A startup story with setbacks, little resources but grand ideasSusmita Sinha
Having started my website with under Rs. 10k this January, I am still putting together resources to create a platform where people like you and me can give "feedback" on our localities - and the feedback would be communicated to local urban bodies + municipalities to see where improvement in physical infrastructure is required.
The vision itself is huge. And in the process, I discovered it is not only difficult to onboard government agencies (i am doing a pilot project for surveying Indian Railway Stations) but also to gather responses from people! Yet I am thankful to that handful who have belief in my idea and have contributed to their reviews, pictures and constructive feedback and support.
It is the power of a good idea, and honest endeavour, that people I don't even know very well have reached out to me for help because they too believe we can work towards change.
Old habits die hard, and it is one of my habits to not give up - like this little spider plant at my home, which I kept watering even though the leaves dried. After 1 week, I saw new kernels! Likewise, I never give up on people or ideas. But it has not been easy. Both on a professional and family front you could say.
My father died of lung cancer in October 2016, within 29 days after being diagnosed as a Stage 4 patient. Being an only daughter of a 73 yrs old person was not too tough till my father went into ICU. With few beds available in Delhi during chikungunya onslaught, we had to settle for a private (and expensive) hospital for his treatment. It was only his positive attitude and strong will that kept me running across the city and the hospital.
My friends and family too tried to help a lot, and just 3 days before his death, we were confident my dad would make it. After all, he had survived quite a few ailments in the past, and even a mob riot which damaged his ears while young. On October 10, he had two heart attacks and seizures, yet the ICU team was able to revive him. We were not going to give up so easily - I gave him tea inside the ICU that evening. But the PET scan showed cancer had spread well past his lungs into lymph nodes.
The doctors too had come to respect my dad for his positive nature, acceptance, and knowledge of his condition. He seemed perfectly healthy till he got slight breathing difficulty on September 12. On October 11, he breathed his last. I saw the team giving him CPR when they called me for the final emergency. It was painful to see them crying along with me and my husband.
Nobody wants to give up on a good person like my dad. My mom was in shambles, and I had to make sure she gets the news in a favorable manner with relatives close by. And there was no time for me to grieve after just having lost the dearest person in life. We had to arrange for the transport, go through police formalities and embalm, and pack my dad for his very last journey. Arranging for the funeral, and managing everybody's stay, and my mother's health was next.
We were only lucky as we had to pay for everything in cash before demonetization hit. From the caterer to the undertaker and well, everywhere we had to pay up in cash. Luck had been kind to us, for my dad was tech-savvy, progressive and preferred to use digital payments. It was his dream I would have a "practice" of my own someday. Or maybe my own company!
Alas, it couldn't happen while he was alive. Something like demonetization happened well after his death otherwise we wouldn't have been able to pay for his funeral! After all this, my savings too had been wiped out. The hospitalization itself was costly, and we were billed for tests, ICU, medicines. Poorer by more than 8 lakhs, and in a sabbatical for taking care of my mother, i was out of a job. Founding a startup would be the last thing on my mind.
And if I thought dealing with my father's death was the toughest thing, my mom's health deteriorated and I was running to the hospital again. Had to face a fair degree of hostility from relatives too, who had vested interests in my dad's absence. Mom had Parkinsonian symptoms and used to fall quite frequently and injure herself, with the added grief of losing her husband in old age.
She refused to go for checkups, for which I had to almost force her. It took over 6 months for her condition to be steady. I was still not prepared to go back into full-time work, but an opportunity with a real estate startup (PropStory) came up and I joined the team because I shared the goals and purpose behind this venture.
However, few months from starting work, my mother's health deteriorated again, and it was getting difficult to manage full-time work. If that wasn't enough, few opportunists tried to take over my house! All the stress took a toll on my own health, and I had an acute D3 deficiency and first signs of high cardiac risk. I finally turned into a freelancer, and with savings from the job, set out to think what is it I'd like to create if I were to die a few months from now?
Having traveled to over 25 countries and living in developed cities, the quality of life in Indian towns has been a personal pain point for me. I have a background in architecture, project management, asset valuation and urban development, which I wanted to channelize for a meaningful venture.
