Category Archives: HCU

Why I had to shut down my Start Up Company

2015.

Narendra Damodardas Modi had swept to power, his popularity at its highest peak. Modi was blazing across the world, encouraging investors, businessmen and conglomerates to ‘Make in India’.

Freshly admitted into the MPhil course at the University of Hyderabad, my department sent me on a trip to Gujarat for the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, where I rubbed shoulders (and elbows and toes) with some of the biggest Indian business heads who chose not to live in India. Perhaps it was the exposure to their business heads that sowed the seed in my own head.

Or perhaps there was always a silent entrepreneur in me. I had never seen anyone run a business from close quarters, and all my transactions with friends were limited to drugs. But sometimes, you just know.

On that winter day in 2015, I basked in the confidence that there existed an entrepreneur in me. Silent, but strong.

*

Part 1 – The Idea

Every great business idea attacks the roots of a common problem, and we were no different. The University of Hyderabad offers its students a range of benefits – from taxpayer internet connection to taxpayer coconut chutney. However, the dining hall – appropriately called ‘mess’ – leaves a lot to be desired.

They serve breakfast till 9, which is when classes begin in the departments. Students have to rush for breakfast, and by 8.15 the line resembles a queue for National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Long winding lines for soggy bondas and liberal dosas that chose to transcend barriers of taste and feel. Food stalls on campus were all far away, and didn’t open till 11 AM. This was where me and my friend come into the picture.

Our plan was simple. We would deliver breakfast to rooms, on a daily, weekly and monthly subscription basis. There existed a number of vendors just outside the back gate, and since both me and my partner had access, we could provide fresh, hot, healthy breakfast to students for as cheap as 30 bucks.

We discussed the idea with a few friends, and got their approval. We printed posters and pasted them across the campus. Pamphlets were slipped under every door, WhatsApp and word of mouth publicity was also used to spread the word.

A few MBA friends spoke to me on the value of ‘scaling up’ and ‘claiming the verticals’. We discussed angel investors, mergers and 2nd round of funding’. Publicity material involving Jackie Shroff (with arguably regressive ideas) were circulated among friends and well-wishers.

Breakfast in Bed

In a week’s time, Breakfast in Bed was raring to go!

 

Part 2 – The Team

At this juncture, it is appropriate that I introduce you to my partner – Rahul – you must have heard the name. Rahul was a part time MPhil student, full time rockstar. He had Jimi Hendrix curly hair, wore yellow John Lennon shades at night, and lived life on his own terms. Rescuer of stray kittens, roller of pristine joints, and a daily challenger to Yama when he rode his bike.

We had met a few years earlier and connected over a common love for the holy herb, psychotropic substances, and all matters transcendental. It was his idea – and it must have been the conviction in his tone, or the dexterity in the joint – I agreed.

As a lurker of the subconscious terrain, it is important to note that a number of ideas strike you on a daily basis, but some stay longer and knock on the insides of your brain. In a few days, I saw the light of his argument. He was Steve, and I was Wozniak. He was Duckworth, and I was Lewis. I had no culinary experience, and my know-how was limited to the fact that I know how to eat; but I’d been a lifelong eater of dosas and vadas. I couldn’t make a good vada, but I could tell a good one from an excellent one. Roger Ebert never made a movie, but his contribution to cinema is far greater than most who did.

 

Part 3 – The Idea in action

And so we set off on this adventure of a venture, our only capital being confidence and the wishes of our friends. The plan was to have a vendor right outside the gate, take orders from customers, and deliver hot, fresh food within 25 minutes.  

Me and Rahul would share the load – alternating between taking orders and delivering them. Every half an hour, one of us would collect the orders (at a shop five minutes away), and deliver them to satisfied customers.

There was something inspiring about the process. For someone who lacks even an iota of discipline, this seemed like a cause worth waking up to. We would be up by 6, and wait for calls. They came slowly at first, and then in waves. One of us would roll a quick joint, while the other took three quick puffs and plunged into action.

Our customers – both friends and strangers – were glad to see us. We provided relief from the corrupted food in the mess, and they greeted us with sunshine smiles. ‘Don’t have change? No problem, bro! Give it tomorrow!’.

