“I’ve learned from my travels, banking, and being born in certain economic strata that building a business is the most powerful tool that we have. It is the solution to the world's problems because through it, you create new employment opportunities, trade with each other and with other countries, and build more social cohesion. The more people I can help build a business with, the more the world becomes a better place.” - Vikram Bharati
"I met a lot of entrepreneurs who started with nothing and built an empire. The motivation in the back of my mind was that I would also build something one day. The desire was always there, but it never manifested into something until I paused and decided I wanted a substantial change in my life. Once I took that break, things fell into place. As I was traveling, the experience became a great catalyst for me to start doing what I'm doing today." - Vikram Bharati
1. Vikram started his career in documentary filmmaking, but eventually transitioned to banking due to financial reasons. After spending eight years in the banking industry, he took a sabbatical and fulfilled his childhood dream to backpack around the world for two years. He learned the reality of "if you're unhappy by being by yourself, you're probably in bad company" and learned to be a good companion to himself.
2. His mission is to help build one million new businesses worldwide by 2030. Draper Startup House's design principles are centered around economic development, building a global community, cross-border investments, education and programming, and tech development. The company aims to create a network of startup houses in every city around the world where people can live, work, play, build, and network together.
3. Vikram's approach to building Draper Startup House has been to go against conventional wisdom and break all the rules. The company went global from day one, expanding to six or seven countries in its first year, despite the conventional wisdom to start one thing and make it profitable before scaling slowly. This approach had been difficult but has paid off in the long run as the company now has a global presence across 25 countries via expansion, licensing and franchising.
Watch, listen or read the full insight including the immigrant mentality, his personal moments of bravery, and the love story of meeting his wife who took the train from the Netherlands to Singapore at https://www.bravesea.com/blog/vikram-bharati
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Jeremy Au: (01:43)
Hey Vikram, really excited to have you on the show. We had a wonderful conversation at Draper Startup House, which is your creation and your baby here, so we'd love to hear a little bit more about your story.
Vikram Bharati: (01:54)
Thanks, Jeremy. Pleasure to be here. As you mentioned, I am the founder of Draper Startup House, I'm also the Managing Director of Draper Startup House Ventures, which is our venture capital fund. My story is that I am the physical byproduct of an Indian father and a Burmese mother.
I was born in India, and moved to the states, when I was young, to study, to work and grew up, most of my life in California. I moved here to Singapore about seven years ago to be with my wife, and we have three kids. And so I'm a father, husband, a startup founder, an investor, and looking to continue on this journey and see where it takes me.
Jeremy Au: (02:46)
Amazing to hear that. You obviously started out in banking first, right? So what was driving that decision to do that?
Vikram Bharati: (02:54)
I started my career in documentary filmmaking. When I was 17 years old, I had this very strong pull to get into the documentary creative business, and so that's where I actually started. I spent a few years pursuing that hobby which turned into a job and so that was where I actually started my career but then ended up in banking.
That transition from documentary filmmaking to banking was one of necessity. There was not a lot of money in documentary filmmaking and so at the time I was very interested in sort of like how the world works in general. When you're in banking, you sort of straddle both because you have to understand how the world works in terms of how money moves around the world. So banking was a very good career for me, and I really enjoyed it. But I felt that it was an industry that was not really innovating or moving at the sort of speed that I was hoping to be at, and so I decided to take a pause and figure out what was going to be the next journey that I would be on. I didn't really know at the time what I really wanted to do when I was in banking. But when I finished, I took a pause, I traveled and was hoping to find my next adventure, which I did, almost in a happenstance way. But I did go looking for it. And I did find it while I was traveling and searching for the next journey.
Jeremy Au: (04:22)
I mean, you spent eight years in the bank, so there's a good chunk of time, and then you decide to spend, effectively a year and nine months backpacking through 85 cities and six continents, through 50 countries. Let's zoom in on that. Why did you decide to take that sabbatical? Did you know that you were going to spend that long period of time? Did you know that you want to travel to that many countries? What were you looking for?
Vikram Bharati: (04:47)
Jeremy, when I was very young, five years old, six years old, my father would bring home these National Geographic magazines, which I'm not sure if they're around anymore, I don't know if you remember them, but they were these yellow soft covered magazines and they were all about travel and adventure.
