I was at IIT Kanpur for three days over the weekend, ironically to speak during Megabucks. [Those who know my love-hate relationship with Megabucks would be able to see the irony🙂 ]
So, Megabucks (and recently launched e-cell) organizers figured that they should get some recent alumni who have done their start-ups. Then another student related to Placement Office, who has been scouting for people from recent years in various domains to conduct workshops for students, stumbled upon my name for entrepreneurship. He thought Megabucks was the right time to get some one for entrepreneurship. So, he got in touch with Megabucks folks and I ended up in the campus once again.
There were two talks I gave there. First one was in the inauguration. Second was a part of the panel discussion.
Here is the summary of the two talks:
Theme I: Entrepreneurship is not Management
When I first heard that there was an entrepreneurship cell (e-cell) being launched at IITK, the first question that came to my mind was “Why an e-cell, when Business Club is already there”. And that’s when I looked at the typical activities Business Club has gravitated towards over time. Since, I myself was a part of business club during my days at campus, I know that we also tried to conduct similar activities: understanding stock markets, trading games, marketing and strategy exercises, case studies, print and TV ads etc. These activities are very much a part of the world of business, but they are very managerial, MBAish activities. No offenses meant by calling them managerial. I am only differentiating between managerial and entrepreneurial activities. As an entrepreneur, it is highly likely that you won’t have money to create tv and print ads, won’t have enough data and time to create huge, detailed marketing plans and stock markets might as well be something alien to you (unless you start-up’s main business has something to do with them!). So, business club has been taking up a lot of these managerial activities. Therefore, there is a space for e-cell to take up purely entrepreneurial activities.
Theme II: Learning about Entrepreneurship is not just the case studies of successful companies
This is something I have discussed even earlier in this blog. Success, if and when it comes, is great. Nothing like it. But the toughest and most crucial phase for an entrepreneur are those days of starting up and then building up, the days of uncertainty. If one has to learn about Entrepreneurship, it is very important to have a glimpse into those days of an entrepreneur who is not yet on the top of the world. How do you survive there? And even enjoy it? Because if you don’t enjoy it, you will not be able to survive. That’s why I liked the idea of having recent entrepreneurs come there. While it is important to get inspired by listening to the success stories of people who had humble beginnings, when you are aspiring to be an entrepreneur, it is useful to have a glimpse of the gory details of the difficulties and challenges of starting up.
Theme III: Entrepreneurship in India
Again something I might have discussed in the blog earlier. Entrepreneurship in India does not start with Narayanmurthys of the world (again – no offense meant. Have all the respect due to this gentleman. Point here is different). I picked up some generic, and some specific examples IITK students would identify with
- Person who manages to procure and sell a Dove shop in a remote village or an essential piece of medicine
- Shopkeepers in the ShopC (ShopC = Shopping Center at IITK)
- Person who gets your passport applications done (IITK specific – there is one guy who takes care of all the formalities up to submitting the form in Lucknow for a small fee)
- Your travel agent
- Tutors who taught you during school days
They are all Entrepreneurs. They are not a post 1991 phenomenon. True, there was license Raj and hence we didn’t have more Tatas, Birlas, Bajajs and Dhirubhais. But we still had one of the largest number of retail outlets. Thanks to the entrepreneurs all around us. Your milk reached you daily on time, so did your newspaper. These small, private enterprises also employed (and continue to employ) a large number of people. These guys undertook activities that created value for their customers and in the process created livelihood, if not wealth, for themselves and all others employed by them.
Moral of the story is that Entrepreneurship is more prevalent in India that we normally think. To appreciate this, we need to understand that Entrepreneurship is not just about tech start-ups funded by the VCs. If I have to give this statement a nationalistic hue, I can say that we did not import entrepreneurship from silicon valley🙂
This traditional Entrepreneurship in India was driven by two things:
- By necessity: People from states like Bihar and U. P. would appreciate this. You did business when you did not land up in a government job. By necessity.
- By tradition: As opposed to the kind of people mentioned above, there were Sindhis, Marwaris, Gujaratis, who did not do jobs! They did business. It was the tradition, in their blood so to say. They started or joined their family businesses. Grew it by adding more businesses, which could be totally unrelated to their existing businesses. Thus they went through the experience of being an entrepreneur again and again.
That said, it isn’t that last 2-3 decades have not contributed significantly new things to the world of entrepreneurship.
The first thing that is new, at least as such a well known phenomenon, is Entrepreneurship for Passion. You are a well placed engineer, manager, consultant etc. On your way to higher positions in the corporate ladder. Everyone in your family is well educated and in respectable jobs. You yourself have been a brilliant student. You satisfy every criteria of respectability in your society. And yet one day, you decide to chuck it all. Become a Sadhu, start an NGO or become an entrepreneur. This is Entrepreneurship for passion.
