Published July 27-31, 2020
An Advisory Board
When one is running a business on a day-to-day basis, it is easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Each day brings with it new challenges to be solved. One is deeply involved in every aspect of the business. Failure often becomes personal – because one is the engine driver in a train wreck. It becomes hard to hold people accountable – because everyone is in it together. You as the leader are part of every decision, so the responsibility for failure is yours. This is especially true in the early stages of a venture.
When Netcore was struggling to grow, I decided that I needed an outside-in view. I wanted a couple of people who could provide a view at a higher-level, and question me and the team. (Since I had no external investors, we did not have a formal Board.) It was then that I decided to set up what I later called the Advisory Board. It started with one member, and has since grown to 6 members. They have no fiduciary responsibility. We all meet once a quarter for 4-5 hours where the management team presents the quarter’s performance and the plans. It has worked very well in bringing discussion and debate which did not exist earlier.
The Advisory Board is now intimately familiar with the business and the team. They bring in their own experience to give us suggestions on what to do – this is something I lack since my only external work experience was 30 years ago! There is a good mix of expertise in our Advisory Board – management, strategy, financial and marketing.
As for the team, they present the numbers and plan as if we were a listed entity – because one day we will be. This creates a discipline of ensuring targets are given – and hopefully met. For the management team, there is not just an oversight (other than me) but also insight (on what can be done better). These quarterly meetings for the past decade have been a major factor in Netcore’s growth.
I would strongly recommend an Advisory Board for every entrepreneur at an early stage. Get a few people you respect and who have diverse industry knowledge. And then make it a discipline to do the quarterly reviews. This additional layer will go a long way in identifying mistakes early and reducing the prospects of failure.
During the IndiaWorld days when we were a small company, I used to often think about my day job as fire-fighting. I would wake up every morning and make a list of the 10-15 things that needed to get done for the day. And then, reality would hit! Something or the other would come up during the course of the day, and before I realised it, the day was over. Looking back at my list, I would find that I had barely done a handful of the tasks that I wanted to – and another dozen or so new tasks would get added to the list! That’s the feeling one has to like as an entrepreneur. Over time, I have come to realise that the ToDos list is an infinite one. It will never be over. The important ones will bubble to the top and get done.
But to make that happen, the entrepreneur needs “me-time”. It is time when you are alone and with yourself. No people, no meetings, no phone calls, no emails, no Whatsapp. Just you. Solitude. So, you can focus on the flow that’s coming, reflect on the meetings that have happened and the ideas that came, tap into the inner sixth sense to know when there is a new idea that is germinating or something bad that needs to be stopped.
In the past few years, the me-time bubble has become harder to come up. There are so many distractions that beckon. There is always that next urgent task that needs to be done. And before you realise it, life has become a clickstream of such tasks which while useful will not give the elevation needed for take-off.
That is why it is important to create contiguous time and a comfortable space for me-time. You have to get comfortable with yourself and solitude. Let the mind wander. I typically sit in a chair with my notebook and let the ideas flow. I think better when I write. For you, it may be walking or exercising or anything else. Whatever it is, each day needs a me-time slot. Because there is no one else in your company who can do this better – connect the dots, feel the new opportunities, think of the future. Your me-time may not ensure success, but lack of it can definitely stunt or kill the proficorn.
Entry and Exit
An entrepreneur has a good sense when to enter a business. What is not so clear is when to exit.
I faced such a decision in late 1999. I had unsuccessfully tried to raise venture capital many times over the preceding few years. And then, suddenly, almost against the run of play, I had two acquisition offers on the table. I had been looking to just raise some capital so I could keep running my “forever business.” But now I faced the prospect of selling. The offers were good – way beyond what I could ever have imagined. But giving up my entire business for money? I had not considered that eventuality.
I had toiled hard for a few years growing IndiaWorld. Even vacation time was filled with thinking about what to do next. And there was so much to do. I never imagined myself doing anything else.
I had hired DSP Merrill Lynch as my investment banker to help me raise some capital so I could better compete in the marketplace. We were profitable, but the game in 1999 seemed to be shifting from passion and profits to capital and cash-burn. I was going to have to adapt. Profits were too small for me to make the large investments the business was inevitably going to need down the line.
