Amit Goel was a computer science student in
Chandigarh when he founded his first startup, long before he’d even heard of
the word. It was 1999, just before the millennial fever broke out. He came from
a business family in Chandigarh, but his father was a government servant who
wanted to stay as far from business as he could.
“But I always wanted to start my own business,” he tells me. “Even when I was in high school I would argue with him, saying why didn’t you become a businessman? And he would ask me why I wanted to do something like that.”
In college, Goel and a friend started an online business aimed at the Punjabi diaspora in the US. His website devidarsha.com took orders from Indians living in the US who wanted prasad delivered from the Vaishno Devi Temple in Jammu. He says it was profitable for the short time it lasted before his dad heard of it and realised that by taking payment in dollars Goel was breaking currency exchange laws.
“I had no idea at that time. My father sent me off to Calcutta and I joined a tech company there.”
Goel is among the band of young and educated people who have found all sort of commercial niches on the worldwide web to the world at large. They have created customer bases of varying sizes and in the journey changed the way millions of Indians think and live.
We book bus and air tickets online, use mobile apps to order cabs, autorickshaws and food. We find houses, hotels and travel deals online. We use smartphones to shop for everything from books, clothing, gadgets, groceries and sex toys. Even the search for domestic helps, carpenters and plumbers has moved to digital platforms.
These are conveniences people never imagined they would need ten years back; now they’re necessities they can’t imagine living without. But some men and women did. They quit jobs to pursue their big ideas, they sold it to investors and when they couldn’t, they boot-strapped by putting in their savings and borrowing from friends and family.
They worked out of small apartments, cramped offices or even garages to put their business on the road. Others raised millions of dollars from venture capital and private equity. Many failed; some found success at a scale unimaginable for traditional business. But one and all, these are the entrepreneurs who drove India’s startup revolution.
The trigger for ideas could be found
anywhere, a barber shop, shoeshine or tool shed. For Goel it clicked one day in
a supermarket. He noticed a shopper pick up a magazine, flip through some pages
and put it back in the stand. He started to observe people who picked up
magazines, those who bought them and the articles they read. He realised that
while people were willing to pay for magazines, they were only interested in
reading one or two articles. That was the idea for his startup.
It did not, of course, happen entirely by accident. When his father packed him off to a career, Goel obeyed but never gave up on striking out on his own at some point. He moved to Bengaluru in 2005 when he joined NDS, an Israel-based company which develops software for pay TV. In India NDS developed set top box security software for Tata Sky and Airtel dish TV among other clients.
Goel eventually was asked to head NDS’ inter-company entrepreneurship cell called New Initiatives. It gave him tremendous exposure to the startup ecosystem. He travelled abroad extensively, meeting counterparts in the NDS entrepreneurship cell in other parts of the globe, networking with CEOs, industry leaders and technology innovators. Monitoring television content to develop user features for pay TV networks like Airtel got him hooked to news media.
“I had to figure out why people watched TV. How did channels programme Prime Time? What kind of entertainment did viewers consume? What features would make it easier for them?” He started following newspapers, magazines and new media websites. That was the genesis of his great idea.
Since the global recession of 2008, the Indian economic story has had its ups and downs. It has dominated political conversation, made development the mantra of all classes, brought in a government that promised “acche din” to all, and made “ease of doing business” the one metric to measure whether the country is on the path to progress. Along the way, both the way the country is viewed and the way Indians live their lives have changed.
India is ranked third among the world’s startup ecosystems. Foreign investors have bet heavily on Indian startups and both the size of the space and its worth has boomed since the recovery. According to data by Tracxn, a Bengaluru-based company that tracks startups in India, funding for tech and online startups grew at a whopping 235 per cent from 2010 to 2013, from $269.1 million to $903 million.
In 2013, it breached the billion-dollar mark, beginning what has been in effect a golden period for startups in India. The next year, funding nearly quadrupled to $4.7 billion, while the year-on-year number of new startups grew from 2,251 in 2013 to 4,098. In 2015 that figure increased by nearly 3,000, while investment grew to $7.4 billion. According to NASSCOM there were 156 venture capital and private equity companies investing in 2015, more than double the previous year.
