Interview with Sachin Malhan

Sachin Malhan is the Co-founder of Agami which aims to radically increase innovation and change-making in the systems of law and justice, and the Co-founder and CEO at HumLab which is finding and accelerating transformative ideas in the legal industry. Before Agami and Humlab, he led the Changemakers program at the leading global non-profit, Ashoka. Changemakers leverages Ashoka’s global network of innovators and impact partners to search, convene and connect high-potential changemakers, and their ideas and resources to accelerate change around critical social issues. He remains a part of Ashoka in his capacity as an advisor to Changemakers. Before Ashoka, he was an entrepreneur in offline and online education, online communities, and the talent industry, starting and leading three ventures that have achieved significant social and commercial impact, and a healthy dose of failure. Sachin is a law graduate (Batch of 2002) of the National Law School of India University in Bengaluru and began his career with Amarchand Mangaldas in their Mumbai offices.

Q. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and what your inspiration behind choosing law as a career was.  What was your law school experience like?

I chose to go to law school in the most bizarre of circumstances. I took the NLSIU entrance exam as a secondary choice in case my admission to medical school didn’t come through. I wouldn’t even have made the examination if not for a school friend who had taken me to the venue on his scooter at breakneck speed through the Calcutta by-lanes. When the results came I was 57th i.e. the last of the selected 57. My medical admission results were pretty poor and I ended up staying in law school. I am so thankful for this series of most fortunate events because I loved the law school experience and the college-mates who shared that experience with me. Law school helped me broaden my understanding of society, develop new skills, and, most of all, put me in touch with a set of peers who helped me develop as a human being.

I think the single biggest driver of value at NLSIU was the quality of students. The process pulled together students from different streams, skill sets and interests, parts of the country and social backgrounds. What most of us shared was a general uncertainty about who we wanted to become in life. Some of us were very certain about ‘the law’ but most were on a journey of discovery. That explains why the batch produced entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, journalists, a policeman, and a professional poker player, besides many accomplished lawyers themselves. When you put such a group of people together and you give them a pleasant campus on the outskirts a city in big transition (Bangalore), access to curricular and extracurricular opportunities, and a decent academic experience you usually get good things as a result. Note that I refer to my academic experience as ‘decent’ – which I think it largely was, but there were also islands of excellence, teachers who not just helped us understand a subject in a new way but helped us think better and empathise. Their contribution can never be quantified or compensated. They balanced out other academic experiences that were sub-par. I believe NLSIU still offers the above combination of things.

Q. You Co-Founded Law School Tutorials (LST) while still in Law school. How did you manage to strike the balance between a new start-up and college academics?

I think if it was in my first couple of years of law school it would’ve been very hard as you’re still learning the ropes of college and understanding how it works. In a five-year program, in the first two years you’re just hanging in there and by the time your third year starts, you get a better measure of things and figure out how to manage your academics, projects and such. I, personally, was never ballistic about getting a perfect GPA, and while I did want to do well, I also wanted to explore other interests. The fact that we started in our third year definitely helped and even the mindset of the founders was never to get that perfect 7 GPA. Also, when you’re doing something that is so much fun you just find a way. We were creating a website in 1999 using Dreamweaver to figure it all out and looking at past year questions to find patterns in maths and logical reasoning. Looking back at all the past year papers, we were having a blast realising that there were clear patterns and the exams could be prepared for in a systematic way. I had doubts about who I was, but building something, starting something gave me great energy and gave me a sense of recognition as to who I was.

A lot of people come up to me and tell me they are planning a start-up and pondering whether it’s a good time. Sure, you can plan on it, but make sure it’s fun for you and it’s something you care about. You simply can’t treat it like it’s just another project, or at least in my experience it doesn’t work like that.

Q. What led you to make the switch from your job at a leading corporate law firm and pursue your venture ‘LST’ entirely?

I had already co-founded Law School Tutorials, popularly known as LST when I was in my third year (1999) at NLSIU. I had tasted the incredible highs and lows of entrepreneurship and had something to compare to my experience as a corporate lawyer. After a year at Amarchand, despite having an incredible mentor in Mr. Bharucha, and enjoying a very positive experience at the law firm, I knew inside, that I was an entrepreneur and had to be true to that. I’d come home late from the firm and despite being pretty wiped out still find the energy to do my LST work – replying to student emails, revising materials, scoring tests etc. I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I could also see that the audience for law schools was growing and that LST could really become something. So when I left, while I was terrified about what the future would hold, I was also just as ecstatic about the creative possibilities.

To me, there are few things more satisfying than helping an idea come to life. Those early steps of imagining something, building a team, creating the first experiences, etc., are very rewarding. In some ways, entrepreneurship is my compulsion. Yes, social impact and market opportunity are the drivers of these initiatives but in many ways, I’m attracted by the process of creating something lasting with other people who share that passion. The experiences, successes and failures of my ventures have taught me more than a dozen college degrees could ever do. I remember one conversation with a young class 12 student in Allahabad where he spoke so lucidly about what it was like for him to break free from what his father wanted him to study and find his own way. When I asked him why he was willing to fight with his father when so many others just went along, he said ‘because life is more, sir, I can feel it.’ Each venture that I am a part of, takes me on a new journey to meet amazing new people and, hopefully, leave a lasting impact.

Q. What challenges did you face in starting your own ventures? How did you push through those? What qualities, according to you, are required to be a good entrepreneur?

