Sandeep Nailwal: Reflecting on my Founding Journey
With the Nailwal Fellowship kicking off last month, I've been spending a lot of time reflecting on my own roots and how a program like this would have helped me along entrepreneurial journey. Today, I want to share my path to creating the Nailwal Fellowship - from humble beginnings in a rural village to launching a leading protocol in Polygon.
My Early Life
I was born in Ramnagar, a small mountainous town in Northern, India. My family came from very simple means — my grandfather was house help for a wealthy family, my father was a day laborer, and my mother, who never attended school, was a homemaker. Desiring better educational opportunities for me, my family relocated to the 'Jamna-Paar' area of Delhi when I was still a child. This area, which I proudly call home, is often labeled as a ghetto or slum by others.
A block in the Jamna-Paar area of Delhi. Hindustan Times.
Our life was characterized by 'tension'. The tension of uprooting our lives from Ramnagar to a new community in Delhi, the tension surrounding my father's drinking, gambling, and violent tendencies, and the financial tension created by our unstable income. This experience shaped my aspirations - I was determined to not repeat this life for my family, both present and future. I vividly recall a childhood incident that significantly influenced my life.
When I was six years-old I visited a temple in Ramnagar just before moving to Delhi. At this temple, it was customary to make a wish before leaving. I wished to one day be able to provide a life for my family that my parents couldn't afford to give me. This wish was a guiding force that led me out of my conditions and shaped my success as a founder.
Me (right) in my early childhood home with my siblings.
Education was my path towards a better life. I was fortunate to excel academically, even after moving schools post-relocation. When it was time for me to enter middle school, my neighbors and friends advised my parents to send me to schools outside of Jamna-Paar to fully explore my potential. The transition to a larger school in Delhi was challenging, but I knew it was a step towards a better life for my family. I focused on my studies and once again started achieving top scores, which led to my university education and entrepreneurial journey.
The Burden of Expectations: My Founder Journey
Expectations can either serve as stepping stones towards your life's goals or become burdens that hamper personal growth. In my life, they were a heavy weight I carried around. Being the eldest son, I was expected to be the breadwinner, to financially support my family even while repaying my student loans. There were times when I couldn’t sleep because of the stress I felt having to provide for my family; I specifically remember having to fund my sister's wedding out of my own pocket, and not knowing if I would be able to scrape the money together. While I am proud of the lengths I went to in order to provide for my family, expectations like these often forced me to prioritize income stability over my entrepreneurial aspirations.
In my own personal life, as my relationship with Harshita (my girlfriend and now wife) started to become serious, I felt pressure to purchase a house and provide her with a certain lifestyle. This would have further forced me down a career path that wasn't for me. Thankfully, Harshita encouraged me to pursue my passions, debunking the need for a large house to be happy. This support allowed me to follow my own interests, ultimately leading to the founding of my first company and later, co-founding Polygon.
Early in my relationship with Harshita.
However, I know that not everyone has such support. The Nailwal Fellowship aims to provide support to individuals to enable them to follow their passions, free from societal expectations. With the Fellowship, you get financial support and access to a network of resources, enabling you to pursue your passions on your own terms. Reflecting back, I wish I had access to a program like the Nailwal Fellowship. It would have fast-tracked the founding of Polygon and enhanced my overall happiness.
The Importance of Resilience
Concluding my personal journey as a founder, I want to highlight a quality that I believe is vital for any founder - resilience. I've always been passionate about entrepreneurship, but throughout my life, various factors like student loans, a family to support, and societal expectations often discouraged me from pursuing my passion. All my early startup experiences were side hustles, working around the schedule of my regular jobs. As I couldn't commit full-time, most of these projects failed. However, these failures were valuable lessons that built my resilience.
My first real building experience was with a small startup I worked on during my college years. We developed software for government agencies. While we gained some traction, we could not scale it due to time constraints, and had to shut it down. My next attempt came several years later. Working as a consultant at Deloitte, I took on a side project which was a logistics startup. We had early success, but the competition was brutal. Alas, another startup had to be shut down. These experiences taught me valuable lessons. I needed to look for a blue ocean market - a space where I could have a competitive edge. And more importantly, I needed to commit full time to see significant growth.
Me (far left, second from top row) back in my university days.
Encouraged by Harshita, I left my stable corporate job and began working full time on my startups. Next was working on a B2B marketplace that showed signs of growth. Contracts with big brands started coming in. Revenue began to flow steadily. However, we soon hit a wall. Despite our best efforts, we couldn't break through the growth plateau. We had to shut it down, marking the end of my third endeavor. Three consecutive failures led to self-doubt. But my resilience was stronger than my doubt. I had learned from my past, and I had the unwavering support of my family - they encouraged me to dust myself off and move forward. And the fourth time was indeed the charm. My next startup was a little blockchain project named Matic. Little did I know then, nut Matic would transform into Polygon, achieving unimaginable success.
Me, JD, and Sid in Matic's early days.
Resilience played a crucial role in getting me where I am today. The Nailwal Fellowship seeks to identify and support builders who exemplify resilience and are willing to overcome setbacks to achieve their dreams. We don't care about how many times you have failed, we care about how many times you have picked yourself up and tried again. For us, that is the most important value for any founder to have. If there is one takeaway for founders from my story, it's that you need to have an internal drive pushing you to build something better. You don't need to come from the same background as me, but every great founder I know has something deep within pushing them to achieve more.
P.S. If you want to learn more about how the Nailwal Fellowship is supporting founders to achieve their dreams, you can read more about the program here.