‘Persevere. Just lean against the wall until it crumbles’ – founder tips by Ujwal Kalra, co-author, Startup Compass
Ujwal Kalra and Shobhit Shubhankar are co-authors of Startup Compass: How Iconic Entrepreneurs Got it Right (see our book review here). Ujwal works with the Boston Consulting Group in India, and is a graduate of IIM Ahmedabad and IIT Guwahati. He co-founded and ran two startups.
Ujwal is also speaking at the upcoming Bangalore Business Literature Festival (BBLF) 2022 to be held from September 13-17, for which YourStory is the media partner.
See our earlier annual articles on BBLF from the 2015 edition onwards here, and our compilation of 85 Quotes on World Book Day. See also YourStory’s Book Review section with takeaways from over 340 titles on creativity, entrepreneurship, innovation, social enterprise, and digital transformation.
In this wide-ranging interview, Ujwal shares insights on startup profitability, mentoring, resilience, and ecosystems.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
YS: How was your book received, and how do you continue to engage with audiences after publication?
Ujwal Kalra (UK): Fortunately, the book has received incredible love from the audience. As a consultant by heart, you always track a few metrics – number of books sold, ratings, and so on.
But more importantly, the subjective reception is what touches the heart. I had gone to an event by a VC fund where few founders came to me and took a selfie. They thanked me and said the book is helping them build their startup.
For me, more than the number of books sold or personal gratification, if I'm able to make a positive change to lives of people, then I've achieved the purpose of writing the book.
Since publishing the book, I've been repeatedly asked by people to be more active on social media to share nuggets of knowledge nested in the book, participate in events to spread the word, and visit colleges to inspire people. And so, that's what I've picked up.
YS: How did Indian startups fare during the pandemic? What are some notable success stories you have come across?
UK: The pandemic was the watershed moment for the Indian startup ecosystem. The rate of digitisation accelerated at a massive pace and leapfrogged by at least a few years. This led to incredible digital-first startups (which most are) in mass adoption and traction.
While the overall ecosystem grew, a few sectors received massive traction, such as edtech. Companies such as ClassPlus and Teachmint, which are digitising classrooms, grew at a massive rate.
YS: What are some books on your reading list these days?
UK: I am currently reading two books: Psychology of Money, because I am running a fintech and it’s an incredible take on money; and The Great CEO Within, because CEOship is an everyday learning journey and I'm able to connect the dots between what's written in the book and running my startup.
YS: What are the best ways to engage with founders for mentoring and coaching? At what stage in the startup journey are they most open for advice?
UK: There are broadly two approaches. With the hands-on approach, you actively help the startup in their journey. This is in the form of an angel investor, board member, or some other mechanism.
The hands-off approach is more of broadcasting, by going to events, sharing nuggets of knowledge, and mentoring startups in a light-touch model.
Typically, startups early in their journey are most suitable as well as receptive to mentoring. As the startup grows, the requirements become much nuanced.
YS: Value or valuation, growth or profitability - these are questions that often challenge founders. What's the best way to address these tradeoffs?
UK: Value generates valuation and not vice-versa. Valuation is an outcome metric, which also depends on lot of externalities such as funding momentum. Value generation is an input metric. Always concentrate on the input metric, the output metric will follow.
On growth versus profitability, this is a pertinent question. In two cases, the former is desirable: when it’s a winner-takes-all market (eg. ecommerce) and when there are strong network effects (eg. social networks).
In the rest of the cases, such as logistics, Sahil Barua of Delhivery shares in our book: “Choose growth in service of profitability.” Always have an eye and path to profitability.
YS: What can be done to make India's startup ecosystem even more favourable for innovation and scale?
UK: India has come a long way in the last eight years in promoting entrepreneurship. Startup India and the government’s focus towards entrepreneurship are pole-bearers for this momentum.
Broadly, two things will be further helpful. Policies, which include taxation of ESOPs and easing of compliances particularly with respect to foreign investments, would go a long way with inviting and making it easier for entrepreneurs to run their businesses.
Further promotion is also needed to make entrepreneurship mainstream and inspire people to join the bandwagon of job creators.
YS: How should founders deal with situations where a product, launch, or campaign has failed?
UK: Celebrate failures. If people fear failures and their repercussions, then they will never take risk. And if they never take risk, then innovation will never happen.
Keeping a lean and agile team before you find product-market fit is very important. That lean team which can learn fast, and apply changes to turn failures to success is very important.
Persevere. Keep at it until you find the answer.
YS: How big a role does academics play in entrepreneurship? Can entrepreneurship really be formally taught?
UK: Many say entrepreneurship cannot be taught, it’s only learnt on the job. I disagree. They only say so because it’s such a nascent subject in Indian academia and the way of teaching and curriculum isn’t polished enough.
Entrepreneurship has to be both taught as well as learnt on the job. Academia can provide you frameworks to think across stages of entrepreneurship, which can then be seamlessly applied in your startup.
For instance, in my entrepreneurship course at IIMA, we were taught to question everything. We were, in fact, asked to go on a road and observe everything, from juice stations to garment shops, and question why it’s being done the way it’s done. This helps me in my startup literally every day.
Similarly, our book Startup Compass is also taught in academia. Lessons across the phases of how to think of idea, how to form a team, how to build product – all these lessons I apply in my startup every day.
It’s a combination, of learning, applying, and then iteratively learning.
YS: How can social entrepreneurs and non-profit organisations make use of your frameworks?
UK: The frameworks used in the book are irrespective of whether you make your startup for profit or not for profit. The framework around thinking of ideas by keenly looking at customer insight, seeing the macro trend, and assessing the idea with Delta 4 is all the same.
YS: What are some ways in which people can awaken their inner creativity, and then move down the path to entrepreneurship? Is there a right age for entrepreneurship?
UK: Entrepreneurship is not a job. It’s a mindset. It’s about fundamentally questioning a problem statement, and owning it. It’s the mindset that come whatever may, with full passion you will own it, persevere, and come out on top, whatever may happen.
There are a few ways of getting in the groove of entrepreneurship: question everything around you; look for macro-waves and new things happening in the world; talk to as many people as possible (don’t worry – ideas aren’t copied, they are made).
There is no perfect age of entrepreneurship – I have friends who’ve started up at 15 years of age, I have friends who’ve started up at 55.
However, ideally, the sectors which require insane hustle, like ecommerce, are better to start earlier. There are sectors which require deep expertise, like healthcare – it’s better to start with experience here.
YS: What kind of work are you doing in the startup space these days?
UK: I’ve recently started, NAKAD. It’s a supply chain accounting and finance startup. The company has raised $7 million from Accel, Matrix, AdvantEdge and a clutch of angels including founders of Razorpay, Uni, Five Star Business Finance, Zetwerk, and Bizongo.
Most of my time goes into building NAKAD. Apart from that, we are doing multiple events featuring the book, with Amitabh Kant, Narayana Murthy, Yashish Dahiya, Tarun Mehta, and others in the art of entrepreneurship.
YS: What are your words of advice or tips for aspiring founders in our audience?
1. Always start with Why. Knowing and holding it will help you overcome the most difficult times.
2. Choose your co-founders wisely. That will be one of the most important decisions of your life. Choose only if value systems match, and don’t give as much importance to complementary skillsets.
3. Persevere. Just lean against the wall until it crumbles. Give your sweat, blood and tears and when you’re out of it, go and watch Rocky III, and come back to give more sweat, blood, and tears.