How to prepare for wild success

This article is the final one in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on September the 11th, 2017.

Even if the widely accepted statistic “8 out of 10 startups fail” is wrong, it is true that a vast proportion of startups are likelier to fail than to succeed. As a result of hearing about it often, somewhere in our subconscious, we are perhaps better prepared for failing than we are for wild success, both the road to it and handling it.

But wild success can come to founders, and often does.

Many things go into the making of a successful business. The founder brings an idea, strategic focus, extreme discipline, execution abilities, ability to hire, inspire and retain people, integrity, and bus loads of luck. Luck is, of course, a funny thing because it cannot be “modelled” or otherwise made into a 2×2 matrix for others to emulate. Luck can be anything from being in the right place at the right time to having the right networks but also having the courage to call on people, uncommon resilience, finding a match between own risk appetite and the actual risk involved, and many other factors. It is also worth remembering that on the way to big success, most founders have given up control of the company.

But what does success look like? IPO? Millions in the bank? Including myself as a former founder, few founders spend time visualising what they will consider “success”. So external metrics often rule.

So the first tip to prepare for success — visualise it.

What does success mean to you? What is its form? What does it bring? What impact will it have on you?

Amongst good things, success may bring wealth and opportunity, and with it, the opportunity to use wealth to do more good or multiply the wealth itself. Wealth can buy material comfort, and offer greater choices in daily life.

On the flip side, success can bring loss of control and, sometimes, of privacy. While building the business, many founders rightly seek publicity for the venture. The scrutiny can expand into their personal lives, something very few are prepared for. Fewer still are ready for the loss of control and the demands on their limited time success can bring. The humbler ones, who have not let success go to their heads, can ironically suffer more. A successful founder in Delhi, who is a friend, is often unable to take any time to relax in one of his oldest hang-outs. I joked with him once that I saw him there and wanted to say hello, but he looked like he was in a business meeting. He sighed and said, “Please, Shefaly, next time, come and rescue me, because all people want from me now is venture funding, and please let’s not even mention the sycophancy I get.” Oops! Another founder in London told me how she was baffled by constantly being asked to “collaborate” or invited to events, by people who had never given her time of day during her hardest slog. I asked if she realised they were trying to borrow her brand equity and her social capital to advance their aims. She had not, and was surprised by the realisation.

The second tip to prepare for success — now that you feel less beholden to others than you were, be prepared to exercise much greater discretion than before.

The visualisation also helps generate options for the inevitable question, “Now what?”, especially if you as a founder are not engaged any longer in an executive capacity with what you created, and sometimes even if you are.

This is the last column in the series. We end with Rudyard Kipling’s “If”, wisdom that is good throughout the founding journey:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

 

“I failed. Now what?”

This article is the twenty-first, and the penultimate, in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on August the 21st, 2017.

“I failed. Now what?” Whenever I hear these words, the first thing I do is remind the founder: People don’t fail or succeed, ventures do.

A “failed” venture can mean various things e.g. the venture fails to reach key milestones on a projected timeline, the venture runs out of money before raising money, founders fall out and some or more want to call it quits, the venture is going bankrupt, the venture needs to be wound down.

In some of these scenarios, there are ways to “exit” a failing venture depending on the founders and the agreement between them. Those of you, who have been regular readers of this column, will remember I advise often that founders engage and pay competent lawyers.

If some or more of the founders are leaving, a robust shareholding rights agreement would have outlined in advance what happens to the shares of those founders who are leaving, whether they can retain them or sell them, and the restrictions on selling them including who has the right of first refusal. If such a framework is not in place, the process of negotiation can be long drawn and worsen the pain of all concerned.

If the venture’s prospects are unclear and if the venture has some assets including intangibles such as a brand, trademarks, designs or other intellectual property, one could look for a buyer for those assets. If the business has run out of cash or is barely surviving, this is unlikely to be a good option especially since the process is costly and potentially long drawn.

If all else fails, winding down the company is always an option. It is better to have gone into battle and gotten scarred then to have sat on the sidelines, worse, on the fence, and never have experienced the horrors and lessons of war. The issues of ownership of intangible assets will still need a resolution either between the founders or otherwise.