I was born in India and didn't really get to travel much as a child. I was very much sort of like one place, and going through these National Geographic magazines when I was a child was my outlet in terms of traveling the world. I read all of them. Back to back, I would re-look at those magazines and I would very eagerly wait for the next month's magazine to show up at the door.
I would go on, this is before the internet. This is before television, really or at least broadcast television, the way we know it today. I would start dreaming about traveling the world and doing adventure travel around the world. I was not particularly very good at school, but I was actually very good at geography.
Whenever we would memorize the names of cities and countries, I excelled at that. So, my dream was always to be an adventure traveller around the world and go to exotic places. As a child, that was sort of embedded in my psychology and so that was something I always wanted to do as an adult, but never really got the chance to do it.
So when I was sort of done with banking, the only other thing I really wanted to do was pursue this childhood dream of doing adventure travel around the world. That's the reason. Why I did it was because it's something I really wanted to do my entire life. The two years I spent adventure traveling around the world was the most amazing two years of my life. I learned in those two years so many things that I applied today. I feel backpacking around the world and adventure traveling are very helpful for building a company because as an adventure traveler you never know what you're going to get into, right?
The culture is always to seek out the unknown. The culture of backpacking is always to meet new people, to discover new things, and so it has all the building blocks as a cultural quality, which is very helpful for business building and entrepreneurship because adventure, seeking out unknown things, being very comfortable in all sorts of uncomfortable situations. The key thing of backpacking is also facing the unknown and so these are all qualities that I think are very helpful for building any sort of business. I think the similarities are actually more similar than it may appear from an outside perspective.
Jeremy Au: (07:43)
What was personally your most uncomfortable experience during those two years?
Vikram Bharati: (07:48)
Well, the most uncomfortable situation in those two years was really learning to be by yourself, and to face loneliness. As a backpacker, you're of course constantly meeting people, but there's periods of time where you are by yourself, you are traveling by yourself, and you are in new situations by yourself, and sometimes you're stuck in a place by yourself.
I'm very much an extrovert and I like being around people and things, and being forced to be by yourself on a beach without any friends, it is something that was at the beginning, very uncomfortable for me. But over those two years I actually learned how to be by myself.
And it was quite a change in my personality and in my psyche, where I became comfortable being lonely in that sense.
Jeremy Au: (08:49)
Why is it difficult to face loneliness?
Vikram Bharati: (08:52)
That's a good question. I don't think anyone's asked me that before. Why is it uncomfortable to be lonely? well, I suppose maybe not everyone has that problem, I think some people are very comfortable in being lonely, but I suppose it probably has to do with millions of years of evolution where our survival was very much and is very much dependent on other people, and having networks of people and always being around a tribe of people. I suppose that was an evolutionary way for us to survive, was to stick together, in small tribes so that we wouldn't get eaten by the lions. I suppose there's maybe some component of that very deep evolutionary path, maybe there's other reasons, but I suppose that's probably a very deep-rooted reason why we like to be around other people.
Jeremy Au: (09:52)
Why was it important for you to face loneliness personally?
Vikram Bharati: (09:56)
Someone once said If you're unhappy by being by yourself, you're probably in bad company. And so I suppose being comfortable with your own thoughts and by yourself, I suppose means you have to sort of elevate yourself and become a good companion to yourself.I learned that I need to have better thoughts, be able to be by myself because I'm probably going to face those situations in my life.
I used to dream about sitting on a beach and reading a book. And when I started traveling and I would go to all these exotic beaches in the Caribbean or in the Philippines or in Thailand, I actually got really bored of sitting at the beach and reading a book. I guess after a while I realized that I kind of need to entertain myself and be happy being by myself. I've gotten better at it over time.
Jeremy Au: (10:53)
And what's interesting is that after all of that growing up in Los Angeles, you backpack around the world, you landed up in Southeast Asia. How did that happen?
