Yesterday my father would have turned 92. Though my father had worked for 37 years at the same firm—rising from accounting intern to the CEO of multiple group companies—he was my biggest supporter when I decided to quit my job and become an entrepreneur.
As a miniscule shareholder in my first startup but a major lender of working capital, he was our first angel. While I was in high school, my father used to regale me with a variety of tales, a surprising number of which came in handy during my own entrepreneurial journey.
As I’ve continued to learn from all that he’d shared, I’ve also had the good fortune to working with some incredible people who’ve mentored, coached, supported me and kept me honest.
Yesterday was also the day my first book, “The Art of a Happy Exit – How Successful Entrepreneurs Sell Their Businesses” went on pre-sale on Amazon (USAIndia). While I wish my dad were here to see it, hopefully some of his stories will live on and help other entrepreneurs.
Last week, my daughter had a question for me about Transformational Leadership. While individually the words make sense, I can’t say I’ve kept up with all the kinds of leadership that’s in the literature, be it servant leadership or Attila-the-Hun leadership. In fact I’m still learning from my students and others. As I read up and discussed with my daughter, I understood that transformational leaders
transform themselves and their audiences in visualizing and implementing big ideas.
With that it’s easy to see why Dr. Martin Luther King and MK Gandhi who inspired him were both transformational leaders. I also realized how this lesson had been shared by my dad but not necessarily learnt by me that day.
“I want you to have this home for the aged built.” Jayendra Saraswati, then the head of the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt, and our family’s spiritual guru had told my father. This was in the late ’80s. My father, who’d lost his father early in life, had come up the hard way and was keen that he help as many people as he could, particularly when it came to matters of education. By the time of this conversation, he was in a good place financially and willing to spend, what he’d earned and saved, to serve others.
However, the family’s spiritual guru had one additional stricture, “I don’t want you to build it with your money. I want you to raise the money from others in the community and have it built!”
As my father found out, paying for something yourself is a whole lot easier, than getting others to pay for it. It is not that people were unprepared to give to a charitable or deserving cause, but most people in a position to do so, already had their favorite causes to give to. Thus began my father’s journey of getting people in the community to buy into the vision of an old-age home, one ideally that was co-situated with an orphanage, allowing for young and old to both interact, learn and grow with one another.
Unlike in his professional experience, where purpose stemmed from the organization and unlike at home, were as the head of our rather large extended family, he could set the direction, this project required the learning and practice of transformational leadership. In my dad’s time, he did accomplish one half of his dream—getting a functional old-age home off the ground and operating for over nearly twenty years in his life time. And surviving two transfers in operating leadership, when his co-founder passed, then my father’s own Parkinson’s and subsequent demise.
He not only internalized this lesson on transforming himself and others, through visualizing an idea and executing on it, but shared it with me and others. Today as I listened to Dr. King’s last speech in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968 — the day before he was assassinated, I heard him say
I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight.
“Why do you take the bus? Couldn’t you at least take an auto (3-wheeler cab)?”
My father never stopped asking his friend, a Gujarati Jain gentleman, this question each time he visited. Even the times he did come to our doorstep in an auto, my father whispered to me conspiratorially, “He probably took the bus to Adyar and took the auto for the last kilometer.“
The said gentleman, had like my dad, landed in Chennai as a teen with less than Rs. 10 in his pocket. He’d then gone on to amass a considerable fortune in the plastics business. Yet, he maintained a disarmingly simple, nearly spartan, lifestyle. While my father pulled his friend’s leg about his frugality, his own actions were not all that different.
As kids we were always embarrassed, when my father would order idli–sambar – steamed rice cakes with spicy lentil – at even the fanciest of restaurants. Likewise we were flummoxed that he’d check in at the 5-Star Taj hotel with his boss, but choose to spend the night at his sister’s duplex in Karol Bagh. It took us more than twenty years to try and get him to wear anything other than the white shirt and pant that he wore every day to work – even then we only managed to get him try solid pastel color shirts!
