Bosses @ 20: Young startup founders who made it big

Mark Zuckerberg was just 20 years old when he started his company Facebook in 2004. The following year, he dropped out of Harvard University to focus on his venture. In just three years’ time in 2007, Zuckerberg became a self-made billionaire at 23. Elon Musk, too, started his first venture in 1995, when he was in his early 20s, and is today the world’s richest man curating trips to space. 

Closer home, Ritesh Aggarwal started OYO Rooms in 2013 when he was just 20 years old. Today, it has grown into a global chain of hotels and rooms. Ola Cabs co-founder Bhavish Aggarwal was only 26 years old when he launched the popular ridesharing platform.

These are the kind of stories that have always inspired the young to follow their dreams. But now, more than ever, youngsters have the confidence of ditching the traditional and safe route of a securing a job, with or without a backup plan, to launch their own businesses. You may also call it the pandemic effect, or the result of startup-friendly policies of the Centre and state governments alike.

Day after day, the list of Indian unicorns grows bigger. In early June, Noida based ed-tech platform PhysicsWallah became India’s 101st unicorn with a valuation of $1.1 billion. It was also India’s seventh edtech unicorn.

The last two years saw funding flowing into startups, giving startup founders a newfound confidence with their businesses and the visibility they required. According to the ‘Indian Tech Start-up Ecosystem: Year of The Titans’ study by NASSCOM and Zinnov, a global management consulting firm, more than 2,250 startups were added in 2021, over 600 more than what was added in the previous year. The study suggests that the startups raised a record $24.1 billion in 2021, which was a two-fold increase over pre-covid-19 levels.

Undoubtedly, when the ‘Forbes 30 Under 30’ list of 2022 released this year, it stated that 22 countries and territories are represented on the list with India ranking first in terms of number of entries, which is 61. The list features prominent Indian entrepreneurs like Rohan Nayak, co-founder of Pocket FM, Ranveer Allahbadia and Viraj Sheth, co-founders of Monk Entertainment, Jhansi Elango, co-CEO of social networking tool Chutney, Hardik Bansal, Harsh Vardhan Chhangani and Bhanu Pratap Singh Tanwar, co-founders of FRND, a social discovery and audio dating software, among others.

The list is a proof to the fact that India is witnessing a startup boom and youngsters are at the helm of it. In 2019-20, among different employment categories, the highest percentage was of self-employed workers at 45.78%, followed by regular salaried workers at 33.5% and casual workers at 20.71%, states The State of Inequality in India Report that was released by Dr Bibek Debroy, chairman, economic advisory council to the Prime Minister (EAC-PM). It was written by the Institute for Competitiveness, indigenous research institute. The report further states that the country’s unemployment rate is 4.8% (2019-20). The report’s findings suggest a shift towards self-employment.

Before the pandemic, India had around 19,896 (2016–March 2019) recognised startups, according to Sekhar Garisa, CEO, Post the pandemic, the work from home model allowed many people to introspect and explore what they really wanted from their lives, becoming a turning point for many who chose to take the risks and chase their dreams and passions, he adds. “These passions have sprouted into a full-blown reality in terms of successful startups, with the pandemic changing conventional standards of work and expectations,” he says.

Garisa feels that gone are the days of static and monotonous jobs in the name of comfort and stability. “Long commutes, formal clothing, time away from family and rigid working hours are viewed as excessive and unnecessary, while increased flexibility, trust, and autonomy have skyrocketed from wish-list items to the must-haves for the Indian workforce. Further, tech advancements, social media, digital payments, and easily accessible e-commerce options have given professionals the edge to pursue their dreams which is evident with the threefold rise in the number of startups touching a total of 65861 till date,” he adds.

We spoke with some young startup founders in India who made it big in their ventures to look back into their entrepreneurial journeys and to know what it takes to be successful.

Prafull Billore, Founder, MBA Chai Wala

Creating a piping-hot business platform

That a tea seller can go a long way is a fact now widely accepted among the masses. If you are a tea lover, the name MBA Chai Wala would immediately strike a chord. The popular tea franchise was started by Prafull Billore in 2017, when he was just 21 years old. Like every curious child, Billore, now 26, too, had millions of questions in his mind growing up.

His primary objective was to clear the CAT exam, score good marks, and get into an IIM. But life had a different plan. He failed at getting into IIM but turned his failure into an opportunity. He started thinking of a startup without a plan B. “When I was preparing for my CAT exam, it was the only thing that mattered to me. I gave my all to it. Similarly, when I started my tea stall, it became my priority,” Billore says. He dropped out of college to focus on his startup.

Billore’s family had no entrepreneurial roots but supported him in his journey. “However, opening a tea stall was a bit different. It challenges the whole belief system of people,” he says, adding, “Society is structured in a way where a person is judged based on the work he does. In my initial days, I didn’t tell them about my tea stall. They came to know about it from someone else. But once they knew, they supported my decision.”

