Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

Are you a failure if your startup fails?

Circuit City going out of business
Image by F33 via Flickr

“Son, businesses can succeed or fail. Because your business fails doesn’t mean you have failed!”

My father said this to me, one evening as the two of us sat down to discuss how the startup I headed was doing.

For a little over four years I had been running my startup. Months after we got started, the dot-com bubble peaked and burst. We had also chosen a technology, that everyone felt would not take off despite the initial hype. Our two nearest competitors where both American companies – one, also a startup, that had raised about 100 times more money than we had and the other a listed company with well over a 1000 customers. We’d over committed to the first three customers we’d acquired – miraculously in three different continents – and ultimately failed to deliver outright or were so late as to be not useful for the customers.

We had borrowed money from the bank (another of my father’s favorite piece of advice – debt is a good thing) and from family including my father. Just the previous year, we had to cut back on a rather ambitious – and poorly thought out – plan to design chips and keep our focus on software. We also had to let go nearly fifteen people, whom we’d hired in a burst, without much attention to culture fit, while persuading the people who remained to take 10-20% pay cuts with no commitments on when these cuts would be reversed.

This was also a time when I was commuting – spending two weeks every other six weeks in Bangalore, whilst my family lived in California. So between hotel rooms and my sister’s house, I spent many a night tossing and turning, worrying how we were going to make payroll that month and not sure if we’d ever turn the corner.

To add to the pressure, the senior staff, who’d been putting in 10-12 hours a day were buying first cars or homes incurring debt, getting married and now had spouses who now wondered what they really did. Once when we had to send a key engineer to a customer site overseas, we packed his new bride with him – so that they are not separated within weeks of their wedding! We’d had actually celebrated with a cake, when the company made its first million in revenue but ten minutes later had to dash off to dampen new fires.

This story did have a good ending. Despite ourselves we turned a small profit in year five and a real one in year six. We sharpened our business focus and were gaining traction.  Newer challenges emerged as pricing pressures drove deal sizes down, competitors were gobbled up by customers in some instances and the market adoption was slower than we anticipated, and the payroll bill continued to grow each year. Whilst my partners and our immensely committed employees along with some luck, brought us to a successful and profitable M&A conclusion, it was my father’s words that kept me going.

“Son, the failure of your company doesn’t mean you have failed.”

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Are We Celebrating India’s 10,000 Entrepreneurs

“What does Anand Mahindra winning the entrepreneur of the year award mean?”

I hadn’t realized the same question had also been lurking in my mind until my friend raised it. Before I could really wrap my arms around the issue, he continued.

“Does it make sense, that in a nation of a billion folks, and likely a million plus businesses, that the leader – even one as successful as Anand Mahindra – of a 65-year-old company wins the entrepreneur-of-the-year award?” he asked. “You would think they would be able to find a smaller, up and coming company.”

And this came from an ardent admirer of Anand Mahindra. It set me thinking – never a good thing on a Monday morning.

Mr. Mahindra has many firsts and successes to his credit, be it his magna cum laude from Harvard, his growing the family business into a global powerhouse in tractors or his leadership of corporate India whether at Davos or on twitter (@anandmahindra).

A little further digging into (yep, I Googled) the entrepreneur of the year award revealed that previous winners included Kumar Mangalam Birla and Ratan Tata, both leaders of multi-billion dollar businesses founded by their grandfathers.

To be fair, the judging criteria of this particular award included global impact and leadership in addition to the standard business metrics. Past winners also included first-generation entrepreneurs N.R. Narayana Murthy of Infosys and Sunil Bharti Mittal of Bharti Airtel. Yet some others stuck in my craw.

It was around this time, that I got a call inviting me to speak at an entrepreneurial event called “Unpluggd” (no, it did not involve any acoustic guitars). Unpluggd was billed as a different event, namely one featuring only practicing entrepreneurs sharing their experience with an audience of entrepreneurs.

I am glad that I let myself be persuaded to speak at the event. I learned more from the other speakers and the more than 200 attendees – most of whom were practicing entrepreneurs – than they likely got from anything I said.

The first and foremost takeaway for me was that entrepreneurship, not merely of the tech variety but of every kind imaginable, is thriving in India. And entrepreneurs are getting started at ever-younger ages. A majority of the attendees were under 30 (Yes, I asked).

