Scaling your startup is also about scaling yourself: a woman entrepreneur's perspective
Vidya Santhanam, Co-founder of FitBots, talks about starting up, and how in scaling her startup she scaled herself and what other women entrepreneurs can learn from her journey.
I am the master of my fate. I am the Captain of my Soul. - Invictus
The topic of scale is often associated with scaling the business. My startup journey began very differently. I had my copious share in the corporate world, learning the ropes across different functions in the Human Resources function, working on strategic business initiatives. I had this idea brewing in my mind for a year, and one fine day, I knew it was time to cross the chasm and set out on my entrepreneurial journey.
This transition came with many learnings. This is how I did it.
The streets have no name
Corporate life gives one a sense of identity. The rectangular business card means a great deal in a personal or professional setting. When I moved on from the warmth of the herd, there was a raging belief in my heart but no business card to qualify me. I suddenly felt like a lyric out of Tom Petty’s famous song Free Fallin!
The corporate life also comes with a good amount of structure; one would have the support of peers, stakeholders and team members who would work shoulder to shoulder. The purse strings and sponsors would lend themselves to support initiatives.
The feeling on my own was like an enormous weight on my shoulder. I had to keep telling myself ‘This is Right’, to figure things out on a shoestring budget, and need to define a new meaning. It started with many a paper napkin doodles to user interviews, building an MVP, and using that hustle muscle to convince our first customer to sign us up.
The hack I discovered to deal with this was to look for opportunities, even if they didn’t present themselves.
A memory which comes vividly to mind is YourStory’s Tech30 platform, which had just opened applications. We applied without thinking twice about whether we were ready or not.
Our team got selected from many startups who applied. I still remember calling my Co-founder Kashi on making it to the Tech30 list. I thought I did the ‘Dab’, much to the amusement of onlookers.
I felt fortunate to speak about our startup and share our purpose. That, to us, reinforced the beginning of an identity that we started carving for ourselves. Being on this list also gave us the ability to tell a story of being recognised, and getting connected to the larger ecosystem, and listening to inspiring stories of accomplished startup founders.
Learn best from new experiences
The role of a founder has no boundaries! I can’t think of a single founder who was given a job description. As I listened and read inspirational startup founders’ stories, I realised that it requires an immense amount of perseverance, hustling, and the ability to sell a dream.
In the words of Ben Horowitz, in his bestseller The Hard Things About Hard Things ‘There’s no inertia that’s putting the company in motion. Without immense input, the company will stay at rest.”
The hack I discovered was to pick activities I had never done before. I started this by listing things I was comfortable with, and decided not to pick them.
Instead, I chose to set up the marketing engine or managing the finances. Each presented a set of challenges, and the best way was to read about it or to seek help from other professionals in my network.
Double dip on time
As a women entrepreneur, I could never ignore the fact that there is always that juggling act or wearing multiple hats, be it while balancing childcare, homework routine or even time for my wellness. The important point of reflection I had was, ‘How do I double dip on time’.
The hack I discovered was to learn while doing an activity. For instance, during my workout time, instead of listening to my playlist, I shifted to a wealth of videos and blogs from Y Combinator, SAASTR, Techstars or Upekkha Value SAAS, and so many more that just gave a ton of ‘How to’ videos on starting up.
These helped me to understand the finer nuances of structuring our startup. For instance, setting up the growth engine required us to break it into small steps of setting up an engine to drive organic growth and the metrics to track. The initial calls were just by leveraging networks and networks of networks until we came to setting up our inbound and outbound channels.
The importance of seeking help from family members, to step in while I can’t be around all the time, is certainly one of my most valuable safety nets to date. There are times when I can’t be around for an important event at a school event but I balance my absence by being present during a Parent-Teacher meetup or a quaint Sunday morning stroll.
Dealing with dilemmas
Startups are filled with counter-intuitive moments or founder dilemmas!
There were times when we felt like race cars in an alley, be it on the ability to execute or the lack of resources, which pinch us from time to time. These resources came in many forms, be it lack of talent to execute, founder bandwidth, diametrically opposite asks from users or lack of networks.
The hack I eventually discovered along with my team was to look for alternatives, which would keep us going. New talent models like leveraging an uberized talent force, helped us immensely. We found a great set of talent as interns and freelancers, who went on to believe in our vision and still keep us agile.
When it comes to founder bandwidth, one realization we had as the founding team is that whatever we prioritise gets done. This made it all the more important to just take a decision to prioritise!
A multi-dimensional shift
The initial days were just observing and picking up skills as part of my repertoire. It was not all about unlearning what I had learnt in the past. The past learnings did come in handy for sure. It was about moving from a single-dimensional to a multi-dimensional mindset.
The hack I discovered was to learn a small act and look for new sources to learn.
Each week, my Co-founder Kashi KS and I would think about a new learning area to answer questions: “Hey, who do we connect with to learn more about business models? What are the different pricing models for SAAS companies? What is product-market fit? How does one build world-class teams?”
The new sources of learning came in the form of mentorship programmes and by speaking to a trusted network of advisors whom I continue to reach out, time to time. We applied to as many accelerator and mentorship programmes in F6S or reading posters in our coworking space, and kept in touch with our close network of advisors, who always passed on great leads. The form filling and 1-minute founder videos always come with time-consuming trade-offs, but they help in sharpening our pitch each time.
As I sit back, listening to the chartbuster Super Heroes from the famous band The Script back to back with the beatboxing from Gully Boy’s ‘Apna Time Ayega’, I realise that there is that hidden potential in each of us, waiting to be unleashed.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)
(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)