A conversation with NITK founders

I had a chat with Rahul and Shubham recently. We caught up after exactly 1 year when the three of us featured at a panel discussion at Spark. We are proud founders of startups from NITK batch of 2016 and have been supported by our college. I thought it would be interesting to ask a few open questions and see what everyone’s response would be to it. I certainly enjoyed seeing how the two of them have grown over the year. Here is the transcript of our conversation:

From Right to Left: Rahul, Shubham and I at Spark discussion last year.

Thakur Rahul Singh(R) is the co-founder of Winkl, Shubham Badal (S) is co-founder of CybrHome, and I (A) founded CampusConnect. I recently shut down and sold my company. You can read more about my story here.

Q: What are you doing now? Whats the most important agenda now?

R: For us right now, we need to focus on building our product, keeping it lean and making sure that people love it. We were having some issues earlier, but now I think we are on track to building that and the next 6–8 weeks we will be focussing on that.

S: Over the past few months we have been working on giving the product a 360 degree touch which has made it more marketable. Our focus has been on achieving a product market fit, figuring out which features our users are enjoying and how to leverage advertising tools to make our product more visible to the users.

A: Well after selling the last part of the business in January, I have been paying attention to my neglected fitness. I just completed my second olympic distance triathlon in Goa, and with renewed enthusiasm, I am training for my next challenge.

Q. How far did the college 3 lakh fund help you guys and what did you use it for?

R: So around 1/6th of the initial fund is remaining. We used it mostly to pay interns, some on our servers and on marketing. We spent about 70k in June on many interns. Then we realized that unless you have a good product it does not make too much sense to spend a lot of money. Towards Aug-Sept we minimized our spending quite a bit.

S: Thats similar to ours, we have about 20% of our fund remaining. We knew how much our costs would be as most of it was on operations (housing and daily expenses for team). We figured out how much that would be on a per month basis, realized we could run for 8–10 months and have worked on that calculation.

A: College fund helped me immensely. At the time when I graduated from college without a team, the fund was the only thing backing my inspiration. I used the fund mostly on hiring interns and full time members as well as operations (office rent and marketing). The thing is that when you have a lot of money in the bank you are open to experimentation, but when the fund dries up you start to think conservatively. I should have planned the use of my funds better and stuck to a plan.

Q. What do you spend majority of your time on?

R: Essentially product and content. For me its mostly content, the technology part is taken care of by Nikhil. Making sure its good content, collaborating with designers and bloggers.

S: I am learning analytics and marketing. I explore unconventional platforms that can help market Cybrhome.

A: I spent a lot of time building a team (interviewing, hiring and managing). In hindsight, I feel I should have pushed to achieve more with the team that I had by spending more time on marketing and sales.

Q. What is something that you thought was very important during college and now realize that its not that important and why?

R: Funding. When we were in college, the entire atmosphere was really different, people were building something with the intention of making millions of dollars without any product market fit. What happened is that we thought that in order to start a business we need to have a lot of money. But the reality is that we don’t need that much money, you need time and manage basic expenses. What happens once you raise money from someone they have expectations to achieve growth targets. Its difficult to achieve those targets without having a product market fit that grows organically and retains users.

S: I used to think that build it and they will come. (everyone laughs in agreement) Users are investors. We have to actually spend a lot of time and energy to get users as well. I used to think that I would get automatic visibility if I build something different.

R: The thing is that when you are building something epic, its only epic in your head. The main thing is that you have to get others to get a shit about you. Thats the most important metric.

A: A great looking product. I spent a lot of time in my initial launch of my product to make sure it looked great, working on the design and UI aspects. I now realize it is much more important to spend more time in strong market research, push out a really simple solution and work your way up.

Q: As a reverse to the previous question, what is one thing that you spend a lot of time on now which you did not pay attention to earlier?

S: Marketing. Making sure people find out about our product.

R: Feedback. Initially we never used to talk to people 1 on 1 about our product. After Sept we spent a lot of time spending time with users to get feedback and ever since we have been having better progress.

