After The Corporate Years #2.

It’s now almost two years coming up in a few short weeks, and the journey has been great. Amazing in fact. The company grows from strength to strength…..we have overcome some hairy challenges and taken a few hard knocks, but always rallied and always overcome. The hours are long, the hands a few too less, but do I wake up raring to go? Absolutely!

Beyond the large corporates lie really fantastic opportunities, albeit in smaller firms and companies, such as startups.

Having been deeply immersed in the startup ecosystem for the past decade, and during the nascent years of my professional journey, this feeling is solidly confirmed having lived and breathed in it.

As I write about my life and about my professional journey, it dawns upon me that I’ve never actually gone out and looked for a job. Save one time, and that one time was the very first time that I went and worked for someone else as CFO. First job and that as CFO, not bad, eh? Take how I got into ICICI, HSBC, Agile and my current role, all known people, or a friend of a friend, or an ex-colleague and friend.

It also strikes me that there are no coincidences in life, none whatsoever. I think it has more to do with fate, destiny, being in the right place at the right time.

The way I look at almost everything, is slotting all that I end up doing or experiencing, into this rather interesting matrix (not inspired by the movie, by the way). It’s called the Matrix of Six. Yes, you might have guessed. That another piece I’m working on. Soon coming to a blog page near you.

Best I get on with the current role, after that rather long preamble, so this story picks up from the earlier startup experience.

As it happens, during my previous startup role as COO, a friend (ex friend now), called me out of the blue very early one morning and after a rather fake exchange of pleasantries, said he’s working for this guy, someone who he said I knew (I didn’t) from my time in Singapore – Circa 2002/2003. So despite the long silence between us, and a less than cordial relationship post the exing, I agreed to introduce him and his boss to the CEO of the company.

I turns out that Prateek, one of my colleagues (we become close friends) from the Dubai startup, ended up working for Ram before I did. So this Prateek character calls one day as asks to be introduced to decision makers at various banks in India, and I do so devoid of any hesitation, as I’ve always helped friends out no matter what.

Why is this relevant? Simply because that Ram, the one I’d never met, would a few years later come looking for me.

I did open a few doors for Prateek, and once fine day, soon after the door opening part, Ram calls me from Singapore, and says he’s sending me a visa and ticket. What don’t you come down to Singapore for a few days and lets talk about how we can collaborate. If my memory serves me that was in July or August 2017.

If you have read my previous anecdote, you will recall that I had quit this Dubai startup, and was in this “in-between” phase again, the one in which I was part of the startup ecosystem as a mentor. So I was kinda figuring out what to do next, and had a few exciting ideas in mind, including interesting job opportunities. One idea was more exciting than others, and remains something I’d like to do if I ever get an opportunity. That was to set up a platform or a service, to help Indian companies, or any company for that matter, to develop business in Africa, and guide them how to manage African initiatives.

I think, I’ve already mentioned before, that doing business in Africa as a whole, and some countries in APAC is nothing short of a fine art. There is no science in it, just art and finesse.

See? I drifted again, sorry. Anyway, I’m headed to Singapore and Ram has been the perfect host. We talk a lot, about life, personal and professional, we open up to each other. He talks about Bank-Genie, how it started. We drink a bit, we get to know one another, and at some point he kinda pops it on me. Why don’t you come work with us?

The company and its prospects seem quite interesting, well conceptualised, but the role is that of a person who can do some serious heavy lifting. Something I have always done and can do with my eyes closed and my hands tied behind my back, but I’m not really looking at a “heavy-lifting” role, so I’m a bit iffy. But all in all and interesting opportunity.

The thing I was quite upfront about is the compensation, and quite transparently I caution him that he should deliberate carefully as I don’t come cheap, and paying me or someone like me, would put a dent in the books.

I head back to India, we keep in touch, we talk numbers, and we go back and forth a lot, we both jockey for position, and finally after being at this for a month we arrive at a middle ground. I agree to a fixed compensation component less than what I want, deserve, am capable of earning, and he takes a couple of steps up, and finally we are agreed on the numbers, and all that remains is to ink the deal.

The other thing that I was a bit concerned about was the location. Mysore! Small town, deep south, nothing much going on, I’m a city boy and have lived and worked in four continents and lived in five major internationally acclaimed cities. How in the name of hell will I live in Mysore? But that’s a non-negotiable item, and so i finally relent. Taking a huge leap of faith, I head on over to Mysore, even before a contract has been signed, and technically I’m on board October 4th.

Four days later I’m headed to Singapore once again, this time to meet the investors who want to eyeball this so called “heavy-hitter”, with the concern that having come from a pedigree international bank, I may not be able to hack the transition to the startup realities. Ha, Ha!!!

I’m presenting a four day view of the company, and what my four day impressions are, what I make of the COO role, and what I think I have cut out for me. The presentation goes down well, and I still have a job (save a little job threatening episode in the first week itself) so I’m guessing I’ve done something right.

It’s now almost two years coming up in a few short weeks, and the journey has been great. Amazing in fact. The company grows from strength to strength…..we have overcome some hairy challenges and taken a few hard knocks, but always rallied and always overcome. The hours are long, the hands a few too less, but do I wake up raring to go? Absolutely! All this combined with visiting and experiencing new countries, is nothing short of a heady mix, a kind of a perpetual high, and no I having been smoking!

Working – The Road Warrior>

We are Now at an inflection point, with tremendous upside.

Along the way, what has built up is trust, a good working relationship, one where the CXO team relies and leverages off the strengths of the others, and compensates where required. The team is superlative in terms of their efforts, loyalty and feeling of belonging, and this is the ONLY place I’ve worked at thus far, where I’ve never had to crack the whip on a development team. The work just gets done, as if by magic, and that’s something that is really rare and something I cherish. I’ve never even had to even once request someone to stay late and finish work, or please come over the weekend. If there is work, nothing needs telling, it just gets done!

