If You Want Nice Things, Start Your Own Business

As a child, Yash Chavan earned pennies selling school supplies to his classmates. Now he makes millions selling a top influencer marketing platform called SARAL.

Yash learned young that he needed to master the art of entrepreneurship if he wanted to escape his lower-middle-class existence in Mumbai. Against the wishes of his family, he dropped out of university to start a career in sales.

His journey took him from the bustling streets of Mumbai selling football turf to the tranquil seaside of Silicon Valley selling fintech products. Then, using five years of sales and marketing experience, he built and grew a marketing agency to $20,000 in MRR before a small Facebook update threatened to bring everything crashing down.

Yash pivoted to influencer marketing to save his income, but his life outside of work became absorbed by long hours in the office. He was weeks away from total burnout.

In one last attempt to attain his childhood dream of becoming a successful business owner, Yash built a tool for influencer relationship management and sold five subscriptions before he’d even written a business plan. Now, he’s working hard to create India’s next major SaaS business. Read on to hear this tenacious founder’s story.

Are Sales the Best Route to Entrepreneurship?

When Yash was young, he wanted a better life. Money seemed to be all that held him back.

“There are no entrepreneurs in my family history,” he says. “My family lived paycheck to paycheck while I was growing up, so I understood that money was necessary for the good things in life.”

Yash remembers seeing his father’s boss as a role model for success. The stately man owned nice clothes, a golden watch, and a clean Audi he drove around town. Yash and his family lived like most Indian families. They earned a piecemeal income and took the train to get around.

“I used to ask my dad why his boss had all these nice things that we didn’t,” says Yash. “He said it’s because he has his own business.”

From that point on, Yash knew he’d run his own business one day and came up with all sorts of ways to earn money. In school, he’d buy candy and pencils and sell them at a premium to his classmates.

As a young man, however, Yash chose to study engineering at university instead of business or entrepreneurship, mostly to follow the crowd. According to Statista, over one million Indians enroll in engineering courses every year. 

But Yash couldn’t shake the feeling that working as an engineer would only end with him being a cog in the machine. How could decades at a desk help him become the successful entrepreneur he dreamed of?

“I’m very intentional about my life and think about long time horizons,” he says. “I was eighteen or nineteen years old at the time and projected my life ten years ahead. The man I saw then was not doing engineering, coding, or computer science.”

Listening to founders’ advice on YouTube, Yash grew to believe that to become a founder, he must become a good salesman. And so, risking the ire of his family and friends, Yash dropped out of school to start a career in sales.

From Selling Turf to Selling Tech

Fortunately for Yash, there were plenty of sales jobs in India during the 2010s. For years, India has been one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

“India has a startup mentality,” says Yash. “We have a term we use, jugaad, that translates to scrappiness. People are used to making do with very little with limited resources.”

Yash’s first sales job was selling football turf space in Mumbai. His employer owned a group of football fields where people could book a match with their friends after work. However, the turf spaces were empty 90 percent of the time. Yash and the team began selling slots to gyms to conduct open-air classes like yoga and pilates.

“I’d tell the gyms open air classes will get you awareness which can easily convert into many more leads,” he says.

With a newfound talent for cold calls and sales, Yash moved on to other roles. He spent a few months running an online dropshipping operation in the US and a few more as the digital marketing manager for a YouTube brand. 

In 2020, Yash joined his first venture-funded tech startup as the sixth member of Kodo Card. Yash describes Kodo as the Brex of India. It provided credit cards for Indian startups and had raised an $8.7 million seed round. Yash was their first credit card salesman.

“I’d make hundreds of cold calls a day and get us a bunch of new customers,” says Yash. “Kodo taught me how startups go from zero to one. Also, it taught me the importance of just smiling and dialing. Cold calling, emailing, and figuring out systems.”

After a successful year with Kodo Card, Yash caught the remote work wave of the 2020s and switched from Indian startups to Silicon Valley startups with a job at Solid, formerly known as Wise (not to be confused with Wise, formerly known as TransferWise). Solid was a banking-as-a-service company that allowed any business to become a mini-bank. Here, Yash learned about the tech side of startups and the finer points of enterprise B2B sales.

Digitally switching shores, Yash noticed a handful of differences between the Indian and US startup scenes. For example, Indian startups tended to be scrappier, but US startups tended to strive for better quality.

“In India, because labor costs are low, companies like to overhire and throw people at problems,” he says. “In the US, people are more careful about what they deliver.”

Yash loved being on the ground floor of businesses and helping build their sales processes. Once things started to slow down, he was normally out of his element and looking for his next role. Therefore, after eight months at Solid, he was itching to move on. 

Yash left the business and, for the next year, used his internet connection to jump between eight different head of growth roles in the Bay Area.

But these roles were just to pay the bills while Yash worked on his real project, a private marketing consulting business called Import Growth.

The Glory Days of Facebook Ads

By the time Yash started Import Growth in 2020, he could build his own teams and automate his work at most businesses within a month or two. Building an agency was short work.

“My sales roles at all of these companies eventually became marketing,” he says. “I knew essentially how to create these B2B marketing systems using things like LinkedIn messaging automation.”

Import Growth specialized primarily in paid media like Facebook ads. Yash was confident about selling on Facebook and liked the industry standard for ad payments as a percentage of revenue. His experience selling to startups also taught him that technical founders were a perfect target.

“Engineers don’t necessarily know how to best sell their products,” says Yash. “We’d try to partner with their teams and become their outsourced CMO.”

