“Wish you a very awesome 2020” — I started 2020 with this message to my close folks and one of my friends replied — “Hey man! not a fan of cricket 😂”. Now after the whole year, when I look back, she seems to have seen it all well in advance! With most of 2020 passing under lockdown and very few new memories related to external events, it seems like a zero-year with nothing significant but when I reflect, I realize how 2020 has been the best year of my life so far.
A High Start
For most parts of the last four years, my startup (22bate7 — PiCards) had been the highlight of my life, and all the other factors adjusted around that. 2020 started on a similar note with a couple of press coverages about PiCards, us winning an award at Economic Times New Age EdTech Symposium, the co-founders had a heart-to-heart to realign with the future plans and where we saw PiCards, getting 10 B2B clients and everything looking to blast-off in just two-three months more. Then came Covid!
I had visited Mumbai in Feb end and at that time, at the airport, they were just asking travelers from China to self-report which I rightly felt was a joke if Covid was actually going to be as serious as they were already reporting in news and then came March.
Lockdown happened in March end and I could sense that it would go on till September but I was optimistic that lockdown will break the Covid propagation chain and things will be back on track by September. I had a slight inkling that transition to digital education can happen but we as a team let the opportunity pass as we could not set our priorities right. Many investors reached us proactively but we refused to venture into the elearning space owing to our own lack of motivation and also due to the feeling that whatever people might say, “Bharat” is still not digital-ready for replacing conventional classrooms — a phygital model can work in long term but a digital model in Primary and secondary education is just a marketing ploy which is just a bandaid on the wound and not the stitches that it needs. Since schools were not opening and our solution is relevant only in physical classrooms, our clients dropped which would mean almost ZERO revenue for us for the year. We did not PIVOT and rather chose to sympathize with our situation and blamed it all on Covid — an easy get away, isn’t it?
Move Fast And Break Things — Cliche But True!
Sequoia predicted Covid to be a black-swan event in the startup world. A lot of other folks predicted it to be too bad — clearly, no one had got it figured out as it happened that the entrepreneurs showed much more resilience and despite the economy suffering, many startups thrived and new businesses were born. Funding was flowing in EdTech and our decision of not pivoting was biting us in our face every day especially when we had been proactively approached by the same folks earlier. After 2 months of misguided motivation, we decided to half-heartedly introduce some elearning features in our offerings but we knew that our heart was not into it. Seeing something that I cared about so much, fail, brought my focus on my leadership style, priorities, mental health, and other personality traits.
The Home Quarantine
All these years, we had been running and REACTING to the situations. I say reacting because the response is well planned but the reaction is immediate. We had gotten so used to the T20 lifestyle that many of us had forgotten to bat against the swing that we were getting in this Covid Test. Being locked down at home meant a lot of comfort in many aspects but it came at the cost of curtailed freedom and disconnect from my startup settings. With the environment around, suddenly things like job, salaries, property, marriage, family functions, comfort, security, and everything else started taking center stage as obviously there were questions around my startup not doing too great in the pandemic. I fell for the traps and let these things get into my mind so strongly for the first time in four years. I came to Bangalore to vacate my place in August and the mandatory 14 days home quarantine did the trick for me — I realised that I needed isolation and address the issues that had been brewing inside of me.
Emotional Turmoil And Devastating Lows
Working on my ideas gives me the daily dopamine dose that I need to keep me up and going, but I began questioning if that is the right thing. How do people take up jobs and despite all the politics and petty stuff at many places, how do they find purpose? What excites them? Is it the family or the money or some other illusion? What if I am just running away from reality by doing something that excites me while others keep going despite being in uncomfortable situations? What if not finding anything else to be exciting is a mental illness? What if thinking about money only in abstract terms and yet sometimes being worried about not earning as much as your friends earn, indicated that I was not carved out for startups. But if I was not good enough for founding startups, was I good enough for any jobs either, when my heart didn’t really lie there.
I was going through devastating lows and I was hating it because whenever it had happened to me earlier, I had self-healed but this time was unprecedented. My struggles started interfering with my normal life and interactions. I started watching BoJack Horseman, which I appreciate a lot, but it sent me deeper into the sadness abyss.
