When Hima Tk left corporate life to launch a startup, she had to become a completely different leader

Inquibox

Inquibox founder Hima Tk. Source: Duct Tape.

Parents have it hard already, without the added problem of finding ways to extend their children’s education. That’s why Hima Tk founded InquiBox, a subscription service that delivers a package full of play-based, STEM education activities for kids every month.

Born in India, she had a successful career in management consulting before realising she needed to do something more challenging and impactful. Through accelerator programs and a lot of hard work, she’s learnt how to be a startup founder.

Starting with STEM 

“InquiBox designs and delivers educational activity subscription boxes for children aged 7 to 12 years old, so they can learn through play,” Hima Tk tells Duct Tape.

“We explore a different STEM topic in every box we send out. It’s a combination of a physical box and event platform, through which we facilitate a tactile learning environment.

“The problem we are trying to solve is that modern parents know STEM education is important, but they lack the tools, time and resources to make STEM engaging and fun for children. So our product helps parents save time. They don’t have to go out and look for toys or games to make STEM learning easier for children, we have packaged it up and sent it directly to the home so that parents have the tools and resources ready for them, and children can either play with them alone or with the parents. 

“Although we’ve been going for 18 months, we just officially launched the product and started generating revenue about three months ago. At the moment we have about 50 subscribers across Australia, but we have some ambitious growth targets.” 

Leaving corporate life behind 

“I was working as a management consultant in Australia until, one and a half years back now, I decided to leave and found InquiBox. 

“I was putting in all these long hours at work, but I was not seeing the impact in relation to those hours. I’d always felt really passionate about education — maybe because of the background I come from — and I’d always wanted to do something in that area. So, that’s when I started thinking maybe I should do something on my own. 

“I started looking at all these startup events, meetups and conferences. I spent about two years in management consulting, essentially educating myself on how to launch a startup. So I was doing these online courses, I was going and talking to people, attending meetups, conferences, everything, essentially trying to understand how it all works.

“That was a lot of me learning the theory, but not yet applying what I learned to my own startup. Essentially I wanted to ensure I understood a little bit about what happens in the making of a startup before I went ahead and did it.” 

The hardest part 

“This might sound really stupid, but the most surprising thing is how hard it is. When I was working as a management consultant, I was working long hours and thought I wasn’t afraid of hard work. But once I started working on InquiBox, I realised it’s so much more than the number of hours you put in.

“Of course you need to work hard to make it happen. But, it’s also a battle of other factors. Is the market ready for your startup? You need to find the right people for your team. You need to have the right networks so people can give you support when you ask for it. I didn’t expect it to be so hard, and you only know how hard it is once you are inside it. 

“Pulling a team of people together to work on a startup who are equally passionate about the mission as much as you are as a founder is so difficult.

“It’s also very difficult to stay strong emotionally, to be able to say, ‘I don’t even know what’s going to happen in three or six months time but I am still deciding to do it, I’ll still keep going with it, even though I don’t know what the outcome will be’. 

“So, it’s a lot about that inward journey as a startup founder, wherein you have to keep faith in yourself repeatedly day in and day out.

“Even when you wake up really scared, you still have to go to work and keep working on it, hoping that something will happen. That’s the hardest thing.

“Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, but I didn’t understand it before starting out. I think you can only understand it from the inside.” 

Keeping people happy

“The biggest difference between my experience in corporates and leading a startup was that I had almost unlimited resources to build a team at my corporate job, but very limited resources to build a team as a startup founder. At my corporate job, I had a way of keeping my team happy because I had all these resources. But when you are a startup founder, you have to find other ways of keeping people motivated, keeping people feeling passionate about the mission.

“It’s important to show up as the kind of leader who believes in the mission, who is present for the team, who wants to develop the team even though you can’t pay them that much. There are other ways in which you can find fulfilment for your team and essentially lead them effectively.

“So you learn a lot more about leadership becoming a startup founder, in terms of how can you influence and motivate people. But this makes you introspect a lot on how you are interacting with people, how you are being present for them and how you are finding ways of helping them out even though you can‘t pay them a huge salary.

“It involved a lot of introspection and that’s why I decided to take steps in improving myself.” 

Startups in theory and practice 

“The formal learning experiences I had through accelerator programs were very good in terms of making me comfortable with the life-cycle a startup goes through. Exposing me to the principles of lean startup, how to analyse data using lean analytics, and how to measure how your startup is performing. Those things were definitely useful.

“Actually, what really helps is taking that fear away from the startup lingo. So if someone says these words to you, you know what they are talking about. That’s definitely helpful. 

“But I think one of the most difficult and strange parts of this journey was how I was using that in my own startup and quickly realising that our formal education is really theoretical knowledge, but it’s only when you apply it in a startup that you realise things don’t exactly go that way. So there are always surprises happening and we essentially have to solve challenges every single day.” 

Success is a learning process 

“When I started I was finding it very hard to effectively manage the new kind of stress. When I quit my corporate job, one of the hardest things was to come to terms with my identity. ‘If I’m no longer a management consultant then what am I? How do I define success in my life?’ That was one of the hardest things for me to grapple with.

“So I put a lot of pressure on my startup to actually succeed, even though everybody told me the statistics were against me. So I was in this weird headspace. ‘If my startup doesn’t succeed, what does that mean about me? Does that mean I’m a failure? What does this mean for my identity?’

“But over the course of the last year, we launched and we have paying customers and now I feel okay. At least we have a product that people want and now I’m placing a lot more focus on my own learning. I feel that at least we did something interesting, something that people are actually paying money for.

“After this realisation, my entire focus has changed from whether it’s a success or a failure more towards what can I learn through this process, what I can learn about myself, about being a leader, about actually growing a business.

“Essentially I changed my perspective on what success or failure is for a startup.

“Now I say that everything takes time, and that you need to have the patience and focus to see things through.”

This article was first published in Duct Tape, a publication by Startup Victoria and Victoria University, and has been republished with permission.

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