Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after the other. - Walter Elliot
Any kid starting college wants new shoes. Rahul Narvekar, ex-CEO of NDTV Ethnic Retail Limited’s Indian Roots, was the same. But coming from a Mumbai chawl in a family struggling to make ends meet made affording the new pair of shoes another question altogether. So the aspiring entrepreneur found a solution to his pain point – he recycled his friend’s brother’s old pair of shoes that had been thrown away. Of course, the fixed shoes were a constant source of worry for Rahul who would feel conscious in a local train if people were looking at them and judging him. He was even ashamed of going out on a date on their account.
It was around this time that a story made the media rounds – of Ratan Tata’s uber-expensive pair of shoes being stolen at a funeral. After some digging around, Rahul found out that the shoes costing thousands were from an Italian fashion house named Bally. And, in true dreamer style, he vowed that the day he became successful he would own a pair of Ballys just like Tata.
Little did he know, that from wearing recycled shoes, he would eventually go on to buying two pairs of Bally shoes, sell a shawl worth $28,290 (INR 19 lakhs), build a company worth $85 Mn and a niche community for entrepreneurs and investors so that somewhere some other dreamer could fulfil his dreams too.
What he did not know was that he would have to put in time as a ward boy, sell watermelons and crackers and struggle with money for the longest time. And ironically, be kicked out of business college with the label of ‘least likely to be an entrepreneur. So how did a boy from a Mumbai chawl go about launching a cable advertising company, a music channel, dabble in real estate and build ecommerce portals – dreams which became reality when he read Harold Robbins novels at the local scrap dealer.
So how did a boy from a Mumbai chawl go about launching a cable advertising company, a music channel, dabble in real estate and build ecommerce portals.
Entrepreneurship Was In His DNA
It seems that the seeds of being a fighter/entrepreneur were planted early on in Rahul’s life. Born as a premature baby with low immunity, his chances of survival were slim. In fact, the doctor even nicknamed him pehelwaan (wrestler) for his survival spirit.
Rahul’s father had been brought up in an orphanage and worked at Oriental Rubber Tubes — the largest tyre factory in Asia at that time. One thing from his childhood that Rahul remembers fondly is that his dad would involve other people in the chawl for threading tyres, an extra source of income both for the family and the families who helped them. He says, “His act, to provide employment to others, was an early entrepreneurial influence on me. It not only influenced me but as a result we were respected as a family.”
There were other such instances too.
His family was second in the chawl to get a B&W TV set. While the first family used to charge people to watch TV, some 50 paise to sit on the ground and one rupee to sit on the sofa, Rahul’s family shared their experience with others for free. Hence, Rahul’s views on making a difference were shaped by these simple acts of his unassuming dad.
There’s another incident which he recollects. “The main door of our house had deteriorated over the years and our house looked shabby compared to other houses. When I told my dad, it bothered me, being short on cash, he simply replaced it with the inner door. That incident was a mind shift for me. That second door had been there for ages and yet we had never thought to replace the main door with it to solve our problems. As a result of that incident, till date, to fix any problem, before looking for solutions outside, I take a look internally to see if we can fix it in any other way.”
Though the family was able to make do comfortably in the early years of his childhood, it all changed the day the factory was locked out. As a result, the next ten-twelve years of their lives were consumed with the ongoing lawsuit and daily survival challenges. His dad took small jobs to support the family, mom took to sewing, but as the factory never reopened, their savings ebbed away.
Even as a kid, Rahul was clear that if he is not paying for something, he would not consume it. That meant having to forego watching movies on a VCR as he could not afford the two rupees per family which went towards renting it. Despite people inviting him to watch for free, he stuck to his guns and stayed back home and, in the process, took to reading voraciously. Starting from a Marathi bible at their home, to newspapers, to comics, magazines, novels from the local scrap dealer, Rahul devoured whatever he could lay hands on, which further shaped his thoughts, improved his English way beyond his contemporaries at school, and upped his presentation skills. As he could not afford to buy these books and had to stand and read at the scrap dealer’s, his reading speed and grasping power went up, turning him into that diligent student who would have read up his syllabus books in advance!
