Entrepreneurship is hard. No matter what you’re building. It becomes even harder when you’re building something that’s not understood by many, and even worse if the product is clearly ahead of its time.
But founders are crazy. They see opportunities when no one sees them. They also get blinded sometimes by it and fail.
When Tarun Mehta started building Ather Energy, India’s first electric two-wheelers, his startup was being written off even before the pre-orders started.
After getting his pitch rejected by 80 investors ( is that a magic number? Even Kabeer of Dunzo had a similar number of rejections before getting funded), Tarun finally met Sachin Bansal.
“What should I change in this pitch deck?”
“Don’t change anything. This is how you’ll build this.”
Perhaps only a fellow entrepreneur can empathize with another founder’s dogged optimism. So here’s to the entrepreneurial mafia being led by Sachin Bansal and several others.
Hat-tip to Kanika Berry who helped transcribe the conversation, which is produced lightly edited below:
Pankaj: So, welcome to Outliers. This is a podcast with Outliers and some Outliers take long to have a sit-down, some don’t take so long. But you know, I am really excited today to sit down with Tarun Mehta, who is the co-founder of Ather Energy. Tarun, welcome to the podcast.
Tarun: Hi Pankaj. Thanks for inviting me.
Pankaj: So why do I think you are Outlier? I think that would be a fair question for me to answer before I ask you questions.
Tarun: Yes, please do answer that.
Pankaj: I think the first time, around that time we were launching FactorDaily… I think it was…
Tarun: I think it was early 2016.
Pankaj: Yes, very early. And of course your name came up in some conversations and I said you are going to be building two-wheelers and that itself was an Outlier act because we are so used to, especially when it comes to entrepreneurship in India, listening to the next e-commerce startup and you know, this really stood out. So I will be honest, that’s when the mindshare happened and since then, of course, I have been tracking, thanks to my colleague Anand (Murali), who keeps a tab on what you do and how.
Tarun: He has been a follower, a supporter.
Pankaj: He has been a supporter and he keeps it tight. I think why we enter into these conversations with entrepreneurs like you because our belief is that the journeys that you go through have tremendous lessons to offer to others who are either in the journey or about to start a journey. And, if we catch you in the middle of such a journey, there is an opportunity to you know, unlock some great lessons. That’s the idea.
So, let us start from the start, Tarun. Tell me where do you come from? Who you are and then we can get into why you are doing whatever you are doing.
Tarun: Right. So I am originally from Rajasthan, born and brought up in Ahmedabad, did my schooling there, and then went to (college) in Chennai: IIT Madras. And dad has a small software business, distribution mostly, mom is a homemaker and also an LIC agent. So I am a Marwari originally but it’s not one of those classic Marwari family where everybody’s in business. So we have a mix, some folks are in business, some are in service but mostly in Gujarat and Rajasthan, most folks. It’s only, I think in the last few years that people have started moving out. So that’s the basic background.
I met my co-founder Swapnil Jain in college, we were in the same department, same year, same hostel and we spent five years together and sometime around our second year, he was very excited about energy as a sector. I don’t know how to even describe it, such an underlying, basic thing to the economy. He had an idea to build an engine called Sterling Engine. It was a very fascinating concept as young engineers. He was building a prototype and he was calling himself Ather Energy back then. Actually, my memory is not very clear. I am not sure if he was already calling himself Ather Energy or by the time I joined him and then later he came up with Ather Energy but either way he came up with a name.
So, he had a lot of clarity about that. Around the second year, the end is when I got fascinated and I joined him in the side project that he was running called Sterling Engines. We spent the next few years trying to commercially build these engines while still at college. Ours was a five-year course.
Sterling Engines… they can technically run it at Carnot efficiencies. I am talking about 60%, 70%, 80%… efficiencies and something that can (run) around any fuel source. So our idea was that we will build an engine that people in rural markets can buy at low enough costs and they can burn farm waste below the engine and that will start the engine and will generate electricity on which they can run their houses. Instead of burning of the farms as they do it in Haryana which does not yield much, they would actually just burn it below the engine which will at least give them electricity. So, now there is a commercial application for it, in their house itself.
