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Another Startup Story. Skills Academy.

On the last day of our final exams, as we were going back to Sandeep’s home, we started talking, Ashish was on his motorcycle with Sandeep and I was on my Luna (moped). We were planning what we are going to do in the summer vacation. Little did we know that this discussion will become the second venture – Skills Academy- and a foundation of our third venture – CLT. For now, as I share the details and lessons learned from that experience, let me just say it’s another startup story, about Skills Academy.

A plan for summer vacation

Sandeep was planning to go back home but he wasn’t sure if that will be the best thing to do. If he got home, he won’t have time to study due to all the chores at home and temple. His father was a priest at the temple and well known in the community. If he went back home, he will be spending two months at the temple. It’s not that he did not like it, but he wanted to focus on his studies and his computer programming for now.

Ashish Soni was in the same boat. If he went home for 2 months, he will end up wasting time and shuttling between Indore and Khandwa. His uncle had recently taken up a contract for a Hospital canteen and wanted him to help.

I was wondering how can we stay in Indore, and continue to learn and do something together.

Start of an Idea

“I have an Idea”, one of us said. I don’t recall who it was. “Why don’t we start a computer training institute”. “We have our PCs” – Both Soni and I had a computer at the time. “We can borrow one from Ajmera Ji – my neighbor V. K. Ajmera, who was also my mentor in media biz at IN-TV. He was a “1 crore” club member at UTI and a very smart businessmen. He had a computer – even though he didn’t know how to use it. In my part time, I was teaching him account management and Website development on his computer. I thought he would be interested to loan us his computer and I could teach him for free.

“Where will we get the space? ” “I know Dubey sir. He has a flat on the main road that we can rent for few months and see how things go”

“Great!, when do we start?”

And that is how our second startup – Skills Academy – was formed.

We quickly put things into motion. The same night, I met with Dubey sir and discussed renting his flat. I’d need to take a loan of 2000 Rs. from my mom for the initial deposit. The rent would be 1000 Rs. per month. I also met Ajmera ji and he agreed to lend his computer. Ajmera ji had some great ideas about marketing and promotion as well.

We would have three computers – mine, Ashish’s and Ajmera Ji’s. That was good to start a class.

The next day morning, we went to see the flat. It was a 1 bedroom apartment with a big living room (Hall) and a kitchen. Sandeep can probably live here, and save on the rent. This way, he can at least get some monetary benefit by not going back home. The problem will be his food as we can’t cook in the class or ask a stranger to come and cook. We didn’t think in much detail how this trivial thing will become a big challenge for us later.

We spent a few hundred rupees in getting some tables, a curtain to separate the lab from the reception. Borrowed few benches and a blackboard from Dubey sir’s school as he didn’t need them during summer vacations anyways. We decided that if things go well we can always buy those out or purchase our own.

Novell, Sigma, and Blue Chip computer academy were a few big competitors. We knew they have a big name – but we knew that their teachers can not match our knowledge and skills when it came to computers. “Skills” is what we were focused on. So we called our institute the Skills Academy. We got some flyers printed and distributed in the 3 colonies nearby. We invited a famous politician from the area for inauguration of the institute.

Ajmera ji also helped us hire a receptionist who would work mornings and evenings to handle inquiries and enrollment when we are all busy taking classes. Sandeep and I will take evening classes as Ashish had to help at the hospital canteen. Ashish and I will share the morning classes and labs as I was also working as a marketing executive for a newspaper during the day.

We started with 3 students and grew the academy to 15 students within 2 months. We were making money but still not profitable as we had to recoup our capital and had to pay some of the money back to our “investors” for their help. We became profitable in month 4 after paying off my mom, Ajmera Ji, and Dubey sir. One other thing that happened during this 6 time is that one of my other employers – Mr. Annadurai,

Lessons Learned

During these 6 months of the venture, we learned a lot of lessons, and here are some key ones that I hope will help anyone who wants to start something on their own – big or small!

