Among the thousands of runners in the Investothon 2013-2014 event, Ashwin Srivastava was the last to complete the mini-marathon. Not very surprising though, if you consider that he walked from start to finish, while his competitors ran. However, for Ashwin, this was a huge personal victory.
While the paparazzi was missing at the finish line to capture and celebrate the moment, Ashwin came home beaming with pride with what he had achieved.
For those who don’t know him personally, there are other success stories involving speed that are easier to relate to – like launching, scaling up (to over $1 million) and exiting multiple ventures in record time. His transition from being an entrepreneur to a co-founder / partner in a venture capital firm within 3 years of graduation.
Careerizma caught up with the serial-entrepreneur-turned-VC to learn more about his student days at IIT Bombay, how he became an entrepreneur, how he launched his first startup (and several more), why he became a venture capitalist and what makes his marathon story special.
If entrepreneurship & startups excite you, Ashwin’s story will give you an idea of what it means to be a true entrepreneur.
[Update: Ashwin has been included in the Forbes 30 under 30 Asia list for 2017. Another feather in his much-embellished cap!]
My journey from being a Serial Entrepreneur to Venture Capitalist
Leaving things mid-way is not want an entrepreneur ever does.
Life as an IIT Student
Careerizma: Share a little about life as a student.
Ashwin Srivastava: I had always been a studious guy, slightly introvert but extremely confident and independent.
I learned a lot from situations around me when I was at school, and realized that life teaches much more than books.
Even today, I use some of the situations faced as a kid, to my advantage in my business strategies. Many of my quirky marketing strategies are direct results of my quirkiness as a student.
Careerizma: What were your career plans when you started IIT? How did they change over time?
Ashwin: I got into IIT by doing self study, and like many other freshers, I was keen to explore my true passion while at IIT. I find IIT Bombay to have so many learning opportunities, that it’s tough not to find your true calling here.
In my first year, I focused on learning everything that I can, by joining various clubs and groups.
I have never planned a career and I still believe in the constant process of learning. The more we learn, the more we discover about what our future holds for us.
Careerizma: When and why did you first think about becoming an entrepreneur?
Ashwin: It was actually in my first year of IIT itself. I got associated with a startup incubated at SINE and helped them make a major business turnaround. That’s where the bug caught on.
But the bug was intensified in my second year when I became a secretary in the hostel student body. I knew instantly that any authority over me is not something which I can handle easily.
I have always had complete control over all my decisions even as a child, and I knew this was going to continue forever as an entrepreneur.
Careerizma: What were your extra curricular interests that helped you get your feet wet?
Ashwin: Lots of them. A friend even used to say that there is no activity left which Ashwin has not done. I dabbled in theatre, had lots of technical achievements in robotics competitions, and then becoming a Marketing Manager for the Entrepreneurship Cell at IIT Bombay was one of the biggest lessons.
Interestingly, much of this happened in parallel to my entrepreneurial pursuits as I was making decent amount of money from my third year itself.
Careerizma: Give us short overview of the various ventures that you’ve been part of.
Ashwin: I started with Metis Consultancy while I was in third year at IIT Bombay (I am not including some half baked experiences from first year itself). It aimed at providing business development consultancy to small and medium sized enterprises.
I followed a unique strategy to get my clients. I used to sit in front of the placement office during placement season; and pitch some of the interviewers who came for placements for market research, that they don’t need to hire an IITian and pay a lot when they have got a much cheaper market research and BD option in form of an awesome startup.
I then became part of Ownmine and later started Incept, my signature company, which went on to become one of the most successful companies in the biometric industry. Incept was a multinational brand which had a successful exit.
Careerizma: What were the big challenges in getting traction for your ventures?
Ashwin: For Incept, there were lots of challenges as I started in 2010 when discussions of recession were still on. But we created some new disruptive strategies in the supply chain of our manufactured products, and decided to reach directly to end users.
Nowadays, manufacturers are reaching out to more end users through online platforms, but it was not easy then with limited online penetration especially in the SME domain which we were targeting.
The biggest challenge we faced was in building trust for our brand, as no one wanted to buy from a startup. So we had to create amazing brand stories around our uniqueness to get the word out and bring customers.
We built a million dollar company with presence in around 150 locations globally, before exiting in around 3 years.
Careerizma: What became easier with each venture? What were the challenges that remained?
Ashwin: Experience is the biggest teacher. So the intuition of what’s going to work and the ability to foresee future improves with every venture.
But some challenges remain- for example, the constant fight for choice between profit and expansion is something which is not easy to solve.
Knowing the correct time to launch a product is something which is one of the toughest decisions in a startup, especially in this constantly changing ecosystem.
Careerizma: What did you learn from your interactions with VCs?
Ashwin: Meeting VCs have made me learn so much more about the ways of looking at the market. I loved it when they played the devil’s advocate and found those flaws in the business model or expansion plan which would have easily missed my thoughts.
I believe one should approach a VC with a completely open mind and ready to accept criticism in the model.
An example of surprise learning was the value of money shown by the VCs I was in touch with: I never understood the importance of breaking down my expenses to its tiniest details in my plan, before its importance was demonstrated to me by a VC by using expense plan to create a new business strategy.
Careerizma: Tell us about what happened on 19 May 2013.