We built a lot of them, we built I think, four or five of those prototypes over three years, spent a lot of time, spent some money, we kept raising small amounts of money via college not as a company but as a project… (but) couldn’t commercially make it viable. I think we did a fairly bad job of engineering, probably a good job as a young engineer but not a good job as far as commercialisation goes.
We also did a whole bunch of other stuff while we were still at college, we had built a lot of stuff outside of coursework and this was just one of them. There were like 2-3 other projects. By the time we were graduating out, what had happened was, we were pretty clear that we want to do something together, we want to build stuff, we want to create value by building products, and we want to build something in the energy sector. We didn’t have an idea that at that time of graduation, so like you know what, let’s just take up jobs, let’s just stay in engineering and we will have an idea someday. Whenever that idea is right, we will come back to this. So, we gave ourselves a few years time, just to sort of mull over stuff, give ourselves some time because five years is a long time, we had tried enough stuff. We took up different jobs and after that is when Ather… the current story starts from there. So do you want me to talk about that?
Pankaj: Yes, why don’t we jump to it? But before that, a lot of people I have been talking to, I think over a decade and all, when it comes to engineering in India, they say that somewhere engineers got into this coding thing and they forgot that engineering is actually to build things, right? So when you are talking about this stuff that you were building, I am just trying to understand because you were in one of those campuses itself, what happens, I mean, what is missing? Why don’t we have enough people who are trying to build stuff like really build stuff? I mean, where do things get lost?
Tarun: First, I would not look down upon coding. I think you can build a lot of phenomenal stuff in software, actually, that’s where the bulk of the creation today is happening. It is just that in our environment very few people actually end up building products, most people end building services of some sort, so hence we don’t feel what a good software can do.
But that aside, because anyways, we didn’t go down in that direction. I think, primarily, both of us, (a) the department we were in, we were in engineering design and engineering design is a mash-up between multiple departments but a lot of it is in mechanical engineering. My specialisation was largely in robotics, so mostly I spent my time doing mathematics, linear algebra and Swapnil’s specialisation was in thermal dynamics, more or less. So, you get the angle, right? We were in that discipline there.
The second thing that happened was, I think you are just in the right place because our department was very, very new. We were the third batch of that department, so it was the youngest department that IIT Madras had and the faculty was super pumped up and excited which is… to be honest, no offence but a rare thing to find in most departments because faculty has been burned down over several decades of nobody actually doing anything exciting. …our faculty was absolutely pumped up that, yes, we are a new department, we are going to build stuff.
There was that sort of a feeling. I remember how the labs were built up, we actually helped transport some stuff from one department here to another because the department building is coming up in front of us, so there was a lot of this community feeling that you know, we are in this together and the professors, one of the guiding principles was, ‘you got to build stuff’. So the concept of engineering design was to build a product end-to-end. We actually had courses right in our first year on product thinking, on management, on what is the business plan, what does the customer want, how do you think of those things.
We also had our courses in mechanical design, we had a lot of courses on just prototyping. I remember there was this course for six months long and the entire point of that course was no classes, you will just pick up a concept and you will build it over six months, you will just prototype it over six months and the department will actually give you some money – Rs 20,000, Rs 50,000, Rs 60,000… just form small teams and build it and then prepare reports, justify why this is financially viable, justify the bill of materials, build up a business case, go do some customer research. So, we would actually go and do customer research, we would from these quality functional deployments – QFDs, justify that this feature in this spec makes sense. Honestly, very little of that is taught to a regular engineer in almost any college.
Pankaj: Yes, I am really surprised. I actually didn’t know any of this.
Tarun: (Smiles) So, that’s also my part-time job which is praising our department and sort of getting in more students in the future. But honestly, I think the timing was right. We had two courses like four, five months long where you would just strip down stuff. We don’t get taught like that in other departments these days. I think that played a huge role.
