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When a college idea becomes a startup

Turning a side project started in college into a full-fledged venture requires a combination of the right guidance from mentors, a faithful team, enough planning, money, hard work and some plain luck

Bharat Kumar (second from left) of TheVerb Studio with his teammates
Bharat Kumar (second from left) of TheVerb Studio with his teammates

A college project is just a college project. Something done for fun and, of course, grades, in a make-belief situation with not too many risks involved. But when some of these projects are implemented in the real world and end up making money, the journey becomes quite different. Many startups started as ideas that students discussed in classrooms, with the right guidance, planning, hard work and some luck, have turned into full-fledged venture.

Tjori’s founder Mansi Gupta came up with their startup ideas during college days.
Tjori’s founder Mansi Gupta came up with their startup ideas during college days. (Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint)

“During our time in Wharton in 2011, I had joined the entrepreneurship club at the school. It was just meant to give a platform to let our ideas grow, to get resources for research and be able to talk and present your ideas to not just peers but also mentors and investors. That is when I started researching about a home-grown brand which could sell Indian art and handicrafts to people settled in US and Canada," says Mansi Gupta, 36, founder and chief executive of Tjori, a designer handmade accessories brand.

Bharat Kumar, 26, too came up with the idea of TheVerb Studio, a platform that offers online dance classes, in 2014, while he was at school. In the final year at the National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirappalli, Kumar and his friends decided to study about the demand for learning dance. Being part of the NIT dance team, they were well aware of how difficult it was to access quality lessons in the country and decided to find a solution. They worked on the idea of TheVerb Studio for eight-nine months, took part in Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Bangalore’s yearly business plan festival and won. “The great thing was that we were all friends from college and were passionate about this. I think it helped that we were young and were not that scared to take risks. Maybe, if we were older and had responsibilities, we wouldn’t have left everything to set up TheVerb Studio," says Kumar. He adds that the initial founding team is important because they need to share the vision. “We couldn’t pay anyone who worked with us for the first couple of months and needed to have faith in each other."

Raghavendar Reddy Bojja and Yuvaraju Atmakuri, who launched MySuperBrain, an online gaming platform aimed at making children sharper in 2011, too started thinking about their idea while they were studying at IIM-Kozhikode. “We both know our strengths and weaknesses and work accordingly. And maybe because we were in college, we had ample time to speak about our idea. If we had started discussing after college, maybe work and daily life would have come in between," says Bojja, 34.

Student motivation and interest matters a lot, believes Dalhia Mani, professor of entrepreneurship at IIM-Bangalore. In addition, she says, there are a combination of several others factors that lead to success, including students who are exposed to a wide variety of contexts are better able to identify interesting problems that might have a business solution. “The ability to work together well as a group and find people who can help them with specific expertize is also useful. We encourage students to take an experimental approach of trial and error, and not be afraid of failure. It is also important to really listen to customers and be flexible in changing the initial idea to respond to customer needs," adds Mani.

Staying flexible is one of the biggest learnings for someone starting from college, especially with no knowledge of how the startup ecosystem evolves.

Gupta’s brand started as a bootstrapped venture in 2013 aimed at Indians living abroad. Once she started working out the details, she realized there wasn’t just demand within India for these crafts, but also the return on investment was better. She changed her business model. Tjori sells in the US and Canada, but the bulk of the orders come from within India.

Interest matters

College students may not have any work experience or industry knowledge, but they do have the zeal. That, coupled with intelligent mentoring can help startups to avoid mistakes that can hurt them in the long run. “When we started in 2011, we had a rosy picture of how the future looked. Unfortunately, we did not understand how the cycle worked. We had three-four meetings with no results. That is when our mentor stepped in and explained that we needed to recalibrate; instead of trying to scale rapidly, focus on one or two goals and work towards that," says Bojja.

Mentors also help connect founders with potential investors. “No one wants to invest in a college startup. But having the right mentors can at least help you get the first foot in through the door, otherwise getting access to some of these people can be extremely challenging," says Bharat Kumar.

Saras D. Sarasvathy, professor of business administration at the Darden School of Business, University of Virginia, US, however, believes there is too much emphasis on investors and mentors.

“If we bring better content into the classrooms in the first place, one of the most important things we would teach is not to be dependent on outside funding to build and grow ventures. We need to teach budding entrepreneurs to get paying customers from Day One, with these customers being the initial investors for the company as well as being partners in growing the market for the venture," she says.

One of the most important steps to remember is to not go all in before ensuring that the idea holds business value. While Tjori’s Gupta focused on building her brand, her husband, Ankit Wadhwa, held on to a secure job. It was only last year that Wadhwa joined Tjori as a full-time adviser.

For Gupta, mentors were a boon, even if she had to build her network in India herself. “I think what he (her mentor, Adam Grant, American psychologist and management professor at Wharton) said was very important for me at that stage and it could work for any startup trying to find its bearing. Grant asked us to always keep ourselves at the door for funding, even if right at that moment we did not need it. Because funding will not come immediately when you want it. He also asked us to not build too huge an inventory, and that helped us a lot," she says.

Bojja too avoided several mistakes because of their mentors. “We wanted to grow fast and were hiring anyone with some experience. But our mentors asked us to watch out for the people who are delivering. So after a few recruitment mistakes, we set a benchmark and took only people who added value." He adds that it is a good idea to take six-eight months to run pilots in few places. That gives an idea whether the startup can be scaled or not. “Take it slow, because even a small mistake can cost you in the long run."

The road ahead

Except for cases of extremely bad ideas, it’s rather impossible to predict which college projects will be successful, says David Touve, senior director at Darden’s Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Touve adds, as advisers or mentors, their role is “to help students develop the skills and the understanding to engage in what it will take to find out if their project has the potential to be a compelling company. The processes we encourage are those that look a lot like science itself: stage-based, hypothesis-driven tests of the core ideas and the assumptions behind those ideas.

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