The One Where It All Began
“Most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year and underestimate what they can achieve in ten years.”
So did we! We, (Pooja, Vaibhav And Utkarsh) are the living testaments to this neatly woven thought, which somehow flawlessly captures and reflects the essence of our decade-long journey of building Inc42 from zilch.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane, to the day it all began.
It was the day when three naive fresh-out-of-college kids in their early twenties with no pedigree or background in media or startups decided to build a brand. A brand, that would be known for all things startups, that would one day narrate the story of an India, where startups would be the present and future of this country. A brand that would foster a million entrepreneurs someday!
Boy, what a journey it has been. What a decade!
Note: For clarity, this narrative unfolds primarily through the perspective of Utkarsh, weaving in and out of a collective voice that includes Vaibhav and Pooja. This shift reflects our intertwined journeys, highlighting individual insights as well as our unified experiences as we recount the story of Inc42’s remarkable decade-long journey.
Here’s to the next chapter of our incredible journey!
Until our next milestone, possibly sooner.
Utkarsh, Vaibhav & Pooja
December 29, 2013
I had INR 200 in my pocket, sitting across two near strangers in Delhi’s iconic Indian Coffee House in Connaught Place. And I was the so-called “rich one” at the table.
It was a Delhi winter afternoon back in December of 2013. Traces of sunlight, a light fog (not the smog we’re used to today), and a certain kind of warmth embraced the three of us — maybe it was just the fire in our bellies.
I had come home to visit my parents in Delhi during my winter break from college. It was my final year, and I soon had to decide where I was going with my life, both literally and metaphorically.
We had ordered some chai, some Maggi of course, and bread omelettes. Vaibhav and Pooja were visibly jovial about that for some reason. It was only later that I found out the two of them had come with just enough to take the metro back home.
We were talking about PandoDaily, which was launched a year ago by former TechCrunch managing editor Sarah Lacy, and about the fascinating Silk Road story published by Wired.
It was a time when people’s attention spans were longer than one-day fads, and they would still adore and relish the long-form journalism and narratives, storytelling — something we today take pride in pursuing.
Back to the story. Vaibhav and I interacted for the first time over Facebook Messenger nearly two weeks before meeting in person on that day. He had reached out to me to contribute his stories on a blog I ran in my college days. He wanted INR 600 per article as his fee, but I countered with INR 200 a piece.
It was only at the time of our high tea session that I discovered that Vaibhav dropped out of his college a year ago and Pooja had left IAmWire, an ecommerce-focussed digital media company and Vaibhav’s ex-employer.
Meanwhile, I was pretty sure that I wasn’t sitting for my placements. However, I’m still not sure what made me decide this.
No one thought we’d survive more than a year or two. It turns out that media is a brutal business. Still, these three foolish outsiders just decided to wing it. All we had was a passion for startups and a desire to make their voices heard.
In Jan 2014, we published our first story, and nothing happened.
Early Days, Small Wins
Undeterred, the three of us kept on writing. I was in my final semester in college, and Vaibhav & Pooja were in Delhi, talking every day over Facebook Messenger or Google Hangout (remember, these were the prepaid days when we were charged per SMS and Call) and publishing stories.
In May 2014, I moved in with my parents in Gurugram (Gurgaon at the time) after finally finishing college.
So, I was in Gurgaon, Vaibhav in Noida and Pooja was in Pitampura. For the ones who are alien to Delhi’s geographies, these three locations are the extreme corners of the region. (In Bengaluru terms today though, that’s just another day when it rains).
Meanwhile, we talked our way into securing a place to work from the newly launched Anti-Social. (Fun Fact: Social, a chain of pubs, launched a coworking of sorts at their first and really beautiful Hauz Khas pub)
So, the three of us would travel every day via the metro from three extreme corners of Delhi. The place had a lot of designers and artists working out of there, drinking their cold pints of beer in the scorching Delhi summer. Well, we couldn’t afford any at the time. So, it was only once a fortnight that we would treat ourselves with two pints of beer (2+2 of course), oftentimes at sunset, and soak in the view.
As days passed, we somehow got the opportunity to partner with TLabs, Times Internet’s startup accelerator. With this, we were soon seen planning our first event series, StartupDash, an early stage startup hunt, across Delhi, Pune & Bengaluru.
As the preparations gained pace, Vaibhav convinced me to move in with him to Noida where he was living rent-free. No, it wasn’t his apartment. He just did not have any money to pay rent.
