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We spoke to some passionate geeks who’ve successfully made the crossover into the corporate domain, about the highs and lows of nurturing an idea right from its development, till its arrival in the market place.
The author is a technology enthusiast based out of EFY's Delhi headquarters. She enjoys reading on various subjects varying from history, literature to the latest technology trends.
These are words that conjure up our image of a successful entrepreneur. We envy such people, for they seem to have everything on a silver platter. But is the road to this kind of success easy, or do people have to slog for it? Let’s find out.
“Don’t wait for extraordinary opportunities. Seize common occasions and make them great,” said Orison Swett Marden. If not for this pearl of wisdom, confesses Pradeep Bhatia, director, Bioenable Technologies, he would have never stumbled on the idea of establishing his own company. “While studying in IIT Mumbai, I had the opportunity to work on the latest computer and Internet technologies. After working on Web technologies, I found that security and identification was a major concern. This gave me an idea to research the available security technologies like PKI (Public Key Infrastructure), various encryption technologies used in e-commerce, and digital signatures. My research proved that not many security technologies can achieve security of data transfer, or identify individuals securely. It depends on users’ computers or their smart cards to identify them, and both of these can be lost or stolen. Thus, after a few months, a start-up called Bioenable Technologies was born.”
It is not Bhatia alone who holds this opinion; many others vouch for it. “It is not required to search for an extraordinary situation. You just need to know what interests you, and keep an eye on the problems that arise in that field. I was interested in Web technologies, but was just waiting for the right time and opportunity. I knew India did not have its own search engine, and always thought how would it be to gift my country with one. Then my partner Anurag and I started working on the concept, and Guruji.com saw the light of the day,” says Gaurav Misra, COO and co-founder, Guruji.com.
But not everyone is in a situation where they are free to pursue their own interests. There are some who are interested in one particular field, but land up in a different one. Vipul Puneet Patel is one of them. “Even though I was always interested in the field of technology, I could not pursue it initially. Being a dutiful son, I looked after our family retail business, attending meetings and conferences all over the world. And one such trip to a retail security conference in China changed the direction of my life as well as my career. Thanks to a taxi ride, I found myself stranded at one point because my cabbie was new to the place and could not guide me to the correct destination. Then he did something that impressed me—he pushed a button on the dashboard, and a screen appeared. This is how GPS (Global Positioning System) entered my life. That was in 2002. After that, I left my family business, researched on GPS systems, set up the company, did test runs and launched the OneStar brand in India,” says Patel, CEO, Macrotech Technologies.
Are there born entrepreneurs?
“No one is a born entrepreneur but, yes, one can be a geek, definitely. You need to be passionate about your idea; there should be a rush of adrenaline every time you think of it. Any one can be a geek, but you should have that fire and the risk-taking capability to turn into an entrepreneur. What is a simple idea worth unless it’s developed? There are too many IITians with amazing ideas, and very few who dare to fulfil their dreams. Entrepreneurship is about those sleepless nights, hard work, heavy investments, the risk of losing, failure and the zest to get back with a bang. I cannot forget the first step I took, the day when I decided to be an entrepreneur,” says Chirag Jain, vice president, Webaroo.
“Though starting a company was always at the back of my mind, what catalysed the decision was a brilliant piece of technology, Ruby on Rails. It was every thing that I thought a Web framework should be, addressed many problems with the incumbent technology and simply floored me with its simplicity. After doing a few applications with this framework, I knew I had the launch pad I needed. After that, it was just a matter of following up on my plan. Selling the idea to my employer itself was a big problem, because in spite of the fact that they respected my opinions, they were tied down with the legacy code and jumping into a new technology was something they could not afford right away. They refused. That is probably the reason why they say that opportunity knocks, but slowly. When my idea found no takers, it depressed me, but not enough to dampen my enthusiasm. I decided to start independently...I could start something from scratch following my own vision and get a chance to validate my opinions,” adds Vamsee Kanakala, chief dreamer of
While for some, being entrepreneurs was an obsession, others could settle for something else. “If not an entrepreneur, I would have been an engineer building products and services that would bring some value to the world. Of course, if you had asked me when I was a teenager, I would have said ‘a cricketer’ or ‘a pilot’. In some ways, I feel like both, working at Guruji.com; we pilot our company through some interesting times, and we have to ‘drive ourselves’ and ‘bowl out our competitors’ to move forward. In some ways, being an entrepreneur is like finding your dreams and pushing forward to fulfil it,” says Misra.
Challenges? Far too many
Interviewing these entrepreneurs, I realised that they faced many challenges to reach where they are today. Not only did they face uncertainties in their careers, but other personal problems too. What gave them the strength to move on? While every one agreed that the road had been really tough, all of them said that they believed in themselves; and violently fought the thought of ‘moving out’. “Yes, there had been at least half-a-dozen instances when I felt that the grass was greener on the other side. At times I just wanted to run away, but what pulled me back was my hope, faith in my work, myself, and most of all, my friend Jayadev, the partner of the company. It is not that I did not face any personal problems. Everyone does, but mine were comparatively less,” says Anupam Verghese, CTO, Tinfo Mobile.
There are some who lost a lot on this journey. “I faced quite a few challenges, and I still do. The biggest blow was as soon as I started down this road, my girlfriend broke up with me, because she just could not take the uncertainty of the whole idea. Though I was very hurt and depressed initially, I respected her decision, because I believe some people are wired for risk, others not,” verbalises Kanakala.
“There were times when I did not have the money to pursue my dream; times when the whole world seemed against me, but I never gave way. I had just one mission in life—to establish my start-up and bring it up to some standing. Even today, I mostly work alone, without a regular pay cheque, using the money I get through consulting to work on my product. It is a very stressful path, and it is quite easy to think it is not worth the trouble. But after a while, you get used to the challenges, and learn to take them in your stride. Now, most things that regular people consider ‘too risky’ career-wise would not even bother me. More importantly, I cannot imagine myself going back to a regular 9-5 job. Yes, it is scary, but you get used to it,” he adds.
