Unfurling a Vision, One Story at a Time
Journey before YourStory
I started Yourstory in 2008. Before that in 2007 and 2006 I’ve worked in media. It was in Times of India, CNBC. Just to give you a context why I started, I come from a small town in India. At least when I was growing up in Bihar and then I moved to Delhi, studied there and come to Mumbai and in media, I experienced that the world that we are showcasing and living was very different from the background and the reality I came from. And somewhere I thought that so many millions of us have different reality. And somewhere if in media we could showcase that and then narrow it down to entrepreneurship because in my context in CNBC and Times of India was meeting a lot of entrepreneurs and they were so hungry, desperate and keen to share their story. And somewhere the whole thing becomes the mandate was that “hey, but we will write about or talk about someone or listen to someone if they have something, there is a benchmark to it”. For me, it was like the benchmarks and the successes would come later, let’s start listening to people because if we don’t to listen to people then how are we going to, you know, the basic thing we talk about encouragement and being media as a platform for communicating right things, how will that happen?
That was there in my mind from 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 suddenly when one night a big entrepreneur started crying because he said “hey, you didn’t think my story was good enough” and I was like “okay, let’s create a platform”. In 2008 September, while I was working in CNBC and I am very thankful. It’s a great company that gave me an opportunity to do, start writing because nobody actually also, inside nobody saw that it’s going to be a venture or anything just a blog. So I started writing about these entrepreneurs who nobody media was writing, thought they were successful or big enough or funded enough. I was just like “hey, the doubt in discrimination, let’s listen to stories”. And 2009 July, I left CNBC and as you know, it’s 2015, it’s has been a great turn. We have told 21,000 stories of entrepreneurs and every day we reach out an engagement millions of entrepreneurs. It’s very fulfilling and in the process business model and everything has evolved. So that’s the story of Yourstory.
Plunge into Entrepreneurship
One very big thing which I keep saying and maybe a slightly conservative standpoint is that you need to have a little bit of money. I’ve seen so many people and especially in my last previous job, when I was doing in Mumbai, you just cannot be in Mumbai when there is no money. You need survival, basic survival. And for me, I was very clear that I’m not just going to blindly jump. Of course, there will be some element of blind jump but I will not jump if I cannot sustain myself 6 to 8 months. When I was sure in July that I could sustain myself for a few months, at least I had a run rate for 8 to 12 months where it was not dependent on anyone or looking for any funding, I took the plunge and second thing was a little bit validation because, see, this is a very off beat idea. Just listening to people and telling their stories and just I hoped this is not my fancy thing that people want to tell stories. I wanted a little bit of validation. So it came and it came in plentiful in just a few months and these two things were actually the trigger which led me move from my full time job and get full time into Yourstory.
Here I want to say is that we give a lot of emphasis and I see these days, it’s growing even more is thinking about the business model, business plan. I think somehow it is of utmost important but it evolves and you get your clue from the market, from the people, from your customer. For me, people whom I was listening to their stories and you will be surprised that when people talk and when you are listening to them without judgement, how many things they turn. When I was listening to their stories of entrepreneurs, they were talking about all their pain points and then I saw a pattern that “okay, these are pain points”. People are looking at funding, people are looking at a larger reach, larger distribution, larger mind share of what they are doing. They are looking at connects with people who can give them money, corporates and just listening and getting so much of data across. It was not that “hey, this was bumpy ride it could be doing stories all over the country from Calcutta to everywhere” and everyone had a more or less similar problems and from there, the business model evolved. We started doing a lot of things. Today, if you see how Yourstory monetizes, one is that, you know, it’s a public domain knowledge is that on an average every month, we reach out to 6-7 million people. So it becomes a great outreach vehicles for entrepreneurs. Second thing is, we do a lot of very interesting discovery based events we’ve been doing in the last 5 years and most of the companies go on to become big names and so we have an eye for discovering interesting companies.
We think third is, we do a lot of matchmaking between early stage companies and the corporates and we’ve been doing this since the last 7 years. We’ve come up with lot of research, industry research reports because every day we get so many insights from entrepreneurs. So we do it for companies coming, entering India. So all these things they- and somehow surprisingly all this became a sustainable, repeatable business and we became since last 3 years, Yourstory is a profitable business. So what I want to say is that if you really- two things. One is that just be mad enough to know that this is what you want to do and second thing is listen to outside. Just keep yourself away and listen to one yourself from outside and second to your customers, your people whom you are addressing and if you listen, then business models evolve and you get to know what exactly people want.
