The Entrepreneur Life

Category: Dad’s Lessons (Page 2 of 2)

Lessons that I have learned from my dad

Be Grateful – Lessons from my dad

“I was in 9th grade – nearly 15 years old, when my father passed away.” I could see that my father was already in the past living through those first few traumatic months after his father’s death. “We continued in the same village where my father hand been the karnam – the village accountant.” My older brother was still in high school, two younger brothers and a sister in middle and primary schools. My mother did not know how she was going to put us through school – which she was clear we should complete at all costs.”

“At one end of our village lived the Mirasdar – there were two brothers, the peria (elder) and chinna (younger) mirasdar. I remember their house being a big pukka house. A family friend approached the younger mirasdar for help, when he learned that my mother could pay for only my elder brother to go to school. The mirasdar offered to pay my school fees. The amount of money involved, though small by today’s standards, was a huge boon and put me through high school. I don’t think I thought about it much at that time, besides being grateful for their support. After all in our eyes the mirasdars were the richest family in our village.”

My father after graduating from high school left his village for the “city” – Chennai and then onwards to Delhi seeking his fortune. After three years of being away, my father returned to his village for a visit. He was now employed as an accounting apprentice in Delhi earning a princely 300 rupees. In the meantime he had his share of adventures with his uncle declining to support his college education, running away to Delhi and landing a job, travelling to Shimla and other towns on his job. Wanting to share his good fortune and to thank his first benefactors he visited the mirasdar family.

“I was shocked to discover that the mirasdar family was not at all well-to-do.  They lived in a dilapidated house and in talking to others in the village I realized that they had probably been living in genteel poverty for the last decade or more. My youth and naivete, when I still lived in the village, was probably what lead me to believe that they were wealthy. I was all the more grateful and overwhelmed by their act of kindness and charity in paying for my education, when they could probably ill afford it themselves.” My father’s eyes were no longer dry as he recounted this tale of magnanimity.

His story did have a good ending, in that the children of the mirasdar family themselves went out to seek their fortunes and did well – which my father attributes, at least in part, to the good deeds of their parents.

“Things are not always what they seem,” was my father’s advice to me. “Keep an open mind and recognize that we often see what we want – which may be far from reality.”

“Be grateful for what you have and strive to help other people whenever you can.”

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

Be Self-aware – Lessons from my dad

Image by sowri via Flickr

“Just tell me what I should do!” My 15-year old was filling out an application for an international student exchange program. One of the questions was “What are your goals in life?” She’d of course asked this same question a week before, when she felt all her friends already knew what they wanted to do in life. As I couldn’t think of any excuse, I had to embark on a discussion with her.

“Think about what you like doing. What you truly enjoy. And what you think you are good at.” In her case, we figured she enjoyed drawing & painting, playing sports and working with young kids – and she was really good at all three. Ah yes, she enjoyed traveling too.”

The discussion set me thinking about a conversation my dad and I had many years ago. I can’t recall what triggered the conversation, but distinctly recall my father telling me “You are a Hanuman!”

For those not up on Hindu mythology, Hanuman is the monkey demi-god who is cited as the ideal devotee for his major-domo role to the eponymous hero of the Hindu epic, Ramayana.

I didn’t reckon that my dad was alluding to my physical appearance when he said I was like the monkey [even if a] God. Nothing I had done thus far, could allow me to be termed a devotee of anything other than good food. My perplexed expression must have given me away, when he continued “Like Hanuman, you don’t know your own strength!”

While knowing one’s strengths is good in general – it is a particularly critical skill for entrepreneurs. Most successful entrepreneurs, when observed from arms length, may come across as manic- depressive.  Maniacal in pursuing what they believe is the right path and optimistic to a fault and then when that critical deal doesn’t happen or funding falls through or a key employee leaves, lost in the dumps – even if only for a short time.

Knowing your strengths may not do away with the ups and downs but certainly will help dampen the amplitude and help you make decisions with greater confidence. Knowing your strengths is just as much about recognizing stuff that you are not good at and surrounding yourself with folks who’s strengths complement your own.

Unlike my daughter who’s just fifteen as of this writing, I was on the wrong side of thirty when my father made his comparison to Hanuman. So don’t wait – get to know your strengths today. Ask your colleagues, your ex-boss, your staff and if your bold enough, your spouse or significant other. And once a year take stock to understand what new strengths you have acquired and what has atropied and been lost.

Be a self-aware Hanuman!

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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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Be Forgiving – Lessons from my dad

“Look at the boy – short & dark. He wants to go places and thinks too much of himself.”

Photographs of my dad taken in his mid twenties, still show him slim as a teenager. The pictures show an intense lad with twinkling eyes. In his wedding pictures with his kohl lined eyes he cuts a dashing figure. By the time he got to his early forties he is at his most suave – despite the long, hairy sideburns, that make him look like a young Isaac Asimov! However my father, I suspect, always felt a little self conscious about his complexion and height. So when his uncle said these words he was cut to the quick.

My father had lost his own father when he was barely fifteen. With a widowed mother, a still in high-school elder brother, two younger brothers and a younger sister, my father did not have it easy. So he came to city, barely 16 to seek help from his father’s brother. His uncle had already made it big at an insurance firm and with no children of his own had few other commitments. On the day my father had finally picked up courage to ask his uncle for help to pay for college, is when this incident happened. It was a typical, sultry afternoon in Madras (“the city”) and his uncle was sitting in a large swing in the central hall of his house, gently swinging himself after lunch as he received some visitors. My dad had laid down in one corner of the room, to get some sleep. The stress of working up his courage to ask for his uncle’s help,being declined and the hot afternoon had all rendered him half asleep.

