A few decades earlier an intrepid breed of Indian entrepreneurs made quite a killing in the Silicon Valley. These entrepreneurs — Vinod Khosla, Kanwal Rekhi, KB Chandra Shekhar, Gururaj Deshpande and several others, today no less than legends of the Valley, are the epitome of fearless, technology wizards who made a mark in the global IT scenario. Though much of their success has been attributed to the startup ecosystem of the West, one can not over look the sheer grit, determination, confidence and mostly the passion that drove them to achieve the dizzying heights they reached.
A similar wave is ready to rise in India today. The foundation of India’s entrepreneurial ecosystem was laid and led by stalwarts like Azim Premji, NRN Murthy, Shiv Nadar who observed the opportunities in the IT services space and went on to build global giants like Wipro, Infosys and HCL. They were responsible for bringing the potential of Indian IT industry to the forefront, albeit a services one. Now post the outsourcing wave, a new breed of young and dynamic entrepreneurs are trying to make a killing in India, highlighting the potential of the country as something much more than a mere IT service provider. Heralding the new wave of Indian entrepreneurship this new generation is unorthodox in their ideas, quick to asses opportunities and most important unafraid of failure. Further more, they are on the threshold of creating a few legends of their own — starting a unique venture, nurturing it and taking to the peak of glory that not many have managed to attain. Observing this change, in this Leadership special issue, we bring to you the story of four entrepreneurs, who explored new avenues and managed to grow their ventures from a Startup to renowned leaders in their respective space.
In the last decade, India saw several changes in its economic policies; a liberalization wave which brought in several positive changes for entrepreneurs. The country’s ecosystem is blooming with growth in infrastructure, manpower, and finance. Today, the country’s government has risen to be one of the biggest support systems for entrepreneurs.
But this was not the scenario in the country when Anupam Mital, Aravind Kajaria, Sanjay Nayak and Deep Karla started with their entrepreneur dreams. They literally had to create a market of their own as the markets for what they initiated did not exist in the country then. The infrastructure present was poor and there was lack of reputation for the country in the global market.
The hardships they faced and how they managed to survive in a highly competitive and financial recession prone market comes down right to their total belief in their products and companies and their sheer passion to succeed.
Chairman and Managing Director, Shaadi.com
Post an MBA from U.S. when Anupam Mittal came back to India he saw that the internet industry has started blooming here. In realization of this huge potential he started Satyam and Solutions, a web development company while also making plans for a portal.
During this period Mittal happened to meet a priest and the idea that the choice for a life partner depended solely on the number of biodatas the priest could carry and the number of individuals he would meet bothered Mittal. He wanted to do something about it and that is when the idea of taking this on to an Internet platform struck him. Hence, Shaadi.com was launched. Back in 1997, there was not much competition, hiring technical professionals was inexpensive and thus he only required a small investment to start the site. Thus he hired technical professionals and build the entire portal. During the process, customer feedbacks played a major role in shaping of the website to what it is today.
Initially, the revenue model was subscription based; one would have to pay as per the number of biodata they wanted to receive. But Mittal soon realized that Indians being very value conscious were hard to get to pay online, the US e-commerce model would not work. Users here would not pay until they fully realize the value form it. A different business model had to be set up and that is exactly what Mittal did. For example in Shaadi.com one can look at profiles and send in proposals to the best suited profiles and only when someone accepts that offer one would have to pay. After the payment one can continue with the communication with the interested party.
The growth had not been much in the initial few years. In 2001, Mittal withdrew from web development business and focused completely on shaadi.com. By 2002 , the Shaadi.com brand was built. By 2003 the focus was set on building multiple brands and as a result launched Fropper.com, a dating website and Mauj.com, a mobile content provider. At the same time Mittal wanted to see how he could expand the market for people looking for a marriage. “As per our analysis and observation, Internet targeted only a particular sector of the market and most of the people coming to us were from the age group of 21 to 35. This age group majorly included individuals who were searching for partners themselves instead of having their parents or siblings looking for them. Thus even after having newspaper classifieds and marriage bureaus there was still a need for match making solution. We wanted to come out with a solution which would encompass the traditional rituals and the modern culture. Hence, we launched Shaadi Point,” explains Mittal. Shaadi Point, a network of matrimonial centers across India offers one-stop matrimonial services from matchmaking to wedding planning. It caters to parents and helps combine traditional rituals and modern culture together.
Over the years, the portal has grown by leaps and bounds. Today it has partnered with leading internet players like Yahoo, MSN, Rediff and have expanded their presence pan India and in the US.
Looking back, his learning from building Shaadi.com, “Be careful when you raise the VC funding, do not raise too much or too little. Too little is fine as that teaches you to be smarter and wiser the next time. Whereas raising money in excess is very dangerous as one starts substituting capital for revenue and making it your business model, he says.
“Determination is probably one of the biggest valuable trait required for an entrepreneur. But determination without perseverance is useless. One needs to be persistent as sometimes things may not go in your stride. Thus one must continue to strive, work hard and come back into action. An entrepreneur should be prepared to accept failure, get up and be ready to take another punch of failure” he adds.
The bottom line: Entrepreneurs who learn it the hard way attain wisdom and maturity faster as they learn a lot from their experience.
