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In conversation with Rahul Sharma, Co-Founder of Zetwerk

May 7, 2020

The story of Rahul Sharma is full of interesting anecdotes, and his success at building his massive startup Zetwerk embarks his vision and passion. Zetwerk is an online marketplace that connects buyers and suppliers for manufacturing jobs. It is a fast-moving rocket which he co-pilots with IIT Madras alumni Amrit Acharya and Srinath Ramakkrushnan. In this exclusive interview with WONA and E-cell, Rahul Sharma discusses his background, his motivations, tips for young entrepreneurs, his experiences, and legacy.

Hi Rahul. Thank you for joining us. Let’s get started.

Hi,I am Rahul Sharma, and I hail from Bhopal. I was a student of IITR’s batch of 2008 and graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering.

Like every first yearite, I needed a branch change. You could see me studying all day long, but soon I realized engineering wasn’t my cup of tea, just maintaining decent grades was all I needed now. Thomso was a great ally as it helped me realize my passion for managing events. Though I started as a volunteer, I was soon promoted to a coordinator. Joining Cogni’s managing team was also a fantastic experience.

College groups are an essential part of university life. Not only do you learn something, but you also develop bonds that last forever. You interact, discuss different things, and do things together. No one tells you what to do. You figure it out yourselves, which gives you an ability to work in ambiguity, and you learn to work in a team to achieve a common target. You develop soft skills that normal engineering courses do not teach us. Managing events in Thomso and Cognizance was the most exciting part of my college life.

In my fourth year, I got into Schlumberger. It’s like a dream job until you realize that you have to work in the sea. Placements are a vital part of the fourth year. You notice that as the placement season begins, everyone around you is confused. That’s when I started my first startup Prepnut. During my fourth year, startups had just started coming up : Flipkart had raised its fundings and they had just bought a startup called Then there was Snapdeal, and Facebook that had also just boomed up. We were only college students and had little idea of what an Indian company could do.

My friend Rahul Nandwani and I never had a business model; we just wanted to solve a problem. He was the developer, and I used to do all the handy work. I had interviewed almost 300 people from IIT Roorkee who got placed and created a site for all these interviews. It was good; we still have one lakh likes on the Facebook page, though it’s not functional now. Your first job is a gateway between college life and the real world. Schlum taught me how to run operations and how to deal with people. It still serves as a base for what I have been doing for so long.

What difference do you notice between the entrepreneurship culture then and now?

In 2012, entrepreneurship culture in IIT Roorkee wasn’t well developed, but now it’s different. Numerous seniors have built great startups, and you can always reach out to them. The modules have improved now. Now, so many companies come to campus that the awareness about them has increased. Flipkart back then in my year came on the sixth day, and nobody even wanted to go there. But it was an amazing time to join the company as it was in that curve of deflection. Awareness has increased in terms of seeing your peers do it. There is HackerEarth, Classplus, Razorpay, and many more. If we look at my seniors ten years before, you will still see them at the same company: the craze for startups was not much.

But now it’s quite common to change jobs every two years. Earlier it was something to be scared of. I am happy that you belong to a culture where you know that failing is okay, joining a startup is okay and not knowing sometimes is completely okay. That’s what has made the entrepreneurship culture more welcoming.

What was the motivation behind Prepnut?

You get placed in the seventh semester, and there’s the eighth semester where you decide not to do anything. It was a placement book for IIT Roorkee. It was not a startup, just an adventure. It was a hobby we pursued, though we didn’t take it to a logical conclusion.

Was Prepnut instrumental in your learning experience?

It was just a project we undertook. My second job at Blackbuck helped me learn a lot. After three years in the Arabian sea for Schlum, I was dreaming of wearing regular clothes, walking on land, and something as simple as taking an auto-rickshaw. Having such thoughts meant it was time to quit.

Things were different. No other big company would employ a manager of an oil company. Thus, joining a developing startup was my only option. I joined Blackbuck, a logistics employee, when it had only 100 employees. By the time I left after two years, 1000 employees formed the engine of the company. There I learned what it meant to scale, what it meant to manage people and to work under the auspices of ambiguity. They give you a structure and ask you to manage that structure again and again with efficiency. You learn to manage and grow. Even today, the team I work with are ex-employees of Blackbuck.

Zetwerk falls under the manufacturing sector. You said that your career background was related to Electrical Engineering, and later you worked as an oil engineer. So how did this transition take place, moving from one environment to another?

