“Most Entrepreneurs are fake – or simply confused”, was the opening line to a talk that I gave at a recent event in Delhi to a room full of entrepreneurs. That could have been a recipe for disaster, saying such stuff to supposed entrepreneurs, and when the exit to the room was way past all of them. Darn.
The audience of 200 odd individuals, with aspirations and dreams bigger than the world could possibly contain, fell silent for a minute hoping for me to say that I was just joking. I wasn’t though. Let me explain:
My Good mentor had two things to say: One was the question that he haunted me with for almost a year. “Success in one in a million”, he would say. The question to follow was as to whether I would still want to be an entrepreneur. One could possibly win the lottery with such oddds, he would add.
In today’s world with such feel good movies and books on entrepreneurship, such questions sound at best, outdated, doesn’t it? He even managed to go find some out-of-print books, stating tales of entrepreneurs – extremely well skilled and the best of intentions, who still ended up broke. That, was a wake up call. (For those interested, pick up a copy of Nevil Shute’s Slide Rule).
The equally weighted statement that followed, and was often repeated was this: “There is only one rule with startups”, he would say; “Birds fly, Fishes Swim and startups die.” While I gasped for breathe hearing those words, he would utter the words that were wisdom crystalized: “It takes a miracle to build a startup, and to make it succeed”
“Its nothing short of a Miracle”
Think about it: A startup is everything against nature and the oddds. You are a team of two, if blessed one or two more – with nothing more than a brilliant idea (which, incidentally is not worth much). You have every possible resource under constraint and you have to take on the world. Miracle, might be too gracious of a word.
I believe the world has rather glorified the nature of an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs are who they are, and even after knowing the stark and bleak reality before them still dare go out to change the world, because thats the only way they know how to live. To want to become an entrepreneur, is madness. If at some point in your life you realize that you are not an entrepreneur, my advice is that you look up to the stars, thank God for it, and go off to live your life. Entrepreneurship is not a lifestyle, its the way that you are wired, and the only way you know how to live. Jerome S. Engel of the Haas School of Business, at Berkeley put it as, “Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity beyond the resources you currently control”. I think he was being really nice and diplomatic there. There is lot of luck, hard work, timing and hustling involved – even beyond which at times, things fail. Honestly, they most probably will.
“Genius and Madness: Whats the difference?”
I’ve often come across amazing entrepreneurs, who at first sight, were mistaken for those with a loose screw in their head. Genius resembles insanity; and its extremely hard to differentiate the two at times. The saying goes that “Everyone is a crank till the idea succeeds” – It couldn’t be said better. I strongly believe that entrepreneurs and Artists are very much alike in their thought processes – both have the innate ability to create something out of nothing. What is stuck in their head most times is a reality that is only relevant and known to them and no one else quite gets it, till it can be seen functional in the realm of reality. I am surprised when Entrepreneurs are shocked that investors are not investing in “Ideas” – these supposed madness which only exists in their head. Seriously? You are?
If that is the truth, why do people willingly choose to become an entrepreneur? I doubt, this is something that can be taught. It can be imitated to some degree, but when push comes to shove, reality would reveal itself.
“Know your core”
Time and time again, I also see entrepreneurs get priorities all wrong: Everyone is waiting on that big idea. The entrepreneur, the substance he or she is made up of is what is the core of it all. What follows closely second is the insight into how things work. The product or idea is the secondary derivative of the first two. Get that right. Invest all the time and energy that you possibly can to strengthen that core.
“Stand where you are, Spin and create a vortex”
Entrepreneurs never crib as to where they are. Whether they live in New York, Silicon Valley, London, Estonia, Bangalore, Tokyo or in Shimla, real entrepreneurs find a way to make their mark. I’d even dare say that they are the only ones who are capable of making that mark. They carry that insight that no one else does, to make it work. The insight is what accelerates that product-market fit that everyone keeps talking about these days. Insight drives adoption, and forms the basis for your marketing strategies. Everything you can possibly think about in terms of execution and a clean cut one at that, is built on the insight of an industry and the problem. What do you know that no one else knows about? That’s where it all begins.
If you look at any successful entrepreneur, its rarely that they had the world handed to them in a platter. No matter where they were, if what one is working on is indeed novel, and is really looking to disrupt the way as we know it, it will demand that the whole world change itself – just a little bit – sit up and take notice. There is never going to be an “ecosystem” that is waiting for you to show up and do your magic. Real entrepreneurs,.. eh entrepreneurs, are capable of creating vortexes where they stand. They are the Archimedes of the present generation who, with a lever and a place to stand can move the world. Even when it looks like they are standing in the middle of a barren dessert, they can spin so fast, that they can attract like-minded people around them, challenge the norm, polarize people and make the world take notice. While they are at it, they’ll even manage to sell it to them.