Whatever happened to the apprehensions about being based in Mysore? If I say I’m in heaven, that would obviously be a gross misstatement, but what’s not to like? Clean air, almost no traffic, cycling heaven (yes this is in heaven category), heart of Karnatic Music and Arts, peace and quiet to get work done, no long commute to and back from work, really inexpensive, delicious southern cuisine. In short no more apprehension, quite the opposite, I love it!

What next? For me? For Bank-Genie? I guess I’m at an inflection point as well, a fork in the road of sorts. On the one hand I completed fifty seven years this year, so I’d like to sit back, write, ride my bicycle, study, read, mentor, teach Students about the real world they are about to venture into (they are ill equipped to survive and succeed) and distribute the learning’s from a working life that started at the age of 18 years. Whereas on the other hand, I stay the course and bring this baby to term, watch it grow, and once it starts running at speed, recede into the shadows or the background, and be available as a counsel or sounding board as and when called.

All going as planned, I’m leaning more towards bringing the baby to term and beyond as there is real traction here, a tremendous opportunity. An opportunity for everybody at Bank-Genie to fulfil their potential, and an opportunity for Bank-Genie to be recognised as a formidable name as a FinTech that services the needs of banks both big and small, the microfinance eco system, and an opportunity for the CXO team to create a foundation for the nextgen to take to higher levels.

These are opportunities are seldom present themselves at large corporates and are available almost exclusively at the startups, smaller firms and companies, the ones fraught with challenges, yet most satisfying to ones soul. I’d pick a startup any day, and I’d urge students to take up roles at startups, for what you will learn at a startup is something no school will ever come close to teaching, and that is my next blog post. Look out for it. Cheers!


GriffinWorx – TIE – eBay Foundation: Round 2. 

The instructions then, for Round Two were to judge the twenty six who made it through the elims out of the two hundred fifty odd who had initially applied. Not only were we to judge but also mentor and that’s a bit of a trick. Only twelve will make the grade this time, and move on to Round Three.

Round two. Out of the many who had participated in the Round One eliminations, only 26 made the cut, and eventually there will be just three winners. So the process of elimination continues and that’s what we did all day June 28 & 29….Round Two eliminations.

Shaun had expressed a desire on the conclusion of Round One, that I stay associated with the program until its logical conclusion, as a Mentor & Judge. Why would I object to this, rather welcomed it as a great opportunity to network and interact with the investment community and a myriad of startups. As they say, learn something new everyday, right?

I’d like to think I’m a pretty busy guy, so rather than labor a recap about what the whole program is all about, I thought I’d provide a link. So do click here.

The instructions then, for Round Two were to judge the twenty-six who made it through the elims out of the two hundred fifty odd who had initially applied. Not only were we to judge but also mentor and that’s a bit of a trick. Only twelve will make the grade this time, and move on to Round Three.

TIE of course provides impeccable facilitation and it wasn’t any different this time around. As it was during Round One, I was in the august company of some pretty serious industry titans, and when this happens, one always comes out richer from the experience. 

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Even better than the experience of rubbing shoulders with other mentors and judges, was experiencing the presentations made by the entrepreneurs.

In case you’ve read the earlier blog, you will recall that apart from the usual entrepreneurs were a goodly number from the “underserved” category. “Underserved” alluding to entrepreneurs who would normally never get a shot at any kind of VC funding, leave alone an opportunity of being mentored, or for that matter, would find it difficult to get money from the usual avenues.

I was simply delighted to find that almost all entrepreneurs, in particular from the underserved category, had come to Round Two in a state of transformation. Gone was the awkwardness, the shyness, the lack of confidence, or the lack of ability to make a pitch. They now came across as authorities on their subject and in general of their business and appeared in charge. This was evinced from the quality of the pitches, the manner of presentation and the way the most difficult questions /concerns were addressed.

Quite clearly, advise from the mentors gained during the previous interaction, had been heeded, they found value in the advice and had implemented several suggestions and approaches. We saw much progress in terms of business sourced, progress on removing bottlenecks, progress in refining their business model, adding revenue streams and effective use of “bootstrapping” as a means to acquire needed resources.

I came away impressed with a few startups. Almost on top of the list was the one that deals with acquiring, distribution and sale of organic produce directly from the farm to the city, bypassing middlemen, this leaving more money in the hands of the farmer.

The other one was the couple who are imparting skills to women with the single-minded focus of enabling hundreds of women from villages to earn a viable livelihood. They have put around two thousand women through their courses with a success rate of sixty percent! Meaning that they have empowered twelve hundred women to earn a living.

All are worth honorable mention, the for profit social enterprise run by three young girls, the payment ring guy, the flexible storage solution, the seventeen year old guy who has come up with a rather novel fire fighting solution and so on, but the ones I mentioned ahead of the rest are both from the underserved category, therefore the special mention.

At the same time, we did find some of the participants, unable to demonstrate any real progress, who stayed stuck to their way of doing things, and closed to feedback. It is a no brainer then, that as the evaluation progress becomes more stringent, these startups will fall off the shortlist. Perhaps they will find what they are looking for elsewhere, but clearly they are not going to make the cut here.

With twenty-five startups evaluated over two intense days, new connections, newfound knowledge, new friends and plenty to look forward to, as we go into Round 3. Before round three, the twelve startups will receive coaching and mentoring as part of the process, which will help them be more competitive, fine hone their propositions, and gear them up to make it through to the final list of three winners. Plenty more to happen July through to August.

I’m sure the twenty five participants are waiting with bated breath for the announcement of the results, expected to be announced on Junly 4.


