My book “Startup to Proficorn”, published by Jaico, is out.
As the book cover says, a proficorn is a “private, bootstrapped, profitable, and highly valuable venture.” I have created two proficorns – IndiaWorld (1995-1999), which was acquired by Satyam infoway for $115 million in one of Asia’s largest Internet deals at that time, and Netcore (1998-now), which is a global B2B SaaS company with annual revenues of over $100 million. From the book’s description:
The entrepreneur’s path to success without external funding
Learn how to convert a dream into an idea, build a team, get paying customers, manage cash flows-all of this without having investors breathing down your neck.
Startup to Proficorn is a successful serial tech entrepreneur’s journey and what he learned along the way about launching and scaling startups. This book offers a roadmap to every aspiring and existing entrepreneur to build lucrative businesses without relying on external funding.
Using stories from entrepreneur Rajesh Jain’s life strewn with failures and successes, the book offers helpful guidance to conquer the challenges that will surely come your way throughout the entrepreneurial journey, whatever be the stage you are at.
Jain uses his experience of over three decades to let you in on startup success secrets and what to watch out for when managing your own venture. In the process, he also gives suggestions to create a better life through sustainable habits as a full-fledged entrepreneur.
The book is for anyone looking to build a business – whether as an entrepreneur or as an intrapreneur (within a large organization). My focus in the book is to discuss the “entrepreneurial mindset” and share my learnings on the journey. The book also features insights from four other proficorn entrepreneurs I spoke to: Rizwan Koita (CitiusTech), Pawan Gadia (Ferns N Petals), Rajdip Gupta (Route Mobile), and Prashant Pitti (EaseMyTrip), all of whom shared their stories and made the book so much richer.
Here are the 16 chapter titles:
99.99% of ventures do not raise capital; the stories we hear in the media are of the very small fraction who raise capital. As my stories show, it is possible to eschew external capital and build large businesses with a profits-first mindset. (Of course, I have been helped by every one of the 50+ VCs and PEs who have declined to invest in my ventures through the years!) Being an entrepreneur is one of the most amazing experiences anyone can live through. Even though most ventures fail, the world pushes ahead with their learnings which feed into the ones that succeed. My book offers insights and learnings into bootstrapping businesses that can be enduring, great companies, and also the mindset that makes entrepreneurs take up the dare of building such ventures – much of it from what I have experienced through my 31 years (and counting) as an entrepreneur.
In this series, I will share the story behind the book.
“Startup to Proficorn” began as a blog series. As the pandemic began and we were all locked down in late March 2020, I decided to (re)start my blog. I had blogged at emergic.org every day for 12 years, only stopping because I had begun work in the political arena. With time on my hands and some angst about the lockdown, I began my blog at rajeshjain.com on April 1 with this post. I wrote: “I hope to write daily. Something new everyday. I want to make the blog a mirror for my thoughts – as it once was. There are three broad themes I hope to cover: the future of marketing (linked with what I am doing at Netcore), my experiences as an entrepreneur and building a profitable business and what India needs to do to be free and rich (the work that I had started – and stopped – at Nayi Disha).” [Almost 40 months later, the daily updates continue.]
My first essay in the Proficorn series began on April 11, 2020: “In a recent Netcore Advisory Board meeting, one of the members remarked that Netcore had built a very interesting and different model – of profitable growth, without raising external capital. This needed to be talked about more, as an alternative to the “unicorn” growth model – where lots of capital is raised and burnt through quickly in the quest for rapid growth at all costs. As I was listening, a word came to my mind – “profi-corn”. I said it aloud, and everyone loved it. I spoke about this in a US visit earlier this year, and got a positive response – the word has a certain ring to it. I defined a profi-corn as a company having four characteristics: profitable, private, promoter-funded and having a reasonable valuation (say, $100 million or more). Building a profi-corn means making a different set of choices than a venture-backed company. This is what I want to talk about in this series.”
It referenced a post I had written a week earlier (April 4, 2020):
I have been an entrepreneur for 28 years. I have had a few successes (IndiaWorld, Netcore) and many failures. One theme through my ups and downs has been the focus on building profitable businesses. And that’s where I thought of the word “profi-corn” – as a counterpoint to the unicorn craze that’s been going around.
