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From founder to head of growth: Lessons from a passionate startupper
About this episode
Have you started a project or a company? Are you maybe thinking of it?
Ishan shares his learnings from having founded his first startup at the age of 19 until becoming the Head of Growth at Urban Journalist.
If you are an early stage founder and you face trouble with idea validation or decision making, then this episode might bring some light to your thoughts.
What they talked about:
- Growing from a Founder’s career to becoming a Head of Growth
- Founders’ Ego and other types of egos
- A fresh approach about Going-To-Market and how to prioritize your marketing channels
- The most useful tool for founders
Ishan Khurana: A bit about me. I’m a Shan, I’m from India, at the age of 17. I decided to go abroad and pursue my bachelor’s in Netherlands and ended up starting my own startup in the babysitting business, had to get a few bucks in the pocket. Because it was difficult to get side jobs, while being non-Dutch speaker, so I found sort of a supply of babysitters, everyone within the university was fresh out of summer jobs being babysitter. And I was like, yeah, why not start like our own babysitting agency, and went very well. And that kind of got me into the whole startup world, because that was essentially my first step of being an entrepreneur or understanding what entrepreneur, what it is to be an entrepreneur or what it is to start a startup, all the legal and administrative and marketing, finance, all those kinds of challenges were very interesting. And that kind of caught my interest. And since then, here we are, I have worked with a few more startups since then. And now I’m working as a head of growth at Orange journalist. And I’m also a mentor on growth mentor. So yeah, it’s been an interesting ride so far and yeah.
Spyros Tsoukalas: You started your entrepreneurial journey pretty early in your career? How has that worked out for you, while like switching from entrepreneurship to working as an employee somewhere as head of growth? As you said, How has that worked out for you so far?
Ishan Khurana: Yeah, usually it’s the other way around. Or if it’s the first way around, then people become billionaires and they’re Mark Zuckerberg, but that hasn’t been the case for me. Well, the first step was essentially to, you know, face the challenges, get to know the world. And that really, you know, give me an insight into what kind of entrepreneur I am, and like, what are my passions, and at this stage of my career, I felt I was better suited to sort of be in a more of a consulting role. And more involved in the strategy and management side. I do have ideas every now and then to start my own business. And I always have that cake, or that entrepreneurial spirit, hey, this idea is going to be the greatest idea of all time, and just like any other entrepreneur, but then you have to like calm yourself and be like, hey, there’s a long way to go. And yeah, I definitely think that at one point in my career, I will start something again. But it’s a journey. And I’m also learning by working with other startups. And who knows, one day I will have my own startup again. But starting Dear Sitter, back in 2016, was sort of like the Kickstart to get involved in this industry and understand the challenges and then take it forward from there and continue my learning process.
Spyros Tsoukalas: Okay, great story. I like how down to earth you sound with your choices. So I noticed something that I have been noticing recently in the startup ecosystems, in general. So people talk about ideas about like, when dealing with starting a startup or starting a project where I hear people talking about ideas. I used to think like that in the past, but like my failures as a founder before joining growth mentor, ended up in a realisation that we shouldn’t be talking about ideas, we should be passionate about the problems, and then study the problems and then create solutions that give value to the stakeholders around those problems. Have you encountered that, like being very passionate about ideas, and instead of looking at the problems, and then building stuff, and other things related to that?
