kamal has lead makes travel guides, and the man has visited 100+ countries. His #1 travel tip? Pack light.

*All photos in this post are credited to Kamal.


From Kamal's travels to Peru.

Travels to Peru.

How do you take your coffee?

I haven’t drunk coffee since I was 20 years old, and traveling through Asia. I had just recently started taking coffee or tea daily, and I suddenly realized I was addicted: I needed it to wake up in the morning. I stopped right away. Now my drink of choice when I go out for ‘coffee’ is water.

"Children in central Tibet who find me even more exotic than I find them." - Kamal

“Children in central Tibet who find me even more exotic than I find them.” – Kamal

If you could give one piece of advice to somebody looking to start a company, what would it be?

Don’t start a company because you want to make money. You’ll make more money with less work being an employee. Start a company because you have a burning need and you can’t rest without addressing it.

What should every twenty-something learn how to do?

If you’re going to succeed as an entrepreneur, at some point you will need to learn how to sell. It’s far easier to learn that selling someone else’s things rather than your own.

Leather tanning pits in Morocco from Kamal's trip.

Leather tanning pits in Morocco from Kamal’s trip.

Tell us about a mistake you made in your youth, what did you learn from it?

When I was working as a management consultant, a friend from MBA school invited me down to Buenos Aires for his wedding. I didn’t go because I had a lot of work on the cases I was on, and it seemed expensive to fly that far for only a couple of days. Of course, the work that seemed so important at the time is completely unmemorable, and I do remember missing the wedding. The nice thing about it is that I have learned to say yes to crazy, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, since that is what you remember decades later.

Deep in the Himalayas.

Deep in the Himalayas.

Ron Glozman, CEO of Knote, asks: what makes Founder Institute the best program for startup growth?

Founder Institute has a few things that set us apart. We operate on a shared equity basis, where graduate company equity is held by other grads, the mentors and FI. This makes us very focused on results. Everything in our program is carefully tailored to get founders to succeed – or fail – quickly. Because of our scale, operating in over 100 cities around the world, we can implement continual learning at a scale that local programs just can’t match, so we just keep getting better and more effective. We are currently on version 3.2 of our program, and roll out major updates every year or faster.

We also accept founders that other programs wouldn’t take. Great programs like YCombinator want you to prove your success before they will take you. We use a proprietary founder aptitude test to identify people with great potential, and we take everyone who passes, whether their business is already launched or not even an idea. We bet on you early, and give you a chance to prove you have what it takes by building your business in partnership with us.

What are you most proud of with regards to Founder Institute’s accomplishments? 

One thing Founder Institute does is push people to find their dream business, not just any business. One founder, Tarek of AirVinci, started our program with an ambition of chrome-plating hubcaps to sell to car drivers. Now he wants to become the Henry Ford of personal helicopters, and his sub-$100,000 joystick-driven innovative helicopter will be flying in a couple of months. I still remember the conversation when he said ‘well here is another idea’.

What does a typical day look like for you? What’s the most rewarding part?

Right now we are recruiting for Founder Institute, so I will maybe spend a couple of hours contacting people to organizing public entrepreneurship events, such as a pitch bootcamp by CBC NextGen Den dragon Michael Hyatt, or I will follow up by email or phone with founders considering our program. I may also spend time answering questions or making an introduction for one of our grad companies. And at the end of the day I will likely be out mingling at an event around town, recruiting. Then there is Incmind, the startup I run, which is a platform for entrepreneurs to support their fundraising and manage their stakeholders. There I may be doing anything from designing a product feature, speaking with potential customers, or updating our finances. The most rewarding part of my day is mentoring or helping other founders: sharing my experience or making an introduction that helps them move ahead.

The Palcho Monastery in Tibet.

The Palcho Monastery in Tibet.

What does success mean to you?

I’ll let you know when I achieve it. And success comes in many forms. Monetary success, where you have the freedom to work on what you want to rather than what you have to. Personal success, where you have a life full of loving and caring relationships, where you matter to people. Even physical success, where your body is healthy, capable of performance and well looked-after matters.

Connect with Kamal on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Quora!


There you have it folks, I hope you learned something. 22 coffees down. Kamal, keep doing what you do!

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