From the brink of suicide to a two million hit website
From fainting during a Class 12 exam to failing the NDA thrice, Arun Pandit would easily have succumbed to his suicidal urges, had it not been for a friend whose motivational SMS changed his life forever.
Arun Pandit from Himachal Pradesh was on the verge of attempting suicide after facing unending failures and hurdles, when one motivational SMS from a friend changed his mind.
An alumnus of MBA-IB (2010-12) of the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade (IIFT), Arun found new meaning in life and fought back.
He started Don't Give Up World, a motivational website and community which helps inspire and make people happy each day. The website has been operational since June 2010 and its success story has even intrigued the Microsoft Research team.
In this interview, the young entrepreneur shares his remarkable journey from darkness to light.Read on.
How did the idea of such an unusual start-up come to mind?
It is a very long story about a series of fatal failures. When I was in 12th grade in Sainik School, Sujanpur Tihra, I suffered a series of successive failures.
It appeared that I was being hit by one failure after another with the speed of light. Each blow grew mightier and more lethal than the previous.
My life seemed to be like a hit-me doll, which was meant to rise and fall. I could not take it anymore. I failed in almost all the examinations I took.
I failed thrice in the NDA written exam, when it was my dream to join the National Defence Academy. It was something that I --and many others -- felt I was cut out for.
I wanted to become the best literary captain the school has ever seen, but I was removed from the post of school literary captain.
I was misdiagnosed with an illness and due to that, I was hospitalised during my Class 12 board examinations.
I appeared in the most fragile health conditions and even fainted during one of the board exam papers. I was expecting something good to happen in the biggest and toughest examination I had ever taken, ie IIT mains.
I failed in almost all the engineering entrance exams. I worked very hard for the compartment exam, only to realise that I was given a compartment again. It may appear hard to believe, but it seemed that the harder I worked the more I failed. I virtually lost everything I loved and was passionate about.
So I decided to take the shortcut to heaven by committing suicide. I began sending messages to my good friends. I told them that I had tried my best and I couldn't take it anymore.
They began calling me endlessly. I did not pick up their calls. Suddenly I received a SMS which read, 'I was crying for because I had no shoes, until I saw a man with no feet...Take this world as a challenge.. Prove your mettle!!'
Somehow, these words lifted me. And I tried again. The message was simple: Fail ...Fall...Cry...Even Die...but DON'T GIVE UP!!
Therefore it's not just a business plan. It is a passion turned into a business opportunity, with its principles deeply attached to the larger cause of changing the lives of dreamers who have lost hope inside. The money follows as an effect of this passion; it's not the primary motivator.
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Image: Arun Pandit
Photographs: Courtesy Gyancentral.com
'We want to make motivation accessible and affordable to the masses'
The 'Don't Give Up World' FB page reads 'India's biggest motivational website'. Do you think your start-up tapped a really niche area?
I was always fascinated by the stories of people who overcame heartbreaking failures to achieve greatness. Due to some of my personal experiences, I realised that sometimes one thought, one moment or one incidence can change your life.
The idea of creating DontGiveUpWorld.com originated from my belief that there is an inherent need for motivation in everyone's life. It is not bound by caste, creed, religion, gender, age or profession. Every one of us requires it at different stages of life. But despite being such a pivotal part of our lives, it is the most neglected thing in society.
I just wanted to address this issue by creating a community-based website, which caters to the various motivational needs and preferences of different sections of society, to help them break free from the captivity of negativity. I can just say that it may be a niche area right now, but very soon it will be a major sector impacting the lives of millions.
The rapid pace of life, stressed lifestyles and the dynamic society structures will only make its need and importance more prominent and indispensable.
What does Don't Give Up World exactly do?
DontGiveUpWorld.com works on a community-based model, where the members contribute in their own capacity and skills to the various functions of the website.
For example Amandeep, who is a lecturer by profession, is good at Adobe Photoshop. So he helps design wallpapers, posters and book marks. Ritika reads a lot of books and has sound technical knowledge, so she helps in both editing as well as administration of the content management system (CMS).
Ritu helps in updating content on the website and social media sites. Prakash helps us out in the website development and editing, SEO and digital marketing,.Satwik is a doctor by profession, but is an expert in managing and troubleshooting servers.
