Interview: Aneesh Khanna, Early Stage Start-up Coach & Consultant

Aneesh Khanna-Early Stage Start-up Coach - Consultant

An exclusive interview with Aneesh Khanna, Early Stage Start-up Coach & Consultant

Aneesh Khanna stands at the forefront of the entrepreneurial landscape as a distinguished early-stage startup coach and consultant. With a wealth of experience and a passion for nurturing fledgling ventures, Aneesh has emerged as a trusted guide for aspiring entrepreneurs.

His expertise lies in providing strategic guidance and mentorship to startups in their nascent stages, enabling them to navigate the turbulent waters of entrepreneurship with confidence and clarity.

Can you tell us about your journey into entrepreneurship consulting and coaching? What inspired you to pursue this career path?

Aneesh Khanna: My startup journey was in between 2010-2017, where I built one of the pioneering Digital First companies in Home Healthcare, which was clearly ahead of times. Post my startup, I set up a Healthcare Consulting company where we worked with large National and International Healthcare organizations on Market Entry Strategy, Marketing Communication, New Business Strategy, setting up the Home Healthcare Verticals.

On my healthcare consulting journey of 4 odd years, I observed how particularly over the last 18 odd months, the youth were getting energized with the Entrepreneurship drive in the country more than ever. Shark tank had taken the 3rd position after Cricket and Bollywood in our post dinner conversations.

And it’s not just the urban aspirants, we lived in a time when Uma and Kalpana Jha from Darbhanga Bihar came into our lives and hearts in Shark Tank Season 1, with recipes of pickles passed down from their mothers and mother in laws. They went on to secure funding and created an online store called JHAJI -The taste of Mithila.

I also realized that in my consulting stints with early-stage companies, when I sat in on the interviews for junior and mid-level employees. At the end of the interview the early 20s candidate, would say, “yeh toh theek hai, but I have an idea, which I want to work on”.

India was exploding with Ideas in the closet or like I say, people roaming with an ‘Idea in their pocket’ or their google drive or the spaces of their mind. I was naturally drawn towards working with such people who are at what I call ‘The earliest stages of Entrepreneurship’.

I was naturally drawn towards becoming an Early-Stage Entrepreneurship Coach, because I felt morally responsible, to pass on the learnings to help aspiring entrepreneurs, so that they do not make the same mistakes that I had, and to see them blossom into thriving startups.

These learnings have also taken the shape of my book on Idea Validation called ‘Ain’t no Eureka’ which will be available for online purchase in May 2024.

What do you believe are the key challenges that early-stage entrepreneurs commonly face, and how do you assist them in overcoming these obstacles?

Aneesh Khanna: Lots of Advice – They are a lot of mentors, coaches, podcasters, one time angel investors, your boss, your spouse, everyone is a Startup expert today; but of course, we all watch the same show at 10 p.m. Lack of accurate and focussed mentoring is certainly a challenge in the early days

Fundraising is Entrepreneurship – Staying away from this belief is a challenge of our times. The belief that ‘only if I raise money, can I build a startup’, ignoring this noise and getting started, is a clear challenge

Lack of Early-Stage Capital – Despite the funnel widening on the number of new entrepreneurs, early-stage funding deals have not increased in the same percentage

Building an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) – If you are a non tech founder, you will struggle with building an MVP. If you have a small bootstrapping budget, you will have to work with freelance software developers, where you have no control on the tech platforms and the timelines for the project

I try and steer the early-stage entrepreneurs that I work with away from too much advice, fundraising mania and get them to focus on the first principles:

  • WHY am I building this Startup? It better not be because, its ‘cool to be your own boss’
  • Help them with practical and understandable mentoring advice
  • Focus on sales before fundraising

How do you approach the process of identifying and refining a business idea with your clients?

