#1 Karina Varma - Your Passion Is Garbage
Karina Varma is a brand strategist and a founder of three companies. She didn't get into her dream college because of a documentation issue and after all these years, she's grateful she didn't. Why? Because she truly believes that your passion is garbage. What is it that worked for her then?
One of the things I realized early on is that your passion is garbage. You can be very, very passionate about something and really, really rubbish at it. What matters is honing your craft, which means putting in the hours, putting in the effort, putting in the time. That 10,000 hour principle. It actually works when you're good at something. The trick is to get really good at it, to be somebody that stands head and shoulders over everybody else when it comes to your craft.
That was Karina Verma, a brand strategist, and as you would have probably guessed by now, someone who's really great at mincing her words. Karina is the founder of two companies on her way to build her third. And this is her story.
(Intro Music Plays)
Hello there. I'm Aamer Khan, and this is Zed Medium Podcast, a podcast that talks to people and about them too. Actually, what we're trying to do is summarized perfectly by our guest Karina. She nailed it without even realizing.
Everybody has something to teach, if only you're willing to learn. Best advice I've ever got. It keeps me open to different perspectives, different points of view. It doesn't mean that I'm going to do everything that somebody tells me to do, but it has kept me open to perspective. It has kept me open to knowing. There's this word called sonder. So the definition of sonder is basically that every passerby that you meet, every random passerby that you meet, is living a life as vivid and vibrant. They're living a life as vivid and vibrant as your own.
And that one sentence basically tells you that whatever is in your head, whatever you think about yourself or how you see yourself, everybody that you interact with has that same impression about themselves.
And here we are to narrate people's journeys in the simplest way we can. Now onto the main question; why bother? What's in it for you? How will you benefit from listening to these wonderful stories? Well, that's the best part. We only narrate the stories. You get to take whatever you want from it.
If there's anything I've learned from whatever interactions I've had with people, is that people will only and only listen to the stuff that comes from within themselves, me included.
So if you want to relate to the people on the podcast, go ahead. If you want to learn from their failures, if you want to repeat their successes, if you want subtle advantages in life over others, or if you just want to have fun, it's all on you.
I mean, I'm only 23 years old. I'm learning with you. And I will definitely say the same thing when and if I reach 60, I will still be learning with you. Okay, so in the spirit of narration and storytelling, here is one short story.
Mine. I graduated from a university in Australia, migrated to the UAE, started a company in the pharma industry, sold the company. I kept the brand, handed over the operations to an associate company and started this podcast, all in a span of eight months.
Why exactly? Because of a single conversation that changed my life in December 2021. Who was I talking to? Karina. If you want to know more about that conversation, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, that's email@example.com.
I met Karina in 2014. I must be around 15 years old at the time, but we didn't exchange ideas and thoughts until March 2020, when I attended meetings with her and the founders of a startup in the pharmaceutical industry.
What was Karina doing with them? And what does a brand strategist exactly do? Well, to put it simply, Karina helps strengthen the perception of a brand in the eyes of the customer, by making promises that the brand can keep or keeping the promises that they've already made.
She helps businesses, and I'm quoting her here ‘navigate the perilous landscape of customer joy.’ And you best believe she is great at what she does. But very few people know that she didn't start off like this. She started out wanting to do something very different from what she's currently doing.
Well, I started out wanting to be a creative director. My aspiration was to own a creative agency someday where I created stories for people. Visual stories, not words. JJ School of Arts did not give me admissions because of a domicile issue, and as a result of that, I ended up having to do my MBA. The MBA was an afterthought. I would have had to wait another year to apply again at JJ. And a bunch of my friends were giving their MBA exams, and they actually told me, why don't you give your exam?
Because we know you'll do well, and we can cheat off your paper. That was literally why I gave my MBA exam. I ended up getting into MBA school. They didn't. Not because I didn't let them cheat. They were welcome to cheat as much as they wanted. I don't know if they could or not. I never found out. And that's when I met Dr. Nain.
Dr. Nain was my marketing teacher, and I think he realized very early on that I had a knack for breaking down business problems and solving them. I used to be his go to case study person, and he was the one who had a chat with me and said, I think you've got a future in this, and I think you should really consider it. I know you're just killing time until you can go back to the whole creative thing, but this is something you should definitely do.
