[Techie Tuesday] From launching a startup during his IIT days to leading innovation at Testbook, Ayush Varshney's journey
An IIT Kanpur alumni, a serial entrepreneur, and a part of the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list of 2018, Ayush Varshney has been leading tech innovations at Mumbai-based edtech startupfor over two years now.
“People seldom tell me that being a leader at such a young age would be challenging. However, I believe that being young, I was able to understand and engage with my team better. Plus, since I never went into a job, I didn’t have any opportunity cost to lose, thus making a new start is always exciting for me,” Ayush tells YourStory.
In 2018, when Ayush joined Testbook, the startup was a mock test offering platform. At present, it has evolved into one of the most affordable online learning platforms in India, with in-house innovations and comparatively lesser external funding.
The early days
Ayush grew up in a middle-class family in Kanpur. His father worked at RBI, his mother a homemaker, and an elder sister, who is now working with Deloitte.
He says his tech journey began when he got his first computer in class 6.
“By the time I was in class 8, I was known as the ‘computer mechanic’ — the go-to guy for any hardware troubleshooting for the 1,500 people society in the RBI colony we lived in,” reminisced Ayush.
Encouraged by his seniors, Ayush started learning languages on his own — C and C++. The first boost of confidence came when he made an advanced version of the tic-tac-toe game from scratch within 15 days and it became quite popular among his schoolmates.
“In 2008, we moved to Mumbai and I joined the Delhi Public School. I got more exposure and good teachers, which made this a key turning point in my life,” he adds.
Building a social network for school
It was the time when Facebook was just gaining its popularity in the Indian market. So, when other students were busy making library management software, Ayush decided to build a social network for the school since Facebook was not allowed on campus.
It was an MS-DOS based network, which ran on internal LAN with database files stored in a centralised server.
“Being a go-to-person in the school’s IT department, I had access to all the passwords. For almost six months, more than 250 students in my entire batch were using that network before the teachers came to know and shut it down,” he chuckles.
This is the project that inspired Ayush to take up computer science. “I think I still have the code for it. I used to copy it from computer to computer until Dropbox came.”
Taking the first step towards leadership
At IIT Kanpur, Ayush’s programming skills made him quite well-known among his peers and seniors within his first year. He also developed an interest in robotics and worked on designing an autonomous vehicle capable of traversing successfully on rough terrain in an unknown environment.
It was equipped with suitable sensors that could detect oncoming surface irregularities, perform mechanical motions, including a frog-like jump and jump over an obstacle 1 ft tall or over a crater 1 ft wide without any dysfunctionality.
“Towards, the end of my second year, one of my fourth-year seniors Sahil Baghla approached me for a startup. We launched Bluegape, a web-based customised poster designing platform and from there, my journey as a coder and a CTO began to take shape gradually,” he recalls.
For Bluegape, Ayush created a small design tool, which allowed people to play with multiple images and create their own posters. Later, the startup allowed custom merchandise, T-shirts, mugs, and even raised about $1 million from LetsVenture.
It was also a part of TLabs’ first cohort — a mentorship-driven accelerator programme run by Times Internet Ltd (TIL) — and received a cheque of Rs 10 lakh.
However, between 2011 and 2016, the startup underwent five pivots. From a fan merchandise design platform to ecommerce selling on Amazon/Flipkart to a marketplace for designers to a content app with a mix of Buzzfeed and Tumbler for listicles, and finally to the popular mobile app Murmur.
Although Murmur was part of Google’s launchpad accelerator and was one of the most traffic generating sites, the team was unable to monetise the platform, resulting in its shutdown in 2016.
“I think our investors also got tired of us reaching out to them every six months to change our business model. Most of these would have been great business models in today’s time, but we were inexperienced, super agile, and wanted to see it as a billion-dollar idea from Day 1 without the patience to build and innovate one product for years,” explains Ayush.
He claims that the learnings he gained in those years made him trust himself more like a techie, as well as a leader. “I was a college student leading a team of experienced techies. Across these pivots, there was a lot of tech I built and that has been a learning for life,” he says.
The second venture and joining Testbook
After Bluegape, Ayush and the other co-founders decided to do some industry projects and build a cash reserve. This laid the foundation for Nash Ventures in May 2016. However, it soon became monotonous.
“It was more like a service company with no long-term impact. I was not creating, developing, and growing any product. Around this time, I met Ashutosh [Kumar, CEO of Testbook] in Bengaluru through common investor friends and the things clicked thereon,” he adds.
But things weren’t easy. The week he joined, Testbook’s servers crashed.
“Somehow, I was able to fix it and it gave me a lot of confidence,” says Ayush.
At present, Testbook serves more than 90 million applicants with a success rate of 7 percent, compared to the national average of less than 1 percent. The startup claims it has produced more than 38,000 selections during the past 3 years.
According to Ayush, here are three key learnings techies of today need to have:
Structure the initial thought process: When you are building a new tech, the initial structuring is very important. How you make that architecture, how you store your data and how things interact with each other. Also, it is important to get all the brainstorming documented, which will help in solving future problems with a context in place.
Move out of comfort zone: Many young techies have an affinity towards a single tech, which is mostly passed down to them during their first job assignment.
“One should move out of their comfort zone, continue their tryst with new technologies, and improve their problem-solving skills,” he adds.
Find a balance between 'hacks' and the ‘right’ way: If you do it the ‘hackish’ way every time, you end up failing at scale. If you try to do it the right way every time, then with uncertainties surrounding the market, you may lose your leverage to competitors.
“And that balance is very hard to learn. It is only gained after failing and succeeding multiple times,” concludes Ayush.