Back to Basics – Entrepreneurship

Much like riding a bicycle or swimming, with entrepreneurship too, no amount of study or theory can take the place of plunging right in. Yes, some scraped knees, water swallowed and spat out and wounded egos are likely to result, but nothing helps you learn like real-world experience.

Over the past several months, I have tried to walk through a typical, if there is any such thing, life cycle of an entrepreneur. From when the thought to start something first lodges itself in your mind through all the way to exiting your business, the entrepreneurial journey is a roller-coaster ride on steroids. As happened with me, and every parent prior to me, you are clueless when people tell you, “Your life will change once you have children.” They could just as well be talking about being an entrepreneur. All the reading, talking and thinking does not prepare you for it — it’s messy, sleep-depriving, unpredictable and will make you want to cry! Yet, it is is exhilarating, scary and fun all at the same time.

Better men and women than I have written oodles about entrepreneurship and start-ups — the how-to, why and wherefore and the blogosphere is a cacophony of advice givers. So is there anything left to say? My two cents is that it is certainly worth repeating the basics, the foundation on which all endeavours entrepreneurial and otherwise rest and build on. And this is what I shall strive to do in this article.

What: It’s the Journey

My accountant used to tell the tale of how, when a youngish man passed away, his brother standing by the funeral pyre had a flash, a rare moment of insight about how ephemeral life is and how trivial most concerns that dog all of us are. Yet, an hour later when he returned home, he chided his wife on how cold the coffee she served was! It is hard enough to be receptive to the flash of insight and nearly impossible to stay in it every moment.

Yet, as an entrepreneur (or as a parent or spouse), it’s worth reminding ourselves that we should accept, internalise and live the truth, that ‘It’s the journey that counts’.

Many of us fall into the trap of posing most issues as an ‘either-or’ situation. If you are not striving, you are complacent (not content); if you aren’t successful, you have failed; if you aren’t paranoid, you will be dead!

Reality, however, tends to be a lot more nuanced, filled with shades of grey rather than just black and white. If we succumb to it, there are endless ways to pull ourselves down even without competitors or sometimes customers doing it. To what most people would say such as “Keep an eye on your goal at all times” (which you should), “Stay focused” (which you should), “Persevere (beyond reason),” my recommendation is to remind yourself each day that “It’s the journey that matters.”

For even if you get where you (think you) want to be, if you don’t enjoy your trip there or worse yet, you don’t get there, it would all have been a waste.

So, write it down, post it on your desk; better yet, make it your screensaver!

Who: It’s the People

No journey is much fun if you have to do it all alone. Of course, having obnoxious, inconsiderate or downright horrible travel companions is probably the only thing that is worse than travelling alone. Entrepreneurs by nature like getting things done and if you are like me, many times, you’ll have the feeling that no one else can do as good a job as you can (not true). So taking on a partner or hiring and training employees will all, at times, seem far more trouble than it is worth, but no enterprise worth its salt has been built by one person, however heroic — even Superman needed Jimmy Olsen ever so often.

The trouble, of course, with people is that they are people, with all their foibles and baggage, social and emotional. Peter Drucker in his book The Effective Executive speaks of making strength productive by not hiring to minimise weaknesses but to maximise strength. He narrates how: ‘President Lincoln when told that General Grant, his new commander-in-chief, was fond of the bottle said: “If I knew his brand, I’d send a barrel or so to some other generals.” Lincoln assuredly knew all about the bottle and its dangers. Lincoln (however) chose his general for his tested ability to win battles and not for his sobriety, that is for the absence of weakness.’

Paul Hawken, entrepreneur, raconteur and teacher, speaking about the people you want on your team, says “… it makes no sense whatsoever to hire any but the best people you can possibly find. Your employees shouldn’t admire you. That is kid stuff. You should admire your employees.” So make sure you don’t travel alone and that you pick your travel companions carefully for their strengths.

How: Don’t forget to have fun

At least three thesauruses that I consulted report the words fun, joy and playful as synonyms. And who am I to disagree with them? Neither should you!

Business, commerce, entrepreneurship — all sound like serious stuff and all too often we treat them that way, but high cholesterol, hypertension and stomach ulcers are a lot more serious. So having fun, being joyful and keeping work playful is important. The real world in the form of payroll, accounts payable, demanding customers and disgruntled employees make it hard. It is the rare business that manages to accomplish this without ceaseless vigil and trying hard. While we may take our business seriously, we had better not take ourselves too seriously. I will be the first to admit that this, like most good advice, is easier said than done.

Nevertheless, the baristas at Starbucks, the concierge at the Windsor Manor hotel in Bangalore and my local barber all live the maxim that work can be fun! There will be enough folks telling you how to do or not do stuff or why you will fail. The easiest way to have fun is to prove the naysayers, who will be coming out of the woodwork daily, wrong. The best revenge at all times, I believe, is having a good time.

So focus on making sure that the journey for the folks travelling with you and for yourself is fruitful, fun and fulfilling today, and other things will take care of themselves.

This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated June 2008

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