Cross Posting from Booknomics – Pothi.com’s Blog. Apologies to those who follow both!
Recently we were invited for an event called “Tete-a-Tete” at Symbiosis Institute of Business Management (SIBM) Bangalore, where entrepreneurs were supposed to share their story. Since it was an MBA institute, we decided to share my story. I am reproducing here an approximate transcript of the talk. Being a talk, it is written to be spoken and hence is not very reading-friendly. So, some patience may be required and grammar would definitely have gone haywire! But still…
A very good afternoon everyone.
Rahul (previous speaker) has already cracked the joke about everyone being sleepy in the afternoon after a good lunch. I think he has woken some of you up and made my task easier.
So, let me start by saying thanks on my as well as Abhaya’s behalf to the organizers for giving us the opportunity to be here. It always feels great to be back in a campus. Somehow, we can never grow out of our nostalgic feelings about student life – it seems.
Anyway. So, when I asked Bikash, who had called me up and asked me to come here, about the idea behind the session, he gave me a funky phrase – “From MNC to MNC” – From multinational company to “Meri nayi company”. Very catchy I must say. So, I will share with you all, my entreprenurial journey into this second MNC.
I will focus my talk on the experiences that led me in to entrepreneurship, rather than the part about running the company itself. I hope that it is of some value to the students here, who have to make some important decisions about their careers as they graduate from the institute. If you have questions about the entrepreneurial experiences themselves, I’d happy to share them afterwards during interaction with the audience.
As a background, just a little bit about our company. Pothi.com is a print on demand backed publishing platform. Individuals and organizations can use it to publish their books in print at little or no upfront investment. Our aim is to make publishing accessible to all. We intend to achieve this by breaking the informational, operational and financial barriers involved in publishing. What these are and how we address them is something I will skip here. But if anyone has queries, we’d be happy to address them later.
About ourselves, the founders of the company – starting from the conventional Undergraduate education, both me and Abhaya did our B. Tech. from IIT Kanpur in Computer Science. Abhaya then worked for Media Lab Asia and a start-up before going to the US for higher studies in Language Technologies. He came back after his MS to work full time on Pothi.com.
I did what, probably more people in a B-School will identify with. I went to IIM Lucknow immediately after my B. Tech. to do my MBA. 20 months after that, I opted out of placements, worked in a start-up in Bangalore as product manager, then moved to Google India – again in a product management role. After working for over a year at Google I left to work full time on Pothi.com.
So – why this switch from MNC to MNC? For that we have to go back a little more. I grew up in a typical Indian middle class situation, where your career choice gets dictated by a well defined decision tree. If you are serious about your career, then you choose to focus on Sciences. If you are good at Biology, you try to go for medicine. If you are good at Maths, then you try to go for engineering. If you are good at both and are disciplined enough to manage it in your +2, then you try your hands at both medicine and engineering and hope for the best. If you are a girl, then you give preference to studying Biology and go for medicine, except when you absolutely can not stand Biology as was the case with me. In which case you try to go for engineering.
Then, after the result of your entrance exams are out, your future again gets decided by a decision tree. If you are in top 200 in JEE, you will get computer science somewhere or the other, next is electronics/electrical, mecahnical and so on. You know what you should aim for and what you would get.
In this entire situation, somebody else has already decided what you should try to get. Its actually quite convenient, but nowhere, does anyone ask what is it that you want to get. In fact, it is such an ignored question that untill I got into IIT, I had never asked this question to myself – what is it that I want to get and if I have any clue at all about that, have I spent even slightest of my time and energy in getting that.
Fortunately, at some point of time during my undergraduate years, I started asking that question and there was one obvious realization and another scary one. The obvious realization was that I had not done much in that direction till then.
The second and the scary realization was that it was not easy to live with that question, nor was it easy to answer it. Once you decide to not live by the decision tree and try to find your own calling, you are leaving behind the world of well structured ambitions and are stepping into a world of endless confusions.
One, it is not at all easy to find out what you want in life.
Then, even if you have figured out or decided to believe that “X” is what you want to get in life – the journey towards that “X” will not be easy. Your past of decision trees will hound you, the expectations of your society and family will bow you down and your own skills or will power will fail you.
Despite all the scary things, this is a path you can not go back from. Because despite all the scary things, it is just a more satisfying path than the decision tree.
Before I start to sound like a Guru talking about abstract things, let me get back to my actual experiences.
So, during my undergraduate years, I considered several thing I could do to find my calling. The options considered included, at different points of time of course, going for Civil Services – to bring a change in the society, shifting to basic sciences from Computer Science – I even did a summer project at IISc Bangalore in a Chemistry laboratory, took a lot of Physics courses and seriously considered and then gave up on the idea of switching to Physics dept., briefly also thought about becoming a writer, actively participated in the business club and business plan competitions in the campus, thought about an MBA, about entrepreneurship, about traveling around the world somehow and others that I have forgotten now.
