The founder of Infoedge — Sanjeev Bickhchandani had approached us in Feb 2015, when AmbitionBox had just started and we had been featured in Yourstory — India’s largest storytelling platform for startups.
He had approached us to know more about our idea and the possibility of an investment.
Because of this, when I emailed him after 1.5 yrs, I felt he would remember and reply to my email. But he didn’t. I was persistent and sent the mail thrice in a span of 2 weeks.
Finally, I got a reply saying they want to meet us.
I was ecstatic.
Our agenda for the meeting was that we could either get strategic investment, get acquired or maybe just partner and cross-sell products.
Next week we flew to New Delhi to Infoedge HQ and the deal was sealed in a day. This was and still remains one of the best days of my life. Our baby had gotten validated.
Most Important Learning: Don’t stop chasing your dreams. Because dreams do come true.
One of the side hustles had started growing.
It was a content-based app. We got excited and thought of taking feedback from people.
We sent it out to a few people in my network. One of them was Dinesh Goel, Founder of Aasaanjobs.com.
Instead of giving feedback on the app, he asked me what have I done to AmbitionBox? I said, “The traffic is growing but we haven’t been able to monetize, and hence not working on it actively at the moment.”
He said, what if we were to acquire it? Aasaanjobs was flush with a Series B round of funding and we thought, why not?
After multiple rounds of discussion, the board asked Dinesh to wait for another 3 months and not acquire us at that time.
This triggered in our mind — why don’t we try to sell AmbitionBox to other relevant companies and get more offers. The more the merrier, we thought.
After this, within a month we lit the whole nation on fire
We wrote to every company that could even be remotely interested in acquiring us.
By then, I was an expert in writing cold emails.
The interesting bit is — most of them replied with a yes (to discuss), except one company — Infoedge (The parent company of Naukri.com — India’s largest job board)
We had spoken with Timesjobs, Teamlease, Aspiring Minds, Acadguild, Belong and countless more companies by then.
Lesson: Great things never come from comfront zones
We were bootstrapped and hungry.
Hungry for that successful startup story we read of and dreamt of so many times.
Hungry for money that our peers had now been earning in their jobs.
Hungry for recognition as people close to us started raising eyebrows at two crazy people going at it for a year from one room of the apartment and nothing much to show.
We thought it was now time to monetize or else we will not be able to survive.
We tried a few things but failed.
We tried getting into the offline educational space.
The money we earned was paltry.
Plus it was an altogether different business. We decided to close it.
When nothing worked. The only thing we were happy about was our website traffic. It was growing automatically. That felt like magic!
After that, we even built a couple of ideas in the entertainment and content space to try something else.
The next hack was to understand Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and optimize the site to start getting traffic organically. Till then we had no clue of SEO.
In a weekend, we read up everything we could find related to SEO and started implementing.
In retrospect, it was shocking how we had completely missed sourcing traffic from Google!
Once SEO kicked in, there was no looking back
Lesson — You need to crack at least one channel from where you can constantly get traffic organically.
Our traffic had scaled from 0 to 185K visits/month by Aug’16. Since the traffic was growing organically we knew we were up to something.
We wanted to raise funds because that is what all startups at that time did or so we thought. Now we know that this is not true. Very few startups raise VC funding. A significant % bootstrap and depend solely on cashflows from their customers.
We were self-sufficient as such. But I’d be lying if I tell you we were not desperate to reach out to investors. Some approached us, some we approached.
One particular meeting with a VC was an eye-opener for us. The meeting went as normal in the beginning.
But, in the end, the investor asked us how much traffic do you get? We said, “5000 visits a month.”
He laughed and said, “If you start katrinakaifpics.com, that would garner more traffic in a day than you have in a month.” Basically it was another way of saying — Go get some meaningful traction. 5k was a very small number.
That really disappointed us, and we stopped chasing investors after that. Decided to focus on increasing traffic.
Lesson — If you are a first-time entrepreneur it is better to show some significant traction and then meet investors. Otherwise, it is a huge waste of time.