Ashwin: Ah, I call it another incident in my amazing life, which has been full of interesting turns ever since I was a kid. I was on a train and I got into a severe train accident, where the train ran over me, creating a life threatening situation for me.
It was an extremely serious accident which led to my leg amputation, multiple body fractures and a critical head injury. Even the doctors were surprised as to how I was able to survive the accident.
I would have been one of the first cases they had seen where a full speed train ran over me while I was stuck on tracks and survived despite losing many liters of blood.
I credit this survival to my brilliant mother who was able to take some wise decisions and get me to the right hospital in time – 10 minutes delay would have been a sure shot death.
So all kudos to her and the brilliant doctors at Jaslok Hospital who tried innovative medical techniques on me.
Careerizma: How did it affect you physically, mentally and professionally?
Ashwin: Professionally, it had a very positive impact. I got time to plan my company’s acquisition, and think about my next ventures. Being on bed for many months gives you that clarity of thought which you miss while working too hard.
Physically, obviously, it brought lots of limitations, but I have never considered them to be damaging. I always believe everything happens for good and there were more lessons than losses.
Mentally, as you can see, it probably made me even more confident and increased my risk appetite, because confidence allows you to have that liberty.
So, if you ask me if there is anything I would like to change from my past, the answer is a clear No.
Careerizma: Share a little about your marathon story. What prompted you to take the drastic step when you were still healing?
That was primarily because of my group The Challenging Ones. Its a group of amputees who help each other out and inspire others to challenge life. Dastagir M F is the main force behind this group and he forced me to take part in the marathon so that I can act as an inspiration for new amputees.
I was not sure even on the day of the marathon that I could do it, but the desire to set an example was so high that I decided to do it.
During the event, I knew that my legs are getting damaged due to the walk, but leaving things mid-way is not want an entrepreneur ever does.
So, I completed it and the feeling was that of immense satisfaction, mild pride, and a strange addition of a layer of confidence for things to come in future. It was one of those moments of happiness in the pursuit of which you live your life.
Venture Capital Role
Careerizma: Typically how long does it take for successful entrepreneurs to become VCs?
Ashwin: Well, it’s a long journey. I believe that one has to have a few successful startups and successful or failed angel investments, before jumping onto the VC bandwagon.
It’s an extremely tough role that requires a very strong knowledge of different domains and markets, which comes from experience and results in trust which big HNIs show in you.
Careerizma: After having experienced success as an entrepreneur, what prompted you to move to the other side much earlier than the others?
Ashwin: I have always wanted to do so many things and I have been lucky to have achieved success in most of the ventures I’ve been associated with. My entrepreneurial success has led me to have strong contacts with some amazing people, which is one of the most important criteria for becoming a VC.
Since I was able to fit in all minimum criteria for the same, I think it was time to move to the other side. Read about the other partners of Idein and you will know the brand value which our VC firm brings with it.
Careerizma: Explain a little about how the VC team at Idein Ventures was formed.
Ashwin: Rajeshwar Prasad is a technopreneur who has the experience of not just running multiple billion dirham companies but even countries. He is one of the most popular and well connected global leaders and investors I have known.
Mahesh Vellaboyina is a solution architect with leadership experience of more than 24 years through associations with many Fortune 500 companies.
And I am a young entrepreneur much lesser in brand value to these giants, but with some awesome entrepreneurial experience which the startups need. We knew each other for quite some time, and the team was formed to create a deadly combination to help out any startup we decide to fund.
Careerizma: What are you looking for in entrepreneurs & their startup ideas?
Ashwin: We are looking to fund early stage startups, while focusing on tech enabled startups which try to bring organization to an unorganized sector. Our sweet spot is INR 1-2 crores, but we are ok to changes depending on the startup approaching us.
We have decided to not just fund pre-revenue companies, but we are also ok with aspiring entrepreneurs who approach us with or without an idea. That’s rare for a VC to keep a separate fund only for exceptional entrepreneurs without considering whether or not they have created a startup.
This fund is separate from our regular early stage startup fund. The profiles of our partner team is a testimony to the unique mentoring which a startup can get, beyond our funding, which makes us even the more special.
Interested entrepreneurs can get in touch with our team at firstname.lastname@example.org
Advice for entrepreneurs
Entrepreneurship is not about raising money. It’s about building a business.
Careerizma: In an old company newsletter, you said “Try to run naked in public. That’s when you’ll be ready to become an entrepreneur.” After multiple ventures, considering that you (thankfully!) ran fully clothed in the marathon, how is your earlier advice still relevant (in spirit, of course) for entrepreneurs today?
Ashwin: I still believe it, and now even more strongly than ever. The message speaks about the need to shed ego and get your hands dirty without worrying about the opinions which people around you have of you.
Lack of confidence is when people become insecure, and try to look around them for approval of those surrounding them.
A true entrepreneur need not do that. He/she must be ready to run naked in public if their work demands so, and not be surrounded by false ego. Now, let’s not take that ‘too’ literally 🙂
Careerizma: Any other general tips before signing off?
Entrepreneurship is not easy. It’s not about raising money. It’s about building a business. Some startups today have changed their focus towards raising money.
That’s not entrepreneurship!
Have the confidence to build a sustainable profit making company, and that’s where the true fun and enjoyment of success lies.
Note: Marathon image (source: travel.cnn.com) used for representation only.