8 years, multiple failures, infinite learning and a heart that wouldn’t mature

I have used the three golden words multiple times in my life which have led me to pivot. The three golden words you are thinking of are a very different from the ones I am talking about. My three golden words these past eight years have been “This is it.”

You may say that there is nothing ‘golden’ about those words but there is. There comes a moment in time, multiple times, when you know that whatsoever you have been working on hasn’t been working out. Like a boxer pitted to the corner, you give it all you have got in the hope that this extra push, those extra punches, the 20% above the 100% will not only bring you out of the corner but get you the knockout punch that you so desperately need. Hope is a wonderful thing, really. It has the power to keep you going even when nothing works. If you are lucky enough the hope you had and the punches you threw work out well and your ship is able to survive the storm with only a couple of repairable leaks. Then you reflect back on the storm and use another set of three golden words — “Until next time.”

That’s a fact of life, isn’t it? Storms are a part and parcel of life and it is a concoction of multiple characteristics that help you weather it. While one might tend to believe that these ‘storms’ only exist in the life of an adult, kids have it easy, think again. It’s the 21st century. The century where kids are on social media before puberty hits and on snapchat when it does. The age where the amount of social media activity defines how good your life actually is even if all you post is just a lie. While social media is making our lives hollow, taking away the depth of relationships, of face to face human interaction, it has become an integral part, a necessary evil. You can run away from it but not avoid it in the long run.

As a 24 year old who has accepted and is very much a part of the illusion of a life online, this post talks about living, failing, getting back up again and how it is the depth that you possess that keeps you going.

When somebody asks me about my life journey so far, one common statement I get to hear from most of them is ‘you have already done so much and you are just 24. That’s amazing.’ I believe they say so because they only get to hear the rosier side of the story but it is the darker side that needs to be told and heard more often because that’s where character is formed and broken.

My journey in this mean mad world begins at the age of 16 when I wrote my first novel even before I read my first. A person who likes literature can imagine how good or bad that would have come out given that I had no knowledge of how sentence structures work, how the outline of a story is built, how character sketches are developed and if all these coupled together makes any sense at all. Still, this was the first time I had built or developed something of my own and unlike other 16 year olds, this was the first time I had to interface to that one person who governs most of what happens in the world — the customer. The rest of them had 4 years at least to face their first customer. Did I even know the difference between the customer & a consumer back then? I think not. On second thought, do I know it today? Maybe, if only I had paid attention to all those words in the marketing class.

The book was titled, ‘The Fanatic Four’. Read carefully! It is FANATIC, the ’S’ isn’t missing, it doesn’t exist, neither in the title nor in the handful reviews it got. While the few folks I knew who were into reading novels absolutely battered it with negative reviews, the ones you can call friends were happy that at least I put in the effort. But is just putting in ‘effort’ enough?

If somebody had asked me this question back then I would have said yes. While talent is important, a person who is ready to put in the hard work, the effort will almost eventually beat a talent who isn’t ready to put in the effort. While the latter half of the above statement still holds true but the fact is that putting in effort is never enough. There needs to be a proper structure to the effort that you put in, timelines, progress reviews, dynamics. If the same question is asked today, I will say a streamlined effort is enough because if you have figured out the process and you work accordingly and yet you fail, there is a lot of learning that is involved because you can define in which step of the process you faltered and if you didn’t, during the course of the effort, what changed that even after achieving your goal, success didn’t arrive. Sometimes if you can’t figure it out (this should be the last thought at the end of research capacity for fault finding), it boils down to luck.

While all the coaches you meet will tell you that it never really is about luck and they are right because if you try once and fail to never try again, that’s not luck. That’s a clear sign of weakness. We live in a society where failure is seen as something final instead of being treated as a stepping stone to success. For those of you who have never failed at anything, you aren’t challenging yourself enough. I can’t be more blunt than that. Failures are signs that you are trying and also a sign that you are growing. Successful people are those who outlive their failures. I too hope to be one someday. It is also a fact that the definition of success will forever be subjective, if you set SMART goals (terms you have an affinity towards if you are an MBA or in process of becoming one) and smash them, you pretty much are on a path towards success.

While there was a lot of learning in being a failed writer, it certainly didn’t stop there and it shouldn’t have either. The second failure I am going to talk about is my first startup. Launched in 2010 as a blogspot blog, the days when having a startup wasn’t cool and not even remotely comparable to ‘being the new guy-with-the-guitar in college’, my team, which I still fail to remember how they came on board, built up a website, a web magazine with 12 broad categories that we wrote about on a daily basis. The website (called Observer’s Paradise, if you are wondering) was being developed in a way that it could be scaled and the ideas that my team and I were implementing surely meant that this venture was going to be the breakthrough. My team, all of whom were my batchmates at college and continue to be some of the closest friends that I have ever made, I won’t name them because they all know who they are and how enjoyable this journey of developing this website was when we were supposed to be learning ‘theory’ to become a computer science engineer. (Drop a comment if you get what the above statement really means.)