It was the audience that made this event electric for me. A fair number of the attendees came from engineering backgrounds, though some graphic designers and finance folks were also present. Most were already running a business full time with a couple having even scaled to more than $1 million in revenues. If there was an area that could have been improved, it was that less than 15% of the attendees were women. Then again that’s probably higher than the percentage of women CXOs in the BSE 500.

The speakers included folks running businesses ranging from corporate hospitals, online bookstores, mobile phone apps, bus-line ticketing and even a restaurateur. All of them were first-time entrepreneurs that spanned the funding spectrum – from completely bootstrapped, through angel-funded all the way to venture capital-funded. Most of the other speakers were yet to hit forty (I was a notable exception) or even thirty-five. The stories – and dare I say wisdom – that some of these folks shared with total candor and very little jargon was refreshing. And this was just one Saturday in Bangalore.

With Open Coffee Clubs, Saturday Startups and The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) events, there are signs of an entrepreneurial revolution brewing in India. And these are just the visible urban, mostly technical or professional group of startups. At the National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN), we’re helping thousands of students start businesses each year (full disclosure: I work at NEN), many of them in India’s Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities.

Meanwhile in Ajmer, Rajasthan, in Panruti, Tamil Nadu, in Shillong, Meghalaya, in Wardha, Maharashtra and many such places, young people are pursuing their entrepreneurial dreams. The story of these yet-to-become Karsanbhai Patels and Sunil Bharti Mittals, their experiences and journeys need to be heard, shared and re-told.

The mainstream media is far too busy celebrating the already arrived, regardless of how late they got there. As a mentor remarked, we should quit looking into the entrepreneurial rear-view mirror and look forward to the road ahead.

All too often we hear that only Bollywood and cricket sells in India.  But there are other sports and stars – be it our chess champions, our women boxers, snooker kings or trap shooters, not to mention our hockey and football teams. It’s also important to recognize that there are a million entrepreneurs struggling and thriving, not only the billion-dollar barons who seem to hog the printing ink.

Nasscom’s product conclave and several other nascent entrepreneur forums are a small step in the right direction. India needs its own version of the Inc. 1000 to recognize, encourage and celebrate its toiling entrepreneurial masses. We could call it the “India 10,000.*”

I am sure Mr. Mahindra would agree with me.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in Wall Street Journal in May 2010.

postscript
Two years on, after I first wrote this article, NASSCOM launched their 10,000 startups program in March, 2013. NextBigWhat, organizers of Unpluggd have themselves partnered with NASSCOM.

Dedicated startup sites, including YourStory.com, NextBigWhat and startup-focused weekly coverage have arrived at all major business papers, including, Economic Times, Hindu Businessline, and Mint.

Entrepreneurship in India – Rules for Spectators – Part 5

Koothu - Chennai Sangamam

Image by Ravages via Flickr

Entrepreneurship 2.0

What should all of us who care about entrepreneurship and helping it thrive in the Indian milieu do? There are three simple steps I believe we can take.

  • Story telling Collect and disseminate stories of entrepreneurial success at every forum and opportunity. Blog about it, write it up in a newspaper, share it at meetings. Just as the story of Dhirubhai or Karsenbhai inspires, stories such as Girish’s or Balan’s can ignite others to follow them. We need more stories of success, small and big, to make entrepreneurial success a realizable dream for more Indians. Every time we read a story of someone who’s made it big, we better find and tell stories of five others who have made it small. Demand that our newspapers and magazines celebrate the little guy as much as they do the big guy.
  • Encourage During and just after the Kargil war, there was a spurt of public appreciation for soldiers and the men (and women) in uniform. Even today when I travel in the USA, I see strangers walk up to soldiers in uniform, in airports or shopping malls, and thank them for doing their job. When was the last time we did that with any entrepreneur or business owner? The gentleman who runs the tyre shop with its six employees may well be tomorrow’s Kishore Biyani with the right breaks. Ask how their business is doing, listen to their story and appreciate them openly and explicitly.
  • Educate Each of us has skills that if we share with entrepreneurs will help them get ahead. It could be teaching them how to raise capital, hire senior staff, make better presentations, manage their cash flow or land major accounts. This education is best accomplished by doing. “Show – not tell!” as good writing coaches say. We can do this even by creating forums for bringing entrepreneurs together. Just by sharing each others experiences they can learn from one another and most importantly gain the insight that they are not alone.

