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(From left) First Cheque CEO Kushal Bhagia mentors Go Swift founders Shyam Kalita, Prayas Mittal and Debanshu Sinha in Bengaluru, (Photo: Raj Sam/Mint)
(From left) First Cheque CEO Kushal Bhagia mentors Go Swift founders Shyam Kalita, Prayas Mittal and Debanshu Sinha in Bengaluru, (Photo: Raj Sam/Mint)

Turning their misses into others' hits

Founders who shut shop are mentoring a new generation of entrepreneurs to deal with the financial and mental stress of running a startup—and avoid the mistakes they made

When Bengaluru-based Naman Sarawagi, 32, established his first startup, FindYogi, in 2012, he wasn’t prepared for the emotional tumult that came with managing a team. “I struggled to build and keep a team for the first year," says Sarawagi. His co-founder left in the eighth month, followed by the tech lead soon after. He managed with one engineer and was able to sell his startup to a short news app in 2016.

“My mistakes with team and market have helped me give better advice to other founders," says Sarawagi, who currently advises eight startups on team building, product, and marketing, other than running a company himself.

The right mentor is a mix of a counsellor who encourages and emotionally helps the founder deal with tough decisions, and one who helps the founder focus on building a business.

People who have run their own startups in the past are ideal for this kind of mentorship, especially for young founders, says Dhruv Nath, professor at the Management Development Institute in Gurugram. “Most founders come with three-four years of experience in a limited area and they need help with how to run a business, focus their energies, create a realistic path, and, most importantly, manage others," says Nath, who is also an angel investor.

Need of a sounding board

In 2016, Holidify, a travel startup Sarawagi is currently mentoring, was on the brink of shutting down. “We had four lakh monthly visitors and no money in the bank to scale up our product," says co-founder Rohit Shroff, 30.

Encouraged by Sarawagi, Shroff and his co-founder let go of an acquisition offer, took up full-time jobs and turned their startup into a weekend gig, aiming to reboot. Two years later, Shroff was able to turn his company around. Today, Holidify has 20 employees, eight million monthly users and investors on board.

“Founding a startup is a lonely journey, and having a mentor helps you believe in yourself and overcome emotional and mental challenges," says Shroff.

The path to building a startup is filled with challenges at every step. Even running a successful startup is more about failure than success, says Lalana Zaveri, leadership development coach and facilitator. She founded print retail chain Printo with her husband Manish Sharma in 2005, growing it to 38 stores in six cities with 1,000 employees.

“Failing within an early-stage startup is not unusual. I have taken risks, made mistakes, faced losses, dealt with irate customers and employees, and can relate with many of the stresses that founders face," says Zaveri, adding that her experiences with dealing with challenges every day makes her empathize with what a new entrepreneur is going through.

Payal Shah, 37, a first-time founder with Kōbo Fermentary, a food fermenting company, uses her coach Zaveri as a sounding board to bounce off ideas and thoughts, and for help and insight when she’s stuck with work or personal issues. “I can get myopic and find it difficult to zoom out and see the bigger picture," says Shah.

When Shah was facing a logistical issue with a client recently, Zaveri helped her smooth the relationship without causing a rift.

Finding the right network

A former entrepreneur who is a mentor also helps a new founder connect to established networks. A mentor who has been a founder has a healthy network of funders, clients and advisers which a new mentee can tap into, believes Shyam Kalita, 27, co-founder and chief executive of Go Swift, a smart courier startup.

Earlier this year, Kalita was struggling to find funding for his company, even though he had a good plan, product and team. Frustration was high.

He turned to Kushal Bhagia, chief executive of FirstCheque, an angel investment company. Bhagia, who had failed at a startup years earlier, analysed their pitch and found the problem was the presentation and the kind of investors they were pitching to.

He helped Kalita connect with a funder for their first round of funding. “We closed our first investment round within three months of meeting Kushal," says Kalita, adding that his mentor’s network, which includes industry veterans, partners and even clients, has helped improve the health of his business.

The price of a mistake

Entrepreneurs who have run businesses earlier can guide you with personal experience so that you avoid the same mistakes, saving you time, money and frustration, believes Himanshu Nagrath, 26, co-founder of Indshine, a Gurugram-based startup that works on drone maps.

When Nagrath and his co-founder launched their company’s product in August, they hit a roadblock. After a month of marketing efforts, there were no takers.

“We had only two months of runway. To improve cash flow, we worked double shifts for seven days a week and laid off our employees," he says.

Desperate, they turned to their mentor, Bhagia, for product strategy. After a meeting with him, he realized they hadn’t taken enough user feedback. It turned out that the Indshine product was buggy, causing frustration to users. They stabilized the product and started to take user feedback.

Minu Singh, 38, co-founder for 4RE, a recycling startup, has a similar story. She started her startup journey a few months ago, and calls herself lucky for having a mentor in Piyush Upadhyay, an entrepreneur who has run three startups and currently heads the product incubation centre at T-Mobile Europe, a global telecom company. “He helps me plan my month, making sure I’m not taking up too many tasks and supports me," she says. At the initial stage of her startup, Singh believes a mentor needs to listen, understand issues and help her find solutions. “Talking to him clears my head and takes off the frustration," she says.

For Upadhyay, who advises Singh, failure is more important than success and an entrepreneur who has failed can be a better sounding board for a new founder. “You need to fail fast, identify and acknowledge issues and bottlenecks and pivot," says Upadhyay, adding that failure is a failure only when you don’t learn from it.

As first-time founders flounder through the initial upheaval of their business, an empathetic entrepreneur by their side can make all the difference.

“Things go wrong everyday. Customers don’t pay on time, investors pull out, plans don’t work out and you are constantly engulfed by self-doubt. It’s a lonely journey," says Bhagia. “If you’ve been a founder, it’s also easier to empathize and redirect founders to solve problems."

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