It has been almost three years since I last set foot in this buzzing second tier city of Pune. It was here that Anthony and I decided to settle, and stay, back in 2008 after we left university. Back then, we knew no one here and little about life, business or India. In two years we had started two companies, one of which now employs more than fifty people, SapnaSolutions. Now, after more than two months on the road, from lowland to highland and down again, across the himalayas, from China to India, we return to where it all started for me in Asia, Pune.
Eight regional jets are parked at Pune airport when we arrive, a far cry from the one or two daily flights in my time here. It is our first reminder that this town of 5 million is one of the fastest developing in India. A quick auto ride past familiar sites and we arrive at Koregoan Park, the trendy area Anthony and I never managed to find the budget to live in back in 2008. We are touched by the warmth of Yann and Anna’s reception and hospitality, and though it has been a number of years since we all saw each other last, a common bond exists, one only fellow entrepreneurs who’ve worked through difficult times together share. As we settle into our air conditioned room, I dream of times past. I had never before slept with AC in Pune.
SapnaSolutions has grown. When I left we had a maximum of twenty staff. Two office moves later I stand humbled at the entrance of their huge new office, housing over fifty eager employees, including many from Europe, both interning and full time. Three or four employees whom I helped hire remain firm, after three years of startup madness. Big smiles and warm handshakes with characteristicly Indian enthusiasm – it is good to be back.
The familiar sound of a rickshaws noisy two stroke engine firing into life, and I’m off across town to see Shardul, an old friend and one of our first employees way back in 2008. Familiar sites and smells whizz past, evoking old memories and powerful emotions, but both Pune and I have changed. Shiny new buildings are everywhere, particularly noticeable is the flurry of high end hotels which have appeared all over the city. No longer is Le Meridian the only place for a good breakfast. Change in more subtle form can be found in old streets fast turning upmarket, cool. Where once there were run down stores and dark shuttered windows, trendy cafes and shops have appeared, businesses that used to be limited to small pockets of the city, now unleashed across countless upchanging neighbourhoods. My rickshaw driver suddenly turns to me at a junction as I am using my phone to capture the scene. ‘How much, your phone? 20,000?’
‘No’, I reply, embarrassed to tell him the truth is closer to double that. He continues:
‘Camera is how many megapixels?’
Stunned by the questionI tell him the truth, ‘Eight’.
‘Very good’, he waggles his head in approval, pulling away from the light with the rush of traffic. Such an exchange would have been unimaginable, certainly in English, just a few years back.
Even the traffic too has changed. Yann tells me an explosion in car purchases by middle class families in the past two years has replaced many of the cities infamous hordes of bikes. While quieter and arguably less polluting, the city continues to suffer ever worse congestion. Nevertheless, even the municipality has had its share of the change, with noticably more efficient road systems. Everything it seems, from my cofounders lifestyle, to the rickshaw drivers English and ambition, has had an upgrade.
Sharduls company Webonize, is perhaps the most impressive and overwhelming of the expansions I witness here. Three years after founding his small offshore development company, his staff count stands at 70+, with office space to match. Standing in front of their massive backup power supply, he explains his full time occupation of late is sourcing and fitting offices. That, and continuing to close individual deals worth upwards of several hundreds of thousands of dollars with US and European clients. Lead around the office like an investor or advisor, rather than the lowly third party friend of the founder that I am, I ask how long they expect to be in the office in which they have just invested heavily and moved into. ‘At least another two quarters’, he explains, laughing. Shardul is a gem, shining more every time I see him. Full of humour and joviality, he talks through some of the challenges he’s faced, personal and entrepreneurial, as though telling a stories round a campfire of times past. His unshakable optimism and neverending energy will take him far, that much is clear to me, as we drive back to the west side of town in his new car, reminiscing about times not so long past.
And as we round off a short two day visit with more of Anna’s kind hospitality and spectacular Italian cooking at a small gathering at home, I am suddenly struck with a familiar feeling that I’ve had here before. It was April 9th 2009 and SapnaSolutions had just had her official office launch party. A group of about twenty staff and friends were sat in a crescent shape drinking and chatting afterwards. I looked around and suddenly felt that part of what Anthony and I had done since arriving in India was to help create a family. People would come and go, and not everyone present were even our employees, but through times shared acquaintance had turned to strong connection; a lasting bond now existed between all.
Now, three years on, it is quite amazing to see what has happened to that family. It has grown to proportions quite beyond our expectations. People we once hired and close friends we made now account for four or five new companies in Pune, employeeing hundreds of people, generating millions of dollars in revenue. Our vision of EnTrip didn’t quite take off as we hoped. But something perhaps even more amazing happened. We helped start a family, and participate as it grew. I can’t claim much was down to me, and in any case, noone single handedly starts a family, one participates in one. For that alone, to have been a small part in this story, I am very very happy. To be reminded of that, to feel part of it again, even just for a few days, thanks to the warmth of friends made here in India many years ago, is worth more than seeing Mount Everest or any number of picture perfect places. What you all have, whether you know it or not, is very special.