I needed to cut-off from everything and address my core issues but I was also trying very hard to make things work. I had been exploring a couple of other ideas too, doing market research, making pitches, connecting with potential clients and investors but one thing that I wasn’t doing was talking to myself.
In October, I slowly began to acknowledge the problem. I talked to a lot of close friends many times and then I began to realize that I was repeating the same things after every 3–4 days. All my inner questions were valid but the answer also had to come from within. I had vacated my place in September but I decided not to go back home. I started crashing at friends’ places whoever let me in and I am lucky to have a good support system in that sense. I got disinterested in everything and started distracting myself with Netflix while I still kept working on PiCards as I was planning to resurrect it in 2021 so I couldn’t just move on. But it wasn’t easy. I felt like being tied to an elastic, the farther I tried to move, the stronger I had to try to overcome the pullback.
The Scared Soul And All The Choices
I was constantly questioning myself and at the same time, I was also getting job offers. Apart from that, I also had a long list of ideas that I wanted to execute. I had some difficult choices — job or a new startup, PiCards or new startup, PiCards and a new startup, job and new idea on sides, the job only, PiCards only, the new startup only; if startup then which idea to pursue; if job then what is more exciting — salary or the purpose; if PiCards then how to keep the team motivated for another 6–7 months at least.
Self Realisation And The Comeback
Talking to a lot of close friends both from the corporate and startup ecosystem, and then going into deep introspection, I finally started to confront the issues.
I realized that I was constantly complaining and had gotten myself addicted to sadness. I had not been trying to find and acknowledge what was actually bothering me. I had also lost my growth mindset and I found it easier to complain. First time in a long time, I had let my fears get better of me. After around two weeks of focused and forced introspection, I realized that although the existing job offers excited me, I wasn’t ready to take up a full-time job. With that realization, I stopped thinking about salaries and financial security. Whenever I asked myself how long I would stay in a job, the answer was — “not more than 2 years, after that I would have a little more financial cushion to found a startup on one of my ideas” It became clear that money could not be a motivating factor for me in the long run even if I was currently giving up on many luxuries that I could have otherwise afforded. It also became clear that my heart lies in entrepreneurship and this is just the way that I am. Brainstorming problems, coming up with solutions, executing them, talking to clients, creating a business, creating teams, meeting fellow entrepreneurs, overseeing things end-to-end, are the things that actually give me the ultimate kick and a purpose.
I looked at my savings and realised that I wasn’t broke even though I did not have great savings. In fact, the savings were good enough to last me for a year and also to validate at least 3–4 ideas. Financial constraint existed only within my thoughts and I felt that even if I had a surplus of 50 lakhs in my accounts, money won’t help unless I validate my ideas, solve a real problem and get paying clients for that. When in distress, it was easy to understand that money is not a constraint but the will to do something is the real barrier. If I validate something really exciting, investments will flow. While it seems like a chicken and egg problem, it is not.
Two philosophical reflections that helped me —
There are 70 different other ways in which life can screw you over so don’t worry about the things that scare you. What scares you now, may not be the scariest thing that you will have to face in life so there’s no point worrying about what may go wrong.
Everyone plays the game that they are good at. Virat Kohli can play football but he chooses to officially play cricket only because that’s his game. He doesn’t need to prove that he can excel in football too — that’s just not his game. So we must not try to excel in someone else’s game and feel bad about it.
You Still Call It The Best Year?
Absolutely! Despite so many things going wrong, I had some very valuable experiences this year. We managed to keep PiCards afloat, in fact, worked out a new sales strategy, and also improved our platform. Did extensive research on two of my ideas before trashing them. Created an MVP of another idea to test markets and launched it a few days back. Ventured into AI-ML space with a new exciting problem and have made good progress towards the solution. Cracked Mutual Fund Distributor Certification exam which is a little disconnected from broader theme of my work but it bolsters my fintech credentials. Making progress on Retirement Advisory too. Extensively studied FMCG, EdTech, and Fintech markets.
Apart from the work front, I learned to appreciate myself more often and celebrate achievements as often as I rebuke myself for my failures. Bonding with my close friends grew stronger as they stood by me through my lows. Had a great experience hopping from one place to the other with just a trolley bag and a laptop. Most importantly, I realized that — “Being Lost, Gives Way To Rediscovery!”