Building an Enduring Great Company

Published January 1-4, 2021


Time at Netcore

2020 will leave a lasting impact on many of us. Many of us have never stayed at home for such an extended period of time. This availability of uninterrupted time allows deep thought and introspection. An answer to a simple question like “How are you?” comes as “Okay – so far” bringing to the fore uncertainty and mortality. Few of us expected this when the year began. In January 2020, I was in the US – my fifth visit over a 12-month period. Little did I know then that it would be my last for a long time. My deep thinking usually happens on long international flights – it now happens in the comfort and safety of my home.

One of the themes that I have spent time thinking about is Netcore’s future. Until early 2019, I was very peripherally involved in Netcore. My attitude then was – let’s keep running it for now, and then maybe sell it at some point since my interest was more on bringing political and economic change in India through the Nayi Disha activities. Creating another venture in the tech space did not excite me – bringing something to scale from scratch is a 10-year commitment, and I did not want to go through the hard grind of a startup again.

After I shuttered Nayi Disha in February 2019, I increased the time I started spending at Netcore. For the previous decade, my obsession had been transforming India and so my involvement in Netcore had been light. Now, it slowly increased. It was back to basics in terms of understanding how exactly we solve business problems. I saw a full demo of our Smartech product after many years. And as I sat through reviews and understood the present and future world of B2C Martech, I fell in love with what we did as a company. The events of 2020 deepened my interest in the future of marketing and how more availability of data would transform it even more. Peter Drucker’s words – “the two most important functions of a business are innovation and marketing” – came back to me. Marketing as a function would always be there. As Netcore, we were right in the thick of the action. So, why not keep building?

And as has happened so many times in my life, I came across a book that felt it had been written just for me.


Timely Books

In late 1994, as I struggled trying to figure out what to do when my nascent ventures had repeatedly failed, I came across the just published “Competing for the Future” by CK Prahalad and Gary Hamel. I was on a longish visit to the US in search of my own future. As I read the book, each page resonated and spoke to me. And I engaged with a book like I never had. Over two days, I read every page, highlighted key sections and embellished it with Post-Its on which was written the IndiaWorld business plan.

When I was thinking about the set of activities for the 2014 election campaign in Niti Digital, I came across “Victory Lab” by Sasha Isenberg. That is where I learnt about political science and the use of data in campaigning. The ideas in that book became my business plan for Niti.

Books have had an amazing knack of appearing in my life at just the right time. That is perhaps why I continue to buy more books than I can read. I have always believed that books speak to us – if we are prepared to listen. Words come alive, a connection is made to the authors even if one has never seen or met them, and the ideas in there change our minds. Before YouTube videos and podcasts, there were books. And they are still there – waiting for us. It is just that in a world where time has fragmented to the space between notifications, reading books has become a rare use of our time.

And in my home life in late 2020, another book came written just for me and the moment.

Somewhere during the lockdown days of 2020, the idea of “building to last” started taking hold. For the first time in my life, I had started thinking of the long future. IndiaWorld had lasted five years before I decided to sell. Netcore’s first decade when I was involved was a period of low growth. In Netcore’s second decade when it grew, I was in a different world as a political and prosperity entrepreneur.

I was now thinking about what next for Netcore. We had done all the hard work in getting past the obstacles that young companies face to grow. Why give it up now? Why not continue building? As long as we could maintain a good growth rate, why not keep it going? If so, how could we do it? What did it take a company that could not just survive and thrive for a long time?

As I contemplated Netcore’s future, a new book entered my life.


Jim Collins

I saw a reference to a new book by Jim Collins in Shane Parish’s weekly newsletter, “Brain Food”. I was surprised – a new book by Jim Collins? I had not heard about it. I was intrigued. “Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0” (BE 2.0) beckoned. The first version of BE was published in 1992 – and I had not been aware of it. I had bought and read at different times all of Jim Collin’s other books and monographs – even though I never understood the depth of the ideas since the business I was running was too small or, as in the later years, I was less interested.

As I started reading BE 2.0, I felt my thoughts being played back to me. The timing was uncanny. The question I was wrestling with was exactly what the book answered. “How do I, as a leader, take my mid-sized enterprise and build an enduring great company?” As I read through the preface to the first edition (which is at the end of BE 2.0), I deeply connected with the premise: “This book is about how to turn an existing enterprise into an enduring great company. We’ve written it for people like Jim Gentes—people who want their company to be something special, worthy of admiration and pride. Our focus is on helping them build an extraordinary organization, one that sustains high performance, plays a leadership role in shaping its industry, rises to the status of role model, and remains great for generations. If you’re the leader of an enterprise that you want to turn into a great company, this book is for you.”

This book was indeed for me. As I started reading it, I also decided to do something different this time – listen to Jim Collins in his own voice. Over two days, I heard nearly ten hours of his podcasts – conversations with Michael Costello, Brene Brown, Shane Parish and Tim Ferris. Many of the ideas I had read in his previous but not fully absorbed came back to life – Level 5 Leadership, Hedgehog Concept, The Flywheel, Stockdale, Paradox, Bullets and Cannonballs, 20 Mile March and BHAGs.

As the world of Jim Collins’ writings enveloped me, I decided that I will do what it takes to make Netcore an enduring great company. In our third decade of existence, I would lay the foundation for the future – an ambition beyond wealth for myself; an institution with a purpose; a greatness with longevity. It would not be an easy journey, but one I was ready for. I had to also persuade our leadership team and everyone else that it would be a journey worth undertaking. Even as we focused on the weekly, monthly and quarterly, we would start laying the foundation for making Netcore an enduring great company. Our guide would be Jim Collins and his Map.


The Map and a Course

Chapter 6 of BE 2.0 brings together three decades of Jim Collins’ research and multiple books into a single strategy map.

BE 2.0 explains each of these concepts and provides references to further reading across the other books. As I delved deeper, I realised that this was not a “hero’s journey” that I could undertake by myself. I needed to get others on board. And from that seed, I decided to craft a course for Netcore’s leadership team – so that we could read, learn and do together. Here is the course outline I decided on – based on the recommended readings from Chapter 6 of BE 2.0. The one addition that I did to Jim Collins’ works was to add a module on capital allocation from “The Outsiders” by William Thorndike – another book which has had a lasting impact on me. Our class would meet every even week, with the odd week being used for self-reading.

The course will begin shortly – an appropriate adventure to kickstart 2021 and a new journey: to build an enduring great company. In the tech industry that Netcore operates in, it is not easy to survive and thrive against both global giants and nimble startups. My hope is that the very process of setting off on the path to greatness will make us a better people and a better company. And in our small way, it would be a nice homage to Jim Collins and Bill Lazier for their teachings if we can go beyond entrepreneurship to craft Netcore 2.0.