Much has been written of the success stories of India’s startup poster boys and girls, but they have certainly not been overnight successes. The toil and tears—as well creativity and craft—of entrepreneurship are well captured in the 15 startup profiles in the book The Tip of the Iceberg: The Unknown Truth behind India’s Startups, by Suveen Sinha.
Suveen is National Business Editor at Hindustan Times, and was earlier at Business Standard, Business Today and Outlook. He writes on a range of issues relating to business, economy, sports and movies. His other books include Driven, memoir of former Maruti Suzuki chief Jagdish Khattar.
“As the majority of startups falls by the wayside, stories of alcoholism and depression abound. Broken relationships with friends or romantic partners, who were also co-founders, are common,” cautions Suveen. The book shines the light on a range of challenges at different levels: individual (depression, substance abuse), co-founder (difference in future direction), organisation (communication), investor (managerial control), market (timing) and regulation (licenses, arrests).
The narrative is spread across nine chapters which, strangely, have no titles; the narrative jumps back and forth across the individual entrepreneurs and across time in each chapter, which makes it a bit hard to piece together coherently. Analysis of broader trends and lessons and a timeline of the developments in the book would have been most welcome. Still, the book is packed with interesting details of the founders’ personalities and behaviour, right down to food habits, office design preferences and even styles of laughter.
Here are brief vignettes of the 15 entrepreneurs in this book review. Suveen also shared some of these insights at a panel I moderated during the recent Bangalore Business Literature Festival (see my writeup); the other panelist was V. Ganesh, author of the youth startup book Bhaag (see my book review).
Tip of the Iceberg begins with discussion of the high-profile public spats between investors and Rahul Yadav, founder of Housing.com, a ‘shy, socially-awkward, brilliant soul driven to pain and distraction because he was forced to ride the tiger of investor money,’ as described by investor Haresh Chawla.
Avnish Bajaj, founder of Baazee.com, graduated from IIT Kanpur and University of Wisconsin, and worked at Apple in the early 1990s. “Whatever I am, it is because of IIT,” he says. He dabbled with a data processing BPO called Soft Magic, and then got inspired by the success of eBay to move back to India and start Baazee.com (Hindi for ‘bet’). His father in India was also unwell, so this turned out to be the ‘coming together of circumstances.’ Other sites like Rediff and IndiaTimes had also tried their hand at e-commerce early on, without major success. Avnish got good press also as an example of the ‘reverse brain drain’ of NRIs, or ‘brain gain.’
He was unfortunately arrested in 2004 and put in Tihar Jail; he had allegedly violated cyberlaws when someone put up a pornographic VCD for sale on the site. He was soon released and the laws were rectified. Prison was a traumatic experience, but in hindsight Avnish says it also shaped him. “You feel like a martyr when you go to jail for an industry,” he says.
The company was acquired by eBay, and Avnish went on to become a successful VC at Matrix Partners. Portfolio companies include Quikr, Ola, LimeRoad, Practo, Stayzilla, DailyHunt and more. As an investor, Avnish looks for a mix of skill, opportunity and passion in his startups – the team has to have talent and integrity and play in a market he believes in. “I look for product-obsessed founders – missionary and visionary, not mercenary,” he says.
Kunal Bahl did not get clear the IIT JEE exams – but ended up working in the manufacturing sector, which turned out well for his later foray into e-commerce. The memory of his father’s hard work in the mining sector also shaped his acceptance of a busy life, which is also a fact of life for an entrepreneur.
He went on to study in the US but his visa to join Microsoft was rejected – another disappointment, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He moved back to India and teamed up with batchmate Rohit Bansal to start a coupons business called Money Saver, way ahead of its time. They made numerous phone calls to get businesses on board, and named their office visits ‘standing ovations.’ They would also use VoIP phones and a US number for calls to ‘indicate importance.’
They switched from paper to online coupons and launched Snapdeal in 2010. They were the seventh Indian deal site, and were followed by 50 more in just six months. They scaled up faster than other such as DealsAndYou, which was incubated by Harish Bahl’s Smile Group incubator (founded in 1999). They then switched model once more to a managed marketplace (like AliBaba, unlike eBay’s open model or an inventory-led model).
Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder of One97 and Paytm, witnessed some ups and downs during his education, as a young super-achiever but who also felt somewhat out of place with his Hindi-medium school education in an English-medium college. ‘We don’t need no thought control,’ the classic Pink Floyd lyric is his motto of independence and entrepreneurship, a desire to be self-employed rather than seeking a job. “Curriculum education is overrated. The real education is learning from experience and case studies,” says Vijay.
