Swimming with Sharks

The journey to a million dollars and beyond.

A story for those who have no connects in the VC, angel, fundraising world and hope to learn how to fund their dreams.

Image from: https://oceana.org/marine-life/sharks-rays/great-white-shark

When I was younger (age 12, 15) I had started my first two companies: Sharkits (Video)and Sharkbot 3D Systems. The former made low-cost DIY kits to teach people hands on technical skills, and the latter built India’s cheapest 3D printer in 2014 for $250. Products of both companies had tremendous demand and the market timing was perfect. However, I was in my teenage years trying to adjust to a toxic high school environment, remotely working with MIT, traveling for public speaking opportunities around the world, and was trying to apply to colleges. Even though I shut both these companies when I went to college, the learnings from building an ed-tech hardware and a consumer hardware company always remain with me. As you may have identified, I had a fascination with sharks growing up. However, this article is not about the beautiful fish, but rather about Sharks in the start-up world.

The Sharkbot 3D Printer — making 3D printing accessible to all in 2013–2015 for $250/unit

When I started Praan (www.praan.io), I was constantly bootstrapping money from savings or by borrowing from my family. In parallel, it was my first time consciously trying to look for money externally to finance the project R&D, as it was expected to run into millions before I could get a first working system out. Since I was an international student on an F1 visa in a public school (Georgia Tech), the university couldn’t finance my R&D efforts without violating multiple clauses under the F1 visa, and owning Praan’s intellectual property. I was on my own.

Failing to get any money

During Summer of 2018, I was aggressively reaching out to people to try and raise INR 1 Crore ($135,000) for 12 months of building prototypes and testing systems for developing outdoor air purifiers. Today, it would probably take me few calls and emails to raise this money within a day. However at the time, I had no experience raising money externally and no connects in the VC world. The only person I knew was Harshjit Sethi from Sequoia Capital because he had taken my interview on behalf of Stanford University when I was applying to study there. He was very kind to respond to my email and invited me to Sequoia’s office in Lower Parel in Mumbai. During that 45 minute meeting I naively showed him what I was building and asked him to give me $135,000. At the time, Sequoia Surge wasn’t yet a thing, and he very kindly told me, “Angad, I’ve never written a check which was less than a million dollars. Even those are small and rare. You should look for grants or speak with angels.” And hence, that’s what I tried to do.

During my time with MIT, I was very lucky to have had the opportunity to pitch to Mr. Ratan Tata and Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam on behalf of MIT. I was star struck in both the interactions, and still remember the questions they asked me and the encouraging words they told me. Since I had a picture with Mr. Tata, I scrambled to find his email ID and wrote him an email with the picture attached. It took 2 weeks, but I was grateful to receive a response. However, it was not from him, but one of his new young assistants who had his own ideas and was not open to what I had to say. I knew this behavior was complete opposite to what Mr. Tata would do — this will be a recurring trend in this story: You should know that the money and the right people are always there, but there may be terrible gatekeepers in place keeping you from those opportunities. If you’re lucky, you’ll get past them or find a work around, but most of the times, it may not work and you’ll be out looking for other avenues.

I remember waking up at 9am to find this at the top of my inbox

I was sending 100s of emails everyday to key industrialists and MNC’s in India asking for a $135K grant for what I wanted to build. Most never responded, and those who did said it was not of interest to them. During that time, my friend Yashraj Akashi (curator of TEDxGateway) asked me to speak at a CNBC event being organized by one of his friends in Mumbai — presenting to 250+ CXOs in India. I had strongly tried to stay away from the PR/events scene since I wanted to be focused on solving the problem, and not selling the story of solving the problem. Further, I also didn’t have much to say at the time, as I was still finding my footing in the market. However, I thought this could be a great opportunity to meet some other industry leaders to pitch Praan to, and hopefully try to raise that money. It didn’t work out, but I met interesting people and got cool pictures for social media (Haha).

