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The Book ‘Failing To Succeed’ Is An Insightful Read For All Entrepreneurs

I was randomly browsing the new offers on the Kindle Store when I came across this book. The title of the book was quite apt, and it did catch my eye.

Ever since I have started questioning the fundamentals of societal structure, one question that has always perplexed me has been the question of success. What really is success? I wrote a blog post about this titled, “Your Idea of Success. Is it really your Idea?”, way back in 2014. As you can see, it now has been almost four years, and here we are, still exploring this concept of success.

Anyway, coming back, so I found this book’s title interesting, read the brief on Goodreads and decided to buy it.

The book is about the advent, success and shutdown of India’s first E-commerce start-up Fabmart/Indiaplaza. I am sure people from early days of the Internet (the 90s) may have heard of those names. I had read some articles about Mr. Vaithee and hence had an overview about the venture.

Fabmart — India’s first E-commerce start-up begins

This book is narrated and authored by Mr. Vaithee himself which hence gives you a vivid experience (thanks to his writing style) of everything that happened. It begins with the author toying with the idea of starting up, leaving a well-cushioned job at Wipro to venture into the world of entrepreneurship. He was mightily influenced by the success of Amazon which was, in those days, trying to pioneer the e-commerce world and perhaps was the only reference point.

Along with five other co-founders, the first e-commerce site of India was born, named Fabmart.com selling audio cassettes and CDs. To give you a perspective, we are talking about creating an e-commerce company when internet penetration was extremely low, world-wide-web had recently entered India and getting connected to the Internet was a painful process of using the Dial-up connection. A lot of us millennials may have never seen the internet that slow, you could literally see the images / content load line by line on the screen in front of you!

The author then takes you through some first principles of starting up (most of which happen to be same for Product Management).

  1. What problem are you solving?
  2. Are you solving it for a reasonably large set of customers?
  3. Will these customers be willing to pay for your solution?
  4. Are you the first one trying to solve or there have been others who have attempted?
  5. If others have already solved, are you bringing something superior or unique?

The author then shares some really amazing learning about

  • The concept of Better, Faster, Cheaper to evaluate start-ups
  • Selecting your Co-founders
  • Deciding Co-founders’ responsibilities and compensation
  • Seed-funding

Fabmart — So many firsts

As is there in any product, while taking the crucial decisions, the team at Fabmart needed some really important inputs and they used the concepts of Product Management really well. This just tells me that the first principles are just timeless. The way they executed in the absence of all the modern tools we have today is just exemplary.

  • Observing customers in offline stores to understand customer buying behavior.
  • Deciding on whether to sell books or music online.
  • Getting the meta-data of the Music labels was a challenge, then getting it online was another challenge, music companies didn’t have it in online format.

Anyway, so slowly and gradually things started moving and Fabmart started getting traction. It is not very well known but Fabmart team deserves the credit for a lot of innovative and first of its kind solutions executed in E-commerce world which now just seem to be a norm.

  • First PIN based Payment Gateway
  • First E-commerce client of Microsoft Azure in India
  • BlueDart’s first step in E-commerce logistics
  • First to execute Omnichannel retail
  • First to sign up a celebrity singer to launch a Single exclusively online
  • India’s first Electronic Gift Certificates
  • India’s first E-wallet
  • First Customer Loyalty Program
  • India’s first Online Grocery store
  • First time COD in India

Diversifying into Books, Jewellery

The book then takes us through some day-to-day challenges of deciding the KPIs when you don’t have any reference point, signing up more music labels, singers to get more traffic and all along sticking to the first principles of business to ensure that this is a self-sustainable business and not a VC money driven that now-a-days is.

Fabmart starts to expand beyond music and gets into books and jewellery. The author talks about the challenges faced and how they finally launch these online. In future, books become one of the bestselling categories for the business.

This was the time (around 2000) when the Dotcom bubble bust was happening in the US and hence whenever Fabmart team was meeting the investors; they were interested in valuation more than anything else. The company was able to raise ₹25 crores as Series A in this turbulent time.

Fabmart Goes in Offline Retail

The next part of the book is about how Fabmart ventured into offline retail and builds the brand Fabmall. Most of you may not know this but Fabmall was acquired by Aditya Birla Group in 2006 and re-branded as More stores, fairly well known now.

In spite of the fact that Groceries as a category will be difficult and low margin venture, Fabmart went ahead and launched India’s first online grocery, along with selling it offline in Fabmall. Some really creative warehousing and supply chain strategies had to be executed by the team.

This was also the time when the team started off COD for groceries (in 2001) and then extended it to other products such as books, movies, music, watched etc. But because of all the challenges that COD brings with itself, the team decided to shut COD down in 2004.

Fast forward to Indiaplaza — Cash Crunch Begins — Investor Challenges

The author then talks about a lot of business challenges that were being faced because of which finally, the offline business and the online business were separated. Because of the recent Dotcom bust, no investors would even want to listen to anything that had “.com” in it raising funds for the online business was becoming daunting.

I would try to fast forward the summary here. There onwards, author details about tonnes of challenges that were faced because of the Investors, Cash Crunch etc.

What is commendable to read in the book is that in spite of owning around 2% or so of the company Indiaplaza, the author somehow became responsible for all the troubles that the company faced. The challenges of ever changing business conditions can be navigated well if there is money available. The responsibilities of the current investors were not executed, and hence Indiaplaza had to face severe situations.

I am highly impressed by the way author retains his morals and integrity in spite of the tough, nerve wrecking situations around him with vendors, creditors, police etc. Reading about all the struggles that he went through is highly inspirational. It gives a perspective into how most of the investors focus perhaps on the wrong metrics and how it is extremely important to be highly selective when choosing where you are taking the money from.

Conclusion

Overall, the book is really delightful and refreshing to read. The writing style is simple yet engaging. It provides a lot of ground reality and perspectives about the start-up world. Media selectively glamorizes the start-up world with less focus on failures and the dark sides. It gives you a perspective of what all can go wrong in a start-up and can prove to be a guidepost to learn from the mistakes detailed in the book. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has interest in start-ups and/or e-commerce in general.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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