Ali Amin-Javaheri’s Chemical Romance
PublishedDecember 7, 2021
One man’s journey to reshape the industry that shaped his father.
Any basic understanding of chemistry begins with bonds. They are the lasting attraction between atoms and molecules that enable the formation of chemical compounds, which, in turn, make up the stuff of life. Hydrogen bonds with oxygen to create water. Add carbon and you have cellulose, the main component of plant fibers. Our very DNA is a chemical compound. In short, bonds are the elemental force that brings things together.
For Ali Amin-Javaheri, a bond with chemistry itself has been equally elemental, but even he couldn’t have anticipated how his attraction to the science would take him from an immigrant boyhood fleeing political upheaval, to becoming the CEO of a company aiming to disrupt a $5 trillion industry.
Long before Amin-Javaheri learned his first chemical equation, his father, Mehdi, discovered his own love of the science at age 18. As a young man who came of age in 1960s Iran in the wake of the White Revolution—a controversial effort by the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to modernize (and Westernize) the country—Mehdi was given the rare opportunity to pursue chemical engineering at the University of Maryland. Within weeks of arriving on campus, he knew what he wanted to do for life.
Five years later, in 1976, he returned to Iran with his degree, determined to help improve things in his home country. Leveraging the opportunities his American education afforded him, Mehdi made two concerted steps toward establishing a life back in Iran: First, he secured a job with DuPont; then he met and married Ali’s mother, Roya.
At the time, the Shah’s pro-Western stance made for a perfect partnership with Delaware-based chemical giant, DuPont, which made synthetic fibers for clothing and other products. Mehdi joined DuPont in an operations role, spending two relatively peaceful years overseeing a plant just outside Isfahan. Then, in 1979, revolution returned to the country. This time, religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been in exile since the White Revolution, rode a wave of anti-Western, anti-secular sentiment to seize power and reinstate Islamic ideals as the law of the land.
As their country transformed, Mehdi and Roya’s family was changing too. A year after Khomeini’s return, they had their first child, a daughter; a year later, Ali was born. Mehdi’s professional life was also ascendant—a few years in, he’d nearly doubled his plant’s productivity—but conditions in his country were deteriorating. By the early ’80s, war with Iraq had broken out, forcing Mehdi to make a choice. “The chemical plant was my baby. But my mentality was, ‘Where is the best place for my kids, for their education?’” he says, “and I decided that it wasn’t Iran.”
So in 1985, Mehdi moved the family to Houston, Texas, to start a new life.
“I mean, what are the odds of an Iranian-born kid landing in Seattle, getting into a chemical company, getting nurtured at that company so that I’d be able to lead my own company? Literally every single damn domino fell.”ALI AMIN-JAVAHERI
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Ali’s memories of a life before arriving to the U.S. at age four are vague, and not altogether pleasant—he mostly remembers the last few months before fleeing Iran, cowering with his family in a corner of their home, listening to the blasts of nearby rocket fire. “You’d turn off the lights and you’d see strange green lights in the air,” he recalls. “I mostly try to forget about it.” But what his father would never let him forget was that before coming to America, before leaving the job he loved, before downsizing to a one-bedroom apartment for the family of four and working multiple jobs to make ends meet, chemistry was his life.
Chemistry took on mythic proportions in their household, coming to represent the peaks of hard-won success, a wellspring of passion and inspiration, the life that got away. “He talked about chemistry all the time,” remembers Ali. “All I saw was him struggling to figure out his life in the U.S., but he reminded me all the time that he was a chemical engineer, and that life shouldn’t be this way.”
After Mehdi moved the family again when Amin-Javaheri was eight, this time to a suburb of Seattle with better public schools, Ali started spending nights and weekends at the library reading chemistry-related books, magazines and scholarly articles. He’d pore over their pages as if their explanation of materials and their interactions held the key to understanding the composition of his own life: What was his father’s life like back in Iran? Why did he and his sister have to stand out so much in school? How could he make sure his adulthood was more stable than his parents’? “I was obsessed,” says Amin-Javeheri, “I didn’t have much of a social life. I wasn’t in that many sports. I worked, and I read, and I learned everything I could. That’s it.”
So keen on feeding his obsession, teenage Amin-Javaheri wouldn’t just devour the academic texts, but volumes on the chemical sales industry too. Their pages detailed the major suppliers in the industry, and how, internet be damned (it was the early 2000s, as the web was beginning to dominate commerce), chemical sales continued to rely on in-person sales calls and conventions where men with briefcases would peddle compounds to make plastics and pharmaceuticals, consumer goods and construction supplies. Through countless hours of reading, Amin-Javaheri became so immersed in chemical thought that he started seeing objects around him in terms of their chemical composition.
“I would try to dissect what products are made from,” Amin-Javaheri says. “You look at an automobile, and you see a car, but I would break it down and be like, ‘Okay, well, there’s rubber, I know how rubber is made. There’s a metal component, I know there are coatings on that. There’s plastic. I know all the chemistry that goes into plastic.’ I started to break that all down in my head—it became a little bit of an obsession.”
