December 31, 2023

2023 in numbers

It wasn't so bad, all things considered

I always strive to start a new year on a positive note. After all, the Earth did just complete a journey of 150 million miles around the Sun, isn’t it? It’s a matter of celebration for us primitive life-forms, or at the very least, an observation worthy of note. This celestial dance, this grand cosmic waltz, is our silent yet monumental marker of time's passage.

To me, a new year isn’t just another date on the calendar; it's a chance to reboot, to recalibrate. I mean, yeah, you can say that all that changes is the date in the new year, but as December 31st rolls in, I find myself deep in reflection, pondering over the 365 days that whizzed by. I ask myself a lot of questions – was I a better person than I was last year? Did I chase my dreams? Did I step out of my comfort zone and surprise not just others, but also myself? And importantly, did I own up to my mistakes and learn from them? It's like playing back a mental highlight reel of the year, sifting through the moments that defined it.

Now, you might think this ritual is sparked by the release of Spotify Wrapped in early December, but trust me, it's much more profound than that. You see, I have this peculiar love for counting things. It’s a quirk that sticks with me, even though I (spectacularly) bombed my Statistics course in college. I find myself counting almost everything – the number of steps I take each day, the amount of money I spend, the tally of songs I listen to, and the fluctuations in my investment portfolio. Numbers fascinate me; they are like the little breadcrumbs that I can follow to know more about myself.

So, here I am, armed with a pen and paper (or in this case, a keyboard and a screen!), jotting down my favorite numbers from the year 2023. Some of these numbers bring a smile to my face, while the rest remind me of lessons I learned the hard way. But each number has its own story and its own significance. They are more than just digits; they are metrics! And as I list each one of them out below, I remember why I chose to remember them.

3 commas and 8 digits

When KBC rolled around more than two decades ago, posing the iconic question, “Kaun Banega Crorepati?” (Who wants to be a millionaire?), I was instantly captivated. I wanted to get in line… like right now. As a ten-year-old, freshly introduced to the world of cable TV, this show felt like a window to a world of dreams. One Crore Rupees was A BIG DEAL, and to be honest, it still kind of is. Remember that those were pre-internet, pre-cellphone, and pre-500-tv-channel days. Hell, even Google was just an up-and-coming startup at that time. Imagine my tender ten-year-old mind thinking about what it would do if it had that kind of money.

I would often find myself lost in daydreams, imagining myself in the hot seat, answering every question that Mr. Bachchan could throw at me with a knowing smile, and hiding my internal giddiness with panache.

One thing was for sure though. I knew that I would never have that kind of money. This was definitely the stuff of dreams. I remember counting backwards to figure out how many digits a crore even had. I didn’t understand money back then, but I did understand even then that this was unachievable.

Except, in 2023, I did achieve it. I became a Crorepati, ten years after earning my first rupee. My net worth had 3 commas and 8 digits.

Now, I won’t say that this was unexpected. I had been working towards it for some time now, and the number had entered the realm of possibility a few years ago. I can even say that this milestone was delayed by at least 8-9 months because of a few investing blunders I made early on. Yet, almost achieving it and actually achieving it are two different things, the latter being a bringer of much more joy than the former.

How did I do it? Well, the journey was anything but easy. It was the culmination of over a decade of slogging through the corporate maze, coupled with a relentless focus on investing. I poured every spare rupee into the stock market, enduring my fair share of burns and bruises along the way. There have been many market crashes since I started investing – including the COVID meltdown of 2020 and the Chinese crash of 2016, and it took all my mental strength to stay invested during those times. This story would have been entirely different if I had converted my notional loss into real loss then.

Over these years I have also picked up a mindset of always keeping your money at work. It tends to multiply when you keep it at the right place. In my case it was the stock market. In your case it can be any other avenue that can generate passive income, but the important thing is to never let it languish in your savings account. Spend as much as you want, but whatever is left at the end of the month, store it in an investment.

Having achieved this once, I’m emboldened to repeat this process once again. One crore doesn’t really seem insurmountable anymore. It's like having scaled a formidable peak only to realize that the view from the top is worth every arduous step taken. This realization has completely shifted my perspective. The ten-year-old me would never have believed it, but the 34-year-old me does.

