The wild ride of a college dropout turned internet entrepreneur

2022 is a crazy year for Siddharth Rao. Dentsu Creative Bengaluru, which he headed, won the Cannes Lions Agency of the Year Award – but Siddharth left it to start something new. It’s all part of a long, heart-stopping entrepreneurial journey that began at 20.

July 2016: ‘Make us famous.’ That was the exact instruction Siddharth Rao received from his new boss, Ashish Bhasin, who recently took over as head of Dentsu Aegis in India. The international advertising network acquired Webchutney Studio, an online agency Siddharth co-founded (with Sudesh Samaria) in 2013.

Cut to July 2022: Dentsu Creative Bengaluru (formerly Dentsu Webchutney) has become India’s first agency to win Cannes Lions Agency of the Year, the highest honor an agency can hope to win. The win comes on the back of a campaign created by Siddharth’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 now in the British Museum.

Siddharth – ‘Sid’ to all – receives a message from Bhasin soon after the win. It’s as succinct as the original directive: ‘You deliver on the brief.’

Ironically, Sid left Dentsu a month before this great victory. Does he regret not coming to the international stage?

“No, not at all! I can take no credit for the Unfiltered History campaign other than giving the project the green light. Webchutney has been winning big awards over the years but I have never been on stage,” he declares. He had already decided to leave and it didn’t seem right that he should stay only for Cannes and leave after a few months. It would make Dentsu look bad – and he owes a lot to the network.

a pause “Actually, I don’t even consider myself an adman. I consider myself an Internet entrepreneur.”

This college dropout, son of a Major General in the Army, has had a wild ride over the last 23 years. “I gave up many times along the way,” he admits.

The way he tells his story is very funny. This includes playing hard work while highlighting your own mistakes. That’s just Sid’s style. Maybe it’s because he suffers from ‘imposter syndrome’, something he admits to? This condition is defined as a ‘feeling of inadequacy despite signs of apparent success’.

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After school, Sid got his parents’ permission to take a year off while exploring opportunities. He joined DDB Mudra at the age of 19, later went to Gray for a while where he was fired. I met him around 2000 when we were starting AgencyFacs! (Now the afaks!) And he was putting together Gutterspace, a site in that space. It looked great – “Better than AgencyFax!” He teases me gently – and it won him an assignment to build websites for corporates. This is how Webchutney was born.

Siddharth leads his team by 20 runs

Siddharth leads his team by 20 runs

At the age of 20, he accumulated Rs 11 lakh for cash. That amount is scoffed at now but I find it remarkable that any young man in India at that time could raise any amount of money. The entire country had less than half a million Internet connections.

The Internet was still a baby and Webchutney was just one of a couple of creative agencies. It won its first Golden AB for the MakeMyTrip campaign that went viral before it went ‘viral’. But finding cash to grow was a constant headache.

When in 2005 he decided that Webchutney needed to be part of the ad network, there were many suitors – “All came to our Swayamvar”‘, she recalls with satisfaction. No big deal, he put an investor on board for 6 million.

That sorted the immediate money problem but that particular dark cloud continued to hover: he didn’t have enough cash to expand. “And that’s when I dug myself a nice, deep hole,” Sid explains.

Webchutney, a creative agency, made a foray into media buying for MakeMyTrip in 2007. It bought media worth Rs 1.5 crore per month which was paid upfront but managed to secure a 120-day line of credit from Google for advertising. . This gave the agency a solid short-term positive cash flow that it could use to grow.

But 28-year-old Sid didn’t have much financial discipline. When MakeMyTrip decided to shift media buying to one of the ad networks and hence canceled its arrangement with Webchutney, the agency didn’t have the cash to square the accounts. Sid had 21 days to find the money. Or close up shop.

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In a dramatic gesture Sid vows to his distraught team that “I’ll find the money – and until I do, I won’t change my shirt.” Thus he wore the same shirt for 21 days – “even though I washed it every night” he clarifies hastily as I wrinkle my nose.

He worked tirelessly like a man who lives on the phone all day. Sid is grateful that Rediff’s Ajith Balakrishnan offered a quick investment. Looking for a better option, he called Haresh Chawla, then Group CEO of Viacom18. Time was running out and the two soon signed a deal: Capital 18, the group’s investment arm, would invest Rs 8 crore for a majority stake.

Webchutney Studio survived.

Sid can’t stop praising Haresh who he now describes as a close friend and mentor as well as Capital18 owner Sarveer Singh. “They were like new age parents. They believed in me and allowed me to fly. That’s how my confidence grew as an entrepreneur and angel investor.” (SID has invested about 20 angels so far.)

It was an informal, trust-based relationship. And when things went wrong, it earned Sid a sharp rap on the knuckles, often at Toto’s Garage, a Bandra pub.

All in all, it seems to work. When Capital18 exited Webchutney in 2013, it earned 3X its investment, according to an official statement at the time. According to Syd, that doesn’t include the 12x return WebChatney got on its $2.5 million investment in Network Play, an ad network that was later acquired by German media giant Bertelsmann.

Webchutney Studios’ new partner was Dentsu, led by Rohit Ohri. How has the change of ownership changed his life?

The answer is not what I expected.

“Dentsu happened to have a CFO, Benny Augustine. To be honest, I was skeptical at first. But over time I realized that instilling financial discipline in a crazy person like me was a game changer. Profits started to grow year after year: Last year, Dentsu Webchutney/DentsuMB had reached a topline of around Rs 80 crore with an EBIDTA of around Rs 32 crore: things couldn’t have been much better than a 40 per cent margin.

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His approach to running a business also changed. “For the first 14 years, I worked my ass off. But gradually I started adopting the concept of ‘lazy entrepreneurship’ – that is, hire the best people you can and get out of the way. I saw myself as the main HR guy at Webchutney. .”

And in his angel investment. Many of them were ahead of their time. Some examples: Crude Area, an online platform for selling graphic art; Bombay Bitch, an American gossip site, featured on Gawker; JuxtConsult, an online market research firm that wanted to be ComScore for India. The old adage that ‘time is everything’ has not faded.

“The thing I’ve learned about investing is this: only bet money if you know the founders well. Otherwise, stick with the big boys and invest where they do,” muses Sid. While most investments have tanked, his biggest hits are Paper Stuff and ScoopHoop, each of which he claims has returned him 20 times.

He is also very excited about two other companies he has invested in – Invideo, an online video editing platform and Lio, an app that helps small and medium-sized businesses manage their information. “You’re going to hear a lot about both,” he promised.

What attracts him to angel investing? Is it money? or what? “It’s the excitement of creating something new. To be honest, I’m happy to work with such talented entrepreneurs.”

Sid is already creating what he thinks is his next big thing. Because, as I realized, he could never resist a punt. So, his new venture is called Punt Partners which he has co-founded with Bengaluru-based serial entrepreneur Madhu Sudhan.

The pair’s basic premise for the punt is that advertising agencies have, over the past century, helped businesses acquire customers through the use of advertising. In contrast, marketers don’t have the ad agency-equivalent to help with customer retention in an age of choice churn. All marketers have is a smorgasbord of tech firms that offer a variety of retention tools. If Punt can get its way, it will be the leading customer retention agency for marketers.

This is an interesting venture that I hope to hear a lot about in the coming years.

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