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Why did build3 come into existence?

Writing about your boss is a peculiar affair. On the one hand, you don’t want to put them on a pedestal since that would make you look like a sycophant. While on the other hand, you don’t want to be overly truthful in case you get axed. But any entrepreneurial story worth its salt unravels the passion and motivations of its founder while making them seem human. So I’m willing to take the risk.

Varun graduated with a degree in Applied Economics and Management from Cornell University; he often quips that he majored in “common sense.” After he graduated from Cornell, he worked as an Equity Researcher at Goldman Sachs in New York City, a position he downplays by referring to it as an overpaid journalist who knew how to do the math. (Being around Varun taught me that your allowance for self-deprecating humour grows in proportion to how accomplished you get)

Varun at Cornell University
Varun is the guy on the left. This was 20 years ago in Cornell when he could drink half a bottle of gin and still make it to his 8 am lecture ;)

Goldman Sachs taught Varun a lot of skills, but he was increasingly disillusioned with his work there and its purpose. He learned the financial wizardry of multiplying money but felt like he was just making the rich richer. His time wasn’t his anymore, and all of it seemed hollow.

That’s when entrepreneurship came as a saving grace…

With a one-way ticket back to India, Varun plunged into the startup scene and started over 8 businesses, some of which became hugely successful. His last venture was 91 springboard, a leader in the co-working space revolution in India that caters to over 18,000 members across 9 cities in India.

By any conventional standard, Varun was the epitome of success. He was rich and well-married, with two beautiful daughters by his side. Yet, there was still something gnawing at his being. Something that drove him to cast away his comfortable position at 91 and start from scratch.

I sat with him to find out more.

Varun at Goldman Sachs
Varun at Goldman Sachs. Clearly, life back then was “work hard, play even harder” ;)

Elton: What bothered you about the world enough to start build3?

Varun: About two and a half years ago, I found myself a few months into Covid and introspecting deeply. I used the Ikigai Framework, which basically asks four important questions. It asks, what are you good at? What does the world need? What can you make money doing? and what do you love doing?

So the intersection of this for me was that I love working with early-stage founders, being creative through the product journey, business model journey, and distribution model journey, like those are the early-stage problems you’re typically solving. I love to do it.

I think I am good at it because I’ve built and done it horribly wrong many times, but also right a couple of times and mentored and worked with about 50 startups. And I’ve read a lot on this topic, so I feel I have above-average knowledge in this area.

Why does the world need it? I feel entrepreneurs make the world a better place. Entrepreneurs have a multiplier effect. When they really get their passion and energy and ability to put together disproportionate resources, they can make a massive multiplier effect in the world. And those looking to make the world a better place through their passion create profit and purpose through their ventures. I want to support that. build3 would have a multiplier effect on the world becoming a better place. So that’s why I think the world needs it. Very few investors and operational supporters also want to back an idea-stage entrepreneur. We are happy to work with entrepreneurs as early as the idea stage.

And what can you be paid for? The thought is that they (early-stage entrepreneurs) don’t have money to pay us a consulting fee, or we can’t create an invoice and get paid today. But if we put in some money, time and effort, knowledge, and connections and bring our communities together, we can co-create something of value. And if we co-create something of value, then we can get a return from that business. It can either pay us back as profits, or a future investor can come into that entity and pay us out.

So it is with this sort of reflection I decided to create a startup studio for early-stage impact startups, startups that will make the world a better place. I will say better for the mind, the body, and the planet’s outcomes. And working operationally with these startups versus just an investor sort of hat on is what I realised was my personal calling; that’s how I could make a difference.

And there build3 was born, and build3’s primary mission is to enable a hundred thousand impact entrepreneurs. Through a startup studio and more and more activities that will provide deferring support for founders going through this journey.

Varun in his college band, The Wookies
The band we never got to see :(

E: You built a bunch of startups in the past. What was different in your approach while creating build3?

V: I wanted to be clear about only working with value-aligned people. Whether they’re investors, vendors, or team members, they must believe in the same purpose, and only then will we join hands.

In the past, I worked with people that could do the job, says an investor who could provide the money but maybe not necessarily agree with the end goal. Or you could work with a vendor that can print signages but not necessarily do it with recycled paper. On this journey, I said I’m consciously gonna work with like-minded, similarly valued, purpose-motivated folks as far as possible.

