Published: 08th October 2018
Through his new book, Evam's Karthik Kumar asks youngsters to not start up. Here's why
Evam's Karthik Kumar is out with his book Don't Startup. We debunk the reason behind the name and also more about his journey
Fighting through Chennai's crazy impatient traffic, at 11:15 am on a Monday, I stopped my car on a tiny lane, a few buildings away from Chamiers Apartment, where Evam Entertainment has their office. I was almost running on the footpath towards the building, wearing a pair of super uncomfortable flats (also making sure that I don't trip and fall). The reason? I was late for an interview that I'd scheduled for 11 am, a cardinal sin in a journalist's book. This time, I was set to talk to Evam's co-founder Karthik Kumar, someone whom I'd only seen before on screen. Most of the time, he managed to make me laugh my guts out. And it wasn't just mindless laughing, he always made me think while I laughed. He was also one of the first few to try out an entertainment start-up along with Sunil Vishnu K, way before AIB and SnG were common household names.
Actor, comedian, entertainer, entrepreneur — undoubtedly, Karthik is multifaceted. But this time, I was meeting him not as Karthik the entertainer, but as Karthik, the author of the book Don't Startup. "What is he even saying?" I asked myself when I read the title. Then I thought it might be a better idea to just ask the author himself than trying to come up with my own theories. I had so much more to ask him, but thanks to my inaccurate judgment of traffic during peak hours, I was almost sure that he'd either cancel the interview or worse — be grumpy — and no journalist wants to have a conversation with a grumpy person.
The overthinker in me was definitely wrong. With an apology note prepared in my head, I reached Evam's office. As I entered the well-lit room, towards the corner I saw a gentleman dressed in a light blue shirt and a pair of blue jeans. He was cupping his face with both his hands as if he was lost in deep thoughts. It took me a minute to realise that that was Karthik Kumar, the man who was asking youngsters not to start-up. Karthik was extremely pleasant and had a smile throughout the conversation and I breathed a sigh of relief. It was almost difficult to believe that it was the same funny guy who made us laugh about engineering and Maggi and golu mamis. He was much more handsome in real life and sounded very different from the way he talks on stage. It almost felt like I was talking to someone else.
Young at heart: Karthik doesn't believe that he's acting like a 40-year. He says that doing new things makes one feel young, silly, fearful and confident
So, why would Karthik Kumar, a chemical engineer who decided to quit a high-paying corporate job at 25 to start an entertainment company, ask others not to start up? "Because when you usually tell an entrepreneurial personality not to do something, they definitely end up doing it," laughs Karthik. He tells us that an entertainment start-up is still not a big thing and he and his partner were 'fighting against the tide' in every sense. "Money making was incredibly difficult. Not just that, we heard a lot of nos too. Nobody will tell you that a start-up is the best thing. You'll hear a lot of 'This won't make enough money' and 'You aren't the right person to try it out'," he says. While all of this echoes a certain fear in you, the trick, according to the Evam man, is to confront it. "On some level, you need to think that you only live once. Then you start looking at what your classmate is doing and contemplate if that's for you and if it's exciting enough. When you really think that, you're giving yourself a new option to try and fail," he says. Seems twisted, but the logic is sound.
Even a decade and a half with Evam, Karthik is unsure if he has made a mark in the industry. But he isn't waiting for someone to tell him that. "Entrepreneurship is a journey of internal and external validation. Even when we made no money, we believed that we were more important than anything else in the world. There's more romance in saying 'I don't have any money, but I'm still struggling'. But today, we are no longer struggling. The struggle is for different things. But what remains the same is, at all points, that we believe that we are important," he says.
You start with an idea and believe in that and eventually, you'll be able to turn it around and make it reach a profitable place. Even before we thought we could turn comedy into a business, we believed that it's a powerful idea
Karthik Kumar, Entrepreneur
In 2003, Karthik was a 25-year-old who wanted to be the boss and do what he loved doing. His parents never said no to him, despite being conscious and anxious about his choices. But over the years, he has successfully cracked the code of entrepreneurship and he tells us that a start-up is like a child. "Can a parent say 'I wanted to have kids, so I had them, but now I've lost interest'?" he asks sarcastically. I couldn't help but burst out laughing when Karthik asked me that question with a straight face. "Entrepreneurship is not very different. It is equally difficult to abort a start-up. It will leave you with a lot of significant learning, but also a lot of scars. You'll question yourself as to why you started up in the first place. That 'why' is very important," he says, adding that his book will help youngsters figure out their 'Whys'.
Through the book that is published by Notion Press, Karthik wants to tell young people a few things that no one will ever tell them. "People will tell you about funding and how to do things and the skill set you need. Here, I'm telling you about the emotional challenges and the questions you should ask yourself. This is more like Arjuna standing beside his cousins and Krishna standing beside him, talking to him," he says.
LOL Time: Karthik has performed over 1000 stand-up shows across India, USA, UK, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong
Now, does he have a favourite part in this book? Definitely! The chapter that talks about failures is what Karthik would read again and again. "People love to talk to you about success and how everytime you should try to succeed and not fail. Failure is associated with shame and no one talks about it. I talk about it as if its the greatest thing on Earth and wear the scars of failure," he says, pointing at the book's cover, which I hadn't seen until then. The cover has a photo of Karthik, with a band-aid on his head. "I wear those scars as the proud emblem of my journey," says Karthik with a smile.
As I walked back to my car, I had a closer look at the book cover. There was a band-aid on the n't of Don't in the shape of an X. Now, is Karthik consciously yet covertly using a double negative here to suggest that you actually should go and start a start-up? Why didn't I think of this sooner!
So here's an excerpt from my conversation with Karthik
Parvathi: You're an actor, entrepreneur, entertainer, comedian and now an author. How do you manage the time, stress, energy and everything?
Karthik: I ask the same question to a person who does the same thing throughout the day. How do they do the same thing throughout? A carpenter who does carpentry throughout his life or an actor who only acts all the time. How do they do all that? I'm part actor, director and entrepreneur. It's quite amazing.
P: Would you share an anecdote about your journey that probably changed the way you look at things?
K: What kind?
P: Something funny!
K: I remember the first ever stand-up show in 2009. It was in a buffet restaurant because we couldn't afford to hire an auditorium. I'd watched stand-up that year. It was so much fun. Someone would just tell their story, make people laugh and make money! So I thought of trying it out.
P: So were you always an effortlessly funny guy?
K: No. I never knew how to make myself and others laugh at me. I never had a sense of humour. So, coming back to the 2009 story. There were seven people in the audience and I knew four of them. Of the other three, two left midway. There was one person left.
P: So, who were the other four? Family?
K: Team members and people who designed the set (Laughs). One person was new. So I told myself that I'm performing for them. She stayed back throughout. I was so happy. Backstage, the producer told me that the one person wanted to meet me. I was excited to meet my first fan. The middle-aged lady then told me, "Please don't ever do this again. Do whatever you want, but not this." I asked her, "What is this-this?". She said, "Whatever you did today." I thanked for staying back, but I had a show at 7 pm that evening and had 70 tickets sold for that. I asked her what she thought I should do about it. She said, "I don't know what you're going to do pa."
P: How did the 7 pm show go?
K: After that, anything was great. Thankfully, everyone stayed back. Nobody left. Sometimes, you pat yourself on the back because there's no one else to do so.