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Ten startup lessons I learned even before my first startup

 

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It took me 30 years to seriously start working on my first “real” startup project in 2012, in San Francisco. Looking back in time, I feel I could have started one much earlier. This post (sorry about the length) is to share some of the mistakes I made, and related takeaways from all those 30 years.

Original Image Source: southparkstudios.com

Read on…

Growing up in Delhi, the only (Pan) Indian tech. startup success story I heard was that of Hotmail by Sabeer Bhatia; I had heard the name Vinod Khosla but never cared enough to know what/how he did it. During high school, I started hearing few more success stories of IT majors (i.e., Infosys and WIPRO). However, even that didn’t entice me enough to become an entrepreneur. If you were from a middle-class family in India (then, I hope things are changing now),  you were told to become an Engineer from an IIT/NIT/BITS etc. or study medicine. Period. Luckily (with some hard-work studying for those scary competitive exams), I ended up at an NIT…and all I wanted to do after college was work for one of the IT majors I heard of. In a way, that helped me because I spent more time tinkering with modern programming languages and less time with Electronic circuits or assembly code in college. FYI — I was an Electronics Engineering major/graduate.

Contrary to what people believe and say, India has always been an entrepreneurial country.  We see entrepreneurs — the local grocery (“kirana”) stores, “chai-walas” with tea stalls etc. — everywhere. However, that is not “sexy” enough for us. People don’t realize the power of these local convenience stores. Companies like Unilever, Airtel would not have been what they are without these “small’ stores. These stores are still a very powerful network for sales, marketing, and distribution for any company looking to scale in India. I digress, but that’s something to keep in mind.

Takeaway #1: In the world of tech. startups, where you live/grow up matters from an awareness standpoint. Having said that, if you’re not in a hub, find ways to get plugged into the eco-system. It’s very much possible with access to Internet today. Stay curious, and don’t just go with the “sexy”. (Note to government/VCs/families: Things are changing, but India still needs a better startup ecosystem and support system)

While working at Cognizant and Sapient on Internet/Web technologies I realized the f’ing power of The Internet. The first time I ever really wanted to be an “entrepreneur” was probably at the age of 24, but even that was a “long-term” plan then. I still remember the first business plan I (secretly) put together myself at 24; it was a crowd-funded (that term wasn’t known then) social enterprise, I called it EachOneDonateOne.org. I wasn’t very determined (and also didn’t have anyone to seek advice from) so I wanted to go to a B-school, get relevant “business” skills and then start this thing. In a B-school interview, at one of India’s “finest” B-schools, I was asked what I wanted to do after my MBA. When I told about this web-based crowd-funding idea, they mockingly asked if I knew the % Internet penetration in India. FYI — It was around 4% (~40MM users) then. That was the end of it.

Takeaway #2: If you want to be an entrepreneur, stay determined and get used to naysayers.

In Fall 2006, I left for United States to get my MBA. Towards end of first year at B-school, I realized I might not have a job (thanks to the looming credit crisis) after my MBA. In May 2007, without knowing what it takes to start a company in US, I started working on biznido.com (no longer active). To make it simple to understand and relate to some of today’s startups, it was some flavor ofKickstarter meets AngelList meets SecondMarket). Yes, three products in one. I laugh at myself today, but that was my idea then. I started working on an initial prototype, socializing the idea with few of my close friends, my boss at the firm I interned etc. I couldn’t articulate well what it was then, and they all thought it was too complex. In reality, it was! During my last semester at B-school, even though I wanted to get into consulting, I started applying to some Investment banks and Trading firms…partly because any job was good enough in that job market (and for my non-immigrant visa situation), but more importantly hoping I would find an opportunity to talk about this new idea (which I believed was very disruptive) and get the reaction of Wall Street. That was my hustle. I was hoping the bankers/traders would get this concept in a second, but I was proved wrong. I landed a job with a great management consulting firm in Nov 2007, and that was the end of biznido.com.

Takeaway #3: MBA is NOT a requirement to startup. I’d say it’s a “nice to have” if you’re not sure/ready for the journey yet and have the resources for good B-school education.

