The C4E 2023-24 Annual Shareholder Report

So FY24-25 is upon us.
And here’s my attempt at reporting how the last year was and what we plan to do this year. 

Before I start, I wish to reiterate a few things that I will not compromise on while we build C4E. 

  1. We will always be a culture-first, open company and we will prioritise the health and wellness of our people over profits. And this does not mean we would take it easy. See the next point.
  2. We would not be outworked. (credit to Will Smith for the seed). We are not the most talented team but we would be the most hardworking team. We would work harder than anyone else but we will also choose what to work on, how to work and who to work with. 
  3. Today we may be offering a service X. Tomorrow we may offer Y. Day after Z. Whatever we may do at any point in time, we would do it in the C4E style (I need to write this guide) and all of us at C4E acknowledge that we are in this for the long haul and we are preparing ourselves for a Mahabharata – whenever that dawns upon us.

So with that, let’s go.

PS: In this entire piece, I am very mindful of the use of I and We. And I haven’t used these two words interchangeably.

1/ So, what is C4E?

Lemme start at the start.
What the heck is C4E?
I get this question a lot.
And here is my attempt to write about it.

I’ll start with what we are not.

We are NOT a communication business.
Yes, we make our money by offering services in brand strategy, social media, website design, marketing collaterals and more. We do this for large companies, startups and individuals. We do this by working on ongoing retainers and one-time projects. We do this by ourselves and with the help of numerous contractors. And we compete with other communication agencies of all shapes and sizes. And when someone asks who we are, we introduce ourselves as a communications collective.

But… but that’s how we make money.
Our identity as a group is different from what we do to make ends meet. 

So more than anything, C4E is a village. Inspired by this post, here is my revised definition of the village. 

We are a virtual place (for the time being) where each person is part of a village, a community larger than themselves.

Each person at The C4E Village is at most separated by two degrees. Each has been invited by someone we trust. And there is inherent trust and safety in being part of this community.

At the C4E village you can lean on others for help, support, input, connections and if nothing else, to have a good time!

Saurabh Garg

No village can ever exist without its people.

So if I were to ever talk about what business we are in, I would say, we are in the people business. Each thing we do is to bring people together, learn from each other and grow on the shoulders of each other.

Plus, we will always be big on culture. We will be open. We will encourage freedom and movement. And yet offer reliability. And like most communes in this VUCA world, we would make ourselves a perpetual learning machine. 

So today the C4E Village operates as a communication collective. Eventually, we would take some other shape. Whatever that is.

2/ What did we do in 2023-24? 

If I were to capture this in one line, I would say, 2023-24 was a great year for us but it could’ve been better. I like the idea of being divinely discontent! 

2.1. Here are some wins to start with…

2.1.1/ We added more people to the team than I had imagined.

In 2023 we were 5+.
Now we are 10+.
We pay 30+ people every month.
The fee ranges from 5K to approx 150K.
No. I am not the highest-paid person at C4E.

If things go the way they are, we will be 20+ by the end of this FY.

PS: + refers to people who are third-party contractors that are not “married” to C4E.

2.1.2/ The C4E Delivery Model

While we’ve grown in numbers, we’ve remained a remote-first team. At some point in this FY, I will get a physical office in Mumbai but no one would be forced to be in office.

Despite our distance and the nature of work, we’ve been able to arrive at a delivery model where we deliver with insane reliability! It is built on the pillars of overcommunication, redundancy, frugality, freedom and trust. This has to be one of my biggest achievements. I know that as we scale this would get more and more tough to manage. But like in the previous times, we will learn and scale.

Happy to give gyaan on this, in case. 

2.1.3/ We clocked our highest turnover since we started

We incorporated C4E in 2016.
Back then, I created the legal entity to be more tax efficient. Now, of course, we are a business with people and projects and profits.

We closed the last financial year with our highest turnover yet. We clocked in the vicinity of half a million dollars. I can share the actual number if you want. Ask me.

In terms of numbers, YoY, our turnover grew 86%. This means if we billed 100 in 2022-23, this year we billed 186.

In the last year, we made 178 invoices, served 43 clients, and offered services across 10 business verticals. In the previous year, these numbers were 135, 32, and 8 respectively.

2.1.4/ Acquired a few large clients

While I take pride in being the best friend to a founder, the nature of business dictates that we get some large companies. These companies help with retainers and that helps with building the team. So we were keen on getting some retainers and luckily friends and mentors gave us access to leads that we could convert into clients.

Some new clients that we started working with include GE Healthcare, Ajax Engineering, HDFC Ergo, Ageas Federal Life Insurance, Lux Cozi, Case New Holland, and others. As third-party contractors to other agencies, the team worked on Incredible India, AMFI, Microsoft and more.