Long story short, he was staying with a college senior and four others in a 3 BHK apartment in Sector 18. For some reason, I agreed to move in with him, leaving the comforts of my relatively cushy home to fighting over the one cooler there in Delhi’s scorching summers.
Every other day, there used to be electricity cuts from 11 pm to 5 am. Since we were working with TLabs on StartupDash, they graciously welcomed us (special thanks to Abhishek Gupta) to work from their TLabs space inside The Times Of India’s office in Sector 16, which was open 24×7.
Hence, every night at 11, Vaibhav, in his iconic brown pyjamas, and I would head over to TLabs on Ankit Sir’s (Vaibhav’s senior) bike for the free WiFi, and more importantly, air conditioning. Oh, and also to watch Season 4 of Game of Thrones on the big TV screen.
Our daily meal was the INR 20 stuffed parathas from a hawker (‘thela’) opposite the Times office, and our fortnightly treat was a choice between spending INR 150 on either Hari’s Paratha (stuffed NVeg parathas) or KFC.
Cutting back to StartupDash – we managed to attract over 500 startup applications, shortlisted 40 startups to pitch to a set of investors, and 3 won direct entry into TLabs’ Accelerator. Among the standout participants, several went on to achieve remarkable success.
Vidooly, for example, was acquired in 2022, while Adpushup’s journey culminated in a $70 Mn acquisition in 2023. Other notable startups from this cohort included Shopkirana, which reported a revenue of INR 700 Cr in FY23, and VanityCube, which was eventually acquired by VLCC.
It turns out, we enjoyed making this happen. It was a small ecosystem back then. But, we knew, somewhere deep down in our hearts, that it would soon be making strides like no other industry or sector, and we would be there to testify to every growth and disruption story in it.
Soon, our stories started witnessing their first 100 pageviews and going viral (aka 1000 pageviews at the time). From there, it was pretty much an upward spiral of breaking numerous stories and signing on big banks and enterprises as the sponsors for our events.
Our First Angel & The Many Other Firsts
TLabs became our second home, and the people there, our 2 am sounding board. One night while hanging out there, one of the fellow founders proposed the idea of raising money and introducing us to an investor.
To be honest, we had never even considered the idea of raising funds, as it was rare the world over for a digital media company to raise venture capital.
Three days later, we met Dr Ritesh Malik at his hotel in Nirman Vihar (East Delhi), and he became our first Angel Investor.
Most of you would know him today for the many feathers he has in his cap. We met him just before he incepted Innov8, a coworking startup that he later sold to OYO for INR 220 Cr in 2019. We’re still not sure what made him believe in us at a time when no one would have. Maybe it was just all of us bonding over being the outsiders and underdogs.
He invested in us the following week itself and convinced us to move to Nirman Vihar instead of travelling every day.
Ritesh’s entry into our lives also changed a lot of things for us, and we are grateful for this. Until the time we could find a house, he gave us a room in his hotel. Soon, we were living and working from the hotel. After a few days of living there, we were shameless enough to unhesitatingly start ordering room service. 😛
I still remember how we would go house hunting in his Mercedes Benz with a monthly budget not exceeding INR 12K. We finally found one for INR 11K. This became our first home — home-cum-office, if you will.
Ritesh got posters made for the office and decorated the house alongside us on day 1. Needless to say, we can’t emphasise enough what a great investor, mentor, well-wisher and friend Ritesh has been to this day.
And so, the three of us moved into that home (which by the way had an open shaft for ventilation, which we discovered in the following 2015 Delhi winters :P), and the rest as they say is history.
It’s been over nine years since the three of us have been staying together, with the addition of Oscar, our cocker spaniel, in 2015. That’s probably the most surprising fact for anyone who hears it.
This choice might seem naive or indifferent to societal norms to some, but it’s our shared dedication to the startup ecosystem that has truly bound us. Living and working together 24×7 undeniably played a pivotal role in shaping our journey to where we stand today.
This was the time of firsts.
Navigating the unfamiliar terrain of fundraising, we embarked on a six-month marathon, pitching to over 60 investors and securing 11 early supporters who believed in our vision.
Our first VC turned out to be a chance encounter with Anil Joshi from Unicorn Ventures. He had come to Delhi to get introduced to Ritesh. We invited him to our home office where we shared our vision over a cup of tea and aloo parathas, as all of us awkwardly dined on a mattress on the floor. Unicorn India Ventures invested in our so-called seed round and (Bhaskar Majumdar and Anil Joshi) have supported us ever since and participated in all of our rounds to date.
