Why my startup’s failure is one of my biggest successes so far
A brief history of my startup’s time.
There is no TLDR version of this post, because this by itself is a TLDR version of the story. I will try to keep it as short as I can, without losing the story’s essence. To keep a long, happening, tedious, tense, and yet fun journey to a few hundred words is not something I want to do. You might want to notice that in the description of my startup journey in the previous sentence, I use a list of words or sentiments, but ‘disappointing’ is not one of them. I will get to why, but in a while. To understand the scale of work done at the frugality at which it was done, please do read the entire piece.
A friend (who was supposed to become co-founder) and I were traveling in a bus from New York City to Buffalo, a city I would later go on to call my home. We were students there, half way through our freshman year. Out of sheer lack of entertainment during the journey, we started chatting, and ended up talking about starting up and the ability to succeed in such a venture. All said and done, like any other two 17 year olds who had nothing to lose, we decided to startup. Ordinarily, with most other people who might have had this suggestion, I would have decided to not do something like this, but here, I saw potential. Both of us had similar visions and our motivation was to do something different and out of routine. This thinking is something which, till this day, drives me out of bed every morning.
During that winter, we scoured the world for ideas, but the one that fascinated me the most was something which just struck me out of nowhere. I had just started listening to music very ardently (up until 2014, I didn’t own a pair of earphones, and I had exactly zero songs on my phone), and I was exposed to ‘Coke Studio’ very early. The music resonated with me. It was a notch above anything I had ever heard. Looking for similar music, I ended up bumping into the Indian independent music scene. It’s important to know that there are two different music industries in India. The first one is the one governed by the cinema industry, with songs that appear in movies. This kind is widely consumed.
The second kind is the independent music, where musicians form bands, or perform solo acts, sign with record labels, and try to make music their career or at least a part time one. Here’s where the problem starts. The cine music industry is so huge that its fight with the other is not even a Goliath David battle. The battle to capture the public’s ears is barely even there, if it is even there.
While the independent music was there, it wasn’t out there. We were making amazing music, but were confined to the boundaries set by cinema, since cinema in India has been at the vanguard of what music should be in the country. But looking at such bands, their social media, their sold out shows in music festivals and the big names that they have churned out, it was not a distant leap to make that they had audiences. To a 17 year old me, this music simply had to reach more ears. There were disconnected audiences — there was not one place to endlessly find such music. There were disconnected musicians- to reach more ears in a country like India, more connectivity was necessary. People were divided by language, taste in music, region, and most importantly, knowledge of such bands. To bring it all together, I envisioned a spotify like platform that would work exclusively with the independent music scene in India, to create a mini social network for just the people who needed it (the ambition was to eventually evolve into a one stop solution for all things independent music in India, right from a publishing platform to talent management).
You could create an account on the platform as a listener or a musician and just wade into the vast amounts of music from all over the country, carefully curated for quality with an opportunity to collaborate with other musicians or to communicate with them and bind the scene closer together.
I named the platform Shruthi. It derives its root from Sanskrit- “something which is heard to be known”.
Believing in the viability of this idea, I spoke to a few musicians I knew, who although not popular performers, understand it deeply as listeners, followers and aspirants. Such a platform would not just take established independent musicians to the foreground amongst audiences that wanted to find more such people, it would also bring the rookies into the big league in a bid to establish themselves by pushing their care forward with people craving for such music. In other platforms, the biggest bands lost relevance in the clutter, the smaller bands, were not even in the game.
The stage was set. We had identified a problem. We were in a position were we thought we could solve it. We jumped in on the idea.
Summer 2015 and 2017
It was summer break. Like most other freshmen, we headed back to our home cities. Chennai. It was the best place to be for a startup like ours. I straightaway got to working on Shruthi. Unfortunately, the co founder designate fell ill and was out for most of this summer. Since much of Shruthi work was already happening around this time, we decided to startup together at a later time, with him being a friendly observer here, participating and pitching in with ideas every now and then.
I put together a very good team going forward. While as a team, we couldn’t get to where we wanted to, we put in a lot of work and had a lot of fun, while learning very important business, tech, and life lessons. The whole team is now in amazing positions all over the world; a testimony to the quality of each individual and their strengths. I am a continuing Masters student at the University at Buffalo. My music man, and the team’s go to person on everything related to the Independent music scene in India is now a student at the University of Edinburgh. The person leading all the technical work behind the web platform (and the key person instrumental in bringing my concepts and design to life) is a serial startup entrepreneur and technical wizard at a tech company based out of Bangalore. My business solutions group of two, now work at Google and Mckinsey.
