Happy New Year to you, and if you are not firmly on the path to happiness, I suggest you read this article.
Here I bring to you the first story of the year from the series, ‘Startup stories for the soul’. If you are reading this series for the first time, please check out the earlier stories here.
Sumit Jain embodies the quintessential modern young Indian entrepreneur. A self-confessed problem solver, he had his priorities right since childhood. His aim was the pursuit of learning, not chasing that senseless perfectionism in education, thereby distorting the true meaning of education itself, that generations have been taught to master in hopes of being ‘successful’.
Jain is comfortable defining success on his own terms and his persona exudes that confident, but driven, attitude that has seen him achieve so much at a young age. Along with his team at Commonfloor, Jain has overhauled and radically changed the real estate market in India.
In a freewheeling chat Sumit Jain speaks about the high school contest that changed his life, the invaluable advice from his brother that is the guidepost for all his present day success and how resigning out of the blue from his corporate job was the best thing he ever did.
Small town boy dreaming big
Local newspapers in Khatauli, a little town in Uttar Pradesh where Sumit grew up, often report incidents of Bollywood celebrities and politicians passing through its streets. “That was not because of any particular attraction – except for the big mill perhaps-- but because it is impossible to bypass Katauli on the highway from Delhi to Dehradun,” says Sumit with a laugh.
Sumit grew up on a house in the main road. On the ground floor of their house, his father had a shop where he sold building products. Sumit was the youngest of four and was particularly close with his eldest brother. “He did his engineering in Roorkee, even though at that time there was nobody from my town who went to the IITs. My brother had no particular reference point to excel except an inner desire; he studied in a Hindi medium school and cleared the IIT exam without any external help. He has always been my role model,” glows the proud little brother.
Given that the eldest child had opted for an independent career, the implicit deal was that Sumit would take over the family business. In fact, he used to spend most of his time in the shop as a kid. He would study, play and work there. The seeds of running his own business were planted early on when sometimes his father left the store under his care for days, telling him not to call him for any reason. “If I did something wrong, he would tell me later,” recalls Sumit. “I knew everything about the business like expecting orders, rates, what happened in the shop etc. from as early in my life as I can remember.”
Sumit’s childhood was a lesson in self-reliance. That was because of a simple philosophy his parents practised- make mistakes. “To give you an example, I was never taught to drive per se. Be it a scooter or car, I started driving very early. I got hit, fell down and learnt in the process. My parents had a simple rule – do it, make mistakes, fall down and get up. It kept me in good stead when in my first internship in college, my boss asked me to park his car. He said, ‘Can you drive? Can you park my car?’ and I said yes. It was the first time I parked a car. Never more than at that moment did I feel more grateful to my father for letting me attend the shop on my own, trusting me to do a good job and learning my own way by making mistakes. His implicit trust in me made me take the right path always.”
His parents, both post-graduates, had a delightful attitude when it came to judging his school performance. “My father always said, ‘enjoy what you are doing and whatever way it works for you, I’m fine.’ His main concern was whether I was eating properly. He would ask, ‘Badaam kha raha hai ya nahi kha raha hai?’ (Are you eating enough almonds?) He would not be more curious than this.”
Muzzafarnagar and the prize that made a big difference
Sumit was in Khatauli till class VIII, as they had English medium school only till the eighth standard. After that he started going to a school in Muzaffarnagar which was 20 kms away from his town. “My school was in Circular Road, which was a Jat colony. It was a notoriously riot happy town and we saw a few encounters in front of our eyes. Policemen were constantly passing by in their jeeps. In fact, some people in the school used to bring weapons too. This baffled us, the simple studious lot.
We would travel from Khatauli to Muzaffarnagar by bus, me and a few other Khatauli kids who had also joined this school. My school was not well-known, it had started only five years previously. But they had very good faculty,” Sumit reveals, his face alight with favourite childhood memories.
He confesses that academic excellence was not his top priority. “Sometimes I used to come first in class, and would get 100 out of 100, sometimes 70 out of 100. But the good part is nobody was bothered.” Things changed sharply when he was in class 11. “There was a mathematics competition arranged by the district magistrate. Two students participated from every school making the count to 100. These were bright students, some of whom had scored 96 percent in class 10. I took part in this competition. I did not attempt 16 marks question and just did 84 marks worth of questions. I was sure I had no chance at victory.
When we came out of the hall, a lot of students said they had attempted 100 percent. Desolate, I was about to leave when I heard my name blast out of the loud speaker. I could not believe it. I thought it was some other Sumit Jain. But then I heard my father’s name, ‘Son of Y. K. Jain! M G Public School!’ I was like, ‘Wow! how can this be possible?’ I never thought about studying in my school and now I’m topping the district, that too in mathematics,” says Sumit.
He became a celebrity overnight. The local newspapers covered the news of the competition and in the process his school became famous. “The organisers asked me to get my parents to collect the award from the school. This was the first time my parents came with me to my school during assembly time. As soon as we entered, everyone started clapping. My mother received the cash prize. That day I realized the joy such an event can bring to one’s parents and school. I was on top of the world for a month and this realization to do better has stayed with me always.”
That fateful win in school was what got Sumit thinking about bigger things in life. “I never thought of IIT before that. But in the 12th standard I appeared for it, but could not clear it. I had started studying for it quite late. I had scored 86% marks in the 12th. I got very good rank in local MNR and UP college and was very happy. Again, I got the best rank in my town.”
