I started a startup with the dream of changing the tech landscape in India, and failed. This post is an analysis of what led to the failure and how I plan to keep the dream alive.
Humble Beginnings: Our First Startup
I started coding like most of the students early on in my first semester in college. The passion to create came early on in my life too with Swapie — An online college classifieds website which went viral in the session 2011–12. It was meant to be the Craigslist for my college and it did the job pretty well. Within no time, products such as used books, engineering drawing equipments, workshop dresses, lab coats etc. swapped hands from the seniors to the newly admitted juniors. Earlier, juniors seemed to hesitate going into the senior hostels, but after the website’s launch, this divide seemed to go away a bit. We tried to replicate this model in other colleges but we lacked the resources to pull it off, due to pressure on time from our college commitments, we decided to not scale it up to a national level.
Swapie got rave reviews from peers and seniors and the bug to create something that generates satisfaction for users hit me hard. I went on to create a string of side projects after that with my friend Suraj, never bothering about money or how to build a business around the project. We only did it because we loved it. We loved creating things from scratch and shipping it out to potential users and seeing their reaction and reviews made all the efforts worthwhile.
After college, I joined a seed funded startup, Taskbob, in Mumbai as a Full stack developer to learn the basics of how full blown companies are made out of raw ideas. Suraj soon joined me in Powai. The pay was good, the teammates were awesome. We had a roof over our heads. We saved enough to play Futsal or drink beer in Hiranandani on weekends.
Soon, I saw big startups with enormous funding fail right in front of my eyes in the so called Powai valley of India. Housing, Tinyowl, the big ones, all went through shit-storm after shit-storm. The home services industry also had taken a jolt and our company too was showing signs of a collapse because of lack of funds.
One possible reason that connected them all in my honest opinion was the immense burning of cash to hire technology teams, even to get a minimum viable product(MVP) out in the market or hiring more people than was ever needed for a product that didn’t require an army to build it.
I was approached by numerous founders who had ideas to ‘change the world’ but had nothing to show. Each one of them had really interesting ideas though. I met them over coffee or beer and listened to them carefully. They wanted me as a CTO. Imagine a guy with just a year of experience leading a technology team! I found it scary too and advised them to get an MVP done first before going to the sharks. I was offering to freelance for them.
They didn’t want to hire freelancers.
I found, people really didn’t trust freelancers. They would let go of their ideas in puffs of smoke rather than hire a freelancer to do it. I kept on meeting them. I wanted to change this ideology. Meanwhile, I had resigned from Taskbob after a yearlong stint in a huge leap of faith and started travelling a lot in the initial months. I started freelancing.
A couple of projects here, a couple of projects there and I hustled through. Suraj soon joined me and we started freelancing together. He would be the front-end guy and I would be the backend guy. We built a few projects together and registered a partnership firm under the name HeapTree to carry out our journey together.
We moved to Bengaluru, the Silicon valley of India, the land where we thought we would be overwhelmed with projects in August of 2016.
So, What’s A Fucking Sales Pipeline?
At HeapTree, we wanted to create a company without offices. We wanted to go as lean as we could and save as much as we could. We were going to build MVPs for clients in small, high intensity slack teams made up of the best freelance developers and designers for different projects remotely. HeapTree would take care of the project submission process, selection process, contracts, payments, security and management of the project. We wanted to automate the entire process via bots and provide transparency over the project for both the client side as well as our freelance network. We would take a 20% cut for doing all this.
But, after the few initial projects we were just sitting ducks not knowing where the next project would come from and why person X or company Y still hasn’t paid us yet. Average time to get paid was well over 90 days (we are still waiting on payments from work completed over 6 months ago). We were both just software developers trying out our best in product management. None of us had a clue about building a sales pipeline though. We wanted to do this on our own too, like always. We tied up with a few tech consultancies in Kolkata, Bengaluru, and one in Kuwait. They would outsource their extra projects to us.
We stayed with our friends from college in a shitty 2-BHK in Deverabisanahalli. That was our office too. We worked 7 days a week, more than 12 hours a day. We were completely burned out. Most days we would just sit there without knowing if there would be a next project or not.
HeapTree: College Slack
Things weren’t going as we had hoped they would. We weren’t getting any big projects our way. Although, we built enterprise apps for TATA, Nestle, Lafarge and JSW through the outsourced works, we weren’t getting anything awesome to work on with our startup. We wanted to build MVPs that could scale and become bigger tech companies. We worked with a couple of IIM B incubated startups, but still something wasn’t clicking. We took up a co-working space, Cowrks in Bellandur itself to separate our office hours with hours we spent at home. We were just two people and I was the only one thinking about growing. Suraj gave all his energy into building and managing projects with the freelancers while I started venturing into growth hacks for our company.
Life lesson here — If you want to grow, be practical. Think about the next step. Don’t venture into ideas that are too far-fetched. I started to feel alone and a dearth of backend work made life more miserable.
This was the time I started exploring slack, bots and slack channels worldwide and would imagine a world 20 years from now. A world where bots ruled the human world. I wanted to build a tech consultancy for the future. I wanted every fucking person in the world to use slack. There was not a lot left in our bank accounts and we needed a miracle to achieve the dreams we had already dreamt.