The users of all this money sloshing around
the system are radically different from anything that has happened before. A
NASSCOM survey of Indian startups found the average age of founders to be 28.
Many of the biggest success stories in e-commerce and technology startups are
told by entrepreneurs from the top technological and management schools. Sachin
Bansal and Binny Bansal, Chandigarh boys who graduated from IIT Delhi as
computer engineers, quit their jobs in e-retailer giant Amazon to replicate its
model in India.
The Bansals, who are not related though they share the same surname, were turning 26 when they created Flipkart in 2007. A year earlier, redbus.in, the online bus ticket vendor, was created by three BITS Pilani batchmates who were the same age as the Bansals.
Rahul Yadav, an IIT dropout, founded housing.com, while Snapdeal, Flipkart’s biggest competitor, was co-founded by Rohit Bansal, also an IIT Delhi graduate. Myntra, India’s biggest online apparel retailer, which Flipkart acquired in 2014, was founded by a team of IIT engineers turned entrepreneurs. Ola Cabs was co-founded by a computer engineer out of IIT Bombay, while TaxiForSure is the brain child of two graduates from IIM Ahmedabad and NIT Suratkal.
With the top 10 startups valued at more than $30 billion, traditional and online media have covered the success stories obsessively. Startup rockstars like Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal, Rahul Yadav and Kunal Bahl (Snapdeal founder) have become icons for a generation of youngsters finishing college or just entering the workforce.
Few people, however, seem to give much
thought to failure though it is built into the business environment. When it
does make the news, it is more likely to appear as listicles like “Top ten
lessons from failed startups”. Yet startups are in a class of their own where
risk is concerned. Statistically they are the riskiest of market ventures ever.
The global average for failure is nine out of ten, says a report by Startup
“But despite the increasing economic importance of scalable startups, we still don’t understand the patterns of successful creation. More than 90 per cent of startups fail primarily due to self-destruction rather than competition. For the less than 10 per cent that do succeed, most encounter several near-death experiences along the way. Simply put, we are not good at creating startups,” according to the report.
More than 70 per cent of failed startups fold up within three years. They are high-risk, high-growth segments where innovators try to create products and services for the markets they have to create in the process. Early funding is crucial as is the ability to scale up at the right time. To start up, get various stages of funding, guide the company’s strategy and create a sustainable business model can be a lonely and frustrating journey. You have to believe in the idea passionately enough to think that you can beat the odds. It is a journey that is not narrated often enough.
When Amit Goel got his idea the digital revolution had moved into high gear and magazine sales were dropping. For newspapers and magazines, an online presence had become an imperative, but no one had succeeded in working out a revenue model. Unlike print, online ads did not generate enough to pay for content production. Goel believed he had the solution. He wanted to launch a website that would host articles from a variety of magazines where readers could pay for individual articles they liked. He wanted to quit at once, but was dissuaded by his boss.
“I had a very supportive boss. I used to discuss my plans for a startup with him over the years. When I wanted to quit and start the website he told me to take time to develop and mature my idea. It took several months and when I was ready he was the initial investor.”
In December 2012, he quit NDS. “I started working out of my apartment. My initial investment was just ₹40,000 if you include my laptop,” he laughs. Flipboard, the popular reading app first appeared in the Apple ecosystem in 2011. It aggregated news content from various sources in a magazine format. “No one had figured out how to make payment easy. That was a big challenge after the Flipboard experience. Customers would be willing to pay ₹2 to read an article online, but if they had to use credit cards to do it, it wouldn’t work because it is too inconvenient.”
The Angel round of investment happened almost simultaneously, with his former boss and another investor transferring the money by the second month. Goel declined to reveal the exact amount. The website, patterbuzz.com was launched in 2013.
