Startups aren’t just about a great concept or idea. They need an ecosystem to flourish, by transforming the idea into a sustainable business model that can impact society as well as drive profits.

Pooja Terwad, our next pathbreaker, runs a legal and business consultancy firm for startups, providing every service which a startup would require in its entire lifespan, from incorporation to fundraising / acquisition.

Pooja talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about taking the “road less travelled” by steering clear of traditional law practices and opting to combine her interests in Law and Business.

For students, Indian Startups are pushing the envelope on innovation. Be different, by taking up a legal career focused on supporting their innovations and witnessing their success !

Pooja, tell us about your background?

Childhood plays a very big role in how our lives and careers shape up. Born in Mumbai, my parents always had big aspirations for me. Just like most middle class families, they wanted me to pursue medicine or civil services. Academics was very important to them. Scoring less than 90% meant, I am not doing well at studies and I need to buck up. At the same time my parents acknowledged that academics without extracurricular activities does not help. I participated in Debate and Elocution competitions and that is where I discovered my love for writing and public speaking. In my 9th grade, I did a 6 month course in Theater Art, from National School of Drama. That helped me with voice modulation, speech and language training. As a student, I have also anchored for many literature events. My interests were always beyond  traditional academics. Though I enjoyed reading, I absolutely hated mugging up. I loved research, but did not want to restrict it to just the academic syllabus. Choosing law as a career path was not planned either. I just followed a friend and gave it a try.  Hence, until I completed my basic law graduation from Mumbai, I did not do exceptionally well with academics. Although I did not leave out any opportunity to participate in public speaking or oratory competitions, the traditional examinations were not my cup of tea. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I explored the real meaning of “studying” only when I went for my post graduation in IP Law at O.P.Jindal Global University. It suddenly struck me that, all my education, was actually misleading. Here, I could choose my subjects, I could access and read any book I wanted, I could choose to write academic papers, publish them, appear for open book examinations. For the first time, I would spend hours reading , exploring , analyzing and evaluating. That is where I believe my educational journey actually started. At the end of the first year at my LL.M program, I got an opportunity to do a semester exchange at Maurer School of Law, Indiana University, USA in International Business & Trade Law. This foreign exchange program gave me an insight and a deeper perspective towards law and its interpretation. Here, I witnessed the value of innovation and disruption. At the end of 2 years of my LL.M programme, I received 2 Gold medals, one for academic performance and the other for leadership. My post graduation gave me the strength, belief and the confidence to face the competitive world with vigor, which sadly, I could not gain during the first 23 years of my traditional education. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

I always knew that, I wanted to walk the road less travelled. The journey from being an average law graduate to a gold medalist at the end of my post graduation, taught me a lot. I started accepting failure and success as the two sides of the same coin. It gave me the confidence to take the leap of faith and try something new. One thing I have always done and I still do religiously, is that I talk to new people and leaders. There is always something new to learn and adapt. Networking plays a very crucial role in building your profile as a professional. I have been lucky that I have met so many people, who have given me valuable insights on building my career. To name a few, my course director at O.P Jindal Global University, Prof. Dabiru Sridhar Pattaik, taught me to pour my heart into my work. A gentleman, I had casually met to discuss Entrepreneurship, Mr.Ravi Kikan, who is now a Startup guru and a business author, told me the importance of using LinkedIn the right way. I have now come to believe that, once you embark on  your journey, you will meet several like minded people who will teach you. You just have to be open to learning new things. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

Like every teenager, I too have experienced extreme confusion and chaos with respect to my career. With no legal background at home, I was going to be a first generation lawyer. I interned with lawyers, small size law firms, bigger law firms, senior counsels etc.  I was still not clear about what I wanted to do. I loved law as a subject, but, the Indian Judicial process had a lot of challenges and I was not prepared to face them. But, because of my inquisitive nature and the drive to do something new, I was always led to the light. I remember meeting a young 23 year old girl in a cafe in San Francisco, USA. She had recently graduated and had her own startup. The passion she had, to do something which not many were doing and the fire with which she approached things, inspired me. I was still clueless about my career path and at the end of my LL.M, I started interviewing at law firms. I did not find the job that gave me the boost to work from morning to night. Many law firms even rejected me and after hustling for over 3 months I got a job with the Additional Solicitor General of India. I am not sure if I should be calling that a job, as even after completing my LL.M with two gold medals, my boss felt I was not worthy to be paid a salary or stipend. I worked in his chamber for 3 months, but this span was an eye opener. It gave me a clear picture of the value a law graduate had in this overcrowded and hyper-competitive legal field. Hence, in January 2015, I set out on a self defined and self exploratory journey. With no clarity or precise picture of how things will work out, I just took small steps and dealt with one day at a time. I gave myself the time to learn and read something new. I learnt web designing, so that I could make the website for my firm. I designed my firm’s logo, I learnt to copyright. I knew that, this is not going to be easy, but, at the same time I was aware that, the more challenges I deal with, the sweeter the result is going to be. 

