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Business News/ Opinion / Life lessons from a day-old start-up

Tonight, we are young

So let’s set the world on fire

We can burn brighter than the sun

These lines refuse to stop playing in my head. Call it naïve optimism. But as I sit to write this piece, it is 4am on a Wednesday—a little less than 24 hours to the minute a start-up I founded with a few close friends went live. Since then though, it feels like I’ve learnt lessons worth a lifetime.

Before I get into what I learnt, a few caveats must be filed. For the 20-odd years that I’ve practised journalism, I thought of myself as a start-up guy. I thought I knew pretty much everything there is to know on how to build from scratch.

My first big gig came when the talented R. Jagannathan (Jaggi), then editor at Financial Express, plucked me, an unknown 20-something, to launch eFE.

Intended to be a daily that covered technology at the peak of the dotcom boom, it did reasonably well. Validation came later in the form of an offer from the mercurial and brilliant Tony Joseph, who had just taken over as editor at Businessworld. I was part of a team that transformed what was then a dying magazine into a go-to place.

All thanks to the free run these men gave me, when Vogel-Burda, a German publishing company, wanted to get CHIP magazine to India, I was chosen for the job. It was back to basics and bleary nights.

That I did well was obvious when Jaideep Bose (Jojo), the understated and calm editor at The Times of India, asked me to join his team. Those were the days Hindustan Times (Mint’s mothership) and DNA had announced their intent to mark territory in Mumbai. A great newspaper battle ensued and The Times of India had to be reinvented. What a time it was!

Validation came again when Raghav Bahl, the spunky entrepreneur who had built Network18 ground up, invited some of us to create the Indian edition of Forbes India. Like all entrepreneurs with chutzpah, he empowered us to do what we thought right. Unending days and nights culminated in a title that, I believe, gave incumbents a run for their money.

Success and arrogance are natural allies. All of these experiences convinced me I knew how to build a start-up. Circumstances have a way to conspire, though. Five years down the line, I found myself and Indrajit Gupta, my boss at Forbes India, on the road, asking ourselves, ‘what next?’.

It took us close to two years of pounding the road and a few hundred hours of conversations with people of all kinds to figure that out. The outcome, like I said earlier, is just a day old, and a few lessons have emerged out of it.

I wanted the perfect product out. But after reading and listening to veterans from Silicon Valley like Eric Ries, the message was clear. Never mind the imperfections. Put something, anything, out there—a minimum viable product (MVP). Ignore imperfections. You can keep iterating forever till you get it right. What you need to get right is purpose and all else is forgiven. As I look at what is live now, it is a work in progress. But heck, it’s out there. The dashboard tells me people are taking a look at it, they’re talking of what works and what doesn’t. I’m listening. In hindsight, I ought to have launched at least six months ago

It is one thing to build and create entities under the blanket of warmth that a monthly pay cheque provides. From Jaggi to Tony and Jojo to Raghav, they ensured the warmth never dissipated. But it is another thing altogether when that blanket is taken away. The cold that accompanies bites the bone. But as K.V. Kamath, non-executive chairman at ICICI Bank Ltd and former chairman of Infosys Ltd, told Indrajit and me on one of our visits to seek his advice: “Be brutal. Reimagine, rethink, slash costs, and unlearn everything. Start from scratch."

That this is painful advice was made obvious when it translated into my giving up the perks I had got used to—lazy Sunday brunches at my favourite hotel or a driver to ferry me around. From the confines of a climate-controlled cabin, I now operate out of a one-bedroom apartment with sparse furniture and a beaten-down air conditioner.

Like I said earlier, arrogance accompanies success. But Kamath advised, “start from scratch". So it was with trepidation that I approached R. Sukumar (Suku), who edits this newspaper, to ask if he would allow me to write and eventually give the entity I had in mind real estate in this newspaper. I fell off my chair when he generously agreed to both. I’ve been writing on these pages since November last year and the first set of pages I had in mind appeared on Tuesday.

Much like knocking on Suku’s doors and in trying to reimagine and relearn, Indrajit and I knocked on some more doors. We had nothing to offer, only promises and a purpose. There was no tangible reason why their doors ought to have opened up. But veterans like Analjit Singh, Harsh Mariwala, Arun Maira, D. Shivakumar, Uday Shankar, Kiran Karnik, Sanjeev Bikhchandani and Rama Bijapurkar not only opened their doors, but also suggested we create a formal advisory council to advise and mentor us. Between Suku and these stalwarts, all of this wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t kept our egos aside and simply asked them.

Like I said earlier, we had nothing but purpose. What else explains why C.S. Swaminathan (Swami), comfortably perched as president of Tutor Vista, decided to chuck it up and join in as a co-founder? Nothing else explains either why Achyut Nayak, a software engineer who builds banking software for Fortune 500 companies, thought it worth his while to build ground up the technology backbone for a scraggly bunch of wannabe entrepreneurs with no funding to back them.

In all of my earlier avatars, I sacrificed time with my wife and older daughter to change the world. This time around, though, I told myself that no matter what, I’ll learn how to wash my younger daughter’s bottom after she’s pooped, sing rhymes and listen to Hakuna Matata from The Lion King with her as many times as she wants to.

As my brother keeps telling me, what else does a child need other than your time? It now gives me perverse pleasure to report to my wife that the younger one is more comfortable having me around to care for her. I suspect that is also why, when I started dipping into our savings to carve out my start-up, as much as the missus was upset, she kept her disappointment to herself and let me do my own number.

I always thought being “always on" was a good thing. Until I was told I’d be more productive if I went offline for a few hours everyday, to be with myself, to reflect, to align, to question and to rest. Having tried it out, I know the rule is worth following with the precision of a metronome. It isn’t possible to set aside a Sabbath Day as the Jewish texts command. But it is possible to go on a sabbatical for a few hours. A contemporary way to articulate it is work-life balance.

This is not to suggest my start-up has arrived, but to share a few lessons learnt on the road in setting one up. Even if it blows up, I can die aware it is better to die having tried than not having tried something at all.

Charles Assisi is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel Publishing ( and tweets on @c_assisi

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Updated: 20 Mar 2015, 01:16 AM IST
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