Ishan Khurana: Yeah, I think that’s a very valid point. And it’s a common saying amongst all entrepreneurs that you should only build something if it’s your own pain point. And if you build something, which is your own pain point, then it’s a success. So yeah, I mean, I have encountered many entrepreneurs and myself included, where a lot of times you you know, you come up with an idea, which is a great solution. But it’s not your own pain point. And you are not even that. Sure if it actually is a pain point, or you don’t have first hand experience with the pain point. A lot of times people see an opportunity, a gap in the market, as we call it. And then they are trying to fill that gap. But what goes wrong in that process? A lot of times, I feel, personally, is that you don’t really even understand the gap, or you wonder, or you don’t know, to what extent is that a problem? Or does it need a solution? Because not every problem needs solving? I mean, a world without problems wouldn’t be as fun I feel. So yeah, I mean, it takes, it takes some understanding. And it takes some failures as well, I guess, to really understand that entrepreneurship is not really about finding solutions, it’s about being faced with problems, and then coming up with solutions. And those solutions really becoming a solution for mass audience. That is, actually I feel the right process. And that is partly also reason why I haven’t become an entrepreneur again yet, because I haven’t really been faced with a problem, which I feel like yeah, this is my problem, I really want to solve it. And no matter what, I’m going to create a solution for myself first. Because unless you do that, you are not really starting something you’re just there for. Yeah, it might be a little bit blunt, and maybe a bit offensive, but I don’t mean it that way. But if you’re in for the money, then you’re not really doing the whole entrepreneurship. In a good way if you.
Spyros Tsoukalas: Nice idea, nice approach actually. I mean, the money won’t lead you to the goals or the results, you want to end up saving, because it’s the passion and the whole process behind it that will end up probably if ever to the money around.
Ishan Khurana: Yeah, I don’t think any entrepreneur who has started something in the past really thought that they were going to be billionaires or millionaires, they really just wanted to start something and have a few users solve their problems with their solution with The Entrepreneurs Solution. And you never know what ends up becoming a success or a failure. It is partly destiny. And it’s partly just getting everything right at the right time.
Spyros Tsoukalas: So given your journey, so far as a founder in the past, and now as a head of growth, if you were to start a startup from scratch, it’s like you choose a problem and or you have an idea and you start developing a company around that. What would you do differently? How would you do that? Like what would your approach nowadays with all these experiences you have collected be?
Ishan Khurana: Yeah, in the beginning, I wasn’t really as organised, I would say, and structured. As a head of growth now or even just a couple of years after starting Dear Sitter or just it was when I decided to move on from Dear Sitter, I’d already realised that there was a lot of, there is a lot of hardwork that goes in to really building something because there was traction with your centre and there was a lot of things going right. But to sustain something which is going right needs a big, big part of it is building a good foundation. And foundation really entails having the right people around you. They don’t even have to be full timers, you don’t have to go out hiring without even starting something. But just having the right kind of mentors around your people who can support you. There are a lot of things that go into play. If you’re building a service based startup and especially a startup such as a babysitting startup, there’s a lot of legal formalities and all those different things that you have to take into consideration and if you don’t have the right people around you, you end up making certain mistakes. And those mistakes, what they do is they keep piling up and then you lose confidence in yourself or your business or you lose confidence in the scaling of it. You become fearful of the scaling that you are like, a lot of times, the another way to fail as having, being an entrepreneur is being afraid of scaling something, right. So I think all those things which were there, in that phase of my life, just a 1920 year old kid, those things have sort of shed away now working with many startups, and working as an employee as well. And being involved, every now and then with startups, building structure and foundation for them, I think that’s definitely would be my starting point, if I was going to build something is to define the structure and define the foundation for sustainable growth. And something are basically building a platform which I can keep dancing on.
Spyros Tsoukalas: So talking about all those mistakes, and all the pitfalls that somebody may fall into. And since we are the growth mentor, podcast, I think that mentoring is highly relevant to receiving guidance and avoiding all these not all actually, but like some of those mistakes, because like you meet people who are more experienced, or at least a few steps ahead of you on a specific path, whatever it is, so interacting with them might be extremely useful to reduce the risk of this ignorance or these things that we don’t know as the founders or whatever.
