In the summer of 2009, Ankur Singla, a middle class boy, working as a legal advisor in one of the most reputed law firms in London, Linklaters LLP, quit his fairly well paid job. Certainly he was not happy. Of course, if only money could buy happiness then the world would be a much happier place to live in for many. Ankur later went on to start Akosha, a company now valued well in the millions.
Ankur was raised in Chandigarh and did his elementary education from a government model school where he opted for commerce as his stream in his senior high school. His dad was a chartered accountant and mom was a housewife.
Post schooling he joined National Law School Of India University for his LLB (Hons). After college, Ankur went on to work for a corporate law firm in London. But the entrepreneurial bug inside him made him quit his job in less than 2 years, 1 year and 9 months to be precise.
Ankur came back to India in the summer of 2009 to start something of his own, a long lasting wish he had, with savings worth 13 Lakhs which he thought were enough to last as long as 2 years. He went back to Chandigarh, his home town, with a thought of saving some operational cost on his way to build a successful company.
The Early Days – A Small Start
Within a few months of arrival, Ankur started Wasiyat.com, a website to help people in registering their wills, make legal documents etc. The website, which launched in February 2010, was not paying enough while the savings Ankur brought back from his day job at London started to shrink. With Ankur being the sole co-founder, a diminishing bank account and a couple of employees to support, it was getting hard to sustain the venture.
To generate some revenue and to sustain the dream of building a successful company, Ankur started taking on some consulting projects in the legal domain, owing to his background as a lawyer. The part time consulting and startup ran parallel for around a year when Ankur realised that even this was not making him any good money. He was mainly consulting startups and small business owners who did not had much to spare just for keeping their legal stuff on the track.
“They used to pay INR 5,000 per agreement. It was driving me crazy, despite the fact that I was really good at it, but I didn’t want to do it any longer.” says Ankur.
Also Ankur, being from the law background, had neither the knowledge nor the experience of developing a tech product and had no idea about finding product-market fit. Another challenge was the peer network. He had friends in law, in courts, in legal industry but not where he needed at the time, i.e. in the tech and startup industry.
“He that can have patience can have what he will.” ― Benjamin Franklin
Ankur’s life and his dream of building something substantial on his own, was going to witness some big changes in the times to come. His will to not give up and make this thing happen led him to Sameer Guglani, Founder of Morpheus, arguably one of the best accelerators of India.
Ankur laughs on the thought of how he met Sameer, who played a vital role in his entrepreneurial journey.
“I met Sameer in one of the startup conferences. I asked him if we can meet and that I had been reading his blog posts from some time now which have been helping me a lot” said Ankur, while looking away into the emptiness in the corner of his office, for a moment he seemed like he was back at that startup conference with Sameer.
Sameer helped Ankur in all possible ways, introduced him around, guided him and more importantly kept him motivated. He also helped Ankur in getting into a startup network which was very crucial as there was a small ecosystem in Chandigarh at the time.
The Story Behind The Name “Akosha”
Finding the right name for your brand is one of the biggest discussions any founder holds with his friends, colleagues, neighbours, family and just about anyone who’d listen to him. It wasn’t easy for Ankur either, to find a catchy and unique name that also describes the spirit of the company. Ankur sat with Sameer and Nandini of Morpheus and went through a list of over 400 names he had come up with. After a long discussion none of them were convinced on a common name. Suddenly, Sameer came up with the name “Akosha”, a word with had some Sanksrit origins. Though Nandini and Ankur did not like at the start but chose to stick with it (laziness & exhuastion can do this to you).
From Wasiyat to Akosha
One of the memorable incidents Ankur fondly mentioned, which also led him to shift from Chandigarh to Delhi and hence more closer to his dream, was how two students of Punjab University declined the job offer letter by Ankur.
With an embarrassing grin Ankur describes “One day I made an offer to two students of Punjab University (PU). Among them was a topper of PU and the other was his friend. They said they’ll join; it’s really a nice idea. When the d-day came, they both made up an excuse, one of them said, “Mom is not allowing me to join” and the second one said, “My friend is not going to join so I won’t.”
This is when he realized that things are not going to happen in Chandigarh and decided to move to Delhi. On 6th August 2010, he moved to the capital and rented a 2BHK flat in Kalkaji. He was paying a rent of 17k and was bearing the total monthly expenditure of 35k with his last tranche of savings.
Shelter in Delhi not only gave him exposure to a much larger set of industry people, companies and peer network but also gave him the idea to pivot Wasiyat.com to what we know today as Akosha.
With a spark in his eyes, Ankur recounted that particular incident which led him to build Akosha. I could clearly sense the struggle, pain, passion and the fiery desire for success when he calmly narrated the story.
“An incident took place when I came to Delhi. I bought a new prepaid Airtel sim card and did a recharge of Rs 198 to activate my 3G Internet pack. The internet was activated on my phone for a month’s time. But at the end of the month I received a whooping Rs 3,500 Bill for using internet. I enquired and complained. I fought and fought. But nothing happened.”
This particular incident changed the course of Wasiyat.com and laid the foundations for Akosha.com, the Akosha which we know today. Ankur inquired with friends and folks in the network about daily life harrasements done by brands and how they deal with it, the replies were cold and hopeless, there was no standard and easy way to reach out to the brands and claim the rightful justification for paybacks, apologies or whatever needed.
By this time Ankur had also added a consumer complaint button on the website and a number of press coverages at the time helped him draw visitors to the website. Interestingly most of the visitors ended up checking out the “Consumer Complaint” tab more than anything else. Suddenly, the lost vision for Ankur’s startup was clear, now he knew what he wanted to do with Akosha.