Aneesh Khanna: Start with WHY – Before I start any coaching or mentoring conversation, I push the Entrepreneur to reflect on this aspect; ‘WHY is this specific idea’, important to him/her and how does it align with their journeys and their strengths

Problem is more Important than the Solution – Refining an Idea is about digging deep into the Problem. Is it really a Painkiller or just a good to have Vitamin? Rohit Bansal, co-founder at Snapdeal and Titan Capital, said something beautiful, he said “Thoda sa love is not good enough, even if the TAM (Total Addressable Market) is small, create a product that is 10X better than the current experience and generate tremendous Customer Love”

Consumer Persona – If you cannot accurately describe your Consumer Persona or Consumer Cohort, which will love you, then you haven’t deeply thought about your IDEA. Shashank Mehta, Co-founder at THE WHOLE TRUTH, had once said “If we you can’t get 100 customers to fall in love with what you are building, its not worth it”.

Founder Market Fit – Does the entrepreneur have the ability to build this startup for a long period of time. I get them to reflect on how ‘Fail Fast’, doesn’t mean throwing in the towel early. And how the journey of great companies is usually over a decade long

In your experience, what are the most critical factors for a startup’s success in its early stages?

Aneesh Khanna: You are not your IDEA – Renuka Ramnath, Founder of Multiples Asset Management, said in Mumbai Techsparks 2023 that “Think of the company as an independent child, a thing that has come with its own soul. You are here to give to the company, you are not the company”. This thinking is critical for the Startup’s success in the early days.

Product Market Fit (PMF) – Clarity on your Consumer Cohort and to keep iterating till you find your Product Market Fit. Author Sean Ellis speaks about an indicator for identifying if you have achieved PMF. He says “Just ask users, “how would you feel if you could no longer use the product?”.

Measure the percent who answer “very disappointed. The group that answers ‘very disappointed’ will be your product market fit”. Sean adds “Companies that struggled to find growth almost always had less than 40% of users respond “very disappointed,” whereas companies with strong traction almost always exceeded that threshold”. That quest to achieve PMF is critical for a Startup’s success

Compliance – Not often spoken about, but to be squeak clean in the early days is very important. With the current cloud over compliance of some startups, it is more important than ever to do the right thing when it comes overall Governance in Taxation, Investor Relations, Employee benefits, Co-founder relationships etc.

Customer Love > Performance Marketing – Before spending tons of money on performance marketing, can you find your consumer cohort and get the first 2000 customers to start using your product or service.

How do you tailor your consulting/coaching approach to accommodate the unique needs and goals of each entrepreneur you work with?

Aneesh Khanna: Though there is a common framework, which I use for early-stage companies, but the below aspects are important to be able to tailor the coaching for the entrepreneur.

Stage of the Entrepreneur – It is first important to understand which stage of Starting up Journey the Entrepreneur is in:

  • Idea Stage
    • Prototype or MVP (Minimum Viable Product)
    • Bootstrapped but Pre-Revenue
    • Bootstrapped with Revenue
    • Have raised a Friends and Family round (Money taken from Friends and Family for the Startup)
    • Have raised external capital from Investors (Angel, Venture Capital etc)

Strengths of the Founding Team – What are the key strengths of the team members. Are they experts in technology product development, digital marketing etc. What is their core training; are they technologists or marketeers or finance professionals. This helps to understand which area they need more assistance in.

Urgent & Immediate intervention – Sometimes as a Coach and Consultant, you need to build trust with the founding team, for long term success. Hence it is important to assess, what could be an immediate short-term benefit, of your Coaching engagement, for example:

  • They have traction, but have no idea about raising the first round of investment
    • MVP is built, but unsure about getting the first 500 customers to use the product
    • Have raised a seed round, but need assistance with setting short and medium term goals to scale the startup

What advice do you typically give to entrepreneurs who are struggling to find funding or investment for their startups?

Aneesh Khanna: Early-stage fundraising in the country has become more difficult than ever. This is despite the exuberant entrepreneurship environment coupled with the Shark Tank phenomenon.

