Building startups while fighting cancer and a pandemic

Khallil Mangalji (BCS ’16) says resilience isn’t about grit and tenacity—it’s about being lighthearted

Khallil mangaljiKhallil Mangalji (BCS ’16) has built two successful businesses in difficult circumstances: one while battling cancer and the other during a global pandemic. He met these challenges with resilience and poise that come from his easygoing approach to life.

“When people talk about resilience it’s usually this hard thing and there are all these difficult problems and you have to cut through them and have a lot of grit and tenacity,” Mangalji says.

The way I’ve ... gotten through everything is by being lighthearted. I think that’s the secret to getting through any problem.

“But I really feel like, for me, the way that I’ve gone through my life and gotten through everything I’ve done is by being lighthearted,” he says. “I think that’s the secret to getting through any problem.”

Mangalji launched his first startup in 2015 after an uncle came over to install winter tires on his business partner’s car. It was an upgrade from the usual auto shop experience and before long, he and his partners Zain Manji and Arif Banji were booking appointments for their new mobile auto repair service, called Fiix. That idea won $50,000 at the University’s Velocity pitch competition, which brought them to the Y Combinator in California, ultimately raising $2.5 million in funding.

First startup helped him cope with cancer

Just months later, Mangalji learned he had cancer. “People say, ‘Oh, it must have been a lot to deal with,’ but in reality, Fiix gave me a lot,” he says. While he underwent treatment, his co-founders took on the bulk of his work. “The remaining 20 per cent kept me busy. I got to write code and build product and have something else to care about.”

“Getting through that was about having people you love around you. I always tell people it’s not like I went through it alone. Me and my fiancée went through it together. Me and my sister went through it together – she was the one driving me to appointments. Having great people around you always helps.”

Second startup launched just before pandemic

After selling Fiix to a competitor in 2019, the team quickly pulled lessons from their experience that set the groundwork for Lazer. “When we were building Fiix, our favourite part was writing software. The part we didn’t like was the operations, which was dealing with parts stores, figuring out how to store tires ... So we asked, ‘How do we get back to just building?’ Because that’s what we loved.”

Experience from Mangalji’s first co-op placement, with Xtreme Labs, helped speed setup. “I had a head start because I already knew how contracts should work, how to deal with a client, workflows, things like that.” Mangalji keeps in touch with the CTO of Xtreme Labs for advice and mentorship.

His resilience and lighthearted approach are carrying him through Lazer, a fully remote agency he and his partners launched in December 2019, just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Lazer helps established companies and startups build digital products and get them to market quickly.

They’ve been busy at Lazer. With a client roster built by word of mouth, including companies like RBC and Shopify and startups from the Y Combinator network, Lazer has grown from a group of six to a staff of 35 in the past year. “I’ve never even seen any of the team,” Mangalji marvels. But you can hear the delight in his voice when he describes his co-workers. “These are 32 of the best engineers we’ve ever met in our lives,” he says. “We can really build anything we want.”

What we ingrain in our team is just, find the smallest, easiest way to just get started ... Every problem will pass with time.

Mangalji advises his team to approach everything with his trademark light touch. “What we ingrain in our team is just, find the smallest, easiest way to just get started ... Every problem will pass with time. It’s the same with teambuilding, engineering, even with emotional problems with your friends: time and flexibility solve everything."

“If you just see it as an opportunity to do something fun, or a challenge to learn something new, then you don’t really need resilience or any of that. Or maybe that’s just another way to be resilient.”