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Been There Done That – e-Dream Ventures

He tried. He conquered. Maloy Patnaik tasted success as an entrepreneur yet he switched his path.

Slavery is not dead. We’ve just stopped recognizing it“.

Those are the lines from the new Tata Safari ad. I can understand yet another attempt to celebrate the free spirit. The joys of working for yourself, being the owner of your own time, deciding what to do, when to do and why to do are well documented in modern media. But then things are not really that simple.

I first saw a Windows based PC in 1998, my first year at engineering college. Like everybody else, the first thing that I did is open up MS Paint and scribble about. In a few days I did exactly what everybody else did next, logged onto the Internet. But two months of dialup dilly-dallying and I did something which very few people do. I decided to team up with two friends and start our very own dotcom.

If you have a garage and you wanted to be famous, then make sure that you never put your car in it.

If you ask me why I decided to do this, well maybe because I had always wanted to create a space for myself, or maybe I inherited it from my dad who was a first generation entrepreneur or maybe it was the magazine called CHIP(They later called it DIGIT).The magazine carried a story of first generation etpreneurs who had struck gold in the dotcom era. The punch line of the story was “By the time you think about it, someone is already making money with that idea….” and it featured, among other profiles, a snap of a cross legged, then unknown, Sanjeev Bikchandani, sitting cross-legged on a floor scattered with newspapers with a laptop. That was a very powerful image since it in a way was screaming to us( not unlike the provocative Safari ad mentioned above) that there is nothing that’s stopping you from becoming the next Sanjeev Bikchandani, who incidentally shared his initials with another legend of that era, the Hotmail Wonder boy Sabeer Bhatia.

We called it e-Dream Ventures. No, we weren’t making movies; rather we were going to design websites. Today, looking back to it, I must admit that it was really not very well thought out, so to speak, but back then, I guess, that was exactly what we wanted. Back then, someone once mentioned that if you have a garage and you wanted to be famous, then make sure that you never put your car in it. Imagine what would have been the faith of Microsoft, if Bill gates had parked his car in his garage instead of using it as an office for his startup. We didn’t use the garage, but actually used a room atop a garage for our office. We couldn’t afford separate telephone and fax lines, so we used the fax machine at a friend’s place for receiving fax messages.

The beauty of the business was that it was location independent. We could have been anywhere in the world and our clients wouldn’t have a clue. It was based on this premise, that we developed a virtual front office, where our clients could interact with us online irrespective of our physical locations. For almost six months, we were doing odd jobs and web sites for small players. We were helped by the fact that having websites suddenly became the new fad of the times. Everyone from the local IIT coaching institute to the restaurant across the street wanted to have an online presence and we were only glad to oblige. We decided that given the fact that most of our targeted clients were small businesses, which needed only a token presence on the web, rather than any serious business, our best bet was in providing them a seemingly good package deal. We charged them a fixed rate of 10,000 bucks for a website. Once we added that we would provide them unlimited updates free for a year, they were literally queuing up and we had our hands full. A standard website took us not more than two days to develop and based on our experience we knew that most clients forgot about their websites once they had been hosted, and the URLs printed on their letterheads, so we hardly had any updates to deal with.

While we were making lots of money those days, yet in a year’s time the work was becoming mechanical and monotonous. We were not making any difference to the world, and this was making us restless. We were on the lookout for something that would make us the household name in the state, if not the country. The first stroke of recognition actually happened by fate rather than device. On the evening of 11th September, 2001, I reached home to find my huge joint family glued to the TV screens watching in horror as the planes collided into the twin towers. The next day, everyone noticed that the local edition of TOI had the banner headlines about the terror attack. Folks in Orissa also noticed that the regional page contained a news item of a Bulletin Board started by a bunch of engineering students to help people in the State to connect with their near and dear ones in New York. Using widely available technology, we had created a means for an information starved State to get more information about the whereabouts of their loved ones involved in the tragedy. The application caught the fancy of the common man, and we saw the number of hits on our portal, VirtualOrissa.com, zoom up manifold. We had created the big noise that we needed to announce our presence.

While we were known to a certain section of our target audience, we were not household names yet. That would happen the next summer, during the admission season. The state had more than thirty private and government owned Engineering colleges, similar to the one that we studied in, and the admission procedure to these was a really mad affair. There were several days of counseling processes which preceded admission. The Counseling process was conducted on the basis of a merit list prepared based on ranks obtained in the open entrance tests. Since the counseling and the seat allocation was a very manual process, there was no way for a student from a distant city to know the current position of seats in any particular institute without actually traveling all the way to the venue where the process was being held. Often, the students would travel great distances only to reach the venue and realize that the seats that they were looking for had already been taken. In short, there was an information gap. Not for the first time, we spotted the glaring abyss which the others seemed to be oblivious about, and swung into action. A few days of research and some greedy palms ( nothing personal, it’s business after all ) later, we announced to anyone who cared to listen, that for the first time ever, we would provide comprehensive online coverage of the process.

We were not making any difference to the world, and this was making us restless.

The response was instantaneous and overwhelming. The website became an overnight success and our website was almost swamped with hits. Every evening, we used to read out the fan mails we received that day, thanking us for this endeavor. We had again used off-the-shelf technology to create an application that had caught the fancy of the general public. The next year onwards, the organizing body for the admissions process emulated our efforts and started providing online information of the process, much to the delight of the applicants everywhere. That night, we had a party to celebrate the fact that we had contributed our bit to changing the world.

After this success, we had basically achieved the two main objectives that we had set out for Wealth and Recognition. We now had to decide upon the future of our enterprise. We could either go ahead full time into this or we could go ahead with our careers, the more traditional way. We chose to wind up our organization.

I am not sure about my partner’s reasoning, but I am pretty clear of the reasons why I chose the path I did. I decided that I wanted a cushy job and the shortcut to that was doing an MBA from a reputed institute. Read somewhere that an MBA was more about external validation than internal conviction. For me, it was that extra edge that my CV needed to get me into my dream job. Over the next two years I would discuss my choice with several batch mates about how I gave up a running business to join the rat race all over again, but I always felt that I had chosen wisely. In hindsight, given the dotcom bust, we may boast that we had read the inevitable and exited at the top of the wave, but the reasons are more mundane than that. We could go on arguing about this choice for hours, and there would be no definitive conclusion. I guess, I just wasn’t ready for the risks involved in setting up your own enterprise.

I saw my friends queuing up to enroll for a new course called New Entrepreneurship Management, which was aimed at launching the entrepreneurs of tomorrow and I quite smiled to myself. Been there, done that. You don’t need an MBA degree to become a successful entrepreneur. A keen sense of awareness of your surroundings and an open mind were enough. It’s a little ambitious to think that a finishing school could actually metamorphosize you to the next business baron. It takes a little more than that. Entrepreneurship maybe the buzz across B-School campuses around the country, but throwing caution to the winds and jumping into the first big idea that you conjured up, isn’t really all that advisable.

We had set out for Wealth & Recognition.We could either go ahead full time into this or we could go ahead with our careers, the more traditional way.

As for the Safari ad, well, they are just playing with words to sell you a product. Don’t take them to heart.

Read other articles on Entrepreneurship by Rashmi Bansal

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