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Can Years at a Desk Job Really Help You Become an Entrepreneur? For Vikas Kaul, They Were Instrumental

If you follow tech founders on social media, you might think you should be operating a profitable SaaS portfolio business by the end of your 20s and 30s.

But more often than not, the most profitable and useful businesses don’t materialize after one or two years of hustling. Some of the best new businesses today materialized after years of hard work and networking. Think of Notion and OpenAI. Everyone is talking about them today in 2024, but both businesses were founded almost one decade before.

Vikas Kaul created his enterprise data management and customer-interaction business, Zeapl.ai, after a decade-long career in enterprise tech sales. Leveraging years of industry expertise, he along with a stellar team of cofounders set out to realize an entrepreneurial vision and create lasting relationships with enterprises all across India. After four years, he runs an office of 40 employees across three cities – entirely bootstrapped.

Unlike many founders, Vikas wouldn’t say he was born an entrepreneur. Throughout the early 2000s, he worked as a salesman in the growing Indian telecommunications industry. 

Inspired by one of his CEOs, he quit his career to start a tire-care business but pivoted when he realized it wouldn’t scale.

After dealing with tire manufacturers, Vikas realized enterprises hemorrhaged money through impersonal customer and employee experiences. He reunited with teammates Ritesh Sharma and Sundeep Aggarwal from his former employer along with engineer Rohit Khandelwal to build what may be the next big application for Indian enterprises.

Here’s how Vikas went from salaryman to rising Indian tech mogul. And the events that caused him to completely change career tracks twice.

One of the First Telecom Salesmen in India

In the 1990s, most Indian households didn’t have a landline. It was hard for anyone to imagine an India where 1.2 billion people carry mobile phones. Yet as one of the nation’s first telecom salesmen in 1997, Vikas was convinced mobile phones would sweep his nation.

Although he was an early prophet for the rise of mobile devices, Vikas wouldn’t say he’s a trendsetting type. From a young age, he hoped for a stable career in a traditional business.

“We are all about service jobs in India,” he says. “You study hard to get a better degree to get a better job. You get a good job with one company or maybe switch one time and then you retire. Very few people from my community were into entrepreneurship.”

Vikas’ father passed away when he was 15, pressuring Vikas to support his family. Like many Indians, he chose to major in electrical engineering in 1992 because it promised the stable, high-paying career he’d been taught to search for. 

However, as a junior engineer fresh out of college, Vikas was infuriated by his low monthly stipend. He wanted to start earning more to help his family. Conflicted, he switched to sales for its high commission-based salaries.

Vikas’ switch in 1997 was right around the time the notoriously stringent country began to drastically open its telecom sector to private businesses. His first job was with one of the first Indian telecom market entrants, Motorola. He started selling paging services (remember those little things that beeped in your pocket whenever you received a call?) to enterprises. As technology progressed, Vikas sold their mobile services.

In his early 20s, Vikas became an expert in a field only accessible to the largest enterprises. Modern mobile networks were a black box for most executives at the time and Vikas was the cool kid telling them how it all worked.

“Sales taught me how to interact with people,” says Vikas. “With each individual I interacted with, I got better at selling. It also got me used to selling to enterprise executives which was exciting for me as someone of twenty-one or twenty-two. I got to talk to these fifty-year-old businessmen at the peak of their careers.”

After Motorola, Vikas worked at AT&T. Here, frequent chats with C-suite executives and his knowledge of telecom landed him a new job with the second-largest telecom company in India, Bharti Airtel.

“Airtel was coming to my specific region to start their services,” says Vikas. “Their COO met with me to learn about our services and I had great answers to all his questions. He offered me a job on the spot. That changed my trajectory completely.”

Working for the “Czar of Telecom”

From 2002 until 2013, Vikas was an Airtel man and he loved almost every day of it. With each passing year, he rose through the chain of command as the company dramatically expanded its operations in India. 

Vikas worked as an SME salesman for his first five years and then moved into strictly enterprise sales. By 2008, he was the head of sales and distribution. By 2010, he was the CMO for all of East India. Finally, in 2011, he was the head of the entire West Bengal telecom circle (circles are India’s telecom network zones. Each circle tends to encompass one entire state in India). 

“I was lucky early in my life to get these different positions,” says Vikas. “I got to see the telecom industry horizontally and vertically.”

While at Airtel, Vikas met the man who would become his entrepreneurial role model, Founder and chairman of Bharti Airtel, Sunil Mittal . He’s well-known today in India as a first-generation entrepreneur and often referred to as the czar of Indian telecom

“Sunil has made a huge difference in every aspect of life in India and many places worldwide,” says Vikas. “Today Airtel operates in 18 developing countries worldwide and is expanding.”

Even as a circle head, Vikas found few opportunities to meet with his idol. Airtel today is a massive enterprise with over 60,000 employees. However, during a 4G service launch event in Southeast Asia, Sunil answered a particular question that stuck with Vikas for the rest of his life.

“I asked him if his strategy for growing the business would be by going deeper or wider,” says Vikas. “He said he would try both. He told me if he has ten options to grow his business he will try all ten. People only see the one attempt he’s succeeded at, not the nine he failed. If he wanted to win, he needed to play all ten options.”

Vikas realized if he wanted to be like Sunil and run a company one day, he needed to get out of his comfort zone and try his other nine options. So in 2013, he quit the career that had supported him for so long to try something new.