Vaibhav helps in both adding content as well as networking. Shefali and Rahul are school teachers, who help us in counselling students. There are lots of other people who contribute from time to time, based on their areas of interest and expertise.
The USP of the website is that it is a one-stop solution for your motivational needs. Different people have different motivational needs. Some may be motivated by a quote, others by a song. Some may even be motivated by a story or a movie or wallpaper. We are continuously trying to bring together the different categories under one roof.
We ask members to share their experiences on how they overcome difficulties and challenges, which gives them a sense of belonging and emotional attachment. We have conducted three motivational seminars in schools. We have also been invited by a few other schools to conduct such seminars at their campuses.
We want to make Don't Give Up World the world's biggest and most useful motivational website and community. We want to take motivation to the masses, by making it both accessible as well as affordable.
You have already built a website, and an SMS motivational group. You also have a range of 'Don't Give Up' merchandise to help spread optimism. What are the future plans?
In the near future, we will be launching a more attractive website with interactive features like Project 'Motivate Me' to suggest motivational content based on the preference and state of the person. We will be launching apps for both the Apple and Android platforms soon.
We are also planning to launch a one-of-its-kind initiative of online psychological counselling. It will help maintain privacy and will also save a person from the social stigma attached with going to a psychiatrist.
I have plans to launch a low-cost service of motivational seminars, as well as experience-sharing sessions by prominent personalities via webinars and webcasts to the schools in tier 2 and tier 3 cities and towns. This will make motivation and counselling both affordable and accessible.
Photographs: Courtesy Dontgiveupworld.com
'Microsoft Research India took our SMS group as a case study'
So you were one of the 15 winners of the Levi's 'Change Your World' fellowship? Tell us about it. How did it happen and how did you feel after winning?
Levi's completed 15 years in India. The brand has always stood for being original, for being the definitive statement of the free-willed, able, strong, resilient, courageous, glorious and spirited.
They had planned to identify 15 youngsters who embody these traits, and bring about change in their own way, in their own worlds. Levi's would then supported them with grants of Rs1 lakh to help turn their 'Change Your World' dream into reality.
I was one of the few participants whose idea was shortlisted from more than 1,300 ideas for the second round. The next round involved submission of a detailed plan of execution and a questionnaire dealing with various aspects like feasibility and impact.
Finally I was amongst the 15 people selected from across the country for the Levi's 'Change your World' Fellowship of Rs 1 lakh to implement our ideas. It was a very big milestone for me, because of the appreciation received from one of the biggest youth brands in the world. Getting selected amongst the top 15 from across the country was a very proud moment. It also provided some vital seed capital to upgrade our servers and take forward our future plans.
How did you build up such a dedicated team?
I did not start with a team. I just wanted to do it and I started alone, without any structured plan as such. But as the website gained momentum and exposure, many of my friends became part of the team.
Some of the members from the SMS group and the social media pages joined, as they shared the same passion. Then there were many who were very passionate in the beginning but did not last long. You get many like-minded people, but the problem is to get dedicated people who share the same vision and passion as you do.
Anything you start is like your baby and you need to nurture it continuously in order to make it successful. In the past one year, we have seen a rapid rise in membership and regular contributors to the website as well as the Facebook page.
The team right now includes seven members and two advisors who are regular and serious. Apart from them, there are hundreds of ad hoc members who contribute from time to time. With the influx of fresh funds we are planning to hire some fulltime employees for specific areas like designing, content development and social media.
Is this a lucrative business model?
The website www.dontgiveupworld.com has been operational since June 2010. I created the basic website structure and started uploading motivational content on a daily basis. We have had more than two million page views on our website , 4,000+ posts , 200+ authors , 8,000+ members, 7,400+ SMS group members, 5,200+ Facebook fans and 9,600+ Twitter followers, that too without spending a rupee on any monetary promotion.
The capital investment is low and the return of the investment is around 50 times that, based on the beta results of our present website. I believe that we have to be profitable in order to scale up and effectively spread the word of hope and optimism.
The amount of traffic on the Internet for motivation, the success of our SMS group, the overwhelming response to a few of the seminars conducted at schools, plus my passion for technology and marketing strengthen my faith in the success of the business.