Pallav Nadhani of FusionCharts was one of our other investors. Vaibhav met him for the first time and pitched him at Nasscom Product Conclave in Bengaluru in 2015. Despite refusing initially, by the end of the long night after that (aka. the after party), he agreed to invest, citing that Vaibhav was the last man standing there at 5 am. Pallav went on to spend nearly 300+ hours, trying to help us find our why, what & how. You know, the typical existential crisis issues of a startup founder.
Since then, our fundraising adventures spanned from impromptu pitches in hotel elevators to the back of a car en route to the airport and extensive tours to Japan that culminated in 11 Japanese investors joining our cause via Facebook Messenger.
Following this, we secured our second funding round from 3one4 Capital & Aarin Capital, alongside other angel investors, marking a pivotal moment. Mohandas Pai, Siddarth Pai and the 3one4 Capital team were particularly influential, instilling in us the discipline for good governance long before it became widely emphasised. Even now, they remain our go-to advisors for navigating complex legal and compliance challenges, making them indispensable in Inc42’s journey.
Reflecting on a decade of pitches to over 600 investors, with nearly 120 joining our cap table, it’s evident our approach was unconventional — prioritising a network of personal connections over formal investment structures.
Our thesis from day one was to build a distribution & brand first, and then build multiple products on top to monetise the complete startup lifecycle.
This approach was often met with scepticism from VCs seeking comparable models or companies, which simply didn’t apply to our unique vision. These challenges, rather than deterring us, have defined our distinct identity and reinforced our commitment to innovation.
While I’d love to go into the stories of each one of our early day investors, I think I’d probably keep that for a book we might write someday.
The Authority On…
Our journey to recognition began with two groundbreaking stories we pursued in 2015 and 2016. At the time when the Startup India and Stand Up India slogans were gaining momentum, we tasked ourselves with calling out everything that was happening wrong in the then-burgeoning startup landscape.
The first-ever investigative piece involved the name of a highly influential investor, Mukund Mohan. He was someone against whom only a few would dare to object. This is because Mukund had a very powerful and vast support network. He is also a former Amazon and Microsoft executive.
This exposé was our first step towards cleansing the ecosystem, a mission we called #SwachhBharat4Startups. Our goal was to present facts and protect the interests of entrepreneurs, without intending to tarnish anyone’s reputation.
We received a tip about Mukund during a casual chat with some founders about his new fund, Napkin Stage. As we delved deeper, we discovered several inconsistencies in his claims of backing various companies.
Mukund somehow came to know that we were tracking his every move. Then started the real David versus Goliath moment for us. A series of tense emails were exchanged, and before we could publish our findings, he released a blog.
What followed next was a series of comments pouring in from all the influential corners of the startup ecosystem in his support. Not lying, we were very scared back then, even questioning and doubting whatever facts we had gathered on him.
Following this, we vigorously reassessed our findings, and once we were double sure, we were ready to roll out the piece. However, before we could proceed any further, a lot of influential personalities joined his cause to stop us. But, we aimed to stop at nothing, come what may.
Supporting us throughout this entire saga in standing for the truth were our ethics, which to date are a holy grail for us. On a different note, however, Mukund’s arrest in the US in 2021 for fraudulently obtaining $1.8 Mn in Covid-19 relief proved our point that defaulters seldom change.
The next significant victory came against the notorious Rahul Yadav, who even went so far as to send goons to our office upon the publishing of the article that revealed how he was using the investor’s money for personal gains.
These stories propelled us into the limelight, establishing us as a fearless voice in uncovering malpractices in the startup world. This path wasn’t easy, involving numerous defamation cases (with an ongoing $100 Mn suit), legal battles, and hundreds of hours spent with lawyers.
Meanwhile, we published our first “Annual Startup Funding Report 2014,” which has since become the industry’s most trusted source. Since then, we’ve published over 100 in-depth research reports which are cited by governments, consultants and leaders across the world, becoming the definitive source for data on India’s rapidly growing startup economy.
On the events front, we pioneered the concept of highly-curated Tech Parties (inspired by the famous and infamous parties of Silicon Valley) in the Indian startup economy back in 2015 with Pulse42, Mixers, and VC Dinners — bringing together the various facets of the Indian startup economy.
This decade-long journey of Inc42 has been about more than just reporting and events. It’s been about pursuing truth relentlessly, shaping us into a platform that not only informs but also protects and nurtures the Indian startup ecosystem.
