By Sandhya Ramachandran
“My entrepreneurial journey started in 97–98. I started very early but I am not that old!” Shashikiran Rao founder of Construkt Media and co-founder of Campmonk.com begins the conversation in jest.
An early player in the Indian startup scene, Shashi, as he is called, stepped foot into entrepreneurship as part of an Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore incubator. Growing from strength to strength, he forayed into enterprise resource planning systems, educational research, etc., over the years. But the big break came in when he established the first private educational assessment body after a Supreme Court ruling made it mandatory for a third-party to conduct exams for entry into private/autonomous educational institutions. The business was quick to grow across the country and soon became the largest private testing body for education institutions. The entrepreneurial spirit was too strong in him to be ignored and Shashi also tried his luck launching a social media company (way ahead of its times!), building developer communities, working on Government policies, etc.
Beginnings of Construkt
And then funded by Stanford and the Karnataka Government, this serial entrepreneur launched the Construkt Festival in 2011 with fellow co-founder Karan Bahadur; a festival people still refer to as the “South by Southwest of those days.”
“The idea was to create a trans-disciplinary platform for people to come in, interact and learn from each other. It was a place where tech met art and art met social. We were all exploring opportunities of being in the intersection of disciplines. We hosted the Construkt Festival for about 4 years and each year, we got a footfall of about 3000–3500 people,” Shashi elaborates.
But there was an urge to create something more sustainable. While visiting a friend in Berlin, the power of the startup ecosystem and community impressed Shashi. “When I left the city I almost felt like I walked out with a bunch of friends and business networks,” he describes, “And on my way back I was thinking about how to replicate an experience like this and make it available for people in India. And that is how the journey of Construkt hostels started. We want to disrupt the experience for millennial business travellers since it has not changed in decades. The whole idea is to do what WeWork did for coworking spaces in the field of millennial business travel.” Today, Construkt has two spaces> operating in Bangalore under the Tribe Theory umbrella and is soon to launch a flagship space in the city.
Why Bangalore, we ask. Was there something that the city offered that was really crucial to the journey and the business model? Shashi explains, “We were based out of Bangalore creating landing pads for entrepreneurs. We ran a lot of surveys before we decided where and which neighbourhood we needed to start in. At that time–and even today–Bangalore was and is one of the most active startup cities and early adopter markets in the country. Most of the incoming traffic of travellers in the startup industry was coming into Bangalore. Plus, the culture of mentoring was very strong and there was the concept of coexistence in the entrepreneurial system.”
Shashi attributes his success and growth to this community. “One of the things I strongly believe that has helped me a great deal in my life is Isaac Newton’s quote –”If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants” I had the good fortune of being around the right kind of people. Learning from them made a huge difference! I didn’t know the word entrepreneur existed when I was in school and college. It didn’t feature anywhere close to what I wanted to become in my life. But it happened.”
His words take us back to the beginning of the startup buzz in India. Today, Shashi laments the loss of this community that powered the Bangalore landscape, “I think it’s very fragmented now. Today we don’t need to make so much noise or convince an ordinary person about startups and entrepreneurship. That problem has been taken care of. The communities today are about cutting-edge technologies, new methods of thinking, etc. And a community gains traction only if you see enough money coming into that field. And they hit the mainstream soon as the gestation period is very short right now. So, the idea of community building is a little different today.”
Was the market saturated when they began Construkt? “We come from the school of thinking that it’s good to have more people venture into a business because it’s a great sign that the market needs it. But then I started to disagree with my own beliefs because I started to see a lot of cheap copies of what we were trying to do at Construkt, including businesses which copied our name! But these people were running it like a backpacker’s hostel. Over a period of time, not a single strong competitor remained. All of them started shutting down because they didn’t understand that we were not selling a bed and breakfast. We were curating a community. So, from that point of view, I think the competition was not intense. But, at the same time what we are trying to do has also not fully blossomed. I think it’s at least another year and a 5-million-dollar-funding away for us,” he laughs.
On cultivating entrepreneurship
How difficult was it to impress upon his family that he was not on a fool’s chase and that entrepreneurship was not a high-risk behaviour, especially at a time corporate jobs were cushy and the startup scene was just beginning? “I think a lot of us were to not from entrepreneurial families. Some of us were a bit of a black sheep already,” Shashi begins, “Our parents couldn’t really plot us. They didn’t know where we were going. They questioned if this was even a career in the first place. Now, things have changed. We have a second generation and third generation entrepreneurs. But even today, there is a lot of pressure by default. But, I think the day that ‘Founder, CEO’ made it as a sought-after profession in Bharatmatrimony.com, that problem was solved,” he jokes.
Shashi believes that the solution could be introducing entrepreneurship to the young in schools and colleges. “Nothing that helps you get by in this world are taught in schools,” Shashi exclaims with trademark humour. “I think certain basic skills like valuation, balance sheet, putting together a business plan, etc., need to be taught as they are very important. One of the things that they should enforce is a gap year program to work on/with a startup or to work on an idea before kids go into their professions after college. Lots of times we catch ourselves thinking, ‘Man if I had known this or been exposed to this in my college days, I would have really looked at life and this world in a very different manner!’ So, if that exposure comes at the right time with the right ecosystem and the right mind, the ecosystem can become really interesting.”
On the future of the Indian startup ecosystem
According to Shashi, the Indian startup world has immense potential and at the same time is supersaturated, creating an interesting dichotomy. “In India, it really has become a game of how much money you can raise and how many people you know. It’s a capitalist market and you can’t change that. Innovations get destroyed because somebody else is stronger in raising money and overshadows the other who is good at tech. I don’t know what the after-effects of this are going to look like in five years ten years from now. But this is clearly what has happened,” Shashi feels.
Shashi has recently begun a new chapter in Lisbon, on yet another entrepreneurial journey of establishing a new Tribe Theory space there. But Shashi still holds a fascination for the Indian startup space. “I interact with a lot of global startup ecosystems. The bad thing about the Indian startup ecosystem is that despite being a huge total addressable market it is highly competitive. There are 500 people on the same street as you live in thinking about the exact same thing as you are or copying what you do. But the tenacity in Indians to go out and get sh*t done is unparalleled. The kind of jugaad** we display within our small ecosystem with limited resources is unbelievable. It just baffles me sometimes! We don’t live in a world of abundance which is what the first word lives in. If you are an entrepreneur building business out of India, you have got nothing in abundance apart from your own beliefs. I think that makes it very interesting as an entrepreneur to make it big in India. There are so many ambitious minds wanting to become entrepreneurs!” he shares on a closing note.
**jugaad: Hindi for inventiveness