Rajiv Dingra, in an exclusive chat, shares how he decided to run a business at the age of thirteen and the journey to lead a 280 plus team at WAT Consult
“I am in a good space. Post acquisition, there have been a few milestones as a company and as an entrepreneur that have made be proud. From building the new Mumbai office to scaling up the Delhi office and generally managing the overall growth. There have been stressful periods in the last two years. But saying that right now I am in a good mental space – I can clearly see where we are headed in the next two-three years,” added Rajiv Dingra (Founder and CEO at WAT Consult) as he sat comfortably on his white chair, at his brilliantly designed Mumbai office.
WAT Consult, one of India’s well-known digital agencies celebrated 10 years on January 10, 2017. And so does Rajiv who completed a decade of entrepreneurship. (Read: How the decade old WATConsult is visualizing the new WATConsult)
“To cross a fifty miles road, you just need to see fifty feet ahead.”
Born in January 2007, the digital agency employs 280 plus young minds. It is a millennial agency run by a millennial CEO who is just 31. Rajiv has always been a scale guy, so 280 might just double in a year or two. But is that a challenge?
Because something weird happens to companies when they hit 150 people, a Quartz article highlights. “The dynamics of companies change fundamentally when they exceed roughly 150 people, in ways that startup founders can struggle to address.” Oxford University evolutionary psychology professor Robin Dunbar has theorized that humans can only really maintain personalized relationships with 150 people.
Rajiv admits that a one-to-one connect is impossible. But he makes sure to make his presence felt as much as possible. “Management by wandering” is a philosophy that he believes in, whereby roaming around on the floor the young CEO ends up asking people “Kya chal raha hai?” (what’s happening). “A philosophy that was very much used by Steve Jobs, works very well as you end up discovering a lot of things when you ask open-ended questions, adding value on the spot.”
“As an entrepreneur, I have relied a lot on spontaneity and real-time.”
He also makes a point to keep in touch with the 30-40 top people in his agency. This is inspired from the trickle down effect theory. “If you are agile with the top 30-40 people and they then trickle it down, then that culture is not lost.”
IT ISN’T AN OVERNIGHT SUCCESS, like any other startup it also had humble beginnings in the confines of Rajiv’s Colaba home. At the ripe age of 21, he decided to start his own company. What is surprising is by then he was already a serial entrepreneur. His first startup – Young Professionals Recruitment Pvt Ltd was a recruitment consultancy and jobs site which focused on fresh graduate recruitment.
The natural question for me was to know the story behind the entrepreneurship madness at the age of 21. At the time when the term ‘startup’ was yet to be born, forget being glorified. “Now the word entrepreneur is more glossy but in 2005, it was as simple as that I had no job.”
The desire of being an entrepreneur goes deep down into his past when he was a thirteen-year-old, a tough phase in his life and for his family. His mother was unwell with cancer and his father was posted out of Mumbai. After a while his mother passed away and during this phase his father’s absence due to his work commitments left a deep impact on his young mind.
On the thirteenth day, as per Hindu customs when relatives pay a visit, there was this aunt who was trying to cheer up Rajiv. She asked him will he become a doctor or an engineer when he grows up. “I won’t do a job but I will do a business,” was the clear reply from the thirteen-year-old. The entire episode was fresh in his memory as if it was happening right now. “As a child I was very upset that my father was not beside my mother when it was needed. And for this reason I will never forget RBI, as my father kept asking for transfer and they didn’t give him.”
“I didn’t want to do a job because I wanted to have control of my life and not someone else when my family requires me.”
With time Rajiv forgot the incident and went ahead with his life. He grew up in a family with three elder sisters. A pampered childhood, being the only boy also meant being dressed up like a cute girl by his sisters. This also gave birth to a behavioral pattern in him: if he was not the centerpiece of any activity then he wouldn’t find it interesting. “More than attention, I liked being in control.”
As time passed by, Rajiv started to enjoy living in his head and whenever he lived outside, he wanted to do something and not talk. “For me it was very difficult to talk to people and get along with them. I never had a group of friends; I had one good friend, and who still remains my best friend.”
He further tells me that he wasn’t a confused kid but an adamant one with his life choices. One of the instances that he shared was his choice of Commerce as a stream of studies. His father was pretty persistent that he should take up computer science, since he was doing well in studies but Rajiv was pretty adamant with his choice.
Rajiv finished his bachelors from Jai Hind College and later he went for a diploma in BMS. Post that he took an internship in a call center company. These 4-5 months were his best time, as he enjoyed being busy.
BMS ended with a placement offer, but right before he had to join the company, he went through a bad breakup in his personal life. “At 19-20 there are no good breakups and I was called a loser. The main motive in my life at that point was to prove it wrong. So I took the most highest paying job that came my way.”
