About seven years back I had joined a startup. Unlike what you know of a startup, this one pretty much had everything ready on a platter. There was an interesting enough office with soothing coloured walls, open work culture, a few glass doors beside the meeting rooms, and a generous enough ‘seed investment’. Yes, you read it right! Money was there. It was very different from the garage stories I had heard before where entrepreneurs hustle in their backyard or one room apartments and bring to the market something that is so awesome that people vie for their attention. Now, maybe when it comes to the investment it wasn’t all there — in fact, we sat down for a month to work out the revenue model and went pitching to the investors (who, we knew had agreed in principle earlier, but wanted to know the actual business model before committing), went through the usual routine of due diligence and finally secured the money. Things were great for the first few months — as timelines were drawn up, the MVP was decided and designs were going back and forth. However, six months down the line — things seemed a little wrong. Maybe too many features were getting added to the MVP, the platform was seeming shaky and the scariest of them all, the product market fit seemed a little ambiguous. On top of it, a little bit of work politics was coming into play as well. The venture was launched, initial users were brought in, the traditional and digital marketing channels were employed, but things kept on going south, re-surging at times and then tanking again. When I moved on, I wished with all my heart that there will be people to make it work later and even though it survived the tides of time for a while, it did sink at the end.
Now, I had taken back a few lessons from this failure. One, love the idea of ‘limited resources’, in most cases that is all you need to start and keep at it. Second, love your failure. It will change you in unexpected ways. Third, keep reminding yourself where it all went wrong so that you don’t let it happen the second time.
Trust me, it wasn’t easy when the first thing that anyone notices in your CV is the story of a failure. But life isn’t all about winning, so even if some recruiters will pass you by, there will be someone who will pick it up to see you as a hustler at the end. Instead of worrying and trying to apply everywhere, I got super active on social sites, using the unwanted sabbatical to draw up business plans and filling up SlideShare with ideas. So much of that happened in a month, that I got a message after a time saying that I had made it as a SlideShare influencer as well. I promptly put it on my CV, albeit for the time being, because there are always bigger fishes making it to a kill on a social site.
The firm that hired me was still stuck in Horizon 1 of growth and the market was getting more and more fragmented. Six months in the new job, and we realised that we will need a new horizon of growth as well. I proposed a growth plan around EdTech.But, differences exist everywhere, more so in a firm that had traditionally been servicing a different set of industries altogether. The growth plan that I had drawn up was based on individual skillsets and there were gaps that one had to fill in. The organisation was still wary of how to take it forward. The first thing that seemed important was to create some validation. And for an organisation that has traditionally been the backend invisible partner of graphic design businesses, working in a traditional hourly service based set-up, the only validation is new business. Can we get two clients to prove that it will be an area of growth? The traditional chicken and egg situation set in, as there was no proof of what we could do, and without any proof who would buy from us? We hit the market with nothing to start with, except for one more person who had agreed to pitch my idea in his market and a designer who had said she would help if required. The business heads had just given in to the idea with, ‘well, we’ll see if you can pull this off.’
Before my time at the startup, I had managed brand solutions for a media house. The idea of brand solutions is pretty interesting. You take a client’s brand proposition and use lateral thinking skills to build a campaign around it. We had regular radio shows and the job was to take a brand and integrate it’s value proposition as a part of the show, build an integrated campaign around it and show enough ROI to keep the client advertising with you. Brand solutions was very different from the way advertising spots were being sold. My solutioning skills, built as a part of my brand solutions portfolio, came in useful here — as I worked on building value propositions around corporate learning. This meant, reading up more about HR challenges of particular industries and transforming them into online learning opportunities.
When we hit the market, we always came with a creative to support it. A sample course, or a few relevant storyboards or just a couple of screens put together on Photoshop. It started working. I was still a 2.5 member team and getting pulled in everywhere else. So, I gave myself a timeline. I had to make it to $X dollars within Y time to show market validation. Because if I didn’t, then people might actually be happy to shove aside the idea and get on with the traditional services business. No harm if they did that since very little investments had gone in, but what I didn’t want was to fail a second time on my ideas. So after cracking two new clients from publishing we kept going. People started to look up. It seemed the business had come from nowhere — so maybe there was something there, or was it? My organisation worked a lot with banks — and we got active in that space, harbouring the idea that low hanging fruit will be worth it. This time, a few hires were made as well with a direct or a lateral reporting to me. It was finally working out — though no one was ready to accept it as the second horizon of growth just yet. Only, the banks were not so interested, or maybe we were jumping the gun a bit. The revenue flow was slow and unsteady. Manufacturing was not interested in us that much and all the use cases were either from banking or from publishing. Pharma didn’t want to touch us either. So who was left?
