You should be a pebble in the pond that creates the ripples for change.
~Tim Cook (Apple Inc.)
Large political banners. Stone monuments. Thousands of epic tales and a millenia of heritage. Delhi woke to a fresh morning as my flight hit the tarmac of Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi, on 1st March.
"Chapter 2", I exhaled as I heaved my luggage of the conveyor belt and texted Aman Bhaiya about my arrival .This time I wasn't nervous. The Hackers had taught me better.
Yet like always, I did manage to screw up. I called cab to the wrong pickup point, gave the wrong destination and after about 3 hours and ₹1500 down, I finally found the office space (Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India). A couple of painters and workers were doing some renovation work. I got into an argument with one when I claimed I'd come to stay, but he wouldn't listen saying this villa had already been booked and I couldn't get it.
Hearing this commotion, one of the people inside walked out. Signature black Van Heusen T shirt, knee-length jeans, an ever-dead Apple Watch, square spectacles, gruff beard and an air of confidence and focus that's kind of unique to him. My 2nd meeting with Aman Bhandula, CEO, Farmako.
Building a home
You can dream, create, design, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it requires people to make the dream a reality.
The office space is fondly referred as farm house by everyone. It's a spacious 3 storey villa with a beautiful backyard and lake view. The founders had envisioned the ground floor to be an office space and the upper 2 floors for residence. This phase speaks more about building a home and creating an environment where team members would feel excited to work on something cool.
A lot of the initial days mostly involved setting up equipment. Initially, it was just me and Aman Bhaiya. We ate off of a simple picnic setup of takeaways and towel-tablecloths. We oversaw delivery, management and setup of common household and office equipment.
Aman Bhaiya is what Kaishu Bhaiya jokingly calls a "hackist" - combination of a hacker and an artist. Nikhil Bhaiya will just tease him about dropping out and currently doing managerial and design work, basically non-programming work ("Alt + Click is barely any work" ~Nikhil Kumar).
I personally think he's a great leader, honest friend and most important - a good person. Like the Hackers, he carries his unique entrepreneurial spark coupled with a clear vision, an extremely high pain and patience index and a great heart, fair to everyone.
Case in point : Aman Bhandula won't care about wearing the same design T Shirt (classic black Van Heusen) everyday (hacker) but he will be super skeptical about tiny details such as the font size or the padding when it comes to UI of the website (artist) or say something like the accuracy of the Machine Learning voice recognition model he trained for the SaaS product for doctors.
A week later, Kaishu and Nikhil Bhaiya also showed up from Goa after a series of comic incidents on fighting with packers and movers and a small funny scooter accident to cap it off. To this day, you'll hear Nikhil Bhaiya chuckle - "I always knew travelling with Sahu would someday end in an accident".
Building a culture starts from the place you're expected to do your best work. A lot of thought had been put into the entire setup, right from the principles hung up in the conference room to the design of the bean bags in the break room.
We'd be moving around all day - heaving around things, installing equipment, wiring up an efficient internet connection, mounting bookshelves and a lot more. I still remember the day the work tables and office chairs showed up and the amount of effort and dis-assembling and re-assembling it took to get this massive conference table through a small door.
It is not the beauty of the building you should look at: it’s the construction of the foundation that will stand the test of time.
~David Allen Coe
Post attending my online college lectures during the day (which earned me the reputation of school kid) I'd return to code by late afternoon. I'd get my tasklist from Aman Bhaiya and start shipping code. In late evening, we'd take a small break and play squash, then dinner and then back to ideating on the whiteboard and shipping some more code. The most amazing part about this was that it always felt energizing all the time.
And some crazy moments also did happen. We majorly drank juices and soda for about the first 10 days, since due to some packers & movers issue, our water purifier's delivery was messed up. So barely drank water, and at one point Nikhil Bhaiya got so frustrated that at 11:30 he used the a food delivery service to simply order 3 bottles of water. Another story involved me breaking into farm house from a neighboring villa after locking us out. There's also the incident of me and Aman Bhaiya almost setting fire in the lawn as we tried to barbecue food using wood shards, instead of coal (talk about learning thermodynamics), as fuel.
We even visited Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Roorkee, the college which brought the founders together, birthplace of Farmako. I had a blast glimpsing into their life, sharing their friends, dreams and memories. Kaishu Bhaiya completed the promise he'd made to clean his room once they got accepted into Y Combinator. Aman Bhaiya met old friends and relived nostalgic moments. The 3 of us bunked on mattresses in Madhvendra Singh's (more on him later) room. Cool things I did involved breaking a lock , playing the guitar on a rooftop and slipping into the library or any-place on campus, posing as a student the entire time.
