Compulsory’ leave of absence, ‘arbitrary’ statements by Kotak Mahindra Bank, and being rendered persona non grata — all in a span of two days — is how BharatPe co-founder and Shark Tank India investor Ashneer Grover’s debut book Doglapan begins. Start-up founders are turning into storytellers of new India. And they are doing it with books that recall their journeys, give life lessons, pro tips, and gyaan on the all-important accessory of an entrepreneur — hustle.
Ranked number three among the bestseller books on Amazon soon after its release on 10 December, Doglapan — Hindi for hypocrisy — is marketed as his memoir delivering hard truths.
“You typically start a company or write a book because you feel [that] there is some part of the world you want to fix with an idea or [that] there is some missing information and your unique experiences will shed light on it,” says author-entrepreneur Karan Bajaj, drawing parallels between the start-up and literary world. “The fountainhead is very similar, be it launching a startup or writing a book.”
In 2022 alone, several successful founders, including those of unicorns, have wielded their pens. A few have even got multiple books published. Myntra founder and CEO of Cult.fit Mukesh Bansal published No Limits: The Art and Science of High Performance; WhiteHat Jr founder Karan Bajaj has The Freedom Manifesto to his name; Nearbuy co-founder Ankur Warikoo’s Get Epic Shit Done just released, and SheThePeople founder Shaili Chopra’s Sisterhood Economy: Of, By, For Wo(men), too, sits proudly on bookshelves.
Books are the new way of extending one’s personal brand. And the appetite for the meteoric rise of out-of-the-box thinkers and disruptors’ success stories is evident. In recent times, stories of unicorns such as Theranos, WeWork, and Uber have made it to Hotstar, Apple TV, and Voot.
“There is a lot of appetite for founders’ stories. A few of those founders are very articulate, terrific speakers, and have taken to motivational speaking and start-up mentoring and videos. From thereon, books are a natural step. Ankur Warikoo is the prime example,” says Prasanto K. Roy, a technology writer and columnist.
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Truth is stranger than fiction
Most Indian entrepreneurs, especially the new-age ones, are wary of what they say in public because that may affect their clients, employees, and existing or potential investors. Amid a climate of political correctness, Grover’s Doglapan stands out — the ‘bad boy’ of the Indian start-up industry does not mince his words.
“Rajnish (Rajnish Kumar, former chairman of State Bank of India) was my fourth hiring mistake — the other three being Suhail Sameer (chief executive officer), Jasneet (chief human resources officer) and Sumeet Singh (general counsel),” Grover writes in his book.
“Put yourself first, always. Liquidate your stock at every secondary sale opportunity,” he says in another section. This evoked a response from Sanjeev Bikhchandani, founder and executive founder of Info Edge that owns Naukri.com, and he called Grover ‘provocative’ and his views ‘polarising’.
He doesn’t wish to be seen as a victim of circumstances but wants to share the commandments of ‘thundering success’ and lessons to steer clear of ‘catastrophic failure’ like his own past experiences.
Grover was sacked from the fintech company BharatPe on 2 March this year on allegations of misappropriation of funds. “While building the company took over 42 painstaking months, the ouster was done in a matter of hours in a pre-planned manner,” he writes in his 185-page memoir.
He was also dropped as a judge in Shark Tank India Season 2 in November. The reason isn’t known, but Grover seems to have an opinion nonetheless. “Afford sirf paison se nahi hota, aukaat se bhi hota hai (Affording things isn’t just about the money you have, it’s also about your status),” he told RedFM during his book’s promotional interview. Grover is set to feature in the highly anticipated web series TVF Pitchers Season 2, which will release on 23 December.
Drawing from personal experiences seems to be the mandate for most of these entrepreneurs. Karan Bajaj, who was an author before he built WhiteHat Jr, has now shifted gears to writing non-fiction with his latest book The Freedom Manifesto. He has three works of fiction to his name. For him, the motivation to write non-fiction was driven by the dearth of books about operational experiences in the Indian startup industry.
“I learnt a lot from hardcore founders’ work about their lived and operational experiences — like Peter Thiel’s Zero to One and Paul Graham’s works. But I couldn’t find anything contextual to India. That was always on the back of my mind,” he says, emphasising the difference between operational and theoretical business learning.