Unicorns are startups valued at a billion dollars or more. Many unicorns have been created in the past decade on the back of large fund raises and growth at all costs. In the post-Covid world, some will survive but a few will die. All of them will realise the value of profits.
There are two ways for companies to fund growth: they can raise external capital in the form of equity or debt, or they can generate cashflows and re-invest those in the business. I have focused on the second approach in both my ventures. One needs some initial capital – which comes from the founders (promoters). The aim is then to create a business model predicated on getting to profitability quickly and then continuously re-investing for growth. Without external investors, decision-making is faster and much more long-term.
That’s where I coined the word – “Profi-corn”. It describes a company that is profitable, privately held, promoter-funded and also has a reasonable valuation (say, $100 million or more). Given that many founders have 10-20% left in billion dollar unicorns, the wealth creation can almost be equivalent for the founders.
How does one go about ensuring profitability? Does being profitable mean sacrificing growth? What about gains for employees? What about the value addition that investors bring in along with the capital? What’s the right choice for founders? We will discuss these in forthcoming posts.
Little did I know then that I would write 100 posts in the series over the next year and have a book come out 3 years later!
It was this column published online on The Print’s website on May 6, 2020 that caught the attention of Jaico Publishing House. The column was titled “Indian unicorns are unsuited for Covid crisis. Entrepreneurs, go for proficorns.” It was abstracted from a series I had just published on my blog, “Proficorns vs Unicorns”. Jaico reached out to me a few weeks later stating, “Did you ever contemplate writing a book on any of these topics? It would be wonderful to brainstorm some book ideas with you.” And thus began a conversation which eventually led to the publication of “Startup to Proficorn”.
I had not thought about a book when I got that email from Jaico. All I was thinking about was a handful of topics in the proficorn series to ensure I had something new to publish daily on my blog! At that time, the book seemed a very distant and almost impossible dream. As I spoke to the Jaico team, I realised that a typical book has about 60-65,000 words, which meant I would need to write about 100 blog posts of 600 words each. (I was still thinking short blog posts rather than chapters in a book.) I told them that I will keep writing on my blog and if I am able to have about a hundred or so short posts, we could then discuss in a year’s time about converting these posts into a book. They wanted a book proposal. This is what I sent Jaico in July 2020:
The conversation with Jaico also helped me think about the blog posts as part of a larger whole. I started listing out topics I could write on. There was no structure yet – I would write as ideas came to mind and publish them in sequences of five. Like a batsman wanting to score a century, I too worked my way towards the landmark. It was on March 26, 2021 – just under a year after I had posted the first in the series – that I published #100 in the series which was still called “My Proficorn Way”. I began: “Little did I know when I started the Proficorn series on my blog a year ago that I would end up with a hundred posts! And yet – here we are. A 20 Mile March of my own – driven by the decision to write daily. While the writings have covered diverse topics in marketing and India’s political economy, the proficorn series where I have written about my experiences as an entrepreneur is the one which has been a consistent theme. I have dug deep into my past for stories and learnings to share – hopefully these can help others given that it’s coming from a practitioner who has failed many times more than has succeeded. I have written as candidly as I can so that there are meaningful takeaways and actionable insights.”
Had I thought of writing a book, I would probably have been overwhelmed by the height of the mountain I would have had to climb. But by breaking down the problem into a few steps daily and not looking at the peak, I had reached the pinnacle. The blog series was ready to be transformed into a book.
One thing I don’t like is re-reading and editing what I have written! When I write my blog posts, I send them to my friend, Atanu Dey, for review. He does an edit and sends them back, and I then publish on my blog. Taking the blog posts and making them into a book would require much more effort. It was then that I connected with Sandhya Kannan. She had been helping Jaimit Doshi and me with our hippoBrain podcasts and YouTube series. Sandhya agreed to help me with the book. We then started organising my writings into chapters.