Vikram Bharati: (11:02)
I love Southeast Asia, I feel very much at home in Southeast Asia. And the reason I suppose is because I am of Southeast Asian descent. My father is from India. My mother is Burmese. I look Southeast Asian. If I'm in Indonesia, people think I'm Indonesian. If I'm in the Philippines, people think I'm Filipino. If I'm in Myanmar, people think I'm Burmese. So I feel very much at home in Southeast Asia. I first came out here to really just travel and see the region and spend time here. And I just fell in love with everything about Southeast Asia in terms of culture. When I'm in Thailand, I love the Buddhist culture. The arts, everything about Southeast Asia for me feels very much that I am meant to be part of this region, it gives me a lot of joy. I feel very happy when I walk out the door and there's temples that I walk by, the food stalls. It gives me a lot of energy. I thrive in the culture of Southeast Asia. It feels very much at home. So when I first came here and started traveling, riding a motorcycle across Vietnam traveling across Thailand, traveling across Myanmar I just knew that this is where I get my energy.This region is where I get my energy, and I felt so alive and I still do today. I've been living here for seven years, and I just feel alive living in this part of the world. I definitely wanted to see if I could stick around a bit longer than just travel through.
And I met my wife while I was traveling. I met her in Thailand. My wife, I don't know if you've met her, Jeremy, but she's from the Netherlands and she took the train from Amsterdam to come to Singapore, to go to INSEAD which is the business school here, and then she joined McKinsey and she stayed. She kind of, very much feels very similar to me where she thrives and finds a lot of energy in this part of the world.
So we started dating and we got married. And so that sort of was the main reason why I decided to settle down. And so that sort of happened, that desire to stick around happened and I'm loving it. I love being in Singapore. I love being in Southeast Asia. This is my favorite part of the world.
Jeremy Au: (13:20)
An interesting part of transition as well is that you change industries as well, somewhat, right? Change from banking into venture capital investments in a year and a half. So what was that experience and motivation there?
Vikram Bharati: (13:33)
Yeah, it's interesting because I have been changing things in my life, my entire life. Where I was born, I always had this immigrant sort of mentality because I've always been an immigrant my entire life. I was born in India. My parents were of two different cultures and two different religions.
I immigrated to the United States. I became a US citizen. I went through that entire process of nationalization and living in the US and being an immigrant. And then I went traveling around the world, which is new countries, every week you're in a new country. Now I live in this part of the world and I'm an immigrant to this part of the world in a sense.
And so changing where I live and what I do has always been sort of part of my DNA. Started my career in documentary filmmaking,went into banking. Now I live in startup culture and the startup economy. I think changing my surroundings and changing my profession has been something that's always part of my DNA.
So I've been very comfortable in changing these aspects of my life. And so going from corporate banking where you deal with large institutions to then now working in an environment where you work with very small companies. We are early stage investors and our community is very much people who are starting off. They have an idea and they wanna build it into a company.
And so that transition, clearly, was a change, but I feel very comfortable in that change. And what I really like about this transition is that in banking you're always learning about industries, right? I work in the diversified industries, so I was constantly learning about new types of companies, new business models, but you're doing it at an institutional level and you are always analyzing the business environment. The P&L, the balance sheets, you're always analyzing industry. I think that skillset of always learning about new industries was very helpful and is very helpful to what I do today because a lot of it is similar methodologies. Though you're very much working in the people who are starting off, but you still have to try to understand all the basic component of a business model, etc. So I think there's a lot of similarities between banking and being early stage investor. In fact, I feel it actually is very helpful. And those that I have seen who are good investors in venture capital and who have honed their skills in a corporate setting of really trying to understand business models, various different types of business models, do really well in being a venture capitalist because there's a lot of similar methodologies. I think that transition was refreshing. For me it gives me a lot of that intellectual curiosity, it helps with that because you're always learning new things.
So for me, the transition was almost seamless. And it almost seemed that my training in banking was meant to be so that I could transition into something that's a lot more volatile and unknown, but has similar building blocks.
Jeremy Au: (16:49)
So what did you personally learn from this experience? Because, after that you went off to build Draper Startup House, right? So what were the lessons that you personally took away that motivated you to build Draper Startup House?
Vikram Bharati: (17:04)
When I was in banking, you would always meet, like the CEOs or the founders of these companies that started these companies and now are successful companies. And when you're analyzing, reading about the companies that you're going to be doing projects for, there's always that human element, right?
