Part One: Manipal
A year ago, I recollect the incident that started this madness. In the second year of college, we’d started a services company that made t-shirts, websites and products for people. By the end of the third year, we were doing over INR 30 lakhs in revenue and it was getting incredibly boring. Kartik (our CTO) and me were talking about how we were clocking in just 3 hours of sleep a night and we needed to slow down.
“We’re making quite a bit of money for being students dude” mused Kartik
“Yeah, let’s do something even more challenging. Let’s do something big.”
“What problem hasn’t been solved yet?” asked Kartik
“Let’s do hiring man. Naukri’s is living on borrowed time anyways, let’s dethrone them”
And that was it. We shut Sizr down the very next day and began planning what Jobspire would look like a year into the future.
I immediately drafted a north star, a vision document. Something I’d show our own employees to inspire them to work here. Here it is below, we still use it till today:
Kartik and I had been working since the first year of college. We were really good product devs, but that wasn’t enough – we needed to hire some more people. I remember there was an incredible rush because we were entering the fourth year of college. Everyone was looking for a “placement” and TCS was hiring en-masse. I needed to outsell the 100+ other companies appearing on campus to the people I thought I’d want to work with. I looked through my contact list and found Sandesh Kini – a quiet little boy who used to sit on my bench in the back of class. College had broken up for the mid-semester holidays and he lived back in Bahrain. I asked him if we could Skype.
“What’s up?” he said, in his usual nonchalant tone.
“Dude. Forget placements and come work with me. I have this startup idea and we think we can revolutionize how work happens across the country. It’s ambitious, but it could work”
“What? Don’t you want to ask your parents or take a while to think?”
“Nope. I’m in”
This is the fastest I’ve seen anyone commit to something that at that point was a career defining risk. We didn’t have the experience we have today, and Sandesh had absolutely no skills to contribute. Kartik and I used Ruby on Rails and a bunch of other technology. While Sandesh was a CS Engineer like us, he had no clue how Ruby worked.
“But I don’t know Ruby or how to do any of this”
“I’ll teach you”
“Sounds good” and he signed off
A year ago, most people in this situation would’ve said “I have X number of job offers, why should I choose you?” but till today I’m impressed by his decision. Sandesh has transformed into one of the best product developers I know – and we meet product developers on a daily basis.
“Okay so who’s going to sell” I asked the three of us.
“We’ll need someone to sell, but we’re in an engineering college” Sandesh quipped
I looked through my contact list and found Mohak Dhingra, another quiet kid who I’d worked with before at a student organization called AIESEC. He was my neighbor and we didn’t interact much.
I walked straight to his house and said:
“Dude come work with us. We’re going to startup.”
“Huh? What’s a startup? I already have a job offer from Mu-Sigma dude. Sorry”
Being the nice guy that he is, he apologized and shut the door. Being the not so nice guy that I am, I rang the bell again.
“Dude, think about it. It’s a risk but it’ll be fun. A few years later when someone writes a book about this do you want to be the guy who rejected something as awesome as this?”
“I don’t want to put my career on the line. Mu Sigma is a safe bet”
“Don’t delude yourself. There’s no such thing as safe.”
After almost 2 hours of attempting to convince him, he cracked.
“Okay, speak to my dad”
After a quick Skype session with Mohak’s father, he was sold.
“This is the best time to take a risk” said his father.
Mohak agreed, but he still wanted to keep his Mu-Sigma offer on hand. I said he could, but under the condition that he doesn’t tell the rest of the team about it.
To me, it meant our team was complete. We had everything we needed to be self sufficient and Kartik and I began working on a prototype for the product. With our old projects, we were such a good team that one person would choose to do the design and front-end while the other person would do the backend. Kartik chose backend, so I positioned myself on the design front. We needed someone to do testing, so I spent 8 hours everyday for almost a week teaching Sandesh how to write tests. Truth be told, he learned much faster than me and put in a degree of effort, I once thought impossible.
We slogged away for 3 months. While Mohak was contacting every HR he could find asking them about their problems, Sandesh wrote the tests, Kartik and I wrote the code. We noticed we weren’t sleeping too much. We had to attend college from 8am – 5pm and then we’d work from 7pm – 4am. I didn’t even know when we slept or ate. It was pure Adrenalin.
It took it’s toll. Nobody, not even I, could handle the physical and mental stress. Being always on and then sleeping 3 hours a day. Writing Jobspire code when I had exams the next day, I started to crack. I was starting to feel uneasy, random spells of shortness of breath and a general sense of gloom. So I went to see a doctor.
“You have a blood pressure of 160/100, your resting pulse is 100 and your serum cortisol(stress hormone) is 36 μg/dL” said the doctor
“How do I fix it?”
