Ashwin Damera on the wisdom of failure, the best form of fundraising, and unlearning through creative destruction

Ashwin Damera

KR Colour
Karthik Reddy

Episode
Episode 6
Published
Reading Time
48 minutes

In this episode of X‑Unicorns, Karthik B. Reddy of Blume Ventures sat down with Ashwin Damera of Emeritus Education about the wisdom of failure, the wrong reasons to become an entrepreneur, and the three box approach” to build a successful business.

This transcript was AI-generated and went through multiple rounds of proofreading. However, there might be a few errors that may have slipped through the cracks.

Karthik Reddy: It is a lovely Thursday afternoon here at Blume Ventures and we have an unexpected guest visiting us. Welcome, Ashwin. We have Ashwin Damera, the CEO and Founder of Eruditus. Presently discovered that we have a lot of commonalities in where we grew up and our origins. Ashwin, would you love to share what your childhood in Chennai felt like? I have very fond memories of my first 17 years there, but it was great to see somebody who grew up in Chennai, made Bombay their home, much like me, and is thriving here with a world-class company like Eruditus.

Ashwin Damera: Thanks, Karthik. Thanks for having me. We have more similarities I suppose. We also have Telugu as a mother tongue and Tamil as a language we profess to speak, but others may be a more critical judge of that.

Well, I grew up in Chennai, 23 years. I think the most memorable part of that is my schooling. I went to the Krishnamurti Foundation School called The School, which at that time was at this 30-acre, Theosophical Society campus. And really kind of learned in open settings with nature, under the trees. Till the eighth grade, we had no exams, there was no uniform, all of that. And looking back, maybe that in some ways, sowed the seed of respect and love for education and what it can do to shape people's lives. But Chennai was a fun time. My parents and my brother's family, etc, still live there, and extended family still live there. But now Mumbai is my home.

Karthik: That's fantastic to hear. What I didn't realise is we are even closer than we thought. The compound wall of the Krishnamurti Foundation School is shared with a school called Sishya, which is where I spent 14 years straight, by the way.

Ashwin: Oh, nice. 

Karthik: So I'm a Sishya boy. It's awesome to hear; a lot of Chennai stories maybe after we are done with this podcast we can share.

I think maybe if you'd asked me to guess, knowing you now over two long conversations, I might have guessed you are a KFI boy, so that's fantastic. By the way, coincidentally, a little bit more of a trivia and I don't know how much of a connection there was, but I was reading this article obituary in The Hindu last week. Gopal Srinivasan's mom passed away and I didn't know she had a big role to play in setting up KFI and that was another sort of fresh discovery I had. Seems like a wonderful woman. I have met many KFI students after they graduated. We did not mingle much when we were in school but met them through various parts of my life, and each one of them feels like they're taken away something wonderful from that experience.

Ashwin: And it's a small world because I believe her granddaughter was my classmate and also in my carpool. 

Karthik: Oh, wow. 

Ashwin: And if I'm not mistaken, she used to live in Boat Club Road, actually I have been to that house, a magnificent house. But yes, she had a lot of institution building, including...

Karthik: I've had coffee with Gopal in that house, and I think Gopal would love to hear what his mother started, has created products like you, who were out there sort of championing a new age of entrepreneurship. 

Coming to entrepreneurship because I think it has been one of the driving forces around what keeps us going at Blume. So yes, there are valuations and LPs and GPs and all these fancy terms, but fundamentally, I was reminded of it yesterday when two of my entrepreneurs, one who's an alum and one who's a live entrepreneur in the fund, meaning he is still building away. They actually met independently in Bangalore and both wrote to me. And they said we were having fond discussions of how we think of you, Karthik, as someone who wants to shape the right form of entrepreneurship in India. It was a very touching moment for me to be seen that way by my founders. If you look at the idea of this podcast, it's built around that more than whether you're a unicorn or you're going to become one. And these are all nice western terms that we borrowed, but essentially there is an innate sense of entrepreneurship that Indians have always had, and I think we are redrawing that in a new era with new industries and new opportunities. 

What did it mean to you and why would you choose that coming out of Chennai? There are a lot of entrepreneurs in Chennai, most people think boys coming from Chennai are super conservative, happy to be in a job, happy to go abroad, migrate overseas, and not come back to their motherland. What does that journey feel like? So I'd love to hear what drove you in that direction.

Ashwin: I think there are many stereotypes, Karthik. I think the South has had a lot of entrepreneurship and business acumen for many years. In fact, if you think about it, very recently, I haven't yet watched it, but Ponniyin Selvan, the movie, it talks about the Cholas trading through the Strait of Malacca with Indonesia all the way up to China and so they were enterprising entrepreneurial traders way back, I think, in the fifth, sixth, seventh century, etc. 

But the modern way of entrepreneurship where you start a company, you raise venture capital money, you build scale, exit, become a unicorn, a decacorn, all of that, that may be the new definition of entrepreneurship, which I'm not sure I fully agree with.

My journey in that part started by accident. I don't come from a family of business, and you are right. My brother is super intelligent, way more intelligent than me. He's a Ph.D. at UT Austin, then went to Stanford, worked at HP Research Lab, now heads up their AI and Machine Learning stuff, and he's written papers, has patents, and I can't understand any of that.

When I finished my business school, as a field study to get credit, I had written a business plan for a company called TravelGuru. It was a part of my curriculum. You were allowed to do practical work. So this was a field study and I also joined the business plan contest at Harvard Business School, and surprisingly, we made it to the final. It was a surprise. And even more surprising, two of my classmates came and said, look, we will give you $100,000 to go back to India and start this. 

Karthik: Oh, wow. 

Ashwin: And I had a student loan, a sizeable student loan. I had an offer from McKinsey to work in New York City, which was a lovely place to be. And I had this dilemma, do I come back to India and start this? And there were two people who were actually backing me that would not have lasted a very long time, but at least it was a start. And, yet I don't come from a background that has role models or entrepreneurs. In fact, my parents were worried. They were actively saying, "Hey, why don't you take that McKinsey job?", work for 3-5 years, and then come back and start anything you want.

Karthik: Classic stuff.

Ashwin: And I was like, but this idea at this time is not going to exist.

Karthik: That's right.

Ashwin: You know, if I come back again. I think an entrepreneur's life, and maybe this is true of many people's lives, comes down to those moments where you have to make those pivotal decisions.

I would not be sitting here if I decided to have taken that McKinsey job in New York, and maybe I would do well somewhere else. But I wouldn't be here.

Karthik: That's absolutely right. Yeah.

Ashwin: I decided to come back. Came back to Mumbai, staying in a really small apartment using public transport. We would've run out of cash in six months, but you can't tell that to your earliest employees. We had about 20 people. It was a tough ride. So it was an accident. It's classic entrepreneurship. The one piece of advice actually I got was from the McKinsey partner when I said, "Hey, I want to go do this." Surprisingly, he was actually encouraging me. He said, "look, go do this for a year."  If it works, fantastic, you've found your passion in entrepreneurship and maybe we'll come and consult for you. If it doesn't work, even better, you'll be a very good consultant, right?

