STARTUPS – Rewrite The Rules

Arvind Passey
23 April 2019

There are defined steps for every action. Even when you’re making an omelet you follow a set routine and wouldn’t sprinkle salt-n-spices after it is all ready and plated. It is the same while dressing up for office or a party. Try wearing your vest over your shirt or your socks over your shoes. No, these aren’t mad examples to confuse and bewilder because all that I’m trying to say is that even in the case of startups the first step in the right sequence will be the mind needing to be ready. The primed-mind comes before the more complex mixology routine of a startup can be initiated.

What is a primed mind?

Some believe it is a B.Tech from one of our IITs that primes the startup grenade in the mind. Some find an MBA to be hiding the source for this startup bug. Will belonging to a sound business family help? Will having mastered suave networking skills matter? Will deeper insights into technology give that edge so necessary to successfully launch a startup? Does language become a show-stopper? What is it that primes a mind because it is the mind that decides to take that final plunge.

I know many who have spent decades dilly-dallying and could never quite find the courage to give life to their startup dreams. Many took the plunge but quickly swam ashore. And many just perished. It is true that there were more than 1200 start-ups in 2018, including eight unicorns in our country that has seen a grand total of around 7200 startups so far, according to NASSCOM. It is equally well known that nearly 90% of startups in our subcontinent eventually fail. The reason attributed most often is an appalling lack of innovative push. The subliminal fear associated with risks is another factor that the Randstadt report pointed out, specifying that ‘while in love with the idea of becoming entrepreneurs, 76% of Indian workers said the risk of failure is too big – a figure 22% higher than the global average’.

A primed mind, I believe, is one that has transcended traditional norms of education. Kirat S Anand, founder of KAS New York is convinced that you have a primed mind if you ‘know your woman, your market, your clients, and your limitations, and then work on pushing those limits’. Ayyadurai, the founder of Innovation Corps & CytoSolve feels an Indian ‘can galvanize Innovation by simply looking back to its own history and its culture of collectivism, working together, and families supporting each other.’ Rahul Kothari from PayUbiz has reportedly said that ‘innovation paves way for new business models, improving customer experience, leveraging value propositions, opening new markets, and launching new products; which in turn results in growth of the organization.’ There are others who swear by dictums like ‘customer is the only king’, ‘integrity is the essence of my business’, ‘motivation to rewrite the future of the human race’, ‘focus, focus, focus’, ‘transparent communication’, trust and so on. The list of inspirations for jumping on to the startup bandwagon is virtually endless. The more I read what entrepreneurs and startup innovators have said, the firmer is the belief that they have all gone way beyond the conventional education. It isn’t as if degrees and doctorates are futile and do not help. They have been the base on which empires have been built. All that emerges is that it is as much possible for a semi-literate person away from all the wise trappings of universities and institutes to launch a successful startup as it is for a Harvard educated, superbly networked brilliant mind who has all the rules of business in place.

Quite obviously, a primed mind matters. And one of the finest catalysts for a primed mind is an idea whose time has come.

Do I need to lock myself up in a garage to get the best startup idea?

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates did just that. In fact, I know for sure that even the CEO of PT Education, Sandeep Manudhane, started from his family garage and built a formidable chain of coaching centres all over India. All I need to do is look around and I find that it isn’t just Flipkarts, Shopclues, and Swiggys pushing hard to become immortal in the startup battles… we have a much larger number of not-so-savvy and never-went-to-Oxford individuals who have converted chole-bhature (Sita Ram Diwan Chand) and tikkis (BTW) into massive chains following all the norms that any successful startup would care to implement. Startups aren’t always about fancy technology and incomprehensible concepts that hover around AI… they can very well build their own castles around hawai-chappals, ball-point pens, masalas, and even sanitary napkins. We’ve all watched Padman, the movie, and know that though startups may not need Princeton to prime a mind, they do need to reach out to insights that may not necessarily reside in text-books.

It is always one brilliant idea that works. No, this idea doesn’t necessarily have to be something that the world hasn’t yet seen. For instance, when Nitin Soni decided to launch HalfCrow or Dipankar Mukherji decided to launch Readomania, one could easily have turned back to say, ‘Hey! There is nothing innovative about starting another publishing house.’ But even this needed a roomful of business ideation, awareness of online markets and systems, website development, app development, team management, leadership, networking with talented individuals, vision… and yes, the zeal to convert another me-too idea into a successful enterprise. Both Nitin and Dipankar are busy rewriting the rules in more than one way… for instance, Readomania launched India’s first composite novel, HalfCrow is developing a niche in genres that the established publishing houses do not accept. Look at what Juggernaut is doing. Chiki Sarkar and her team of creative individuals aim to redefine reading and writing for the digital age. This startup has already made a far more formidable impression than many Goliaths in the industry.

However, it isn’t as if traditional knowledge and a sound education from established institutes and universities isn’t important. If you think Prashant Kulkarni, the creator of Gapagap brand having 80 types of bhel, 27 types of chaats, pohas etc under Chatar-Patar is a semi-literate chaat-wala, you’re mistaken. He holds an MBA besides having a fair understanding of how businesses run as his family business involved manufacture of tubes for automobiles. UmangDua and Oisin Hanrahan quit Harvard Business School to create Handy book, enabling ‘handy’ services from cleaning to plumbing to painting in some cities in the US. Pankaj Chaddha from Zomato has IIT, IIM, and Leeds School of Business added to his qualifications. He has now quit Zomato but retains his 3.11% share which amounts to over 237 crore. Naveen Tiwari who founded InMobi in 2007, is an alumnus of Harvard Business School. Housing dot com was co-founded  by a group of twelve IIT-B graduates. Phanindra, Sudhakar, and Charan of RedBus, started in 2006, have their educational links with BITS Pilani. Sachin and Binny Bansal founded Flipkart and are from IIT-D. Bhavish Aggarwal and Ankit Bhati who co-founded Ola Cabs are IIT-B graduates.