Takeaway #4: “Hustle” is not enough, knowing where to hustle is more important. If you’re unsure, find a great mentor who can help you.

Takeaway #5: Don’t give up too soon. 

Takeaway #6: Keep it simple. Ideas should NOT be mental puzzles, they just need to be valuable to users.

I enjoyed my consulting job, but somewhere down the line I still wanted to be an entrepreneur. I had decided to start working towards becoming one. First thing one needs is a “brilliant” idea, right? I used to come up with a new idea every week, discuss with my few of my very close friends, find out it was too complex for an average (wo)man to understand or there was another startup doing the same/similar thing, kill that idea. Repeat this cycle for 3 years!

Takeaway #7: Ideas need not be “different”.  Unless you have a significant breakthrough or have developed some “real” Intellectual Property, it’s how you differentiate, execute, and the vision you have that matters more.

During this period, I also got plugged into startup and tech. world through TechCrunch and other VC blogs. I used to discuss startups daily with one of my best friends who had started by then. I used to read these blogs religiously to learn a thing or two about the startup world. Then I came to know about accelerators like Y Combinator etc. I probably learned a lot from these sources, but I probably picked up few wrong things too. (i.e., you have to be in Silicon Valley to start — note I said “start” — a tech. company; you need a co-founder to start a tech. company; getting funded is the biggest measure of a startup’s success).

Suddenly, Mobile and Social startups started exploding, and I got excited by the possibilities, got back to brushing up my programming skills; I built couple of random Facebook and Blackberry applications over weekends. [Yes, I had a Blackberry then :) ] I was getting more determined to start a company, but even that wasn’t enough to push me off the cliff and help me take the dive.  Also, by this time, I had started believing in three myths — #1. I have to be in Silicon Valley #2. I need a strong technical co-founder (even though I was technical myself). #3 I have to work on “fundable” ideas. Also, I had visited San Francisco in 2008, so I wanted to be there because of all other good reasons (weather, beaches, opportunity to focus on Hi-tech industry clients even if I continued in consulting). During 2011, I interviewed with Google, Deloitte, and couple other tech. firms and ended up joining Deloitte Strategy & operations/Hi-tech in San Francisco. Moving to San Francisco and experiencing it all helped me realize how wrong I was about the three myths I mentioned, but it was still valuable (more on this in my next post).

Takeaway #8: You don’t have to wait to be in a tech. hub like Bay Area to get started. I could have made significant progress had I started working on things before moving there. One can do many things living outside Bay Area (or any hub). In fact, many tech. companies have been built outside the valley. Having said that, depending on your startup, there are situations and stages of startups when it helps to be in the valley. My piece of advice — if you want to be a tech. entrepreneur, don’t wait for the brilliant idea, perfect location etc. If you’re serious, just get started wherever you’re; BUT don’t fall for the hype at the same time. Chances are your first idea might not work at all, but you’ll learn a great deal and make some significant progress in that direction.

Takeaway #9: There are no formulas to starting up. People (especially Media and VCs) will tell that you “need” a co-founder and/or a technical founder to start a tech company, but there are so many examples of successful tech. companies built by single founders and even non-technical founders. My 2 cents — start with what works for you, you will make mistakes, but you will make progress even as a single founder. If you’re not  a technical founder and plan to outsource, learn some basic technical stuff  so that you’re not taken for a ride/stranded if the outsourcer leaves you in between.

Takeaway #10: A “fundable” (min. 2 founders, technical, investing on trends etc.) start-up is no formula for a successful startup. The fact is most of the venture funded startups still fail. The fact is you don’t necessarily have to be funded to be successful.

Thanks for reading, and I welcome your thoughts/feedback. For those interested, I plan to blog about my experiences with my recent/first startup project (Storcery) and few more learnings in one of my future posts.

