Should I start my own business?

Should I start my own business?” If you have ever found yourself asking this question, you are not alone. And rarely does this question arise by itself — on its heels, many more rush in. “How do I know it’s the right thing? What’s the first thing I should do?” A simple search on Amazon or Google with the words “Starting your own business” provides 738 books and over a million hits respectively — in a sense, this choice of plenty only seems to add more questions beginning with, ‘Where do I start?’ The best answer to this question is the simple one — start with yourself!

Before you try to figure out, “How do I raise money, or should I get a patent first or do I need partners?” the first step to answer the question should you even start your own business, is to better understand yourself. While some reflection is needed, this is not so much a philosophical or metaphysical exercise as much as answering three simple questions about yourself. You may have never taken the time to think about it and even if you have asked yourself one or more of these questions, never had the opportunity to step back and answer them. Certainly, once you start your own business, you will not have the luxury of time to answer these in any detail.

N.S. Raghavan, former joint managing director and one of the founders of Infosys, narrates a story about a young man who approached him seeking advice. “I have a job offer from Infosys and an option to start my own business — what do you think I should do?” 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!” To dive in, or to ‘Just do it!’, as the ad exhorts us, is easy — staying the course, not drowning and not ruing it along the way — is the hard part. Let’s ask ourselves those three simple questions.

Passion

Ask yourself, “Do I feel passionate about this? Will I feel as passionate about this a week from now? A year or five years from now?” If the answer is anything other than yes, you might want to keep that resume polished. When you ask yourself, “Do I feel passionate about this?” — ‘this’ could be a product — a low maintenance, low-cost, yet effective water purifier that four-fifths of the world needs; it could be a service — ball room dancing instruction for high-schoolers; it could be a concept — helping farmers in your hometown reach customers worldwide directly — or nearly evangelical — fresh water to every village in your state/country — it could be anything, as long as the fire of passion within you burns undiminished for long periods with little or no kindling. This is a good question to ask first and have answered in the affirmative before starting your own business. Do not confuse passion with being right or knowing something — passion is primarily believing and wanting. Once you start your business, you will learn more ways of being wrong than you’d thought possible.

Risk-taking

Being an entrepreneur, which is what you’d be if you start a business, is a risky proposition — probably not as risky as skydiving or crossing a busy road in Bangalore during the evening commute. Most businesses last longer than a skydive and are fraught with challenges. So the next question to ask yourself is how risk averse you are.

Risk means many things to many people. Most people think primarily of financial risk — this, while certainly measurable, may be the least important. Often there will be others to bear the financial risk with you.

However, the time you personally invest, the emotional energy that would be required of you individually and most importantly, your self-worth, will be the bigger risks you will be taking.

These will be largely immeasurable but have far greater import on the rest of your life. So if you have never taken off for the weekend on a whim, usually get to the airport three hours ahead of schedule and have never run a yellow light, it is worth figuring out what your risk appetite is.

Perseverance

Call it whatever you want — doggedness, perseverance or relentlessness — to be an entrepreneur means continuing in the face of constant discouragement by the world around you.

Often it would seem as though everyone but you feels it makes no sense to continue and yet you persist. Investment bankers who have yet to begin shaving will offer you advice. Your spouse, your engineering manager (and her spouse), that cheeky long-haired fellow in customer support not to mention your suppliers and even customers will question, critique and challenge you.

So if you haven’t been called pig-headed more than once in your life or find you cannot last through one session of working through the “simple” income-tax form or are discouraged by having to make the same presentation for the 17th time, some work may be needed in this area.

If you answered in the affirmative to the passion and perseverance questions, you are ready to start a business.

Should you actually start one, your chances of being successful at it or even enjoying the journey, will be determined by your answer to the risk-taking question. Luckily, for us, unlike the Prince of Denmark, it’s a little easier to answer the question, “To begin or not to begin?”

This article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine in Dec 2007.

3 Things To Look for in a Co-founder

Co-founders

Photo: MyTudut

Almost soon as I made the case why you need a co-founder, a friend responded with the question “What should I look for in a co-founder?” While we’ve asked this question of both entrepreneurs and angels, here’s my take on what you need to look for in a co-founder.

Vision Match Building a business is often a long hard journey, and you want to make your that your partner or co-founder shares your vision. As setbacks occur (which they will) or when money seems hard to come by, customers leave, milestones slip or worse yet when things work, and especially when you seem to be making more money than you can keep track of, having a shared vision will ensure that things stay on even keel. If there isn’t a shared vision of why you are running your business and what it is you seek, as a company and as individuals, it will be difficult to survive every fork in the road that you’ll encounter. And you will encounter far more than you can imagine. So make sure your visions match.

Complementary Skills All too often we end up hiring or connecting with people who are just like us. While that’s nice, its far more important to find someone who has complementary skills – someone who’s comfortable talking to prospective customers or selling, if you are building a product. Someone who can manage projects or money, if you are out there focused on selling; someone who’s comfortable writing or documenting while you are out there hustling or building. Usually startups require everyone to be as hands on as they can, especially co-founders and it can really help, if they can do things you can’t or do them better than you can. So make sure that they not only have shared vision but can do things you can’t!

Honest & Open Communication The nature of startups is such that you will screw up. Heck so will your co-founder and more than once. So it’s important that your co-founder and you share a healthy interpersonal relationship – one not just based on mutual trust and but on honest and open communication. If you walk around each other, either too polite to raise uncomfortable topics or avoid conflict or confrontation at all costs, lots of important issues will not get sorted out in a timely manner and that’s something no startup can afford. So it’s really important that you feel comfortable around you co-founder that either one of you can raise issues that bother you and can be talked through to resolution. Only with honest and open communication can you keep one another honest, not to mention your business out of trouble.

Here is Sanjay Anandram’s take on what to look for in a co-founder

Meanwhile to make sure that  your prospective co-founder & you are aligned on

  • a shared vision of the company and its raison d’etre
  • what complementary value each of you bring to the table
  • talking openly and resolving matters through timely and effective communication

So go out there and find that co-founder. Good luck!