One thing with scale is the- only thing that comes to my mind with the word “scale” is somehow I think it’s again a very evolutionary and it comes but one thing which I thing again in retrospect is from day 1, everyone thought Yourstory is small and it’s a blog but I had this illusion that Yourstory is really big because I was in all these big media companies and I thought that “hey, I’m not less than anyone else”. And somewhere for me, the way I did things from day 1 was in that stature. So be it like looking for people, it was not like “hey, come and help me and I just don’t have money right now”. It was like- I still remember I use to- every interaction and every point I had from day 1 was like “hey, we are the biggest thing that has happened to this country and the biggest thing that happened to this world”. And of course, half of the people thought I’m really mad and they use to say- after meetings I use to hear people who are tight enough to get me that meeting, most of these big guys in the industry use to say “you know, why did you get a meeting with this mad woman?”. But somehow that belief was there and I think that is very very important. You can’t just say “hey, I am starting this and now oh, this works, oh okay okay”. In your mind you have to live that scale and once that happens scaling process, hiring people, getting money, building a structure, business model, everything happens and somehow I think which is discount that whole mental living inside our own mind that kind of big bigness of what it can be and hiring, nobody joined me for the first 2-3 months, 2-3 years actually because there was no money to give and whomever as I said, I use to meet, I use to say “hey, I’ll give you like the best in the industry but that will come after, like 6-8 months and all that”. People were like “okay fine”. So somehow I had to go and do it on my own, get it to a level where the numbers were showing. And then I moved to Bangalore and here my first hire was and that’s to all the students and everyone who is planning to start while watching this is my first hire was an intern student. There was an internship site and I advertised and the student wrote. So he was the first guy who worked with me for a long time.
That’s how one person led to the other and that’s how today we are 65 people and today we have the best people in the industry. From the media freternity some of the biggest and the best names but I just go back to the whole thing it’s like convincing one guy who came first. He was so convinced and he loved it so much that he spread and we spread and then it just kept on spreading. Today we get so many resumes that we just can’t even process it. For money as I told earlier, you just have to keep listening to customer, we listened and then the whole thing was documenting and processing because most of the things we were doing and we were running. So we just don’t have time as a startup to document process, so that it becomes scalable. To certain extent we did, to the certain extent we very soon realized that it’s just not going to work if we don’t do that and I think now also we are documenting because I think in India and us, we are not very use to documenting and putting everything in black and white as a process, as a system. So I started doing and I think that has really worked wonders. So please start writing everything, please start documenting, please start recording because that also helps in the process and money, I think I had a very great eye because I’ve written this at many places that when you don’t have external money, it gives you a different kind of feel. I never looked for external money and nobody came and gave me money.
So I had a great sense of one appreciation and respect for money. So there was a sense of how much to spend, what to do. There was always this eyes that “hey, we are not spreading too thin, we are not spreading too much”. At the same time it was not that “hey, we should be like, we’re building a media tech venture so we should not be like very stingy either”. So that sense of money and the awareness about money in fact today also every day, we have an eye on what we are spending, what is coming. Even after raising venture money I think very happy to say we have spent any money because we are generating cash and doing it in a very aware way and that helps because most of the companies which I am seeing now one is that as soon as they start ideas, they want to raise money. I’m honestly scared of that because you might be just the lucky few who will get money but most of us do not in the actual world of fundraising and then you have to have an eye for money and second is if you do get money, please don’t spend it because- spend it but don’t finish it off because the world around us is- somewhere the world around us appreciates the old age way of doing business where you have to keep an eye on keeping yourselves sustainable, even if you are building the biggest venture and I think globally people are realizing that and that consciousness has to come here for big scale.
I’d say HerStory as a product. HerStory personally is very close to my heart and we started this 3 years back and we were meeting a lot of women and not necessarily women entrepreneurs but women doing interesting things and different things. And they had this thing that “hey, media has two ways of showing women. One is either very glamorous and the images and everything and second thing is either in a pitiable or empathy or a sympathized way” like “hey, she not doing this or blah blah blah, what are the challenges”. But there is no place which celebrates women the way they are, you know, with all their strength and weaknesses, scars and blemishes and glowing skins and everything who they are. 3 years back, we just said “hey, let’s start Herstory where we are not going to judge whether this woman is suffering or she is this or get a world view on women but let women have their view on themselves”. And I think the way it has grown, the kind of audience it has, the kind of love it has from women because it also came from women. We were just listening to them and they were saying “that’s a place for us” and most of us keep talking place for us, place for us and we just said “hey, let’s create a place. An unbiased beautiful place for beautiful ideas and just appreciating yourself, who you are” and today that’s doing very well.
