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'Work for the sake of your passion, not a paycheck'

By Insiyah Vahanvaty
June 30, 2009 14:47 IST
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Thirty three-year-old Faisal Farooqui packed his bags one day and sneaked out of the USA to return to India and start up a business here. That was nine years ago -- and today he is the CEO of website MouthShut.com. Though originally from Mumbai, he moved to the USA to obtain his bachelor's degree in Information Systems and Finance from the State University of New York, after which he worked as a technology consultant at AMS (American Management Systems).

When he was only 24 years old, Faisal decided to start MouthShut.com, a website that allows consumers to interact with other consumers as well as brands, about products and services. "MouthShut provides a platform to write reviews on products and services. And if you're planning to buy a product, I would suggest you go and see what people are saying about it before you spend money. If you have something to share about a product, help out the rest of the world. It's basically about consumers helping consumers. And then there are other extensions -- you can share photos, form communities, interact with people etc. There is a lot of social networking, but the core is a forum for consumers to share opinions and experiences," explains Farooqi.

In a tête-á-tête with Insiyah Vahanvaty, Faisal talks about the unusual journey that is MouthShut, his experiences as a young entrepreneur and what he thinks of the current generation of professionals.

My background: I am one of ten kids; the youngest. My wife is a British-Indian, which means she is of Indian origin but was born and brought up in the UK. And we have three sons, who are seven, five and three-and-a-half years old.

My mom is around 77; my dad passed away when I was five. We had a family business of bakeries which my dad and uncles were handling. Mom has always been a housewife, and earlier she used to travel all over the world, staying with one of her many children. Now she's old and stays with us. I didn't go into the bakery business because I feel that every generation should try a new business that they feel passionate about. not necessarily inherit one.

I'm an Indian by origin and I hail from Mumbai. I moved out of India after finishing school. I have a lot of family settled in the USA -- it's like another home to me. Once I finished college, I knew I wanted to do something on my own, and I would also often think about returning to India. One day, I decided to do it. I packed my bags and asked my bhabhi to drop me to the airport. She thought I was just going on a business trip within the States. She didn't realise until she saw my large suitcase, and was shocked when I told her I was going to India. In fact it was only on the dinner table that night that people started asking about me and she broke the news to them. I never told anyone I was leaving because then I would have had to give them plans and timelines -- and I myself had no idea about any of that! I was in India on vacation and I just stayed back.

In fact, I still have the return ticket to US, which I never used. I keep that as a souvenir to remind myself how the journey began. I came back to India because I wanted to explore the opportunities here. I always thought that it's a great country and you should come back here and pay back to a country that has nurtured you and given you everything.

At the time I arrived, I was excited that the Internet had just reached India. I had an idea in mind since I was in college and I decided to pursue it -- this manifested in a consumer review social network known as MouthShut.com.

About my career: The premise behind the website was that there were a lot of people who weren't happy with what was available in the Indian market, and there was no organised attempt to listen to the voice of the customer. MouthShut filled in this void. The idea was to provide a platform for people to vent and share their happiness -- and recommend products and services, or not recommend them. Also, it helps companies to get feedback on their products. They don't need to go out and do expensive market researches.

When I came here I got engrossed in finding out about the Internet here and how it was shaping people's lives and meeting people who were excited about it (though there weren't many of those in 2000).

Anyway, when the dotcom bubble burst, I thought, this is a good time to start a business -- because the best time to start something is when other people are scared to do it. It was a little bit of a struggle -- finding people to work with and also the money. This is when networks help. My friends and family were pretty convinced, but I think what they were most convinced about was the passion I came with. More than the idea or business, they were supporting the passion and dedication I had.

When thinking of a name, I froze 'mouthshut' for many reasons. It's easy to spell, recall and pronounce -- that makes it a good brand for me. Because when you're sitting on the Internet, there are so many websites clamouring for your attention, and 'mouthshut' is so easy to remember, because chances are you may have used that word, if not today, in this week sometime!

The philosophical reason is that we thought that for the longest time people in this country were asked to keep their mouths shut. But now it's like a rhetorical declaration where consumers are saying, you keep your mouth shut, we'll talk!

Sometimes I joke with people saying that MouthShut is actually my first baby, because it was born before my first son (laughs).

I had to take some monetary help from family and friends, but they've been very generous, and I don't think they've ever asked me to pay them back. So I didn't need to take any bank loans.

We started in 2000 -- when I was 24 years old. Initially we started using word-of-mouth recommendations. I've always been particular about doing something different -- and I make sure all the employees of the company are like that -- they've gotta be different and think different.