And if you actually think about it, then what he said simplified was what's the risk I was taking? I was going to get a year of my life to learn at a pace that I think when in entrepreneurship the pace of learning is so high. 

Karthik: That is correct.

Ashwin: So it actually wasn't a very difficult decision. But then we have all these stigmas in our head, "oh, if it fails, what will people think?" And blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. 

Karthik: Correct. 

Ashwin: That was my entrepreneurial journey. And look, if you ask me today, can I imagine myself doing anything else? Absolutely not. 

Karthik: I'll come back to that thought. But it's interesting you said what he said. It sparked off another thing in me. Did you end up spending three years in the US, that's it or...?

Ashwin: No, I did my MBA for two years.

Karthik: And came right back.

Ashwin: I came right back. In between, I took the bonus cheque, signing the bonus cheque from McKinsey. Cashed it to start TravelGuru and then of course a year later when I wasn't going back, I returned it.

Karthik: Okay. Very interesting. So even that happened.

I spent about seven years there. I have a deep appreciation for some things and the way they work in that country. Clearly, that's why it's the mothership of capitalism and one of them is their ability to sort of push these boundaries in children as early as arguably 9th grade, 10th grade, making them do summer jobs and service industries. Of course, Singapore does military conscription, but like various experiences of this nature and we might be guilty as parents, I don't know about you, but I feel sometimes with my 14-year-old, are we too guarded in the way we teach our children and give them exposure and experiences to be more ready for these kinds of journeys of decision-making of the nature that you made and be prepared to take those opportunities rather than be very cushy and very guarded in the way they work. I feel like especially the US offers this opportunity a lot and they celebrate the idea of experience, failure, and venture, which we seem to be afraid of and worried about, and for good reason, because somebody has asked you in a job interview, what were you wasting time for? And how come you didn't follow the path I did?

I do not know if that's woven into your Eruditus story as well as you go on. Maybe they all add up at some point, but any views on that and how do you think, whoever is listening and thinks about shaping their mind to be ready for entrepreneurship? That's where I'm coming from. I went through all the questions that your parents threw at you and I started Blume and that was much later, at 37, 38. So, how do you contend with that? Or how do you train your kids to think about it? 

Ashwin: To put in context, our parents and the questions we went through, Karthik, were probably 15-20 years back. India has changed a lot. The entrepreneurial ecosystem has changed a lot. Five or ten years back when we wanted to hire people and say, look you'll get a lower salary, but you'll get ESOPs. They weren't excited. Now, we actually have people who are saying, Hey, I want more ESOP, and I'm happy to trade off salary. So, the ecosystem has changed. But you're right. The biggest hurdle, I think is this fear of failure. I mean, how many times have I had people reach up saying, Hey, can you give me advice? I have a full-time job. I have this great idea. I want to start it, but on a part-time basis.

Karthik: Yeah.

Ashwin: Why can't you jump into it fully? Oh, no, no, no. I just want to make sure that till it takes off, I don't want to get in there. This fear of failure holds us back and sometimes I feel that we should define failure as the failure to not even try. And that is a real failure. In fact, the most successful entrepreneurs are there because they've made that leap of faith and they tried. And if you've not even done that, you already failed. 

Secondly, define failure as just learning. My first startup from every outward, optical kind of measure, was a small outcome. We raised capital. We barely managed to return the capital to our investors after 5-7 years. So you can define that as a failure and you wouldn't be wrong if you did.

Karthik: Sure.

Ashwin: But for me, that was fantastic learning. 

Karthik: Amazing.

Ashwin: And my second startup is, I think where it is today, which again, in the external definitions of Unicorn valuation, all of that probably far surpasses even our own expectations. But I attribute a lot of that to that first learning, the 5-7 years spent in TravelGuru, where we went through the ups and down. In fact, as we speak, and we're going through this downturn, I've seen 2008. We had nearly signed an agreement with Expedia to sell as Lehman Brothers collapsed and we know what the world was after we've lived through that.

So if you have to make decisions today, you have that experience. A famous Stanford professor said this. He said, look, if I have a chance to invest between a really bright, smart person starting out the first time, and a so-called average failed entrepreneur, but starting his or her second business, 10 out of 10 times, I'll invest in the second time entrepreneur. Why? Because they have the knowledge of failure. And actually, maybe it's better to say the wisdom of failure. And that's my view of it. But that thing as a society has to change. If you look at the US, they have all of these things that soak up failure. Like they celebrate the fact that hey, it's your second-time startup. In fact, somebody in the VC world said, oh, you have an opportunity cost of continuing to run your startup.

Karthik: That's right. 

Ashwin: You can go to insolvency if you are a big guy, nobody cares. You can sell debt. So, if your company is not doing well, people are there to buy a kind of low-grade debt, etc. The whole ecosystem is building up, but the main thing, it's a mindset change. Nobody there says, "oh, your startup fails, so I won't hire you." Here this big fear still exists. 

Karthik: Correct. 

Ashwin: I think a lot of this, and what you're trying to do with this podcast is changing these mindsets. And the truth I feel is that look, there is no such thing as a failed entrepreneur, but there are people who kind of fail to take the entrepreneurship journey. I think those people in my mind at least, I would say…

Karthik: Are bigger failures. 

Ashwin: If you hold a mirror to them, maybe they're a bigger failure.

Karthik: I think having lived through a decade-plus of this wonderful journey called entrepreneurship, I think it is very well said. And I share the views obviously, cause I'm going through a similar path myself.

People continue to wonder whether we will be "successful," but the journey is far, far more enriching. And if you hadn't put in those first 5-7 years of sacrifice, there's no way it would look like a win, really. It would look like a job. I mean, you could've gone and taken a job at a big VC. It'll feel the same as how you described that failure to actually take that chance yourself and it was given. 

I think in that sense, if you look at both relative educational backgrounds, also I feel that at one level a tragedy that the most privileged don't take these chances. You have lot more underdogs taking these chances. We don't see too many of our peers taking these much tougher chances. They're more equipped with networks, the ability to access capital, and people and we should be taking more of this to spur the country forward, not applying ourselves into necessarily one job or the other. 

So how did the TravelGuru journey eventually morph itself into an Eruditus journey? Walk us through how difficult or easy or challenging that was.

Ashwin: So TravelGuru started straight after I finished my MBA at Harvard Business School in 2005, and ran it till 2008. We raised a Series A from WestBridge, which later on became Sequoia, and then Battery Ventures invested. In 2008, we signed a term sheet that Expedia would buy us. This would've been at a $75 million-odd valuation, which would have been great. Everybody was very excited. We negotiated terms, etc, etc, etc. Should have known better. Would have signed that faster, perhaps. And then Lehman Brothers collapsed in August and obviously so, the deal fell apart. But the problem is we had only two months of cash in the bank because we were selling the company. Why would you raise money and dilute, and why would a new investor come in knowing that you were selling? And that's when, you can say shit hit the roof. But, these moments, like I said, I can break up my life into these pivotal moments. What I learned in those next six months surpassed what I learned in the first 5 years. When everything goes well, you just go with the flow. You're so excited. But when everything is really not working is when you learn a lot about business and yourself. And sometimes who your friends are also. 

