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. Owning 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…
This is the first of a two-part series. You can read the second part here.