Many a time in life, it so happens that one sets out to do something with a limited view of the world and as things progress, view changes and one ends up with a totally different yet equally, if not more beautiful outcome. And as Steve Jobs had famously said that you can only connect the dots as you look back, it is as such that one realises the real underlying rationale of one’s goal, or rather vision, was undiscovered. Call it destiny, the myopic nature of human vision that constantly fails to look beyond a distance, or some sci-fi theory wherein we are all merely a time dimension to act as a medium for information exchange and transmission in the multiverse…. the fact of the matter is, this is LIFE. A recent example of the same would be demonetization which ended up aiding cashless transactions in the country or as many say, curbing terrorism funding. But let’s not venture into the realm of political mudfields, for elections are a long time off (in KGP I meant….).
We are here to continue with our series on winners of the Young Alumni Achievers Awards 2023 and today, we present to our readers, excerpts from the Interview with Mr. Kapish Saraf, the first elected GSec Tech, TSG. Now that we have got our proverbial “headline” and a few more eyeballs hopefully, let’s decipher the journey of Kapish from KGP to Joka (IIM Calcutta) to BCG to KidEx & masterNAUKRI.
From humble, dreamy-eyed beginnings
Kapish was kind enough to offer us all a sneak-peek into his early life mindset. The year was 1998 and Matrix was yet to be released but that’s not important – Biotechnology and the promises it offered had taken over the scientific community, sci-fi dreamers and thereby the bright young minds. The fusion of traditional engineering fields with biology to come up with industry-ready and futuristic solutions seemed too good to be true, yet it had taken over the minds of many young students, including Kapish who was in the eighth grade and had decided that Biotech is his career goal. He cracked Biotechnology at IIT Kharagpur (1st IIT in India; 1st IIT to offer Biotechnology & the IIT with many more 1sts).
Once at IIT Kharagpur, he experienced & realised that Biotechnology was a Long-Race & different from what he had envisioned. The course was more research-oriented, with not many industry or corporate opportunities & perhaps, required a PhD path to open up the exciting doors of innovation & commercial scale up. He decided that he wanted something different. Additionally, the majority of the companies visiting campus had not yet embraced this newly-established course as an epicentre for top talent (a trend that still continues today, as I am reminded by my co-editor) and hence, didn’t open their job applications for students of this course/department. Seemed like he made an uninformed career choice (a common phenomenon he now seeks to eradicate from young students’ lives – more on this later!).
Yet, wearing his True KGPian spirit, with his infinite optimism, he decided to do his best to unlock the impossible for himself & hopefully, a few others. He decided he would overcommit extra-curriculars & positions of responsibility and hone himself with his sights on joining either ITC or Schlumberger – neither of which were open for Biotech back then. There was a strong belief that it would happen (like the belief in 1998 that Biotech from IIT will happen). He was super-active in GC events – Dramatics, Product Design, Volleyball, Case Study, Illumination (who can be out of this) etc. He contested elections for the Gymkhana and was elected to the position of General Secretary Technology – the first elected GSec Tech! Grew Kshitij 5X in 1 year (thanks to his amazing team). Converted Tech GC into Techno-Management GC & for the first time in the history of IIT KGP, completed 100% GC events on time. As destiny had it,all leading companies were Open for Biotech – ITC, Schlumberger, DB, Barclays etc. He bagged 2 job offers on Day 1 – ITC and Schlumberger (& did not interview for many other companies).
Pathways diverge only to converge later
Except there was a twist to this story – Kapish’s entire wing was giving CAT and so was he (after all CAT exam happens before Day 1). He landed calls from IIM C, IIM A & a few others. This is the sort of opportunity that “many would die for”, but as Kapish puts forward that he decided to turn up for the interview with C & A as he was chasing “experiences”. As luck would have it, miraculously, he converted the call from the 1st IIM – IIM C.