A: Metrics. Its all numbers driven. I had a whiteboard with all the necessary metrics for marketing and growth and we sat down and updated it every week. If you want to see what your progress is, put it down in numbers.

Q: How do you spend your free time/ Sundays?

S: We generally work equally all days of the week. During dinner we like watching tv series like Game of Thrones and Big Bang Theory.

R: Spend time with family, read, find out what’s happening in the world outside of my domain.

Then Rahul talked a lot about his amateur flying recently.

A: I would go back home and spend time with parents. Read fiction books or catch up on sleep. Play football in the evening with friends. I had this spreadsheet where I consolidated major events that occurred during the week at work. This helped me see how much I accomplished and gave me the push to work harder the next week.

Q: Give an example of an activity that you spent a lot of time on and has given you the highest returns?

S: Adding and organizing content for Cybrhome. Add description and title to every website on Cybrhome. Making curated lists for different topics gave us content which we could market to get users.

R: What worked for us was featuring work of the designers, it gave us big spikes. We used to interview these designers and post it on our platform which was shared like crazy by the designers and their friends.

A: Documenting my work. I have been spending some time to briefly document my major activities during the week. This has allowed me to understand where I am spending a majority of my time, the results it gives me, and where I could be optimizing the usage of my time.

Q: Who are the people that keep you going? What are their involvement in your startup journey?

R: My parents for sure. I’m surprised that my parents haven’t asked me about making money, as opposed to others who have been earning couple of lakhs over the year. Then Nikhil (cofounder) and few friends. When telling my parents about the progress I always put it in a neutral tone, so that they will not get worried. My parents support me, but they do not want me to worry so much, work so hard at such a young age.

S: Same with me, my parents are very supportive and I that is why I have been able to continue with the journey. My cofounders and a few friends. Parents ask how it is going, about progress or any new events. They worry about how stressed I get.

A: I would talk to my parents about problems that would occur, breakthroughs and general advice. They would always be there for me, even if unable to give me advice, they would give me the confidence I need to make the decision on my own.

Q: What do you and your co founders do when things look bleak and you are going through your lows?

R: We generally try to create a fake sort of positive and say that everything will work. The thing is that we are really used to it. In a day there are 10 shitty things and perhaps 1 decent thing.

S: We are like kids, we shout at each other and argue about ideas. In the end we come to a consensus and figure it out.

Q: How is building your product in college different from in Bangalore?

R: One thing I miss is that in college there was never a sense of urgency, but now if we do not push out the product then there are more serious consequences. Even working hours were relaxed, we could work in the evenings and there was always someone to pull you around and have fun. Being able to talk to my mentors on a regular basis has been really helpful to get an unbiased feedback on my progress.

S: It does get lonely now, even though I was an introvert in college I had friends around me. I think one important part is that we should meet people in Bangalore, we haven’t done that yet.

A: In college you have a lot sorted for you. You do not have to worry about office space (hostel rooms work perfectly), talent resources (surrounded by smart engineers), or market research (high density of technology savvy people ready to critique your work). A lot of things you take for granted in college will take a lot of time to get when you get out in the real world.

Q: What would you define as success for your company?

R: Qualitatively, any blogger who puts their content on the platform and can successfully reach out to the industry and interested consumers of that content. On metrics I am not too sure but, in a large scale there are 70 M fashion related blog posts around the world, if we could even start with 5% of that hosted on our platform that would be a great start.

S: Cybrhome will be successful when it would be one of the most successful websites in the world and self sustainable. A place where we can eliminate the need for bookmarks and creating lists of interesting websites. It should be so reputed that if your website is not listed on Cybrhome, it is not good enough.

Thats the end of the conversation. I found it very interesting that there were many common themes among our answers which shows that through our experiences we have made similar mistakes and learned from them. I hope that other young entrepreneurs can pick up a few learnings from this and apply them to their own endeavours, hopefully aiding them to avoid the same mistakes we made.

Would love to hear your thoughts.