Although the speedy evolution of technology has been on track for a greater part of the 21st century, the global pandemic that struck the world in 2020 accelerated the solidification of the digital age – bringing it to full fruition. Today, everyone is on the internet, be it to run their business, to promote their product, to network with others, or simply to express themselves.
Therefore, the concept of digital marketing has become an invaluable aspect for all businesses running in 2022, and inevitably there has been an increase in the providers of digital marketing. Tangential to the concept of digital marketing, the past few years has observed an untethered proliferation in entrepreneurs.
The youth of today are becoming more and more inclined to starting small and making it big, but starting on their own – independently. Undeniably, a significant number of independent start-ups have managed to scale-up and currently function as large business ventures. Some examples that have gone down in entrepreneurial history as success stories include Urban Company, PayTM, Razorpay, UpGrad, Byju’s among others.
The Invisible Paintbrush is one such start-up that was established from scratch in the middle of the pandemic and lockdown.Currently positioned as a ‘small agency for small businesses’ – they provide a wide range of offerings within the realm of Digital Marketing, such as Strategy & Consulting, Social Media Marketing, Web Development, Branding & Design, Packaging & Merchandising, and Lead Generation. We spoke to the co-founder Nikunj Agarwal on his entrepreneurial experience, the challenges they overcame, and the effervescent future of digital marketing in India.
How would you describe your experience and journey so far as being an entrepreneur is concerned?
My entrepreneurship journey has been absolutely thrilling, unpredictable, and challenging. There have obviously been good days and bad days both, but fundamentally, I see it as the greatest learning experience I’ve ever had, one where each day has been unique, with new challenges. In many ways, I think that the act of entrepreneurship has taught me even more than any MBA programme could, and that’s always going to be the most valuable aspect about it, regardless of the business outcomes of this journey.
When did you decide to start the Invisible Paintbrush? Have you always been interested in Digital Marketing?
Frankly, Invisible was not an outcome of some detailed business plan, and when we started, we had little more than a vision. In 2020, Gurkamal, my cofounder, and I were both working at a large digital marketing agency in Mumbai. When the pandemic struck, we started working from home, and that’s when the idea for starting something of our own first came about. We realised that the pandemic was going to force thousands of SME businesses to invest in digital marketing, and that such businesses would not be able to afford traditional, large agencies. And so we decided to quit our jobs, and build The Invisible Paintbrush – a small agency for small businesses.
What were the skills and abilities you think you had to master prior to launching your start-up?
Even though we were confident of ourselves as marketeers, having had prior experience, the idea of starting and running a business was entirely alien to us. The first thing we had to learn was how to formally incorporate a business, and how to actually invoice clients and maintain financial records. Simply getting our business registered and obtaining a GST certificate took us almost 3 months! We also had to focus on sales to get our first few clients, and that was a completely foreign concept to us. Ironically, most of the skills we had to learn had nothing to do with marketing, and were instead focused on business management, legal compliance, sales, recruitments, and the like.
How did you conceptualise, develop, and implement your game-plan for Invisible Paintbrush? What would you say was your own personal blueprint?
A lot of the business strategy behind Invisible was actually developed organically, through small daily decisions, and not through a formal goal setting & vision planning exercise. At the beginning, we knew that the financials would be vital to our survival, and we just focused on executing as many projects as we possibly could, at very low prices. We also tried to acquire foreign clients to help build a small amount of capital, which would allow us to start hiring a team. We didn’t want to involve any investors, and had decided to bootstrap the business, which made it even more challenging. Once we had some stability, that’s when we actually thought about our positioning, pricing, and growth in more formal terms, hired our first team, and started leveraging our professional networks to gain more visibility. Personally, the idea for me was always to build a business that’s employee-first, where people are genuinely happy, well-paid, and respected, and that’s been the guiding principle for all my decisions. We always do what’s best for the team, and not for ourselves as founders, which has really made decision-making much simpler.
What do you think is the fundamental aspect that differentiates the experience of starting your own business at a young age versus joining a well-established firm?
