Published August 4-8, 2020
Many who have seen me comment on my spiral books filled with my notes and how I seem to be forever writing in them during meetings. Much to the chagrin of my family, I take those books even for social meetings. I had to stop taking them to movie theatres and weddings after my wife Bhavana read me the riot act! My solution was to carry a folded paper in my pocket. My contention: ideas can come anywhere and so I need to write them down. This way, I don’t forget and also keep my mind clear.
There is a method to my madness of writing things down. In meetings, it keeps me focused. As I make notes, I remember better. I don’t drift into my own faraway world. I also find that some of the better ideas come when my own thoughts interplay with what I hear or say in a meeting – and it’s best to capture them as they flow. A little later, and I may have lost the context and the idea.
Over the years, I have seen many entrepreneurs with a similar mindset. They may all use different tools – iPads, a smartphone, a tablet or a notebook. I find it quite astonishing when I see the person I am meeting not making any notes – I truly find it hard to believe that a person can remember big and small points of the meeting. I guess – to each their own.
I find there is a very important side-benefit of focused note-taking in meetings. While the big points will always be remembered, I find that it is the seemingly less significant points that can have a lot of value later when one reviews the meeting. An off-comment, a phrase, a reference – all can have value if used correctly. And these can become hard to remember later especially if one has a series of back-to-back meetings.
My preferred method is a 300-page spiral book – it is easy to fold, and because it has lots of pages, I don’t have to economise on my writing. I have a big stock of these books and seamlessly move to the next when one is over. I don’t often go back to the older spiral books – but they are useful in case a specific meeting needs to be referenced.
Think of making good notes like punctuality – good habits that make for a proficorn entrepreneur.
Chase Profits Not Valuation
Too many entrepreneurs start a new business thinking about the exit. There is a fancy business plan with big numbers (created to please would-be investors). And when there are investors, there is always talk of exit and returns. And thus it starts to become a valuation game. Once money is invested from an investor in a business, the game is on. Money needs to be spent and new money needs to be raised in the chase for a higher valuation. Little thought is given to the quality of the spend or the business model.
Chasing valuation is the wrong way to run a business. Valuation does not create the business model; it is the business model and growth that results in a valuation. The valuation is an outcome over which an entrepreneur has no control. What the entrepreneur controls is just the business.
In IndiaWorld, I had to focus on profits because I did not have funds or investors. And once we were profitable, while I did get incoming interest from investors, I was never under any pressure to do a deal. I was cashflow positive, profitable and had money in the bank. I could take my time and quote my price.
It wasn’t easy staying focused on profits because everyone else was chasing valuation. As such, there was huge spending on brand building that was happening all around me. It wasn’t easy keeping my head down and staying focused on the business. The pressure to raise-and-spend was there, but I knew that once I went down that route, it would be hard to stop.
Even in Netcore, we have followed the same approach. We do not skimp on the right spending. We stay focused on profits. Valuation is what will come when it comes. I always have a mental estimate when I am asked, but it’s not the chase. The focus is on staying profitable and growing them.
During the current pandemic times, this has worked out well. Because of our profitable and private foundation, we can take the long view and imagine the business we want to be in two years time, and work to build that. Had we been chasing valuation, then I would have had to perhaps spend a lot of time worrying about the impact of down-rounds and the need for cost cutting.
So, as a proficorn entrepreneur, stay focused on the profits. The valuation will come when it comes!
One Meeting, One Idea
I am reasonably open to meetings. I don’t say Yes to every request that comes, but if there is a referral from a source I trust, I go ahead and do the meeting. When I go into a meeting, I have one key objective: to get one new idea.
When one meets with different people, we see the world through their eyes. They have constructed mental models of the world. These are different from ours. So, one has to understand how they view the world because that will give us a new frame of reference which can provide new ideas. That is why it is important to have conversations, read books, listen to different people and put ourselves in different situations.
Meetings are for me the best source of new ideas. While I always have plenty of things to talk about, I do try and listen to learn. Each meeting is unique and goes in many different directions. A typical 60-minute meeting means more than 10,000 spoken words. That is a lot! Do 6 meetings in a day, and it is almost like writing a book.
My approach to meetings is three-fold: to listen, to be alert when something different and interesting is said, and to walk away with at least one good new idea. To listen means ensuring that there are no visual distractions – no emails, no Whatsapp, and the likes. My approach is to make notes – so it keeps me from getting distracted with my own tangential thoughts. When I sense something interesting, I mark it in my notebook so I can come back to it later – especially if I have a continuous stream of meetings which limit thinking time between meetings. Finally, either after a meeting or at the end of the day, I will review my notes to see which ideas stood out and how I can link them and enhance my own mental models.
