H ere is the full text of the speech that Sandhya Chandrasekharayya, partner at Indiahikes, gave at the TEDx conference at Manipal University on 18 February 2018. All pictures in this text are slides that appeared in the background while her talk was on.
The talk starts below.
“I want to show you a picture. It’s a picture of my office.
I know you’ll think I am putting it on a bit. You won’t be wrong.
On the other hand it is truly our office. I have spent countless hours sitting on these meadows,just where you see those horses, with my team members discussing strategy, operations and visioning the future of Indiahikes.
Here’s another favourite meeting room of mine. This is a spot where I have had many heated debates about Indiahikes. Many of these debates have changed the course of Indiahikes!
I am showing you these pictures to give you a glimpse of our world.
Two weeks ago, in another of our office location, half hour from here, my team members and I were working on a problem that showed deep dysfunctionality within our organisation. We walked the shores of the beach, picked shells, sat long hours huddled together to find a solution to our problem.
As I watched the sun going down on the sea, I was immediately transported back to a conversation that my business partner Arjun and I had few months ago.
Both of us had just broken free of the tree line of the forests at Dayara Bugyal in Uttarakhand. As we walked through the meadows, we sat down on the grass to take a moment of rest. At a distance hardly 50 meters from us, on a ledge of the meadows, we watched an ewe, a female sheep, give birth to her kid. The young one struggled to get to its feet but the mother gently nudged and licked her offspring.
As we took in the magic unfolding before our eyes, the little one took one faltering but bold step after another, and wobbling as young ones do, soon got to its feet. As if in a sign of victory the young sheep twitched its tiny tail vigorously and lunged at its mother for warmth.
Behind them was this majestic view of our grand Himalayas.
My partner and I looked at each other and asked ourselves a question. Would we trade this for anything else? We looked at each other and said a resounding, “No way!”.
I want to reassure everyone that it isn’t always like this. We do have a desk office in Bangalore. And I am not trekking all the time. But we do get our “No way!” moments like this — which I am extremely grateful for. It is these moments of transcendence that make my work so rewarding.
It wasn’t always like this. I was a software techie with a major American multinational. Trekking was a hobby that I pursued vigorously. Along with my just married husband, we were exploring one beautiful trek in the Himalayas after another, just the two of us.
It was then that I discovered that it was not really easy to do treks in the Himalayas. The bigger, grander treks were difficult to mount on my own. They required knowledge, logistics and a comfort with the terrain that was beyond me. One of those treks was the Roopkund. It was one of those grand beautiful treks that I had heard of.
While researching the trek I stumbled upon a blog by Arjun Majumdar. He was a very well know trekker in the trekking circuit. Here was a blog that was quite out of the ordinary. While it talked about how wonderfully beautiful the trek was, the blog went beyond that. It had a detailed easy-to-read format on how anyone could do the trek. It had contact information, a step-by-step guide, cost of things, every question that would come to a person’s mind answered. I had never seen anything like it before.
I emailed Arjun for more information. As we got talking over mails I found that he was leading a team of trekkers to the very same Roopkund trek that I wanted to do. My husband and I quickly jumped in and became part of the team.
Right from the beginning I was quite taken in by how Arjun went about organising the trek. His way of conducting the trek was very different. His way of preparing the trekkers, distributing tasks, making everyone feel a part of the expedition was unlike any organised trekking. The way he went about it made the trek come alive.
On the trek my husband and I shared tents with Arjun. He would constantly talk to us about how he visualised the future of trekking in India. He would talk about Indiahikes in a way that made it sound like it was already an organisation! It wasn’t! We were the first batch! And he was the only employee!
Yet, all along the trek he spoke to us as if we were team members of his organisation, not paying customers. He gave us tasks to do, chores to handle. Almost everyone had a role to play.
By the time the trek ended I was fascinated by how Arjun was building the organisation. He was on an extraordinary journey of creating an organisation based on values, systems and processes that I couldn’t imagine but somehow felt was within the realms of possibility.
After the trek, back at my software job I was drawn to Indiahikes. Out of my own will, in my little spare time, I started helping out Arjun with this project. Within months of my helping out, Arjun asked me if I would like to partner with him at Indiahikes.
It didn’t take me long to say yes to him. Arjun could not afford to pay me anything remotely close to the salary I was drawing. Yet, here was a chance to work in a world that I really loved. And it came with endless opportunities.
That’s when I learnt the first lesson about entrepreneurship.
It is not important to start something of your own. Entrepreneurship can happen if you join anyone who is working on something exciting. This thought rarely occurs to most people. Yet, it is a fantastic way to get into entrepreneurship.
It is faster, easier and cheaper to get excited about an already ongoing project, start helping out like me, earn the trust and confidence of the founder or founding team and eventually get taken in. More often than not, the original founder is more than happy to have anyone on board who shows interest in the work.
While Arjun and I built Indiahikes from its infancy, we ran into expected problems. Where do we get our customers? How do we get money? Who would work with us?
That’s when I learnt my second lesson in entrepreneurship
It is impossible to put a great team together as it is often advocated in business schools. But it is more important to start working with who you know. And not wait to put a team together.
Let me explain this for a moment. Our first coordinator was a friend’s wife who worked part time. Our second coordinator was a friend’s cousin who was idle at home.
The first guide on our Roopkund trek was an old guide who had trekked with Arjun. It did not matter whether he was a great guide. He was someone who we knew and was accessible.
Later, our own trekkers became our employees. They were the only people we knew.
The point that I am trying to make is that it is more important to start with who you know rather than try to put the right team together.