Co-Founder and MD, 123greetings
Aravind Kajaria once read the quote ‘There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come’ by Victor Hugo, and these words literally changed his life. His younger brother, a technologist, was doing a research back then in late 90s, when one of his colleagues put out an e-greeting card and sent one to Kajaria for the Christmas of ’97. He forwarded it to some of his friends in the U.S. and in 16 days this card had been sent and received more than 32,000 times, which was a big high. Coming from the advertising background and having worked in the US, Kajaria saw his calling in the Internet space. He lost no time and grabbed the idea of the greetings and thought of merging it with the Internet platform.
“Thus we started 123greetings.com. The whole idea was driven by sheer gut feeling and the zeal to do some thing new” says Kajaria. Back in 98 the internet infrastructure in India was not dependable and all the advertisers were based out of the U.S. and thus he shifted the company’s headquarters to New York. During the years 1998-99, 123greetings.com saw good business, and scaled up rapidly. “The fact that we were in the heart of the market working with people who understood the technology, and were surrounded with advertisers who were eager to invest in internet businesses was an advantage,” he adds.
But good times did not last long for this savvy entrepreneur. The dotcom bust followed by 9/11 left the company with high expenses and no advertisers to support to dive revenue. A lot of investment had already been made towards technology, and Kajaria and team were left high and dry. The revenues fell by 15 to 20 percent of what in was in the 99 and 2000. Despite all odds against him, nothing could bring down Kajaria’s passion and belief in his product. Thus instead of closing down, he moved it back to India. “It was a monumental decision but it helped us to reduce the cost at the right time and to keep our focus on product development, because if you lose your focus on the user, it does not matter what you do or where you are, eventually you are not going to succeed,” explains Kajaria.
But just like sun shines after a stormy night, the journey for 123greetings.com since then has been very good. To cut a long story short, the company ended last year by servicing 100 million users worldwide.
His take on his tumultuous journey, “Remember ‘it is your dream’, so do not depend on someone else other to turn it true. But at the same time you have your limitations and cannot do everything. You will have to depend on your team at some point of time. The idea is to achieve the balance of what to take control of and what to let go.”
CEO, Tejas Networks
Bangalore headquartered Tejas Networks is one of the finest examples of a successful product company from India. Sanjay Nayak started Tejas together with Arnab Roy and Kumar Sivarajan in the April of 2000 with $5 million funding from telecom entrepreneur Gururaj Deshpande. But for Nayak the journey began with a rocky start. Soon after the inception of Tejas, the 9/11 catastrophe happened and together with it the world economy came down and new telecom companies sank without a trace. As a whole the telecom field encountered huge loses, a whopping $ 1000 billion globally. It was an almost impossible situation for them.
But Nayak followed a simple motto, ‘control the controllables’ and so he and team decided to focus on the controllables; build a good product, a good team and conserved cash. He also shifted the focus to domestic telecom market and which in the hindsight saved the company. Today Tejas is one of the major players in the Indian market. They invested in new technology and R&D unlike most global telecom players and this turned out to be Tejas’ biggest advantage.
The company has played a major role in establishing credibility for Indian telecom products in the global telecom market. “In our early days, many potential customers did not believe that an Indian company could create a telecom product. It was difficult convincing them, but today we are a great brand name in the market,” beams Nayak proudly.
Founder and CEO,
Makemytrip.com journey is that of an ugly duckling turning into a beautiful swan. After working with ABN Amro, AMF Bowling and GE Countrywide Deep Kalra realized Internet would become the fundamental game changer in coming years. The years 1999-2000 were a great time for startups. A dotcom business could easily be started as it required very little capital and VCs were ready to invest in them so Kalra started his company on the first of April 2000. The venture started out as ‘India Ahoy’ - a high leisure traveler’s site that later changed to what it is today — makemytrip.com.
Neeraj Bhargava, Managing Partner of eVentures helped with a $2 million funding for which a naïve Kalra gave away 70 percent of his company. Luckily for him, with the dotcom bust eVentures left India and made a distress sale and Kalra bought his company back. The belief in the business was so strong that he went on, without drawing a salary, for 18 months and also encouraged two of his senior colleagues to do the same and they were elevated to co- founder status.
In 2001 it became clear to him that Indians were not buying tickets online. The company struggled very badly in financial terms, shrunk to half its previous strength and came really close to closing down. It was their belief in the company and their passion that made Kalra and his team to go forward. Kalra eventually realized that there was a huge NRI market in the U.S. that could use its services and began focusing on them and this strategy saved the company.
By 2005, with the introduction of e-tickets by Indian Railways, the common Indians started buying tickets online. Realizing this Kalra brought MakeMyTrip.com back to India in September 2005 and in the absence of any competition became the synonym of ‘online travel’ in the country, a status it still enjoys. The high point in its journey was when the company got listed on Nasdaq this year. The company achieved sales of Rs 2200 crores in the financial year ending March 2010. MakeMyTrip was listed on Nasdaq on August 12 and saw the valuation double to $900 million on the day of listing. It sold for $26.45 per share against the listing price of $14 per share on the opening day, the highest opening for any company this year on Nasdaq. The company’s journey is the perfect example of what a little perseverance and belief can achieve.
They say fortune favours the brave. They treaded the path with creativity, risk-taking attitude, resiliency or flexibility, perseverance and passion as the five key skills and values in their armoury. Today they bask in their glory and is inspiring and leading the way for many to follow.