It’s 2016. The startup boom has happened and we’ve heard some large numbers been thrown around, so much so that we can’t recollect whether a startup has been valued at 10 million or 10 billion, both numbers being equally believable. It is also the year in which a lot of startups will come up, fail, barely exist or do really well. You can never really tell.
Last year, I worked at one such startup – the kind that was doing well for a while and then just wasn’t. It was an internship at a science magazine for children, right after passing out from one of the best engineering colleges in India. I worked as a management intern for the CEO and founder, Kanth. For him, it was all about getting things done and anyone not following that mantra was apprehended, even shamed.
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We had a wonderful team of 16 really talented people with different approaches to work.
I was given a good amount of freedom and flexibility, even as an intern, to make deals with vendors and plan events for the startup and actually make them happen – a freedom that very few interns would get to exercise in a corporate environment. It was all about being an entrepreneur yourself.
I worked hard, sometimes over 14 hours a day. I believed in Kanth’s words, trusting that he knew what he was doing. He sometimes gave me good advice on being a professional and I got to work with some amazing people and enjoy some amazing music at the office, while still getting work done. The atmosphere was bustling with passion but also a certain amount of ‘headless chicken-ness’ (for lack of a better word).
Kanth showed me the importance of being a self-starter, managing priorities and having an action plan. He was an A-hole and loved being one. He even called himself that in a meeting. He didn’t believe in being empathetic and saw it as a sign of weakness. Hence he could never effectively lead. Kanth deserves a full chapter dedicated to criticising and praising him, simultaneously. Yes, he worked hard. But for me his approach was more like using the wrong key for the right lock. He was one of those bosses who can’t be defined in one word.
All in all, it was an amazing experience. I got to meet the famed cricketer, Rahul Dravid, up close and personal, as part of onboarding him to become our brand ambassador. Working in a high-pressure environment like that, I realised the power I wielded in the real world. Everything I needed was a phone call away. And it opened my eyes. It was almost as if I had been living in a bubble all my life.
By August 2015, things took a turn for the worse. We had spent massive amounts on promotional activities but, in reality, we weren't making any real money. Our investors were getting impatient with the lack of results. A whole lot of money and time was being pumped into building a learning platform that was supposed to revolutionise the way kids learnt. It was a moonshot idea. A diverse range of companies had tried it before, but we purported to be different.
Kanth eventually asked me to jump ship. He was basically taking advantage of the company funding him, siphoning off good employees (including me) for his own food startup before the magazine tanked. These tactics were new to me, but I knew that I was getting a front row seat to seeing some good business manoeuvres. And I was an asset to Kanth. It felt great. “This was progress,” I thought.
The food startup was where things went full throttle. I was exposed to a crash course in starting a business. It was the season finale of my glorious time as 'the intern'. I was working with five individuals with varying levels of ‘foot in the mouth’ capabilities. It was a food startup with one real cook and four others running around with knives, pretending to be chefs.
It was a paradigm shift from working at the magazine. Instead of sitting at a desk, we could work anywhere – the floor, beanbags, the dining table, food counters in the kitchen, wherever. Work spaces didn't have to be defined. We made them. Office supplies had nametags on them. Water was rationed. The bathrooms didn't have any toilet paper. Air conditioners were replaced with giant exhaust fans. Meetings would be crammed, but we got to meet some amazing people in our modest space. One time, we got to interact with the ex-MD of Ogilvy Singapore, having a team meeting in a 4’ x 10’ office with a shutter for a door. We worked with pure passion. But passion by itself doesn't run businesses. Passion is another form of ego and, in time, egos clash. It can make or break the harmony.
There were talks of us being the next FreshMenu and attacking verticals in the pre-packaged food industry. All this was good to a certain extent, but the outcomes predicted in our Excel sheets looked to good to be true. We thought if we hit ‘x number of orders a day’, we would be front-runners for ‘xxx amount of funding’. It's a good mirage to run towards. But generally, no one can predict these numbers. Hence it's a shot in the dark, in most cases.
My work involved a lot of operations, working the front and backend. A food startup can be an environment churning chaos at every moment. When you think you've got it under control, a bigger obstacle suddenly appears. I never thought that I would be thrust into so much responsibility so early in life. What I did mattered. And that feeling cannot quite be expressed in words.
In a nutshell, we set up the business from the ground up – from the kitchen equipment to the delivery boys, to dual Internet connections in the desolate lands of Hebbal. It was both tiring and exhilarating. We slogged 18 hours a day to get the business up and running in about 28 days. That's when things started to go south with the founder. His basic expectation was for us to put in more effort. At this point, even the most passionate among us were questioning where the expectations were set and if it really had an upper limit. I was already working 18 hours a day, shuttling 52 km between JP Nagar and Hebbal everyday. No weekends. My boss was a true slave driver!
Working in such a tense environment and under so much pressure, you are bound to break, at some point. You start questioning if it is really worth it. It finally boiled down to one Sunday morning when, after an exhausting day of work, I get an essay of an email telling me that I am not good enough and I haven't been putting in enough effort. At that point, something in me snapped. I composed an email response with a lot of four-letter words. It was sort of like a break-up, but the good kind. The kind that you wake up to and don't have the urge to shout into a pillow. It was cathartic.
The internship, with all its highs and lows, changed the way that I deal with life now:
- I don’t shy away from responsibility anymore.
- My approach to problems is more inclined towards getting work done than playing the blame game.
- I learnt how to deal with real people doing real business and how to negotiate with them. These life skills are barely exercised in today’s business park environment.
- I strictly abide by deadlines, having realised how important my words are.
- I don’t let anyone talk down to me. I have learnt to draw a line.
So for those still wondering if startups are your thing, I say: take the leap. If you can handle it, you’ll come out the other side a totally different person. Not everyone’s experience will be the same, however. The point is to take up every opportunity, in order to get to where you want to get to. Those are the only shortcuts in life. Entrepreneurship may not be everybody's piece of cake, but working for a cause that is so close to your heart is something everyone should do at least once in life. There’s more learning here than any formal education can give you.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)