When we were thinking of advertising, people would tell us to do ads, billboards etc. But these were very old-fashioned, conventional ideas. And to be honest, we couldn't even afford them. I didn't go out raising money from investors and investment capitalists because I wanted to do this on my own. So one day I said, 'Why not start painting the backs of auto rickshaws with our logo?' So we did that with one or two vehicles and decided to wait for feedback. In just a few days we started hearing from people saying, 'Hey, I saw your website's name on a rickshaw.' And this was coming from people who weren't Internet-savvy at all. So I started thinking, if these people are recalling the name of my website, chances are that it's working. So we did 10 more rickshaws, and then 100. Soon we were getting calls from the press as well as regular people. However, some people criticised us, and told me I was diluting the brand by putting it at the back of rickshaws -- and I would say, 'Arrey, it's not even a brand yet!' (laughs).

Traditionalists didn't like the idea -- they predicted it would flop. But touchwood, this is one advertising innovation that has been recorded in the media that MouthShut invented in this country. Now you have many products being advertised on the backs of rickshaws -- earlier it was just Horn OK Please!

The challenges I've faced along the way: The biggest challenge is to get people to believe in your idea. And that can only happen if you believe in your idea. Another challenge, often, is finding the right people to work with you. So I would advice entrepreneurs to be very careful about their core team -- the first few people they hire. Make sure they are loyal to you and believe in you.

Also, initially there might not be any money coming in, but you need to pay your employees on time, so you have to be sure you're starting out with enough capital.

Then the long 18-20 hour workdays can be quite challenging too, which are quite essential early on.

Though the current recession has not affected business, there are customers who are taking their time to cover their payments. For example if they were paying in two cheques earlier, now they want four or five installments. But we're projecting a growth of 150 percent next year.

My take on success: I don't know if I'm successful. I enjoy what I'm doing; I love technology, the Internet and people -- which is why I do it. People find MouthShut really useful -- I've been told tales of brands calling up customers and offering to replace an item after reading their reviews on the website. Stories like these make me proud.

Everybody should do what they feel they are suited for and passionate about. If you feel you're passionate about fashion design, do that, not journalism. But if you're doing journalism, do it with passion and enjoy it -- not because you get a paycheck at the end of the month. Do it with the zeal to become the best in your field.

Balancing work and your personal life: It's an adjustment that grows on you over time. Nothing happens overnight. For example, when you have a baby, it's a life -hanging event. But nature gives you nine months to accustom yourself -- for a woman its like prep school; its time to prepare for the new status of motherhood. And for a man, it's a very humbling experience. When you take care of your wife during those nine months, it changes you from a boy to a man. Your priorities change and you learn to balance things. Today, I think I'm accustomed to it and manage fairly well. I won't say I devote a lot of time to my family, but I'm proud to say that I do devote time to my family -- they are my priority and I am always struggling to do more for them.

My kids take up a lot of my time and we have a lot of fun and joy together. It's very humbling to be around kids because they make you realise how much you don't know -- and how much you need to learn in order to just answer their million questions a day. My wife is a homemaker. I've realised that if we are to have a complete family, one person has to stay home and devote time to taking care of the house and family.

I feel that a complete social balance doesn't come without the perfect house and business/job, which requires the cooperation of both the spouses. So there are some things that she's good at -- and she's decided to do them. Similarly, there are other things that I'm good at, which I've decided to do.

Advice to youngsters: You know, the lack of mentoring is a big problem in India. Youngsters need to be helped to reach their goal. If there were good mentors around, they would be telling young people not to jump jobs too often -- to stick around for a few years and forge a relationship of trust and emotion with the company.

In the long run, jumping jobs is not going to help you. Loyalty is important, and trust will only come with time.

Even when you're in a relationship, you know that trust comes with time, over a series of good and bad days. The same applies to your career. My advice would be to spend time building trust and helping the company trust you.

One mistake I see young entrepreneurs make is that they spend precious time and resources preventing failures that may happen. Instead, they should be investing time and resources into making their businesses a success. This is the biggest mistake I've seen.

If you've been laid off: I'll tell you a secret. When bad times strike, those who are more entrenched in the company are the last to go -- and the ones who are easily replaceable are the first. That's why I was saying earlier that young people need to make sure they spend enough time to form an emotional bond with the company. Because if you do that, when the list of people being fired is drawn out, your boss is going to have a tough time putting your name on it!

If I had to fire people today, the first ones to go would be those I'm indifferent about. But those who I'm emotionally attached to will be the last to go, because they've been around so long and we understand each other

I think this generation is the best lot ever -- they are bright and have a lot of opportunities ahead. They should hope for the best and forget all about the bitterness of the previous generations. Instead they need to figure out what tier role is going to be in this new India that's growing leaps and bounds.

My future plans: Personally, I'm very happy at the way things are going. Professionally, I want to make MouthShut a part of every Indian's life, and also take it oversees. We plan to expand to different countries very soon, inshallah.

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