Ajeet Khurana has been a name quite synonymous with the Indian Startup space. He has extensive experience in various roles in the startup ecosystem. An entrepreneur, a startup mentor, an advisor, an angel investor — he has done it all. He is also a successful author and speaker with a number of books and TEDx talks under his belt.
In conversation with Ajeet Khurana, today to understand everything starting from startups to strategy.
The Strategy Story: You have extensive experience, especially in the startup space. When looking specifically at the Indian startup ecosystem, how do you think it has evolved over the past few years?
Ajeet Khurana: There are a few key evolution points I have observed over the years and I find them pretty interesting:
The most drastic difference between earlier and now would be the fact that there now exists a robust ecosystem for startups. When I started in 1993, every startup owner was out there on their own. They essentially had to compete with the mindset of traditional businesses in order to succeed.
But now, quite differently, there’s a clear demarcation between startups and traditional businesses — say you run a conventional garment business, the kind of product, business model, the experience you provide would be drastically different from that of a startup. If you ask me, what has changed in the startup space, this is one dramatic difference that should definitely get highlighted.
The second difference would be that right now, not every startup is trying to blindly ape the West. Starting from 1998 till almost 2013, there was a prolonged phase, where every startup was heavily influenced by the Western business model. They would all try to become a copy of what’s working in the west, without realizing that the Indian market is different.
I think this changed post the VC boom in the early 2010s when a lot of startups failed. People now realize that what works in the West doesn’t always work in India. Having said that, it’s not that the trend of aping the west has disappeared. Rather, right now there exists a twin school of thought – one group which is trying to keep a Western modeled startup ecosystem and then those who are trying to build a uniquely local domestic model.
The next one that stands out would be the fact that there’s quite a lot of room being made in the startup space for non-pedigreed individuals. The early startups between late 1990s till early 2010s were all about pedigree, where it was very difficult for someone not belonging to the elite academic institutions to have access to investors. While that still remains a big factor when it comes to forming networks, we can see things slowly changing in this area, both in a global and Indian context.
Importance of having Co-founders
The Strategy Story: Talking about community, in one of your old articles, you had mentioned having a network of co-founders. Why do you think that is important?
Ajeet Khurana: Entrepreneurship essentially is an emotional process. While the world prefers to look at entrepreneurs as visionary risk-takers, the journey is more about managing your emotions – it’s about balancing your failures with motivation. This is where having a community of entrepreneurs becomes really important and helpful.
The Strategy Story: You turned an entrepreneur at 23, merely a few months out of an MBA program. What were your early learnings?
Ajeet Khurana: In the early days, when I started off as an entrepreneur, I realized everything at my organization was chaotic. I attributed this to me being a poor manager.
However, what I failed to give myself credit for is that for each of the first 6 years of my venture, my organization’s revenue more than doubled. And it was this very high pace of growth that was causing all the chaos I talked about. Things were changing so rapidly that chaos was bound to come along with it.
In my two ventures as a solopreneur, I hadn’t yet reached a point where I had the confidence or maturity to sustain in a partnership. Having said that, I believe that now I have reached the level of maturity where I can fully contribute to a partnership setup. As a solo entrepreneur, you get overwhelmed by a lot of things that essentially are not universally overwhelming. Having someone with a different mindset and skills can bring in some balance in this regard.
On Mentorships to Startups
The Strategy Story: Now that we have spoken about entrepreneurship, we want to understand a bit about your other role, i.e. mentoring startups. You have been a mentor to a large number of startups. From your experience, when do you see startups seeking out mentorship?
Ajeet Khurana: I’ll split my answer into three parts:
- What kind of entrepreneurs lookout for mentors: In a lot of cases I have seen first-time entrepreneurs seeking a mentorship because they want to soak in as much information from the ecosystem as they can. Second and third-time entrepreneurs seek mentors as well, probably in equal proportion, but what they are seeking is quite different from first-time entrepreneurs.
- What do entrepreneurs seek mentorship on: Entrepreneurs practically reach out for mentorship on everything – starting from feedback on the idea to suggestions on the co-founding team. Most notably for help in connecting with investors.
- What is the key obstacle in this process: Often, entrepreneurs do get good mentors, but they fail to do justice to the mentorship because of being caught up they are in the day to day activities. They are so busy managing the everyday chaos that they fail to make time for broad vision level inputs.
The Strategy Story: When you are mentoring a startup, how do you stay away from getting involved in the startup’s day to day operations?
Ajeet Khurana: I believe a mentor or an investor should never get involved in the day to day operations. Because once they do so since they have enormous authority, they essentially make the entrepreneur lose some of his/her accountability.
The Strategy Story: A lot of startups would be reaching out to you for mentorship. How do you choose which startups to mentor?
