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Meet Lightyear: The $17 Million-Backed Startup Making Telecom Cool

Startup Spotlights
Dealing with telecom companies is an infamously dreadful experience, particularly because it’s primarily handled offline and over the phone. After spending years investing in telecom companies, Goldman Sachs alum Dennis Thankachan realized he could tackle the stodgy, trillion-dollar industry by designing a software platform that streamlined the experience.

Alongside CTO Ryan Schrack, Dennis founded Lightyear in late 2019 to empower businesses to buy and manage all telecom services through a simple platform. By partnering with over 500 carriers, Lightyear created a competitive, data-driven marketplace with a multitude of options for customers. The platform manages every aspect of the process from purchasing and installation to budgeting and maintenance.

In addition to attracting customers like Curology and Lime E-scooters, Lightyear has raised $17 million in funding from Susa Ventures, Ludlow Ventures, Mark Cuban and more. The team has grown to 45 full-time remote employees spread across 24 states.

As one of the fastest-growing early-stage startups, Dennis sat down with Startup Search for a deep dive into Lightyear’s founding, culture and future trajectory.

What were you doing prior to founding Lightyear?

I have always been a bit of a tinkerer and builder-type person. I started all sorts of ventures in high school and college. Early on I started a website selling eBooks that I had pieced together on how to make money from home. I also used to import low-cost video game consoles from Japan and sell them in my high school. I even used to produce hip-hop beats and sell them to artists.

I absolutely wanted to start a company when I graduated, but I had no money and immigrant-mentality parents who put a ton of pressure on me to make a lot of money coming out of school. They moved here from India to give me that opportunity, so I did investment banking at Goldman Sachs and a hedge fund. The goal while working there was twofold: to make some money and build some connections so that I could stomach the risk and make the jump into starting my own company.

How did you end up in the telecom space?

At the hedge fund I was investing in enterprise software and telecommunications so I became a huge nerd on enterprise software and telecommunications. The insight that I had was very simple: telecommunications is a multi-trillion dollar, highly consequential industry with zero happy customers.

At the same time, telecommunications is a space that's really nuanced and feels dirty to outsiders. There aren’t a ton of smart Stanford grads who are excited about building a business in telecommunication. That combination of variables made it an interesting area to search for something to do. So I quit my investing job with a few different ideas to explore in telecom, most of which were bad ideas.

So how’d you land on the idea for Lightyear?

I was initially going to start an internet service provider, but I realized that it’s a very capital-intensive business that would take a lot of time to become an exciting high-growth venture. Through that process I realized businesses, not individual consumers, spend exponentially more on telecom services. They also buy and manage these things completely manually and offline – there’s no digitization of anything.

I realized that I could build the software layer for businesses to interface with their telecom providers and make all their existing services much easier to access. Today we are a vendor partner with the telecom providers: We bring them customers that have been validated via software that they are serviceable for a service that they can deliver. So when we are bringing them a customer, it's not just a random lead – it's a real validated customer that is ready to buy.

On the other side, we are prioritizing our customers all day and night. Telecom is a market that feels very anti-competitive because of how people perceive the lack of transparency in telecom, but there is much, much more competition in B2B telecom. Accessing that competition is really hard so we make it transparent in a software-centric way. We also get all this data on price and performance, which incentivizes vendors to be more competitive at a higher level in order to win more customers.

How have you grown Lightyear and fostered the unique culture?

We were founded at the beginning of Covid so we’re fully remote. I’m based in New York but we currently have 45 employees across 24 states. Throughout our hiring process we search for people who, without us having to tell them or sell them, are just the type of people that emanate our values. Because of that, we’ve only had two people churn in the company over the company's history.

We try to hire people that are excited to build and that are truly mission-driven. I like to emphasize that we run ourselves like a professional sports team – and we're not a family. I think that's a terrible way to run a business in the sense you cannot pick members of your family and you do not scrutinize members of your family for poor performance. You are selecting people to work with as team members. You want to learn from and analyze losses. That doesn't mean that you don't care for the people you work with and treat them with respect. But it also means that the goal is to put points on the board.

What should someone joining Lightyear expect from the culture?

We're very dorky so we attract people that are comfortable being a bit weird. For example, last year as a company event we mailed people surprise boxes a month before the event. Inside was a Barbie dreamhouse-making kit and we had a 45-minute-long decoration contest.

Then whoever scored in the top third had to sell their house like a real estate agent and the winner of the contest was officially named the Head of Dolls and Dreamhouses for Lightyear. The winner actually put it up on his LinkedIn. And that's not an atypical thing for us to do.

Where do you see Lightyear heading in the coming years?

B2B telecom is truly a $1 trillion industry where there is no brand that comes to mind that elicits a positive response in the eyes of the buyer. And within the next five years, we will be that brand that on a vendor-controlled basis commands the market. That's a very rare opportunity in the scope of software or technology to have the chance to really take over a market that large. There's not an ounce of doubt in my mind with regard to how strongly I feel convicted about us being in that position.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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