Build YourStory as a Brand
Again, this is something which I’ve spoken widely at many places and written about is when we think about building brand and we think more from- the question is how do I build my brand? Or how do I build my company’s brand? I always say that you will brand your brand if you are one very aware, very open and help other people around you or it can be other people would mean, team members, your clients, your customers, people around you build your brand because somewhere the biggest brand in anywhere, in any sector, in any field, the biggest brand are the most authentic brands and most authentic brands, there are certain factors to building most authentic brands. One is that you have to be in a very consistent, second you have to have a consciousness to the brand and somewhere if you in your every touch point, every every touch point, even if someone is not even looking at you and the camera is not on, in every every touch point of yours, if you are living that experience of being authentic consistent and thinking beyond my own brand to helping people around, building their brands, I think it just automatically happens and it magically happens. I wish there is a scientific or all the experts in the world document it into a process but I’ve seen it and I’ve seen it with so many entrepreneurs, I’ve seen it with so many companies, large, big, small, startups, how they are building and you know, somewhere it just doesn’t come in the consciousness “hey, I’m building my brand” because what you need to think is “Am I creating that kind of an impact?” because if you are an entrepreneur, if you are going to startup, if you are going to do anything, then it is going to be about creating some kind of an impact to someone and if you are thinking about that and then you think that “okay, what that impact point is” and then you get a brand expert to say “hey, the impact which I am giving is fast delivery or food or whatever but in a very loving way”.
Then you start building a brand. Please be aware of all your touchpoints because if you are in a transparent world, it can’t be and don’t look at it as a process but look it as something which every day in every way you are like cultivating and then you get certain points. Like with Yourstory, now what we are saying is that “okay, so we think and the world around us and the entrepreneurs who read us think we are this but do we want to be more?”. Because we have launched in 12 Indian languages, original content in all Indian languages. We have this big big drive to reach 200 million people very soon and we are going to different nooks and corners and the target audience is going to be very different from what has been traditionally reading YourStory. Now we are just thinking that “hey, now how do we position to an audience who reads in Urdu, to an audience who reads in Bengali or Tamil? And is it going to be a central messaging or content?” So these are some of the things that we are working, thinking on but the essence of who we are will translate into the communication which we will do in all these languages as we scale.
You know, one sudden day I thought I should raise money and I did. No, no. That’s the fact actually but when I started this, there was no one doing what I was doing. Writing stories, telling stories. Suddenly in the last 2 years, it has just become so much of noise and it has become fashionable to write about startups and everything about startups and so many people coming, international media houses coming, Indian legacy media companies like pumping a lot of money and somewhere I realized that what I am doing is beautiful, it is well validated, the money, the cash flow, everything is sorted, there is a value, there is an impact to it and then I realized that but why I had started Yourstory? I started Yourstory like as I told earlier, that I come from a small place and I wanted everyone to participate and have sense that my story is important. My story means something and that I’m restricting and I am also getting into this race with all the media coming and the numbers and everything. So, my fundraising was just a way of saying that “hey, you should not be all the time so crazy”. If I do hit a roadblock, if I do hit a dark spot while I am running, I should have some support. For me, it was more of a mental support to chase that dream of everyone in this country should be reading YourStory and I think I didn’t realized but yeah, the money, it’s a good money. It has come Ratan Tata, Vani Kola, Calari capital, Qualcomm ventures, Mohandas Pai, these are all extraordinary people and I’m very lucky that they are so invested in Yourstory. They love it and they helps so much. I didn’t expect that, so that’s a bumper. So there is money and there are amazing people who believe in the vision of YourStory and let’s see together. We should be hitting somewhere.
Social Entrepreneurship in India
Again, I just want to say this again, I’m telling on camera is somehow over the year, we all evolve and learn. Like, I really don’t think we should have a definition called social entrepreneurs because what it does in reality of an Indian life or world in fact. Not only why India? Anywhere, is that when you say “social entrepreneur”, it automatically compartmentalizes you into a certain kind of business and a certain kind of people and a certain kind of mindset and a certain kind of chase that you are chasing and then the investors you made and the people you meet and the readership you get is all different. And somewhere for us, starting SocialStory was not necessarily for social entrepreneurs but somewhere we just said that “impactful stories, how do we make them also glamorous?” Impactful stories, how do we make them also reach everybody? If I do a sensational story that “hey, this film star had did this, this last night”, that goes to everyone but for me, and for media stand point, for everyone in the world, I’m sure people who are interested, the question was “how do you make these stories interesting?” And that’s why we started Socialstory and for social entrepreneurs, I’d say is that somewhere, as I say for women entrepreneurs. I think we shouldn’t bracket that because right now the world is changing very fast and I see people start perceiving and start seeing you in certain way but to both I’d say, to social entrepreneurs who are like really socially passionate and doing something around and to women entrepreneurs, one experience which I’ve in the last 7 years of YourStory is both these communities of amazing, extraordinary people need to sell themselves well and they need to talk well. Talk well in the sense, they need to be just talking a lot more out there because it think both these community is much more self-facing than the mainstream, maybe a food tech entrepreneur which automatically gets so much of noise both in Valley and in India.