100 houses and 4 new rooms

I also bought and moved into a new place this year. It’s a 10-minute walk from my old house of 33 years, has got 4 rooms, and I had to visit at least 100 houses before I could finalize on this one. Talk about getting your money’s worth!

This was my very first-time house-hunting, and I had a very cutesy notion about it before I began the process. “How hard could it be?”, I used to think, “I’ll go see some houses, and if I like one, I’ll say yes!” Simple, isn’t it?

“Oh, my sweet summer child!”, says present-me to past-me.

Needless to say, it was anything but simple. All my weekends were suddenly occupied by making visits to realtors and their sites. I saw houses in all shapes and sizes, and surprisingly, only a few turned out to be a definite no. Every house that I liked, I liked it due to different reasons.

I liked a particular house because it was on the top floor and the view from there was beautiful, but I liked yet another house because it was on the ground floor and had a freaking backyard! I liked a house because it had a rather fancy construction, yet I liked another one because it had been lived in and had a very distinctive “home-like” feel to it. One house was liked by the neighbourhood cats (so obviously liked by me!), and another was in such a peaceful corner that the world seemed to cease to exist around it.

There were no right answers in those expeditions. You have to decide on so many factors while buying a house. It starts from the practical – Is it in your budget? Does it get ample sunlight? Is parking available? Is the construction sound? Are markets and schools and hospitals nearby? And it quickly goes to emotional – Does it evoke humanity? Do you see yourself raising a family in this space? Does the space speak to you?

The problem with all the houses I was seeing was that they were all answering the practical questions, but not so much the emotional ones. I could visit the swankiest house ever and it would feel too dry and devoid of any personality.

Until of course, I found the perfect place to live in.

Just like every other good thing, I stumbled across this property by chance, in my routine weekend outings with my property dealer. The building was under construction, but the sample flat was ready. All the practical questions were already answered. It was near my old place, so it scored high on neighbourhood familiarity. On top of that, the metro station now became ever so closer, weekly market was just a street away, the house was on a corner, so it received plenty of sunlight. It was on the quieter side of the locality too. Everything was there.

Also in this one, I could feel myself settling in. I could see myself lounging in the balcony, a cup of tea in my hand. I could see myself setting up my office just the way I’d have liked to. I could see myself watching TV in the living room, and cooking in the kitchen, and bringing in my plants. It was perfect.

That cutesy notion of seeing some houses and saying yes to the one I liked? It turned out to be true after all.

550 going on 150 going on…???

2023 was the most turbulent year for me as far as my career was concerned. Not that I skipped around job after job, but rather the company I work for skipped around crisis after crisis.

ZestMoney was once a darling of the BNPL world. Customers used to keep coming in, so did the merchants and the lending partners. Heck, at one time we were also featured prominently on Apple billboards and had signed on the beloved Jeetu Bhaiya to do our ads. Optics are one thing though, and the ground reality much different.

Even back in 2022 we were running out of money. To keep us afloat we decided to get acquired by PhonePe. They were much bigger and could use us to launch their own lending business. There was a lot of synergy to go around. A lot of talks happened over a lot of months, but one fine day in March 2023 we found out that the deal wasn’t happening after all.

One of the direct fallouts of this development was that layoffs happened for the first time in the history of the company. Overnight our 550-strong company dissolved into just 150 of us. The rest were either laid-off or onboarded by PhonePe.

Barely a month after this shocker, all three of our founders also quit.

I survived the layoffs, but not without a huge cost. Everyone who reported to me was gone, as was the person I reported to, and I was reduced to being as clueless as John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. Those were shitty times to be an employee of ZestMoney.

Yet, the new leaders had a plan. We were to restart our business and march towards profitability in the coming year. They even raised fresh capital for this purpose. The mood inside was sombre but hopeful.

And soon we were back to the races, executing. We reorganized our teams, did a rethink on what we should build, and started building. In the last six months we saw a flurry of activity, especially on the tech side of things. That was perhaps the most hectic time I’ve ever seen at ZestMoney, when people all around were trying to walk the same road – getting us to profitability. Late-nights became work-nights, weekends became workdays, and for some even vacations became workations. Everyone was trying their best.

And boy did we deliver! My team took on this challenge with apparent ease. We executed projects we had never even thought of executing before, with timelines we would have laughed at, pre-layoffs. We had almost achieved a sense of normalcy after many months of turbulence.