Startups: Part 5 – Down & Dirty of the Money Game.

Startup success sin’t measured purely in terms of funds invested. The Punt or the exit isn’t the measure of success, Profits are.

From the attention the Startup series has been getting I’m a’thinkin’ that is topic is one of interest to say the least. Why would it not be the case? With successes that can be stacked in the “wildly successful”, “mind-boggling”, “beyond wildest dreams”, categories, everyone who is anyone is part of the Startup ecosystem. And the side we see, or rather what is talked about is the successes, not the glaring failures. These failures, one has stated before, affect the entire ecosystem, from promoter, to investor, to employee, to the client, to the regulator. Take heed then people, for when we say successes, we usually mean, how much money the Startup has attracted by way of funding.

Is it time then to talk about the down and dirty of Startups? Methinks it is, and therefore we shall. So should we be calling this Startup 101? That’s more appropriate, so the nomenclature sticks. Startup 101 it is.

I used to do this rather popular checklist (gleaned from various sources) for traders back in the day called “19 Rules for Traders”. Since this article, blog or “piece” as the cognoscenti are calling it these days, is not about my days as a prolific trader, you only get a glimpse of said rules, and that too with the intent of giving you an idea of how this “piece” is going to develop. You may choose, basis this glimpse, to check out any time you like.

So then the “rules”. Follow The Trend – The Trend is Your Friend, Let your Profits Run, Cut your Losses, Never Average a Losing Position, and so on. I’m sure some of the bright lot reading this “piece” will see the proverbial lights coming on and say, these rules for traders can be extended to apply to investments in Startups. True dat my friend, absolutely.

Startup 101

Rule # 1 – Startup success is not measured in the money attracted by way of funding.

I can see several in the audience going, really? Well I’ll be blowed, didn’t so and so startup get an obscene amount of money just recently? Didn’t so and so, well-known PE/VC/Investor pump in millions into so and so startup? Yes, money did move from one place to another. Somebody, usually the promoter/s got rich quick, because a certain other someone, took a “punt” on the future success of said business.

Rule # 2 – The “Punt” isn’t the Measure of Success – Profits Are.

Really? Success has two parts init? Success for the Promoter is getting in new cash, in exchange of a high valuation of the Promoters initial investment. Success for the Investor, that poor sod/s, who took the “punt”, depends on profitability.

Again, really? Well, this time I have to say I’m rather confused, therefore I am compelled to give a “well maybe” answer. The grounds for my defence on this, the measure of success, comes from my education, from my experience, and from prudent business practices. Prudent business practice says, Profitability is the only real measure of success of a business venture.

So then, should we boldly be examining the success of the investment in terms of the profits the business generates, or should we declare success of the investment based on the “exit” or “divestment” to some other investor, who is induced to come in at an even higher “premium” to the initial set of investors, despite the fact that the business is not yet making any real profits?

Logic dictates a resounding NO in response, but we have thrown all investment logic out the window by now have we not? Heck, we are Investment Gurus, we are acting in a fiduciary capacity insofar as we are taking substantial monies from a group of investors, and making all these substantial investments in ventures that have not turned a profit, and are not expected to turn a profit in the foreseeable future. This is the good old “Cash Burn” game where we are perfectly comfortable in “burning” investor cash (not mine, someone elses cash), all in the hope that something will change, and miraculously profits will flow, just like manna from the heavens.

Ah, not liking this are we? Profound arguments and justification will emerge at this stage, stating “Sumir, you’re so clueless”…. cash burn is essential for marketing expenses, for development expenses, and so on. Well yes, but what percentage of our money (oops I forgot, not ours) are we burning and when will this burn stop? Yet other arguments will emerge and they will say, this is not really about unit profitability, but look at the bigger picture, we are getting points of presence, we are getting substantial data, we are understanding customer behaviour.

My dear friend, yes, yes, yes, to all arguments, but lets not forget whose money are we playing with. Oops, we kinda forgot that tiny detail, didn’t we?

Let’s deal with data then, damming data. Just how many of big-ticket investments are in the money? Is Ola making money? Is Flipkart making money? Is Uber making money?

What do we do when we have a competitor? We buy them out, we merge, we increase market share, we buy out competition? What happened to Myntra? Didn’t they merge with Flipkart? Is the merged entity making any money? Why did they merge? To compete against Amazon. Is Amazon making money? Read this, Amazon India has doubled its India losses.  We are told that Amazon globally has increased its losses four fold. Now read this rather interesting fact. Losses of Flipkart, Amazon and Snapdeal would have allowed ISRO to go to Mars 24 times.

So who has been investing in these companies? In some way, shape or form its an investor. Arguably these are HNI investors and have invested in a fund of sorts. Is the fund making money on these investments? Not meaning to pick on a man I have tremendous respect for, let’s look at Ratan Tata’s investments as a VC/PE investor.

Loss-making Enterprises

RNT Losses

Valuation Game


Valuations are Rising Despite Accumulated Losses?

So if we are to believe what we read in the papers, we are told that each time RNT takes a “punt” valuations jump. Jolly good this, but what basis? Why this spike? Defies the principle of prudent business practice.

I’m of the opinion that, the virtual world, or virtual economics has left the good old brick and mortar economics way behind. It is no longer about unit based profitability, its purely notional. The trick then is to agree a valuation between the Promoter and Investor. I know my math, I’m actually pretty good at it, but I daresay valuation math escapes me completely.

Glaring Examples

Ola and Uber have made my commute that much easier, in so much as I don’t have to “request” a “Kali- Peeli” (Yellow and Black) to go from point A to point B. I just pull up the app, book, get a fare estimate, complete ride, pay. Now let’s take a look at the business model, if you’re not in violent opposition to it.

