Today during the course of conversation with a new entrepreneur had to introduce myself and my career path over the past many years after a long time. Listening to myself as I spoke to him, I began to wonder.
Why was my career path like this? Is there any way I would do it differently if I could? Where am I going?
Let me start by introducing myself to those who don’t know me. I grew up in the tiny country of Qatar – growing up as one among the 400,000 or so people on the peninsula and as one of the 2000 odd students (at the peak) at M.E.S. Indian School (the only Indian school) there. While growing up I pretty much was at the top of the pack. Was naturally good at the science, math and social skills and like to think I was a pretty balanced kid with a lot of friends and who managed to get out while excelling in academics. Post high-school moved from there to Bombay – India to study Electrical Engineering at IIT Bombay beginning 1996. While at IIT Bombay, was exposed to the beginnings of the internet. It was fascinating to see single page websites like Yahoo, hotmail, rocketmail, geocities and xoom start off, become huge and get sold / go public for billions of dollars. Was very motivated on hearing during this wave stories of large number of IIT graduates who were part of the wave. These were really the beginnings and over time grew a serious interest in Entrepreneurship. Pretty much taught myself a lot of stuff by reading voraciously over the Internet and towards my senior year had already pretty much figured out what I wanted to be. Spent the final year building my contact book and looking for a specific idea which would be my first company. Met Sandeep - a fellow student at IIT Bombay and founded myzus, within a span of days won the business plan competition at IIT Bombay, raised seed capital and the journey had begun. This was around Jan 2000. Spent the next three years going through the grind. In what were to be some of the best years of my life went through the entire cycle. The thrills of working day and night to build something that you truly thought would change the world, living with your team in sleeping bags at the office to meet impossible self imposed deadlines, going through the crash and renewed focus towards profitability and earning battle scars by going through layoffs, splintering in the team, refocusing efforts on the product, a bitter fight with my cofounder and day in day out rejection from customers on whom I was calling on akin to a door to door salesman. Also learnt the hard way how while majority of your staff will be great people, you would get those bad apples who would be outright dishonest and whose behavior could and would jeopardize the entire survival of the company. Somewhere down the line realized my heart was not in the venture and managed to somehow keep the boat afloat while transitioning to a new CEO. Was saved by the fact that I had one good customer which closed - Batelco. Done this I took a small break to clear my head by visiting family in Qatar. Around this time was already looking for multiple other opportunities in Singapore and the Middle East. By sheer coincidence, at around the same time bumped into Suraj Thampi a classmate of mine while on a short visit to Qatar.
Suraj was running at the time while based in the United States a offshore call center servicing the American market based out of Qatar. He’s inherited the business as a result of an investment made by his dad and his partner and was at a difficult stage w.r.t. where to take the company. We talked and at this point of time made a decision to move to Qatar to take over as CEO of the company. Made the decision because I wanted to run a different company. Wanted to work more with people, processes, quality and the global customer. Once I got in realized how difficult the situation I inherited was. The company was bleeding money and the shareholders just wanted out. Had a team that was riddled with mistrust, incompetence, infighting and lacking a leader. Worked fast and furious to fill that gap and like to feel in a short span of time inspired people to see the bigger picture and rally around in one last push to make it. At the same time, relooked at the business and decided that we just had to make some hard decisions to restructure the company. Reoriented the focus from a global call center to a local one and trimmed the team to ensure that only the highly motivated team players were retained. At the same time, kicked off the local sales effort to ensure that by the time we were restructured, there was business to keep the resources busy. Ended up being saved in the nick of time by one good deal. Having done this, was faced with another dilemma. While the company could survive with this order, it would be a shell of its older structure and would take time to build itself up into its older strength and structure. Something that would justify someone like myself running the same. Decided to make a quick exit and was done grave injustice by fate.
Took up an opportunistic assignment to run a call center in dubai. The money was good. I didn’t pay much attention to what the assignment was. Was just happy to be moving to dubai and away from Qatar where I really felt my creativity and drive was being stifled. Dubai for some reason felt like the place to be as soon as I landed in the country. I was reminded of Bombay. Global tech gave me some time to think. It taught me upfront how companies should not be run and the things to never lose sight of in case I ever became an investor or board member. The good thing was it gave me time to think about what I wanted to do with my life. I really was at a juncture where I had a difficult decision. I basically had three choices – to work for someone else, to apply to b-school or to do another company. At this stage, met my partner Vivek. Bonded instantaneously. I guess Vivek was also battle weary from his company at the time – Communicate2. He’d put in a considerable amount from his inheritance into building a product and taking his company away from the services hell and sales were just not forthcoming. I guess we were both looking for something more lucrative to do with our lives. At this point me and him discussed multiple ways of converting our collective energy into a company and One Nine Three was born. I really thought hard before starting this company. At this stage I revisited questions and checklists I had before starting myzus – what would be unique about this company? What was the barrier to entry for competition? Why would customers buy from us? In the end, made the decision purely on gut feel.
My ego had really taken a beating with myzus. While I had proved to myself that I could build a product, manage a team, inspire others, raise capital, I could not demonstrate to myself what I felt was the most crucial aspect of running a company – delivering the numbers. My other biggest failure was being unable to manage my relationship with my co-founder. This was another of my biggest dilemmas – was I to blame ? had I done something wrong ? Was I the one behaving immaturely? Could I have done something differently? In the end decided that there was no other way of getting my self-respect back apart from making my new company a success. I had to demonstrate to myself that I could sell. With nothing that could come in the way as an excuse. I would go out and choose the besr products, concentrate on a very vibrant market (the middle east) and just see if I could do it. I would try my best to build a healthy relationship with my partner and not just put in place a relationship where we were buddies but one where we were achievers. I had to make it happen to demonstrate to myself that I was capable of being in the start-up business. Before raising money again I had to prove that I could put it to good use. I needed to be confident enough to invest my own capital in the company. Introspected about vivek and in the end made up my decision on purely one point – my judgment of his integrity – felt he was a mature person of integrity. Admired his tenacity and his ability to do the tough things. Areas where I lacked. Had to go ahead. This is the story as it stands. Have been on the road for slightly over a year now. It’s a journey I’m happy I undertook.
Have learnt a lot at One Nine Three. Here was a business model that was simple. No rocket science. No big capital requirement. Nothing to hide behind. Get rights to sell products in the region for a commission. Sell them. Make commission. I’m happy I made this decision. Day in and day out interact with some of the best product companies in the world. Meet and recruit channel partners for them. Support channel partners in their meetings with customers. See upfront what customers say when they are evaluating products. Get to see upfront how the best companies in the world run their businesses. Am getting an education. Along the way am learning some lessons in how not to run a business. Where things go wrong at the ground level. How to build a product organization. What the best kind of products are. The importance of innovation. Of strategic partnerships. Of meeting a true customer need.
Hopefully In 2-3 years I’ll be educated. I’d be ready to make the next big shift. To run a company that will really make it big. I’m confident I’m on the right path. Need to work hard and make this a success. It’s going to be my biggest test. A personal one before I start another company. And I’m having fun on this test.