The young entrepreneur says for anyone dreaming to own a startup, they must set realistic goals and analyse their financial situation, define their goals and priorities. “If they have a risk capacity, then by all means they should go for it. It is probably the best thing they can do. However, a stable job is also good for those who prefer it,” he says.

Explaining the role of the governmental policies in shaping the startup culture of India, Billore says that the current government policies are crafted in a way that they support the startup ecosystem. “The government is promoting innovation. The Make in India initiative has paved the way for many startups. The MSME loan scheme is also supporting the businesses and giving them a platform to grow,” he says.

When asked if he was open to taking the safe job route, Billore says that a job might have taught him many things but what he learned by being on the streets and by his failures are the reason behind his success. “In a job, I might have succeeded in a different aspect. I might have made it to the top. I might have made a name for myself. But I wouldn’t have become MBA Chai Wala,” he signs off.

Loveena Sirohi, Co-founder & director, India Hemp Organics

Bringing holistic wellness without the side effects

Loveena Sirohi’s India Hemp Organics was born when she was just 20 years old. It came out of a horrific accident that left her bed ridden in 2017. She was prescribed opioid medication to help combat her pain, but that resulted in a series of mental and physical side effects. Witnessing her condition, her husband and now co-founder took it upon himself to research alternative solutions that could help rid her of pain, but minus all the side effects.

“We reviewed case studies on how cannabis is being used in overseas markets to help tens of thousands of patients combat a host of mental and physical health conditions. Convinced, I got to trying different cannabis oils for my condition and went through the benefits first-hand. Working closely with medical practitioners, we formulated a range of oils to battle chronic and recurring ailments that most of India suffers from today, such as pain, anxiety, stress, insomnia, arthritis (and more),” says the Bengaluru-based entrepreneur.

Some of India Hemp Organics’ popular products include CannaBliss Skincare Oil, Hemp Seed Oil, CannaBliss Arthritis Relief Oil and CannaBliss Stress Buster Oil, among others.

For young entrepreneurs, Sirohi (22) says that in the last few years, they have seen a rise of startups now turning into large, successful businesses. “There is great support and mentorship available to entrepreneurial minds, young or old. It is important to make use of your early years to build on crucial skill sets that will take you a long way,” she adds.

Sirohi feels that the startup culture encourages an ownership mindset, which she says is lacking in MNCs. In the current ecosystem, startups also pay as well as MNCs, if not better.

As for the current policies, Sirohi says that they are conducive to start-up and India is looking to boost the ecosystem. However, she suggests that the tax on startups must be reduced so that there can be a higher number of businesses and more funding in the space from within India.

Vedant Lamba, Founder, The Mainstreet Marketplace

Giving leg-up to a sneaker reselling biz

At just 22 years of age, Vedant Lamba made it to the ‘Forbes 30 under 30’ list of 2022. The young businessman is at the forefront of the thriving sneaker culture in India. His venture The Mainstreet Marketplace is one of India’s biggest sneaker reselling platforms that he started in 2017. Initially, he put out videos on his YouTube channel ‘Mainstreet TV’ to share information on the newest sneaker launches. His success led to his first store opening in Pune and eventually in Mumbai and Delhi. He boasts celebrity clientele and his Delhi store is known to be the among largest resale stores in Asia that trades in brands like Jordan, Yeezy, Nike, Adidas, Nike, and so on.

For many, childhood ambitions pave the way. Mumbai-based Lamba, founder of The Mainstreet Marketplace, wanted to start his business since he was about 12 years old. About ten years later, his dream has come true and how. He says he had no back up plan. Every successful entrepreneur is a great risk taker. For him his strong risk capacity comes from his privileged background.

Like many parents who ensure their child completes their higher education before they venture into business, Lamba too wanted the same. But seeing his persistence, they came down to him at least completing his 12th grade. “I’ve been far too fortunate with my family’s support,” says Lamba. He gets hundreds of messages from people who have seen him create content and talk about his goals on his social media platforms. “The way I see it, even if one of them is brave enough to take a risk, it will leave me feeling very fulfilled,” he adds.

Several youngsters like Lamba have the confidence, familial support, talent, ideas and the privilege to follow their own dreams—the recipe for a successful business rather than going the safe job-route.

Lamba feels that one should make more of an effort to find their own flow rather than doing something conventional or not. He also feels that though the current Indian governmental support needs improvement to nurture startups, the underdeveloped nature of the market provides several opportunities for business to flourish.

Anubhav Jain, Co-founder & CEO, Rupifi

It always pays to dream higher, start up young

Ever since Anubhav Jain became the co-founder and CEO of his venture Rupifi—at the age of 27 years in 2012, there has been no turning back. In January this year, the B2B payments platform raised $25 million.

While recalling his journey to becoming an entrepreneur, Jain says, “While I was studying engineering, I never intended to have my own startup. Being a top performer, I always thought of working for a company. But as I went for my post-graduation at IIM Indore, I realised that the impact I would create would be much larger if I built a company and created value for employees, shareholders, and customers. That is when I decided on a startup and spent a considerable amount of my time during my postgraduation working on the same.”