Karina did listen to Dr. Nain. She got done with her MBA, but now what? What is the first step? After education is complete, a lot of us struggle to find the right, the perfect first job. What we don't realize is that there is no right, no perfect first job. There is only the first job. It is bound to be helpful no matter what. Either you realize it's meant for you or you realize you hate it, but life really has more plans for you than you could imagine. And here's Karina's journey after completing her MBA.
So I was hired out of MBA school by Pharmabiz’s parent company- Ad factors. I was hired to be the MD's intern and things were going along just fine. I probably would have ended up in their advertising department or the creative department somewhere, managing clients. But as my mum died and I had to go back to Pune and I worked with Priya, who again, incidentally, was somebody Dr. Nain introduced me to.
She runs a brand consulting firm in Puna called Enterx, which does some phenomenal work. And she was the second person who mentored me on that whole brand strategy journey. About a year later, my former boss called me to say that he was starting this whole dot com business and he wanted my help setting things up.
Sorry which year was this in?
This was in the year 1999, December of 1999 is when this happened. This was about six months before the dot com bust. We essentially started eight companies, eight online verticals the year of the dot com bust. So one of them got funding from UTI. There was a lot of money involved. When I came back, instead of sending me to one of the new companies that he was starting, he decided to keep me for himself.
When I say that, he wanted me to continue being his assistant and he said I learned a lot. But in that moment, being his assistant meant answering his phones and setting up his meetings and handling his HR issues, because it was a small startup, right? So he needed help, but it wasn't what I wanted to do. And I kind of started pestering him to let me go or either find me a role within the organization that utilized my skills and capabilities, or let me go.
And let her go he did. Well, not entirely. As Karina mentioned, Ad Factors, a public relations consultancy firm, was the parent company of Pharmabiz, a failing pharma portal in the dotcom era at the time. Her boss, who eventually gave in to the pestering, sent her out to Pharma business to see if she could turn the situation around. But he was secretly hoping that she found the task a bit too difficult and came back looking to be his assistant again, because the situation at PharmaBiz was well, it was not looking too good.
And at that time, Pharmabiz, I was going through an existential crisis. They burned through three quarters of their funding. They received two quarters of funding at that point and they burned through three quarters of it in six months time. It just wasn't enough or anything coming in that would save the company. And he was very keen that since it was the flagship run, he wanted it to work.
So Karina had a point to prove. She knew she would dread going back to being an assistant, and so gave it everything she had to turn Pharmabiz into one of the most successful publications at the time.
It was enormous fun because nobody believed I could do it. Nobody actually assumed that this would work. In fact, a mail went out from, I'm not going to mention who, but a mail went out from one of the senior folks to all of the people in the company that my boss had sent his secretary to hold the fort. It wasn't pretty, but again, it's not that we turn things around in a month's time or six months' time.
It was three years of breaking down the aura that all the other mags in the market at that point had expressed. Express Pharma was number one. They were the only publication that people were willing to spend money in at that point. And we walked in with this no, we're not going to discount policy. No, we're not going to do this policy. No, we're not going to lie about our circulation policy. We were young, stupidly, idealistic. When I look back at how idealistic we were, it makes me laugh that we actually survived all of that and we succeeded with that idealism. We had lots of terms and conditions for class. No, we're not going to give you a discount. No, we're not going to do this. We'd walk away. We'd very happily walk out of the room without a contract rather than compromise on those values. I think you really have to be very young to be willing to do those things.
The most amazing thing about all of this is that through it all, my boss, not once did he turn around and question, okay, do you think you're doing the right thing? He gave me a year, and for that entire one year, he didn't ask me a single question. He didn't say, Are you going to go about it? What you're going to do? What's your plan? What's your strategy? I don't think this makes sense, you're being foolish or whatever. He just left me alone. So all credit to him, even though he didn't expect me to succeed, which he admitted to much later, he gave me complete freedom, and I use that word in every sense. He just left me alone and said, do what you want.
In the nine years that Karina was at Pharma Biz, she put in everything she had to make it successful. And then she had nothing left to give. It was time for a change, and the change was to make a baby and quit. But the story does not really end here. It was really another beginning for Karina. Not long after she gave birth to a beautiful baby daughter, she got a work opportunity that led to the formation of a new company, Hachibee Consulting.