He was also inspired by articles in magazines like Fortune that were covering the startup scene of the mid-1990s in Silicon Valley (eg. Yahoo, Netscape). Vijay started a web content management company from his IIT Delhi hostel. After graduation, the company was bought by Lotus Interwork from the US. But he struck out again to start One97, inspired by ‘dotcom’ startups in India such as Contests2Win, IndiaGames, Jaldi.com and Indya.com. He hit upon the revenue-sharing model with content for mobile operators.
Vijay survived the dotcom bust (‘the circle of life’) and at one time used to come home at odd hours so that he could avoid his landlord confronting him for his overdue rent. Later, he even took a half-time CEO job to prove to his parents that he could earn at least Rs 30,000 a month - so that they could find a suitable bride for him.
The head of Polar Software gave him office space in return for a 40-percent equity (worth Rs 87 crore later!). Eventually, he got funding from Helion, Saif and Intel Capital, and later entered the mobile payment space with the Paytm brand. He rode the smartphone boom and got a payment bank licence as well. SAIF arranged a meeting for Vijay in China with AliBaba’s Jack Ma, who went on to become an investor; another meeting with Ratan Tata led to his signing on as an investor and advisor.
Yogendra Vasupal, founder of Stayzilla, was part of an online train ticket booking startup in Chennai in his teens. Unfortunately, the Chennai startup’s founder Sri Vatsan was arrested for allegedly not having a travel agent licence, and emerged from jail a month later as a broken man.
Yogi was later inspired by the story of Baazee’s acquisition by eBay for Rs 230 crore, and showed the newspaper article to his mother as validation of the entrepreneurship life. Yogi mastered website design and Google Adwords in college, and then hit upon the idea of a short-term accommodation marketplace. It was first called InAsra and then Stayzilla (zilla + stays + Godzilla). They received investment from IAN and Matrix Partners. Stress led to problems with smoking and drinking, but Yogi eventually kicked both those habits.
Sandeep Aggarwal, founder of ShopClues, had a rude shock early on when his first investor pulled the plug on the funds – just when Sandeep was packing up and moving back to India from Silicon Valley to start up. His team managed to raise $1.8 million from a dozen angels and then moved back.
“If you are already set in a profession, you lose the appetite for risk and that is the end of any entrepreneurial ambition you have,” cautions Sandeep. He was earlier an Internet analyst on Wall Street.
His wife, Radhika, was founder of fashion blog FashionClues, and describes herself as an ‘accidental’ entrepreneur; she was earlier with Nordstrom. The site had to be closed just when it needed funding, which unfortunately happened during the 2008 financial crisis. “The failures always help,” she recalls.
When the ShopClues team finally moved back to India, they had another rude shock: their Gurgaon office contractor ran away with their money. “He thought we were a bunch of NRIs who know shit about things,” Sandeep guesses. They eventually had to do up the office themselves. The team found success by positioning their company not as an online mall but as ‘online Karol Bagh,’ targeting value-conscious buyers and small regional sellers across India (one puja item even was ‘cowdung cake’).
The entire team and their families turned up at the fulfillment centre to dispatch the first shipment: a coffee mug for a Kolkata customer. Investments flowed in and growth continued despite setbacks like Sandeep’s arrest for alleged insider trading in the US.
Suchi Mukherjee, founder of LimeRoad, came from a family that migrated from Bangladesh to India; she supported her siblings after her father passed away. She moved to Europe and mastered deal-making during her work experience at Lehman Brothers, Virgin Media, eBay and Skype (its chairman is also an investor in LimeRoad).
After over 17 years in the UK, she returned with her family to Delhi to launch LimeRoad as a social commerce platform for fashion retail. This area already had casualties like Yebhi (earlier BigShoeBazaar, with funding from N.R. Narayana Murthy’s Catamaran Ventures) and FashionAndYou, but Suchi proceeded with her network of ‘self-expression creatives and looks.’ Her mother, though initially disapproved, thinking that setting up a business was only for big business families or politicians. To counter such potential misgivings in her future employees, Suchi decided to offer an insurance policy that covers employees’ parents.
Dhiraj Rajaram, founder of Mu Sigma, describes himself as a slow learner but one who becomes obsessive-compulsive about something once he likes it. He was exposed to the power of analytics when he was in Booz Allen Hamilton in the US, as well as decisions sciences (blending business, maths, behaviourial sciences, design thinking, technology).
Dhiraj classifies entrepreneurs into two types: ‘love marriage’ entrepreneurs (who fall in love with their idea and marry it) and ‘arranged marriage’ entrepreneurs (who look around for an idea after having decided to become an entrepreneur). A true entrepreneur is into ‘change enjoyment’ and not ‘change management’ or ‘uncertainty management.’
Dhiraj values learning more than knowing, and places importance on interdisciplinary perspectives. “The more lenses you can use, the better you see the world. The more you mix and match lenses, the more holistically you see the world,” he says. As for investment, it’s important for founders to have ownership. “If you own less than 10 percent of the company, it doesn’t bring out the real intensity of entrepreneurship,” Dhiraj advises. An unfortunate development has been the divorce between Dhiraj and his co-founder wife, Ambiga.