Alongside all we had going, Subbi was in college completing his final year project. The professor wasn’t so happy because Subbi never approached him for advice or direction and directly submitted the project at the end.
The professor asked Subbi to extend his stay in college by a month. This was something both of us were not ready for. We discussed and 3 phone calls later Subbi dropped out.
Next day, he was in Mumbai beside me discussing what features to launch next.
It was a crazy decision going against everyone, against conventional wisdom. The deal was if he dropped out I would burn my college degree as well.
A college degree for us was a Plan B in life. If nothing worked out, the degree would help to get a job.
Lesson — Sometimes, striking off Plan B is the best thing to do. It adds fire in Plan A and you pursue it more passionately since you know there is nothing to fall back on.
Matrix Partners was the first investor we met and within a few days had a partner-level meeting. Things were moving fast.
Most of the deals fall out even before they reach the partner of a VC firm.
At that time, Subbi was still in college and investors wanted to see some traction and full-time commitment before writing a cheque.
This meeting triggered something in us. Since the partners had liked the idea (or at least they said they did), we thought we were onto something big.
This insight was majorly from our college placements — where students prepared from a document which had interview experiences documented from all the seniors passing out in the previous year for all companies that came on campus.
Almost, everybody referred that. That document was viral inside campus.
We observed nobody used glassdoor in college and instead preferred that document because —
This was a powerful insight.
Now, all we needed to do was post content from these docs and get people to share their interview advice on our platform — Detailed and High-Quality.
With interns now gone, it was just Subbi and me now. We did product, design, tech and everything that was required to float the company.
In the meantime, my wedding date was coming near. It was Dec 18, 2014. We were trying hard to launch before that but couldn’t. At that time we really believed in launching a pixel perfect website and hence the delay.
But finally, we launched AmbitionBox.com on the day of my marriage. Crazy, right?
Image of our launched launched website: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1xeX3evGpHxt62wzlX-ZrZioh_QRs3T9d?usp=sharing
It was just a huge coincidence that the launch date of Ambitionbox was the same as my wedding date
I was kickstarting my personal and professional life both, in a huge way and hence this day is a big checkpoint in my life.
So, what were we building in AmbitionBox?
We started with building company pages which would have all the information that a job seeker needs to know about a company before joining.
And we wanted to club this with jobs.
But after brainstorming we realized that our platform would have a classic chicken-egg problem.
Users won’t come unless we have companies posting jobs or filling company information and companies won’t come unless we have users.
Here’s how we solved the chicken-egg problem —
We thought of posting detailed interview advice on our platform from people who have recently cracked interviews. We planned to seed this by speaking with people one on one. Once we have content, we thought we would have users and then companies posting jobs.
Solved! Except this wasn’t scalable.
We were now a team of two. Very complementary skills. Very passionate. Very driven. It was now time to execute.
The first thing Subbi did after joining was fire the web development agency because they were building the whole website in Wordpress! It wasn’t scalable and plus our idea was evolving compared to what I had planned initially.
We now had a landing page coded from scratch.
This is how our landing page looked back them:
We then started hiring interns from college to speed up the development.
The interns we hired from college were very new to the field of web development. More time was spent in guiding them and rewriting their code than actually working on the product.
Lesson Learned — Hiring tech interns in your initial days for writing code is a bad idea.
Till here it was a one-man army. Things weren’t moving as quickly as I would have liked them to. I definitely needed a cofounder with complementary skill-sets. I started posting everywhere that I am looking for a cofounder. Here are some things I tried to find a cofounder —
It always puzzled me that there are so many talented people in the world. Why don’t they quit and take the leap?
which lead to me another lesson: Monthly paycheque is a drug very few people are able to get rid of.
With no luck anywhere, I was pretty frustrated. Then one day I called an intern from my previous startup in college whose name was Subramanya.
He said he won’t be able to join, but he knew another Subramanya in college who was in his final year and could help me. He connected me to TH Subramanya (I call him Subbi).
