‘I created a $100 million business with zero employees’

… Rakesh Shukla at a talk in IIM Bangalore

This is my third entrepreneurial innings. With the first, I managed to create a bootstrapped world leader called TWB or The Writers Block that serviced the largest Fortune 500 B2B tech leaders in the world. TWB made money from the first month and grew on its own cash flow. The next two startups, which I did not choose, are called TWB_  (called TWBShift, essentially TWB2.0) and VOSD.

After 10 years of creating a world-class company TWB_’s fall was terrifying and total. In less than six months, I was the only employee left in the company, from a few hundred earlier. And I had lost all offices, bank accounts, phone numbers even web servers as every rupee was employed to repay.

As lenders moved in, employees and customers left. Some of that fightback is the subject of the TEDx talk here. The choices I had to make, the pain and the resurgence — while interesting and with a hundred priceless lessons — was not the subject of the talk though.

What IIM Bangalore grads wanted, was a view on how to help create a large enterprise to help dogs. The case study is not your average startup situation though. You don’t make a business plan, find friends and family, then angel investors and then try to get yourself funded on a blue ocean dream. This is a knife fight and you’ve your hands tied.

Soon after TWB_ went down both my company and personal bank accounts were closed — and no the banks don’t ask you. There was no way for me to find any money. I’ve seen a time when I could only find private loans at 25% interest pa for a year — where you pay the interest upfront! And then when things sank further I had to find still more, which I got at 1% per day! For ₹1 crore, that is ₹1 lakh a day.

These are the kind of guys you watch movies about — they don’t ask you to sign anything to give me money but you can’t not pay nor delay. If anyone has watched The Girl In Yellow Boots the local Kannada hudga (boy) at Kalki Koechlin’s doorstep is a pretty accurate picture of what I refer to. If you thought VCs are ruthless people you should meet one of these. They don’t threaten you with a term sheet and diluting your equity, to put it mildly.

The problem definition

The ask

Could you turn around and start delivering on a $100 million business plan from there with a revenue run-rate of ₹4 crores in Y1?

The liability side

  • You’re the only person in your company. You’ve liquidated all assets You’ve no address, your emails don’t work, your website doesn’t either
  • You’ve got debt that runs into millions of US dollars. Banks agree to reschedule over a 3-4 year term but sundry creditors they want it all now — at one time together it peaked at ₹ 35-40 lakh a month
  • No matter what you pay back each month you got to find ₹10-15 lakhs for your dogs — that is non-negotiable. They got to eat and they got to have medical care.

The asset side

  • You still have a brand (TWB) that means something to customers — you can only deliver on what is not capital intensive and really high margin. TWB_ today focuses on the highest margin business
  • You have terrific goodwill with VOSD (the world’s largest no-kill dog sanctuary and rescue) — you could leverage that to create revenue streams provided you did not have to invest at all!
  • You have an individual with exceptional branding talent — for a period of the first two years. She could allow you to rebrand and make a fresh new identity that still builds on what worked in the past
  • You have an individual with terrific marketing and technical/program management capability — for the next two years. You can rebuild your go-to market assets. But you can’t do both.

The plan

  • Phase 1 (first two years) of our execution was branding and short-term revenue. Phase 2 (next two years) was rebuilding the infrastructure and basic teams and assets to launch
  • TWB is already finding the run rate we had the first time and I expect Y2 to be the same top-line where we left off four years ago. In other words, we will do in two years what we took ten years to do the first time!
  • VOSD has created a portfolio of multiple sub-brands, some driving engagement, some driving revenue but all focused on dogs. This includes VOSD Dog Care — a complete dog care brand available nationally, Barking Mad — India’s largest ‘for charity’ standup property, Monster Bake — India’s largest ‘for charity’ bake sales, Art For Dogs that brings together India’s top artists, and Stars For Dogs that brings together India’s biggest celebrities for a cause.

So how do you start creating a $100 million business on a negative $5million base with zero people? Answer: With ingenuity and gumption. 

When you can’t employ money and timing in business, you apply ingenuity and fortitude and we’ve done that in spades. I’m still bootstrapped, and other than those four years, I’ve always been cashflow positive — from Month 1. How’s that for a fightback?

Stronger with RAKESH SHUKLA is a framework for developing unparalleled mental and physical toughness. It is based on Rakesh’s life, and has helped drive two ‘comebacks’.

Rakesh Shukla slept on railway platforms on his way to creating a world-leading technology company — 
TWB_, which is the choice of over 40 Fortune 500 tech customers worldwide including Microsoft, Boeing, Airbus, Intel, and others. However, at 43, he lost everything within a year. Alone and friendless, he spent the next five years repaying over INR 20 crore of debt and taxes, while building back his company and reputation, and creating and funding VOSD — world’s largest dog sanctuary and rescue.

Rakesh Shukla has suffered heart disease since he was seven years old, had had two heart attacks by the time he was 30, suffers from brain diseases, has broken his back and his kidneys are failing. Towards the end of this five-year period, Rakesh weighed 88 kg and very unfit. Today, at 48 years, he can lift well over 100 kg above his head, run a 10-minute mile, do 2,000 push-ups, and 250 pull-ups. He has never been to a gym, been on a diet, had a trainer, or taken any supplements.



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