How did you get your first break?

In a few months of my initial research, I had decided to combine two of my interests and offer them as services. I was detouring from the traditional subjects of law practices, like the Civil , Criminal or Corporate.  The two subjects which I was passionate about were Law and Business. Startups were growing at a phenomenal pace in 2015, Investors were keen to invest in India, there was a founder almost in every house, the excitement about startups and entrepreneurship was on the rise. These young and spirited founders needed guidance and legal mentorship but could not afford a corporate lawyer. That is where I found a small gap and I slowly sneaked in. I started working closely  with startup enthusiasts and innovators. I spent months mentoring them, but they were still not my clients. Hence my biggest challenge was finding my first startup client. At one such networking event, I had exchanged my card with the founder of an ad-tech company. He approached me after a few days and we met at his office. A 2 bedroom house, where the living room was converted into an office space and the founders occupied the bedrooms. They literally lived their dream of building a company from scratch in that apartment. A  million plans were made and amended here. I could see their passion with their business and the strong desire to make it a success. It was a different energy there.  Very different from the big corporate clients I had dealt with before. I was absolutely amazed by the fierceness and the commitment and that is when I took the leap of faith and started advising them. I am happy that this small company today is a million dollar venture and I am still their legal advisor. That, is the fun of relationship building. 

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Starting up on your own means you are never sure about your revenues. Paying your employees is more important than paying yourself. Hence, financial returns are always a challenge. If you want to start something which you can call your own, look beyond monetary gratification. Measure your success by the  impact you create. Money will eventually follow.  

Challenge 2: It takes a lot of strategizing and market analysis to stand and build your brand in any field. As a founder, you have to invest a lot of time to learn things which are beyond your expertise. I have given a lot of time to learn marketing, branding, networking, monetizing etc. Lack of expertise in these areas often posed hurdles in my  growth in the initial years.   

Challenge 3: I have always come across clients negotiating for fees. They often give me references of some other online portals who do my job and provide my services at a much cheaper rate. Initially, I lost a lot of business as I never negotiated my fees. I had created a value proposition for myself right from the start. I knew bargaining would mean, lowering the standard I was trying to build. Even when I was in dire need of funds, I resisted bargaining. I think every individual builds his or her own value in the market. The clients eventually realize the difference of services and come back to you. So set a standard for yourself and unless you maintain it, no one else is going to take it seriously. 

Where do you work now?  Tell us what you do?

I run a legal and business consultancy firm in India for startups. I realized that proficient startup advisory is very expensive and there was a clear lack of access for smaller, non-funded startups. Also, not every lawyer took interest in the business side of the startup and only advised on the legal aspects. So, my firm PTA (Pooja Terwad Associates) was built on a philosophy to provide “ affordable , proficient and quick legal advisory along with business consultancy”. So, today, we are not only limited to legal solutions, but an end to end startup advisory and consultancy firm. We try to provide every service which a startup would require in its entire lifespan, under one roof. We are a team of lawyers, CA’s, CS’s, Business Advisors, Mentors, IP Attorneys, CFO’s and Fund Advisors. We are very active in the India – Singapore passage. 

I believe there are two things required to keep you going in life, professionally. One,  you should love what you do and you should only do what you love. If both these conditions are met, I think success and work satisfaction both are certain. The fact that, there is no monotony in what I do, is something that I love about my work. Every day is different and every challenge is novel. The contentment of solving a problem for a startup or a founder is very rewarding. 

