The hotel attendant opened the door to a lavish conference hall. Beyond its sparkling white floor and wide conference table, a vast city spread below, out of its glass walls. Clicking his shoes, dressed in a beige suit, Rajat entered after the attendant. With a wide smile on his face, he breathed full in his lungs and walked beyond the table towards the view. The attendant smiled behind him, and walked away.
Rajat stood alone before the glass panes, gazing at the cityscape, his hands in his pockets. He felt like he was walking in the clouds. Was he not, he thought. This was it. A little later than he had thought, but never less glamorous. This was it, and this was just the beginning.
He remembered when all of this had just begun. Another time, another place; same Rajat, same idea.
“Hello Rajat, are you ready?” Amol greeted him with a thump on his back.
Lost in thoughts, Rajat had not noticed when Amol entered the hall.
Rajat spoke something pensively, shook hands with Amol and others entering the hall, and began walking to the presiding chair to the end of the long table.
More and more students were walking into the cafeteria with bigger and bigger job offers. Excited friends were hugging each other, and cheering loudly – dancing even! Campus placements were coming to an end. Convocation was to follow soon.
Away from the happening crowd, Rajat sat alone in a corner, wearing a casual t-shirt and shorts, sipping his orange juice from a straw and observing the celebrations indifferently. Chintan dumped his file on the table loudly and sat down next to him.
“VroomCar wouldn’t hire me, Uber wouldn’t hire me, and no other travel companies are here.” Chintan raged, “You should have applied for campus placements. You have the luck that we missed out on.”
“Which is why I’m not settling for campus interviews!” Rajat quipped. “Anyways, I’m not interested in running around taking orders from other people.”
Chintan didn’t want to argue with him. If he had had a rich father, he too would have hated taking orders from someone else.
“Everyone’s fighting only to hear the three magical words: ‘welcome to the team!’ And they’re willing to do anything to hear them. They are so desperate for the security of a job, they wouldn’t mind starting their own businesses if people offered jobs for doing it!”
The silence that followed was broken by another guy storming into the cafeteria, shouting hysterically. His friends joined him with high-fives and cheers. Chintan looked at them like he would be leaving the place sooner than he had planned.
“So… What are you going to do now?” Rajat tried to distract him.
“Just… gonna apply for jobs… I’ll get one somewhere or another… What about you?”
Rajat stared at Chintan for some time. “Do you want to work at my new start-up?”
Chintan stared back with a straight face.
“Don’t be an idiot, Rajat. Just because you don’t want a job and you have a rich dad doesn’t mean you should do start-up.”
Rajat laughed. “For me, It’s not start-up OR job, Chintan. It’s start-up FOR job.”
Chintan thought about it quietly.
“You are not going to get a job in VroomCar straight away, that’s for sure. But what if I promise you a job in a company like VroomCar in 3 years, if you come and work with me today?”
“Spare me the pickup lines, and tell me what you’ll pay.” Chintan replied, thoughtfully.
In a small air-conditioned theater classroom, Rajat finished his long, detailed presentation and opened a water bottle to take a sip. A panel of three investors sat in front of him, looking unimpressed.
“If this is what you have done in last one year, then you have disappointed me Rajat.” Mr. Sanghvi, youngest of the investors, spoke up after some whispers among the panellists. A middle aged woman, Mrs Banu, sat beside him. She looked professional, an agent hired by a consortium of investors. The third investor, Mr Devasthali, was a plump rich man in his 50s.
A pin drop silence filled the room, perhaps in agreement.
“Your plans are accurate, structure is great, and I’m almost ready to fund you but I don’t understand why you are doing this.” Sanghvi continued, “Firstly, we all know and you yourself just said that the car renting idea behind your start-up – is copy of VroomCar. Now VroomCar is a company very, very few can afford to bet against. And second, you tell us we cannot question any of your decisions even if we decide to fund you. I think this is too much to ask for your proposal.”
Rajat spoke up quickly, as if he was expecting the question, “Mr. Sanghvi, I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of start-up pitches. Today as well, you will see numerous inflated start-up ideas being pitched to you. But whatever maybe their business, they are all the same really. They all dream of aggressive expansions, fancy takeover plans, and aim to be number one company in their sector in so many years. But in reality, they start coughing in a few months and shut shop in a few more. That’s exactly what I am not doing. I am not giving you false hopes. I have a different strategy. Look at my work, I’m sure my company will be managed better than VroomCar. Profits are guaranteed. Question for you is, whether you want to run a company as if it’s your everyday job, or whether you want to make an investment.”
“You are sounding a lot like you are screening investors here Rajat, and not the other way around!” Mrs. Banu pointed out.
Rajat chuckled. “I’m sorry if I’m sounding rude, Ma’am. I don’t mean to. But to put it correctly, I’m not selling you my idea, or my company. I am not looking for owners, who will dabble in everyday decision-making. I’m selling you an investment, Terms and conditions applied!”
