Anish Srivastava of Vinaj Ventures: Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup
To survive the highs and lows of starting a business, passion is a must. It will keep you going during the rough patches you’ll inevitably encounter. It’s also critical from an investment perspective. It’s one of the key traits that most investors look for in early stage founders. If investors don’t feel that passion from the founding team then it’s unlikely that they would invest.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Anish Srivastava.
Anish Srivastava is the founder and CEO of Vinaj Ventures, an innovation and investment services firm based in the San Francisco Bay area. Vinaj Ventures’ consulting arm helps clients build new digital products with excellent user experiences. Its investment services function specializes in market analysis, sourcing, evaluating and investing in startups.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Prior to launching Vinaj Ventures, I spent half of my career in startups as an entrepreneur and the other half in corporate venture and innovation. Vinaj Ventures is an amalgamation of my experiences and of how I see the world. I love seeing how technologies are continuously evolving, and how they can be used to improve our lives. For example, I find what we can do today with the internet and what we can do with mobile devices is really impressive. I frequently see inefficiencies in day-to-day life and think about how these could be improved. I’m also a strong believer that solving problems for organizations requires a clear business case. I believe that every company in the world, no matter its size, has an opportunity to do things better and benefit from digital solutions and excellent experiences. A combination of my experiences and observations is what led me to start Vinaj Ventures.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
There wasn’t a specific “aha moment” that led me to launch Vinaj Ventures. It was rather that it felt like the right time in my career to take the step. Before venturing out on my own, I had gathered enough experience working at both startups and large companies, and I saw clearly how a lot of the large companies were looking to innovate and improve. In parallel, I was also aware of organizations with a desire to positively impact society and embracing entrepreneurship. In July of 2015 I was ready to take on the challenge to start building a team of talented, kind, and hard-working professionals to help businesses across these three categories: large companies, startups and organizations striving to make a positive impact on society.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
A lot of different leaders have inspired me at different points in my life, including sports celebrities, influential tech leaders and those that have dedicated themselves to help the less fortunate. But I would say the biggest influence was my father. My parents were immigrants from India and after some years in the U.S. and Canada ended up in Brazil. My father was the eldest of eight and completed his PhD in Organic Chemistry. He departed India alone without any financial support. He came to a new world where his hard work, persistence and ability to learn/adapt helped him to assimilate into society. Once he was able to save some money, my family began to immigrate — first my mother and then my siblings. Being an Immigrant was not an easy journey for my father. He faced a number of challenges — from cultural differences to financial hardships. He was a humble, yet determined man. For instance, he learned Portuguese in his late 30s and six months after moving our family to Brazil, he began a teaching and researching role at the local university. Over the years my father has shared countless stories of occasions where he was told he could not overcome certain challenges. Despite these challenges, and the naysayers, he worked hard and tried/tested different avenues to overcome obstacles. Watching my father over the years overcome one challenge after another has had a big impact on my life and my perceptions. Although he didn’t win every single battle, he remained determined and was able to continue moving forward.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think what makes Vinaj Ventures stand out is how we treat our employees and how we care about our customers and look to meet (and exceed) their needs. I recall being in attendance at an event where Tony Hsieh (who was CEO of Zappos at the time) talked about how he interviewed candidates for the company. He shared how a lot of candidates would come from out of town and Zappos would send a shuttle to pick them up and give them a tour on the way to the office. The candidates would spend the day interviewing and at the end of the day, a recruiter would circle back with the shuttle driver. If the shuttle driver said that a candidate didn’t treat him well, then that individual would not get hired — it didn’t matter how well the candidate had done. It mattered to Zappos how their employees treated everyone they interacted with, not just the VIPs. I always thought this — and a number of other customer service practices that they implemented — were very impressive.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Throughout my career I have engaged in different ways to help people. This has ranged from volunteer work, such as tutoring kids from underserved communities, to always making time for people that seek career advice, in any way possible. It’s not always easy to “do good” in the business world, but because of my personal experiences I am determined to give back and make a positive impact in the world. That concept of doing good was one of the reasons we were so excited at the opportunity to launch our youth mental wellbeing fund, Telosity by Vinaj Ventures. The purpose of this fund is to tackle anxiety, depression, loneliness, stress, and suicidality among youth, which has sadly increased dramatically over the past decade, and has even further deteriorated due to the pandemic. Through Telosity by Vinaj Ventures, we are focusing on investing and helping entrepreneurs that are building tech solutions to positively impact the lives of millions of youth across the U.S. to make sure that we are reaching our goal, which is to make these solutions accessible to underserved communities. When it comes to diversity and gender equality, we ensure that the founders of the startups that we engage with are as different and unique as their projects.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Perseverance. I have to credit my father again for being a role model. As I spoke about earlier, he immigrated first to the U.S. and Canada and then Brazil with no financial support from his family. Seeing my father never give up, despite the many challenges he faced, has partly shaped my own perseverance. In my own life I, too, have faced many challenges and skeptics stating I couldn’t achieve certain goals or reach certain milestones. Just like my father, I have not won every battle that I have faced, but I continue to move forward to overcome as many obstacles as possible.
- Resolve. I think you need the resolve and commitment to keep going, even when things are difficult. You need to believe in yourself. No one ever said that life’s obstacles are easy, but giving up easily won’t allow you to enjoy some of the great surprises that life has in store for you at the end of each challenge. Experience, support and judgement are key to strengthening one’s resolve.
