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Twelve Years of Indian Startups – Part II

After landing in India, I realized the bureaucracy was going to make it really difficult to get started. I won’t bore you with the details but it took me eight months from the day I landed in India to having all of the required papers in place in order to setup a Private Limited company (or corporation). I’m sure the process is much easier today to set up a company but it is definitely not easy to shutdown a company in India.

The view from my balcony

Once I got the company registered, I started looking to hire a few people. I used headhunters, job boards, and, of course, asking people I had been meeting in Delhi. I tried pretty much everything under the sun that I could think of. I hired two interns, one of which was the younger brother of another founder I had met. A few weeks went by and I hired my first full-time hire.

To be honest, though my long-term vision for a reverse auction platform serving the labor force in India was something clear, I had no idea what the magnitude of the problem was and the kind of people I needed to hire. I thought I needed developers so that’s what I tried to hire before anything else.

I interviewed anyone that was desperate enough to to work at a startup (in 2007 working at a startup was definitely not where the cool kids were). Finally, I found another developer who was a Microsoft dev and didn’t quite have the technical background in LAMP technologies. I made a bunch of mistakes in the interview. I should have asked more in-depth technical questions but, instead, I was satisfied with theoretical answers to my questions. I wound up letting this developer go on their first day, partly because of my own mistakes in interviewing and hiring and, in part, because the developer only had theoretical knowledge and wouldn’t be able to contribute to building the product for a long time.

A few months later (probably around April 2008), I was out of town for a funeral. The two interns were working on an important piece of the project. Unexpectedly, I got an email that they were both quitting. Together. Effective immediately.

Most interns didn’t get paid in India back then. I was paying them from day one and relative to what other recent college graduates were getting paid, these college students were getting paid very well. Needless to say, I was furious and shocked at the lack of professionalism by these two interns. They quit right in the middle of an important deadline with an email while I was out of town. I have the email they sent me and my response. Perhaps I will redact some of the emails and share them.

At this stage, I was completely and utterly dejected. I had no idea what I was doing. I was beaten down and there wasn’t a day that went by where I didn’t want to throw in the towel and head back home, to New York City.

I Kinda felt like this truck…or what was left of it.

I still had enough money left to continue bootstrapping this small company, so I continued to push ahead (completely uncertain in which direction I was actually going). The same acquaintance whose younger brother bailed on me was working out of small incubator in Okhla, Delhi. I went to check it out and see if I can get some space. I moved in with my sole developer. I was more confused than ever about how to build out a team that could build the product I needed. I dusted off the cobwebs and started teaching myself PHP while looking for a designer to join us. Eventually, I found a designer and hired him. He wasn’t too thrilled about using Gimp instead of Photoshop but I wanted to see what he could do before spending the money for a product no one else knew how to use. I never really got the chance to find out. After multiple absences during his first week of work (on one instance, his mother called to tell me he wasn’t feeling well), I had to fire him as well.

I’m a little hazy on the time lines now but somewhere around the middle of 2008, I got involved with organizing BarCamp Delhi and that eventually led me to co-founding the HeadStart Network and launching Startup Saturday Delhi. My initial reason for getting involved was to broaden my network and find good people to hire. Also, around this time, I met two people from IAN (Indian Angel Network). They both wanted me to come and pitch IAN but I wasn’t ready to raise money. I viewed raising money from outsiders as something I should do only after I figure out the basics of building this business.

I can’t find any screenshots but we did a soft launch of Semblr in August of 2009. It was a rough and rocky road getting there but we got there. Building a two sided market was much harder than I thought. I quickly found that not having background checks in India was going to be a problem and scaling the process of doing “police verifications” across the city was going to cost a lot of money.

By December, I was almost out of money and I decided to start doing some services to generate a little cash to pay my employees (I had hired a few folks again). That didn’t work out so well. Our first client didn’t pay me for the work we did and instead, hired away my employee that was working with them.

That was pretty much the end of Teknatus Solutions. More or less, that day, I decided to shut it down. I told my last employee (also my first full-time hire) that I would help him find another job but I was done. He was the last person to walk out of the office and turn off the lights. I still try to see him whenever I’m in the same city.

Running a startup in India was an incredibly difficult and it forced me to reexamine a lot of what I had learned about doing business and running operations over the previous 10-15 years. It was more importantly, extremely adventurous, exciting, and educational experience. I wouldn’t trade it in for anything. I learned a lot more about doing business in India than I ever would have in a MBA program or at a job. The experiences gave me a lot to digest and learn about myself which I may not have had the chance to learn had I not taken the leap. The opportunity for introspection that “failing” in a startup gave me has been invaluable but most of all, the people I met and the relationships I built over the last twelve years is something I will always cherish.

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Startup Saturday Delhi November Roundup

Startup Saturday Delhi held on November 14th, was a Food and Beverage theme this month. This was the first time we held a Startup Saturday Delhi with absolutely no connection to technology. We hope those of you in the audience found it to be a refreshing change.

Preet Saini of Mrs. Kaur's
Preet Saini of Mrs. Kaur's
Our first speaker was Preet Saini, founder of Mrs. Kaur’s. Mrs. Kaur’s makes premium American style cookies, brownies, and other confectionary items. Mrs. Kaur’s has also started a restaurant in Khan Market, New Delhi. Preet is a serial entrepreneur and has done many different types of businesses. He discussed his learnings from each and every business he started and how he was able to learn from each one to launch Mrs. Kaur’s and grow it rapidly in 3 years with no marketing budget at all. One example he cited was that even before they were ready to go, he had t-shirts, baseball hats, and delivery scooters covered in the Mrs. Kaur’s logo. As soon as they started putting up stalls at various local fairs, people immediately got the impression that Mrs. Kaur’s was a much larger company than it was.

Akhilesh Bali of Mithai Mate
Akhilesh Bali of Mithai Mate
Our next speaker was Akhilesh Bali, founder of Mithai Mate. Mithai Mate allows people to buy Indian sweets online from various distributors across India. You can buy the sweets for yourself or send them as a gift to others. Mithai Mate is run out of the bedrooms of the 3 founders. They launched the service approximately 7 months ago and are averaging 5-6 orders per day right now. Mithai Mate has developed partnerships with various confectioners across India from Jammu and Kashmir to Delhi to Jabalpur and beyond. One of the biggest challenges they faced in the beginning was the inability to get preferred pricing from their partners and logistical issues with delivery in India. As the orders have come in, some of Mithai Mate’s partners have recognized their growth and began entertaining a different pricing model, which would allow Mithai Mate to be able to make a profit on each delivery.

Nitin Agarwal of Chakhle India
Nitin Agarwal of Chakhle India
Our final speaker was Nitin from Chakhle India which has 15 locations serviced by push carts selling clean, tasty, authentic Indian food. Nitin faced different issues than some of the other entrepreneurs we’ve had come and speak at Startup Saturday. His challenges were goons and certain other people in and around Gurgaon trying to hit his vendors up for money. He also faced the problem of existing street vendors fighting with him for turf. Again, Chakhle India, began presenting an image the portrayed it as a much larger company that it was. As the corrupt and degenerate began believing that Chakhle was backed by a much larger and potentially powerful group, the extortion problem died down. Today, Chakhle has carved out a niche by servicing a large number of people (from all economic classes) around Gurgaon who enjoy street food but are afraid of getting sick because of a lack of hygiene.

Our thanks to Preet, Akhilesh and Nitin for sharing their entrepreneurial journeys at Startup Saturday.

The next Startup Saturday Delhi will be held on December 12th, 2009 from 2pm till 6pm at the American Center on KG Marg. We look forward to seeing you there.

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