Today, we are India’s largest trekking organisation. More than 15,000 people trek with us every year. Yet, the entrepreneurial system is the same. It is better to start working with who we know, and also with what we have rather than wait for the right moment to come along.
A few days ago one of our team members was looking for a possible base camp location near Joshimath. He approached the problem the same way. He didn’t go to nearby villages to scout for a location. Instead, he talked to his ex-employer, who was from that region. His ex boss knew someone who owned a vacant shed 6 kms away from Joshimath. Definitely it didn’t fit our requirement for the ideal base camp.
Yet, with ingenuity, it may turn out to be perfect for the moment. What is important is that our team member approached who he knew. And we are going to work with what we have.
It is always better to start with what you have along with who you know.
We, entrepreneurs, know this by instinct. We leverage this knowledge and do not treat it as a handicap. We seek out people who we know or work with what we have. We don’t see this as a second option. For most entrepreneurs, this is the preferred way. It is better to do things quickly with what we have and who we know.
Let me give you an example. Indiahikes is principally a digital organisation. Yet, when we were starting out, our focus was on getting the bare basics of our website done with minimum costs.
My husband, a software engineer, designed the initial pages. He neither was a designer nor had any design skills. But for that moment he served our purpose. When we were looking for an automated booking system, I persuaded my husband to chip in again. I could rely on him and it would not cost us money. My husband learnt Php to make the software. Getting a qualified designer would not only be costly but time consuming. We wanted to see how people would react to our website rather than make a “good” design.
In another story, our current chief of operations Manish joined us on a trek at Uttarakhand as a volunteer. We really liked him on the trek. We just wanted Manish to be with us. We didn’t offer him any money or anything that could attract Manish, except the possibility of a new life. Manish took it up. Today, 6 years later, Manish is the Chief of Operations at Indiahikes.
In both my examples we started working with who we knew and got started with whatever skills they had instead of waiting for the perfect skill match. It worked out well for us in both cases.
I realise now that as entrepreneurs we rarely use money as an attraction tool to bring people on board. It is always the strength of the future possibilities, a new way of adding meaning to their lives that help bring people together. I also notice we are very averse to anyone who wants to join us for the salary.
Also, we do not to wait too much for a formal process. Formal interviews have its place, but the best way to recruit anyone is to ask them to join us on an informal project. Like how in my previous story Manish did. It gives us a chance for us to observe him without any formality in place.
Which brings me to my third learning of entrepreneurship
It is very important to set our own standards, make our own future, rather than go by what the competitors are doing. Let me explain.
When we first started out, trekking was a solitary sport. Very few Indians trekked. Indiahikes made trekking look possible for a host of new generation Indians. Indiahikes brought in a different way of trekking.Not only in how people trekked but in the way they even looked at trekking. Today there is only one way of trekking in our country — which is largely a copy of the Indiahikes model.
While market segments can be copied, in the sense others want to get into the same business that you are doing, it is very difficult for others to copy anyone who is setting the future. Indiahikes has always set its own standards in every aspect of trekking. From the way we explore new routes, to how treks have to be run, to the new technology that we bring in.
Setting future standards which does not follow competition or any known convention has always given us dividends.
This is how most entrepreneurs think. It is in-built in us. We don’t know what the competition does, how much they charge or what are they up to. But we are constantly thinking of the future.
This is the final lesson that I wanted to share with you about entrepreneurship.
What I have noticed is entrepreneurship is not about markets, products or services. It is more about forming strong partnerships with many stakeholders. The stronger the partnerships the greater the rewards.
Trekkers with who we have good bonds have always come back with more of their friends trekking with us. With those we have weak ties, they tend to waver. Suppliers with who we have great partnerships go out of their way to make things work for us — we wonder if they are working full time with us! They do not get more income out of this. But they share a common interest to see good of Indiahikes.
A business is about relationships. Employees with who we have good relationships understand our value systems better. They work better, they don’t look at work as work. With those with whom we have a neutral relationship, somehow never connect well with their work, they don’t put in their best. Salary, somehow, is never the criteria for getting better work output. Relationships are.
Everything that I say here is not anything new. A lot of research has been done on this approach of entrepreneurship. In fact, Prof Saras Sarasvathy of University of Virginia Darden School of Business, spoke about these thoughts in her path breaking work on Effectuation. Here, I am just adding my own experience and observations.
Traditional entrepreneurial training suggests that you first get an idea, do some market research, form a team, make a business plan, pitch to a VC, then finally market.
Instead what I observe is that you form a business by exploring your own abilities — what you are good at, what you know, your own inherent traits. You begin working with who you know and what you have. You may even join someone who has started out. This way you are never bogged down by the conventional approach. You do not fear entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurship is rarely the great idea that you start with. In fact most of Indiahikes’ journey was propelled by insights that we noticed along the way. Growth came as a byproduct.
As we continue on our entrepreneurial journey, discovering things as we go along, with what we have and who we know, I hope it gives hopes to many who are scared to step into the world of entrepreneurship. It is not difficult to be in business. Yet, for those who do, it transcends everything. It brings a whole different meaning to their lives.
If you have any questions for Sandhya, drop in a comment below. She’ll get back to you soon.
What you should do now
1. If you’re inspired by this story and want to work with us: Head over to our careers page. We have lots of positions open. We also have lots of applications coming in. So the sooner you apply, the better.
3. If you ended up here by chance and were actually looking for treks to do: Then head over to our upcoming treks page. You’ll find all our Himalayan treks there.
4. If you want to see the 13 best treks of India: Then get our guide here.