“First, sit in a quiet place. Now, close your eyes and visualise your ideal life 10 years from now. Don’t worry, this isn’t a wishful exercise to manifest your dreams. Instead, we are taking the first practical step to articulate your deepest, most personal goals,” reads an excerpt from The Freedom Manifesto, which is filled with kits and tools to “live the life of your calling”.
Bajaj explains how three creative industries — fiction writing, TV and movies, and start-ups — follow a similar success pattern. “In each of these fields, 90 per cent of the creative bets fail, which means that a 10 per cent success rate is not directly correlated to the quality of your idea as much as it is to your ability to take a lot of chances.”
Even Ankur Warikoo, in Get Epic Shit Done, his second book, draws from his personal life to dole out tips for living better. The book is a compilation of 36 frequently asked questions about life, narrated in a conversational format between a student and teacher. “The prescriptions that follow are drawn a lot from my own life. But I do start the book by saying that this is the worst thing about the book. It may seem like these are the right answers, but that isn’t true. How you should read it is not to assume that whatever the teacher says is right, but, instead, through their answers, you get to yours,” he says.
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Publishers across India have zeroed in on this perfect storm — hungry readers and a boom in quintessentially Indian success stories. In this age of visual media, start-up founders are keeping the prestige of a hard book alive. Crisp, bite-sized chapters, no jargon, tips to get ‘smarter’ — the formula for a start-up book is simple. And Gen Z, which has little time to dig into long and thick books, can’t get enough of it.
According to Himanjali Sankar, editorial director at Simon & Schuster India, a large number of start-up founders — young, educated and ambitious — recognise that publishing a book is good branding and a mark of professional success. It helps when there is an audience waiting with bated breath to gulp down every word these entrepreneur-turned-authors have to say.
“Memoirs are a very popular genre currently. They can be inspiring even while outlining tribulations and hardships. They hold out hope and make for interesting reads,” she adds.
Just when start-up owners feel they have “arrived” in life, they start thinking that their legacy must be etched in the form of a book. “Their life should serve as a success template for others,” says Sachin Sharma, executive editor at HarperCollins. These books often serve as a publicity vehicle for their start-ups, helping them network better, raise financial capital, and, in turn, generate more business.
But it’s not just start-up founders who are excited about their books. Publishing houses are keen to work with entrepreneurs as well, says Kanishka Gupta, a literary agent and publishing commentator.
“This is a hot-selling genre. Most of the time, it is the publishers who identify these authors. Many of them have ghostwriters and collaborators in mind before pitching it to the entrepreneurs in case the author is not willing to write the book themselves. It is all part of extending their brand value, and in turn, the publishing house benefits too,” Gupta says.
Shaili Chopra of SheThePeople offers a different perspective. “These books are not an exercise in preserving ourselves for the rest of our lives. It is done to make ourselves far more easily available physically and digitally than we are able to. This is merely an extension of us trying to pay back to people and make changes in their lives without meeting them,” she says.
It also comes at a time when overachieving Indians are finally accepting career choices that go beyond medical and engineering. Recently, Information Technology Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar joked that the ‘most searched keyword’ on Shaadi.com is not IAS or IPS, but ‘start-up founder’.
The market is also buoyed by Shark Tank India, and an aspirational value is now attached to entrepreneurship. But there is a dearth of ‘authentic memoirs’ or ‘tell-alls’ from start-up industry experts, according to Radhika Marwah, senior commissioning editor and backlist publishing lead at Penguin Random House India. “The trend is skewed toward mature businesses — we can expect more stories from the younger crop of start-ups in the years to come,” she says.
Warikoo’s debut book Do Epic Shit, released last year, has gone on to a print run of more than 2,00,000, which he describes as “wild” and something he did not anticipate.
Books penned by entrepreneurs tend to do well and have seen upward growth in 2022. Harpreet Grover and Vibhore Goyal’s Let’s Build a Company sold over 10,000 copies; Ashneer Grover’s Doglapan and Raj Shamani’s Build to Last sold over 20,000 copies and are counting thus far, according to Vijesh Kumar, associate vice president of sales at Penguin Random House India.
However, Warikoo thinks that the trend is not exclusive to start-up founders. “In the last two years, there has been a boom in content creation. People [content creators] have marketed their works on social media,” he says, highlighting how publishing houses are riding on the benefits of wider distribution and guaranteed success, all thanks to the recognition a creator enjoys. They seemed to have cracked the game to sell their books well.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)