The Anticipation Plot - Chapter 2: Timing is Everything
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 second chapter - Timing is Everything.
The Library Days
I learnt to make websites in the Summer of 1998. I can’t remember why, but it was most likely a combination of boredom and parental pressure to “do something useful.” My on-again-off-again love affair with HTML continued in 2002, when four of us got together to make a WYSIWYG HTML editor in FoxPro for a school project1.
Sahil was one of the four. His dad was in IT, as was my mom. In 2009, the two of us decided to start a library with a home delivery service. We launched “iloveread.in” on Dec 23 at around 2pm. Two customers signed up on day 1. Then nothing for a week.
We took the cue from the market and decided to use the same backend software to do more. In 2010, we took the catalogue of a local movie store online and started delivering DVDs. Naresh, who was my hostel wingmate, joined us for this project. Back in college, Naresh was that guy who never went to class because he was watching a movie.
The movie store we took online - TicTac - was one of the oldest in Chennai. Started in 1983 (or thereabouts), it counted the likes of Kamal Hasan as patrons in its heyday. By 2010, it was facing an existential crisis caused by torrents and traffic. Taking the catalogue online would allow folks to order DVDs (and Blurays) home.
After launching, we learnt that customers liked coming to the store to browse and chat with the owner Kenzo - a delightful happy man. The only ones ordering lived far from the store - and it was expensive to deliver to them.
We were on a revenue share arrangement with Kenzo - so we didn’t make any money. But we had fun. Naresh and I gorged on the biryani served at the shop close to TicTac. Sahil got free burgers from Eatalica - an eatery next door that Kenzo co-owned. And one random night, we spent a few hours chasing a rat that had found its way into the store.
The StorElf Days
We moved on and started delivering for a popular fruit-juice-cafe called Fruit Shop on Greams Road (FSGR). Their juices were very popular, especially The Jughead Special. We set up a call centre and a delivery network to deliver orders from FSGR branches at Greams Road and Besant Nagar. (Psst: In the very beginning, the “delivery network” was Naresh, Sahil, Murali, an early employee and me.)
In 2011, we expanded our FSGR delivery business into a full service food delivery brand under the name StorElf. We partnered with restaurants across South Chennai. Our distributed call centre took orders. We then placed the orders with the restaurants. Our delivery boys would pick up food and complete deliveries.
Our ads ran in the Hindu Metro Plus every week. The Hindu Metro Plus was the most widely read broadsheet in Chennai at the time - maybe still is. By 2012 we had two partner kitchens (now called “cloud kitchens”) dedicated to our platform.
Even though we were doing well, it was an operational nightmare. Traffic was unpredictable. Restaurants were unreliable. Customers would complain at the drop of a hat.
Additionally, we had to watch our executives all the time. If we didn’t, they would cheat. One switched the rice grain in the pantry with “ration rice.” Another stole fuel. A third “forgot to collect cash.”
One night, we got a complaint from one of our delivery executives that the customer “stole the food.” His story was that the customer collected the food from him on the ground floor and asked him to collect the money from his wife on the third floor. But when he reached the door, it was locked. By then, the customer had switched his phone off. On doing a Rashomon analysis, we figured that the “thief” could have been (a) the customer (b) the delivery boy (c) the call centre executive or (d) the restaurant’s liaison executive. Or a combination.
Another day, we opened our office to find a bike missing. Our area hadn’t seen a bike theft in years so the cops were sure that it was an inside job. My sales manager and I set up a trap - we claimed to the delivery boys that the cops have shared CCTV footage from the nearby traffic signals. We got the bike back within two hours.
The Offkey Exit
Painted on our office walls was a line from Alice in Wonderland - “Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Our designers - Divya Kymal2 and Pavithra Muthalagan3 - wanted to inspire us to achieve great success.
But we didn’t achieve great success. My business partner was fighting addiction. My angel investor was making me beg every month for payroll money. There were a litany of complaints from customers. My back was killing me. My wife and I were expecting a baby. I was overwhelmed.
I shut StorElf down in the Summer of 2013.
At the time, Zomato was still a menu-aggregator. Swiggy started in 2014, which is also when the VC industry started backing “food-tech.” As the years rolled, smartphone penetration, 4G internet, online payments and Google Maps created an environment where food delivery could scale.
In retrospect, I made a phenomenal timing mistake - I started 3 years too early, and closed 1 year too early.
It’s easy for me to say that it was my bad luck that I got into (and left) food delivery too early. But there is a window of time when the enabling forces for an initiative are strong and the blockers are weak. Entrepreneurs have to hit the road during that window (or slightly earlier).
I should have read the tea leaves and predicted the perfect storm that Google Maps + 4G + online payments would create for food delivery.
I was thinking about customer needs, the 4Ps (product, place, promotion, price), demand-supply, “startup hustle,” and “growth hacks.” I missed the bigger picture on the timing entirely.