Even when I joined the entrepreneurship programme in college, professors would ask me why you are in this programme. You don’t have any funding or backing to build a business.
Additionally, reading also led him to discover Harold Robbins novels at an early age. Says Rahul, “Harold Robbins’ novels inspired me a lot. His bio on the front page would read he was a millionaire by the age of 21, went bankrupt and then built himself up again. It was all larger-than-life with yachts, private jet and what not. I could visualise myself living that lifestyle. They were an early influence on me to become an entrepreneur, coupled with the business magazines I used to read.”
If Harold Robbins’ fiction was one influence, Dhirubhai Ambani’s real life story was another. Says Rahul, “When we were growing up, Dhirubhai’s success story was getting built. Till then you had only heard of Tatas and Birlas. So it was assumed if you were not born in wealth, you could not be an entrepreneur. Even when I joined the entrepreneurship programme in college, professors would ask me why you are in this programme. You don’t have any funding or backing to build a business.”
But somewhere the entrepreneurial mind-set was ingrained firmly in Rahul’s DNA. He adds, “Even my grandfather was an entrepreneur. He ran away from Punjab, landed in Hyderabad, started working as a labourer in a cement factory and within one year was working as a contractor handling all the workforce. Once he fell from a construction site and broke his leg but he was still running his business empire on crutches! Maybe it’s his influence, but I have always wanted something of my own.”
But the road to these dreams was hardly an easy one. While reading provided him an escape from his real life, it was real life and its grind that provided him the fuel to turn these dreams into reality.
Least Likely To Be An Entrepreneur? I Don’t Think So
When Rahul entered college, he had to pick up a lot of odd jobs to earn pocket money. Selling watermelons on the street, working in a chocolate factory, selling crackers during Diwali, were some of the jobs he undertook. For a brief period, he also worked as a ward boy in Dhanwantri hospital in Mulund, where his duties included wiping floors and taking out the trash. As the least common denominator in that setup, he despised the job that lasted just a few days. This created a huge furore at home as his mom had pulled favours to get the job, but he told her, “I will make money some way or the other but I can’t do this job.’
What followed next was a job as a salesman on cycle to distribute items to shops. He would look at the senior sales reps, in their suits and ties, sitting in the comfort of the AC and working and wonder if he too could join their ranks. And it turns out, he realised he could as his English was much better than them even though he was still in Standard 11 while they were Post Graduates (PGs).
He managed to secure a position as a sales executive for a discount card company. As with any green salesman, he was overcome with stage fright but he soon learnt that in the worst case scenario, he would just be turned out. So he slowly learnt to pitch, sell, and take rejection in its stride, developing a thick skin and a resilient attitude. These same skills would come in handy when he struck out on his own much later in another city!
While working, Rahul also joined K.J.Somaiya College for a diploma in Marketing Management. Again, he was treading unchartered waters, as he was the only Standard 12 kid in a programme with PGs. But that exposure too honed his personality. Unfortunately, he could not manage the steep fees in time and so had to shift to KC College.
It was then that he saw an ad for a full-time business entrepreneurship from the Burhani Institute of Business Entrepreneurship, run by the Dawoodi Bohra community. Though he was given a scholarship for the programme, to support the compulsory stay he started working with TSN – teleshopping network — as a customer care officer in the evening shift.
It was here that he met his third-biggest influence to be an entrepreneur: Ronnie Screwvala.
Watching new age entrepreneur Ronnie in action at TSN and then coming back to study the age old dictates of the mandated course, led to many questions in his mind. Ronnie was setting up many businesses at the time and Rahul was enamoured of the fact that he was doing this despite not coming from a very well-off background or having old money to propel him. He would ask people not to call him sir in office, did away with hierarchy and class barriers, chatted with his employees as equals, used to cycle to work, wear shorts. Ronnie was the epitome of the cool new entrepreneur to Rahul.
These discrepancies in the practical side of entrepreneurship to the out-dated textbook version caused Rahul to question the relevance of the course, and hence he was labelled as a troublemaker and expelled from the course with the label of least likely to be an entrepreneur. However, the key takeaway from the course and community for Rahul was that one need not have a fancy business, what matters is it should be one’s own.