So and so started this company 80 years ago, family office, right? Like you read about the stories of the founders who started these companies, which now are either very successful middle market companies or large corporate companies. I used to always think, oh my God, like I am in a job where I am doing things for people who've started these companies. In the back of my mind, I always knew that I wanted to be one of those people. One day there's going to be a story, about how I started something. That was always a motivation for me.
In eight years of banking, you work with a lot of companies and you read about, and you meet a lot of entrepreneurs who've started with nothing and then built an empire and so, all of those years, the motivation in the back of my mind was that I would also build something one day. And so the desire was always there and the motivation was always there. It just never manifested into something until I basically took a pause and decided that I wanted a change. And the change, I didn't want the change to be incremental change. I wanted the change to be a very substantial change in my life. Once I took that break and decided to have that change then things sort of fell in place. And then as I was traveling, that experience of the travel translated into essentially what I'm doing today. And so it was a great catalyst. The travel was a great catalyst for me to be doing what I'm doing today.
Jeremy Au: (19:02)
What's interesting about Draper Startup House of course is that, you build a physical space, you build out hostile accommodations. There's obviously a lot of event programming, so could you share some of the design principles that you encoded from day one?
Vikram Bharati: (19:16)
At the high level of our mission for the company is really economic development. I was traveling all around the world where I found a lot of joy in traveling where in developing countries, in countries where the economies have not reached a point where everyone has a good economic life, but that's where I was very much drawn into traveling to conflict zones, conflict countries, developing areas and not so much, Europe or sort of, Western countries because I was very much familiar with that sort of setting.
And I think the realization for me was that economic development around the world is not equally distributed. Economic development still has a very long way to go for 8 billion people in the world today. Soon to be 10 billion in our lifetime, to have the economic platform that a very few, billion people in the world have.
And so, I think my vision for myself, my mission for my life is to be a catalyst for growing economic development around the world. And that is the essence of what we're trying to do is economic development around the world and the best way to do, I feel, this economic development around the world or be part of this effort for economic development around the world is to help as many people in the world build a business for themselves, for their families, for their communities.
I feel that business building is the solution to the world's problems because it is through business development that you create new opportunities for employment for people. It is through business development that you create new wealth for your communities. It is through building a business that you trade and with each other, with other countries where you build more social cohesion through business development. So my learnings through my travels, my learnings through being in banking, my learnings being born in a certain part of the world and being born in a certain economic strata of life is that business building is the most powerful tool that we have. The more people I can help build a business, I think the world becomes better by doing that.
So the basic building block of our company is to help people build businesses. And so we've set the mission for the company that in our lifetime we want to help build a million new businesses around the world. That is the mission we have put on the wall. So every day we see 1 million entrepreneurs, 1 million businesses. That is what we strive to do because it is through achieving that we will be a significant contributor to this effort for economic development in the world. So that is the mission. And how we want to do that is really to build four things. Firstly, we wanna build a global community in a global network of people who can help each other. So the basic structure of that is to build communities around the world or hubs around the world.
My vision is that every city in the world will have a startup house, which will be a startup community, a business hub, where they all will be connected to each other, and this will be a massive global network of people that will help each other build businesses. And so I kind of see that as the new international Chamber of Commerce where these startup houses become chambers of commerces where people trade ideas, people trade investment people trade talent. That's one building block.
The second building block is investments, cross-border investments, and really finding opportunities to invest in companies so that they can build their businesses. And so thus we have a venture capital fund that we are deploying capital into early stage companies.
The third building block is education and programming. And I feel that to be a very substantial part of our business and building block of the business because it is through education that people will get the basic tools to build a business. So the education pieces all around business development is how do you take an idea, turn it into a business, employ people and create wealth for your communities.
And the fourth building block is tech development. We want to be a company that helps large institutions, small institutions, have the capacity to develop technical tools. And so we call that our services block. So services, education, investments, and global community. These are the four blocks, or four pillars of the business. And the combination of that is a commercial opportunity and a commercial brand that can be scaled through licensing and franchising which we are doing now.
I envision a new category creation called a startup house, which has been around, for a very long time. But the startup house category has been very much, like a hacker house, very mom and pop, some friends get together and put a house together and they all live there and build companies together.
