I don’t know how it all happened. It just happened and nothing was planned. Before 2009, I lived in five cities in India—from the north to the south. I was in Kerala, UP and MP. It gave me an opportunity to interact with and be sensitive to different cultures. It made me more adaptive to different circumstances.
As a kid, I tried my hand at multiple things in school. I became a seasoned debater because I liked to speak. My mom sent me to dancing, singing, painting and other classes, but I liked public speaking and became a debater. I was also an NCC cadet and I enjoyed that the most.
In college, I just didn’t want to keep myself to engineering studies and wanted to build a little brand for me. So I did part-time gigs in Jaipur. I anchored a live show with Bhaskar TV, a local television channel in Jaipur. I used to be a part-time radio jockey with 93.5 Red FM. I just kept myself busy apart from studies, keen on experiencing different facets of life.
Powering Telecom Through NextGen
As a kid, I wanted to do something in life that would put my name in history books. So when I came to the final year of engineering, I wanted to do something different which would push me to my limit. I thought entrepreneurship was probably the route to it. That’s what led me to start, along with my co-founder, a startup called NextGen. We built a biogas plant which powers telecom towers. We did a pilot in Mehboob Nagar in Andhra Pradesh. That was my first startup, from Jan 2009 to Feb 2014, in the renewable energy space.
The venture capital ecosystem in India then was very nascent. Ours was not a typical business that VCs would prefer. We managed to get a grand capital from Royal Bank of Scotland Foundation since our startup was in the renewable energy segment.
For CSR, it is Goodera
We also came into the whole circuit of foundation money, CSR, sustainability and things like that. We hived off NextGen and did a technology transfer to Mahindra. We pivoted into a technology company. We started a company called Goodera. It is basically a technology and enterprise SAS company which helps large enterprises measure and manage the impact of their CSR sustainability and volunteering initiatives.
As an entrepreneur, it is always very difficult to let go of something that you have built from nothing. That is a big learning that I had.
In 2014, the Companies Act 2013 came into effect and CSR was made mandatory wherein companies had to spend 2% percent of their profits on CSR. That acted as a catalyst for our business and we got access to the boardrooms since the Board was responsible to take decisions on CSR.
We started off in India and expanded to the American market and later to the European market. We raised about 18 million dollars in Venture Capital from Omidyar Network, SAIF Partners and Nexus Venture Partners.
Through CSR, companies were doing good to the society and there is so much of capital spent. Often, as there is no tangible output, the impact of a company’s CSR initiatives cannot be measured. We tried to do this through Goodera by bringing in technology to this ecosystem.
Letting Go after Building
By 2019, we had a good leadership team in place. I was in my comfort zone. I wanted to push myself again and test my limits. So, I resigned from my CEO role and also from the Board and decided to move out. As an entrepreneur, it is always very difficult to let go of something that you have built from nothing. That is a big learning that I had.
I spoke to my Board a year ago to do a proper transition so that the company continues to grow. Goodera is now being run by my co-founder and a brilliant management team. I wanted to experiment new things and letting go helped me evolve as an individual.
After moving out of Goodera, I was exploring my next adventure and that’s when I landed in London. So what best to do while taking a break? I needed to keep myself active and give fodder to my brain. So I joined the London Business School. Though I joined the Business School, I was restless at times.
Back to Business in the UK
As I was studying, I thought of exploring things in London. I joined Creator Fund that backs student-led startups in the UK region. I got an opportunity to be a part of the team, evaluating various startups and taking investment decisions. I was amazed to see the kind of innovation that was happening.
At the same time, from a VC ecosystem, I also wanted to see the other spectrum of the finance world, which is about buying and selling stable companies. I got an opportunity to work with Blue Knot Partners, which acquires small companies in the UK, runs them and turns them around in four to five years. I tried to pick up different experiences.
Working with Creator Fund and Blue Knot Partners was pretty interesting and that motivated me to start Campus Fund in India, a micro VC. Its objective, like that of Creator Fund, is to support student entrepreneurs in India. We invest in young entrepreneurs and students who can build viable businesses of the future. I launched this in July 20 and built a team of students across the country who work with me while they are studying. We have backed a couple of student entrepreneurs who are doing great. This is what I am currently doing.
More and more students and youth can now take the path of entrepreneurship and can see themselves being job creators rather than job seekers.
Ask for Help
The biggest learning that I have got trying to build the fund and venture into the finance ecosystem was ‘asking for help.’ I have been an entrepreneur sitting on the other side of the table, raising money. Now I am turning into an investor. The whole financing world was new to me. I am highly grateful to the all the folks who helped me venture into this. That is when I learned about asking for help.
When you ask for help, what is the maximum response that someone can give you? Sorry, I don’t have the time and resource to help you or they won’t respond at all. But at least you have asked. If you have never asked, that means the answer is always no. Knock doors; some will open for you and some will close.
Campus Fund is still a baby we are building and trying to develop the student entrepreneurship ecosystem in India. More and more students and youth can now take the path of entrepreneurship and can see themselves being job creators rather than job seekers.
This has been my journey. I am on a quest. I still don’t have many answers. I am learning. I am thankful and grateful to the entire tribe of people who have supported me.
Some Key Takeaways
Everybody is running a rat race to just be busy; there is no particular definition of success. Success is in your mind and it is subjective. Don’t let the world define your success; define your own success. That is what will make you happy and proud about yourself.
