Tuesday 17 May 2022

What is the best advice for a student who wants to start a business?

Don’t listen to others who are telling you to get some job experience before starting a business.

Hear my story.

I started my startup Cogno AI back in 2017 in my final year of college. In the summer of 2016, I got a chance to intern in Palo Alto at a startup called Rubrik. It was the end of my third year of college and accordingly, I went to Palo Alto for about 3 months during the summer break. It was at this time that the startup bug hit me. I was amazed by seeing the culture in Silicon Valley and I became excited to start something of my own.

When I came back to college in July 2016 after the internship, I had the entire fourth year of college left with me to experiment. I was in quite a sweet spot:

  1. I had a pre-placement offer from Rubik and so, I didn’t have to sit for placements.
  2. Undergrad project at the CSE department of IIT Bombay is optional so I didn’t have to worry about that.
  3. I didn’t want to go for higher studies and so, I didn’t have the pressure to prepare for GRE.
  4. I had most of my courses already done by the end of the third year and so, I didn’t have to take too many courses in the final year.

So, I had the entire fourth year with me to play around with my startup bug and get something out of it. During this period, I was still a college student and so, I wasn’t really expected to earn any money. So, I used this time to experiment. I took a lot of classes in the Entrepreneurship Department of IIT Bombay and got great exposure to some of the best entrepreneurs.

  • I met Prof. Raj Jaswa who is from the 1975 batch of IIT Bombay. Prof. Jaswa founded Selectica Inc (Nasdaq: SLTC), an enterprise software company that had one of the ten most successful IPOs of 2000.
  • I met Prof. Bharat Desai, an IIT Bombay alum and the Founder of Syntel, which got acquired by Atos for $3.4 Billion in 2018.
  • I met Prof. Salil Donde, an IIT Bombay alum who was the Executive Vice President of Nasdaq.

Essentially, I got a chance to meet some of the finest alums of the institute who had done well in the business domain. They were taking classes on various business topics like Marketing, Technology Venture Creation, Intellectual Property, etc. Being a part of their classes gave me excellent exposure and I learned a lot of the basics of these subjects. Being a CS grad, it was a lot for me to learn and absorb, but I enjoyed it a lot.

In 2017, which was my 8th and last semester, I decided to start something of my own rather than joining Rubrik. Rubrik had extended me handsome offers at both their India and US offices. Apart from that, I had off-campus offers from a few companies including a high-paying offer from Tower Research Capital. So, a received a lot of resistance from my family members given that I come from a middle-class family. Everyone, literally everyone told me - get some job experience before starting up otherwise you will fail. I was in a tough situation because it was a fight between the happiness of family members and chasing my dream.

My family members wanted good for me. They didn’t want me to screw up my career. And hence, all of them advised me to get some prior experience before starting up. However, what they didn’t know was the fact that I was getting the guidance and mentorship of such highly accomplished Professors from IIT Bombay. They were ready to support me in all possible ways. They had taken big risks in life and could accordingly guide me.

Keeping all of these factors in mind, I decided to not join Rubrik and start my own business. In April 2017, I incorporated Cogno AI along with a friend of mine. Fast forward 4.5 years, in November 2021, Exotel acquired Cogno AI in a multi-million dollars deal. As of today (May 2022), at Cogno, we are a team of ~150 members and ~100 customers across ~10 countries. We are a part of the larger Exotel umbrella which has ~1300 employees and ~7000 customers across ~55 countries.

Did I face challenges in the journey? Of course. Did I give up? Not at all!

I faced a lot of challenges in my journey:

  1. In August 2018, my co-founder abruptly left with a 2 day's notice. At that time, I was left with an intern, a full-time employee, and less than Rs. 5 lakhs in the bank.
  2. When COVID happened in 2020, needless to say, we were also initially screwed. Customers held back their purchase orders, payments were delayed, and markets went cold with negative sentiment everywhere.
  3. In multiple instances, people tried to bring me down including an engineer from an MNC who wrote a negative defamation post about me to get likes and shares.

What remained consistent was that I did what my gut told me and I never gave up. I did listen to the right people who had done what I was trying to do. But I never listened to any relative of family or friends because most of their advice is generic and driven by fear of risks. So, I’d suggest that if anyone is giving you a piece of generic advice, or advising you to get a job experience before you startup, you should think twice before listening to them.

Some people reading my answer might say - “But Aman, many startups fail and not everyone has access to the IIT Bombay resources”. Yes, you’re right. I am not saying that ignore everyone’s advice and leave your job and do a startup. I am saying you should evaluate the factors in your favor and depending on that, make a decision whether you should start-up or go for a job and get some experience. The crux of what I am saying is that don’t blindly listen to advice or relatives.

Apart from this, there are a few other things that I’d suggest:

  1. Chase customers, don’t chase investors. Investors will come to you because you’d have customers. Not the other way round. I was a programmer, but I put my 100% focus on meeting customers and solving their problems. ICICI Bank is one of our customers. To visit their office, one has to register the laptop serial number at the Security. I visited their office so many times that their Security Guard had memorized my laptop’s serial number.
  2. Keep a close eye on costs and bank balance. Don’t blow away the money on a fancy office or random perks.
  3. Learn to delegate. As a young founder, the biggest challenge you’d face is to convert yourself from being self-employed to being an entrepreneur. Read this 3 times to get the essence of what I am trying to say. It took me a while to understand the fact that my job as the founder is not to do the job, but my job is to hire people who can do the job.

A few other articles that I have written about entrepreneurship:

  1. Aman Goel's answer to What are the best ways for a college student to make money?
  2. Aman Goel's answer to How do startup founders handle really bad days?
  3. Aman Goel's answer to 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?
  4. Aman Goel's answer to How do I start a startup?
  5. Aman Goel's answer to How did you start your own startup? How did you choose the idea?
  6. Aman Goel's answer to How were you approached about having your startup acquired?

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