Goel hired a seven-member team to help him build the website and the algorithm to convert the PDF files of magazine articles to fit the user interface of patterbuzz.com. They also developed a mobile app. Over time, he managed to get over 100 magazines to sign up to the website. The basic idea behind patterbuzz.com was to give magazines a platform to directly sell content to readers.
The business problem Patterbuzz had to solve was how to make payment easy. With the authentication procedure required by Indian credit card companies, the process was time-consuming. What Goel wanted was a click and pay model, but there seemed no way to develop that in the Indian market. Patterbuzz came up with a two-pronged strategy. The team developed its own e-wallet, through which readers who registered on the site could pay for articles. Patterbuzz also entered a deal with mobile operators by which customers who had post-paid connections could pay through their monthly mobile bills.
Goel met the management teams of several news publications as well as film, entertainment, children’s magazines, etc. A leading women’s magazine reached out to place its articles on Patterbuzz. One of the most positive responses came from a national English magazine published from Delhi. The team responded enthusiastically and Goel says he worked together with the staff to tailor content delivery for online readers. But he had trouble bringing other publications on board.
“I entered talks with a leading newspaper group. They sounded interested in the beginning but the whole process got bogged down in a bureaucratic maze. For six months we were mailing legal documents back and forth. I finally got fed up and dropped it. This was their attitude at a time when the worldwide media was trying to monetise content online,” he says. But what really hurt his model, he says, was the attitude of the magazines, those who signed up for the platform as well as those he negotiated with.
“Magazine guys were very arrogant. They would not accept technical advice, in spite of the fact that they were talking to someone who understood the technology and the medium. This was a very different business model, but their idea was that we want all the money (for the articles). They did not care whether people were ready to pay for content online or not. Some publications asked for as much as ₹30 for a single article. People may pay ₹2 or ₹3 for an article,” he says.
This was compounded by the business approach of mobile operators who demanded a hefty cut of the money transferred through their networks. There was no long-term thinking about whether the business was sustainable for the client (patterbuzz.com).
The deeper structural problem, Goel says,
was the quality of articles. Though their print editions were bleeding, the
magazines did not realise the urgency of switching to online content and trying
to develop a sustainable revenue model. “The quality of journalism was poor. If
you do not write good articles how do you expect people to read you? The
shelf-life of a news article is short. Unless you differentiate your content
from your competitor, no one will buy it. There is a lot of content repackaging
in the Indian media. If everyone is trying to sell the same article, why would
a reader pay for yours?”
Goel was finding out what all the planning and consultations before the startup launch could not reveal—that the industry was not ready to leverage the product he had to offer. This was the kind of existential threat that most startups face and the challenge was to find a solution before the funds ran out. This could come via a technological solution, changing the product or getting a new stage of funding from venture capital firms who look for long-term scalability in the startup.
By mid 2014, the difficulties of keeping Patterbuzz going had become apparent. The next eight months till the end of the road were the most difficult in his life. Other than cost-cutting and working days and nights, Goel approached investors and potential partners. He says he was in talks with an Indian telecom giant for a possible partnership or acquisition. But his hopes were dashed.
“They asked me what kind of algorithm Patterbuzz used to convert PDF files. And what kind of salary I would work for. It seemed they were only interested in buying the technology.” By January 2015, Goel was staring at the wall. But he did not want to sell the idea he had developed. In March, he shut Patterbuzz down. “I wanted to keep the rights. If ever I have a chance to create something like this again I want to. It’s not just about making money off an idea, it’s about solving a business problem and developing a sustainable company,” he says.
The decision to close down was very, very hard, he says. “If you’re passionate about something and dedicate three years of your life to it you’re deeply attached to it. The thought that my startup failed is something that hurts.” Amit has now converted Patterbuzz into a personal blog where he writes about startups. Ten months after he closed his website he wrote a blogpost titled “Startup Failure is not fuckin’ sexy”.
