Ashok Varma, SaaS Founder, Dies at 32
As I write this obituary, it does not feel like Ashok is no longer with us. Startup founders lead a difficult life, and very few have had the courage to persevere and succeed as Ashok did. Ashok was the person I knew the best in the startup ecosystem and I felt I shared a special bond with him. I used to go frequently to him for advice for my startup (he was helping many other founders on a personal level), and he used to lean on me to talk about philosophy and fulfillment. It feels unreal that he just disappeared into nothing, without even saying goodbye. He was 32.
For those who did not know Ashok, he was a graduate of BITS Pilani and had been a part of multiple startups. His most successful startup was ReportGarden, which was nominated for the prestigious ET Startup awards in 2017. In that sense, Ashok was one of the more successful SAAS (software as a service) founders in India. At the time of his untimely death, he was well onto his next venture, SalesBenefits. He knew so much about B2B software startups (software that is sold to companies, not individual consumers), that he once told me he could take any B2B startup and make it successful. “Dude, I can make more money from ERPNext than you”, he used to joke to me.
In 2017, Avinash Raghava (co-founder of iSpirt and SAASBoomi) and the ecosystem builder of SAAS startups in India, created a small cohort of founders whom he thought could learn from each other. This is where Ashok and I first met. As a part of this cohort, we would meet every few months in a different city and chat about our startups and challenges that we faced. At the time Ashok was building ReportGarden. We talked about our personal and work challenges, shared tactics and strategies and finally philosophy. Often Ashok and I found ourselves at the opposing end of the philosophical debates and it enriched both of us.
I vividly remember the time we spent in Mumbai. I could sense that Ashok really loved the city. As we did a walking tour of the Raj era Fort district, he said, “I can feel a city by the way people walk. In Mumbai, people always seem to walk with a sense of purpose. In Hyderabad, we don’t even have sidewalks”. He was inspired by the wealth creators, the Marwari business families who built generational wealth.
Ashok and I also shared a common passion, science fiction. While he was a way more prolific reader than I, we used to recommend books to each other and discuss them. Ashok specially loved space operas, where the saga of human societies span generations and galaxies. I think his favorite was the Foundation series by Asimov, while he was also a big fan of the Red Rising, Broken Earth and Interdependency series.
Both of us looked at our role as startup founders in the context of the epic saga of human struggle. He was a firm believer in capitalism, accumulation and arbitrage, whereas I came from a more philosophy, art and freedom side of things. In our last debate, we were discussing the role of experimentation in startups. Ashok loved narrow experiments, while I liked broad ones. Both of us loved to take each other down. As we began to know each other better, he used to joke “I am becoming more like you, and you are becoming more like me”.
Ashok had his ups and downs. He had failed multiple times before seeing success at ReportGarden. Even that success came at a big cost of personal anxiety. Startups are exceedingly hard. Software is the gold rush of our times. The only industry where you can legitimately create billions of dollars of wealth in a span of a few years. As technology is rapidly changing how societies are organized, it throws up opportunities to accumulate incredible wealth.
Startups that cross a billion dollars in value, called unicorns, are specially coveted. Investors, sensing the gold rush, are pouring in millions of dollars, behind founders like Ashok who are expected to go out there smash it all over the park like IPL batsmen. But entrepreneurship is not really a sport with simple rules. It is a highly risky venture without rules where a very large proportion of startups end in failure. Fate, timing and who you went to school with, also have a big role to play in successful startups. Entrepreneurs who succeed in “hypergrowth” are celebrated as heroes, while those who fail to reach certain milestones are destined to be trashed into the dustbins of history as also-rans. This puts tremendous pressure on entrepreneurs to succeed at all costs.
Ashok was a very sensitive and intense person, and he was under a lot of pressure. While he put on a brave face, he had also confessed to some of us that he was suffering from pain and depression. Entrepreneurship was a game which he was both winning and losing, and it had left him perplexed and anxious. Thankfully for him, things seemed to fall in place for him of late. He had raised capital from marquee investors for his latest startup, and the last most of us talked with him, he was bullish on plans of making it big. He had recently moved to Singapore and told us that he loved his life there, he ran regularly and spent time with his family on weekends. His untimely death came as a bolt out of the blue.
At the time of writing, I am not aware of the cause of death. Whatever it is, it will not reduce the grief all of us feel in the SAAS ecosystem for Ashok. He was one of our best and he was taken away too early. I was looking at our WhatApp chat, and this April when he was raising capital again, and he had just turned 32, he told me he felt like he was 41 (same age as me). We chatted about our life and entrepreneurship and he beautifully summarized his feelings about startups.
That is when I feel real joy man. Getting a customer. I can’t get over that feeling. It doesn’t get old.
His passing away is a huge loss for the entire ecosystem. Those who knew him, never got a chance to say goodbye, and he lives in all our memories. He is survived by his wife and 2 year old son.