Published January 5-9, 2021
We all know when we are “in the zone” – where we find ourselves intensely productive, where we are in a state of absolute concentration, when the best ideas flow. It is as if we have shut ourselves from the outside world, and there is no distraction to our thinking. The thoughts and actions just “flow.”
For me, there are two times when I am in flow. First, the early morning time. Sitting in a chair after I wake up near a window staring into the darkness outside and listening to the silence, I let the ideas come. The mind plays back the previous day, I go through my notes, and tap into my sixth sense to consider the points that stood out or the ones I missed. Dots are joined, the pieces of the jigsaw start to form a whole. The second time is when I am on long flights – especially if the journey has begun during the morning, when I am much more fresh. Sitting in the airline seat with my notebook knowing that there are many hours before I will physically move frees my mind to think in ways which are not possible while sitting on a computer with notifications on!
Flow was named by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. As he describes it in his book: “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Positive Psychology lists the 8 characteristics of flow:
- Complete concentration on the task;
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
- Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
- The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
- Effortlessness and ease;
- There is a balance between challenge and skills;
- Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
- There is a feeling of control over the task.
Here is more from Wikipedia:
In any given moment, there is a great deal of information made available to each individual. Psychologists have found that one’s mind can attend to only a certain amount of information at a time. According to Csikszentmihályi’s 2004 TED talk, that number is about “110 bits of information per second”. That may seem like a lot of information, but simple daily tasks take quite a lot of information. Just decoding speech takes about 60 bits of information per second. That is why when having a conversation one cannot focus as much attention on other things.
For the most part (except for basic bodily feelings like hunger and pain, which are innate), people are able to decide what they want to focus their attention on. However, when one is in the flow state, they are completely engrossed with the one task at hand and, without making the conscious decision to do so, lose awareness of all other things: time, people, distractions, and even basic bodily needs. According to Csikszentmihályi, this occurs because all of the attention of the person in the flow state is on the task at hand; there is no more attention to be allocated.
The flow state has been described by Csikszentmihályi as the “optimal experience” in that one gets to a level of high gratification from the experience. Achieving this experience is considered to be personal and “depends on the ability” of the individual. One’s capacity and desire to overcome challenges in order to achieve their ultimate goals not only leads to the optimal experience, but also to a sense of life satisfaction overall.
The state of “flow” is very important for all of us, and especially for entrepreneurs. Faced with multiple challenges and an array of choices at all times, it is important to winnow down the options and make the right decisions – especially those that are consequential and irreversible. This needs absolute focus and self-awareness. Each one of us needs to create this space for flow – be it sitting, meditating, running, or anything else that works. It is in these moments that entrepreneurs can imagine and create the future.
Steps and Stones
There are two Chinese quotations that nicely capture the journey of an entrepreneur: “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” and “cross the river by feeling the stones.”
The first step is often the hardest. Because it means leaving something else behind, and starting off on a journey which is unknown and where the destination may not be reached. So, there are many doubts that flood us as we prepare to take the first step. Should I do it? What happens if I fail? What am I giving up? Why should I do it? What don’t I know? Can I really do this alone? How long will it take?
In my life, I have started on many such journeys. Only in a few did I reach the destination. In all cases, the first single step was taken with great optimism and planning. And yet in many of those passages, I ended up wandering off lost and lonely. It is hard to track back one’s steps and begin again.
The entrepreneur’s journey is a long one. Rarely does success come – and rarely does it come overnight. It is truly a journey of a “thousand miles.” It is done one step at a time, one day at a time. And each day, the entrepreneur must wake up with the same passion and positiveness that was there at the start. Because each day has to be navigated by “feeling the stones.”
The quotation has an interesting origin. Writes Colin Hanna: “It is generally attributed to Deng Xiaoping, who used it as a metaphor to describe China’s approach towards the reform and opening which kicked off at the end of the 1970s. On one side of the river was China’s closed, Marxist, centrally-planned economy. On the other was an open, liberalized, market-driven one. China hadn’t crossed this river before, and so would need to do so slowly, thoughtfully and carefully, by feeling the stones.”
