Being from a strictly middle class family in Mumbai, my parent’s dream was to see me as a CA. Finally after 6 years of struggle juggling work, college and professional studies, I finally managed to complete my CA in Nov. 2011. My parents were jumping with joy. I hadn’t required the customary 4-5 attempts to clear and the extreme hard work had paid off rich dividends.
January 2012, when my results came out, saw my parents start calling up all my family members to inform them of my success. I already was working in KPMG, one of the four largest Financial Advisory companies in the world (popularly known as one of the Big 4s). My results saw me having a huge jump in my pay package, one which my parents and friends could hardly imagine possible. Being in International Tax meant I was in a field envied and lusted for by many. I was also pursuing law simultaneously and had managed to scrap through my 1st year. An amazing professional career awaited me.
However, there was one small problem in the suns and rainbows scene! A dark cloud of an idea had creeped into my head. It wasn’t like in the inception movie, where someone plants it into your head. It had come up all by itself. In fact the reason for it’s inception was partly because of the CA course itself!
As a part of our curriculum we had to undergo a management training, where we had to submit a business plan. Being the first exercise of this kind and being the team leader, I racked my and my team’s brain. After a struggle with concepts like a premium Vada Pav (Indian Burger) stall and some more uninteresting concepts, including a tea house, I was frustrated. How tough could a good idea be? That day, I went home and was engaging in two of my favourite pass times, music and books. I was browsing through the latest music videos on Youtube and reading a novel which I had just purchased. The novel was a pathetic one and I was just about to quit it. Then I realised I had paid a 100 bucks for it. At the same time, coincidentally, I also had a bad song playing. And I decided to switch to another! And then, it just clicked! Both the book, and the song were pathetic. But I could not take the option of quitting a book, because I had to pay for it. I would have ended up wasting 3 more hours on a book, which I would have abused at the end! And even though the song had just 1 more minute of playing time, I still quit.
There were 2 reasons this had happened:
1. The song was free, and the book cost me money. So there was a disadvantage for me to discontinue the book.
2. Even if I wanted to read something else, I could not get it immediately since I would have to go to a bookstore to buy it.
This was the germ of the concept of Qpeka. I discussed the possibility of a digital reading platform where we can give free reading/ pay as you go reading with my friends and all of them were stunned by the possibility it brought especially in education. Two of my close buddies including Dhaval and one more friend who I wouldn’t like to name joined in. We started doing some research and had a survey of close to 500 people and the response was that a staggering 95% people loved the concept. Though digital publishing was growing in the world, no one had imagined a platform which would allow users to read on pay as you read basis or for free with ad-support.
Now it was February, I was still on my job, and the concept was eating into our brains. The more we thought the more we were pulled in. In April me and Dhaval went to a prominent patent lawyer and got a provisional patent filed for the concept, with my other friend still helping us.
The excitement of this concept was increasing day by day and much to the horror of my parents and my family, I put in my papers in May 2012, to start Qpeka full time! Many told me it was a stupid decision, that the world does not run on whims and fancies. But I had managed to convince a lot of friends and this egged me on. But my confidence was in for a big dent, when the other close friend decided to discontinue. At that stage I had not served my last day in office, and my bosses kept urging me to stay on. But, I mustered the courage and decided to go on.
After I quit, two important members became a part of the project, one of them was Manoj – a brilliant technical guy and the other was Kaushal, an amazingly smart MBA grad from JBIMS who also happened to be a school friend and whom I had know for around 12 years.
Manoj was now stuck in between 3 non-technical guys who were setting impractical targets. Working part time and with no support, he had his back against the wall, and we were doing nothing to help him. We pooled in some money and decided to go live by 20 December 2012, with no idea how we were going to do it! It was perhaps, the biggest mistake we had made, and we were in for the toughest journey of our lives!!
In our hurry, we had hired an external developer to give us our web-pages since Manoj didn’t like the front-end part. We had a rude shock, when the pages actually arrived. They were really bad. But we had already put in a lot of marketing efforts and people were expecting us to go live by 20-12-2012, which also happened to be my birthday. Somehow, Manoj put everything together, and we got the site live, with the bits and pieces we put together. Below is the screenshot:
As with anything which does not have a lot of thought put into it, the launch was a miserable failure. I was going through the worst birthday of my life. We had done little to make the site even distantly usable. We had done nothing to ensure that our USP of a good reading interface and a working per page model was in place. We had to remove the website in just one day. Doing CA, I was used to failing, but none of it had hit as hard as this one. We were devastated. I didn’t talk to anyone that day.
Licking the wounds
On 1st Jan 2013, with the agony of the failure still fresh in our memory, we somehow tried to recover and got our first office. Having an office wasn’t enough, we needed people to work in it. This failure had destroyed the morale of the entire team. Manoj was livid and he had the right to be. I started having thoughts of going back to a job. I had plenty offers, since I had a lot of contacts and experience on my side. But something in me made me decide to try for 3 more months. Then, we received news of an event which helped us clear the vision of our road ahead. January 2013 hosted the The Jaipur Literary Festival, the largest free literary festival in Asia. It gave us the one thing which we required very badly – belief.
I visited the event and met many celebrated authors, journalists, editors and publishers. One thing was clear, publishing industry was in the middle of a digital storm. The entire industry was hit by Kindle. It showed us the scope of what we were doing, and also provided us with a new concept. Online payments were a pain in India. And even if Kindle tried it would find it very hard to tackle this problem. We had a unique offer, which would solve the problem, by using recharges similar to mobile recharges. This would help students who otherwise get photocopies of content to use our per page platform instead.
