Lessons from a 4-day old start up

Eight lessons that emerged in setting Founding Fuel up

Charles Assisi

[Photograph by Brajeshwar Oinam under Creative Commons]

Tonight, we are young
So let's set the world on fire
We can burn brighter than the sun

These lines refuse to stop playing in my head. Call it naive optimism. But three days down the line, after a start up I co-founded with a few close friends went live, I feel awfully tired. My friend Shashikant Shetty tells me I look like a raccoon with dark circles and bags under my eyes. Anna, my wife, hasn’t taken a minute out to get me to stop chain-smoking.

Be that as it may, a little less than 24-hours after Founding Fuel went live, I wrote a version of this piece for Mint, India's most influential business daily. I thought it important because in getting this far, I think I've learnt lessons worth a lifetime.

Before I get into what I learnt, a few caveats must be filed. For the twenty odd years I've practiced journalism, I thought myself a start up guy. I thought I knew pretty much everything there is on how to build from scratch.

My first big gig came when the incredibly talented R Jagannathan (Jaggi), then editor at Financial Express, plucked me, an unknown 20-year something to launch eFE. Intended to be a daily that covered technology at the peak of the dot com boom, it did reasonably well. Validation came later in the form of an offer from the mercurial and brilliant Tony Joseph who had just taken over as editor at Businessworld. I was part of a team that transformed what was then a dying magazine into a go-to place.

All thanks to the free run these men gave me, when Vogel-Burda, a German publishing company wanted to get CHIP magazine to India, I was chosen for the job. It was back to basics and bleary nights. That I did well was obvious when Jaideep Bose (Jojo), the understated and calm Editor-in-Chief at The Times of India, asked me to join his team. Those were the days Hindustan Times (Mint's mother ship) and DNA announced intent to mark territory in Mumbai. A great newspaper battle ensued and the Times of India had to be reinvented. What a time it was!

Validation came again when Raghav Bahl, the spunky entrepreneur who had built Network18 ground up invited some of us to create the Indian edition of Forbes India. Like all entrepreneurs with chutzpah, he empowered us to do what we thought right. Unending days and nights culminated in a title, I believe, gave incumbents a run for their money.

Success and arrogance are natural allies. All of these experiences convinced me I knew how to build a start up. Circumstances have a way to conspire though. Five years down the line, I found myself with Indrajit Gupta (IG), my boss at Forbes India, on the road, asking our selves, what next.

It took us close to two years of pounding the road and a few hundred hours of conversations with people of all kinds to figure that out. The outcome, like I said earlier, is just a few days old and some lessons emerged out of it.

Lesson #1: Stay Put
The universe conspires in strange ways. When it does, everything seems ugly. But hindsight is always 20:20. So until two years ago, between IG, a few colleagues, and me who were at the drawing board, putting into place plans to make Forbes India a powerhouse, we thought all was well. It wasn't. Much of what really happened is in the public domain. Suffice to say, we were called in one day and booted out.

It hurt then. And how. But counseling from friends later, it made sense to stay put and look at the future. Grudges, they said, are not worth harboring, because it gnaws into time that can otherwise be deployed into something productive.

That is why, in hindsight, I'm glad whatever happened actually did. Because if it hadn't, Founding Fuel wouldn't have happened.

Lesson #2: Start Early
I wanted the perfect product out. But after reading and listening to veterans from Silicon Valley like Eric Ries on The Lean StartUp, the message was clear. Never mind the imperfections. Put something, anything, out there - a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Ignore imperfections. You can keep iterating forever till you get it right. What you need to get right is purpose and all else is forgiven. As I look at what is live now, it is work in progress. But heck, it's out there. The dashboard tells me people are taking a look at it, they're talking of what works and what doesn't. I'm listening. In hindsight, I ought to have launched at least six months ago

Lesson #3: Stay Hungry
It is one thing to build and create entities under the blanket of warmth a monthly pay cheque provides. From Jaggi to Tony and Jojo to Raghav, they ensured the warmth never dissipated. But it is another thing altogether when that blanket is taken away. The cold that accompanies bites the bone. But as KV Kamath, non executive chairman at ICICI Bank and former chairman of Infosys told Indrajit and me on one of our visits to seek his advice: “Be brutal. Reimagine, rethink, slash costs, and unlearn everything. Start from scratch.”

That this is painful advice was made obvious when it translated into my giving up on the perks I had gotten used to—lazy Sunday brunches at the ITC Grand Maratha, my favorite hotel or a driver to ferry me around. I have a tough time telling my older daughter why her dad can't afford to take her there like he used to in the past.

From the confines of a climate-controlled cabin, I now operate out of a one-bed room apartment with sparse furniture and a beaten down air conditioner.

Lesson #4:  Stay Foolish
Like I said earlier, arrogance accompanies success. But Kamath advised ,“start from scratch”. So it was with trepidation I approached R Sukumar (Suku), the editor of Mint, to ask if he'd allow me write and eventually give the entity I had in mind real estate in this newspaper. I fell off my chair when he generously agreed to both. I've been writing on Mint since November last year and the first set of pages I had in mind appeared on Tuesday.