Now as three of us embark on our latest entrepreneurial journey at Zebu, we are once again those little guys starting out (though not in a garage but in a small house). I know we could certainly use all the encouragement, education and story telling to stay the course.

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Entrepreneurship in India – Rules for Spectators – Part 4

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 24:  A 'Drive Thru, Ope...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Rubber meets the road

In early 2004, in its fifth year, our first startup broke even. I recall us making plans to finally buy decent ergonomic chairs for our committed and long-suffering employees. The demands of growth and the challenges of cash flow made sure we never got those new chairs. Yet with more clients, more visitors and greater travel by our staff, we ended up hiring a car and driver on a monthly basis. The same people who’d send us a cab for the airport trips now sent a car and driver who’d be at our disposal all the time, for a flat monthly fee.

Balan* was the driver and in my first trip to the airport I learnt that he owned the car we were in, and he was a sub-contractor to our regular rental car supplier. Over the next two car rides, I picked up his story – high school drop out, set out driving an auto (that he’d rent on a daily basis), then worked as a driver in a company, before saving enough money to buy his first Indica. Now he owned two cars, drove one himself and had another driver on his payroll. He sub-contracted for a number of folks who had small fleets and one day hoped to build up his own fleet.

Last week I got a call from Balan. He was calling to introduce his nephew, who’d just graduated from college. Balan’s fleet has grown from the two Indicas to two eight cars now. Despite the recession his business had thrived and he’s effusive in expressing his gratitude for us giving him a leg up with our steady business. At a time when even basic services such as barber shops and restaurants were seeing customers cut back on their spending, that fact his business had grown is testament to his drive and what Ram Charan terms “business acumen.”

The town and the gown

Once we sold our first startup in early 2006, I have had the time and opportunity to consult for friends and several clients to help with their businesses. These have all been college-educated, entrepreneurs – ranging from manufacturing (electrical gear), distribution (music to mobile phones in Class B towns), software products to training services. In many instances, Prasad the barber, Girish the restaurateur and Balan the fleet owner, have a far clearer sense of where their businesses stood, who their clients were and where they made their margins. And these were the folks without the college (or even high school) degrees. Yet both groups of entrepreneurs are successful and struggling with common questions – from the strategic, “How do I grow my business?” “Should I grow my business?” “How do I raise capital?” “Should I take on debt or do I dilute equity?” – to the tactical decision making on hiring, pricing, marketing and promotion.

Academicians who study entrepreneurship make the distinction between voluntary (those who make a choice) entrepreneurs and those that fall into entrepreneurship, without a choice. Most entrepreneurs that get formal funding or the media mostly talks about belong to the former voluntary group while folks who go into their family businesses or traders and micro-entrepreneurs fall into the latter, involuntary group.

Yet both these groups have far more in common, particularly when it comes to problems they face and mistakes they make. Much like parenting, most entrepreneurship involves learning on the job. While reading up about parenting (particularly in my case about adolescent behavior) will help, it only takes us so far. Grand-parents (for people) and consultants (for businesses) help speed up the learning and avoid the most egregious mistakes, but nothing can replace the learning that experience brings. Yet the journey to achieve such experience need not be as stressful and lonely as it sometimes seems.

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Entrepreneurship in India – Rules for Spectators – Part 3*

This is actually Tom's Restaurant, NYC. Famous...

Image via Wikipedia

Watching the numbers, one dish at a time

Ramani, my neighbor is himself a first generation entrepreneur. Though formally trained as a chemical engineer he has built a successful electrical business, initially in trading and subsequently in panel manufacturing. An active member of the morning walking group at the local park, he has roped me in as well to bundle up even on cold Bangalore mornings to put in our six or so rounds. The talk inevitably turns to our businesses and the challenges we face and many a days we lose count of both the rounds we’ve made and time that hurries by. I met Girish (name changed) at one of these morning walks.

