One of the wall hangings in my bedroom says: “Life is a journey and not a destination”. I bought it in 2008 when I was working as a consultant in the US. It was the first year of my marriage and I had been working for “paycheck” for 6 years since I graduated from IIT. I have had a successful career with fantastic growth and good learning, but still something was missing. Life was all about running for the “next level”, and making more and more money. But the question that haunted me was that every race has a finish or a destination, but what is my destination? There was a constant curiosity about what is next and how do I achieve it. It felt like I was running like a headless chicken without knowing what I am running for.
When you really want something to happen, the whole world conspires to help you achieve it
Paulo Coelho has rightly said that one has to learn to recognize omens, and follow them. Also when you really want something to happen, the whole world conspires to help you achieve it. Since school days I always had a liking for maths, logic and programming. Somehow my branch did not offer me enough of it, so I started looking for opportunities to learn. That led me to work with IIT Bombay’s first campus startup in 2000. It was my first experience with a startup and such an environment. It was truly an electrifying environment with some of the best minds in IIT at work. I worked there only for a few months, but the experience left a mark on my mind. It was my first omen that led me to think that one day I will start a company of my own. But there was a fear in my mind, as past family experiences with business were haunting me, and post IIT I took up the best job that came to me.
My friend advised me not to invest more than the amount that I would be fine losing (if any)
In 2007, I was in the US and things were quite busy on my project. We had a fantastic team working on a project. Not only were they talented, but also quite entrepreneurial. After successful delivery of the project, some people started floating the idea of coming out of our firm and starting a new company. Although the idea did not materialize, the old inkling that I had of starting on my own came back. This was the second omen, which made me think again that I need to do something of my own. The universe was conspiring so well that everything that I read during those times and every movie that I watched, motivated me to think differently and come out of my comfort zone. But the elusive “business idea” was missing and I kept looking for it.
I learnt that when you form a company, each co-founder should bring in different value or skills to the table
Somehow my stay in the US did not excite me to stay there permanently and I always kept thinking of moving back. My decision was simplified by the support that I got from my wife, who not only supported me in my move back to India, but also got me hooked onto Energy Efficiency and Climate Change issues, because her work revolved around these topics. My third omen came in the form of a “PAN IIT” meet in 2010 in Delhi, where the topics of discussion revolved around the pressing problems faced by the country. After coming back from US, I had a constant curiosity about why various problems exist in India when so many solutions exist in the West. Post the “PAN IIT” event, the picture became quite clear to me. I knew that I have to use my skills (IT and otherwise) in solving problems related to sustainable development in India. And from there on, I was just waiting to come out of my job, which finally happened in December 2011. The decision was tough, as I was used to getting a paycheck every month for 9 years, and I dreaded being without a paycheck for some time. But I felt that if I don’t take the decision now, I would never be able to take it.
Initially IT + Sustainable Development looked like a very vague idea and I could not think of ways of generating business out of it. My wife and I knew that there are lots of pressing problems that need to be solved, but we were not sure if there is any possibility of doing business. That was the time I started interacting with several of my batchmates who were entrepreneurs. The first lesson that I got was: entrepreneurship is all about experimentation; you try certain things, learn from them and then improve. So it is more of an iterative process. This made me realize that the concept of having a “business idea” to start up is a bit overrated. Not because “business idea” is not required to do business, but because it is something that evolves when you start working in an area. You start small and keep building on it based on learning to come up with the ultimate “business idea”. This thought motivated me to not worry too much about the business, and pick up a problem and solve it.
Choosing Energy as the first sector to tackle was obvious as I did have some exposure to it through my wife. Although during the initial research I found several interesting concepts being tried in the US, I realized that many of them were quite challenging to start with in India. But I had to start somewhere. During my research, I found that the biggest challenge with Energy Efficiency in India was lack of information penetration. Although there are various ways by which people can reduce their energy consumption, people at large are not aware about them and in fact not even thinking about them. And even those who get to know about them are not able to analyze the potential benefits of adopting those ways. The problem is behavioral, but as the challenge is related to “information”, I felt that IT could assist in solving the problem. A batchmate who also happens to be a blogger gave me hope of generating some business initially through advertisements. And bingo! I had my business idea to start with. Thus was born the idea of “Bijli Bachao”, and I started the website www.bijlibachao.com.
It has been 2 years now since I started Bijli Bachao, and the only words that I can use to describe the journey is “roller coaster”. A journey with extreme highs and at times extreme lows, but on the whole immensely gratifying. The initial few months were all about spending money, without getting any returns out of it. Although 9 years of a paid job gave me enough money to not worry about expenses initially, a great piece of advice from a friend helped me a lot. My friend advised me not to invest more than the amount that I would be fine losing (if any). When you have money, you tend to adopt easy route, which may not be the best route, but scarcity of it teaches you to use it wisely. You use the cash properly and put it in activities that you understand will give you returns. The losses teach you where not to put your money. Bijli Bachao did not make a single paisa for first 11 months. At times I felt like I was wasting my time. There were days when I felt horrible as well. But then slowly things started working and the situation started improving.
I have learnt a lot in the two years of my journey of being on my own. And all the learning has happened while facing challenges. One of the biggest challenges for an entrepreneur is to keep motivated to do more and do better. The challenge is bigger if you are doing something all alone without co-founders. And this is where your passion in doing your day-to-day activities is quite important. You may have the grandest of ideas or you may be working on something that the world considers “hot”. But if you do not enjoy every moment of the time when you are doing your bit on your idea during the days, then it is very difficult to keep yourself motivated. Lack of cash flow and not so interesting work can simply kill motivation. So you always need to find that kind of work in your startup that truly excites you. It can be writing code, designing the product/service, or doing sales.
During the years, I also got involved with my friend in his startup Villcart (www.villcart.com) that taught me the dynamics of co-founders. I learnt that when you form a company, each co-founder should bring in different value or skills to the table. And outsourcing one of the key skills, or just hiring employees for one of the key skills, can be disastrous. Three coders getting together and starting a product company cannot make a successful startup, as you need co-founders who can design the solution, who have domain knowledge and who are good at selling. Any additional person joining the company with an existing skill should just join as an employee. My friend had a good understanding of ecommerce business but he lacked IT skills. Hiring people to code did not work for him, and finally when I joined him to fill in the gap, the business started doing well.
What I have learnt post IIT can truly be summarized with the words I started with “Life is a journey and not a destination”. I have learnt a lot in past 11 years and I continue to do so. As when you go out for a journey, you like to see several places, enjoy several things; in life, it is important to do different things and learn from them. We just have one life, and it is on us to enjoy it.