• I seek advice from Kanwaljit, Shripad, VT
    • Biggest influence NRN. He makes you think beyond... subtly
    • Best days of my life Now
    • I am no longer God fearing or too religious
    • Best business book Scaling Up: How a Few Companies Make It... And Why the Rest Don’t
    • Best gift I ever got Kanwaljit gave me this book titled, A Book About Innocent: Our Story and Some Stuff We’ve Learned
    • Incredible moment When NRN came on board as an investor... we were the second investment made by Catamaran
    • Toughest thing Not getting carried away by success


Does turning an entrepreneur make you a better human being? I’m not sure… it’s a tough question to answer. I can’t help feeling elated though, when Vandana says I have become a better person…not because of her praise, but more so because I believe an entrepreneur, in some sense, is a selfish individual. He is so obsessed about his own dream or ambition that he doesn’t mind his family going through the grind that’s not even of their own making…just like I did when I chose to be on my own.

The entrepreneurial calling took a while coming…In 1995, when I graduated, becoming an entrepreneur was not even a fleeting thought. Then, NRN was the poster boy of India’s latent entrepreneurial zeal. I came from a family where making it to the echelon of power was perceived to be a big achievement. Owing a jeep and staying in government accommodation meant you had arrived. That status quo was swept away in the 90s. Landing a plum job in the private sector became the in-thing. It wasn’t any different for me. After completing my MBA from MDI, I first joined Union Carbide, then Wipro and later Coca-Cola in 2000.

But before landing a job with the cola major, for a brief while I dabbled in my grandfather’s tailoring business in Karnal. It was more to help out the handful of tailors working with him, as their trade was dwindling…readymade garments were fast catching people’s fancy. I managed to bag some orders from export houses but logistical bottlenecks put paid to the effort. It was time to move on…that’s when Coke happened.

Things moved fast at Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages. I got a promotion every 12 months – from an area sales manager, shifting to one department from the other, till I became the general manager of their bottling plant in Bangalore, in charge of their P&L. Working for a MNC, which was the market leader, moving up the curve so early in my career made me cocky about success. Vandana felt I had turned arrogant…Maybe…I wanted something more challenging and stimulating. I was fancying a bigger role at the Atlanta HQ. So, I went to Wharton. But it was not to be…

It was 2009, after my summer internship with Helion Ventures in Bangalore. I was reporting to Kanwaljit…it was great interacting and learning from him. But working alongside Helion’s portfolio companies, sitting through series of investor presentations got me thinking…“everybody out here is high on energy and wants to change the world. What am I doing, sitting across the table! Why had that ambition never entered my thought process?” That feeling kept building up and my zeal to get to Atlanta started dripping.

The very thought of being on my own was so endearing…so much so that I didn’t even stay on for my last semester at Wharton. I completed the course via distance learning – I had to or else father would have been furious! He was anyway upset about my quitting a job to pursue higher studies, the only consolation for him was that I hadn’t settled down in the US…but I still hadn’t told him what was on my mind.

Suhas from those days at Coke was looking to start something new. He had already dabbled with entrepreneurship. Since I was pretty clued into beverages, both of us felt it was a good opportunity to look at functional ones. At this point, James, whom I knew during my Wharton days, too joined the venture. The three of us put together Rs 1.75 crore to bootstrap Hector Beverages. I pooled in my entire savings of Rs 75 lakh, Suhas pulled in Rs 25 lakh and James the rest. We discussed and debated on the target segment, the product…during one such session Suhas came up with the idea of a protein-based drink. The rationale was that since Indians are protein-deficient, there was a humungous need for a veg-based protein drink. It was like a eureka moment…we were kicked, thinking it was a great insight. If we could make a tasty product, people would be eating out of our hands…

We got moving on the idea…sourced soy isolate from DuPont and got the product made out of Chennai. Priced at Rs 30 per sachet, Frissia was the first offering, a protein powder that one had to mix with water and gulp down. It was that simple. But we felt influencing consumers through doctors would be tough, so why not hit the gyms…The instructors would be our brand influencers and ambassadors. Boy! How pumped up we felt about our marketing strategy!

Every morning, we would wake up at 5 am and would go to gyms at different locations and set up a small table inside. We would urge the regulars to try our unique offering…little did we realise the reason why protein drinks were being sold in big jars. There was logic behind it…people would scoop out the powder, consume it over a period of time and felt that they could see its impact. With sachets, they didn’t feel they were consuming something substantial…it was psychological than anything else. While we were tom-toming “protein piyo, sehat ban jayegi”, the guys were not impressed. The common refrain was, “Teen-chaar din se le raha hoon, phir bhi kuch doley vole nahi aa rahe hain.” It was so exasperating convincing them that it would take six to eight months for the results to be visible, that it wasn’t going to happen in days. But no one was buying the pitch or the product. The only faithful ones consuming the product were the three of us! Our startup lost Rs 80 lakh on the experiment and my dad his cool!