In IIT Madras, around that time period, there were two centres which were trying to come up. One was the Centre for Innovation which was one of the first of its sort of efforts, at least at IIT Madras, where alumni came together and I think funded a large space… like, 20,000-30,000 square feet of space. And they just funded that space and they gave a whole bunch of equipment. It’s called the Centre for Innovation (CFI). The idea was just go tinker, just sort of build anything, aise hee (just like that). There is no coursework, nothing, just make a good proposal, like ‘I want to build drones’. ‘Great! Build up a good proposal and come, we will give you money, here are all the tools and facilities that you need, outside of your department, go crazy building’.
I wasn’t super involved but Swapnil was super involved in it. He was the one involved and when that place itself was coming up which is how the first Formula SAE car projects also started really taking shape and he got involved there. So that was an exciting moment because the whole bunch of people especially from our department, from aerospace, got involved in just pure building… like it is very rare to find that which is uncorrupted because give it few years, politics kicks in, people want to take up more space, more money… initial years everybody is like you know got this sense of ‘we got to build it’.
And there was a second thing happening which was sea tides, basically, the entrepreneurship cell and I got involved there in my first year and some of the people behind the E-Cell back then were real purists. They didn’t actually care about having a massive community and organising large events, though eventually, it all went there. But the initial people were really, really focused on what is entrepreneurship, there is a spirit of entrepreneurship, of actually building something. So I think that is the message that a lot of us picked up at the Entrepreneurship Cell, just this sheer love for creating value. Pair that with this love of just purely building stuff with love for creating value, for building value, you get very, very, very fertile land there. And I think we were at the right time because we were there at that point and both of us co-founders were in two different parts.
Pankaj: Very complimentary.
Tarun: Very complimentary coming together in our second year to sort of you know, build a product. So that product that we are trying to build, we start bringing these things together. You know what, we have access to CFIs so we can build the product there, we have this entire understanding from the entrepreneurship cell, we are sort of watching all these videos. I got a chance to go to Stanford as part of my E-Cell in my second year, it was mind-blowing, it was absolutely mind-blowing. I know it sounds too cliché but holy shit, going to Stanford in my second year which is the first time I had gone outside the country from IIT Madras, it was like wow! Everybody that you meet there, every student, is talking about starting up. They would take you to Palo Alto and every single café is just full of what Bangalore now looks like, it was already like that in 2009, maybe better. And I just came back blown away. I don’t think I’d still comprehended building a company but actually build stuff yourself, you don’t actually need like a large company to sort of taking on the job of building something. Individuals can build something. I think that was a big turning point, at least for me personally. So, that’s how we got started.
Pankaj: I think that’s what I meant to ask, I mean, not coding versus this. This thing about building something and I think you answered it very well. And now I understand the whole intersection that happened and how Ather came about, it’s very clear.
Let’s now jump to Ather. From outside and it applies to every company, it looks like, every year you are having a near death experience or someone either writes you in or someone writes you off and I think we media are equally to be blamed for, you know, trying to derive conclusions on a monthly or annual basis but take me through the journey through your lens, take us through the important milestones or tipping points that you feel gave you the best learnings.
Tarun: We came together to form Ather. In fact, I remember calling up Swapnil because that time Swapnil was still not part of it and I was still on a job and I was just thinking that this concept of building batteries for the electric scooters could be very exciting. So I wanted to start a company on it and I called him up to one day to ask, ‘Would you mind if I use the word Ather Energy for something I have been thinking of starting up?’ and I explained to him of what I was thinking of starting up and he said, ‘Yes, sure, go ahead’, like, ‘Sure, good, be my guest’. I started calling myself Ather Energy, he was in Bangalore and I was in Chennai and I was making trips every month. I would go, stay with him for the weekend and try to convince him that you should totally come join this. It wasn’t a team, it was just me. He came over. The idea quickly pivoted. Initially we wanted to just build batteries and I think the one good thing with it was actually going out and meet a whole bunch of customers very early, something that many people may not realise but many people might think that given how you have launched a product that we have waited a long time to discover product-market fit.
Pankaj: That’s how it looks like.
