The wild ride of a college dropout turned internet entrepreneur

2022 has been a crazy year for Sidharth Rao. The Dentsu Creative Bengaluru he heads up won Agency of the Year at the Cannes Lions – but Sidharth gave it up to start something new. It’s all part of a long entrepreneurial journey, starting at the age of 20.

July 2016: ‘Make us famous.’ That was the exact instruction Sidharth Rao received from his new boss, Ashish Bhasin, who had just taken over as director of Dentsu Aegis in India. The international ad network acquired Webchutney Studio, the online company Sidharth co-founded (with Sudesh Samaria), in 2013.

By July 2022: Dentsu Creative Bengaluru (formerly Dentsu Webchutney) has become the first company outside of India to win the Agency of the Year award in Cannes, arguably the highest honor a company has. can hope to win. This victory comes from the campaign created by Sidharth’s team: The Unfiltered History Tour for Vice (a US-based news website). Created during the worst of Covid, it focuses on objects stolen from around the world and is currently housed in the British Museum.

Sidharth – “Sid” to everyone – received a text from Bhasin shortly after his victory. It is as concise as the original directive: ‘You have provided summary information.’

Ironically, Sid quit Dentsu a month before this great victory. Does he regret not being on the international stage?

“Oh, not at all! I received no credit for the Unfiltered History campaign except for giving the project the green light. Webchutney has won major awards for years but I have never been on stage,” he declared. He decided to give up and it didn’t seem right that he should just stay in Cannes and quit a few months later. It would make Dentsu look lousy – and he’s heavily indebted to life.

Pause. “In fact, I don’t even consider myself an advertiser. I think of myself as an internet trader.”

It’s been a wild ride for this college dropout, the son of a major general in the army, for the past 23 years. “I almost gave up a few times along the way,” he admits.

His story is incredibly interesting the way he tells it. It involves reducing the hard work while highlighting his own mistakes. That’s just Sid’s style. Could it be that he suffers from ‘imposter syndrome’, which he admits? This condition is defined as a ‘feeling of let down despite clear signs of success’.

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After school, Sid was allowed a year off by his parents while exploring the possibilities. He joined DDB Mudra at the age of 19, then moved to Gray briefly, where he was fired. I met him around 2000 when we started as agents! (now afaqs!) and he is putting together Gutterspace, a website in the same space. It looks great – “better than agencyfaqs!” he taunted me lightly – and it got him tasked with making websites for companies. That’s how Webchutney was born.

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

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

Cash-strapped, he raised Rs 11 lakh by the time he was 20 years old. He scoffed at the money now but I find it remarkable that a young person could raise any money in India at the time. The country has less than half a million internet connections.

The internet is still in its infancy, and Webchutney is just one of a handful of innovative companies. It won its first Golden Abby for a MakeMyTrip campaign that went viral before ‘going viral’ was even a thing. But finding the cash to grow is a constant headache.

When in 2005 he decided that Webchutney needed to be part of an ad network, a lot of people suggested – “Hamare swayamvar main sab aaye”, he recalls satisfied. While a big deal didn’t happen, he managed to get an individual investor for Rs 60 lakh.

It sorted out money troubles ahead, but that particular dark cloud continued to hover: he didn’t have enough cash to expand. “And that’s when I dug a nice, deep hole for myself,” Sid reveals.

The vulnerability was dug when Webchutney, an advertising agency, ventured to buy media for MakeMyTrip in 2007. It bought media worth 1.5 crore per month and was paid upfront but tried to Guaranteed 120-day credit line from Google for ads. This has given the company a solid short-term positive cash flow that it can use to grow.

But Sid, just 28 years old, doesn’t have much financial discipline. When MakeMyTrip decided to move the media purchase to one of the ad networks and thus ended its agreement with Webchutney, the agency did not have the funds to settle the accounts. Sid has 21 days to find the money. Or close the store.

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In a dramatic gesture, Sid swore to his frustrated team that “I’ll find the money – and until that happens, I won’t change my shirt.” That’s how he wears the same shirt for 21 days – “even though I wash it every night” he hastily excuses as I wrinkle my nose.

He works on the phone non-stop like a man with days to live. Sid is grateful that Rediff’s Ajit Balakrishnan quickly offered to invest. Looking for a better option, he called Haresh Chawla, then Group CEO at Viacom18. Time is running out and the two quickly sign an agreement: Capital18, the investment arm of the group, will invest Rs 8 crore for the majority of the shares.

Webchutney Studio already exists.

Sid couldn’t stop praising Haresh, whom he now describes as a close friend and mentor, as well as Sarbvir Singh, the then-capital18 boss. “They are like new age parents. They trusted me and allowed me to fly. That’s how my faith in myself as an entrepreneur and angel investor grew.” (Sid has made about 20 angel investments so far.)

It is an informal relationship, based on trust. And when things go awry, it won’t give Sid a rap clear on the knuckles, most often at Toto’s Garage, a pub in Bandra.

Overall, it seems to have worked. When Capital18 exited Webchutney in 2013, it tripled its investment, according to an official statement at the time. According to Sid, this does not include the 12 times the return Webchutney received from the Rs 2.5 investment it made in Network Play, an ad network that was later acquired by German media giant Bertelsmann repurchase.

Webchutney Studios’ new partner was Dentsu, which was then headed by Rohit Ohri. How has the change of ownership made a difference to his life?

The answer is not what I expected.

“Dentsu has received a CFO, Benny Augustine. To be honest, I was skeptical at first. But over time, I realized that applying financial discipline to a freak like me was changing the game.” Profitability started to increase year after year: last year, Dentsu Webchutney / DentsuMB peaked at almost Rs 80 crore with EBIDTA around Rs 32 crore: things couldn’t be much better than a 40% return .

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His approach to running the business also changed. “For the first 14 years, I did my best. But slowly I started to accept the concept of ‘lazy start-ups’ – that is, hire the best people you can and get out of the way. I consider myself the main human resources officer at Webchutney. “

And his angel investments. Many of them were ahead of their time. Some examples: Raw Area, an online platform for selling graphic art; Bombay Bitch, modeled on the American gossip site, Gawker; JuxtConsult, an online market research company wants to be the ComScore for India. The old saying that ‘time is everything’ is not false.

“What I learned about investing is: only bet money if you know the founders well. Or else, stick with the big boys and invest where they do,” thought Sid. Although most investments have fallen, his major successes are Pepper Content and ScoopWhoop, each of which he claims has brought him 20 times returns.

He’s also extremely bullish on two other companies he’s invested in – Invideo, an online video editing platform, and Lio, an app that helps small and medium businesses organize their information. “You’ll hear a lot about both,” he promised.

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

Sid has already started creating what he thinks will be his next big thing. Because, as I have realized, he can never resist a fool. It is therefore no surprise that his new venture is called Punt Partners which he co-founded with Bengaluru-based serial entrepreneur Madhu Sudhan.

The duo’s basic premise for Punt is that advertising agencies have, over the past century, helped businesses acquire customers through the use of advertising. In contrast, marketers have no equivalent advertising agency to assist them in retaining customers in the age of choice. All marketers have is a bunch of tech companies that offer a variety of retention tools. If Punt could get its way, it would be the top customer retention agency for marketers.

It’s an interesting business that I look forward to hearing a lot about in the years to come.


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