We did lose a few clients. In most cases, we decided to pause our engagement. More on this later.

There’s a red flag here, however. Most of these new clients offered work to Saurabh Garg. Not to C4E. Today, the business is large enough that we need to have a structured business growth team that builds business independent of Saurabh. This is one of the problems 🔴 (I will use this dot to capture problems) I will work on with the team as we go along.

2.2. Some losses

While the year was great all around, we made some blunders and losses as well. Here’s a list of the ones big enough that they need cataloguing… 

2.2.1/ We had to let go of some colleagues and some colleagues let go of us.

While each person who comes into C4E is carefully vetted, we do make mistakes. So there was someone that we had to let go of. This is the second time since I started C4E in this avatar that I had to make the decision to ask someone to leave.

On the other hand, at least two colleagues chose to stop working with us. In both cases, they chose to move on because the money I could offer them was not enough for them. And that is the second thing that I want to fix as we go along 🔴. I want to pay more to my people. And to pay more, I need to earn more. And I need to work on that. We need to work on this.

2.2.2/ The Red Sparrow (TRS)

To be honest, this is more of a loss at a personal level but because I used C4E’s money for this, I am accountable. And I must document this.

So, neither we nor I are no longer a part of TRS. I was unable to communicate my vision to my co-founder and I was unable to spot a merit in her vision. We tried to disagree and commit but that road too wasn’t taking us anywhere. So instead of raising a child in a broken home, we decided to part ways. 

Films remain a dream. And I will ensure that at least I am a player in the film business. This is thing number 3 that I want to work on 🔴.

2.2.3/ We had to let go of some clients

I will not use specific names but I realised that ALL (bold statement) clients that we let go of had the same traits. These are…

  1. Unclear briefs
  2. Unreasonable expectations (though I love the idea of being unreasonable)
  3. Neverending iterations
  4. Micromanagement
  5. No value on time. Time is THE most non-fungible asset and I do not want to commit to a place where time is treated as if it’s in abundance. We are not in the business of renting our time and we will not be held accountable to a clock.

Of course, this is my version. This is my side of the story. If you spoke to these clients, they would have their versions. And trust me, I have tried to understand my and our shortcomings from them but I haven’t got any clear answers. So that.

3/ A report on SG as a leader of C4E

Brings me to a self-evaluation-ish report. I dont have a strict win-loss-fix format for this. I will talk in bullets. And I will keep my personal goals, plans away from this. For that, I have this tracker.

So, I recently declared myself a benevolent dictator.
I got some flak for it.
And I am ok.
And as a very self-aware person, I know my limitations as a human and a leader. And I know that the current version of SG is simply not equipped to lead the C4E of tomorrow. 

So, I know that I need to scale alongside C4E.

As a result, I have started to invest more time into being a better human and a better leader. Of course, my world revolves around me but I am seeing the shift in me where am ok to be a distant planet in someone else’s solar system! 

I have started to work in a manner that will make my team want to ape (hello, mimetic theory) and do better. And I have started to be more mindful of my words and actions. I’ve even engaged with a coach to help me with the next steps. Most work that he and I are doing is for the org, to be honest, but I am learning alongside.

And in the coming year, I will focus on building C4E (read a dilemma towards the end). This will mean I need to do the following…

  1. Inspire better people to work with us. When I say better, I dont mean our current team is not great. I mean the quality of applications we get needs to be better. We should be spoilt for choice. After all, people create magic and we need great people for grand magic shows.
  2. Put more structure into things. This means, building processes and creating failsafe mechanisms. From BD to delivery to money management. Like I mentioned earlier, Saurabh today is the linchpin that holds the org. I dont like that. Org needs to have more robustness.
  3. Get a design leader on board. This has been my number one challenge for eternity. Lemme put a red dot on this 🔴.
  4. Expand into new service lines or geographies. We already have one retainer client out of Dubai. We service it via a remote team, managed by a partner in Goa. Isn’t this amazing? More on this during the year.

While none of these 4 look like revenue-making actions, I believe these four would give me the grounding we need, the base we need to establish before we can jump to the next level. 

3.1/ The lessons I learnt while running C4E in the last year?

Quite a few! List…

3.1.1/ The respect you get from the world is directly proportional to the amount of money you make.
I have been aware of this for a while but in the last year when I made visible money, I saw the attitudes of people changing. And you know what? I never want to go back to being poor again.

3.1.2/ There could be merit in saying no!
I have almost never said no to things. This is very different from what most people recommend in this day and age and yet I continue to say yes.

