The Entrepreneur Life

Tag: Lessons

Keep your needs simple – Lessons from my dad

Bench

Photo Credit: visualpanic via Compfight

“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 idlisambar – 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.

Keep your 

  • 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

Thanks dad!

Experience Matters – Lessons from my dad

“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!

My father would have turned 85 yesterday.


Photo by Aleksandar Popovski on Unsplash

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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Capt Kirk’s Leadership Style – Is it right for entrepreneurs?

Capt Kirk

Photo: pds209 cc

A casual search of the blogosphere, with the words “Capt. Kirk” and leadership spews a long list of largely positive descriptions of Capt. Kirk’s leadership style. In fact, a secondary school principal, has actually written a referred article on Captain Kirk, His Leadership Style as a Model for Principals in the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) Bulletin!

For those of us old enough to have caught William Shatner as Capt. Kirk, admiration is usually the first response (especially if we were lucky enough to miss the priceline.com ads – I had to move out of the country for this). Capt. Kirk cut a dashing figure – a man who surrounded himself with smarter folks (Spock the scientific officer, Bones the Doc and Scotty the engineer), always prepared to lead from the front and always got the girl! I am sure I am not the only 40+ fella who wished he were in Capt Kirk’s shoes, when we first encountered him.

Albert J. Bernstein and Sydney Craft Rozen, in their book “Dinosaur Brains – Dealing with All Those Impossible People at Work” speak of cheering Capt. Kirk as he staved off an attack by the Romulans, even as he just recovered from a problem of rapid aging. “What a manager!” was their first feeling. Then they began wondering “Or was he?” They go on to say:

In our culture there is some confusion between management and heroics. The distinction is quite simple: The hero handles everything single-handedly; the manager delegates. If a manager is indispensable, is he or she really managing?

What is true for managers is truer (in spades) for entrepreneurs, who inevitably are in leadership roles which they play all too often from Capt Kirk’s heroics’ handbook! I am certainly competent to speak, having been an adrenaline junkie till recently (others may argue I still am) – always charging off (in my strapped sandals, we don’t have much use for steeds, white or any other color) to solve problems. Luckily having great people around me, who were neither shy nor too polite, cured me off this, I’d like to think. However, as Capt. Kirk himself has shown, having good people (“Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor not a miracle worker!”) around is not a sufficient reason for not falling into the “I’m here and will take care of everything” habit.

So stop for a moment and take a look at the ol’ mug in the nearest mirror and ask yourself “Am I a leader or merely a hero?

Mentors – why we need them and how do you find them?

Storytelling

Photo Credit: Bindaas Madhavi via Compfight

The day I turned forty, it was as though someone threw a switch – I suddenly became incredibly smart! The reason I know this is ‘coz that’s when I realized, what an absolute idiot I had been for a great part of my adult life. Since then, hard as it might be to imagine, I think I am growing smarter still, as I continue to unearth stuff that had been staring me in the face, but I had obviously chosen not to acknowledge let alone learn from it. But then again, as the old adage goes, “If youth knew or age could…” the world would be a different place. One of the reasons that I made it this far without constantly tripping myself, is because I was singularly lucky in having a series of incredible mentors, who coached me, encouraged me and where needed placed a firm boot on a rather well endowed portion of my rear!There’s a whole another series of posts required if I begin with my earliest mentors (my materal grandfather and paternal grandma) – so I will skip them in this one and stick with my professional mentors starting with the most recent ones. Before I wax eloquent, let’s step back and try to answer some basic questions.


access and
availability, no axe to grind and
real-world experience are the key criteria
for someone to be a good mentor

Who is a mentor? The dictionary, as always has something to say about this – “A wise and trusted guide and advisor” – in other words, someone you trust and knows more than you (if you are like me, nearly anyone else) can be a mentor. In my view, availability and access, no axe to grind and real-world experience are the key criteria for someone to be a good mentor. In hindsight, I have been surrounded by such folks.