“If you’re an entrepreneur or a wannabe entrepreneur or ever attended any startup event, you would have definitely heard lectures on failure and that failure is good. There will be entrepreneurs on stage talking about the reasons for their startup failures. Now, there are startup events (Failcon : http://india.thefailcon.com /about.html ) with the theme around failure and glorifying it to an extent that it seems failure is better than success. Entrepreneurs are induced to believe that failure should be embraced with open arms.
“The same speakers who promote entrepreneurship, success mantras, funding tips and valuation techniques also speak about failed startups being good in the same breath. The startup journalists (now joined by mainstream media) regularly write about “5 lessons learnt from a startup failure” or invite guest posts on “10 lessons to learn from failed startups ” ...
“But I’m not proud of it. And I didn’t embrace it with open arms. I did not give any lecture nor spoke about my failure with pride. Yes, I am afraid of failure and I cannot accept it easily. I did not aspire for my startup to fail and I don’t talk about it anymore as I don’t feel that it is worth talking about it. But, before you get it wrong, afraid of failure does not mean I’m afraid of taking risks. Whenever someone fails everyone around tells him that he has gained experience. But who cares?
“I didn’t wish to gain this experience. Shit just happened to me. And I couldn’t get over it easily. It took me months to adjust to the fact that my startup is down and the reality has hit me hard. Tell a guy who jumps from a plane with a parachute that failure is okay and he’s going to give you one tight slap. For him, failure means end of life. Show me one guy who celebrates failure except the media and the people who are successful.”
He worked in Knowlarity as product manager for a time. He’s now getting ready to launch his next startup, careerpolot.com, a careers website. The last we spoke he said it would go live in a few days. Careerplot is intended to replace career counsellors with a process of automated tests that would monitor student aptitude continuously over a period of years. With absolutely zero human interaction, the website would suggest careers to students, point out areas of improvement if they want to enter a particular profession and calculate their chances of getting admission in graduate courses ranging from law and medicine to journalism.
“I’ve decided to bootstrap it this time. I’ll be working with my brother who’s a computer professional. This time, my wife has also decided to invest in the startup. Other than that I’m not looking for funding. I think early funding creates a pressure to scale up and expand to be on the way to profitability. I want to become profitable on my own and make a sustainable business. I’ll look for funding only after that.”
This is one of the lessons Goel has taken away from his experience. And it’s a valuable one. The Startup Genome report, which analysed more than 3,200 high growth technology startups found that the most common cause for failure was premature scaling. Among the startups studied, 74 per cent of high-growth internet companies failed due to premature scaling.
“Premature scaling is the most common reason for startups to perform worse. They tend to lose the battle early on by getting ahead of themselves. Startups can prematurely scale their team, their customer acquisition strategies or over-build the product,” it says.
In a nutshell, this is what happened to
Indiaplaza, one of India’s e-commerce pioneers. Kodandaraman Vaitheeswaran
co-founded Indiaplaza.com much before Flipkart and Snapdeal, in 1999.
Originally from Tamil Nadu, he was working in Wipro. In an age when e-mails
were the only means of communicating with onsite clients, Vaiteeswaran ended up
on the Amazon website by clicking on an advert. That changed his life. He had
never heard of the American e-retail giant, that had started five years ago
selling books and expanded into various kinds of retail merchandise.
Vaitheeswaran was fascinated. “Here was someone selling me a book online, that
too from the US. It made me realise the potential of the e-commerce market in
Along with five friends, all from tech, sales or marketing backgrounds, he launched Fabmall.com. Vaitheeswaran took charge as CEO. The website sold books, music albums, watches and groceries. With very little Internet penetration in India, his clientele was very different from the segment that shops online now. Unlike today’s e-retailers like Amazon India, Flipkart, and Snapdeal, it sold with minimum discounts.
“I like to say that our clients were rich on money and poor on time. It was the convenience factor that made them buy online. A majority were middle aged people living in metro cities.” Within a year of Fabmall’s launch the dotcom bust happened. By 2002, the company was feeling the full effects. Vaitheeswaran implemented cost-cutting measures and tried to minimise losses. It was a time when many online enterprises went under. But Fabmall survived. By the mid-2000s the business had stabilised and started to become popular. It got angel funding from the Indigo monsoon group.
