Startup story – Remember, your last employer could be your first customer?

It was the month of March 2009 when I reached out to my Mentor and expressed to him my desire to leave the United States and start my venture in India. He was amazed by my decision, especially when the economy was going through the Global Financial Meltdown, and there was a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity in the environment. He asked me, Sush, are you sure you want to take this step because I don’t think it’s a smart move, and I would urge you to reconsider your decision. After that brief conversation, I was kind of confused and wondering what to do because my H1B Visa was about to expire in Jan 2010, and I had to leave for India anyways.

After a week, I again went to my Mentor and started the conversation, and this time, he asked me a ridiculous question, and, i.e., Sush, go back in the past and think about all those special moments of your life that made you happy. I was kind of surprised by this question because I wanted to discuss with him few options around starting my entrepreneurial journey, but he insisted me to take 3-4 weeks and find the answer to this question first.

This 3-4 weeks period was the most exceptional period of my life because it allowed me to recall all those special and painful moments of my life, which made me happy as well as taught some tough lessons about life. In these special moments, there were more failures and idiosyncrasies than extraordinary achievements. However, there was one particular period during my days of college when I used to teach C++ and Java to class 11th and 12th students in a nearby coaching institute in New Delhi, India, used to get $3.50/hr for the Home Tuitions (along with Tea and Savories), and $2.75/hr for the public classes. It used to be the most gratifying experience, and the kind of respect I used to get from the families meant a lot to me.

The second most memorable experience of my life was the time I spent with GSI Commerce (a full-service e-commerce platform) in King of Prussia, PA. The company gave me a fantastic opportunity to transition my career into Analytics Implementation and Consulting and exposed me to some of the finest brands and retailers in the industry. The consulting experience was so gratifying and enriching that I still have memories of those conversations which happened during the period 2004 -2006 and 2007-2009. Unfortunately, the company doesn’t exist anymore after eBay bought it in 2011. But, it gave many entrepreneurs to the e-commerce industry.

After collecting all these thoughts, I went back to my Mentor and shared all my learnings and experiences of the last decade. He was quite intrigued and happy to hear my thoughts and asked me what kind of business you want to setup Sush? I said I want to be a professional trainer and start my consulting gig targeted to small retailers and brands who have annual revenue of under $25mn/annum. He asked me what kind of training would you conduct Sushant, and who is your target audience? I said I could do both technical and functional training for the corporates who have recently invested in the Omniture or Google Analytics platforms and struggling to derive value out of their investment. He said, Okay, Sush, so; what’s your plan of action and what kind of questions you have for me?

I was dying for this moment when he would ask me this open-ended question, and I took complete advantage of this. After hearing my questions, he had a sarcastic smile on his face, and he asked me, Sush, would you like to join me for the drinks on Friday at Fox & Hounds? I said, Yeah. Why not? He said I want you to meet a very good friend of mine who is a serial entrepreneur, and he would love to hear your thoughts and questions. I was so damn happy with this invitation that I just couldn’t believe that I am getting this opportunity to validate my ideas and get real feedback from someone who had been in the trenches.

On Friday evening, around 7:00 PM, I visited the bar and met my Mentor, along with his close friend, who was the CEO of a well-known Product Recommendation engine based out of Silicon Valley, CA. I knew this individual pretty well because he was an eminent personality, and also, a multi-millionaire at the age of 34-35. My Mentor introduced me to his friend and said, hey Chris, this is Sushant Ajmani, and he wants to start his gig as an e-commerce and analytics consultant and looking for some validation. Can you please hear him out and answer his questions? Chris responded, yeah sure, why not?

Sushant, this is great that you have decided to start your venture, so; tell me what’s that one question that is keeping you awake in the night. I was stunned with this question because I had plenty of questions in my mind and it was quite challenging to cherry-pick one so; with much nervousness, I asked him a question, Chris, how to prepare a business plan for my new gig which gets the attention of the angel investor? He looked at my face with surprise and said, that’s a wrong question, Sushant. I was embarrassed with his response, and with much conviction, I asked my second question, how do I go about setting up a core team? He again responded that’s a wrong question, Sushant. After that, I looked at my Mentor’s face, who was smiling and looking at the emotions on my face. He said Sushant, continue asking your questions, and don’t stop yourself. Post that, I asked the following questions:

  • How to create awareness about my new venture and position myself in the market?
  • I don’t have personal brand equity in the market, so; how should I go about building my credibility?
  • Since I will be moving to India soon, should I be incorporating myself here in the USA first?
  • What kind of teething problems should I expect in the very first year?
  • Should I go for LLP or Incorporation?
  • How should I go about mitigating the risks around the consulting services I would be offering to my clients?
  • How big is the training and consulting market in the USA, and what can I learn from my competitors?

After hearing the above questions, Chris was amazed and started laughing and said Sushant; all your questions are irrelevant and ridiculous, my friend. At this stage of your journey, you need to be just focusing on one and only one question, how to fuckin get my first customer? That’s it, nothing else.

I was so embarrassed and confused with that response that, I counter questioned him, how do I go about getting my first customer Chris?

He responded with a statement that, Sushant, have you ever considered that, your last employer could be your first customer? I was stunned for a few minutes and responded, it never occurred to me and practically, is it possible? He said, why not? You should start your conversation from there because your brand equity resides with-in the boundaries of your current organization, and they can give you better feedback on where you stand and what chasms you need to cross before you start your venture. So, go to your boss and ask him, how can you be the vendor of this current organization, and what are the pre-requisites?

On Monday morning, I briefed the entire conversation to my boss and asked him, whom should I approach if I want to be the vendor of this organization? He looked at me with a smile on his face and arranged a 30 mins conversation with the Procurement team. After a week, I had a chat with the Procurement Head, and he said, Sushant, if you want to be the vendor of this organization, you need to meet the following four criteria:

  1. You need to have a minimum of $5million in professional liability insurance.
  2. You need to be a registered tax-paying entity here in the United States.
  3. You need to have a team of experts who could provide value-added services to this organization.
  4. You need to sign an NDA and an MSA with us, which could take anywhere between 3-6 months.
  5. Lastly, you need to offer a competitive price and deliver a high-quality service to our organization.

The above questions were really provocative and sowed the seeds of my entrepreneurial journey. In June 2009, I incorporated an LLP with a very good friend of mine, Anthony Garcia (a seasoned Analytics and BI Professional) whom I met in GSI Commerce.

And yes, I was managed to convert my last employer into my first client and generated a decent revenue during the period 2010-2011. Apart from this, I also became the first authorized training consultant for Omniture in India and conducted my first training session for Wipro in Bengaluru in May 2010.

The rest all is history!!

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