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Photograph by Vishal Koul

Secret Diary Of An Entrepreneur

"Go Big Or Go Home"
Secret Diary of Vijay Shekhar Sharma Part-1

Kripa Mahalingam

Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder, One97 & Paytm

“Your lips move but I can’t hear what you are saying”

What would I have done without Pink Floyd then…Those days in college, eager to soak it all in, but felled by the language. Words flew thick and fast, with all lectures in English, and, I, seated in the first row, kept sinking lower. I couldn’t even answer questions. The number of times I got thrown out for not answering! 

I was 15, the youngest in the class. Oh! The embarrassment that washes over you, the first time that happens. It’s funny how quickly I transitioned from the first bench to the last. Then, out of the class altogether. I knew I had to get my act together. The professors were saying the same in as much words. It didn’t matter what my age was, the past was forgotten. I kept thinking I was the class topper. How did I get so low? What happened to me? It was so alienating, not having anyone to talk to. I didn’t have many friends who could help me get out of the abyss. The Delhi snobs, who only spoke in English, were not an option. It was such a nightmare. I couldn’t go home, and staying on depressed me more. 

That’s when I found Pink Floyd, Jim Morrison, U2 and Coldplay. Where the streets have no name… 

Bono’s I want to run/I want to hide/I want to tear the walls that hold me inside…the words still resonate. In them, I found the unlikeliest of teachers. I started picking up English in an effort to understand the songs. I would learn the lyrics, playing them back in my head in a loop. 

The colonial language was always my Achilles heel. I was 13 when I finished school. I had a full year before I could sit for the engineering entrance exams. But I was still so nervous. All the entrance exams were in English and I was from a Hindi-medium school. Could I crack it? I kept oscillating between hope and despair. 

I always had books for company, growing up in Aligarh, UP. Many of my classmates didn’t even have slippers! It didn’t worry them too much. But it worried me. I didn’t want to be tied down, be a prisoner to my fate by refusing to change. I was going to break free…leave home, right after school. I never wanted to go back to the world I came from. I wasn’t a man on a mission; I was a son running away from his father. He was a sincere teacher, the sole earning member of our family. He refused to take tuitions because he believed education should be available to all, and not privy to a few. It wasn’t easy; there were six of us, living off a modest teacher’s salary. There were no savings. I remember the struggle to raise 2 lakh for my sister’s wedding. The world doesn’t always reward sincerity the way it should… my dad never got his due. 

Then, so naïve at 13, I had big plans. I was going to change the orbit for both me and family. The dream was to get a job that paid 10,000. I thought that would be enough to lift us up. I wanted to get a television, pay off the loans…I did do all of that eventually, only not how I envisaged I would. 

Things don’t always work out the way you want. That one gap year, I spent days and days fretting over the exams. There is a quote that goes, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” There couldn’t be any limits when you are trying to switch orbits..So, I decided to make a Hindi-English dictionary on my own! The NCERT book in English and the UP Board one in Hindi… I read them simultaneously, looking for similar diagrams to understand what words like momentum, height and distance meant in English. It worked! Sometimes, I would figure out the question by looking at the answers. There is no correct way of doing a thing, is there? 

Maybe there is…I didn’t get through IIT, Roorkee, REC, any of them! After all the work, I was no good at descriptive answers. I had failed. I kept thinking if I would ever escape. I had given up on entrance tests, what was the point? My heart wasn’t in it but Dad wanted me to try Delhi College of Engineering. We left Aligarh at 2.00 A.M. in the morning and reached Delhi for the entrance test at 9.30 A.M. I wasn’t holding my breath because only 15% of the seats were reserved for non-Delhiites. But the universe is a funny place…much to my dad’s relief and my surprise; I managed to clear the exams with a decent rank.  At the counselling session, both of us had only question…which stream got the most campus recruitments? “Electronics and Communications,” they told us. There was no further discussion…

The pursuit to learn English opened my eyes to new things. I started reading newspapers and magazines, going to the Sunday market in Daryaganj to pick up second-hand business magazines. Fortune-500 companies, a place called Silicon Valley that was going through the internet revolution! Learnt about so many things…Way back in 1995-96, there wasn’t even Hotmail. So I was so stoked to learn that we had internet. Then on, programming started dictating my life, I was spending the whole day at the lab. It was fun, I was good at it and the best part — I could make money out of programming. I didn’t really need a job! 

Maybe it was my English handicap that pushed me to start a company, in the third year. I was always writing programs than studying for exams…so I failed! This time, the failure didn’t rankle. I was getting good at programming. To make my business card sound legit, the address read: East 37 ECE K Gate, Delhi. A friend’s relative would take the calls and pass on the enquiries…

I just had to find customers. I came up with an interesting hack. I scanned the classifieds, zeroing in on programmer jobs. I went for interviews. When we reached the salary part, I told them “I can’t take the job.” The puzzled looks they had…the questions that followed… “Why did you come for the interview?” I told them it was my way of finding clients, I could write the code and mail it. One of them burst out laughing, told me it was a creative way to find clients, hiring me. Others didn’t have that sense of humour. They got pissed and shooed me off. I won some and lost some in that phase, but started getting a steady flow of business.  

I wrote web programs for Jet Airways, writing their Delhi-Bombay schedule and built a website called Travel in India, the previous avatar of Incredible India! The Jet Airways program got me 1,000! It was the first time I made so much money. We celebrated with pizza that night. It was memorable… it was so liberating! I didn’t need an education after all… 

But my principal and HOD thought otherwise. They gave me a chance to reappear for the exams. I will forever be grateful for that. Two days after everyone, I passed too. Ironically, I landed the highest paying job on campus! They gave me a role based on my interest. My parent’s prayers were answered, they were over the moon...I wasn’t. I felt tied down…just for some money at the end of the month. When I went home, I had a proposition for my mother. I told her I will send her the money, come what may, each month. How did it matter whether it came from a job or a business? The negotiations that followed…it was tough wrangling out a deal. But I managed. Six months into my first job, I quit…I was free again.

I started XS Corps! with three friends. We build a content management system for media houses like Living Media, Indian Express, Afaqs and portals likes JobsAhead and Zipahead. At the end of 1999, we got an offer from an American company. They were offering a million dollars — 1 crore in cash and the rest in stock. We were getting 25 lakh each in 12 tranches, plus a salary. Not bad for a 20-year-old…

This is the first of a three-part series. You can read part two here and part three here.

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