The Anticipation Plot - Chapter 6: The Second 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 sixth (and final) chapter - The Second Big Why.
Did You Succeed?
Earlier this year my father asked me, “Are you happy? Have you achieved what you want? Are you successful?” He has asked me this every year. Usually it’s early in the morning, and he has a cup of black tea in his hand. I nodded, as I have for a decade. “Are you happier than you would’ve been if you were with Unilever?” My moderately successful exit doesn’t have the same weight in his mind as in mine.
Let’s summarise: I quit Unilever to start a library business which never picked up in a big way, but didn’t die either. Then, I pivoted to a food business, which I abruptly shut down, only to see others make it big in the same space. A third business - to do with storybooks and schools - became profitable, but was at a perilous state following the 2020 lockdowns. Fortunately, the pandemic had the opposite impact on Freadom, who acquired us - assets, IP and employees.
For a few years in the middle, I worked with, and for, other startups. I saw closely how other founders work in their startups. I also got to see a wide range of early startup employees in action. I was able to build strong bonds with my own employees - my fellow travellers.
Through community work for the IIT Madras entrepreneurial ecosystem, I was able to share the sorrows, joys and frustrations of even more founders. Plus, I was fortunate enough to build a solid long-term work-partnership with Amrit Vatsa, who I’ve worked with on tens of projects, with the first one being in 2006.
Separately, I fell in love, got married and had a child. Our personal and work lives intertwined extensively. Karthika is an intra-preneur now. Earlier this year, Archana, 7 years old, turned founder as she started her own newspaper - on Substack.
The last twelve years felt like steering a ship through an almost continuous category 5 storm. It wasn’t always clear where I was going, and I got lost often, but it was almost always stimulating and fun. And fortunately, my ship didn’t break.
So maybe, a bit like Christopher Columbus.
So I did succeed. In finding myself. And more than that, I found my tribe.
Earlier this year, I was reporting to the inimitable Nikhil Saraf, who is everything a startup founder should be - disciplined, ambitious, driven, focused, process-oriented, and inspiring. He can push long work-weeks for months at a stretch. Nikhil is also that rare person who doesn’t mind stress.
I was collaborating closely with sales leader Deepak AK and ops guru Sudeep. Between November 2020 to April 2021, together, we raised our first order value by 7 times, conversion by 2.5 times, and reduced lead flow data errors to 0%. We launched a new product, and a new community initiative called Club1BR which offers an RoI of 310%. These are incredible growth numbers.
But at what cost? My back almost broke in 2021, as it had in 2003 and in 2012. I couldn’t sit straight - I had to go on a break.
The Second Big Why
Karthika and I walk and talk for about an hour everyday. The Bangalore climate is pleasant in the evenings. It’s nice to stroll in the tree-covered walkways at our apartment - with the breeze hitting our faces - and the background sounds of children playing.
Babies are being walked in their prams. Cats are being chased. Dogs are being petted. We stop and chat with a neighbour, or are occasionally witness to a childhood crisis - “She said that to me, can you believe it?”
Karthika tells me of her day - and I offer advice, even though she didn’t ask for it, and probably doesn’t need it. I share my thoughts - from “when will the pandemic end” to “what is the right approach to talk while working with an agency or freelancer” to “schools are suffering only because they never invested enough in upskilling teachers in the pre-pandemic era,” and so on.
I asked Karthika, “I can’t do the startup hustle anymore. I don’t want to. Should I just get a regular job in a big company?” A cousin had been suggesting that I’d probably enjoy problem-solving inside a large corporation. It’ll be stimulating, and I could avoid the pain of the startup hustle.
And as we talk, I recognise that “starting up” is not to do with organisational size. Large companies start new things all the time. My ex-employer Unilever, for example, launches new products and sets up new factories all the time.
Consider CFI (Centre for Innovation) - the maker-lab that my team and I set up in 2008. We were a part of IIT-Madras, which is definitely not a startup by any stretch of imagination.
In essence, starting up is to do with the idea of imagining something new. Putting together something that never existed earlier. To take a blank page and make something of it. Or to take a chaotic system and to bring order to it.
I’m in love with imagining and executing something new. There’s just no other way to say it.
Even when I was employed at other companies - Invention Labs (2017), Chargebee (2018), and HyperVerge (2019-20) - I was always setting something up - a new brand, a new product, a new market, a new way to sell an existing product, a new team.
Actually I started up during that period too. I’ve saved this story for the end - my very own “one more thing.”
