The wild ride of a college dropout turned internet entrepreneur

2022 has been a crazy year for Sidharth Rao. Dentsu Creative Bengaluru, which he led, won the Cannes Lions Agency of the Year – but Sidharth is stepping down to start something new. It’s all part of a heart-stopping business journey that began at 20.

July 2016: ‘Make us famous.’ This is the clear direction Sidharth Rao received from his new boss, Ashish Bhasin, who has just taken over as the head of Dentsu Aegis in India. The international ad network acquired Webchutney Studio, the online agency Sidharth co-founded (with Sudesh Samaria), in 2013.

Cut to July 2022: Dentsu Creative Bengaluru (formerly Dentsu Webchutney) becomes the first agency from India to win the Lions Cannes Agency of the Year, arguably the highest honor an agency can receive. This win comes after a campaign created by Sidharth’s team: The Unfiltered History Tour for Vice (US news website). Created during the worst days of Covid, it focused on stolen items from around the world and is housed in the British Museum.

Sidharth – ‘Sid’ to all – gets a message from Bhasin shortly after the win. It was as short as the original instructions: ‘You did it in a paragraph.’

Ironically, Sid left Dentsu a month before this big win. Does he regret not getting on the international stage?

“Not at all! I can only take credit for the Uncensored Story campaign for giving the project the green light. Webchutney has won major awards over the years but I have never been on stage,” he said. He has already decided to leave and it doesn’t seem right for him to just stay in Cannes and leave a few months later. This would make Dentsu look bad – and it owes a lot to the network.

Pause. “Honestly, I don’t even see myself as an adman. I consider myself an internet entrepreneur. “

It’s been a rough ride for this college dropout, son of a major army general, in 23 years. “I almost gave up a few times along the way,” he admits.

The way he tells his story is very funny. This includes playing up the hard work while highlighting his own mistakes. It’s just Sid’s way. Maybe because he suffers from ‘imposter syndrome’, something they admit? This condition is defined as ‘a feeling of inadequacy despite apparent signs of success’.

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After graduating, Sid got permission from his parents to take a year off while exploring other possibilities. He joined DDB Mudra at the age of 19, and briefly moved to Gray where he was fired. I met him around 2000 when we started agencyfaqs! (now afaqs!) and he founded Gutterspace, a website in the same space. That sounds cool – “better than agencyfaqs!” he teases me gently – and it got me an assignment to do a website for the company. This is how Webchutney was born.

Sidharth led his team from the front with 20

Sidharth led his team from the front with 20

He earned money and accumulated Rs 11 lakh at the age of 20. He makes fun of that money now, but I find it amazing that someone so young could raise money in India at that time. The entire country has less than half a million internet connections.

The internet is still in its infancy and Webchutney is one of only two creative agencies. Won the first Golden Abby for the MakeMyTrip campaign that went viral before it went ‘viral’. But finding money to develop has always been exhausting.

When he decided in 2005 that Webchutney needed to join an ad network, there were many competitors – “Hama Swayamvar Main Sab Aaye”, he recalled fondly. Although the big issue didn’t happen, he got one investor for Rs 60 lakh.

The money problem was sorted out immediately, but the dark cloud continued to hover: we didn’t have enough money to expand. “And that’s when I dug myself a nice, deep hole,” Sid said.

The hole was dug when Webchutney, a creative agency, ventured into media buying for MakeMyTrip in 2007. It bought media worth Rs 1.5 crore per month on paid media. first but managed to get 120 days credit from Google for advertising. . This gave the agency good cash flow in the short term that it could use to grow.

But Sid, just 28 years old, didn’t have much financial control. When MakeMyTrip decided to shift its media buying to one of its ad networks and thus canceled its contract with Webchutney, the agency did not have the funds to remove the accounts. Sid had 21 days to find the money. Or closed shop.

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In a dramatic move, Sid vowed to his desperate team that “I’ve found the money – and until I do, I won’t change my shirt.” This is how he wore the same shirt for 21 days in a row – “even though I washed it every night” he quickly explained as I wrinkled my nose.

He worked the phone non-stop like a man with days to live. Sid was delighted that Ajit Balakrishnan of Rediff was quick to offer investment. Looking for a better option, he then called Haresh Chawla, Group CEO of Viacom18. Time passed and the two quickly signed an agreement: Capital18, the group’s investment arm, would invest Rs 8 crore for a majority stake.

Webchutney Studio is a survivor.

Sid can’t stop praising Haresh who he says is a close friend and mentor as well as Sarbvir Singh, then head of Capital18. “They are like new parents. They trusted me and let me fly. This is how I grew in my belief in myself as an entrepreneur and angel investor. ” (Sid has made about 20 angel investments so far.)

Informal communication, based on trust. And when things went wrong, Sid got a sharp rap on his thumb, usually at Toto’s Garage, a Bandra pub.

Simply put, it seems to have worked. When Capital18 left Webchutney in 2013, it got 3X its investment, went the official announcement at the time. According to Sid, this does not include the 12x return that Webchutney got on its Rs 2.5 crore investment in Network Play, an ad network that was acquired by the media giant. German Bertelsmann.

The new partner of Webchutney Studios is Dentsu which is then led by Rohit Ohri. How did the change of ownership make a difference in his life?

The answer was not what I expected.

“Dentsu, Benny Augustine joined the CFO. To be honest, I was skeptical at first. But as time went on, I realized that putting financial control on a weirdo like me is a game changer. ” Profits have started to increase every year: last year, Dentsu Webchutney/DentsuMB reached a peak of almost Rs 80 crore with an EBIDTA of about Rs 32 crore: it couldn’t be better than the margin of 40 percent of things.

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His approach to business management has also changed. “During the first 14 years, I worked hard. But I slowly began to embrace the concept of the ‘lazy entrepreneur’ – that is, hire the best people you can and get out of the way. I see myself as an HR guy at Webchutney. “

And in angel investing. Many of them were ahead of their time. Some examples: Crude Area, an online platform for selling visual art; Bombay Bitch, taken from the American gossip website, Gawker; JuxtConsult, an online market research firm that wants to be ComScore for India. The old saying ‘timing is everything’ is true.

“What I’ve learned about investing is this: gamble money if you don’t know the founder well. Otherwise, stick with the big boys and invest where they are,” said Sid. While most investments have declined, Pepper Content and ScoopWhoop are his favorites. , both of which he claimed gave him 20x returns.

He’s also active in two other ventures he’s invested in – Invideo, an online video editing platform and Lio, an app that helps small and medium-sized businesses organize their information. “You’ll hear a lot about both of them,” he promised.

What attracts him to angel investment? Is it money? Or what? “It’s the excitement of creating something new. In fact, I also feel privileged to work with such talented entrepreneurs. “

Sid is already in the process of creating what he thinks will be his next big thing. Because, as far as I can tell, he can’t resist the ball. It’s no surprise then that his new venture, which he co-founded with Bengaluru-based serial entrepreneur Madhu Sudhan, is called Punt Partners.

The duo’s concept for Punt is that the advertising department, for the past century, has helped companies gain customers through the use of advertising. In contrast, retailers do not have the same advertising agency to help them retain customers in the age of choice. All the vendors have is a bunch of tech companies offering a variety of storage devices. If Punt can have its way, it will be the number one customer retention agency for retailers.

It’s an interesting company that I hope to hear a lot about in the coming years.

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