Hesitant teenagers who opened the door surreptitiously because their girlfriends lay inside thanked us for the few hours they got. Some customers invited us in –

‘Smoke one? Sure, bro!’

‘But I’ll have to leave early, huh? Have orders waiting…’

I understood what Nobel scientists meant when they said that their work wasn’t work at all. The smiles of customers, or the coy smiles of the girl in the pyjamas, who was surprised that a delivery boy spoke English like the Queen’s plumber.

I was a changed person. I’d wake up at 6 and ask my lady to leave as the orders would start pouring in. At night, I’d receive anonymous messages saying, ‘Hey, what’s for breakfast tomorrow? :-)’. I’d quickly put the phone on silent and go to sleep, for it would be a long day tomorrow.

Life was good, and there was a reason to wake up every morning.

 

Part 4 – The Bubble Bursts

2015 witnessed a number of economic crises, primary among them the Chinese stock market turbulence. Shanghai share index plummeted 8.49% of its value, and the billions lost in international stock markets were dubbed Black Monday and Black Tuesday by international media. The economy of Greece was also going through its bleakest phase, defaulting on a loan repayment of an International Monetary Fund loan.

All of this of course, had no impact on us. We picked up masala dosas and bondas from a small shop and delivered it to hungry students who smoked chhota Gold Flake. Our downfall was brought about by internal factors, rather than external agents.

It was in this process that I learnt the first hard lesson in doing business. It cannot be run when there are two partners, and they’re both sleeping partners. Since both of us were stoners, the morning proceedings began by rolling a joint. Since we’d partied the previous night, sleep was hard to fight off. The results had begun to show.

Orders were getting confused for each other. A horrified vegetarian professor complained about two bright yellow Egg Dosas that had shown up hungover on her table. When I messaged ‘Hey, tomorrow we have special Pongal for breakfast’ to my angel investor, I got no response. A customer complained that his dosa had some mud on it, a clear indication that it had touched the ground at least once. Rahul’s brother, who had graciously helped us with deliveries, refused to deliver in the Ladies Hostel, as his girlfriend had gotten suspicious of him getting breakfast for other girls.

Friends who’d supported us with weekly subscriptions, asked us to hang on for a bit. We mixed business and pleasure into a heady cocktail and took gigantic shots. We would sometimes gobble up a dosa with our friends, and stay back to smoke one, only to realise there were 17 missed calls on the phone!
Part 5 – How the High and mighty fall!

Breakfast in Bed, born from a million myriad mirrored dreams, began to unravel in front of our eyes. We were like Nokia, struggling to cope with a changing world. Meanwhile, evil capitalist money was being pumped in through organisations like Foodpanda and Swiggy. Our socialist-welfare model of cheap food and friendship (and one banana free!) couldn’t cope.

Like Ambassador and Gold Spot, we slowly faded out. Swiggy and Foodpanda had swanky bikes, uniformed-delivery agents with packaged food. Breakfast in Bed had two dope-heads with a bike, delivering food wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper.

And here is the second lesson I learnt from the experience – Accountancy. Rahul was a student of the liberal arts, and couldn’t be bothered with the debit-credit of things. But I was a Commerce graduate, with Honours in Accountancy.

In a month, our cash flow resembled the Hussain Sagar lake, our fund-flow the Musi river. The only incentive to deliver an order was that we could pocket the money, so thoroughly had we blurred the lines between revenues and pocket money! The orders began to dry up – the only orders were from friends who wanted Rahul to roll them their morning joints.

 

Part 6 – The Beginning?

With heavy hearts and light heads, we shut down Breakfast in Bed. It wasn’t ceremonial or momentous, rather like a cancer slowly playing out its destiny. We continued to get stray calls for a few weeks after, but the enterprise was more or less wound up.

Rahul was handling the vendors and suppliers, while I was battling the monsters within me. In a few days, I told the lady she didn’t need to leave early, and I couldn’t gauge if there was happiness or sadness on her face.

May be the business didn’t go all that well. But so was the case with Steve, Walt, and Spielberg. Rahul brought a kitten to the room, but like our customers, it left our room and returned to the Mess.