The model is rather simple: Rate/Km is established, Rate/Km is paid x times the Km covered. Fare is then shared between aggregator and driver/owner. Incentives are paid (I’m hearing incentives are going or gone). Drivers/Owners who were on to a good thing, are now thinking, hey it’s not as appealing as it was portrayed, or when this started off. Owners/Drivers have taken loans, have EMI’s + maintenance + fuel costs + driver wages to pay. The initial math isn’t quite adding up, so there is this growing discontent. The “Kali=Peelis” have lost out to the Ola and Uber wave, so they are reeling too. So money isn’t being made as envisaged, not by the Owners/Drivers, nor by Ola nor by Uber. Question then. Who exactly is making money at the present time? Seems to me, nobody, or not nearly as much as projected. Yet, Ola has received funding of around USD 1.5 Billion and the current valuation is running at USD 5 Billion give or take? Is there money to be made, on an investment of USD 5 Billion? I’ll be damned if I can predict, though I have really serious doubts, much like Macbeth when he fights his doubts about the witches words, as Great Birnam Wood seems to move to High Dunsinane Hill.

The whole point to my mind is simply this, who is going to be left with the baby? Isn’t that what happened and continues to happen when markets are overheated, and stock prices are sky-high? The Smart Money sells, and the ones holding the short straw are the lay investors. My feeble and rather unsharp mind seems to want to draw parallels here. Sky high valuations, huge monies invested at sky-high valuations, where is the exit, and if and when there is an exit, who will be left with a broken business model, who will be licking the wounds, what will happen to the thousands of stakeholders (investors and cab owners alike). Ever heard of “caveat emptor? Will this lead to some sort of bailout? Will the government have to step in at that point? If it is the government, who bears the brunt? Isn’t it the taxpayer?

Yes, I paint nothing short of a doomsday scenario, but simply because I can’t get my mind around to understanding how monies will be made, at least in the traditional sense of the money game.

Call me slow, call me dimwitted, call me anything but stop for a few moments, if not more and think rationally. It’s not looking good.

Don’t get me wrong, the Private Equity and Venture Capitalists are a great source of Risk Capital, and do work and make available funding for projects, in most cases, where the business model does not allow for funding through traditional models. At some point there needs to be a soul-searching, a pragmatic assessment of where all this money is going and what will become of these humongous sums, and perhaps some degree of regulation around the valuations, the eligibility and so on?

Where does VC cash flow to?

The maximum VC cash goes to technology, healthcare and media. This seems rather skewed does it not?

3 of 4 Startups Fail

By now it is well established fact that 3 out of 4 startups fail, the data coming out establishes this fact. If that is indeed the case, shouldn’t we then be questioning certain well established appraising techniques? How are startups appraised? Is it on the basis some hot technology? Is it on the basis of the degree of sincerity and capability of the Promoter? It is market potential? More often than not, the assessment swings basis the quality and pedigree of the Promoter. Yet startups are failing all around.

I can’t say I’m a Capitalist, I can’t say I’m a Socialist, I guess I’m somewhere in between, but I can say this, I am a firm believer is the older and perhaps dated models of doing business, from assessment and appraisals, to how we run businesses. I would only urge that, we are judicious in defining what success constitutes.

Next up: Why do Startups Fail?

If you’ve been reading the series, you will find that I’ve been associated with Startups in some way, shape or form like forever. Instead of merely using Google to pull out reasons why Startups fail, what I’m going to do instead is reflect on my own startups and those I’ve been closely associated with, and try to analyse the reasons for their failure, and perhaps suggest ways and means, such disasters can be averted. It’s a rather ambitious and maybe audacious attempt, so let’s see how this pans out.


Startups: Not for Everyone – Part 4, Last Straw?

That was not to be, and instead, despite my considerable stints with considerable and financially sound national and international corporations, in seniormost roles, both in India and four continents, I would still continue to deal with businesses, with roles and assignments, that all had in some way, shape or form, “startup” as the central pivots of the roles that I played

Up until this time I had always worked for myself, had always been my own boss, and the transition to going and working for someone wasn’t as difficult as it was a mindset thing. Also it was one thing to have worked all my life in financial services, and quite another thing to change my profession from financial wheeler-dealer, influencer, financial guru and what have you.

The necessity to go get a job came about with the startup phases of my life not being as wildly successful as I would have hoped or indeed imagined.

Be that as it may, my predicament was as follows: Straddled with rather large debt, no regular source of income, the financial markets having tanked, the fag-end of the initial tech boom, jobs quite scarce. To top that off, no formal higher qualification. The only saving grace was the fact that I had completed my college (or school as we call it in the US), I barely scraped through getting a B. Com or Bachelors Degree in Commerce, from India’s top commerce college, The Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics. I didn’t even know if that was going to help. Heck, I didn’t even have a CV at that point.

Now I’m certainly not one to cringe, nor get all depressed, and I’m quite the fighter and then some. But, how the heck do you go and actually get a job almost 8-10 years after you have passed out from college? Quite the deterrent in itself.

See here is the thing about Sydenham, it had as its students, kids who were all determined to make it to the top, had great family pedigree, either being the sons and daughters of some business tycoon, or then some corporate big boss. If I said they were born with silver, if not gold spoons in their mouth, I would get away with it. Those who weren’t so endowed, were made of serious stuff, and had the grey matter, not to say, of course, that the ones so anointed by lineage, didn’t have the grey stuff. Not to say either, that I’m not a go getter, just in a very different way.

These are the circs under which I fell back on a college buddy, who had risen to the top at the erstwhile Arthur Andersen, and rather embarrassed, I called on my college friend. He was all welcoming, and at his office, I spilled the beans about what had transpired in my life. So job is the need of the hour, or rather cash is the need of the hour, and the job is merely a means to and end. See, job getting means having a little document called a CV, and me? I had never written a CV in my life. God bless his soul, what Bobby did is just talk to me and literally “extract” from me in my own words, what I had set out to do since I left college, and what I have chalked up in terms of experience.

