What Skipping Campus Placements At IIT Taught Me About Running A Startup

Posted on October 11, 2016 in My Story

By Harsh Snehanshu:

It’s that time of the year again. Groups of four or five are already in place in IITs. These groups sit together every night to study and prepare mind-boggling case studies for the coveted ‘Day 1’. It’s the first day of campus placements. It’s when companies select only the sharpest and the most analytical of all.

So what, if you studied circuitry and quantum optics for four years and came to IIT aspiring to make it to NASA or ISRO. The crème de la crème from a batch of 700 make it to the top 50. Students from the Top 50 get picked by McKinsey and the like and open the pathway to prosperity and security. They later on, also open doors to B-schools like Wharton. Cracking ‘Day 1’ is tougher than it was cracking JEE.

The year was 2012, and I was in the race to crack ‘Day 1’. Despite being a 7 pointer, I was shortlisted by two of the consulting bigwigs—McKinsey and The Parthenon Group. A huge feat for someone who held no positions of responsibility in the IIT ecosystem. The only thing that I did in my four years at IIT was writing. Writing for blogs, for college magazines, for newspapers, for Chicken Soup, for my girlfriend, for myself. The only two highlights on my resume was a fledgeling startup that I had started three months ago, and a popular novel that was published by a little-known publisher but has sold over 30,000 copies in the past two years.

Armed with words, I went for ‘Day 1’ interviews with great gusto only to end up being miserable. While one McKinsey partner accused me of being emotional (What else do you expect from a writer of a romantic comedy?). Another asked me why I wanted to become a consultant when I had a startup to run. I didn’t prepare for these questions when I was working on my case studies, and as you would have guessed, I tanked. I didn’t make it.

The night of December 1 was the most miserable ever. Amidst wet pillows and a parched throat, I decided rather egoistically that I won’t sit for placements anymore. I decided to work full-time on my startup and also focus on my writing. I decided to brave the road marred with uncertainty.

Without The Placements

The years that followed turned out to be more gruelling than what I’d imagined. Fighting to survive each day post an IIT degree in a city like Delhi wasn’t what I had imagined. After seven months of bootstrapping, I gave up on my startup dream and went back home. It was too difficult to survive without savings, without a network, without a godfather and a tech co-founder (the biggest impediment to a startup’s success!).

Living at home wasn’t any better. The ongoing banter between neighbours and relatives about an IIT grad sitting idle at home increased my listlessness. I had two options. I could ask my friends working in one of these day-to-day infinity firms to get me a job. Or I could break away. Having already survived on moulded pieces of bread for seven months, it wasn’t very difficult to contemplate the option of breaking away. Being a full-time entrepreneur has taught me how to survive.

I decided to travel for some time, hoping some ‘alone time’ and visiting new places would help me move on. However, there was a little problem. I didn’t have any money. Nor did I have the courage to ask my parents for it, after having already flushed down the drain, the one lakh rupees I had borrowed from them for the startup. I decided to turn my short travel plan into a long one.

A ‘Bharat bhraman’, a pan India solo journey, was on the cards. I approached around 300 odd companies asking them to sponsor my year-long trip in exchange for publicity. Luckily, one maverick believed in my dream. Mr Aloke Bajpai, the CEO of the travel website IXIGO and an IIT Kanpur alumnus, decided to fund my journey.

The plan was set. I embarked on an ambitious journey, finding hosts on social media in over 67 cities and ten villages across India. Wherever I went, IXIGO would send me a pack of their high-quality brand merchandise such as t-shirts, umbrellas, caps, torches, cards, etc. that I happily distributed to my hosts and college students. In one year, I covered 22 states, freelanced for The Hindu, published a book about my failed startup with Penguin Random House and qualified for the Young India Fellowship by the time the trip got over.

That one year of travel taught me more about myself than the last 21 had ever had. I braved most of my fears and learnt that little could be a lot. I had planned to write a book about my travels, but the immersive year at the Young India Fellowship made me realise that my insights about travel weren’t deep enough, neither was my command on the craft as a writer.

Post the Young India Fellowship; I didn’t sit for placements again and decided to operate as a freelance journalist. Thereon, life only got tougher. Freelancing required braving scores of rejections every day, keeping on one’s toes for stories and being up to date with every little thing that happened around me. I was spending more money in writing the articles than what freelancing offered. In the meantime, I was witnessing how technology was disrupting the media.

News aggregating apps run by my IIT juniors were slowly replacing the need for newspapers – online websites like Buzzfeed and Scroll was giving the established print media a run for their money. As I started looking at technology as a journalist, the product enthusiast within me motivated me to become an insider.

In Feb 2015, I joined a well-funded startup run by an IIT senior. Three months of good work revived the dormant entrepreneurial spunk in me. In May 2015, I quit, to start my own.

Starting again, despite being well-networked and having enough savings to last a year, I made a series of blunders. I chased investors instead of customers. Got co-founders based on their resumes instead of commitment. Hired more employees than were required. After a series of three spectacular failures of both the team and the products, I learnt how to be lean and how to hustle to find the right team. It took a year and a half year to finally get to something that was promising: a product that tied my passion for the pen and products together, with a committed co-founder, a tech superman.

My startup YourQuote is an Instagram-like platform for writers to post their quotes on beautiful wallpapers. In September, just a week after the launch, we packed our bags and moved to the Solang Valley, away from the noise of the city to build a kickass product in peace.

It was a conscious decision as we realised how the city sucks time and if you’re creating something that’s isn’t dependent on location, a small town saves both time and money. We have been able to attract great talent — who’re passionate about travel, writing and products here, besides a devoted userbase.

In Retrospect

It has been a year and half of bootstrapping, and I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to go through the grind had it not been the experience of shunning the security of placements. Even the guesthouse owner here in Solang is a friend whom I met while travelling across India in 2013. The same goes for the people in my team, whom I bumped into while making ends meet as an entrepreneur in 2011. In retrospect, I think the best thing I have done in my life was skipping campus placements at both IIT & YIF.

All that I have learned after I skipped campus placements –
– The futility of having too much money, and a loaded CV.
– One can survive on less than 10k per month and be insanely happy.
– There are innovative ways to make money.
– Good things happen to you when you least expect it.
– Hustling is not an entrepreneurial trait, but a trait one needs to survive.

I know my actions would come across as being slightly irresponsible if you think about the family or about not having any savings. But you know what, savings will happen in due time. The result of walking on an offbeat path like, entrepreneurship makes you a hustler, and if you stick long enough, it pays off. Even if you fail, you have learnt so much that good jobs are within an arm’s reach and your network helps in the process.

Having said that, I realise the privilege I come from – my parents still have two and six years of their service left respectively and my sister is doing very well as a fashion photographer. None of my family members are dependent on me and I can afford this risk that many cannot.

In fact, my parents have set an example for others by rather encouraging my decisions because they got the basics right – they know if I am happy with my work, I will do well.

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