I came up with an interesting but wild idea — HeapTree College Slacks. I had grown impatient. I wanted to create a pipeline of the best freelance app developers and designers in the country. I wanted to start with BIT Mesra and took up the domain http://www.bitmesra.club.
The Success Of The College Slack Experiment: Startup Success
On February 6, 2017 we launched the slack community in our college. It was an immediate success. We had seniors join in from different parts of the world, from different tech cultures and from a wide array of tech companies. Soon, juniors from 1st year to 4th started to join in. We hit 850 members, all here for a different purpose. Some wanted to know more about data science, some wanted tips on competitive coding, some wanted to know more about GRE and GMAT while some were just here to try out slack.
We couldn’t have guessed what the slack community would turn into. A freelance platform? An alumni network? An irc for college kids to showcase their ideas and freeform hacks? But, what we never imagined, the college slack turned into an Angel network. A Hackathon for a tech fest got funded in the public channels of the college slack. Students started showcasing their startup ideas and got instant feedback from seniors in the respective domains.
This is something which we would have loved in our college days. The college slack gave an opportunity for students to network up close with like-minded seniors and angels which was really not possible through Facebook or LinkedIn. People could DM, voice call, video call right from slack itself. It is a brilliant tool and there are many things that could be done via bots.
But, the free version of slack limits us to 10,000 latest messages and 10 bots. Slack Pro is priced at 6.67$ per user per month! Slack also has a Slack for Education initiative under which they give an 85% discount for its Plus and Standard versions and rates come down to 1$ per user per month. Still, those are exorbitant amounts that neither we nor the alumni association could have afforded.
Though I was not able to pull off the college slack, I still feel that this product produced a lot of value and is something that makes the world a slightly better place. If you want to start a slack community in your college and need any help, feel free to ping me on Facebook.
The Final Nail In The Coffin
We tried to use technology to solve all the problems with our startup and forgot that the key problem was a human one: “People did not trust freelancers”. Building slack bots etc. was not solving the heart of the problem and just starting a slack community wouldn’t have cured our miseries. We also had lost about a dozen projects over the year because people didn’t trust remote culture in India. We gave our all to make them understand that this reduces the costs, increases the productivity and you can have a track of your project sitting anywhere in New Delhi or the Himalayas. All you need is a net connection.
But it fell on deaf ears.
After a year in the consultancy business we finally sat down together to have the most important discussion.
What did we really want to do with our lives?
We Realised, We Still Loved To Code
We were still relatively inexperienced. We were still newcomers and young, and could land up any job that we wished for. We realised we still wanted to build things. We wanted to work on newer technologies like crypto-currencies, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and machine learning. We were still developers and HeapTree was going nowhere without a consistent management and a sales team.
We decided to stop taking projects now, finish off all the pending works and with a very heavy heart shut down HeapTree.
I came back home, to Patna.
I am now looking for a new challenge, and if any of you reading this are working on the next big shit, do contact me!
So, Why NOT To Start A Startup In Your Twenties?
- You lack experience: Yes, you do. You have just graduated out of college. There’s an entire world out there struggling in the rat race. You can’t just bypass them by venturing out. You need to grow, you need to learn new skills. You need to give more time to yourself.
- 20s are for exploring new places, new cultures, new technologies: There’s so much to explore out there. You will never have enough time to explore the world around you after your twenties. It gets tough. Relationships, family, responsibility etc. they all are a hindrance to your growth. This is the perfect time to learn something new, go for a solo trip or know more about the world you live in.
- Being in business is not about living life on your terms: This is something I have experienced firsthand. You are always working for someone. Be it your Boss, your CTO , your CEO , investors or venture capitalists or your clients , you are always working for someone. Starting up doesn’t mean you are living life on your own terms. In fact, now that you have a startup, you are working for a lot more people than just yourself. You need to adapt.
- Being employed is not necessarily a waste of time: People often think they are in the wrong job. They are trapped in a never ending battle to wake up and go to work everyday. They often think about quitting and starting up. Don’t. Don’t build a startup because you hate your job. Look for a job that you might like doing, which is in line with your long term plans and visions. Don’t pull the trigger just yet.
- Start investing in yourself rather than chase dreams: Investing in yourself is the best thing you can ever do and I am not talking about monetary investments. I am talking about increasing your personal worth, finding your passions, your life goals, hitting the gym or whatever you had planned and never got time to implement. Start small, start with baby steps and grow everyday.
- Start hanging out with people you admire: You are the average of the five people around you. Choose them carefully. Start by hanging out with people in your network whom you look up to and continue to grow with them.
- Stop pressurising yourself, you have an entire life in front of you: You are just in your twenties. There’s a whole lot of life left in front of you. There’s no need to pressurise yourself into making stupid decisions.
- Shoot for $10 million, not $1 million — Think Big, Work Hard:
I believe in thinking big and taking risks. But, that said, you must work really hard to achieve them. The world doesn’t owe you shit. You have to work hard. Build a startup, when YOU think you are ready, not when society thinks you are ready.
[This post by Shaurya Shahi first appeared on Hackernoon and has been reproduced with permission.]