This was the first time that I got to learn about team dynamics. While most of the people in the team were like minded which I continue to believe is never a good thing because it limits the different dimensions the group can think of when looking at a problem. It is the disruptive debate amongst people who aren’t like minded that leads to innovative ideas that is why it is called disruptive innovation. 99% of the time it will lead to chaos, that 1% of the time is enough to build something that becomes a ‘going concern’. Not all in this particular team were equally passionate about what we were trying to achieve but none of them tried to pull us down. The team spirit was high throughout. Having a group which is motivated most of the time to do their bit is a group you should never give up on. When someone slacked off, someone else automatically assumed responsibility. This kept us going for good three years before whatever we did went haywire. The reason? It is okay for almost every one in the team to slack off every once in a while, especially when the team is such that people are ready to assume responsibility but the leader never should.
Motivation can sometimes be a bottom up approach, lack of it always happens from top to bottom. When my team, the team that has forever been so close to my heart (because of the way we did things and without whom four years of engineering would have been a nightmare) finally gave up on three years of hard labour, it wasn’t because we lost our revenue stream and we weren’t generating any money, it was because I slacked off. It might sound like I am putting myself as the central piece of the puzzle without which there is chaos all around, I guess that is part of being the leader of the team. I still continue to believe that it was a team of equals but there has to be a leader and as I said, when the leader slacks off, it is the most tried and tested recipe for failure. As a leader you do not get to slack off every once in a while because when you do, the motivation level falls across the board. When motivation falls, productivity goes for a toss and eventually things die out. That’s exactly what happened with Observer’s Paradise. If I had to turn back time and think of one moment in these past eight years that I would like to change, this would be that moment. The moment when I pushed the ‘self destruct’ button on (a story for a different post maybe) and took Oberver’s Paradise down with it.

The image above sums up where we left Observer’s Paradise and I do believe that my team might not agree with it but reading, learning and experiencing more things ever since, I still believe we were just a couple of digs away from that diamond mine.

While Observer’s Paradise was a journey, we never really thought of it as a business or a startup and that’s where our biggest fault lied. If you ever build something, out of passion or a hobby, always do it with a thought of monetising it. If you don’t want to do it for your primary income, use it as a secondary one because that keeps your hobby a hobby while allowing you to make some extra bucks without adding on to the stress. I know of a lot of people today who have passion that they share with millions of other people. The ‘illusion’ of the internet has its negatives but it also has the ability of delivering hard cash. (Okay, maybe not hard cash but money added to your bank account.) When you have a hobby which you share with hundreds of thousands of people and if you are really into it, there are a hundred ways you can monetise it online. It doesn’t even need you to invest a lot of time and money. Even if it does demand a bit of time, it will be more of a de-stressing activity rather than piling up on the stress from your day job.

If you think you belong to this broad category, drop a comment below and I will help you in getting the most of your passion or hobby.

That makes it 5 years 2 failures even though OP was still alive at the end of 5th, it was in the process of dying a natural death. When you conceive something, you just don’t pull the plug, you let it breathe and even allow it to be on a ventilator for a while before inserting that morphine and see it take its last breath. While it’s good to be attached to a few people in life and while the company’s act says that a company is an entity on it’s own, never ever get attached to the intangible.

With the right experience back then, when we eventually lost the motivation to continue, we would have looked for an exit. Unfortunately, we weren’t experienced back then. The objectivity should never be lost because you have put in a lot of effort in building something. When the signs of a probable demise begin to appear, look for an exit. Always. It doesn’t mean you are betraying what you have built, it just means that you want all that effort you have already put in not to go in vain and maybe if you are able to find a good match, the other person or entity you sell it off to might take it to the level you always wanted to see it reach. You might not be a part of it anymore but there is a satisfaction that still is linked to it. The catch is that this satisfaction will be linked to remorse as well because you aren’t any longer a part of that success. It is the way it is. Exits are a necessary evil especially when you know that it is time to move on.

Since I am pursuing my MBA and we are talking business, I just cannot help but bring the opportunity cost into the fold. That’s another reason why one needs to look at exits objectively. It isn’t necessary that you will start making money in an online business from the word go. It never really happens, unless your first post or your first video goes viral. If that happens, you are under the constant pressure of having to deliver better content to keep your subscribers interested. That happens to probably .001% of all the content that is uploaded on the internet. Not everyone can be a saltbae or a ganganam style or PPAP. While annoying things have a lot of virality because they sound catchy, virality built over a period of time is the best of its kind. It leaves you with a lot of organic followers you can capitalise on. 
Speaking of the opportunity cost, when you work on something of your own which isn’t only a monetary investment but an investment of man-hours or woman-hours (trying to be as gender neutral as possible) is a more important investment than the initial capital you invest. Why? Because that’s an investment you make on a daily basis when you could have been earning bucks somewhere else doing the same job for somebody else. That last part of the previous statement is the catch — “job for somebody else” but it is this man-hours cost that you should take into account when making decision like hanging on to a startup or to start looking for an exit.