Bhavna, that great mother of my kids, would keep saying, what are you doing? Go get a job….I just didn’t know how. After remaining in a state, for a longish time, similar to that of a deer frozen in the headlights, I finally called Bobby. And so it came to pass that, encouraged by Bobby, I sat and penned my set of experiences, and if I’m not wrong, he even helped me to craft my narrative of experience, into what would pass off as a CV.

Armed with the said CV, I scoured the papers, responded to zillion job postings, got in touch with so many head hunters, recruiters, placement agencies, even went and met some who condescended to give me the time of the day. Hell, I may as well have started a recruitment service of my own!

One kindred soul was Dr R L Bhatia, who at the time ran something called, Center for Change Management. He’d posted and advert in a leading publication, from amongst the ones I scoured daily, and spotted said Center f\or Change Management, which sounded promising. The meeting at his office in Juhu was quite brief, and almost instantaneously, he said he may have something for me. His client, Vikram Doshi of Atco Weighing Scales (famous market leader at the time) was looking for a CFO, and despite the fact that I was not a Chartered Accountant, nor had a MBA degree, or a formal higher education, he agreed to put me in touch with the CEO of said weighing scale company.

Appointment fixed for the morrow, suited and booted, I show up at the office of the CEO, and we just chat very briefly, or perhaps it was an interview? Regardless of the nomenclature, it was brief, and in five minutes, give or take, I summed up what I had set out to do, and what I had under my belt, in terms of experience. In five minutes he told me he needed a market savvy finance guy, and that was pretty much it. No JD, more of the “we can figure it out together” sorta job. I don’t know what it is with me and jobs, they have all been of the “we will figure it out” variety.

There was this “I done good” feeling and in that “spirits lifted” frame of mind, I called Dr. Bhatia, who was meeting the CEO the next day. This being the position, I settled into that state called, “the waiting with bated breath”, and therefore it came as no small surprise, when the afternoon came a’knocking at the door, announcing the arrival of a courier in the person of the CEO’s chauffeur. I wasn’t home when the knocking happened, I came home to fund a sealed envelope. That sealed envelope, that twist in my fortunes, came in the form of an offer. Delight, wonder, amazement, what words must I muster up to describe that feeling, I don’t quite know.

The telling of this tale is many years post those historic events, but despite the years gone by, as I write this narrative, I relive that experience as if it is in the present, or in the recent past. I was delighted with the financial package, and that was simply accentuated by the fact that I had been cooling my heels for the longest time, and there was no cash flowing into the kitty at all. My wife Bhavna was supporting me. Not a good feeling, not good for one’s self esteem, not good emotionally, not good financially, not good spiritually. Plain not good. Well, I did call and try to negotiate a better deal, but the CEO was adamant. No negotiation on package, take it or leave it. I took it.

I needed to attend to some legal issues from my time in Goa, and so was able to negotiate a week to join. The great believer that I am, in fate, in destiny, in karma, in the general goodness in people, and that despite my reversals, I didn’t really probe too much into the company or for that matter about the promoter. I decided that I will put in a lot of hard work, and let my maker decide the rest. That is something I believe in to this day, albeit, I’m a bit more realistic and do factor in what can go wrong, so I can mitigate against the twists and turns in life. And so I show up at work, am given the room earmarked for the CFO, that I have joined as, meet the team, and go through the on boarding motions. The next few days are spent in understanding the business plan, the vision and closeted in so many meetings that one’s mind was reeling. The vision of the CEO, that I just alluded to, was driven by nothing short of a visionary in the person of Vikram Doshi, MD and CEO of atcom technologies limited. I may have mentioned elsewhere in one of my blogs, that the assignment was that of transitioning from a brick and mortar business to a click and mortar business, both B2B and B2C. Did I know enough about the B2B and B2C business models? Clearly I didn’t, but as I’ve said before, I’m a lightning fast learner, and have the uncanny ability to assimilate knowledge, and use this new-found learning, rather quickly to extrapolate into thoughts and thence to action. So this was what I went about doing. I daresay that we are forgetting that this was my first job in a corporate, my first experience of having a boss, my first experience in working with peers, and in general learning something that a fresher from B’School will learn at his/her first job. Therefore I am at pains to remind my readers.

We are talking about startups, are we not? So let’s come to that aspect of this series of articles. The venture or the business plan and indeed the business model, was everything what a startup was all about. New business model, untried and untested, a greenfield seeking funding, seeking first customers for the new business models, plenty of doubting Thomas all around including within the family of the promoters. The family that owned the brick and mortar business interests, were not exactly supportive nor convinced about the success of the new way of doing business, and therefore one key element of my role, was to oversee a demerger, ie: a divorce of atcom technologies limited from Atco Weighing Scales Limited. This demerger, meant that I had to rapidly come up to speed with the legal aspects of a demerger, including understanding the petition that would be filed before the High Court, the financial aspects, the operational aspects, and ensure that there was no disruption of the BAU state. A big ask. So in terms of experience, new, new, new.

Seeing that we didn’t really have an efficient army, despite the best efforts of the CEO hiring the best of the best, and throwing money at them, we were faced with the prospect of pulling the big ask off, with one hand and one leg tied behind our backs. Vikram, quickly saw that I had the wherewithal to step up, and quickly at that, therefore more and more got thrown at me. Finance, even business development. Heck, I was the one who brought the first realy business opportunity to the table, that too with an oil major, Castrol. I also handled Admin and Infra, the creation of a spanking new state of the art facility, including a data center, and all its trimmings of servers, layered switches and such. I just loved it, I was working long hours, plenty of them spent studying. 

