For any startup that harbours long-term ambitions, surviving the first year of operations and coming out unscathed is the key. The first year brings with it self-doubts, human resource challenges, issues with co-founders if there are multiple partners, financial crunches, and market challenges. Tiding over these difficulties and surviving to tell the story by making it to the second year takes guts and perseverance, and only a few are blessed with it. YourStory is happy to present a new series of articles as part of the series Survival Instinct, that track how leading startups battled the demons and survived the first year of their operations. Today we bring to you Zoomcar.
To this day, I firmly believe that there’s absolutely nothing more thrilling (or terrifying) than your first year as a startup founder. The peaks and valleys are absolutely astonishing. The sheer gambit of emotions experienced over that 12-month stretch will surely leave you in shock and awe.
Having come out the other end, I can confidently state that mental toughness is the most important ingredient to possess in that first year. To quote many a professional golfer, “You really have to grind out there.” There are no shortcuts. It’s a mental minefield nearly every stretch of the way: scrambling for funding, tirelessly assembling a team, pushing for that first partnership – the list goes on. There’s never a dull moment.
With Zoomcar, I faced a particularly steep road since I was a foreign co-founder and CEO. Without much of a path blazed before me, I had to set out on a unique course as a leader. While most founders focus on establishing a product/market fit, building an initial team, and raising angel funding, these were just table stakes on my end. Given my rather unique background as an American in India, coupled with the industry I chose to disrupt, my energies ultimately focused on several other areas that posed existential threats to our survival.
First and foremost for me was regulation. The self-drive business is undoubtedly one of the most intricately regulated in India. In order to just launch the business, I initially scoured the country for six months just to find an operating partner who would offer up his self-drive license (since obtaining one in Zoomcar’s name was out of the question initially). This process alone was hair-raising and nearly sunk the company since we had exhausted all but one option after a prodigious six-month effort.
Finally, we were able to secure an 11th-hour deal with a local operating partner in early 2013. After an epic battle, we finally got to the starting line on our journey. As I told my co-founder at the time, that’s all you can ever really ask for as an entrepreneur. We just wanted to be in the game with a fighting shot! From there, we knew it would be a game of execution and dedication.
As a foreigner living and working in India, I knew it would always be an uphill battle. In the early days especially, it was exceptionally difficult because every meeting – whether with a potential investor or operating partner – had the backdrop of my migration from the States to India. Make no mistake – this can surely cut both ways since many were quite impressed with the courage required to take the leap to the Subcontinent to start up. That said, in the first year particularly, it was clearly more of a liability than an asset since most companies/individuals simply couldn’t understand why I had taken the plunge in the first place.
Whether explicitly or implicitly, people did question whether I intended to remain in India for the long haul, or would attempt to run the business from the US after the initial set up.
These existential questions were very tricky to answer since the only way to prove the doubters wrong was to simply stick it out over time. There was nothing else that could quell their suspicion. To help counter this inherent skepticism, I knew that I had to continuously lay on a super-high dose of enthusiasm and paint a very strong long-term vision for the business in India. Over time, this strategy worked progressively better since people really started to relate to the pain point and the long-term opportunity. Without question, I couldn’t have done this alone. I was fortunate to have a well-respected local COO onboard from the very beginning and he largely helped assure our partners that this was a massive opportunity and that we were in fact aiming to play the game for the next decade and beyond. Without this angle, I don’t think we would have survived that first year.
More than anything, the first year is about setting the infrastructure and the core foundations for your business. In most cases, it’s in this initial time when the company’s culture takes root. For Zoomcar, it was always about obsessing over the customer in all facets. Moreover, we knew from the start that we wanted to position ourselves as a very different type of mobility company, an experience above all else. We were not a commodity offering like Ola or Uber and we knew that our positioning had to reflect this reality. I simply can’t emphasize enough how important it is to effectively convey the mission statement and clearly communicate the soul of the company. If done well, you will leave an indelible image with the entire ecosystem.
Overall, the first year of a startup is much like the first year of a restaurant. Potential disaster lurks at every turn; however, if you’re able to keep your composure, stay focused, and remain mentally tough, then the chances of success increase exponentially. Regardless of how it ultimately turns out, the journey is always worth it.
Greg Moran is Co-founder and CEO of Zoomcar.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)