What I Took Away From My Entrepreneurial Journey
Not sure what the inflection point was, but after 8 years of corporate life, I started getting self-doubt if it was all headed in the right direction. Though I was doing relatively well in corporate life – senior manager in an MNC Bank, house, car, all of it at a fairly young age, there was no reason for this self-doubt, but there was some part of me which wanted to question if I am living life to the fullest.
Better sense prevailed, bit the bullet, started my journey as an entrepreneur at the age of 34. Looking at it in today’s context looks like it happened pretty late in life, but looking at it in the Indian startup context in 2007, it was a pretty courageous move.
There weren’t many entrepreneurs in India then. People were always looked at suspiciously if they left their high profile jobs to be on their own. But I am so glad I did it. It became successful, gave me a good exit, is surely a good enough reason to feel happy about it but I guess there are reasons much more intrinsic and deep.
I have grown tremendously as a professional, seen what a real test of grit is and matured maybe 20 years in just 7 years of running my own company.
I have tried to recollect the most important learnings of my life as a first time entrepreneur to summarize them here. I have followed each of these principles in my second venture too, and hopefully will be second time lucky.
Either you are in or you are out:
I don’t see this as a big problem in fresh engineering or MBA grads, they are very clear that they want to be entrepreneurs, but those who want to start something after working for a few years are perpetually unclear. They want to straddle in two boats, be confused for a long time, and not make up their mind still.
I really don’t think one can time this well, or if there is a right time to jump in. This is like looking for a right time to invest in a stock market. If you need to get in, JUMP IN, it’s as simple. Sure one should deliberate if it is right decision to be on your own, since it’s probably the second most important in your life after marriage.
But I have seen friends thinking for years, and then dabbling into something “on the side” while continuing their jobs. This is the biggest stupidity in my mind. Either you are in or out.
People have always asked me if there are any pre-requisites to be an entrepreneur:
I think most important is a certain degree of self-confidence that you can stand on your own come what may. And it will be tested time and again, not just at the time of starting up, but at every step of your journey. Second most important quality in my opinion is perseverance.
Can I fight it out till my last breath? A fairy tale entrepreneurship which we read about – got an idea, got funded, scaled up and exit – all of it in 5 years, is just that – a fairy tale. In reality it has got hard work and perseverance written all over it. Can I hang in there? Third thing in my mind is flexibility. I have seen this in most of the entrepreneurs that they get wedded to their idea.
It is perfectly normal for the business model to change, your original idea might undergo a complete transformation by the time you get your first revenue paying customer. Unless one is flexible enough, it makes it that much more difficult for the idea to succeed. Fourth important quality is ambition – how ambitious and driven I am! Unless I am crazily driven to an idea, to a cause, this isn’t going to be easy.
Yes or No: Entrepreneurial journey is a lonely one, more so if you are alone. We don’t realize but in a corporate job, we have a social fabric around us. For discussing an idea there are people around us – our colleagues, subordinates, bosses, mentors etc., all act as a sounding board. That’s the thing you miss the most if you turn into an entrepreneur.
Therefore, it is extremely critical to get a partner. It is as important as having a good business idea. And preferably get someone in the same age group to connect better. I have been extremely lucky in getting a great partner in my first venture, and now again in my second one. Don’t do it alone.
Yes or No: Last week I got a text from one of my ex-colleague – “I have a great idea, do you think I can get funding”. I couldn’t help but laugh. Not sure if this is naivety or a completely wrong notion of funding. Even if you get a funding basis an idea, not sure how good a strategy it is to get an investor on day 1.
I would rather build a prototype, test my product, tweak the business model, figure out per unit economics, then go for funding. This approach helps you in more ways than one – gives you a free hand to build a product you wanted to, gives you more power to negotiate and get a better deal.
I have seen entrepreneur giving 5% equity just for office space. It’s bizarre in my mind. Equity is the most valuable resource that an entrepreneur has. Use it very wisely. As regards funding – delay it as much as you can.
Especially if you are young out of college you need a lot of good advice. There are senior folks in corporate world who like to be associated with start-ups. Reach out to them, be part of start-ups groups and forums so that you can find them easily. Your idea may be great, but it takes more than just an idea to scale up the company. And nothing can beat experience which has come dealing with difficult situations in life.
Hire very carefully:
This is one piece of advice I give to all the start-ups. Not everyone is cut out to work in a start-up. Employee may be good with the technical knowledge, but working in an unstructured environment is not everyone’s cup of tea. Constant change in priorities, no clear definition of a job role, no regular guidance – it needs a different personality type to handle it.
I was making a presentation to my team of a change in team structure. And this change had happened 2 times in last 2 months. One enthusiastic employee asked me “for how long we stay on this path?” I gave an honest reply – “at least for this week”. We just laughed it off. But this is the reality of working in a start-up.
Especially when it comes to hiring middle level employees, it is even more difficult. My first preference is always to hire only from your close circle. Stay away from open market hiring. It is very difficult to judge whether someone would blend in a start-up culture in a 90 mins interview. Wrong mid-level hiring can set you back by 6 to 12 months.
I always say –“the only thing that can come in between a determined, passionate entrepreneur and success is his or her health”. Stress hits you from all corners. Eating right, sleeping well, exercising daily should be the mantras of your new life. Remember you need to take care of hundreds of employees who are working for you. You cannot do it if you yourself need help.
Don’t look at this as a 100 meters sprint race. It is a full marathon. Don’t burn out fast. One should target to perform at 80 per cent productivity 100 per cent of the days. 100 per cent productivity on just 80 per cent of the days is not going to be enough for business. Business will need you every day. So need to take it easy.
It’s perfectly normal to be confused:
As one of the startup founders Dave McClure has said “a start-up is a company that is confused about – 1. What its product is, 2. Who its customers are 3. How to make money”. Need he say more? It takes time for the business model to evolve. Give it that much time. Don’t let the naysayers derail you from your ambition. I have always followed one philosophy – listen to everyone, but do what your heart says. That’s why you became an entrepreneur in the first place.
Being an entrepreneur is a journey of self-actualization. The more you immerse yourself, more enigmatic and enticing it gets. It gives me immense satisfaction to see how many lives I have touched being an entrepreneur. You give employment to hundreds of people, build products which impact daily lives of people so significantly, make a positive contribution to country’s GDP, build export revenue for the country (in some cases), and most importantly contribute to development of country’s start-up eco system.
I was so touched when my 6 years old daughter told me confidently “Dad, when I grow up I want to make a cool app, which tracks everything in my room. If I want to search my Barbie doll, I go to the app, I can find it. I want to know where my specs are, this app will do it for me”.
This was my moment of truth when I realized how many lives I have touched being an entrepreneur. I doubt if I would have felt the same in an MNC job.
This country needs a lot of start-ups, lot of new ideas, lot of entrepreneurs. We have just scratched the surface. There is no dearth of opportunities. Don’t wait for the right time, jump in. There is no better time than now.
An IIM Bangalore alumnus, I worked in Standard Chartered Bank for 8 years before starting my first venture NettPositive Analytics, with my colleague and friend. We were providing analytical solutions to banks globally. Scaled it up across multiple geographies and verticals in 7 years. In 2014 it got acquired by an US MNC called Equifax. Fortunately, saw the entire entrepreneur’s journey from boot-strapping to exit.