Honestly, at the end of four years, I was still not sorted out. Only thing I knew was that I did not want to do programming, which was the only thing I was trained in. I was inclined towards entrepreneurship, but did not have an idea to start on. So, MBA seemed like the best choice at that point of time. After all, if I am going to do business – it would be good to do a Masters in Business administration, right? Plus because I had been active in things beyond academics, had been in students’ senate and a bunch of hobby clubs, even led a protest against the administration – people told me I had leadership skills and MBA was the way for me to go.
Had a call from IIML, took it up and thought that I was sorted out for another 20 months at least and hopefully, I would have some answers at the end of this period.
But that wasn’t going to happen. In Business School, there was again a rigid decision tree you were supposed to follow. Even a finger you lifted was guided was whether or not it gives you a CV point. Anything you participate in had only one motive – a CV point. Even the career choice had the hierarchy and classes defined. Engineers and batch toppers do finance or strategy consulting. Next on the list is Sales and Marketing. Then follows IT and others…. The exact hierarchy is probably different from campus to campus and from time to time. But you get the idea, right?
So – a lot of energy went into fighting off the “expected behaviour”, saying “no” to things, which I did not want to do even if it added an excellent CV point, doing things I wanted to do – like attending classes – even if it did nothing to make my CV look glamorous and saying no to a finance career – despite being an engineer and the batch topper.
But the bigger question was “what to do about the career”! I had done some marketing courses even at IIT Kanpur. I liked them – so I thought marketing was the way to go. That was until I did the summer internship at a major soft drinks brand. And I could not help wondering why on earth would I want people to drink more cola! Apart from the philosophical questions, the realities of the nature of work a bright, young MBA will do there did not appeal to me. 3 terms and a summer internship later at the Business School – I was clueless again! Consulting seemed like one option I was still interested in. In fact, for quite sometime I seriously believed that I was cut out for that. But like I did not choose other things, consulting did not choose me. I was very, very disappointed. Although, in retrospect that was one of the best things to have happened to my career. I did not realize it then, but I am grateful that the recruiters realized – that I wasn’t cut out for consulting.
In the latter days of my second year at the B-school, life was coming to 3/4th of a circle, if not full. I had started realizing that I actually liked technology. I did not want to do programming, but I would love to be in a technology company, doing something involving both technology and business.
While I was struggling amidst all this confusion, Abhaya was working at a technological start-up in Bangalore and he told me that the founders were looking at hiring a product manager. I spoke with them and it sounded like the thing I would like to take up. So, I opted out of placements and took up the role at the start-up. Although, it did not continue for too long because their technical team was still too busy with R&D and was in no mood to push out a product – so a product manager had little use there, but it helped me identify the right role for me, if I have to be in a job. I had at least found a suitable job role for myself – that of a product manager, although a job role can not define the calling of you life.
After leaving the start-up, a lot of luck, interviews and twists and turns later, Google happened. The product management role suited me, it was a dream company and life was good for me.
But then one fine day I started wondering again about what was I doing with my life. I felt the need to do something more meaningful. I wasn’t thinking about a career switch or entrepreneurship. Since I write poetry, I thought why not publish a book. I started researching and soon realized that publishing is not at all easy. Just the task finding a publisher and convincing them that your book is good can be a full time job. I did not want to publish to become a best-seller or get a lot of fame. It was just an act of self-satisfaction. And my friends and family and my blog followers should be able to buy a copy if they want. That was all I wanted. So, I started looking at self publishing options in India. There weren’t many at least with the print on demand model, where you do not have to print 500 copies and store them. That’s when the long pending entrepreneurship dream found the right idea. Abhaya was in the US at that time, was excited about the changes in publishing industry that were happening there – and when I hinted at my idea, he immediately liked it. And that’s when the shift from MNC to MNC at the idea level started. Many important decisions were to be taken before we could actually start full time. Abhaya had been in the US for only a year; he had gone for a Ph. D. He had to work out with his guide to return in a year with an MS. He got lucky that he had an understanding guide – he did not withdraw the funding! I had to leave my dream company. As I said earlier, past hounds you, expectations of family and society bow your down, but thankfully will power prevailed!
We started up and we are going on. We are working in a nascent industry in India, but we are the market leaders there. Business is paying for itself and we are looking at growing further.
So, in conclusion all I want to say is that for me the entrepreneurship has come as a part of my search for my calling in life, my search for finding happiness in what I do. Is this the ultimate calling? Is this the ultimate happiness? I do not know. If there is one dream you want to fulfill, there are other dreams waiting in pipeline too. If there is one thing you want to achieve, there are other things – higher or nobler or more satisfying – to achieve as well. Probably I will do something else later in my life. But what is important is that I am happy doing what I am doing today. And without trying to be patronizing, I hope that as you make your career decisions, you also take that in to account.