Frissia was soon history…it was time to move on. That’s when we chose to enter the energy drinks market. Though we had failed in our maiden endeavour, we were never short on confidence, nor were our first set of angel investors. Helion was keen to invest, what we wanted was a $1.5 million cheque…for Helion, the minimum ticket size was $5 million. So we chose to tap angel investors. All the past associations came in handy…Kanwaljit invested in his personal capacity, Shripad, whom I knew from Coke, and two of my classmates  each of them invested Rs 25 lakh.

But the big moment was when NRN came on board as our first major investor, thanks to Kanwaljit, who knew Josh at Footprint Ventures. Josh had previously worked at Infosys as manager, corporate planning, and had a good rapport with NRN. He came down to meet us, liked what he saw…we were stunned when he said, “I would like you guys to meet NRN.”

NRN was the first investor pitch we made. The three of us were so excited, we could barely sleep the night before. Our appointment was fixed for 9 AM, but we landed outside Catamaran’s office by 7.30 AM. We were having several rounds of coffee and prepping ourselves…I was going to do the talking. We had kept the presentation simple by restricting it to a few slides. The pitch was clear: “What’s the beverage market size globally…what was the share of functional beverages and what was the opportunity in India like. Though we had no idea of what our product would be, we were the right people to make that click…”

The fear of rejection – that paisa nahi milega toh kya hoga thought was there at the back of our minds…our plan was all on paper. But Suhas tried to defuse the tension by saying, “Agar kuch nahin hua, toh zindagi mein yeh ek bucket list tick hojayegi ki hum NRN se mile.”

Thankfully, there was chemistry the moment we introduced ourselves to NRN. He liked our background, academics and more importantly the idea that we were presenting…but Murphy’s Law was yet to play out. The presentation was heading to a close, NRN was seemingly happy, I thought of going in for the kill... “This is our unique soft packaging …aimed at breaking the clutter and moving away from the world of Tetra Pak….it is less damaging to the ecology”…I went on passionately, showcasing the packaging for what would become Tzinga. That’s when NRN commented, “…but I feel it is too soft to hold. If I am going to serve it at my client meetings and if it accidentally spills over the client’s shirt, I could end up ticking him off and losing the contract…” I wanted to dispel the notion with élan. Saying, “No, it doesn’t”, I opened the pack filled with water and tried to gulp it down, only to end up spilling it on my shirt! There was an awkward silence in the room after which all of us had a nervous laugh. NRN cheekily rubbed it in: “…so it doesn’t spill…” I just mumbled, “Sir, I was nervous speaking in front of you.” That was it and within minutes NRN went out of the room. We clicked pictures with him before that…As we walked out of his office, we were kidding that I had battle scars all over me. Josh was unsure, but I intuitively felt that our idea had resonated well…

I wasn’t wrong…we raised Rs 5 crore in the first round in September 2010 and went on to raise $4.5 million in two more tranches. It was around this time that Neeraj, whom I knew at Coke, came on board as a partner, chipping in Rs 50 lakh as capital.

The turn of events saw Dad warming up to my decision to go solo. Dad’s apprehension started ebbing away from the day I sent him my snap with NRN. Dad kept telling his friends and colleagues, “My son and NRN are partners and working on a project.” I was happy that he carried such an impression. I didn’t take the pain of explaining what the association was all about. I had my peace and so did he…

Flush with the financial reinforcement, we were ready for the second innings. Red Bull was lording over the energy market in India but we felt the category still had a lot of potential to grow. Not just developed markets, even countries such as Afghanistan and Bangladesh, had a bigger energy drink market than ours… Tzinga was born…it was a copy of what was happening in the West.

It took us one-and-a-half year to work on the product. We launched it in 2011. The product was good, but it wasn’t growing as fast as we wanted it to. After more than a year, the burn rate wasn’t exactly inspiring. Maybe it was that…somewhere down the line, we lost interest in developing the drink. Had we continued only with Tzinga we would have been a relatively small success story. But the launch was a good lesson for us in terms of branding, about how distribution mattered.

At some stage we thought let’s do something different…vitamin water was an option. We kept discussing ideas at lunch. James usually wouldn’t bring anything and he would pile on our lunch box. Back then, Suhas used get a flask in which his mom would give him aam panna. We would all end up fighting for that. One morning, James mentioned that his parents were coming down from the US and he wanted them to have a local experience, especially gol gappa and aam panna. We told him not to go to roadside stalls for gol gappa as his parents might end up with a stomach disorder. At the same time, we scouted around for aam panna. What was available in the market were artificial flavours… none of the hotels in the city were serving it either. A chance visit and we had inadvertently stumbled upon a category gap in the functional beverages market – the one for traditional, authentic indigenous Indian drinks.

This time, it was eureka! The four of us put our heads down to work on cracking the first lead…it was not an easy task but the potential if we got the product and the taste right, was difficult to ignore.

Sequoia Capital came on board. I vividly remember the first meeting with VT and Sakshi at our Gurgaon office. It was January 2012. What a meeting that was…James, who anyway had a poor dressing sense, turned up in the worst possible attire. The pant had holes and he was wearing sandals! “Didn’t you remember we have a meeting?,” I asked him. He, rather sheepishly, admitted forgetting about it.