For the entrepreneur, on one side of the river is the world as it is today, and on the other is the world the entrepreneur seeks to make. The flowing river is what the entrepreneur has to traverse – one step at a time, feeling what lies underneath, constantly improvising, and yet with each step, getting closer to the bank of success. There will be many cross-currents that will push in different directions. For the entrepreneur, the stones (obstacles) are the guide. Adversity needs to be turned into advantage; the challenges need to be embraced.
The steps and stones capture the essence of an entrepreneur’s life. And as one charts the path, one has to like the feeling.
I often get asked about Netcore’s culture, how did we define it and how do we maintain it. It wasn’t an easy question to answer in the early days because I never really understood what culture in the context of a company was or maybe because there were many other things to worry about. Or maybe because we were small enough that whatever I as the founder did became the culture. But over time, as the company grew, I realised there are some underlying things that define us as a company and need to be explained, reinforced and transmitted. Just as countries and their people are defined by their culture, so too are companies.
Every company culture needs an ideal and a story-teller. In Netcore, the ideal has been Kalpit and the story-teller has been Bhavana. Kalpit, our present CEO, has been with the company since day one. He has risen through the ranks, served in different positions through the years, and rose to the top as Netcore’s third CEO in 2015. Kalpit embodies the spirit of Netcore – humble, humane and yet determined to win. He is very much a people’s person in as much as I am not. Success has not come easy for him and Netcore. It has been a gritty journey through the years – and it still is. Competition comes from many different corners as companies tread on each other’s territories. Netcore has survived and thrived in the midst of all this. Kalpit – like Netcore – has grown with each passing year.
Company culture can be described in words, written on walls, and spoken in speeches. But it only acquires salience through the actions of the leaders at the top. It is what they do and not what they say that matters. Their actions are what drive behaviour of everyone else. And that is why every company needs an icon – a person others can learn from. In Netcore, Kalpit is that symbol of our culture.
Culture also needs a story-teller – someone who can talk about the actions and spread it through the teams. Bhavana is exactly that. She is a natural – when she speaks to the new joinees during the induction programme, she brings to life the atmosphere of Netcore through the stories that have made Netcore live through 23 years. Bhavana brings that touch of family and familiarity. She can connect with people across all levels. No person is small, no problem is insignificant. Conversations are full of anecdotes that reinforce the nature of Netcore. That is how culture spreads – one interaction at a time, one action at a time.
Of late, I too have been doing a bit. I have started a monthly “Ask Rajesh Anything” interaction – an open house where Netcorians can ask any question that they have. These sessions have given me an opportunity to speak about my past and Netcore’s origins – and of course, the future. I have always strived for an open culture, and this is another way of showing it in practice.
For entrepreneurs, culture becomes important as the company grows. It creates the glue that binds people together. It motivates them to do that little extra that can be the difference between good and great. So, ask yourself, who is your company’s ideal and who is the story-teller?
New Growth Platforms
As a business, it is very important to seek out new growth platforms – especially in the fast-changing world of tech. In Netcore, if we had stuck to our original product line of Linux-based mail servers, we would have long been dead! What we have done is to look at new opportunities for growth. Netcore today has two significant growth platforms: CPaaS (communications platform as a service) and martech (automation and personalisation). Even as both have plenty of room for expansion, my belief is that we will need to add one more in the coming years.
A 2006 Harvard Business Review article discusses new growth platforms: “We identified and approached 24 companies that had achieved significant organic growth and interviewed their CEOs, chief strategists, heads of R&D, CFOs, and line managers who had delivered material growth to their companies. We asked these executives and managers the same basic question: “Where does your growth come from?” And we found a consistent pattern in their answers. All the companies grew by creating what we call new growth platforms (NGPs) on which they could build families of products, services, and businesses and extend their capabilities into multiple new domains. The platforms provided a framework in which acquisitions served less as a direct driver of growth and more as a way of acquiring specific capabilities, assets, and market knowledge. These are not small, fledgling ventures that might be funded by a business unit or an encouraging executive. The scale of the platforms is strategic and material to the corporation.”