Subbi was 2 yrs junior to me, from IIT Madras, but I had never seen/met him in college. So I was highly skeptical.
He had previously built a lot of websites and also had a formal web development firm with 2 other batchmates. They had quite a few projects under their belt by then.
But that was services, and he wanted to build a product.
I discussed the idea with Subbi over a call. He said he is interested to hear more and would love to meet sometime. The problem was — he was still in college. During summers before the college begins, he said he would come to my place in Mumbai and hear me out.
We met. We discussed. He liked me. I liked him. And thus began the journey.
For the next 4 months, I was working from Mumbai and he was in Chennai in college.
In the meantime, I was also looking for another cofounder to join us but couldn’t find anyone.
Things were moving very slowly and I told Subbi we need to meet and work things out fast.
Subbi was really dedicated and even quit sitting for placements in college. That was a huge decision.
That was when all my insecurities about him vanished and I thought I had found my cofounder soulmate.
Here’s the interesting part —
Getting hitched to a cofounder is pretty similar to marrying your spouse. If it goes well, you are going to have one beautiful ride. If not, you are going to end up in shambles.
I wanted to build something in the career space that would inspire people and help them build their careers.
I did not know how to design or code.
All I had was an idea buzzing in my head.
I outsourced the design to a student from IIT Bombay who was also a family friend.
He made some really cool mockups and a swanky visiting card.
You can have a look at our visiting card and first set of mockups here : https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1V23zV-L27PTCR3XuC9yXFkEGJeIOXE_o?usp=sharing
But this involved a lot of to and fro with the designer. Plus it was proving to be expensive.
So, one day I decided I will learn to design myself. Learnt photoshop and started playing around. It was thrilling to build anything that you imagined. I outsourced the tech part to a web development agency.
Here’s what I designed: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1jAjOnGHUqBwIHhYBsWX1uvhuarvw8jrl?usp=sharing
Serious Startup 3: Ambition Box
The idea germinated while I was launching these clinics.
I had started working on this as a side hustle and was having a lot of fun with building something which I felt could scale exponentially and everything could be done just from one place, unlike the clinic.
Most time with every startup the grass looked greener on the other side, the next Idea was Always more exciting because the problems weren’t clearly visible and the irrationality always lead me to start again.
But, This time I was determined to give it my best shot and not quit.
I always wanted to start my startup when I was in college, but I have to shut down because of my college exams and attendance. With two failures on hand, I thought I would work somewhere, gain some domain knowledge, build some bank balance and pursue a startup later on.
After working in a job for atleast 3 years. I imagined that working there would help me acquire experience and knowledge that can be the foundation for my startup. However, I realized nothing really prepares you for a startup. It is more of a do-fail-do-fail-do until one day you succeed. And that is the experience that really matters.
Serious Startup 1:
After I quit, I started looking at the pain points around me. Living in Mumbai and having gone through the renting experience myself, I noticed the huge gap in real estate and technology.
Problem — Brokerage is too high.&nbsp;
Solution — Use technology to scale, standardize brokerage service and reduce the cost. Charge only a flat fee to tenants.
Did a few growth hacks by posting on various Facebook groups. Started building the MVP on a simple excel sheet and the game began.
After a month, got a call from the Navi Mumbai Association of Realtors threatening to take action if I don’t take down the posts. Discussed this with a few people in my network and decided to shutdown.
One of my uncles is a sexologist and had a chain of clinics (6 at that time).
He said why don’t you scale this up nationally to 50 clinics.
He had been practising for 25 years, knew things in &amp; out and together we prepared a plan to execute. Thus launched BringLife Clinic.
The clinic business was good, like really good. It was a huge success. (What we forget is — my uncle had 25 yrs of iterations in perfecting the business, and hence it was an overnight success). In 2 months we broke even and from month 3 it was profitable. It was too good to be true.
Now, the problem was after like 10 months I was somehow not enjoying it. I realized it was an investment heavy setup, would scale up linearly and had nothing to do with where my interests lied.
Finally, I handed over the clinics to my uncle and quit.