He was just 21 when his first startup shut down; 23 when his second startup had to shut down. He had just turned 24 when he spent a night in an electric train shuttling between Thane and Mumbai central station as he had less than a dollar on him and no place to sleep.
Today, Satya Vyas’s fourth startup, on-demand personal fitness trainer service Orobind, announced its acquisition by one of the fastest growing startups in India, Housejoy. This is the true story of an entrepreneur who started his journey from a students’ dorm at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Roorkee – and the failures, disappointments, and grit that cobbled the road thus far.
A role model for the rebels
IIT is a dream, the ultimate ticket to success, for most of India’s educated middle-class. So was it for Satya, who grew up in Ghaziabad and Bikaner, two small towns in north India. He and his brother worked hard to crack the tough IIT entrance examination. His brother got through to IIT Bombay and Satya to IIT Roorkee. But that’s where Satya’s well-laid tracks took a turn. He did everything but studying after he got into the prestigious engineering college.
He was always into sports. He had played cricket at the national level for under 15-year-olds. He played for his college at inter-IIT cricket matches, won gold medals, headed the entrepreneurial cell, bunked classes, and scraped through exams with bare-minimum grades. “I just made sure I got enough scores to continue living in the IIT campus,” Satya recalls.
We fucked up on the business strategy part here too. We couldn’t scale it up. At that point, someone wanted to buy it out from us. But we were young and hot headed.
Two years into college, in 2006, he started his first venture with a friend. They named it Zabraku – just a random name they found cool. It was a social networking site centered around college festivals that allowed students to upload and share videos on low bandwidth. Like most ideas that arrive before its time, Zabraku had no revenue streams and died a quick death.
Then Satya and friend kicked off their second startup, a computer gaming magazine called Venom. They brought out a few issues which became a hit with the students. But this too didn’t last long. “We fucked up on the business strategy part here too. We couldn’t scale it up. At that point, someone wanted to buy it out from us. But we were young and hot headed. We thought, ‘we don’t want to work for anyone else!’ So we refused to sell,” Satya remembers. Eventually, they had to shut down. “On hindsight, not selling when we had a buyer was a lame move by us,” he says.
All these experiments won him good brownie points from fellow students and frowns from the faculty who couldn’t figure out how to get him to study. However, much to Satya’s surprise, and also his teachers’, he was one of the first to get a job offer on the first day of campus placements.
Schlumberger, one of the world’s top oilfield services companies, picked him up as a field engineer. “It was one of the highest paid jobs for fresh engineering graduates then. That was a big moment for me as well as all those students in college who were not studying – now they had a role model who proved you could screw around with the system and still get a job,” Satya chuckles as he tells me about those heady days.
We were meeting at a coffee shop near Tech in Asia’s office in Bangalore, and he was happy after expanding Orobind’s operations to Hyderabad. That was a few months ago. He had come a long way from graduating, rejecting the job offer, and moving to India’s startup hub of Bangalore in 2008.
First stop: CommonFloor
In 2008, a couple of Satya’s seniors from IIT Roorkee, Sumit Jain and Lalit Mangal, were building an unusual real estate startup called CommonFloor with their friend Vikas Malpani. Satya joined them for a month’s casual internship. “They were running the company from their small apartment. That stint taught me a lot of valuable lessons,” Satya says.
Years later, in 2014, Lalit ended up signing the first check for Orobind as an angel investor. But before that Satya had to go through a few more failures.
After his internship with CommonFloor, Satya was all fired up to build his own startup. So he started Dietz, a low-calorie sandwich and salad delivery service. “Again, the concept was some seven years too early in India. At that point, no one was ready to invest in an engineer trying to sell sandwiches,” he recalls. After around eight months, he ran out of funds, amidst talks with a few investors who promised to wire him money the next day.
That’s when Lehmann Brothers crashed. Satya remembers waking up one morning and reading the news. “I didn’t realize the significance of the crash. Lehmann Brothers was just a cool company that used to come to my college campus for placements.” But when he opened his email box, he immediately felt the impact of the crash. There was an email from the investors saying that they had decided not to bet on his startup as they were staring at a financial meltdown.