Tarun: In fact, that’s actually a common worry that I have heard from investors in the past. Now that we have launched, it’s a different situation but in the past, a big worry. ‘Well, you know guys, you are making this classic mistake of investing everything and building this huge edifice before you have discovered the product market fit’ and I don’t think I have done a phenomenal job in convincing people but to us it has never been a big worry because before we ever built anything, one of the first things we did was spend a solid six months. We didn’t even start Ather.
Like the first thing that we did, we just left our jobs and we went back to IIT and we managed to convince one of our professors to give us a complete room and just sort of, some money every month as a project money, inside the department and we started spending time going and meeting the customers – people who had bought electric vehicles. I think we had met about 50+ people, 50 customers in Chennai, maybe a few in Bangalore also; Swapnil went to customers in Bangalore. So, we actually met a whole bunch of people and different cohorts. People who had bought electric scooters, people who had bought electric cars, people who had bought multiple electric scooters, people who were running dealerships for electric scooters, people who were employees in electric scooter companies once upon a time, people who led those companies, we really met a whole bunch of people and that told us a lot about what the market is thinking like.
So I think six months went here and then when you figure out that you know what, so this actually gave us one learning. We originally wanted to build a battery pack for a scooter and we spoke with so many customers, all of them said, ‘yes, a battery would solve the problem’ but it was a trick question because the real question to ask them was, would you buy it? And turns out, nobody wants to buy it. We were like, why wouldn’t you buy it, you say it’s a problem, we are saying we will build it, we will build it at the right cost point, why won’t you buy it? And they wouldn’t give a clear answer, it was very evident that they wouldn’t buy it and turns out that they hated the vehicle itself, they hated their current electric vehicle and this would solve the problem but there are so many other problems with this vehicle, I don’t like the looks, I don’t like the comfort, I don’t like the economics, I don’t like the performance, I don’t like the ride quality, I am little embarrassed to tell people that I ride this.
Your battery solves problems but how will you solve all those problems. So that’s when we woke up, you know; it wasn’t a pivot as much as it was a realisation… big learning. If we are building a B2C company and we wanted to build a B2C company, you got to build first a very, very exciting story. OnePlus did it, Apple has been a master of it, obviously, Royal Enfield has done that. You never sell a spec, you never sell a feature, what you ultimately sell, if you are building a strong brand which will actually command those 30% – 40% gross margin, you are not building a commodity, you are first and foremost building a story and you are getting enough people to believe in that story and you are getting a whole bunch of people who aspire to be those storytellers or listeners. That’s the only thing that you are doing at the start and if you get that right, everything else can follow but if you don’t get that right, you will very quickly, basically become a manufacturing company, you will basically become a commodity builder and there is not enough value in building commodities, right!
So, that was the biggest learning and we could see it so clearly, it was so visible in their eyes. You tell them batteries, ‘yeah, well, others can also build batteries but I don’t really want to buy batteries’ and now you are looking at a very hard sell. So we changed the pitch. Actually, the first thing we did after we convinced ourselves about this, we went and engaged a designer and we told them, ‘this is a sort of scooter we want, it should go like this, this should be the performance’. His name is Shantanu, he is still with us. He came up with a sketch about what the scooter looks like. He gave us three different sketches, different, different perspectives. We are like, ‘yes, this looks beautiful and you know what, I think we are competent enough engineers, we will figure out how to fit the entire vehicle inside this concept’.
We took that and we rode on a whole bunch of specs and then we went to the customers, asking them, ‘you know what, you really hate the fact that your vehicle does 25 kilometres/hour, right, and that it takes eight hours to charge up? What if I built you a vehicle that does 75 kilometres/hour that charges up in like one hour that has a battery that will last you for not six months but like five years? What does it sound like?’ And man, you could see it in their eyes, ‘Yes, obviously, like that’s what I would have always bought. Yes, please build it’. I have never heard that sort of response, five years we have done this engineering, we have gone out for so many products, it was always, you know, us trying to convince people. This is the first time, I have just thrown a spec at these guys and they are completely going bonkers, like zero people I met who were cold to it. Everybody was hot, everybody was like, ‘Beautiful, please build it, I will buy it. Will you be more than an electric scooter?’ Obviously, I will pay more than an electric scooter, like money was never really the reason I bought this electric scooter.’
