Lie and Lie Till You Succeed: Akshay Agarwal at TEDxYouth@OIS (Transcript)

Introducing speaker: So next up we have Akshay Agrawal, a 17 year old entrepreneur who has founded two online ventures, ClassFever and Ukhadlo. ClassFever helps students to connect and find interesting events in India. Ukhadlo is a forum for entrepreneurs to connect with each other. He has been featured in The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and various other blogs. His vast experience in the field of business has allowed him to learn some really important values, especially the value of lying, which is what he’s going to be sharing with us today in his TEDx talk ‘Lie and lie until you Succeed’. Can we please have a round of applause for Akshay Agrawal.

Akshay Agrawal: I’ve been taught this right ever since we were young and somehow every philosopher that has ever lived seems to have said this. This runs so deep in our minds that Bollywood even has a song about it. Why am I talking about lying, right?

No matter how religiously we may look down upon lying and say “Lying is not good”, let’s admit we all lie every day. The most common lies we are all guilty of is saying ‘Yes, I’m above 18. Let me enter the site’. And secondly, ‘I have read the terms and conditions and I agree to them.’ Why am I talking about lying?

I’m talking about lying because it’s a topic very close to my heart and interestingly I have suffered great losses because I did NOT lie. Before I tell you what happened I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Akshay Agrawal, I’m 17 years old. I was a very mentally restless child. This mental restlessness of mine led me to found two online ventures – namely Ukhadlo and ClassFever. was an online networking platform for Entrepreneurs, Investors, Angels and Incubators to network, work on ideas and launch really cool startups. This was back in 2013 when I was in the 10th grade.

But soon I needed to appear for my board exams and I had to put Ukhadlo aside for a while, and before I could get back to working on Ukhadlo I needed to get myself into a new school because my current school was just till the 10th grade. That is when ClassFever was born. Because to be honest, finding a new school for myself in a city like Bombay was simply the most harrowing experience I have ever had.

ClassFever originally started out as a review aggregation website to help parents choose better schools for their children for their better future. Soon we realized that wasn’t what we wanted to do and we turned ClassFever around to make it into a Big Data venture. As of today we rank 3,000 schools based on 198 million data sets across 32 variables based on 6 factors to give you trusted and reliable rankings for all the 3,000 schools we have. Both the ventures were very well received by the media.

We have been featured across the Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and a bunch of other places. But by far the most memorable one, for reasons both good & bad, for me will be the one in Hindustan Times on the 1st of June. I pitched Ukhadlo to an audience of 600 people at the TiE Smashup event at IIT Mumbai. A reporter heard me and got in touch with me while I was on the way back from that very event and she said: “Akshay, I really like what you’re doing and I’d like to put you on the cover page of Hindustan Times national.”

I was absolutely over the moon right? Any sixteen-year-old kid would be! But then she dropped something which I will regret. She asked me if there was anybody else I knew who could be included in the story because she was one person short, and the article wasn’t possible without that one last person. I said ‘Sure I’ll refer you ‘ to a friend of mine and I did. So that guy at that point of time ran a social media marketing firm. After a few weeks the reporter came home, interviewed us and I told her “This is my venture, I don’t have any funding, I don’t make any money, but this is all really exciting.”

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As a contrast my friend told her ‘his venture is really cool, they make a lot of money and they don’t need to take money from his parents ever again. It was all nice and good.’ The day the article came out is when I realized what a fool I had been; is the day I realized what a terrible mistake I had made. Had I known the consequences of referring the reporter to my friend, I would have been on the cover page instead of my friend and not on page 16.

That was the day I realized the reporter lied to me, my friend lied to me, my friend lied to the reporter and in the end I was just the jack-in-the-box for their entertainment. Because it was only later that I found out my friend wasn’t actually revenue-positive; he was struggling to make ends meet! But lo and behold! He was on the cover page of Hindustan Times and his business has never stopped after that because, well, he was on the cover page of the Hindustan Times. That was the day I realized, and began to very firmly believe in this very famous quote from a very great person: It says, “It takes two people to tell a lie, One to lie and the other to listen.” Homer Simpson said that.

And after that point I made it a point to very religiously lie every time I opened my mouth. And I know it’s funny, – a person on stage saying, ‘I lie to you every time I talk’, but that’s how life is! My next brush with lying was interesting, because it wasn’t me lying this time. It was me playing along with the lie of one of my friends. He calls me up one day and says “Bro I’m organizing a TEDx at my school and I would want you to speak.” I said ‘Awesome, I’ll be there! When and where?” We worked out the details, it happened, and then one week in he tells me, “Akshay, the event has to be delayed by a month.”

Okay, I’ll be there after a month. Two weeks in – “Akshay the event has to be delayed by another month, I’m really sorry.” Okay, I’ll be there after another month. The third week he tells me “Okay, so I kind of messed up the TEDx license, so it’s not a TEDx event anymore, but it’s called something different, and we’re having it on the same exact date, at the same exact venue, at the same exact time, and you still have to come.”

Well, so I had figured out that there was never a TEDx license to begin with in the first place! He was just using the TEDx title to get all of his friends to agree to speak for him, in his school so that he could write it down in his CV that ‘I organized an event like TEDx’. but I played along nevertheless because I understood the value of a platform when you’re running a startup.

So that was an interesting case for me. But after that, I’d like to talk about lying in general – lying in the business field as a general and I’d like to clarify that when we talk about lies we’re talking too narrow. Lies include the entire gamut of half-truths, white lies, mistake lies approximation lies, chronological lies etc and let’s admit it, all the companies today lie, and they lie blatantly.

