From “Student” to “Struggling” Social Entrepreneur

From “Student” to “Struggling” Social Entrepreneur

Today marks my one-month anniversary of successfully going from “student entrepreneur” to “struggling social entrepreneur.” And boy, oh boy, what a month it has been.

June 18th, 2013. A year of planning, Skype conversations and model building later, we finally arrived on ground to begin our Social Cops pilot. (I was a university student in Singapore, so I had never been to our pilot location in Delhi so far). More synced with the entrepreneurship community than most – one would have thought that the hours and hours of Stanford Startup School Videos, the hundreds of Startup books and coffee conversations with successful social entrepreneurs would have prepared me for “The Moment.” Um, yeah right.

Oh yes, there was a lot that Startup School didn’t teach me. Nothing really beats doing it on ground. And this post to meant to outline some of the important lessons we’ve learnt along the way.

Lesson 1: Bootstrapping is not just about cutting costs

Primary instincts of a bootstrapping entrepreneur are to compromise on basic things – such as the place you choose to live. Caution: Do Not Compromise on your Living Conditions. Do not downgrade your lifestyle by a great margin.

In our initial days, we lost about 15 days of productivity because we picked the wrong places to live as we tried to save a few thousand bucks… The road leading up to it was filled with flies/mosquitos/garbage; there was not enough light; there were no food options around (albeit good food options), not to mention slow Wi-Fi – to say the least.

Now, as an entrepreneur, let me tell you WHY investing in keeping yourself healthy, productive and mentally fit is a good idea:

1. You will inevitably face moments wherein you are frustrated; want to give up; throw it away. And these moments will just be accelerated if you have to fight for basic life necessities on a daily basis. For the first one week as I climbed up those dusty, depressing stairs – I used to mentally curse myself as I reminisced about my comfortable room in university campus complete with Wi-Fi, Aircon and super-awesome canteen food about a minute away. While I consoled myself that I was doing this for a bigger purpose – stray thoughts of the lifestyle I would have been living if I had taken that MNC job and the beating my life had taken from those days crept in on a daily basis. Not the best mindset to build a Million Dollar company with, huh?

2. As a startup, you will have enough battles to fight. Don’t make the basic necessities for life a fight just to save on an extra INR 10000 per month. That extra INR 10000 a month will grant your startup one extra month of life at the most. And I think we can safely say that in 6 months if you’ve not proven anything about your model – chances are that you’re not going to prove anything in the 7th month.

Similarly while sourcing for office space, make sure that you don’t compromise on the basic feel-good factors. This article provides a great summary of what a startup office actually needs.

Remember: Bootstrapping is NOT about cutting costs – instead it is about a mindset. It is about maximizing productivity and minimizing resources. But as the founder – ultimately YOUR productivity, YOUR mindset and YOUR ability to quickly adapt is what will differentiate success from failure. So don’t forget to care about yourself.

what I learned

Lesson 2: Never Stop Asking for Help

Starting up is really about leveraging on everything and everything you know and have. There have been days that I’ve spent making conversation with people and reaching out to friends to source for talent. I’ve only learn’t to never ever stop asking. Sometimes, you’ll be rewarded in unexpected ways. Let me tell you an example of how: I was randomly reading through a popular news blog when I came across an article wherein the author mentioned the need for an idea such as Social Cops. Generally I ignore such references, but that day, I somehow commented on the article with a link to our website.

The author responded almost immediately with an email saying he loved what we do and that he was coming to Delhi for a major mobile governance event and that I should go too! I excitedly checked out the event website only to be disappointed to note that the ticket price was INR 3000! Not wise expenditure for a bootstrapping startup. Throwing caution to the winds (trust me, I have NEVER done this before!) – I decided to shoot out an email to the author asking if he knew of any discount codes. Guess what happened after? The author connected me directly to the organizer of the event and I ended up getting a megadiscount! So, Lesson 2: Never ever stop asking. For every 9 rejections, you’ll meet at least one person who surprises you!

Lesson 3: It is not easy, but it is going to be worth it?

Some hilarious incidents that I’ve dealt with as an “entrepreneur” include being unceremoniously thrown out of most houses while searching for a place to live – being told that, as I was neither a student nor a corporate employee I wouldn’t be given a place to stay. It took my mom, her 20 years of experience, her visiting card, my dad’s visiting card, a big corporate name, some name throwing, and a personal guarantee from mum that I wouldn’t default on rent to finally find me a place to live in.

Some other (more serious) stuff includes being frustrated with clients, things not moving as fast as you want them to and making some big decisions such as deciding to walk away from a project. You are going to go through moments of deep insecurity and confusion. There will be times that you will not know the correct answer. Because, you’re right: there are no right answers.

My best friends for the past month have been: Quora, Books (Founders at Work, The Lean Startup and Breakthrough Innovation are HIGHLY recommended). It is also highly recommended to be on friendly enough terms with at least one co-founder who has already made it work pretty well – so you can buzz them with questions. Seek out those people. They are super willing to help!

And despite all the confusion and uncertainty, there are some great highs. When you make your first presentation to a big guy! When you get great response for your pitch. When you build something and it works. When you get your first client. And, yes, you guessed right – it is these highs that keep you going.

Sometimes being a bit stubborn, naïve and believing you can change the world is what it takes. MakeMyTrip’s founder went without being paid for 3 years… that takes stubbornness. Paypal took 6 iterations before they got a business model…that takes stubbornness. And my personal favorite story is that of Deepak Ravindran from Innoz, beautifully outlined in his INK Talk here:

Which brings me to the conclusion that, maybe they are right. Maybe it is true… and maybe, just maybe, it is not going to be easy, but it is going to be worth it?

P.S: Social Cops is looking for some uber- cool technology interns who simply love to build stuff. We believe that citizen voice is powerful and using technology we can harness this voice as a resource. If seeing your lines of code translating not just to brilliant user interfaces but also into solving a real problem on ground excites you, tweet us @Social_Cops in 140 characters as to why you believe in the power of citizen voice using the hashtag #socialcopspilot.

Author

Prukalpa Sankar is the co-founder of Social Cops (www.socialcops.in) – a web and mobile platform that aims to create a connected collaborative city. She also consults for startups and non-profit organizations with a special focus on business model generation, business development and marketing. She blogs at www.prukalpa.wordpress.com and can be found on twitter @prukalpa. Contact her on [email protected]
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