Business Standard: Lessons from my entrepreneurial journey I

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This was supposed to be a one-off piece, when I was first invited to share my experiences as a startup entrepreneur — mostly lessons learnt along the journey. When I sat down to write, I was flooded with thoughts of so many experiences that taught me so much, way more than I had imagined. The mind was flush with memories of phases of endurance, patience, hardships, despair, hope, resilience, jealously, celebration, and much more. I figured there was so much to write and we decided to make this a series of articles over a 4-week period. In that moment, I also for the first time took stock and realised that this has been no easy journey. From extreme despair to being absolutely ecstatic, the swings were pretty wild on most days. Despite all the hardships and irrespective of the degree of success of the venture (we would consider ourselves a moderate success), the journey can be immensely fulfilling as it has been for us. Learnings have been immense. Starting today, I’ll share a lesson or two every week, with the hope that some of you contemplating entrepreneurship can make that journey more joyful and fulfilling.

The first step is the hardest

The first thing that I learnt about entrepreneurship was that it is actually the first step that is the hardest; taking that leap of faith! To quit whatever else that you are doing, and to dive into this world of uncertainty. Most people I meet these days have a desire to be an entrepreneur buried deep down somewhere. Eventually, it gets to choosing between a low risk, steady cash flow corporate life and a highly volatile life with uncertain cash flows as an entrepreneur. Most people at best just keep delaying this decision and often never really go for it.

I come from a family of entrepreneurs. Every generation in my family (my father, grandfather and great grandfather) went on to start their own ventures and found varied degrees of success. Having seen such entrepreneurial spirit in the family, embracing entrepreneurship came rather naturally to me. However, my partners Gaurav and Soumitra did not see entrepreneurship as their comfort zone. It took me more than six months to convince Gaurav (a close friend from undergrad) to quit his rather well-paying job in the oil & gas sector in the Middle East, and join our rather fledgling startup in early 2011. By no means was this plunge easy for him. Now, more than four years into entrepreneurship, he can’t imagine a life otherwise.

I had read this somewhere a long time ago and it stuck; ‘If you choose not to decide, you’ve still made a choice’! For those of you still contemplating entrepreneurship, the first step and perhaps the hardest, is to take the plunge. But, once you’re in, you’ll figure out how to swim. Don’t stress too much on the fine tuning of the business plan because no matter what you do, the plan will be turned upside down a few months into the venture.

Not everyone is going to be a Flipkart

When an entrepreneur embarks on this journey, it is natural to have larger than life ambitions. The burden of one’s own expectations (of success) is quite crushing and one tends to set unreasonably high benchmarks of success. I’m not suggesting you don’t aim high, but in the day and age when the Flipkarts and Ola Cabs are lapping up hundreds of millions of dollars at billion dollar plus valuations, one imagines his entrepreneurial journey to be nothing less spectacular. The reality, however, is that most new ventures are not as fortunate and have to really rough it out for a long time for survival and then success. Just be cognisant of this reality and you will spare yourself a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety.

Most business journals these days have a new found drive (and not without reason) to extensively cover startups and write about related stuff. The startup scene in India has exploded in the past couple of years, and with the volume of deal flow increasing, there is a lot of fodder for everyone. Shrinking growth cycles and the meteoric rise of some ventures in rather short time spans provide enough gunpowder for some glamourous stories. And it’s mostly the positive stuff that makes it to the front page. Then there are online portals such as VCCircle, DealCurry, and MYB that most of us aspiring or current entrepreneurs follow, that make sure that any story that might have slipped through the cracks is profiled too. I have to be honest. Every time I read about a deal (equity investment/acquisition) in a startup, I suffer bouts of mild depression. As a non VC-funded venture one feels like a lesser citizen of the startup world and distorts one’s own measure of success. Nothing could be more unfortunate and further from reality though. Raising equity capital is not the be all and end all and by no means the only benchmark of success for a venture. Focus on being profitable, try and explore possibilities of raising debt. It might be a longer route to success, but works out better for a lot of startups. At Claro Energy, we are still untouched by organised venture capital (barring some small money from friends and family), but we raised debt and have managed to drum up a Rs 25-crore top-line this past financial year. We’re cash flow positive and employ over 120 people.