I started my company in 2010 as a hobby project as a WordPress blog and now that I have lived more of my life as an entrepreneur than in a Corporate (5 years work ex. before starting up), it felt like a good time to reflect on the journey and document what I have learned.
Here is a quick round up of learnings that top my list -
1. Keep it simple - Customer cares only about one thing; whether you solved her problem or not. No matter how many features your product has, or how fancy your marketing campaigns are; a customer will come back to you and refer her friends to you only if you solve her problem. So do not waste time building features and doing things that do not address customer's real pain point.
We started as a WordPress blog and could not build a website for first 3 years. Despite this obvious drawback, we were able to build the business by staying laser focused on solving the actual problem (i,e. connecting potential interns with companies). The product did not look fancy but it was simple and it did the job.
As a start-up, we are always short on resources (people, money, or time) and 'Keeping it Simple' allows us to prioritize our efforts on things that truly matter.
2. People > Profits - Money does not build business, people do; so never short change them. This is not to say that you should not be money minded (you absolutely must be). Also, the heading does not only say that people are greater than profits, it also says that people lead to profits :)
For example, we kept the internship platform free for everyone and continued to serve them in best way we could without knowing how it would eventually play out. But 3 years later when we launched a fee based online training platform, students were happy to pay because they trusted the platform.
Similarly, there is immense freedom (both creative as well as from processes) for everyone in the team and we have a policy of no fixed number of holidays in a year (you can take as many as you want) - everyone appreciates this and things get done on time without anyone having to follow up. The reverse is also true; once we short-changed an advertiser to maximize revenue from a campaign and lost the client forever.
As long as you continue to treat people the way you would like to be treated yourself; universe has a way to figure things out for you.
3. Building a team is hard, building a culture even harder - Fortunately for us, we found a great way to build our team (Interns! Yes, Internshala is of the interns, for the interns, and by the interns) and since all the team members are young, it was also easy to build the culture. Given the grind that start-up life is, this aspect of the business is easy to overlook. But if there is one advice I could give anyone, it would be this - Products and strategies would come and go but the culture would stay forever. So invest in it!
As a team, we spent lot of time thinking and debating about values and actions that are important to us and will define your culture. We started living them as way of life and way of speak. Once 'Make it Happen' became our culture; we never had to worry about ownership. Being ‘Resourceful’ and ‘Frugal’ as our culture meant no waste spend ever, even on things as trivial as envelopes or markers.
4. A meaningful metric for the business can do wonders - For Internshala, it is the number of students who find an internship through us. It is a difficult metric to track and for four years we were measuring ourselves on metrices like traffic, # of users, Facebook fans etc. These are superficial at best and do not capture the real aha! moments we create.
Once we started measuring the real impact, everything else quickly fell in place. And more importantly, everyone in the team now clearly sees how her work impacts this metric (i.e. lives of people) and is super-charged.
5. Passion is great but discipline is what would make it or break it - Personally, to become and stay disciplined has been the biggest challenge for me. There would be times when you would feel utterly bored or dejected; or may be your mind and body would tell you to take it easy (especially if like me, you started up to Have Fun). It is in those times the discipline would help you go through the routine, get things done, and keep moving forward.
I believe building a great business is more like a marathon than a sprint and you need to be prepared to be at it for a really long time. If so, you would need discipline to last that long.
6. Have fun at what you do - And finally, the most important of all. As an entrepreneur, I have learned that there is not going to be an end to my worries ever. If initially it is about survival, later it is about scaling up or staying ahead. And other times, I am just comparing myself to other businesses who are doing better and feeling jealous or insecure. Also, most of us start with a goal in mind (money, fame, freedom or whatever) and it is incredibly important to have that. But I have learned that in our obsession with the destination, we should not lose sight of the journey and the fun that comes along with it. Else, it can create havoc for your inner peace.
In India 92% of the kids don’t make it to the college and for rest 8% a career is by chance and not by choice. We are changing that starting with an internship for each of the 8%. If you are onto something new, you will have plenty of heartbreaks, just make sure you have your share of fun too!