The Untamed Journey of Leaving College Turned into an Online Entrepreneur

2022 was a crazy year for Siddharth Rao. Dentsu Creative Bengaluru, which he headed, won the Cannes Lions Agency of the Year – but Sidharth left it to start something new. It’s all part of a heart-stopping long entrepreneurial journey that began at the age of 20.

July 2016: “Make us famous.” Those were the exact instructions Sidharth Rao received from his new boss, Ashish Bhasin, who had just taken over as the head of Dentsu Aegis in India. Advertising Network International acquired Webchutney Studio, the online agency Sidharth co-founded (with Sudesh Samaria), in 2013.

Cut to July 2022: Dentsu Creative Bengaluru (formerly Dentsu Webchutney) becomes the first agency outside India To win the Cannes Lions Agency of the Year awardIt is arguably the highest honor an agency can hope to win. This victory came on the back of a campaign created by Sidharth’s team: Vice .’s Unfiltered History Tour (US-based news website). Created during the worst of Covid events, it focused on objects stolen from around the world now residing in the British Museum.

Sidharth – ‘Sid’ for everyone – receives a letter from Bhasin shortly after winning. It’s as succinct as the original directive: “I submitted the abstract.”

Ironically, Sid quit Dentsu a month before this major victory. Does he regret not entering the international arena?

“Oh not at all! I can’t get any credit for the Unfiltered History campaign except for getting the project green lighted. Webchutney has won major awards years ago, but I’ve never been on stage,” he stated. He has already decided to quit and it doesn’t seem like he should just stay in Cannes and quit after a few months. That will make Dentsu look bad – and he owes a lot to the network.

pause. “Actually, I don’t even see myself as an advertisement guy. I think of myself as an online entrepreneur.”

It’s been an arduous journey for this college dropout, the son of an Army major, for the past 23 years. “I almost gave up a few times along the way,” he admits.

His story is quite entertaining the way he tells it. It involves minimizing hard work while at the same time highlighting his mistakes. This is just master style. Maybe because he suffers from Impostor Syndrome, something he admits? This condition is defined as “a feeling of inadequacy despite clear signs of success”.

After school, Syed got his parents’ permission to take a year off while he explored the possibilities. He joined DDB Mudra at 19, and later moved briefly to Gray where he was fired. I met him around 2000 when we were just starting out! (Now afaqs!) And he was putting together Gutterspace, a site in the same place. It sounded great – “Better than Agencyfaqs!” He kindly mocks me – and it has earned him commissions to build corporate websites. This is how I was born and raised.

Siddharth leads his team from the front at the age of 20

Siddharth leads his team from the front at the age of 20

Since he was financially strapped, he had collected Rs 11 lakh when he was twenty years old. He scoffs at the amount now but I find it wonderful that any young person could make any money at all in India at that time. The entire country had less than half a million Internet connections.

The internet was still a baby and Webchutney was among only a few creative agencies. She won her first Golden Abby for the MakeMyTrip campaign which went viral before ‘viral’ became a thing. But finding the money to grow has always been a headache.

When he decided in 2005 that Webchutney needed to be part of an ad network, there were several suitors – “hamare swayamvar main sab aaye”He remembers with satisfaction. Although not a big deal, he got an individual investor on board for Rs 60 lakh.

It sorted out the immediate financial problems but that particular dark cloud kept flying: he didn’t have enough cash to expand. “That’s when I dug a nice deep hole for myself,” Syed reveals.

The hole was drilled when Webchutney, a creative agency, ventured to purchase media for MakeMyTrip in 2007. It bought media worth Rs 1.5 crore per month which was paid in advance but was able to secure a 120-day credit line from Google for advertising. This gave the agency a strong short-term positive cash flow that it could use to grow.

But Syed, 28, didn’t have much financial discipline. When MakeMyTrip decided to transfer the media purchase to one of the ad networks, thus canceling the arrangement with Webchutney, the agency didn’t have the money to get rid of the accounts. Syed had 21 days to find the money. Or close the shop.

In a dramatic gesture, Syed swore to his desperate team “I’ll find the money – and until that happens, I won’t change my shirt.” This is how he wore the same shirt for 21 straight days – “even though I washed it every night” he explains hastily as I curl my nose.

The phone has worked relentlessly like a man who has days to live. Syed is grateful that Ajit Balakrishnan of Rediff was so quick to offer the investment. In search of a better option, contact Haresh Chawla, then Group CEO at Viacom18. Time was running out and soon the two signed a deal: Capital18, the investment arm of the group, would invest Rs 8 crore for a majority stake.

Webchutney studio survived.

Syed can’t stop praising Haresh who now describes him as a close friend and mentor as well as Sarbvir Singh, then Chairman of Capital18. “They were like new age parents. They trusted me and let me fly. This is how my belief in myself as an entrepreneur and angel investor grew.” (Sid has made about 20 funded investments so far.)

It was an informal relationship based on trust. And when things went wrong, Syd won a sharp rap on knuckles, often at Toto Garage, Bandra’s pub.

In general, it seems to have worked. When Capital18 exited Webchutney in 2013, it had earned 3 times as much on its investment, according to an official statement at the time. According to Sid, this does not include the 12x return earned by Webchutney with an investment of Rs 2.5 crore in Network Play, an ad network that was later acquired by German media giant Bertelsmann.

Webchutney Studios’ new partner was Dentsu who was headed up by Rohit Ori. How did the change of ownership make a difference in his life?

I did not expect a response.

“Dentsu got into the position of CFO, Benny Augustine. Honestly, I was suspicious at first. But over time I realized that instilling financial discipline in a stranger like me was a game changer.” Profitability has started to rise year on year: Last year Dentsu Webchutney/DentsuMB reached around Rs 80 crore with EBIDTA of around Rs 32 crore: things couldn’t get much better than a 40 per cent margin.

He also changed his approach to business management. “For the first 14 years, I worked my ass off. But gradually I started embracing the concept of ‘lazy entrepreneurship’ – hiring the best people as possible and getting out of the way. I saw myself as Webchutney’s lead HR guy.”

and to the investments of its owners. Many of them were earlier than their era. Some examples: Crude Area, an online platform for selling graphic art; Bombay Beach, plaid on American gossip site, Joker; JuxtConsult, an online market research firm that wanted ComScore for India. The old saying that “timing is everything” is not far-fetched.

“The thing I learned about making investments is: bet on money only if you know the founders really well. Or otherwise, stick with the big boys and invest where they do,” Syed believes. While most of the investments have dwindled, his big hits have been Pepper Content and ScoopWhoop, each of which he claims has given him a 20-fold return.

He is also very optimistic about two other companies he has invested in – Invideo, an online video editing platform, and Lio, an app that helps small and medium-sized businesses organize their information. “You’ll hear a lot about both,” he promises.

What attracts him to angel investing? Is it money? Or what? “It’s the excitement of creating something new. Honestly I also feel privileged to work with these talented entrepreneurs.”

Sid has already started creating what he thinks will be the next big thing. Because, as I realized, he couldn’t resist gambling. It is not surprising, then, that his new project has been called Punt Partners Co-founded with Bengaluru-based serial entrepreneur Madhu Sudhan.

The duo’s basic premise at Punt is that, over the past century, ad agencies have helped companies gain customers through the use of advertising. In contrast, marketers do not have an equivalent ad agency to help them retain customers in the age of choice momentum. All marketers have is a variety of tech companies that offer a bewildering variety of retention tools. If Punt can get what you want, it will be the number one customer retention agency for marketers.

It’s an interesting project that I expect to hear a lot more about in the coming years.

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