An honest conversation with Daksh Sharma on the challenges of running Iffort and starting up TravHQ

In a candid conversation Daksh Sharma co-founder at Iffort and TravHQ talks about how challenging it is to run a bootstrapped digital agency and why the agency is focusing on products and solutions

Why would a digital agency get into a travel domain to be a publisher? At a time when starting up as a publisher is really not advisable (the challenges are far too many as I had documented in my personal blog). I was repeating the question to Daksh Sharma twice in the week but his answer remained the same.

“The focal points have diversified. Earlier we were just any another agency servicing our clients but now we have TravHQ and Zaiuto. The idea is to explore beyond servicing and build product solutions. However, the agency is very much into the business and profitable too.”

But why look beyond servicing when it is a profitable business?

“Scaling is an issue for a boot strapped digital agency. We believe for small and medium scale agencies there is a tipping point, beyond which scale is a problem and very hard to multiply. Purely because you are competing with larger network agencies that have pan India presence, abundance of resources and available skill set.”

He further added: “Right now if we are clocking revenues at X, we can probably do 2X and 3X but I might not be able to do at 10X. I will never get the volumes and sustenance is an issue. This has been a never-ending process for last six years. So the choice for us was either we get acquired or keep doing what we are doing. We decided not to sell and started looking at what else can we do.”

Being happy and content isn’t an easy zone for an entrepreneur. But as you mature and gather some grey, you realize that you will have to play with your limitations. Some might call this as an indication of your failure as an entrepreneur, but it is really about the choices you make in life and are happy about.

Today Daksh Sharma, a six-year-old entrepreneur known for co-founding Iffort, a 30 people digital agency based in Noida, is proud to do what he thinks is “being happy.”

I have known him for the last few years over social media but never got the chance to meet him. So when he came about visiting my city for few days, I decided to say hello.

My first meeting with Daksh ran for nearly an hour, at Café Coffee Day joint near Lighthouse Insights office. I popped in to have a fun conversation over a cup of coffee, but by the end, I knew there is a story that needs to be told. Daksh was a bit hesitant at the beginning as he felt his story lacked the masala of a poster boy story from the Indian digital industry, but finally gave in, much to my delight.

After couple of days, I met him again for an hour, before he flew back to Delhi. This time we decided to meet for a quick brunch. Café Peterdonuts became the meeting point as the joint offers interesting brunch options. With continuous drizzling, I reached a little late. Daksh, dressed in a relaxed green Polo t-shirt and jeans, was busy fiddling with his smartphone. Meeting him for the second time was exciting; he is upfront in his thoughts but very soft-spoken and speaks his mind out without airs. Moreover, the child-like innocence on his face lends a positive vibe to the conversation.

It was already noon and the café had started getting busy. We moved away from the centrally located comfortable red leather sofas to a corner where we could carry on with our talks. While I started setting up for the interview, Daksh ordered a Cesar salad for himself and a cappuccino for me.

The next pertinent question was: why travel? He explained that ever since he has been building Iffort with his co-founder Sunny Jindal travel had a strong association.

“In 2012 we got associated with Lonely Plannet, we have handled India’s largest motorcycle community xBhp, and been associated with Wrangler. So there was an inclination and understating towards travel that pushed us to look into this space. While we continue to work with other categories such as food and publishing, travel as a category has taken its own shape and TravHQ is the by product of it.”

Before asking more about TravHQ, we started conversing about the early days of both the co-founders. Both the Delhi lads go back a long time to their early professional careers. Daksh, a computer science graduate, finished his MBA from Pune and joined a Knowledge Management company Ideafarms in 2006. This is where he met Sunny who was a developer and always inclined to build applications from scratch.

At that point the friendship was not that strong and both had individual dreams to chase. Sunny went for higher studies to UK and came back to India in 2009. After his return, he worked for a while and started a company that was into building websites and apps.

On the other end, Daksh was getting into the social media space; he was blogging for Mashable, advising MyHeritage, a family social network on community management. “This was the decision time, I either could join a digital agency or start something of my own. I decided to go with the second choice, approached Sunny to join hands with whom I was still connected. He was in Delhi, we met and decided that he brings his tech knowledge. We built the website in 2009 and the company got registered in 2010.”

Iffort – building the digital agency and being happy

To begin with Daksh and Sunny operated from the same space with two brand names – Iffort and Itemperance. While Iffort did the social media bit, Itemperance offered the tech solutions. However, by 2011 both of them realized that operating under two brand names is leading to confusion. So Itemperance was shut down and Iffort remained as it was doing well as a brand. However the legal entity of Itemperance is still active and interestingly, all the billing is done under this name.

Early days were quite a challenge, as both co-founders had never worked in the digital media space. Powered by the tech and IT experience, their first client came from a known connection but the major breakthrough happened when Deals and You came on board as a client. During this time Iffort created a Facebook app for the brand related to the Cricket World Cup. The app became an instant hit and the brand gained quite a bit of buzz.

Post that things became smoother, Lonely Planet came on board, followed by the radio channels, insurance brands, among others. “Most of our clients came after they were fed up working with larger agencies. It is also a fact that rarely a client has left us because of the quality of work. It has probably been for the skillset we are missing as a partner, or probably there is a lack of justification in either side.”

