Taking risks and other lessons from a mentor

I have a job offer from Infosys and an option to start my own business — what do you think I should do?

NS Raghavan

The question was posed by a young man who approached N.S. Raghavan (NSR), former joint managing director and one of the founders of Infosys. When Raghavan responded, “Take the job with Infosys,” the youngster was taken aback. In Raghavan’s words, “If you are an entrepreneur, starting a business is not an option that you consider alongside taking a job — you’d just do it!”

The story was narrated by Raghavan himself soon after he had invested in our first business Impulsesoft. The best way to describe my experience with Raghavan was that he was truly an “angel” – not just in that he invested but in how he gave us a long rope – always available for input and help but never looking over our shoulder, even as we stumbled from one crisis to another in those early years. In those five years that he was an investor, booster and mentor to us, we’d have had maybe two meetings a year – yet the insights he shared and the spirit he imbued in us were invaluable. Two critical lessons I learned from NSR were

Be willing to take risks We’d been in business of nearly five years, when we broke even and made a small profit. It was amply clear that we were not going to die, but the market was consolidating around us and we’d have to either integrate forward – enter the consumer market as a brand or backward into chip making. Neither was very easy  – the former needing large marketing investments and potentially a low margin, high volume business. The latter a prohibitive capital expenditure and changing who we were (primarily software). Having worked with the likes of Logitech and Sony (Ericsson), we were quite enamoured with the consumer retail business – possibly because we were not in it 😉 So in a board meeting we were presenting the pros and cons – and trying to hedge our bets, when Raghavan spoke up – You’ve got to take risks in business – if, staying in the same place is no longer an option, and your passion lies in trying to build a consumer brand, go for it. And we did – setting up Hippo Lifestyles in Singapore. And we struggled but the story had a good ending when our semiconductor customers and partners approached us seeking a merger. Our decision (and willingness) to go our own way and risk building a consumer brand, allowed us to negotiate more confidently resulting in a profitable acquisition. This is a lesson that’s stayed with me.

Being an angel means letting the entrepreneurs make the call Despite NSR’s investment in our business, we were quickly out of money and needed more. So we went back to borrow some money from him and did so twice. While we’d stayed focused on Bluetooth, we zigged and zagged years before the word pivoting was fashionable – going wide, going narrower (only stereo music), building proof of concept hardware systems, laying off our still-born chip design team, creating new standards (for bluetooth in a car), exiting the highly profitable Japanese service market, to focus on the laggard North American market, nearly merged with a North American design company (that was our customer). If you are still with me, you can tell it was a rocky ride with a lots of turns – Raghavan was supportive throughout all of this, not butting in till we sought his council and always nudging us to come up with the answers and not jumping right in with his solution. This is not an easy thing, even when you are not an investor. I’m yet to possess this degree of dispassion but NSR’s example continues to inspire me. So when I hear someone bad mouth an angel, I find myself jumping in citing his example.

Thank you NSR, for your incredible faith and all the support and inspiration you provided us through out the Impulsesoft journey. You continue to inspire me and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have worked with you.

 


This is the seventh entry in my 30 days of Gratitude series.
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 |

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