Very beautiful. So first thing, sell them a very, very compelling story and how you sell that story also mattered and I could feel it, as I kept meeting more and more people, my pitch kept improving and I could see that their excitement about what we are talking kept increasing. Initially, I would just talk about 75 kilometres top speed, one-hour charging, that’s nice, that’s great but you keep ratcheting up the pitch. You actually walk them through a situation of you know, how they would ride this vehicle, it will have a beautiful dashboard, you would go, park it next to an Activa in front of a Starbucks and you know, the screen would flash white lights and it will close and it will give you a ring and they are imagining and they are like going crazy, ‘yes, yes, yes’. So that was the biggest learning at the start.
Pankaj: Is there something that didn’t work?
Tarun: I think with the 450 (Ather 450 Electric Scooter), we definitely have an over-engineered work. And I think it is an over-engineered product because we couldn’t optimise to a point where this is enough for the customer to pay.
Pankaj: I wanted to ask you this when you were describing the way you went to customers and you know and your pitch kept improving. This was in my mind actually, over-engineering.
Tarun: I can see it we over-engineered it. I think we couldn’t do all steps of this journey perfectly, we got some steps right but some steps, we just weren’t sure and we over-indexed on having it versus while not having it, a simple index, right! Abraham just keeps talking about it really well. He talks about how he crafted this really awesome journey for his customers but then given his product, he could actually spend a lot of time in fine-tuning exactly the sort of things that you need. Now again, in their experience, they can actually do it and they can do it multiple numbers of times before they figure it out. We didn’t have that luxury, you got to build a complete product before you realise, ‘This feature that we put so much effort to build looks like people are ok without it like they don’t despise it but would you pay Rs 10,000 extra for it? Yeah, no! They will spend Rs 500 on it’.
The problem with our product is and it is so visible, even the prototype that we showed in 2016 was nowhere close to what we have launched, so getting this sort of finish and the quality was actually a key qualifier before the consumer can truly respond to your product. So, I think, we had the richness of the input was limited in that sense, which is why I would say, half of the things that we built were not essential. In the 80-20 rule, we clearly did 100 and the last 20 things, I think took like half of our time and energy. So, we could have cut them off but we did not know which is the half we could cut-off.
Pankaj: But now that you have the benefit of hindsight.
Tarun: But now you have the media advantage, right!
Pankaj: So how would you actually avoid something like this or is it possible or is it just part of the business?
Tarun: I want to say you can avoid it but deep down I know, I think it’s very hard. And it’s not as objective as I described because there is also a huge people’s angle and let me explain what I mean. You are an entrepreneur, you are selling and you are selling that dream to not just yourself and your investors but your incoming team also. In our case what is the dream that we are selling, we are selling a version of, one or the other version of, ‘you will get to build really cool stuff’, ‘you will get to build a product that you would love to use’. Now, for different people, it might mean different things and not everybody has a 100% exact clarity on what exact thing will work.
So sometimes to get that sort of really creative and crazy bunch together, to build something, you have to actually let them be crazy for a while. If you put in too many restrictions on day 1, ‘no, no, no, I already know this one wouldn’t work’. That’s not the reality, you don’t, so you are also guessing and to be honest being a founder is not like a superpower. Yes, you don’t know much better than what those guys know. So you are sort of, you could optimise but I think you will miss out on a lot of that spark if people in your over optimise the people on Day 1 and more importantly, you will miss out on some learnings.
See, you should also remember, as a startup, you got this really beautiful time in the starting phase where you can take one year more, you can take 18 months more, you can raise a little bit more money and you would only need to raise another 10 million dollars. Again, in our business, I think, that’s a fine amount of money to spend because the amount you can learn for that, what you can learn by building the 450 today, you are learning at the cost of let’s say, 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 vehicles. That learning is impossibly expensive when you are trying to learn that at a scale of let’s say, 100,000 vehicles or one million vehicles because the cost of that additional sensor over a million vehicles is probably 10 million dollars. You will have a massive, complicated business case to justify it. Today, it’s like, you know what, 100,000 thousand dollars, yes, let’s try that experiment now rather than later.