This thought brings me to my second startup and third failure overall. This was the one with which we thought we will change the world. Built up in an incubator at my engineering college, Amity University, Noida, this startup was built as a startup having known that we were starting up. Co-incidentally, the foundation or rather the thought of starting up came when one of the ‘early’ (in quotes because there is a story linked to it which will soon follow) co-founders of my second startup and I came to Bangalore (which happens to be my current area of residence) for PyCon India (Python Conference India Chapter). This was sometime in 2013 if I am not mistaken and seeing all the energy, young souls working on ‘revolutionary’ ideas in their quest to ‘disrupt’ industries, pumped us up and we thought it was worth taking a shot. This thought in itself I believe was the first mistake we committed with our startup. We came back and after a couple of months of silence, we started out with one of the most brilliant programmer I know as part of our team of four co-founders. I was a very hasty decision for the four of us coming together and we did pay the price for it in a few months time.

We started this particular startup which was eventually registered as LogiCake InfoTech Pvt. Ltd. (yes, we did register it as a company without having made a single penny) with no thought in mind as to what we were going to build, if it was viable and if anyone even needed something like the product we were building. Then, the product that we were building was reviewed by the people who were managing the incubator and they absolutely rubbished it. In retrospect, they were right in everything they said. Now, as a 21 or 22 year old, with ‘out to change the world’ and ‘us against the world’ ideology, we didn’t pay any heed to what they said instead were determined to prove them wrong. It would have been actually nice if the idea had merit enough to prove them wrong but it didn’t. So, if we have to review at this point about this third startup, if we plot a graph of decisions vs wrong decisions, it will have a 100% linearity. Every decision that we had taken up to this point was wrong and it took us six months to realize that it was the case. So by the end of the six month period, the four co-founders that started out (without thinking of the dynamics this team was forming), we had already had a huge fight which meant we disintegrated once, tried coming back together but eventually only the two of us stayed — the programmer and I. It was at this moment we were struck with the idea that we thought had merit (and I still feel that it does), our managers at the incubator thought had merit and a couple of investors too thought had merit. While we were on the brink of raising capital a couple of times, it came in a little too late because by that point in time, we had already faced multiple rejections (mini-failures) from multiple investors, had launched the MVP (Minimum Viable Product following the lean startup methodology), were struggling to market our product and get customers on board. Two engineers, one brilliant at coding and the other not really bad at it trying to build a B2B product with no marketing plan or marketing person in the team. Recipe for failure? Maybe. There has always been a debate which business function is the most important in a company and I believe that it keeps changing during different stages of the lifecycle of a company. If you are at the startup phase or the introduction phase, there is nothing more important than marketing. While I have never been good at it even though each day I strive to get better, if you are an internet startup, nothing can be as important as marketing. The reason? Internet is an ocean. Not all the waves (companies/products) hit the shore and not that do are able to generate an impact. The task of marketing is to make sure that the company hits the shores (gains visibility), it is the task of the product itself to generate impact after it does hit the shore. We did try a few growth hacks to generate buzz but we were too inexperienced back then and too naive to an extent. There are many people in the world who will say that a good product markets itself BUT and it is a big but, the product should at least reach the first 100 targeted customers who can do the word of mouth for you. How do you get to these first 100 targeted customers? You guessed it. Marketing!
That brings me to the next few mistakes that we made — have a team composition that is dynamic enough to take care of every domain and every situation thrown in front of you. Also, always build a product that you believe in. Don’t build something for the sake of building it because you want to build something of your own. That simply doesn’t work. It is also imperative to do research before you begin. While building a product takes a lot of time, getting rejected by customers takes a few seconds. If you market your product to a group that simply doesn’t care what you have built or doesn’t add value to their life in any way, you will die trying to fathom why your product isn’t performing. Targeting and segmentation are two very important concepts every startup founder must be aware of.

Another mistake that we committed was being too hasty. Building a startup is a 24 hour thing but it doesn’t mean that you keep working 24 hours a day. The more you try to do that, higher your stress level is and your daily achievements or the lack of it starts irritating you. Sure, the work-life balance does go for a toss when building a startup but I believe startup founders need to come up with a balance of their own. It will be very different from people who are doing a job at a company but it should exist. There used to be days where we never slept, there were weeks where an average amount of sleep we got on a daily basis was around 3 hours. It might sound fun but it takes a toll on your body, mind and soul. Objectivity should never be lost. The last mistake that we did commit with LogiCake (the product that we eventually built was called ‘Alertimizer’ by the way) was being dejected by the mini failures and giving up too soon. In this case there wasn’t a lack of motivation, it was a total loss of confidence that made us quit. If you are committed to building a company the two words that should always guide you are — “Never Quit”.