Satya tried tweaking his startup’s business model to survive. That didn’t work, and so Dietz shut down in 2009.
24 and nowhere to go
Satya packed his bags again and moved to Mumbai, India’s financial capital. A few of his friends were starting up there, so he joined them.
“Soon I started having a lot of disagreements with my friends who were running the startup. The company was burning a lot of cash. And from my experience, I felt that was bad news. Burning money was definitely not cool in 2009. I fought with them over it, and they fired me,” Satya says, refusing to divulge more details about what came of that company.
He decided to stay on in Mumbai and figure out other things to do. But with no money, no job, and no place of his own to stay, that wasn’t easy. “I was borrowing INR 100 (US$1.5) at a time from my girlfriend and other friends. I would survive on that for two days and then borrow again. And one evening, my roommate decided he had had enough and told me to move out of the house.” That was the eve of Satya’s 24th birthday. “I spent that night inside local trains, going up and down from Thane to CST (train stations in Mumbai city) as I needed to spend some time while I thought about where to go,” he recalls.
Finally, he called up his brother who was studying at IIT Bombay and told him in no uncertain terms that he was coming over to his hostel.
“I kind of stayed illegally inside IIT Bombay campus for two months,” Satya recalls.
I kind of stayed illegally inside IIT Bombay campus for two months.
That was ample time to ponder over mistakes and change course. So, he applied to Schlumberger. They interviewed him again, and he got the job again. They sent him to the Middle East for work. The pay was good, work wasn’t tough. He got a chance to travel and work with a team of people from different countries. But he lasted just two years with them. “Once an entrepreneur, you are always longing to get back to that. The first 12 months with Schlumberger, I was focused on earning well. But after that the money lost its initial appeal and a lot of thoughts crept up: what am I doing? Things are changing in India, you have to get back. My work appeared dull.”
So he started making trips to Bangalore every four months.
Chai Point and its charismatic founder
On one of those trips, Satya went to Chai Point, a new tea retail chain. “This looks interesting, I thought. From Bangalore I went to Jaipur and there, I came across another tea store called Tapri. I found it a great trend.” Satya tried selling the idea to his mom of investing in a tea chain with him but she refused to indulge him.
He had to force himself to go back to Schlumberger in Saudi Arabia. Again, he was back in Bangalore within four months. He didn’t have a plan but thought that his savings could see him through at least a year.
He reached out to Chai Point’s founder Amuleek Singh. They met and hit it off. So Satya joined the company as its third core team member. That, Satya feels, was the turning point.
Amuleek’s passion was infectious. “He used to sell the cup of tea as if the cup was made of gold and the tea an elixir. He was phenomenal. He groomed me and mentored me, plugged in holes in my thinking,” Satya says.
Epiphany of sorts
At the tail end of 2013, when Satya was still with Chai Point, a series of mishaps shook him up. A couple of his colleagues died in accidents. And so did two of his relatives. “Four people in my immediate circle died in a span of four months. That was a tough time for me. Existential questions began popping up in my head. What am I doing? Why am I doing this? What am I leaving behind if I died now?” Satya was 28 then. He was uneasy and went for a short trip to Pondicherry, a seaside town in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu.
Long solitary walks gave him a lot of time to think. “There I started thinking that I need to move out and do something of my own. That I was staying back at Chai Point only because of the fear of failure.”
At that point, Satya was already hooked on fitness. Not only was he working out but he was also helping a couple of friends to lose weight and grow strong. That was strangely fulfilling, Satya found. “I realized that my goals of making lots of money, getting a fancy car, big house, and so on were not making me happy. Once you start eliminating a lot of unnecessary wants, you start focusing on what matters most to you,” he says.
That was how he decided to start Orobind. “My goal was to build something that will benefit people.”
Want to start up? Be crystal clear why.
Satya’s most precious insight came during his stint with Chai Point: that if you are starting a business, you should be crystal clear in your head about why.
“When I was building Zabraku, Venom, Dietz, and so on, it was clear to me that there was a need in the market at that point or in the near future. But I as an entrepreneur didn’t have a clear-cut reason why I wanted to build that particular business. Why not something else? Why a computer gaming magazine, why not a sports magazine?” Satya says.