My father may have nodded off, but these words certainly woke him up and they rankled. Forty years later, as my dad narrated this incident to me, he recalled that his first thoughts were “I’ll prove to this man what I’m worth. Who the hell does he think he is?” Of course, he continued to pretend that he was asleep and said nothing to his uncle that day. Less than two weeks later, with a friend’s help, he “ran away” to Delhi, traveling on a free 3rd class servant pass that 1st class passengers got. Only his mom knew where he had gone.

Less than two years later, my father returned – a year in Delhi and an eventful one in Shimla had instilled great confidence in him, some money in his pocket and a steady job and paycheck as an auditor in a reputable chartered accountant firm. And all this with just a high school diploma and an apprenticeship. He headed straight to his uncle’s house, eager to flaunt his new found success.

“The moment I entered my uncle’s house and saw him, still seated on that swing – I was taken aback. He had aged so much in the two years!” My father’s voice quivered at the recollection. “He was a mere shadow of his former self. I was ashamed, that I had even thought of telling him off – of having actually looked forward to showing him how wrong he had been about me. I felt really small and petty minded. I didn’t say any of what I have thought of saying.”

It was in that moment that my father had the realization, that he shared with me, all those years later.

“Success is fleeting. Don’t carry a grudge and be forgiving.”

Photo by Taariq Hendricks on Unsplash

Be Humble – Lessons from my dad

One particular story my father had told me numerous times when I was a teenager, was about his encounter with a money lender. This was the first and only time I had ever heard my father use an expletive – a gaali – as they’d say in Benaras. The story stuck with me initially because of the unvarying way he’d narrate it, and also the way he’d point out his own outrage at being called names.

Later as an entrepreneur, when I was borrowing money (and yet again borrowing some more) and seemed to have my hand out perennially either to Angels or prospective VCs, this story really hit home.

Very early in his career, my father joined the firm that he’d spend the next 37 years at. Founded as a trading company, the firm was as cash strapped as only a growing firm could be. As my father put it in the early days of their business, they “boldly and often baldly borrowed money.” Not infrequently these were at usurious rates from local moneylenders. As the young company’s accountant, my dad usually was the pointed end of this borrowing thrust. The borrowing was done in the name of the proprietor (my dad’s boss) but almost always singly handled by my dad.

One day they found that there were yet again in need of cash and approached a money lender from whom they had borrowed before. In fact, they were yet to pay off their previous loan. Even as they were warming up to their pitch for borrowing more money, the Shylock began abusing my dad’s boss – calling his mother names. My dad was livid and about to jump on the Shylock’s throat, when he felt a warning tug on his hand – his boss was practically pinching my dad’s palm off. My dad got the message and kept his counsel. Soon enough, after lumping the name-calling, they had pried some money out of the curmudgeon and headed back to their office.

Soon as they were out of earshot, his boss asked him,

Did you borrow money from him?

“Yes,” my dad replied dutifully

Well did you return his money?

“No of course not!”

Then what the hell were you getting all worked up for when he abused me?

Many a times I have felt quite sanctimonious, even outraged, at the behavior of prospective customers, partners and of course VCs. Whilst this was truer when I could be called young and hot-blooded, it’s not something I have completely lost. So when that familiar feeling swells up in a meeting, I recall my father’s story and his advice to be humble!

Be Considerate – Lessons from my dad

06-26: Be SafeMy father always waited till we got to the railway station or the airport, before he’d have the TALK with me. I never figured out why he waited till one of us was getting ready to leave town. It somehow made it a whole lot easier for him to have this conversation. The gist of many of these eve-of-departure conversations, when I was in college and then graduate school, was, “Be considerate.”

I appreciate my father all the more, given the number of different ways he has tried to get me to understand this. “Don’t be self absorbed – think of others; show that you are thinking of others. It’s not enough to say I love you and not demonstrate that love in any other way. Be it with flowers, chocolate or that diamond necklace (okay, he didn’t say that last one, but I don’t think my wife would have minded, if he had).

My own reaction to my father’s advice ranged from non-comprehension (“What are you talking about Dad?”) to mild irritation (“Why did you wait till I was leaving to have this talk”) to sometimes outright combativeness (“Did you not tell me money is not important?”). The day this lesson really hit home was when he commented “If you were a fool, it would be a lot easier for me to accept your behavior; unfortunately I know you are not a fool – which makes me all the more sad. Your being inconsiderate is then either a choice you are making or worse.”

As the father of two not-so-little girls, I know that it’s not easy for a father to say this. Of course knowing how I feel with my own kids at times, it’s a miracle my dad did not kill me or at the very least slap some sense into me.

I realize this as I work every day with very smart people and see not so smart behavior, especially when it comes to being considerate. It’s as if being successful or at least ambitious, means you can’t be considerate. Luckily for me, I am surrounding by people who are neither shy nor retiring. So they don’t hesitate to give feedback and keep me honest.

In my own case, on more than one occasion, I have had a senior colleague ask me, “Could you not have asked me to hand out the recognition awards? At the very least you could have asked me to be present, when you handed them out?” Having worked with my team for the better part of decade I realized (often all too late) that this was not about who did the handing out, as much as being inclusive and more importantly, not excluding even by omission.

This morning, as I set out for a short visit with my dad and a new week at work, I still hear him say, “Be considerate!”

It was only when I turned forty a few years back, that several new synapses fired for the first time in my brain. I realized that over the years, my father while narrating stories – often incidents or vignettes from work – had been imparting some serious wisdom to me. After 20 years of listening to these, sometimes grudgingly it finally dawned on me that much of what I’ve learnt and continue to practice as a professional stems from these stories of my dad. Starting this month, I hope to blog about some of them. Fred Wilson’s post yesterday about thoughts on this 20th wedding anniversary on building a long term relationship finally got this post off the ground.


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