Maybe it was for the better! May be I wasn’t ready to handle the inevitable onslaught of Venture Capitalists and Mergers & Acquisitions that would follow. Maybe it was an indication that my Pixar awaits me in the future. May be there’s an idea lurking in the dark, waiting for me to stroll into the forest again.

*

Meanwhile, I hear the students of the University are struggling to buy cigarettes…

An Ode to the Buffalo

When I woke up, I realised I was going to be late. I rushed to the bathroom, to the horrible stench of someone saving water for the planet, and another guy singing in the shower. Since my room was at the end of the corridor, the sun barged into my room and onto my face in the morning, my natural, four billion year old alarm clock.

Breakfast was over in the mess, and the day had all the makings of a disaster. I quickly rolled a joint and smoked it, as the hostel began to get deserted. I ran through the empty corridors to the main road, to wait for a bus or ask for a lift.

I was running to the square, when I found, standing right in front of me, a buffalo.

It was doing nothing. Just standing in the middle of the road, and staring at me.

That was when I first felt the pangs of envy towards buffaloes.

***************

Buffaloes lead the coolest lives.

The buffaloes in the university step out around ten o clock, stroll in a line towards a lake called Buffalo Lake and sit in the lake all day.

I wonder what they do there. Do they worry about their future? Think about how they are going to arrange for food, or what to do during the winters?

They just sit there in the lakes, silently. The sun gets harsher, and they sink further into the cool water, merging into the stillness of the lake.

When the sun has set, they step out. There are cranes waiting to peck at them and take off the dirt from their bodies. They slowly head back to their homes.

So when I was in front of it, I wondered if the buffalo was thinking, “Look at them run about mindlessly. The most evolved species on the planet. Ha!”

**************

If cows are revered as the Holy Mother, the buffalo is the chilled out aunt who never asks about your marks. Buffaloes have no pressures to live up to.

They are not mentioned in mythology, or moral stories, have not been elevated to the stature of goddesses, and hence, aren’t worshipped. So they eat the same stuff, give the same milk, but don’t have to go through the bull shit of poojas and customs.

Another remarkable fact is the way buffaloes behave.

Cows are not like that. Sometimes they are calm and peaceful, but at other times, they are moody. Same with the bulls too. Years and years spent with Shiva hasn’t yet taught them to chill out.

Buffaloes? They are Rastafarians, them lot. Drifting along in a dream state between reality and consciousness, buffaloes give the phrase ‘chilling out’ a different meaning altogether. You will never see an aggressive buffalo in the history of mankind. Except of course, Mahishasura, the Buffalo Demon who was killed by Durga, bringing disrepute to his otherwise noble and affable brethren.

Ever seen a buffalo stuck in the middle of the road? You can honk, scream, yell, or throw water. The buffalo is not going to budge.

cool buffalo edited

For, buffaloes, you see, are an evolved lot.

They realise that all this going on time to please someone is all useless. In the long run, what matters is what you enjoy doing.

********************

I looked at my watch; it was 10.30.

As I stared at its face, I saw that the buffalo knew. It understood.

“Fuck it,” I said, “I am rolling another.”

I walked to the rocks nearby, sat down, took out my cigarettes, and plugged in my headphones…

Gaylords

It’s said that in the days of kings and mafia warlords, the barber was appointed after careful scrutiny. Understandable, considering that the barber was the only person who was allowed to hold a knife to the king’s neck. The barbers were the most trustworthy and skilled persons.

I’m afraid I can’t say the same about the barbers I’ve met in my life. I’ve met them all – from the old ones to the new, from the modern ones to the ones who sit under a tree with an umbrella and a mirror. And I’ve never had good luck with them. Not once.

Since my ‘Cap Style’ days, to my ‘Spikes’ days, to the dark and tragic ‘Tere Naam’ days, my hair has been subjected to numerous experiments, and I was always on the losing side.

So frustrated was I with barbers that I had stopped shaving or getting a haircut for a few months. Then, a few weeks back, Mr. P. Sainath was to come down to our department and I was to interview him. Lest he should think I was a suicide bomber, I was politely asked to shave and get a haircut.

