By | Anand Bhaskar | Senior HR Leader, Angel Investor, Director and Coach
For 20 years (of my 29 years’ work life), I aspired to be an entrepreneur. From ideas ranging from setting up a dairy farm to a technology company, I toyed with innumerable ideas. At 40 years of age, I realised that I was getting older and my aspiration might just remain a dream, I started to get anxious and serious about becoming one. I started looking out for like-minded colleagues who would be willing to take a plunge with me to start a venture. My natural allies were the few who were in the midst of a mid-life crisis :-). Many ideas were debated, business models explored but eventually when the time to take a plunge came, most would develop cold feet.
I am sure that many of you who are reading this article can relate to what I am saying. Almost 8 out of 10 working professionals would have dreamt at least once, if they could run their own business. I sometimes feel, the urge to do something different and be the master of one’s destiny is probably an innate need of every human mind.
After innumerable discussions and false starts with colleagues, who would bailout when it came to biting the bullet, I finally decided to take a plunge with or without a cofounder. In 2015 I quit my job to turn entrepreneur. People called me brave, told me they knew I would create history and offered to back me if I ever needed support. Little did I realise back then that these were mere words. I embarked on this new journey knowing little of what lay ahead. With mix of enthusiasm and anxiety, the journey began. I hoped to draw from my (rich) professional experience of 24 years, if I were to confront challenges. Little did I know back then that I was carrying 24 years of professional baggage, not experience.
When you walk alone and want people to follow you, there is a huge responsibility on your shoulders. People think you know where you are going, they expect you to have answers to all their questions, they believe you are courageous and will protect them along the way. However, being an entrepreneur is just the opposite. You are figuring out where you are going, you are seeking answers to questions all the time, you are continually anxious and worried how to take care of the people following you.
When I started alone, little did I realise what I would encounter in the years ahead. I had many ideas, was willing to test/explore and was okay to fail. What I didn’t have was another perspective, someone to exchange ideas with, a partner to share the effort and the burden of cost of testing the idea, a co-entrepreneur to share success or failure with. Many of my colleagues told me I was doing a great job going “alone”. Cofounders are a big nuisance. There are often disagreements on strategy, too many debates that slow down execution, power struggle on whose word is final, ego issues and much more. While all of it could be true, going is alone is no cake walk either. All I had was my wife, who supported me all along at work and home; to whom I will remain ever grateful.
Over the last 5 years, I have learnt so many lessons that I might eventually write a book on them one day. My first big lesson was learning how to deal with failure. As entrepreneurs we fail all the time. 9 on 10 times, we fail, stand up again, dust ourselves up, raise our chin and fight as if it’s another day. Sounds very easy and simple. That’s why only 1/1000 people actually display the courage to become entrepreneurs :-). The emotional toll of failure is much higher when you become an entrepreneur after so called 24 years of professional success. When one is young and fresh, with little or no experience I would assume that there is lesser baggage (of experience) to deal with. Once again, it is easier said when you aren’t going through it yourself. The young entrepreneurs might have their own set of challenges, that I might not understand with my baggage of bias :-).
When I started, I read a book, Stay Hungry – Stay Foolish. I think the title is so apt for any entrepreneur. Unless you are both Hungry and foolish, you can’t be one. Today, even after 5 years of few successes and many failures, I continue to be hungry. Most importantly, I am still foolish since I am still not running away. Over the 5 years, we were able to build a strong consulting practice and a SAS based Talent Management Platform with 9 software modules, acquire 50+ clients, generate healthy revenue etc. However, our biggest gaps were that there is far too much dependence on me for technology, product development, client acquisition, client delivery, brand building and fund raising. All of this in addition to running the P&L of the consulting practice as a Principal Consultant.
As I reflect today, I am convinced that our company will be better off in the future, if we have a few cofounders who can work alongside me.
A Chief Technology Officer, who is tech gyani but doesn’t just give gyan. Someone who is an hands-on technologist, willing to write & review code, can think product architecture, visualise user experience from a customer lens, build and nurture a technology team. My second lesson is no matter how passionate you are about technology, if you are not a techie yourself or don’t have a tech cofounder; don’t build a product. One can probably do tech services without a technology cofounder, but building a product is one other foolish act that I committed. Interestingly, I partially succeeded against all odds to get to where we are today.
A Chief Operating Officer, who loves solving customers’ problems, motivating and leading people, developing processes & systems to streamline operations, managing cost and thrives on execution. My third lesson in this journey is that strategy is highly over rated, execution is key. Success in start-ups is all about execution. In our early days, we were desperate for orders and we thought if we got orders we will be successful. Very quickly I learnt, how we deliver the orders matters more than the number of orders. Outstanding execution of orders at hand, is your biggest BD engine.
A Product Manager, who is techno-commercially saavy. In my experience, most technologists don’t get the customer. Steve Jobs probably is one techie who believed the customer didn’t know what they wanted and built a product that wowed the customer eventually. But he was just one in 6 billion. When technology equals customer need, there is magic. My fourth lesson is no matter how solid the product architecture or code; if your product design and experience cannot catch the imagination of the end customer/user, there is no way in hell you are going to be successful. It doesn’t matter if you are a BE or MBA or both or none; it is the mindset, passion and ability to imagine & create something more powerful than what exists today is required to create a differentiated product.
When I started off as an entrepreneur I met an investor (my name sake) from a well-known VC Fund through a common friend who was the Managing Partner of that fund. I shared my business idea with him. He gave me a patient hearing and advised me that I should scrap the idea and go back to my job. I hated what he said then and defiantly told him he might regret this suggestion, when I make my venture successful. He probably understood that like other budding entrepreneurs I was foolish too and had to learn my own lessons. In hindsight, I feel he was right in his assessment because we failed within 18 months and had to pivot from a B2C to a B2B model. After we became B2B and added consulting practice to our business, we turned black in the next 18 months.
My fifth and most valuable lesson. When we dream or wish to be an entrepreneur, we talk to people and explore a lot of ideas. Take a pause and listen to yourself. I am not referring to the voice in your head. Listen to your own words that you are saying to others. Listen to yourself. I would also suggest, record every conversation of yours and listen to yourself thereafter. In hindsight if I had recorded my conversation with the investor from the VC Fund (I had met), I would have been embarrassed at what I presented and how I reacted. Had I listened to myself, I might have done something different from what I did over the first 18 months. We are always wiser in hindsight.
I have been a part of the industry for 29 years. The most enriching journey has most definitely been the last 5 years as an entrepreneur. It is hard for me to explain how the last few years have tested me like never before. The latest cliché is that there are no failures there are only learnings. As much as I dislike the statement, I can’t agree more. I hope the lessons learnt have redefined me to be more human, humble and connect deeper with my inner thoughts & feelings.
I know there are many of you out there who are looking to found companies and change the world. Start-ups are not about chasing cheap VC money and obscene valuations. Fortunately, I was never chasing that. If you are one of those who is looking to be an entrepreneur, passionate about what we are doing, looking to be a part of a credible, long-term and profitable business; you know where to look and whom to call for a talk over coffee. Make no mistake, it will require you to be hands on, work harder than you ever worked before, with little or no money (to start with), because that is what you would be signing up for.
As you read this blog, please do share your own life lessons from your life’s journey. No two journeys can ever look alike, so I am sure I will have lot more to learn from your stories.