BY SAMIRA SOOD
The fourth in our series on conscious businesses is an interview with Varun Chawla, who is in the process of setting up build3, a startup studio in Goa that will co-create conscious businesses alongside entrepreneurs. Initially inspired by B Corp principles, Varun’s dream is to create a complete, sustainable ecosystem for entrepreneurs. He talks to Slurrp Farm about what inspired his career choices, the challenges of setting up a business in Goa, how entrepreneurs might pivot in the post-Covid world, and more.
Could you talk about what drew you to the startup world?
When I got into this field in 2005, I was driven by my experiences in the corporate world (with Goldman Sachs and Pennar Industries). I’m grateful for them, and I learnt a lot. But in the end, it felt like I was just a small piece of a bigger system whose mission might not wholly align with my personal values or ambition. It was a means to an end, mainly financial. At some point, I started to deprioritise the role of money in my life. It has a purpose, but it is not the big purpose, and that led me to looking for greater fulfilment from whatever I do. Entrepreneurship was something in which I could have that connection and alignment between what I wanted to do and what I and my team or company achieved. For me, it was the only way to drive meaningful on-ground change.
So was there a specific event or incident that inspired your decision to build conscious businesses?
One was that a few years ago, I battled a number of health problems, because of which I was keen to make a number of lifestyle changes — food, meditation, exercise, how I dealt with stressful situations — and I consciously started to work on this. Then, in my last couple of years at 91springboard (one of India’s biggest co-working communities, which I co-founded), my co-founder and I had a conversation and realised he had a much clearer vision for our future, so he should be the one to lead the organisation. So he became the CEO while I stepped down and took an executive position and over the next couple of years, I took on smaller and smaller roles. And as we surrounded 91springboard with the right talent, and people who were far more experienced and competent than I, it gave me a feeling of great comfort that I was required less, and could devote my time elsewhere.
Then, during the course of the Covid pandemic, I saw everyone’s world was rocked — professionally, personally, in some way. I saw people thinking about how they could make things better, mobilising resources and people in that direction, and thought this was something I’d like to be part of. With my work experience, I thought I could either do it myself or I could support others who were already on that journey who might be able to benefit from my experience. I decided to devote the next part of my career, maybe the rest of my life, to this.
You’ve said that build3 is inspired by the principles of B Corporations. Could you talk about that? Also, a lot of these terms — ESG, conscious capitalism, CSR, B Corp — are used interchangeably. How do you see each of them and their relationship with each other?
I was introduced to the concept first by Professor Yunus of Grameen Bank. I read his book, A World of Three Zeros, and was deeply inspired by it. That led me on this journey where I wanted to not only build something of meaning, but do it in a meaningful way. Sometimes we forget that it’s not just about the final outcome, but also the journey that we took there. And that could have been mindful of every stakeholder and everything that you touch, whether it’s the planet, the people who you build, your clients, or your vendors. So I started reading about B Corporations, and then about conscious capitalism, ESG and learning about all these approaches to business. If you were to create Venn diagrams, these terms overlap quite a bit, but they’re not identical. There’s no one right way, I think I’ve learnt from all of them and they all come from a similar place, but what’s important is to be clear about the larger picture that we want to achieve.
Could you talk about your idea for build3 to be a co-creator more than an investor, and your long-term plan of a startup studio?
At build3, we won’t just give you advice and money and say, run along and give us your numbers once a quarter. We will build with you. One of the things we did was go out to entrepreneurs, both experienced and those just at the start of their entrepreneurial journey, and asked them: How would you like it if an experienced person who’s been there and done that before was there by your side? We used the Sherpa reference — as in, if you were going to climb Mount Everest and there was somebody who’d been on that mountain before and could guide you about routes, about how many donkeys you need, where to pitch your tent, about the weather patterns, would you find that helpful?