The real challenge, however, is the execution of an idea and getting funding for it. Many learn to squeeze the maximum out of whatever capital they have, to develop the product or service they earnestly believe in. Sometimes, they even work against convention and established norms, and achieve really amazing and unexpected results. Says Verghese, “True, the whole thing might topple at the end, but the challenging journey is the real fun, and what if the plot really takes off? The proverbial pot of gold awaits. An added advantage of being an entrepreneur, to borrow Edison’s words after innumerable failed attempts at his inventions—‘At least I know 10,000 ways this will not work!’”.
While some say personal problems and funds are the real challenge, Dr Inderpal Singh Mumick, chairman and CEO, Kirusa, feels differently. “We were not all that bothered about funds, as we got finances easily. But our real problem was something else. I started Kirusa in 2001, and we were immediately swept into the telecom winter that followed the Internet bust, and the recession following 9/11. The other problem was the delay in 3G deployment. Early 2001 was a very trying time for the technology industry—capital investment by wireless providers came to a virtual standstill. Thus far, Kirusa had been trying to sell a multi-modal platform that could support various voice and text applications. When these did not work, we decided to change course, creating an application that could work on all networks, and worked with software already in place on a customer’s wireless handset. We decided to create an application that was truly device-agnostic. This application was voice SMS. And the rest, as they say, is history!”
His opinion is shared by
Dr Kaustubh Chokshi, CEO of Intelligent Business Systems (IBS), a UK-based AI Enterprise Solutions company, which has recently expanded into India, whose company faces challenges even today, as AI and BI (business intelligence) are not very well known terms in India yet, but there is going to be a time when each and every company, big or small, will find it essential to use AI.
Once the initial struggle is over and the product launched, the entrepreneur can sit back and enjoy the moment. “It is a feeling of elation, seeing your dream in your hands. I cannot forget the tension and nervousness I went through during the test run and launch of my product. I would wake up in the middle of the night, perspiring—I had left my family business to pursue my dream. A lot was at stake. However, in the end all went right, and it is a feeling that cannot be expressed in words,” signs off Patel.
“Knowing what you want, and figuring out how to go about it, is what entrepreneurship is all about. If your mind is set, and you know what it takes, nothing and nobody can stop you. In the end, it is you who knows what is best. Even though people around might discourage you, nothing’s worse than knowing that you had the potential to do something, and did not do it on someone else’s advice. I followed my dream, and now when I look back, all I can say is: ‘I made it!’” says Chokshi.
Those who fall back
While interviewing these enterprising souls, a very important question arose-- why do so many budding entrepreneurs give up? Here is what they had to say.
Fast-developing markets: Today’s fast-developing markets and the situation during the dot-com boom and subsequent bust, led to the largest number of people taking to, as well as abandoning entrepreneurship. People leave their start-ups because high-paying jobs are now available with large companies that offer a stable life and status. Another reason for abandoning a dream is the acute shortage of trained people ready to work with, as the pay packages offered by a start-up are not very high. Lastly, a lot of hype leads to a lot of competition, and some competitors have unrealistic business models, which many experienced entrepreneurs find a threat in the short term.
Ideas lose value: More than 80 per cent of ideas may need changes, both major and minor. Very few entrepreneurs are ready to accept that they are wrong. “Their thinking is along the lines of, ‘How can my idea not have value. If I am starting a company based on the idea, of course it is of great value,’” says Patel. “But it does not work like that. The idea in totality may not be a failure, but there are many other models to reach the goal. This is where a change needs to take place. It is an issue of a mindset and the ego—nothing else,” he adds. An entrepreneur and his team should stress more on addressing the customer’s needs, rather then on maintaining a blind faith in an idea. When some entrepreneurs find that their idea doesn’t measure up, they plan to close down instead of changing the idea to suit the new market conditions.
Cash crunches: Many start-ups set out with the plan to put together a team, then raise finance, and then work on their idea. This is risky. Taking finance should be an option, and not a necessity for your start-up to succeed.
Partnership failures: Many entrepreneurs do not have the confidence to start out on their own. Thus they enter into a partnership with their colleagues, or someone who can finance or sponsor them. “… partnerships fail because people do not know … how to keep personal and professional lives separate, and how to divide responsibilities,” puts in Kanakala.
“But that is a way of life; I have seen people having worked in a partnership for a few years, break up to form their own independent businesses. Sometimes their old partner is a competitor, and this works positively for both, driving each to prove themselves better,” says Chokshi.
‘Today’s entrepreneurs are lucky’
I have been an entrepreneur for about 20 years now. My first start-up was in the mobile space, and was called First Rain. It became a big name in the enterprise space. I have been often asked what I would have done if I did not become an entrepreneur. Believe me, I would have done nothing in life. I was not meant to work as an employee. In my whole career span, I have worked just for one year, with IBM, in the US. And that was enough. I knew it would drive me crazy.
Regarding India today, I assure you that there will be more and more first-generation entrepreneurs in the next 20 years. All that is needed is faith in yourself; the opportunities are immense, and today’s children are fortunate to be born at a time unlike any other—India is poised to become a world power in business and entrepreneurship. The only thing that can stop this growth is a natural catastrophe or communal riots. Barring these, there is nothing that can stop the country and its kids growing. You can either choose to be mediocre and do nothing, or you can be passionate and dare to change history. Today, we have already acquired an immense momentum that no one can stop. The industry will take us places...I wish I had these opportunities then. Trust me, it is a brilliant time to be born in this country.