In our campus, there is a saloon where students are entitled to hair cuts at subsidised rates. Now, there is a reason why Habib’s charges 500 bucks and our campus saloon wala charges 20 rupees. The equipment used is much simpler here – the razor looks like it was invented a week after man invented the wheel. Hygiene is not top priority either, and for the finicky ones, a blade is split in half and inserted into the blade, which will be used to scrape off hair from the sides.

So anyway I had half an hour in hand, and I quickly explained to the anna sitting that I wanted a haircut urgently. This is one aspect of getting a haircut that I am yet to master – giving instructions. Barbers are creative guys, and careful instructions will ensure you don’t look like the reigning mass hero of the time.

“Cut the sides, leave some hair in the front”, I said.

Since the two main barbers were busy, I was sent to the third guy. This guy was a lot younger, and looked like an apprentice. He made me sit on the chair, and covered me with the white shawl. He took off my specs, and placed them on the table in front. Now, this is the second reason why my haircuts are always screwed up.

Remember the Alif Laila stories where the evil Vizar’s life was in a parrot? My vision, similarly, is in my specs. Once you take them off, I am pretty much at the mercy of the barber.

The young guy sprayed some water on my hair, and began talking. He told me that he always wanted to have long hair, but his grandfather wouldn’t let him. He told me that he had let his hair grow long thrice, and all the three times his grandfather had threatened to chop them off while he was sleeping.

“Hair style hona toh Allu Arjun jaisa hona, bhaiyya”

Lesson 1: Never go to a barber who has film aspirations.

Since I was in a hurry, I didn’t respond to any of his questions. The guy had all the time in the world to do his thing. Behind me, there was a TV, in which there was a film playing. Nagarjuna had this hot secretary called Anu and she was really hard working and stuff. This guy was watching the movie, and smiling when the jokes came on, and humming when the songs came on, and generally concentrating more on the film than on my hair.

Lesson 2: Never go to a barber who has film aspirations, and is watching a film while cutting your hair.

I kept looking at my watch, and he at the TV. After about fifteen minutes, he took out the blade and asked me if he could scrape off the edges. Now, I am no mafia don, but I am not very comfortable with the scraping off bit. I asked him to skip that procedure. He cut off a little of my hair, and left some hair on the top.

Proudly, he took off the shawl, as if he was unveiling the Mona Lisa. I immediately reached for my specs, and looked at the mirror, and my heart sank. It was another bad haircut.

Now, my head looks strangely rectangular and stretched. There is no hair on the sides, and some hair right on top of my head. To add to the misery, since I was in a hurry, the guy forgot to cut any hair on the back, which has led to tufts of hair on the back of my head. The kind last seen on Anil Kapoor in the early 90s, and in Mahabharat.

As I walked out of the saloon, I remembered that I had forgotten a vital fact.

Lesson 3: Never go to a barber who has film aspirations, is watching a film while cutting your hair, and works in a saloon called ‘Gaylords’.

So here I am, after years of bitching about barbers, still walking around with a lousy haircut, and while people come up to me and smile, I don’t know if they are friends, or merely amused by my stupid hairstyle.

You know all these wise people who have these smart quotations to their name – like Plato, Aristotle, the Buddha, Christ, Confucius, Socrates, etc?

They all either had long flowing hair, or were completely bald. They forgot one key fact: True contentment lies in finding the right barber. I am still in pursuit.

Bye, cycle. My cycle..

I was in the third standard, and selections for the Annual Sports and Cultural Meet were going on. There were rumours that there were going to be brand new cycles for a cycle drill. The bikes were BSA Mongoose, sleek and quick. Practice meant riding the cycle for hours a day. It was great fun. Not for me, of course.

I was in a stupid drill called ‘Horse and Stars’, because I didn’t know how to cycle. This innovative drill involved running around in formations with a stick-horse in between my legs, and huge, golden stars pasted on each of my palms. It was humiliating to say the least.

I finally learnt to ride a bicycle pretty late – around my 5th standard. It was a maroon BSA Ladybird that belonged to my sister. Though the cycle must have weighed a total of 15 kilos, it was everything for me. I first learnt to ride it ‘half-pedal’, and then ‘full-pedal’, and then while sitting on the seat. I still remember the feeling when I was convinced I could ride it. The ecstatic feeling of balancing on your own wheels.