The last 5 years have been exceptional. My journey started in 2015, as a one Woman team working out of a small space in Mumbai, offering basic startup legal services like documentation and IP Advisory. In 2016, we realized the bigger problem startups face and decided to aggressively build a one stop servicing center for startups, including Accounting, Taxation , Compliances, IP and HR Services in our portfolio. The number of clients skyrocketed and satisfaction percentage increased to 90%. In 2017, we decided to build our firm on a “Zero Marketing Budget” and keep the growth organic. Based on constant interaction with Entrepreneurs at Events and Mentoring sessions, new Services were introduced to meet their requirements. In 2018, we introduced Entrepreneurship to 2nd and 3rd tier cities and mentored over 1000 passionate Entrepreneurs. We are proud that many of these Entrepreneurs now run their successful enterprises. By this time, we introduced more specialized services like Joint Venture Advisory, Mergers and Acquisition deals etc. Angel Investors, VC’s and family offices in India and overseas joined our trusted list of clients. 2019 was a milestone year when we advised State Governments with their Startup policies. Milestones were crossed and with more than 450 happy customers, PTA continued to gain trust of our clients. The year 2020 started with new hopes and set milestones and a tragedy in the form of Corona hit the world. We decided to fight back and continue our journey from our homes. The growth has reduced, but, determination and passion for Entrepreneurship has not ceased a bit.  

How does your work benefit society? 

I have travelled and seen the brilliant innovators India has, particularly in smaller cities. As a nation, we have no dearth of talent or innovators. However, these innovators lack access and the knack to monetize their product. They are not a part of the glamorous ecosystem which is focused on the metro cities. We have enjoyed reaching out and working with such innovators and hand holding them through the entire process, which starts at incorporation and ends with fundraising / acquisition. Through our mentorship programs and startup bootcamps, we have mentored and spoken to over 4000 startups and founders and helped them in their voyage. These mentorship programs are pro-bono and we feel proud that we are given the opportunity to witness and be a part of the entire journey of these startups. In the coming year, I aim to set up a virtual incubation for 10 brilliant innovators, every year, from every nook and corner of the country and give them the access to venture funding and other essentials. We are currently in the process of filtering and shortlisting these startups.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

There is nothing more satisfying than seeing the startups & founders you have mentored grow and achieve great heights. I remember working with a woman from a small town near Latur, widowed at the age of 26, with two kids to take care of, but undying passion to build something of her own. She started by selling tea at an exhibition and now runs a successful business and sells home made products like pickles, papads, and as she does this, she also empowers more than 500 other women. A woman who once struggled for 5 Rupees today takes home a salary of Rs. 50,000/-. Supporting enterprising individuals and witnessing them achieve success is the most constructive and pleasurable part of my work. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

The only advice I would give to students reading this is, I would want them to know that life is beautiful. Although it is not easy and there are endless challenges and bumps in the journey, however, when you attain a milestone and look back, you will be proud of yourself for having walked the path. Not everyone gets it right the first time. It’s like riding a bike or playing baseball. To learn you have to employ a trial and error method. Those who claim they’ve never failed at anything, in reality, haven’t really tried. If you face a problem, try solving it. If you fail, don’t be discouraged, give it another shot. The difference between success and failure is simple, successful people learn more from their failures than from their successes. Like Dr. Matthew Beyranevand, once said, ‘Making mistakes is a part of learning math. Accepting mistakes will make you a better problem solver and mathematician.” 

Future Plans?

Like I have said earlier, research and academics is a part of my learning. I would always want to keep myself associated with it. On a personal front I am keen to pursue my Ph.d. and in order to keep the curiosity and inquisitiveness alive I teach at NMIMS Business School, Mumbai. Interacting with young minds gives me an insight into their perspective. I think this helps a lot to ensure I am not distracted from my goal. I  try to write at least 2 academic research papers  every year. 

Professionally, I am looking to build a strong startup mentoring eco-system where every one who has been part of this startup journey, will volunteer with budding entrepreneurs. I believe entrepreneurship has the potential to not only support the Indian Economy and generate jobs, but in the long run it will truly make the nation self-dependent and self-sustainable. Indian youth will not find the need to go to other countries to find high paying jobs. However, this is a long cruise and we are just about to start.