Microsoft Research conducted research on mobile social networking platforms in India with the help of your SMS group. Tell us more about it?
Building something motivational was always on my mind. A few years back, I got to know about smsgupshup.com, a platform for SMS groups. I created a group where I used to send two to three motivational quotes daily to its members. After one year, it had around 200 members which included my friends mostly. Thereafter, I began asking the members to send good motivational quotes to me so that I could forward them to the group along with a short snippet like 'submitted by Mr. ABC'. It received a great response and by the end of the second year, the member base reached around 4,400+. Today I receive 10 to 15 quotes daily from the members. Presently, we have more than 7,400+ members. We are also featured in the promotional image on the homepage of smsgupshup.com.
I was interviewed by Microsoft Research India, which took our SMS group as a case study on how mobile SMS groups are impacting the lives of people. It involved the study of user behaviour and our community-based model. The main area of study was the successful implementation of word-of-mouth marketing, the various limitations of SMS-based groups and steps to overcome these limitations.
Tell us a little about the content and diverse motivational material used on your website.
Our website is a compendium of more than 4,000 motivational posts. They are organised into various categories like wallpapers, stories, videos, poems, quotes, songs, commercials, movie trailers, screensavers, articles etc. We are trying to bring various types of motivational posts under one roof, making our website a one-stop solution for your motivational needs and preferences. A lot of our content is developed and written by our members.
The rest of them are sourced from others resources, both online and offline. We are planning to start a revenue-sharing model to increase the percentage of original content.
You are taking up a campus placement job. How are you going to manage a full-time job plus your venture side by side?
I accepted a marketing job during our final placements. I have to relocate in Mumbai and I join in June. I could take up a full-time job because our business was planned to work in phases and right now we are going through the beta stage.
It was decided that in Phase One we would work in the online space only and Phase Two would be in the motivational consulting and seminars space, using webinars and webcasts in schools and companies. For this, we have set proper milestones and time periods.
We require funds as well as corporate exposure and linkages to materialise the second phase. So industry exposure is necessary and it does not hamper our progress for the beta and first phase, as we have designated members who will take more responsibility during that time, with me assisting them regularly.
We will be done with the major processes like getting a trademark, copyright, dedicated server and new design before I start working.
Are you doing this because it's a trend now-a-days to become an entrepreneur, or did you always want to do something on your own?
I never knew what I wanted to do, be an entrepreneur or not. It just happened because of my personal experiences and my passion to spread the word of hope and optimism. For me it is more of a dream to create the world's biggest and most useful motivational website and community. Fortunately, I like the challenges and the dynamics of entrepreneurship.
Somehow it goes well with my multitasking abilities and social skills. Believe me, it is a very difficult and pressurising job; but for those who love it, they enjoy every single minute. In the end, the feeling of successfully creating something of your own is far more refreshing and satisfactory than the wear and tear received creating it.
As it is said, 'there is no shortcut to any place worth going.'
How much of your MBA knowledge do you practically use in your work?
Before coming to IIFT, I had the will and raw talent to start a website. But after coming to IIFT I have gained the skill, confidence and the knowledge to successfully start, run and expand a high potential business venture.
I have learned the various aspects of running a business from initial market research to business development, marketing, operations, managing finance, raising capital etc. But the most important thing that I have gained is the level of exposure, feedback and networking that I have gained in the past two years, by participating in various competitions and attending workshops and seminars on entrepreneurship.
I also gained a lot of inspiration by getting an opportunity to attend events like the Samsung Innovation Quotient and CNBC Young Turk Awards. Being the E-cell coordinator, I interacted and learned from a lot of established as well as budding entrepreneurs during my tenure. It is the recognition and appreciation in the b-school circuit that motivated me to take this idea to the next level.
How do you manage to get advertisements for your website?
We have tied up with various ad networks like Google Adsense, Adbrite, Infolinks etc. We also earn a decent percentage of revenue from affiliate marketing and sponsored tweets. We are in talks with some big brands with inspiring tag lines and youth appeal to become the lead sponsors of our website.
What do you do to get more traffic on your website? Any particular branding or marketing strategy that you are following?