Ishan Khurana: Yeah, yeah, as I said, it really comes down to having the right people around you and platforms like growth mentor, have all kinds of people with all kinds of expertise on the platform. And it’s, it’s a great resource, I mean, that you could be basically having a full day of eight hours as the working hour. And you could have 16 sessions and eight hours, essentially, think about the knowledge that you would be getting from it. You talk about a normal day at university, and you learn all these cool things in an entrepreneurship course. And here you are talking to experts, for free and who are very willing, I mean, all the mentors that we have on the platform. It’s very commendable, and a great job to you guys for organising it, because they are all very willing to share the right knowledge. They don’t hold back. And I think that’s a wonderful opportunity for any ones trying to start a business.
Spyros Tsoukalas: Yeah, I’m not trying to pitch growth mentor, actually, in this case, I just thought that it was practically irrelevant to what we were discussing.
Ishan Khurana: Now. Yeah. But yeah, it does, it is very relevant for sure.
Spyros Tsoukalas: So I have another question of how you would approach the early steps of a startup if you had to, if you were to start a new one. But you might be experiencing that through your role. So a major problem that young founders face is that there are so many marketing channels to be used. Like, there’s there are so many, so many different ways to try to go to market and use those channels that you have to prioritise and how and choose or identify the right channels to launch your product or market your product, even more mature project experienced this difficulty? So if you were at an early states, or how have you done that before? How would you do that? Now? Any thoughts around that?
Ishan Khurana: Well, there are different ways, right? Like it depends on the kind of business you have the kind of product that you have, or a service that you have, and the kind of target audience that you’re dealing with. For us back then. It was mostly parents, and now parents interact differently. So one thing that I that I that I can definitely mention when it comes to your go to market plan is that don’t define it beforehand, right? When you think of an idea, or you come up with come up with an idea or you build a foundation are a structure. From that point, to the point when you’re ready to go to market and you have done your audience testing, you have your product market fit, a lot has changed because we are rapidly developing the kind of platforms people are on or the kinds of trends that people are following. They keep changing and shifting all the time. So a of lot of times the mistake Eat that entrepreneurs make. And this is something I see quite common is that people make a go to market plan, six months, or 12 months before the actual starting before starting to execute on it. And by then a lot of things have changed, the dynamics have changed, the audiences are changed, the platforms themselves have changed. I mean, in the last 12 months, if you look at Instagram, it went from a photo sharing platform to a video sharing platform, within the last six months, there has been a whole shift within the whole UI UX. So if you consider all these things and the rapid developments, it is wiser to always adapt your strategy, and then follow up on it. And it’s important, also, to really understand the high expectation customer and not just the target audience, there is a whole blog on medium for high expectation customers and what that means, basically, it’s a nucleus of your audience, the centre point that you should be targeting. And you should also keep, check off. Okay, so this, basically, building a user persona is like, okay, so this is my high expectation customer, this is the nucleus of my target audience, what trends are they on, because they are also changing all the time. Right? If you’re, if you’re building a company, where your target audiences say 16 to 20, which is essentially say, 14 to 19, say, all teenagers, then you just went from Snapchat to TikTok in a matter of one year, from changing your platform strategy, right. So it really depends. And the best way to go about it is to continuously adapt and improvise. And instead of planning ahead, plan with time, I’m not saying you shouldn’t plan ahead, that’s always good, but plan with time and execute with time. And that’s the best strategy, in my opinion.
Spyros Tsoukalas: this is something new for me as well, in the sense that the way you have described the thought process behind. So let’s say that we’re going to mark it by then two months, and we start planning in advance, it was the way you phrase it, like, start going to the market and adapt based on the experiment that you will run the data that you will collect what will happen while interacting with customers, because you will be still continue, you will continue interacting with all those customers. That’s a very interesting approach compared to how I had it in my own mind earlier.
Ishan Khurana: Yeah.
Spyros Tsoukalas: so another thing, go ahead.
Ishan Khurana: I was saying 10 years ago, there was a pretty simple approach, you had a website, and you knew that it was going viral, because there was not much competition, but these days, with social media, web 3.0, and all these kinds of developments, everything is happening at a very faster pace. All platforms are changing at a very fast pace. And, yeah, so times have changed. And so should the strategy books as well. I feel.
