This morning, with an argile (shisha) by my side and the sound of the Muezzin’s call to prayer in my ears, I signed off on the final transfer-of-ownership documents of India Untravelled – the responsible travel startup I co-founded in 2012. My shaded courtyard on a hill above the old city affords me an uninterrupted view of the barren cityscapes of Amman, reminding me why I decided to sell: In the three years of running India Untravelled, traveling for two weeks with little to no connectivity, like I did in the surreal desert wadis of Jordan, was out of the question.
The irony is that I had started India Untravelled for the same reason that I decided to sell it – to live like a nomad. Here’s what I’ve learnt from my brief entrepreneurial journey:
Starting up is not as hard as they tell you.
I spent half my time in college learning how to write the perfect business plan, pitch for venture capital, do SWOT analyses, bootstrap, draft marketing strategies and press releases, and network effectively. Then much like everything I learnt in my pre-travel days, I tried to unlearn it.
India Untravelled started like it ended – with an epiphany. The first happened on a farm in Punjab, where the gap between responsible travel initiatives in the country and travellers seeking authentic travel experiences gaped at me. We wrote no business plans, attended no entrepreneurship networking sessions, wrote no jargon filled strategies – but brainstormed hard and worked smart, and within the first month of unofficial operations, we scored our first big clients. We registered as a private limited company, found a trustworthy CA (after meeting some dodgy accountants), set up a current bank account and just like that, we were running our own business! We went on to be featured as one of YourStory’s most popular startup stories of 2012 and in national media outlets like The Times of India and Mint. We kept our expenditures low, hired our first employee in the second year of operations, grew our revenue considerably in the third, and received our first (surprise) investment offer just before we decided to sell.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t start your own company without an MBA, years of corporate experience and a ton of cash. If you have an idea you are convinced about, know your market well and have the skills to execute it, go experiment. Starting a business is like skydiving; if you never jump, you’ll never know if the parachute will open!
Revenue and passion are unlikely companions.
Whoever said you should never mix work and pleasure must have been an entrepreneur. India Untravelled was born purely out of my love for travel and passion for supporting small community-run initiatives in the hinterlands of India. We never expected to make much money with our revenue-sharing model, but when the cash started pouring in, it fueled our passion for the company as much as it stifled it.
Our mission was no longer just to convince people to go off the beaten path and give responsible travel a chance, but to compel them to do it with our company so our cash flow continued to increase. Maybe this is the first thing they should teach in entrepreneurship classes. You can’t start a business unless you’re really passionate about a concept, but you can’t sustain a business unless you’re equally passionate about the revenue it generates – and that is the conflict I hated most.
You are either an entrepreneur or not.
When I started up, I thought that the appetite for risk was what set an entrepreneur apart – and I found plenty of appetite in me. But along the way, I realized that an entrepreneur needs much more – financial prowess, the thirst to scale up and an unwavering commitment to the company. I went out of my way to avoid investments that would dissolve our vision, and constantly questioned all our decisions.
In the end, I was just a girl who liked the idea of having her own company, not an entrepreneur.
Running a business offers less freedom than working in a cubicle.
I can’t say I hadn’t been warned. But like many people who look at entrepreneurship as a ticket out of the cubicle, I didn’t believe it. Starting a business meant I could choose my working hours (and days), travel for “work” as long as I liked, determine my own pay, and be the boss. Guess what? I didn’t get a single day off work because this was my baby and I was constantly ridden with guilt for not giving it my all. And my paycheck depended on more variables than I could control.
When you work for someone else, you can tune out at the end of the day and on weekends, and have your own life. But when you work for yourself, the work becomes your life! I loved my work, but in the end, it wasn’t the freedom I had hoped to find. Go in knowing that a startup is 24×7 of your time, and then some.
Social media rules if you do it right.
I know many travel startups in India who struggle with (and even abuse) social media because they have no idea what to do with it. But believe me when I tell you that almost 90% of India Untravelled’s revenues and press coverage came through Facebook, Twitter and blogging! My experiments started as a social media strategist at the Singapore Tourism Board, continued as a blogger and freelancer, and culminated with India Untravelled – and I’m proud to say we didn’t spend an actual penny (time and effort is money too) on building our company’s social media presence.
I’m convinced that a great idea and the right use of social media is the holy grail of a consumer-centric travel startup in India.
Delegating is a tough art to learn.
You win some, you lose some. We won social media, but we lost when it came to growing our team when it needed to be grown. And it was mostly me – I found it incredibly hard to delegate and gradually step away from the day to day execution of the company, to search hard to find the right people, to train and trust our team to take on more responsibility, and to scale up when we needed to. I felt too invested in the company, a bit of a perfectionist even when I knew there could be someone out there who might do it better, and convinced that no one had the incentive to be committed. And this when I was also trying to take my blog to the next level – a 24×7 job in itself. By the time I started learning the fine art of delegation, we were too close to the end of our journey.
Selling is not a failure… or maybe it is.
The second epiphany happened on a hammock in Guatemala – as the mist cleared to reveal the three active volcanoes on Lake Atitlan, so did the mist shrouding my mind! I realized I was being a fool to think I could be a professional travel blogger, and run a travel business, and travel full time – something that my partner in crime had been debating too ever since he enrolled in a public policy school. When I put out the note about selling India Untravelled, it felt like my Faustian deal with the devil to get my freedom back.
But just like we started unconventionally, so we sold. We wrote no business plan, pitched to no potential buyers, and ran no complicated growth projections. We put the word out on social media and wrote an honest note on our journey, vision, intangible assets and projected revenue.
I didn’t believe we would receive any offers, but we received four. One was big money from a big company that was sure to dissolve the vision of India Untravelled. The second was a lease-to-buy offer that wanted to hire me as an employee (like, WTF!). The third and fourth, though below our asking price, showed potential to keep our responsible travel vision. Ultimately we chose my friend who had worked for a few months with us and knew what she was getting herself (and her husband) into. Maybe we sold our soul, but atleast the buyer is not the devil!
The horizon of Jordan looks hazy from the dust of an unexpected sandstorm in Israel across the border, and after penning this post, my mind feels hazy too. Six months after the deal, a part of me still wonders, what if. But another part knows that this journey is over – as far as I can tell, I don’t want to venture into entrepreneurship again! I salute those who will.