Thursday, April 22, 2010

My Story as a Solopreneur

As an entrepreneur one must be focused on being successful whether as a team or single! What is most important is starting up and getting into execution mode rather than waiting for a perfect situation (team, funds, prototype, and customers).  None of your dreams will come true if you just keep dreaming and planning. You can’t learn swimming without getting into water.
Coming to the dilemma of starting up as a team (one of the most important factor for getting funding also) or a single entrepreneur.  I think it has no impact on the success of your venture.  You will need a leadership team for sure but it’s not important to have it in place right from the start (VCs will tell you otherwise), a team can be formed as you move on (only if you don’t need VC money).
I’ll share with you my story as a single entrepreneur and some important events that lead to it. Hope you may find it useful.

Entrepreneurship, an old bug

I wanted to start on my own after graduating from St Stephen’s and working with NIIT for 2 years. But accepted my dad’s advice and went for my MBA to Goa Institute of Management.
I started a dummy company "CorrusTech" with my B-School batch mate while we were at college and even managed to get a project worth a lakh rupee in 1998.  We never started the company formally as we felt that we need to be part of the IT industry and learn more before starting up on our own.  Then I joined Satyam which came to our campus.
I worked with Satyam for over 5 years and during this period i consciously tried to get into all key functions of an IT services business and learn as many things as possible.  I also made a couple of attempts of starting up but couldn’t start up.  In one case we had a good team but the idea was not very viable and we tried to get funding before starting up and leaving our jobs, which never happens J
In the other case, I was able to get interest of an early stage investor who also offered to incubate but I failed to get a techy guy in my team who could code.
Finally in 2004, I was again ready with an idea and plan but with no team and prototype starting up was difficult and destiny had something else in store.  I joined Cranes Software along with set of colleagues from Satyam to setup a new solutions division for them, the experience was as good as starting up.

Taking the plunge, finally!

While at Cranes the bug of being an entrepreneur and to work on my ideas again started troubling me and same time a lot of ideas started converging. I validated them with some colleagues but again confronted the challenge of lack of team and especially technical capability. This time though I was lucky to have a colleague who was just perfect for taking care of technology and was equally passionate and willing to take the plunge too. But life is not so simple; it’s not easy to take the plunge knowing that we don’t have any funding and my partner was the sole bread earner for the family.
This time given my level of passion for the idea and my past experiences of failed attempts of starting up, I was not ready to look back and just wanted to move on. In late 2006, I started working on business plan and with the help of my partner started working on the technology. I learnt some half a dozen technologies so that I can code myself (all my experience was as a consultant with very little exposure to coding) and at least put the architecture/stack and a prototype together.
With a business plan I first went to a few of my mentors and some early stage investors to validate the idea/plan and raise funds. The response was enough to encourage me (even rejection by some).
I was in talks with an early stage investor for over 6 months, had a detailed business plan and a prototype. The talks were going positive and I was confident to get some sort of incubation, was also lucky to get some initial capital from some friends but still was struggling to leave a well-paying job with no team and no certainty of things. Then came divine intervention and I happened to watch “Rang De Basanti” that made the decision simpler and I just defined a time frame and put in my papers.
As always god was at his testing best and the investor I was talking to backed out with a complete volte-face, one who earlier said we are interested as your idea is unique gave the lack of uniqueness as a reason for backing out :)

Ekla Chalo Re (Starting up alone)

As planned I left my job in June 2007. My partner took up another job and kept moonlighting to help me with various technical stuff. It was impossible to create the sort of technology we had envisaged with the kind of funds we had and no team. In 2006 when jquery wasn’t that mature and dojo was the best toolkit we were creating our own Ajax framework, a NoSQL backend, SEO in Ajax, and a platform to be developed scratch up.
I kept coding and in parallel started a program with a training institute to develop my tech team with freshers. I personally taught and mentored a group of fresh engineers on our technology stack and finally picked up 2 guys from it and started Kreeo in Nov 2007. I got a few freshers through reference then trained them on the job and made my core tech team. We launched a very crude prototype around Jan 2008 and soon the recession started and all hopes of funding died. We kept working as a lean team and finally released a beta version in Jan 2009 and got our first enterprise customer in Mar 2009.
The first 1 ½ year we were a team of 6 people and once we got into revenues, it was time to extend the leadership team. Met an old friend from NIIT days who was starting up and had similar ideas, one meeting and we were able to connect having a shared vision. He joined me immediately rather than starting a separate venture and in another few months as our cash flow situation improved my partner also joined full time and we had a totally complementary leadership team. Today, we are 9 people, with 7+ customers, cash flow positive business and total revenues beyond the total capital raised (F&F) till date.
My journey as a solopreneur has been very demanding, unconventional and exciting. I have tried to summarize my key learnings below.

Starting up single – my view

The dilemma: I think it’s better to have a team from start if you are funded appropriately. But it’s not at all a necessary condition to be successful. Focus on being successful despite all constraints, including being single.
The challenges & Imperatives:
  • You need to be muti-skilled and will need to multi-task.
  • Stress levels will be higher so be prepared to take care of it.
  • Getting clarity and prioritizing becomes extremely important as you can’t be good at everything and will always have more things to do than the resources you have.
  • Be jugaadu, take help from existing network for filling skill gaps and keep extending your network. People are generally nice and ready to help only if you know how to seek help.
  • Don’t be rigid about your strategy; keep evolving, focus on vision and not the means.
  • Look for innovative work arounds, following conventional wisdom in todays time is sure short way to fail.
  • Get a mentor to help get clarity and validation.
  • Take adversity as an opportunity to innovate
  • Extreme learning
  • Makes you versatile and boosts your confidence
  • Gets you focused on execution and getting your priorities right, you take fast decisions and don’t waste time in unnecessary discussion and convincing at times.
  • Gets you focused on customers and revenues – “The holy grail of any business”
The Don’ts
  • Have a good hold on your numbers but do not over depend on excel workbooks “avoid paralysis by analysis”
  • Don’t waste too much time thinking when to take the plunge and waiting for a suitable condition (like team in place). “Entrepreneurship is not about part time it’s about lifetime” – Sumeet Anand ;)
  • Don’t blame failures on being single and try to get more people on board somehow.
  • When extending leadership team if a person is previously unknown then have a good period of courtship. – “A known devil is better than unknown” prefer known over unknown.
“Like a child an idea cannot have two fathers. It germinates in a solo mind but needs a team to give it shape and make it a reality. “– Sumeet Anand
I would like to share a few motivational lines that my late grandfather use to tell me when I used to be in tough situations
“Girte hain sheh sawaar hi maidane jung mein, woh tifle kya gire jo ghutno ke bal chale” (In english – Warriors who ride horses only can fall, a kid can’t fall who crawls on their knees).
So don’t be a kid, if you have an idea worth your while, don’t wait, you can do it solo too, a team will follow.

Sharing my experience as an entrepreneur @ 2nd Anniversary of Startup Saturday Bangalore

A candid talk and sharing some lessons I learnt in my journey as an entrepreneur.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3