One of those pictures from the CNBC event in 2018

During that summer vacation in India (2018), I went out with one of my high school friends for dinner and drinks. Here, he suggested I speak with his father as he often invests in new ideas and projects. This friend is a gem of a person, but his father was a stern aggressive businessman —probably one of the key reasons behind his success. They were very low profile, but ultra wealthy. While the father was open to speaking with me and eventually offered me the money, it was against sole distribution rights to my product throughout the universe. He knew that I was just about to enter my sophomore year of college, but thought I would dedicate all my time to building this company instead of attending school, and wanted to be able to visit me in Atlanta to ensure that his money was being put to use. He also told me, “You like science. You’re a scientist. Keep doing research. Leave the business to people like us.” This made me extremely uncomfortable — even though I met him a few more times after this to try and come to an understanding, I never went back to them with an answer and that conversation froze. I still sometimes meet this friend because I like him, but the thought of his father scares me. This was my first close encounter with a shark.

I had three days left to go back to school and felt my project was about to die. I had no idea how to finance all the R&D. In one dinner discussion, my father asked me how much money I would need to pay for all the parts, etc. for a semester of work — I mumbled, “$5k-$10k.” He confidently asked me not to waste my time, focus on my work and that he would take care of such small expenses. While I’m very grateful to have had such supportive parents, I wanted to build it on my own and not risk their money, even if it was just $10k. Since I knew it was my family money being spent, I was extra careful to make sure I was spending it extremely judiciously.

We needed a lot of diverse skillsets and expertise (Advanced Simulation Engineers, Structural Engineers, Mechanical Design Engineers, Electrical Engineers, Firmware Engineers, Fabricators, Test Engineers, Industrial Designers, UI/UX Designers, Biologists, Web Developers, Mobile App Developers, DevOps Developers, Business Minds, and more). In order to build a full-fledged team and run it for 3–4 years in the US, I would need more than $30 Million (INR 225 Crores). I had failed to raise $135,000 how was I supposed to raise $30 Million?

Praan’s first ever team in Fall 2018 — between Georgia Tech & Emory University

People build companies

Each day I would spend in college, I’d meet more and more people wanting to work on interesting projects for short time frames, build their resume, and apply to work at big companies. Fortunately, due to my past work experience building startups and working with MIT, I had built a very strong network of key people in the tech world, who were now leaders at companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, Tesla, etc. I thought if I could (1) Give people something exciting yet challenging to work on (2) Help upskill them and build their resumes (3) Offer them recognition on patents while they were students (4) Connect/Refer them to big companies, I would be able to build my dreams while helping them build theirs. That’s how we made Praan a reality. From July 2018 — June 2021, we hired 184 volunteers/interns, and part-time talent from 72 cities in the world, interviewed each person 3–4 times before letting them in, and gave them an intense internship experience. Since we couldn’t afford to pay anyone, we went out of our way to help support as many of them as we could with building their careers, getting great jobs, signed a document promising them recognition on patents they contributed to and more! People often only stayed for 2–4 months, some for 6 if we were lucky!

By the way — I take no credit for this person getting into Stanford, but this is an example to prove that we tried our best to be as useful and resourceful in individual people’s lives and careers for all the time they spent at Praan.

Some money is always around you

In Summer 2019 we needed money again. I had already borrowed money from my father, and now needed another $10k–20k for the summer to build and test prototypes in India. We went to Naresh Shahani, who is one of my father’s close friends and also my mentor and Praan’s advisor. He asked me what milestone this money would get me to, and when convinced, he said 10 people in the friends and family circle would write me a tiny check of INR 100,000 ($1400) as an unsecured loan. That’s how in 3 days, I had $14,000 in my bank account. This money came from Naresh, my father, my uncle, and others in the circle. I had $14,000, and an entire summer to build these prototypes and show that my dream/device worked! First move towards an MVP!

Some moonshots are built above dance-bars

We didn’t have an office so we worked out of a store room at one of my father’s company’s service centers. This place was infested with rats, and was in a red-light area in Mumbai (Grant-road). At 7pm every day, we could hear music from the dance bar downstairs. However, Arjun Sabnis and I often stayed there till late at night building and testing different modules. This is also when I offered Arjun to become my co-founder, but he had way better and safer opportunities in front of him, so that didn’t work out! However, he has always supported us, and continues to! I’m very grateful to have him. Our source of entertainment apart from the fun science things we were doing were (A) New Bluetooth speakers and products were tested at the facility we worked out of. Everyday we’d play soft music in the background on new and different Bluetooth speakers while we worked, it was amusing (B) We’d walk downstairs to the electronics market several times per day to buy different parts. If we went in the afternoon, we’d pick up delicious snacks and binge on them during the day as we worked (C) Our houses were close to each other so we’d go to and from the office together and remember absurd Georgia Tech incidences on the ride — Example: Georgia Tech is known as a “Drinking School with an Engineering Problem”. Let that sink in.(D) We both studied Electrical Engineering at Georgia Tech. Arjun was in fact my TA and I had made him late to one of his parties on a Friday evening in Atlanta, to have him fix my code for a project. That’s how we became friends — the universe works in funny ways.