But the point is that what I realised also Karthik, look I was in travel space, this was a business, and my real motivation here was I wanted a start-up. I wanted to make it big. Was I completely passionate about travel? Perhaps not. Eventually, we sold to Travelocity in 2009, a much lower outcome, at 1/5th of what Expedia offered, but investors got their money back and we decided to move on and then I said, if I'm doing something for the next 10 years, I can't predict the outcome, it can be high yesterday and lower tomorrow, so then how do you make sure that you should stay the same? How do you make sure that you spend 10 years of your life doing something when the outcome is unpredictable?

So, then kind of this moment of epiphany came when I said I want to be doing something that even if 10 years go by and I get zero out of it, I know that I did something I loved. And to me, this idea of service of helping others, etc., has always been there. Again, going back to my early childhood environment and values, see, one thing I say is, while we may not be as entrepreneurial or free-spirited as the West, the value systems here, culturally, I feel in India, are very, very deep.

This thing of giving back was always ingrained in me. The idea of either education or healthcare was something that I was pursuing. At one year at Travelocity where I kind of was transitioning the business to their ownership and education, I think I had benefited personally, like you likely said that I think you went to Wharton, but I went to Harvard Business School. I mean, these are opportunities that so few get, and even if you get how many can afford them and so on and so forth. 

I felt if I could amplify the benefit of that education to more people, then in some way my life was well served. At the end of that 10 years, who knows what that business outcome is? But I would've felt happy working on that mission. So that was the idea.

When you decide to do something good, I think the whole world conspires to make it happen. I am a fairly spiritual person. But in layman's terms also you can think of it.

As I was talking about people, about education, and healthcare, my head of marketing connected me to my co-founder Chaitanya who had come back from France. He went to INSEAD, did his MBA, and also worked there in Executive Education. So he's the education guy, the purist. And then we met and we said, Hey, what can we do together? And he was delivering these very high-quality programs, 30-40 people at a time. And I was like, Chaitanya, this needs to be 300,000, 3 million people. How do we scale this? And that led eventually to forming Eruditus and our journey here. But the key takeaway, at least what I learned, I mean I learned a bunch of stuff in TravelGuru, we can talk about that and spend hours, is as an entrepreneur, find a problem that you care about deeply. 

Karthik: Agreed with you, couldn’t agree more.

Ashwin: And then spend your life trying to solve it. Money will come. On the other hand, if you want to make money and then you search for a problem that you think will solve, but the goal is to make money, your likelihood of actual success is far lower. This was my learning from my two startups.

Honestly, sometimes, I reflect, Karthik, I work less hard today at Eruditus than I did at TravelGuru. But the zeal, the mission, the passion, all of that is there that somehow this startup has found its stride and has done way better than we could even imagine. And the last thing I'd say, I can see myself doing this for the next 10 years as well. I'm not tired to come to the office, even if it's a virtual office on a Monday morning. Because I love what I do and it's doing well.

Karthik: It sounds cliched, but can't be more truer than how you expressed it. And I keep telling my peers, my colleagues, to over-index on this deep love for the problem that the founder wants to solve. You don't get it all the time with founders. I think because sometimes founders are discovering themselves and not just the problem, but where they are (obsessed with the problem), I mean, we've seen our most outrageous outcomes in terms of success no matter how we measured it. And it could be as simple as what you said, the joy of just building and building and building something that becomes memorable, and it affects customers' lives. That happens only when that match is there. And we've seen founders walk away from their other startups because they couldn't relate to where that love journey might be five years from now. So when, if they got an opportunity to get a great M&A, didn't even have to be distressed, sometimes it is a nice decent midsized M&A, they were more than happy to take it because they wanted to reset their lives.

Ashwin: It's an important point for your listeners as well. A lot of people will look at the unicorns and all of that which makes a lot of headlines and say, oh, I want to be an entrepreneur because I want to be a unicorn. I want to create wealth for myself. What most people don't realise is wealth is a by-product of something. 

Karthik: I agree. 

Ashwin: It's not the goal.  It's a by-product. 

Second, the reason a lot of people say, oh, I can be in control of my time, how wrong they are, but these are all wrong reasons to be an entrepreneur. Be an entrepreneur because you care passionately to solve a problem that you believe somebody else has not already solved.

If somebody has already solved it, don't waste your time. And then whether you're in control of your time, you make a lot of money, whatever you would find happiness. Ultimately, that is the goal of life. Happiness and fulfilment. And I think the chances are 9 out of 10 times you would also find the other by-products that you want.

Karthik: Absolutely. This used to scare my LPs in my first 4-5 years of pitching. So, they used to ask me questions about portfolio construction and things around the money manager aspect of my job. And I used to tell them, scarily enough, you should never say this to LPs, but maybe some of them will listen to this podcast, and some won't, but I used to usually tell them that I come to work for the love of working with founders, being able to advise them being on the journey. The money management piece is a by-product, so that would freak them out because, in financial services, nobody says the core aspect of money is not your core business. And I can't skirt that today because if you want to build an organisation, you want to build aspirations for other people who want to follow in my footsteps and manage companies, you need capital. There's no running away from that. 

But, I see it as fuel and raw material to live out our dream of working with a lot of founders on a very close basis in the early parts of the journey and it explains why after 12 years, we don't do anything but just that. So people have asked us, why didn't you go to Singapore? Why didn't you do Series A and B? And I said, for what? 

We are like entirely engrossed in what we do. We have more than we can handle. We are doing this because we think we can shape what we can in the shores of this country. I'm not interested in any other problem. That is a function of how you're feeding raw material to fuel the same mission that started 10-12 years ago. 

Totally in sync with you. It's not like we've exchanged a whole bunch of entrepreneurial notes, but I don't think could have had a more aligned construct of why we think of our entrepreneurial journeys the way we do. 

Eruditus, the reason you're on, if I will say so, you're on the podcast is, you're either a unicorn or going to be a unicorn because the title of the show is...

Ashwin: Ultimately Karthik these external

Karthik: Validations.

Ashwin: Matter, I won't be here. I can be the happiest person most passionate about solving the worst problem, but I wouldn't be here...