So it’s now 8-9 months into the job, and we have just moved into our beautiful new office building, and the proverbial goop hits the fan. It had to didn’t it? My life has been such, and I’m told numerology has something to do with it. My number is 8 or when laid on its side, it signifies infinity. The infinite loop when attributed to a person as per numerology, denotes struggle in career and finance, but also signifies spiritual advancement. The company is straddled with bills to pay, business has not come in, the brick and mortar businesses are not going to carry the burden of this startup, and we, especially me, are faced with irate vendors, irate employees, the works. I’m sure you get my drift.

As much as I would have liked to continue, I was compelled to leave atcom, simply because one really irate vendor had approached a certain infamous member of the underworld (dreaded until this day) to recover their monies. Being very much the party man, and as all good party men are expected to do, I came to the aid of the party. I filed police complaints, and through my rather influential network, and through some friends who had access to people of notoriety, brought pressure to bear on said irate vendor to cease and desist. After quite a few petitions before the seniors in the police administration, and after several meetings with said underworld bosses, I was gently told by friends (in the establishment and some well wishers in the underworld), that they would hold off on any proceedings against the company, till such time that I was in the role. In the same breath I was gently urged to step down, as my life was at some considerable risk, and that I could not be protected 24*7, nor could anyone reasonably guaranty the safety of my family.

Therefore, with heavy heart I tendered my resignation, and was back in the ranks of the unemployed.

All said and done, dust settled and so on, I came away licking my wounds, and made a conscious decision to dwell instead, on the learning’s from this assignment, which lasted all of 11 months. 

At some point I asked Vikram on what basis he decided to give me the job, and his reply was, the five minute summation you gave me about yourself, was exactly what I was looking for. That said, Vikram was a man far ahead of his time, a visionary in all respects. Great pity then, that this grand vision didn’t see the light of day. 

That ends the narrative of this startup story and at the time I am thinking, I’m so done with startups. That was not to be, and instead, despite my considerable stints with considerable and financially sound national and international corporations, in senior roles, both in India and four continents, I would still continue to deal with businesses, with roles and assignments, that all had in some way, shape or form, “startup” as the central pivots of the roles that I played. At ICICI as Head of Product Strategy of Treasury and Risk Management Products, I did beta products…from conceptualization, to product, to beta sale, to deployment. At HSBC I took over dysfunctional teams, condemned teams, set up new transnational teams, new business practices and models across the globe. Post HSBC, I finally ended up with Agile Financial Technologies, a startup not just in concept, but in every sense of the term.

To know more, read more……The startup journey isn’t over yet, not by a long shot.

Startups: Not for Everyone – Part 1, My First.

Statistically, the failure rate of Startups far exceeds the rate of success. Pity then that not much is really said of startups that fail, why they fail, how they fail. In their failure, complicit are the ones promoting the startups, the ones who fund them, the ones who value them, the ones who deal with them and the ones who run them.

Startups. We see then all around, we read about the most fantastic and oftentimes unbelievable rags to riches stories, and thus the Startup is one glorified place to go work.

Statistics Tell a Horrid, BUT Truthful Tale

Statistically, the failure rate of Startups far exceeds the rate of success. Pity then that not much is really said of startups that fail, why they fail, how they fail. In their failure, complicit are the ones promoting the startups, the ones who fund them, the ones who value them, the ones who deal with them and the ones who run them. Perhaps that’s reason enough to write about this. Perhaps I will be serving some greater purpose, by sharing my experiences with startups. Some my own ventures, some ventures I know about, and some ventures I have worked with, either directly or indirectly. Let it serve as a heads up to people looking to work for startups, people who want to deal with startups that hold much promise (arguably). More on this in subsequent supplements of this series.

So Startups and one other topic has been foremost in my mind as topics to write about and the time has now come to write about it.

Hindsight is Great

Isn’t hindsight a great thing? So this is me reflecting and reminiscing from the time I first went to work for my father, launched my first startup, then graduated to the big corporates in India and internationally, and finally found that I was back into yet another startup, this time promoted by an ex-colleague and friend.

My latest experiences are in the Not for Profit and Social Enterprise space, but, those are things I will write about when the time is right. This is not that time.

Startups are my DNA

In some way shape or form I’ve been doing startups all my life, way before the word became common parlance, and more or less got beaten to death. Everybody seems to be doing a startup these days, either setting up one or working for one. And in case you haven’t noticed, plenty of them are falling by the wayside, leaving in their train wonton damage, chaos and mayhem. How many of them are actually raking in the cash? How many are at operating profit? How many are at post tax profit, or for that matter pre-tax profit? And even though I don’t quote statistic after statistic, believe me they are at proportions that are alarming. It’s like they are businesses that are ab initio doomed to fail, yet the kind of money they attract is quite disproportionate to the kind of money sound businesses seem to attract.

Some of the Biggest Names aren’t Profitable

Some of the biggest names, way past the startup stage by now, are not actually making money, but rather surviving on flawed business models, models surviving on perception, valuation, smoke and mirrors, rather than fundamentally sound business models. They are also surviving because good money is being thrown after bad money in the hope that things will even out. In several cases, where business models are initially sound, there is this morphing away from fundamentals, to models that play the game, paving the road to unrealistic valuations. In the end, someone is left holding the short straw, and more often than not, it is the investor, the employee, the client, the regulators, the tax authorities, and so on.

I would urge that this is not viewed from a point of view of negativity, but rather from a position of taking caution.


I am not an Investment Banker, nor am I a VC, nor have I worked for a VC or a known investment bank, yet here I am speaking from the pulpit. That confessed, what gives me the right or the authority to provide my opinion? Its more than a couple of decades of experience on the front line.

