My journey through entrepreneurism-1: Successful failures and failed successes

I am frequently asked to share my experiences as a serial entrepreneur.  It has been one amazing roller coaster ride.  A decade and a half of start-ups and close-ups, of mergers and divestment, of sale and purchase, there is quite a bit for sure.  For me, it was one constant high that made me get up and rush to work and push myself more than I thought I could.

What drew me into starting a business was the need for excitement.  At the time I started I did not have any plans of building a large firm or organization or for that matter a brand .  All that I was looking for was an exciting time and yes more money than I was making at the job I had.  I could easily have gotten a better paying job than the one I had at staid old National Council of Applied Economic Research, but then I would have had to work in a corporate or even worse – a bank, perhaps even have to go through the horror of wearing a tie daily!  Entrepreneur-ism seemed like a safer bet.  I did not have the money to invest or the gumption to take a loan from friends or family.  So the business I started and grew was from the ground up, built on revenues earned through the business.  Not having a background in business – whether through family connections or through study, common sense and recklessness came together in a series of experiments and trials.  Some worked and many did not; life alternated between hellish and torturous with some moments of heaven thrown in.  But excitement was definitely humming in the air day and night for fifteen years.

That’s what I loved the most about being an entrepreneur. I was beholden to no one.  I had taken no one’s money or favours for starting my business, I had forced no one to give me resources or invest in me, and I could do what I wanted.  If the business failed, it was simply my loss and no one else’s.  My early  Indicus experience was therefore very different from most other entrepreneurs’, in that I was independent of investors, partners, creditors, or favors’ from friends or family, etc.  There was simply me with no responsibilities and a wide world out there to discover.  Yes, there were family responsibilities, customers, employees; and there were partners as well at later stages and they brought their own flavor to this dish.  And of course it does not mean that I am beholden to no one, or that people did not help out. But more on that later, for now let me concentrate on my journey and the fascinating world I discovered.

Management gurus seem to focus a lot on greatness.  A great business requires a great idea, great people and skill-sets, great management and great implementation.  And in the process it creates a great workplace, a great product or a service and over time a great brand as well.  That is all obvious, but much of it this knowledge is quite pointless.  The key question should be – How does this greatness come about in so many different dimensions simultaneously?  Actually it does not happen simultaneously or does not happen at all.  Most businesses, initially at least, are not great at everything they do, but they are good at one or two things.  The rest occurs over a period of time, and sometimes, it does not occur at all.  And business success is only faintly correlated, if at all, with greatness.

The second thing that the world seems to be infatuated by, apart from greatness, is success.  And I have a lot to say on this one!  Questions that are typically asked or answered are related to the one or two things required for a successful business.  Are they inborn or acquired?  Are they self-learnt or can be taught?  And finally is figuring them out a science or an art?  I will answer these questions over the next few monographs, and my answers will not be the usual that others and experts on management or entrepreneur-ism tend to provide.  I will try to first show that these questions are the wrong ones to ask.  But simply put, the success or failure of a business needs to be judged on the criteria determined by the entrepreneur’s objective, but many times if not mostly, even the entrepreneur is not aware of his objective, or for that matter his own inclinations, strengths or weaknesses.

Economic theory rests on the importance of entrepreneur as the core driver of a free economy.  But it knows little about the force that drives the entrepreneur.  The micro-economics that I had studied failed miserably in the test of real world experiences. Each entrepreneur is different from others in many ways, and this gets reflected in their businesses as well.

Typically businesses are judged by company sustainability, profitability or buyout.  But that’s not the right way to judge them. I have been involved in 4 start-ups, of which three were financial success (Indicus Analytics and LiveM Communications became profitable fairly quickly and Juxt Consult was bought out later, based on a great concept), and one was a financial failure (Indicus Netlabs).  Of the three that were financial successes, there was a failure on the sustainability front in one, as a partner decided to go his own way taking most of the clients and businesses with him (LiveM Communications) leaving nothing but costs for me to handle, and I dont know about performance of Juxt Consult after my equity was taken over.  And therefore of the four new businesses, three either had a buy-out type investment or succeeded financially.  But the one that failed financially and had no investors (Indicus Netlabs) – lasted the longest!  Which of these were successful businesses?  Depending upon the criteria for success all, some, one, or none!  I will come to this point about success and failure again towards the end of this series.

Finally, many entrepreneurs make the mistake of treating their start-up as their child, and see their own success or failure in the success or failure of their start-up.  At the risk of digressing, children are independent entities of their parents. Though they may carry their DNA and even have grown in an environment defined by the parents, and benefited from resources provided by the parents, they may gain from their parents’ karma or even suffer due to their mistakes, but nevertheless they are different from the parents.  The amount of stress created around start-ups would fall dramatically if we stopped treating them like the children and the entrepreneur as the parent.  At the same time, we would have a nicer more humble world when entrepreneurs and those around them stop ascribing business success to the entrepreneurs success and even greatness!

In what follows, I will share what I saw from the viewpoint of an entrepreneur.  We will together take a long route into the entrepreneurial mindset, that of the employees, partners, customers, friends, family, and host of others that a start-up is defined by, or comes in contact with.  The special considerations and personal traits combine to create a unique environment for each start-up, where the only common element is one of anticipation and hope.  Read on, give me feedback, and have fun!

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