The Anticipation Plot - Chapter 1: The First Big Why
I started up in 2009, and I exited my company in 2020. In a 6 part series I recollect stories and reflect upon my journey. This is the first chapter - The First Big Why.
It is a season when Indian startups are doing extremely well with the IPOs of Freshworks and Zomato leading the charge. Every IPO’s, unicorn’s2, and soonicorn’s story is rich with detail - and we get to read about it in the papers, and applaud the victory of the human spirit.
In addition, there are hundreds and thousands of smaller startups that are beating the odds every day with sheer tenacity and grit. They’re hustling daily, fighting the good fight.
I share with you my story - to commemorate my own startup journey, and victory.
My story begins 6 months after my “exit.” In May 2021, I found myself excessively tired. I couldn’t sit for more than an hour at a stretch. My upper back was killing me. I felt a constant radiating pain in my legs and feet. And it hurt when I peed. These are symptoms of a disc prolapse, a common occupational hazard for sedentary workers.
I should know - disc prolapse is an old friend. I had my first one in 2003. I’d been sitting (studying) for long hours then, and driving more than I should have. The pain had built up over months. I’d ignored it. One day, I found myself in incredible pain during class - I couldn’t get up and I couldn’t walk.
And again in early 2012. I was newly married. And overworked. I found myself stuck in the bathroom on an otherwise unremarkable Winter morning. Like in 2003, it took me over two months of rest and physical therapy, ayurveda and yoga, to get back to “normal.”
This time I had been pushing myself to work for 65+ hours a week. Additionally, I was doing more than the usual amount of household chores because of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.
But, unlike the last time, I acted early. Didn’t wait for the cliff. I planned for, and took a medical break. In August 2021, I went to therapy - ayurveda and yoga. For most of the time, though, I lay down on a flat surface, legs up the wall to relieve the pain, as I’ve done a thousand times in the last two decades.
And I lay down, and I stared at the ceiling.
I said to the ceiling, “Hi there old friend, feels like we’ve met before.”
And the ceiling said to me, “Have we?”
“Yes, a thousand times. I push myself too much. My back breaks. And I come here, to heal. And this repeats in loop.”
“A bit like Sisyphus3,” commented the ceiling.
“Yup… that’s right.” I reflected.
“I don’t remember you from earlier,” said Ceil. “Maybe it was a different ceiling. I’m Ceil, by the way.”
“Oh,” I was surprised, “Hi Ceil. I had assumed that all ceilings were the same. My bad. Sorry.”
A moment passed. Then, stoically4, the ceiling asked, “Did you make it to the top? Or did the boulder roll back down?”
“I don’t know, Ceil. You decide.”
A Privileged Childhood
I grew up in the company of academic overachievers. My maternal grandfather had been to Cornell on a scholarship in 1948 and had come back to be a central university vice-chancellor and a teacher’s teacher. My paternal grandfather was a lawyer. My parents went to IIT. A couple of my uncles too. And so did my elder brother.
My childhood, however, was not pleasant. I was a sickly child, with 60% attendance in primary and middle school. We weren’t particularly well-off.
My mother was a computer scientist working on Mainframes in the late 1980s, moving at some point to Windows 3.11. We got our first computer at home in 1992, or maybe in 1994. My father was a professor at IIT Kharagpur and taught ship design. Our family’s finances improved only in the early 2000s with the first IT boom.
But even though we weren’t wealthy, we had the privilege of higher education. Thanks to my upbringing, I was intuitively good at math, engineering, and coding. Further, we spoke English at home. I read voraciously as a child - Tintin, Asterix, Enid B, Hardy Boys, Three Investigators, Agatha Christie, Ayn Rand, Feynman - across a variety of genres. We even had an early hard bound copy of Irodov’s Problems in Physics, probably purchased from the Calcutta Book Fair.
As a boy, I was a mix of a maker - I melted plastic on a candle and moulded them by hand; a coder - I coded “Brainvita” in GW Basic; a gamer - I was hooked on to Civilization back in 1994 (still am); a rebel - I plotted ways to run away from home; a chef - Cakes were my jam; a writer and a poet - with prizes to show for it. I was also inconsistent - I didn’t go deep into any of my “hobbies” or skills, constantly switching from one interest to another. Somewhat flaky.
For grades 11 and 12, I had a fabulous peer group5 and some amazing teachers - both at school and at IIT-JEE coaching. One of them was an eccentric math teacher named “KSR.” Our classroom had the capacity to seat only 20 students - we would file in at 6 in the morning. There was no teacher’s desk - just a few benches and tables. He’d sit in the middle of the room, between us. Some of us would face him and a few would sit next to him, and the rest behind him.
He would teach us math with his finger, drawing into the air in front of him, as if to write on an imaginary blackboard. All of the math he taught us - algebra, calculus, trigonometry, induction, etc - was drawn into the air. And we … understood.
He taught us to visualise, to truly understand (and enjoy) math and logic in our mind’s eye. I still work on things mentally, often finishing up to 3/4th of my work before opening my computer.
KSR would speak to us in Tamil. If we didn’t understand, he’d say, “You’ll learn.” And thus I got my first lesson in pedagogy - if a learner desires to learn, s/he will find a way. Many years later, in 2011, I co-wrote the pedagogic basis for the Book Lovers’ Program for Schools - and we started with the principle of desire - the kids must “want to” do something and they’ll find a way.
Our Chemistry teachers - Govi and Santhanam - were similarly eccentric. They would complete a terribly difficult chapter over a month and announce a test. Our entire class of 120 students would “burn the midnight oil” in preparation. In the exam hall, we’d receive the test paper and realise that only half the questions were from the chapter that was just completed.