As a young entrepreneur, I believed that everything revolved around me - the hero. But the world has its own rhythm. The best entrepreneurs can do is to listen to the beat and play the right note at the right time. Else it’s just off-key. And jarring.
Occasionally, the timing works out on its own, serendipitously. Consider the story of how I found myself in the same room as Karthika in 2009, and the events that transpired after that.
I quit Hindustan Unilever on 1 October 2009 - to start a library. I immediately relocated to Chennai. Later the same week, I was invited to judge an event in Shaastra at IIT-M.
Shaastra is a “tech-fest,” a festival to celebrate “the spirit of engineering.” There are ~40 events over ~4 days - quizzes, programming contests, maker competitions, lectures, etc. As a student, I’d been part of the organising committee in 2006 and 2007.
My favourite event was a quiz called “How Things Work” - which I’d once co-organised with a close friend4. It’s a quiz where engineers have to “figure out” the answer. I don’t remember any of the questions but I remember how intelligent it made me feel.
The event I was asked to judge, however, was called Ig Nobel Prizes.
There’s a real Ig Nobel Prize5 is a satiric prize awarded to “make people laugh, then think.” Past awardees have measured the surface area of elephants, magnetically levitated frogs, and used helicopters to lift rhinos upside down by their ankles to see if it’s OK to do so.
The Ig Nobel at Shaastra was nothing of the kind. Teams made shit up as they went along. The judge (me) was there to award points, but the points didn’t matter. Sitting behind me was a Times of India reporter who’d come in expecting a serious event. Instead, Karthika got treated to an underground adult comedy show6.
Karthika loved reading and was a member of 5 libraries at the time. I was just starting a library. We began talking - and I fell in love instantly. We started dating within a month, and were engaged within a year. We got married in 2011. And we’ve been co-parents to our daughter Archana since 2013.
The MultiStory Days
The library business had led to the launch of two parallel businesses. One was StorElf, the hyperlocal food delivery business that I closed too early. The other was MultiStory Learning (MSL).
It all started in 2009 with a visit to my old school7. My senior school English teacher - Lakshmi Srinivasan (LS) - had become the principal. LS updated me, very politely, that “children are not reading these days.” Both of us loved reading, so we decided to fix this. Over the next 15 months, we tried a hundred different tricks to get children to read. Partnering with me on this pilot were a few artists from local theatre groups8. At the end of the pilot, 4 in 5 middle school kids were reading of their own will.
In 2011, I finally conceded that this pilot program is more than a cute side project - it may be a business on its own. Naresh and I set up MultiStory Learning Pvt Ltd (MSL) to commercialise it.
We called the product that came out of the pilot The Book Lovers’ Program for Schools (BLPS)9.
The MSL office was a stark contrast to StorElf. It was full of books and hopes and dreams. It smelt like happy young people. There was laughter in the air throughout the year.
Karthika joined MSL in 2012. Archana, who was born in 2013, spent the first 5 years of her time on Earth in that office, surrounded by walls of kids’ books. As you can imagine, she started reading before she started swinging, or jumping for that matter.
The business had positive unit economics, so we were generating profits. With the profits, we experimented. A lot. One year we made an android app10. Another year, we expanded our sales to 4 states. At one point, we opened a Delhi office. We launched the “Travelling Theatre Company.” We set up the Kathalaya storytelling training center in Chennai11. Most of our experiments fizzled out, except one.
We launched MsMoochie Books12 as an Indian children’s books imprint in 2013 with the bizarre story of Aditi Zoo - Aditi wants a little sibling but her dad wants her to get a dog first, and then a goat, and then an elephant. The story came from the brilliant freshly married mind of my friend Ajit “Q” who responded to Karthika’s pregnancy announcement with this gem: “A child? I’d rather get a dog. Or a goat … Or an elephant.” He, and his lovely wife, have two kids now.
By 2019, MsMoochie had 50 books in the market, with some of them on Amazon.in’s curated “recommended reads.” We sold hundreds of thousands of units.
The reason we did so well was because of our unique publishing process - we took submitted manuscripts to schools and read them to children. Then, we relayed the kids’ reactions and suggestions back to the authors. This “consumer testing”-based iterative approach meant that we would publish a book only after we were sure that kids love it.
Well-timed, in Retrospect
By 2017, BLPS had over 40 regular school contracts. We had less than 5% churn. Our cash position was good.The future looked steady. I felt like I’d achieved what I had wanted, so I decided to move on. Naresh took over the reins from me - he was doing really well and was perfectly poised to take over as “bossman.” Just the previous year, he had cold-walked into a school and walked out with a purchase order worth 10% of our revenue that year.
I remained a promoter but I went on to work for other companies.
In March 2020, the pandemic, the slayer of dreams, announced itself. Schools closed down. Our payments stopped. The MSL team tried out a number of new ideas to gain new sources of revenue - but nothing clicked. It was a difficult situation.
In August, I received a call from Kavish, co-founder of Stones2Milestones (S2M). They had been around for a long time (est. 2009) and had done a variety of things, including selling a reading programme to schools called WOW - Wings of Words. But right now, S2M was selling English “Live Classes”13 to kids at home via the internet. He asked if we were interested in joining them.
