The many twists and turns in Apurv Bansal’s relentless quest for entrepreneurship

Circa 2014, Saurabh and Apurv met for the first time at the movies. Little did they know they would one day start a company together to solve financial automation problems.
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Apurv Bansal had seen it all. 

He lived a life that only a few could. An IIT degree, an MBA at Harvard, a consultant’s job at Bain and Company, a Product Manager at Google, a Venture Capitalist. 

All the roads only led him to one singular role that made him truly feel like himself, and very much alive — to be an entrepreneur.

Modest beginnings

Apurv's early life was deeply influenced by his father, who is also a civil engineer who had graduated from IIT Roorkee. It had set a precedent of academic excellence. So much that while growing up, he lived within the confines of an academic-driven identity. He would only excel in his studies but not venture beyond pursuing exceptional grades.

It wasn't until he reached IIT Delhi, that he started to discover a life outside of textbooks. So much so that he even met Maria Sharapova much later.

Apurv with Maria Sharapova

Apurv would pursue plenty of cultural and curricular activities on campus like dramatics, sports, debating and quizzing. At this point, he sternly mutinied against his identity of being overly academic-driven so much that he decided to never study anything for the rest of his life. 

But he still had to pull good grades, to be able to secure a decent enough job after college. 

In India, the trajectory for the overly academic-driven is often pre-defined — excel in school, get into an IIT, and then for the cream of the crop, secure a position at a top consulting firm or a multinational. 

Apurv landed a role at Bain and Company’s Mumbai office, straight out of college, which was a rite of passage tread by many of his seniors who had admired.

But a couple of years into the job, a whisper of dissent grew within. Wearing a corporate badge, donning a suit and a tie, and crafting presentations to ambitiously advance someone else's enterprise — it all began to weigh on Apurv. He wondered why he should not invest all of this effort into his own venture.

He asked himself if he wanted to follow the same trajectory that his senior partners did. 

The answer resounded — a steadfast no.

One might insert a couple of consulting jokes to drive the point. But the crux of the matter remains — Apurv yearned for autonomy and the freedom to shape his own future.

“Some of the core motivations or drivers for an entrepreneur are autonomy, and being able to carve one’s own destiny. Funnily, the workplace I was at is known for being one of the best employers on the planet with the highest possible ratings and the best possible work culture. So if I was not happy there, of all places, I would not be happy anywhere. It’s really a me-problem and not the company’s problem that I chose to be an entrepreneur.”

The entrepreneurial itch

This was also the time startups in India were just starting to become mainstream, if not a household culture for the masses. The likes of Flipkart, Snapdeal and Ola were beginning to take off, and the founders of these startups happened to be a few years senior to Apurv, who had also graduated from his alma mater IIT Delhi. They practically ran around in shorts and torn tee shirts, within the same dorms and halls that Apurv did.

And the big question popped up — “If they can do it, why can’t I?”

Pondering over the traffic snarls of Mumbai from his cabin at Bain, Apurv gave into the excitement and adventure behind the world of startups. The fascination for entrepreneurship had officially begun.

However, this wasn't a fairy-tale epiphany but rather a bold, somewhat impulsive decision by a 22-year-old without much to lose. It seemed like the perfect recipe for a big risk. 

Influenced by the startup acquisitions, Apurv thoroughly fantasized about launching his own company, selling it for millions, retiring young to a life of leisure, on the beaches.

“That was really my plan. I was naive at the time and age. In hindsight, I didn’t know that it typically takes over 10 years to truly build a long-lasting business.”

The dream, albeit naive, propelled him forward.
He teamed up with a friend from college. Together, they started Wishpicker, going by the ecommerce explosion in India at the time. He had no particularly profound or emotional attachment to a problem statement but his only ambition was to become a tech entrepreneur.

With an initial investment of $10,000 each, both the founders scaled Wishpicker just enough, to be profitable after 2.5 years. Apurv was clocking more than 12 hours a day, and 7 days a week. He was burnt out. The company was nowhere close to becoming a billion-dollar business but it was certainly a cash cow. 

But did he want to continue running a cash cow business? No, he didn't. He wanted to build a large and self-sustaining business at a rapid pace, but not a cash cow. 

Apurv had two options — pivot completely and start a new business, or exit and do something else after taking a break.

He chose the latter, and sold the company to an ecommerce major at the time — Snapdeal. The entire team got acqui-hired, he made some cash, and dreamt of backpacking away to Europe to take a break, and also to heal from a major romantic heartbreak at the time.

Although the burnout was real, the entrepreneurial stint still happened to the best time of his life. 

Almost quoting the popular character of the notorious chemistry professor from Albuquerque who eventually broke bad — Apurv felt truly alive.

“I was the happiest in my life during those 2.5 years. I was really invested in it, and enjoyed everything and anything about building a company.”

This called for another major reflection.