A graphic in the article explains the idea of new growth platforms:
Investing in new growth platforms will come through envisioning the future. What does tomorrow’s world look like? What will our customers want? What do current trends and consumer behaviour changes point to? What bets do we as business make to prepare for the future? Answers to these questions lead to decisions on build-or-buy decisions for the next growth platforms.
In 2014, a colleague, Veer, first mentioned the word “martech” to me – marketing technology. He had heard it in a conversation with a customer. Veer’s belief was that Netcore needed to move up the stack from communications to offering customer engagement, and martech was the core for that. Veer and I then attended a Martech conference in Boston, and that began our journey into the world of marketing tech solutions. This became our second growth platform to complement email and SMS solutions that we already had as part of our communications suite.
The search for new growth platforms is a constant one. Proficorn entrepreneurs need to spend time in this search – because their business can be one mistake away from obsolescence (or becoming part of the “living dead”, as I keep reminding my colleagues.) For the founder / CEO, identifying where tomorrow’s growth is going to come from is as important as meeting this year’s growth targets. It is this search and discovery which keeps the excitement, adventure and journey going. And one way to make that happen is via acquisitions.
Some years ago, I had gone to seek advice from a wise and successful business person. My question to him was: how can Netcore grow faster? His one word answer was: Danaher. (Of course, he elaborated on it later.) I had not heard of Danaher till then. His key point was: to grow, you will need to think of acquisitions. You will not be able to build everything in-house. Danaher is one of the world’s best companies that has figured out how to make acquisitions work.
Here is a brief from Andrew Banovic: “Danaher’s business model is pretty simple, despite its continued success. It basically acquires and operates manufacturing companies. And not just one or two acquisitions each year. Over the last 30 years, Danaher has completed over 400 acquisitions. Not necessarily shiny brand-name companies, rapidly growing companies, or companies that need turning around. Simply companies in growing markets, without large competitors, where they can use their operating model to provide a competitive advantage. Because of their specific brand of value investing, they typically stay away from flashy markets and well known companies, basically because they don’t want to pay a premium for a name.”
This is from a strategy+business article in 2015 where Danaher’s executives speak about their approach to acquisitions:
Our approach to finding acquisition targets was 20 years in the making. It started when we decided we would not wait for Goldman Sachs to call us with their prospects. Instead, we did our own up-front research into prospective markets and started to build funnels of names of companies to buy and industries to enter.
Other companies try to make one perfect bet. That’s a risky way of letting senior executives with no experience sit on a lot of cash. Instead, we continue to explore many acquisitions and bring a significant number to fruition. When you acquire frequently enough, you learn what to do and what not to do. You develop skill at assessment and integration, and you learn to hold these assets over a longer time than might happen in private equity.
Our main criterion: Through this acquisition, can we ultimately become one of the market leaders in that industry? That typically requires that we pick up one of the stronger brands or assets within that industry, and that we generate at least as much value as, if not more value than, the current owners do.
We have a very disciplined M&A process. It starts with having a clear sense of what markets we find attractive. We look for large global markets with good growth profiles and generally low cyclicality. We also look for the ability to develop sustainable competitive advantage through a brand and intellectual property. We also look, obviously, for good profitability and low capital intensity. If we don’t like the market, we don’t bother looking at specific companies.
We do 12 to 14 deals a year and turn down 10 times that, so we’re doing 150 due diligences a year all over the world. We do extensive due diligence on each one. Our pre-acquisition investigations, especially on the finance side, are designed to dig up, expose, and share every bit of risk, making sure we all know what we’re getting ourselves into. If something looks scary, let’s make sure we sit around the table and figure it out or walk away. We try to be patient and not to get emotionally tied to any particular investment.
For proficorns, acquisitions can become a powerful lever of growth. Danaher is perhaps one of the best companies to learn from on how to do acquisitions right. Just one piece of advice: as you evaluate companies, look for a cultural fit also, especially with the founders of the target companies.