(L-R) Sunny Jindal & Daksh Sharma

Over the last six years, Iffort has created a name of its own on the grounds of quality work and not by PR. But Daksh is quite upfront in accepting the fact that as an agency they couldn’t scale up as they could have. “We are more of emotional entrepreneurs rather than business entrepreneurs. We are very attached to Iffort and this was one of the reasons why we were not interested in diluting our stakes. We did try to scale but we also felt that we were losing touch with our people so we decided to do what made us happy. We may not be agency pro guys and looking back I think scaling up is where we lost a bit.”

Meanwhile the food was served on our table. After few bites Daksh revealed that he still stands with the mentality of having a small team at a time when agencies are opening offices across India and the globe. But then it also comes at a cost.

“Having a small head count helps me to keep a one-to-one interaction with each team member but we have often seen that it has also been one of the reasons for losing pitches. It is a not a dead end but a bigger client is more comfortable with larger agencies who have a big head count, won 100+ awards and present across cities. It’s hard to justify these numbers for a 30-member agency.”

However he further added that there are brands who give weightage to quality and are not behind numbers. “That’s how we have been able to be bootstrapped and deliver quality work.”

And is Daksh Sharma happy with how Iffort has shaped up in last six years?

“I would be lying if I say that I have grown well in comparison to my other agency friends. We are clearly not the best digital agency, we don’t have the best roster of clients and obviously I will not be able to retain employees for the next two years.

But there is another me that advises to be happy and content with what I have achieved and how Iffort has evolved in the last six years. It is a choice that we have made. I may not be content with work as there is a lot to achieve but the way I have grown, I am fairly content.”


Building TravHQ

Iffort has been there for six years but TravHQ is just a year old. The portal offers insights, opinion and reviews from travel and related industries focusing on technology, social media, digital marketing and mobile verticals. Right now the focus has been on India and SEA region.

The idea started developing in late December 2014. The vision was to create a connected eco-system with every stakeholder in the domain. Apart from latest travel campaigns, the idea was to find what’s new in travel, and how tech, social media is playing a role. “We had the choice of building such a property and give it to our client but we decided to build it as our own property.”

Daksh started off as the founding partner and editor but today he plays a passive role. TravHQ is completely independent and the only role Iffort is playing here is in providing funds and resources. “We are keeping both business entities separate as we don’t want people to think that TravHQ features all the clients and campaigns only of Iffort.”

In the last one year, I’m informed that TravHQ has been successful in creating a good connect with one of the stakeholders i.e. travel startups. “To this date we have connected with more than 250 travel startups and profiled 100+ startups across Asia.”

The startup has also focused on the offline space and partnered with Fairfest Media Ltd., which organizes online travel mart. It has also launched a property called Travel Startup Knockdown+ in association with TTF to highlight the emerging travel technologies and startups across various cities in India.

“We are also doing workshops for travel startups on how to use social media and technology, etc. We have already done four editions of startup knockdown and two will happen in the next month. Going forward we will try to push the envelope in the space.”

Soon Daksh wants to take TravHQ beyond India and execute knockdown sessions in markets like Singapore, Malaysia, among others. The idea is also to work with tourism boards across Asia and bring the Indian traveller to them.

Along with TravHQ, Daksh and his team have built a roadside assistance app called Zaiuto. So, for instance, if your car breaks down, the app guides you to the nearest mechanic and even makes a connection to solve the problem. The app was recently pitched to an international RSA company but the team has finally decided to not sell, but build it further and see the larger possibilities.

“In a nutshell, for Iffort, things have shifted from a campaign centric to a company that builds solutions and then tries to get the right kind of clients involved. Solutions that have been created and owned by us, this has been the biggest shift for Iffort.”

One may feel that Daksh could have sold the app and made money out of it. But, at the end of the day, he just doesn’t want to be a vendor but wants to go beyond and be the problem solver for real life situations.

“As an entrepreneur I see there is a greater social responsibility that our breeds have than just making money.”

Road ahead for Daksh Sharma

The clock has been ticking fast; the last fifty minutes just flew by. While Daksh was giving directions to the Ola cab driver, I popped my last question to the entrepreneur – What lies ahead for Daksh Sharma from here on?

“Honestly I don’t have any thoughts for now. When I started Iffort I had no plans but saying that the next six months are pretty critical in terms of what we are doing, as there is a lot of stake, effort and money involved. So one of these things will click or perhaps break. But right now it is work in progress, hard phase for us but hopefully we should get something out of it.”

So someone acquiring you in the next six months? That’s on the back burner now as it involves multiple things. “We are clearly not thinking about it as of now, we want to focus on our initiatives. Six months later I might be talking to someone but as of now there is nothing.”

There are very few Indian digital agency founders who speak their mind without any filters. Daksh Sharma is one of them and the industry should be proud to have such entrepreneurs who keep shipping with their heads down. Numbers can’t define everything.

“May be this is a wrong way of doing business but this is how it has been and I am happy about it.”

These were his parting words before he hopped onto his cab.

While riding back on my Royal Enfield I was surrounded with thoughts like - Is there a right or wrong way of doing business? Who even decides them? The six-year-old entrepreneur from the capital had certainly left me with thoughts to mull over.