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How Imran Khan became the secret weapon behind the year's biggest tech IPO

Anita Balakrishnan
Richard Drew | AP. "He was able to rise to any occasion."

Even as a college student in 2000, multimillionaire Imran Khan was ahead of his time.

Today, 39-year-old Khan is the chief strategy officer of Snapchat, the man behind the curtain whose youthful exuberance, illustrious network and Wall Street chops have shepherded the company to stardom. But in 2000, the dotcom bubble and Y2K loomed large. Alibaba was a year old, Amazon sold books, Facebook and YouTube didn't exist — and Khan was a kid from Bangladesh.

"We possess technology [that] gives us more information about our world and ourselves than we've ever had before," his University of Denver yearbook read. "Within our massive global database is the answer that we keep ignoring."

Then, Khan was just another smiling face on page 154. He would ultimately come to shape the future for internet users across the world.

In the vein of investor Bill Gurley and writer Om Malik, Khan was already launching a mini-new media operation of his own: A newsletter run by students in the Economics department. The newsletter fizzled out, but professor Tracy Mott remembers Khan's initiative and energy. Khan also proposed his own independent study, and went outside the curriculum to take classes on monetary policy and financial markets, Mott said.

"He had a very pleasant personality and a lot of energy," Mott said. "He and his parents took Professor Ho and me to dinner right before graduation."

Mike Durney of DHI Group (NYSE: DHX) recalls a different meal with Khan, a lunch on a snowy day nearly a decade later. By then, Khan had shot up the ranks on Wall Street, working at a tech company and investment firms and becoming top analyst at JPMorgan (NYSE: JPM) by 2004.

By the time of the 2008 financial crisis, Imran "Dot.Khan" Khan's JPMorgan reports, "Nothing but Net," were of biblical importance on Wall Street. One 2009 report has predictions that now read like a history lesson, foreshadowing the dominance of Amazon, MySpace's fall and Facebook's rise, and Google's cloud and Android platform.

Khan covered DHI, which went public in 2007.

"When he was a star research analyst, I always found his thinking to somewhat forward-looking, and investment banking-like, as opposed to pure research," said Durney, then chief financial officer and now CEO. "I remember having lunch with him when he was still a research analyst. The conversation wasn't as much about models and expectations, it was more, 'How do you think about how the company will be in a couple years?,' 'What do you need to drive the business?' I always found that to be a little different than your average research analyst."

One person who knew Khan told Business Insider that he "clawed his way up." Durney disagrees.

"Some people you can have a conversation with them, and their aspirations are on their sleeve," Durney said. "I didn't get that impression from him. The reason he is successful there is because his thinking is very forward-looking."

Hope Cochran, who would meet Khan years later, did notice something a little deceptive about Khan — his smile.

"I think of like this silly grin on his face constantly. He looks like he's up to something," said Cochran, then chief financial officer at King Digital (: KING). "He brings a levity to the situation. He has a great strategic view on a situation. He's very good at reading a room and understanding the dynamics of the room. That smile — it's a little misleading because he has a lot of insight."

Khan helped Cochran take King Digital, maker of Candy Crush Saga, public in the spring of 2014, a deal that did not go smoothly: Shares plunged on their first day of trading. But Khan was unshakeable, said Cochran, now a venture capitalist at Madrona Venture Group.

"We were very busy and focused. My memory is a lot of late nights in the offices working on the process of going public," Cochran said. "I remember a fun moment, when we flew into Frankfurt, we all took a red-eye to get there. He took a red-eye from Asia, I think. He ran in and was all rumpled and ruffled, he had a small duffel bag. And within minutes he was transformed into the investment banker he needed to be. And he had more energy than I've ever seen that day. He was able to rise to any occasion."

That's important because he was about to hit the most crucial point in his career: leading Alibaba's Autumn 2014 IPO, the biggest IPO ever in the world. Cochran said that though Khan was busy during this time, he always made the time to chat by phone.

Soon after, Snap snared Khan from Credit Suisse, a risky move for someone at the height of their career in investment banking, Cochran said. Snap went public earlier this month, in the biggest tech IPO since Alibaba.

Durney said he's not surprised that Khan ended up at a start-up like Snap, one that has "real juice." While not every start-up has a chief strategy officer, in this case, it's apt.

"There are a number of people in banking that wouldn't get Snapchat," Durney said. "If you look at how the media world has evolved over time, they are at the forefront of it. I think that fits with the way he thought more generally, focusing on where the world is going."



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