Around this time, I met Ankita Didi, this brilliant, cheery graphic designer in the team, who'd masterminded a lot of the UI/UX work at Farmako whilst simultaneously pursuing her dissertation in engineering. Ankita Didi is the artist in the team. She possesses a natural inner compass of figuring out what looks cool and constitutes great design, kind of like her own crazy Spidey-Sense.
Apart from that, she's this badass elder sister who'll keep advising on following rules and taking care of health, but will joyfully accompany expeditions on doing something crazy, out of bounds (stealing a miniature sauce pan as a memento from her favorite restaurant or trespassing on the most well-kept, off-limits gardens of IIT Roorkee). All things said, she carries a pure heart, sheer willingness to learn, explore and adapt quickly and a dream to build something of her own.
It's just crazy and fitting how this team came together. Birds of a feather.
Each of us is carving a stone, erecting a column, or cutting a piece of stained glass in the construction of something much bigger than ourselves.
~ Adrienne Clarkson
An unsettling worm was eating me on the inside. I'll admit thinking really selfishly about personal growth at that time. So, as much as I enjoyed it, I wanted all of this amazing programming work, minus the other interactions. Seems crazy now, but at that point all I thought was - "What do I get from this ?". Hence, at several points, I thought of quitting and even came real close this one time when under the pressure of backlogged academics and other commitments, I was about the book a flight that very evening and leave all of this behind. Harsh ? I know.
Aman Bhaiya made it very clear that working remotely wouldn't work out hence I had decided to call it quits.
Rationally that would have been a proper decision. But I decided to trust my instinct on this one. Sometimes, you just can't leave people, that's what made me stick and give it 1 final shot. One of my best life choices ever. A lot of qualities I carry as a person today, stem from that one moment of choosing to stick with the idea and the people I'd fallen in love with.
Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. Somehow, they already know what you truly want to become.
~Steve Jobs (Apple Inc)
Also, funny story, the same night, a burglar broke into my parent's house from the balcony where I usually code during the same time. Boy would alternate-universe-me have gotten into deep trouble that night had I quit and returned home
Building a company
Write code. Talk to users.
~Erik Migicovsky (Pebble, Y Combinator)
Cool office ? Check. Insanely passionate team ? Check. Brilliant product vision ? Check. Time to make something people want. And it did go brilliantly. The website was launched, the web app was in final UI stages, the mobile app was gaining users. We were exploring new UI development lifecycle technologies and considering a database migration to a more graph oriented approach with Neo4j
Nikhil Bhaiya was working on the automation of SMS sending and Whatsapp business status. Kaishu Bhaiya was iterating on the mobile app, installing Indian fonts on a receipt machine and some miscellaneous backend work. Aman Bhaiya was coordinating with the setup of our medical store, co-designing UI and company standees with Ankita Didi; managing product, personnel, onboardings and planning the next steps for scaling up the company during summer. I was working on the website's SEO and social-media-bot-tagging, along with design reiterations using valuable feedback from my co-intern Hardik. On free days, I'd accompany Aman Bhaiya on product pitches to nearby laboratories and clinics. Funnily, I was the only person in the team with a driving license and experience for quite some time.
The characteristics of great innovators and great companies is they see a space that others do not.
They don't just listen to what people tell them; they actually invent something new, something that you didn't know you needed, but the moment you see it, you say - "I must have it !"
~Eric Schmidt (ex-Google CEO)
Farmhouse bustled with activity. You could hear Aman Bhaiya on his calls from the conference room, roll your chair over and you'd find Nikhil Bhaiya cursing at some existing software service or API and how he'd one day replace it with his own. I feared that someday, the hacker actually might. Kaishu Bhaiya was quiet most of the time. He'd write some code, walk around to debug some issue, think of product features and then speak little to us about our progress.
Food at a startup is the one thing that is always a great experience, across all startups. After a stressful day, we'd dig into great takeout food, share stories and mock each other the entire time. Kaishu Bhaiya is super into fitness so we'd joke about how he ate dinner by the calorie, only to later gorge on the stocked food as "midnight snacks". Nikhil Bhaiya is super into non-veg so he'd be happy with his own special meal. Aman Bhaiya and I were just too hungry to care.