I have written plenty of reviews on several websites and had built a website back in 2001 - as an 8th class school student and self-taught coder. In the aftermath of Nirbhaya incident, I had organized an independent night-march for public safety and had worked pro-bono for an NGO for special children. This association with social innovation resulted in the idea of "Local Feedback", a platform where people can write about their localities, villages, and transits.
For a long time, friends had been pressing for me to write a travel blog, but I kept postponing the idea. My travels were rather boring, for I mostly visited some great cities from an urban design perspective. Now that I have an online platform in place, friends have been reaching out to have their personal stories published too, and it is such a joy to read them! With no real business plan, I have a lean 'business model' and am just happy to see growing participation from people.
I have applied for seed funding at just two venture capital firms who I thought would believe in my idea, and am still waiting to hear from them. It is tough because I don't have a real business plan, I have a grand vision and goals.
Who wants to fund dreams? Most of the time I am connecting with bureaucrats or cold-calling local officers for citizen engagement. My venture is about to break even, as I have tried to create alternative revenue streams to bootstrap it.
I want Local Feedback to be a self-sustaining social enterprise venture. This is a task (getting feedback from people for knowing what needs improvement) I could go on doing for the rest of my life. Better cities and villages, and citizens connected to the development process is what I ultimately aim to achieve.
Since i started building my website, i also took to gardening more seriously. Incubating saplings and nurturing plants in their 'growth stage' is something i find quite similar to raising a startup!
Currently i am living in the 5th home in the last 4 years, when i shifted to 5 different cities with my husband. The last 2 homes where i stayed as a kid will always be special not only because they were built by parents, but they were in areas which were less developed. I saw the level of development escalate while i was a resident, and saw new roads, metro trains, and flyovers come up. They made my life easier. I want the same for all people who stay in areas where basic amenities are a problem. I want their lives to be easier, because i have experienced the benefits of development first hand. My father helped close to 30 families in designing and building their homes, because he was helpful by default. I too have designed 4 homes for free, because i love the idea of people living happily in their new home, in better surroundings. Probably working for a Smart City projects firm would be a safer bet than running a startup, but i want people to be engaged in the process, not just in cities, but in villages too. LocalCircles and Janaagraha are doing a great job in engaged people with governance and infrastructure. Bu t i couldn't find an exact match for a venture which works on physical infrastructure for villages in the mainstream - so i set up my own.
I had the opportunity to work in a developed country, but owing to mom's sentiments i chose to give up the offer and settle in India. At times it is hard, because the facilities could have been better, the salary and benefits far better. But it is my "connect" with my home which gives me solace. This is the very reason for the idea of the home-connect contest, a flagship event of my startup, which explores the connect we all have with our surroundings. While it may not be too convenient to change cities, most of us are used to it owing to our jobs and exploring new opportunities. The Home Connect is a unique endeavour as it gives voice to the bond we have with our homes. When we have a sense of belonging with the city, we will work to make it better!
I have been lucky to attend an array of events which were organized right after i founded my venture. One of the best ones being SheSparks Awards, hosted by none other than YourStory. Interacting with Shradha mam and other women entrepreneurs was such an inspiration! My problems and challenges seem way smaller when i listen to other startup founders. I discussed ideas about Local Feedback (well, no formal pitches) at platforms like Delhi Design Festival, two events by Google i was invited to, Startup Manthan and a couple of other events about which i got information from the YourStory events section. I am also grateful to the enterprising judges who agreed to be on the Home Connect Jury. In-person interactions with people i only read about earlier, can be so motivating!
While infrastructure, construction and urban issues are my core domain, entrepreneurship is not. My father being an innovative electrical engineer, encouraged me to become a tinkerer as well. He is the person who despite being a government official, gave himself a second chance in nurtuting innovative ideas. Yet i have no knowledge of running a real business. I am more of a believer in the purpose first, then the product. I love to learn new things, and travelling alone has made me like the idea of being outside the comfort zone.
To understand the startup ecosystem i have been reaching out proactively and the support i find from other established entrepreneurs is overwhelming! Most of them see great potential in Local Feedback, they sincerely applaud my passion and commitment, and do agree its an uphill task. But whoever said i am the one giving up easily?