What does a mentor do? A mentor often advices or cousels you. But there’s more to it than that. A lawyer advices or counsels you. For instance, she can tell you the pitfalls of doing a certain deal a certain way. However, while you may learn about your options and their consequences, you are not necessarily in a better position to make the right decision. A mentor focuses more on the HOW, than the what, you do something or get something done. He ideally teaches you and guides you while you learn something by doing. In many ways its apprenticeship by the hour or the minute! Any good manager of yours can tell you what options you have or the consequences of, confronting a critical but intransigent team member. Your mentor will show you how best to go about it, to achieve the desired result at the least emotional and business cost to all concerned!


A mentor focuses
more on the HOW, than the what,
you do something or get something done


Why do we need them? Simply put someone needs to keep us honest – hold up a mirror to us and not let us get away with taking the easy path. Advisors, experts and professionals can all augment and make up for any gaps in our competencies or domain knowledge – however most times we hire them for their services (inputs) but retain the prerogative of whether to act on them or not. A mentor need not be different – but a good one will be, in that they will ensure [a] that you act and [b] that you act in enlightened self interest – the greater good so to speak. There will be times, regardless of our job role or even in our personal lives when decisions will have to be made, and the people you’d usually consult themselves will be stakeholders in the decision. In such an instance you’d want to go to someone else whom you trust but is not a stakeholder. Of course finding such a mentor, unlike looking for the flashlights after the lights go out, is best done before you need them.

someone needs to keep us honest –
hold up a mirror to us and
not let us get away with taking the easy path

Mentors can be people who are already in your personal and professional lives. That way the trust and relationship already exists and if there is mutual respect, familiarity need not prevent the necessary candor for successful learning and growth. Chandrasekaran, the chairman at my first start up, despite having been a somewhat formal advisor in my previous stint at Sasken and subsequently becoming a good personal friend, served as one of my mentors. Whether handling things in my personal life (now you know who’s responsible for the mess! NOT!) or intransigent customers (I am sure you have never faced this!) and most importantly in learning and I hope, mastering cash flow management, Shekar was an invaluable mentor. Similarly my partner in crime, co-founder and CTO Baskar (who’d be embarrased if he read this not merely ‘coz he’s decade(s) younger than me) talked me through so many self doubts (what? I never have any) and showed me the true meaning of unflappable (I have it written down somewhere) that he has been one of my subtlest mentors yet.

Mentoring can happen in a nanosecond, as in when Mr. Raghavan our angel investor, told me “Go for it – only when you take risks you are going to make things happen and learn” as all of us were agonizing over entering the retail business. And it may happen over months or years, as I realized has happened with my dad and me. And any number of ways in between – the only definitive is that you will be a better person for it.

So stop reading this, recognize the people who you’ve already been mentored by, call ’em up and thank ’em. If you can’t think of any, what are you waiting for – go out and get yourself at least one.

Entrepreneurship Series – Hindu Business Line

Thanks to my grandfather and numerous teachers along the way, reading is one of my greatest pleasures – and even today, while allegedly busy working, I manage to read one maybe two books a week. In my callow youth I felt, that any one who reads either self-help or how-to books must be somehow wanting. Luckily somewhere between ages thirty-two and thirty-five, I seemed to have gained my senses. And here I am today, practically bursting with lessons learnt from my grandfather, mother and father and a slew of mentors, a few I that I have met in person and a whole lot I have only encountered through their writings.

Running an entrepreneurial, cash-strapped, people-intensive, technology business is the surest way I know of having utter decimation of any semblance of ego – yet surviving the pounding each day and actually thriving and growing is probably the biggest boost to one’s ego as well – do it long enough and a true state of non-duality can be reached. I am not there yet – but along the way have learned a few things and reckoned its my turn to share with the world. With that in mind, I began writing a series of short articles, that are now getting published in the Hindu Business Line on alternate Mondays. Today the third in the series has appeared.

Business is about people
When most people talk about starting a business, they are thinking about commerce — buying and selling. At first glance, business appears to be about that. The street hawker who sells vegetables off his cart or the corner boot polish is indeed doing just that. Even in the case of these single-person businesses, people, usually in the form of customers (and occasionally as investors or moneylenders), are critical to their survival.

However, any business that does anything more complex very rapidly becomes all about people. Particularly for entrepreneurial ventures, it may seem that it is only about people. Make no mistake, capital, cash flow, products, marketing and sales are all important; yet these play the same role for other businesses including your competitors. Your people are what will separate your business from the pack. Full article here.

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