The key to startup success: Getting up again

Watching a baby trying to walk is a beautiful thing. The infant will fall every few steps. A few babies will cry after falling down, some will not, and most will not even react. But all of them, without fail, will simply try to get up and walk again. A baby trying to walk is not just a beautiful thing. It is a life lesson.

All of us fall down several times in life. It is inevitable. What’s important, though, is getting up again and again. One more time.

I started getting up again on July 21, 2015, after a massive fall.

In India, we celebrate success. Entrepreneurs whose startups become unicorns are celebrated. Decacorn founders are worshiped. So far, so good. The converse is a different matter altogether. The founder of a failed startup is abhorred, often ostracized and avoided like a pandemic super-spreader. I speak from experience. The first startup I co-founded (Fabmart, later Indiaplaza, an e-commerce pioneer in India) had gone bust in 2012. Creditors who were owed money (by the company, not me) relentlessly and ruthlessly chased me for their due. Even my wife and son who were never involved in the business were not spared. All three of us were subjected to physical threats, humiliation and severe online abuse by suppliers, employees and partners. As a result, I had stopped going out and spent all my time cooped up at home. Stripped of my dignity, a broken man, down on my knees, ashamed of my own self, not even having the courage to look at myself in the mirror. Doing a startup in India and failing is a hard thing.

In 2015, Mint commemorated 20 years of the internet in India with 20 in-depth articles on people, events and institutions who/ which had influenced the growth of the web in the country since 1995. Surprisingly, I was part of this illustrious list of impactful successes, with one key difference: my story appeared on a center-spread double-page spread with a huge picture of myself and was titled ‘The Failure’. The overwhelming response to the article convinced me of two things. One, there are people out there who are interested in knowing about failure. So I wrote about my experiences in what turned out to be a hot-selling book, Failing to Succeed. Two, I understood with absolute clarity that there’s no reason for me to hide. My startup had failed, like 99% other startups. Why the hell am I hiding? Let me get out and wear my failed badge with pride.

Entrepreneurship is like a drug and once you are addicted, it is hard to do anything else. Yet, while I was trying to move ahead, I was still hesitating about starting up again. I tried angel investing, mentorship and even looked for a job, but my heart was not in it. I got several startup ideas but just couldn’t bring myself to take the first step. That’s when a friend pointed out an interesting market gap in beverages.

All beverages in the market solve one of two problems: they have a clean label (no refined sugar, no artificial preservatives, colors or flavours) or they are shelf stable with a reasonable shelf life. But no beverage so far has solved both problems. This essentially means that either consumers suffer or the business suffers. Developing a beverage that can solve both would be a huge step forward. I was getting interested.

Before jumping in full time, I set myself four key conditions. My next startup must be a product company (product companies are harder to build than services), it must develop a product that is truly innovative (to make the effort worthwhile), the industry must be one that I have no idea about (so that I could learn something new every day) and it should have the potential to make a strong social impact (so as to look back at the journey with some satisfaction).

We started work on new beverages in late 2016. When we laid out the broad specs for the drinks, we were advised that it cannot be done. It took over two years of constant tinkering, testing, tasting and failing before we succeeded. We couldn’t believe it ourselves. We now had drinkable yoghurts and milkshakes with no refined sugar, no artificial preservatives, colors or flavours; yet the drinks did not require refrigeration and had a shelf life of over 90 days. And we managed this without any background in consumer goods or food and beverages.

Sometime around July 2018, we filed for patents. Here too, we were advised not to waste our time. But we went ahead. Apart from the industry innovation, getting a patent awarded three years later has been an immensely rewarding and satisfying personal experience. It let me put behind the dark days and months I endured alone with just my wife and son for support. It told me in no uncertain terms that everyone and anyone can succeed at anything.

The reality is that everyone fails at something. To succeed, one has to fail. If you have not failed, you cannot succeed. JK Rowling captured this eloquently at Harvard many years ago: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you fail by default.” None of us has to fail by default. All we have to do is get up. One more time. Like a baby.

K. Vaitheeswaran is founder and chief executive officer of Again Drinks. He tweets @vaitheek

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