How 2 Friends From College Weathered 16 Years of Entrepreneurship & 2 Startups

Hareesh Tibrewala and Sanjay Mehta started their startup journey in 1998. 16 years later, their second venture, Social Wavelength got acquired by JWT.
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Hareesh Tibrewala, 49, believes in destiny. “We don’t create destiny, it creates us,” says Tibrewala, the co-founder of Social Wavelength. 

Last month, advertising giant JWT acquired Social Wavelength, paying off for some of the hard work that went into its making. 16 years is a long time to define persistence by any entrepreneur’s standard. But, Hareesh and Sanjay never gave up.

 “We knew that we would create a big business. But whether we would get acquired or not was entirely a matter of chance,” he says. Getting acquired was probably chance, but building a business was not.

Tibrewala and his colleague Sanjay Mehta were fresh graduates from college in 1981. While he went to work for his father’s HR consultancy firm, Mehta worked for a corporate. The Internet brought them back together in 1998, two years before the dot com bust.

Co-founders Hareesh Tibrewala & Sanjay Mehta
Co-founders Hareesh Tibrewala & Sanjay Mehta

Like many others at that time, they thought it was the perfect setting for an e-commerce company in India. They started one and called it HomeIndia.

 “When we founded HomeIndia, we were hoping that by the year 2000, e-commerce would take off in India.Till about 2007, we waited for size to build up, but it did not happen,” says Tibrewala.

In 2000, they came into some luck. HomeIndia got an acquisition offer from a company based abroad. “The company was willing to buy us out,” recalls Tibrewala. The deal did not pan out and he returned home empty handed.

For nearly 10 years, the duo worked at the company and finally sold it to Chennai based Net Avenue Tech in 2007. It was back to a corporate job for both of them.

Social Wavelength

 Entrepreneurship was hard. And Tibrewala had learned his lessons. But those who have tasted it once, start craving for another fix soon. In 2009, Tibrewala was ready for it again. He was 44, and had some serious ideas around social media.

Hareesh, Sanjay & VP - Mihir Karkare
Hareesh, Sanjay & VP – Mihir Karkare

“Was it tough deciding to move from corporate life? Of course it was,” he recalls. But one thing that he’d been missing at the corporate is that he was never the “final boss.”

He says

We were absolutely scared. We were leaving a corporate job. There’s definitely a risk, you stop the monthly pay check and get into the risk mode and we are not sure whether we will succeed or not. Somewhere, there was confidence that something will happen.

But in the end, passion won over.

“In a corporate, you’re not living life with your own conviction, and as an entrepreneur, even if your kingdom is small, you’re still the king,” says Tibrewala, who had spent a good part of their youth as a struggling entrepreneur.

Age has Nothing to Do With It

Being young has nothing to do with running a startup. He feels that the age debate is a media creation. “Generally, success comes at an older age, all the others are exceptions,” he says.

Starting Up Again

 This time again, Hareesh & Sanjay were in it together. The began work out of a 150 sq ft office in Mumbai. Like in any startup, it always worried him if he could meet payroll the next month or sign up new customers for their service.

Team Social Wavelength
Team Social Wavelength

 “When you ask someone to join, there’s always the concern – will you be able to pay my salaries? Getting initial clients was challenging because no one knew social media. People had to put faith in you to make something happen,” he recalls. This is where trust comes into play.

Gaining Trust

 Your first few customers are usually people who know you well. “Generally, the first 5 people who buy from you or join you are people who trust you. They may not trust what you’re selling.They may not even know what is social media, but being friends and relatives they’ll put their faith in you.”

The Social Wavelength Team
The Social Wavelength Team

One of their early customers didn’t even get what Social Media was, but committed to pay them Rs 10,000 a month. “Thanks to that, we got future clients,” he recalled.

 “The biggest thing to convince was that the world has changed, and we’ll need to use Facebook and Twitter like you have never used it before” says Hareesh.

Businesses were very skeptical of using Facebook as a medium at the time.

Building Brand Social Wavelength

 Eventually, they built a brand and acquired clients by attending and speaking at conferences. “Typically any event happening in e-commerce, social media, digital media – every fortnight that it happened, we made sure we were speakers at the event. I think in the last 5 years I must have spoken at about 100 events,” he says.

At such events, Tibrewala would try to be his most visible self.

Dividing Work Between Two Founders

Hareesh and Sanjay also worked from the ground up to acquire clients and build their brand. They made a clear division of work between themselves – Hareesh focussed on the bottom line, while Sanjay worked on the topline. Sanjay spent his time out in the market talking to people, making pitches and acquiring clients. Meanwhile, Hareesh made sure he focussed on delivering the business.

Lessons from HomeIndia that helped Build Social Wavelength

Co-founders Hareesh Tibrewala & Sanjay Mehta (1998)
Co-founders Hareesh Tibrewala & Sanjay Mehta (1998)
  • Always scale very fast: Hareesh believes that scaling fast is key to succeeding. While they took time to scale at Home India, they made sure they acquired both people and clients quickly, right from day one. Social Wavelength started with 5 people, but scaled over 3 years to become a 170 member strong team.

  • As entrepreneurs you should be a little less forgiving to yourselves:  At Home India, Hareesh and his team used to constantly miss yearly targets that were set. “Earlier when we couldn’t meet targets we used to make our own excuses, saying that the market wasn’t present, e-commerce wasn’t happening, but, that doesn’t help finally,” he says. This time round, they made sure they met targets and didn’t forgive themselves for missing them.

The JWT Acquisition

JWT had commissioned Social Wavelength for a project a few years before the acquisition. After having met the team, and understanding the work, the JWT team approached them for an acquisition offer of majority stake in the company.

“We thought on our own if we plan on reaching the target in 5 years, with them, maybe we can reach it in two years. From every angle it made sense to make this happen,” says Hareesh.

Moral of the story? There’s a lot more to a startup than what hits the headline.

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