Every kind of problem! Still, the most persistent ones were interpersonal. I worked a lot with co-founders, some fantastic entrepreneurs themselves, and we did all sorts of things wrong – didn’t define roles, didn’t clearly align on what the vision was, didn’t talk about the hard stuff, and so on. I strongly feel that if you’re in a team and you’ve done that bit right, that is, you’ve built trusted relationships through strong communication, then everything else is easy. Even then, despite the challenges, my former co-founders remain my closest friends. The adversity brought us closer and our friendship forced us to confront our demons. Because we’ve shared so much we know the challenges that each of us have faced, or are still facing, in growing our ventures.

Coming to the qualities of a good entrepreneur, I would say that’s a tough one, and here’s what I’ve observed –

  • persistence (trying and trying again);
  • resilience (getting up when you fall, taking criticism and doubt);
  • working in a community, which requires you to trust and to believe in the capability of others;
  • an ability to see possibilities, connect the dots and be comfortable with a certain level of uncertainty;
  • a practical side that helps that problem-solve and mitigate existential risks (no money to live, pay salaries etc.);

I’d also add what I think great (as opposed to good) entrepreneurs have –

  • they can empower a lot of other people to discover their full potential;
  • conviction around a certain imagined reality and ability to pass that on to others. Even if that exact vision doesn’t come to pass, they still come upon something great by virtue of having sensed the pathways of the future.
  • a healthy disregard for the opinion of ‘experts’, overly convergent or linear thinkers;
  • a connect with younger people who have all the energy.

Q. Please tell us about your latest venture, Agami. What is it about? What was the inspiration behind starting the same? 

Agami aims to increase the number of people creating solutions that can improve our collective experience of law and justice. We want to see many more changemakers in this space and towards that we are trying to build an ecosystem to catalyse that innovation and changemaking. An ecosystem is not one thing but possibly a combination of different enabling initiatives, ideally with a strong community layer. The Agami Prize, aimed at identifying the best ideas for law and justice, the Agami Summit, that brings together all the innovators in a physical gathering once a year, and the other initiatives are all about creating that sense of common vision and momentum that could radically improve systems of law and justice. The next decade I want to focus on establishing Agami as a powerful platform for innovators and entrepreneurs, and slowly but surely build a community of people committed to transforming the field. It sounds a bit crazy because law and justice has always been done in a certain way but I think that the big trends of the world – tech, individual empowerment, and the growth of cross-border business and trade – will change things in ways we couldn’t imagine.

Q. You have successfully worked with and founded various new ventures. What tips do you have to establish a startup after the initial hurdle of just getting started?

First, you have an idea, however misshapen it seems. Just be mindful that the first idea may be just a door to the actual idea and you can’t be so fixated that you don’t have the mindset to understand that the first idea is leading you to another idea. Stewart Butterfield, who started Flickr and then went to start Slack, was initially running a video game which wasn’t doing very well but they had a great in-game photo-sharing application so they started Flickr. The pioneer in the field was a result of another idea. So, you can’t be fixated and you must be open to learning in what direction the idea is truly taking you. You must be able to see and be able to learn.

Second is perseverance, just hanging in there is very important. You can’t always time these things by saying I’m giving this 3 years but it may or may not work. Timing is important and things take time to work out. Projects often linger and linger before actually working out.

Third, you need to be a generalist and you must be open to doing whatever needs to be done. There’s an old joke, an entrepreneur cannot be employed as in most cases they don’t have one particular skill set. This doesn’t have to apply to the entire team but there needs to be one or two generalists, probably the central figure, who can take on that.

Lastly, learning to love what you’re doing and giving it time to love it. You can’t early on say that I don’t love this and there’s a moment from the documentary ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ I’m reminded of which revolves around an old Sushi chef and there’s a moment where after he compliments his sous chef after 12 years of working with him by saying “ rice is ok…”. So the point is that at times we get very stuck with the idea that you have to do what you love. However, there is a middle ground where you come to love what you do. Sometimes there may be a situation where you actually don’t like what you’re doing, and then you need to be honest with yourself.

On the point of co-founders, you need to communicate a lot and it’s important to create a culture of talking about critical issues. You should be able to discuss difficult issues, you need to practise those muscles by having repeated tough conversations. I’ll flip this to say while choosing a co-founder, you need to see ‘who can communicate?’, ‘can I build this with them?’ and ‘what in their life points to that’. So it can’t be a regular next gig for them, you need to build it together.  

Q. Our readers are mostly law graduates and students, what advice do you have for those who would want to make their passion their career?

I have a question for every young law student or lawyer – do you really believe that the jobs we covet will stay the same 10-15 years down the line? In a world where everything is changing so fast, we mustmake “change” our friend. We must be comfortable with constant learning and initiative-taking. I know it’s scary but once you embrace the mindset, it gives you strength. I guess the way I’m trying to answer the question is to say that those who want to do something different are at least half-way into the future versus those who think everything will stay the same. To those who want to do something different, I would also say don’t do it just because it’s different but because you want to do something well. Enjoy the process, and create value – for yourself and society. Once you’re convinced of that, put all your energy and something good will come out of that.

If it’s the kind of thing that you can immediately build an earning life around, you go for it but if it’s a hobby you see and figure out how it blooms. You need to blend a little bit of reality to it. The truth of the matter is that 90-95% of people are not convinced about that venture, in many cases the want emerges from not wanting to do the law and not because they have strict passion for something else. For those, I’ll say treat your life like a series of steps taking you closer and closer to what you want to do but don’t mistake it for being black and white. You do what is right and which will allow you to learn practical skills and grow.

(NOTE – This has been reproduced from a telephonic conversation between Sachin Malhan and Abhishek Jain)

Find out more about Sachin Malhan –

Disclaimer – All views and opinions expressed in this interview are personal and belong solely to the interviewee(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the LAABh Foundation or the individuals and institutions associated with LAABh Foundation.

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