Home / Specials / Enterprise /  Winning the great Indian start-up challenge

Starting your own company can be a daunting task, especially in a country like India which is not known to be very business-friendly. We profile four serial entrepreneurs who have overcome the challenges to set up multiple successful companies.

Vocational training to autorickshaw rides

Entrepreneur: Solomon Prakash

Founded: Maya (a non-profit organization)—1989

Prajayatna (non-profit organization)—2000

Maya Organic—2010

LabourNet India Pvt. Ltd—2005

India Drivers Network Services Pvt. Ltd (mGaadi)—2013

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“I worked for a large PCB (printed circuit board) company that was dumping ferric chloride (a banned substance) into the soil around the workers’ quarters. I could see deformities and increase in mortality rates around the area. I couldn’t turn a blind eye to these happenings and it made me rethink what I was doing with my life," said Prakash, recalling his life in the late 1980s.

Prakash said he wanted to build products without adversely affecting people’s lives. After a lot of travelling across Europe, he came back to India and founded Maya, a non-profit organization, in 1989. It helps homeless children gain specific skills.

In early 2000, a bunch of visionaries felt the need to educate children, which pushed Prakash along with others, to start Prajayatna, another non-profit organization that focused on how to make the school environment more conducive to education.

Prakash, who received the Ashoka fellowship, an honour given to social entrepreneurs who come up with innovative solutions to social problems, worked alongside Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi to introduce reforms in over 25,000 schools in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

Prakash also helped establish Maya Organic, an organization that helps rural artisans design and market their handicrafts, and LabourNet.com, which helped provide vocational training to construction workers and other daily wage labourers.

He also dreamt of creating some sort of order in the unorganized sector of autorickshaws in India. He met Vishy Kuruganti and founded mGaadi.com, under the name of India Drivers Network Services Pvt. Ltd.

The Bangalore-based start-up helps passengers hire autorickshaws from their doorstep. This year, it won the mBillionth award for innovations in the m-travel and tourism category. The service covers almost 1,000 rides per day and has about 5,000 autos registered on the network.

Biggest learning: “No matter how many ventures you start, the pain of starting something and making that something work does not change. Also, you can never build any awesome organization as a one-man team," said Prakash.

Social network to discount coupons

ENTREPRENEUR: Sameer Parwani

FOUNDED: RateDesi.com—2003

Tysam Networks Llc—2006

CouponDunia Media Pvt. Ltd—2010

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Sameer Parwani.

In 2003, during his second year of undergraduate studies at Cornell University, Sameer Parwani created something similar to Facemash (name of Facebook at its inception) for South-East Asians, where people could rate pictures. Called RateDesi.com, it had almost 25 million page views.

Facebook became popular after that, and RateDesi.com could not compete with the growing popularity of the social media giant. Parwani finally shut operations of the website in 2012.

In the meantime, he joined hands with a Japanese entrepreneur to start Tysam Networks Llc, a social networking website in Japan, in 2006. Tysam merged with EQAL Inc., an American entertainment company, in 2008, after which it was acquired by Everyday Health Inc., a health and media organization, in 2012. “I was looking for business opportunities across the world. I wanted a large market, where we could be market leaders without too much competition," said Parwani, explaining why he chose India.

In 2010, e-commerce was becoming a big market in India with websites such as Flipkart.com and Myntra.com (acquired by Flipkart in May 2014) making their presence felt in the space. Their business models were about discounts and clearance sales, but Parwani realized that Indian shoppers wanted more. “I loved the coupon sites in the US, and wondered why India did not have the same. It was an elegant business model—provide discount coupons all through the year, and take a small cut out of it," he said.

This inspired him to set up CouponDunia Media Pvt. Ltd, a Mumbai-based start-up that offers discount coupons for popular e-commerce websites and sees more than 150,000 visits per day.

Biggest learning: “You have to be willing to make changes to (the business model and) what you think is right. My first two start-ups didn’t go as well as I wanted because of this. Also, I should have given up faster," said Parwani

Hardware mechanics to online tutoring

ENTREPRENEUR: Ganesh Krishnan

FOUNDED: IT&T Ltd—1990

Customer Asset.com Pvt. Ltd—2000

Marketics Technologies India Pvt. Ltd—2004

TutorVista Global Pvt. Ltd—2005


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Ganesh Krishnan.