Kapish’s plan since his 3rd year was to work at ITC for 2-4 years, and then do an MBA from Harvard. Only fate had placed yet another golden box at his footsteps and he chose to open it. It was after deep consideration with several of his seniors and their inputs that he realised he should opt for IIM C over his job offer from ITC. It was not an easy decision for him.
Once at IIM Calcutta, the Finance haven of the country, he wanted to become an Investment Banker, focus on acads (after average acads at KGP), go on an exchange programme and so forth. As luck would have it, the fateful year was 2008 – the year Lehman Brothers crashed. Investment Banking offers had dried up considerably. He was still interviewing with Barclays & negotiating for his preferred locations & role. And the opportunity was lost. He interviewed with Kearney (just 7 rounds) and a debut in Management Consulting was unlocked.
The professional caravan
He found that he was a natural fit in Management Consulting. He joined BCG from campus & had a great learning & performance stint with BCG. BCG set a new standard for “Nothing is Impossible” for him. Yet, after 6 long years at BCG, he felt that with every passing year, he was losing his entrepreneurial energy & risk appetite. He reminded himself that his goal always was to be an entrepreneur – building innovative solutions from India for the World & creating employment in the country thereby, uplifting the country’s status to a Developed Nation from a forever developing nation. But is he good enough to do this? This was the question on his mind.
He decided to quit BCG & join a startup as a pseudo-founder. He joined Rivigo where he got the best possible exposure to build a technology-led business. At Rivigo, he was building the equivalent of “Uber for Trucking Freight Services in India” (similar to Blackbuck – a startup by another KGP founder). He created an AI enabled platform engine & grew it to an impressive scale turning the business operating margin positive. It was during this time that he felt that he was ready to start up on his own.
Thus, his quasi entrepreneurial stint at Rivigo set him up for the next innings of his life.
New beginnings and more
At Rivigo, he knew working at the confluence of tech and data was the way forward for him. Also, working in logistics taught him that a large chunk of the Indian market was still a few years away from evolving to want to pay for convenience & he should pick a problem statement where customers have less price sensitivity.
While that was the strategy consultant thinking about an approach to zero on the Unicorn/Decacorn idea, in reality the seeds of his startup were sown during a vacation trip to Ranikhet in 2019 that he & his “KGP plus Joka”-brother, Amritanshu (Director, Blackrock) took together with their families. In the company of an Old Monk (pun intended), the duo discussed how they have been running a 100 metres dash continuously in their lives – Boards, JEE, Placement, MBA, Job, Fast-track growth etc & not really thought that, “I might be good at multiple things but what am I really interested in doing.”. This led to discussions on what will it take India to become a developed nation where people don’t crazily chase IIT but decide to pursue early in their lives, their interests & passions to commit to it. Maybe that will create more child prodigies in India – we will have more sportspersons, musicians, actors, innovators etc.
Both of them fondly remembered that there were so many experiences/activities that they tried for the first time in life at KGP – hockey, bridge, debating, TT etc. (thanks to the seniors who got them started). The question popped, “Shouldn’t these experiences happen sooner in life before deciding what you want to pursue your career in?” Many moons later, the answer was found in multiple research studies quoting that 5 to 14 years age is the ideal age to provide such exposure to any individual when the appetite & ability for such learnings/experiences is the highest.
After the trip, they went back to their respective jobs. After almost a month, they decided to meet up for a “serious conversation”. Both of them had the same thing on their mind, “I am serious about what we discussed in Ranikhet – I hope you don’t mind if I start on that idea as my startup.” And as destiny would have it, they decided to build it together. Both of them could not have found a better co-founder. So, the problem statement “How to find a Co-Founder?” did not exist for them.
Both of them agreed on certain guiding principles quite early in their startup journey which would help them build a meaningful, sustainable, high quality business. One of those things was that they are willing to work on the idea for at least three years even if they as individuals are not making any money, that they are truly committed to what they want to build. Secondly & more importantly, the K12 students’ development space that they had chosen is quite sensitive and it’s important to create a solution where no child can have any bad experiences, no matter how much time it takes.
