March 9, 2019
Youngsters as fresh as hot bricks from a kiln were raising money by tens of millions, of dollars, and here I was, after ten years of being in the digital industry, still sucking my thumb, while others gunned for greatness. Go big or go home, they said.
I co-founded Webchutney in 1999. And I have seen two waves of companies that had zipped past me to the finish line. By 2008, a golden generation of entrepreneurs had already built massive companies like MakeMyTrip, Naukri, BharatMatrimony, Shaadi, Bookmyshow, etc.
Standing on the sidelines, I was now witnessing yet another wave of digital businesses in the form of Flipkart, Zomato, Freecharge and Paytm. Yet again, I had failed to ride the wave.
I was at best, a ‘curious onlooker’.It was déjà vu, and it wasn’t pretty. Dragging me down in my own estimation was the baggage of a decade of experience and nothing ‘comparably grand’ to show for it. Nothing that was as bold or zealous. I seemed to have vision alright, but I almost felt like I lacked the carnal appetite that pushed my peers towards growth, audacious goals, ambitious futuristic blueprints and professional maturity.
Don’t get me wrong, my business was profitable and growing, but it was also predictable ‘agency’ business. In my head, I was convinced that consumer facing internet companies have a greater chance at blockbuster success than most services businesses. Given a second chance, I would build something more scaleable than a digital advertising business.
Consumer internet companies are sexy. If you are in the right spot and have people willing to fund it, you announce big, hairy, audacious goals, say that you’ll ‘put a dent in the universe’. You build a brand that your girlfriend or boyfriend know. Parents and relatives see your brand commercials. You strut about, your landlord pays obeisance. The press — well, they love it. If you can’t be the next Elon Musk, you can sound like one.
These things will almost never happen in a services start up.
Outside of a few hundred prospective clients and a few thousand potential candidates you might recruit, nobody cares. Nobody knows of your existence. In comparison, life is boring—you aren’t an A-list entrepreneur.
But then recently, a friend shuttered his startup after 10 years. He was building a consumer product company and had raised over a 100 crores Rupees. One of the smartest and most persevering people I know and the darling of his VC. He had to pack up and go home. Blood sweat and tears — all summed up to naught.
VCs who fuel the blitzkrieg find founders who are willing to sacrifice years to prove a hypothesis in which they themselves don’t have immense stake considering the low event of success. As a struggling founder, you are all alone. For every successful ‘Flipkart’, there are a few hundred in the graveyard. The odds of becoming a unicorn for the thousands of startups that launch every year are very, very miniscule.
The point is, today, after years of wonderous covetousness, I have developed pride in what I continue to build and what peers in my circle of competence have built. If you put together good talent, you have to be extraordinarily unfortunate or plain moronish to not to have milked the cow for cash. I know of friends and worthy competitors in the digital advertising industry who are sitting on wealth to the tune of over Rs100 crores in their individual bank accounts. The pessimist might say it is less than the last round which ‘the new sexy consumer start up’ just raised. But, it is also a hell of a lot of money for someone who is just about 35 years old! It is definitely not chump change. To my mind, it’s mission accomplished.
This certainly doesn’t mean that every one of my “digital advertising” peers who started out on their own, including me, didn’t face near death experiences in our businesses. We still reminiscence every time we meet - exchanging stories about our constant moments of self-doubt, our mistakes, the horror of dealing with layoffs when a major client left and the almost never-ending cash flow issues. The journey hasn’t been easy for any one of us by any means. I’ve personally survived psychosomatic disorder during my worst phase but hopefully I am done with it. That said, most of us have come out alive, wealthy enough for now and yeah—a lot humbler.
I’ve now begun to believe that today’s media narrative of ‘Go Big or go home’, which loosely translates to Get Big or GTFO (get the f*** out) has a very condescending, intimidating impact that potentially discourages a very large number of promising entrepreneurs from building meaningful businesses that in reality, have better odds of achieving personal financial stability for themselves. Outside of the much respected (and rightfully so) torch bearing founders of unicorns, other founders who look for guaranteed wins for themselves are also equal champions. It takes smarts to do that—not accepting odds which almost guarantee failure. And these potential entrepreneurs are exactly what the doctor ordered in a country like ours.
Bottom line: if you really examine your motivations and the kind of life you want to live, restraining your ambition may not be a terrible thing after all!
*This article originally appeared in Economic Times on Oct 21, 2018*