Part of Amin-Javaheri’s obsession grew organically from a desire to understand his father; the rest, from refusing to squander the opportunities he’d been given in the U.S. “As a very young kid, I was always very conscious that I still have extended family in Iran that aren’t able to leave. That there are so many kids in so many places in the world who don’t have the kinds of opportunities my parents gave me.”
This understanding propelled him through high school, during which his love of chemistry never waned, but by the time he started his undergrad at the University of Washington, immigrant practicality overtook academic interest. Amin-Javaheri majored in information systems, convinced it was his clearest path toward stable employment in Seattle’s burgeoning tech scene.
But chemistry’s allure once again proved too strong to resist. Strolling around downtown Bellevue the fall after graduation, still unemployed, Amin-Javaheri stumbled across the offices of a company called ChemPoint. “I saw their signage and I was like, ‘Chem, that’s interesting.’ I remember going to their website—and it was a terrible website, 2001-ish—it talked about how they wanted to change the way marketing and selling is done in the chemical industry, and that they were hiring,” says Amin-Javaheri. “I was like, ‘What in the fuck are the odds of me being in Seattle, where there is no chemical industry, running into a company like this?’”
“I immediately applied.”
“I didn’t have much of a social life. I wasn’t in that many sports. I worked, and I read, and I learned everything I could. That’s it.”ALI AMIN-JAVAHERI
Amin-Javaheri knew from his research and conversations with his father that the chemical sales industry was in need of a major upgrade. His chance discovery of ChemPoint seemed to be kismet—this, he was sure, was the company to lead the industry’s digital transformation. Over the next decade, Amin-Javaheri would hold virtually every position at the company, starting as an intern filling the soda machine, becoming head of the engineering department, and eventually graduating to global head of sales and marketing.
Gradually, it became clear that the vision of the company he’d once felt destined to join had morphed into something else. “We had these oversized ambitions about how we were going to change the B2B chemical sales space, but it became more about the financials and short-term gains versus the vision,” says Amin-Javaheri.
That’s when he realized it was time for him to take a page out of his father’s book: He needed to start over. So in 2017, after 11 years with ChemPoint, he enlisted Wojciech Krupa, a friend from business school who had spent years building online marketplaces for companies including LinkedIn, as his technical co-founder, and Janakiraman Swamy, a former ChemPoint colleague (and “the most technical person I’ve ever met,” according to Amin-Javaheri) as his chief knowledge officer, and started Knowde. Their goal was to build the first functioning digital marketplace for the chemical sales industry. Finally, it seemed, Amin-Javerhi was in a position to revolutionize the industry that had shaped his life. First, however, he’d need to convince all those salespeople with overflowing briefcases and frequent flier miles that the time had come to go digital—and he needed to convince Silicon Valley investors that he was the guy to do the convincing.
“I’ve been in the petrochemical sales industry for 32 years,” says Mark Nikolich, CEO of Braskem North America, the largest petrochemical company in Latin America and a major player in the international petrochemical market. “If you’re thinking of it as a very conventional brick and mortar industry, you’re accurate.”
Nikolich attributes his digital receptiveness, at least in part, to his brief stint in ecommerce before the dot-com bust in 2000. Compared to the dynamic tech world that he’d briefly occupied, the chemical sales scene was a static space: “We don’t have diversity of education. We don’t have diversity of thought. We don’t have diversity of gender. We don’t have diversity of race. I mean, I could go on and on. So, if you’re getting a picture of an industry that is sort of stuck in its ways and kind of closed to outside ideas, that’s the right view.”
In 2019, Nikolich began experimenting with Braskem’s online presence and sales pipeline, but struggled to gain meaningful traction in the market—or even internal adoption. “I was getting the same old, ‘We’ve always done it that way’ answers,” he says. “It was making my head explode.” That’s when an old friend from his Silicon Valley days introduced him to Amin-Javaheri.
Even though Nikolich was eager to make a change, he arrived at their meeting skeptical about Amin-Javaheri’s ability to solve a problem with decades of industrial inertia. “Historically,” Nikolich says, “chemical sales e-marketplaces have been a challenge, because even though we do business with each other, we have this mentality that there’s no co-creation of value. We’re like, no, that’s my archenemy.”
In such a competitive environment, Nikolich believed, creating a shared marketplace was nearly impossible. “You have to get a large-scale buy-in or it doesn’t go anywhere,” he says. But after two hours of picking Amin-Javaheri’s brain, digging into his assumptions, exploring the complexities of the landscape, and hearing his vision for the tech, Nikolich was convinced that Amin-Javaheri was the real deal. “I pinged him with 100 questions, and he’d already thought about them. He’d had a debate about them. And he was interested in having another debate about them. Then he showed me the tech, and we talked about the possibilities of what we can do with it, and that started to eliminate all my objections. I actually had the thought after meeting him, thank goodness.”