“Go to Goa”
Stupid advice, I thought to myself. I don’t need a vacation.
I’ve never been more wrong in my life.
It’s incredibly hard to describe a panic attack. That evening, I felt strange and puked out the pieces of bread I ate. I suddenly felt very confused about where I was and what I was doing. My hands and feet were trembling and my breathing was fast. Now I’m not an idiot, and I know what hyperventilation can do to you. My hands and feet lost so much sensitivity, I wasn’t able to clench my fists. My entire left side was hurting like hell. I thought I was having a heart attack and the ceiling was blurring fast. Sandesh, Kartik and my flatmate, Tejus, rushed me to the hospital.
The heart monitor claimed my heart rate was 160 and rapidly increasing.
“So this is it?”
For some reason, I was least bothered about dying. I was a little disappointed I wasn’t able to finish what I started, but I was so dazed I just closed my eyes. The panic attack subsided in a few hours.
“What was that?” I asked the doctor.
“That’s what happens when you take things too seriously”
I woke up the next morning, still feeling completely out of whack. I don’t think I can ever function like this. I feared what I felt at that point was permanent. We were still in Manipal, so I took the first flight out of Mangalore home. I stayed at home for about a week. In a week, both my thought process and my mind returned to normal. It felt good so to be back.
I took the next flight back to Manipal and completed my exams. The team got together, this time with a new addition. It was Rushil, a new developer we’d hired. Sandesh had taken up the responsibility to train him; Sandesh was now a full-stack developer, all self learned. It was the best piece of news I’d heard in months. I’d also been reading a lot to prepare myself for the journey ahead. Sandesh was in the same class, so he started reading a lot as well. We used to get kicked out of class often for reading books about startups, psychology, marketing, meditation and everything else under the sun.
During this period, we went to an event in Bangalore where we had met Anshumani Ruddra, head of Tiny Mogul Games(Hike Messenger’s game studio) and one of our first mentors. It gave our team a little more exposure. I also made a bold move and hired Prajwal, a friend of mine from Bangalore to come on as a co-founder. It was another easy sell.
Part Two: Delhi
The 7th semester of college was over. Everyone had found jobs and we were still building our product. “Guys, college is a big timesuck. I don’t want to do the 8th semester. I think we should just drop out” I proposed.
Kartik agreed. Sandesh and Mohak looked at us with eyes of disbelief.
“You’re asking us to throw away what we’ve worked 3 and a half years for? You think our parents are going to be okay with that?”
“Yeah” I said. I knew Kartik was with me because we’d gained enough experience and confidence to know that college was a waste of time. There was a dearth of developers and we were minting money. 100$/hour was Sizr’s average billing rate.
“There’s got to be some other way out of this” said Rushil.
“Varun, game the system”
“How?” I asked
Let’s find an incubator or a company to work under. The 8th semester of college can either be done in college or as an internship under some other company. Technically, we were doing the most complicated internship ever, but we’d still need some company to take us under their wing.
My first instinct was to apply to Microsoft Accelerator. Microsoft’s got a good name, ‘let’s do this’ was the idea. A few weeks later we got a mail saying that while we got into the top 10% of all applicants, we neither had the product or the team to be considered.
“F*ck that, let’s look for others” I said, optimistically, even though we were running out of time. As the CEO of the company, it was my job to sound optimistic all the time, even if I didn’t feel optimistic at all.
We looked around and found a few good ones. Mohak came to us and told us that there was this great incubator in Delhi that one of his friends had worked at. It was called Startup Tunnel.
I applied and had an interview with Startup Tunnel’s director, Aditya Dev Sood, the same day. The interview went fairly well and they sent us an offer letter in the evening. We made it clear to them that this was an internship for us and freed up a lot of time instead of spending hours a day at college. While we could’ve done all of this in college, we had to spend 4 hours a day compulsorily in college without internet. I knew how to hack into the college internet and give me unlimited access, but we’d all be in different classes and it would be hard to co-ordinate.
“Delhi it is, guys.”
While Rushil and Mohak were from Delhi and super happy about the decision, Sandesh was neutral and Kartik was visibly upset.
“Why Delhi dude? It’s going to be 5 degrees Celsius and we don’t have any friends there”
My only, well thought, logical reply to Kartik’s question was also a short one:
Prajwal couldn’t make it to Delhi (his college wasn’t letting him leave), so I had to tell him that he couldn’t be a part of this anymore. I gulped before the call and felt like I let him down. I could let the emotion of letting someone go (especially a long time friend) affect me, but I had to stay focused, atleast for the rest of the team.
