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Spot, learn, fill—the journey of starting up

Startup founders not only learn about the gaps in the market by working in an industry before, but can also find future mentors in their employers

Mamta Kumari at the Gurugram office of her startup PrepBytes, which she founded in June last year. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Mamta Kumari at the Gurugram office of her startup PrepBytes, which she founded in June last year. Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Lunchtime for Mamta Kumari would often be the same. Her colleagues at Amazon, where she worked as a software developer between 2016-18, would go for hiring drives and return disappointed. Their complain was always the same—though qualified on paper, candidates did not have the required interview preparation, leaving the panel unimpressed.

“I spoke to a few other people in the industry and realized that this was true for most companies. Students did not have the required problem-solving skills to crack an interview. I knew there was a demand, many of my peers and juniors from college wanted to get through to Amazon and I decided to make that into my career," says Kumari, 28.

Kumari cracked Amazon on her second attempt and knew what was lacking the first time. She often helped her friends to prepare as well. The personal experience, along with the knowledge of the demand among candidates, led her to set up PrepBytes, a startup focused on helping students in their placement preparation for IT and engineering industries, in June 2018 in Gurugram. The students who signed up have landed jobs in various companies, including Amazon. The list of mentors on the site also includes leaders from various companies such as Amazon, Samsung and Google. So, the company which was employing Kumari is now indirectly also helping her make the venture stronger.

Learning from scratch

Kumari is not the only one. Several people have worked at other organizations before setting up their own ventures. What comes in handy is the knowledge of the industry, the demands, the gaps in the market and even people working in the industry that the individual gains while being employed.

What’s more, if he/she is lucky enough the manager can be someone who connects them to the right candidates to take the business venture ahead.

“When I set up Wakefit, my former MD (managing director) at Bayer MaterialScience, Ajay Durrani, not just congratulated me, but actually gave me the assurance that he will always be there to help and guide me in my venture. It is a huge boost to know that if the need arises, I can directly reach the MD of my former employer and he will guide me," says Ankit Garg, co-founder of Wakefit, a Bengaluru-based sleep solutions company.

Working as a techno-commercial sales manager at Bayer MaterialScience till 2014, Garg had to know how to justify the product quality—in this case, the foam he was selling—to the customer. In his four years at the company, he worked in various teams, including automotive (car seats), footwear (shoe soles) and furniture (mattress). His experience at the company told him that while the first two industries did not compromise on the quality of foam, the mattress industry was more focused on cutting costs.

“During that job, I realized that a lot of mattress brands would use anything between 60-80 percent fillers to keep the price low. There was also no customization available according to what the user needs. So I decided that this was the area that needed a specialist, and Chaitanya Ramalingegowda and I set up Wakefit in 2016," explains Garg. He has also often taken technical advice from researchers and market experts who he knows from his Bayer days.

Sometimes the help might be in terms of the knowledge, and sometimes the manager can also share his experience.

Sridhar Vembu, chief executive of Chennai-based software development firm Zoho Corp, remembers a time when an artificial intelligence (AI) company came to him to help fine-tune their business model. “I shared with them some lessons we learned, and I am happy to report that they are thriving and growing rapidly now," he says.

Vembu agrees that there is always a chance of somebody becoming a competition but that does not worry him. He explains that “it is inevitable that there will be product overlaps, simply because Zoho has such a breadth and depth of product suite. In general, we don’t obsess about competition, particularly competition from our own progeny. Instead, we focus on the customer. The fear that someone somewhere is out to get us itself causes only stress and friction."

It is a good idea for the employee to discuss his ideas with his manager or employee. Who he chooses to discuss it with depends on who he trusts. Building an atmosphere of trust and idea-sharing is important for any company.

“No employer will be averse to new ideas for their business and should encourage building an intra-preneurship culture. After all, business development can only happen with business partnerships. A new start-up may just mean development for the former employer’s company as well," explains M. Venkatesan, professor in organizational behaviour and human resource management at the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade in New Delhi.

He adds that as a mentor, the manager or employer can also help future entrepreneurs to look at the impact of their business idea globally. This vision from a more experienced manager or employer can go a long way for a new venture, he says.

The challenges ahead

Even if the employer understands, there can still be legal hassles for an employee to set up his own venture. “There can never be an absolute ban on starting a venture for someone. However, some reasonable restrictions can always be put to protect the interest of the employer," explains Mukesh Jain, corporate lawyer and founder of Mukesh Jain & Associates.

“Ideally, if you part with your employer amicably with well-defined do’s and don’ts, it will better enable a new entrepreneur to chart out his career without any worry qua his former employer," says Jain.

Creating a new path

Things to know before branching out

There can be a cooling or gardening period—a number of months till when one cannot set up his/her venture.

Be aware of proprietary rights such as registered patents, and client list. Any use of protected rights can lead to theft of proprietary property.

Any bad mouthing of your former employer can invite a civil or even criminal case for defamation. Hence, initially, it may be desirable to steer clear of the customers of the former employer.

There can never be any restraint on use of your own intellectual faculties and knowledge you have gained in your former employment unless that knowledge includes proprietary intellectual property rights.

By Mukesh Jain, corporate lawyer and founder, Mukesh Jain and Associates

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