Initially, Import Growth was a private consultancy, but Yash brought in good money and expanded his team to four people. In just a few months, on the back of his revenue-share agreements, the agency netted five figures in MRR. But the good times were short-lived. One year later, Yash needed to drastically alter his business or risk losing everything he’d built.

The Switch to Influencer Marketing

In late 2021, Yash was in crisis. Facebook drastically reduced the targeting capabilities of Facebook ads to comply with user privacy concerns. He claims many of his campaigns stopped performing. As a result, Import Growth’s profits from revenue share plummeted. 

Searching for a way to survive, Yash decided he’d create an influencer-focused agency. Many of his clients increased traffic using influencers on platforms like YouTube and TikTok. Much more than they could obtain from word of mouth or even ads.

“Influencer marketing is word of mouth at scale,” says Yash. “In marketing, one person talks to one hundred. Influencer marketing is one person talking to fifty thousand.”

Yash decided to create small communities of influencers for ecommerce brands. Again, he used his sales skills to contact large numbers of influencers and offer them commissions for helping to promote brands.

“I was building an extended ‘influential sales team’ of commission-only salespeople for our clients,” he says.

The results of a few months of labor were promising. Yash helped one health supplement client called Swell Skin to recruit 75 influencers to promote their brand. It resulted in explosive sales and Swell Skin running out of inventory.

“Most brands struggle to get even a dozen influencers to support them, but we had six times that for this brand in just six months,” says Yash.

Yash met similar success with other clients but still struggled to maintain MRR even though he was working twenty-hour days. He realized he’d never get ahead if he didn’t limit how much time he spent working on the business.

“The agency business was too people-heavy,” he says. “I knew that to get bigger, I’d need to scale the clients while leaving the service the same.”

So Yash followed a popular path in the bootstrapping playbook and began working on a tech product for managing influencers.

Not Every Developer Is to Be Trusted

As an agency, Yash juggled several inadequate SaaS tools and spreadsheets to manage working with influencers. An influencer-specific CRM was the obvious solution.

“You need to pay influencers, track their performance, track when they post content so you can download it and reuse it, and keep them engaged with your brand,” says Yash. “A lot of things need to happen behind the scenes.”

Rather than figure out every little thing his platform should do, Yash started selling the idea of his product and getting feedback. He emailed and direct-messaged 2,000 potential target customers in positions like influencer marketing manager at ecommerce brands. 

“I’d find them on LinkedIn and say, ‘Hey, I’m working on software that will help you save more than five hours a week on your influencer marketing efforts. I want to connect and see if you’d be open to chatting for 15 minutes,’” says Yash.

After a few weeks, Yash spoke to 45 people and got five of them to pay $99 a month with two months of free early access to his program. It was all the validation he needed to start building.

Yash learned the hard way why most businesses use an in-house developer. Initially, he hired an agency because he didn’t want to waste three months looking for a coder. However, Yash’s heart sank when he received the results of his hard-earned money. The MVP the agency sent over wasn’t anywhere close to what he wanted; it was poorly designed with shoddy font choices, bad copy, and buttons that wouldn’t work.

“I knew I wanted my MVP to be something I would be proud to show early customers,” says Yash.

Burned but not ready to back down, Yash spent months looking for and hiring an in-house developer. He eventually found one on an online job board and managed to launch a successful MVP for SARAL. However, a few months later, the developer proved too unreliable to stay on the team.

“You can’t build a great product with mediocre people,” says Yash. “My first dev faked his own grandmother’s death to go to a crypto conference. Since then, I’ve found people from your network are usually better because of the trust factor.”

SARAL went live in December 2022, and developer issues aside, it was soon apparent Yash had found the right niche. SARAL earned over $1 million by the end of 2023 with over 200 customers. As of the early months of 2024, the business packs a premium starting subscription price of $499 per month and is gaining more customers every day.

That nice car and fancy suit don’t seem too far off for Yash anymore.

Entrepreneurship Is Like Eating Glass

In hindsight, Yash still believes ditching engineering school for sales was the right decision. He thinks anyone who wants to run a business should get into marketing and sales rather than spending years learning tech.

“Engineers tend to be more about the features and the nitty gritty whereas in sales and marketing, understanding people is more important,” he says. “If you want to do your own thing, you should get into sales and marketing.”

However, Yash wants people to understand entrepreneurship is hard and rarely very sexy.

“People get into entrepreneurship thinking it’s cool and you can raise money with nothing but a slide deck,” says Yash. “It’s actually very hard. It feels like eating glass and staring into the abyss.”

But Yash taught himself to embrace the challenges of entrepreneurship by learning to expect the worst.

“I follow a quote that says, ‘Take how hard it’s going to be, multiply it by ten, and then make it ten times harder and that’s what it’s going to be,’” he says.

Finally, in the future, Yash wants to be more than just a successful founder. He hopes his business will help change the Indian startup ecosystem. 

“For the last 25 years, India was known for its outsourced tech services economy,” he says. “It will now be known for the world-class products it makes. I hope SARAL will lead the way in turning India into a product nation.”

Betting your future on sales sounds like a wild gamble to some. But building a startup is more or less the same bet.

Yash’s decision to become a salesman was perhaps the only possible way he could prepare himself for the hardship of becoming a startup founder. No matter when you do it, entrepreneurship is always a crazy bet. Only in hindsight does it seem right.

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