Phanindra Sama, founder of redBus.in, had to take a vipassana course to handle his stress at one point, and he almost gave up at that course too. He studied at BITS Pilani (where he met classmates who eventually became his co-founders), and moved on to ST Micro and then Texas Instruments in Bengaluru.
He was a hard worker, though many of his friends said hard work was only for college after which life was to be ‘a blast.’ One day, Phani was unable to catch a bus to be with his family for Diwali – and he stumbled on the idea of a bus schedule platform called redBus. Even at this stage, he was more interested in solving the problem than becoming an entrepreneur – his team taught themselves Java and HTML from books.
Friends questioned why he was getting into the bus industry of ‘rowdies and goondas,’ and even bus operators said online ticketing was for airlines and not buses. Eventually, TiE mentor Sanjay Anandaram of SeedFund gave him some useful tips on finding and understanding customer needs (‘sell tickets’), and the startup pivoted to manage unused inventory and ticket sales. Sufficiently impressed by their performance, Bharti Jacob of SeedFund signed him a cheque of Rs 3 crore for 30 percent equity, as compared to what Phani asked for: Rs 30 lakh!
Distant cousins were recruited for coding, and more investment flowed in. They decided to put a hold on further investments that they did not seem to need, but the financial downturn of 2008 made them realise they should have raised the money since they came to need it later. Luckily, the funding tide turned again, thanks to TiE’s Kanwal Rekhi. On the marriage prospects front, though, things didn’t seem so good since some relatives thought Phani was only ‘selling private bus tickets!’
The big development happened in June 2013 with the acquisition by Ibibo. But, unfortunately, there was also difference of opinion with respect to sharing rewards among the team, based on who had toiled and sacrificed how much and for how long.
Shashank N.D., founder of Practo, had such a tiring schedule in his early startup days that he once fell asleep while waiting in the office of a doctor to whom he had come to pitch; the doctor was so touched by his passion that he signed on as a customer. At NIT Suratkal, Shashank had joined the entrepreneurship forum Ephoria, where he was inspired in the principles of startup life during a talk by Rediff founder Ajit Balakrishnan.
Shashank was more interested in the vast ‘scientific’ possibilities that the Internet gave startups than the ‘unscientific’ ways of jobs in the stock market. The SaaS service for doctors was also empowering for patients. “We felt like creators, it was a big high for us,” he recalls. They raised money by winning business plan competitions, and were eventually funded by Sequoia and Matrix; the company is now expanding to Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.
“What we are building is something bigger than ourselves,” says Shashank; they have now set up an innovation lab in San Francisco. “Money is a differentiator. It accelerates things. But it cannot replace innovation, which is the base. The important question is, how many downturns can you take,” asks Shashank.
Bhavish Aggarwal, founder of Ola, studied at IIT Bombay and joined Microsoft. His streak of adventurousness led him to start OlaTrip as a travel site for destinations near Delhi, but he found that passengers were more interested in just getting cars. He switched models and started OlaCabs.com. When he approached investors, he realised he did not know what an ‘org chart’ was. Bhavish’s father was earlier unhappy that his son had become a ‘travel agent;’ now he wonders when exactly he will make money in the new land-grab model of ‘grow first, make money later.’
The book also covers some of the flameouts of the entrepreneurship boom, such as FashionAndYou and Yebhi. It points out patterns such as the dominance of the bania community in the digital startup story – such as the Bahls, Bansals and Aggarwals. “Ludhiana is known for its rich vein of entrepreneurship that has thrown up the likes of Sunil Mittal and the Munjal family of the Hero Group,” says Suveen.
The book profiles some investors as well, such as Vani Kola, who moved back to India after 30 years in Silicon Valley. She started IndoUS Venture Partners with Vinod Dham, and then Kalaari Capital. The firm has invested in SnapDeal, BlueStone, Zivame, Urban Ladder and others. Vani looks for intellectual connect, insight and commitment of founders; all thus must lead to productive work relationships. “SoftBank’s entry is a high-water mark for the Indian startup scene,” adds Suveen.
Sanjay Anandaram classifies India’s entrepreneurship movement into three waves: old-world pre-liberalisation (India as a market), IT-BPO (India as a launchpad for global markets), and the current crop of world-class domestic startups. An interesting trend is the rise of self-taught techies with no prior business experience, who want to solve a problem they experienced and end up disrupting industries.
“The new entrepreneurs have shown a trenchant keenness to fund the dreams of other entrepreneurs – something Murthy and Premji started doing much later in their careers,” Suveen observes.
“Maybe fairy tales do happen. But it will not be wise to count on them,” sums up Suveen, an effective piece of advice indeed for aspiring entrepreneurs.