"I want to help Indian consumer focused ventures become globally successful," Khushboo Maheshwari, HBS Grad & Startup Mentor

Khushboo Maheshwari

Khushboo Maheshwari hails from a small village near Udaipur, Rajasthan. She completed her education from 8 different schools as her father had a transferable job. Post that, she completed a dual-degree program in Chemical Engineering at IIT Bombay in 2002, and graduated with highest distinction. Later she worked with Procter & Gamble for 3 years before going to Harvard Business School. At Procter & Gamble, she worked in a plant in Mandideep, Bhopal - first as associate manager in Packing Plant (helping manage a team of 80 technicians who ran the packing lines) and then moved to Purchase function (where she supported installation of new plants for Baby & Feminine Care by leading supplier management and cost negotiations). Post her HBS studies, she currently works in Consumer, Digital & Media practice with Booz & Company in Chicago, US, and mentors startup GBES. YourStory interviewed her in order to gain insights from her experience at Harvard where she specialised in Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

[Edited Excerpts]

YS: What is the perception of the India outside India?

KM: India has always been a country of paradoxes and so is her perception – “A place of great opportunities and a very difficult place to work in”.

Many people realize that there are massive startup opportunities in India. Startup opportunities in Indian markets even for foreign entrepreneurs are also wide with various new sectors such as social and digital marketing, educational services etc. are gaining much importance. On the other hand, India is perceived as a very difficult market to work in. Apart from the cultural nuances, the struggle one needs to go through while starting the business especially with getting credit, enforcing contracts and time required to test an idea daunts heavily on many entrepreneurs and venture funds. Just as an anecdote, the doing business report from World Bank reported that India stands at 116 in ranking of 183 economies on the ease of starting a business. Our comparable economies such as Mexico rank 75 and regional average of south Asia is 81. Brazil, China and Indonesia also rank higher than us. These rankings, in part, do influence the perception of India, outside India.

YS: Can entrepreneurship be actually taught? 

KM: Entrepreneurship can be taught as much as one can teach a doctor how to treat a patient. From cases we discussed in entrepreneurship course at HBS kindled in me the desire to be an entrepreneur. It gave me the vocabulary, the definition of entrepreneurship – “the pursuit of opportunities, regardless of the resources one controls”. It uncurled my understanding of an entrepreneur – “not the one who has an aptitude to take risks, but have an ability to manage the risks taken.” It is worth getting trained in understanding and using tools to objectively evaluate if an opportunity is worth pursuing, how to choose a team, when and how to choose the form of funding, the trade-offs one needs to make between control and growth of their venture, so on and so forth.

But of course; entrepreneurship is messy. It is messier than one can see or understand through words. Imagine you are seeing someone do ‘sky-diving’ in front of you or on a television. You can see the thrill, the challenge, the fear and how the diver overcomes it. But the real experience of sky-diving when you do it yourself is far more breathtaking than what you would have imagined by seeing someone else do it! It is the same for entrepreneurship. At HBS, I got opportunity to interact and listen to the entrepreneurial journey of with many founders, co-founders and startup team members. It was not until I worked with GBES, a clean-tech startup in summer last year, when I realized the real challenges of doing a startup. Starting and running a business, do require a number of skills that a person can only develop in the real world such as dealing with many different types of people, making a judgment call every moment and handling the constant uncertainty that so often comes with a startup company.

To be an entrepreneur, one has to get their hands dirty. However, it is always worth knowing where and how much dirt to play and that is what can easily be taught.

YS: How does one develop a strategy for a micro-company to scale into a proper organization?

KM: “Ideas are cheap; acting on them is expensive” – Running Lean.

Building a multimillion-dollar business is an entrepreneur's dream. However, scale of a business is far less important than seeing your idea in real action.

The first and foremost challenge is to establish that you are addressing a problem that a customer wants to be solved and is willing to pay for it. One should create a minimum viable product and carry out pilots to test the business idea. A minimum viable product is the "version of a new product/service which allows to collection of maximum validated learning about customers with the least effort”. For example, Zappos founder Nick Swinmurn wanted to test the hypothesis that customers were ready and willing to buy shoes online. Instead of building a website and a large database of footwear, Swinmurn approached local shoe stores, took pictures of their inventory, posted the pictures online, bought the shoes from the stores at full price, and sold them directly to customers if they purchased the shoe through his website. The pilots of MVP are a great source of learning as they help refine you the view of the target consumer and the product/service features.

A startup should try to achieve scale only when it has first proven that there is a problem worth solving and it has built a solution people want. Once the core business idea is proven, you can find multiple avenues to grow the business - expanding the concept to new geography, adding services required by current customers, licensing product or finding franchise partners etc. A very simple way to think about growth is by asking, "how can I double by revenue by spending less than what I did before?"

YS: What are you currently doing? What are your plans for the future?

KM: Currently, I am working in Consumer, Digital & Media practice with Booz & Company in Chicago, US. The rapid emergence of digital-online-mobile economy has created growth opportunities for some and exciting challenges for many ventures, especially in US. My past projects range from devising growth strategy for a digital marketing services firm entering into mobile & social marketing space to enabling organization turnaround of a leading publication company challenged due to emergence of digital formats. Currently my focus is to gain experience and develop skills in strategy & marketing relevant to overall consumer industries; with focus on emerging digital & mobile trends. In a couple of years, drawing from my current experience, I see myself playing a part in making Indian consumer focused ventures globally successful. I have particular passion for educational services and my long term vision is to make education accessible and affordable to everyone through power of technology.

YS: How do you plan to contribute to the Indian startup ecosystem?

KM: Currently, my husband Prasun (Jain) and I are working on a social-technical start-up that would help increase woman safety in India. In addition, I am always looking for opportunities to connect with young Indian entrepreneurs, provide guidance/mentorship and help connect with investors. Young entrepreneurs looking for guidance or support to refine their business plan, strategy or looking for making connections with investors or partners can reach out to me.

YS: On what fronts are you contributing to GBES's growth?

KM: I got involved with GBES as I graduated from HBS. I have been associated with the team as a strategic advisor and worked closely to help refine the business plan, financial model, testing business assumptions and making connections with investors. Being part of a GBES has been absolutely thrilling and a truly rewarding experience.

Learn more about GBES here.