In 2007, Fabmall acquired indiaplaza.com, a top US-based website for Indian buyers in the US. Fabmall became Indiaplaza. At the time Flipkart launched in a small apartment in Bengaluru, Vaitheeswaran was much ahead of the game. In comments to the press, a confident Vaitheeswaran talked about making Indiaplaza a $100 million company by 2009. With more than a million loyal customers it seemed poised to take off.
Ironically, a company that had weathered the dotcom bust floundered exactly when the e-commerce market in India exploded. In 2009, it raised $5 million from Kalamari Capital. Even more ironically, it happened because of a discount business model based on raising funds from venture capital that Vaitheeswaran was always uncomfortable with, but went with anyway.
An Economic Times report from 2011 quotes Vaitheeswaran: “When we launched, we offered buyers a 25 per cent discount from the nearly 35 per cent margin that we made on every book and charged them shipping. Today if discounts alone go up to 40 per cent and shipping is free, how can this model be sustainable?...Finally this is why ecommerce is hot. The growth is there and profits too—when businesses scale after three-four years.”
The report continues: “One of Vaitheeswaran’s competitors is Sachin Bansal, a former Amazon India employee and co-founder of Flipkart one of the country’s largest online retailers for books and electronics. Just three weeks ago, he raised $20 million from New York-based private equity firm Tiger Global. Soon after the company raised private equity money and with Internet penetration growing, growth took precedence over profitability.
“E-retail is a multi-billion-dollar opportunity so it is better to invest in growth and acquire as many customers as possible now rather than target a few million in profit,” says Bansal adding that “investors and entrepreneurs are completely aligned on this model.”
Flipkart went on to capture the lion’s share of the emerging e-commerce market, but Indiaplaza closed down within two years, accumulating debt and unable to raise the next round of funding. The company which employed around 30 people started hiring massively and expanded to a team of 130. According to a report by Mint, sales increased almost 174 per cent, while gross merchandise volume reached ₹38.4 crore. But the company was bleeding profusely at a loss of ₹9.2 crore.
By late 2012, Indiaplaza was running out of cash. Vaiteeswaran desperately tried to interest investors. It was India’s longest running e-commerce company, it had brand recognition and with more money would help increase sales volumes and get back to profitability. He met many investors in many places, where he was given a courteous hearing but no one was interested in buying what Vaitheeswaran was selling. As paying salaries became difficult, vendors demanded payment and customers complained about bad deliveries. In late 2013, Vaitheeswaran decided to vacate the office and his 14-year-old entrepreneurial journey came to an end in a manner he could not have dreamt of even four years earlier. It was a tragic end to the Indiaplaza story.
Vipul Mishra is 27 and runs CanvasFlip, a
tech startup he co-founded. It is a cloud-based platform that allows product
managers and entrepreneurs to test prototypes and user experience without
having to write their own software. CanvasFlip has raised a million dollars
from Bessamer Venture, an American venture capital firm.
Vipul belongs to the generation of young entrepreneurs keen to follow the path shown by the Bansals and Bahl. Tech entrepreneurship was part of Mishra’s education. When studying computer engineering in Jaipur, Mishra along with his friends developed several mobile and Internet applications that became popular. One app was a big hit, allowing Facebook users to search for viral videos, an option the social networking site did not feature then.
“The good thing about Jaipur and Rajasthan is that people are generally business minded. It is not enough to have an idea, but people will think how to make money out of it. We had several tech fairs in college where we got to present the products we developed and pitch it to companies. That helped us develop an idea of client needs,” he says.
Mishra and his friends also attended several tech fairs held by engineering institutes in different parts of the country. “At that time we were just playing around with developing applications. There was no serious thought about how to monetise them. I used to think that when I start up, I’ll start making profits immediately. It was only when I started working that I understood the reality.”