The Startup India Booster
Just as we were celebrating two years of Inc42, the Startup India Action Plan, launched in 2016, came as a pivotal moment that validated our hard work and energised India’s startup landscape. This initiative, aligning with our early years, transformed “startup” from an obscure term into a widely recognised concept, resonating even within our families.
January 16 symbolises a shared mission between us and the government: fostering India as a leading startup nation.
This movement has inspired entrepreneurial spirit in state governments, educational institutions, and traditional workplaces. We have started collaborating with state governments like Rajasthan and Kerala, analysing the impact of startups and nurturing new founders.
Corporates and Big Tech also joined this wave, recognising startups as crucial sources of revenue. That marked the beginning of our B2B brand partnerships arm, BrandLabs, where we work with startups, enterprises and governments to help them reach and engage with the decision-makers and leaders in India’s startup economy.
Thanks to India’s forward-thinking policies, the nation now ranks third globally in the startup economy, having attracted over $146 Bn from more than 9,500 investors.
At The Junction
Having established ourselves as the new kids on the block, known for our unique flavour and approach of breaking stories as well as our events and experiences, it was now time for our take on the age-old conference format. I’ll let the launch article from 2016 do the talking here.
India needs another tech conference like it needs another foodtech startup.
And yet I’ve always known that designing a kickass conference would inevitably be a big part of our business.
I wasn’t sure how to reconcile these two realities. For almost 2 years now, I’ve told my investors, peers and my team the same thing: When we do an event of this scale, I want people to be wowed and say, “Yep, that was an Inc42 conference.”
Imagine an intimate gathering of hand-picked people, away from the hustle & bustle of daily life; imagine a royal getaway in a historical castle; imagine 300 global influencers staying together under one roof for three days; imagine a delicate mix of new age platforms and old-school conversations; a treasure trove of deep scientific and psychological insights, game-changing connections and collaborations – packed into a three-day extravaganza designed to catalyse personal, professional, and collective growth.
Since the day we decided to turn this into a destination conference, we knew it wasn’t going to be an easy endeavour. At Inc42, we’ve always tried to challenge the conventional – be it hacking the media business, be it through stories, be it through our designs, be it through our events like Pulse42 and now through our first conference. You can call it our naivety or you can call it gutsy, but what’s the fun in doing something easy?
Paraphrasing aside, that’s exactly what The Junction was all about – a transformative three-day residential conference held at the majestic Fairmont Jaipur, where chilly nights nearly reached freezing temperatures. It emerged as one of the most memorable gatherings in Indian tech history, its stories and experiences shared among attendees remain exclusive to those who were there, echoing the adage, “What happened at The Junction, stays at The Junction.”
A lesser-known chapter of our journey was the first near-death experience we had as a company in the run-up to The Junction. Our ambition to deliver an unparalleled conference led us to a point where we ran out of money two months before the conference.
It was our collective passion and a shared belief in the vision of The Junction that propelled us to secure personal loans totalling nearly INR 1 Crore from our investors, embracing a “go big or go home” philosophy. The journey to repay this loan, including interest, spanned a year but ultimately validated our bold decision.
From COVID To Profitability
On February 20, 2020, Inc42 unveiled its Plus membership, introducing a pioneering metered paywall model in Indian digital media, designed to offer our readers limitless access to our stories. This initiative marked our commitment to building a steady revenue stream while building a deeper connection with our audience, further enriched with exclusive membership benefits.
Merely a month later, the Covid-19 lockdown unfolded, coinciding with the unfortunate withdrawal of a crucial institutional funding round, which was at the final stages of closing, from a well-known international media fund amid the brewing uncertainty.
This period initiated a profound test of resilience for us. Swiftly adapting, we transitioned our operations online, leveraging our longstanding use of Asana and Slack. In the face of halted revenues, we managed to reduce our expenses by half while ensuring our team remained intact. While there were layoffs all around the industry, particularly in media, we were one of the few who managed to retain all our people.
The pandemic era was a period fraught with uncertainty and challenge, with many nights filled with panic and anxiety, where we frantically tried to make it all work. We faced two more near-death experiences, operated at 1 day’s money-in-the-bank levels for months, but ensured no one in our team ever felt it, ensuring their salaries were always on time.
We’re a big believer in consistency – our payroll has been on time consistently for the last nine years (barring the founder salaries, which are generally the first thing to be sacrificed for the company’s cash flow :P).
In hindsight, these challenges turned out to be great opportunities disguised in a crisis. It compelled us to evolve from a funding-dependent model to a self-sustaining entity, focussed on revenue generation and efficiency, which eventually played a pivotal role for us in turning around the company.