My Introduction to the World of Business

I had just returned from the USA after having completed my time as a Rotary Exchange Student in a small town called New Philadelphia, Ohio. The original plan was for me to stay on after my 12th grade and continue my studies at Duke. Then came the letter (no emails back then people) from my mother, saying that my father needed a son by his side. Didn’t know what I would contribute, since I was green behind the gills, but still a son was needed by his fathers’ side and therefore there was no question, no discussion. I made a choice of returning back home, a decision that I will never regret. Would I have been better off staying back and maybe settling in the US? Maybe. But had I not chosen, as I did, I would not have been exposed to realities of life, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I came back to adversity, discovering that my father had been badly duped by seemingly trusted business associates and banks, and therefore in more ways than one, it was a baptism by fire.

To continue with my studies, I attended The Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics, and at the same time I was my dad’s chauffeur, and errand boy. I would drive him to his office downtown, then attend college, and then head back to dad’s office to take up my duties there. It was here that I learned the ropes of business, manufacturing, trading, imports and exports, paperwork, book-keeping. Skills that I find useful to the present day. My fathers manufacturing and trading business itself was small-scale in nature, but that meant that I got to learn so much, getting involved in every aspect of the business.

Fundamentals – Hands on Experience

See, in those days there was this brilliant Chartered Accountant who my dad appointed, and he was one tough task master. I learnt to write the books….Sales, Purchase and Stock Registers, Cash and Bank Books. No cellular, no internet, no computers back then. So you get the drift? Learning the ropes via the manual route, the school of very hard knocks, long hours, tedious and often repetitive work. Another invaluable experience set was that of dealing with the rigid and more often than not, the inflexible, unreasonable and extremely corrupt regulatory framework and practices. No school, no degree can ever teach you what I learned the hard way.

For some reason or the other, the damn trial balance would refuse to tally, and my CA mentor, would say, “Trial Balance MUST tally”. Well yes, I understood the concept perfectly, but getting the TB to tally was a whole different story. The leeway he gave me, and the personal training was to sit with me and help me trace the errors, all sort of errors… compensating errors, etc. For those from the Accounts field, I’m sure you know the pain. But still, that was such good learning of fundamentals, laying a rock solid foundation that would only serve me well in later years. Now I benchmark good ole’ manual work, brick and mortar business models to what we have today…..the digitization and often the virtual. All too often the brick and mortar is completely relegated to the unimportant, whereas without a fundamentally strong underlying brick and mortar model, all digital and virtual models will surely fail. This is something I realised a long time ago, and therefore I would always scratch my head, when the PE valuations and the rate of cash burn, ie: the underpinnings were grossly overstated, at the time of investment appraisal. Back in the day startup businesses were actually urged to overstate the cash burn to be eligible for investor interest. I never did get it, and I still don’t get it.

This then lays the foundations of the actual topic I’m blabbing on about. I’m pretty sure that there will be a degree of unpopularity, and even some quarters staring askance at my comments, observations, opinions. No matter, I stand by my convictions, my opinions simply because, I have been trained and inculcated under old school methods.

My First Startup

At some point in time, I became disillusioned with the business of my father, and decided to do something different. With the active encouragement of my dear father and through his introductions, I entered into the Stock Market Brokerage business. My dad has his office in Downtown Bombay, in a rather prestigious heritage building, which was at one point owned by Harold MacMillan, the British Prime Minister. See, before he became the PM, he ran MacMillan Publishing Company, and the office building was owned by the British PM’s Publishing Company. History of Dad’s Office Building

41 MacMillan Building With Green Roof And Standard Chartered Grindlay Bank On D N Road Mumbai

Being a Heritage Building, it was made of stone, had high ceilings, and we were running out of space. Not being able to afford buying another office, or for that matter, renting one, I hit upon a rather ingenious way to create space. Simple. Create a mezzanine floor (on account of the high ceiling), and lift and shift my dads setup to the mezzanine, and use the newly created space below, for my fledging stock market business.

So how was this going to be funded? Funding came from a financial services company founded by a Chartered Accountant, a friend of a dear friend, who literally gave me the money with nary a business plan, nor an agreement, nor any post dated checks. Purely relying on my cred, my word (and that of my friend), and my sincerity of purpose,  we completed the paperwork only when the monies had been spent on the renovations.

We inaugurated the old-new office with a little do, and we were all set to do business. Really? What about the photo-copiers, what about the EPABX, binding machines, etc? Those were funded by loans from relatives, mainly my aunt and a couple of friends? Now business would take time to establish, so how do I finance payroll, interest on the loans, the EMI on the finance raised for renovation? The solution was to rent out office space, much like the co-working spaces available today (that’s not what they were called back then, back then they were called “business-centers”), and over a period of time claw back the rented space for own use. The model worked perfectly, to the extent that my dad (now semi-retired from business) rents out that space, and uses the mezzanine level for his own purposes. I even remember creating a photo-copying business, by taking copy jobs from people who didn’t own copy machines. Heck, I even remember manning the copiers myself, when there was too much work, and working all night to deliver jobs the next morning! So when I say I have learnt from the school of hard knocks, I say it with great authority and pride.

This was the startup that succeeded, but let’s talk about failure as well to put things in perspective. Read more in Part 2.

GriffinWorx – TIE – eBay Foundation: New Learning for Mentors.

This past weekend, I have been through an experience most fascinating, rewarding and humbling.

This past weekend, I have been through an experience most fascinating, rewarding and humbling.

I was asked by my cycling buddy Kumar, to come in and be one amongst several Mentors in a program called “Start Up Cup Challenge Extreme – Build – A – Business Weekend”.

