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Sharon Lobo

IWB Blogger

Naiyya Saggi Gets Candid About Snoozing While Running A Fast Growing Startup

  • IWB Post
  •  September 13, 2017

I walk into a glass building. Here it is, the board that reads BabyChakra in bright blue and pink. I can see through the glass, a team sitting immersed in their screens. I can already feel the bustling energy.

She is sitting at the end of a long table, earphones plugged in while everyone around the table looks too busy. She greets me with her usual cheerful smile. I have always wondered how she manages to create a sense of magic around her. She blends in perfectly with the team, smashing all barriers of hierarchy.She leads me towards a corner cabin.

Naiyya Saggi, apart from being a great inspiration in my life, is the founder of BabyChakra and has many credits to her name. I am glad to have got an opportunity to interview her and discuss her entrepreneurial journey.

In the initial days, your co-founder decided to leave the company, how did you manage after that?

If I really think about the company as a whole, we had reached a stage very early where we had a really strong team. Some people had been there for 2 years, it’s a lifetime for a start-up. In the tech team, we had people who were really passionate about what we were building, and they really wanted to stay on the journey.

So, we made the relevant hires, and that’s what probably helped us.

During your journey, did you face difficulties because you were a woman entrepreneur?  

I remember two such situations distinctly. I was asked if I was planning to have a baby anytime soon. This was very early on in our fundraising journey. And I found it quite hilarious actually, probably it was the best thing to happen to the business if the founder decides to have a baby. But on the flip side, it made me a little angry because I assumed a man would have never been asked a question like that. So, there were different strokes for different folks.

The second instance occurred in a conversation with a client. I had gone with a junior male team member, and the client just kept on looking at the male team member. That was just the initial bit. When I started talking and explaining, the client very quickly realized who the boss is. So, I think these are perceptions you combat in many ways every day. But that said again, what really matters is what you’re creating and your team really looks at you as an entrepreneur vs. a woman. So, I think it has worked for me in many ways.

You are not from the tech background. Did it hold against you?

No, not today. Not anymore.

But it was in the initial days?  

Yes, because they were not sure how would I build, how would I scale, how would I deploy. It’s not anymore because I think one thing a founder needs to have is to be very aware of what his/her weaknesses and strengths are. As a founder, you are playing to your strengths. ALWAYS. In playing to your strengths, you are working on your weaknesses. Tech was never a strength of mine, in terms of executing on tech. So, we figure out ways of making it work. Initially, in the very first few months, we outsourced it completely and then we saw the traction happening. We raised a round of funding. We then in-housed it. So, as a founder, you are constantly looking at the smartest ways to get an outcome.

At the same time, did having a ‘Harvard degree’ give you an upper hand?

Definitely. I have been very privileged I’d say. I had a Mckinsey experience. If you look at the entrepreneurs in India, some of the most successful ventures have been started by Mckinsey folks. I have the Harvard Business school expertise. Plus, I’ll be honest about it, I have one of the strongest professional networks, in the country, probably. There is a definite advantage, a definite privilege I have. I am very cognizant and very grateful and very respectful for it.

Some entrepreneurs also fear that not being from a well-known institution reduces the value of their start-ups. What do you think about it?

Is that what’s going to make us succeed? No. To the entrepreneurs who believe they come from a certain background, my answer to them is it does not matter. Entrepreneurship is a level playing field. You’re starting from scratch with a new product, in a new market with a team you barely know. It’s all about you and your capabilities as an individual that matter. Those are intrinsic, not extrinsic.

Your mom has always been a great influence in your life.

In many ways. My mother was in the IAS. So, my Nana is an ex-army man, and he had three daughters. They lived in Amritsar. In Punjab, having three daughters was like, ‘Oh my god, what are you going to do, how are you going to marry them off, you have to save money.’ But my Nana firmly believed that we just need to invest in the education, not the weddings. So, that was pretty much a mindset he carried, and I think that reflects in the way our family is shaped up.

My mom joined the IAS when she was fairly young. She was a Bengal, cadre officer. She has actually been in riot situations when she had me in her belly. Growing up I saw how she was dealing with a lot of issues. Issues of pushing back when the situation demands. Whatever was right for the district she was serving. Issues of managing work and life. For her, all this was very seamless. Growing up, I had never felt she was a woman IAS officer. She was an IAS officer. I have not grown up with these conceptions of women being any different or at a loss or any lesser than a man in situations. I think that’s the influence she has played on me.

Tell us about your experience meeting Mark Zuckerberg

I went in very nervous because you’re obviously meeting The Mark Zuckerberg. I was really really inspired by his inquisitiveness. It did make me step back and realize all entrepreneurs are the same. Everyone is curious. Everyone is always learning. And he’s like a sponge, he really picks up what’s being discussed. That for me was my biggest takeaway. The amount of inquisitiveness, the openness to learning he demonstrated, I think that was incredibly inspiring.

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Tell us about the fun time in the office.

We do a lot of events. We have done stand-up comedy in our offices. We have tried to have every Friday as happy hours, not always been successful, to be honest. We celebrate every birthday, so there’s always a cake. We also really invest in our team. Recently, two of our team members were nominated for an exclusive event by Google in Bangalore. So, we flew them down to just absorb what new developments google wanted to share. The team is the heart of Babychakra, so if the team is not happy, we are not a happy company.

Your team has grown big really fast, was it intimidating or exciting? How did you feel about it?