When I had started out after my University, I had a two year stint at non profit. I turned to this space and started looking up opportunities. It gave me two insights — smartphones had reached remote villages in India and non profits were short of staff to cover the large geographies they were expected to cover. So maybe, online learning would help them address upskilling of resources. Also, most of the competitors had seemed to have left non profits alone since understanding about this space was limited, and the video makers who served this space were not so hands on with instructional design. Maybe we could sell here? Non Profits turned out to be the golden goose for us at least for the next two years — as we cracked multi-crore deals, worked closely with societal issues and managed to show impressive numbers in upskilling nurses, doctors, field workers and others. We had finally found our mojo.
With limited marketing budgets you cannot be there everywhere. But, the need to be there everywhere without spending also means that you have to be creative about everything you do. So you make use of every opportunity that comes your way. We could barely sponsor two conferences a year. And that too we would be there towards the middle of the sponsorship ladder, straddling between other logos. The conference organiser would put in a gentle smile and say, “we usually give associate sponsors a prominent place, if you view it from a ten meter distance you can see it. But the principal sponsor… you know, they have to be everywhere.” However, what we realised when we started sponsoring was that not everyone who walked in to attend had a good idea about implementing online learning to address HR challenges. And among all the other impressive booths, we had to draw some attention. So we created short form FAQ comic books — that caught attention with attractive graphics, told a story and answered all the basic questions. Most importantly, people could carry them home. We ensured that the sketches were attractive enough to entice any lay reader — so that even if the client didn’t see it, his or her kid would take a look at it and laugh whenever they wanted to. A very differentiated approach from the sleek looking White papers that our competitors were handing out.
We used these resources everywhere — on our portals, in our emails, handed printed copies in the conferences. We took up interesting new age topics like gamification, making use of learning management systems, effectively using LTI functionalities and gave them a comic book makeover. It worked! We also ensured that the ten minutes of time you get in an elite panel as a sponsor is put to good use. So instead of sharing opinion we started sharing ‘how-to’ methods and frameworks in the panel discussions. I remember spending ten minutes explaining ‘Universal Design Language in online learning’ in one of my panels. During lunch time, people were flocking to my booth. We were not discussing our services, but addressing challenges of slow learners instead. The projects that came through, came with accessibility requirements in online content development, which literally meant more development cost and revenues.
However, all this time, I was still stuck to an Indian client base. So how could we go international? Digital marketing helped. Linkedin Sales Navigator helped too in mapping out possible organisations and target clientele. But what helped the most were partnerships. We started exploring value partnerships with tech firms that had a focus on customer goals. This information was already available in company whitepapers and blogs. All we needed to do was map it out and then think laterally as to how our services could be of use to their clients and show them in a good light. We cracked two partnerships with two global firms, presenting them with ideas about how we could support them with achieving customer goals. Instead of the traditional partnership route, we reached out to the customer success teams to make it work. Six months down the line, we had landed clients in Europe, US and some other parts of Asia Pacific. Our international business was on. Small start… but a good one.
Limited resources can be a daunting image. You look at your small canoe and the vast ocean before you to wonder, ‘How am I going to cross it? Will my hustling attitude help? Will I have to fake it till I make it?’ The answer might not be any. You might not need to fake it, if you show that you will make it anyway. The attitude might just work in your favour.
First, map everything you have. Trust me you will have more than you thought you do. When I mapped out the 2.5 member team I had to start with — I realised we have skills in instructional design, project management, sales, VFX (in fact our sales guy had an experience in doing VFX at the beginning of his career), advertising, account management, visual design and marketing. That was all we needed, because we had a strong base to build on.
Second, focus on both low hanging fruit as well as the blue ocean. The low hanging fruit for me was so low that eventually it didn’t make any sense to pursue it. Instead, blue ocean provided the right opportunities to go after. Before our competitors could sense that there was opportunity here — we had bagged the right logos.
Third, be creative about every opportunity. The solutions that sail you through might actually lie in other industries. Lateral thinking helps here. The solution to grabbing eyeballs, for me, lay in the Dilbert comics. I picked up the idea of using comic book methods of talking about practical problems and it worked.
Fourth, be patient and shut off your mind to naysayers. But that doesn’t mean you don’t listen to them. Sometimes naysayers can really have valuable insights, but it’s their attitude that can put you off. Maybe put on a mental filter to ensure that they don’t end up depressing you. (Because they can!). The best way to do this is to see them as someone who might have tried but didn’t get the right results. Usually people don’t turn into naysayers out of pure habit. Trust me, if you can show them that there are results in your ideas, some of them might just adopt it as well. Everybody loves to grow! But, you will need patience with them.
Last, keep a checklist of your day. Just to tick things off. Trust me it helps.