Everybody says I’m fine! Go deep into the phrase and you’ll realize - well life is not that hunky-dory. Hidden deep inside the closet, is a word we all dread and not ready to fully embrace – ‘failure’.
In April 2016, an idea died, taking away the entrepreneur with it. Leaving behind a distraught family, 33-year-old Hyderabad engineer, Lucky Gupta Agarwal took his life by inhaling nitrogen gas after a social networking app, KQingdom designed by him, failed. In the suicide note, the techie said he wanted to go away without any pain. Initially touted as ‘unique’, his app never really took off.
What could have forced him to believe he was doomed? The biggest hindrance to scripting India’s start-up story is the fear of failure. Failure can not only make an entrepreneur feel lonely, but also force him/her to take extreme steps like suicide. India has over 5,000 startups each year.
It is estimated that over 80 per cent startups ‘fail’ within the first three years of launching.
What about those who don’t make it to the top?
“This is one dark side of failure. If the founder makes the failure personal and isolated, then chances are that there will be risk of such incidences,” says entrepreneur and investor, Arvind Jha. To an extent, India is a ‘risk-averse’ country. Apprehensions from family, the social ‘judgment’ lens may hold up a person from taking the first step. How many times have we heard a parent say, ‘go start your own thing and don’t worry if you fail’?
“The Indian society does stigmatize failure a bit more than say the US. I was part of two ventures after I left MakeMyTrip.com. Not only did I come close to quitting, but also quit when I realized things were not shaping up as per my vision. Be passionate about your ideas, but don’t get married to them,” says Sachin Bhatia, CEO and co-founder of dating App, TrulyMadly. Statistics reveal that one out of every five Indians is suffering from a mental disorder. Many are at the risk of chronic depression or have suicidal tendencies. 50 per cent of corporate India is under chronic stress.
All that glitters is not gold
Inspiring stories make it to glossy magazine covers, rags to riches stories sell like hot cakes, but is that all to being an entrepreneur? Where is the room to embrace a failure? The truth is - failure is embarrassing to endorse.
Calling the start-up eco-system a pressure-cooker, brand consultant Harish Bijoor acknowledges tension in the air.
“Life is frenetic and on the fast track with not a moment to spare for what you valued before you got onto the fast-track of ‘StartUpism’. Entrepreneurs at the top of the pecking order absorb bulk of the tension. These pertain to funding, manning and competition etc.” ‘Learn from failure’ – this statement has been literally grilled into us, since childhood.
Being an entrepreneur means you sail your own ship; if you lose control, the blame is all on you. Investor Anil Joshi of Mumbai-based Unicorn India Ventures agrees that being an entrepreneur one walks on a tightrope.
“Failure is stressful and entrepreneurial journey is very lonely. I suggest people to onboard good mentors and advisors who they can look up to when in stress. Investors know that not all their investments will do well, there will be failures. Statistics say that almost 50 per cent of portfolio may go down the tube.”
For Sanjay Nath, Co-founder and Managing Partner of Blume Ventures, buying into a founding team that knows which mistakes to avoid is priceless.
“Remember, continuous failure however is not to be celebrated. You don’t want to back someone who gets out on the very first ball consistently. Instead, you’d like to back a batsman who has studied his past mistakes and bats on the front foot working around the bowler’s weaknesses.”
Does it hold true in all circumstances?
Adding to his view, Harish adds, “Depression is very common in the startup eco-system. Suicides not yet, but expect them to happen. People are going to surely take their lives when depression hits them bad. That is a sad point to reach.”
Fundraising, customer acquisition, scaling and most importantly sustenance are some of the pressures an entrepreneur has to deal with. Understandably, it is heartbreaking to see all that hard work goes down the drain, when a venture fails.
At a recent conference in Gurugram(formerly Gurgaon), Flipkart co-founder, Sachin Bansal spoke of how he was close to shutting the e-commerce giant. The company did not grow from the middle of 2012 till the end of the year and was bitten by the ‘failure bug’. With the help of mentors and co-founders, the company re-grouped and came out of the crisis.
But is everyone as lucky as Sachin Bansal?
31-year-old Harvard research scholar, Maithili Banerjee surely wasn’t. She committed suicide from the fourth floor of a building in Barasat, following depression due to a failed startup, according to media reports.
Into the mind of a failure
Clinical psychologist, Ripan Sippy says failure is not always going to motivate you. “Society does not embrace failure; rather they look down upon it because the competition is so fierce.
There is constant comparison, which leads to an inferiority complex. There is a lot of mental pressure for entrepreneurs and success is given prime importance. Remember, not all successful people are happy. Materialism is not everything.” No one remembers a failed startup, unless it had a great revival spin to it.
Adivitiya Sharma, didn’t gauge the impact leaving housing.com would have on him. In the last four years, he had given everything to building the company. He recently undertook a 10-day Vipassana meditation course to ‘clear’ his mind and deal with professional turmoil.
“There was a huge void which was creating a lot of turbulence inside my mind. There was a lot that had happened in the company in the last one year which is something that an entrepreneur wouldn’t want to go through. There was a lot of noise in the head and it reached its peak. That’s when I thought I should find some inner peace.”
Talking about pressure, Adivitya says that competition is fierce. “What a normal person experiences in 30 years, an entrepreneur experiences in one day. For entrepreneurs, their work is a reflection of who they are. One is narcissistic about his or her reflection. When things don’t turn the way you want them to, psychologically it affects a person. Also, there are not enough role models in India. People like Steve jobs, Mark Zuckerberg are celebrated is US. In India, as a society that is not a case.”
The definition of success needs to change. “It is not all about the money. What kind of pressure are we - as parents, friends, and society - levying on them? We need to change - each one of us,” says Mumbai-based restaurateur Chirag Wadhwa.
‘FUN’ with failure!
Celebrating and not stigmatizing failure is Brazilian entrepreneur, Carlos Zimbron - the brain behind ‘Fuckup Nights’, (FUN) a global event series where entrepreneurs discuss their failures without inhibitions.
A great networking opportunity where entrepreneurs come together to talk about their ups and downs, past and future plans - the movement is a motive to ‘accept failure’. One waits to watch if events like these ever take off in India and if we ever raise a toast to failure!
This article first appeared in the Indian edition of Entrepreneur magazine (June 2016 Issue).