I am sure that detailed research papers could be written on how this kind of entrepreneurship developed, but I think one important thing that has made this concept widespread is the prosperity of a certain class in India. This is the class that benefited from the opening up of the economy and realized for the first time that they do not need to feel financially insecure for all their lives. That they can afford to take some risks to follow their hearts. They managed to break away from the traditional mentality of “Stay safe, hold on to what you have, don’t change too many things, live a peaceful life”. And with time the ecosystem built up. A certain prestige and good will developed around this kind of entrepreneurship. Institutional funding came in. That is called VC money. So, overall an environment developed which praised, supported and encouraged this Entrepreneurship for passion like never before. This is a good thing for us. I, you, e-cell, business club, Megabucks, all the people attending the festival have grown up in this environment of good will and fascination around entrepreneurship. So, let’s celebrate that.
But with the prestige and goodwill comes a danger. I call it Entrepreneurship for Fashion. Like a well paying job, family wealth and other things that add to the social stature, there is a possibility that being an entrepreneur becomes such a socially prestigious thing that people jump into it without figuring out whether they really want to do it. It has not become very prevalent yet, but you can already see this happening, when somewhere we start comparing entrepreneurship with a ‘regular, old, boring’ job and depict entrepreneurship as something superior. This is dangerous. Let’s get this straight. There is nothing superior about ‘entrepreneurship’. Its all about figuring out what you want to do. If you would rather be an artist, be so. If you are happy in a job and would use the money you earn to pursue your passions and hobby, so be it. Don’t do anything just because it is a fashionable thing to do (including entrepreneurship). This can become a topic in itself. So, let me leave it for now.
Theme IV: Recession and Entrepreneurship for students and fresh graduates
So, enough of history and philosophy of Entrepreneurship. With recession and bad placement scene, the most important thing for most students right now is what to do and whether entrepreneurship is an option. Let’s leave behind the Entrepreneurship for passion for a while (that can be pursued anytime, recession or no recession) and get back to the Entrepreneurship for necessity. And there is nothing wrong in that. With a better market, you might just have taken up a job, gotten decent salary and used your weekends to pursue your hobbies and passions. Perfectly good way to balance life. And if you don’t see that happening, you can’t just sit back and mourn the lack of jobs. Even if you would not have considered Entrepreneurship then, consider it now.
The question would of course be, how?
Typically you would think of entrepreneurship in terms of starting a company, with all its overheads. Registration of company, registration under any applicable tax authorities, getting a registered office, putting in the minimum required capital of 1 lac for a private limited company etc. etc. This is the way to go if you have a solid business plan in mind, are in to the idea for long term and have some initial money to invest. Depending on the business plan, even looking for institutional funding, for example through Venture Capitalists may be necessary.
But there is another way as well. Closer to what our traditional entrepreneurs did. Not about the business plan or huge money or lot of investment. Do you personally have a skill that has some value in the market. Probably its not making papads for most of you. But are you a great coder? Do you have an uncanny ability to do design? Do you write very well? And a bunch of other such skills. Then you can be a freelancer. Its not easy money. It has all the elements of entrepreneurship. You have to fight it out, get clients, probably team up with someone to complement your skills. But you can avoid the overheads of setting up a full fledged company. And there are places online to get started. So, consider this option. This is something you can start even as a student. So that by the time you are out there, you have already made your way into it. So, do consider this option in the current job market scenario.
In the Panel Discussion
Topic: From Confusion to Decision
The idea here was a little different. My purpose here was to address one of the most common complaint people have with their life at that stage. That of ‘confusion’. “I am so confused between x, y, z (all totally different) that I do not know what to do.” So, I did not take them through my entrepreneurial journey, but through my journey to entrepreneurship from the days of being confused as a student. That’s where the topic came from.
I talked a bit about my own career choices and confusion at various stages starting from first year at IITK and drew simple conclusions about things. Many may not agree with the actual conclusions (like bunking classes is cool, but attending classes is clever), but the idea was more to make them feel comfortable with confusion and ‘inspire’ (can’t think of a milder word) them to continue trying to find their calling instead of feeling bogged down by the confusion.
I spoke about how I wanted to be an IAS officer in my first year, a scientist in my second and an MBA by the third. And of course, after doing an MBA, the conclusion was that MBA wasn’t about leadership, vision blah, blah. But rather about a job placement! And that’s it. How an internship with an FMCG company killed the budding marketing person inside me too🙂 How not getting into McKinsey had frustrated (probably depressed) me to no end, but how I know today that it was the best thing to happen to my career. How I got into Product Management without properly knowing what it means. How the days in Google were so much better without managers. And how I finally figured that in the worse case I would land up in xxxxx (an approximate competitor to Google, but Abhaya doesn’t believe it would exist when the time for me to land up there would come!🙂 ). And hence, how I ended up doing Pothi.com and how irrespective of the future success or failure I am happy doing it.