A picture of Arjun Sabnis at our tiny store-room space in Grant Road — Summer 2019, Mumbai

That summer, we had 2 other people work with us — Soham Bhosle and Tej Sukhatme. Both were interning with us and were students at the time. Soham stayed with us and today is a Senior Hardware Engineer at the company working across all teams, Tej started his own dating app company. In that summer, we used the money to put together a working prototype of what ended up becoming our MK One system. This device was bulky, ugly, and non-presentable, but did its job and showed people that we could deliver! Since it was August, I had to go back to college in the US and left the device in Mumbai — the device would upload data to cloud which we used to make design improvements in the US. We had only spent 40% of the money — the rest of it lasted us till June 2020, where we had only $1000 left in the bank account, and a pandemic in front of us.

Praan’s first deployed MVP in Mumbai from August 2019 — UGLY, HEAVY, but worked

The unexpected journey to hell

I was to graduate in May 2020, celebrate this milestone with my family in the US, and then return to India to run Praan full-time. In my winter break of 2019–2020, I had come to India and met Dhruv Chitgopekar (COO — KWAN/Collective Artists Network: The largest talent management company in India — they managed all top Bollywood celebrities). Dhruv is very influential in the media, startups, and VC community in India. He was kind enough to speak with me on call when I went back to the US and offered to introduce me to VCs as I prepared to graduate and raise $1.35M to run this company full-time. From February 2020 — June 2020, Dhruv introduced me to VCs from top-tier funds: Sequoia, Lightspeed, A91 Partners, Blume Ventures, and many more. He also introduced me to actors like Deepika Padukone and Rana Dagubatti, in the journey of trying to raise that $1.35M. Dhruv is extremely busy, but was amazing enough to be on every intro call with me, and each call we took, the VC passed on Praan. I was so confused. I thought it was obvious that the air is polluted, none of the existing solutions are scalable, and that new modern technologies like ours were needed to solve this problem which takes 7 Million lives a year — apparently not. Each time a VC said no to us, outside of feeling bad, I was embarrassed that Dhruv also had to see some form of that rejection on those calls. It felt horrible. Either way, through our own network, I had managed to get about $900k/$1.35M in commits from angels — these were commits made on call, and in a few weeks we were about to do the paperwork for the same. To everyone’s surprise, the world froze when COVID-19 hit. I had 3 days to leave college in the US and fly back to India, and the investors who had committed money to us, had stalled. Praan had $1000 in it’s bank account, no team, and a pandemic which made air pollution disappear in lockdowns.

Know who you pitch to and don’t act on every VC’s feedback

A break-up of the early stage VC world from my pitches to 250+ investors in 18 months

What we didn’t realize when I was pitching to all those VCs Dhruv introduced me to was that none of them invested in early stage deeptech hardware companies. Let alone early stage, hardware, deeptech, climate tech, moonshot companies. Very few people in the world understood that space enough to invest in it — one has to have a solid team, mission, and high risk appetite to fund these companies. These funds don’t currently exist in India. None of the people we spoke to could even manage half that risk appetite. They would ask me revenue numbers and financial projections at the pre-seed stage. Some even tried to steer me away from my mission to say that consumer tech is more exciting and I should build a home air purifier and compete with Dyson, Phillips, etc.— the most stupid thing I’ve heard. He wanted to give me money to lose it on advertising. I never spoke to that VC again. Several other times, VCs enforced their own ideas and dreams onto Praan asking us to “Try and build XYZ product and come back to us, I like that idea.” After 30+ such interactions, I realized that funds in India would rather fund cookie companies than mission-focused deep-tech companies like Praan.