No matter what route is taken, founders are bound to feel the pain. Failed ventures hurt. And then they hurt again. But many founders go on to build other ventures after a failure. Some, who may still be hurting, are driven by just trying to prove to themselves that they can do more, achieve more. A few go on to learn lessons and build big successes. Yet others choose other career paths altogether.

To that extent, failed ventures are useful things. They provide the opportunity for a lot more reflection and embody a lot more learning for founders than successful ventures do. In my experience and observation, learning from failure is a form of success on which further success — and indeed new kinds of failures — can be built.

Before embarking on a new venture, it helps to take some time to review the lessons from the experience of failure. I also advise — and practise myself — an exercise in gratitude. Yes, as a founder of a now-failed venture, you may have a broken heart, but you still have your smarts, your body, your ability to work hard, and now, some freshly baked wisdom. Taking a pause to reflect on what one has versus what one has lost reframes the experience and helps the process of moving on. Taking a short break, if one can afford it, also helps.

It helps to remember that apparent successes can also essentially be failures. It was after a massive victory in a war, in which an unspecified number of men were killed, that Ashoka realised his Pyrrhic victory was not worth it. He won the war but the cost was massive, to humanity, to the cause of political unity. His ‘success’ wasn’t a success after all. He took note of the “transaction cost” and did not deem it a success after the fact. Following this realisation, he sought and turned to Buddhism. That decision meaningfully altered the course of South Asian history.

Founder conflict: disagreement on fund raising

This article is the nineteenth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on July the 12th, 2017.

Is there such a thing as disagreement among founders on fund raising? Isn’t external fund raising seen as some kind of marker of validation for startups, one that sets them on the growth path like a rocket ship?

Yes, I know you are incredulous.

But it happens.

Founders can and do disagree on the idea of external fund raising, on the timing, on terms, on some combination of these.

First, the idea of external capital. In his research, Stanford’s Professor Noam Wasserman has found that most founders give up management control long before their companies have an IPO. The process of letting go of control to maximise financial gain, he found, is not easy. He asks: do you want to be “rich” (less control but maximum financial gain) or do you want to be “king” (all control but less than potential financial gain)? These two aims are often at odds with each other. It is important to understand and agree on the vision for the startup, but also on how each founder visualises the path to get there.

Can doing due diligence before agreeing to be cofounders help us with the dilemma in the future? May be.

How can you assess whether you are talking to a “rich” or a “king” type potential cofounder? Look at their past decisions! Even though past behaviour may not be a guarantee of future decisions or performance. How did they choose investors, employees, team mates? What kind of relationships have they built and with what kind of people? Did they make different decisions when they were in control versus when they were given an order?

Doing all this helps, but the revealed preference when push comes to shove may be quite different. That is where conflicts arise, and as conflicts go, this one is pretty fundamental to the direction a startup will take. The founder who wants to be “king” may not want external funding, which means the startup may have to rely on organic, often slower, growth. The founder who wants to be “rich” would want to get on with the job of raising capital, and will have to be the one to recognise signals that warn him or her of the challenges ahead.

Second, some founders may disagree on when to raise funds. Fund raising can take anywhere from 6 months to a year. Founders, who disagree on timing, may also not recognise that fund raising takes time and that the company may run out of money before they succeed at raising. This can be a challenge to the existence of the business. Founders need to start discussing and working on the fund raising much earlier than they think they will want the money.

Third, some founders may disagree on terms on which to accept money. Since no investor worth taking money from will fund an unincorporated company, this is something founders can and should have addressed at the time of forming the company.

The question of resolving disagreements amongst founders would have been addressed in a good shareholder rights agreement. Including the scenario, where there is an impasse or a deadlock on a material action such as fund raising. Remember how I have harped through this column series on about paying a competent lawyer? This is another reason why. A good lawyer would have had experience of conflict and conflict resolution between founders, and should have advised you on its probability.

If there is no shareholder rights agreement in place, then like much else, it is a matter of negotiation. That means the outcome cannot be predicted.

