Varun is an IIT Madras 2010 graduate. He started his first company to unearth sports talent in India, however was met with limited success. His next company was in Big Data Analytics which he exited in June 2015 at a multi-million dollar valuation. His next startup – and current company – was “FinoZen”, which is venture funded and is aiming to provide Indians with a superior money saving platform. We were lucky enough to get a chance to interview him after his talk as part of the Leadership Lecture Series and this is what he had to say –
Can you tell us about your journey to IIT ?
I come from a family with a very strong sports background. My dad was a national swimmer who represented India in the Asian games. Therefore I was naturally inclined to take up swimming, and I was pretty good at it too. I got an offer from the railways when I was in 11th grade, to join them and continue swimming for the rest of my life. This was the first major turning point in my life. But I wasn’t as brave as MS Dhoni and decided to reject the offer and take up higher studies. And just like anyone else who got into IIT, I ended up only studying and not doing anything else during those 2 years of preparation.
Can you tell us a bit about your time in insti ?
I am a proud Gangite and my insti name was ‘Tattu’. I was completely focused on multiple sporting activities within the institute. I picked up waterpolo after coming to insti and went on to captain the water polo team. The first time I spoke in public was in the soap box, when I stood for sports secretary of the institute. But I learnt and developed as a person the most during my time with the swimming team. All the Inter IITs were memorable and we won a lot of medals. But the one single memory which I will always cherish and has cheered me up in my bad times happened during the Inter IIT of 2009 in Kanpur (to read about that inspiring story click here). I learned and enjoyed a lot during my time in IIT and don’t regret a single second of it.
What was your motivation behind starting your first venture IndiaKhelo ?
A senior of mine approached me with the idea for IndiaKhelo. I was really excited about it given my passion for sports. We wanted to develop a sporting culture in India and empower sports talent at the grassroots. We got ourselves incubated in RTBI and we actually had office space in ESB. We had an audacious aim, but nonetheless soon we managed to raise $100,000 in the idea stage itself from a VC in Dubai. After that we hired a developer team in Bangalore and had to move our base there. All this was while I was still a student. I used to spend 3 days in college and 4 days in Bangalore, which was really painful to be honest. We did multiple things, including tying up with schools and conducting fitness programs. But soon we realized that from we were not clear on what we wanted to do. We burned through most of cash in a year and a half and the sad part was that we had achieved absolutely nothing. Over this period I realized that we were too young and inexperienced and soon we decided to shut shop as nothing fruitful was happening. This was my first tryst with entrepreneurship and it was a failure unfortunately.
How did you proceed from there?
After graduation I took a break, and spent some time at home thinking about what I wanted to do next. After some time I joined Inductis ( an analytics consulting firm which was later bought by EXL Services ). I worked very hard there and tried to learn as much as possible about something I had no prior knowledge or experience in. After a year and a half at Inductis I embarked on my second entrepreneurial journey. I saw that nobody was providing quality analytics consulting to big Indian MNCs and all the players in this space were focusing only on foreign clients. I realized that this was a huge opportunity and this time I had the right skill set to proceed with this. I approached another IITM senior who with his vast experience in marketing would prove to be a great cofounder because of our complimentary skillsets and started Decision Point Pvt Ltd. We first approached Coca Cola and gave a presentation about how our methods could improve their sales drastically. Nobody in the room believed in us and almost laughed us out of there. But there was this one guy who thought we were onto something and decided to give us a small project. We really exceeded expectations with our work in that and soon many projects from different kinds of sectors started lining up. We were really lucky because we found our niche in a company which hadn’t used any analytics before. Before I had time to catch my breath, two and a half years passed and we were now a multi million dollar company. One day I woke up and started thinking as to what I really wanted to do with my life, continue with the same routine and focus on making more and more money or take up something challenging again. With this in mind I decided to step out of my role as CEO and take a breather. Around that time I was approached by Delhivery to set up their analytics division and once again I had a salaried job and was not my own boss anymore.
How did Finozen happen ?
Shailesh Mehta approached me with a very interesting idea for an online investment platform for the general public. Most people in India don’t invest their earnings which is mostly because of lack of sound knowledge about various kinds of investment options apart from banks. After earning my first salary my mother told me to put 50 -60% of it in a fixed deposit and I was pretty sure this was what most Indians did with their money. This was the mentality we wanted to change. We wanted to keep it simple, make people realize their money is growing and build their trust. Personally I had no knowledge or experience in the field of financial technology. So we hired a CEO who had years of experience and was at that time the national head of a major investment bank. We thought we had the perfect team, but each person in the team had different expectations and soon things started going haywire. I personally didn’t want to go for funding until we were clear about what we wanted to do, which I learnt after the failure of my first startup. After many complications, I was thrust into the role of CEO which was something I really hadn’t prepared for, but nonetheless we put our heads down, and worked hard until we had a good product. Now Finozen has over 9500 active users and our aim is to reach out to million of Indians. My entrepreneurial journey has had so many ups and downs, but I never gave up and believed in myself throughout.
Do you have any words of advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?
I believe that entrepreneurship is about touching millions of lives and that was what all my startups have aimed at achieving. You should always think about what you want the world to look like five or ten years down the line. Try to create a company for the future is what I would say to aspiring entrepreneurs.
It has taken more you more than 6 years to finally find your passion, and you have done multiple things including working in corporate world, in between. How important is this kind of an experience for entrepreneurs ?
Different people will have different answers for this question because everyone has traversed a unique path to find their calling. The only thing I was sure of throughout was that I will not do something which I don’t like or believe in. I have failed multiple times and the only thing I have always believed in is that perseverance is the only answer to all the problems.
How has your time at insti helped you in your tumultuous entrepreneurial journey ?
I come from a small town in UP. When I first came to insti, I couldn’t speak one sentence in English. I will always be grateful to insti for providing me with resources and opportunities to learn and improve myself. Through the course of my entrepreneurial journey I have been through many highs and lows, and recollecting the memories of my experiences in Inter IIT 2009 has always cheered me up and given me hope. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to better what we as a team achieved there.
Any words of advice to your juniors ?
Time in IIT is a window of opportunity you have earned, either you can walk through it, just glancing around or own it and make something good of it – whether finding your passion, pursuing entrepreneurship or anything that excites you. But make sure to have fun at the same time, play sports and try out as many things as you want.