Beat the Sun to grow faster

In a world where there was no social media, one of the best ways to reach our audience – students who would like to learn computers, and their parents – was to send flyers. The most cost-effective way to do this was to put the flyers in the new paper. In order to do that, we had to be at the hawker’s central location at 4:30 am so that we can get flyers inserted in the newspapers that are bound for our target area. We did it a couple of times and every time our flyers were distributed, we saw a net inflow of inquiries and we were able to convert a big number into students. Given that we did not have a big marketing budget, we were able to get the best out of what we had, by beating the sun and getting up, showing up, and making things happen! Hard work always pays off!

Don’t take eyes away from the competition:

About 3 weeks into the business, one day a girl came to the reception. She wanted to join the beginner’s computer classes and our receptionist enrolled her for 2 days intro sessions. We allowed anyone to join 2 classes for free, to get a feeler for the course. The girl looked familiar but I was not able to recollect where did I see her before. She came to our class for two days, and then stopped coming. We tried calling her home but the calls were not returned. We closed the matter. A few days later, I was visiting Blue Chip, one of the other coaching classes in the area, and was surprised to see that same girl in the office of the owner. It didn’t take me long to put 2 and 2 together. She was implanted by Blue Chip to find out what we’re offering, our technique, our skills. I quickly realized we were making a mistake by offering free classes without a deposit and not doing a thorough check on the students’ background. This was a big eye-opener for me, who always believed that the world is a great place filled with decent people. (I have had other bad experiences with the same Blue Chip owner that I will share some other time).

Expectations of your investors can change anytime:

As we continued to enroll more students, we had limited “downtime” available on the computers due to the lab time that students needed. This allowed others very little time on the computer. It was okay for Sandeep, myself, and Ashish as we could do our studies during the night and continue to use the system during the day. But it did impact Ajmera Ji as he could not spend enough time that he needed; He was not able to get to his accounting when he needed it. Eventually, it made him anxious and he asked to have his computer back. One of our key assets was gone.

Don’t take people for granted. Including yourself:

When we started this setup, Sandeep was okay with staying in the apartment as that will save him rent. He will eat at the Hospital canteen, which will save him some cash on food expenses. Overall, it will allow him to stay in the class and always available. In the excitement of starting a business, we didn’t realize we were signing him up for trouble. The bland canteen food quickly got boring. No TV, no friends, and loneliness started to take some toll on Sandeep’s behavior. Even though the three of us spend quite some time together at the class after hours to study and plan other things, it wasn’t the same as living with roommates. We took things for granted and our friend, our partner had to suffer. Fast-forwarding this to today, it’s an important lesson even today – in your teams, in your organization, treat people nicely.

Don’t take your employees for granted. Everyone has plenty of choices but if they chose to work with you, make sure they feel proud of their choice!

Always be ready to take a leap of faith:

At the end of month 4, we had about 40 students and we were profitable. Our next semester has already started but our summer project had turned into a profitable business and we wanted to continue it. There were few challenges though, as this was on one side of the town and our college was across town. Another thing that was going on in the background is that due to focusing on growing Skills Academy, I was not able to work with the newspaper – Mr. Annadurai. It’s funny how problems solve themselves. One day, Anna bhaiya visited our Skills Academy office and asked us if we were open to shifting our classes to another location in the city – closer to our college. This will allows us to reach even more students, be close to the college so we can come and go as we needed, will be able to charge more in fees due to location, and I can continue to help him with the newspaper being in the same office. He will take 40% of the profits as he was providing the location, electricity, etc. He will essentially be our fourth partner in this venture and we’ll call it CLT – Center for Latest Technologies. (It’s a nice segue for me to write about our third startup, so I won’t go into details here).

Life Keeps Moving On

Sandeep, Ashish, and I discussed the opportunity and decided to take a leap of faith in this new venture. We returned computers to their owners. Sent back the desk and blackboards to Dubey sir’s school. Paid back whoever was to be paid. Skills Academy is now in our memories and a few flyers are still in the attic of my home in Indore.

It was a short, exciting success story that opened doors for all of us. If you think this was good, you’d love to read about CLT – which we took from 0 to 1200 students and 200,000 Rs. per month revenue in 6 months.

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