The wild ride of a college dropout turned internet entrepreneur

2022 has been a crazy year for Sidharth Rao. Dentsu Creative Bengaluru, which he runs, won Cannes Lions Agency of the Year – but Sidharth stopped him from starting something new. It’s part of a long, heart-stopping business journey that began in the 20s.

July 2016: ‘Do us a favor.’ That’s the exact direction Sidharth Rao received from his new CEO, Ashish Bhasin, who just took over as the CEO of Dentsu Aegis in India. The international media network had acquired Webchutney Studio, an internet company founded by Sidharth (with Sudesh Sameria), in 2013.

Cut to July 2022: Dentsu Creative Bengaluru (formerly Dentsu Webchutney) has become the first agency from India to win the Cannes Lions Agency of the Year, arguably the highest honor an agency can hope to win. This victory has come on the back of a campaign produced by Sidharth’s team: A Bad History Tour for Vice (a US-based news website). Created during the worst of Covid, it focused on what was stolen around the world and now resides in the British Museum.

Sidharth – ‘Sid’ to everyone – gets a message from Bhasin shortly after the win. It’s as bad as the first instruction: ‘You came up short.’

Ironically, Sid had left Dentsu a month before this big win. Does he regret not going to the international arena?

“Oh, not at all! I can’t take credit for a bad historical ad except for having this green project. Webchutney has been winning major awards for years. but I’ve never been on stage,” he said. He has already decided to quit but it is unlikely that he will stay only for Cannes and quit a few months later. It will make Dentsu look bad – it also owns a lot of networks.

A pause. “Actually, I don’t see myself as a runner. I think of myself as an Internet entrepreneur.”

It has been a modern ride for the education of this university, the son of the commander in chief and the army, in the last 23 years. He admits: “I almost gave up many times along the way.

His story is very interesting the way he tells it. It involves working hard at work while also exposing one’s own faults at the same time. That’s just Sid’s style. Maybe it’s because he suffers from ‘imposter syndrome’, something he admits? This condition is defined as ‘feelings of inadequacy despite signs of success’.

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After school, Sid gets his parents’ permission to take a year off to explore opportunities. He joined DDB Mudra at 19, then moved briefly to Gray where he was fired. I met him around 2000 when we were starting agencyfaqs! (now afaqs!) and it’s put together at Gutterspace, a site in the same space. Good – “better than Agencyfaqs!” he teased me a lot – and won him a job designing a website for a company. That’s how Webchutney was born.

Sidharth leads his team by 20 runs

Sidharth leads his team by 20 runs

Being a financier, he raised Rs 11 lakh at the age of 20. He laughs at the money now but I find it remarkable that a young person can earn any currency 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 a few companies that are creating something. He has won the first Golden Abby for the MakeMyTrip campaign that went viral before ‘viral’ was a thing. But finding money to grow is always a headache.

When in 2005 he decided that Webchutney should be part of the media network, there were many applicants – “hamare swayamvar main sab aya”, he recalled with satisfaction. Although a big deal didn’t happen, he got a private investor for Rs 60 lakh.

He immediately solved the financial problem but the cloud continued to hover: he did not have enough money to expand. “And that’s when I dug myself a nice hole,” reveals Sid.

The opening was played when Webchutney, a creative company, got involved in advertising marketing for MakeMyTrip in 2007. It bought ads worth Rs 1.5 crore per month which were paid in advance and managed to get the day mark. 120 from Google for advertising. . This gave the company a good short-term cash flow that could be used to grow.

But Sid, just 28 years old, doesn’t have much financial training. When MakeMyTrip decided to move the ad buy to one of the ad networks and ended its arrangement with Webchutney, the company did not have the funds to close the account. Sid has 21 days to find the money. Or close shop.

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In a dramatic move Sid vowed to his desperate team that “I’m going to find the money – and until that happens, I won’t change my clothes.” That’s how she wore the same outfit for 21 days in a row – “even though I wash it every night” she quickly explains when I blow my nose.

He works the phone non-stop like a man with days to live. Sid is grateful that Ajit Balakrishnan of Rediff was quick to provide the funds. Searching for a better option, he called Haresh Chawla, group director at Viacom18. Time is running out and the two are quickly signing: Capital18, the group’s investment arm, will put in Rs 8 crore for the stake.

Webchutney Studio is dead.

Sid could not stop praising Haresh whom he now describes as a close friend and mentor as well as Sarbvir Singh, the then CEO of Capital18. They are like newborns. They trusted me and let me fly. That’s how my belief in myself as an entrepreneur and angel investor grew.” (Sid has made about 20 angel investments so far.)

It is a relationship based on trust. And when things were going well, he beat Sid with sharp raps and fingers, often at Toto’s Garage, a Bandra bar.

All in all, it seems to have worked. When Capital18 left Webchutney in 2013, it got 3X its investment, going by the official statement at the time. According to Sid, this does not include the 12x return Webchutney got from the Rs 2.5 crore investment it made in Network Play, the media network acquired by German broadcaster Bertelsmann.

Webchutney Studios’ new partner was Dentsu which was then headed by Rohit Ohri. How did the change of identity change his life?

The answer was not what I expected.

“Dentsu came in with the CFO, Benny Augustine. To be honest, I was skeptical at first. But as time went on, I realized that instilling financial discipline in my passion was a game changer.” Profits started to rise from year to year: last year, Dentsu Webchutney/DentsuMB has achieved an EBIDTA of around Rs 80 crore: things cannot be better than a 40 percent margin.

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The way he does business has also changed. “For the first 14 years, I worked my ass off. But little by little, I started to learn the concept of ‘energy trading’ – that is, hire the best people you can hire and leave. ​​​​and the way. I see myself as the head of HR at Webchutney.”

And with his angel investments. Most of them were ahead of their time. Some examples: Crude Zone, an online platform for selling cartoons; Bombay Bitch, featured on the American gossip site, Gawker; JuxtConsult, an online market research company that wants to be ComScore for India. The old saying that ‘timing is everything’ doesn’t hold true.

“What I learned about investing is this: bet money only if you know the founders well. Otherwise, hang out with the big guys and invest where they do things,” thought Sid. While most of the investments have tanked, his biggest hits are Content Pepper and ScoopWhoop, each of which claims to have delivered him a 20x return.

He’s also talking about two other companies he’s invested in — Invideo, an online video editing platform and Lio, an app that helps small businesses organize their information. “You will hear a lot about both of them,” he promised.

What attracts him as an angel investor? Is it the money? Or what? “It’s the joy of creating something new. I’m really privileged to work with talented entrepreneurs.”

Sid has already started creating what he thinks will be his next big thing. Because, as I understand, he can never resist a punt. Not surprisingly, his new venture is called Punt Partners with Bengaluru-based entrepreneur Madhu Sudhan.

The basis of the duo for Punt is that the advertising industry has helped the marketers acquire customers through the use of advertising for the last century. In contrast, sellers do not have an advertising agency – which will help them in customer retention during the limited selection period. All marketers have is a smorgasbord of tech companies offering a bewildering array of tools. If Punt can get its way, it will be the number one customer-facing company for retailers.

It’s an interesting company that I look forward to hearing more about in the years to come.

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