It was a vindicating moment for Amin-Javaheri. After all, he’d been mulling over this idea for the better part of his post-adolescent life. “If I were to show you the slide deck from when Knowde was nothing more than a PowerPoint four years ago, you’d be shocked by how similar Knowde is today,” he says. “That’s because I had obsessed about this for so many years. I knew in my mind exactly what I wanted to build. It literally has not changed.”
But despite some early interest from customers like Nikolich, Amin-Javaheri struggled to get investors to drink the chemical Kool-Aid. To many venture capital firms, his idea was too different, too esoteric, too … boring. “The chemical industry has never really seen any tech investment. This industry is massively nebulous and hard to understand. A lot of investors couldn’t pattern match. I got turned down a lot,” says Amin-Javaheri.
Then, in late 2019, his investment deck came across the desk of Shaun Maguire, a Sequoia partner. Maguire, in a previous life, had earned his PhD in physics from Caltech, and had absorbed some knowledge of the chemical industry via academic osmosis. “I just kind of had this prepared mind that the chemicals industry is way bigger than people think,” he says. “It was about $5 trillion a year in sales in the industry. That’s about 50 percent bigger than oil and gas. Five times bigger than the pharmaceuticals industry.”
As Amin-Javaheri helped him to better understand the intricacies of chemical sales, Maguire began to realize that, the greater the industry’s fragmentation, the greater the need was for a new kind of marketplace. “The largest company in the space only does about 1.5 percent of the total sales for the industry per year. There’s 10,000-plus companies that do meaningful revenue in the industry, like $100 million-plus a year, and they all have massive product catalogs,” says Maguire. “And so it’s just perfectly suited for a digitized marketplace, even though that’s not obvious from the outside.” Soon, Sequoia would lead Knowde’s $14 million Series A round of funding.
In July 2020, Amin-Javaheri found himself in his car, driving the 10 hours from his home in New York City to Midland, Michigan, home of Dow Chemical. He’d been in touch with Dow before COVID-19 hit, but in recent months his contact at the company had gone dark. “Ali finally just messaged his contact and said, ‘Hey I’m going to be in Midland this weekend, let me know if you want to get a drink or something,’” says Maguire. “That was a bluff.’”
Fortunately, the bluff worked, and Amin-Javaheri was invited to a meeting at Dow’s country club. Over drinks, he was able to convince Dow’s executive that Knowde had real potential, touting his platform’s ability to customize customer portals, manage sales pipelines, and launch entirely new verticals with lower overhead (small-batch 3D printing? Done!). On the drive home, Amin-Javaheri called Maguire to share the good news. As one of the major chemical suppliers in North America, Dow committing to Knowde would signal to other suppliers that this was where the industry was heading, and not to fall behind.
Buoyed by this success, he repeated the same sales playbook a dozen more times in the coming months. Traveling everywhere from Boston to Philadelphia, Tennessee to Texas, New Jersey to Illinois, he would arrive at customers’ actual doorsteps, with his proverbial briefcase of ideas, to shake their hands, look them in the eyes and convince them, as all good salesmen do, that he was the guy for the job.
Ironically, this new sales tactic was facilitated in no small part by the pandemic. No longer able to make sales calls in person as they had for more than a century, more and more chemical companies were finally, begrudgingly, opening up to digital alternatives. Knowde was there to fill the void, a confluence of grim luck, tragic opportunity and a lifetime of preparation. “Serendipity is the right word for so much of Knowde’s story,” says Amin-Javaheri. “A pandemic hits, which forces all of the salespeople to not be able to get in their company cars. Obviously, COVID has been disastrous, but I don’t know that this company could have been built without it.”
As of September 2021, Knowde has onboarded more than 3,500 chemical sales companies—including his father’s former employer, DuPont—to their online marketplace, spanning food and nutrition, healthcare and pharma, automotive and transportation, consumer goods and more. For Amin-Javaheri, his company’s success feels like an ounce of cosmic restitution. The son of a chemist, exiled from his home country, ushering his father’s industry into its next chapter—a chemical bond once broken, now restored.
“I mean, what are the odds of an Iranian-born kid landing in Seattle, getting into a chemical company, getting nurtured at that company so that I’d be able to lead my own company? Literally every single damn domino fell,” says Amin-Javaheri. “I do believe everything happens for a reason—as long as you work hard. My dad always adds that last part of the sentence—‘as long as you work hard.’”
When asked how his father feels about his success in the industry that defined him, Amin-Javaheri is quick to mention that it would never have been possible without his parents’ sacrifice and encouragement. “It’s a massive point of pride,” he says. “My father getting to see this working out in his field, it’s definitely a full-circle moment for him. It’s proof that all of his investments paid off.” Mehdi agrees: “When Ali came and said, ‘I want to start my own company working in this field,’ tears came to my eyes. I thought, you know what, he’s paying back my life. He’s using it.”
“Obviously, COVID has been disastrous, but I don’t know that this company could have been built without it.”ALI AMIN-JAVAHERI