Karthik: Be very zen but not in this podcast. No, jokes apart, I think we all have to celebrate the idea that we play into capitalism and its outcomes in a very positive way, and there's no running away from that. We hopefully change lives, improve lives, create wealth, and that trickledown effect is also joyous to see, but more fundamentally, jokes apart, like the fact that today you’re a unicorn is great. Three years ago, you might not have been. It didn't matter that much. In fact, some of our guests in the series are not unicorns yet. To us, we are trying to catch an entrepreneurial journey at a phase in their life where they have built something substantial in terms of value. That was part A. Part B as you might have seen from our blog and a narrative was that these were very unconventional journeys. Nothing was storybook or formula in terms of A, B, C, round 1, round 2, round 3, hotshot VC in every round. So there are enough of those journeys out of the 100+ unicorns in the country. I would definitely not put you in that category.

I would put you in the sort of outlier category of not getting noticed at all for years in the end. And so coming off, however, successful or unsuccessful TravelGuru was, it was an outcome that met its end state and I think I have immense respect for founders who are able to deliver that irrespective of the dollar value attached to it.

So I would've thought, and I know second-time founders were not hot and sexy back then in 2014-2015, but I would've thought people would've been all over to say, “Hey, Ashwin, what are you starting next? Here's my cheque, I'm backing you. I know you're a rock star” which is happening a lot now.

Ashwin: That's what even I thought but that was not the case.

Karthik: What happened? Why didn't people believe what you were doing? A little bit of that would be great for founders to hear. Firstly, nobody had heard of you till three years ago, I think in the popular venture space because you haven't raised too much money. You were under the radar and suddenly out of the blue, you are like one of the big boys in EdTech in India. So what happened? What are the gaps missing in people's understanding of the journey? 

Ashwin: Eruditus started in 2010.

Karthik: Oh as early as 2010, okay.

Ashwin: Correct. And we raised capital in 2017. Some of my learnings from TravelGuru were plowed back into Eruditus so that we said, why can't we run profitably? Why do we have to raise external capital? Why don't we scale through just good unit metrics? In fact, one of my best professors at Harvard Business School, Professor Bill Sahlman. He said, what is the best form of fundraising? And then there's a pause and he said, from the customer.

Karthik: Customer revenue! Yeah. 

Ashwin: But we are taught that it's from VC A, B, C, this system, Y Combinator, all of that, but not from customers. So that's what we did in Eruditus, though I took the class, I forgot that in TravelGuru, but in Eruditus, we did not. But then there came a point when we went online, then it was not possible for us to build the product; the courses required investment, and the tech require investment. So we could not have continued to kind of bootstrap, if we really wanted to scale and that ambition was always there.

Look, just because we didn't raise capital in the first 7 years, nobody should misconstrue that we did not have the ambition to build something big. And many times people have said this to me. Anyway, the ambition was there. We said we had to raise capital and we said, okay, this is a good time. So, I said, okay, look, now we've built a profitable company. We have grown from 0 to I think 10 million, second-time entrepreneurs, good education, all of this. So this should be fairly easy, but that is one of the many assumptions and mistakes that we made. And then I got asked this very interesting question by a VC in Bangalore. He said, are you a promoter or an entrepreneur? I said, what is that difference? Now, I know the difference apparently, but what is the difference? And in his mind, the fact that we were profitable and that we didn't raise the series A within six months, made me a promoter. The fact that we had not diluted and we still owned all of the company, literally means I'm a promoter. That means I didn't have the appetite and the hunger to grow, I was building a lifestyle business, so I was not investible. So, he was one of the many who said no.

Karthik: It happens even now, by the way. 

Ashwin: Really? 

Karthik: Yeah. 2022, happens all of the time. 

Ashwin: This is the funny thing, when people say, no, we take it very personally. It happens across the board. So, I developed a thick skin, and eventually, I said, look, this is not working, nobody is investing in us. So, I was in New York talking to my friend. If you remember, at TravelGuru, two people had written me a cheque. So one of them, I was talking to in New York; he had set up a small $10 million fund investing some of the secondary (gains) money that Indian startup founders had made, mostly HBS alumni, etc.

So, he said, okay, look, I can write you a million-dollar cheque. And we said, how do we figure out valuation? So in that meal, valuation happened, and $1 million came and that became technically a Series A. This was Ved Capital. We made that 1 million last, because again, remember we had built this company with zero. Then, we went back to Bertelsmann who had said no to us before. We had launched our online product, shown traction, etc., etc., and the rest of it happened. But, entrepreneurship is always a story of many rejections and dejections.

Karthik: Correct.

Ashwin: But like I've said before, it's also a story of "struggle, to strive, to seek, and to never yield". Those are not my words. There's Alfred Lord Tennyson from Ulysses, but that's what it is, Karthik. No entrepreneurs become successful because the first person they met gave them money or the first employee they want to hire joins or the first customer they pitched was happy. There are so many doors shut. That's part of the process. There's nothing unique about our journey. You accept it, you move on, and getting them to say, yes, that's the key skill. 

Karthik: And these million dollars itself happened in 2017? No, that happened a little earlier.

Ashwin: So, million dollars happened in 2016, and then we raised an 8 million round in 2017 from Bertelsmann.

Karthik: Bertelsmann was the lucky first to invest. It is very difficult for entrepreneurs, and startup founders to understand this, but there are these simple heuristics that always are true. You have to pitch 50 people to get like one cheque, and people assume that, oh, you got X evaluation, why couldn't you have gotten better? It's like, dude, this one guy in the world who said yes. So what do you mean I could improve on this and I could have gotten a better evaluation? So even the conviction process is so challenging. What do you think tipped the favour finally into people believing that you are building something and before that, just give a little bit of a glance at what the business approximately looked like back then, and what were you selling? So this is something that founders struggled to sell, the vision of what the business can become in a realistic fashion. Of course, you can throw out an Excel sheet then and say, oh, I'll become a billion-dollar business. But were you selling a billion-dollar business in 2016-2017? Maybe, maybe not. 

Ashwin: No, we weren't. So we were about 10 million in bookings. 

Karthik: Okay, and just for the audience's understanding, when you say 10 million in bookings, it means courses sold in one capacity or the other.

Ashwin: Courses that start within a fiscal year for which we've collected the fees.

Karthik: And what kind of courses back then? 

Ashwin: At that time, these were predominantly classroom courses, so maybe three weeks of teaching spread across six months. And we had just launched our first few online courses, which were typically two-month online courses.

Karthik: And all Ivy League grade at that point.

Ashwin: Yes. When we met Bertelsmann for the first time, we were a classroom business, and Pankaj (Makkar) had given us feedback, which was actually very astute feedback, very valuable.

Karthik: Yeah, yeah.

Ashwin: There is one more thing, when people (VCs) say, no, always ask them for the reasons.

Karthik: Correct.

Ashwin: And they'll give many reasons. You pick and choose the one that makes more sense for you. That is the most valuable thing.

Karthik: That is absolute spot on! 

Ashwin: In fact, many people, they diss VCs. But that's a mistake.

Karthik: Yeah.

Ashwin: I honestly believe that VCs are smart people, for many reasons, and maybe not for some reason, but they see so many companies. So, what they see then that an entrepreneur doesn't see is, they see the whole iceberg. We see the tip of the iceberg and most likely below our nose because we live on in our own sweet worlds. 

