Young CEO leadership – what does it take to run a successful start-up?

Mohammed Zeeshan, the Co-Founder and CEO of ‘MyCaptain’ and ‘The Climber’, shares the story of his journey and the opportunities

Mohammed Zeeshan, the Co-Founder and CEO of ‘MyCaptain’ and ‘The Climber’, shares the story of his journey and the opportunities and challenges of running a start-up. He talks about how and when companies should think of scaling and how Technology, Money and People play a vital role.

How would you describe your journey? Is it luck, skill, hard work or something else?

My opinion on this aspect has evolved over the years. As an 18/19yr old, I believed that I could achieve anything and that everything was under my control. I believed that whether I make it in the world or not depended only on my capabilities and my skills and nothing else. But now, I realise that there are so many other factors that play a crucial role. This could be luck, faith, attitude or leadership capacity. One can have amazing skills, but if you do not have the required leadership capacity, the effectiveness of those skills or the work that you are doing, will be limited.

How and where did the idea for MyCaptain come from?

When I was in Engineering college, on a night before an exam, my friends and I were talking in the hostel room and we got around to the topic of what careers did we really want to pursue. The answers ranged from Journalist to Astronomer. At this point we realised that most students in our generation were passionate about many other fields but were confused about how to take the first step into those fields. We felt that there should be some organisation that can step in and create a societal mindset shift around how careers are looked at in India. This was the idea behind my venture.

How did you create followership for the great idea that you had?

It was easy to get people enrolled into my vision as many around me were facing the same problem. It was all about telling our story and making people understand our issue. We had a huge number of students who said that they wanted to become a film maker or a photographer, but were stuck in Engineering, B.Com or BBA courses. They believed in my vision and were able to relate to what I was trying to create. The vision, movement and the world we wanted to create brought the followership.

When do you know you are ready to scale the business?

I think scale comes much later. Once you get an idea, the first thing that you do is to start working on your idea. Try to be frugal and build a ‘Minimum Viable Product (MVP)’. In other words, build the most basic version of your product. If you google how Flipkart or Facebook looked like at the beginning, you will wonder how they even launched such a product or website. There is a saying by the Founder of LinkedIN that goes, ‘If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late’. So before scaling, we must first put the idea into action, create a prototype and get it into the market. Even if customers hate it, they will provide you the feedback that you need to build the product. Once you get the first 100-200 customers and have got feedback, you can reach out to the next 1000-2000 customers and even look for funding if required. Once you reach this point, you can decide to start scaling.

What role has technology played?

When we first started in 2016, we were a print magazine. We were passionate about writing and paper and had romantic ideas of running a publication. We felt e-magazines were not real and we would never get into that space. But it was a complete disaster and even though our content was amazing, nobody in today’s world wanted to subscribe to a magazine. We faced heavy losses from this venture. Some other things that we did included conducting workshops in schools and colleges and while it was well received, it was not possible to scale this across the country. At this point, in 2018, our mentors told us to move away from outdated things and get online. Technology will help you reach a million people much faster and help the business to scale.

An interesting story involving Technology, is based on Hilton and Airbnb. Hilton runs a luxury group of hotels and resorts that is more than 100 years old, and they own physical properties in around 120 countries. Airbnb is around 12 years old and is also present in over 120 countries, but they do not own any property. Logically, you would expect that Hilton is much more valuable and probably makes more money. But in reality, the net worth of Airbnb is 5 times that of Hilton. Airbnb is just a website or platform, and this allows them to scale at the click of a button compared to Hilton, which would have to construct a property. Even Instagram is worth more than the New York Times and this speaks volumes about Technology and how scalable it is. Technology can help start-ups reach out to more people.

What have you learnt about money?

I’m still trying to figure this one out. We are in the middle of a fundraise right now. Despite being in the Top 10 Tech Start-ups in the country and being bootstrapped, what I’ve realised is that although you might be a profitable and sustainable venture, if you need to build your brand and scale up, you need to raise money to spend on marketing and advertising. If you do not do that, then a competitor will come and raise more money than you and at that point it will not matter even if you have a superior product. So, if you are a Tech Start-up in the consumer space, then while you are building a sustainable structure, you will have to invest a lot of money to build your brand, so you become the first-choice company in that space. Also, the requirements of an early-stage venture are completely different from that of a late-stage venture.

How are you choosing the right people to work with you?

At the top leadership level, everyone must be able to relate to the vision. What we are doing is a little rebellious and we are different from other Edu-tech companies. While other companies are helping students get better marks, crack entrance exams or helping them find jobs, MyCaptain is more focussed on helping people discover their inner calling and pursue a career that they are passionate about. Our culture, communication, brand values and organisation values are very different. So, people who join MyCaptain should be able to relate to the vision, fit in culturally and if they have faced the problem we are trying to solve, they tend to perform better. While experience and skill are required in senior leadership roles, as you go down the hierarchy, it is attitude that matters. The skills can be learnt.

How do you sustain your energy?

It is difficult. Running a start up does take a toll on your mental health. When you are an entrepreneur or a founder, even if there are other founders, the journey is lonely. There is no disassociation between your personal identity and your professional identity. Your company becomes you and you become the company. The long hours make it difficult to have a work life balance and maintain good mental and physical health. I’m working on myself and trying to lead a healthier life. I sleep early and I try not to work once I return home. In the earlier years though, this would not be possible. You would be hustling and doing whatever it takes to make your venture work. Only when you have a good team in place, you can concentrate on other things. The journey is difficult and challenging, but you keep going because you can clearly see the impact your work is creating, and this gets you through the challenges. The captain of the ship must keep sailing.

One can have amazing skills, but if you do not have the required leadership capacity, the effectiveness of those skills or the work that you are doing, will be limited. 

So, would you say you were successful in identifying an idea that was hidden in plain sight?
When it comes to Entrepreneurship, ideas are available everywhere. We need to think if the idea, product or solution is creating a positive change or solving a problem that people might have. Only these ideas can eventually turn into sustainable businesses. If the idea is not solving any problem or there are not enough people having that problem, then you might want to rethink the idea. The other thing about ideas is that you need to do something physical with it. As soon as an idea pops into your head, go jot it down in a diary or speak to a friend, otherwise I can guarantee that you will not be working on that idea.

Mohammed zeeshan Mohammed Zeeshan

Co-Founder and CEO of ‘MyCaptain’ and ‘The Climber’

Zeeshan’s vision is to impact Education and bring a societal mindset shift to how careers and skilling are viewed in India and other developing nations. He has a keen interest in Policy, Education and Impact. Zeeshan is a GSEP scholar and a 4 times TEDx speaker. He is featured inForbes India 30 under 30 2021 list as a special mention in education. He is also inducted in BW Education 40 under 40 list of 2020. He works closely with Education Non-Profits on sustainability and impact measurement.

Here’s the key to becoming smarter, faster & better.
Grab the latest insights!

Research Lab


Are you ready to explore the Sacred Corridor of Leadership?

A powerful three-step framework that helps women leaders deeply reflect and practically devise strategies across Portals of Entry, Rituals of Passages and the Sanctum of Possibilities.

Growth Lab


Try our new course on Personal Branding for Leaders

Is it possible to mindfully and intentionally build a persona that impresses, achieves and inspires? The answer is yes. And this course is your How-to guide.