But once again his elder brother’s guidance proved invaluable. “My brother was in the US at that point of time. When he called me, I told him about my marks and how satisfied I was with my lot. I wasn’t going to wait one more year. But he urged me to prepare for the IIT Entrances again instead.”
“I was disappointed at this initially. I had thought that with these marks, I could pursue whatever I wanted to. But he said that I would forever regret in life that I could have tried cracking IIT one more time yet chose not to. His contention was whether I cleared the exams, but that I didn’t try hard enough.” Soon enough Sumit packed his bags and headed for Kota alone where he immersed himself in these preparations. “I rented a room, which was basically a kitchen on the rooftop, and earnestly studied for a year.”
Sumit cleared IIT and was the opener in his batch. He chose Roorkee as it was close to his hometown.
Clearing IIT was an added reinforcement that Sumit could achieve whatever he put his mind to and that meant not holding a job but starting out on his own. “Yeah, I was sure very early about this. In the first year itself, I went to work in a startup. During Thomso College Festival there were some seniors roaming around (who had started up recently), and I spoke to them and took their numbers. I called them during the summer holidays and asked if I could work with them. They agreed, not really convinced that I was serious. But I landed up in their house very soon in Delhi.”
Sumit became the Man Friday, their go to guy for any and every job that needed to be done. They came up with a marketing campaign, ‘Mad about IIT,’ and asked him if he liked it. But he wanted to take it one step further. Being mad about IIT is one thing. But let’s not just be mad about joining IIT. Let’ do a ‘Go to IIT to campaign’. I printed the banners and pasted them all over Delhi.
In the morning, we used to run tests and in the night put up banners. Once I was putting the banners till late into the night. This attracted the cops, who demanded to know what we were doing out so late. They hit the rickshaw guy with whom I was putting the banners. I told the cop who approached me that I was from IIT. He asked, ‘What is IIT?’ and asked to see my ID. He said that with a ladder and a partner at night it was only mischief that one could do. I explained what we were doing and pacified him. The cop relented probably because of my earnestness and enthusiasm for what I was doing. He let us go. I was amazed at myself for having faced the cops alone. I did not get scared and call anyone to help me. I was 17. I felt empowered to manage difficult situations on my own.”
In his third year, Sumit received an email from one of his seniors stating that he was looking for an intern for his startup in Bangalore. “I called him back saying I was interested. I told him, I didn’t want any money, but a fruitful learning experience (basically the same pitch I gave in the first year). They agreed to pay for my expenses. I was given 4000 rupees. I stayed in a dormitory at 1500 bucks per month. Sometimes I used to sleep in the office so that I did not have to pay for the commute,” he recalls, adding that those days’ idlis used to cost six rupees, and he would survive on that.
I thrived in that environment. If I had to do one project, I ended up doing four projects. It was a very good experience. My senior from Roorkee, who was in Stanford, called me. He said, ‘Sumit, you have done a good job. Every IITian is good but then what I like about you is your enterprising skill.’ And this was the first time I was hearing this word ‘enterprising.’ I said, ‘What does it mean?’ He said, ‘The capability to take risk. You came with nothing.’ I felt very enterprising indeed.”
Resigning and starting up
After college, Sumit joined Oracle. While he learnt a lot there, his heart was never into a corporate job. After a year, he remembers going to office one day at 10 o’clock with no intention of resigning, but by 10:30 am, he had actually put in his papers. “I felt I won’t see anything different until I resign. So I resigned. I told myself that I would think about startups later. The worst that could happen was I would join a startup if I did not start up myself. I went back home and from that day onwards started studying the market and technology -Ruby on Rails, PHP etc. Lalit (the other Co-founder in Commonfloor) called me the next day saying, ‘Hey dude, I also resigned.’ ”
Sumit and Lalit were colleagues in Oracle. Sumit fondly talks about Lalit and how he had known about him while he was in Kota. “Lalit was a very popular mimic and had a huge fan following in college. He had an accident in college and was bed-ridden for almost a year, which was also when his programming skills deepened. We had lot of ideas. We started a product called, ‘Ban Karo’, which was banning telemarketing calls. When we used to go talk to people one problem that everyone had was unwanted calls from telemarketers. We built this service, a social spam filtering basically. What is there for Gmail, we built it for the phone. We got featured in the top 10 mobile companies. At that point of time, it was the world of VAS. We talked to Vodafone and other folks but were sidecast. They were saying we will take 90% revenue. We were a young startup and it was impossible to break through the mobile cartel. We decided we will go back and build something for the Internet.” Though they knew mobile will be the future (a fact well validated today). And this belief was further strengthened with Vikas Malpani (other co-founder) joining the duo.
Meanwhile, they were getting frustrated. They wrote a service called, ‘Ugal Do’ (blurt it out). “We started writing about ourselves. The service also got featured as the Indian Twitter. Twitter was not the Twitter that it is now. Facebook was also unheard of then. It was Orkut actually ruling the social media. In 2007, we stumbled upon this idea which would go on to become CommonFloor. It was a platform where we could bring people sharing common interest together and give them a platform to communicate. Actually creating a hyper local network,” he says excitedly.
This seed of an idea to bring tangible meaning to the lives of people shaped up to become Commonfloor as you know today.
Sumit found a perfect soul mate along the way in his wife Aditi, who is an architect. “We both are self-driven and respect each other’s individuality. Aditi comes from a business family and has a lot of respect for hard work and knows what it takes to run a business. She is my anchor in many ways.”
It is not daily that an entrepreneur makes time to reminiscence about the good old days. For Sumit and his ilk, every day counts as they keep crossing milestones in a never-ending journey of self-awareness.