Mircea Pașoi isn’t exactly a hard luck case. The 24-year-old is the cofounder of Summify, a startup that summarizes the top news stories of the day for its users by scouring their social networks for clues. The two-year-old company has received seed funding of less than a million dollars from a number of tech elites, including entrepreneurs Stewart Butterfield and Rob Glaser, along with Accel Partners. It counts venture capitalist Vinod Khosla and entrepreneur Kevin Rose among its earliest adopters. Pașoi also gets to work with his good friend of many years, Summify’s other cofounder, Cristian Strat.
What Pașoi doesn’t have going for him is a U.S. visa. The native Romanian — who entered his first programming contest in the fifth grade, went on to numerous medals at international programming competitions during high school, and has interned at both Google and Microsoft – knows he might have been able to eventually obtain a green card through a permanent employment position in the U.S. But Pașoi had already cofounded the Romanian job search engine Balaur.ro, along with infoarena.ro, a nonprofit organization for tech geeks in Romania. After landing a computer science degree from the University of Bucharest, he didn’t want to work for a big company; he really wanted to start his own. So he moved to Vancouver.
Following is an edited conversation we had last week about what life has been like for him since. Whether or not you think the process to secure visa for top foreign graduates in the U.S is too cumbrous, the chat offers some intriguing insight into the thought-process of at least one entrepreneur who would have come here but landed elsewhere because of U.S. restrictions on work permits. (I think what Pașoi tells me about Google, Microsoft, and Facebook is pretty interesting, too.)
You’ve logged time at two big U.S. companies, Google and Microsoft. How did that come to pass?
They contact you. They’re always looking for bright people and programming contests are good places to find good engineers. Facebook, Microsoft, Google: they come to Romania to recruit several times a year. Facebook even sponsored a programming camp recently just for female engineers in Romania.
But you didn’t like any of them enough to work for them.
I like them, but no, I didn’t want to start working for them right out of school.
What were the starkest differences to you between Google and Microsoft, and which conducts more meetings?
At Microsoft, product managers are much more valued, and at Google, engineers are very important members of its community. [As for meetings], definitely Microsoft. But I can’t complain about either. As an intern, you’re very well paid and get great projects to work on. Cristian and I just thought it would be more fun to start something on our own.
You started a job search engine. Why not stick with that?
We’re raised money from a French investor, and it’s grown from a specialization in tech to lots of different kinds of jobs, from builders to truck drivers. But Romania isn’t a huge market. It is home to just 20 million people who are just starting to use the Internet for commerce. We also realized that you need to be closer to the Valley to have anything international happen, and we wanted to create a big, global company.
Why not come straight to Silicon Valley?
We looked at numerous options other than getting hired by a big company. I we could have gotten green cards if we waited a few years. But in the meantime, we found Bootup Labs [a Vancouver startup accelerator and seed fund] that gives you $100,000 [to nurture your startup idea], and that’s also helpful with visas. Basically, if you want to come here, there’s no straightforward way to do it if you want to own your own company. People do it with some tricks, but Canada is a bit friendlier in terms of immigration and helping people start their businesses.
Was Summify the idea that Bootup Labs funded?
No, we had two different ideas, and after a couple of months of getting feedback from mentors, we dropped both and started Summify. Boris [Wertz, Bootup board member and the founder of early-stage investment firm W Media Ventures] then introduced us to Stewart Butterfield, Accel, and Rob Glaser, all of whom are very involved. You can build stuff anywhere, but knowing what to build and having access to people like that is very tough in Romania and even in Europe.
But you’re still in Vancouver and not the Valley. Do you think that puts you at a disadvantage, particularly since a number of companies are trying to solve the same information overload problem as Summify?
It’s a lot smaller, naturally. But there are advantages, including that it’s much easier to focus, there isn’t so much noise. You don’t hear about people trying to do startups all the time. It’s easy to obtain talent, too. People are excited to work at a startup versus a telecom company or some of their other options. And if you take care of them, they stick around. There aren’t startups trying to steal your employees.
The disadvantage is that you also don’t have as many people with experience [in the tech industry]. We know everyone [to know] in Vancouver, and that’s a few dozen people.
Do you see that ever changing?
Definitely. Another incubator just opened called Grow Lab and it’s taking an international approach. Several teams are from Canada, but the U.S. and Romania are also represented. Canada realizes it has a more open immigration policy and it’s starting to build on that.
You raised your seed round back in March. Are you visiting the Bay Area right now to drum up support for a Series A?
No, we still have money in the bank. We want to get more product out the door before we raise our next round, but that will probably happen early next year. We want to hire more engineers, we’re launching a number of integrations, including with the social media dashboard HootSuite, which is used by busy marketing professionals and we see as a good fit.
What’s the big vision? Right now, you send out summaries based on user behavior and needs, and you allow people to see other people’s summaries. What’s next?
The big vision for us is to reach a point where others do distribution for us. So if you’re passionate about design, you could design a summary within Summify. The big vision is to build a platform for the summaries.
In the meantime, most of your friends going to work for big companies.
The best programmers in Romania usually get scooped up by Facebook and Google. They’re very aggressive. They tell you this is the best thing, everything. And you get a really big salary compared with what you can make in Romania.
Cristian and I definitely want to convert more of our friends to the startup side and get them involved. I think the big barrier is immigration. It’s a hassle to bring more people overseas. But once there’s an easier way, I think people will start choosing startups versus more big companies.