Pankaj: So, the other question which is an Outlier question again is that the kind of product that you built or you are building, you know, is not a classic product and what I mean is this startup ecosystem is not used to this kind of product, right? And it’s not just the domain expertise, it is also their familiarity with other digital products. So how did you cope with criticism?
Tarun: So, the first fundraise was probably the biggest learning because I think I had probably already pitched to somewhere in the range of 70-80 people, without a single yes and that was a painful time because initially we had one investor and we had 25 lakhs plus 15 lakhs of debt, back then, so 40 lakhs total and we had run the company with about 10 people, one year and three prototypes which is 40 lakhs. So we’d already exhausted ourselves and I was just going through the list, I don’t remember the exact number but I think it was 70 or 80 people that we had pitched since then for literally investments for 25 lakhs more and near continuous rejections until I realised one day that ultimately I just need one person to say yes. … it really hit me that I need just one person to say yes. I think it was Paul Graham’s one of those essays or maybe Peter Thiel that if everybody agrees with what you are saying, likely what you are building is going to be very low differentiation and very low defensibility.
Pankaj: Is it ‘How to do startup’ or ‘Do things that don’t scale’? One of them?
Tarun: I am not sure, I am not even sure it’s Paul Graham or Peter Thiel but one of those, sure. And I took solace in the fact, you know, the fact that nobody agrees to this means that nobody else will do it. This is brilliant, the minute I convince one person, beautiful, we will be the only ones building this, nobody else will agree to it anyways, it’s good. So I think we got over that disappointment that way. And yes, we have obviously had a lot of people tell us and with honestly very good reasons, not arrogant reasons, very good reasons that hardware is hard, that scaling up is hard, manufacturing is hard, Indian ecosystem is hard, for all of this and fundraising this is going to be crazy hard. I remember one person telling me that, you know what you should stop building the vehicle and take the software that you will put in the dashboard and spin yourselves into an IoT company and reasonably certain that would have been a good outcome for many other people and I considered for like five seconds until I realised that you know what, that’s not the real thing.
We are going to build B2C, we want to build something in the energy sector, vehicles for us is our starting point, we want to build a lot more after this. So clearly I can’t become an IoT company, that takes us nowhere. So, a little bit of a stubbornness that we have got a vision, we won’t change our vision for anything and the vision for us was there was a larger energy vision and for vehicles the vision was very clear: everything is going to be electric and if everything becomes electric, every single technology inside our vehicles is changing. Only startups can build groundbreaking new technologies. It’s a no-brainer. Only a startup is going to win this battle. So, if it is not us, it is going to be another startup, it is only going to be a startup and if we can see it with our limited experience and background, surely there will be another bunch of investors who will also see this. So you just got to keep on at it, not change your pitch for anybody.
In fact, I remember, Sachin (Bansal) was one of those people who sort of, probably saved us and not just with this money, his and Binny (Bansal)’s money but also with his statement. We had reached out to Sachin back in 2014 when we were in the midst of these 70-80 rejections and at that point, Sachin wasn’t a known angel investor, not that I know that the entrepreneur could invest. I literally reached out to him because after the whole bunch of rejections on the pitch deck, I reached out to him, ‘I need some feedback on this pitch deck because something doesn’t seem to be working’ and he gave me a meeting and that was my only question in the meeting. ‘Let me just take you through the pitch deck, let me tell you what exactly I believe in, what I have been telling people. You tell me what should I change.’. He heard all of it and his only thing was ‘Don’t change anything in this, this is the only way you can build this business’. I was like, ‘you just raised a billion dollars. I am sure you know what you are saying. Sorted. I will not change anything’. So I think that was a big support. We refused to pivot after we had clarity about our end vision. We refused to pivot into a different business altogether. And I think, luckily we were lucky, to sort of find investors at the right time.
