The annals of startup media are largely devoted to covering glorious success stories—sagas of intrepid men and women who braved the odds and won amazing victories to take their companies to unicorn heights. Occasionally, there are stories about mega-failures—riches to rags narratives that are polar opposites of the success stories.

But while such stories dominate the media, in the real world, they are but outliers. The vast majority of startup stories are those of journeyman voyagers—average Joes and Janes plying their trade to earn a livelihood.

Like Ashok Varma.

Varma founded a startup called Report Garden. It’s a name that most people wouldn’t be familiar with, but by all other measures it was a successful software-as-a-service (SaaS) startup. It had multiple millions of ARR ARR Annual recurring revenue ARR is a subscription-based company's yearly revenue from a subscription , thousands of customers all over the world, and nearly a hundred employees. All this without a cent of venture capital. It was also a rare instance of an Indian startup being acquired by a US corporation.

Unfortunately, none of these victories prevented a tragedy.

Because Ashok Varma is no more. He died on 24 September 2020. Death by suicide.

He was 32.

This is his story.

Prologue

What is the heaviest burden that a human being can carry?

A parent carrying a child who has left this world.

The image is from a Zoom conference last month that a few of Varma’s friends organised to commemorate his life and share memories. Varma’s parents, wife, and brother are on one screen. The image is fuzzy, but the pain is palpable.

As Varma’s friends share their stories, his father, a mild-looking, bespectacled man with thinning, silver hair, can barely sit on his chair. He breaks down periodically with spasmodic tears. Varma’s mother seems more stoic, but her courage gives way when she speaks of her son’s childhood. “He was a very bright child. I was teaching in the school in which he studied. Ashok used to come to my office occasionally and would take great pride in seeing me run the school from my vice-principal’s chair. Perhaps this is what inspired him to dream about creating his own company…”

The early days

Varma was born in 1988 in a middle-class family—his father was a government servant and his mother was a teacher. The family was not financially well off, but was content and led happy, idyllic lives in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad. “Through our childhood, Ashok and I slept together in our single bedroom house, either on the floor or on a small bed,” says Varma’s elder brother Sudheer. “We dreamt in instalments—would we be able to afford a bike someday?

AUTHOR

Sumanth Raghavendra

Sumanth is a serial entrepreneur with more than eighteen years experience in running startups. He is currently the founder of Deck App Technologies, a Bangalore-based startup attempting to re-imagine productivity software for the Post-PC era. Sumanth’s columns appear regularly in leading publications. He holds MBA degrees from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore and Thunderbird, The American Graduate School of International Management, USA.

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