For a person who calls himself an “accidental entrepreneur", 56-year-old Ganesh Krishnan has done very well. On average, he has earned close to $300 million when exiting the companies he has founded over the years.

His first exposure to a start-up-like environment came when he joined HCL Technologies Ltd in the late 1980s, working alongside founder Shiv Nadar, after his postgraduate diploma in management from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta. “I loved the fact that I could take any decision without having to go through layers of control and processes. There were not many in place to begin with, it was like a start-up, and I enjoyed it," said Krishnan.

He went on to set up one of the earliest IT hardware servicing companies in India in 1990. It was called IT&T Ltd, and was acquired by services organization IGATE Global Solutions Ltd for approximately $4 million in 2003.

This was just the beginning of his luck. His wife, Meena Ganesh, joined him during his second venture—CustomerAsset.com—that provided business process outsourcing services to big organizations like Marks and Spencer and Wal-mart. It was acquired by ICICI Bank Ltd in 2003.

His third business, Marketics Technologies, was a data analytics outsourcing unit that was founded in January 2004. Krishnan sold it to WNS Global in 2007 for about $30 million.

His most recent success, TutorVista, was one of the biggest Indian exits seen in the ecosystem. Pearson Plc bought the eight-year-old online tutoring platform for over $127 million.

Krishnan currently runs an entrepreneurial platform, growthstory.in, along with his wife, for online and e-commerce start-ups in India. He has five start-ups in his portfolio including Supermarket Grocery Supplies Pvt. Ltd (bigbasket.com), an e-commerce platform for grocery; Portea Medical Pvt. Ltd, a medical services website; Avagmah Pvt. Ltd, an online education platform; BlueStone 3D Labz Pvt. Ltd, an e-commerce platform for jewellery; and Bill Interiors Pvt. Ltd (HomeLane), an interior design company based in Bangalore.

Biggest learning: “I learnt that successful entrepreneurs need to be nimble and keep re-inventing their models. Also, it is possible to build great businesses without VC (venture capital) money," said Krishnan.

Online listings to music groups

ENTREPRENEUR: Bal Krishn Birla

FOUNDED: Four Interactive Pvt. Ltd (Asklaila.com)—2006

Potluck Restaurants—2006

ZN Retail Pvt. Ltd—2011

Bhoole Bisre Geet—2010


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Bal Krishn Birla.

After graduating from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur in 1995, Bal Krishn Birla worked at large software organizations like Amazon.com Inc. and Infosys Ltd for over two years.

“When I was building products for these big companies, I did not see any of my work having any effect on society as we knew it. That was when I started thinking of starting up," said Birla who founded listings website, asklaila.com, in 2006 along with two co-founders.

After a short stint at AskLaila, Birla moved on to start a chain of vegetarian restaurants in Bangalore under the name Potluck Restaurants in 2006. He ran the chain for over five years, before shutting shop.

In 2010, he founded Bhoole Bisre Geet (BBG), a community music group, as a part-time venture. The BBG group has over 320,000 people who organize non-commercial shows for social causes in Bangalore and Mumbai.

“I knew that food and grocery shopping online was the next frontier," added Birla, who founded the online grocery shopping platform ZopNow in 2011.

He left the company in August 2013 to establish AdalBdal.com.

“Before BBG, the work we did was not connected to the society we lived in," added Birla.

His current venture AdalBdal.com, an online barter company, helps people donate things they don’t want to those who need them. Non-governmental organizations collect the items.

It is not even 18 months since Birla started AdalBdal.com that he is already chalking out his next venture, Songpedia, where he, along with many music-loving housewives, will build dedicated pages for their favourite songs in different regional languages. He also currently serves as the chief technology officer of AskLaila.com, which he rejoined in February 2014.

Biggest learning: “In a corporate job, you are used to building teams by interviewing people. With BBG, I learnt that I needed to interact with people and value them for who they are," said Birla.

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