“A skill mastered never goes to waste”
Most of these fabulous folks are also skilled. I’d never in my right mind bet on someone who is not an expert at atleast one thing. Great Entrepreneurs almost always have more than one skillset. They can code, they can design, they can sell, negotiate, speak, write, hustle – and its in various combinations of what’s known and unknown.
Step back for a minute here and think about it: To create something – not transform as what Newton talked about, but to create – from scratch, is almost an act of God. To bring into life something that never existed before; That doesn’t happen so easily. In the Indian mythology, all Gods have multiple hands, and it is supposed to signify the multiple facets of their personality, and character. There might be something of ancient wisdom in that to draw upon, and to learn that to create something, you almost can never have enough skills. If you are one of those kinds that flaunt that you can’t crunch numbers even if your life depended on it, you will very soon realize that entrepreneurship will hand you that opportunity. Be prepared.
“Bury what is dead and is past its time”.
A dead child in your hand is still going to start rotting away and stink. If its dead, the only question to ask is to find a way to bury it, and move on.
“Do we practice Shiva enough?”
A colleague once asked me that question. What caught me puzzled at first, led me to an ephiphany soon enough. Indian mythology states that there is the God of creation and the God of destruction (and there are plenty of Gods for just about everything under the sun – perhaps signifying everything has its place). Nothing ever gets created out of thin air, but in most cases is a better version of what existed before. If that is the case, without destroying something, what can you really create? In a recent TED talk,Economist Tim Harford talks about how we need to abandon our God complex and realize that the most elegant of our solutions arrive by trial and error. A wise man once said “if we are scared to experiment, then we must also admit that we aren’t open to innovating”. Its a rather abused word, and i’d avoid it if I can, but the statement couldn’t be more right. If you are running a startup and its been years and there is no light at the end of that tunnel, perhaps its time to admit that something is wrong and the Universe (or logically, the Market) is trying to say something. Learn something out of it by having a moment of introspection and rise up from those ashes. I am at times amazed as to how many different variations of that simple truth is expounded to us through all the various traditions – that death is the foundation of life, as long as it through its life had contributed for something better. In other words, Iterate, evolve and accelerate that cycle. If you do it right, and if you are a fast learner, it will look like what you unveil, came out of nowhere – and almost out of nothing.
“Evolve Holistically. Monster or Perfection”
While you are at all this, ensure that you evolve holistically. a well rounded entrepreneur has several things going on for them, and has to evolve in several fronts: The product, The business model, the team / company and in you as a person. Invest and focus in all of them – don’t start looking like that guy from Night Shyamalan’s movie “Lady in the Water”, evolving just one bit of your body and ignoring the rest.
“Everything in its time”
Take your company through the stages that it demands. You are not rambo, so don’t attempt to go in guns blazing. Anyone who looks at your business and day one and can’t see scale should be hit in the head with a paper, and greeted with a “DUH”. Models as I mentioned earlier, evolve over time, and startups have phases that they go through. Cross the stage of assumptions, to the stage of strengthening your value proposition, to the stage of modeling scale and then you’d face the challenges of ensuring that you can manage profitability and margins as you grow and then comes the function of non-linear scale. Each of this is a challenge at different timelines of an enterprise. To want to have answers for all of this on day -1, or expecting to, is just ridiculous. Sooner or later you will manipulate the excel sheet trying to do that – and since it can’t fight back with you on reality, you’ll dupe yourself into a vicious reality. Its even worse when you get funded on the basis of that. Don’t.
“You sure You Know the Product?”
“Remember at all times” said my mentor, “That the entrepreneur is the final product. Everything that you do, the skills that you possess, the skills that you groom, the products that you envision, the enterprises that you create, the networks you build, all are adding up to one final product – You.”
When put that way, you’ll realize that backing an entrepreneur who doesn’t have the necessary skills is like equipping a tool which doesn’t have the features to get the job done. Never shy away from learning a skill. It is the quirks and skills (at times not at all related to the task at hand) that fuel out-of-the world ideas. Ahti Heinla the founding architect of Skype, mentioned in a conversation that the reason why the quality of sound was a crucial element for the team, was because he was an audiophile. How do you ever factor that into a requirement document? Never. As an entrepreneur, it helps to fuel your eccentricities and nitpickings.
Before I forget, Yep I know that I started off with a controversial statement that most entrepreneurs are fake. I’d still stand by it. I believe most are misguided. There are raging discussions that I have come to witness where there are definitions for an “accidental” entrepreneur drafted, and businessmen and traders wanting to be part of the entrepreneurial club. Back off for a second and ask yourself one question: Have you ever created something out of nothing? Think long and hard. If you are honest with yourself, most of us will realize that that’s a question to answer over a life time, definitely not even over the experience of building one or two companies (Its Sheer luck, if you can). Someday when our time is near, and we reflect on that question, we just might be able to say yes – we took something that was just a radical idea stuck in our head, created an invisible vortex, and created something that didn’t exist before and when it came to life, it changed the world as we knew it. That’s the sign of a true entrepreneur. If you know anyone like that, I’d love to say hello.