I think six months in, I was bored to death. My kid was six months old. And fascinating as she was. There was only so much conversation that you can have with a six month old. Her godmother happened to be the CEO of Rex divisions at the time and she needed help with her. So I was basically grumbling to her about everything. And look, I have this project, it's not a big deal. She said, you want to do it? I said yes.
The next thing I know, I take on the project with her thinking that's a small one off thing. There was this assumption in the industry that I was part of that I was back and two more projects followed suit. So I had to set the company up. So I had projects before I set the company up and I needed help to hire people. So it went very organically, there was no mindset
Thought behind it.
Yeah, for me it was the reputation that got me the business. It wasn't as and it came from within the industry, like the industry that I was part of. If I hadn't built my bones in some of it, I probably would not have got that same start with this.
So a recap. Okay, I almost forgot. Karina has a BA in English literature, after which she did her MBA. She moved on to work at Ad Factors. Moved to Pune and back to Ad Factors, where she turned Pharma Biz around, had a beautiful baby, organically set up Hachibee and is now living the life. But all we've heard so far are Karina's successes.
And don't mind us, we love successes, but it does not give out the complete story. Failures are the most crucial part of the story. Everyone is bound to fail at some point in time, and that is not being sadistic. It's just more about telling you that there are two sides to a coin. Overnight successes are very rare, if any. It takes years for companies, for individuals to be overnight successes, and it's not until they achieve that success that they are highlighted. Karina had failed miserably at public speaking as a child. She never got over it. Four years back, she picked herself up and decided to give it another go. And look how that went for her.
This happened to me about four years ago. I was invited to speak at this conference that was happening about a subject I know a lot about, marketing. And I had a PowerPoint presentation. I had notes, I had queues and I had a remote. And again, because of some technology glitch, I lost my place, which they tried very hard to fix. And guess what happened? This is a presentation I've given to groups of people over and over and over again. I froze. And the rest of it was completely
She meant fucked, fucked completely. But there's always a reason why you're afraid of something or you don't particularly like doing something. And for that we'll have to go back to Karina's childhood where she talks about her mum.
I had a very larger than life parent.
Who is your mum or your dad?
My mum was a very popular person in my school. She was adored by everybody. Teachers, students, random strangers. Everybody thought the world of my mum then put me into that mix. No filter, no concept of maybe that shouldn't be said out loud. No concept of any of that, right? It created a lot of conflict, for lack of a better word, in my life. Because me being awkward is not a function of my parentage. Me being awkward is a function of if I say this, what's going to happen? Oh, I said that, now I'm going to be in trouble, right? It took a while. I think I was well into my thirties before I realized that look, I want to get into trouble for it no matter what.
Well, if you're not good at something, what do you do? You dwell over it, improve. There are various options available. Karina decided to focus on what she was good at and that is repeating her successes. Not looking at her failures, but repeating her successes.
And those people should learn from their successes. Because whenever I have learned from my successes, I have a step because every success that I have said, okay, this is what I am, this is what I've learned from this. I have this book that I make notes in handwritten notes about what I have learned from every project that I work in and I try to use those learnings in the future. I think a lot of it because of the fact that I'm like I said, I'm very hard on myself. And because I'm so hard on myself, I tend it's better when I focus on my successes because then I'm not so hard and leave the failures for evaluation on another day.
Karina built Hachibee to be a sustainable yet profitable organization and went on to repeat her success as she partnered in the venture PaiandBee. Definitely go check out the websites. It's beetellstories.com and paiandbee.com. They do some amazing things. So what's next for Karina with her journey? She has everything she needs. Touchwood, two sustainable businesses, a wonderful family, lovely friends and a new idea. Yes, a new idea. An idea she calls The Kable with a K. A curated weekday newsletter for professionals in the life sciences sectors. On being asked why did you start The Kable when you already had two businesses and a pretty chill lifestyle? Her amazing reply was it is an Itch that needs scratching. Karina is now on her way to build a third company and is set to get rid of the Itch for which we wish her all the best.
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I am the world's worst engineer. To give you an example, I drove a Honda car in Europe for about four years. I never opened the bonnet.