Some of the reasons for the challenging environment for early-stage fundraising:

Usage of the same yardstick of Profitability, for the 1st cheque as for a Series A/B fundraise

  • Companies which got more money than required in the 2021 money rush, have suddenly become super frugal since 2023 and with a deep focus on the bottomline
  • This profitability narrative has gained momentum and now pushed on to the early-stage companies. A road to profitability is absolutely required, but the startup has to find its path in early days, where it begins to identify its Product Market Fit, consumer cohort, pricing, channel etc
  • Angels are also watching a lot of Shark Tank and are suddenly smarter than ever

My advice to Entrepreneurs with respect to their Fundraising efforts:

Fundraising is not the end game – Do not say to yourself “Once I get the funding, I will get the sales, or I will hire the team, or I will be able to spend on Performance Marketing”. Fundraising is not Entrepreneurship, despite the media coverage and celebration of fundraising. This is easier said than done and I understand how this sentiment is deeply ingrained in early-stage entrepreneurs.

‘Move the Needle’ on Sales – I advise them to keep ‘moving the needle’ on sales and traction. Every new customer that you add to your business, makes it that much easier when you sit across the table with the Investors.

Investor – Entrepreneur Fit – Don’t pitch to any random individual angel or angel group or Early stage VC. Do your homework. Go through their Fund Thesis, portfolio companies, background of the General Partners etc. A good fit, will help you get better receptivity and a quicker turnaround, during the pitching process. For example, if you are in the sustainability space, look for those VCs who have put money in recycling, plant protein, organic products etc.

Scream from the Rooftops– “If you spend time chasing butterflies, they will just fly away. But if you build a beautiful garden, the butterflies will come”, Don’t Chase, ATTRACT. Build your personal brand on Linkedin particularly. Talk about your journey, your clients, your industry, your belief system, small bootstrapped wins, your fitness regime etc. PULL works better than PUSH in the world that we live in today, especially with reference to Fundraising.

How do you help entrepreneurs develop effective strategies for marketing and branding their businesses, especially with limited resources?

Aneesh Khanna: Do what Big Cos cannot – A startup is like a rabbit in a garden, running in and out of holes, where elephants cannot enter. Your small size as a startup versus a large incumbent company, can actually be to your advantage.

Harsh Jain, Founder of Dream 11 in this context shares “For early-stage companies, do things that ‘don’t scale’, because larger companies cannot do things that don’t scale. Do guerilla marketing; don’t go out there and start spending tons of money on digital marketing or think about having a TV advertisement before you are a Series C company, worth hundreds of million dollars.

When you are smaller, do the things that larger companies cannot do, it’s important for small companies to stretch the dollar, the rupee, much more than big companies can. Do things that make you have a competitive advantage, work with smaller influencers, work on deeper connect with your customers, which big companies cannot do with millions of users.”

Collaboration is important – The other day I ate an ice cream bar, which was a collaboration between low calorie ice cream brand ‘NOTO’ and coffee brand ‘Sleepy Owl’. We must not think of conventional ways of marketing and must open our eyes to collaboration over competition.

The Entrepreneur’s personal brand is important – Over the last couple of years, we have seen how Personal Entrepreneur brands, have propelled the tangible revenues of their Startups.

Aman Gupta from Boat, Ghazal Alagh from Mamaearth, Ahana Gautam of Open Secret, Shantanu Deshpande from Bombay Shaving Company are just a few examples of how the Entrepreneur’s personal brand can lend so much to his/her Startup’s brand positioning.

Linkedin is still where 1% are writing and 99% are listening and pressing the like button, get on the other side and do your startup a favour by being recognized as a top voice in your domain.

As an entrepreneurship consultant, what trends or changes in the startup landscape do you think entrepreneurs should be aware of in order to stay competitive and innovative?

