Business is hard. Explain with a memorised essay. (7 marks)

by Sidin Vadukut in


For some reason(s) that is not entirely clear to me I am often approached by people working on start-ups for help and assistance. I think it is because:

  1. Perhaps they think I can help them get mileage or visibility in mainstream or on social media.
  2. Perhaps they think that my own personal and professional experiences enable me, in some way, to assist or educate them on starting up, taking risks, self-promotion and so on.
  3. Or perhaps their start-ups are associated with media, publishing, history, Raveena Tandon or any of the other topics in which I have slightly more experience and insight than the average person on the street.

I am always, always happy to help. Indeed I am tremendously in awe of start-up entrpreneurs. With each passing year since my graduation from business school I have developed a greater and greater appreciation of the sheer challenge involved in setting up, running, and making successes of businesses. It is very, very hard. And I don’t really think I have the bottle to do anything like that.

Typing for hours everyday and then getting ravaged in book reviews is the most risk I want to take, thank you very much.

Some people think that quitting a job to, say, run a cafe or a mobile gaming company is in some way similar to the act of chucking a career in management consulting to become a writer cum columnist cum social media timewaster. 

There are some, slim similarities in terms of estimating risks, networking with people and institutions, being self-critical, promoting one-self, learning to be self-reliant, inculcating a thickness of skin, handling family, and so on…

But, once you go in deeper into the process of succeeding and failing, being an entrepreneur is entirely different from being a freelance writer or an author or journalist. Let me oversimply by saying that most entrepreneurs have to deal with ultimate business upsides and downsides that are vastly greater, in both directions, to those enjoyed by people like me. Bad journalists and authors, in other words, can make a decent living. I don’t think bad entrpreneurs can.

Having said that there is one piece of advice I give EVERY entrepreneur who every appoaches. Even if they don’t ask me for insights at the ‘business model’ level, I still butt in and give this piece of wisdom anyway.

And I was reminded of that wisdom when I read a piece on the QZ India website titled: “How my startup lost Rs15 lakh and shut down before its first anniversary.”

Pardeep Goyal writes:

I thought I would make millions of dollars through my startup, but I failed miserably.

I had read amazing stories of startups like Flipkart and Zomato, but nobody told me that 90% of new companies fail within two years of taking their initial steps.

I failed in my first year.

It is a great piece and well worth reading.

That piece of advice I always give, that essential wisdom, is also the first of the lessons that Goyal took away from his experience: Know your customer before building your product.

The point should be clear by now. We built our product based on the assumptions and feature lists of our competitors. We should have talked to our customers before building our product.

We should have convinced two to three schools of different sizes to test our product. In exchange, we should have provided a lifetime free product and support for early-adopter schools. I should have validated my product before leaving my job.

On the face of it, this is entirely basic stuff. Why would you start making a product or designing a service before you’ve spoken to your customers? Shouldn’t phoning up a potential customer or client be the first ‘start-uppy’ thing you do after buying turtleneck sweaters and blue jeans?

And yet at least 85% of the budding entrepreneurs I speak to, perhaps even more, don’t seem to do this till they are well into the entrepreneurial process. By which point this dialogue can be very, very upsetting and unsettling.

Let me draw a parallel with something budding writers and columnists do when pitching stories. Or, to be more accurate, what they don’t do: read the publication they are pitching for.

Again at least 85% of everyone who talks to me about writing for Mint, Mint Lounge, Mint On Sunday, Cricinfo, Scroll etc. don’t spend much time on reading these publications before pitching. They have no idea what they publish, the kind of topics they cover, and the kind of columnists they commission.

This was one of the first lessons I was taught when I transitioned from blogger to writing-for-a-living-er.

It has important implications for entrepreneurs as well. Please try to talk to potential customers. Even if you’re unwilling to reveal your secret plan, figure out if the problem you’re trying to solve actually exists in the real world. And if it does, figure out if there are people who are willing to part with money for solutions.

Let me give you an example of a conversation I had with someone some years ago. This budding entrepreneur wanted to set up a company to help kids in Mumbai indulge in more sports and games and get more exercise. His solution was led by the internet and social networking, and he had spent some months on it. I thought it made sense on paper/powerpoint. 

Also he had spoken to both kids and schools and they all seemed enthusiastic. 

“What about parents?” I asked. (This was not some kind of business bolt of lightning. But something I had come across often in the Mint newspaper. Parents are, generally, decision-makers when it comes to most kids' products and services.)

“Parents?” he said looking at me with furrowed brow as if he had been downloaded whole from the internet on his date of birth instead of having been reluctantly presented to the world by a very, very annoyed woman.

“Yeah man. They will have to pay for your services no?”

“Yeah…”

“You really need to speak to the parents in Mumbai man. You need to talk to the people who are going to pay you.”

As we sat in that Costa Coffee I saw a cavalcade of emotions pass across his face. Most of them troubled. In the six months he had worked on the project he hadn’t spoken to any parents.

I wished him well. And I did this sincerely. But I haven’t heard from him or his company since. (Again, there is no schadenfreude here. I assure you.)

Why does this happen so often? Why do so many people forget to ask these basic questions or engage with the consumers as an exploratory measure?

There is one theory I have. I think it has to do with the way problem-solving is taught in schools and colleges, and generally framed in popular culture. (I don’t say ‘Indian’ schools or colleges, because the problem seems universal.) 

I think there is excessive focus on problem-solving instead of problem-identification. And this bias, if you will, is magnified by examination and evaluation driven systems. Take the IIM system. I think it is safe to say that the most open-ended problem-identification and problem-solution experience most IIM grads go through is that group discussion round during the admissions process.

Once they make it through, they are faced with an avalanche of tests and exams that, usually, extend very little latitude for the identification of problems. (In my experience there was some latitide, but little incentive to unpack a problem in this way.)

At the risk of stretching a parallel to breaking point, I want to say that journalists also face this problem. Journalists too often assume the existence of a problem, then assume the social/political need for a response to this problem, and then go to great lengths to analyze and write about the desperate need for that solution. This has the terrible impact of making every issue sound like a life-and-death struggle.

RBI rate-cuts, international trade MOUs, egovernance, and especially digital solutions of any kind—each of these are often portrayed as being the only thing standing between chaos and Utopia. And yet time and time again we find that there are other problems and other life-and-death struggles actually standing between us and a Keralotopian nation.

All this is reinforced by the media’s inexhuastible appetite for moments of crisis and, dare I say, solutionism.

But back to entrepreneurs. Yeah. So if you’re planning to start-up anything please talk to your consumers first. Just have a free-wheeling conversation about issues and problems and solutions and purchase decisions.

It may be useful. Also, if you’re planning to ask me for help, it will help shave off the first five minutes of our Skype call.

Best of luck to all start-up types. Feel free to ping. Happy to help