Entrepreneurship as a career figures high on the preferences of many. Compared to regular corporate jobs, the nice warm feeling of knowing that you’ll get your monthy salary is absent, but there’s a whole lot more to compensate for that. Freedom, flexibility and a tremendous sense of job satisfaction.
Tepper MBA Vikram Narayan is the founder of BookBuzzr, which provides authors with a unique online marketing platform for their books. An extremely down-to-earth guy, with no airs about the success that he has managed to achieve, Vikram shares with us his entrepreneurial journey that started from Carnegie Mellon University and has brought him back to India. During the phone interview, I picked up quite a few ideas from him.
Read his views and suggestions on bootstrapping a startup. Inspiring!
MBA Crystal Ball: Tell us a little about your pre-MBA experience.
Vikram: I was a property developer between 1994 and 1999 … buying land, building apartments and selling them.
MBA Crystal Ball: That seems have been a very profitable field to be in. Why did you leave it for an MBA?
Vikram: Yes. The money was great. But at some point I started feeling stifled. I wanted to expand my horizons, travel the world and learn more. My reasons for doing an MBA were very different from those of my classmates. I did not care too much about getting a better job. I was clear that I wanted to do something entrepreneurial after the MBA. All of my admissions essays reflected that.
MBA Crystal Ball: Your technology entrepreneurship story started at Tepper. How did that happen?
Vikram: The Carnegie Mellon experience surprised me pleasantly. It was 1999 and the dot com boom was at it’s peak. During the summer I got an internship at Sun Microsystems in Menlo Park California. One of my jobs as an intern was to interact with an external vendor who was providing us with a custom software solution. I gained an understanding of the software consulting business here.
In my second year at Tepper, I decided that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and stopped trying for a job. Instead, I hired a developer in Bangalore and put together a prototype for a room reservation system. Then I met the assistant dean of the business school offering to sell him the software.
He said that the school did not need a room reservation system but asked me if I could get a course evaluation system developed instead. I said yes and within a day or two wrote up a proposal which he approved. And just like that we were in business with our first customer!
As I side benefit for my initiative and drive, I also got an award – The Canfield Roseman Entrepreneur of the Year award.
Thereafter we got a number of other university clients such as Stevens Institute of Technology, University of North Carolina, Bucknell University etc.
MBA Crystal Ball: Did your MBA help you in launching your second startup (Ascendus)?
Vikram: Absolutely. One of my MBA classmates became my partner in the business. The university became my client. My MBA course work also helped by giving me strategy frameworks which I use to this day.
MBA Crystal Ball: When and why did you launch the 3rd tech startup (Bookbuzzr)?
Vikram: About two years ago, Chetan Dhruve – an author friend of mine who has a popular published book was talking about the difficulties and challenges in promoting a book. Over a few conversations it became clear that authors were an under-served market.
So using developer resources from Ascendus, we got a prototype for a “share-able book sampling widget” developed. This widget quickly went viral and thousands of authors began to use it for their books. Once our belief in the market potential was confirmed, we began building several other technologies for book marketing such as a book tweeting application for Twitter, social games that market books on a site called Freado.com, Facebook fan page widgets etc.
To date we have over 7,000 authors signed up for our various technologies.
MBA Crystal Ball: How did you fund the venture and how long did it take to get the product ready?
Vikram: I was able to raise funds from family and friends and through revenues coming in from Ascendus Technologies.
MBA Crystal Ball: What role do you play in your companies? technical, marketing, strategy, alliances?
Vikram: All of the above. As an entrepreneur you need to be able to switch between roles rapidly. I might spend the morning brainstorming with our developers about solving a technical issue and in the afternoon I might work on the monthly newsletter. I’m also extremely fortunate to have a small, loyal team with each of the members being very good at what they do.
MBA Crystal Ball: What is the revenue model for BookBuzzr?
Vikram: We charge authors a small monthly fee to use our technologies.
MBA Crystal Ball: How did you spread the word and get authors to sign up?
Vikram: Our motto has always been to “out-educate the competition.” This means that while we don’t do trade shows and advertising and sales calls, we do a lot of author education. Our blog (which offers advice on book promotion) has thousands of visits. And our Twitter account (@bookbuzzr) has over 13,000 followers.
Also, some of our technologies drive traffic to our site thus creating a virtuous cycle. For example, the BookBuzzr flipper widget which has been installed on thousands of blogs and websites creates a large amount of awareness among authors about our company. And of course, people find us on Google.
MBA Crystal Ball: What are the big challenges for your business?
Vikram: I would say that the biggest challenge is in acquiring new paying authors at a low cost. Everyday over 1,500 books are getting published and if we can get most of those authors to sign-up our business will be at a whole new level.
We are proving outstanding value to authors … and we’re the only ones who do what we do. The challenge is to get authors to discover us at the right time.
MBA Crystal Ball: You might be one of the few tech entrepreneurs who’s not looking for venture capital funding to grow? Why is that?
Vikram: Primarily because we don’t need the money at the moment (and hopefully forever!) Also, we believe that a venture capitalist will force us to ask the wrong question (“How do I maximize return for my share holders” versus “How do I provide lasting value to my customers”).
Venture capitalists also create a false sense of hurry and urgency. Business in the initial stages is not about “competing”, “being better” or “working harder”. It is about finding an angle, building a beach head, being different and deepening that differentiation. And that comes from the right perspective and insight. And the right perspective and insight does not come when you are trying to do 20,000 things at once.
MBA Crystal Ball: What’s next in store for Ascendus and Bookbuzzr? Any new startups on the horizon?
Vikram: The goal is to grow BookBuzzr. Ascendus is already self-sustaining with several regular client contracts in place. I don’t have any new start up ideas at the moment as we seem to have gotten lucky with BookBuzzr which is consuming a large chunk of my time and attention.
MBA Crystal Ball: What are your 5 top tips for aspiring entrepreneurs who want to launch their own startups?
Vikram: 1. Create a new category not a new product.
2. Spend enough time on strategy.
3. Say “NO” to many initiatives but work very hard on one or two important initiatives.
4. Be different. Don’t try to be better.
5. Read 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Jack Trout and Al Ries.