My dad lived and breathed his belief to keeping his needs simple. Without my realizing it he’d trained me from day one to be an entrepreneur. Not that I was a good student. In my first foray at being an entrepreneur, I blew nearly $250 (yep, dollars) on business cards. Let’s just say I was a slow learner. But luckily I returned to my roots – when we bootstrapped our first startup. We didn’t buy a computer, we didn’t hire a coder – we began pitching customers. We kept it simple – emails and presentations. We operated out of my co-founder’s apartment and held day jobs while we tried to land our first paying customer.
The lesson I learned was not just frugality but to keep every element of life (and business) simple.
business simple, so others understand it. Stay focused
offerings simple, so customers just get it
pricing simple so buying what you sell is easy
cash tracking simple – know where it goes, what you need and have
organization simple – so your team is clear about their roles & what’s expected of them
life simple – early to bed, early to rise, love, affection & exercise
“I can line up ten old and experienced fools in front of you this evening.”
My father always began his story with this line. As the professional CEO of a family-owned business, one of the challenges my father had to contend with was the different working styles of the younger generation. The speaker in this instance was one of the founder’s grandsons, who was being groomed to run the business.
The discussion was about the relative strengths and weaknesses of a potential new employee that they’d just interviewed. My father, a big believer in hiring the best person for the job, had expressed the thought that this particular candidate was not experienced enough.
My father’s contention was the young clearly had a big advantage, in both the energy they brought and in not being tied down to the way things were done. But for their business, a fast-growing company in a commodity market, experience mattered and could just not be replaced.
Thereupon a debate ensued on the relative merits of youth versus experience, before the young executive made this assertion about old fools. My father always laughed when he recounted the passion and vehemence with which his young protege made this statement. His response always was that no amount of education – whether football, swimming or sex education in a classroom was as practical as getting out in the real world (or in that field or pool) and experiencing it.
Many years later, when hiring in my first managerial job in California or my startup in India, I found this to be repeatedly true. The fresh college grads, almost were always smarter, had studied stuff that we had not even heard of and thought of absolutely new ways to accomplish things often getting things done just because they didn’t know it couldn’t be.
Yet like with good design (or a good meal) no amount of studying prepares us as having done it before – ideally more than once. Riding a bicycle or banking a car on the curve or setting up a website or negotiating with a Japanese customer all works much better once you’ve done it before.
My father hired more than a hundred folks, with absolutely no experience – often young men who were looking for their first break. Several of them are running their own businesses or in leadership roles today. Nevertheless, he taught me, that for many roles or jobs, experience trumps all. The trick is knowing when you can’t do without it!
“I think I’ll just study the scriptures, meditate and focus on things spiritual.” My dad must have been in his late thirties or mid-forties when he said this to his father-in-law. To the latter’s credit, he did not tumble out of his wheel chair nor sputter and scream at my dad. “That’s a very good aspiration, Kuppuswamy,” was his response.
My dad was recounting how he went through a phase, when he was just plain tired of the rat race— all the traveling, business headaches, dealing with debtors and I suspect a fair amount of family drama—given our joint family, truant nephews and nieces and all the financial responsibilities that came with it.
My grandfather continued, “I’m happy to hear that you are thinking of studying the scriptures and focusing on matters spiritual. Let me help you. Why don’t I arrange a teacher to come to your house, early in the morning, so that before you leave for work you can begin studying the scriptures. Once you’ve done it for six months, you can quit your job and do this full time.”
My dad was greatly overjoyed. I’m not sure if he expected his father-in-law to accept what he was contemplating, let alone to actually help him with it. So indeed as my grandfather had promised, the purohit, a Brahmin teacher complete with shaved head and bare upper body showed up at 5AM the following Monday at my father’s place.
