Published on June 22-26, 2020
Explore and Experiment
I have seen many people and ventures fail because they were too rigid about sticking to the original business plan. This is not to say that the plans are not necessary – they are important to get one started on the journey. But after that, one has to continuously evolve. To date, I spend a few minutes every morning thinking about what I learnt in the previous day and what I need to change in our business approach.
I remember a meeting I had in 1997 with the CFO of a global tech company which was considering an investment in IndiaWorld or one of our competitors. Here is my recollection of how the conversation went:
CFO: I need to see financial projections for the next 5 years.
Me: I don’t have the projections. I can barely tell you what our numbers will be for the next year.
CFO: I need those projections before I can make an investment decision.
Me: Ok. Here is what I can do. Tell me the numbers you need to see in year 5, and I will fill out years 1 to 4.
CFO (shocked): What do you mean?
Me: It is such a fast-evolving world. There is no way I can tell you with any degree of certainty what the future numbers will look like. But what I can tell you is this – I run this business as if my life depends on it. I will make sure we succeed. I have stayed ahead of every competitor for the past 2 years. Whatever new ideas come, I will be the first to do them. This is a life-and-death business for me. But there is no way I can give you any believable projections for the next few years. No one can.
The meeting ended shortly thereafter. As expected, I did not get the investment while my competitor did. I had the last laugh when IndiaWorld was acquired for $115 million in November 1999!
My approach to running a business is to always be on the lookout for new ideas – how can I make it better daily. Some ideas will work, while some won’t. Unless I explore and experiment, I will never know. In IndiaWorld, we launched 13 portals – 4 succeeded, 9 did not. I would never have known which ones would have worked unless I was willing to try. That’s how proficorns get created.
In the early days of a venture, the only asset the entrepreneur has is passion. The entrepreneur has a vision of tomorrow’s world, and this must be transmitted to others in meetings. “Infectious enthusiasm” is the entrepreneur’s greatest ally for getting the first employees and customers.
When I started IndiaWorld in late 1994 it was after a series of failed ventures over a two-and-a-half year period. At times, I doubted myself – would I ever be able to do anything right to succeed. But when I went out for meetings, I was a different person – high on my passion for what the Internet could. I had to make others see the way I saw the future. And it worked. I had no track record, no connections, and no mentors. But I had an inner drive – I had an idea of what the Internet could do, and I shared it with high energy in meetings. I knew that it was “do-or-die” and I had been through enough ‘deaths’ in the previous years!
The one thing that has always stayed with me through my entrepreneurial career is my passion. I have failed many times through this period. But I take up every new idea with a zealous fervour. Even now, as I have been working from home, I am making daily presentations over Zoom to CMOs on how Velvet Rope Marketing is the key to unlocking a new world of profitable growth. It is harder to show one’s passion over a video conference in a small window on someone else’s screen, but I use my voice and hand gestures to convey my enthusiasm.
In the early days of a venture, there is no product – just a dream. Passion will pull in people, who will chart the path to profits. The entrepreneur has to inspire through tough times that will inevitably be the norm in the startup period. People follow leaders, and for every leader, the starting point of the proficorn journey is passion.
Learning to Learn
Nothing that I learnt directly in the classrooms of IIT or Columbia University prepared me for my entrepreneurial ventures. My degrees were in Electrical Engineering. My first ventures were in software. What I learnt in every course over the five years of undergrad and grad education was how to learn. Every course was like opening a door to a new world. All it took was a few months of immersion to imbibe new topics.
When I began my Masters at Columbia University in 1988, I decided to take a course in the Computer Science department in Operating Systems (OS). A knowledge of programming and C was a prerequisite, and I knew neither. My advisor told me it would be impossible for me to do the OS course, given that I also had four other courses in that semester. I decided to go ahead – realising that I would probably have to spend a disproportionate time learning the basics of C. I had taught myself BASIC when I was in college and my father had bought a computer in his office in 1983. I figured another language couldn’t be that difficult.
I was wrong in the early days. My first test in OS resulted in me being the lowest in the class. I was advised to drop the course. But I decided to persist – confident in my ability to learn. And I did. All those years in IIT classrooms ‘learning to learn’ paid off. I spent a lot of time teaching myself C from a book and on a terminal. I finished the course second-highest in the class.