So off we went to Delhi. We logged into Housing.com and failed to find a house. They were either already booked or the pictures/cost were mis-represented. We ended up wasting a week, then taking a small 3 bhk in an apartment called Maple heights in Sushant Lok, Gurgaon. We were paying 25k in rent total and the four of us – Rushil, Kartik, Sandesh and me were to live together while Mohak was to live with his parents in Delhi and come to work at 8am everyday. The entire week we wasted and was demoralizing, then I realised the importance of taking quick decisions, as time was a crucial factor in what we were about to do.
We didn’t even have a fucking heater.
It was 2 degrees Celsius or something and we were freezing. Still writing code, but freezing. We spoke to a friend of ours, Akshat, and borrowed his father’s heater.
The way we worked for the next 3 months DEFINED shoestring. My back was giving out on be so we made a makeshift microwave standing desk. We used thermocol that we borrowed to make a video rig to explain the video resume part of our product. We really crunched. In March, we had a complete product that looked and felt awesome. We were stressed and tired (5 boys, 1 shitty 3bhk with no resources), but the product was finally done. We decided not to do any PR or marketing.
“Let’s just tell people” I said.
Mohak brought on our first few companies while the rest of randomly spoke to people on LinkedIn asking them to use Jobspire. It was amazing to see a few people using the platform. We had 70 signups that month. Today we have nearly 70 signups a day – still spending nothing on marketing. Over 100 companies use Jobspire today.
To counter the stress from working so hard and sleeping so little, we played all sorts of indoor sports, from pictionary to a weird version of indoor badminton to just sitting and telling each other our fears and goals in life. We were becoming family.
As we grew, we met investors. We couldn’t keep burning the money we had made from Sizr, it was almost out. The first investor I met ran a famous media company. I had traveled nearly 4 hours to reach his place and I didn’t have any clue on how valuation economics worked.
“What valuation are you looking at?” he asked, slowly sipping a cup of tea
“I’m not sure” I said, thinking in the back of my mind that I’d have to go to Quora and check out what that meant.
“I don’t want to invest cash in you, atleast not entirely”
I was upset. We worked so hard and here’s an investor telling us he’s not going to invest cash. Early stage investors, atleast the bad ones, look for things like traction. Good investors on the other hand, look for passionate teams and the ability to actually shape and mold the future of the country and even the world.
After Anshumani(our mentor)’s advice, I read a lot about angel investing, deal metrics in India, etc. This was not before I embarrassed myself in front of several investors, including Zishaan, GrowX and a few others. We were preparing for another pitch event(in my experience, these are useless. No deal happens on stage), when Nikunj Jain and a few other investors happened to interview me on Skype. Nikunj absolutely loved the product.
“Yes, I’ll invest” he said.
His confidence helped us through a particularly rough patch we were having. The minute he said he would put in some cash, the team suddenly stood up and hit fifth gear again. We haven’t slowed down since that day.
Part Three: Bangalore
At this point, we took a call to move to Bangalore. Delhi’s weather was horrible and we realised that we’re still young and needed friends. Nobody in the team had gone out of the house for 4 months. Isolation can drive you insane and we realized that. We made the switch to a place where we had friends and where the weather was calmer. I wasn’t a believer in things like weather or environment affecting people – but here I was, wrong yet again.
It was at around this point where we met Ravi Srivastava from Purvi Capital. Initially, Ravi had committed 3 lakhs and wanted to take on a mentorship role, but we were really pushing the traction and we saw incredible growth spurts. Ravi was raising a fund at that point and he asked me if we’d like to be a part of his portfolio. I was an expert on deal metrics by then but I didn’t even ask what valuation.
I’d realized that angel deals are not about the % you dilute or the valuation of the company, it’s about the people you’d like to work with. We thought Ravi and Nikunj were awesome, driven people who thought like us so we said yes. We got a pretty good (multi-million) dollar valuation at the end of it all. Towards the end, a lot of investors saw us as a good deal and everybody wanted to jump in and put in cash. We were very very oversubscribed and had to make decisions on who to remove from the round! Even today, we get (on average) 2 investors who want to put in cash on the same terms as our existing termsheet.
A termsheet for 1.7 Crores came through and while the paperwork took some time, we finally managed to raise a round and make sure we have amazing people involved.
We’ve now hired 7 new people, ex-Amazon and Zomato employees, including people much older than us, bought a decent office space in Ulsoor that we’re re-doing by ourselves to reflect our culture back in the old days and will now be gearing up to hopefully be bigger than ever. We even re-hired some of the people who we had to let go (Welcome back Prajwal). The most impressive fact? We haven’t got our degrees yet!
Businesses can fail at any time. There are just too many variables, some out of your control and some in your control. For us, this was never about the business. It was about family, and sticking together – through sadness, failure and success.