Pankaj: Couple of final questions. One of the things is, there is this entrepreneurial optimism, you said, stubbornness or someone would say doggedness, you know, I will not pivot, not change. I am just trying to understand in your mind, what is your decision-making framework? Like, what is your source of faith, I mean, maybe it is a philosophical question. What I am trying to understand is, why do you keep at it?
Tarun: I have thought a lot about it because you have to check yourselves, if it is foolishness or if it is based on something real. We actually thought enough about it that we made in one of our five value systems at Ather. In fact the first value system, it is called, ‘Know your true North.’
Pankaj: Come Again.
Tarun: Know your true North. What it means, what we want to capture by that is, there are certain fundamental truths in any business. Now you can build a business on the back of a lot of stuff. You can build a business because it’s in fashion right now. Something’s fashion and if you build a business on top of that fashion right now, you know you can create a lot of value in two years. It may not remain a fashion four years later but you have already created value and that’s fine, nothing wrong with it. Or you can build a business because there is a short-term opportunity and not just a fashion, it’s literally an opportunity. Like some law is changing and in the interim, there is a lot of confusion and you are creating a BPO firm that will capture Y2K business. So you can do that but these things are not fundamental truths in a business.
Fundamental truths are the sort of what at least Jeff Bezos claims, at least Amazon was built on which is that, I know that forever and ever, I will never have a situation where a customer will come to me and say, ‘You know what, Jeff, it would be so much better if only you delivered this little slower or only if you sold this a little bit more expensive’. So a lot of stuff can change, we can go into communism tomorrow, you know we could have a world war breakout tomorrow but this fundamental truth that people want to build stuff, buy stuff that is cheaper and buy it faster, that is such a fundamental, obvious truism that I can build a business on this belief and I am true.
Now, the problem with these fundamental truths is usually that they are very, very, very, very broad but that’s what you need to keep in mind. Your vision and that true rock, true North is broad and you are building a business on that which means a lot of your approach might change but that thing you will never pivot it down. You will never pivot down to suddenly saying, ‘You know what, this selling thing is very hard, so let me get into the business of maybe making some stuff’, right? Or, ‘I will start making clothes because I think selling clothes is very hard. Somebody else will sell, I will make them, right?’. No, no, no, just stick to it. Just stick to this core mission of selling stuff better, faster, cheaper, right! You will create a massively valuable business and if you make that your core value prop, you will create massive defenstivity. That’s how we have thought about it.
Our true North here has been, vehicles are going electric, actually not even electric. Eventually, all vehicles will be run on sustainable energy. It’s a guaranteed thing, how else, we will run out of fuels, right? It’s obvious, it is a truism. Ultimately vehicles will have to run on a fuel source which is infinite, effectively. If that’s the world we are headed to, then that’s the business we will build because that’s true. So we will build a business to build these new vehicles which are not fossil fuel dependent. Literally, that’s end. Everything after that is debatable, that point is not debatable.
So if you come and tell me, spin your company into an IoT company, you know what, that does not make sense to us. But if you come and tell me, ‘You know what, Tarun, I think you should look at hydrogen fuels and vehicles’, I will think about it. I am not married to electric, we are not married to Lithium-Ion. If you come and tell me, ‘look at this new crazy battery technology that will come up’, yes, we should look at it. ‘Do you know electric is a dying technology, don’t look at motors, look at this air run vehicle’, I don’t care, I will talk about it as long as it is based on this fundamental truth that vehicles are going to run on an infinite source of energy.
Now today, to us it looks like that electric is the only medium that will work, nothing else, for the next 10 years but even that is debatable to us. The only thing that is not debatable, is those vehicles will be built and only a new company will be able to build them. If I am questioning that, that does not make sense. If you are questioning anything else, yes, I will let you convince me. If you are trying to convince me ‘You know what, Tarun, I don’t think you should build vehicles, I think you should just design vehicles’, ‘hmmm…, no!’ We will build the full vehicle and we will be B2C company because you know, that’ll make sense, right! If you come and tell me, ‘Tarun, you should maybe just sell software’, no, that’s not the real opportunity, the opportunity is there and I am going to stick to it and I am going to stay at it for the next 50 years until that becomes such a massive mode because we have stayed on to one single source of truth, we don’t change that. So, almost a value system now, not almost, it is now a value system at Ather.