So, go into a meeting with a simple objective: can you learn one new thing that you did not know. If you can do this, the meeting will have served its objective, and you will be better for it.
My first foray into writing started with a fortnightly column in Express Computer, thanks to the then-editor Venkatesh Hariharan. Those were the early days of the Internet – perhaps around 1996 or 1997. He approached me to write a long column on the Internet – 1500 words. That meant a full page in the tabloid-sized paper. Writing two columns a month meant that I had to think and explain ideas to others. It was the first time for me – and I agreed. It was perhaps the best decision I made – and one that has stood me in good stead through the years.
Around 1999-2000, I started my blog at emergic.org. I started a series “Tech Talk” wherein I would write a short new post daily – much like I do now. Then, I would also post links to other interesting readings. Over time, the “Tech Talk” phrase disappeared but the daily writing became a habit. I continued until August 2012 – when I stopped because I was getting too deeply involved in the political side of things, and I did not want to become the news because of something I wrote.
The blog format through those years is what I liked very much. I wrote for myself. To clarify my own thinking. Without worrying about who was going to read and what they would think. Without the need to be perfect. It was like I was speaking out my thoughts aloud and simply typing them out.
I never created a social media presence. I somehow did not like the short snappy comment format. I also did not want to write for others. If they read and benefited, that would be fine. But I wrote for myself.
When I look back on the years that I stopped writing, I realise that it was a mistake. I should never have let my writing cease, because that came at a cost of limiting my own thinking.
And so, I am happy now that I have started blogging again. The same format, the same mindset. The discipline of publishing a new post daily ensures that I have to keep the writing – and thinking – flow going.
For an entrepreneur, writing is a big positive because it helps clarify one’s own thinking and also communicate ideas to others. I don’t worry about whether the ideas are perfectly formed. My aim is to get them out there – because it ensures that I read and think about them. There will always be time for a new series later to improve on the initial ideas.
I think every entrepreneur should write a blog. Not just tweets or pithy LinkedIn posts. But write about one’s ideas and aspirations in real-time. Give people a glimpse into the world that you see. Because that is what you are really doing – creating a future ahead of others. And blogging is a great way to accelerate that future.
One of the hardest parts about being an entrepreneur is the decision to end a venture – the act of giving up. This is different from just failing. My view is that every entrepreneur is actually starting off with a high probability of failing and then goes to work to reduce the risks. Giving up is different – it is about the decision to end the venture. It is never an easy decision because it means firing the people who have been part of the journey and also separating oneself from the idea that one has lived through for the past few years.
The first time I “gave up” was in November 1994. I had come back from a 2-month trip to the US. I had gone with the recognition that I was failing in what I was doing and I needed to re-start, but did not know what exactly to do. It was during that visit that the IndiaWorld idea was born. When I came back, I knew I had to “give up” on my old idea of building an image processing software product. I had to reduce staff and start a new journey into a new and unknown future.
Asking people to leave was the hardest thing I had done in life till then. I still remember that afternoon as I sat on my desk, met with the few employees that I was letting go, and telling them that they will have no job in a few weeks. The shared dream was over. They were on their own. And in some ways, so was I.
I had to do this again in February 2019 when I shut down Nayi Disha. We had almost 40 people working on the idea of creating a movement for prosperity in India. But as the elections got closer, I realised that we would have no impact on the outcome. I could keep doing my videos but I was broadcasting them into the ether. No one was listening. I called my entire team and told them we were shutting down completely. There would be no Nayi Disha. I had failed.
It was one of the hardest things I did. For the preceding few years, I had dreamt of how we could create a pathway to prosperity in India by persuading people to create an independent voters movement. But I had made far too many mistakes. I did not listen to many who told me that I would fail. I thought I was invincible. Until, I was not. I realised that no course correction was possible. I was too far away from the destination. On a long flight back from San Francisco to Mumbai, I “gave up” – Nayi Disha was dead. And the sooner I recognised it, the better it would be for everyone.
It is only when one door is closed that new ones can be opened. If there is one learning I have, it is that in all my failures, I have clung on to the past much longer than I should have. Giving up is not a bad thing – creation happens after destruction. That is the way the world of entrepreneurship and innovation works. Give up to start-up. Let not the past hold back the dawn of a new future. But first, let the past go.