Finally, what if you come to the fund raise, and one of the founders wants out? Should the other founders try to talk him or her into staying, or should they let him or her go? This can be tricky. The founder, who wants out, may be tired, fed up, no longer interested. The feelings can be fleeting or they may have made up their mind. Find out which it is. Make a call on whether it is a distraction you can afford right now. Whatever it is, your shareholding rights agreement should have addressed this scenario. When someone wants to go, let them go. As long as the rest of you are on the same page, you have a finite chance of making something of your startup and your vision.

Work and isolation

On the same day that I saw a journalist in London seeking to speak with people about workplace isolation, a friend in California noted that she wanted to have a little social but found that her real world community was either virtual or non-existent.

My friend in California chalked her lack of community down to her being an entrepreneur, where long hours of work mean one’s options to socialise are mainly people who are employees or customers, both of which can be awkward.

When I mentioned workplace isolation to friends in senior corporate jobs, one quipped that this isolation malarkey was all down to people opting to work in the gig economy. Another noted, with a sigh, that the more senior one became in a large corporation, the more isolated one became, with fewer and fewer people seeing one as human, and fewer still willing to speak truths to power, so to speak. Indeed the story of António Horta Osório, the CEO of Lloyds Bank in the UK, and his spiralling into depression that led to a breakdown is well-known and one of the few honest stories of the impact of isolation to come out in public.

Without even reflecting over my own career of over 20 years, I know instinctively that the gig economy did not create workplace isolation. It is an existential condition of human beings to seek both camaraderie and company, and solitude: the former perhaps to generate ideas and to rejuvenate the self, the latter to reflect, create, and indeed, rejuvenate.

My experience of isolation in corporate life came from many sources. One  of them was being a gender minority. I even wrote a piece about my experience in Cosmopolitan magazine’s India edition around 1996-97. While my male colleagues were good people, it was tricky to socialise with them weekend after weekend. The city I lived in, Delhi, did not then have public transport so it was expensive, unreliable, unsafe, or all of the above to go across town to attend book readings or see films etc.  My solution was to start learning German on the weekends, which earned me much mockery but also a career break into Europe to open a new country office.

That unfortunately brought its own flavour of isolation. This time I was in Switzerland’s German speaking region, as a gender, ethnicity, and apparently age minority in the IT industry. My coping was hugely eased by my friendship with two others in a similar boat, both foreign to the German speaking regions in their own ways.

I then transitioned to a role in the UK where my team was spread across time zones. That was splendid isolation indeed as I began work at home at about 4.30am to catch my Asia-based team members as they began the day and the work day rolled on all the way to California. Going into the office was an option but I needed a few hours in the day unplugged. This is the bit of my experience now cited in this FT article the journalist mentioned earlier was writing.

You see, there are many ways the structure of corporate work and workplaces can be isolating.

My life as an independent consultant and advisor, an entrepreneur if you will, after the corporate stint, has been a solitary experience, save for meeting clients at lunch and sometimes friends for coffee. This fits the cliched image of the gig economy that I mentioned earlier.

Yet somehow we cope. And many of us continue to thrive.

My sense is that women cope better. Most women are socialised to seek and build communities, “to tend and befriend” not just in times of great stress. The web is helping break geographical barriers and enhance some sense of community. MumsNet is a well-known example of such a community. Several closed and secret groups of women founders and leaders thrive on Facebook. Some such as Blooming Founders and NOI Club have physical world components too. With the burdensome expectations of performance of masculine behaviour, men suffer silently — and alone — in their loneliness. This does not help workplaces or society.

Institutionalised solutions are emerging too. The gig economy worker, the entrepreneur and the small-corporate worker alike now have options. WeWork provides co-working spaces, designed to foster serendipitous and organic networking. The company has diversified into providing co-living in a few cities around the world too and it is branded WeLive.

Some criticise WeLive as an extension of dormitory or student halls living but really now! In the face of all this evidence of loneliness and isolation, that is the best criticism you can come up with?

