Note: Nidhi Sharma is the owner and proprietor of Cafe Trippy Travelette in Manali, and the embodiment of a postmodern, irreverent woman entrepreneur who writes her own column on The Times Blog.
"Wow! You really quit your job to start a cafe in the hills? That's rad, dude! We would give a limb to be where you are!"
See, that kind of thing is a reaction. A reaction that most people have when I tell them what I do. And I'm not saying they don't mean it. No, no, no. They just haven't thought it through.
From day one (of me telling the world that I was now the proud owner of my own cafe in Manali), my Instagram and Facebook handles were bombarded with shiny wishes from friends and acquaintances, all of whom were apparently blown away at the idea of leaving their 9-to-5 behind and becoming grey-bearded Galdalfs in the land of magic.
But the catch-22 was that most of these people believed that they could make it here because they know how to make Maggi. Now I'm not saying Maggi's bad (I and a lot of my guests are big Maggi fans, actually). But there's a lot more to it. There are the hours you need to put in, the holidays you need to sacrifice (oh yeah - forget about taking a vacation during your favourite holidays, because you are the holiday now!), and the uncertain payouts... phew. It's a long list.
And when I told my social admirers about my real plight, most of them switched their narrative to mention how brave I must have been, how scary the experience must've been, and so on. Some of them even went as far as calling my thing a 'startup'. I'll admit it. It made me smile. Nothing but this kind of pain can equate to the kind of struggle you go through with a startup.
So... I started up!
Nothing in the world, nothing from the books I had read, nothing from the movies I had seen or the dreams that I had cajoled, could have prepared me for what happened next.
My lifestyle today might appear enticing on the outside (and I am not explicitly saying that it isn't) but I had (and continue to possess) my own share of inexplicable struggles.
Finding a place to set up camp
When I set foot in Manali, I didn't know a thing about surviving in the hills. I was just like any of you guys or girls planning a trip. I remember walking door to door, just asking people if anybody they knew was interested in leasing out their land to me. So if you think finding a bachelor pad in Mumbai or New Delhi or Bangalore is a nightmare, try renting out some property in Manali.
Finding a bed and a roof for myself
My own savings paid for a (decent?) hotel room in Manali, and allowed me to thrive (barely) for about 4 months. During this time, I was still hunting for land, trying to network with people who would take me seriously amidst a haze of funny smoke that's pretty much omnipresent. And then, there was the whole thing about recruiting my baristas, my brewers, my waiters and my stewards. When you come from whence I came, taking your pick from the most chilled out place on the planet is just not easy.
Paperwork vs Verbal contracts (Word of mouth!)
One hint - always go for solid, failsafe paperwork. People kept telling me that Manali operates on word of mouth. And that phrase means something completely different out here. Even my landlord insisted that I needed to trust 'his word' over some arbitrary piece of paper, but I insisted on notarizing everything, and I'm really glad that I did.
Tourism is one trip; Entrepreneurship is just back-and-forth
Next up, I had to source pretty much everything from Delhi. I needed skilled labourers, I needed construction material, I needed accessories to get some great decor for my cafe. And all of that had to come from New Delhi. This meant another unending series of haggling with travel and logistics providers, turning down quotes with nothing to fall back on, and learning, most of all, how to negotiate. So that happened.
Once I was satisfied that the material sourcing and construction process was pretty much syncing into an autopilot mode, I donned a few new hats - I became the plumber I never had, I hired myself as the gardener. I learnt how to cook things other than Maggi while I kept looking for seasoned chefs in the region, and I couldn't hire any more help, so I became the household help.
The thing is, running a business is not as easy as working in a 9-to-5. You don't do it to 'get away' from hard work. You cannot do it if you need your beauty sleep, and you cannot do it if you're not ready to give up every sensibility that defines life for you. And I'm glad I decided to stick it out through the tough times, because in the process, I learnt what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Not a successful one from the start, necessary, but the feeling of knowing what I never knew earlier.
I don't remember precisely the moment when it all started making sense, but it did. One rain-drenched afternoon, I was looking at the hills, sipping a cup of piping hot brew, smiling at nobody in particular, and telling myself that this checkpoint on my bucket list was finally complete.
Why I no longer had a bucket in my bathroom, is another story.
(To be continued)