So communication for this community would be great great important and don’t try to get yourself bracketed into it because somewhere it’s obvious you into not building a very sustainable, scalable unique core ventures and I somehow think all of us have the potential to build all those kind of businesses.
I’d say social entrepreneurship is not about creating NGOs, charities, self help groups. Social entrepreneurship is about creating impact and in a country of 1.3 billion, we have so much scope to create real, tangible, on ground impact and these entrepreneurs can go ahead and do that and create that.
Exchange & Sharing of ideas
Again, I think all of us should keep sharing our ideas. Keep talking about our ideas. We should just not like, who will steal you? Like I always say “I’m the best example”. I run YourStory. Anyone tomorrow, in fact I have met, most people I’ve met, most people who have gone to us for money have said “oh, we can create this in 24 hours” and big media house have gone ahead and said “we can create this, just give us 24 hours and we will have Yourstory in 24 hours”. I say “go ahead, do it” and the point is, it’s not about, again a rhetoric, but it’s not about idea. It’s just about execution, it’s just about your crazy passion. It’s about your fuel. It’s a race and how much fuel, your own internal fuel you have to run. If you are able to run it just and if you are able to run like and if you have your own madness, I think nobody in the world can compete, nobody can take that from you and do something like I think freely share your idea. For all you know, you might just be surprised because genuinely you’ll meet a lot of interesting people who might give you great feedback which can help you improve on your idea.
Impact of YourStory on Startups
That you shouldn’t ask me. You should ask entrepreneurs who send mails every day. Most people become entrepreneurs because they are like ardent every morning. I don’t know why they open YourStory but they read it every day. To me, the answer is YourStory I think entrepreneurs and to people and the audience and the students of a brand and anyone who is watching this, I’d say YourStory should be your companion. You should know because it’s going to be a very very lonely journey. Like very very very lonely and you should know that YourStory is there and there are so many experiences and peek into the experiences of 21,000 people now. Hopefully in the next 1 year, we should have stories of million people. Peek into their experiences, share with them and learn with them and talk to them and reach out to us if you are looking at raising money, if you want to connect to someone. We are very openly whole day keep on doing those kind of these things because we believe if we do, then you’ll do to so many more and we will all have a very amazing culture in India.
Mistakes & Learnings from Entrepreneurial Journey
One thing which I want to say is that if you could just make it very clear, I don’t think I’m anywhere remotely successful right now. It’s just a process and in fact, I was very surprised that people are talking to me now that I’ve raised money because I was just doing the same thing for the last 7 years but you learn to have sense of humor that you have raised money and then you suddenly become an interesting commodity which I was myself standing against. So anyways, so mistakes. So many, so many. One mistake which I very talked about is documenting. I don’t think so. As entrepreneurs, we are so passionate. We just want to do everything and we want to do everything 27*7 but trust me, after doing the same kind of thing 24*7, in 7 years, it is you need to have a process and that process to me means only documenting all your learnings, good, bad and ugly. I think somehow initially I did not did that. So what it meant is that I was just repeating. So anyone who was coming- so you know the scalability was not so very fast because you just had to embrace everyone and just say the same thing. I think somewhere if I had put it in a process way, that would have been great. Second is, I think one big mistake I think I do those people say you shouldn’t is I think, I’ve been very emotional in this journey because for me, everything is so personal. Like every story becomes personal. So earlier 3 years when I was writing every story, every entrepreneur is a friend and everyone’s problem become my problem. I think that’s a nice way but if you are trying to build a business which honestly I do want to and I have wanted somewhere to show that we can build a media business like this, then you need to slightly detach yourself like you are an entrepreneur but you are more than just an entrepreneur and I think we forget our whole existence becomes about and when the world starts saying “oh my god, look at this person who is so passionate” then you also start believing “yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m all the time passionate”.
Somewhere you just need to start distancing yourself, your venture and yourself and to me, it is still a learning process and I’m still learning. This year I’ve invested a lot of my mental faculties in doing that but you need to do that. Because I think for entrepreneur’s failures and successes are like every day. One day is successful, one day is failure but something which is very very important is to feel very happy and good about yourself and somewhere the world around you as an entrepreneur will always constantly try to judge you for everything that you do and every board meeting or every fundraise you did or you were not able to do or whatever. So that distancing of you, you know, you are you and you are also an entrepreneur but you are you and that you has more than the entrepreneurship and the venture and what you are doing is important and I’d say that is something which I am working on, I haven’t been able to do and it has led to a lot of heartburns, sadness, distress, anxiety in the journey.