That’s how Rajiv landed up in an audit firm that hardly had any role of marketing. “I was told that there was a marketing audit but it wasn’t the case. In the next few months it was clear to me that this is not the place I belong.” The last nail on the coffin was when he was sent to a project work for three weeks to Aurangabad. “Those three weeks were the biggest low point in my life. I was heart-broken, my work was making no sense and I was totally disillusioned.”
After coming back from the trip, the first thing he did was to send in a resignation. The family was worried because their 21-year-old son couldn’t last more than 23 days in his first job.
Rajiv had his own plans, for the next 45 days he completely shut himself from the outside world and immersed into business books. “I was not talking to anyone and I was just thinking what should I do in my life. That is when it struck me that I being so talented was not getting the right job, what about the lesser mortals. That is when the idea for my first startup struck me.”
From getting his father to register his company, to running behind building a job site, Rajiv was on a roll as he had seen the need for such a portal.
June 27, 2005, the day the site got launched it got more than 1000 CV’s uploaded. The day also kick started Rajiv’s digital journey. These were the days of Yahoo Groups, Orkut and HiFi. “I organically promoted my startup in all these groups. 1000 CVs in a day was a big thing for me. And this day also remains the happiest day in my life till date.”
However, after this it was a struggle for the startup being run by a single man. For the next six months the site got more than 45,000 resumes uploaded and 1000 job postings from companies. Working non-stop for six months from website management, coding, consulting freshers, to playing the role of an office boy, he realized that it was not going anywhere. Awareness was nil.
The next thing to come up in his mind was of raising funds. “There were two different thoughts – one nobody knew me and second I needed funds for marketing.” In a year’s time there were two instances of him raising funds but he backed out from both of them because of lack of independence.
With no external funding happening, Rajiv decided to start blogging for the industry to know him. Under the name of WAT (Web Advertising and Technology) blog, a new journey started. In the next three four months, the blog started getting traction and at this point the blog opened up for other bloggers. “At a point in time there were 21 bloggers who were blogging on my platform along with me.”
Meanwhile jobs for freshers started getting less traction and Rajiv diverted his focus towards his Blog. “I saw WAT Blog scaling up and I got attracted towards traction. That’s when I also decided to open a startup-consulting firm under the name of WAT Consult.”
Initially Rajiv had an idea to involve all the 21 bloggers as freelance consultants in WAT Consult and then get work from clients. The idea didn’t work at that moment but during the same time he got an opportunity from Rediff, the company was looking for someone to consult them on blogging. “In one of the meetings, while I was listening to them, I advised them why do a one off event. Why don’t you build a blogging platform and we will help you.”
The marketing team and the founder of Rediff Ajit Balakrishnan lapped up the idea of bringing WAT Consult on board. With a bit of drama on the pricing, finally WAT Consult got its first cheque of 8 lakhs with upfront money of 4 lakhs. “I almost ran into a bus after coming out of Rediff office with a 4 lakh cheque in hand. I had never seen so much money in my entire life.”
“10th January WAT Consult got its first cheque and that’s the day we celebrate our anniversary.”
WAT CONSULT STARTS UP WITH THE FIRST CHEQUE. With money in the bank, the company became more realistic and the first guy to come on board was Rajiv’s only best friend, Gautam Bhatia. Over a phone call Gautam recollected that more than Rajiv’s conviction and belief, “I also joined him as I was his best buddy.”
The other guy to join the team was Ekalavya Bhattacharya along with other few interns. Rajiv’s house in Coloba – under renovation at that time – became the first office. With a few computers and some decent furniture, WAT Consult started functioning. “We were four people working in a place which didn’t have a proper ventilation. So every one-hour we had a windbreak. There was so much heat in the place that we used to remove the modem, put it near the wall fan to cool it down and then put it back to work. Business was slow but going on.”
WAT 2007 – Rajiv with the big smile and black bag (Source)
Largely the work during this time was blogging. “We were doing blogging and through ads from the blog my aim was to get more business for WAT Consult.” The second project for the company came after six months, which was bit of a setback.
This was a tough and challenging period. Money wasn’t coming, people already had started leaving but Gautam still stayed on. Though Rajiv made a big mistake here by letting down his best friend. “During this time we had got a project from nowhere that needed us to hire someone for content writing. I was desperate and we hired the first guy who walked in. And I hired him at twice Gautam’s salary which made him upset. The next thing I come to know- he had resigned from the company.”
Gautam – who still remains Rajiv’s best buddy – informed that more than personal he was hurt professionally. “The guy that we hired was a bad hire. Rajiv realized it quite quick and he tried to make things better. We still are best buddies because I always knew what Rajiv’s intent was and his heart.”