So, getting feedback was helpful. So, Bertelsmann had invested globally in Udacity, Relias Learning, and a bunch of other education funds also.

Pankaj's feedback to us was, you're a very good offline business focused on India, but until you have online, you're not scalable. You're not investable. And the second feedback I'll give to entrepreneurs raising capital is, to be in touch with your VCs or your investors over a period of time because when they see the traction that you're making, they also get excited. So, we took that feedback. We went to MIT, Columbia, and Dartmouth, other schools as well. But we got these three to come together and for the first time, sign one contract, and three schools to create online courses with us.

Karthik: Fantastic.

Ashwin: And then when we launched the first few courses, the traction was very good. And we suddenly realised, Karthik, we're getting students from Vietnam. We're getting students from Argentina, from Europe, and all parts of the world. So, when we went back to Bertelsmann, we were now getting to be an online business and starting to say, hey, we could be a global business, not just an Indian business.

Karthik: Right.

Ashwin: I think our projections at that time said that in the next five to seven years, we'll do about maybe 50 million, 80 million in bookings, and this year, we are projecting about 500 million approximately in the booking. So, did we even imagine how big we would be?

Karthik: It's difficult to visualise until you have actually...

Ashwin: Absolutely. I'm sure there was some clause in our shareholder agreement at that time that said, "Look, if you were selling at anything below 500 million, we would need investor consent."  So the bar that the investor had also was 500 million. And I don't blame them. Much of what has happened is...

Karthik: There is only so much visualisation anyone can do.

Ashwin: You can't take credit for all of this. This is just the journey. It has turned out to be better.

Karthik: Yeah.

Ashwin: And you enjoy that, but you can't take any credit for this. So it has turned out to be way better than we did. But I come back to the Bertelsmann thing is that the moment we had online and the global; within three months, we got it done.  Pankaj was saying, Wow, you guys have actually executed what I gave you feedback on.

Karthik: Conviction that founder takes good feedback, able to visualise that big business and actually executed on it and that opens up the door that this can be 10x the business size than it was pitched a few months ago and we keep telling pretty much the same advice. So, thanks for echoing that.

Ashwin: And at that time we were 10 million. And then we went from 10 to 30, 30 million to I think 65 or something like that. Then to 90, 180, 330, we'll see this year at 500 ($ mn). I remember when we had Avendus for the first time, they said, no, you guys are too small. We don't want your mandate. Now, we are best friends. So, the journey has happened and it took us seven years. Like you rightly said, nobody had heard of us. And that was because we didn't do any PR. When you are bootstrapped, who has the money for PR and all of that. But we built a good product and in our business, it's very important to understand how a university works.

And when we went online, Karthik, it was not a trivial issue to figure out saying, Hey, how do we take what you teach in the classroom and make it work online? And because of our classroom background, we never became a MOOC like Coursera or EdX. We wanted live teaching. We wanted the student to see the faculty. We wanted group work. When somebody submits an assignment, they should get feedback. All of that came because we had spent seven years in a classroom and we would literally sit in every single class. A, we loved it but, B, the business demands you understand it.

Karthik: Yes, the only way to learn the business.

Ashwin: What's the pedagogy here? What parts of what the faculty's teaching is student liking, etc.? So, I think what I mean is, look, you ultimately have to build a business with the nuts and bolts, bottoms-up. You have to understand your students. And, if you are a two-sided platform, you have to understand both sides, because both sides are customers in a sense. So, we had done all of that hard work, seven years to get to 10 million, but 10 to 500 happened in five years.

Karthik: Amazing.

Ashwin: And, I always say, pal, it is like flying a kite. For those who have tried it, well, maybe it gives away my generation, but to get that kite to take off is very difficult. Many times, it'll land and sometimes get torn and then you're done. 

Karthik: Yeah.

Ashwin: But once it takes off and there's a decent breeze, you tie it up to a pole, it'll keep flying. 

Karthik: Correct. 

Ashwin: It's not that easy, entrepreneurship, but it's kind of like that analogy...

Karthik: Getting there, getting there, more power to you to tie it to a pole. 

Some of what you just said, I was looking at some of the stats, 70 university partners, 300 plus courses, 2000 plus employees, 80% live now, and a completion rate of greater than 80%. I'm articulating it for all the listeners to say that everything that you've said in the last 20 minutes is essentially getting to understand your customer on both sides because, at the end of the day, you're a marketplace and getting PMF so well that you're actually able to see these stats and that explains this kite taking off as well. So, the following question interestingly is how do you resist the temptation, of course, you didn't have silly money to burn and chase growth, but even when you started getting the money, how did you know that you were not compromising PMF over growth and getting this right, every time with a new market, new customer, before you started pumping money into it and, finding that actually it is not a great strategy.

Ashwin: We've got it right many times, we've also made our mistakes. The simple answer is MVPs. Try and do something small, if it works, then scale it. For example, when we tried to go to China, which was a new market for us, the first time we tried to do it with a JV with a local partner and this person A, bombed the course, but then registered the MIT trademark in China, registered the Eruditus and Emeritus trademarks in China, and we had to sue this person and spend one year, we won the case, blah, blah, blah.

But, that was a horrible product market fit, but we continued. It was one program. It was one experiment, and then we realized we need to have our own team and we embarked on doing that. When we launched our first few online courses, Karthik, it was very interesting, we thought people would like what they liked in the classroom. So, in classroom, they like leadership programs, management development programs, and strategy programs. So when we went online, the entire portfolio was on those lines. It so happened that what people like online are very specific topics, digital marketing, healthcare analytics, design thinking, etc, etc. So, our 8-9 courses actually didn't do so well, and then we had a few universities saying, oh, should I really be doing online with you? Luckily, we had one or two courses that did well, we learned, pivoted, and went on and so forth. So, the ability to recognize patterns quickly, to start with experiments and then scale the things that work. I think that is what has helped us. But look, everybody's going to have failures. When you try to launch new S-curves, some will fail.

For those of the people who are interested in this, there's a lovely book, it's called The Three Box Solution, where Box one is managing your current business, managing the present. Box three is about creating the future, like taking these bets for these new S-curves. And Box two is about forgetting the past, in other words, challenging the assumptions. We had to challenge ourselves in 2016 that we were an India business, that we are a classroom business, and now if you're creating the future, for example, let's say we're creating courses, today 15% of our students are learning in languages other than English that is Spanish, Portuguese, and Mandarin. Now, that was not something that we had before. So that started literally two to three years back. That's a new S-curve, that's a Box three for us. So, we always have to be thinking, Hey, what am I doing today that five years from now is a new S-curve? What am I doing today that some non-customer is going to become a customer five years from now? And it's like exercise. It's not exercising five years from now. It's exercising today so that you are fit five years from now. And so those experiments, how do you build that muscle of running those Box three experiments? Many of those will require you to forget things, right? So, that is a process. It's this creative destruction process that we as a company try to do. And, I don't know whether we do it very well or not, whatever, we'll see.

