You were awarded the Young Scientist of India Award in 2016 and then the Blogger of the Year award too. These are some of the earliest achievements of your life. What prompted you to start so early in your life?
My curious drive was ignited right during my childhood. When I was in 2nd standard, my father bought a PC for my sister. Later, we got an internet connection as well– around the time Orkut and MSN were all the rage. I began using Orkut at that time. Since I was a kid back then, it hadn’t occurred to me that it was a company with a purpose whatsoever; to me, it was just a fascinating website that sparked my desire to create a personal website, “YUGANSHCHOKRA.COM”. With this in mind, I started learning how to make websites through different sources. Eventually, I got into coding in class 5. I kept learning scripting languages on my own, using Youtube and Google as my educational tools, and eventually got hold of PHP, JS, C#, etc.
When I was in 9th, I had been working with Microsoft, and I had a website of my own by now. I was also running a blog, but didn’t understand most of the technicalities of how blogging works. This prodded me into taking a six-month-long break to work with startups. I read about blogging and remade my blog from scratch in five months. The reach of my blog page peaked at a million users. For this, I was honoured with the Blogger of the Year Award.
It was in the same year that I went to DTU to attend a two-day-long drone building competition-cum-workshop, for which the best ones were awarded cash scholarships. I was the only kid there; however, having a team was a prerequisite for participation. After much effort in looking for potential teammates, I ended up participating with a group of students from a college in Noida. Even though we didn’t win, that competition fueled my interest in hardware. So I started watching a lot of robotics tutorials. I got in touch with some of the people from mechanical backgrounds, and they directed me toward the right kind of material that I could buy from Chandni Chowk. I asked my father for a sum of Rs. 10,000 and went off to Chandni Chowk.
It was around this time that I found out about this Young Scientist Competition. Armed with my new-found materials and knowledge, I made a refrigerator– that could freeze water in 5 to 7 minutes– in under 100 dollars. For this, I was awarded the Young Scientist award on 5th August 2016– the first day of college, which I skipped to attend the conference to receive my award.
You had a very unorthodox life in 11th and 12th. How did you manage JEE with all these activities?
I was never targeting JEE. Secondly, my family has this image of me as a person sitting in front of a laptop/PC all day. In high school, I met this guy through Facebook who was into hardware and software, but was at a major disadvantage in terms of opportunities, being from a tier 3 college. This was when my sister told me that if I didn’t get into a good college, I would also face certain difficulties along the way. Both of these things impacted me deeply. However, I didn’t want to give up on my usual activities. I made a deal with my sister– if I study for the whole day, I get to use the laptop at night.
It all boils down to time management, and how and to what you devote your energy. I think spending even as little as 2 hours to watch some series renders the rest of the hours as unproductive, because a lot of energy has already been drained unnecessarily. I abided by this during my JEE prep days as well.
You’ve nicknamed yourself as a ‘serial starter’ in your LinkedIn bio– a role that surely requires constant hunger for new ideas and concepts. What makes you so persistent, and how do you cope with failures?
Looking back, when I started ShopNani, most of my experience and knowledge pertained to the functioning of big companies. So the first hurdle was the financial constraints. The second obstacle was inexperience in dealing with a team. I’ve realised over the years that I am terrible at organising teams. There are many people with a tonne of potential who left me, just because I was bad at managing them. If I just sat down lamenting over my mistakes, it would not get me anything. Such brooding would only be an unproductive waste of time.
I don’t think that I’ve failed in life. I am a core believer of the aphorism that whatever happens with you, happens for a purpose, no matter how good or how bad it is. I would say, start early and stay sharp, because you will come across multiple such experiences.
How did your field of interest change from Engineering to Business?
I started off with coding, then got into hardware, then switched back to coding, and finally, I clicked with the field of business. Frankly, engineering was never the main goal, and I heard about ICE only after giving JEE. My sister persuaded me to come to NSUT due to its good reputation and placement statistics. My mom also wanted me to get a degree. And here I am, doing a B.E. in ICE.
You’ve also been to HEC Paris to attend the Entrepreneurship Program. How did that experience help you?
HEC Paris is a truly amazing place to be. My biggest takeaways would be the people I met and the network I formed. There were students from top schools like UCLA and Wharton, and naturally, each had a pretty diverse background in terms of education and work experience. Then there were people with work experiences from the biggest tech and non-tech giants. The second best thing I experienced over there was the way they (the educators at HEC) taught. I feel entrepreneurship requires a lot of practical knowledge, which you can’t get from reading a book. The professors imparted us an all-round education full of field trips, theory, and guest lectures.
One thing I found lacking was that whatever they taught was basic. For a novice who just wants to have a startup of their own, the Summer School is a great starting point. But for someone like me, who already had one main company and a few other small companies even before attending the program, it was not very fruitful. However, the overall experience was really good.
You started ShopNani In 2016. What was the idea behind it?
I used to window shop a lot on e-commerce websites. I used to fill my cart with items like t-shirts and shoes, and by the time I checked my cart, the total cost would turn out to be in the order of thousands of rupees. Then I came across websites that compared prices of electronics. I wanted to translate this idea of price comparison into other kinds of goods too. Another influencing factor was the fact that my acquaintances often take my advice on what phone/laptop to buy, based on my knowledge about their tastes. That gave me the idea that I could automate the recommendations and comparison system by using the user’s history to return the best product available in the market. That’s how the whole idea grew and took shape.
It’s been 4 years since ShopNani’s inception. How has it grown over the years and have there been any major downfalls?
I’ll start with the downfalls that I saw as an individual. I feel that I’ve seen depression very closely. There was a situation, a moment when everyone left me and I was all alone. I used to get affected by whatever other people– relatives and friends– said to me. I would turn all of this negativity over and over in my head, thus affecting my performance as an individual. Now I’ve grown, and I have a much chilled out attitude towards these things.
As a founder, I am always optimistic. But to make everyone around you optimistic is a tough job since everyone has their own motivations. The only thing I knew was that I could push them to work and learn something out of the experience, and not just complete the work for the sake of getting it done. We also had certain team issues, but people grow, and with age, you gain wisdom. Now I have a better understanding of how to handle these situations.
I’ve been trying my hands on different industries, and that has helped me expand my knowledge. We are collaborating with new companies. A few companies left us, but now we have 1000+ merchants, 500+ major e-commerces globally. We have Amazon, Flipkart, FirstCry, Alibaba on board with us. There were setbacks for sure, but here we are now.
What is “Fern” and what has been your role in the company?
Fern was founded in China. I was in China in 2018 for a boot camp for a month, where we had to create a team and come up with a solution to a given problem. My team came up with Fern– a smart home gardening system. It was an IoT project and involved a little bit of programming. Its manufacturing cost was 2.95 USD, and we sold it for 50 USD. We won an award for this at the Asia Pacific Ocean Academy in China. However, this idea couldn’t materialize further. We thought of continuing on this project after returning to our home countries. But after I started researching agriculture in India, I decided to leave the project because it became clear to me that it wouldn’t suit the Indian market. All this pulled me closer to the field of agriculture. Now I am researching and developing what I call “smart soil”. It took me almost one year to do the R&D and I have harvested 4 times the normal from this soil. I have a whole setup on my terrace, and I am looking to expand and commercialise this soon.
What qualities do you expect in an employee now that you are running your own company?
The person should be an initiator, not someone who just mechanically does the job. I prefer someone who can complete a task within the given deadline without having to ask me for every small detail. One can look for the details themselves; I have always believed that all the solutions are available if you look for them in the right place.