[This article is a part of our First Person series, in which entrepreneurs and professionals share their stories about their startups, lives and careers.]
Tuesday, 17th June 2014. I stood staring at the sign which read “MagnetWorks Engineering Pvt. Ltd.” in front of my charming little office in JP Nagar. It was about 4 in the afternoon. The sunlight streamed through the trees in that comforting fashion it tends to on lazy Tuesday afternoons. I choked back tears as I chuckled. Baz Luhrmann’s song “Sunscreen” rang in my ears.
The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.
Stupid fucking song.
I’d spent the last few weeks desperately trying to save my startup and failed. My co-founder had told me point blank that he had no faith in my ability to be the CEO of the company. I called my dad, who’s run a business for nearly 50 years and told him what my co-founder said. He listened patiently and said the words I knew in my heart, but didn’t want to hear:
“Son, sometimes it’s just not our time in life. Cut your losses and live to fight another day.”
I opened my bank account. Bank Balance: Rs. 14,130 it read. Less than 1 month’s rent. I was getting married to the love of my life in 5 months. Her family had never asked me how much I made. But minuscule bank balance weighed on me like a ton of bricks.
In that moment I knew: Our Industrial IoT business which started with an ambitious goal of helping factory machines run themselves had just folded with a whimper.
I told my employees, that since the co-founders could no longer work together, we’d have to shut shop. I asked them if they needed help finding another job, but they were all so talented that they had standing offers from several other startups which they’d declined in the past. They’d be fine they said, and I heaved a small sigh of relief.
At least my team would be OK.
My best engineer, a death metal loving code junkie nearly broke my heart when he said, “Sahil, aap ke paas agar kuch bhi idea ho toh bataiye, mein aap ke sath baith ke banaunga. Paise ka tension mat lijiye.” (Sahil, tell me if you have any ideas, I’ll sit with you and build it. Don’t worry about the money)
I smiled wanly at him as I said, I’m fresh out of ideas. More importantly, I didn’t have the strength. But we shook hands and promised each other that we’d find another way to work together someday.
One by one, I cleared my office. Sold the furniture on OLX, paid the last months salaries, and spent the last day making trips back and forth between my home and office carrying the last bits of electronics and supplies.
As I dumped the last half-torn cardboard box full of PCBs and IP-rated plastic shells, the guts of our beautiful and humble product, into my car, I felt hollow, empty.
I desperately wanted to not be alone. I hoped like hell that someone would show up and make everything right. Even though I had no idea what “right” was at this point. I’d studied at the best engineering college in the country, worked at the best management consulting firm in the world. I took risks and tried to build a real business that built real technologies to help real factory. I even had paying customers. And still, I’d failed.
I took a deep breath, held on to the edges of the nameboard in front of my office door, and ripped it off the wall. In that moment, the last year, the best and worst of my life, flashed before my eyes, and when I looked down at the sign in my hands I could take it no more.
I fell to my knees and wept.
I spent the first month after that day in an intoxicated haze in my apartment. I didn’t step out once, didn’t eat much, or speak to anyone other than my sister and my fiance (now wife). I didn’t want to be sober because I didn’t want to feel. That only worked for so long. Eventually, I began putting my resume together, which felt so wrong, because I loathed the idea of a paycheck and a boss. But I did it anyway.
Interview after interview passed. I got some offers, but none of them truly inspired me to get out of the funk. One fine day, Kartik called. He was a senior from IITM, and someone I looked up to. Mostly because he could bust out a Steely Dan guitar solo like few others. He’d built a fund of his own and he wanted me to come work with him. I hadn’t even sent him a resume.
I met him and the team at Aspada and felt a strange kind of kinship. They weren’t interested in the VC game of funding, markups and lather-rinse-repeat ad nauseum, for the sake of it. They wanted to build something real for India, not just the same 40 million urban elite consumers that every other startup seemed to be obsessed with. And more importantly, their investments showed that they walked the talk. I said yes.
When I joined Aspada, I swore to myself that I’d never forget where I came from. An entrepreneur’s life is the hardest because it’s the most lonely. You can’t share your fears with anyone. Your family will not want to see you suffer, so the moment you tell them, they’ll ask you to find a job. Your friends who are salaried professionals will never understand how it feels to watch your bank balance go in the wrong direction, while worrying about paying your teams salaries. Your other entrepreneur buddies have problems of their own and understandably don’t have the time to really listen.
I swore that I would listen to my founders’ fears, to their problems, to their loneliness.
As I write this, I can see startups begin to fold because of a lack of funds. I couldn’t bring myself to write about that day simply because I didn’t want to relive the pain. My fingers have trembled throughout this post because thinking about it felt like picking at an old and deep scar.
I write it only because even if just one founder who’s in a similar predicament feels a little less alone, it’ll be worth it.
Because it’s easy to glorify failure in this ecosystem, but the realities hold no glory. Only a wrenching, twisting, pain that never really goes away. But it does dim, little by little, over the course of time. To that founder who can’t go on any longer, I offer these words from Noel Gallagher.
Hold up, Hold on
Don’t be scared
You’ll never change what’s been and gone
May your smile
Don’t be scared
Your destiny may keep you warm
Cos all of the stars, are fading away
Just try not to worry
You’ll see them some day
Take what you need
And be on your way
And stop crying your heart out
[Sahil Kini is a Principal at Aspada Investment Advisors. Previously he was founder & CEO of MagnetWorks, a startup which built Industrial IoT systems. After graduating from IIT Madras, he worked for McKinsey & Company for 3 years, which included a secondment to the Aadhaar project. He can be contacted on Twitter at @sahilkini. This post originally appeared here and has been reproduced with the author’s permission.]