‘Culture’ is one of those soft intangibles that one easily dismisses down the priority order when starting out. It doesn’t take precedence until you have some semblance of an organisation. However, very quickly it morphs into a great virtue, either an asset for your organisation that you rejoice or a peril that you simply can’t wish away. A dear friend Raman Ahuja taught me the most important lesson on culture. Having spent several years at Bharati and Unilever and now as a consultant to the World Bank, Raman understands people and organisations at a fundamental level. He said that one needs to consciously work towards building the right culture when the organisation is young and growing, than having to deal with whatever culture emerges naturally over the years and being stuck with it. He got me thinking about the virtues that were closest to my heart and values that we wanted to be ingrained in the foundation of our venture. We identified collaboration, team spirit, honesty, fun, transparency as some of the key virtues that were important to us and started taking small steps in that direction.
I have an open door policy and strongly encourage people to walk in if something bothers them or if they have suggestions for improvement. We frequently send out letters of appreciation to high performing individuals, several team events are organised at the head office and at regional levels to build team spirit. We celebrate milestones and birthdays with equal vigour, we welcome new employees and organise a warm send-off for those leaving us. Our annual off-site is organised by all employees for themselves and we celebrate all festivals together. All these little initiatives together have helped us get a basic structure for the culture that we are working towards in place. Starting early towards building the right culture at your organisation will pay you rich dividends later.
Managing stress (work-life balance)
In one of my earlier posts, I mentioned about entrepreneurship being a long haul. Initial euphoria and adrenaline ensure that the start of the journey (of entrepreneurship) happens with high energy levels. You put in long hours into the venture. There are no ‘weekends’ as work is always on your mind. You never really switch-off. Family takes a back seat. While this initial momentum does last for a while, there comes a point when the stress begins to get the better of you. The daily firefighting will never cease and until you get to a scale, you will more than likely be affected by even the smallest of things going wrong anywhere in the organisation. On occasions, you won’t be able to meet payroll on time, customers will delay payments, suppliers will chase you with follow ups, you will lose a deal or a key customer, key people will leave the organisation, VCs will make you feel worthless and a lot of things won’t go as planned.
For most part of my journey, stress has been a constant companion. I’ve been this ever busy stressed out entrepreneur, who’d fallen off the grid for friends and family. But after almost five years of slogging it out, I have genuinely come to realise that we can’t let our personal lives be crushed between our professional milestones. And, we certainly must not let stress get the better of us! There will be burnout and it’ll affect your health. As hard as you might work, you must strive to maintain sanity in your personal life. Entrepreneurs need even more discipline than the average guy. Discipline on the time that you commit to work, your family, friends and most importantly yourself. Take time out to do things that bring you peace and happiness.
Over the years, I found playing squash to be a great stress buster. A settled mind will ensure that you’re most effective at work. This does not mean taking a rain check on your ambitions. I’m simply suggesting better management of your very limited time. You’re after all giving the best years of your life to a difficult journey. Travel with your spouse, spend some good time with your parents. Pick up a sport, play an instrument, join a biking club, run marathons, meditate; do your stuff! I’m sure there’s something you’re passionate about. I’m still learning! The journey has to be fun for you too, or else you won’t last. Take breaks. As a founder, I always felt that the ship is going to fall apart if I were not around. I couldn’t have been further from reality. We have this false sense of being a critical cog in the wheel. I take a long three weeks and multiple short (3-5-day) breaks in a year. I’m still working on it.
Enjoy the journey
Hardships are going to be there. No journey is going to be smooth sailing all through. You’ll make costly mistakes and learn some painful lessons. Beyond a point, things will not be in your control. Remember to let your hair down every now and then. My happiest times in the past five years have been small moments — interviewing my 50th employee, giving direction to an enthusiastic fresher or intern, providing perspective to someone who’s feeling lost at work, giving a motivational talk at our first corporate off-site, rafting with 30 high performers from across the country to celebrate a milestone, putting together our activity calendar for the year with my HR team, visiting remote areas where our teams are operating, staying with them in villages, listening to their stories, getting inspired. The fun is in little things. As clichéd as it might sound, enjoy the journey. Set small milestones and celebrate them with the team. There is a great amount of joy that one draws from watching an organisation grow. Don’t deprive yourself of that.