This silence of the “why” was one of the biggest reasons that led him to fold his cards when the going got tough at his ventures before Orobind, Satya believes. “That why can be anything. For me at Orobind, it is about creating a measurable impact in people’s lives,” he says.
Orobind is a fitness startup. It connects people to personal coaches who will train and guide them to achieve their health goals. Most of its users are women in the age group of 25 to 40, who aspire to be fit and look good but due to lazy lifestyle or work pressure, haven’t been prioritizing fitness. Orobind sends personal trainers to the homes of the users who need handholding.
Satya founded the company in 2014 with his friend from IIT Roorkee Shubhanshu Srivastava.
Shubhanshu was working with Snapdeal then.
He had joined Snapdeal in 2010 when the company was just migrating from a coupon business to an ecommerce marketplace. So in the span of the next four years, Shubhanshu saw a startup’s evolution from a tiny venture into a billion dollar company. That experience served co-founders well while building Orobind from the grounds up.
No money to pay salaries
With Shubhanshu lending Satya the tech muscle, Orobind rolled out a pilot run in May 2014 with a few personal fitness trainers. Satya decided to moonlight as a trainer to gather precious ground insights. “I used to travel some 40 kilometers up and down in peak Bangalore traffic every day. There were days when I used to work till 3 a.m. on the app, and wake up at 5 in the morning and go meet a customer at his house and train him on a workout,” Satya recalls.
Satya and Shubhanshu had decided that they would get to know their initial customers well. “We wanted to see who our typical customer is. Where do they live? What are their habits? What kind of car do they drive? How does their house look like, and so on. So I would go meet them, talk to them, get feedback, and tweak our product.”
Depending on how much we had in the bank, we would draw INR 10,000 (US$146) or INR 20,000 (US$292). I was still borrowing money from friends too.
That approach paid off. They launched Orobind publicly in December 2014 and sales started climbing. “From 40 customers then, within the next six months, we grew 30 times,” Satya says.
Yet, when they went to investors to raise funding, nobody seemed interested. “I wrote cold emails to 50 odd investors, got rejected again and again. But we didn’t stop trying this time because we knew why we started,” Satya says.
January and February 2015 were the toughest months for Orobind because the company was in an acute cash crunch. He had borrowed money from a lot of his friends, who invested around US$7,300 each. But that didn’t take them too far.
At the operational level, the company was breaking even. That is, the revenue from customers was enough to pay for the personal trainers in Orobind’s payroll but if you factored in the other costs, there was no money in the bank.
Finally, in March last year, Orobind closed its first round of angel funding: US$200,000 from Harpreet Singh Grover, co-founder of Cocubes, and Zishaan Hayath, founder of Powai Lake Ventures and an early investor in Housing and Ola. “First, we paid all the pending salaries for two months,” Satya says.
When the news of the investment was out, a few other investors decided to try out the product themselves. Then, they reached out to Orobind, offering some more capital. “We didn’t say no,” Satya adds. “This round was bigger than the first but the angels don’t want to disclose their involvement.”
Until then, Satya and Subhanshu barely drew any salaries. “Depending on how much we had in the bank, we would draw INR 10,000 (US$146) or INR 20,000 (US$292). I was still borrowing money from friends too. Thankfully, I always had great friends,” Satya says.
Today, he is a happy man. Orobind has been a leader in its space, has over 1,000 customers in Bangalore and around 135 active personal trainers on its platform. Though the size of the deal with Housejoy hasn’t been revealed, the Amazon-backed home services company has acquired the trainers of Orobind, its customer base, and also the technology. The entire Orobind team will also be moving to Housejoy.
“Being entrepreneurs, it is a proud moment for us that we built a tech company from scratch and took it to a level where a larger and reputed player like Housejoy could come and find value in it,” Satya says.
It’s been a long journey for Satya. Acquisition apart, what really set the last stretch apart from the earlier years was one powerful motivator. “Real people, many of whom I knew personally, were getting healthier because of us. That realization saw us through the dark months,” Satya tells me. Changing the lives of a bunch of people for the better – you can’t really ask for more impact, can you?