That first day they began with a simple recital of the sloka to the guru (hymn to the teacher). The following day they started with the Purusha Suktam, from the Rig Veda which seeks to explain the origin of the Universe. And on to the third morning. On the fourth morning my father had to leave for Nagpur on an unplanned business trip for several days. The following week, I think he managed to squeeze in two classes before another trip to Delhi. The week after he had to head out on a week long trip overseas. So the classes got fewer and farther. The purohit was persistent but polite. By month two my dad’s travel schedule pretty much precluded any classes. At the beginning of month three, my grandfather let my father know that when his schedule permitted more time, the purohit would return. Nothing further was said and my father never raised the matter of giving up things material and focusing on the spiritual!
For both my dad and me, there were two lessons packed into this one story. When he first approached my grandfather, he was clear in his mind what he wanted to do and was convinced that he should do it immediately and wholeheartedly. My grandfather of course convinced him to test the waters first – which obviously was a good thing. It was not my dad’s travel schedule that kept him from the lessons and his onward spiritual journey – it was that his desire to give up on everything was a passing fancy, a possible reaction to a stressful period, rather than a deeply felt life goal. And thanks to my grandfather he had neither burnt his bridges by resigning his job or caused immense worry to his family by seemingly losing interest in matters of the world.
The more useful lesson, particularly as a parent, was not to react to anything, however insane sounding, with visceral opposition as sometimes my wife and I do with our teen daughters, but to listen, even agree and demonstrate through action that what’s contemplated might not be the best course of action.
My grandfather despite being wheelchair-bound was a jujitsu master par excellence, pulling when pushed and pushing when pulled.
As in my worst fears, the call came early in the morning, just before 3AM California time. When the phone rang the first time, I rejected the call, reckoning it was a colleague in India, who’d lost track of time. When the phone rang again within minutes, this time with caller ID showing another colleague’s name, I knew something was amiss.
“Sri, I am sorry to inform you your father has passed away!” At first, I was not sure I had heard right. My first thought strangely was for my colleague who had the unpleasant task of having to call me with bad news. I almost felt apologetic that I had put him in such a position. Maybe it was shock and I was not ready to hear that my father was no more.
Rushed calls to my travel agent, wondering what to tell the kids sleeping in the next room – the next thirty-six hours were a blur – neither Icelandic volcanoes spewing ash, nor delayed flights and uncooperative flight supervisors would get in the way of our making it back to India. The nearly two hour trip from the tarmac to my father’s home felt longer than the whole journey.
“Your father paid for me to go to college and then got me started on my Chartered Accountancy apprenticeship,” said the stranger, who’d come to the funeral. He looked to be about 40 years old. “Your dad was also the one who helped my brother go the United States,” he continued. There were nearly 150 people at home when I got in from the airport, most of them extended family and a good many folks that I didn’t know. Much of the afternoon, was spent recounting tales of how my father had helped someone buy a house, another furnish one and still another get a compound wall put in.
Second cousins who’d grown up in my house abounded and had their own tales of getting jobs with my dad’s help. I recall when I was a young teen, some relative admiring my father’s watch. I was aghast when my father removed it and insisted that the relative have the watch.
That evening I recall my sister and I arguing with my dad, that if he just gives away stuff, we’d probably not have anything – not that we knew what we had. My dad just laughed at first. Then when he saw how serious we were, he said “There’s great pleasure in giving – I’d say more so than even receiving.” My sister, ever the smart alec quickly retorted, “Then you’ll be happy to give and I will be happy to receive.”
It was only many years later that I learnt about my father’s journey to the city as an impoverished young man with three rupees in his pocket. While he became a successful man over the years, he never stopped giving regardless of his own financial status. His life itself was one critical lesson – “Be Generous”
My father Dr. K. Kuppuswamy passed away on the 24th of May 2011.
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
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!
Over the last several years, I have written about startups, entrepreneurship and business in general in the Hindu BizLine and Wall St. Journal. I have compiled these for easy access in the column below.