Mumbai-based start-up helps businesses find their identity online
Fostering entrepreneurship may not be the purpose of a philosophy department, nor is starting a business the goal of a philosophy student. But by studying Socrates and Descartes, Armand Poonawala realised how the unique aspect of their work could help frame his own thinking.
Armand was studying liberal arts at the New York University (NYU). “Before NYU I wasn’t studious. I never understood why it was necessary to follow the education system. The world did not make sense until I studied Philosophy,” says the 24-year-old CEO of @ (At), an all-in-one social media company.
As he studied Socrates, Armand realised here was “someone who validated my inner most core belief: that the world should make sense to me and that I should not blindly follow authority. It changed my way of looking at things.”
The entrepreneurial journey
At the second year of college, he was exposed to business and economics. “It was then I saw several people leaving their jobs to become entrepreneurs. Most were using the ‘first principle approach’ way of thinking,” he adds.
Realisation dawned that what family and friends were telling him to do – become a graduate, get a job, go to Wall Street, make money and have a family – was superfluous.
“I was against that idea. Life can’t be just that,” he says, and reasoned and broke down why he needed to make money. Around ₹1-2 lakh a month would be enough.
Armand started a social media company to make the required ₹1-2 lakh a month. Conscious reasoning and the teachings of philosophy did not leave him though.
In 2014, when Armand came down to Mumbai to attend a family event, he saw his cousins and friends working at marketing companies for ₹15,000-20,000 a month. “It was ridiculous. Social media companies in the US charge $3,000-5,000 a month. I realised certain components could match and decided to rope in creative people,” he adds.
Armand went back to college with a single purpose. “I pitched and closed three clients (mobile app, restaurant and hover board) in just 2-3 weeks at $500-750 a month. I told them I would provide the same level of service as an agency would in NY. They were paying me $1,500 a month. It was a very easy sale, and it further validated my thinking. Earlier it was just a concept, but bagging these clients was proof that it worked,” he says. But Armand could not legally conduct a business in the US while on a student visa. His need to do more in life got him to participate in NYU Stern’s $300k Entrepreneur’s Challenge. Hosted annually, it is a global accelerator programme and start-up competition.
At that time, he co-founded another company with a friend, a blockchain fintech company, Om Cash, but left soon after “since he was not the CEO”.
Graduating in May 2017, he decided to get down to business. “I had no money at all. My parents did not help out one bit. They are conventional in their thinking and were super convinced this is not how the world works. I was irritated, frustrated, but it was good. I had to do it all on my own,” he reminisces. Armand was soon on a roll. Out of 12 meetings with NY restaurants and small businesses, he closed 10 deals and in two months, went from zero to making $7,500 a month. But he still did not have a company to service them. “The company was going up and suddenly it all came down again. But I couldn’t let this idea go. I will turn this into a billion dollar company, is what I told my parents when I was at the lowest point of my life,” he adds.
Armand lost those initial clients rapidly, with the 10 coming down to four clients, but soon gathered steam and went back to 15 clients in a matter of months.
Social media marketing
Realising that social media marketing is more art than science and given that there is a huge creative component to it, and that the creativity of the entrepreneur lies beyond the capacity of algorithmic automation, two co-founders were roped in.
Successful entrepreneurship also requires creative innovation, says Armand. “An entrepreneur has to use all the resources at his disposal. I am entirely logic driven, whereas my two friends and co-founders are very creative.” Though clients were paying, the business was running neck-to-neck. It was then Armand decided to approach investors and started the hunt early 2018.
It arrived in May 2019 with the firm raising $330,000 through a consortium of angel investors.
The company now has 30 employees from the 10 earlier. “We now have 40 paying clients and another 30 clients on a free demo,” says Armand, adding: “We are making $22,000 a month in revenue and growing by 20 per cent every month.”