A diminutive man, who’s rapid walking pace merely hints at the energy packed in him, Girish came to Bangalore less than 20 years ago. Hoping to be the first person to make it to college in his family, he started on his pre-university course. His father and numerous younger brothers meanwhile were attempting to make a go of the family farm in their village. However, the family soon faced mounting debts and struggled to make ends meet. Girish abandoned his college dreams and returned to take care of the family farm. After several years of being a farmer, Girish found himself running very hard to stay in the same place. The little money they managed to eke out of farming went wholly to service the interest costs of the family’s debt. The principal they owed was untouched. Girish made the bold decision to head back to the city, and figure a way to make his fortune there.

Through a family friend, he got his first job, in a darshini – a fast-food restaurant. Paying a princely sum of Rs. 700 a month, the job required him to stand by the kitchen door, and note down every menu item that left the kitchen through out the day. At the close of business, his numbers had to be reconciled with the receipts at the cash counter. The very first month, the (absentee) owners of the restaurant saw so much savings, that they gave Girish a more than 25% raise to Rs. 900. Within six months Girish became the manager of the darshini, with yet another pay raise. The bulk of Girish’s monthly income was sent home to retire the family’s debt. Through family friends, a marriage proposal came and Girish soon was a married man.

A couple of years of running a restaurant 7 days a week, awakened him to the potential of the business. He approached the owners, who’d pretty much ceded the day-to-day operations of the business to him, with a proposal to expand their single outlet to a chain of fast-food restaurants and a small equity stake for himself. The owners were conservative and a little aghast that this 20-something wanted equity in the business and turned him down. Whilst disappointed, Girish did not give up on his dream and decided to strike out on his own. His father-in-law was prepared to provide him some seed money to get started. So Girish, in his own words, “I sought the permission and blessing of my employers” to set up his own restaurant and never looked back.

When I met Girish on that morning walk, he was handing out laddoos from Tirupathi. His son had just been admitted to engineering school and he wanted to share the good news with his walking friends. His first food outlet had grown into a chain of five restaurants. Starting with his second restaurant, he had taken a (different) partner for each new restaurant – these partners being nephews and other young relatives of his father-in-law who were getting started with their lives. Making them his partners, Girish had groomed a whole new set of entrepreneurs. This was his way to repay his father-in-law’s initial support and faith bestowed in him. He had not only paid off the family debt, but personally paid for the restoration of the village’s dilapidated temple – the prasad from which he was sharing with the Tirupathi laddoos.

Ramani, my friend, piped in as Girish completed his story, “Sri’s a food aficionado. He’s been talking about maybe starting a restaurant.” “You’ve got to watch the numbers, at two places – when you procure your supplies and at the billing counter. That’s all there’s to running a successful restaurant. Happy to talk to you anytime,” was Girish’s immediate response.

Girish’s entrepreneurial story, if seen in a movie or a TV show would seem too good to be true. It might even be dismissed as typical Bollywood fare (without the gyrating damsels, alas). Yet it is, I suspect, representative of a large number of unheralded Indian entrepreneurs.

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Entrepreneurship in India – Rules for Spectators – Part 2*

Lessons from a close shave
In 1996, when I first returned to India, Ramani, my neighbor and friend, took me to the local barber. Harking back to the barber shops of my childhood, it was two barber chairs in a room the size of large shower stall. Prasad (all names changed to protect the privacy of individuals) the owner of the barber shop seemed barely in his twenties and full of life and great enthusiasm for the task at hand. He greeted my friend in Kannada, even as he cropped a customer’s hair, acknowledged me with a quick nod and kept a close eye on the other barber. My positive impressions of that first day were not only borne out but grew stronger, as over the years Prasad bought out the neighboring space and expanded his barber shop. Now renamed as Classic Hair Saloon (CHS), he added head massages first, then facials and subsequently full body massages, in an expanded back room.

Three years after my first visit to the CHS, several friends and I embarked on our own first startup, Impulsesoft. I relocated overseas as we set out to grow our business and in my frequent trips to India, I’d always make it a point to bring my hair cutting business to Prasad and the CHS. The half hour or thereabouts I’d spend on a padded chair having a luxurious shave or an oil-soaked head massage proved to be my own personal MBA class.

