The vserv boss’ journey from selling rock band Tees to mobile ad space

As a teen, he sold rock band T-shirts. Went on to run a poultry farm. But the mobile world was his calling. Say Hello! to Dippak Khurana, Co-founder and CEO of vserv.mobi

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“Learn, fail, iterate fast,” says Dippak Khurana, Co-founder and CEO, vserv.mobi (one of the leading mobile ad exchanges of India) if you want to succeed in the startup world. Sound advice! No surprises there, as it is coming from a person who started his entrepreneurial journey while still in college. And here comes in his second piece of advice, “Start young. Get in as early as possible, before you get trapped by conventions,” he says. We couldn’t agree more; after all, we do believe that entrepreneurship starts at 27!

They say, life is nothing but experiences and these experiences define who we become and what we do. Khurana has plenty under his belt and it goes without saying that they are helping him run one of the leading mobile ad exchanges in India. vserv.mobi, today has offices not only in Mumbai and New Delhi in India but in San Francisco (USA), London (UK) and Cape Town (South Africa) too. In Southeast Asia, besides its registered office in Singapore, it has its footprints in Jakarta (Indonesia), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), Bangkok (Thailand) and Manila (Philippines).

STARTUP #1
The young Khurana was very popular while he was studying for his Commerce degree in a Mumbai college. It didn’t have much to do with the fact that he was a good student and a lot to do with him running a very cool enterprise from the college canteen. So what made him Mr Popular? Well, he used to sell rock band T-shirts to the “hep” crowd. “This was back in 1990. If I was not in class, I was either in the canteen making sales or at few boutiques that I was doing business with,” recalls Khurana.

Life lessons
This taught the teenager that if he put enough thought and effort into a venture, he can make money out of it. “Making money gave me a kick. I also learned how to deal with various types of people,” he shares.

“Running the business taught me to plan, organise, predict trends and be calculative,” he adds.

Read Also: My first venture was at 11, says Anthony Tan, who traded comics then

STARTUP #2
After appearing for his final year college exams, Khurana did something completely unexpected. Without waiting for his results, quit city life and moved to a small town in India called Jamshedpur. Any guesses for what he did there? This young Mumbai boy went from rock band tees to opening a poultry farm! “I saw business acumen in my maternal uncle and took a lateral decision to start a venture with him.” He fought with his family and left home for three years. After even ranking in the top 10 in his college, he refused to come back.

Life lessons
“Believe in your intuition. I followed mine and managed to build a successful business from scratch,” he says. He understood the nitty-gritties of working with unskilled labour, the chaos of bank loans, and almost became a vet!

However, his biggest lesson that helped him when he set to found vserv.mobi was, ‘Choose the right people’. An altercation with his uncle on ethical grounds made Khurana liquidate his business and come back to Mumbai.

“Search for people who share common goals – whether it is finding a co-founder or the first team. Surround yourself with smart people. When you have the right talent, hold on to them,” he states.

The becking of the internet world
While back in Mumbai, Khurana was studying for his MBA entrance exams when he came across an ad that Indian media giant, Times Of India (TOI), had put out. The ad invited applications to be part of the newspaper’s online venture. He decided to give it a shot and ended up meeting Indian media stalwarts like Pradeep Guha. He heard what they had to say, but didn’t understand much. Surprisingly for him, he was chosen to work for India’s first online newspaper. That was way back in 1997.

“We had not heard of the internet then. Though engagement with TOI was supposed to be a stop-gap; within 30 days I realised that it was bigger than my MBA goal,” says Khurana, “I was probably one of two guys in India who were working for what we today call new media. Back then, I didn’t realise how big it was.”

Read Also: Over my dead body would I let Unity fail: CEO David Helgason

STARTUP #3 and going strong
Cut to January 2010. With a team of five people and Rs 30 lakh, vserv.mobi, a mobile ad exchange was launched. Ajay Adiseshann, Founder, Paymate was the Angel Investor, in his personal capacity, behind Khurana’s this venture. Vserv.mobi then went on to raise US$3 million in Series A funding from IDG Ventures India in March 2011 and another US$4 million in a Series B round from Epiphany Ventures, along with existing investor IDG Ventures India in January 2013.

So how did this idea brew? “The growth of the telecom industry in India in the last 10 years caught my eye. The scale of the industry attracted me,” shares Khurana.

What got the idea going was the insight — that users in emerging markets spend disproportionate time on mobile screens. So the question was how to shift marketer eyeballs on to mobile and get the medium its fair share in the marketing budget pie.

As we know, TV is the biggest medium in emerging markets; however the vserv.mobi Co-founder believes that mobile has the potential to shift TV to #2 position very soon. “We want to make huge impact and bring about this change,” he states.

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With a mobile advertising exchange that maximises value of mobile media for advertisers, developers, publishers and telecom operators across emerging markets, Khurana says that he is super paranoid about emerging markets and he shares data to show why. “India has 150 million mobile internet users, while SEA and Latin America have 100 million mobile internet users each. Middle East has 40 million and Africa has 45 million mobile internet users. Essentially, 50 per cent of global mobile internet users are from emerging markets,” he states. “I am very excited by the largeness and pace of the industry,” he says passionately.

Read Also: Startup founders can’t stop (feeling) down

“In the next four to five years, mobile will see phenomenal effort, phenomenal progress and phenomenal rewards,” concludes the entrepreneur.

Rapid fire with the skipper
Describe yourself in one word.
Unreasonable. I am unreasonable with myself and people around me. I believe we have infinite capabilities; we just need to push ourselves.

Your ‘Aha’ moment?
Leaving my successful business in Jamshedpur and coming back; made me realise the importance of working with the right people.

If you were not an entrepreneur, what would you be?
Athlete. I am a passionate swimmer.

Is the entrepreneur spirit lacking in India?
In India, you get great salaries very quickly. And that’s a problem. There are plenty of options for youngsters and hence, they are not pushed to think differently.

Advice to young entrepreneurs.
Don’t get bound by home loans. If you have a dream, go out and chase it.

Blueprint to getting it right.
Learn, fail, iterate fast.

Passionate about the English language, writing is Maneka's first love. Putting her thoughts on paper makes her happy, and getting paid to do what she loves is the cherry on the cake! She has about eight years of experience in the Indian media space. A business journalist, she has worked across genres such as business technology, HR, leadership, marketing, advertising, etc. Maneka is based in Mumbai, India.

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  • NoorWarsia

    Dippak Khurana is a rockstar and this is evident in what Vserv.mobi has achieved in such short a time. This has to be best interview that has captured the personality and the genius behind the man.

    Kudos to the writer!

  • ManekaT

    Thank you so much Noor. You are very kind.

  • pranjal d

    Hi Maneka
    Very incisive article.
    Cheers
    Pranjal D

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