I was confused. It was then that Hemendra Kothari, DSMPL’s Chairman, gave me advice that I have given many others. He sat me down one day and said, “Rajesh, in a business, even more important than knowing when to enter is to know when to exit. The valuation that you are getting today – it will be difficult to get the same again for a long time. You have many ideas. Sell this business and build others. You will have the freedom to do many other things in life if you do this deal.”
Those words of Hemendra bhai – “know when to exit” – turned out to be prophetic. A few months later, the stock markets tanked and a long dotcom winter began. Even though I didn’t know it then, it was his wisdom that saved IndiaWorld and perhaps my future.
So, for proficorns, there will be a moment when they may have to decide – continue to build, or sell and move on. At these times, one will have to keep the emotional aspect aside and remember those words from Hemendra bhai, “Even more important than knowing when to enter is to know when to exit.”
One of the good things that the lockdown has done is to make us Indians punctual! There is zero travel time so no traffic excuses. All one has to do is to click a link to join a meeting from home – so it becomes harder to be late. “My previous meeting ran over” can only work so many times.
Punctuality has been part of my DNA since I can remember. I don’t know when it began. Maybe it was because I grew up listening to BBC World Service radio – and news on the hour wouldn’t wait for me to switch on the radio!
I find my early attention on punctuality quite surprising since I haven’t worn a watch since I was 12 years old. (I had an old Favre Leuba wrist watch in school, and I lost it on a picnic to Gorai Beach – it fell out of my shirt pocket and got washed away with the waves. I was so upset with myself then that I decided not to buy another watch.) I soon learnt to estimate time quite accurately and realised that I didn’t need it – even in the pre-mobile era.
Punctuality is a personality trait. You are either punctual or not. There is no halfway house. And it is not difficult – one has to factor in a little buffer for meetings. You cannot expect others to be punctual if you are not. Of course, there are some unavoidable situations – in which case the host needs to be informed, even if it is a matter of a minute or two delay.
In business and in life, punctuality helps. It can be seen as a proxy for reliability and willingness to keep commitments – if you cannot be on time, what is the guarantee that you will honour a contract. This may be a bit of exaggeration, but given that many people neglect being on time, it becomes easy to stand out.
Starting meetings on time is the right thing to do – else you penalise people who are punctual. The “let’s give the others a few minutes” line is ridiculous – what it actually means is “it was stupid of you to come on time because the later-comers will decide when the meeting starts.” This attitude can easily spread to other aspects.
An entrepreneur needs many things to be successful – punctuality is one of them.
I am not much of a finance person – except for one thing. Tracking cashflow. Because if there is one sure way a business dies, it is because of a lack of cash.
I cannot read financial statements and haven’t bothered to learn how to analyse balance sheets and P&L statements. But what I always track is the cashflow. Cash is the oxygen of every business. Without cash, you cannot pay salaries or vendors. And that creates a negative spiral from which it can be very difficult to recover.
It is possible to be profitable and yet have cash challenges if you do not get your payments on time. In India, this is especially difficult because of four issues. First, customers take their own sweet time to pay – 90-120-150 day payment cycles are not uncommon. Second, salaries, rents and even some vendors expect to be paid on time. Third, statutory payments to the government have to be made on schedule. Fourth, because rule of law doesn’t exist in India (justice delayed is justice denied), higher write-offs are a reality of life.
What this means is that the business needs some working capital. That can either come from past profits or one has to raise it externally. Growth also requires deploying additional capital since there is a gap between money coming in (later) and money going out (early).
That is why in IndiaWorld I was very keen to make the business cashflow positive as soon as possible. In the early days, subscriptions and website development fees sustained the business until advertising took off. We kept a sharp eye on our cashflows to ensure we never would get squeezed for cash.
I had learnt these lessons in my childhood – writing a daily cash diary for my mother. Each month, my father would give her a certain amount for household expenses. At the end of each day, she and I would sit and write down all the day’s expenses under different headings and calculate the amount left for the month. This way, there would be no surprises until the next cash inflow came when my father got paid at the start of the following month.
No proficorn can be built without attention to cashflows from the early days. And once there is a cash buffer available, keep it safe in liquid investments so it is always accessible. Take the risks in business, but not with your hard-earned cash.