Aneesh Khanna: Early-Stage capital is getting more difficult – This is also because the funnel has widened and Investors have more choices and a lot more pitches coming their way. Sanjeev Bikhchandani, Founder of InfoEdge and often called the Godfather of the Startup community, recently shared, that “We receive 1000 pitches a quarter and invest in 3-4 startups”. Imagine the needle in the haystack funding dilemma of our times.

Quick Commerce is here to stay – For those building consumer & D2C products, marketplaces are not enough, you have to be on quick commerce. Off late I have purchased a computer mouse, earphones and a swimming cap on Zepto and Instamart. Blinkit now sells Urban Company’s Water purifier worth Rs 13000/- and also lenskart’s glasses.

Performance Marketing is expensive – In popular categories, the CAC (Cost of Customer Acquisition) can get very high and it may take time to get returns. So, there is no point in throwing small money and hoping that Google ads and Meta will help kickstart the business.

Made in India for the World – Don’t just think of building for the Indian consumer. Jyoti Bharadwaj, founder of Teafit, a healthier beverage option of low sugar, low calorie brewed teas, has used exports as a great channel to take her low sugar brewed teas business to places like Singapore, New Zealand, Hongkong and Dubai.

What role do you believe mentorship plays in the journey of an early-stage entrepreneur, and how do you facilitate mentorship opportunities for your clients?

Aneesh Khanna: John C Crosby said that “Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen and a push in the right direction”. A Mentor, Coach or Consultant has to maintain a fine balance of giving advice, while retaining the authenticity of the Founder and the Startup.

Right Mentoring helps the Entrepreneur:

  • Take Small Steps – Many times, entrepreneurs can get lost in attending events, looking towards glamour of starting up, rather than moving the needle by taking small steps in the right direction
  • Being Accountable – At some level, the mentor or coach, makes the Entrepreneur accountable to himself/herself, the mission and his/her team, in the early stages
  • Ear to Listen – Starting up is a lonely journey and sometimes it really helps to have an Ear to Listen, to the chaos in the mind of the Entrepreneur

Facilitating Mentorship Opportunities:

  • I have made it a point to actively write on Linkedin and share my thoughts, learnings and observations about the Entrepreneurial ecosystem.
  • I have my website , which goes live shortly. The website allows aspiring entrepreneurs to connect with me through:
    • 1: 1 calls to discuss their idea
    • Enrolment into the upcoming free workshops
    • A Paid 8 week Mentoring Bootcamp, where every week, we have a call in small groups and discuss one unique aspect of Starting up. Homework is given, which includes secondary research, speaking with potential users, competition analysis etc, which has to be done before the next call, to move the needle forward.
    • I am also working on a product, which solves the challenge of getting the 1st small cheque to help Entrepreneurs get off the ground, in the ‘Sub Zero to One’ journey. This works by enrolling entrepreneurs and angels. Angels, who will come on board, both as a potential mentor and also to help open doors to get the first 2000 early adopters for the startup
  • I will also have my youtube shorts and my Instagram page live shortly, where I talk about new products and services and entrepreneurial learnings from them for aspiring entrepreneurs

What is your success tips for young and aspiring entrepreneurs

  • Stay Authentic to your WHY
  • Understand your own Strengths and Weaknesses and look at complementary team members, by way of Co-Founders or early hires
  • Chase Sales and not fundraising on Day 1
  • Dream Big but keep taking small steps
  • Success is not the opposite of Failure, in fact Failure is a requirement or precursor to Success

In the ever-evolving landscape of entrepreneurship, Aneesh Khanna’s commitment to fostering innovation and guiding emerging ventures shines brightly. Through his invaluable insights and dedication, he has not only filled crucial gaps in the startup ecosystem but also empowered countless entrepreneurs to navigate the challenges of their early stages with clarity and purpose.

As Aneesh continues to lend his expertise to the next generation of innovators, his impact on the entrepreneurial landscape remains profound and enduring.

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