Karthik: You seem to be doing a great job, you are being too humble. But you know, that brings me to two points that we struggle with.

Ashwin: Karthik, not being too humble. If I go back to the last 12 months after we raised a slightly large sum, we've made some mistakes, which I would know very well. Even though you're a second-time entrepreneur, even though you have all of this wisdom, it's sometimes easy to kind of forget and get carried away.

Karthik: I think you're making two points. I'm only highlighting it because we've seen this with all our founder journeys as well. The biggest fatal flaw, if you ask me because I enter almost always at seed to pre-series A, is that the founder who has got that capital assumes that the rest of the journey is going to play out in the same fashion. And what they don't iterate for is that, some of the frameworks you gave are useful, for how to not only think about business but also about their personal development as they go through these journeys. And you would lean on very conveniently what you learned from 10 million to 50 million and realise that fails miserably when you try to hit a scale button at 50 to 500 with sometimes the same people, same team dynamics, same structures; organisationally, capital wise, you can make so many mistakes.

Ashwin: Absolutely.

Karthik: And it's so tough. That's why the journey is tough and sometimes put in the Indian context, we are all learning and people assume they know this rocketship button that you can hit and with capital that somehow scales. The reality is, if that were true, then we would have multiple 10 billion dollar plus companies all listed in this country showing quarterly numbers and that predictability is not as easy to achieve. That's just...

Ashwin: And sometimes you have to ask yourself whether, for the next stage of the journey, you are the right person to be leading.

Karthik: That too. That too.

Ashwin: And that self-awareness is very important for founders to have. That's one. What you're saying is absolutely correct. After we hit a hundred, going towards 330 to 500 ($ mn in revenues), that journey is a different journey. And some of your talents, that was great when you were 0 to 10 and really great, may not be so great when it comes to this because now you're no longer 20 people in a room, debating stuff and answering stuff. Now you have to lead by process, through systems, building for scale, and all of this stuff, which is a different approach, a different mindset, which also as a founder, you have to reset between your years. It all starts there, but I think about that as a great learning thing.

Karthik: It's evolution.

Ashwin: There was never a dull moment.

Karthik: An individual evolution, which is in the founder's interest.

Ashwin: And that's why, for example, I'm a big fan of entrepreneurs who are very modest, self-reflective, not narcissist, etc. Though many times the entrepreneurs who may be celebrated in the media and in the world are the flamboyant ones. But in my mind, and again, I'm biased because I think I'm in this category, the people who are quieter but more self-reflective, who ask themselves, Hey, what am I unlearning? Not just learning. I'm in the business of learning, but I actually think I'm in the business of unlearning as well. When we work with senior executives, you don't need too many times teach them anything new. You have to tell them to stop doing stuff first. And that's true for an entrepreneur as well.

Karthik: Perfect! No, I think it's a great lesson and hope everybody picks that up. Not everybody is going to be a late-stage founder, but I think there is some invaluable gems in what you expressed. 

In India, we wish for a lot more success stories at a global level for Indian companies, and I would argue you are one of the few companies who's on that path. Even if, as you rightly said, the achievement is just a milestone. I mean, you are continuing to build, you are continuing to learn. So, we will not declare wins. We will just declare the path to success for you. But even this scale is not something that too many new-age companies have done. We've sold services. We've sold products. I'm not saying we haven't, but from a new-age perspective, what is the opportunity set that Eruditus has managed to crack? And is that a set that's easy for other entrepreneurs to pursue? Meaning you build in India with most of your back in India, but build a global product that everyone can be proud of, and the subset of that is, isn't that crazily challenging because you're not building for one market or even two, which I think we are fairly good at. Like say, let's say do US cross border SaaS, people are getting the playbook refined. You are selling to every country in the world. There are micro nuances in every country, product and people defer geographically and then along with that, I don't know how complex your team is globally. How do you run? I mean, it's bad enough trying to run a 40-person team across three cities at Blume, but like how do you manage global complexity of that nature, both in PMF customer type, as well as building a team that can scale to that ambition? 

Ashwin: Many ways to answer this, but really how complex is it? I'm running a 2000-member team, with $ 500 million bookings. If somebody can run Pepsi and Coke and Google and Amazon, we are so trivial. This is nothing. So why give yourself some great self-importance and say, I'm running some big enterprise? 

Karthik: Fair point.

Ashwin: Absolutely not. People have done this before. People will do it again in the future. But the one skill set that I'll say has worked for us is the ability to smell an opportunity and then to pursue it. In other words, to populate S-curves every now and then when we see it. 

Let me give you an example of LatAm or China. When we were offering our courses in English itself, we saw that we had about 15% of our students coming from Latin America for English courses. Then any entrepreneur will think that, Hey, if I offered the courses in Spanish or Portuguese, then I could go deeper into that market. And so once you have that conviction, then the question is, how do I assemble the team? How do I build the product? Do I translate or do I dub? And these are decisions and choices, all of which, by the way, you can test and you'll make mistakes. We had to make leadership changes in our LatAm team. We had to redo a little bit of the tech, etc, etc. But that is execution. If at all, I can take some credit, it would be to say, okay, look, I was in India. We were an India business, but we had the ambition to say, Hey, why can't we be a big business in Latin America or in China, or why can't we build a very large B2B business? Outwardly be extremely ambitious, inwardly be very modest. If you can do this, then I think it doesn't matter. Look, our model is an Indian startup that went global and the reason is we work with brands like MIT, Harvard, Wharton, Cambridge, etc, that are global brands. So when I switch on marketing in a country, say it's South America, Australia, Europe, or Asia, these brands are well known. If I had to do that under the Eruditus and Emeritus brand, it would be challenging. So our answer is A, some of the startup answers will be B, and there's C, D, and all the way up to Z. 

But the point is that I believe that if you can keep thinking about new S-curves, my belief, versus being just one product and doing it well...there is a view, by the way, Karthik, as you know, is the focus, you just do one product as a service and do it like really well. But even if you do that, hey, what new segments, what new countries? What new languages? That's box three and in my view as every entrepreneur, you must spend 60% of your time on box one which is today, that keeps the lights on. If you don't get your product-market fit, and your unit economics, you're going to be out of business. Fundraising is also to some extent box one predominantly. But you have to spend 20%-30% of your time on box three, the future. And the future also involves breaking down your existing assumptions and box two, which is forgetting these things, like, hey, forgetting I'm an offline business, forgetting that my courses are in English only. Why? That's an assumption. Why make that assumption? Tomorrow, we can think about a course where say somebody, like, for example, we have a university at one site. You cannot challenge that assumption. Why can't it be Google that's teaching data science, which already some people are doing? So, you can challenge every single assumption and when you do that, you can find new box three approaches. I think that was the key to our growth. 