I feel the opportunity, the big opportunity in the world is a new category creation where we take that concept and commercialize it so that every city has a startup house that where people live, work, play, build, network. And all of these houses together will be an engine for economic development around the world.
Jeremy Au: (25:21)
What has personally surprised you about building Draper Startup House? Since this is your first business that you've built on your own.
Vikram Bharati: (25:31)
The surprising part of building Draper Startup House, has been how difficult it is. How extremely difficult it is to put this idea into the world. I always knew it would be a challenge, certainly, but I didn't realize how difficult it would be to actually see this in the purest manifestation of what I envision in my head.
And so that was a surprise. The other surprise on the other side of that is actually how receptive people are to this idea and how much people actually want this idea to be in the world. So this very interesting situation where it's extremely difficult, but yet you realize that there's a real need for what you're doing, and then there's a real want for what we're building.
And so I suppose this is the conundrum of building a businesses, okay, you see the need, but it's very difficult. So ultimately comes down to the business model, and that's probably the solution is do you have the right business model or models? Can you actually come up with the right business model that straddles the difficulty and the want and then becomes the tool for this idea to be in the world?
I think the business model perspective is still something that we are uncovering. We think we have a good idea of what it should be and can be, but also what it can develop into. So the business model of say like licensing and franchising, this business models have always been around but can you actually apply that to us, the startup house concept?
And so I hope I answered your question, Jeremy, but to summarize, what I learned is that people want this, but it is extremely difficult to make it.
Jeremy Au: (27:38)
And I think that's the awkward reality, right? For so many startups, like you said, the real need for the category versus the extreme difficulty to create a category. How do you think about you in personally creating the right business model. How do you get inspired? How do you figure it out? How do you iterate on it?
Vikram Bharati: (27:58)
Jeremy, you are a venture investor, and so you probably see this all the time. When I started this company, I knew from day one that I wanted this company to be a global company. I would not be satisfied if this attempt that we were trying to build this idea would be a local or regional brand.
From day one, I knew, okay, I want this to be a global brand. I want this to be in every city in the world, that was always the idea from day one. From a business model perspective, what I decided to do was everything that people told us we shouldn't do, which is go global from day one, which is the generally conventional wisdom is start one thing, make it profitable, scale that slowly, which is a conventional wisdom, which might actually have been the right thing for us to do, I don't know but from day one, we said, let's turn this thing upside down. Let's turn conventional wisdom upside down. Let's break all the rules and let's do everything that we're not supposed to do.
And so from day one, in our first year we were in six or seven countries and we expanded from right away. And now, we're five years and into this, which in hindsight is not a very long time, but in five years, we have presence in 26 countries and around the world. We have every continent. We're in South America, we're in Africa, we're in North America, we're in Europe, we're in Asia, we're in Australia. So we've gone global. And we were global from our first year. I guess the question is, was that the right business decision or not? I think time will tell. But we certainly did not follow conventional wisdom, that's for sure. And I think it has actually been to our benefit, that we went global from day one because now as we're licensing and franchising out this concept, it's a lot easier to sell the idea to people because we have global presence. People want to be part of something that's global. And us being global from day one has helped us actually grow and scale. So I think the business model perspective it didn't work for the first few years. It was very difficult because we were scaling and growing globally without the P&L being profitable every month. But now we're at a place where this global presence is helping us actually license this out.People are paying us to have a startup house in their city. Those years of losing money and being a lost leader and going to new countries, I suppose, as part of the business model and as part of the strategy and now we're seeing the fruits come to bear. I hope that answered your question.
Jeremy Au: (30:58)
Yeah, definitely it did. And on that note, how have you personally been brave?
Vikram Bharati: (31:04)
When I look back at my life, I think of three or four situations or times in my life that have helped me in evolving myself and has helped me grow as a person. And there's always a few times in your life where there are some critical things that you have to make a decision on that changes your trajectory of life.
Number one, when I first left India, to move to the United States. I did that on my own. It was without any family support. It was without any money that I had. I immigrated to the United States with no money, all by myself, with no health from my friends or family, was a solo endeavor.
It was extremely difficult. And I needed to be extremely brave to sort of just do that, but that changed the trajectory of my life. Just being brave to move from one country to the other country by yourself, not knowing what is going to happen to you on the other side. I had no plan. I had no money, I had no networks. It was purely a leap of faith, that by doing so would be good for me. And I think that required a lot of bravery at the time. So that was one brave defining moment of my life, which has panned out really well for me.