Spyros Tsoukalas: yeah, yeah, it’s a fast changing world. Yeah. Another topic, actually, one of the last ones that I would like to discuss with you Shan is, have you encountered or have you experienced, like, the founder’s ego? Me personally, in the past, having been a founder, in the very beginning, at least, I was thinking that all my ideas were bright, and I was trying to do stop and then failing while going to the market. So trying to prove the ideas were right. And then another thing that they experienced while being a little more mature later in the startup that they have worked with or develop was that then instead of being very passionate about your ideas, so your ego was thinking then being expressed our the idea was, there was a go around decision making. So what you were thinking was the right decision on context that an existing context in a business or whatever business model, the founder, being very passionate about not changing the choices they have made in order to not accept that they were their hypothesis was wrong, etc, which is completely against or contradictive to the lean startup mindset that everybody gets exposed to when dealing with startups, etc. So have you encountered anything like that in your career, in the companies you have worked for or around?
Ishan Khurana: Yeah, definitely. I mean, everyone has a founder’s ego. Let’s be honest.
Ishan Khurana: even if you’re not a founder, I’m going to take a very simple example, if you’re working on a project, and for example, your employer or your manager gives you a project or a presentation that you have to run, and then when it comes to the presentation time, they are the managers are not happy. If you are definitely, you know, encountered by your own ego that for you, that was the best presentation, and now it’s been rejected. So everyone has an ego, there’s an employee’s ego, there’s an employer’s ego, there’s a founder’s ego as well. So it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But it’s definitely something to keep in mind. I feel. Because end of the day, as you mentioned, your ideas might be great for you. And actually, there is, I’m sure, you know, Gary Vee, he actually mentioned there’s two approaches, when you’re validating your ideas, there’s a rational approach. And then there’s the emotional approach, the rational approach is basically you take your product to the market, you see what the data says, and you make a decision to go ahead or not, is it a sustainable business model or not? The emotional approach says that, hey, it’s not working out right now. But I know it will. Because there is an emotional connection with the product, where you know that there is some strength behind it. And then you, you know, go into the loop of like, hypothesising, testing, hypothesising, testing, analysing and auditing. And that loop essentially feeds into your ego, because some things will work. And then those positives will make you feel like, oh, everything is working. But and then the founder’s ego, and the main thing to understand here is not to only look at the positives, or negatives, but it’s to look at the equilibrium how much can you fix, if a startup is not working, and if the audience is not accepting it even after improvisations that you thought were game changing, there is a time when you have to let go of it or you have to decide that okay, things are not working out, as they were planned to be. And maybe this product is not needed in the market. Or if it is needed, it is maybe not needed, the way you are presenting it. Know that a lot of times founder’s ego is not just link with idea validation. A lot of times founder’s ego is also link to brand validation, right? You thought of a name, you thought of a brand tagline, you thought of your colours, you thought of your logo, and you think this is the best, I will never change it. But what you don’t realise that your product is perceived based on your brand image. And if the brand image is what you have created, and you’re not ready to let go of it, or change it, then your product might be the best out there. But it won’t get the same recognition as your next best competitor who has a better brand than you are and maybe not as good as not, as good of a product as you. So, founder’s ego comes into play in multiple aspects. It starts from idea validation to during the startup, you have to realise is, are the things that I decided working or not, you have to keep in mind that you should constantly take expert opinions and actually listen to them not always defend a lot of a lot about ego is defend. Right? If I trigger your ego, your natural response is to defend yourself and the defence mechanisms kind of block your way to the truth. And being faced with the truth is crucial to