As I said to Emma in that FT article, loneliness can have an existential quality. It forces us to examine the meaning of life in ways being surrounded by people all the time does not make feasible. From that isolation emerge creativity and ingenuity. But it can also foster mental health and addiction problems for many.

The real solution for us all lies perhaps in Goldilocks’s perfect porridge — not too much isolation, not too much cacophony of human company. Each person’s “perfect” however will differ.

What does all this mean for the design of work and workplaces? And indeed for our lives and societies?

As I see it, we may need a complete rethink of our shared and personal spaces. For workplaces, it could mean the provisioning of both open spaces to socialise and banter, and closed, quieter spaces to think and do actual work, sometimes energised by that interaction. Our living spaces need similar possibilities, if not within our own homes, then within the larger context of our neighbourhoods and cities we live in.

Politically and socially, we seem to be in an upheaval worldwide. Many are selling us the nostalgia of a glorious past, which, some argue, keep us from imagining better futures.

In this churn, could we hope to create a new order of things that are actually designed to serve the humans that use or inhabit them? Much like the Arts & Crafts movement’s thinking on spaces, a hundred years on?

I need to reflect on this. Alone. Perhaps you do too. Let’s convene later!

Of untenable CEOs

The positions of two CEOs are being discussed this week as untenable. One of them is the British Prime Minister Theresa May, fresh from the weak and wobbly win at an election where she campaigned as the “strong and stable” alternative. The other is Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, who is currently running an organisation without a COO, a CFO, a CMO or SVP of Engineering, and is under pressure to take a leave of absence following an investigation by Eric Holder into the pervasive sexist culture in the company.

On first glance, there are no similarities. What can a British PM fond of speaking in tautologies possibly have in common with a CEO of an organisation widely seen as having “disrupted” public transport and valued at US$ 70Bn (though some disagree)?

On a bit of reflection, one key similarity emerges: a leadership style that fosters a toxic organisational culture.

On becoming PM first, Mrs May famously operated a kitchen cabinet of sorts, with a small coterie of advisors and throwing out anyone who seemed to be out of line with her authoritarian way of working. She called an election presumably buoyed by a 20-point lead over Labour in the polls to seek an absolute majority to enable her to negotiate a Brexit deal without needing the support of the Parliamentary colleagues. Having called the election, she did not discuss her manifesto with her party or her team, focused on “Theresa May” and not the Conservative Party, and uttered meaningless soundbites that earned her the moniker MayBot over the campaign.

Mr Kalanick, on the other hand, presided over an organisation that thought nothing of threatening journalists and “weaponising facts“, nor of accessing and sharing medical records of a person raped by one of their drivers in a country far flung from California. Privacy was not a thing to bother with. He also deemed it acceptable to issue guidelines on how to have sex with a colleague at an office party.

Culture, as the developments this week show, does eat strategy for breakfast.

In Britain, the electorate was able to challenge Mrs May so much so that at the time of writing, there is a scramble on, and many Tories do not see her leadership going unchallenged.

In case of Uber, however, the three co-founders own a controlling stake. That may appear, at first glance, to make the job of the board harder if they wish to ask Mr Kalanick to step down. But the board has voted unanimously to adopt the Holder report and is said to be considering the option.

However, much as deposing Mrs May and Mr Kalanick may give a sense of having done something, the real challenges remain.

Uber’s culture will not repair itself overnight. Nor will the company magically be able to attract talent* to fill the key roles. Bad reputation and the whiff of scandals can endure, as another organisation unable to attract talent is currently experiencing.

Nor will Mrs May suddenly become better at being collaborative, discursive, amenable to advice, and realistic about Brexit negotiations, although this is precisely the advice being given to her. To be fair, she has apologised to Tory MPs. But despite her apparent contrition, “I will get us out of this mess” doesn’t sound like a departure from me-centricity.

Whoever takes the poisoned chalice, or chalices in case of Uber, shall face the challenge to be a vigilant steward of the interests of investors, shareholders, and citizens alike.

After all, in this brave new world of breaking coalitions and disrupted industries, “Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty; eternal vigilance is the price of human decency.”

*Link dated June the 14th added two days after this article was published.