Some VC’s can waste your time — your only asset in the early stages

One deep-tech fund who claimed to “Know the space” had over 30 calls with me in 1 year, kept pushing me in different directions, told me I wouldn’t succeed without a co-founder, and never moved above a valuation of $2M. After 30 non-sense calls, 20 in which I was educating them on the hardware and tech, they came up with a $100K check asking for a board seat, preferential valuation, pro-rata, drag along, tag along, and so much more. When other VCs were playing with us, they stayed quiet. When we found better opportunities, they came forward to say, “We’d like to help you close this round. If only we had a bigger check, we’d lead this round.” Stay away from such funds. The people may be good, their fund may be terrible to work with.

In my journey of finding and raising money from VCs in that niche black box, I ended up pitching to VCs across all the boxes and that’s why when other start-up friends ask me who they should pitch to, I am able to connect them to the right 2–3 people who are most likely to finance them — worth all the pain, I guess. I was rejected by VCs from February 2020 to February 2021. In this time, one of my friend raised $4.7M, another raised $8M, a third raised $100M, while I raised $0. I was speaking to the wrong people, at the wrong time in the world, to fund an idea with 99% chance of failure. Most companies fall in the purple area, hence they have predictable fundraising outcomes based on pre-defined metrics. All 3 of my friends’ companies lay in that purple area.

When you swim with sharks, there’s going to be blood.

Not all money is the same. I didn’t stop reaching out to investors for a single day, even though I was getting rejected every single day. I would email people, twitter DM people, LinkedIn DM people, ask for intros, and even apply on VC firm websites. Through one such LinkedIn DM, I found someone in the US who had sold their company and walked into a lot of wealth. This person is an angel investor and after few conversations, offered to invest $50k in Praan at the lowest ever valuation (it had artificially dropped from $6.13M to $1.75M from March 2020 to October 2020). We were in bad shape and were hoping to raise some angel money to stay afloat. The company was not yet incorporated in India, and we had to get money as FDI. Now anyone who has built a company in India knows how painful, confusing, and slow the compliance process can be. Lawyers don’t know enough so they defer to CAs. CA’s think they are gods gift to mankind and hence act pricey and cause delays. 100% of delays in our fundraising were caused by CA’s. I’ve tried 3. While these people made me wait, I tried to figure things out myself but this took almost 4 months till we were able to (1) Get commits from angels for all the money (2) Register a company in India with Angel Tax waiver (3) Understand how to issue shares at a premium (4) Understand nuances to get FDI into India (5) Act on those nuances and generate reports for FDI into India (6) Get those reports validated by Merchant Bankers (7) Get legal paperwork in place (8) Be ready to execute documents.

In those 4 months, Praan was heavily de-risked as we continued to make progress. The company now needed a lot more than some angel money to move forward, and the valuation was extremely unfair to what we had to offer. Throughout those 4 months, none of these angels pushed us to take their money or even asked us about it. Only when Praan became the center of a bidding war in March 2020, did these angels start complaining about the fact that we need to sell our shares at the low $1.75M valuation, and that they’re ready to wire the money even before the paperwork is done.

What came out of this was a series of legal threats from the wealthy angel in the US who sold his company and a civil lawsuit against me — since there were no legal grounds for a corporate law suit, he wanted to threaten me and scare away other VCs by harassing me every day with lawyers. They’d strategically send me legal notices at 11:50–11:59pm every night just before bed. They’d write to other investors sharing those legal notices. If these people were in India, they’d be sent to jail for harassment. Do you see the humor here? One year ago, nobody wanted to fund us, and now I was being sued for not accepting an investor’s money. I find it hilarious today. The reality is, I had gone out of my way to accommodate my early believers and create a differential valuation, where I would lose additional equity but reward these investors for trusting in me while others didn’t. I could do it for Indian citizens, but not for foreign nationals. I even tried to find loopholes, but this person grew impatient and wanted me to break the law — a compliance challenge, and the wrong kind of investor led to a lawsuit, the blood I refer to. I was being sued by someone with hundreds of millions of dollars, I had months of sleepless nights, stomach cramps, and it cost me money, time, and sanity. That’s why I say, not all money is the same. I was lucky to speak with Ashish Bhakta from AnB Legal who empathized with me, and made sure this situation went away. He also made me extremely comfortable, confident, and unlike other lawyers who were out to exploit me, made sure any losses were minimized.

