Friendships and business is difficult to maintain. There are numerous examples of iconic companies that were built by friends and then had to call it quits on their friendship due to personal clashes. On Friendship day, Firspost spoke with a few co-founders of start-ups to find out how they manage to keep the personal and professional tie-ups moving seamlessly without risking one for the other.
Talking to the founders, what was clearly evident from the conversation was their easy familiarity and deep respect for each other. The other thing that stood out was the habit of each able to complete the other's sentences or thoughts. A pair of co-founders spoke to us separately and we found that both echoed each other. Perhaps, this comes from knowing each other well over a period of time or because they are aligned to their goals as a single unit.
UrbanClap, a mobile services marketplace that connects local service providers with the community.
Founders: Varun Khaitan, Abhiraj Singh Bhal and Raghav Chandra. Khaitan and Bhal know each other for over 11 years since their IIT-Kanpur days.
How they know each other: The 28 year-olds now, met at the IIT counselling session in Chennai. Khaitan says he 'happened' to get into IIT Kanpur as his friends were preparing for IIT-JEE, while Bhal decided to apply as he got 'reasonably good grades' in school, and his father, a naval officer was an IIT-ian and an inspiration.
“We met during the counselling session at Chennai and found ourselves both at IIT-Kanpur, and hit it off immediately,” says Bhal.
On starting up: After graduating from IIT Kanpur in 2009, Khaitan took off to US to work at Qualcomm Inc., and later switched to The Boston Consulting Group, New York. “We used to meet when I came to India, and took vacations together. At one of our vacations in 2012, I spoke to Abhiraj about coming back. I was clear about coming back. After a few months, we both had made up our minds and decided to come back. Abhiraj was working with BCG in Jakarta then, and we both moved back to Delhi to start-up.”
Bhal has a slightly different take on the same story. “We graduated at a pathetic time, in the middle of the recession 2008-9. However, Varun was a topper at IIT and had many offers, including top job offers and PhD scholarships. So he had many options to choose from. For lesser mortals like us, there was not much. I considered joining the Armed Forces in my father's footsteps, and applied for the Short Services Commission, which then was for five years only. The idea was to spend five good years in the army, and then do something else. But the year I applied, the Army changed the rules to a minimum of 10 years service, as they realised they were not getting returns from the short services. I got a letter mentioning this 10 year bond, which meant I would be 32 when I finished. I had been accepted to IIM Ahmedabad for my MBA, and decided to head there. I regret not being able to do a stint in the army. It is a fantastic career option that young people should consider."
On UrbanClap: It was a decision they came up with after proving the basics of the idea. It has a third co-founder, Raghav Chandra. Each of them pooled Rs 10 lakhs and launched UrbanClap in September 2014.
“The size of the platform is quite small compared to our ambitions and we need to grow it to 1,000 times, which will take 5-10 years. It is not profitable right now of course. However, there is a clear path to profitability,” says Khaitan.
There is no hurry to get anywhere, says Bhal. "It took over 10 years to build Amazon into a meaningful business and around eight years for Flipkart. As of now people go online to buy products. There is no Amazon for services. We are off to a good start, are the market leaders and well positioned to realize that dream," believes Bhal.
On their friendship: For Khaitan, the choice of starting a company with someone is fundamentally about trust and belief. “Abilities and complementary skill sets are the next step. I have always had complete trust in Abhiraj to do the right thing when it comes to personal and business decisions. He is someone I can trust more than myself. That is the foremost decision checkbox. We are comfortable working together, have the same wavelength of thoughts. We consult each other on important things. We know what each other will do in any given situation. Around 90% of the times we have taken the right call on all decisions. There are disagreements but the way I see it, one of us is right. If we are not convinced, then we do an experiment. The strength of UrbanClap is that one of the three brains can solve the problem."
Bhal says he considers Khaitan to be among the the two or three most intelligent people he knows. “Varun is very, very sorted, methodical, structured and invariably knows what is the right thing to do. I compliment him with my ability to pull the team together. In defining moments of this journey, one of us three will know what it is right thing to do. Not just Varun but also Raghav, too. Each of us has a very high level of mutual respect and blinding trust in the other. I don’t second guess what Varun or Raghav say. Unlike early days, heated discussions don’t happen much and if they do, then someone knows when to back off.
Lessons for entrepreneurship and friendship: A start-up, no matter how important, is a business at the end of the day, says Bhal. While one gives it everything they have got, to make life meaningful, it is important to nurture relationships and friendships. Nothing can be more important than that.
Razorpay, a payments platform for companies who want to run their business online
Founders: Harshil Mathur, Shashank Kumar
How they know each other: They met at IIT, Roorkee. Kumar was a year senior and doing computer science. He met with Mathur who was doing mechanical engineering. At IIT, first and second year students work together on projects. “I was interested in computer programming.” says Mathur. “I always wanted to work in technical projects and wanted to work in the computers field. There was this team of code writers in college and I went up to meet them and see if I could find some projects to work together. Shashank spoke about a project that he wanted to pursue and I found it interesting. Programming was always a passion though not part of the curriculum. It is difficult to pursue it as the pressure of studies is very high at IIT. However, I was hardly interested in mechanical courses.”
On starting up: Kumar says, “We have been good friends since college. One of the good things about our friendship is that we are free to talk about anything that is not in our comfort zone and are very grounded individuals. That is our strength, too. One has to be practical in business. We are very open about being critical of each other’s ideas.”
