Startup culture has got everyone going gaga. There is something ‘haute’ about seeing young professionals shut the door on jobs and going all-in with their startups. It’s exciting (and also anxiety-inducing) when you see people from your generation (the 80s crowd) bye-byeing their corporate jobs & put all their hopes and savings into a venture that has a high failure rate. All for the sake of freedom, independence, and not having a boss to report to.

Intrigued, I decided to join a startup to see firsthand what the fun is all about. Friends and family always encouraged me to launch my own business, but the coward that I am, I’ve always wanted to be absolutely sure I can do justice to a business before kickstarting it. I find it disturbing to spend millions on just an idea, recruit people, then fire them because ‘oops, things didn’t work out.’ So working with a startup would give me real insights into potential challenges & opportunities while helping me understand if I was up to the job.

Lucky for me, in 2021, I was part of not one, but three different startups:

💡An education startup

🧺 A laundry startup

🕸️A digital startup

Talk about diversity! Of the three, the education startup was in all sense of the word, ‘a startup.’ The other two were ventures by already experienced businessmen. So in a very ironic way, I got to see how experienced leaders built a product from scratch and how a young founder was going about it. The best of both worlds!

So here are some good learnings, and some not-so-good experiences. Let’s start with the good ones!



Two of the CEOs I worked with were experienced businessmen who knew exactly how to lead their businesses. They weren’t confused, they knew what worked and what didn’t. They knew what to avoid and what to promote.

The digital startup founder was planning to launch an NFT platform and he knew that if he wanted to make it big, he will have to make that platform a success. So he made a solid plan to focus all his energies on building that platform to make it a case study & use it as a success benchmark to get future clients. He put in his own money, did the tedious work himself, understood the process, and once he finalized the pattern, he hired someone to take it forward — all while creating learning materials for which he would use in an online course later.

For a startup to succeed, a CEO with the ability to do the dirty work themselves is needed. You can’t just hire people and hope they will do the work for you. I’ve seen many CEOs who sit in the comfort of their designer rooms and just expect their staff to handle everything. Well, too bad, their businesses fail the fastest.


Keep All Your Written Communication Updated & Top Notch

Pitch decks, proposals, invitations, corporate brochures etc need to be updated every month as you make progress. The education startup CEO was very keen about this. He made sure all his written communication was up to date. He created the pitch decks himself using Canva! He made the brand guidelines himself. He even created proposals and collaboration emails himself. So anytime he had to send a pitch deck or a proposal, he didn’t have to be frantic about it. At the start of every month, he would have an updated proposal so whenever needed, he simply sent it out.

This helped me understand the importance of being prepared and having your written documentation in order. Save cold email templates that worked. Save pitch deck styles that you like. Keep updating your company’s progress. Don’t leave anything to speculation or verbal updates as that dilutes your authority and importance.

Having the Right Advisors Can Make or Break Your Business

It’s obvious a startup would need advisors, but your advisor has to be within your industry or must have an understanding of your market. You cannot get an American advisor to advise on a South Asian market especially if they’ve never lived a day in South Asia.

I saw how one startup’s advisor was building the company in the right way by helping them find clarity with brand messaging & ensuring their proposals did not overpromise or overdeliver. In the other startup, I saw how a culturally misaligned advisor was unable to (or unwilling to) understand the South Asian market & therefore, was not able to give advice that could help the CEO excel. The advisory was just focused on internal operations and not on audience building in an extremely difficult market.

Being Open to Feedback from the Team

All three startup founders I worked with were open to feedback. Sure, most had it their way eventually, but, they were open to trying new ideas. I do see a slight shift from authoritative leadership to strategic leadership, but again, in South Asia, where the corporate culture is usually very toxic, this shift is way slower than expected. Team members were still afraid to share their ideas and even in the case of lenient leadership, people were just uncomfortable in sharing their visions.

There is a general culture of mistrust and fear in the South Asian corporate world, especially in startups where there is no stability, people would rather stay silent than speak up. Add to this mix a CEO who is unwilling to listen and you have a catastrophe.

Making Sure You Have All the Right Policies in Place

If there’s one important thing that I learned — create company policies right from the start. Companies that didn’t have policies ended up being victims to disgruntled employees who hacked email accounts, websites, leaked data, and so on.

Companies that had a strong HR policy in place, had control over their data, and used the right security measures were better off. It’s important to understand that the digital presence of most startups is vulnerable to security flaws. If you don’t take your digital security seriously, you will end up wasting days in resolving hacking problems; and we all know that one lost day for a startup could mean losing a great chunk of revenue.

Other great learnings included:

  • Building relationships with the right people
  • Networking, networking, networking whether online or onsite
  • How to make people believe in your vision
  • How to hire the right people by assessing for attitude over skills
  • Patience is literally a virtue when it comes to launching a startup
  • Don’t take rejections personally
  • Experienced businessmen generally were better at leading a business to success than freshers
  • Humility goes a long way in winning hearts

….and now to the least exciting part, the bad experiences!