When the duo arrived, we ushered them into a room where our dog, which used to snore quite loudly, was also sleeping. As the conversation began, the snoring just got louder…I was already squirming in my seat when James interrupted VT with “Can you please lower your tone… the dog could wake up,” I was zapped by James’ remark and gave him a stare that said, “Mate, what’s got into you today?” In my head, it was like Lakshmiji khud aayi hai aapke ghar and you are more bothered about the dog! But as things turned out, Sequoia did invest… $5 million and $12 million over two rounds.

For the first time we felt a sense of involvement and purpose in what we were doing…we were saving unique home recipes from extinction. The responsibility that it put on us…that there was a bigger cause…it was as if generations would lose out on the recipe if we weren’t there. It was a huge statement to make. That it also made commercial sense was just the icing on the cake! We lost interest in everything else and started scouting for recipes which were extinct or were going to be in the next few years.

Working on our newfound concept, Shripad came up with two words that would define our product: authentic and alive. We built the company around those two words. By creating this traditional drink we were being authentic – the products were how they should be. At the same time, alive meant it was modern, contemporary, and cool despite being a traditional recipe. Marrying the two aspects to create a strong brand was Ashwini and her team at Elephant Design. They came up with a unique design and brand name…Paper Boat. I believe this is Ashwini’s best creation by far...

The plan was to launch aam panna, but we realised that were no suppliers of green mangoes! Most waited for the fruit to ripen. Till such time that we fixed the supply chain, we launched jaljeera, a concoction of lemon juice and spices, and aamras, a ripe-mango smoothie, in flexi laminated pouches with a plastic nozzle for Rs 30 in 2013 in Delhi and Bangalore. The initial reaction from retailers was “jo cheez ghar pe banti hain usey koi kyun kharidega?” But the final verdict was delivered by the consumers. Today, there is no looking back. We finally launched aam panna in 2014…we have eight flavours, which are available through the year, and in eight seasonal flavours.

It takes one-and-a-half year, on average; to create a new drink…some take longer. There are some flavours we haven’t given up on yet. There is kaanji, a probiotic drink made from purple carrot that was once available in the North, it is no longer is available in any part of the country. The search for the elusive carrot took me all the way to Turkey! What a trip that was…I had stuffed close to 30 kg of the produce to be brought to India for trial tests, only to have it trashed by the customs department, thanks to the paranoia around mad cow disease. So, we sourced the seeds and got them cultivated in India through a contract farming arrangement. It’s taken three years, twice the time…hopefully, it will work out post the launch in September.

Being at the right place at the right time does really matter. I wonder if we had succeeded if we had launched the product in 1995. Then, we were all warming up to foreign culture, their tastes and products. Over the past two decades, that has changed. Indian consumers have gone through the curve and are a lot more comfortable about their own culture…having a jaljeera today is as cool as having any other drink. It’s here to stay for good…

It’s what a typical brand case study in a B-School would read like. But the only thing that they don’t teach you is the struggle that an entrepreneur has gone through...

Everybody knows how Philip Knight broke the stronghold of Adidas in the sneaker market by launching Nike. It’s all summarised in a couple of lines – he went and sampled his shoes at marathons and within a span of years, Nike was a roaring success! What is not taught at B-Schools is how many rejections he, or any other entrepreneur had to face before tasting success…Nobody tells you what happens to an entrepreneur’s morale when he is rejected 100 times or sworn at for disturbing somebody’s routine at a gym like we did!

And if you have worked for a market leader or an MNC like Coke, you have only seen the good life, where nobody says no to you, where the doors open easily once you flash your visiting card. It’s pretty tough because you’re used to people doing things for you, rather than you doing them…that’s a big learning to keep in mind when jumping ship from a high paying job to be on your own.

The other big change – one that does not come easy – is the one that your family has to make. The lifestyle takes a nosedive…almost everything changes. That’s what happened after Coke. We had to shift to a smaller house. I had to live off Vandana’s salary for nearly three-and-a-half years, as we didn’t have any savings and we were still in startup phase. Vacations are out of question, there is no eating out at fancy places…you don’t hang out with friends or chose to hang out with the thrifty ones!

A lot of water has flown under the bridge since, but now I enjoy the frugality. I still drive the 15-year-old CRV…the lifestyle hasn’t changed even after investors have pumped in money. Today, Hector is valued at $100 million and we haven’t even started our journey. The road ahead is long and winding but there’s no need to look far for inspiration… it can be real life or even the reel life. There is this dialogue from Trishul where AB says, “Main paanch lakh ka sauda karne aya hoon, aur mere jeb me panch phooti kaudi bhi nahin hai”.  It reflects the brutal confidence one can have…I just love that dialogue.

I haven’t met AB yet, but NRN has always been a real life hero. He sent us a touching letter when we were putting up our first plant in Manesar. The letter mentioned that it took Infosys 33 years to reach the first billion dollars, but the next billion came in just 18 months. I believe, Hector’s future won’t be any different.