Interview by Varun Shetty in Bangalore

(Santosh Panda was a mentor in the 25Under25 Summit, before which this interview was done)

Tell us a little about Explara.

Explara is a marketplace to discover what is happening in the city and book tickets for them. We bring a variety of events to the marketplace – plays, marathons, entertainment shows, and outdoor activities like trekking. Soon we’ll have movie ticketing as well.

How did the idea for Explara grow in your mind?

I sat down and wrote the problems I could solve. When I started, I told myself that this company is not going to shut down. I’d already shut down two companies. So I wrote down idea after idea and ended up with about 13 or 14. Explara was second on this list. The first one was a recruitment related software. But I heard someone on the radio in London, talking about event managers for an event and thought, “Whoa, what’s happening in the event industry?” So I asked my team to do a little research and we realized that this was a problem in India and there wasn’t the right technology to solve it. We found out that this was a problem we could solve immediately and still be relevant in this next 5 years.

Weren’t there already other companies doing this?

We were lucky – and unlucky at the same time – because we came out first. So there were no peer examples in the market. But there was a problem that existed and we were solving it.

Earlier, you used to work in London and go back and forth between work and your family in India. Tell us about that journey.

In a personal sense, I always had an ongoing struggle. Two of my ventures failed in London. It was very tough at the time. I didn’t have any financial backup and I came from a lower middle class family, so the commitments were difficult. And back then, there was no concept of angel funding; you borrowed a couple of lakhs from your uncle to run a business – forget about crores. But I managed to run it remotely for 3 years, raising Rs. 2.5 crores in sales and providing careers to about 20 people. But a lot of sacrifices had to be made in terms of family and a lot of things were lost in that journey. I didn’t have a co-founder and I wasn’t finding any funding in London. So I was caught between the two and decided to come back to India with a little bit of savings. They weren’t much but I managed to raise some money from a childhood friend and got going.

When you started, you said you didn’t have any peers in the industry. Now there are several big competitors. How is Explara doing anything different than them?

We believe our role is to empower our stakeholders, whether the businesses we work with or our customers. We work in small scale circles whereas our competitors might be looking to make money or expand into larger cities. We are just enablers for people who are on our platform – we provide them all the data they need for their growth, instead of restricting it from them and focusing on ourselves. So philosophically and structurally, that is something we do differently.

From another point of view, we are in the business of democratizing small- and medium-size events and experiences. We want everyone to be able to do things like trekking or attend seminars without having any upfront liabilities. This way the knowledge is going to increase, the social connectivity is going to increase and the life value is going to increase. That’s what we focus on.

One of your early investors said that you had a good product design sense and unimpeachable ethics. As a mentor, what would you say is the more important quality – great sense of product or good ethics?

Good ethics. We can always improve from a business sense at any point in the journey. But without good ethics, you will never win the minds, hearts, and trust of the public. I made sure we never took anyone’s money upfront and made promises to them. When you do that, the customer isn’t going to trust you and eventually your team isn’t going to trust you – no matter how good your product is.

We very candidly laid out that we’ll never take anyone’s money unless we do justice to it. We said upfront that this is how we’ll function and if people moved to someone else, we didn’t have a problem with it. We wouldn’t bend the principles just to get people on board. So laying out the ethics is very important because customers associate reputation with the type of people in the company. For example, Google’s rebranding and creation of Alphabet will not change anything, because there are a core set of values that is associated with the people. So it is important to be ethical and also transparent when you don’t do a good job. You have to be open with your customers and admit you didn’t do a good job and realistically offer to solve it for them. We focused on this mainly and simultaneously improved on the product design as well. Always put the customer ahead.

What have to have been your biggest challenges?

One of the main hardships you will face is convincing people that your idea is something big. But that is okay, I like that. You have to handle many personal hardships though. When I came back to India, I had worked for 8-9 years and had no savings, which is a pretty big deal. And I had to do justice to my company and employees, with the knowledge at all points that I had no money for the next month. This happened for nearly 24 months and it was a very difficult time, especially the 6-7 days spanning the end of a month when I had to draw money and hand it out.

And what, according to you, are your achievements?

One of our biggest achievements is that we have created a culture that is like a melting pot for people from different backgrounds. We have achieved the right balance to attract people from diverse backgrounds. We’re lucky that we can say that customers trust us. When we say we’ll do something, we get it done almost 99% of the time. That is one of our biggest successes.

Do you have a message for the young people you are about to mentor?

Firstly, to anyone who is creating something – grow ambitiously, but grow with cost in mind.

Secondly, build a culture in which people would love to work in. That is one of the larger impacts you can make. With a good culture, you can affect hundreds and eventually millions in the ecosytem.

Lastly, take into account that you may not succeed. There is no second thought about it – whether you’re starting off or whether you’re a successful person, failure is failure. If you’re doing something for the sake of becoming successful , you should never have started in the first place. Failure is part of the system.

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