Can You Automate a Legacy Industry?

Despite working in tech, Vikas’ first venture after Airtel was a brick-and-mortar business, an automated tire-care service called Puncture Man.

According to an article from the startup publication, YourStory, everything sprouted from an evening meeting at the Tollygunge Country Club in Kolkata. Puncture Man quickly turned a small profit and expanded to 175 kiosks across 22 cities. However, it required a lot of effort to maintain function. Vikas and his cofounders needed to constantly set up new locations and train new staff.

And while they managed to add some predictability and order to the tire repair industry, Vikas never was able to add the technology component he’d dreamed of to the business. Puncture Man could be a solid full-time job and even a major player in Indian tire repairs, but Vikas couldn’t see the cross-border, global scale he hoped for.

After seven years of Puncture Man, Vikas decided to address what he believed to be the most pressing problem he knew of, enterprise data management.

The Problem With Enterprises and Data

Vikas previously noticed huge sales data inefficiencies in many enterprises. His experience with the tire industry enterprises with which Puncture Man contracted validated his suspicions. For example, most tire manufacturers knew little about their end customers. Sometimes, a tire would go through two intermediaries before its final sale.

While still running Puncture Man, Vikas started collecting data from his kiosks and passing it back to tire suppliers as a value-added service. Seeing how much this data helped clients, Vikas contacted two of his old friends at Airtel, Ritesh and Sundeep as well as a programmer from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Rohit. They came up with an idea to use this data to engage enterprise end-users at scale. This idea became Zeapl.

They began by convincing tire brands to collect more data and then use the data to adjust their operations. For instance, they could now learn details about their end customers like their vehicle make and locations and design personalized promotions for each one.

“Traditional businesses sometimes have trouble thinking outside of the box,” says Vikas. “A tire brand, for example, will accept that there is a certain way of working. They’ll say, ‘This hasn’t worked this way in sixty years, why would it work now?’ But we would show them and they would go along with it.”

Vikas’ and his cofounders’ data-based engagement helped their clients immensely. Soon the business was taking in paint conglomerates, cement makers, wood suppliers, internet service providers, electrical equipment makers, and bankers. Once they helped clients collect data, they were able to create a product to help them use it efficiently.

How Zeapl Improves Enterprises

In 2020, the cofounders officially launched their data business, Zeapl.ai. A combination of the words zeal and people, Zeapl’s goal is to use data to solve end-user problems at enterprise-scale businesses.

According to Vikas, every business has four end user types: end consumers, intermediaries like distributors or retailers, sales influencers, and internal teams (employees). 

Each one of these groups interacts with a business in often predictable ways. However, they become unmanageable when enterprises scale without managing their data. Vikas wanted Zeapl to be the tool enterprises use to manage everything.

“Eventually, a large enterprise will use more than 900 applications to manage its processes,” says Vikas. “We sit on top of all this and integrate with all of these systems.”

Zeapl unifies all enterprise data into one view and helps businesses use channels like WhatsApp and email to automatically engage with customers and employees on a personal level. Vikas gave me a couple of specific examples of how this works:

“Say you’re a customer of an internet service provider,” he says. “You’re on a monthly plan and forget to pay the bill. If that happens, your internet service provider (ISP) will cut the connection, giving you an annoying experience. If they can see you often miss your payment, they could do something like send a personalized email about it five days before so this doesn’t happen.

“As a customer, I reach out to brands when I’ve tried everything else. That means I’m irate. You multiply that at scale and you can see it’s a problem. If you are happy, you’ll tell one person. If you’re unhappy, you’ll tell ten.”

Vikas gave me another example of how Zeapl might work for employees.

“If I’m an employee and need to apply for leave, I often need to check with HR to see if I have vacation days left. But what if I’m on my walk to work and I feel sick? What if I send a text to my company system and get all the leave data immediately instead of getting into the system?”

Most of Zeapl’s initial customers came during the Covid years as old brands became increasingly motivated to go digital. Now they gain customers through demand generation on LinkedIn. Today, Zeapl boasts over 40 in-house employees with offices in Indore, Delhi, and Pune (near Mumbai).

“While they will start with us with one use case, in about eight months, on average, there are about seven other use cases,” says Vikas.

Good Ideas Are Nothing Without Execution

Vikas’ most important piece of advice for operating an enterprise-scale business is to learn how to zoom in and out on different facets of your operation.

“We lost time because we were too focused on zooming in,” he says. “You need to keep one eye on the vision and another on the execution. One minute you could don a finance hat while in the next hour, you could wear a development hat. You can’t just focus on one thing”

Vikas also believes the most common myth about entrepreneurship is that it’s about ideas. He believes successful business is much more about execution.

“It’s never about an idea – an idea can only get up and crawl,” he says. “Execution is getting up every day and running the marathon. If your execution is excellent and you’re in for a long haul, there’s a very high chance you’ll be successful.”

He also thinks founders need to eliminate any expectation that their business will grow quickly.

“Another myth is the short sprint,” he says. “Many founders think you run it for two to three years, you do well, and then cash out. However, your business has to stand on its own and will be looked at through the lens of merit. You’ll often need many years to accomplish that.”

Business, especially among enterprises, is based on trust and reputation. These two traits can only be built with time. Maybe you don’t need to be in a hurry to build your million-dollar exit. Keep building strong relationships with your employers and clients today and tomorrow you might see a clear path to your first startup too.

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