The other decision was, to leave a very comfortable life in banking where I had the nice car and the nice apartment and the nice friends and the nice cocktail parties, and to leave all of that and to pick up a backpack and say, I'm going to go hitchhiking across South America.I think that was brave because it is very hard to live a comfortable life to go do something uncomfortable. So that was, I feel a moment of bravery, which has been very good for me. Those two years of traveling the world. Meeting my wife was a brave moment, which has helped me in my life.
And the third, decision to start this company that I'm building now was a point of bravery because it is very difficult to start a company. I really empathize with startup founders. We meet hundreds of them every day, every week, thousands of them, every week. I can empathize with someone who is starting something new, you know, decide to start a business. I think that is a very brave decision. It requires a lot of bravery to say, I'm going to leave my KPMG job and start a company because I have I feel compelled to do so.
I think that is a brave and I resonate with that because I decided to do that. And then of course within the journey of building a business, there's moments of bravery that you need to have all the time. But I think that bravery to start and to stick with it, despite all the ups and downs, to stick with the idea to continue to chip away at it. We run out of money all the time. We got to figure out how to raise more money. The business model breaks down, there's always chaos. There's always fires somewhere. It's never smooth sailing, but just the decision to just stick with it every single day and keep chipping away at it, I think that is a continuous bravery that is needed. And I sympathize with startup founder, who stick with it, who's continue to chip away at it. I always love reading the stories of say, Panasonic or Samsung or these iconic companies who today we know as like these large tech platforms. But if you look at the story, it started a hundred so years ago, trading rice, or a soap company or something very unglamorous, right? Someone decided, Hey, we're going to start a rice trading company or making soap somewhere. And then they just stuck with it and then kept evolving. And now it is a completely different business, but it took a hundred years of sticking with it and evolving and just not giving up and not dying and just continuing on, that's resulted in such transformational companies around the world. I think that requires a lot of bravery.
In my personal life, I think the bravest thing I have ever done and the best decision I have ever made was to ask my wife to marry me. I was so scared to ask her to marry me because I thought she would say no, It would be the end of the relationship. I was so scared to ask her to marry me. I remember I was shaking and nervous when I asked her to marry me. I've never been that nervous in my entire life, but asking her to marry me required bravery from my side, and it was the best decision I ever made in my life.
I suppose all of these moments of bravery are what we all probably go through in our lives and it's good. I like this question a lot because it's good to look back and to sort of think about it. So thank you for asking the question.
Jeremy Au: (37:12)
Amazing. On that note, I'd love to summarize the three big themes I got from this. The first of course is I really loved the phrase you said about facing loneliness to be your own best companion. And you really demonstrated that about how you left eight years of banking and the various cocktail parties to backpack for two years through 85 cities and six continents, and how you settled down in Southeast Asia, thanks to your Myanmar and Indian heritage. And I think it was a beautiful love story actually, about meeting your wife who took the train from the Netherlands to Singapore, and eventually asking for a hand in marriage and now having three kids.
The second of course is I really enjoyed, I think, you sharing about your mission to build 1 million businesses about how catalyzing economic development is the highest mission for yourself and Draper Startup House. And I thought that was a really interesting dynamic about talking about the various dynamics and building blocks he needed to actually make it happen.
The last thing was really about extreme difficulty, of you know, building the category versus the real need for your product. Right? In this case, we talk a little bit about how the bridge really is the iteration on the right business model and also bringing some conventional wisdom, for example, by rapidly expanding and franchising to 26 countries, right?
So I thought it was really interesting because I think it's a good roadmap, I think for founders who, need to think about, both sides of it, right? Which is that, it is both easy in terms of understanding the demand, but it can be really hard to build the right solution, right? And that requires some thoughtfulness on the economics and approach to it.
So on that note, thank you so much for sharing.
Vikram Bharati: (38:47)
Thank you Jeremy! I really enjoyed this conversation. I loved your question on moments of bravery. It made me really go back and think about my life and the moments that were important, that changed and moved the needle for me. So thank you so much for that question.