Karthik: Fantastic. Great advice again for young founders as we reached the last phase of this, we planned together today, and would love to sort of think about where things are at currently. I know it's a macroeconomic blip and it doesn't change the way you think about your business for 10 years, but as you said, without getting into specifics or details, which is not the point, what are the challenges of dealing with a situation like this after pretty much like a 14-year bull market run. So there has been a consistent sort of up and up in the venture market, though it might have been slow at times, fast at times. This kind of shock I think has been missing. More and more voices across Europe and the US trying to say that it is just autumn. It's not even winter yet. The worst is yet to come. A lot of folks have stocked up for winter, including perhaps yourself, and that's fine. But two things. Do you find this first sort of biggest downturn perhaps in the way you systematically built this company almost profitably through most of its journey, how do you deal with that shock at a personal level, at a company level, and then corollary to that what advice for any stage of entrepreneur, if you say, look, I can't relate to what a 24-year-old owner is going through now. That's okay. You've been past that. But then there are late-stage entrepreneurs also who are very much like you, so you pick any class of entrepreneurs to whom you would give current-day advice and from this learning of this particular downturn and how you're reacting to it?

Ashwin: My advice, if I am in a position I'll give that is simple to everybody. If you have started to solve a large problem, just because the markets are in a free fall, your problem is still there. It still has to be solved. 

Karthik: Absolutely. 

Ashwin: From a mission perspective, not much has changed. One may argue that for us, for example, our mission is even more relevant today than maybe it was 10 years back. The first one is just to remind yourself why you are in this startup in the first place. That's why I say to people who find these last few months, and the next few perhaps most challenging are those who thought they would be an entrepreneur to make a lot of money because that has gone down 40%-50% and may go down even more. But if you come here to say my mission is to make high-quality education accessible and affordable, how does it matter to that mission? 

Karthik: Absolutely.

Ashwin: First and foremost is, I think it really gives you a lot of courage if you can remind yourself of why you are doing what you're doing, number 1. But there is the practical side as well and there's only one piece of advice there that is never run out of cash. There's no startup that's successful that doesn't have cash in the bank. 

Karthik: That's right. 

Ashwin: And that every business will have to figure out what their burn is and what they can do, and the answers will vary. But broadly, yes, everybody's belief, and Karthik, you are in a better position to advise on this, is to stock up on your cash, which can mean many things, like how do I get more cash from my customers? How do I get cash up front? How do I delay payables? How do I raise more capital? Whether it is equity, whether that's debt, indirect costs, or all of that stuff. If you were not fortunate enough to raise a large round last year, I mean that window has shut, but still there are ways open to raise cash and make sure that you have a leeway for the next 12 to 24 months. So that's the second thing. 

Third thing, I'll just remind entrepreneurs who may look at a down round, flat round, whatever it is and putting this, oh my God, if I do a down round, it is the end of the world for me because I'll be judged so harshly, whatever. These are all illusions.

Karthik: Correct. 

Ashwin: Again, come remind yourself why have you started a startup. Remind yourself there's a 10-year journey. At the end of 10 years, where do I want to be? That has not changed. 

Karthik: Absolutely. 

Ashwin: See, I've seen 2008 when the world melted down. We were worth $75 million one day. The next day, somebody said we were worth zero. And it's true actually. The valuation has changed significantly. But the fundamental business never changes. And then after 2-3 years, the world is back. People are writing term sheets, funding, etc. And then, like you said, the last 10 years, all the exuberances, luckily human memory is short. But, there was a simple message for entrepreneurs don't be dissuaded.  Look, this is just a cycle. If you are on the entrepreneurial journey for the right reasons, you have nothing to worry. If not, reassess.

Karthik: Perfect advice and I think reassessing is also a good thing. I feel a little bit of what you related from the TravelGuru experience is something entrepreneur has to checkpoint every year or two years and see are they in it for the right reasons. And I tell my founders, all exits are good exits because for a sort of recycling of that entrepreneurial energy and mass, whether that's capital, whether that's people, whether that's founders. And all of them can't be widely celebrated, but it is Schumpeterianism at its best. It's creative destruction at its best. 

Ashwin: Sometimes, like you said Karthik, I think you are alluding to this, sometimes it is better to let go than cling onto a sinking ship. 

Karthik: Yeah, absolutely. 

Ashwin: Had I continued to build TravelGuru, like many of my peer companies, even after 10 years, I think it's been, 12 years, are kind of where they were 10 years ago because the travel industry has been impacted, etc. If I look at my opportunity cost of how my outcomes have turned, it is better than actually sold at that time. And started something else. Of course, at that time, I didn't know. 

Karthik: Of course, you won't.

Ashwin: That's box three. 

Karthik: Correct. 

Ashwin: When you start your box three, you don't know how it's going to turn. But it was good, I made that decision. In hindsight, it's actually very, very good I made that decision. But at some stage in the future, I'm going to have that same choice to make, what's my next box three?

Clinging on is something that, and especially at times like this, it is a good time to assess, am I better off continuing to run this? If you have the conviction, absolutely go for it. Because entrepreneurship is also about climbing a mountain. The first time you see a mountain, you can't put your tail between your legs and run the other way. That's not entrepreneurship. But at the same time confronting reality. Okay, maybe this startup has achieved what it can. Maybe it's better in somebody else's hands and maybe the customers and whatever I'm building is better there, so let me sell and find something else. 

These are very personal choices and that's why I think sometimes investors, and board members can help an entrepreneur be objective because it's hard for an entrepreneur to be objective. Because you don't sell your baby. But it is kind of something you've invested so much thought time, and effort into. That's very tough to say, oh, I'm getting rid of it, and maybe in this environment you don't get the valuation you imagined you will get last year. That's why I think investors, board members, and advisors can be helpful. But look, some companies will be better off, some founders will be better off, maybe thinking about that as well. 

Karthik: I agree with you, a lot of heavy-duty advice and deep advice, the wisdom of the failure, as you said, reflected in your courage and 10 years later, so this was fantastic. 

Kind of almost wrapping up here, we have a fun rapid-fire section that I would love for you to give whatever answer comes to your mind first. Before I start, like the regular rapid-fire questions, we've listed up for you, maybe some Chennai trivia. Are you an Elliot beach guy or a Marina Beach guy?

Ashwin: A Marina beach guy.

Karthik: Okay. And a favourite sport in Chennai that you played.

Ashwin: Cricket, actually got to play for my city, so Chennai.

Karthik: Oh, is it? 

Ashwin: But way, way, many, many years ago, that's junior.

Karthik: Still that is ... But KFI was not known for like sending out too many sports persons.

Ashwin: Correct. No. In fact, KFI, the Krishnamurti system didn't believe in competition. So I used to play for a club called YMCA. That was allowed to play for...

Karthik: In Nandanam.

Ashwin: In Nandanam.

Karthik: Okay. One more common connection. That's where I learned all my tennis, not Cricket.

Ashwin: Fascinating.

Karthik: Yeah. Anyways. Wonderful to always meet someone from Chennai, especially from back in the day. So, great to share those experiences. So quick, rapid-fire stuff. Just fun questions. Are you ready for them? 

