As he settled down to sleep, along with eight other people, on the floor of what would barely be considered a shack in a slum in Delhi, India, there were more than a few moments when Ambarish Mitra when didn't know whether he'd earn enough selling tea and magazines the next day to eat dinner that evening.
But none of it really mattered all that much to him: He was 17. And he was free.
Mitra--whom everyone calls Rish--was a teenager who had run away from his middle-class family's very comfortable life, a life located not too far from the slum, but nonetheless protected in a cushier part of town. His parents were nothing if not supportive, but at times their expectations that he would become an engineer were too much for him to bear. Over time he came to adore the ideas of entrepreneurship and working in tech--a copy of Bill Gates's The Road Ahead that his father had given him was one of his favorite books--but the pressure from his family to get fantastic grades and to become an engineer (and just an engineer) was too great for his easily distracted teenage self.
So he left. He threw a letter in the mail telling his parents he went to Mumbai. It was a ruse, but it worked.
"I remember the first week, I was extremely happy--as a young person, a sense of freedom is very appreciated," he says. "It was an amazing adventure."
Adventure is one way to put it. There was no toilet; there were no concrete walls. But even when he felt the ache of his back from sleeping on the floor, he knew it was a choice. He could have gotten money from his parents at any time; there was never not a back-up plan.
Still, to earn money, Mitra did odd jobs, hawking magazines and selling tea--the latter by night, and the former by day. One day, he read about a business-plan competition in one of the publications he sold. He entered it with an idea built around offering free internet access to women who lacked the means to purchase it themselves. He won, and turned it into a company called WomenInfoOnline.com.
Its success let him do much--move out of the slum, patch it up with his parents, learn about business from the inside. The company grew so fast that it went public on the Indian stock market when Mitra was just 20 years old.
"I definitely became more philosophical and spiritual in nature from that disappointment"--of being estranged from his family for a time--"and turnaround," Mitra says. But there's only so much you can learn at that age, he says. He very quickly left his now-public company, and moved to London to chase his boyhood startup dreams once again.
In 2005, he went to work for a scrappy travel startup called Isango, where he was the third employee. He was crushed when it didn't take off. So he founded a company called SwapShop, an online portal for giving away unwanted stuff. It stagnated, or perhaps didn't get enough venture capital funding to find its own potential, and Mitra shuttered it two years later. Next, he started a social network called Stuck, which he now jokes was a mash-up of so many features of other social networks it should have been called "Feature Creep."
He poured the last of his own money into Stuck, but it didn't, well, stick. Another two years; another failure.
With that, after 10 years in London attempting to repeat the success he found so quickly in India, Mitra's account was drained. His spirit was too.
"I had this bubble in my head," Mitra says. He won't disclose how much he made in bringing his first company public, but doing so got in his head. "I was the IPO'd kid who was severely overconfident. None of the other startups I did met my expectations."
He says he didn't know whether it was that funding was hard to come by or that his companies simply weren't striking chords with a large-enough audience. In any event, all those years had gone by, and, despite his early successes, he was broke. " I felt like the internet had, in a decade, disrupted everything in the world, and I was this guy who didn't have another hit."
He abandoned his dreams and got a real job, at a large insurance firm. He did a lot of thinking about what he'd done right--and what he'd done wrong. He realized some of what might have been to blame in the past was his self-confidence. Sure, that's usually a fantastic trait for a founder. But it can't come at the expense of building a strong company around its executive.
"You can never fire a missile from a kayak; you need a warship," Mitra says. "I realized: What I needed to do is build an amazing team around me."
Within a year, he started building a new company from scratch again, this time with his family friend and former colleague, Omar Tayeb. It's called Blippar, and it allows regular objects to interact with a phone to create augmented reality. (Think images, videos, and animations superimposed on what your phone's camera captures.) Which, among other things, is really useful for creating engaging, interactive advertisements.
They call their technological creation "visual discovery," for the fact that it can recognize, say, a Pepsi can, or a movie poster, and then pull up mobile content. It's been used to make bottles of beer and of iced tea come to life, to promote movie trailers, and even to animate magazine covers.
It's also a search engine for things--or a QR code-reader that functions without that silly square pixel-cluster. And Blippar recently acquired another firm exploring similar territory, a virtual-try-on platform called Binocular, and launched a research-and-development arm. It may go from simple on-cell-phone-screen viewing into something closer to virtual reality in the future, as the company has recently launched an app for Google Cardboard.
Today the Blippar team has $45 million in venture funding--and, according to the company, plenty of runway left. Mitra says that, this time around, he and his three co-founders emphasized creating a team of impressive individuals. So far, it seems like that's working: Blippar is up to 260 employees, who work out of a dozen offices worldwide.
There's even one in Delhi.