Saturday, 7 May 2022

Should a student startup while he is in college in India or work in a startup with experienced people and learn before starting on his own?

There is only one thumb rule - that there are no thumb rules.

I read this Tweet today:

“Don't start up without having any prior experience or understanding.”

I think generic one-sided statements more often than not, lack depth and have a huge number of exceptions. Such statements are made primarily for the mass audience. For a mass audience, I think the above advice is quite good. However, the problem happens when the right set of people get demotivated reading such negative generic advice.

When I started Cogno, I was in the 4th year of college. The 8th semester had just begun and I was as clueless about startups as any other college grad. Some may argue that I was from IIT Bombay. The point here is that be it IIT Bombay or be it some other college - the curriculum is quite similar where like other CSE folks, I was also taught programming. If one wants to do something else, they need to themselves take the initiatives to learn those things. College won’t spoon-feed.

Anyway, coming back to the point - when I started Cogno, I received a bunch of generic advice:

  • “Work in a startup with experienced people and learn before starting on your own”
  • “Are you trying to act over smart?”
  • “This startup and all is non-sense, you don’t earn money in startups”
  • “Are you out of your mind to turn down Tower Research and Rubrik's job offer?”
  • “You are surely going to fail!”

Some folks even went ahead to write a Quora answer on how AllinCall (rebranded to Cogno AI) is going to be “one of the most failed startups due to lack of experience”. Take a look yourself:

Aman is not doing wise to work on this project ,he is trying to manage Financial Data using Machine learning and AI but he will going to fail in next 1 year if he didn’t find a team of smartpeople.

AllinCallin will remain as one of the most failed startups due to lack of experience and businessmen, he shows direct businessmen demand which is not right.

You can’t due much thing by group of 5 people from which seriously lack in skills.

Note: Till 2028 every talented IIT CSE graduate will work in Indian revolutionary company which will make revenue of about 3 from his second.

Will establish better tech-hub then Silicon valley by 2040 in India.

Even my genuine well-wishers like my uncle told me and my parents that this is a bad decision and that I should get a “prior experience” before I get into something of my own.

Here is what they were seeing:

  • A young and immature guy.
  • No prior experience.
  • No brand name.
  • No guidance and support.
  • No contacts.
  • No product.

What people didn’t see was that I was determined, hardworking, and was not going to give up my dreams so easily. Here is what they didn’t see:

  • A young and immature guy, who is sensible and hardworking.
  • No prior experience, but high learnability.
  • No brand name - there is an IIT Bombay brand name.
  • No guidance and support - extremely experienced mentors from IIT Bombay Center for Entrepreneurship guiding me.
  • No contacts - there was an IIT Bombay alumni network.
  • No product - there was a deep technical knowledge.

I was determined to do something of my own and I took the plunge, declining some really high-paying job offers ($150k in the US and Rs. 42 LPA in India). It was a good start, but when my co-founder exited, things went bad. Like real-damn-bad.

  • I had less than Rs. 5 lakhs in the bank account of the company after 1.5 years of running it.
  • Operating from a small 2 BHK flat in Ghatkopar.
  • 1 intern and 1 full-time employee left.
  • Hardly any paying customers.
  • Had to travel on a local train in extreme summer heat wearing a black coat.
  • Had to ride a scooty 25 kms on one side.

I made a lot of mistakes. But what was consistent was:

  • I never gave up.
  • I kept on noting down my mistakes and learned from them and made sure to not repeat them.
  • I kept on learning from my mentors and advisors and improved myself.
  • I kept reading books, articles, and blogs and upskilled myself.
  • I focused a lot on hiring and team building and built a stellar founding team including Harshita as my co-founder.
  • I met a huge number of customers to understand their pain points and focused on building products to solve their problems.

Fast forward today - we got acquired by Exotel in a multi-million dollar worth of transaction.

Here are a few achievements of Cogno AI in the last few years:

  • Acquired some of the largest companies in India as our clients - State Bank Group, Kotak Group, Aditya Birla Group, Bajaj Group, ICICI Group, etc.
  • Built a stellar team of 100+ members.
  • Crossed $1M in revenues in the financial year 2020–2021.
  • Ranked among the LinkedIn top 25 startups in India.
  • Won the prestigious Technoviti Award.
  • Awarded by clients like ICICI Bank, and ICICI Lombard.
  • Received at least 3 acquisition offers.
  • Acquired clients in at least 5 other countries outside India.

In between, we faced a bunch of challenges, like I mentioned about my co-founder's exit.

In another incident, a random engineer from a reputed technology firm got jealous of our progress and tried to damage our reputation by spreading false information about us on LinkedIn. He claimed that we were an unfriendly company and were mistreating our team members, especially freshers. He wanted to acquire likes on social media and didn’t think twice before throwing bricks at us.

We picked up those bricks and created a castle from those bricks. I am proud to say that Cogno has been rated 4.5 stars on Glassdoor after 72 reviews.

Incidentally, when I went to our Glassdoor page to take a screenshot of the 4.5 stars rating, the first review mentioned “They encourage freshers”. Unfortunately, we Indians are yet to get above our crab mentality of pulling down others who are trying to achieve something.

At Cogno, a majority of our team members are young, unskilled, and with almost zero prior experience (freshers). For most of them, Cogno is their first job. For a lot of them, Cogno was the only company that recruited from their campus during the COVID-19 pandemic (2020 batch students) and so, they are committed to their company with their full heart and soul.

Through the above achievements of the company, I am trying to tell you that with zero prior entrepreneurship or job experience, and with barely any external capital, we were able to build the Cogno Team which worked hard to achieve all the above milestones. It is a team effort with a lot of support from our 100+ members and mentors.

How did we do all of this? We persisted. We never gave up. We learned, experimented, made mistakes, and rose up again. We never gave up on any external factors and internally we all have been extremely motivated. We never let any problem get on our heads - be it the co-founder's exit or be it the random engineer ranting about us on LinkedIn. We had 1 motto - focus on the customer, and build the best product for them.

Today, we, the inexperienced set of startup team members, have onboarded some of the most “experienced” companies as our clients.

I will end this answer with a small quote:

Experience matters, but determination matters more.

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