There has been a lot of learnings along the way. I won’t say it was intimidating. I think it’s been really rapid learning for us as a company. The first thing we learned, very interestingly for me, people actually value some basic processes. In a start-up, you have a ‘sab kuch chalta hai’ attitude. But then you realize, no, you need to give people feedback on how they are performing. How they can develop themselves better. Give them visibility to their career trajectory in the company as well as the overall professional & personal development in the entire spectrum of their existence. So, we started doing a completely anonymised 360-degree evaluation.

The second thing we figured out quite early and we’ve learned along the way that thoughts and strategy can come from anyone in the company. Some of our brightest ideas and strongest feedback have happened in informal settings. Of course, we’ve done townhalls, and we continue doing that, but frankly, it’s better to do it one on one, in a lift or over a coffee chat.

And the third learning is that the leadership really counts. So, we have been fortunate in building up the second level of leadership. People are really driving their teams and doing the thinking for the development of the team towards the next level. That is something I think is critical to growing the company in a healthy, happy way.

Share with us one mom story that has stayed with you throughout the years.

There are many actually. But there is this particular testimonial that a mom wrote to us. I think my team was overwhelmed as well. She wrote saying, ‘I lost my mother a few weeks before my baby was born and I was counting on her to be my companion on my journey. But I lost her. So, I now have ‘Babychakra.’

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Your app is mom-oriented currently, are you doing anything to get fathers on board?

We definitely are. It’s a great question, Sharon. Personally, for me, parenting is a team play. It’s not that the burden should be on the mom. It’s more of a strategic challenge I’d say. We want to create a very safe haven for parents, and given that the reality today is that 85% of all households decisions are taken by mothers, we want to first create a safe haven for the ones taking most of the decisions around child care, and then we can bring in other elements. That said, we are not one of those platforms that would restrict dads from joining. Some dads are very active members. As a company, you can focus on only one demographic at a time. So, we’ve chosen to focus on mothers to start with.

Do you think fathers are still hesitant in getting involved?

It’s changing somewhat over time, but I think it’s not changing at the rate at which it needs to. Parents are both very involved in raising a child now. There would be a segmentation of decisions a mom takes vs. a dad. Mother takes more day to day nourishment decisions while the father makes critical choices like which pediatrician to go to. The point is, we are trying to create an ecosystem where both of them can learn.

We usually see, when a mom takes care of a child, it is considered a duty while the father gets stars on his shoulders for doing so.

It needs to change. Fathers are doing themselves a disservice. Secondly, I will link it back to women coming back to work. We have the lowest workforce participation of women, 24%. It’s lower than the Middle East. That’s abysmally low. One reason for that is child bearing, and child rearing falls squarely on the shoulders of mothers. One of the big questions that we raised when the maternity benefits bill came out was, why isn’t there a paternity benefits act? An employer should look across the table towards a man or a woman and hire knowing if one of them decides to have a child I will lose them for the same period. We are doing events like breastfeeding events and ask our core demographic, the mums, to get the fathers and their mothers-in-law as well. So, everyone starts feeling they are an equal share holder.

The article Naiyya wrote: Paternity leave: a holiday….

Moving on from work to your personal life, what does your morning routine look like?

Running. I end up waking up after pressing snooze 5 times. I just have a shower and call a cab, and I’m out. That’s my morning routine. It’s nothing fancy.

And how do you de-stress?

I read. I paint. I sleep. I talk to my husband.

What do you like reading?

I have outgrown reading fiction. Unless they are comfortable reads like Agatha Christi. I mainly read non-fiction on startups and innovations. I really enjoy them. So much to learn.

And what about painting?

When I was growing up, I actually wanted to get into product design. Not the product design we know today but actual product designing. I applied to NIT twice, and both times I made to the mains. I went for the psychometric tests and both times they said you’re cut out for management, not design. No. I want to be a designer. So a part of the portfolio which I still have is kind of embarrassing to look at.

If you had to describe your entrepreneurial journey in one word, what would it be?

Resilience. You are like this inflated toy that you keep on pushing, and it keeps on popping back up. It very much makes my story.

If you had to unlearn a few things as an entrepreneur what would they be?

I think in the beginning you always have self-doubts. There are times when I said, ’Naiyya never do this again. Never take this risk again.’ I would definitely want to unlearn that. In fact, I have started unlearning that. I have started taking bigger bolder steps now. Entrepreneurship is all about taking risks. The second unlearning is that when you’re running a venture, it does consume your life but the big thing is that the ecosystem you’re operating in, be it your family, be it your team, never take them for granted. People do say there is a need to hustle and it’s okay to let go. Some other entrepreneurs are not respectful to their team. I want to unlearn that because my team is my biggest asset.

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Recently, the Venture Capitalists have been very careful with investments and people believe the startup bubble is bursting, what message do you want to give to the entrepreneurs who are coping with this?

Don’t chase VC money for the sake of it. As an entrepreneur if your goal is to build your company and create something, work towards that pathway. See Venture Capitalists as partners. Traditional capital came from bank loans, now it’s different. Now you are looking to get capital without proving the model fully. Don’t just build something towards what a VC fund tells you to build. Build what you believe is the company. You are the master of it all.

Has there been a mentor in your life?

Mr. Arun Nanda. He is one of our early investors as well. He is also on the board of Mahindra & Mahindra. He is an amazing elderly gentleman. There is a freshness of perspective he brings in very simple words. It makes me realize the fundamentals of building a  business is the same. At the heart of it all lies healthy revenues, team, market size, and product.

(This post was first published on August 3, 2017)

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