“But why aren’t you ambitious? I don’t think you can justify your lack of ambition with the tag of doing something different.”
“Indeed! Everyone should be ambitious. Everyone should aim to be number one. Anyone can do that. But only one of them will actually make it to the top, and everyone else will fail. So why don’t we try our hardest and let the time decide what we deserve? Judge me by my performance, not ambitions.” Rajat gestured towards his PPT.
“So you are trying to give an alternative to VroomCar, the biggest player in car renting industry. You think you have what it takes to beat them? Because they have been in this industry since a year before you even started your work on this!”
“Our services will be better in every aspect than VroomCar Sir. But, to be really frank, we are not aiming to beat VroomCar.”
Mr. Devasthali shook as he laughed. “Then whom are you going to beat? Flipkart? This doesn’t make sense! If you are not going to compete and beat the top player of your industry, how do you plan to survive?”
“I agree with Devasthali,” Mrs Banu supported him. “When two companies are fighting for customer acquisition, none of them makes profits. Just like amazon and flipkart in e-commerce. You need to tell me how you’re gonna fix this.”
Rajat smiled mischievously, “Fund me, and I’ll tell you!”
The panelists chuckled at the clever reply.
Some moments passed in silence and the panel exchanged glances signalling they had no more questions. Mrs Banu took charge to conclude her thoughts.
“Okay, Rajat. You have worked very well and hard on your plan. I like your confidence, and I like your approach to this, but I’m sorry to say, your proposal seems incomplete to me. I think you should work more on it. All the best.”
“Thank you Ma’am.”
“Let’s face it Rajat, you are not made for the start-up world, so just… go get yourself a job and stop being so overconfident before it’s too late.” Mr. Devasthali rose from his chair for a break and walked out.
“Why are you doing this? Your work on the plan is exceptional! But if you know how to build a start-up so well, then why an old idea, why not your own?”
“I’m an entrepreneur, Sir. It doesn’t matter whether my idea is old or new, original or improvised. What matters, is that I can build a company better than anyone else.”
“And then what happens once your company is well established? What happens to the entrepreneur in you?” Sanghvi gestured his hands to quote the word, “Won’t you be just another CEO of just another company?”
“No. My job is not running and managing big business companies, but building new and better ones.”
Sanghvi stared at Rajat for some time, and then got up abruptly, holding out his hand to Rajat. “Congrats, Rajat, you have won your first funding!”
Mrs Banu smiled quietly at such a turn of events.
“Thank you, Mr. Sanghvi!” Rajat smiled and shook hands with him, “Let me assure you it is not the last!”
“I’m sure it won’t be! Call me Amol, please!”
“Hello Rajat, are you ready for your big day?” Amol thumped on Rajat’s back.
Rajat seemed lost in thoughts for some time, “Hello Amol, I was waiting for it! Welcome! Please have a seat.” Rajat shook hands with him and other senior company executives as they arrived – including Chintan. Everyone looked very enthusiastic and nervous at the same time, speculating about what big announcement awaited them. A calm and composed Rajat walked around the room to his seat.
Sitting in the CEO’s chair Rajat began, after everyone had settled down, “They say the best period in the life of a start-up begins after finding its investors. Today – a year after expanding to state-wide coverage and two years after Amol Sanghvi decided to fund me – today is the day we meet the investors I have been waiting and preparing for since the beginning. As you all must be aware, Unicorn start-up VroomCar is soon starting its operations in our state. Bad news is, we will need fresh rounds of funding to compete. Which calls for a lot of work because nobody, I repeat, nobody is willing to bet against VroomCar. Good news is, we don’t need to do anything about it.” A puzzling silence spread across the room as Rajat mischievously. “We are all here today to decide upon a reasonable takeover bid that our company can accept from the unicorn. Ladies and Gentlemen, It is my pleasure, to welcome you all to VroomCar!”
Loud claps and cheers arose from all the executives. There were few who were not happy about selling a startup, but the applause made it clear that any resistance was futile. How long can any hardworking man resist the millions, after all?
Taking in the sound of the applause, Rajat looked at Chintan. Chintan smiled at him, with moist eyes. Rajat turned his gaze to Amol, who was smiling quietly as he clapped.
All of them had always thought they were competing against VroomCar. But now they knew. Rajat wanted them to believe it, or they would have never posed a serious threat to VroomCar. And if they were not a threat to VroomCar, why would VroomCar bother buying them out?
EDM music blared on the speakers. The new staff of VroomCar was enjoying the booze and snacks sponsored by Rajat.
Euphoric Chintan made his way from the dancing floor of the club towards the counter, where Rajat sat and light was plentier. Chintan set down his glass and took a seat next to Rajat, looking at the colleagues around.
He had to shout a little to be heard, “Man, this is lovely! I can’t believe my senses! Finally!”
Rajat grinned at him reminiscently and said, “Want to work at my new start-up?”