Seven years had passed since the summer of 2013 when I prematurely closed StorElf down. It’s true that our ship was sinking. But, it’s also true that I hadn't been paying attention to the bigger picture. I was stretched and overwhelmed, but I should have been able to bear it.
In 2020, the level of stress was the same. Because of school lockdowns, BLPS revenues were down 95%. Pay-cuts were already in place. (Will an acquisition in this circumstance fetch us the best value?)
This time though, I was listening to the world. I was tracking the pandemic growth in India and across the world. My decision required me to take a position on 2 things - (a) How long will schools remain closed and (b) Will Edtech “live class” continue its growth or will it peter out?
Kavish is trustworthy, and kind, perhaps too much so. An ex-investment-banker, Kavish got into English Ed because he truly believes that English helps in upward mobility. His co-founder, Nikhil is much more sorted than I was at his age. Another co-founder Aditi loves books and is goofy but meticulous. Our organisations seemed like they were cut from the same cloth.
I accepted the deal in October 2020. I joined S2M as SVP, Growth. Our employees joined S2M too. Naresh moved on to head products at K12 Techno, a Sequoia funded edtech company.
As of today, schools have been closed for 18 months. Kindergarten and primary sections are expected to remain closed till mid-2022. Had I not merged with S2M, I’d have been paying for rent and salaries for revenue-less months from my own pocket (probably via debt). My employees would have been out of jobs.
Well-timed, in retrospect.
I learnt a lot about myself from my two startups. And even more from my friendship with Karthika - who has been an incredible pillar of strength for me, through health and sickness. More than anything else, I learnt about the person I am not.
You’ve just finished the second chapter. Missed the first chapter? Click here: 1. The First Big Why.
The next chapter:
The four of us were: Aravindan, Vignesh, Sahil and me. Our teacher would have been fine with something much simpler, but secretly they wanted us to do something amazing. And we wanted to code.
Siddhartha Banerjee, who’s now a professor at Cornell. In college, he was named “BoFi,” an acronym for “Butts on Fire.” BoFi was one of nicest people on compus.
In 2021, one of the winning teams had been researching whether it was safe for a rhino to be dangled upside down from a moving helicopter. This is an actual method used to transport rhinos - and it turns out that it’s safe (for the rhino). More about the Ig Noble prizes here - On Wikipedia and Official page.
That day, in 2009, one of the teams presented a “scientific paper” on “how wet would the chicken be if it were to cross the road when it was raining.” Another team presented a plot of “ejaculated matter from a lab rat” vs time. At some time x, the trend line went below the x-axis, i.e. negative, i.e. the rat was ingesting semen. This rat-vs-porn thought experiment didn’t win the prize, but got all the laughs.
P S Senior Secondary School, Mylapore
Earliest theatre artists who worked with us were Alicia Stephen from Theatre Nisha and Radhika from Theatre Y. We later worked with a lot of Theatre Nisha alumni. Naresh was one too.
The BLPS product was a combination of 4 things - (i) Story books for the library, (ii) Activity books that we’d made, (iii) Teacher workshops and (iv) Storytelling visits to the school. This description of BLPS served us well - since it helped schools to create a custom combination that suited their school’s academic framework and budget.
Further, this allowed us to invoice schools as per their budget - storybooks went into the library budget (unless purchased as supplementary books), activity books went into the student’s book fee, workshops went into the training budget, and storytelling visits went into events budget. This was critical for us because Tamil Nadu had introduced the draconian Tamil Nadu Schools (Regulation of Collection of Fee) Act in 2009.
For English nerds: We chose the American spelling “program” for use in our brand name because of a spacing issue in our logo. We stuck to it because it was fun to use both spellings in the same sentence - The Book Lovers’ Program for Schools is a programme to help your kids fall in love with reading. Also, it can be argued that “program” will overtake “programme” in popular use and that English is a descriptive language, so it’s OK. The BLPS naming is also unique in another way - the use of the apostrophe after the “s” in lovers means that the programme is for book lovers (plural) and not for a singular book lover.
Our app was called Storyhood, an amalgamation of story and childhood.
Kathalaya is an extremely popular storytelling centre based in Bangalore. It’s run by the amazing Mrs. Geeta Ramanujam. We were trained by her, and we ran her center in Chennai - teaching alongside her - for 1 year. We closed down because of a revenue share dispute with Kathalaya Bangalore.
The story of the cow-holding-book MsMoochie logo: We had an image of a teacher holding a book that Alicia Souza had illustrated for us. Her pout made it look like she was getting ready for a kiss, so we used to call her Ms Smoochie. We couldn’t call a kidlit imprint Ms Smoochie, so we called it Ms Moochie, and used a cow (“moo”) instead. Years later I worked with Alicia for 2 months in Jan-Feb 2018.
MsMoochie on Amazon.in: link