Ishan Khurana: have a failure or success as an entrepreneur. Lastly, what I want to touch upon in terms of founder’s ego is that a lot of times when you have built something which is running and it’s good, you are getting money, you gain that confidence that hey, I am a good entrepreneur, and this is perfect. I know how to do this. I’m going to continue it till the end. A lot of times you are maybe not the right person to take it to the scale up phase right. You can always be in the startup phase or you can always been a small business face because that is not what you dreamed of. You dreamed of a big company. You dreamed of creating something which is bigger than your imagination. So then you have to ask yourself the hard question. Am I the right person to take my brainchild forward? Or do I need someone to take it forward instead of me. And that’s, that’s a decision that a lot of entrepreneurs end up making in their lives. I mean, we are all very familiar with Adam Neumann and Wework, and the fact that he had to move on from his very successful venture at that time, although it was bleeding money, but the business was pretty used to, to be faced with the, with your ego, that, hey, you are not the right fit to be running this company, is a big decision. And it’s game changer for someone who has dedicated their entire life to build something who call themselves a soul of the company, as in WeWork’s case, and they had to move on. Both, all the founders from from WeWork hard to move on. And now it’s run by completely in a completely different way more sustainable in terms of business model. And the dream, which was there in the beginning is to have WeWork around the globe and have the WeWork name on buildings is achieved. But it wasn’t achieved by Adam Neumann, he had to move on. And be faced with the truth be faced with the facts and be faced with the founder’s ego.
Spyros Tsoukalas: Very interesting thoughts. I actually didn’t know the details of the story of WeWork. I knew the basics, but not the details you shared. I really enjoyed that. So last thing before we click stop, and we go back to editing this exciting episode, what is your favourite tool and book? Not necessarily related to entrepreneurship? Tool, obviously related to startups and your work? Book, whatever this could be?
Ishan Khurana: Yeah. In terms of tool, I’m going to be very, I’m going to make it very less techy. And I want to say the biggest tool for your entrepreneurship journey is really the Notes App on your phone. You know.
Spyros Tsoukalas: I kind of agree.
Ishan Khurana: Yeah, I mean, yeah, I mean, people talk about Trello, Slack, or Asana, Airtable you have many tools, right? Like, there’s like, I could name all of them. But really, what it comes down to is what you write down on your notes, when you’re 3am in the morning, when you’re like, working on the next big idea, or even just depend on the paper that you’re holding, that’s your biggest tool, because that’s where ideas are actually flowing. And I think there is no bigger two than that. I have come up with some of the greatest ideas of at least even in my employees journey, not just my founder journey. Or sometimes. When I am, when I’m working on our mentees case, I just like some I have walking or I’m going somewhere I’m in the train, for example, and I have an idea and the first thing I do is go on the Notes App and write it down. These days, you also have notion of course. So all these different apps, but really, that’s the tool. I think in terms of book, I feel like there are many books out there I I couldn’t pick and choose on one thing. But in terms of people I’ve always really admired Sir Ratan Tata, who is from India, and Sir Richard Branson. Both of them have had an entrepreneurial journey, which I really admire, especially. Sir Branson, because his journey from starting a music production as to now taking words in up to this space is something quite remarkable. So if you find their autobiographies or their biographies, those could be interesting reads, I feel but there are many books there. There’s the growth hacking. There’s another one Made to Stick, which is also a good one, which talks about how you should communicate ideas and to your to everyone and how you should communicate in a way that is Made to Stick basically, as the book’s name says. So yeah, it depends on your interest. There are many books out there, but the greatest tool is the Notes App, any Notes App.
Spyros Tsoukalas: I will keep that and actually I liked the way you phrased it. I will give that as a future advice to people that I meet. So Shan Thank you very much for sharing your story and your ideas and your perception of founders, startups and all the great things that we discussed. Thanks for taking the time and I hope everybody enjoys this recording as much as I did. Yeah, me too.
In this episode
I have a passion for connecting with entrepreneurs, learning about their projects, and helping them build a strategic roadmap to achieve their ambitions and drive sustainable growth. I have diverse experience of entrepreneurial challenges and a versatile knowledge base of different industries.
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