Ashwin: Ya!

Karthik: Okay. What would you order for your last ever meal? 

Ashwin: Knowing that it is my last meal, I will just fast. Let me give you a Chennai line, Rajinikanth line, "Yen Vazhi Thani Vazhi" (cult dialogue of Rajinikanth from the movie, Padayappa, meaning 'My way is my own', or 'My way is unique')

Karthik: Ha ha!

Ashwin: You didn't expect that, did you? 

Karthik: I didn't expect both, but if you have a Rajini line for every rapid-fire question, then you will have a new cult following for yourself and challenge the big boss, Mr. Mathrubootham, who's like the present Rajini startup fan of the country.

Current book or favorite book of all time. And of course, if you want to add a line on why is so that.

Ashwin: Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, changed my life. 

Karthik: Deeply spiritual, and I have to go back to that. I haven't read anything like that in a while now. 

Ashwin: But by reading, you don't become spiritual. You have to practice. Read and practice.

Karthik: I need to know the lessons though that is what I meant.

Best piece of advice you've gotten. 

Ashwin: Okay. It's a shloka from the Bhaja Govindam by Adi Shankaracharya. So intense. 

"kaate kaantaa dhana gatachintaa

vaatula kimtava naasti nicheta.

iha samsaare bahu duskaare

kripayaa apaare paahi muraare."

Ashwin: Did you understand? 

Karthik: Not at all.

Ashwin: Oh my God. 

kaate kaantaa dhana gatachintaa - Why are you worried about dhan, which is wealth, fame all that?

Karthik: Gist of every line, I am picking.

Ashwin: vaatula kim tava naasti nichetaa – In the end, none of that exists. 

Karthik: Correct. 

Ashwin: Very good for entrepreneurship. Don't start thinking about the money, focus on the path and the passion, and of course, the second line says that, think about "paahi muraare", which is whatever God believes, ultimately, that's the only one that endures from beginning to end. The kind of metaphor for entrepreneurship is, like I said, to think about what you are trying to achieve. The nobler and higher cause of entrepreneurship, solving problems versus the end result, then that will not last. 

Karthik: Fantastic. Do you have a piece of Rajini's advice also? 

Ashwin: No Rajini advice for this. 

Karthik: Okay.

Favourite failure or most valuable learning? I mean, of course, you have the entire journey of the first startup but beyond that.

Ashwin: I mentioned this when the Expedia deal for TravelGuru fell apart, we had two months of cash. I had to let go of people. There is this notion of self-situation and style, my self is to be a very likable person, conforming. And so situations where I have to hire people, promote people, I do extremely well because everybody likes you. 

Karthik: Correct. 

Ashwin: But a situation like this was kind of atypical to me. And we learn the most when you yourself and your style don't align with the situation. And having tough conversations with investors, trying to manage the team that knew what happened, etc., was horrible, but I learned a lot and hopefully, those same mistakes have not repeated in Eruditus. I say hopefully because I am sure some have.

Karthik: But still a fantastic way to, again, put yourself in those situations, and I feel like a lot of us in the team have gone through some sort of a coaching experience now, especially leadership, and what I've realised is the sum total of that is to expose you to those circumstances so that you start to learn a little bit more about getting out of your comfort zone. So, I can relate to it very much. I need to do it more myself as well. Note to self.

Most memorable customer moment of feedback. I mean, that's what we all come to work for. 

Ashwin: So, I'll give you a "Yen Vazhi Thani Vazhi" answer. 

So you said customer feedback. There was a student who called me about a few months back, not a student, but a prospective student. And, he said, Ashwin, I want to thank you. I said, "For what? You took one of our courses and it helped you?" He said, no, I called you and I said, I want to take a course. You spend half an hour understanding my motivation. Then you actually told me you don't need a course. What you need is coaching and we don't offer that and you gave me some names of some people who do that. That was the best advice. I respect you and your company so much because you didn't sell me something, but you helped me. To me, Karthik, that is what education is about. That is who I am and therefore the most memorable, non-customer, but still feedback.

Karthik: Fantastic. That high note. Thank you. Thank you again, Ashwin for taking the time and was an absolute pleasure to have this conversation with you. 

Ashwin: Can I say something? First of all, thank you, but the bigger thanks for what you do. In our Indian entrepreneurship ecosystem, and I've seen this, in 2005, when I was trying to raise capital, there were only 2-3 funds that would write your first cheque. 2010, the same situation. 2015-16, when we were looking at it, then 2-3 became 10. So what you and Blume are doing together and building that ecosystem, everybody wants their Unicorn, but who's going to fund that guy when he is just an idea, maybe not even a website, not even an app? Thank you for building that ecosystem. 

Karthik: Thanks.

Ashwin: I think we want this unicorn saga to continue and become from 100 to 500 or whatever it is in the next future. We need more people like you and more funds like Blume. 

Karthik: Thanks again, Ashwin, words of encouragement from any founder is like a feed for us to continue pushing the envelope in every way we can, in our humble way. And a lot of young VCs now emerging on the scene and looking up to us for that mentorship and trying to traverse that same journey we started from 2011, so that's been very satisfying when they come back and say, we were inspired by your journey. I'm sure a lot of entrepreneurs say that to you and hopefully, we live in a country of various types of unicorns, not necessarily the shiny white ones with horns, and that was the theme of this podcast as well.

So you clearly exemplify a lot of those characteristics. So, we were glad to have you on the podcast. Thank you. 

Ashwin: Thank you. 

Karthik: Thank you all for checking out X-Unicorns. This podcast is a Blume Ventures offering, and we will be releasing a new episode every Tuesday. Our sound engineer is Shrey Tiwari, and our producer is Vedant Naik of ManicPod Studios. See you all at the next one. Cheers!

Part of X-Unicorns

What is a unicorn? A mythical creature, known to be proud, untameable, fiercely independent and difficult to capture. When venture capitalist Aileen Lee first coined the term, the definition was strictly limited to privately-held companies valued at over $1 billion within a decade of its existence. This definition was applicable to only a select few Indian companies such as InMobi and Flipkart. That’s all there was in 2013 that fit this definition.

After more than a decade at Blume, it is now becoming clear that India is birthing new variants of this mythical creature and we’re calling them X Unicorns’. But when we look at a Carbon Clean or a Dunzo, they don’t look like typical unicorns. Some look like zebras and hippos, others rhinos, gazelles, and seahorses. They look like they could be any shape or size as long as they have spouted a large single horn or even two for effect.

It doesn’t matter what the path to the unicorn is, it doesn’t matter when they go public, it doesn’t matter whether they have a body of a horse or any other creature in the animal kingdom — as long as it reaches there and we want to look back and celebrate the ones that have entered and are soon entering the X‑Unicorn club. The age of the X‑Unicorns is upon us. Silently, they grow unnoticed and emerge valiantly into the limelight.

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  • Ashwin Damera

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