What I enjoyed most, were the late night walks we went on, in the society, freely talking about problems, dreams, opinions and feelings. Even the aggressive dogs, swarm of mosquitos and impending time pressure would fade away for some time as 4 engineers from different walks of life rediscovered a different kind of family in each other.
Which was a good thing, since what followed would shake us to our core
Good things fall apart. Good people don't though.
It all started falling out of hand beginning with when Aman Bhaiya had to urgently leave, since his family was not doing great, health-wise. Kaishu Bhaiya left a couple days after. Same reason. Ankita Didi was quarantined back in IIT Roorkee. Nikhil Bhaiya and I spent around 5 days before he too had to leave due to some medical emergency in the family. Just all of a sudden, the pandemic had knocked out our breath. What once was a home, buzzing with constant ideas, products and energy felt like an empty vessel of nothingness.
Programming suddenly felt dry. Most things in life did. I couldn't tell the founders this since they were struggling with their own problems and worrying about me would burden them further. So I'd call up Ankita Didi. Her crazy energy would make me forget about most problems and worries about the founders' families. We'd come up with stupid challenges to co-learn new software platforms for UI designing and then laugh by trashing each other's work.
Nikhil and Aman Bhaiya sometimes called and we'd laugh together as they said - "You thought this was going a programming internship......"
Things came around for a short period when Madhvendra Singh, (aka Maadhu Bhaiya) joined. The founders' families were recovering at great rates and living with Maadhu Bhaiya is also real fun.
Maadhu Bhaiya is the typical I-know-people-and-get-shit-done kind of guy. He rocks a classic gold chain and hearty laugh. He's the go to person to discuss when you screw up something really bad. Also he's a a good people-reader and daring risk-taker. We shared a great couple of days of guitar jamming, barbecuing and working on the recruitment of new hires for the summer.
Aman Bhaiya showed up soon after, with his family, having rented 2 more villas in the same society. He'd lost a lot of weight but still managed to pull of his classic energetic, confident, ever-black-Van-Heusen T-shirt-wearing personality. For a brief moment things seemed to stabilize after this long overhaul. And then everything spiraled out of control.
Ruin and Redemption
Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith.
The same night, one after another, 2 medical emergencies struck our team. This time, both cases, it was critical. I scrambled around at both ends to help neutralize the emergencies.
It involved a lot of inter-city driving at odd hours, rushing to places to fetch medicines and reports, continuously being on call to arrange for some sort of solution or another, barely catching up on sleep and being constantly worried all the time. Madhu Bhaiya was facing the same situation. Nikhil and Kaishu Bhaiya were COVID positive and barely supporting themselves and their families. Aman Bhaiya and his sister, pushed their pain index to another level, hardly eating or sleeping, working round the clock.
The worst part about this crisis is we lost to it. I remember breaking down uncontrollably at a 6AM quiet morning at farm house. Helplessness, guilt and regret engulfed me. I doubt it'll leave. Sometimes even the thought of it sucks the breath out of me.
The following day, my grandfather and the day after, my aunt, both were hospitalized in Mumbai. Every family I've cared about was crumbling.
I boarded the flight to Mumbai, wearing a stuffy PPE kit and a really fogged mind about when things would get better.
As the city of Delhi faded away, all I could think of, and can think of, to date, is a promise I made, a promise on my soul, to decode healthcare no matter what.
The way things get done in the world, are through a combination of focus and personal connection.
Farmako must succeed. It has to. There is no other option. Digitization of healthcare is a really urgent problem. And I'm not resting peacefully till its done. What I'm grateful for is a fanatical team of people who are not going to step back either.
The pandemic has shown us first hand why we need a powerful, cheap, accessible and integrated healthcare system in place. Be it organization of beds, tracking of a patient's health, efficient testing or the availability of medicines and resources - everything can be optimized to breakneck speed and pinpoint precision with the help of robust software systems in place.
If anything, this defeat didn't break us. It only made us a lot stronger, more connected and committed to our goal. Its imbued in us, a personal vendetta and constant restlessness to optimize healthcare solutions. All the rage, sorrow, frustration has to be channeled into solving just that. We are not going to stand by and watch people suffer.
This time, I'm just not optimistic, I'm pretty darn sure about the inevitable vision of Farmako, that we'll stop at nothing at, to build.
From these very ashes, a phoenix is starting to rise.
Never give up. Today is hard, tomorrow will be worse, but the day after tomorrow will be sunshine.
~Jack Ma (Alibaba Group)