That was what gave me the confidence later in life – that I could learn any new topic in a few months. My entrepreneurial ventures have been in diverse areas – software, media, politics and marketing. In every venture, I have had to master new ideas in a few months. My advantage in each of these ventures is that I come to the problem as an outsider – with a new perspective. I am able to do “value-added aggregation” – combine the existing ideas in new ways to come up with something new and better. Lack of previous experience can actually be an advantage for entrepreneurs as they start their proficorn journey.
Delegate to Grow
One of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make is trying to do it all themselves. This eventually stunts their growth. Delegating is perhaps the most important factor for scaling an enterprise. It determines the eventual success.
For me, delegating came easily. I have always been a big-picture person. I don’t like to get into too many details. I had to do that early on, but as soon as I can find someone else who can take a task over and do it well, I get out of the way. That is the only way to grow – because an entrepreneur’s life is always about solving new problems as they come.
Delegating requires trusting your team. It means hiring people who are better than you at something. You cannot babysit them for long. It means trusting them to do the right thing – without second-guessing them. It is not easy. For an entrepreneur, the venture is all that is there – and there are so many worries about things going wrong. Yet, a balance has to be found. Because without delegation, decisions will all get stuck and eventually, growth will stagnate.
I was forced into delegating in the early days of IndiaWorld. I had to be the external face – meeting customers, and later potential investors. I would also travel to learn – attending conferences outside India. So, I had to necessarily start trusting my team to do the right things – I could no longer clear every story published or review every headline. Once I realised that my time could get freed up, I took to delegating even more. People also liked the responsibility and trust that came with delegation.
To make delegation work, one has to accept that some mistakes will happen. One has to deal with those carefully. Be too lenient and complacency can creep in; be too harsh and before one realises it, every small decision will be pushed up a level. It is this fine-tuning that entrepreneurs have to get right.
I am one who likes uninterrupted time to think, read and write. I like to think ahead – imagine what the world will be, and what I can do. This deep thinking cannot happen with a steady stream of interrupts via phone calls and Whatsapp messages. Deciding what not to decide becomes equally important.
For 10 years between 2009 and 2018, I dabbled on the periphery of politics. Netcore grew nearly 50X during this period. Netcore had professional CEOs, and I let them run the business. I separated ownership from management. Even now, as I play a more active role at Netcore, I report to the CEO for the tasks that I am doing. Knowing that there are better people than me to run and grow Netcore is a great satisfaction – that I made the right choices. Proficorns are born from such decisions.
Life’s Daily Clue
A habit that I have developed over the years is to wake up early. I like the quiet that the silence of the morning brings. It helps me reflect on the previous day’s meetings and ideas. This helps me think of the important takeaways and learnings which necessitate a change in my thinking. Doing this the next morning rather than the previous night helps set a distance that brings better perspective. And it is in these moments that I get the clues to unravel the mystery of what to do next.
It is like reading a good murder mystery. Even the best of detectives don’t get the solution right away (or else there would not have been a book!) It’s a slow process – one clue at a time, one question at a time, one answer at a time. A good writer’s detective will slowly solve the mystery – and the reader is there for the ride.
Daily life too provides us clues – one at a time. Big ideas may have their eureka moment, but there’s a lot of hard work and small ideas which go into the making of the big idea. It requires time. It needs the daily discipline of thinking deeply about meetings, conversations and readings that happened. It entails connecting the dots. It is a process of emergence – where the whole slowly starts becoming much more than the sum of the parts.
There will be many false starts along the way. There will be many paths which will lead to dead-ends. That is why perseverance matters. The search for a better way or a new idea runs through analysing the clues left behind in the micro-moments of the previous day.
It is therefore important for the entrepreneur to go through many different experiences – talking to different people, reading widely, taking time off to be alone, travelling to new places. Each creates a new clue – if one knows where to look. Each prints a new dot – to be joined with others. It is from these clues that new patterns start forming.
For me, the idea of Velvet Rope Marketing came slowly – starting when I first read Peter Fader’s book on Customer Centricity. I had picked up the book at Strand Book Shop in New York – on the last day of a US trip a year ago. And that happened because my Air India flight was delayed six hours. So, I decided to spend 3 of those hours at Strand – looking at every book in the “Marketing and Sales” section. Even after buying it, I did not immediately read it. It lay on my shelf for a few months. (I am a firm believer that every book comes with its “Will be read on” date!) And one day, I started reading. The ideas I had connected – the dots joined – the clues led me to the solution. A new venture was born.