Why I had to shut down my Start Up Company

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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…

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