In 2000, our chosen market (Bluetooth technology) sputtered in the downturn and well funded competitors threatened to swamp us. Yet as I saw Prasad thrive in a market with nary an entry barrier, hiring more seats and hands, I learned the criticality of customer focus and personalized service. Subsequently when we set out to raise money, capital had dried up as the market seemed stillborn or delayed in 2002. Again the lessons of repeat customers, word-of-mouth referrals and growing existing customers by up-selling (cut to shave; a shave to coloring; to head massage) were apparent in Prasad’s growing business. And whenever we despaired that hiring, training, retaining and motivating software engineers was hard, Prasad’s challenges in ensuring service quality, even as he brought on more barbers, often with few other formal skills, made our own look small.

Even as I write this, the CHS has held its own against newer competitors (including a fancy upscale national chain and another barber shop that sprang up in the neighborhood) and has continued to grow. Prasad has demonstrated bootstrapping success, growth through hard times and sustained product and service innovation. He has built a strong and passionate customer base and seen good financial returns. In other words his business is an immense success by most measures, even though it has yet to figure in any mainstream story or have its own case study.

Entrepreneurship in India – Rules for Spectators – Part 1*

man_in_fence“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” is a riddle philosophers have posed to question reality and its relationship to observation. Much of the entrepreneurship in India is like trees falling (or growing) silently in an unobserved forest. The media rarely notices it and the public is hardly aware that its happening. Does this mean it is not happening?

The casual reader of the business pages could be forgiven if they reckoned that entrepreneurship in India happened only with technology or more recently Internet startups, often venture funded. Coverage outside the technology domain focuses on the hyper-successful and all to often on personalities. The stories of Dhirubhai Ambani, and his humble start in Aden, Karsenbhai Patel’s Nirma taking on the entrenched multinationals and more recently Kishore Biyani and his Future Group’s rise in retail have captivated the media and readers’ imaginations.

In many ways, the recent appointment of Infosys founder, Nandan Nilekani, as the Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) marked a milestone in Indian entrepreneurship. In his own words [Infosys] “… was not a family-owned company. It was not a multinational. It was not a state-owned company. …It’s become a metaphor. If they can come from nowhere and create a world-class organization, then anyone can do it.” The grant of a Cabinet level post to someone who has cut his teeth as an entrepreneur and a professional manager is the most visible sign of mainstream acceptance of entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship in new light

However as we have learnt, having a woman prime minister or now a woman president, symbolic as it is, does not automatically solve all the issues plaguing Indian women. So too this recent interest and boosterism for all things entrepreneurial, while welcome, is merely a start. Even today, traders who likely constitute the lion’s share of Indian entrepreneurs are referred to in pejorative terms. Unlike the titans of technology or rajahs of retail, whom we read about on page 3, all of us encounter traders on a daily basis, but rarely recognize them as entrepreneurs. So there is much each of us as individuals, organizations and as a nation can do to encourage, nourish and grow the flame of entrepreneurship. This article is a small step in that direction.

Ram Charan, author and renowned management consultant, frequently points to his family’s shoe shop and to street vendors in India and elsewhere, and the lessons businesses can draw from them. Without romanticizing either the giant multi-billion dollar corporations he consults for, or the fruit seller on the street, he is able to highlight the commonalities that underpin businesses. It is such a balanced view of entrepreneurship – whether small or large, tech or non-tech, urban or rural – that we all need to develop to build an ever stronger ecosystem that will foster Indian entrepreneurship and innovation. The two books, “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish,” published by the IIM Ahmedabad and “Inspiring Women to Start Innovative Enterprises” by the NSRCEL at IIM Bangalore, are a great start. Whilst still about college-educated entrepreneurs, both books highlight a wide variety of entrepreneurs across various stages of the business cycle. Without focusing solely on the large or “successful” but by including several still-at-an-early-stage businesses, they are a step in the right direction.

In this article I will share a few common but untold stories of entrepreneurial journey, along with my own experience as a first generation entrepreneur. Drawing on these and others’ experiences, I will stake a position on how we can influence the perception, coverage and the course of entrepreneurship in our own communities.

*The fine folks at Indira Institute of Management approached me to write an article for their quarterly magazine Tapasya. This article first appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of Tapasya.