As Covid-19 stabilised, coinciding with the launch of Inc42 Plus subscriptions, we started to see a trickle of unexpected early success. The lockdown provided us with a rare opportunity for reflection, leading us to rethink many aspects of our business. The pandemic’s challenges mirrored our journey, marked by a significant shift towards digital media and virtual events.
Having established a reputation for hosting distinctive events characterised by their intimacy and exclusivity, we were cautious not to rely too much on events for revenue. However, the pandemic provided a unique opportunity to reach a broader audience. Our inaugural virtual conference, The Product Summit, in November 2020, was a resounding success, attracting over 4,000 participants.
This success paved the way for a series of virtual events, including two editions of The Makers Summit and four iterations of The D2C Summit, among others, engaging over 50,000 users. This strategic shift not only broadened our audience but also significantly boosted our subscriptions and content engagement, propelling us to 110% revenue growth and achieving profitability for the first time — a trend that has continued every quarter since.
This transformation underscored our adaptability and affirmed our place within India’s digital media landscape, catering to the burgeoning startup economy with an innovative and sustainable model.
To Infinity & Beyond
Today marks a significant juncture in our journey. A decade has passed since we, three passionate but naive enthusiasts, embarked on a mission to contribute to the startup ecosystem. It’s hard to believe how far we’ve come from those initial days of sheer enthusiasm and big dreams.
Our commitment to building a robust brand and distribution network remains steadfast, with an expanded portfolio of products and services designed to support the entire startup lifecycle. We aspire to continue leading the way, championing India’s quest to become the world’s largest startup ecosystem.
Despite operating with a lean team of fewer than 50 individuals up until 2023, many assumed we were a force of 200. We take pride in our operational efficiency, adopting a product-centric approach to streamline the traditionally service-oriented media industry. Our compact team has achieved remarkable feats: 10 journalists delivering over 500 articles, four designers crafting thousands of graphics, and a two-person sales team driving our B2B engagements, all contributing to Inc42’s reach of nearly 50 Mn people monthly.
This past month, we celebrated Inc42’s 10-year anniversary, reflecting on a decade of evolution alongside the Indian startup landscape. Reflecting on this milestone, we — the three once-naive kids — stand united with our remarkable team, having navigated through two significant startup downturns, three brushes with oblivion, and emerging as the beacon for India’s startup ecosystem.
In 2023, while the ecosystem was battling the funding winter shocks on one side, for Inc42, it was a year about broadening horizons beyond journalism and community to address a crucial need — educating India’s future startup and business leaders.
With the startup economy poised to generate over 3 Mn job opportunities this decade, we introduced our Executive Education division (a new brand name coming soon for it), aimed at bridging the talent gap and equipping new investors, entrepreneurs, and operators with the necessary skills to thrive in the startup economy.
Our foray into executive education quickly set new standards through our AngelX & CapitalX initiatives, which have already fostered over 120 new investors and facilitated the infusion of nearly $50 Mn into the ecosystem. Following these successes, we launched FounderX and D2CX to further empower emerging entrepreneurs, reinforcing Inc42’s position not only as India’s premier startup media and intelligence platform but also as a pivotal educational force informing, educating and empowering the next generation of founders, investors and operators.
Looking ahead, the past ten years have been nothing short of an exhilarating adventure. Every day has been a testament to the Indian startup dream, fuelled by the collective support and empowerment from our ecosystem. Our endeavours — be it through our innovative products, idiosyncratic conferences, incisive journalism, or in-depth reports — are driven by a singular mission: to put India at the forefront of the global startup and tech map.
As we continue to serve as the fastest and most reliable source for tech and startup news, we’re expanding our research and data capabilities through our upcoming startup intelligence platform, DataLabs, and introducing multiple in-person conferences this year like The Junction Retreat.
Our commitment extends to nurturing the forthcoming wave of founders, investors, and operators. Looking forward, our most ambitious goal is to become India’s first digital media company to go public within the next four years, setting a new precedent for the industry.
Here’s to the next decade of innovation, unwavering consistency, and the never-ending pursuit of excellence.
P.S. For those curious about the ’42’ in Inc42 – it’s a nod to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” symbolising the answer to life, the universe, and everything, long before Elon Musk’s Grok brought it back into the spotlight.
Lastly, a heartfelt thank you to our mentors, investors, team members (including our alumni), and friends for your indispensable support. While I wish we could roll out a lengthy post-credits scene to honour everyone, our story has already stretched beyond 4,000 words.