After passing out, Mishra joined Tech Mahindra in Hyderabad as a programmer. While working there, he developed an app called Yougle which allowed YouTube users to make a video playlist while simultaneously streaming a video. It was shortlisted from Hyderabad for the NASSCOM 10,000 startup challenge.
Tech Mahindra has a very supportive environment for aspiring tech entrepreneurs, according to Mishra. “They gave me time to do my own stuff. My bosses said they would be proud if someone from Tech Mahindra goes on to create a successful startup.” The stint at Mahindra helped Mishra in many ways. It gave him exposure to client servicing. He also found a mentor in his boss, just like Goel did in NDS, something both say makes a very important difference. When he was searching for investors in CanvasFlip, the Mahindra name stood him in good stead, ensuring credibility.
CanvasFlip which Mishra co-founded with his friend Manish Jha, was incorporated as a company in June 2015. They started in Hyderabad and then shifted to Bengaluru where they first worked out of the Microsoft building. CanvasFlip had a tie-up with Microsoft with some of the Microsoft team helping develop CanvasFlip.
Within three months of the start, Mishra connected with the Bessamer group. “We met at a coffee shop. It was quite casual. It was done in 15 minutes. They said they believed in the idea and its potential and wanted to be part of it. That was encouraging,” he says. With funding from Bessemer, CanvasFlip scaled up, but Mishra says they were very careful not to overspend. The team cut costs wherever possible and kept operational costs lean. The company was profitable within a few months, says Mishra.
Mishra’s entrepreneurial journey has been far more glitch-free than Goel’s. But they share a lot of similarities in their philosophy of entrepreneurship. They both believe that startups should not depend too much on venture capital and that scaling up too fast can be potentially risky.
“Unit economics is very important. As a startup company your focus must be to build a business model that is sustainable and profitable. It is only after accomplishing that should you scale up your operations.” Mishra says that there is no formula for success in startups. You can do everything right but there are too many uncontrollable variables. Uncertainty comes with the terrain, it is the default setting.
Radhakrishnan Ramachandran left
Thiruvananthapuram to study engineering in Karnataka, knowing it wasn’t a field
that interested him. After graduation, he returned to Thiruvananthapuram and
met his future wife while studying journalism. The pair then landed up in
Bengaluru and Radhakrishnan joined Economic Times. He then moved to TV
journalism and worked five years as part of Raghav Bahl’s core team in CNBC.
The husband-wife pair quit journalism to start India Syndicate, launched in 1999. It provides news and other content to web portals on a payment basis. However, with more and more providers of original news coming online, the segment has changed, and India Syndicate has had to depend less on that model as well as diversify its services. By 2007, Radhakrishnan was watching the rise of video and multimedia content online. YouTube had launched a year earlier as had Dailymotion and other online video streaming websites. In 2007, Hulu launched in the US, providing video from TV networks, movie studios and other content partners.
Radhakrishnan’s plan was ambitious, to crack the video streaming market in India. He founded IStream along the lines of Hulu in 2011, stepping down as CEO of India Syndicate. In May of that year, IStream raised $5 million from SAIF Partners. They had a “soft launch” in November 2011 and the site went public in March 2012. India Syndicate was already providing video content for portals like Yahoo, MSN, Sify and Rediff and was thus well placed to enter the video streaming segment.
“The idea then was that videos consisted of Bollywood songs and cricket videos. But we realised there was a market for news and regional content. Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Tamil videos had great consumption. We went after that. Most English television channels were reluctant to share content unlike regional channels, except at high pay rates,” Radhakrishnan says.
But relationships developed through India Syndicate allowed IStream to persuade some English media players that the ad rates in the nascent Indian online space were not high enough for high payment rates to be sustainable. IStream partnered with Star network, Colors and Times Now. They partnered with YouTube to provide content and within a year had become its biggest content partner in India, in terms of video views. Radhakrishnan says that in 15 months, IStream exceeded the target of unique users they had set. The site had 6 million unique users, 12 million video views and more than 30 million page views.
Then they just ran out of money.