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Founders – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (hat tip to le Carré)

the roles we play
Image by Auberon via Flickr

This evening I came across Richard Luck’s post on “5 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me (about starting a company)” and it triggered thoughts about stuff I wish folks had told me about. Two things that popped up immediately in my head were, about the unstated emotions that surround the phrase founder and the matter of laying people off. In this post I will confine myself to talk about founders and issues surrounding them and save the cheery matter of having to handle layoffs in your start-up for a future post.

My first thoughts were captured in an earlier post “Do I want to be a founder?

Who’d have thought a simple word, such as founder, could be such a loaded word? Having founded two companies, been part of at least two other early stage tech firms, and now as advisor to several startups, I see this is an important matter to address head on. Prior to my arriving in India, my rather simple view of founder was, a person who was there on day 1 or before day n. In an Indian context, this word has been imbued with so much more context, that it took me a while to recognize that they are there and to deconvolute them. I suspect, even at the end of this piece, there may be a few loose threads which I hope we can wrap up in discussions and comments.

Out of all of the stumbling, fumbling and plain screwing up that I have done, I have come to put down these four points to discuss with folks who join me in business or I see going into business.  These include their

  • day-to-day functional roles as engineering or marketing heads or lead technology person – the job you are expected to play as a key team member of the startup
  • statutory or company director role the legally recognized role as executive officers or as a member of the board of directors 
  • founder role – regardless of the above two, as one of the founders and therefore vision, conscience and
  • shareholder role as someone who holds a reasonable stake in the company

Rather than achieving alignment, I find that just raising these itself, is sufficient for people to get that “Oh!” expression and think about it some more.

Founder - any one who joins the company prior to its formation or on its 1st day. This definition is the cleanest that I have found. However all too often, startups—certainly any that I have been involved in—tend to take  a while to figure out what they are about. In this phase, which usually is some finite and arbitrary time frame, maybe three or six months, you end up bringing on board others who fill out the founding team. Hence these folks  become (co-)founders. If that is all there was to it, I’d have wasted your time reading this far.

Being a founder, brings largely psychic benefits for the foreseeable future, a lot of real expectations (from other founders) and a whole lot of sacrifices, when things don’t go well. Sure as a founder, if you own significant stake in the business you stand to gain a whole lot when the business succeeds but that always seems so far away, that it is better to expect and settle for the psychic benefits. The media in India always likes it if you are the founder and happen to be a C-level executive or the tech genius. If, like in many US startups, you are a principal engineer, despite being a founder, not a lot of media people want to talk to you.

Director – When there are multiple founders, who gets to be on the board, what are people’s titles and functional roles become points of heartburn if not stated, discussed and handled up front. Of course, neither the government nor statutory bodies recognize anything called founder, they want to know and care about (founder-) directors.

Unlike a founder, a company director, is a recognized statutory role (with its legal repercussions) and often one or all of the founders may start as directors in the company (board). This will change as angels or others invest in the company and take board seats on. Contracts and other legal obligations of the company will be taken on by directors.

To compound matters, the Valley nomenclature has percolated into Indian tech firms, so one can be a Director of Engineering or Marketing, and this has nothing to do with being a director in the company. The media seem to prefer talking to the latter and rarely to the former. Which brings us to the matter of functional roles.

Functional roles Startups, particularly one’s that survive and thrive grow faster than the founders will necessarily grow. This means a founder who started as Director of Engineering, may end up being program manager or business development manager, whilst someone who has actually managed a 200 person engineering team may come on board as the VP or Director of Engineering. Only one or two of the founders may remain on the management team of the growing company, whilst other will have individual roles or functional manager roles. This whilst easily stated may not be palatable to all founders, who may only then realize they had a different dreams or desires.

Share-holder Prior to being in a startup I had never given this any thought. The Chairman of my previous startup  used to often say “We leave our shareholding at home when we come into work,” and I think we all actually believed it. But then again this is easier said than done. I have seen founders and even those amongst the first 10 employees, who owned non-trivial amounts of company stock and were largely in senior individual contributor roles handle this very differently. The extremes, even in my limited experience ranged from the role of deeply committed statesman to  less-than-subtle mini-Carl Icahn in the making.

