Earlier this week, there was a startup event where the founders of Flipkart, InMobi, and Paytm—arguably India’s most-lauded startups—were panelists. But they were largely ignored by the audience.
The loudest applause—and the highest media attention—was centered squarely around their fellow co-panelist—a man by the name of Rahul Yadav.
Yadav—enfant terrible of the Indian startup ecosystem, erstwhile CEO of the soon-to-be-erstwhile startup Housing.com, numero uno startup hero, the role model for all young and wannabe entrepreneurs in India, and an all-season buffoon.
I watched in morbid fascination as the media studiously held on to every trivial thing that Yadav said—like beggars gratefully accepting leftover scraps from a rich man’s five-star buffet lunch.
The most tone-deaf article from this lot was the one that reported on Yadav’s skewering of the media—calling them out as “poor talent” who lacked basic courtesy. The complete lack of self-awareness was strikingly ironic.
This kid has only two achievements: Running a company that has raised over a hundred million dollars of funding into the ground, and secondly, being abusive and generally disrespectful to all around him. Yet, he was being deified and apotheosized by the media.
That’s when it struck me: a prize idiot like Yadav is exactly the kind of startup hero that we in the Indian startup ecosystem deserve.
There are two reasons.
Our obsession with funding
We don’t care about what a startup has achieved or aims to do, the problems it solves, the benefits it provides or the impact it has had.
We only care about one thing: how much funding has a startup raised. And that amount determines where you are slotted in the startup caste system.
And in this buffet of buffoonery, Yadav is the veritable pièce de résistance—the roast suckling pig with a rotting apple stuffed in its mealy mouth. The fact that he has raised a boatload of funding for his startup implies that he has earned his place at the top of the totem pole, and he needs to be celebrated and venerated.
Our mindless media
Our clueless media has shaped most of the narrative around Yadav, and projected him as a startup role model.
Except for a few notable exceptions, the media folks covering the Indian startup ecosystem are invertebrate hacks who are more interested in chasing page views than in providing any kind of meaningful commentary or insights.
One can almost sense Yadav playing to the galleries in front of these media monkeys—assuming a persona that paints him as a startup savant, doling out sensational headlines to help these journalists sell their newspapers, websites and events. So what if this persona is doltish as long as it drives page views?
The tragic part here is that positioning a cretinous neophyte like Yadav as a startup hero shows how starved we are for real role models to look up to.
Despite all the buzz around India having arrived as a hot startup destination, there have been precious few aspirational startup exemplars since the halcyon days of Sabeer Bhatia and Narayana Murthy. A false dawn if ever there was one.
Equally tragic is the fact that folks who could potentially be startup heroes—a Sachin Bansal or a Vijay Shekhar Sharma—seem to be idols with feet of clay, either backing the likes of Yadav with angel investment to continue this cringe-worthy charade of faux startup-ism, or needing him to fill seats at their own events. The signal is loud and clear. It doesn’t matter if you are a lout or have demonstrated zero meaningful startup skills as long as you can string the media along in this charade. And if you can do that, we are all happily complicit.
This is not to say that there are no startup heroes or role models in India.
How I wish the media highlighted the story of a Santosh Panda who has diligently persevered to build Explara over several years with almost zero funding, or of a Nikhil Pahwa who selflessly fights for a public good like net neutrality at a great personal cost, or a Girish Mathrubootam who is pioneering a seminal “value arbitrage” competitive differentiator that other Indian SaaS startups would do well to emulate.
But what fun would that be?
There would be no sensational headlines.
No avalanche of page views.
No bums in seats at your startup events.
So, I am not holding my breath hoping that we will get the kind of startup heroes we need. Instead, I will get my popcorn and join the mob as we watch yet another episode of “Rahul Rants.”