In the post-exam “paper discussion” class, we’d protest. “You haven’t covered these questions earlier.” “We weren’t prepared.” “We didn’t know.” Govi (or Santhanam) would raise his hand to calm us down. He would smile and say, “Now you know.” With that, he’d start teaching the next chapter.
In spite of the intense IIT-JEE prep, I had a normal senior school experience, sort of. I led my school’s literary efforts, participated in “cultural competitions,” was part of an award-winning “Adzap” and “Dumb Charades” team. There was also Harry Potter. (The Order of the Phoenix was released in June 2003.)
Lastly (or maybe firstly), I learnt how to be a good boyfriend from a really kind and wonderful girl. Lessons ranged from how to frame sentences to how to hide in terraces. Her determination to make a likeable man out of me was truly remarkable.6 #truestory
I cleared IIT-JEE in 2003 and was admitted to IIT Madras.
Set within a reserve forest, the IIT Madras campus is home to thousands of trees, monkeys, snakes, and deer. Yet it’s in the middle of a large city. I had the most amazing college experience. I made some good friends - including Naresh, Amrit Vatsa and Rahul - who will make their presence felt in future chapters.
I was part of a theatre group and a writing group, and I tried to play the guitar - usual college stuff. For a while, I dated a pretty girl7 who taught me to appreciate classical dance. “Think of it like a long flirtation.” Years later, one of my biggest learnings came while watching an early morning Bharatnatyam performance by the beach in Chennai.
In late 2006, The Dean of Students, Prof Chandy, was toying with the idea of a student-run-lab. He had been to The Edgerton Center at MIT and was inspired to create a similar space at IIT Madras. The alumni of 1981 had picked the project up for its silver jubilee donation - Rs. 80 Lacs.
At the time, I was a student leader for a few engineering projects and events. Prof Chandy requested me to lead the project. My team was tasked to set up a new innovation lab, a “maker-lab” where students could tinker.
It took us a year and a half, but we birthed the Center for Innovation (CFI) at IIT Madras. In addition to creating the space and equipment ready, we also worked hard to set the right culture. An early decision in this regard was that IIT-Madras will not offer certificates for any work done at CFI - to keep “resume hunters” away from the maker-lab8. This would ensure that resources are available for the quieter students, who want to find themselves in work. Another “culture policy” decision - we employed retired staff from IIT labs and workshops - so that students working on bigger projects could liaison with other institute labs easily.
CFI opened its doors in the Summer of 2008. In the years to come, many prominent startups began here - Ather, HyperVerge, DocsApp, etc.
Today, the triumvirate of CFI (idea -> prototype), Nirmaan (prototype -> product) and Incubation cell (product -> company) - form the bedrock for startup activity at IIT Madras9. The incubation support that IIT Madras offers to its students and alumni contributes to its consistently high performance in NIRF - National Institutional Ranking Framework, which currently stands at #1 (for three years now).
It was during my CFI days that I met and spent time with Ajit “Q” Narayanan. I didn’t know it at the time, but in 2017, Ajit and I would embark on a great adventure in China.
I graduated in 2008, and I was 1 of 15 across the country to make it to the prestigious Hindustan Unilever (HUL) management trainee program. It was a great opportunity for me to step up.
It was as a trainee that I first started questioning my privilege. Had it not been for the extremely good fortune of being born in an upper-caste family, with access to an academic family and peer group, would I have been able to achieve much? Am I any good without my privilege?
At some point during this period, I stopped wearing my “sacred thread.” But of course, this was only a superficial gesture.
Others in my position might have been able to channel this man-vs-self conflict into positive energy. Perhaps they would have spread their good fortune through charity, championed a cause, used technology for social good, and so on. They would have thought, “What can I do with all this good fortune that’s been showered on me?”
I didn’t. I was 22 and obsessed with myself.
At one point, I found myself working in the Singapore office of Unilever. I was assigned a meaningless task - dreadful stuff that you’d give only to Indian trainees. I’d mentally switched off from work - because of which I had a lot of time on my hands. I’d walk around the streets, go to art installations, and just sit in the parks and write fiction.
My friend Abhijeet worked in Singapore at the time - he took me around to the posh nightclubs and bars - the places you needed to flash your Amex Card to enter. The details don’t matter but on one particular night, we went to a bar on the 20th floor. Or maybe the 28th. I remember looking down and thinking - why am I here?
The dominant thought in my mind was - what if I just … fell down (or less dramatically, took the elevator down)? And I start the climb again, this time without the privilege - would I be able to get back up? In my mind, this is the singular moment when I decided to start my own company.
People start up for many reasons - to get rich, to be powerful, to be independent, to monetise a key insight, to serve the world, to uplift society and so on. Sometimes it’s a compulsion. Or maybe a family addiction to start/run a business. These weren’t my reasons - I just wanted to find myself.
They say that building a start-up hurts like someone is punching your face every day. I wanted that - for the world to physically beat the privilege out of me and let me see for myself who I really am.
In retrospect, there was a lot of hubris in the way I thought - it assumes that there exists some inner “real” version of myself that is independent of the nurturing I received. Logically speaking, that’s BS.
I left Unilever on 1 October 2009. To find myself, which took time - and we’ll get to that. But I did find the love of my life later that week.
The next chapter:
Shout out to Abhijeet, Aravindan, Sarang, Suchitra, Sahil, Vignesh, and the rest of the gang at P.S. Senior in 2001-03.
If you’re reading this, then my eternal gratitude to you.
If you’re reading this, good luck on motherhood.
I do not have an official certificate for my work at CFI.