My entrepreneurial journey

Serial entrepreneur Chandu Nair shares key lessons learnt via his entrepreneurial journey.

When one starts off as an entrepreneur, almost nothing is known. Despite knowing this—that what helps in success is unknown—and that the mortality rate of new ventures is frighteningly high, a lot of us still become entrepreneurs. Perhaps, this is true only of entrepreneurship than any other initiative one takes in life. And no, it’s not on account of any death wish; it’s the thrill, the joy of initiating, leading, guiding and participating in a journey into the unknown and figuring out a whole lot of stuff that you never knew before, of business, markets, people but, most of all, about yourself.

How did I start? Well, I am an accidental entrepreneur, one who started young and kind of segued into it once I started helping out a batch-mate who started doing market research when he quit his first job. Before you could say that was it—I had turned entrepreneur and joined him and three others in setting up one of India’s first specialist industrial market research agencies.

“Parental, family, social pressures are too high. There are enough naysayers and prophets of imminent doom who spring out of the woodwork.”

It was in 1987. Needless to say, after doing my B.Com followed by a postgraduate diploma from Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, my parents had high hopes of their only son at least climbing high up the corporate ladder, ever since he had dashed their hopes of joining the civil service like his father and uncle before him. Being a first-generation entrepreneur—in my case, my father was a bureaucrat, and grandfathers a school principal and a judicial officer—is not easy. Parental, family, social pressures are too high. There are enough naysayers and prophets of imminent doom who spring out of the woodwork.

A big lesson I learnt early on: The one word you hear most often as an entrepreneur is a very simple two letter word—NO. The toughest task is converting that into a three letter word—YES. To my mind, that is the essence of entrepreneurship, more so in an Indian context.

I have now been an entrepreneur for 25 years. I have started several businesses of different types—knowledge services, Internet, trading, education, etc. Most have been self-funded initially, all with co-founders and other partners. Many were not pursued to its logical conclusion—in other words, some failed.

“The one word you hear most often as an entrepreneur is a very simple two letter word—NO. The toughest task is converting that into a three letter word—YES. To my mind, that is the essence of entrepreneurship, more so in an Indian context.”

Among other things, my partners and I created one of India’s first knowledge process outsourcing companies in 2002, as also a specialist business-to-business chemical platform during the dotcom boom in 1999. I experimented with various kinds of business models as well. For example, we did a build, operate and transfer in 1996 of a computer education venture—two centers—to a leading computer education company. That was pretty radical for that time when no one had even talked of such a concept.

I have seen angel, venture, strategic investor equity funding, and also taken minor loans from banks. I have done equity deals with financial investors, business partners, co-promoters and strategic investors. I have also seen exits to principal, to business partner, to co-promoter, to strategic investor.

Each experience has been useful and instructive. Some of the key learnings were:

  • What you know often is not as important as who you know and when you know them. Networking is vital.
  • To hear opportunity knock at the door, you first have to be standing near the door. No matter what happens, you have to be present in order to be taken seriously.
  • Take a no like a very young determined child takes a no from her parents—as a maybe (The tone of the no is more important than the word itself.). For instance, Edison famously said, “I just learnt of 999 ways not to make a light bulb.”
  • When you make money for others, many others will come to offer you more money for your business. In other’s interest, lies your interest.
  • Confucius said that failure lies not in falling down. It is not getting up when you fall down. So, falling down is inevitable, but getting up is optional. And your choice.


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