Much like knocking on Suku's doors and in trying to reimagine and relearn, Indrajit and I knocked on some more doors. We had nothing to offer, only promises and a purpose. There was no tangible reason why their doors ought to have opened up. But veterans like Analjit Singh, Harsh Mariwala, Arun Maira, D Shivakumar, Uday Shankar, Kiran Karnik, Sanjeev Bikhchandani and Rama Bijapurkar not only opened their doors, but also suggested we create a formal advisory council to advice and mentor us. Between Suku and these stalwarts, all of this wouldn't have happened if we hadn't kept our egos aside and simply asked them.

Lesson #5: Stay Focused
Like I said earlier, we had nothing, but purpose. What else explains why CS Swaminathan (Swami), comfortably perched as President of Tutor Vista decided to chuck his assignment and join in as a co-founder? Nothing else explains either why Achyut Nayak (Achu), a software engineer who builds mission critical software for Fortune 500 companies thought it worth his while to build from ground up the technology backbone from open source software for a scraggly bunch of wannabe entrepreneurs with no formal funding to back them.

Lesson #6: Stay Invested
There is no monetary value you can ascribe to friends and those who want you to do well. The reason we have a formidable list of contributors on an untested and as yet unknown platform is because over the years we had built deep and meaningful relationships with people of all kinds. That is also the reason why Sunil Thomas, the Co-founder and CEO of Wizrocket allowed us access to his superbly built analytics engine to be deployed on the Founding Fuel platform.

Lesson #7: Stay with the family
In all of my earlier avatars, I sacrificed time with my wife and older daughter to change the world. This time around though I told myself no matter what, I'll learn how to wash my younger daughter's bottom after she's pooped, sing rhymes and listen to Hakuna Matata from The Lion King with her as many times as she wants to. As my brother keeps telling me, what else does a child need other than your time? It now gives me perverse pleasure to report to my wife, the younger one is more comfortable having me around to care for her. I suspect that is also why when I started dipping into our savings to carve my start up out, as much as the missus was upset, she kept her disappointment to herself and let me do my own number.

Lesson #8: Keep the Sabbath hours holy
I always thought being "always on" a good thing. Until I was told I'd be more productive if I went offline for a few hours everyday, to be with myself, to reflect, to align, to question, and to rest. Having tried it out, I know the rule is worth following with the precision of a metronome. It isn't possible to set aside a Sabbath Day as the Jewish texts command. But it is possible to go on sabbatical for a few hours. A contemporary way to articulate it is, work-life balance

This is not to suggest my start up has arrived. But to share a few lessons learnt on the road in setting one up. Even if it blows up, I can die aware it is better to die having tried than not having tried something at all.

This piece is adapted from an article that was originally published by Mint on March 20, 2015

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Mamta Mamta on Mar 24, 2015 8:37 p.m. said

Brilliant, and the absolute truth.I started out ,4th time from scratch in 2010,the first one was in 1984.And I was so sure,that now I do know it all,I am doing this the 4th time over.But,the story is very different,as I might be the same,everything else is new,it is all happening for the first time.
I love the name and the concept. And having a mentoring team in place is super brilliant.Wishing the team oodles of success.

Mamta Mamta on Mar 24, 2015 8:35 p.m. said

Brilliant, and the absolute truth.I started out ,4th time from scratch in 2010,the first one was in 1984.And I was so sure,that now I do know it all,I am doing this the 4th time over.But,the story is very different,as I might be the same,everything else is new,it is all happening for the first time.
I love the name and the concept. And having a mentoring team in place is super brilliant.Wishing the team oodles of success.

Mamta Mamta on Mar 24, 2015 8:33 p.m. said

Brilliant, and the absolute truth.I started out ,4th time from scratch in 2010,the first one was in 1984.And I was so sure,that now I do know it all,I am doing this the 4th time over.But,the story is very different,as I might be the same,everything else is new,it is all happening for the first time.
I love the name and the concept. And having a mentoring team in place is super brilliant.Wishing the team oodles of success.

Anand Jain on Mar 22, 2015 12:00 p.m. said

Nice post, straight from the gut. The experience of starting up and doing your own thing is a rich teacher. In a few weeks I'd like to hear what it is like to run a startup from you. There will be ups and downs, but stay put and keep chipping away. God speed.

Smitha Murthy on Mar 22, 2015 4:44 a.m. said

Brilliantly written and so encapsulates all that I feel as well. I haven't yet checked what the startup is all about, but really that's a bit like reading a book and asking that naive question 'what is it all about?' I have been there myself - struggling with a travel startup called trippintraveller.com (this is not a plug for the site) but just wanted to say how much it resonates. We are still looking to perfect the site, we have been bad networkers, and getting to bury the egos has been a task. Will check back on your site, but oh, please leave us the easy option of logging in with a wordpress account or FB account to comment

Sachin Joneja on Mar 21, 2015 3:25 p.m. said

Great piece Charles! Am quite sure that this start up will go on to greater things!

About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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