How a tech journalist’s entrepreneurial spirit was doused by the shenanigans of a conman
On a fine day in December 2016, I received a call from my long-time friend and class mate, who was working for a video news startup in Bangalore then. A seasoned TV journalist, he has close to 10 years’ experience working at leading vernacular news channels in the south Indian state of Kerala. But he was the rebel among his peers.
“Buddy, I am planning to launch an online news venture. Are you interested in joining me?,” he asked me over the phone.
Being “neck-deep” in startup journalism, I have faced this question several times in the past six years: ‘when are you starting up? If at all you start something, what kind of venture it would be’.
Honestly, I had always been double-minded on this, because I know from my numerous interviews with entrepreneurs and VCs, how hard it is to be an entrepreneur. Plus, I did not have the right resource or money to launch something on my own. So, I remained an employee for someone.
This call from my friend came at the right time, I thought to myself.
“Yes, I am in. Frankly, I was looking for a right partner to start something, and thank God I finally found someone with similar interests,” I replied.
“Buddy, when I called you I was least hopeful of you joining me. I had a chat with many of our other classmates and my former colleagues, but no one was willing to take risk in life. Entrepreneurship is all about taking risks. I am happy and proud that you are joining me,” he said.
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I was euphoric. The very thought of becoming an entrepreneur gave me goosebumps. And I pictured myself as the next media baron from India. I know it is tough to be in the media business, because investment is hard to come, and scaling is hard.
Anyway, I was determined.
Relatives are skeptical
I shared the news with my parents and in-laws. My dad has always been supportive, but my other relatives were a bit skeptical. They asked me if I was going to quit my job at e27, and if so it would be the most foolish decision in my life
“No, I am not going to leave my current job. Here’s my plan: in the first few months, I will work only part-time for the new venture, and then as the traffic grows, we will take some angel funding. I will then quit my full-time job and commit full time to our own baby,” I said to them.
Soon, my friend and I started working on the news portal. We discussed and brainstormed several ideas and industries.
“Our world is full of negative and fake news and I feel a portal for positive and inspiring news would strike the right chord with the Indian readers,” I told him. But soon I took back my comments as I realised there are already several sites for good news, and some of them are well-funded.
“How about a portal only for failed entrepreneurs?,” I asked him again. “I have talked to some of my entrepreneur-friends who said a portal for failure is a good idea. Plus, people love to read about failures.”
“Sainul, it is a good idea, but scaling it will be hard. Let’s think of something else,” he replied.
Eventually, we zeroed in on the idea of entrepreneurship news. The plan was to start off with entrepreneurship news, and as it scales, we will pivot to a video news portal for startups.
Naming of the portal was the next big task. The responsibility to find a good name was mine. Within an hour, I came up with a few good names, and we decided to go ahead with one of them. Without wasting much time, we purchased the domain name from GoDaddy for a few hundred bucks.
The initial game plan was to run the portal on our own. While my friend will take care of the operations part, I will manage the editorial side of the business. We started uploading content, and soon we got Facebook approval for Instant Articles. Waah, we have already started making some bucks, however insignificant the amount is.
In the meanwhile, we accidentally met our third co-founder — a 41 year old man with a huge network of contacts and a wealth of knowledge of the industry. A failed entrepreneur himself (he described himself the first BPO entrepreneur from India), he was struggling to meet both ends. He was working for several projects but did not make much money out of any of them. We decided to leverage his network and rope him in as a co-founder.
The discovery of our fourth co-founder was also accidental. Here is the story: I am a member of a WhatsApp group for entrepreneurs, angels and startup journalists from Kerala. I used to share my articles and news stories with others in the group. One day, I wrote about a member of the group, who was running an online cab service startup for pets in Bangalore. I shared the link in the group. Seeing the article, one of the angel investors, who is also a member of the group, messaged personally to thank me for the article. He asked me to stay in touch and contact him whenever I need help.
A couple of weeks into the launch of our portal, I decided to bug the angel investor. I dialled him and told him about our venture. He asked us to meet him in Bangalore, and soon we found ourselves sitting around a table at a leading five-star hotel in the city. The angel investor came with his 25-year-old son. He was working for the pet cabs startup part-time, and was looking for a break. The investor told us that his son, a good marketing person, would be helpful us in the long run. “Okay, we are taking him as our fourth co-founder,” we said to him.
After the meeting, we left the hotel with a huge sigh of relief. We thought that we have found the right partners and it is now going to be very easy for us to reach out to more people and raise funding. Even if the investor is unable to fund us, he would at least connect us with some other investors.
In the meanwhile, we started the registration process of our company. We called several agencies, but all of them quoted huge rates. It was then our first third co-founder told us that he knew an agency which could undertake the process for under INR 36,000 (approximately US$500), the cheapest rate. So the other three of us pooled money and handed the cash to him. He said the process would be completed in under two weeks.
Two weeks later, we called him for the update on registration, and he said he needed a couple of weeks more. We decided to give him some more time, and in the meanwhile, we kept updating our site daily with fresh news.
A month passed, and there was no update on the registration. This is when we grew suspicious on him. Each of us attempted to call him separately over phone. However, he did not attend our calls. We decided to go to his home to find what happened. When we arrived in his rented home, located in the outskirts of Bangalore, we could find only his wife and he was already gone. She told us that the couple had broken up several years ago. She also said he is a real conman and had swindled many other people out of millions of rupees.
The cheating by one of our co-founders was dispiriting and disgusting, but then we the rest of us decided to move on. We are still running the site, but I am no longer involved in the day-to-day work. My friend still calls me occasionally asking me to wait for a few more months. He says he has found an investor who is willing to inject money into our business.
We are still waiting for that investor.
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