October 20, 2020

Jumping into entrepreneurship after 12 years of corporate life

Anchal Taatya
Co-founder & CEO

Let me introduce our guest: Saurabh Singh, co-founder and CEO of Flickstree, an AI enabled video platform to publish content online. They also create and aggregate short engaging videos and work with 650+ advertisers and 50 million users across different countries.

I am sure his story will inspire many of you and you will relate to it. Before devoting his life to entrepreneurship, he had an illustrious 12 year long corporate career.

Hi Saurabh, thanks for your time! Your company has done pretty impressive stuff, and I am sure there’s a lot of story behind it. You had been working for 12 years in a big company before deciding to commit full time to entrepreneurship. My question is, what made you change your mind and what pushed you to do that?

Entrepreneurship had been on my mind for a very long time, it is not something which suddenly came to my mind. Even when I was on campus going for placement, my idea was to get a job in order to learn skills, earn some money and then commit to something. When you are that young, most of the time you do not know exactly what you want to do and even if at times there is the fire to start something on your own, you know you need to learn skills before. You need to get experience, exposure and then, when you are ready, commit to something. 

Going back to my journey, only four years back, I found a project I wanted to commit to. I was evaluating different opportunities, but, among all, Flickstree was the closest to my heart, so me and my team went along with it. I always had the fire in my belly, but I waited to find an idea I was really passionate about.

You know, it is not easy to leave your high paying job and start from scratch. It is a dilemma. Some colleagues also wanted to do it, but were never able to commit, and there is nothing wrong with it: only you know what is right for you. When making a decision like this, many times people worry: if you are married you have certain commitments, if you have children, the commitments are even bigger. Therefore, once you start progressing in your corporate job, it becomes harder and harder to leave it. My opinion is that the ideal moment to do it is anywhere between 5 to 10 years.  

You highlighted a lot of problems which working professionals face and I am sure a lot of them you faced yourself. When you got the inspiration for Flickstree, how did you convince other stakeholders in your life? It is not only an independent decision, so how did you reach the consensus? I am sure a lot of conversations must have taken place. How did that go?

Most of the conversations are actually internal with your own self and if you are not getting the call from inside, you will not even take the journey. As I said before, there were different ideas I was playing with, but getting that one calling is extremely important and it has to come from inside. Once the calling starts coming from within, then I think the rest of the process becomes easier because when you start having conversations with your family, they can see your passion for what you are doing. Even your body language changes once you have that initial internal conviction. 

I agree with you that the family has to support and in my case, I believe I have been very lucky. I have got that support right from the beginning. So, yes, you need their support and these conversations at times are difficult, but as a founder, you need to have them.

Going back to your experience in the corporate world, is there anything that you had learnt or acquired over those years? It could be skills, capabilities or network or anything else I am missing out. Did any of these things help you later on when you started your own journey?

I believe I wouldn't have been able to achieve all of this without my corporate exposure. There are many things I learnt and the conversation would get too long if I mention all of them, so I will highlight a few. 

First of all, Flickstree is a B2B2C platform and we create video content in partnership with 650+ companies. Also Asian Paints, the company I was working in, is also ultimately a B2B2C, as it does not really sell directly to the consumer. So here was the biggest learning: do not try to do all on your own, but try to create partnerships. This is what we did: we got a lot of partnerships in the digital space and created a B2B2C platform. 

In only 3 years we touched 50 million users. To make a comparison, Facebook also touched 50 million users in 3 years.

So, I would completely give credit to my experience and exposure at Asian Paints for this, because that's something that I learnt there, all the big processes and fundamentals. I also learnt how to understand when you are riding the wave versus when you are against the wave. 

Another thing I learnt during my years at Asian Paints is that you are nothing without the team you work with, you are nothing without the people. At Asian Paints, people who were reporting to me were actually smarter than me. So, I learnt I had to create a team of people smarter than me who would guide me in their specific expertise and skill areas.  Eventually,  you are the sum of the people that you bring together. 

What you have achieved is absolutely remarkable, and in a very little time.. You pointed out the importance of working with very smart people and in the startup world this translates also into the choice of the right co-founders. Do you want to share any views on co-founder qualities or attributes? How did you find your co-founders? What should you be looking for?

I believe that only teams thrive together, while single people hold back. For example, I believe there are many areas where I cannot bring in expertise and therefore I need other people. It does not matter how great you are, you will always need a network around you.

Only once you have a team, you can move forward. If you try to do everything alone, the company will just collapse. Also, co-founders need to be very aligned to your thoughts and choices. 

How do you choose a good co-founder?      

I think a good co-founder is one you have known for a while. I believe for example that businesses based on friendships are rock solid because you know each other very well and you are happy to work with those inherent qualities and/or inhibitions of the person that you already know. The choice becomes even more critical if you think that at the beginning of your journey there will not be many employees and you will have nobody to guide you, therefore having a solid bond and aligned views really makes it easier.

In my case, I have known my co-founders for almost 4 years and we were working together at Asian Paints. We are three co-founders and we are a very well balanced mix, which I believe is very important. 

How long did you guys work together before you had your first hire?

Almost a year

Wow, so it means you did all the initial launch and MVP completely by yourself?

Employee wise, yes. However, we were working with a couple of freelancers. At the beginning, we pulled money from friends and family and therefore there really was no room for luxury, so at the beginning we tried to be very frugal. After 6 or 12 months, we thought we could have the luxury of hiring employees to help us. 

You said you have been working with a very small team for almost a year and you had to borrow money from friends and family… in the early stages you might have faced a lot of other challenges, so my question is: what kept you going?

Having pressure and accountability really helps because you become answerable to the people very close to you, but what really matters is accountability to yourself. External accountability and motivation fade very fast, while the kind of motivation that sticks with you is the internal fire.

If you are asking about my early stage motivation, what I can say is that every morning I got up and made sure this was really what I wanted and what was the best way to do it. You need to think of your own startup as your baby. You need to nurture it from the very beginning when there is no one else to blame apart from yourself and you also get all the credits.

What you also need to realise is that there is no destination in this journey and what you need to do is break this journey into smaller steps. These small steps will keep you going because you will celebrate these small achievements which will reinforce your motivation and confidence. The difficulties and hardships are extremely hard and these small celebrations make your life as a co-founder easier.

I absolutely agree on the importance of breaking down the journey into smaller goals and celebrating small victories. So, last parting question: since your journey is similar to the founders we will have in our cohort, any advice you would like to give to people facing the dilemma of whether to take the leap or not?

Well, I guess there is no better time to start than today: the ecosystem is extremely ripe and helpful to the founders, the internet is growing fast and you can have access to a global market. 

There are immense opportunities in multiple spheres. What one should do is pick one small gap in some area and fill it so well that nobody else will be able to do any better. You should also remain very flexible. Also, do not be afraid of failing. I feel the ecosystem is very geared to pardon the founders if the startup did not do so well. Moreover, “founder” is today a better designation on LinkedIn compared to someone who never started anything at all. More people want to work in a startup because their learnings are higher. In addition, there is venture money and a lot is available in early stages coming from angel investors’ networks which are willing to back you up to get the initial momentum. Overall, it is easier now: there is money, there are consumers, there are people who want to work with you.  

My suggestion is however to wait until the calling is very very strong, if the calling is weak and you still have too many concerns, it is alright to wait. Only you can judge that.

I think this is a great piece of advice! Thank you so much Saurabh for taking out the time and sharing your experience and knowledge with everyone who might be in a very similar situation as you were in.