Design of Business

Business, Culture & Entrepreneurship

Tag: Fathers

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 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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