Like Prafull Billore of MBA Chai Wala, Jain, too, does not come from an entrepreneurial family and had very little help to guide him on this journey. As a backup plan, he had a campus placement offer at the prestigious IIM Indore. His family did not agree with the decision to leave a well-paying job after studying at an IIM and starting his own startup. It took immense convincing on his part.

Yet, he feels that at a young age, one does not have too many liabilities and any baggage to carry and so, advises youngsters to try something they believe in to take chances, as this would help them learn more than they would do in a job. According to him, by taking the entrepreneurship path, one becomes stronger to face career hurdles and gets the opportunity to build a strong network of people.

On the governmental push for startups, the Bengaluru-based entrepreneur says India is getting better. “Initiatives like Start-up India and Make in India will create a difference over the next few years. Parallelly, our progressive regulator is also developing an ecosystem for better innovation and collaboration of legacy and new-age companies,” he adds.

Jain hopes his journey and experiences will inspire youngsters to challenge their beliefs, dream higher and be ready to take risks.

Ranveer Allahbadia, Digital content creator, podcaster, investor

Channeling passion into business op

At one point, ‘BeerBiceps’ resonated more with the youngsters than his name Ranveer Allahbadia. Starting his YouTube channel in December 2014, the Mumbai-based content creator made videos on healthy diets and gradually diversified his content. Today, at 29, Allahbadia is a popular name on YouTube and has also featured in this year’s ‘Forbes 30 Under 30’ list.

Allahbadia always wanted to work in a startup. So, when he started his channel at 22, he treated it like one. Incidentally, when he attempted to launch a startup earlier, it led to a meeting with an investor who suggested that he should use YouTube to market it. “When I met Viraj Sheth, we launched Monk Entertainment, a talent management company, at the age of 24,” he adds.

Allahbadia says he is largely self-taught and comes from a family of doctors; so, there was no Plan B. His parents granted him a two-year gap period after which he would pursue an MBA if things didn’t work out. But they didn’t pay him and asked him to work and earn. Till YouTube started paying off, he trained people and gave them fitness advice to make ends meet. Since YouTube and social media in general were relatively unknown careers then, there was family pressure. “Every parent is convinced once they see the money start to appear on paper,” says Allahbadia, who has 11.6 million followers across social media platforms. His popular videos are with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Priyanka Chopra and Ayushmann Khurrana, among others.

Allahbadia feels if a youngster is upskilled enough to pay for himself, then business is the way to go. “I am always of the belief that everyone should aim to be a job creator rather than a job seeker,” he states that he has never had a regular job but feels that the same raw skills apply across all professions, which are integrity with work, grit, how long you can keep going, people skills, leadership skills and, most importantly, sales skills.

Allahbadia believes that his entire channel and personal brand have been built by showcasing mistakes and failures, so people need to know that they are a very real part of the long-term journey. “I just hope that while people notice the successes, they also notice everything that goes wrong because those are the lessons that you gain from,” he adds.

Ghazal Alagh, Co-founder, Mamaearth

Changing India’s beauty landscape

Mamaearth was gradually but steadily growing in the Indian consumer goods market for being toxin-free when its co-founder Ghazal Alagh’s appearance on business reality TV series Shark Tank India as its judge took its popularity several notches higher. Launched in 2016, the company is the brainchild of husband-wife duo Varun (38) and Ghazal Alagh (33).

Gurugram-based Ghazal says that she always wanted to be an independent and successful woman, but her entrepreneurial journey started only when she launched her first venture,—a platform to provide customised diet plans based on age, blood type and lifestyle. “When Varun and I had our first child, we started looking for chemical-free products for our baby, but we could not find options that were easily available in India. We mostly ended up importing baby care products or asking friends to get them, which was both expensive and time-consuming,” she recalls.

“Identifying this gap, we decided to create Mamaearth and venture into ‘toxin-free’ baby care products,” she says, adding that they soon expanded into toxin-free products for adults too. Currently, Mamaearth’s popular products include Ubtan skincare range, Vitamin C skincare range and the Onion hair range, among others.

Not many people know that Ghazal is also an artist, and her paintings would often make their way into art exhibitions before Mamaearth happened. This, she says, would have continued if her venture didn’t take off.

Although Ghazal comes from a family of entrepreneurs, no woman from her family has ever been part of any business. “I am so proud about being the first woman entrepreneur from my family. I would encourage everyone, who is passionate about their idea and feel that they can add value to the consumer’s life, to take the risk and venture out once,” she says.

Commenting on whether a job is the safe way out, Ghazal says that it is not about choosing to be an entrepreneur or something else, one should take up a career path that excites them every day and gives a feeling of fulfillment. “Success is extremely subjective. To me, it is being independent with a sense of contentment, knowing I did my best and that I added value to my life and to that of others,” she says.

With newer policies being implemented and funds raised, it is becoming easier to create and launch new businesses, according to Ghazal.

“It is evident in the fact that India has become the third largest startup ecosystem in the world with an annual growth of 12-15%. The current systems are extremely conducive for anyone who wants to venture into the start-up space,” says Ghazal.

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