UNCONVENTIONAL

India’s unprofitable startups could learn a trick or two from the country’s funniest stand-up comedians

Quartz india
Quartz india

Indian entrepreneurs may have found an unlikely source of inspiration: stand-up comedian Tanmay Bhat.

The year 2016 has been nightmarish for the Indian startup community. From devaluations and layoffs to a funding crunch and shutdowns—bad news engulfed some of the mightiest players in the sector.

But in stark contrast, Mumbai-based comedy group All India Bakchod (AIB), co-founded by Bhat, had a stellar year.

In 2015, AIB had just seven employees but it’s planning to end 2016 with 65 people. In the past year, AIB also launched First Draft, a school for aspiring writers.

And unlike most of India’s startups, AIB is “highly profitable.”

Below are edited excerpts from 29-year-old Bhat’s comments at an event organised by TiE at IIT-Bombay in August which offer some interesting lessons in entrepreneurship:

Don’t follow the flock

As a kid, I did not have friends and I was bullied in school because I was fat. The only way to make some friends was to be funny, so I used to be the class clown. When I was in the sixth standard, I failed in almost all subjects. English was the only subject that I did well in. I remember, after an exam, the English teacher took me aside and told me, “You have something that nobody else in this class has, which is originality.”

Basically, everyone wrote essays they had mugged up from books, but I used to write something unusual. The teacher told me to value my originality and I took that to heart. That’s the attitude I have had since then. Do whatever you want to, but make sure you are as original as possible.

Trust your team

I am extremely lucky that my fellow founders—Gursimran Khamba, Rohan Joshi, and Ashish Shakya—are extremely sharp. I am the least-educated and the noisiest of the group. We are ironically the perfect split of personality traits. Rohan and I are the adventurous ones and the ones who come up with crazy ideas, like the roast. Whereas Khamba and Ashish are the ones who pause and think before doing things. They tell me to be quiet, to put the phone down, and get off Snapchat when we are talking. I think the key is to trust the people you work with and trust their judgment, sometimes even more than your own.

Adapt

We are not entrepreneurs, we are writers and comedians. We panic when we see Excel sheets. I hate my accountant so much, I hope he dies. All I know is that I want my co-workers to be happy. But now we are learning the ropes. So, earlier, we allowed everyone to work at whatever timings they enjoy. Now, we have an HR guy and he sends these formal emails saying, “Inform me when you are not coming to office.”

Decentralise and scale

One of the most important things we have been trying to do this year is to make the company less about the four of us. We need more faces to represent our brand of comedy. If you see our videos now, you will see more new faces. It’s similar to what happened in the US. When the comedy industry in the US boomed, there were five or six big names and then collectives began to spring (up) and, finally, educational institutes came up. We have also started a school where we train writers. One of our biggest concerns is about scaling up without losing quality. We have started the school only for that: If we can’t find quality talent, let’s create it.

Follow your dreams… no matter what

Deep in all our hearts, we comedians have a list of acts that we want to do at least once in life. The roast is one such act that’s on everyone’s list. It led to all the controversy, but if we had not done it, someone else would have.

A similar thing happened during the net neutrality debate. At the time, we were talking to telecom companies for sponsorship. We lost Rs2-3 crore just because we messed with telcos.

Now we have a dream to do something (in India) like the White House Correspondents’ Dinner where a comedian roasts the president of America. I know it will lead to a controversy. But why shouldn’t I experience it in life?

Think before raising funds

I don’t want to mess up with someone else’s money because I know that we at AIB are the sort of people who will see something new tomorrow and feel like doing it. We can do all that now, but not when someone else’s money is involved.

I am very scared of taking money from people. The big question for me is: What do I do with the money? The Viral Fever (TVF) has raised funding, and I keep messaging Arunabh (Kumar, founder of TVF), “You have to return the money, you’ve gone mad, how are you going to repay it?” He is buying ads on my channel now to promote his content, so I realised that’s what he was going to do with the money.

Pivot when necessary

As a kid, I wanted to be a doctor because my aunt and uncle were doctors. In the ninth grade, I wanted to be a lawyer because my sister started studying law. As soon as I left school, I wanted to be a writer because I scored well in English. Then, for the longest time, I wanted to be a journalist. Then for some time I wanted to be a copy-writer. When I was 21, I wrote a movie, which did not work out because the producer went to jail. I was a radio jockey for six months, after which I was a television producer, and then I started writing for TV.

I never knew what exactly I wanted to do. All I knew was that whenever I looked at something and thought it was fun, I did it. Even today, that’s the guiding principle for what AIB does.

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