India’s largest video streaming website could not get any more funding. No investor including SAIF Partners was willing to put up cash for the next round. The reason, says Radhakrishnan, was a change in investor sentiment. In the last months of 2012, they were expecting a fractured verdict in the 2014 general elections. By January 2013, it became clear to Radhakrishnan that funding was unlikely.
He was told in May 2013 by some investors to wait it out for 15 months, by which time the new government would have made its economic policies known. But that would mean cutting down to a handful of employees and surviving only on income from YouTube. IStream shut down in May.
“It was a very tough decision. We had a premium product that we believed had great potential. We had a great team of around 70 people. We had a strong technology and editorial staff. Looking back, we were quite ahead of the game among multi-channel networks in India.”
While most Indian startups die silent deaths, Radhakrishnan wrote to viewers on the Istream site that the company was closing down. He apologised to his viewers and said he did not have the answers to why this had happened. “We built a great technology and product team backed by a solid digital media team. We had millions of passionate users coming in every month, and rising by the hour. We had top brands endorsing our product –giving us premium ad dollars.
“While one could debate the best business model for a digital media product like ours—whether India is an ad driven digital economy or whether the market is ripe for experimenting with a subscription model, the fact remains that online video is a capital-intensive business, requiring patience and cash flows. This is not unique to us or India. That is how it has been everywhere.
“Hulu, one of the global leaders, could reach where it is today only after six years (against little more than a year for iStream) and after raising over $100 million (against $5 million for iStream) in funding. In that sense, the journey to build a great video destination had just begun.”
He ended the post by addressing his team and thanking them for reposing faith in him and his wife. As he ended his post he asked them: “Guys—are you ready for starting all over again?”
In a few months, Radhakrishnan started Peppermedia, a company that produces videos for websites and develops branded YouTube networks for customers. He invested his own money and managed to retain a part of the IStream team. Looking back, he wonders whether he made the right decision to shut down. What if he had continued with a skeleton staff and just hung on?
“I wouldn’t have needed to wait 15 months to know what the investment scene would be like. By the end of 2013, investors expected a BJP win. And once the government changed in May, there was a huge high in investor sentiment.” As he had written, he doesn’t know all the answers. But Radhakrishnan is determined to make Peppermedia succeed in the space that Istream could not.
When IStream shut down, a number of viewers wrote to say they were disappointed and most of the team said they wanted to stay on. This motivates him to believe in the product he had built. But more than anything he believes in the huge potential of the video streaming segment of the Indian market. He intends to conquer it when it takes off.
I met Goel a couple of days before he was
to shift from Bengaluru to Hyderabad, where his new company Careerplot would be
based. I asked him what his former investor and mentor in NDS felt about his
decision to invest in Patterbuzz. Did he regret it? With no buyout, all that
money is just gone. “Not at all. He knew the risks when he invested. You see,
he did it because he wanted to encourage entrepreneurship and be part of
building a business. In fact, I am going to meet him tomorrow. We want to
discuss my new venture,” he said.
Vaitheeswaran is now a consultant and mentor for a couple of firms. Maybe it is because he is bitter, or it could be because he has thought long and hard about it, but he is one of those who believe that the e-commerce model in India is a bubble. Very few of the big Indian tech and online startups have yet reached profitability.
“A business has ultimately to make profit. I am not saying it should be profitable immediately, or in one year or three years. But the current model seems to be the more funds you can get and the more losses you can make the more successful you are.
Whether it’s Flipkart, Snapdeal or any other e-retailer they are selling the same products to the customer at the same price, and losing money for every customer because it is discounted. They have failed to differentiate their product from their competitors.
“Indian e-retailers are confusing customer acquisition with customer retention. They’re not the same thing. If you want a customer who is loyal to you, then they should have reasons to buy your product rather than your competitor’s,” he says.
Vaiteeswaran is over 50 now and I ask him if he would ever startup again. “I will not say never. Once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur. But if I start something it would be something completely different. It would not be in e-commerce. It would be an idea that I become interested in. To me, unless I am doing something different, there is no adventure in being an entrepreneur.”