5 Unicorn Founders Share Key Learnings From Their Early Mistakes
From making wrong hiring decisions, ignoring product innovation to expanding to other markets too soon, mistakes are inevitable in any startup journey
In his monthly Mann Ki Baat radio broadcast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Sunday that India is leading the world in the startup field with more than 70 startups having crossed the valuation of $1 billion. He added that in any country having a large population of youth, three things, ideas and innovation, passion to take risks and the ‘can do’ spirit, matter a lot.
“These days we hear all around us, startup, startup, startup. It is true that this is the era of startups and it is also true that in the field of start-ups, in a way, India is leading the world,” said the Prime Minister.
It has been pouring Unicorns for India this year. However, the journey to becoming a Unicorn is not an easy one. For, the startup journey is never devoid of ups and downs. And, since most startup founders in India today are first-generation entrepreneurs, mistakes are an inevitable part of their journeys. '
Here is what some unicorn founders told Entrepreneur India when asked about the mistakes that changed the way they function and shaped their growth.
Ashwin Damera, co-founder and CEO, Eruditus
Ashwin Damera believes that Eruditus’ decision to go online in 2015 was the pivotal decision that led to its success. By going online it could serve students in 80+ countries, in 5 languages, 24 *7. That dramatically improved its total addressable market and allowed the company to grow at a speed that the founders themselves didn't imagine was possible.
However, the switch wasn’t easy and that was one of the startup’s early mistakes. “We assumed we could expand online the same way we did in offline courses. We launched our first bunch of online courses using topics we knew had done well in offline courses. But they didn’t work so well. We realized that the online consumer had different drivers. They wanted a specific skill to be developed unlike more broad-based management learning that offline course users wanted,” said Damera. The startup quickly adapted to new demands and in August 2021 it joined the coveted unicorn club.
Amrit Acharya, co-founder, Zetwerk
Initially, Zetwerk was a platform that offered software that helps manufacturing enterprises and their procurement better. However, very soon the founders realized that it wasn’t working. Even though a lot of companies loved the software, it would take them 6-12 months to approve and that was a lot of time to wait. At the same time, Acharya and his co-founders realized that companies were finding it difficult to find high-quality manufacturing supplies. Thus, pivoting to a marketplace model made more sense. They started onboarding a lot of manufacturing suppliers in the country, digitized it and started showing it to the same set of customers. This time, the customers were able to make a decision much faster because they had the manufacturing job for which they needed suppliers immediately. This was the turning point for Zetwerk.
Further, like many startups, Zetwerk also made some wrong hiring decisions. The founders were busy hiring senior people from the industry who had been there and done that. “Ultimately what happened was that the culture of the company was different. They were married to two different cultures, a software engineering culture and an industrial manufacturing culture. Today, we have done a great job in integrating these two cultures,” said Acharya.
Aditya Sharda and Souvik Sengupta, co-founders, Infra.Market
“As an entrepreneur, we have learned our way through various business models in the last few years across B2B, Retail and Private Labels. We have taken bold bets from time to time, with a ruthless focus on execution with relentless discipline and the outcomes have been encouraging so far,” the cofounders told us.
Another challenge in front of the startup was the pandemic. However, the founders used this time to innovate and enter new businesses like retail and more private labels. “We also built a strong team hiring aggressively including the best of industry leaders with vast experience,” said Sharda. Today, the company caters to both institutional customers (B2B) and retail outlets (D2R) in the construction materials sector. The product categories it offers are steel, cement, RMC, walling solutions, stone materials and flyash. Further, it has followed a dual model of opening flagship stores (for catering to smaller stores) and dealership stores (for retail customers).
Abhay Hanjura and Vivek Gupta, co-founders, Licious
“As a category-first and digitally native brand, innovation is at the heart of everything we do at Licious. Mistakes are inevitable and we embrace them as an essential part of learning and growth. Our early missteps have been valuable in helping us solve prevailing customer pain points of quality, hygiene, freshness and convenience in a sustainable manner,” said Hanjura.
Today, controlling and operating a proprietary supply chain from source to delivery – farm to fork – is integral to the Licious promise of high quality, safe, hygienic meat and seafood.
“We also learned early on that our mission as a D2C brand is to spark customer delight, not just with our products, but also with our service. So, from the delivery staff to meat technicians, everyone is on the company’s payroll,” said Gupta.
Gajendra Jangid, co-founder and CMO, CARS24
For CARS24 founders, more than the mistakes, it was the challenges as an industry that were tough. But, they also gave them the opportunity to learn. Each year, since its inception, CARS24 faced challenges as an industry such as demonetization in 2016, GST in 2017, the collapse of IL&FS in 2018, migration from BSIV to BSVI engines in 2019 and the pandemic in 2020. But every challenge turned into an opportunity.
“For instance, through the course of the pandemic, we have propelled ourselves to understand and adapt to the changing digital atmosphere. For example, data-driven marketing has helped us gather real-time consumer insights. Therefore, being digitally transformed and at the forefront of technology is an essential part of the learning curve during a pandemic,” said Jangid. Thus, the pandemic turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the startup as in comparison to pre-Covid levels, CARS24 website traffic has increased 4X, claims the startup.
Shanthi specializes in writing sector-specific trends, interviews and startup profiles. She has worked as a feature writer for over a decade in several print and digital media companies. She is also a mom who looks forward to playing a game of cards with her tween daughter every evening after work.