What I learned while 'starting up' - Ranjeet Pratap Singh, FMS Delhi
Ranjeet Pratap Singh holds a Bachelors degree in Computer Science and Engineering from KIIT University, Bhubaneswar and an MBA from FMS, Delhi. Ranjeet is the Co-Founder and CEO of Pratilipi, a self-publishing platform for authors in all Indian Languages and a discovery and reading platform for readers worldwide. Prior to Pratilipi, he worked at Vodafone and Citibank. He is a member of MENSA international and holds 30+ certifications from Harvard University. Ranjeet was awarded ‘Bharti Scholarship’ and ‘TMI Scholarship’ during his MBA. He is passionate about decreasing poverty through meaningful education. He is 2015 Fellow in the Startup Leadership Program in Bangalore.
Background: I come from a very small village in Rae Bareli district of Uttar Pradesh. I am the first engineer in my village(and probably in nearby 50-60 villages). I have an MBA from FMS-Delhi, one of the best Business Schools in the country, and till exactly 7 months back I was among the top 1% highest earning individuals in my neighbourhood. I left my job because I didn't think I was contributing enough to the society at large/I didn't feel challenged enough/I wanted to work with the smartest people I could. I went around a country trip for a couple of months, met loads of people both friends and the 'start-up junta' and finally zeroed in on a business plan and a location. This background is important to drive the point that it was tough to convince my family to leave my 'cushy' job and do something so 'odd and risky'.
How it all Began: I am a voracious reader and I love reading Hindi literature just as much as I love reading English literature, but unfortunately I couldn't find enough good quality Hindi literature to read.
On the other hand I knew a lot of good Hindi authors who actually had to pay money just to get published and these publishers seemed to have little interest in marketing/distributing their books once they had earned the money already. This seemed like a problem that was both big and urgent enough to be solved, and thanks to ever increasing mobile internet penetration in India I was convinced that the problem can be solved not only for people like me but can also provide literature access to around 600 million Indians who can only read in their vernacular languages and to over 15 million Non Resident Indians.
The first steps: By now I was certain that there is a problem that needs to be solved and that the market was big enough to try solving it. The third question was whether doing this was feasible? And whether it was feasible for me to do it?
To answer these questions, I started off with market validation from both the sides. I talked to over 200 writers(mostly in Hindi) and more than 100 people(not all of them avid readers). I also studied literally hundreds of players who operate(or are likely to operate in near future) in this field. With this exercise and I became reasonable confident that this can be done, and this can be done by me. But I also realized that it's too big a problem to be solved alone, so I started head hunting.
The first problem: I am usually pretty careless about most of the things but I am very demanding about things that I care about. I really cared about this, so I was very picky about who all I would want to work with. This became my first big obstacle. Almost everyone that I wanted to work with was already in a well-paying job, was under pressure by their family to 'get married and settle down' and in many cases had a running loan. It took me more than a month, many dozen long calls/chats and a few trips here and there to assemble a team of 4 people who I thought would be best for solving it.
Second Problem: Now that I had a good team in place, the second problem was sustenance. I was pretty sure that I didn't want to raise money from professional investors at that stage, primarily because it would take some time away from me that I can use in actually solving the problem, but also because I just knew the problem and a dozen different ways in which it could potentially be solved, I wanted to experiment and use data to see which of these ways made best sense for us.
So, like always, I contacted my friends. I didn't ask them to bet on my business, I asked them to bet on me, that even if the business didn't grow, it would be my responsibility to pay them back(thus it would be debt and not equity). This meant that we still held 100% of our equity to play around with, and that the friends wouldn't be unduly worried about the business failing or that we were not making any money to return them from.
We used this money to find a nice 4 BHK duplex that acted as our home cum office and for our operational expenditure.
Third Problem: We got our entire team together and started building the product in August beginning. Meanwhile I was also trying to get in touch with the investors and established entrepreneurs to get their take on our business model. And almost everyone, except those who had themselves faced the same problem said that we were just fooling around. Some of the remarks that we got were very discouraging and often factually wrong. Someone said that nobody reads on mobile/laptop at all. Someone else said that nobody in India will pay you for reading vernacular literature. Someone else that you won't be able to get even a hundred readers on-board. Our thoughts at the time were like a roller-coaster. At one moment we would be 100% certain that this is a big enough problem and that we will solve it. At another we would think that may be the naysayers are right and that we should quit right now instead of quitting two years later. So, we once again decided to take help of data and not take an assumption driven route. We launched a very early beta version on 14'th September.
Present: We have got some awesome response from both authors and readers. We have been able to on-board over 200 authors, have got over 1000 content pieces published, have 3000+ fans on facebook and are on a continual upwards trend on website traffic. We have also been contacted by dozens of people who are interested in joining us as a co-founder/employee/investor. But that doesn't mean that everything is perfect. We are still looking for our first angel(someone that we would want to work with), we are growing fast but not as fast as we want. We are still looking for more awesome people we would want to work with. So basically we are still on the same roller-coaster, but now the good waves last longer and higher.
1. Being driven by intuition/impulse is alright but whenever you can backing up the intuition with solid data is always a good idea.
2. There are a lot of people and everyone has their own opinion/advice and you should seek it actively, but at the end of the day the onus is on you. You can listen to a hundred different people but the decision has to be yours, as they say in Hindi "suno sabki karo apne man ki" - "Listen to everyone but do what seems right to you".
3. Being confused or scared is okay. Most of 'humans' are confused/scared at-least at some points in their life. Key is to accept that it's okay, take a moment away and try to validate whether your confusion or fear is rational, and if there is anything that you can do about it.
4. Getting the right team in very important, not just in terms of skills but also in terms of compatibility. I can't stress this point hard enough. A good team-mate doesn't just do his job, he also helps you in doing your job much better.
5. Building/having a support system is very important. From money to advice to having the word out, we have been immensely helped by a lot of friends and even strangers. We have to understand that help begets help, and that's why I've consciously decided that I take half an hour everyday to help someone. It might be as simple as being a shoulder for him or it may be as hard as trying to figure his life(when I can't even figure out mine).
P.S. - > This article has been written in hope that it may help someone who is a little behind on the 'starting-up' timeline than us. A secondary use case is that it may give us a perspective when we are further up the timeline and want to recollect our starting few weeks.