A few weeks after we did quit, I had multiple ideas which could have been implemented but they never did strike during the time we were sitting at our desks, wondering what’s the next step to take. Reason? Too much fatigue and a lot of thought given to the ‘mini-failures’. Never doubt the ability of a product or your team. It is a known fact that investors, invest in team potential more than product potential. Keep the faith alive and when you start feeling exhausted, take a break. There is nothing bad in that. It is a need that if you don’t cater to, your decision making will go for a toss.
It is also important to stay on top of the trends that currently exist in the market. This thought brings me to my fourth failure which in terms of timeline came before the third one but it isn’t as important as the third one because the amount of learning isn’t as much.

The fourth failure I am talking about is my second book which I self-published using Smashwords. After having failed to generate any impact with the first one, I thought I should write something that today’s millennial in India love to read — romcom. Let me begin the learnings here by stating what I feel about that book — “Worst decision of my life.”

The book was titled ’41 likes, 68 comments….On the wall, it’s complicated’. While the title might sound catchy and even the content might appeal to some, I never believed in the sort of story I wrote. So the learning here was how do you promote something that you don’t believe in. Also, what precedes this is the fact that how do you do justice to a story that you don’t believe in. That was the biggest folly in this. The key learning here is that while you should understand the trends, you should also analyse your belief system, the kind of person you are before you jump into building things. To take an example, analytics and big data is a trend today that everybody wants to talk about but if a CA wants to build a product in big data and he builds a team of all CAs to do it, he will never be able to achieve it. It isn’t just about the wrong team composition but also choosing a wrong stream to work in. Also, Smashwords wasn’t the best platform to choose given that it didn’t even allow the book to reach most of the customers who might have wanted to read it. Hence, it brings me back to a mistake I have committed earlier as well — research before you do things, research before you begin.

So there have been a lot of learning through all these failures but why does the title talk about a heart that wouldn’t grow up? It is because that all this hasn’t stopped me from trying out things. I still am working on another startup (Indian Startup News — Venture Gali) even though it has been nascent for long periods of time. I am working towards my next book which I believe will be the breakthrough that I am looking for. I am currently enrolled in a B-School (a mistake? 60–40, I will let you decide what is 60 and what is 40). As part of the curriculum, currently interning at one of the best Tech companies to work for (a corporate — a place which I thought I will never be able to fit in) and with this post I am trying out a new platform in Medium. Late to arrive at Medium? I agree but it never is too late to begin. That also remains a key learning. There is nothing too soon and nothing too late, all the time is right as long as you are willing to grind it out.

I talk about a heart that wouldn’t grow up because as you grow up, you start becoming risk averse, get integrated into a society that doesn’t accept failures and this makes people take the conventional route even if they hate it. A heart that refuses to grow up allows for you to commit mistakes, learn from them without feeling the pressure of the society. That’s a key and also something that you should bear in mind before starting up. If you do, there will be some who will cheer you on, there will be some who wouldn’t but trust me when I say this all of them would love to see you fail than succeed? Why? Because everybody loves a sad story for it makes their ‘sad’ story appear relatively smaller.

One question that might pop up in your mind is how do you stay young at heart and keep doing your thing? First, it isn’t easy. Second, while you might fight the world, support of your family is an added bonus if you have it. If you don’t, I believe it will make things twice as tough. I have been lucky enough to have a family who trust my decision making hence I have had it tough but not 2x tough. Thirdly, make sure when you are about to reach the tipping point, think of what has kept you going. There will be a lot of times when you will come to doubt yourself, make sure you have that one thought to hold on to, the anchor to your ship that keeps you going. When you lose motivation or confidence go back to that anchor and be back forever stronger than before.

There is a lot more I would love to talk about, but I believe that it will go off topic like I already have in so many places in this one. I will leave them be because I still believe someone or the other will draw some inspiration out of it.

At the end of it, to all those who want to build something of their own, understand that it is going to be tough, it will be ‘you against the world’ most of the time, there will be moments when you want to bang your head against the wall, moments when you would be in a fix if you should work tonight or go for that outing with friends or family, moments where you and your team will not be on the same page, moments when the only option in front of you would be to give up. Through all this, remember just three simple words while avoiding the golden three in the first paragraph of this post — “Don’t Give Up.” and keep going.

I leave you with two brilliant thoughts, one which you would have heard before and one that you should hear:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
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