Alas, in between all this, the company dropped another bombshell last month. We would be shutting down, come December 31. A lot of things led up to it, but a lack of money was, obviously, the one that mattered.

Tired of all these curveballs yet? Here’s another one. Apparently, we may still have a buyer. December 31 has come and gone and we’re still here. Some sort of a deal is under works that could lead to us surviving, though in a very different landscape from now on. A lot of changes are coming, and for once, I don’t know the nature and the magnitude of them.

284 pages and one new book

“You have a book in you,” exclaimed my English teacher back in 2006, noticing that I had turned in a 10,000-word monstrosity for a 400-word writing assignment.

“Yes,” replied an oblivious I, though secretly being pleased with myself.

It’s true that I had caught the writing bug early on. And why not, for I was also one of the most prolific readers in my peer group. Once you drown yourself in stories, it’s only a matter of time that you start wanting to craft a few yourself.

Over the years I have tried to keep up with writing. I have a couple of unfinished novels tucked into a closet, just like any self-respecting writer should. I have blogged a lot, tried my hand at short stories, written letters to friends and strangers, and when I left my first job with bittersweet feelings, I wrote about my time and experiences there into a set of memoirs that easily span 250 pages.

So when a senior colleague of mine asked me to collaborate with him on a book he was writing, it was an easy yes to say.

Given the kind of procrastinator I am, I had never imagined that I would see my name printed on the cover of a book. However, what I had really never imagined was that whenever it happened, it would be on the cover of a technical tome called “Low-Code Development with AppSmith: Building Internal Tools and Business Applications”.

Writing the book was also a very rollercoaster experience because it happened in parallel with whatever was happening with my company. Rahul and I had signed the contract in mid-March, and the ZestMoney-PhonePe deal collapsed merely 15 days after that. We had six months to write ten chapters, and it took me close to two months to finish just the first one, all due to the uncertainty surrounding work.

I feel I do okay when explaining technical topics to other people. More than just okay to tell you the truth. I like explaining stuff, and this is exactly what I have done in the book – explaining the reader about how to use AppSmith to create an application, without writing too much code.

Writing came easily to me once I got into a flow state. Once you figure out what you want to say, writing a book becomes more of a discipline problem than an inspiration problem. I just needed to keep my schedule day in and day out, and the book would practically write itself.

Of course, it was not that easy! The book did not practically write itself, and I had to fight off boredom and procrastination almost every day. Attempts to make ChatGPT write parts of the book also failed, because it would output text which would put even the world’s foremost authority on AppSmith to sleep. Newbies hoping to learn low-code development would have stood no chance. Plus, it was also demolishing my style of writing! In the end, not even a single sentence written by the AI model made it to the book, and I slogged every day for six months to write (and rewrite) those chapters.

My biggest takeaway from this whole exercise is that I know that this is not going to be my only book. I really liked the process of picking a topic, understanding it in great detail, and explaining it to others in a book. I’d like to do it again, and again, and yet again! And maybe, one day I might dust off those long forgotten, unfinished novels in my closet and show them the light of the day. Fingers crossed!

In Closing

2023 was one of the best years of my life, as well as one of the most unpredictable ones. I did a lot of good things this year – bought a house, went on a solo trip, visited my 15th Indian state, navigated a chaotic job, wrote a book, and a lot of bad things – read only a few books (less than 10 perhaps?), walked less, journaled less, gained some weight, broke a few friendships, and doubled down on my addiction to screens.

I didn’t do anything different to make it so. I didn’t decide on January 1 to make 2023 the best year of my life yet. In fact, the very fact that 2023 still turned out to be good is a testament to perseverance and execution.

I never had a goal to obtain One Crore rupees, I had a system to invest every spare paisa I had and put it to work. I did not give up on house hunting after a few weekends, I kept at it for nearly eight months. I survived the tumultuous months of career uncertainty by focusing on the now rather than the later. And I jumped at the opportunity of writing a book when it presented itself on a platter. Events of 2023 have given me confidence about my systems and methods of living. They work, and they work well.

I don’t do resolutions. I don’t want to “go to the gym in the new year” or “make three new friends”. I just want to have an interesting 2024. (I know, it’s a Chinese curse).

I’d want to do less of the bad things and more of the good, but that’s about it. Why make life more complex? Focus on the big picture and stay true to your ideals. The details will take care of themselves.