I think the fundamental difference comes down to having a safety net. Usually, as an employee, especially in a well-established firm, there’s always a safety net – someone to help you when you’re stuck, someone to take the liability of your decisions, and a guaranteed paycheck. In the case of starting your own business, that safety net doesn’t exist. The buck stops with you in all matters, and that’s a little bit like being thrown in the deep end of a pool, without knowing how to swim. I think entrepreneurship forces you to learn a lot of things very quickly, across a very broad range of skills, and so it makes you a jack of all trades, which is often not the case with traditional careers.
What were the major challenges you faced while starting your business?
The biggest challenge was actually that of managing my own mental stress, and maintaining a growth mindset. Especially in the early days, it was very difficult to resist making impulsive decisions, and I was unable to ‘switch off’ from work, because of the pressure to survive. Even today, I think that’s the most important aspect of being a founder: having a healthy mindset that can inspire the rest of the team, instead of being reactionary and impulsive. In terms of the business, simply getting incorporated itself was quite challenging, especially since we were doing it during the lockdown period. Believe it or not, just getting an appropriate address proof took us 2 months!
And, what are the major challenges you are currently facing, having already established your firm?
Now that we’re stable and have a team in place, the challenges are linked to growth and retention, both in terms of our own team and talent, and also in terms of clients and projects. We’ve seen that what may have worked for getting us from zero to one, is not going to work to bring us from one to ten, and so we’re constantly recalibrating our focus and goals. Even so, I think that talent acquisition is definitely the most challenging aspect of growth, especially for a business like ours, which is heavily reliant on individual team members. Now, as we scale our operations, we’re also more conscious of competition, and we’re always trying to differentiate our offerings, which requires us to be very agile and adaptive, and that only gets harder as we get larger.
How did you overcome these obstacles? What do you think were the best practices to combat entrepreneurial challenges?
I don’t think there’s a universal solution, and each business has their own unique challenges and obstacles. Having said that, in our case, I think that having two co-founders has definitely helped, as each of us can support the other, and it helps take some of the pressure off. Similarly, it’s also very helpful to have access to other founders, mentors, and advisors, who can empathise with our challenges and provide meaningful advice. Even so, building mental strength and resilience is vital, without which it’s impossible to deal with setbacks or obstacles. At the crux of it, to sustain the life of an entrepreneur, you need to have a sacrosanct faith in your own skills and abilities consistently.
In your experience, what has been your greatest achievement with Invisible Paintbrush? What has been your formula for scaling-up your business?
Our greatest achievement with Invisible has definitely been the work culture that we’ve built, which is genuinely people-first, and an antithesis to the toxic culture found at many large agencies. In terms of scaling up, the formula has been simple: build a workplace that attracts the best talent, because the best talent will automatically attract the best clients, and so that’s exactly what we’ve done. Personally, I think that simply building a stable business itself has been a significant achievement for me, but in particular, I’m exceptionally proud of our Glassdoor rating, a whooping 4.7 out of 5!
The Invisible Paintbrush core team. Source: Nikunj Agarwal
What do you think is the future of Digital Marketing start-ups in India? And what do you think has led to the massive acceleration of Digital Marketing startups over the last couple of years?
The pandemic has naturally led to an explosion of digital marketing, as consumers have been spending more and more time online, and brands have had no choice but to adapt to digital platforms. Combined with the already rapid growth of the startup ecosystem in India, this has created ample opportunity for new marketing agencies and startups like ours. I think that marketing, whether digital or otherwise, is a perennial need, for almost all businesses, and so the future is very bright, even though there’s already many players and the industry is a crowded one. So, as we go forward, it’s only going to get more competitive, and the digital marketing ecosystem will only trail upwards and onwards.
What would your advice be for the younger generation who are looking to start their own Digital Marketing firm as entrepreneurs?
My honest advice is this: learn as much as you can, whether that’s through work, college, online sources, or any other channel. Building a business isn’t a one-time activity, but something that happens every day, through each decision you make. So, start small, but start somewhere, and build a bias for action. Everyone is going to make mistakes, that’s how learning happens. Don’t focus on perfection, but on action, and make as many mistakes as you can, as fast as you can. That’s perhaps the only way to become successful.