Saturday, 7 May 2022

How do startup founders handle really bad days?

By not giving up.

In the journey of building Cogno AI, I have faced a bunch of really bad days. When I say really bad, I mean situations where we almost shut down.

I started Cogno AI in April 2017, with a friend of mine from IIT Bombay. Both of us knew each other for almost 4 years at that time, and so, we thought that we will make a good team. Unfortunately, there was a huge mismatch in our backgrounds, aspirations, work style, and most importantly vision. I came from a small middle-class family and so, a few crores of business opportunity was a big thing for me. That, unfortunately, wasn’t the case with my friend who came from a relatively well-to-do family.

We also had a lot of differences in thinking. My friend wanted to do something unique - something which no one had done before and would be the first of its kind idea. He wanted to work on something super big and unique. On the other hand, I was of the view that, to begin with, we can start with something small, and later on, as we learn, we can always find adjacent revenue streams to grow our business.

My friend, therefore, was putting his hands on multiple things - algorithmic trading, education, enterprise SaaS, deep-tech, crypto-trading, etc. I was also a participant in this mistake of getting distracted. Needless to say, nothing worked out. After 16 months of fantastic start, nothing worked out for us and my friend, who was my former co-founder, quit the company with a short 2-day notice.

One of my mentors who was extremely close to me also saw the co-founder exit and he too stopped helping me. He had been a mentor for almost 2 years at that time, and him moving out was a bigger blow than my co-founder moving out.

It was an extremely difficult situation for me:

  • Barely any funds left in the bank of the Company.
  • One full-time team member and one intern left. Both questioned me about the co-founder's exit and also their career and I had no answer.
  • Customer relationships were impacted. Customers asked me where my co-founder was and I had no answer.
  • My parents asked me what I would do now, and I had no answer.

Forget about the questions from external people, I myself had a question to me - what would I do now? And I had no answer. This was August 2018 and I was not even 23 years old with zero knowledge about startups, business, hiring, team building, product development, and practically anything you can think of. For any entrepreneur, this is practically a dead end.

I was determined to not give up. I realized that at this time, there are a few extremely important things:

  • I need to get a co-founder because alone I won’t be able to do much.
  • I need to ensure that the 2 team members who are with me, should not have their careers impacted at all.
  • I need to ensure that the customers are not impacted due to this issue on my end.
  • I need to find out what went wrong and make sure that the mistakes are not repeated.

I convinced Harshita to join me as a co-founder. She agreed to work without drawing any salary for the next few months until we deliver some of our pending projects and get the money from the clients. To ensure that we pay the salaries of the 2 team members on time, I put my own money into the company.

To comfort the customers, I went to meet them personally and assured them that they can call me even at 3 AM at the night without any hesitation and we would be happy to help them.

Harshita and I divided roles - I will be on the field, interacting with customers and handling all the revenue side of things. And she will be at the office, working with our team members to deliver projects and build our product.

Further, we both sat and made a list of all the mistakes that my previous co-founder and I had made in the last 1.5 years. The idea was to realize the key problems and ensure that they are not repeated.

We figured out that the major mistake that was made was a lack of focus. We were all over the place trying to do everything - from enterprise SaaS to Edtech to trading, and what-not. We cut down everything and started focusing on our Customer Experience Platform for Financial Services companies. We cut down every other thread and focused on executing only and only 1 thing for just 1 large sector - BFSI (Banking, Financial Services, Insurance).

The whole thing took almost 3 quarters to show results, but it worked out amazingly well. We acquired a lot of large enterprises in the BFSI Sector. Today, we have 60+ BFSI logos in our clientele.

I remember 2 years ago when we were pitching to Axis Bank, their reaction was - “you’ve all the big banks as your clients, how did you not reach us?” The above is a simple example of how entrepreneurs can reduce the clutter and focus on a few important things to grow the business.

Less is more.

In another incident, that happened in September 2020, I posted on LinkedIn about my experience of hiring from a training institute. I mentioned how such training institutes are degrading the quality of talent in the market and how we ended up hiring some of the students from these institutes only to realize that they were not the right hires.

My objective was to highlight the fact that such training institutes are making students cram standard formulae rather than helping them build actual thinking skills. Further, they were looting students by giving false promises and charging a hefty fees by making students apply for a loan[1]. I wanted to highlight that if a student is fundamentally not skilled, making them cram such formulae is not going to make them skilled.

However, a random engineer from Microsoft picked up a few words from my LinkedIn post and wrote a defamatory post on LinkedIn. He raised allegations against me that at Cogno, we mistreat freshers and don’t give them an opportunity to learn. He defended the training institute and raised baseless allegations against the culture of Cogno with the intention of damaging my and Cogno’s reputation.

His sole intention was to gain likes and followers - like what many immature kids want to do today. He not only used my name to gain followers but also used the name of IIT Bombay because raising a question against a large brand like IIT Bombay was sure to get him followers and he did exactly that. Later I got to know that he was associated with the training institute under discussion. No wonder he created a scene against me for calling out against the wrong practices of the training institute.

Was it a difficult situation for me? Yes. Did I give up? No. Here is what I did.

We politely asked each of our team members to write an honest Glassdoor review of their experience at Cogno. We told them that these reviews are all anonymous and so, they are free to even write all the negatives if they feel that the company deserves so.

As a young, early-stage startup, we practically had no benefits to offer to our team members except a fantastic learning experience and a great culture. To my surprise, within a few hours, we had several positive reviews, with the team members sharing their experiences and learnings. Our team members loved us and our Glassdoor rating after some 40+ reviews reached 4.4 stars.

Today, we have 72 reviews on Glassdoor with a rating of 4.5 stars.

Our team members have written some fantastic comments. In fact, for over 80% of our team members, Cogno AI is their first job. They join us as freshers and learn and grow with the company. Many of our team members have grown significantly, with even our clients praising them. All of them joined Cogno as fresher. Take a look at some of the reviews on Glassdoor:

The below review says “Highly recommended for Freshers”.

The random engineer from Microsoft was trying to attack us thinking that it will help him gain followers and will damage my and Cogno’s reputation. Exactly reverse happened - with so many people writing fantastic reviews on Glassdoor, we got a huge pool of talent apply to us and we grew even faster. When this episode happened in September 2020, we would be about 35 - 40 members. Today we are a strong 100+ team!

I am sure more such difficult situations will come on the way. With Exotel acquiring Cogno, we definitely have a stronger brand name and muscle power to handle difficult situations. I think the most important skill that any entrepreneur can have is perseverance. One cannot fail until one decides to quit. I always tell my co-founder and my team members - even 100s of such random engineers cannot stop us from building a big company. Harshita and my determination to do something big in life, cannot be impacted by such small-minded people. We are too strong to give in to these minor issues.

To all the entrepreneurs and startup team members reading this answer - a big shout-out to you for what you’re doing. Keep building and don’t give a damn about such cheap people. Your perseverance, hard work, and determination will help you climb all the mountains of the world.

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