Pankaj: I think that explains your journey as well. We know why you are doing this. Have you encountered fatigue or what founders also go through, I don’t know, see I am a rookie founder of 2-2.5 years.
Tarun: That’s long enough.
Tarun: That’s long enough now.
Pankaj: But when it comes to fatigue or being at this battle, doggedly, for long, these journeys are long and painful, right, clearly. So what would be your reasons to not do it, if at all, ever?
Tarun: Very simple answer. If the source of truth that you have built everything on if that changes. If that changes or you realise that you built it on a wrong source of truth, that’s not actually a source of truth, some reason, petrol is not going to be available infinite forever, then this is wrong and you should change and if not, then there is no reason for you to give it up because very few businesses, by the way, are based on such fundamental truths and I have noticed that. Most businesses are actually built on some opportunity. In fact, I have often pitched Ather as something that is built because we had an opportunity and not because it was based on this. But that’s the reality. Very few businesses are based on such true things and if they are, they will yield such a massive outcome that it is definitely worth your entire life’s effort. You are not building something that is a low value that is low impact. Any segment you can pick up if it is a fundamental source, (a) the segment won’t be small, the opportunity won’t be small and the output, should you succeed, is going to be massive. And I very strongly believe that the only reason you will not succeed is if you give up. Like there is always a way. There is always some way you can make it work. So, yes.
Pankaj: Final question. The kind of journey that you are talking about – long and massive opportunity clearly, absolutely no doubt about it, the teams that build such companies, the whole Founder’s Mentality kind of thing and all that, it’s almost like, after every life stage you have to take a new birth as a leader because everything changes. How do you learn, like, it is a simple question but what I mean to understand from you is, how do you keep leading what you are building? Would you be open to someday of getting someone else to do it?
Tarun: Sure. So the second question first, would you be open? I think one should be open because I think the role of a founder in a company is not to be a CEO, CTO, CPO, COO or any of those. The role of a founder in a company always is to push the company on to the next stage, next stage of growth, next stage of value creation. The minute the company gets there, the rest of the stage can be run by really seasoned executives. Now it might also happen that you might have to play that role for a variety of reasons but the primary role of a founder in any company is to keep pushing it to completely unchartered territories. That is very hard for a manager to do because they just don’t have the mandate, only founders have that mandate and that’s just there.
To your first question – personally, how I learn, my medium which by no means is something that works for everybody – is having a few advisors around me. There are sometimes formal advisors and we literally bring them on board and give them equity and all that. Sometimes, there is a bunch of informal advisors that you sort of do dipsticks with every six months and they teach you a lot. So advisors to sort of to get a third person perspective. I have at least 2-3 people that I spend about 6-8 hours, every month, usually on weekends. They just sort of, you know, walk them through what’s happening and they are almost, always, without fail, even point this out to me, that ‘You know what Tarun, your key problem right now is, you just don’t have a good head of HR, that is why you don’t have an org structure, that’s why you don’t have a process, that’s why your people are going crazy, that’s why you don’t have a performance management system. I can throw all these words at you but you don’t even understand it because you don’t have any work experience. Why don’t you focus on first bringing a phenomenal head of HR and that person will just push your company to the next level’. That’s a phenomenal insight to have but it’s very contextual insight. I can read about it, HR is important but it doesn’t help. But somebody who is in my journey and I am updating on a monthly basis, he looks at my system, meets my people, looks at their problems, spends some time with me, is able to point out. Or it could be a founder. A founder who has gone through his journey. People like Sachin, people like Raghu (Raghunandan G) of Taxi4sure, Binny… all these guys. They are often able to give you these nuggets of insights. So I think, for me personally, having great advisors or mentors, is something that works brilliantly. I always try to keep them close.
Pankaj: Sure. Thanks, Tarun. Please stay this way. Really good talking to you. Have fun.
Tarun: Great, Pankaj. Thank you.
(Kanika Berry has a Masters in Business Administration and has been a communications specialist for over eight years.)