This is a first in India, and is a partnership between TIE (, eBay Foundation  and GriffinWorx. This was such a privilege, especially because, for the last couple of years, I’ve grown a bit tired of the routine around the corporate world (bring me something challenging), and find myself inclined to teach, to coach, to mentor, and participate in causes that have social and environmental impact. My role as strategic advisor to the Smart Commute Foundation, does give me such a sense of fulfillment. Give me more.

The Startup Cup Challenge, was a two-day event, very intense and fast paced. This is how it panned out. TIE invited applications from startups from almost any field or domain, but its special emphasis was on the “underserved” startup community. This is a community of underprivileged, not affluent, but hardworking people and groups, who have novel ideas to do business, some commercially, some socially inclined. Therefore there was a very diverse mix of applicants, somewhere 200+ in number, of which 105 were selected to participate. Rather than steal their thunder, I had best reproduce verbatim, what the program is all about.

“The Program

The Challenge is open to anyone, with any type of business idea and from any background. This internationally recognized seven-month acceleration program is proven to grow businesses and accelerate the development of revenue. Through a highly experiential and mentor driven process.

Select business teams will be invited to an Extreme Build-A-Business Weekend, which will take place on 27-28 May, where the Top 25 business teams will be selected to advance into the competitive process.

    • Cash Prize for the First Three Teams* – First Place: USD 10,000, Second Place: USD 5,000, Third Place: USD 2,500
  • Learn Business Model Design Through Visual Thinking
  • Clarify How You Create Value and How to Reach Your Target Customer
  • Learn Go-to-Market Strategies That Will Produce Revenue and Avoid the Need for Traditional Fundraising
  • Learn How to Design a Circular Economy Based Business
  • Connect with Like-Minded Entrepreneurs from Your Community (There is no need to feel alone or isolated as an entrepreneur)”


The rather intense weekend started off on Saturday at 8. 30 am,  when we were given the lay of the land by Sean Griffin of GriffinWorx.

He’s a fantastic, charismatic fellow, and has oodles of experience at this, having run such programs in some 60 odd countries. Turns out we have both worked in several common locations globally, and had some amazing stories of our escapades to compare over dinner.

Now despite having been quite a successful mentor myself, I have never really used a standard methodology and Sean exposed us to and trained us on his patented methodology. Fascinating, to say the least. I really benefited from this approach, and all my skills, tools and techniques, saw themselves falling into various buckets within Sean’s methodology, and I even picked up some cool new tips and tricks along the way. Just when you think you know a lot, someone comes along and teaches you something new!

So this went on until 10 am on Day 1, and then we were let loose to play our mentor roles to about 105 startups. Some merely at an idea stage, some a little beyond, some with a little business already in flight, some more advanced. In the mix, were technology startups, most notable amongst them an enterprising young man, who is on the cusp of launching a ring, a wearable device that can do much more than just payments. Then there is this For Profit Social Enterprise founded by 3 charming and dedicated girls providing consultancy in the CSR space. There were housewives too with small businesses, all catering to the underserved market. Did I not mention the waste based manure business, others in analytics, and what have you. One even planned to hire eunuchs in their workforce, to serve those underprivileged human beings.



Mentoring such a diverse set up people (some unable to communicate in English), diverse business models, was quite a task, and a clear case of overload. But what was really exciting was the level of energy in the room and the sheer enthusiasm amongst the mentors, the mentee, Sean and Erin, and the TIE team who provided such superb facilitation. I came away with quite a few learnings, especially as this was the perfect opportunity to compare attitudes, behaviours, business, technical and marketing acumen at one go. I found some promoters simply full of themselves, some so glued to their ideas and ways of doing things, others who was a bit overwhelmed (and that’s an understatement), some simply unable to give responses to pretty basic questions. Yet I found others, willing to be mentored, to learn, to listen and move forward.

The challenge then, was to navigate all these attitudes, etc, cut to the chase, and compel self discovery based on the methodology, not with a view to run anybody down, or undermine them or their ideas, but to urge them to think things through based on a tested model.

What was really neat was that we put our votes basis several parameters into an application, and thank God for that! Imagine remembering the interaction with so many groups in such a short span of time! Actually, that may have been fun, come to think of it, come up with unique business models, by mixing up stuff amongst several businesses 🙂 I think I mentored about 40 participants, on day one itself, and added a few on day two.

Day 2 started off with some advanced techniques, basis the experiences from our Day 1 interactions, and we were let loose once again. A bit more relaxed, a bit more structured, both the Mentors and the Mentees, and at around 3 pm, we were ready to wind down.

Votes all case, now it was time to collate, score, debate and discuss on the final shortlist of 25 business builders who would go through the next steps.


That done, the next item on the agenda was to break the news to the participants, issue certificates to the participants, the shortlisted business builders, the Mentors and do the photo sessions. The outcome was joyful faces of the ones who made the cut, and disappointment from those who didn’t.


And with that the festivities came to an end, and we all parted ways….two intense days, well spent, several new connections, some new friends, and promise of more interactions in the days to come.


I came away particularly pleased when asked to play the role of Judge in future interactions, since the program will run till September. I hope to write about how things pan out as we go through the rounds of eliminations, and arrive at the three final winners, and log further experiences as we go along this journey.

I’ve been fortunate to have some great mentors, some international luminaries…the then Deputy Managing Director of State Bank of India – P V Subba Rao (God Bless His Soul), Rumi – my Boss and CEO of HSBC’s Global Technology Centers and his successor and my next Boss – Ignacio Vera from Argentina. On the personal front, I’ve been extremely fortunate to be blessed by my Spiritual Master (now departed) His Holiness Sridhar Swami, and receive mentorship at the hands of my father, a most noble, kind and patient teacher.

This experience has only served to add to lifelong learning, and yet, my insatiable appetite, leaves me yearning for more…..

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