Show the finger to VCs who ask for advisory equity — it cost me 4 months

When Praan was at the center of a bidding war in Feb-April 2021, many VCs offered us term sheets. One called me at midnight on a Saturday when I was at a bar in Delhi with the Praan team, to force me to pitch to their Investment Committee on Sunday morning. Two others showed up at my hotel on that Sunday at 9am and 1pm respectively to try and close it out before the others. A third met me in Mumbai on the Wednesday that week and offered a term sheet with the highest valuation to steer the deal away from others. Once I accepted their term sheet and said no to some other firms, they started dropping our valuation and asked for advisory equity. A term sheet was offered to us in early April, Diligence was not started till early June, and drafts of definite documents were not shared till mid-june. At this point, I was drained, stressed out, our bank account ran into the negative, and this VC didn’t stop arm twisting. A round which was 100% over subscribed saw investors dropping like flies due to loss of interest, and created a negative atmosphere at Praan. Each day would make me feel worse about working with these people. They had 0 deeptech investments, had no understanding of the space, were incompetent to do DD on my company, had bad ethics, and had just wasted 4 months of my time. I dropped them. Yes, after having a negative balance in the bank account, I dropped them. They were toxic, and I’d never introduce them to anyone I know. We hit pause on fundraising. We reset. We raised money in the US in 7 days and moved there. We didn’t stop working for a single day on the product and business.

Guardian Angels

What kept me going through this tough time was an amazing family, my close friends in the US and India, my advisor Naresh Shahani, and my guardian angels: Dr. Shruti Rajagopalan, Dr. Tyler Cowen, Meghna Mehta, Manish Pandey, Ayush Jaiswal, Katie Stanton, Ashwin Kandoi, Dev Khare, Rajan Anandan, Surabhi and Dhruv Washishth. These were people who gave me the courage to drop this VC firm in India even though we were in the negative, introduced me to the best investors in the US, supported us through the transition with advice, time, introductions, or grant money and helped us land on our feet. Eventually, we are so grateful to have raised our funding round led by Social Impact Capital, with participation from Better Capital, Quality of Life (QoL) Investments, Dr. Maulik Majmudar (Chief Medical Officer — Amazon, Biofourmis) Aryavrat Goenka (Laxmi Organic Industries Ltd), Surya Panditi (CEO — EnelX), Mehul Shah (Director — DSP Design Architects), Himani Kapadia (COO — MORE Group), Tarun Ledwani (Microsoft), Mohit and Kanika Satyanand (Chairman — Teamwork Arts), and Ashwin Kandoi (Co-founder — Winjit Technologies). These are people who wanted our vision to be a reality and were willing to bet on it. We’re very grateful to find these stellar people who represent that black square that helps build moonshots.

When in doubt, zoom out

Continuous rejection and turbulence can make you feel like it’s all going downhill and it’s not worth to keep going. If I were to show you what Praan’s financing journey has been from June 2017 to June 2021 in the micro view, it looks a little scary — especially those steep drops. But if you zoom out, it shows exactly what people expect — an exponential upward climb!

Pay back your dues, with interest

Every penny borrowed from my family, or the loans received from others were paid back with 100% interest. The intangible debt of people’s support, encouragement, time, and presence in my journey will always be something I remember and would always be present to support and pay back in any way possible. The one way I try to do it today, is by paying it forward. There’s no such thing as “Self-made”.

In Summary

The start-up journey is a rollercoaster, and raising funding rounds are equivalent to having fuel in your car for the journey. I personally don’t count them as achievements — solving a problem for the world is an achievement, getting money from a bunch of random people isn’t. However, you don’t run a Ferrari on fodder. So the quality of your money, who it comes from, and the right quantity (not too little, not too much) will help support you in your journey. It’s a game of patience, perseverance, and hard work. It may sound stressful and scary, but it’s the most action packed and growth filled experience you will have should you choose to embark on it. There’s nothing quite like it. Here is my summary —

If you made it this far in the article, you definitely have patience. Why not try starting a company? I’m very grateful to have had many people be a part of my journey in so many unique ways. This industry works on people paying it forward. If you are a startup founder or anyone trying to build something meaningful, if I can ever be of any help to you, please don’t hesitate to reach out— I have no expectations in return. And hey, don’t be scared to swim with sharks. The experience is quite cool. You’ll enter a fish, you may leave as a baby shark, or a maybe even a great white!

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