The Book Office Evenings
In 2018, Karthika, Naresh and I put together a non-profit trust. At first we did a crowdfunding exercise - to raise money to make more books. Then we set up a space in Chennai called “The Book Office” (TBO).
TBO was a large hall. On one side of TBO were books - 10,000 of them - from the iloveread.in library. On the other side were a few desks. Co-workers would rent seats out in the mornings. And sometimes we’d work out of there. For a while, Theatre Nisha hired the space out for rehearsals, or workshops.
In the evenings, after work, the open space transformed into an intimate concert space - to seat about 50 people. There were book readings. And plays. Poetry events. And acoustic concerts.
Tucked away in the middle of Adyar, Chennai, was this remarkable oddity. A library, an office, an artist space, a concert hall - all in the same hall. A safe indie space. TBO closed down due to the pandemic. Long live TBO.
For how long can the pandemic (or any other force) keep the indie spirit down?
“So, Ceil, what do you think of my story?” I asked the ceiling, as I lay down on the floor, legs raised up the wall.
“You had my attention. I was here the whole time. Didn’t move a bit,” said Ceil.
“Funny,” I remarked. “HA HA.”
“How is your back now? Are you feeling better?”
“Yes, I am. Thanks Ceil. My back is healing and my mind is Mary-Kondo-ed.”
“Don’t you watch any Netflix? The TV is right here.”
I got up to leave.
Ceil asked, “So I’ll see you again? In 10 years?”
“No, I won't see you again. I’m not a noob anymore. I’ve the scars and the medals to show that I’m better at it now.”
“What about Sisyphus?”
“Sisyphus be damned,” I proclaimed.
“Maybe you’ll meet a different ceiling,” said Ceil. “You can tell her your story.”
With that, oh wedding-guest, I release thee. I shall go find a ship and a storm and some crew mates. Pray for me that I don’t end up nuts like Captain Ahab.
I’m available at amrutash[at]gmail[dot]com. I reply to every email.
I accept assignments on strategy, marketing, content, culture, storytelling, etc. I work with all kinds of companies/entities - young and old, big and small. But you don’t need to have an assignment to offer to reach out to me. I’m always open for a chat.
My friend and long-term collaborator Amrit Vatsa and I often collaborate together - we co-own a boutique agency. I am a marketing strategist and problem-solver. Amrit is a content strategist and a film-maker. Both of us are storytellers.
Together, we are obsessed with the idea of an organisation’s “core” - its vision/mission, values, strategy - and how this influences organisational growth. Our thesis is that companies jump into execution without a core manifesto and this hurts them. (Not all companies. For example, Freshworks has a “Heart-led Culture” which co-founder Girish spoke about in his IPO-day blog post].)
Do you have an opinion / experience to share on an organisation’s “core?” Please let us know.
You’ve just finished the sixth (and final) chapter. Missed an earlier chapter? Click here: 1. The First Big Why, 2. Timing is Everything, 3. The Person I am Not, 4. Conflict Resolution, and 5. The Transformation Plot.
I hope you enjoyed the series. Do share the first chapter with your friends. Subscribe to my blog if you want to get notified of new posts.
Ajit at Invention Labs; Krish and Rajaram at Chargebee; Saurabh and Alicia Souza at FutureWagon; Kedar, KV, Kishore, Sai, and Praveen at HyperVerge; Kavish and Nikhil at Freadom.
Narayan “Nadu” who wants to improve the world, Praveen who loves details, Vikram who dominates the room, Divya who is kind, Sadhana who writes like a charm, Ravi, Shakthi who comes in early, Ankur, Sathya, Rupali who can be trusted, Hari, Subham who is confident, Anusha, Adarsh, Apal, CP, Nidhi who I gave crap advice to, Rajath, Rinkesh, Raj who was exceptionally friendly to me, Deepak, Mona who graciously agreed to review this document, and many more. It’s too big a list.
Radhika. Sunny. Saranya. Karishma. Karthika. Prateek. Sathya. Bhavini. Priyanka. Sumi. Sudarshan. Sanjana. Simran. Aaquib. Rathy. Suki (who is a reviewer on this document), Mehernaz. Deepti, Shristika, Marva, Merrin, Keerthana, Shaarvari, Shyam, Surya, Veena. And more. The interns too - Namita, Divya, Akshaya (who I co-wrote a book with), Bhargavi, Samantha, Keerthana. And more
Karthika leads the Neev Literature Festival, one of India’s largest children’s literature festivals, and also the Neev Book Award, India’s largest children’s book award.
“One more thing” is a reference to Steve Jobs’s presentation, where he’d save one thing for the last - for after the applause.