Whatever you have seen in my journey, nothing was planned. So don’t try and plan your whole life. Things will happen. It is a consequence of many small events. It is good to think of the future but don’t get bogged down by it. Just relax and let life happen at times. You might get certain surprises which might just amaze you.
Entrepreneurship is tough. Believe me, I’ve cried nights together. I have been in stress. I have seen highs and lows. Entrepreneurship is a lonely journey. You build your team as you move along, but yes, it’s a lonely journey.
Do it for the right reasons and for what you are passionate about. You must strongly believe in the purpose of what you are doing. Only then, you will have the intrinsic optimism in yourself.
Recall what is said in the movie 3 Idiots, “Go after learning, go after entrepreneurship, if you like; everything else will follow.” Financial freedom and various other things are by-products of doing something that you are completely passionate about.
Once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur and that’s how it is.
The 7 Key Attributes of an Entrepreneur
These are some of the key aspects one should keep in mind before starting the journey of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship makes you strong as an individual and broadens your horizon and perspective about life. So it is a path worth taking, if you have these attributes.
Thriving in Uncertainty
The greatest attribute that is required of entrepreneurs is the ability to thrive in uncertainty, because they build something from nothing. It is a journey from 0 to 1. The journey from 0 to 1 is very different from that of 1 to 100. There are lows and highs.
Think, Try, Learn
You should be able to think. You must enjoy the think-try-learn-rinse-repeat cycle. When you build something, you will not get the product-market fit on day one. You will have to continuously evolve, be agile and listen to your customers and your market.
Sense of Purpose
You can evolve only when there is a sense of purpose and you are a purpose-driven founder. Purpose must be the core reason as to why you have taken the path of entrepreneurship. It is not about earning a monthly salary. The purpose must be about solving a problem.
Courage to Try and Fail
We hear all success stories about startups. That is just the tip of the iceberg. Statistics say that only 0.1% of startups are successful. There is a huge, long trail of startups which are not successful. You must have the courage to fail, because it’s not an easy journey.
You must have the strength to accept that something may not work. You should have the courage to fail but at the same time, there should be an intrinsic optimism to keep yourself motivated, because as an entrepreneur you are just not responsible for keeping yourself motivated but keeping your entire team motivated. You are building an organisation; it can’t be built alone. So that intrinsic optimism is very critical when you start on the journey of ownership.
You should be willing to take criticism of your ideas. It is important for you to hear the feedback. There will be a lot of noise coming at you. You should take the decision and move ahead but be ready to consider constructive criticism and be your own judge of what you are trying to do.
Ability to Wear Many Hats
Being a startup entrepreneur, you are doing the jobs of a janitor to a CEO. You should feel comfortable even if it is pushing you out of your comfort zone. You must have the ability to wear many hats and in fact, enjoy living outside the hat.
Initial days of startup and dependency on money
If you are young and have to financially support your family, it is tough to start a business. If you don’t have that constraint, it is easier to start a venture. You can survive very frugally. My co-founder and I decided not to ask money from our parents and if we had to do that, we would rather take up a job.
In your initial years, if you lead a frugal life, you will understand the value of money. If you start an enterprise after getting married, then you have to pool in capital from friends and family and they must believe in you. You must have a kitty to take care of your basic needs. When you are building something, money should not unduly bother you. If it does, it will stop you from giving your hundred percent.
Invest your capital properly to beat the inflation.
Entrepreneurship and social life
I had a lot of fun in my college days. But once I became an entrepreneur, it was work on my mind 24 x 7 and I had very little social life. When I took a break from Goodera in 2019, I started sleeping at the right time and eating the right amount of food. These two habits alone helped me to reduce my weight by 50 kg! Now I am having a good social life. Given a chance to go back, I will definitely tweak my routine to have more of social life along with business.
Recruiting seniors and dealing with them
As you evolve as an entrepreneur, you must learn to deal with people senior than yourself and delegate work to them, rather than doing everything yourself.
Three things: The race analogy
For a successful enterprise, three things are important and we can use the racing analogy of turf, jockey and horse. Turf is the market. They say market beats everything. You have to time it right. If you are either too early or too late, you may fail. As an entrepreneur, you are the jockey. The horse is the business or the product that you are building. For VCs to invest in your business, they will look at the combination of all the three—turf, jockey and horse.
Understanding culture in different countries
Human emotions are universal. Understand that people in all countries are human. We have to understand their culture and operate in their environment. For example, in the west, people are individualistic and in the east, we prefer to operate in a community. Invest enough time to understand the cultural nuances and have local people in your team. That helps you to build credibility and gain confidence in that country.
Key factors to kick start a promising startup
As an entrepreneur, don’t try to solve a utopian problem. It has to be a real problem that you are trying to solve.
The co-founding team is an important element of an enterprise; it must be cohesive and should stay together in the toughest of times. The team must be complimentary in skills.
Culture is important in a startup. In every startup, you build a tribe. Remember, it is family that you are creating. Don’t treat people as stepping stones to your success. If you take them with you, they will stand by you in the toughest of the times. Care for your employees, give them freedom to operate, trust and empower them.
On business valuation
Don’t get carried away by valuation. If your business is providing good value, it is bound to get a good valuation. Provide value to all your stakeholders. I have great regard for Sridhar Vembu who raised a startup from a village in Tamil Nadu, without raising any venture capital. That is the kind of startup culture that we need to build in India.
Ms Richa Bajpai, Co-Founder – Goodera, Campus Fund