The usual next step for any startup founder is to raise funds. Kapish & Amritanshu were lucky to have received great interest from multiple leading VCs even when they were at ideation stage. Some of them wanted to invest at handsome valuations. But, the duo believed they were not ready to raise – they wanted to raise when they had perfected the product where no child can have a bad experience and no mis-selling can happen to any customer. They thanked all the interested investors respectfully for their belief in them and promised to engage when they were ready to raise.
The focus was to build, to transform, and to disrupt education in India fast-tracking India’s growth towards not the 3rd largest economy of the World but the largest economy of the World at least by a decade.
Change = Permanent
Three days after registering their company formally, the first National lockdown happened. COVID seemed like a great opportunity to investors to transform Indian Edtech faster. Money poured in from everywhere. The “Beyond Academics” space started to see many new entrants – some originals & many inspired. Investors incl. those originally interested in KidEx (Kapish’s & Amritanshu’s company) decided to not play a patient game & take bets (as is the rule of the game). KidEx had not raised till then. The market had a good number of players, well funded, willing to offer everything at Zero Rupees but the KGP boys were busy problem solving.
During that period, a chance encounter with Mr. Amitabh Kant, then, CEO of NITI Aayog made them realise that their vision was in line with the National Educational Policy, NEP 2020 which Kapish describes as a “visionary document, not a political one”, created by ex-ISRO Chairman, Dr. Kasturirangan and his team. The answer became clear to them – to transform India, they need to serve Indian schools & NEP 2020 is the best enabler to make a dent. Overnight, they transformed into a B2B/B2B2C business. In hindsight, it makes great sense as Indian EdTech was suffering from High Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) & Low Life Time Value (LTV). Kapish opines take inspiration from the fact that “India is an INR 10 Bhujia packet market. Don’t try to force people to buy large packs to grow your LTV/CAC but let them grow their trust in your & build habits.”
With these two developments, they embraced that they need to play by the rules of the market and raise money. But, they wanted to raise strategically from people who were willing to be patient. The KGP network, Joka network, their professional network came onboard as investors – think of it as whenever there was need for money, there was a well-wisher waiting to write a cheque for their company. Good Karma has many benefits & this was definitely one of the finest examples of the same.
Despite wanting to build a Tech business, they didn’t start building any app/platform for at least 1 year. They stitched together a series of off-the-shelf solutions from multiple technology companies (most prominent being Google) to establish the ideal product before wanting to write a single line of code. They believe this brings discipline, focus & efficiency. And when they built their first platform product, Google & MEITY were quick to recognize them as one of the most disruptive upcoming Edtech startups from India for the World.
The journey goes on for them. The duo continues to follow their plans & heart.
Down deep with Kapish
Having spoken at length with him, we wanted to get an insight into Kapish Saraf – the human being. We asked him about his experience as an Entrepreneur – what changed? With a laugh, he says that his “personality or working style has always been very entrepreneurial” in nature. Given his BCG tenure, he has never approached a job as a fixed duration engagement; rather as a journey towards a time-bound goal. His focus is always along unlocking the maximum value possible. The only tangible change after becoming an entrepreneur, he believes, is that previously he was always guaranteed a paycheck, irrespective of outcome or speed of outcome. Whereas as a founder, he constantly needs to think about giving job security & timely payouts to his team irrespective of speed & frequency of business successes. He says that the meaning of this statement will dawn upon anyone only when they have experienced it personally. The good change about being a strong-headed Entrepreneur with a clear vision is that you can completely eliminate unnecessary work which happens way too frequently at the best of the firms (impression management, theoretical ideation etc.). Kapish says that Amritanshu has institutionalised in their company the saying, “Let Perfection not become the Enemy of Progress.”