7 Simple Tips for Success from an Entrepreneurial Lawyer

One of the joys of teaching is the opportunity to invite guest speakers who bring their experience and insights alive for the class. The speakers have the added advantage of being a “guest” lecturer and their message not only sounds new but resonates well. I was fortunate to have Bea Wolpert, an amazing entrepreneur, lawyer and woman leader.  Over an hour, Bea in her inimitable style—reality laced with humor and self-deprecation—shared her own experience as a lawyer and entrepreneur as well as the stories of some of her entrepreneur clients. I realized her stories and insights serve well as advice for most prospective and practicing entrepreneurs. Here they are

  • Purpose Be purpose-driven – It’s well worth figuring out what are you passionate about. Pursue that passion rather than money alone – be it dog-walking, raising Labradoodles or being a chef or lawyer (all examples she illustrated)
  • Relationships Work on building authentic relationships – these take time and will pay off in spades
  • Give forward Focus on giving something of value first – people will automatically seek more and become customers. This could be a blog, seminar or webinar, free consultation, or samples at farmers markets – make it easy to buy from you.
  • Sales Recognize your job is selling – not just being a chef, designer, lawyer and learn to become good at it.
  • Numbers Business is about numbers – so the more you learn to understand numbers – costs, profit & loss the better off you will be
  • Commitment Be all-in. Don’t expect a bank (or anyone else, except a parent possibly) to fund your company or you, if you are not willing to be all-in and
  • Plan Whether a business plan for a bank, succession plan for yourself or a marketing plan for the company, planning is both important and will help.

3 Tips to Hold Fast To Your Dreams

“How will your company become a billion-dollar company?” An analyst at a venture capitalist firm, likely a freshly minted MBA, posed this question to me. I tried to keep my temper in check and answered “Never.” You’d think I’d slapped him across the face – “Then I’m afraid there’s no point in talking to us.”

I was a still a relatively new entrepreneur. It seemed like all I heard was NO. Worse yet, people kept telling me why it wasn’t going to work. Not just venture capitalists but prospective partners, friends, and relatives.

That’s when I learned that You’ve gotta Hold Fast To Your Dreams.

Even my father, a man who loved me, inspired me and most importantly lent me a lot of money had the “Talk” with me. “Son, sometimes businesses fail. Just because your business failed doesn’t mean you have failed.

If you have a wonderful and supportive wife, you are still likely to face questions – “Honey, I want you to pursue your passions. But I hope you realize we have two young kids and no income

You’ve gotta Hold Fast To Your Dreams.

In my case, there was a happy ending – my company first survived, then it thrived – okay mildly thrived and then we got lucky and we were able to sell the company for a tidy sum. Now you might think, “Nah Sri, you are just a lucky fellah.” And I’ll tell you I’m a lucky fella – but only because I held fast to my dreams.

It was film producer Samuel Goldwyn who said: “The harder I worked the luckier I got.

Is holding on to your dreams easy? No.
There will always be naysayers. People will put you down.
You will doubt yourself. “How do you know that you are not being just plain pig-headed?” You don’t.

Here are three things I’ve learned:
Dream BIG. And write your dreams down. Ask yourself why this is your dream.
Read biographies – read other’s life stories – those who have achieved amazing things. Most importantly,
Surround yourself with people who love you and care about you. But who will speak the truth and keep you honest

And Hold on To Your Dreams.


Two weeks ago I spoke and wrote about the inspiring story of my grandfather, who epitomized what holding on to your dreams can help you achieve. You can read it here.

Hold Fast To Your Dreams

As an entrepreneur, you are likely to face any number of obstacles. Worse yet will be the naysayers around you – people who don’t believe in you or what you are trying to get done. Even friends and family – well-intentioned as they may be will doubt, question and even actively discourage you. So it’s really important to Hold Fast To Your Dreams.

I realize that the challenges I’ve faced are hardly worth boasting about. My life has been one of relative privilege. But the lessons I’ve learned from my father‘s life and that of my grandfather, his father in law are a living testament to why you should hold fast to your dreams. I’ll share one story – that of my grandfather who Held Fast To His Dreams well past his nineties.

A rough start
My grandfather was born in 1902. His father died of tuberculosis barely two months before he was born. His widowed mother, then barely 19, moved back to her father’s home in a village in south-western India, another mouth to be fed. Then at age 2 my grandpa contracts polio. His left leg is permanently shortened. When it’s time to go to school, his grandfather says, “What’s this crippled boy going to do with school?” I’m sure he was not a cruel man, but those were the times they lived in.

My grandfather even at that age never gave up on his dream to making something of his life. One day the schoolmaster showed up at his grandfather’s house. “Why have you come?” he was asked. “Your child has been showing up in school, so I’ve come to collect the fees.”