So we try to do that with our investors, with our team members, with our vendors, with our mentors, with our startups, with everybody. That’s one thing I consciously wanted to do differently.

E: And how did you find these people?

V: So it starts with being very clear about who we are, right?

What is our purpose and our BHAG (big hairy audacious goal)? Then what do we stand for? So documenting our values and taking the time to write that and then revisit it every so often to fine-tune it.

So constantly maintaining that and every time we join a new stakeholder, we use a framework to establish compatibility. This actually comes from a larger framework called “Reinventing Organisations” written by Frederick Laloux. When I read this book, it suggested how humans should organise themselves for maximum comfort, productivity, satisfaction, and freedom. It just seemed to do a lot of these things really, really well. So I just fell in love with it. So I said, I will adopt this framework as we build out build3.

Varun's 42 Birthday
Varun recently turned 42

It helps solve several challenges, including how you deal with conflict, how you do appraisals, how you get feedback, how you do goal settings, how you do meetings, etc. It’s been a God send. So that was one of the important things I said I would do as I build, I’d build with like-minded people, and I followed these principles to build.

I’ve always felt like spiritual organisations did this really, really well. You know, your Isha, Auroville, back when the Mother was around. It was very clear what the community stood for and how it operated. And if you would like to come and bring a skill, then be clear that you must align with the organisation’s values before joining.

If it takes 13 months, we’ll take 13 months, but we’ll do it, right? We’ll do it slowly. What’s the rush? I’m only 41. *chuckles*

E: At build3, we often say we follow a founder-centric approach; what do you mean by that?

V: So it was clear to me that the founders are building businesses that make the world better. The founders are our clients. Sometimes, investors get confused because they think they are the boss since they are writing the check. But they have got it wrong. We provide capability, capital and a community, but it’s all in service to the founder.

Like Sherpas in the Himalayas, we help founders traverse the difficult entrepreneurial terrain. We are supporting them in that journey. We play a support role. It is not for our glory. It’s for their glory. Ideally, it’s for the output they’re producing, which is making millions of lives or tens of thousands of lives better.

That’s what we are enabling the founder to do and go on that journey a little bit faster and higher with fewer missteps. We are in service of the founder. It has to be the founder first. We can’t afford to be full of ourselves while we grow build3.

Varun and Nikit at Build3
Still kicking up trouble at 42 :)

E: Changing directions, you mentioned that work at 91 springboard was growing increasingly unfulfilling. Could you delve into that more?

V: So I think I had two important moments in my life.

One was towards the end of my Goldman Sachs career, where I think I had prioritised money above everything else, and at that point, I took a change in my career path and said, I will not work for others, but I will work for myself, be the best change agent of my own. I will do the best work that needs or can be done, and I will be that change agent; that’s how I got into entrepreneurship.

I tried not to optimise for money but still ensured I was sustainable. I would do things where I had passion and belief that I could make the world a better place. 91 Springboard was initiated to make the entrepreneurial journey easier by providing cheaper office space, access to mentors, investors, clients, and each other, and serendipitous support.

Towards the end of that journey, I felt like we were servicing large enterprises just in their infrastructure needs versus helping early-stage founders holistically. It felt like I had moved away from that. We were creating a lot of value for many corporates and a few startups. It had deferred from the original idea, and when I looked deep inside, I was still committed and excited about the original idea. The original idea was reborn under build3.

E: You had a pretty good paycheck at 91 springboard. Leaving all that and starting afresh with a wife and two beautiful kids at home seems crazy. What drove you to take the plunge?

V: It took me longer to initiate my new journey for precisely the thoughts you shared. There was a sense of comfort and a sense of responsibility to take care of my dependents.

But at some point, that inner voice just says, “Hey, there’s this higher calling that you have; there’s this greater good you can work towards at this point.” At some point, I was like, “Hey, I got to do this. Otherwise, I’m not being true to myself”. It’s worked really well for me. I feel very motivated, excited, and passionate about my work. build3 is definitely my Karma Yoga at this point. I feel like I’m meditative when I work at build3. It does not feel like I am fighting life most of the time. It feels like life is sending many good things my way in support of my belief that this is my calling.

Will I have made a little bit of a positive contribution to the world? Let’s see. Maybe we will talk in 10 years. *chuckles*

Varun doing Yoga at Build3
He’s all about the yogic lifestyle now ;)

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