However, in the last year, I said no to at least 3 clients that were sucking away more energy than what we got as ROI. In terms of ROI, we want to make any two of three – learning, money or reputation. With these clients, we were only making money. Truth be told, it was hard to say no to money. Especially as a growing business but I am glad we did.

3.1.3/ Safe havens are not where mettle is tested
Nothing new or interesting in this. In the past year, we’ve had multiple instances where people in the team had to step up their game. Some did. Some did not. While we were prepared for such challenges, till we faced those for real, we did not know if we were prepared.

4/ The road ahead for C4E / What do we plan to do in 2024-25?

So, what next?
Afterall, all is well.
Money is coming in.
Clients are happy.
Culture is good great.
Now what?

Honestly, I dont know where to go from here on. I have a vague idea. I need to get the team together to do this. This is a task in itself. Big enough to have a red dot 🔴.

But I do know that I dont want stasis.
I dont want to sit easy.
I dont want to NOT make more effort than last year.

So that.

For starters in 2024-25, I want to 10X our topline.

And I dont know where this would come from. In terms of vague ideas, I shared the following with the team…

  1. New territory – establish presence outside of India
  2. New service – films, design etc. 
  3. New projects – C4Efilms platform
  4. New focus / niche – crypto, d2c, affiliate, funnel, drip, healthcare etc

Each of these four has the potential to add a multiple to our topline. Each is doable. Each is equally tough.

So these four.

I dont know which one will we end up working on. We are still thinking. One thing’s for sure – whatever we do, we dont want to compromise on our values, promises, ethos or culture.

Oh, while the team will figure this part out, here are a few things that you can help us with.

4.1/ What do we need help with at C4E?

I’ve made this list of open challenges at C4E. The intention is to keep this as an open document and build C4E in public. You are welcome to pick up any of these and throw help, ideas, inputs, connections etc.

To make it palatable, at this time (7 April 2024), the key problems are…

  1. Build Brand C4E – We are still not a brand that people aspire to attach their name to. As a client, as a team member, as a contractor.
  2. Creative leader/owner – We need someone to lead the creative function. Someone hands-on. Someone willing to help the team and hustle.
  3. Set up an office outside India.
  4. Build a product / productised service – We want to be out of service business.
  5. BD for C4E – We still don’t know how to acquire new business. Our pitching muscle is weak. I suspect once we get a creative leader on board, we will be able to fix this.
  6. C4E website – Lol

At a personal level. I need help on the following…

  1. SoG – building the next edition of SoG.
  2. Brand SG – I want to attract clients and people and opportunities. And thus I will have to build my brand. I’ve never worked hard on it, even though I have a lot to say about it. Maybe in this year. This is also a large goal for me for 2024.
  3. Hire for Team SG / SG’s office. I need someone to be dedicated to helping me do more.

Brings me to a large dharam-sankat. Aka dilemma that I talked about earlier.

4.2/ SG’s Dilemma

So, here’s a dilemma that I am stuck with.

At the place where C4E is at, I have three paths.

  1. I can easily become a “regular” business, squeeze my team and take home a lot of money. And then live a good life.
  2. Invest profits into building a product / startup that has a shot at being a unicorn. Today I don’t. And I’d be honest. I really really really would like to be among the richest people around.
  3. Grow C4E into a communication business and take a shot at being a CLA, if not an Ogilvy.

Each day I wake up with a different want. Each day I want to take a different direction. I know the answer would come from within but this one large decision is what I need to work on and then go all-in.

5/ In the end…

As I end this, here’s a question.

What can we at C4E help you with?

Some ideas could be…

  1. We are good at building a great culture. At least at our scale. Do you need gyaan on that?
  2. We want to be the shoulders for your success. You stand on top of our shoulders and do well. Tell us what boost you need and we’ll do that.
  3. Throw any problem at us – marketing, communication, strategy, brand, etc. We are resourceful. Relentlessly resourceful at that. And we know a guy that knows a guy!

So yeah.
This is about it for the report.
Please do write to me, should you have any questions. Or feedback. Or inputs. Or brickbats.

PS: If you have feedback for me at personal level, you may please use this form – This is 100% anonymous. Like I mentioned earlier, I am a self-aware individual and I am willing to work hard to become better.

Thank you!

6/ Notes

  1. I would have liked this letter to be more extensive. But I couldn’t for my life figure out what to write. But then, am glad I started. I plan to send a quarterly update as well. I hope to get better as we go along.
  2. This is inspired by AK’s shareholder report series. The latest one is here.
  3. The last time I wrote something like this, I published it here. I plan to be more regular from now on.