It was at TSN that Rahul discovered cable as a medium to increase viewership. He sensed that there were no corporate ads which were being run on the local cable channel which had enough viewership it leverage it fruitfully. So he quit his day job to set up his first venture – a cable advertising company called Yash Advertising. What followed next was another unique venture with five of his friends – a music channel called Channel Oxygen in 1999. The venture sprung from the ingenuity of one of his friends, who had developed an interactive jukebox, which the founders realised could be pitched to cable operators given the extensive data they had gathered around them on account of their advertising company.
Channel Oxygen was Asia’s first interactive music channel but selling advertising on it initially was a bit of a challenge. Though the founders managed to scale operations, it could not sustain and eventually shut down given the fact that the cable industry at that time was run more like a mafia network. And Rahul’s tryst with entrepreneurship now took him to Delhi – another unchartered territory for him post his marriage with Pallavi Rao.
The Good,The Bad And The Ugly
Just like other chapters, the Delhi chapter in his life too started with a bang!
While he had an offer with an agency the day he landed, on the day of his marriage he got to know that he’d been sacked
When Rahul moved to Delhi to tie the knot with his wife Pallavi, he also moved into a new ecosystem as far as business was concerned. While he had an offer with an agency the day he landed, on the day of his marriage he got to know that he’d been sacked. The couple had to cancel their honeymoon plans as well and Rahul focussed on getting another job. By a twist of fate, he secured a job as a project head of District Centre, Janakpuri in Delhi being built by the Ansal Group in collaboration with DDA though he had gone looking for the position of PVR’s head of marketing.
Rahul, who had never worked in real estate before, learned the job on the go, which involved making the centre hip enough to attract retailers. At that time, Pallavi secured a job as an RJ (radio jockey) with Radio Mirchi, an upcoming station. Working under Pranav Ansal, Rahul was successful in selling exclusive air rights to Mirchi for the Ansal Plaza, which catapulted him to the post of Vice President. Non-traditional revenue became his department and he concluded many deals in this space, such as selling branding rights to Georgia Coffee in the 36 buildings the group owned in Connaught Place.
Meanwhile, Pallavi rose to popularity, becoming one of the topmost RJs. They became parents around that time with the birth of their son, Rian and life was good. But soon after that, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, Mysthania Gravis. The surgery for the same affected her vocal chords, causing her to lose her voice temporarily. And, Rahul quit his job to be with his wife.
A short stint with Gold Souk followed but cultural differences led him to quit that job too. Adversity had found its way again to Rahul who remembers, “Suddenly, 99% of the people in my life vanished. No one would invite us. People started looking through us. We were no more the Page 3 couple. Ironically, that’s the time you need more support. But people who I had helped turned away from us.”
But Rahul, who was used to the grind of life, ploughed on. After two and a half years, Pallavi made a miraculous comeback thanks to Yoga and Radio Mirchi decided to play it up big. Notes Rahul, “Incidentally, the biggest hoarding announcing her comeback was put up in Ansal Plaza.”
Fashion and Rahul: The First Foray In Ecommerce
Meanwhile, Rahul had moved to strategising with DLF. From thereon, he collaborated with Pearl Uppal to found his first ecommerce venture Fashionandyou.com – a private shopping site for luxury brands and designer apparel in 2009. The initial days were a struggle in their own way as he toiled day and night to get brands on board. He says, “When you are DLF somebody, you are somebody. When I quit DLF to start Fashionandyou, people thought I had been fired. Hence I was selling clothes on the Internet from home!”
Initially, he met with a lot of scepticism. When he went to meet various brand heads, they would make him wait for hours. But having been used to rejection in his earlier trysts with sales, he would patiently wait with a book in hand till the meeting materialised! Shuffling between warehouses and meetings in Badarpur, Delhi Gurgaon and Noida, Rahul would spend most of the day on the road. But all his efforts paid off with the launch of the site on 15 January, 2010.