If you haven’t yet heard of Ventatesh Iyer, founder of Goli Vadapav, you really need to read his book ‘My journey with vadapav’… or at least log on to my blog (passey.info) and read my review of this book. This book does give insights into the spirit of startups and is full of ‘illuminating moments and clarity of vision… and this one does it all with chutney, lettuce, and chilli. After all, it is the vadapav surge that is being chronicled here. I loved reading the book because it happily adopts phrases like ‘chappan-tikli-banyaan – that is, a vest with multiple holes’ and words like ‘item, pudi, goli, pakya, rapchik’ that are ‘born on the footpaths of Mumbai’ to connect them all to vadapav marketing, making the product ‘resonate with the spirit, ethos, and contours of the city’. Thus the one vital lesson that I, as a writer, learned from the book was to remain in a close loop with local language, culture, and expressions.’ Ah! So here we have some more aspects so essential for the one who is dreaming of launching another startup.

The push that ideas need

Idea. A brilliant idea matters. A brilliant idea popping up at the right time has more power than a thousand nuclear explosions.India is full of startups with ideas that have made a mark… Tripoto, Urban Ladder, Make My Trip, Craftsvilla, BuyHatke, Viral Curry, Thrillophilia, PayTM, and Dineout are just a few mentions. At one seminar I happened to talk to the founder of a web travel portal and asked him if he could point to the most important factor to be nurtured by those who dreamt of entering the startup pitch. ‘You just need to start somewhere,’ he said, ‘ideas and opportunities don’t start on their own and they need someone to push them into being.’

I persisted, ‘What about formal education? Degrees from IITs, IIMs, and any other renowned institute?’

‘They help. Certainly. In fact, everything helps. It helps if you know people in power. It helps if you have money backup. It helps if you manage to hire talented people at the right time. It helps if your initial communication clicks. But more than anything else, it helps if you stop debating and get going. Start.’ It is the proactive force applied by the one who gets the gift of an idea that matters… or else, the idea will possibly wither and disappear.

Well, the objective truth is that the proactive force that I’ve just mentioned isn’t limited to the person who is going to ride the idea and turn it into a successful startup. There are others equally involved… and we know the way funding, government policies, doddering market research, chasms in technological innovations, lack of skilled work-force, and business models that were outdated have been utterly unfriendly to the notion of startups. The past, in short, does not have a pleasant history for the entrepreneur spirit.

With venture capitalists angel investments stepping in, banks getting a broader outlook, ease of doing business improving with new legislations in place, laws and regulations lending a hand of support, market research getting faster with the internet coming in, and with concepts like crowd-funding being born, the spirit of innovative startup management has certainly got the added push it needed so much. Not that everything is charmingly tempting yet, but the possibilities aren’t any more defined as impossible and improbable.

Now that we know that an idea pushed out in the open competitive world is what matters, the next question would normally be: ‘Who are these wonder people who ride a mere idea believing that they will reach someplace?’

One study points out that despite people like Kiran Majumdar Shaw in the arena, only about 25% happen to be female entrepreneurs. More than 35% happen to be in the 50-59 age bracket with only 4% in the 18-29 age category… and I’m sure this must have come as a rude shock because most people go with the conviction that thinking out-of-the-box was only possible for twenty-somethings. I was surprised to discover that less than 16% had a Masters degree and most never went to college. The biggest reason for riding a new, risk-oriented and untested idea was the wish to be one’s own boss with the wish to convert a passion into a profession following closely. Contrary to what I assumed to be the truth, a massive 77% started with personal funds – so does this mean that the angel investor isn’t as angelic as we all believe? Bank loans form a large part of the funding source as does borrowing from friends and relatives. By the way, this study also pointed that 46% of businesses fail because of incompetence.

What is incompetence?

Is incompetence related to RBI, the SEBI, Niti Aayog and Ministry of Finance not understanding the ‘critical difference between ownership and controls’? Is it the unearthly time lapses that critical strategic technological innovations take in reaching our shores? Are our educational institutes incapable of producing future-ready and tech-savvy thinkers and doers that the businesses can absorb without having to invest in time and other resources to make them unlearn all the junk snippets that has been stuffed into their minds? Has incompetence of businesses anything to do with work ethics in the bureaucracy? On a more abstract front, is it learning the wrong motions and notions or the ability to unlearn all that undoes that causes incompetence tsunamis? There are times when I feel that any form of doubt is the biggest incompetence… and if even one little shudder of doubt enters the being of an entrepreneur the entire acceleration of the spirit of a startup can be lost forever.

 

A 2018 article published by Quint says that ‘over the next decade, we could see a 13x growth in the e-commerce market, 4x in digital payments, and 4x in smart internet users. That’s a humongous growth which could be harnessed and controlled by local entrepreneurs, provided the blank expressions on Indian policy makers’ faces are replaced by a can-do spirit to empower and liberate the architects of digital India.’ Taking a cue from this, I can say with a certain degree of confidence that any pause or deceleration in the can-do spirit of an entrepreneur is what powers incompetence. And doubt generally creates a pause.

What is evident all around is that most of the diverse forces (and these include the ones that have their sources in all things fiscal, political, social, as well as subliminal) converging proactively and helping startups in more than one way. As things stand today, there are no formulas or to-be-followed norms and traditions because every startup can be compared to a trekker on a route that nature changes every few years, if not months… and this comes with the need to rewrite the rules again.

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