He made up his mind, to only be on an entrepreneurial journey for the rest of his life. But only this time around, he wanted to play the long game. He didn’t want to do a 2-year venture anymore but rather, build something long-lasting and sustainable over decades. Work does take up most of our lives. If anything, it should give contempt, meaning, satisfaction and more importantly, joy.

“On an average, out of 168 hours in a week, you are awake for about 118 hours (excluding the time you sleep). Of these, you spend 50-60 hours a week working. If you don’t like your work, the majority of your awake time is spent unhappy and dissatisfied. The only time in my life I felt ’alive’ and ‘satisfied’ was when I was an entrepreneur. It was obvious to me that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.”

The big break

Apurv likes options. Even when he is a hard taskmaster everyday at Zenskar while his team presents strategy to him, or whether it is life-altering choices, he likes to have options. 

Thanks to the intense burnout after Wishpicker, he wanted to take a break very badly. The choice was only seemingly about rest. But it was inherently about preparation for his next entrepreneurial venture.

But he had two ideas of taking a break. One was to backpack across Europe for 6 months, and the other was to do an MBA in the United States.

Graduation at Harvard

Here is a catch. Most of his friends and college batchmates were moving to the United States for higher education. Apurv also wanted to get a taste of what life might look like, outside of India.

He decides to start preparing for the GMAT only 30 days before the examination. He cracks it, gets rejected by Stanford but gets an acceptance into Harvard Business School. 

“I won’t shy away from admitting that I had no idea how much of a big deal it was to go to Harvard. People around me would assert that I cannot possibly go backpacking across Europe, when I had a chance to go to Harvard. I asked myself too. It has the brand and the network. What could go wrong?”

The only thing that went wrong was that he was in debt for a couple of years, and he wanted to clear off the debt before starting up again. The larger purpose was to start a business after.

After graduating from Harvard, he needed a job that would help him clear off the debt and also propel him to do far better as a tech entrepreneur. The obvious choice was to join the likes of Google, Amazon, and Meta.

He joined Google as a product manager and worked there for about a year and half.

But this was really the dream, wasn’t it? He was living the quintessential American dream for an Indian migrant. A young bachelor and a product manager at Google, living in San Francisco. 

But when did Apurv not surprise himself with his life choices in this story, so far?

“The India growth story was grand, audacious and posed a large enough opportunity. I wanted to be a part of the story, apart from missing family, the regional dialect and the Indian food.”

A soft landing

Apurv continued to work at Google, but wanted to work out of its campus in Bengaluru, and had the request approved for the same, from his managers in San Francisco. The idea was to begin scouting for startup ideas on the side.

“The first thing I did was to start speaking with VCs, to identify what sectors are booming and what trends are hot. I’d realized that India had changed a lot in the past 4 years I was away, and I felt like an outsider in my own country. So I had no idea where to start, and how to start a business, and in which industry. More importantly, I did not have a cofounder in mind.”

With enough advice from seniors and peers in the industry, he had identified that the best way to find clarity on what to start was by working at a venture capital firm. It was the best possible option, to get a sense of the markets, the gaps in them, the products that were working out, and the moats that were not.

Apurv quit Google, and joined Bengaluru-based Venture fund Elevation Capital (formerly SAIF Partners). 11 months into the job as an Associate VP, he had realized he was just wasting everyone’s time including his own, and this was not a viable way to find a startup idea, nor a cofounder. On 11th March, 2020, he walked up to his boss and told him he was not enjoying it, and wanted to be a founder instead. A week later, the COVID-19 pandemic had made its own soft landing in India. His boss asked him if he wanted to leave because it looked like the endgame for the world in general. 

10 months later, Apurv left the fund, without an idea in sight, and without a cofounder by his side. What was supposed to be a 6-month break after having sold Wishpicker to Snapdeal, ended up becoming a 6-year break, with a Harvard MBA, a PM role at Google, and an investor's role at Elevation Capital.

It was getting tiresome by now. Since 2015, he has been periodically announcing to the whole world that he would start a company. He announced it diligently after the MBA, after the job at Google, and after the VC role at Elevation. But all he had now was enough savings in the bank, but headed nowhere.

The birth of Zenskar

Albeit, enough people had reached out to Apurv by now, asking him if they wanted to team up together to start a company. One of them happened to be the spouse of his batchmate from IIT Delhi — Saurabh Agrawal, who is Apurv’s cofounder at Zenskar today.

Apurv with Saurabh

Circa 2014, Saurabh and Apurv met for the first time at the movies. Little did they know they would one day start a company together to solve financial automation problems.

Despite contrasting personalities, the duo has managed to join the mutual admiration society. So much that they ended up building an audacious startup after having spoken to more than 550 leaders and experts in the industry, only as part of market research.

But it took them six different ideas before they finally arrived at Zenskar, now headquartered in New York, USA.

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