“We went live with flash sales of DKNY bags and were sold out in four hours. In January, we clocked sales of $11,175 (INR 7.5 lakhs) in January, moving up to $178,769 (INR 1.2 Cr) in April. In October 2010, Sequoia came in and invested $8 Mn and the world changed.”
While Rahul tasted success with Fashionandyou, he moved to Privatesales.com on account of things turning sour with the Smile Group, when he found out that the company was allotting fresh shares against his interest. Also, with the relapse of Pallavi’s Mysthania, challenges remained on the personal front as well.
It was around then that NDTV was looking for someone to help them understand the ecommerce space. Rahul came in as a consultant first and devised their strategy of not taking on Myntra or Jabong but focussing on a niche area — the Indian diaspora. Thus, IndianRoots was born in 2013 – an ecommerce portal to sell ethnic and designer wear all over the world.
From the initial days, the venture grew to generate good buzz, showcasing over 100 designers and 700+ brands on its curated online marketplace, with India and US becoming its largest markets. It even managed to sell a shawl worth INR 19 lakhs, and has managed to maintain a strong hold in the Indian ethnic wear category with an “Average Order Value” of $431 (INR 29,000). Says Rahul, “Within two years, we moved from doing sales worth $223,413 (INR1.5 Cr) per month to $1.3 Mn (INR 9 Cr).”
It is interesting to note that with last year’s Series B round of $5 Mn valuing the company at $85 Mn, Rahul’s journey as an entrepreneur has brought him a long way from his humble roots. But it is his next step that is taking him back to those very roots to pave the way for more Rahuls.
Small Milaate Jaao, Large Banate Jaao – The Next Chapter
Ever since he started IndianRoots, Rahul has been travelling and meeting startups the length and breadth of the country. He noticed that many of them struggle to get access to the right kind of resources to flourish. While he started mentoring a few of them, he realised that much more needs to be done to help these small startups script their success stories. For one such startup, a relevant contact suggested by Rahul helped them in not only tweaking the whole idea completely, but also led to them raising their first round. He says, “The smallest of things can sometimes transform someone’s entire life.”
Rahul, who himself feels blessed to have friends who helped him out immensely during his struggle in his initial days, hit upon the idea of forming a niche community for startup CEOs to enable them to help more entrepreneurs in the ecosystem. However, he quickly realised that beyond the metros, it’s the tier 2 and tier 3 cities, which needed more mentoring and transformation.
The India Network wants to be a community to connect startups with relevant mentors, transform them through technology. The network also aims to ultimately evolve as one of the largest distribution networks and is also building a crowdfunding platform.
Says Rahul, “The idea is to enable knowledge-sharing, making startups meet mentors who can impact them productively, bring like-minded people as co-founders, and use technology to figure out patterns and bring about transformation at ground level.”
The India Network will not operate on a NGO model but will be a membership-based club to act as a filter against the irrelevant. Rahul himself will filter people and use the power of technology to connect mentors with mentees. He also intends to help startups get access to angels and venture funding, which could be yet another revenue spinner for the network. According to Rahul, some mobile brands are already ready to partner with him on the project. Similarly, many founders such as Ritesh Malik of Innov8, Pranay Chulet of Quikr have come forward to join as mentors.
“There are multiple revenue spinoffs but that’s what not what I am building it for. I am building this community to use economies of scale. It could follow many models but the primary concern is impacting lives,” he says.
For Rahul, the India Network is a way for him to do his bit towards transforming the lives of millions of startup dreamers like him in small towns. They might not have that unbreakable fighting spirit which this boy from a Mumbai chawl has but they could achieve a lot more if they partook of even a little of his unshakeable faith and unbeatable enthusiasm for life. Though Pallavi’s illness is a major challenge in his journey, Rahul’s faith in life being favourable to him even in the face of adversity remains unshaken. He aptly concludes, “I have no complaints. There are challenges in my life but it is what it is. I think by far, I have led a very interesting life.”
We cannot deny that his journey has been a rollercoaster ride. And after meeting this fighter pehelwaan, we are one hundred percent sure that another interesting chapter in his remarkable, Bollywood-movie style life has just begun with The India Network.