Business is a whole lot more fun when done with others, especially with a good, strong founding team. The funny thing is that in the heady days when you start, all this seems so academic, distant and meaningless. And it matters little when you are cash strapped, busting your rear to get the product out the door, finding customers and trying to keep your head above the water. But if you don’t think and more importantly talk and align on these in those early days, when you actually have a business, money in the bank and prospective investors or buyers looming, this can at the very least cause some major heartache and at the worst cause things to implode.  Share with me your own experiences as a founder or as a witness or participant in founder feuds!

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Do I want to be a founder?

#1 dad

Image by laurenfarmer via Flickr

“We’d like you to come on board as a founder.” After the first few seconds of excitement and dare I say, exhilaration, reality sets in. “Can you explain to me what being a founder means?” Does being a founder mean, like a parent, being present when conceived? And will it seem much like a parent, largely thankless, picking up things behind your offspring and acting as a source of funding for them? Sure you feel good about that first finger-painting up on the refrigerator, or the #1 Dad doodad on your office wall. But when you are up mopping their vomit or worse and staying up all night hoping the fever will subside is it worth the trouble?

My answer is a resounding yes!

And its always better to found a company with others than by yourself. With that said, it’s worth keeping in mind, your co-founders are likely where you will get grief when you least expect it. In almost every startup I have been part of, founders falling by the wayside has been a feature. Before you conclude the problem was me, I am in good company. When Paul Graham spoke at the recent Startup School 09 – he pointed that all the entrepreneurs he spoke to felt picking the right (or rather not picking the wrong) co-founder was the most important lesson they learned.

The toughest lessons I learnt about co-founders, was there can be so many unstated expectations, particularly when it comes to issues around your own evolving roles. Founder, partner, core team member, executive management – words that initially are used interchangeably and seem just so many words. Yet they have so many different meanings and nuances, as I learnt the hard way. Having been a part of five start ups, two as founder and three as early-to-late senior staff or management member, I have been at all ends of this expectation spectrum.

I’ve loved being a founder and will share the ways I have found to deal with the finding, keeping and savouring co-founders in my upcoming post. Share with me your experience with being a founder, what it meant to you and why you would or wouldn’t do it again!

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The ONE thing you need to succeed as an entrepreneur

Last week one of the first tweets I came across, as I started my day, was a re-tweet by @CharlieCurve — a poetical summary of Gary Vaynerchuk (@garyvee) earlier tweet.

“Stop worrying about who’s President, what the market did and FOCUS on your business & brand.”

Yep, focus – say it again – FOCUS is the one thing you need to succeed as an entrepreneur. If you thought you needed it before, the recession has made it a burning need as the economy totters, markets tumble and Cassandras abound. You’d think it would be easy to keep this one word in mind and hence stay focused.

Entire books have been written on the subject – most notably the eponymously titled one by Al Ries. The history of business is littered with not merely individuals or departments but entire companies losing focus. So this is harder than it appears.

It’s easy to understand why we lose focus, particularly in entrepreneurial setups. The passion and dynamism of being entrepreneurial is the first cause for the loss of focus. There’s always some new problems to be solved, a new customer to be served or more cash to be brought in. This makes it hard to say NO to a lot of things.  So one YES at at a time, you get another ball in the air, and soon there’s no time to do things as well as they need to be done. Worse yet, you keep falling behind and losing ground.

Staying focused requires us to master just one word and that is “No” Doesn’t have to be NO, screamed at the top of your voice, or even a “Hell no!” hissed out the corner of your mouth. Just a plain and polite no would suffice. Everything else that lead you to be an entrepreneur in the first place will kick in, once you focus. So take Gary’s advice and quit worrying about anything other than staying focused on your business goals!

For the two of you who may have not heard of Gary Vaynerchuk – here’s a quick blurb. Gary, who by age 30 had grown his family’s small wine business into a $50M dollar business, knows a thing or two about building successful businesses. And that was before before he started “Wine Library TV” that has nearly 100,000 daily viewers.  Gary has become a much sought after speaker on the matter of personal branding — patience and passion, he exhorts are critical elements to building your brand and business. But that’s matter for a whole another post.