With this team, we were ready with a fully functioning platform in no time and all we had to do was figure out how to take the product to market. The domain was booked, the servers were firing and marketing teams were at the white board.
We would also go on to shoot a bunch of episodes for a web series for marketing purposes to get the word out about Shruthi. I identified quite early that web series are in vogue in India, and wanted to tap into the nascent market with a well made web series (with maybe a celebrity cameo sprinkled in for better reach). Web series, even retrospectively seem like the best decision, since it was not only possible with the resources I had access to, but even years later, the biggest of multimedia players including Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are using web series in different ways to expand their roots into the Indian markets. The technical team that worked on the web series (numbering about seven without accounting for the cast) are gaining accomplishments in their own fields as we speak. A co-writer has gone on to write and star in several theatre productions in Chennai. Our camera person and director have been a part of the camera crew and production teams for several major Tamil films and have worked for the biggest Directors or production houses in the Tamil Cine Industry. Our assistant cinematographer (and the grateful donor of his camera), is now a student at a leading film school in the United Kingdom and several of the rest of our cast and crew were either students of Mass/Visual Communication at some on Chennai’s (read: India’s) leading colleges and are well on track to break into and define the next era of visual entertainment in the country.
On top of all this, my mentor, who guided me graciously through the initial phase of this ambitious project is the CEO of an infotech company, a former Senior VP at Citi (in the US), and a serial entrepreneur himself.
But more than putting together this team, I think my biggest success lies in selling my idea and its future for every one of them, since all the work done was entirely free and unpaid (barring just the tech team) with no clear equity discussion ever coming up. I still marvel at, and am thankful for, the team’s trust in my integrity and me.
It took me a good six months to make this decision to suspend all work on the startup. While we had made great progress, almost shot an entire web series, had a platform ready which we were making final tweaks to and had a fantastic team to move forward, we all had vested interests which had to take precedence.
The key to why we didn’t move forward lies in the “almost shot an entire web series”. In less than six and a half weeks, we went from the idea of shooting a web series to shooting three-fifths of it, and a bit more. Not only was a team put together, but rapid progress was made. The whole team worked ungodly hours for free and pooled in every resource each of them had access to. All in half a summer break.
However, our lives had to be led too.
Towards the end of the first shooting sprint, we completed most of the work, but in the next six months, we couldn’t find the schedule to get the whole cast and crew onboard to shoot. With most of us still being in crucial stages in their college lives, with some of us, including me, abroad, further work meant that in all the clutter that junior and senior years of college can bring, our work could not be continued. The platform and the project of bringing it all together met the same fate.
Coupled with schedules, none of us could afford to continue working on the project beyond that summer. With full time jobs, different locations, education and other commitments (contributing to ridiculous schedules across time zones), getting in the way, just launching the platform and not putting work into marketing it would have been abysmal. The web series, which was our primary marketing strategy was now ruled out. Social media would have been our best marketing front, but with me not being able to put in enough time with all my coursework and grad school applications in front of me, it would have been unfair to expect others in the same position as me, or in similar positions as me to take it forward alone. With no work happening for about six months, and everyone’s lives being just as busy, suspending the project (with a hope that we will rehash it and get to it when all of us are in better positions) was the only option remaining.
The root cause of failure might be an entirely different issue when analyzed from a technical point of view, but with this team and the effort we put in, the only thing that separated us from success here was our inexperience coupled with some responsibilities in our lives we couldn’t ignore. To give you an extent of our problem solving abilities, we did every one of the things described above, including the building of the web platform and the entire shooting phase of the web series while getting the best people to do it, in under $2000. If any other team were asked to replicate this, I am certain, without sounding overconfident. that they would encounter a thousand different obstacles, but to a bunch of college students who started out trying to make something cool while solving a problem, way back in 2015, all of these obstacles were mere distractions and we got by every single one of them. I hope too, that one day, we will get to finishing this project and add this to the list of obstacles we cleared.
*This was put together as a bunch of notes compiled to form a single piece. Over the winter, I will keep updating this piece and the medium series on my startup to not only share my story better, but to share the lessons I learned in the best way that I can.