Soon, it became a mad obsession. I would do the rounds of the colony, on my BSA Ladybird, in an imaginary world of my own. Sometimes I was Agniputra Abhay with the magical bike, other times I was a hero being chased by goons, and on some romantic evenings, I’d imagine I was carrying a senior from school on the carriage behind – I would ride slowly then. My first accident with a cycle happened soon after.

It was in the afternoon, and I was on the road near a chaurasta. I was imagining that it was the last ball of a cricket match, and Ajay Jadeja and Robin Singh are in the crease, and they have to steal a quick single. So lost was I in the imaginary match, that I failed to see the vehicles in front of me. Not one, but two of them. So I ended up bending the rims of both the wheels, one by a scooter, and another by a bike.

Now, Ladybirds are no Royal Enfields. They are just Domestic Dandies. Both the rims having bent in the nail-biting finish to the match, I had to part-drag, part-carry the cycle back home. I was welcomed with the choicest abuses, and Ladybird was caged in the house. That was probably the last time I rode that cycle.I had never had a bicycle since.

Now the thing is that the University of Hyderabad’s campus is one fucking huge campus. When I first joined it, I made decisions to jog to the college in the mornings, and jog back after classes. All good, except that the distance is seven bloody kilometers. Aptly titled J&K hostels, they are in the other end of the campus. If you do not have a bike, you have to have a bicycle. Or make sad faces and wait for lifts, hoping someone will drop you somewhere on the way.

Keeping these factors in mind, I decided to buy a bicycle. I went to this shop, suspiciously named ‘Peddlars’ Point’, and asked him for bicycles. He showed me a few. From the Postman wala Atlas to the modern snazzy ones. I finally boiled down on one. It was a cool silver Hercules Ultima DX 6 gear bicycle. I remember riding back to the room, with the same feeling of ecstacy that came with the ladybird. On the way back, I remember re-committing myself towards a fitter life, and that this was a beginning for new things to come.

They say, you can take the horse to the river, but you can’t make it drink water. Similarly, you can buy yourself a bicycle, but you cannot stop being a lazy bastard. So I would wake up, realise there were 15 minutes left for class, and rush to Vamshi’s room below, and go on his scooter.

I did use the cycle once in a while, like the time when KSS came over one evening. There was a film screening at the auditorium and we planned to go there. We had also planned to have some rum, and passed out with flying colours. Also, the film was ‘Poison’, and so there were, the two of us. Drunk and horny, and riding on a bicycle to the auditorium.

You would have seen gruesome bike accidents on AXN or youtube, ours was the lamest accident ever. Just two drunk guys, riding, and toppling over. While we got up, and dusted and laughed about it, my cycle was hardly amused. The handlebar turned upside down, the bell stopped ringing, and random loose screws resulted in me making a chhang-chhang sound wherever I went.

There is something about us human beings, imperfections make our hearts grow fonder. I repaired my cycle, and started spending more time with it. I took it to college, to the Sports Complex, and for other chores. One day, I left it near the small gate, properly locked, about thirty feet from the security post. The next morning, my cycle was missing.

I was sad that I had not used it enough. That I had not been a good owner to the cycle, and that I had expected even an iota of alertness and brains in the security guards. I looked for it for days, in secret couple hangouts, dumpyards, and obscure parking spots, but I never found it.

As a final desperate gesture, I put up the following poster at different spots around the university.

I got some appreciation, some criticism, and an SMS telling me that the University was not my father’s, to use the f word. But I didn’t get my cycle.

So, dear cycle. If you haven’t been dismantled and sold in parts at the Chor Bazaar in Dhoolpet already, I hope you are good.

I hope your new owner is treating you well. And I hope you are spicing up his life too, with the little surprises you used to spring on me.

Like making a quick turn in front of a hot chick, and suddenly realising the brake is not working. Or pedalling vigorously uphill, only to have the chain snap.

Hope you’re giving him the real pleasure of riding a cycle.