More Deserving Candidates
When my grandfather graduated from high school, he had to come to the city for college. When he appeared for an interview, the head of the department told him, “You are a cripple. Why do you want to study science? You’ll not be able to stand up and do all the laboratory work. I can give the seat to a more “deserving” candidate.” My grandfather was not happy, but he did not give up his dream. He enrolled in English and tutored other kids to pay his way through school, even as he lived in a “Mission” home for poor boys.

By the time he graduated with a Master’s in English, my grandpa had been teaching & tutoring for several years. So rather than work for someone, he turned into a tutoring entrepreneur and eventually started his own private college – whose motto was “Under the Minerva roof, you are failure proof.”

Dream Achieved?
It looked like grandfather’s dream of making something of himself, and liberating his mother from poverty and dependency on others had come true. He was a renowned Shakespeare scholar – his Minerva notes were sold across the Commonwealth from Kenya in Africa to Australia in Oceania. He’d also gotten married and over time fathered ten kids – yep 10! Five girls, the fourth of whom was my mom and 5 boys.

Setbacks again
Just as it looked like all was going well, his wife died in childbirth leaving behind twelve kids, ten of his own and two grandkids. But as he was fond of saying “Ambition is made of sterner stuff.” He had his daughters and sons put through college and most of them married – more grandchildren were on the way, and it looked like normalcy was back. But a year after I was born, my grandfather was in a car accident, and he lost the use of his other leg and his right hand. Now at age 62, he was confined to a wheelchair and 100% dependent on others.

I think you can safely guess he still had things he wanted to do and he held fast to his dreams. He did not give up his dreams.

  • He studied classical Indian dance and became an expert who every dancer of repute consulted on their latest projects.
  • He built a house in which a wheel-chair bound person could live by themselves – this was in the early 70s.
  • He became an educator for nurses who worked with the “handicapped” as they were called then.

By the time my grandpa passed in 1995, chess grandmasters, dance divas, Sanskrit scholars and hundreds of others’ lives had been touched by him. And the thousands who’d been through his college eulogized his memory.

I can’t think of a better example of what “Holding fast to your dreams” can achieve.

 

Dreams

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow

Langston Hughes

Is Success Even the Right Metric?

“How can I be as successful as ….?” This is a question, that not just my daughters ask, but many of the young people I meet. Of course, this gives rise to the question “What is success?” No two people define success the same way.

While I’ve read and heard a variety of definitions, I feel, VR Ferose, the former Managing Director of SAP India said it best. Success is personal and often about yourself. To the young man who is the first in his family to have attended or graduated from college, that is a success. To the security guard at his company who’s the first, from his village, to have landed a city job that’s success. To the young woman who became the CEO of a tech firm, success is attaining that post.

So doctors, engineers, lawyers, politicians all believe various things that they have achieved or seek to achieve as their success. But is success even the right metric for our lives?

I’d argue, as Feroze did that day, that impact, what impact are we having or will have on others lives is a far better metric. Unlike success, where the focus is on you and your accomplishments, impact is about other people. “She’s created over 200 jobs, as an entrepreneur” or “He’s helped 30 kids graduate from college.”

Does this mean we should quit our jobs or not pursue “selfish” goals such as running a startup? No, absolutely not. But we should revisit how we measure what we do, what we believe as success in ourselves and others. Entrepreneurs are among the greatest contributors to society, whether simply as inspiration to others or in creating real impact on the ground it terms of wealth or job creation,

Does a Babajob, create new economic opportunities for those in the disorganized service sectors? Hell yeah! Does Vaatsalya enhance the quality of health care and life for folks in Tier 2 & 3 towns? Certainly. I’m sure you can think of many more. Of course, their being financially viable as a business is important to deliver the impact that they do. However, measuring or celebrating entrepreneurs and their companies as a success merely because they raised a round or their founders are cool is both limiting and unimaginative.

So what is the impact you and your organization are going to have today?

8 Secrets of Success

As the father of two teens, there are many moments when my children ask, even implore, me to “Just tell me what to do!

As a parent, it’s hard not to TELL your kids what to do. Of course there are far more times when they don’t want to hear the things I’d like to share with them. Mentoring entrepreneurs in many ways not that different from raising teens – you’ve gotta resist the urge to tell them “the answer” even when they ask for it and you’d better get used to your advice not being adhered to or at times even heard.

That of course never stopped me as an entrepreneur, mentor or parent from sharing, lessons and insights that I never cease to learn. Even while urging kids or entrepreneurs to focus on impact and the journey, rather than “success” – the question of how does one get to be successful comes up all the time. Luckily better men than me have grappled with this issue and here’s a short (3.5 minute) video that answers this very question. For those that prefer to read over watching a video, however short, I have provided a short summary at the end.