When running a startup, previous career background and some pre-acquired knowledge definitely helps you. Still, when there is a problem to be solved by the company, then a background is not very necessary. You need to manage many people working for you. You might not be a developer or a finance guy, but you have to hire a developer or a finance professional at some point in time. Running a startup is not about knowing the industry, but knowing the people who know about the industry. Becoming an entrepreneur is about knowing how to work in ambiguity, accepting failures, creating structures, managing people, and also learning how to inspire people. The challenge is whether you can make people at the same level as yours or even those who are more experienced than you, work for you.

It’s been 2-3 years of Zetwerk running successfully. Heartfelt congratulations to you. What has been the biggest challenge that you have faced until now?

We have scaled really fast. We were the fastest growing startup company till March this year. Within two years, we have had a valuation of more than 102 million dollars. One of the biggest challenges of running a big setup is hiring the right kind of people, retaining them and keeping them motivated. It’s important to have the right team that will stand by you and whom you can trust to make decisions on your behalf. The biggest challenge of becoming an entrepreneur right after coming out of college is to figure out whether a business model will exist or not and whether people would actually pay for it. You need to figure out how many people would require the service, and even before that, you need to figure out the market size, understanding the market demand and supply.

You need to analyze the problem by getting your hands dirty, and not by merely sitting in your room. It is best to go out, talk to people, understand the scenario, and then do a test pilot run to figure out whether it makes sense or not. It takes time and iterations.

The present model we run at Zetwerk is the third iteration. In our first iteration, we went to the market with a model of solving procurement on a software basis. People were more than happy, but we realized that nobody would pay for our services - hence, our first model failed. You might not reach the end goal immediately, and at every step, the ways could differ, but your ultimate goal should remain constant.

Do you think, being a person who has had work experience has leveraged you more than just being a fresher in the industry?

Of course, it has, but in a different way actually. To be an entrepreneur, it is not compulsory to have prior experience. Still, it is vital to learn how to manage the team, and for this purpose, experience does help. Work experience helps you to scale faster, although it does not matter a lot. If you are passionate about your work, and you enjoy the journey and not the pace of the journey, then it’s okay. These things you can learn from your seniors involved in similar fields - they will tell you about how they were able to tackle similar problems when they faced them.

We wanted to ask about the co-founder of Zetwerk. How did you meet him, and when did you decide that he should be the co-founder and also, how important that decision has been for you?

There are four of us who founded Zetwerk. My co-founder, Srinath used to be my manager at BlackBuck, where I used to work before. On 1st January 2018, he called me up and asked me whether I was interested in beginning a startup. I was not very sure about it at that time. I enjoyed working with him at BlackBuck. Once he shared his idea, I decided to put my faith in him and decided to contribute towards the startup idea. The two other co-founders were Srinath’s colleagues at ITC, both of them 2010 passouts, one from IIT Madras, and the other from IIT Kharagpur. We all knew that we had the capabilities , the will and the energy to make our vision come true.

We were striving for the same goal: to shake up an industry.

There are a couple of TV series, like Silicon Valley and TVF Pitchers, where the startup journey has been showcased as being glamorous and quite exciting. Is the journey indeed so fancy?

I haven’t watched these series, but I have watched many of the scenes of these shows. The startup journey is, to be honest, a bit stereotyped in its portrayal. There indeed have been such incidents, but they comprise only 5-10% of the entire journey. Apart from that, it is not as fancy and involves a lot of struggle. But definitely, the whole journey is fun! You end up creating some really good memories for your lifetime, whether you succeed or fail.

A lot of students nowadays decide on moving towards startups directly as they pass out. What is the message that you would like to give them?

Something essential for a startup is to have a belief in yourself and your idea. Not being hesitant to know the need for this idea is crucial. Being afraid of ambiguity and not knowing an answer is fine as long as you are willing to fight for the answer. Leveraging your contacts and communicating with people will help find solutions to various problems, which otherwise may have taken a long time to figure out.

Having worked on startups in both Delhi and Bangalore, what do you think are the major differences between these places?

The main reason why we had the startup in Delhi was that my co-founder was from Delhi, and he had a job there. Even though the hiring of a large group of technical staff would be easier in Bangalore, once the company develops to a certain degree, this issue can be taken care of. Hence, anywhere would have been equally conducive for the establishment of a startup.

With the obvious restrictions due to COVID - 19, many industries are suffering. How is Zetwerk managing?

Businesses have deteriorated on a large scale. The demand, supply, and physical markets have taken massive blows indeed. But working on areas that were previously avoided, communicating with the team, bonding well with them, and staying connected is crucial during this time.

Is there something you miss about college?

The time that I spent at Nescafe with friends is something that I cherish a lot. Not worrying about anything and having fun creating memories is the best part of college.

That is, without any doubt, the best time of your life.