The First Few Customers, The First Salary & The First Techie
Though the press coverages had brought him many readymade customers, but as the hype settled down, it was getting hard for Ankur to figure out a way to get more customers.
Incidentally, Ankur went to a session where Hitesh Oberoi was talking about the early days of Naukri and how they got their first customers. The idea clicked, the thought deepened and instead of waiting for the customers to discover Akosha, Ankur decided to reach out to his potential customers.
With two interns, Ankur started the tedious, long and age old process of cold-calling. The team picked up the data from consumer complaint forums. Initially, people were resistant and did not show any interest in the services pitched by Ankur and his team, but slowly they came through and this is how Akosha got its first few real customers.
It was also the time when Ankur officially applied for Morpheus, the startup accelerator run by Sameer, who till then had become Ankur’s mentor, guide and friend. From the first 5 lakhs of the accelerator money from Morpheus, Ankur took his first ever salary of INR 20,000.
Ankur till date fondly remembers and practices one particular advice of Sameer, “Don’t run after money, money will find you.” For the next 5 months Ankur and his team worked really hard, burning the midnight oil, found the much coveted product market fit, hired new employees & interns and laid a strong foundation for the company in just the INR 5 lakhs , raised from Morpheus.
Ankur being a non-techie was having a tough time finding a good tech team in the limited amount of money he had. This is when he met a guy named Sarabjeet in one of the startup conferences. Sarabjit agreed on an equity+cash model and took care of the tech part while team Akosha, mostly comprising of interns, under the leadership of Ankur started figuring out the business and marketing channels.
The money raised through Morpheus was now starting to drain out and Ankur had just 2 months of runway left before he went broke. Ankur started meeting angels and as he recalls he met more than 10 angels initially. In May of 2011, Ankur got an inbound interest from one of the Venture Capital firms who agreed to put in a seed amount of INR 30 Lakhs. “It was a big deal, I was super happy” exclaims Ankur with a forgotten happiness on his face. “But I decided to let go on the offer on the advice of Sameer, who told me people from whom we take money are more important than the money itself” Singla adds further.
After that Ankur and his team did a road show in Bangalore with fellow batchmate startups of Morpheus. From there on he got another inbound query from Mumbai Angels which he rejected again.
Finally, Ankur got connected to Sequoia Capital. He met Shailendra Singh, Sequoia’s MD, in a coffee shop in Hotel Grand in May that year. The first 45 minutes changed things for Ankur and for Akosha. Sequoia agreed to put in INR 90 lakhs but also advised Ankur to get an angel on board who can put in more man hours with the company. Ajay Agarwal, who founded United Labs, offered to put in 50 lakhs and the deal was sealed with a total of INR 1.4 Cr by Sequoia and Ajay Agarwal in September of 2011.
Another notable thing as per Ankur was, Akosha was the 2nd or 3rd seed investment by Sequoia which helped them a lot when raising series A.
The Hunt For The Technical Cofounder
In January 2012, team Akosha shifted to a new office. Now Ankur had the funds, an office, revenues had started kicking in, and things seemed to be falling in to place. The only thing which lacked was the in-house technical lead. Ankur was feeling the need of a CTO as were his investors and wanted to move the tech in-house instead of outsourcing it.
Like a girlfriend or a wife who always remembers all important dates, an entrepreneur remembers such key defining moments throughout his/her life. Ankur remembers the exact date when he started hiring for the role of CTO. On April 6th 2012, Akosha started looking for the much-needed CTO. Ankur did exactly 108 interviews of 8-10 years experienced candidates, before his to-be tech guy applied for the job.
Interestingly, Vishal who is currently the CTO at Akosha came as a customer to Akosha’s website and not as an applicant. He went to the website to lodge a complaint against a brand when he happened to notice the openings on Akosha and decided to apply.
Vishal was a typical startup guy, a CTO any tech company would crave for, not only for his technical aptitude, but also for his startup attitude. “He had done his own startup earlier and raised $3.5 Mn for the same, which was really something, even better than what I had done,” says Ankur.
On his first visit to the Akosha office, Vishal enthusiastically appreciated about how cool the place was, though in reality it was so cramped up that a conversation in one room can be easily overheard in the room next door, a positive sign that Vishal was a go getter and accustomed to the startup environment.
Embarrassed by the office condition, Ankur took Vishal to a CCD near by, where they discussed things for more than 2 hours. Ankur was beaming with happiness and the joy of finding the guy he was searching for the past 2 months. He immediately called Sarabjeet, who was handling technology then and Sameer to express his joy. Oh man, was he happy, even more than when he raised his seed round. Three tech interviews were scheduled for Vishal before Shailendra, MD, Sequoia and Akosha’s investor decided to go on a call with him.
Shailendra was not in India and so called at 6 in the morning. Everyone was convinced at Ankur’s end and were desperately waiting for a reply from Vishal, but Vishal was in a state of contemplation, neither was he accepting the offer nor declining it.
As a final attempt, Ankur flew out Vishal to Bangalore to meet Shailendra in person. The three had a 30 min conversation on why Vishal should join Akosha. Ankur laughs while describing how tense the situation was when they were flying back to Delhi after meeting with Shailendra. “In the 2 hour flight he did not say a word about the meeting or the prospect of joining Akosha. I was scared, I wanted him in Akosha at any cost.”
Two days later, the call came and Vishal said yes and joined Akosha as the CTO, and the rest as they say is history.
Currently, Akosha has more than 180+ team members, has raised a Series A funding of $5 Mn from Sequoia, boasts more than 200+ brands which use it’s freemium feature and more than 35 brands which use it’s premium service called OneDirect.
We wish Ankur and team Akosha all the best with the hope that they will soon make it big and make their fellow Indian startups proud.