I primarily work on the concept of word-of-mouth and digital marketing. We try to create an emotional connect, which creates a strong brand loyalty, positive word of mouth and a lot of referrals.
We do a great deal of primary and secondary research to know our target audience's online behaviour and preferences. We then try to create and post content in the manner that is most liked by them. This way we are able to garner a good search engine optimisation with more than 90 per cent organic traffic, that too by not spending a single rupee on any form of monetary promotion.
We make extensive use of social media marketing strategies and networking effect. A great degree of our focus is on consumer behaviour and analysing web analytics.
Image: Microsoft Corporation headquarters
Photographs: Charles Platiau/Reuters
'If you are creative enough to imagine a problem, then you are smart enough to find a solution'
What was the reaction from your parents,family and teachers?
My parents, family and teachers have been very encouraging and asked me to follow my heart and passion. After all, how many people get a chance to feel the satisfaction of positively impacting lives by doing something they love and still earn handsomely from it?
What kind of challenges did you face as a start-up entrepreneur? How do you tackle those?
It is never easy to start off your own venture. There are various issues like getting the right team, finances and technical knowhow.
But if you are passionate enough, you will find ways to overcome these problems. I knew that I would have to do everything alone, and for a considerable period of time, I actually did it all alone. I just made the best use of all the resources available to me. I got the initial funds from my family. I used my technical skills and interest in system administration and web development to develop the website.
I used my network of friends to spread the word. I had to learn a lot of new things and most of the things evolved after a series of time-consuming hits and trials. I did not know how to make a dynamic website or how to pay online using a credit card or how to prevent hackers from putting banners on your website. There are hundreds of things that I have learnt in this amazing journey.
If you are creative enough to imagine a problem, then you are smart enough to find a solution. It mostly depends upon your resolve and making the maximum use of your resources and network of friends. A good network will help you in more ways than you can imagine.
You need to be flexible as well as willing to learn new things as they come. You just have to be the greatest promoter and believer of your idea and everything else will follow.
How easy or difficult it is to make a livelihood out of this?
I believe that we have to be profitable in order to scale up and effectively spread the word of hope and optimism. Right now we are using the profits accrued from the venture toward its expansion and development. But in future it will be a venture which positively impacts the lives of people and society while maintaining profitability. This will help in creating better products and services and attaining scalability.
Do you have a mission in this direction? What is it?
As I mentioned earlier, we want to become the world's biggest and most useful motivational website and community. We want to leverage technology and economies of scale, to make motivation and counselling both affordable and accessible to the masses. We are trying to create a strong brand that connects more deeply and emotionally with each of its members.
Tell us a little about your childhood and your hobbies.
I have been born and raised in a traditional middle-class Indian family. I had my initial schooling till Class 8 at St Mary's School, Delhi, after which I completed my schooling till Class 12 from Sainik School, Sujanpur Tihra, Himachal Pradesh. It is one of the most prestigious schools in Himachal Pradesh, which prepares boys academically, physically and mentally for entry into the NDA.
I did my B.Tech in Computer Science from the Giani Zail Singh College of Engineering and Technology, Bathinda. I cleared various international certifications like Microsoft-certified professional (MCP) and Red Hat-certified engineer (RHCE) during my study there. I used to take classes for the junior batches, preparing them for international certifications. Then I did my MBA in marketing from IIFT, Delhi.
I have always been an all-rounder and won in various literary, technical, cultural, sports and management events conducted at school, university, state, national and international level. I was a state and university-level volleyball player.
I recently won the third position in the Shark Tank round of the RICE Business Plan Competition held in Houston, USA. I play the harmonica and I am a die-hard Arsenal fan. I am a national-level debater, a poet and a gadget lover. I do believe that having varied experiences of different schools, cultures and regions has been very vital in developing my personality as well as building my network.
Where do you see yourself 10 years down the line?
'Don't Give Up World' is more than a business or a hobby to me. It is my passion and it is my life. Everything I do is somehow directly or indirectly connected to it. It is something that is a part of my soul and I will continue working on it no matter what.
In 10 years, I see myself as the founder and administrator of the world's biggest motivational website and community. Chances are that I might become a motivational speaker and an author within that time too!
Illustration: Dominic Xavier