By Ramanuj Mukherjee
When I look back, I realize that there were so many reasons in my life to never become an entrepreneur. It was such a bad idea that people who had my good interests in mind would persuade me to abandon the idea altogether. And they did their best.
#1 – How to overcome the anti-entrepreneur forces in your family and neighbourhood
My first business idea came to me at the age of 10. I realised that a balloon (the huge ones) costs 1 rupee if you buy from the stationery store and after blowing it up it can be sold for ten rupee during Durga Puja.
I promptly started a partnership with my sister and then I went to buy balloons with 10 rupees in pocket. By the time I came back, my sister had dutifully informed my mother about the plan and she was mortified. My parents explained that I will grow up and do awesome jobs – only poor uneducated people sell balloons.
Also if we sell balloons then neighbours will think very poorly of our family. Therefore we must abandon the idea and play with the balloons ourselves and focus on studies.
That was the end of my first venture. I didn’t know back then that family pressure is the biggest reason why would be Indian entrepreneurs crumble and never become who they dreamt to become.
However, that early debacle prepared me for resistance from family, neigbours etc – and therefore in my future ventures I did not pay any heed to such counselling. This was the first and last time my parents managed to dissuade me from a business idea I wanted to pursue.
#2 Need to be careful about infrastructure and government policies
Next time I really tried doing a business was after my Xth boards. I was 15, and managed to convince my parents to let me do this. And since this involved a computer and there was no need to stand on the roadside as was the case with my first business idea, they reluctantly agreed and my mother even provided me necessary support. So what was it?
I had a computer and internet at home. Board exam results were going to be declared online (even my own). I decided to charge Rs 10 for showing people their results on the day of results declaration. I printed out some posters and put them up all over the locality. Not a lot of people had computers at that time and even fewer in my locality had internet connection.
It was a day of disaster. Or so I thought at that time. Firstly, I scored much less than the 90% I was expecting. For inexplicable reasons I scored 81%.
I still think that my papers were not properly assessed. On review (where they just check if any question was left unmarked or if totalling was wrong), I got some 11 extra marks – meaning the person who checked my papers wasn’t careful enough to avoid basic mistakes like that. It closed many options for me as to what schools I would attend for the next two years. I was utterly depressed.
What was worse was that I could not check even my own marks on my computer! The government sites crashed, and there was no way to access the marks. People turned up to check their marks on my doorstep (at least marketing was good) and I had to turn them away.
The only place where one could check marks was this government kiosk which had access through some special portal. They charged Rs 50 per result and there was a 300 people queue when I went there. Even I had to stand in that queue. Talk about humiliation. Dammit!
Never will I ever rely on government infrastructure and always be wary of government policy. These evil things in India kill entrepreneurship all the time and I learnt my lesson very early.
3# When you don’t know how to do something but someone is willing to give you a chance, say yes
I always did this, and was recently amazed to read this in a quote from Richard Branson. Say yes to the opportunity first, then figure out how to do it. I did this again and again while I was in college.
When Rajneesh Singh, a project manager from IMS asked me to help with a legal reasoning module – it was two weeks before end semester exams. And I didn’t know how to do what he wanted me to do.
In fact, even he wasn’t clear as to what he expected from me. He just trusted me to do something good. That’s how good mentors operate. I took a few hours to think, and then I called him to say I will do it. That was beginning of a project which altered the course of my life.
In the next few years, I earned in excess of INR 15 lakhs from writing modules, test papers, taking classes, marketing assignments and even ghostwriting books. I built and managed an informal team of about 20 people.
This was my first real business though I didn’t think I was running one. It was very profitable. I learned to design modules, and hundreds of hours of classroom teaching polished my public speaking. It brought out the teacher and mentor in me. I even started CLAThacker.com just to show IMS how powerful internet forums can be.
When I started the legal education business, which is now shaping into lawsikho.com, and launched courses like startup.nujs.edu or sexualharassment.nujs.edu – I realised that my years of working on CLAT training has developed skills needed in online education that few possess.
What looks like a small opportunity now may put you in a whole new track of success. Get out of your comfort zone, try new things and meet unusual challenges. You will not be able to predict what will happen going forward. Still, get into the court and play. Don’t sit and watch others play. It’s always time to take massive action.
4# Don’t rely on what people tell you and manage cashflow
This was a tough lesson. Back in college, in my 7th semester, when I was almost 20 years old, I started offering legal risk management consultancy services.
That is when ipleaders.in was born and I registered the LLP along with my best friend and classmate Abhyudaya. We managed to get our first set of clients, provided them services after carefully negotiating terms and conditions. Then it started.
When the work is done, we expected to be paid. Out of 5, at best one would cough up the money. They will delay the payment as much as they can. They will try to get away by referring some new clients instead.
Some paid in instalments even! Well, not only entrepreneurs, even big conglomerates took ages to make payment. Even after all the hard work we put in, our plans of expansion was under massive threat already.
People told us they will pay and repeatedly missed the dates they set themselves. We were clueless as to how we can increase recovery. We didn’t know how to manage cashflow and grow.
Therefore, we learnt.
While we were in the service business, and even now as we provide high cost incidental services to some of the major brands in India, we refuse to move an inch until we are paid in advance at least 50% of the money.
In some cases, we demand 100% advance. As premium service providers for sexual harassment training (check out cloudtrain.in), we can demand such things. We cost less otherwise, and we are not factoring in the interest costs and recovery costs in our price, which we would have had to do if we didn’t follow this policy. We explain this to our clients and they understand.
Also, we have learnt to predict cashflow and run the business accordingly. For entrepreneurs, this is a very valuable and important lesson. It makes the difference between survival and closing down.
5# If others won’t do it – do it yourself
When the Bar Exam was announced in 2010, armed with the then success of CLAThacker.com, I went to meet some of the brand names in the coaching industry. My proposal was that let’s start a Bar Exam coaching, and I will provide all the content, teachers training etc.
Online coaching was also a part of it. I was in my 5th year at that time, and somehow could not imagine starting it all by myself. I thought I would need a big coaching institute to launch it.
I did all the research and I had unique ideas on how to make a course for the Bar Exam. However, none of the big coaching institutes I spoke to were ready to take the plunge on my words.
Some said – let’s wait and watch for a couple of years and then we can get in. Some said we can do it if you come and join us full time when your degree is over. Basically the talks went nowhere.
Crestfallen, I gave up on the idea. Then it happened one day out of the blue. I met Kian Ganz, founder of LegallyIndia in Kolkata. As we were drinking at Park Street, he mentioned that many people on the site is asking if there is a course for the bar exam. I told him of my plans and experience.
Soon the discussion took a different turn. We were talking about how fast we could launch a Bar Exam preparation course. For the next week, Abhyudaya, I and a team worked day and night and created a launchable minimum viable product.
We launched this in partnership with LegallyIndia. We didn’t sell a whole lot of courses, but we made about INR 50,000 in the next 7 days and the experience we had with BarHacker went a long way to shape our vision on online education and later success.
Also, BarHacker is still in the market, and the highest selling online course for Bar Exam preparation by a huge margin. We also manage to charge 4 times more than our competitors because we have an at least 10 times superior product.
And that’s how my friends, over the years, I learnt small things about business and the internet – that opened doors for me, and set me on a course of adventure.