Shower ideas are great. I get them all the time. I even get them when I’m about to sleep. But jumping on your idea and immediately registering a domain, setting up a website, spending money, getting the branding done, calling up people, putting up a few posts on social media is not how to start a business. You must have enough data to support:

  • Audience Needs: Do they even know they need this? And if they do, how much are they willing to pay for it? How many need it vs how many don’t need it? This brings me to an important point — talk to your target audience. I don’t mean your friends & family or colleagues. I mean talk to people whom you would want to sell to. Without adequate research & market analysis, one shouldn’t even think of starting a business.
  • Awareness Campaigns: How much will you have to spend to spread awareness if your audience is unaware of their need? Break it down to cost per person — the ads, the calls, the emails, the time you’ll be spending in convincing one person that your program or solution is what they need to make their life better. Most people lump this into one big marketing budget, not realizing that it’s not about marketing but an overall operational cost.
  • Annual Budget: This part drives me up the wall. I don’t get why budget allotment is not a crucial part of decision-making. It’s only when hiring gets expensive, does the CEO realize, ‘omg, I’m spending this much on hiring. let’s cut costs!’ And that’s when you have a laying-off spree. I personally witnessed this and it’s bad. It’s very very bad. See how Trumpian I sound? Yep, it’s that bad. You’re harming your reputation and your employee’s livelihoods, knowing that oftentimes, a salaried employee in South Asia is often the sole breadwinner in a family of 6. Sure, it’s just business and you’re not a charity, but that would make sense had you made better decisions. If you started an entire service line just on a whim or on some flimsy projections, you are absolutely at fault here.

Failing to take any of these into account puts your startup at a higher risk of failure. If you can’t get these things right in the first year of launch, you’ve already missed the period to do well.

Handing Your Company Over to Family Members

And that’s a yikes from me. It’s pretty common in South Asian cultures to involve family members, which is completely fine if they are qualified for the job, but if they are not, it causes more damage. I’m not going to go into details on this one, but I do have to say — if you can’t manage your company due to XYZ reasons, don’t launch it. If you know you have to move out & cater to other life plans & can’t do justice to this business, don’t launch it. If you can’t trust your employees, or don’t have the budget to hire a COO while you’re away….. don’t launch a business.

Hiring, Firing, Hiring, Firing

Sometimes, it feels like a merry-go-round. You hire, fire, rehire, fire again. This happens every day in companies here. Resources are onboarded just for the sake of ‘hiring PR,’ or because again — a new service on a whim. If things don’t work out, lay them off. Then when needed, hire again. Because there are no strong laws in this part of the world, employers get away with it. Employees know this and so they resort to illegal means to get their share. This includes hacking the employer’s website, writing defaming posts on social media, stealing sensitive data, and so on. The cycle of hate continues.

4. Spreading Your Tentacles Everywhere

I witnessed first-hand how an uber excited founder created so many wings of his business that eventually it became a huge mess. There is only so much time in a day. There are only so many people you can hire with a limited hiring budget. It’s better to have one revenue-driving service than five services that have ‘perceived revenue’ instead of actual revenue.

Interfering/Suggesting/Playing with Marketing

Everyone and their dog seems to have an opinion on marketing. And this is the biggest pain point for me as a marketer. Unless you’re a CMO or someone who has direct experience with marketing, I don’t think you’re qualified to talk as a marketer. I had an academic Ph.D. guy in Data Science tell me what to post on social media just because he failed to provide my team with critical information on one of our instructors.

One of the startups had a $1,500/month for the entire marketing department which included resources, ads, and other creatives. Before you balk, this is an almost below-average budget for a South Asian startups’ marketing department. In this budget, the CEO would want GREAT content, GREAT ads, videos, photography etc, always pointing to international brand inspirations.

What’s funny is when you point out limitations, they don’t listen. How do you make a professional video when you don’t even want to spend $100? My junior ended up recording videos from her iPhone and we made them on Canva!

To make this even more challenging, you have some people in the department who have a traditional mindset and believe marketing should not be given so much budget. They believe marketing should be sticking posters to walls and polls for ‘ maximum effect.’ The same people would then persuade the CEO not to spend so much on marketing & the CEO who doesn’t get a great video from marketing agrees and starts cutting the budget. The logic: if we aren’t making cool videos or content, why are we even alloting money to the department? Let’s just make posters instead. 🤦🏻♀️🤦🏻♀️🤦🏻♀️

When everyone starts chiming in about marketing, everything becomes a mess. It’s very annoying because no one tells the finance guy how to create salary structures. No one tells HR how to hire. No one even tells a front desk officer how to do their jobs, but, everyone has to have a say in marketing. 🤷🏽♀️🤷🏽♀️

Other bad experiences included:

  • Egoistic behavior from leaders leads to damaging team culture
  • Inability to accept restrictions & limitations
  • Inability to lead a team with confidence
  • Resorting to verbal arguments
  • Unable to maintain positive relationships with external stakeholders
  • Being victims to shiny object syndrome

To Conclude….

Being part of startups last year, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not going to start a business, not unless I have:

  • A model that guarantees profitability
  • Enough annual budget to hire a team of 10 for the first year
  • A good workspace for employees
  • A pipeline of clients
  • Enough success to attract investors

Sounds like a far-off dream, but if one has to start a business that involves bringing other people on board, one has to do it with utter conviction, responsibility, and dedication. Because starting a business is like raising a child — you have to do it right. And if most startup founders spent even a little time in setting principles or doing it right instead of chasing $$$$ we would probably have lower failure rates.

That all said, I do appreciate these new leaders who are trying their best to do business in a very difficult landscape. No one’s perfect and mostly everyone’s just learning, but then again, learning involves accepting mistakes and flaws. It involves self-reflection and identifying your true values & motivation for starting a business. Only when we are able to identify our inner motivations can we truly see a difference.

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