The media celebrates fundraising and other vanity milestones in a start-up’s journey, adding to the perception that start-ups are romantic stories. In reality they are difficult journeys fraught with hardships. In my 20 years in the start-up cosmos, I haven’t encountered a single start-up that hasn’t had a near-death experience, almost shut down, almost sold itself too early and therefore almost blew it. This is an excerpt from the introduction of Sidharth Rao’s book, ‘How I almost blew it’.
The co-founder and chief executive officer of digital agency, Dentsu Webchutney, Rao narrates the story of Internet entrepreneurs and their start-ups going beyond the rosy PR pieces of fundraising and acquisitions. Being an entrepreneur (Webchutney got acquired by Dentsu) and investor (LoanZen, ScoopWhoop), Rao used his own experiences to get people to narrate their untold stories.
“Dumb luck sometimes plays a very large and significant role in a start-up becoming successful… it can be being at the right place, at the right time, getting the right break and meeting the right client... sometimes it is good luck and you become the last man standing. Those nuances never get highlighted as we get busy telling the gritty-success story. And another thing that never gets highlighted is the impact of the mentors; every entrepreneur has what Sachin Tendulkar got in Ramakant Achrekar. My intention behind writing the book is to highlight those nuances and to tell the start-up stories beyond its vanity milestones,” says Rao.
The book dedicates a chapter to each entrepreneur and there are 17 of them - Sandeep Bikhchandani (Naukri.com), Kunal Shah (FreeCharge), Murugavel Janakiraman (Matrimony.com), Ajit Balakrishnan (Rediff), Anupam Mittal (People Group), Ashish Hemrajani (BookMyShow), Brijesh Agarwal (IndiaMart), Jitendra Gupta (Citrus Pay), Deepinder Goyal (Zomato), Deep Kalra (MakeMyTrip), Pradeep Kar (Microland), Satyan Gajwani (Times Internet), Rajesh Jain (India World), Sahil Barua (Delhivery), Alok Mittal (JobsAhead), R Ramaraj (Sify), Girish Mathrubootham (Freshworks).
“I knew most of these people as friends, agency partners, mentors and in some cases, a mix of all. Webchutney has been an agency for most of them and still is in a few cases. So, it was easy for me to have freewheeling chats with them and that is why the material you read in the book is honest. In India, there isn’t much available in the entrepreneurship space which tells you the story beyond the vanity milestones,” emphasises Rao.
Rao didn’t start work on the book to only write about his friends and partners. For selecting the 17 entrepreneurs, he set a benchmark and stuck to it. Rao explains, “There are many who should have been part of the book but we couldn’t due to various reasons. I only included entrepreneurs who either got their company listed, had a great exit and a couple of them who managed to get crazy funding,” Rao informs.
After identifying the individuals, Rao interviewed each one of them and it took him 18 months to put it all together. “A lot has already been written about these people. I wanted to highlight stuff that had not been written about so far and to do that I met each one of them individually and spent some quality time. It was fascinating to meet the older generation who has now decided to take the backseat,” Rao tells us walking through the process of compiling the stories.
So was compiling for the book similar to putting together many advertising copies in one big book? “Advertising is not as honest as the stories in the book,” he says. For example, Ajit Balakrishnan, founder and chief executive officer, Rediff.com is quoted saying, “Google and Facebook own 90 per cent of a very small online advertising market while we struggle to grab a share of the remaining pie. So, it is a constant headache that makes me wonder whether we should be doing this at all.”
Kunal Shah, co-founder FreeCharge shared his fears. In Rao's book, he is quoted saying, "I am sure there are quite a few moments when I was paranoid about screwing it up. The fact that everything can go back to zero has stayed with me from day one. That is why I came up with the statement that horrible decisions happen when you are hungry, horny or out of the runway.”
Rao was 19 when he started Webchutney and eventually went on to make it the biggest digital agency in the country. Over the years, he has pitched and won many clients and his campaigns went on to grab awards. As an author, Rao is thrilled to see his book being sold online and at bookstores.
"It’s been a while since I have done something myself - since I have leaned on the Webchutney team for almost everything. Remember, each time we win a client or lift a trophy it is because of 20 to 30 people, who worked hard on it. Though the team was very supportive in my journey as an author, it was mostly cheerleading. So, I would be lying if I said I was not nervous, throughout I kept asking myself if I was heading in the right direction. Now when I see it on the stands, I must say I feel thrilled,” he concludes.