By the end of 2007, Rajiv was staring at his company that literally had no team. All his stars had deserted him. By 2008, he built a new team, suddenly everything was picking up – from hiring to new clients. Now the team was 15 and the place in Coloba was turning stuffy. The second rented home office was established in Goregaon. But the shift wasn’t a good sign, right after that Lehman Brothers crashed and suddenly the markets had dried up.
Next three months was all about the downfall of WAT Consult. “I was very angry that nobody was supporting me except my middle sister who worked for three months at my office. In that anger I punched on a glass showcase and I still carry those marks on my hand, ” Rajiv reminisced telling me that his story is nothing less than a Bollywood drama.
However dramatic the glass breaking episode might be, it taught Rajiv a very important lesson – “If I can’t keep my cool then I can’t run a company.”
“My two biggest mistakes – I was doing projects rather than retainers. And the second one: I was working with agencies and not clients.”
JANUARY 2009 WAT CONSULT REVIVES. Before starting up again, Rajiv got a call from IIT Mumbai to do an event. “I said yes with a condition that I will bring an outside sponsor but I will keep that money.” Akamai was the sponsor and this led to the beginning of WAT Summit. Events kept happening one after the other all because of the popularity of WAT Blog.
WAT Summit 2011 – the team celebrates after a good show (Source)
Rajiv was 23 by now and was pretty determined to not repeat his mistakes. “I restarted in 2009 with fresh hiring from the same old Colaba place but this time I was more watchful on my spends.”
One of the very first employees to have full conviction on what Rajiv was doing was Ruchi Mehta Jain. “The one person that had the complete conviction on what I was doing was Ruchi. She started handling WAT Blog and would go out for pitches to promote WAT Consult. But I still can’t understand why she stood by me.”
Right before joining she had just left the PR world and she had seen the growth of blogging. “Rajiv is a bundle of energy. I just believed in what he was saying, his clarity of thought process and his ability to work so hard. Even today if he says that he is starting again, I will join him without thinking twice.”
Six months later, the Colaba office was re-built with all the bare minimum things. The revamp was not a lavish one but it was evident enough to tell that the company is here to stay. In January 2010, WAT moved into another office and thus began the slow and steady growth of the company.
By now WAT Summit and the blog had relived their purpose. Out of all this only WAT Consult was a moneymaking business that made Rajiv a true leader. Naturally the earlier two had to shut down with time. “Blog and the events were to support WAT Consult but at the same time I was enjoying my job role at WAT Consult.”
“Business equals to profit otherwise there is no business. If you are not making profits then it is work in progress.”
Next few years saw the emergence of WAT Consult as one of the fastest growing digital agencies in the country. From being a social media agency to building brands on digital, the agency finally got acquired by one of the largest networks – Dentsu Aegis Network in 2015. (Read: Inside Story Of How WAT Consult Got Acquired By Dentsu Aegis Network)
AFTER 10 YEARS ONE THING THAT HAS NOT CHANGED is his enthusiasm towards his work and life. “Over the years he is the same guy but if something has changed then it is his energy. It just keeps growing every year,” Gautam added.
Rajiv thinks that he is very fortunate when he looks back to the last decade. According to him, money has been on the least priority. “At 21 I was a nobody. I didn’t have a proper postgraduate and I had zero experience. When I look back today, I think I have been lucky as there could have been a lot of chances where I could have gone anywhere. On hindsight I think it was meant to be and it has been a great journey.”
In these 10 years, definitely WAT Consult has been a one-man show from day one. Today he might have a team to lead all the day-to-day activities but he remains the face that you can’t ignore and a voice that you can’t stop. “Earlier it was a task less day, now it is all about doing less and activating more things in the company.”
What next is in store for Rajiv from here on? “In the next two to three years I want my agency to win an international award for our work. It would satisfy me personally to great extent as we as a country are very under represented in the international market. I also owe it to my people who are a part of WAT Consult today.”
Additionally, by 2020 he wishes to make the agency the largest one in every sense within the network. “I see there is as an opportunity to expand this globally. Over the next seven or eight years I would be interested in expanding my reach as an individual to a global level.”
“The older I grow I am becoming more and more self aware and connected. I am much calmer as a person than before. I do explore but in general there is no hurry to reach anywhere.”
For the record, Rajiv is 31 right now, and to me he still has the same vigor and enthusiasm of a 21-year-old.
Before I left his office I asked him what is the secret of this evergreen enthusiasm – “I am doing something that I really love and truly enjoy. So the enthusiasm will never go. I don’t feel any older than how I used to feel at 21. And that’s the reason of where I am and what I do.”
Lighthouse Insights in association with WATConsult, will share one more article celebrating the 10 years of the agency.