With experience, I have realized that it’s very difficult to be both, a mentor and an investor, to the same startup.
Ajeet Khurana: This will have very different answers if I have to look at a startup from a mentorship perspective versus an angel investor perspective. If I am not too impressed by a particular entrepreneur’s personality and behavioral traits, I would never take him/her up on mentorship. However, there can still be a chance that I might invest in them as an angel investor.
With experience, I have realized that it’s very difficult to be both, a mentor and an investor, to the same startup. When things go bad, the investor and entrepreneurs are on opposite sides. As a mentor, one is on the side of the entrepreneur in such situations. If you are the mentor as well as the investor, how do you handle such a scenario?
The Strategy Story: While we are on this, what kind of personal qualities do you look for in an entrepreneur when you decide to mentor them?
Ajeet Khurana: Anything that makes me believe that I am more serious about the venture than the entrepreneur would be a major red signal for me.
I’d want to choose people who have the maturity to be able to handle the venture and are willing to learn. I have a personal bias for action, as opposed to only analysis. Hence naturally, I am biased towards entrepreneurs who are focused on execution. For example, if this evening I get on a call with you and schedule an appointment for the next day, I’d really want to see some things shaping up in the time between the call and the meet.
In the end, of course, I have to like the person I am agreeing to mentor and I need to believe in the vision and the idea.
On Evaluating a Startup
The Strategy Story: Continuing with what you just mentioned, when you evaluate an idea, what are the business parameters you judge them on?
Ajeet Khurana: I primarily like to focus on the characteristics of the market that the startup is addressing.
If the market size is not too substantial, I don’t find the idea to be much attractive. Luckily most markets in India are quite extensive.
The second one would be the state of the market. On the one hand you can have organized well evolved markets and on the other hand you can have completely organized markets.
I personally like to focus on unorganized markets that are showing signs of getting organized – this might be owing to a number of reasons like increased investments, extensive tech enablement, and the like. Having said that, this particular part of the answer will keep changing with time. Had you asked me the same question some 6 years back I would have focused on businesses providing channel switching opportunities (offline to online) and aggregation capabilities (bus ticket reservation)
The Strategy Story: In your journey as a mentor to a number of startups, do you recall any interesting stories that have stayed on with you?
Ajeet Khurana: Quite a few anecdotes come to my mind.
There was this one scenario where I was approached by one of the co-founders of a startup for mentorship. I had personal equity with that particular partner, I did not have much interaction with the other co-founder.
Few months down the line, the company was joined by a third founding member, and conflicts among the co-founders started cropping up. The co-founder I had a personal equation with was in favor of shutting the shop while the other one was against him and wanted to continue. This posed a very interesting situation in front of me because I still believed that the startup would work.
One more situation comes to mind which was quite the opposite. In this case I had to advise the entrepreneur to quit even though that meant no personal or economic benefit for myself. I had to do that because as a mentor it was my responsibility to give the right advice – and I could clearly see that the startup didn’t have much scope.
The third one is a classic case of conflict between early investors and incoming new investors. I was mentoring one particular startup which was getting a pretty good investment but the incoming investors wanted to provide economic benefit to only the entrepreneur and not the early stage investors, including the mentors. This was a tricky situation because as a mentor I could see that the investment was a pretty good one for the company and yet at the same time early investors were being treated unfairly. Luckily enough, I was able to convince the incoming investor to strike a fair deal and focus more on the long-term synergies that could come out of the relationship.
MBA and Entrepreneurship
The Strategy Story: There’s a lot of talk going around nowadays about whether or not an MBA degree is valuable. Do you see any correlation between MBA degree and entrepreneurship abilities?
Ajeet Khurana: For me personally, my MBA has been really helpful. I probably wouldn’t have been an entrepreneur had I not learned the business in MBA. And while a lot of people can be born entrepreneurs, I do believe, a business can also be taught.
Even though I believe an MBA degree can be really valuable, I see that value being extracted in only a few cases. And the reasons are three-fold:
- The students are not going into business school with the intention to learn. They believe that business is something that cannot be taught
- Business is being taught as any other fact-based subject, which it is not
- Business schools have the economic incentive to churn out managers in the largest possible quantity without enough emphasis on quality.
Effect of COVID-19 on Startup Ecosystem
The Strategy Story: One last question for you would be, against the backdrop of the recent pandemic, do you see any sector emerging as the major focus area for startups in India?
Ajeet Khurana: The answer to this question will depend on the permanent impact on society after we are over this pandemic.
For example, right now we might see a lot of people have moved online for food ordering, education, entertainment, fitness, etc. We are seeing an increased focus in the area of health, well-being, nutrition, and mental health. However, how many of these are permanent impacts? If we see any of these sectors showing a permanent shift after this pandemic, that is where a lot of entrepreneurial efforts can be directed.
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