On Razorpay: It was a mutual idea that came about from the duo facing difficulties in payment. They both researched on regulations, payments and found a gap in the market. “We were convinced we could fill this gap and left our jobs to focus on the idea,” says Mathur.
Razorpay was launched in March, 2015. Kumar made more investments in the venture. “We needed Rs 25 lakhs as bank security and he raised Rs 40 to 50 lakhs,” says Mathur.
Kumar says the payment problem in the digital space is a hard one to solve. However, he claims that they have the right team to solve the issue. “Our aim at Razorpay is to give customers a pleasant experience and not be afraid to go digital. We want to change the economy to digital and have built unique technologies to make it seamless. We want the customer to click pay and be done with it."
On their friendship: Mathur says what works for them is that they are non-emotional and practical. “I don’t have to think twice about saying anything to Shashank lest it hurts his emotions. I doubt whether Shashank has any emotions! A lot of friendships go bust as people are emotional. Our friendship grew in a working atmosphere while at IIT. We are together not to please each other. We know each other’s strengths. I am better at the non-tech side of things and love meeting and talking to people and conveying ideas. Shashank has sound knowledge on the tech side and that’s immense. He is good at motivating teams. We don’t have a Me vs You approach in anything we do.”
Kumar says that their biggest strength is that they can focus without being distracted. He shares their working equation. “When we want to achieve something, we work hard even it takes a year or two and don’t give up ever. This has been true since our college days. “Our arguments are practical and we discuss everything without getting personal. Whenever we fight, one of us compromise and then both align to the goal. We don’t get carried away or do stupid things like not talking to each other. If the discussion get heated, one of us says let’s leave this discussion for later. We will pick that up later and work on other things.”
Lessons for entrepreneurship and friendship: Do not let ego rule a relationship. That can ruin any relationship, not just friendship. When any argument or debate gets heated, learn to freeze, back off for the time being. Discuss again when calm, suggests Kumar.
As long as one is passionate and the goal is common, then what is important is to work as a group and not as an individual endeavour. Break-ups happen when there are ego issues or the goals don’t align. If you want different things in life, then coming together for a common purpose is defeated, says Mathur.
Wildcraft, a manufacturer of performance gear started in 2008
Founders: Gaurav Dublish, Siddharth Sood and Dinesh Kaigonahalli. Dublish and Sood know each other since 2000.
How they know each other: Dublish and Sood, both 40 year-olds, met at NarseeMonjee Institute of Management Studies, Mumbai. “We lived in the hostel in Mumbai and got to know each other well in the two year period,” says Dublish. The entrepreneurial spirit was there early on and both of them did projects together that were not part of the curriculum. Siddharth pursued specialization in Finance and Dublish in Marketing. “We flirted with many business models and ascertained its viability,” says Dublish. Sood says that though he and Dublish had cushy jobs after they graduated, they had this `rebellious streak’ in them that made them cast all that aside and take off on an entrepreneurial journey. While at NMIMS itself, they realized that wanted to be entrepreneurs. “We had this inherent need to do something on our own and were seeking an opportunity to do that,” says Dublish.
On starting up: Sood and Dublish are outdoor adventure enthusiasts. They discussed the idea while on a fishing camp near Bangalore. “We were not sure of the commercial viability of our hobby and were not sure whether to get into services or products,” says Sood. So they settled on services at first, but later found the commercial route for goods more viable.
On their friendship: Dublish says Sood was always a bully. “I am laid back and he would pull me into his various projects.” Sood interjects with,”I let Gaurav say whatever he wants to!”
Dublish says that he strongly suspects he was roped in as Sood wanted someone he could bully in the start-up! However, he quickly adds that what has brought them together is their common interests in books, literature, hobbies and the fact that they could start a conversation from their first meeting at NMIMS.
There is a bonhomie that is evident in their relationship. Sood says that he played `mom’ while Dublish had jaundice in college. He says, “I peeled papayas for the first time in my life.” Dublish adds, “And ended up eating most of the papaya!”
Both agree that the commonality that bound them was their love for literature. The other factor that binds their friendship, feels Sood, is that they don’t look back on the past. “We are focussed on the present and the future. We have faced a lot of difficulties, have had a lot of pressure with no money in the bank but yet every day at the workplace has been a day in spring simply because we love what we do."
When they have disagreements, the duo says they know when to step back. “The challenge is not to let any disagreement descend to chaos. We trust each other completely. We have an open office and each of us is in the know of what is happening,” says Dublish.
On Wildcraft: The duo with Dinesh Kaigonahalli pooled in a `few lakhs’ to startup Wildcraft. The company has grown over 100 time in nine years, says Dublish. “We intend to make Wildcraft a global company. We have a presence in 11 countries so far. Being a product-driven company, we want to take Indian innovation international. We manufacture in India. In the next decade, we want to make Wildcraft a generic name." Sood wants the company to forge ahead beyond their shadows as co-founders.
Lessons for entrepreneurship and friendship: It is important to have complementary skill sets as co-founders. No one should suppress pr dominate the other, suggests Dublish. Sood says that luck plays its part. “You can be good friends and yet not make it as co-founders of an entrepreneurial venture. There is a risk that you may spoil both. Luck does play a great part,” he says.