When Opportunity Doesn’t Knock, Build a Door: A Conversation with Tapan ‘Tops’ Kataria
When you meet Tapan ‘Tops’ Kataria, it’s impossible not to break into a smile. Tops is a natural connector, and it’s his ability to forge strong bonds that enabled him to embrace entrepreneurship at a young age, gain valuable investment experience, and make the most of Detroit’s innovation ecosystem.
We spoke to Tops about his long-time hustle as an Indian wedding DJ, how growing a business in Detroit unlocked access to the venture world, and how his philosophy of building strong relationships powers his work at Silicon Foundry.
Let’s start by talking about your background. You grew up in India and came to the U.S., to Michigan, when you were twelve. What was that like?
I grew up in a lower-middle class family in Gujarat. It’s a place where everybody is a businessman — so many people make their living from solo entrepreneurship. It’s also dense and crowded: you really need to know people in order to survive.
My dad had a factory that made chickpea flour for Indian snacks. We had 13 people living in a three bedroom house. It was definitely crazy. But I felt like I had everything in the world because of how my dad functioned in the community. Everybody knew him. We’d go to restaurants and be waiting in line and the owners would know my dad. It wasn’t always easy, but we always had meaningful connections with people. That’s what I took away from India: the value of relationships. If you build strong relationships, magical things will happen. And I learned that from my dad.
You started working as an Indian wedding DJ in 10th grade. Tell us about that.
When we moved to the U.S. my dad worked with my uncle, who ran an Indian food warehouse in Michigan. In 10th grade I decided I needed a job so I could have spending money, go to college, and maybe even go on dates. I worked at Panera for a little while, but I was making $8 an hour, and I started to think about how I could work smarter.
I love that expression, ‘if opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.’ DJing was that door. I realized that there were a lot of Indians in Michigan, but not that many DJs. So I started working Indian weddings, and really fell in love with the music, and my business grew organically. I made enough money to pay college tuition for me and my brother. And I’ve continued DJing through the years because I love it so much.
You got involved in the Detroit start-up scene while you were in college. How did that shape you? What was unique about that ecosystem?
I got obsessed with the venture space when I was in school at Michigan State, but I didn’t know how to break in. I ended up meeting a mentor, Ted Serbinski, who’s one of the leading investors in the midwest. He encouraged me to learn about entrepreneurship by starting something bigger than my DJ business. I ended up founding a food start-up called Zest Meal with support from Michigan State. The business got traction in Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Chicago, and I dropped out of school to focus on it full-time. Ultimately, though, it didn’t work out. I went from thinking I was going to be the next Mark Zuckerberg to moving back into my mom’s basement while figuring out how to exit the business. That’s when Ted hired me to work at Techstars and I started to learn about investing.
I was maturing as Detroit was maturing. Every month there were new buildings going up, new stores opening, new accelerators and venture firms coming to town. If you’re from Detroit, you have this hustle in your blood and something to prove. It’s also such a supportive environment — everybody wants to help each other and see each other succeed. I was able to connect with mentors, founders, and investors that wouldn’t have been accessible to me if I’d lived in San Francisco or New York. They wouldn’t have replied to my emails or sat down with me. But in Detroit, they didn’t just sit down with me — they taught me things.
Tell us about your time working at Techstars and Backstage Capital. Those are two well-known investment platforms. What did you learn?
I made my first investment at the end of my program at Techstars. It was in a company called Zohr, which is a tire shop that comes to you. I’m not an accredited investor, so I didn’t put in any of my own money. I went to people in my network and talked to them about whether they’d like to invest in this company. We raised $120,000 in a week. And that’s when I realized I might be building something powerful, because people trusted me for what I was bringing to the table.
I learned more about special purpose vehicles and started an angel network. And that’s when Arlan Hamilton and the team from Backstage Capital got in touch and asked whether I’d like to come run their Detroit accelerator. The plan was to test it out for two years and gain a lot of experience along the way. So I invested in 25 companies through that accelerator to build my portfolio, which was amazing for me.
The biggest thing I learned from Backstage Capital was about how to do good while making money. I realized how critical it is to diversify the venture world, invest in minority-owned businesses, and to bet on the right founder. I also realized that there are big issues the venture world can go after by investing in ideas that build a better future. We don’t need the next Tinder — we need someone who’s going to come and solve climate change.
What inspires you about your work at Silicon Foundry?
There are so many beneficial partnerships that can be created between corporates and start-ups. But it can be hard to make that happen: corporates and start-ups operate differently. They have different innovation cycles and they don’t always know how to talk to each other.
I love that at Silicon Foundry, we get to act as a bridge. I’m learning a lot and enjoying adding value for our members and building my network. It really goes back to what I learned from my dad: build strong relationships, and good things will happen.