Rejuvenated and my self-belief restored, I came back to Mumbai, only to find that now I required staff.
Manoj had his GRE exams and was planning to move to the US for further studies. This took us by shock. We had to do something quick. I convinced my partners who had steady and well paying jobs to contribute part of their salaries to fund the new staff.
But, again we had a roadblock ahead of us, which we had never faced before – Hiring is painfully difficult. For 2 months, I sat in office doing nothing and trying to get resumes of candidates. Finally frustrated, I hired the next-door placement agent to get me an employee. But I had no experience in technology. 3 employees joined and quit on the same day! I had to do something and that too fast.
Lady Luck Visits
Then one day I got call to a startup hackathon called Hackerspace. I wondered if I could find a new Technical head there. But whosoever I talked to didn’t seem fit. All of them suggested CMS and some other technology which we knew we couldn’t use. Disappointed I went back home and checked out the visitors list. One of them was Rahul and other was Sobin. Both of them hadn’t been at the hackathon. I contacted them. And both were just perfect. Co-incidentally Savio who was also briefly a part of the project invited me to a poet’s meet, where I called Rahul. We discussed the project first, then the poetry and then I had a new member in the team. Rahul joined full time and had a lot of experience. We thought we had our problems solved. But when we discussed, we understood there was a lot of work to do. We still had the hiring challenge in front of us, but we had someone with experience to decide who to hire. Meanwhile, Sobin a brilliant UI guy helped us in the design.
We used the services of another startup called Twenty19 to get us 3 tech graduates to intern for us. It was second worst decision we took. Interns are good if you have people to train them and then they continue, or else they result in a lot of time getting wasted. Sobin trained them and we spent 4 months in developing with these interns but made no real progress. Of course we never blamed them, they had no experience and were still on the early side of the learning curve. However, these 4 months caused a massive drain of resources and at the end of it we had Rs. 57 in our bank account. It was starting to look grim. We thought we won’t make it.
Meanwhile on the marketing front we had found a gem in Rashi, who has been our biggest find till date. She was amazingly focussed and created an awesome community on Facebook for us.
Lady Luck strikes again!
Just when things looked dull, lady luck again showed up in form of Shashank, Rahul’s friend who was looking to change and wanted to be a part of Qpeka. I somehow convinced my and my friend’s parents to let us continue. In the next 2 months we had the prototype ready by December 2013 and were full steam ahead to get the Beta out in January 2014.
Things start brightening up
After a year of ups and downs, we were at a juncture, where we had seen the lowest of lows. But now things started looking brighter. But we were still really short of cash. So I started to apply to various incubators, accelerators, angel groups. The fact that Kaushal was part of the Investment Banking industry, helped us a lot. Our first break itself was really large. A new Bangalore based group called Letsventure had sent our name to Nasscom. Surprisingly we found ourselves in the Top 8 startups in the country presenting at the historical trading floor of the Bombay Stock Exchange where Dhirubhai Ambani, one of my icons had traded the first shares of Reliance.
We had only 3 days notice that we were going present at the Nasscom event in front of 10 of India’s top investors. We had barely recovered from the shocks of the past 9-10 months, and suddenly were in a state of panic. We had no presentation ready and no idea how to make one. Luckily, I had a habit of attending a lot of seminars organised by the National Entrepreneurship Network and 2 days before the Nasscom event I had a chance to present an online demo to a few people. They gave us a template PPT, which we used for the Nasscom event as well.
On the D-day, which also happened to be my birthday again, which is 20 December 2013, exactly one year after the failed launch, we had chance to redeem ourselves. It was a spot funding challenge with a flat 10% for Rs. 10 lakhs. We were supposed to go in 3rd for presenting, (which I believe would have given us a better chance, since earlier is always better), but for some reason were given the last chance to present ourselves. Earlier we had been informed of a 5 minute presentation, but due to the shortage of time, it was reduced to 3 minutes. Things were not so bright, but worst mistake was yet to come, for which I curse myself till date.
In the previous week, we had managed to stick together a decent prototype, but had not put it on a dev. server. As a result, we had not put in a demo of the product. I cannot stress enough on the importance of having a Demo or at least images of the product in a presentation. This is a WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) world. We had the prototype ready and yet did not present it. This was our biggest mistake and the panel was confused about what we were doing. But it was too late. We were rejected.
But for my previous birthday, this would have been the worst.
Everything happens for the good
Though our journey has been really rough, we realised that everything happens for a reason and the reason is generally good. When we launched our Beta in the end of January 2014, we got an amazing response. And now with over 200 authors and 2500 readers in just 2 months, Qpeka has really grown fast, and we can now to go to investors with higher ask than the 10% for 10 lakhs. We were again called for a Nasscom Quick Dating for startups event where we got a lot of interesting offers which we are currently considering. This is how the site looks today:
Qpeka taught us a lot of things, but the lessons we learnt may not be the lessons others need. The one common lesson is that we will fall, and it will hurt, but we will never die because of the plunge, so don’t be scared to take it and ensure you have enough friends around you! A startup is a journey and the beauty of it is that you learn everyday and make great friends and advisors. We met one in Mukund Sarolkar, who helped us in a lot of things we did and gave us valuable feedback.
Above all, it helped me make a decision, that I should avoid any big event on my birthdays (Boy that really hurts)!!
Oh and ya, thanks a lot for reading my story and in case you haven’t done it so far, do check out Qpeka and signup for it! Who else let’s you earn for reading?
Source: Post by Abhishek Barari on therodinhood.com