Chintan laughed. “I know. I owe you everything man! I couldn’t have made it so far so fast without you.”
He was to be third from top in the finance team of VroomCar.
“No, Chintan… I’m asking you seriously, again.” Rajat spoke calmly, unmindful of all the noise around him.
Chintan couldn’t tell if Rajat was high, or just calm. He stopped bobbing his head to the beat and looked at Rajat. “What? Why?”
“You know why.”
Chintan turned quiet and serious. EDM music played on in background. “No man, I’m sorry. This is what I had dreamed of. This is why I agreed to work with you in the first place. VroomCar was my ultimate aim, you know that. I don’t want to give up what I have earned after so long, only to work like a beginner again. I believe in you man, but I can’t give this up. I hope you can understand.”
“I can understand. No hard feelings, man. Cheers!”
Rajat put a hand around his shoulders, and they clinked their glasses, smiling.
“You should know I’m gonna own 0.1% stake in VroomCar, after all.”
“Aah! That’s badass! Buying such a share in a company that once rejected to hire you!” Rajat shouted after gulping a mouthful. “From whom did you buy it though?”
Chintan pointed at Amol, standing at the other end of the counter.
Rajat frowned. “I’ll be right back,” he said as he got up.
Amol saw him approaching from a distance, “Rajat! I hear you’re quitting the company?”
“I’m surprised you’re surprised, Amol!”
“Oh, no. I just didn’t expect you to do it before me!”
Rajat smiled. “To be frank, Amol, I’m surprised you are selling your stake.”
“You, Rajat, of all the people?” Amol turned around as he took a sip from his glass, and continued, “VroomCar, today, is what you were arguing against, two years ago. Aggressive expansions, takeover plans, aiming to be number one. How long do you think this fool-fair is gonna go on?”
“But I was talking about amateur start-ups then. VroomCar is already number one in its business.”
“Then why is it still burning cash and making losses?” Amol scoffed.
“It is still expanding, there are lots of new markets to be taken over. All this demands a lot of funds before the company makes profits. Whatever that is happening is totally justified.”
“Maybe, maybe not!” Amol shrugged.
“There’s always risk, in every investment. I don’t see why you are so wary of putting money in a Unicorn now, while you daringly invested in a copied start-up four years back.” Rajat argued, hoping to convince Amol against quitting VroomCar.
“You think everyone is like you? You think I funded you because I cared about your idea? Start-ups are the new real estate. Until prices are going up, it doesn’t matter how much rent it really earns. Until everyone thinks valuations are going up, it doesn’t matter how much profit the company makes. You can make a profession out of buying and selling businesses.” Amol paused to laugh at his clever phrase, “Buy cheap, sell high. Easy money. Everyone starts doing that, and dummies call them “investors”. But then one day people realize, just because everyone agrees to something doesn’t mean it is true. Valuations cannot bring revenues, and then it bursts like a bubble!”
Amol’s words hit Rajat hard. He didn’t know what to say. Amidst the buzz of hopes and dreams, they were like two wise men discussing the futility of it all.
“Look at Snapdeal, what was once valued worth 6 billion dollars, Flipkart refused to buy for 1 billion! 70% of its employees will now lose jobs, and god knows what happens to the remaining 30%! At such times, when I have got more returns than the best of stock market rallies, I don’t want to lose ANY of it. It’s high time for an exit.”
“But what about the entrepreneurs who genuinely want to change the world? What about the start-ups that will suffer when the bubble bursts, for no mistake of their own?” Rajat asked, refusing to give up.
“And what about the investors who have earned their fortune?” Amol said, imitating Rajat’s tone. “Every man for himself Rajat! Enjoy the night. There are many investors with deeper pockets and dumber brains than ours.”
Amol patted Rajat’s back and walked away into the crowd. He was a celebrity investor now. He had made billions, out of the start-up boom of course. If I was as rich as him, I wouldn’t care about start-ups either, Rajat thought to console himself.
He hated every word Amol had said, but it was true word by word. Fundings were drying up all around the country. Everyday there were news of bigger and bigger companies being wound up. After all, you couldn’t simply add internet to an existing business, call it a start-up, and expect it to make money for you. Investors now demanded “strong financials”, and start-ups never had any. Start-ups were never meant to make money. They were meant to make innovations – and making innovations had always been costly. Profits of some greedy investors would probably cost the start-up industry its principle.
Rajat stood amidst blaring EDM music and crowd dancing to it, yet alone. At the top of his career, surrounded by people he had helped where they were, yet alone. He realised all three of them had their own interpretations of ‘Start-up for job’. They had worked together when it was in their interests, and now it was not anymore. It was time for Rajat to choose a side – which interpretation would he choose now?
It was a hard choice, but after all that Amol had said, there was nothing to think about really. Rajat had to quit VroomCar. He was going to need as much cash as he could get out of this deal, no stock.
He had no time to haggle with investors like Amol, he didn’t want any of them on board now. He was going to fund his own AI start-up.