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In Dehradun, a startup turns seven young boys into seven wise men

S. Aijaz
10th Feb 2015
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7 wishful men and their USP brand

Saurabh Bhatnagar, Rahul Bhatnagar, Saurabh Nailwal, Dhiren Chaudhary, Yogesh Prakash, Akshay Ahuja and Amit Nautiyal were young 20-somethings in the summer of 2012. Dismissed as ‘boys’, all seven toiled to build their brand, Uprist Service Portal, a Dehradun-based entrepreneurial venture that provides a multitude of services from loyalty programmes to event management to manpower solutions. It took the young men a long time to produce a profile of 28,000 USP cardholders in Dehradun and 170 brands.

High confidence and zero users

The team at USP slogged house-to-house and store-to-store distributing their pamphlets and selling their services to build a name. Their toughest knot was convincing established brands to provide USP cardholders a percentage waiver, which would mean dipping into profits. With no users and only gut confidence to go with, USP roped in 80 brands, which allowed them to start selling their cards within three months of starting up. However, their journey was suddenly occluded when a leading Hindi daily launched its own card priced at a quarter of USP’s cost. The broadsheet’s circulation of 50,000 was no match for USP’s zero customers. In what began to look like a startup with all meat and no juice, the men pushed back relentlessly against competition. Today, the daily’s loyalty card doesn’t exist.

Family feuds

‘Stability’ is an important word in Indian families. There are few things more important than landing a ‘stable’ job that isn’t captive to fluctuating market trends, or being ‘settled’ by the time you’re 25. No one at USP was interested in the old world modus vivendi of corporate benefits, routine procreation or guaranteed pensions. The road to persuading their parents was an acclivitous one, and still continues to be dotted with [fewer] heated arguments. With no fixed pay and the onus of generating profit on every member, tempers were expected to rise at home. Co-founder Saurabh Bhatnagar remembers: “One Diwali when a company’s employees look forward to bonuses, we didn’t even have funds to buy sweets for our team mates.”

Rebellious and fiercely independent, Saurabh and his team had no intentions of being part of the shogunate empire that is Corporate India. This streak of independence also meant they decided to avoid financial assistance from their parents. It was undoubtedly their toughest phase. Saurabh says, “The only reason we were able to get over this phase was because we loved our work. It kept us going. Even today, our team members are salaried employees. Each member’s remuneration is directly linked to total revenue.”

Walking through the battlefield

If familial reservations were tough, igniting their business was tougher. Saurabh remembers a particularly traumatising experience with a grocery store owner they were hoping to close in on. From the very beginning, the owner showed little interest in USP, but Saurabh decided persistence was key to roping in clients. It proved wrong.

After a short while, the conversation devolved into ruction as the store owner shot shrapnel laden with slurs and abuses. The team was forced into an exhibition of his ‘premium pluses’, and challenged USP to “break even 1 per cent of his customers,” says Saurabh. “We had simply gone to explain our concept, and never expected such behaviour.”

Another time, USP printed brand coupons that offered more discount than what a user normal gets on a USP card. One coupon had a particularly good deal on a fine dining restaurant. For a team member’s birthday, Saurabh and his colleagues decided to get four of these offers. A few days later, when USP returned to the restaurant owner for feedback, they were told customers were not interested in getting any of these offers packed. Saurabh says, “We knew that besides our four orders there were quite a few others who had availed the same offers on packing. Such incidents happened at other outlets, too, where the owners denied or gave us drastically reduced numbers of conversions due to USP cards or coupons.”

“Such incidents,” Saurabh adds, “allowed us to choose and select like-minded vendors and move away from those who didn’t understand the concept or were not honest enough to continue working with.”

The USP Team
The USP Team
Getting with the times

Change is constant. It’s been repeated enough times to have become a banality, yet it’s so important to remind ourselves of this cliché. “We regularly change and modify our ways of reaching out to new and existing users. When we interact with the college crowd, we focus on discounts and how they can visit a lot more places with their limited finances. On the other hand, when we try and reach out to the elite business class, our focus is on making them realise how our product will make them special and help them stand out.”

For USP, markets change, eras change, so businesses must not only be equipped to react to this change, but foresee change. Keeping these realities in mind, USP has its own mobile application coming out soon called My USP, which will facilitate vendors communicate with consumers and help consumers avail deals and offers on a daily basis through their smartphones.

Diversifying

USP first started out with their cards. Over the years, they’ve diversified their product and service range to include Coupon Booklets, events, The Survivor Series management and leadership event, Your Vote Counts voting awareness rally, Manpower Solutions to provide manpower to vendors and Digital Promotions among others.

Look back in learning

If entrepreneurship was easy, we’d all be one. The bitter reality is that most of us are only cut out to work for entrepreneurs. However, many of us lose out on the potential by not putting in the sweat, blood and brains into it. Every member on USP has been through his share of incertitudes and insecurities. “There’s just one thing that can keep you going in times of distress,” says Saurabh, “and that’s ‘passion.’” It’s why the boy-turned-men at USP chose a simple tagline for themselves: “Driven with Passion.” Saurabh remembers Steve Jobs’ own philosophy of entrepreneurship: there will be times where the thought of luxury is ludicrous in the face of days where you’ll wonder whether the next grain of rice husked by peasant has your name on it. In such times, all you have to counter your empty stomach and unpaid bills is the unbridled love for your work and unfaltering determination to succeed.

“We don’t believe in destiny or luck. Success is directly proportional to hard work. The more persistent you are in your work, the more successful you will be. All the beaters and winners in life are the hard-working lot.

“Being a startup, we were bound to make mistakes. In fact, we made blunders. But, we were confident and kept learning from our mistakes. We won’t say we are a very successful business as of now, but we believe we are just there.”

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