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23 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Saraswathi Pulluru

    Hi Rishi,

    Loved reading the article, your lessons are very true and I have learnt a few of them in your list along the way too 🙂 

  2. Profile photo of asha chaudhry

    welcome to trhs rishi!!

    what a debut story! 

    awesome learnings and very well articulated.

    but you know what i loved most about your post? the fact that you’ve always craved to be an entrepreneur and that feeling never died. and that you kept starting up!!

    looking fwd to your next…

  3. Profile photo of Alok Rodinhood Kejriwal

    Rishi,

    This is INCREDIBLE! Thank you so much for these learnings….

    Respect & Salute

  4. Profile photo of Harshith Mallya

    Awesome Post! Rishi! Was really informative.

    There is only so much we can learn from books,The most lessons we learn are what experiences teaches us.There can be no substitute for that.

    Cheers

  5. Profile photo of Karan Pandhi

    Rishi Sir,

    you have made me your fan, awesome learning’s, will surely be looking forward to learning more from you.

    you have just penned down all the points needed for those who wish to start-up.

    I liked your point

    Takeaway #2: If you want to be an entrepreneur, stay determined and get used to naysayers.

    Takeaway #5: Don’t give up too soon.

    and

    Takeaway #6: Keep it simple. Ideas should NOT be mental puzzles, they just need to be valuable to users.

  6. Profile photo of Rishi

    Thank you Saraswathi.

  7. Profile photo of Rishi

    Thanks Asha. I hope people can relate to some of the phases I went through and overcome the initial hurdle before starting up.

  8. Profile photo of Rishi

    Thanks Alok. Means a lot. 🙂

  9. Profile photo of Rishi

    Thanks Harshith. Experience is the best teacher, but having said that, I feel there’s a lot one can learn from others’ experiences too 🙂

  10. Profile photo of Rishi

    Thanks so much Karan and look forward to interacting w/ you. I hope this helps people who are going through some of the situations I went through. 

  11. Profile photo of Amit Kumar

    Hi Rishi,

    Incredible post!! It has really given me strengths to work now more passionately for my tech startup. I can easily co-relate with the situation you mentioned above. It was an energy booster. Thank you so much for sharing such a great post.

  12. Profile photo of sudhen karpe

    hi rishi,

    thanks a lot for your well framed Takeaways which are very simple to understand and valuable to users.. thanks once again n keep on posting …

  13. Profile photo of Darshan Bhambiru

    Wonderfully Placed and well described!!

    An Absolute relate to storyline and learnings to take away too!!

    Do check and add your comments on this post too if you find it relevant to your interest.

    Welcome to TRHS!!  Cheers!!

  14. Profile photo of Karan Pandhi

    Would be honored to meet you Sir 🙂 

  15. Profile photo of Rishi

    Thanks Amit. Glad you could relate to it and found it useful. Good luck w/ your startup.

  16. Profile photo of Rishi

    Thanks Sudhen. I’m usually not very regular on blogs, but will try to post whenever I find something good to share and find time.

  17. Profile photo of Rishi

    Thanks Darshan.

  18. Profile photo of asha chaudhry

    hi rishi,

    sorry i kinda messed up the top of your post!

    🙂

  19. Profile photo of Rishi

    Asha, what? where? 🙂

    Thanks so much everyone for the wonderful response, and thanks for the award Asha & co. I feel lucky! 

  20. Profile photo of Abhishek

    Hi Rishi,

    Really an awesome article about startups or rather ‘starting it up’.

    Look forward to interacting with you as I myself is going through a similar odyssey.

    Regards,
    Abhishek Sinha

  21. Profile photo of Rishi

    Thanks Abhishek. 

  22. Profile photo of Hemant Desai

    fantastic post !

    agree about the necessity of clusters, entrepreneurship is a function of people you know, solid business plan, right people to start with [ as in from premium colleges] etc. being cliches.

    At the back of our minds, deep down in our guts, we know that all this maybe important but success isnt a guarantee even when you have ALL of the above.

    More importantly failure is NOT a guarantee for those who have none of the above.

    looking forward to hearing some more on what’s happening.

     

  23. Profile photo of Rishi

    true!

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