Jaico also came up with a suggestion which was a big step forward and added so much richness to the book. They wanted me to include stories from other proficorn entrepreneurs also. At first, I thought it would dilute the originality of thinking and singularity of voice. Their insistence made me reach out to other proficorn entrepreneurs – and I realised there aren’t as many as one would expect! It was not just about bootstrapping a business but also reaching a certain scale. While a few declined or didn’t respond, four agreed to speak and share their stories. As I spoke to them and listened to their stories, I realised the power of Jaico’s recommendation to feature learnings from others – while some themes were amplified, a few others came up, and they have all made the book so much better. First-person stories from entrepreneurs who have been in the trenches are fascinating – each one different, and yet so similar in the broader context of bootstrapping a business.
With the blog-to-book journey underway, we got the contract done. I was now quite sure that the book would happen! Then began the chapter-by-chapter editing and review process. This took much longer than I expected. We did a marathon meeting at Jaico’s office on December 30 to wrap up most of the edits. It was the first time I had met anyone from the Jaico team in-person! (Because of the pandemic, all the conversations thus far had been on Zoom or via phone calls.)
And so it was that in mid-March during my US Trip, I had the PDF of the book as it would look when published. I spent a Sunday in my hotel room in Sunnyvale, CA reading the entire book start-to-finish to make sure there were no errors. It was the first time I had read the book in its entirety in almost 15 months. As I completed the review, I felt happy – the finished product had come out well. At times I would ask myself, “Did I really write that? It’s good!”
And so, here we are in June 2023: the “Startup to Proficorn” book I hold in my hands and which I hope you will too! It’s a product brought to life thanks to the efforts of Sandhya and the team at Jaico to whom I am deeply grateful for making it happen. It is a dream come true. I am finally a published author!
What I Learnt
I buy and read a lot of books. But I had never imagined myself writing one. A book with its 200-300 pages seemed such a mammoth effort. While I would tell stories of my three decades of entrepreneurship to my colleagues and at some talks to small audiences, a book with its structure and depth seemed a bridge too far. And yet, here it is! Now that I have written it, I realise it is not as challenging as I had thought. (I have more books in my head than I now want to bring to life!) Here are a few learnings for budding writers – and this is more applicable for non-fiction, for those wanting to write books based on their experiences.
First, create a habit of writing. It is the blog posts that led to the book. Short chunks which over time become a big whole. As is said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” A book begins with a single sentence. I love writing, and I write for myself (but do so publicly). I am very open to writing about my life, what I did wrong and right, the mistakes I made, the learnings. It is these stories of my entrepreneurial life that make up the book, along with the wisdom I have drawn from others.
Second, share the stories. The more we talk, the more the stories get embedded in our mind. Even though years or even a few decades may have passed, the sharing makes the stories seem fresh. As we share, we also learn which ones resonate, and which do not. Let there be a process of natural selection among these stories. The good ones can find their place in the writing and eventually the book.
Third, be honest in the telling and writing. My journey has not been a straight line up. The arc of my life has had lots of troughs – I have failed over 30 times in my 31 years as an entrepreneur. It is these mistakes which I have made which have taught me much through the years. It is never easy admitting mistakes and less so publicly. But I have realised that it is these stories that have much to teach other entrepreneurs. For example, my decision to hire a CEO for Netcore in 2007 was an admission of my failure to build the business. How I made the decision and its aftermath is very instructive to entrepreneurs grappling with a similar question.
Fourth, find a good editor and partner to help with the process. Had it not been for Sandhya’s patience in reviewing, editing, chopping, and rewriting, the book would probably not have happened. As the actors in our own movie, we need a director who can bring in the perspective of the audience. We also had a very good support team at Jaico. There were times when I would “disagree and commit” – knowing that they knew readers much better than I did!
Finally, be patient with the process. The path from the first cut to the final product takes time. Given that I finished my 100th blog post in March 2021 and the first draft being sent later that year, it has still taken a long time for the book to get published. As a writer, we tend to think we are done when the manuscript is handed over and want to move on to the next project. But reading, reviewing, and rewriting is equally important. This is when the raw words get polished to perfection.
The next phase now begins – the marketing. For a book to succeed, it needs word of mouth. I hope the book reaches entrepreneurs and is read – over and over again. Every page has much advice to offer. The book is not just for tech entrepreneurs but for anyone running a business or with plans to do so. It also has a lot to offer both students venturing out into the world and for managers looking to create successes for the unit they run. An entrepreneurial mindset is something that can be developed and nurtured. I hope the book can be a catalyst in that journey.