- Family and friends support. My wife, two children, extended family and friends have been invaluable. My wife is a superhero and is the one who encouraged me to take the risk to start my own business. When it comes to life, both personal and professional, there can be a lot of uncertainty so a strong foundation is critical to establish emotional support/strength. Without the support, advice and unwavering belief from family and friends, the journey of building a company would be significantly harder.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Thankfully, I didn’t follow the bad advice that I was given, which was to not prioritize the employees. I have taken the opposite approach: I encourage my employees to embrace opportunities for professional development, which I pay for. I have spent a lot of time in Europe and am inspired by their work-life balance. They really take evenings and weekends off, and when they go on vacation they actually go on vacation. I find that this is really important so your team members don’t get burnt out. This is a philosophy that we live and operate by at Vinaj Ventures.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
We know that most businesses fail in the first three years and looking at what I went through in the beginning it’s easy to understand why. Lining up the first customers is quite challenging to do as a new company. It’s much easier to be hired as a contractor or freelancer, but the onboarding process for vendors is much more extensive, and you’re often competing against much larger companies that are already on their preferred vendor lists. My two first clients were Fortune 50 companies. It took me five-to-six months to onboard, to get all our ducks in a row and give them everything that their procurement teams needed to feel comfortable bringing a new vendor on board. After I secured the first two clients, the process then became much easier to obtain the next set of customers, as we now had credibility and were immersed in the process.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
There are three things that I relied on when times were tough: My family and friends, exercise, and following inspirational figures. I really believe in the value of exercise — in my case, running helps to release stress, clear the mind and provide positive energy.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
I believe you need to surround yourself with individuals that you can reach out to easily and that you trust — think of it as having your own personal board of directors, champions if you will. This is important for a few reasons. First, you need to be able to get perspectives beyond what you yourself may think. Second, often talking through challenges can help to release some of the stress. Third, you want to be able to celebrate wins. I’m a strong believer in communication. I’ve surrounded myself with other trusted CEO’s and advisors that I can tap for advice on a variety of topics. For instance, if it’s an issue about growing a team there are certain people that I turn to for advice, or if I have challenges with customers there are others that are my go-to for that. Having a trusted group of advisors has made a critical difference throughout my career.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
Not all new businesses should be considered startups. If you aspire to build a company that can scale quickly and become a multi-billion dollar business, then you should consider raising venture capital. For those considering building a venture-backed business, my advice would be to make sure you understand what that journey entails. Speak to other startup founders, educate yourself about how the fundraising process works, the role of the board/investors, the milestones expected, and much more. Startups have a well defined process, but they don’t always follow the direct path. They must keep hitting expected milestones — pre-seed, seed, Series A, Series B, etc. — to succeed. There are many types of businesses that can be built with smaller amounts of capital, have a longer opportunity window, can grow without the need for venture capital and are better off bootstrapping. For example, consulting businesses are better suited for bootstrapping.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- Passion. To survive the highs and lows of starting a business, passion is a must. It will keep you going during the rough patches you’ll inevitably encounter. It’s also critical from an investment perspective. It’s one of the key traits that most investors look for in early stage founders. If investors don’t feel that passion from the founding team then it’s unlikely that they would invest.
- Focus. In the beginning, you will most likely have limited budget and resources. You have to start with something where you create a proofpoint, get a quick win and be able to show that there is a real problem that you’re solving — this comes with focus.
- Persistence. This should go without saying, but without persistence, the startup will never get off the ground.
- Frequent and perpetual interactions with customers. As your startup evolves, you want to ensure that you are in sync with your customers’ needs. To make this happen, make sure to listen to what your customers are telling you, be open to receiving feedback from them and then act on that feedback.
- Attract the right talent. Look for individuals that have complementary skill sets and share your passion. You want to ensure that the people you attract will be able to pull more than their own weight and carry your vision forward.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I see two main errors that founders often make. The first one is underestimating the time, money and effort it takes to start and run a company. For instance, make sure to plan for at least one year of runway without any compensation or salary — and make sure your co-founder and/or team members can do the same. Also, identify people who will be able to join full-time and are committed to your startup as soon as you raise your first round. The second error is not solving the right problem(s) for the customer. To ensure you’re building something that customers really need and will pay for, have frequent, meaningful interactions with them.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
I can recommend three things to tack this:
- Step away from the screen: Exercise, meditate, spend time in nature, etc.
- Have trusted friends/spouse/family/colleagues to speak to
- Make time for yourself to reflect and to do the things you love
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would love to see everyone, including business leaders, sports figures, and celebrities, speak openly about mental health to help destigmatize it, support it and encourage building resiliency for our youth. I would want the movement to:
- Foster positive online experiences and interactions
- Increase access to care and support across all communities
- Bolster social and emotional skills, and positive behaviors
- Improve mental health and wellbeing
This is what we are hoping to do with our fund, Telosity by Vinaj Ventures. The goal is to ultimately reduce anxiety, depression, loneliness, stress, and suicide rates, both in the U.S. and across the globe.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to share a meal with folks that could really have a big impact on mental health and wellbeing. They could also have a huge following with actively shown interest for these issues — especially with a focus on our society’s youth. Folks like Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Curry, Kevin Love, and the Obamas would be around my dream lunch table. Our fund, Telosity by Vinaj Ventures, has built credibility and knowledge in the youth mental wellbeing startup ecosystem, so joining forces with a prominent individual would help to amplify and accelerate impact on our youth.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Certainly! I would invite your readers to follow and engage with us through LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. They can also learn more about Vinaj Ventures by visiting www.vinaj.com and about our youth mental wellbeing fund, Telosity by Vinaj Ventures, at www.telosity.co.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!