The eight secrets are

  • Passion – be passionate about what you do (& the money will follow as Marsha Sinetar put it)
  • Work – work hard but have fun. As Richard St. John puts it, be a workafrolic and not a workaholic!
  • Focus – focus – on one thing is critical to being successful
  • Persist – persistence is an attribute that comes up consistently
  • Ideas – be creative and constantly come up with new ways to think & do
  • Good – practice, practice, practice – so that you get good at what you do
  • Push – you have to push yourself, past doubts & doubters, obstacles to be successful
  • Serve – be of service, whether with your business or product or in life

Are We Celebrating India’s 10,000 Entrepreneurs

“What does Anand Mahindra winning the entrepreneur of the year award mean?”

I hadn’t realized the same question had also been lurking in my mind until my friend raised it. Before I could really wrap my arms around the issue, he continued.

“Does it make sense, that in a nation of a billion folks, and likely a million plus businesses, that the leader – even one as successful as Anand Mahindra – of a 65-year-old company wins the entrepreneur-of-the-year award?” he asked. “You would think they would be able to find a smaller, up and coming company.”

And this came from an ardent admirer of Anand Mahindra. It set me thinking – never a good thing on a Monday morning.

Mr. Mahindra has many firsts and successes to his credit, be it his magna cum laude from Harvard, his growing the family business into a global powerhouse in tractors or his leadership of corporate India whether at Davos or on twitter (@anandmahindra).

A little further digging into (yep, I Googled) the entrepreneur of the year award revealed that previous winners included Kumar Mangalam Birla and Ratan Tata, both leaders of multi-billion dollar businesses founded by their grandfathers.

To be fair, the judging criteria of this particular award included global impact and leadership in addition to the standard business metrics. Past winners also included first-generation entrepreneurs N.R. Narayana Murthy of Infosys and Sunil Bharti Mittal of Bharti Airtel. Yet some others stuck in my craw.

It was around this time, that I got a call inviting me to speak at an entrepreneurial event called “Unpluggd” (no, it did not involve any acoustic guitars). Unpluggd was billed as a different event, namely one featuring only practicing entrepreneurs sharing their experience with an audience of entrepreneurs.

I am glad that I let myself be persuaded to speak at the event. I learned more from the other speakers and the more than 200 attendees – most of whom were practicing entrepreneurs – than they likely got from anything I said.

The first and foremost takeaway for me was that entrepreneurship, not merely of the tech variety but of every kind imaginable, is thriving in India. And entrepreneurs are getting started at ever-younger ages. A majority of the attendees were under 30 (Yes, I asked).

It was the audience that made this event electric for me. A fair number of the attendees came from engineering backgrounds, though some graphic designers and finance folks were also present. Most were already running a business full time with a couple having even scaled to more than $1 million in revenues. If there was an area that could have been improved, it was that less than 15% of the attendees were women. Then again that’s probably higher than the percentage of women CXOs in the BSE 500.

The speakers included folks running businesses ranging from corporate hospitals, online bookstores, mobile phone apps, bus-line ticketing and even a restaurateur. All of them were first-time entrepreneurs that spanned the funding spectrum – from completely bootstrapped, through angel-funded all the way to venture capital-funded. Most of the other speakers were yet to hit forty (I was a notable exception) or even thirty-five. The stories – and dare I say wisdom – that some of these folks shared with total candor and very little jargon was refreshing. And this was just one Saturday in Bangalore.

With Open Coffee Clubs, Saturday Startups and The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) events, there are signs of an entrepreneurial revolution brewing in India. And these are just the visible urban, mostly technical or professional group of startups. At the National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN), we’re helping thousands of students start businesses each year (full disclosure: I work at NEN), many of them in India’s Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities.

Meanwhile in Ajmer, Rajasthan, in Panruti, Tamil Nadu, in Shillong, Meghalaya, in Wardha, Maharashtra and many such places, young people are pursuing their entrepreneurial dreams. The story of these yet-to-become Karsanbhai Patels and Sunil Bharti Mittals, their experiences and journeys need to be heard, shared and re-told.

The mainstream media is far too busy celebrating the already arrived, regardless of how late they got there. As a mentor remarked, we should quit looking into the entrepreneurial rear-view mirror and look forward to the road ahead.

All too often we hear that only Bollywood and cricket sells in India.  But there are other sports and stars – be it our chess champions, our women boxers, snooker kings or trap shooters, not to mention our hockey and football teams. It’s also important to recognize that there are a million entrepreneurs struggling and thriving, not only the billion-dollar barons who seem to hog the printing ink.

Nasscom’s product conclave and several other nascent entrepreneur forums are a small step in the right direction. India needs its own version of the Inc. 1000 to recognize, encourage and celebrate its toiling entrepreneurial masses. We could call it the “India 10,000.*”

I am sure Mr. Mahindra would agree with me.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in Wall Street Journal in May 2010.

postscript
Two years on, after I first wrote this article, NASSCOM launched their 10,000 startups program in March, 2013. NextBigWhat, organizers of Unpluggd have themselves partnered with NASSCOM.

Dedicated startup sites, including YourStory.com, NextBigWhat and startup-focused weekly coverage have arrived at all major business papers, including, Economic Times, Hindu Businessline, and Mint.