It is ironical that Karthik Kumar’s first foray into writing a book is titled ‘Don’t Startup’, when, 16 years ago, that is precisely what he and his best friend and batchmate, Sunil Vishnu did by starting Evam! “When we were writing our joint thesis on the ‘Viability of a Theatre/Drama-based Entertainment Entrepreneurship', we were told: ‘It has never been done’,” recalled Karthik.
Back in 2003, Karthik Kumar, aged 23, with an engineering degree and an MBA in brand management and marketing communications along with his close friend Sunil Vishnu were just continuing a journey that started while at MICA, where they were the founders of Sankalp, a theatre and amateur drama movement. Well, if they had any doubts whether an entertainment entrepreneurship could be ‘started up’, both Karthik and Vishnu went with their inner voice, a conviction at heart, and a determination to chart a new course for themselves in the realm of theatre, performing arts, and allied activities. Recalling the fledgling days of sustaining Evam Entertainment, Karthik said, “We were middle-class folks, we didn’t have inherited wealth, and we didn’t have parents who could support our crazy ideas. But we had determination. So, we told ourselves, that we will work, scrounge on expenses, save as much money as possible – all for two years, and then will pursue our dream.”
Two years later, with `3 lakh between them, they put in the seed capital of one lakh to kickstart their journey. Kartik wrote in his book, “We kept the remaining two lakhs for working capital, expenses, and others.” He said, “We wanted to give ourselves a chance. We wanted to make the journey memorable for ourselves. We didn’t want any regrets. We wanted to make all of it count.”
The fact that Evam set out to be an entrepreneurship in the management of live performing arts was also unique, because there was no such thing in India, and the closest known cousins to the species were ‘event management’ or ‘theatre as a hobby’.
Karthik, in his book, cites a very interesting example. He stated, “In the classic Apple example, Woz was the inventor start-up and Jobs was the entrepreneur’s entrepreneur. Woz had little interest in the entrepreneurial part of the journey and Jobs had lesser interest in product development. Jobs learnt the skill he lacked, and Woz didn’t! Jobs stayed the course.” Evam, like any other start-up, went through its birth pangs, uncertain childhood, and confident youthfulness and became a mature adult during the course of 16 years. According to Kartik, “Nine out of ten start-ups fail. What made us succeed, then? Assuming that success means staying the course, not folding up, staying in pursuit with hope and energy – while depending only on ourselves.”
Evam entered the business of performing arts, especially live theatre with a confidence that only the brashness of youth could have. There was no benchmark, no peers, no role model, only a strong belief that it would work. Both Sunil and Karthik went about professionalising the management and running the theatre business in such a manner that it was akin to producing and directing a movie, albeit in a ‘now and here’ way. “But the journey was fraught with risks and failures. That we went about it in an absolutely professional manner in organising funds, planning venues, training and paying actors and holding multiple stage shows over weekends in smaller auditoriums, meant that we were reaching out to a paying, quality audience who wanted an entertainment different from a movie-going experience. For many years this proved successful, but we were getting a bit restless and comfortable. The ‘entrepreneur’ in us looked for more challenges and, thereby sought more verticals to build Evam into something different,” informed Karthik.
Consequently, Evam branched out into corporate training using theatre as a medium. They entered the standup comedy arena, much before it became that genre and professionalised event management by offering their expertise and services to other entities. “From large audiences in big theatre venues to smaller groups in pubs and restaurants, I started doing one-man comedy shows and found, at that time, the response was quite encouraging. Thus evolved Evam’s Standup Tamasha as a brand which signed up talented standup comedians and toured the world. We now have a set of permanent artistes who are regularly trained, updated and written for and whom we present as individual or collective shows around the country on a regular basis,” informed Karthik.
For many years, Evam sustained on internal accruals for all their events and programmes but the risk of a negative bottom line constantly reared its head. When is the best time to accommodate an investor? Karthik answered in his book, “When you don’t need it! Sounds ironic and even counter-intuitive? Because, when you actually need it is when you are emotionally blinded by what all the funding could be used for. All signs will point to Rome not because of logic or instinct, but because of desperate need. And the dangerous truth about monetary needs is that all desperate monetary needing situations are quicksands.”
Somewhere during 2010-11, Evam’s behavioural training product using theatre-based methodologies was proving a successful vertical activity. Kartik recalled, “We delivered the product to a very high level of satisfaction and then received a lot of feedback from the client. We didn’t realise it then, but we were being scoped for investments. These clientswon our trust and eventually became the first external investors of Evam’s journey.” The product, then called Happy Factory became a training boutique enterprise called Evam’s Training Sideways – a sideways look at training. He continued, “It was born in 2012 and by 2014 it was going to save us from a deep abyss.”
Ever innovating, always thinking on their feet, both Sunil and Karthik, like two sides of a coin, pulled themselves into their ‘grown-up’ phase of being a start-up and realised that they could no longer call themselves a ‘start-up’. Kartik said, “Having moved from choppy waters to deep, but calmer seas felt very different indeed. We had verticals growing organically – Happy Cow, our children’s educational division, Evam Standup Tamasha, our comedy brand, Sideways Training, our arts methodology-based training division; each becoming independent, full-fledged profit centres. Evam 1.1 version, in 2018 was different from being a start-up.”
Evam is proof of what can be done with crewtive arts with an entrepreneurial management ecosystem, and more so, of what can be achieved when you set off on what appears like an impossible journey, writes Karthik in the cover note of his book, Don’t Startup.