And the answer was a resounding yes. They said, “Everyone’s here to give us money, even advice. But they won’t get in the trenches with us, so their advice seems a bit hollow. So yeah, if you’re going to tell me what to do and do some of it and watch over me as I do the rest of it, that’d be great.” We heard that and decided that’s what we’d do. This is also a newish conversation in the world of startups — there’s about a couple of 100 startup studios in the world and I would say you can count on your two hands the number in India.
You have also said that the companies you work with will be based in Goa and work in your office space. That sounds quite unique – and especially now that remote working has become the norm. What inspired this, and do you worry about how this will be feasible?
One of the things that we set out to do is work with early-stage companies. This means that it’s just at the idea stage or the founders have just built a prototype and are doing the early market validations. There’s strategic and tactical work happening, but the ingredient that makes it all come together is chemistry. Because you’ve got very few resources and you have to work really well and really closely together. You need people who know each other well, understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, pick up where the other one drops off.
That chemistry is incredibly hard to get remotely. You can do the work remotely if people have known each other or worked together for a long time in the past. But how do you understand what makes a person light up, what excites them, what food they like, if they are more productive at night or in the early morning, what work they love to do and what they do grudgingly – all of this you only figure out when even passively, two people are just sitting in a room together, for 10 hours a day. Hence, the thought that we must build together. And Goa is as good a place as any to do that: we’ve got a large one-acre compound with great trees and a lot of greenery and it’s a 50-metre walk from the beach, so it’s this really nice, serene place where you can focus and not be distracted, and we can really work closely together to build that chemistry. Once we have it, then it’s okay to work remotely.
Could you describe some of the difficulties of setting up an office in Goa? Logistics like transport, wi-fi connectivity, that sort of thing? So many people want to move there, but are intimidated by the thought — what’s your advice?
Yeah. So you’re absolutely right, and these are some of the things we solve for. Goa doesn’t have the most well-developed infrastructure. So when a company comes to Goa to work with us, one of the value adds is a predictable place to be able to work, with reliable internet, amazing people around you to be able to collaborate and work with. It’s not inconsequential or a small part of the solution, it’s actually quite a large part of the solution and we will have some space for people to stay. One of the startups is actually staying there right now.
Having said that, I do think there’s a bit of exaggeration on how difficult it is to set up an office in Goa. When we set up 91springboard, for example, we deliberately chose Panaji, which is a city, as opposed to a village, which means the infrastructure of physical building, roads, water and electricity supply, all of that was not really different to what we experienced in Navi Mumbai a few years earlier. Maybe it’s not as smooth or convenient as Delhi or Mumbai, but it’s not been that troublesome either.
Coming to the environment and climate action, where do you think the problem lies? Is it government, is it big business, and how much of an impact can individual action realistically have?
A major problem area, of course, is plastic and how we dispose of it – you know, it’s not an easy one to solve, anything is just difficult to do with that material. Then there are pollution-related challenges. So does that mean working with industries and helping change their effluents, or is it working with vehicle manufacturers, or is there a more direct environmental action? There can be multiple approaches to it.
In terms of the buck stopping at any one entity, I don’t think of the world in that way. I think it’s on every single person. Otherwise it gives you an excuse to sit on the sidelines and blame someone else.
And when it comes to impact, I believe every drop in the ocean counts. And I think our best shot is to enable entrepreneurs [who have these kinds of goals]. Because they create companies that galvanise resources towards their goal. So to me, they are the largest, most efficient engines to achieve that goal. Government is the other, but sometimes companies can be even bigger, I think.
Finally, do you think the Covid crisis will impact the kind of startups India will see in the near future?
Definitely. When people are affected, or they see people around them be affected, by certain events — that’s when they will innovate, will try to come up with a solution. That is what entrepreneurs do. And Covid is the biggest crisis we’ve seen of that sort — it’s changed the world and how we navigate it. So there’ll be some people working on preventing the next pandemic, some on mitigating effects on people, some will work on healthcare solutions, others on tech and IT solutions, and even governance. Entrepreneurs will use the tools they have to do whatever they feel will make a better world.