Behind every successful startup today is a story of blood, sweat, toil and tears, writes Suveen Sinha in his book

Startup Dreams Not getting into IIT was Snapdeal co-founder Kunal Bahls biggest blessing PTI
Features Books Sunday, August 14, 2016 - 10:50

By Suveen Sinha

Kunal Bahl believes that not getting into an IIT was the biggest blessing of his life. He did give the JEE a good shot. But it was not entirely his decision. His parents just assumed that he would take the JEE and follow in his older brother, Nikhil’s footsteps. Nikhil had joined IIT Delhi and told everyone his brother would be coming next year.

It was the first time Kunal let someone else make a decision for him, and maybe the last. Things just don’t work out when someone else decides for him.

After the failed attempt at JEE, in 2001, Kunal went to work in a manufacturing company for a year. It was his dad’s friend’s company. He did basic stuff there, like scraping plastic off things, for eight to ten hours a day. He was eighteen, and made Rs 6550 a month. At 4 p.m. every day, he would sit around with the other workers and have tea with them.

It helped open up his mind to other things. The IIT-JEE preparation had made him sick of academics. It had also taught him not to do something if his heart was not in it. The truth is, he wanted to study commerce after class ten. Commerce interested him. Negotiating deals came naturally to him even as a child—small things, like getting his bicycle fixed. But his parents told him there was no future in studying commerce.

His dad worked in the coal mines in Chhattisgarh. He actually worked in the mines, not in a manager’s office managing people who did the digging. Financially, it was not very fulfilling.

In 1987–88, when Kunal was about five, his father realized that unless he did something with his career, his kids were not going to get anywhere. So he started a company to make plastic spools around which industrial wires were wound. Later he got into automobile components.

Growing up, Kunal and his older brother Nikhil did not see their father for days on end. He would often leave before the boys woke up and come back after they had slept. Every morning he would drive his Fiat from Greater Kailash, in New Delhi, where they lived, to the factory in Ghaziabad, at a time when there was tonnes of traffic and no flyovers.

The memory of those days has stayed with Kunal as lessons from an entrepreneur’s life. An entrepreneur is insanely busy, with little time for family or oneself. But that did not deter Kunal’s own aspirations. On the contrary, his father’s experience paved the way for Kunal’s journey as an entrepreneur. When he decided to set up something of his own, no one in the family questioned it. It was okay to not run after a secure job.

*****

Deported from the US, Kunal Bahl came back to India in September 2007, and called Rohit Bansal.

They were together in classes eleven and twelve at the Delhi Public School, R.K. Puram. They sat next to each other, talked about food, and cracked dirty jokes. They bonded over mathematics.

They had also studied together for the JEE. Kunal cleared the screening with a good rank, but had a rather bad main exam. He did well in maths and chemistry, but did not clear the cut-off in physics.

Rohit got a top 100 rank and joined IIT Delhi. When Kunal returned from the US, Rohit was working with Capital One, the US financial services company, in Bangalore. He had just received his H1B visa to go to the US next year. It had been stamped in his passport—the gateway to a great life.

Kunal told Rohit not to go; that they should start something together in India.

Rohit comes from a small town called Malout, 45 kilometres from Bathinda in Punjab, and is from a modest background. Going to the US would have meant a great opening of doors for him.

Yet, when Kunal called, Rohit simply replied he wouldn’t go to the US, that he would stay back in India and build a business with Kunal. That was that. They never talked about it again. First, they started a coupons business, and called it Money Saver. When Kunal was in the US, he did not have much money, but he loved to eat out. The only way he could afford to do so was by using coupons. This gave him the idea for a similar venture in India. In 2007, organized retail was taking off in India. Kunal and Rohit thought the coupon business was going to become a billion dollar one.

Image courtesy: Twitter/ Rohit Bansal

The calculation was simple. There were tens of millions of people who shopped in India. It was not too much to expect that a million people would buy their coupon book every month.

It looked a little more complicated after a year of slumming the streets of Delhi, trying to sign up restaurants, spas and salons to get them into their coupon book. Most of them did not know what a coupon was. To them, Kunal and Rohit were two kids with a PowerPoint presentation, wearing jackets even in the Delhi summer and asking them for a favour.

Naturally, the managers of the restaurants, salons and spas were unkind to the young men. They were made to wait outside even when the managers were not doing anything useful inside. On one occasion, Rohit waited seven hours outside the office of a shoe company because its manager wouldn’t take calls or respond to email.

Kunal and Rohit had a calling sheet. They had set up two tables in Kunal’s bedroom, which were their work stations. They would take turns to call up the same people. They would call a brand manager or a merchant at least once every two days. ‘Did you think about it?’ If they didn’t respond after three calls, they got a ‘standing ovation’. Kunal and Rohit showed up at their office and the manager had to respond either yes or no in person.

Rohit Bansal (left) and Kunal Bahl (right) with Yahoo founder Jerry Yang (Image Courtesy: Twitter/ Kunal Bahl)

The chief marketing officer of a jeans brand stopped taking their calls. He was not available even when they turned up at his office for a standing ovation. So Kunal pulled out a VoIP phone he had retained from his US days and called the CMO’s US number. This time, probably thinking the overseas calling number indicated something important, the CMO took the call. Kunal reintroduced himself and asked when he could see him. The CMO said he was leaving for Hong Kong and that Kunal could come see him the next day. That was great, except that, as indicated by the phone number Kunal was calling from, he was supposed to be in the US. Thinking on his feet, he said: ‘I am on my way to the airport in New York to catch a plane to Delhi. But I can change my tickets to Bangalore.’ The next day, Kunal and Rohit took a flight from Delhi to Bangalore and signed the deal.

Excerpted with permission from ‘The Tip of the Iceberg: The Unknown truth behind India’s start-ups’ by Suveen Sinha and published by Penguin Books

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