Have you ever wondered how every e-commerce company is the biggest e-commerce company, how every startup is the fastest growing startup, how every washing powder is the best washing powder. Technically, they’re not lying. They’re just using conditions. They’re just using the famous asterisk. It’s the very same symbol you see at the end of flat 50% sale – on select products – it’s the very same asterisk you see at the end of “No Preservatives” – * We use these chemicals to preserve our stuff. It’s the same asterisk you see at the end of digestive biscuits, and they actually say *we don’t actually help you with digestion. It’s the same asterisk you see at the end of Maaza® which says “Contains no fruit, Contains added flavors, Contains preservatives.”

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So yes, we literally live in an Asterix’ed world. Recently a food company put out an ad campaign which said, ‘If you don’t like the taste of our Khaman Dhokla which you make from our packet, we’ll refund you the entire amount.’ Let’s think about it – I make the packet of Khaman Dhokla at my place, I don’t like the taste. I somehow manage to convince the company I don’t like the taste. Who calls the company to get a refund of ₹ 50 and what company refunds you ₹ 50? Well, but still, for the company, they sold twice as many Khaman Dhokla packets that you — and they made a lot of money.

Moving on, I’d like to talk about me and Classfever. I’m going to get to the Golden question – What have I lied about? What have I used Asterix’s for? I’m going to break it down in four parts. The very first one – When we realized that ClassFever® wasn’t working out as a review aggregator and had just turned into a JustDial® for schools, we decided we need to change things. So that very week I was to pitch ClassFever at an event of 600 people and I told everybody ‘Hi, I’m the founder of ClassFever® and we currently rank schools based on 250 million datasets, 32 variables, 6 factors and a bunch of other numericals you won’t understand and yeah, we’re really cool.”

Interestingly, at that point of time we didn’t even have a web developer. We didn’t know what Math formula we’re going to use and I was lying through my mouth and people said ‘Oh! Wow, really cool!’ We had a 5x jump in traffic that day and it never went down, even though I lied on-stage in front of 600 people!

Similarly, when I talked about the number of schools we had in our database, I didn’t exactly lie – but I oversold a lot! When we had 1345 schools I’d say we have 1500 schools and the day we hit 1501 schools I’d proudly say “We have more than 1,500 schools.”

Similarly I lied about traffic. I lied about traffic a lot. At one point of time when we used to get 500 page views a day, which is 15,000 page views a month, I very proudly and very boldly announced to the public, “We get.. uh .. 20,000 page-views a day” and in my mind I had convinced myself that if anybody questions me, I’d say “Oops, I meant every month I’m sorry, I meant every month, not every day. Slip of tongue.”

What’s interesting to note is that running a startup is very very difficult because people expect a lot from you and at the same time, people don’t cross check the facts they’re presented with. So when I lied about the number of schools or the traffic or who we competed with – people didn’t bother to cross check and that was what we were really relying on. Even though people may say that we took the shorter, simpler, rather dirty route, I’d say ‘Hey! I was running a business!’ right? And as they say – “All’s fair in love, war and business.” And if you mix a little truth with business acumen and a little lie, you’ll be successful.

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I realized that lying was like a self-reinforcing force. We lied about traffic, we got more traffic. We lied about the number of schools we had in our database, we got more schools in our database. Had I not lied about the number of schools in our database, schools wouldn’t have contacted us and said ‘Hey, you know what? Can you present us with a certificate for the ranking that you have for our school on your website? We’d really appreciate it!” Schools wouldn’t have contacted us and advertised with us or officially adopted our ranks, the media would not have taken us seriously and ClassFever would not have been what it is today.

Today I’d like to confess that I have lied to the extent that my web developer does not know I’m 17 years old – He thinks I’m 35 because after I talked to 27 web developers and all of them refused to work for me because I was 17 and they were 37, they had a big ego clash and they wouldn’t work for me even though I offered them double the money. I just had to lie to get the work done! I just had to!

Probably the only thing I haven’t lied about and the only thing which I have left to lie about is the fact that ClassFever has been funded. I mean all you need is a news reporter – a gullible news reporter – You tell them somebody with the same exact name as my father has funded us with an “Undisclosed amount of money”, it goes out in the print to the entire country the other day and we experience such a traffic surge that even if we don’t actually get funded we have made enough money off the traffic that we ever won’t need to be funded ever again.

But well of course we didn’t do that because there’s only so far that you can go with this. If I hadn’t lied about these things, if I hadn’t used all these asterisks, ClassFever would not have been what it is today and we would not have been reliable, as a source, so yeah this has been an interesting journey and for all you know, I may be lying to you right now! You have no way to find out if I’m lying to you right now!

Hell I may not even be the founder of ClassFever! I know half of you in the audience don’t even know what ClassFever is! You don’t even know if it’s a real company right? But, no, I today for the first time probably – I’m going to say this – am NOT lying. Today ClassFever is in the top 800,000 websites in the entire world, top 80,000 websites in India. We have exactly 4,327 schools in our database and since I’m giving an exact number it is not a lie. Are you motivated enough to cross-check the fact I have presented you with just to know if I’m lying to you? No! I know now you are!

Let’s be honest, all of what I said isn’t exactly “Lying”, it can pass off as a marketing gimmick or as over-selling. We succeeded only because we mixed a little lie with a lot of truth. If it had been the other way around we would have capsized before we left the harbor. But we didn’t, because the truth always comes out and today I can proudly announce that I am free of the guilt of using any asterisks when I talk about ClassFever! I may be here on the pretext of a lie that I told the organizers. But, if I consider standing here, talking to you about my life, about my experiences about my perspective, as a success and if I had to use a few asterisks and a few lies to get here, I’ll tell you only one thing “Lie and Lie till You Succeed!” Thank you!

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