Mediocre But Arrogant (2.0) in India

1.0 (Circa 2005-’09)

Around the time I completed my MBA in ’09, a book titled “Mediocre But Arrogant” got fairly popular , especially amongst us MBAs from XLRI as it was supposedly documenting the roller-coaster 2 years one spends there. I also think it was a good description for the acronym MBA at that time. Kids who crack the treacherous CAT (And similar exams) post 2005 were the future masters of the booming economy: The only folks who had 7 figure salaries and fancy job titles thrown at them in their early 20s. Most engineers at that time also tried to follow a fairly standard path: Work at 1 of the 3 “factories” (Infy, TCS, Wipro) for 1–2 yrs, do a prestigious MBA and then go work for either a bank or an FMCG firm.

The recession of ‘08-’09 did a fairly good job of taking some of this shine away, and bringing most of us crashing down to planet earth. I was never one of the smarter guys in my batch anyway, so passing out in ’09, I saw first hand, early on, the ugly side of a downturn. Our seniors commanded average starting packages of 15L, our juniors eventually commanded similar amounts….But we got stuck somewhere in the middle. Post ’09 however, thankfully, most smart MBAs realised two things:

  • Just landing up a seat in one of these colleges is NOWHERE close to enough to guarantee you a secure life. One has to keep improving, keep finding the right path for themselves and keep your head firmly on your shoulders
  • The “ROI” from an MBA became a matter to consider, overnight: Should I spent 10–20l, for a (in most cases) 2 yr course? Some people are saying its a must for me to advance in the corporate world in the long run; while there is also XYZ who’s reached there and he’s not an MBA

The current job market also mirrors the usual rules of evolution now: Those who figure out the tricks of the trade continue to rise phenomenally fast, while on the other hand, some of their batchmates from the same prestigious institutes feel completely lost in their careers and stuck in a rut

2.0 (Circa ‘14- Present)

We decided to start a wedding tech company, inspite of being non-techies. Inspite of not being from the wedding industry. In hindsight , this sounds quite crazy and the only reason we did it was coz we didnt even consider these parameters at the time. We just knew we would add a different perspective to the market, there was a problem we felt strongly about, and we jumped

This jump got me, soon enough, to interact with a fascinating, powerful creature: The software developer. All other domains we needed to hire for (Business , marketing etc)was about people I knew about to a decent extent. But tech hiring was completely new. And over the last 3 yrs, having personally been involved in interviews with hundreds of them now, the following are a few of my random observations:

  1. Wannapreneur / Entrepreneur? Mark Cuban says it superbly in the “Shark Tank”. Are you an entrepreneur or a wannapreneur. If your idea of being a startup guy, is expecting the “industry average, 40–50% hike in cash salary, stocks extra” inspite of being @ 12l with 1.5 yr experience, you should not even talk to an early stage startup. You’re not a risktaker, you just have the misconception that you are. What will in all probability happen is what happens to us fairly regularly: People chicken out last moment. “Anand Im expected to join you day after, but Ill let you know by today evening coz Im expecting an offer letter from Amazon” If you’re a technie reading this, and wondering “Obviously, it’s a no-brainer; Why would anyone join your early stage firmover Amazon…” I would say to you, you’re not early stage startup material as well. No harm in that….Just better to be aware of these things rather than thinking otherwise.

Unless you’re going to be leading a team, joining a well funded fast paced tech giant is like riding a giant roller coaster strapped along with 100s of others with every move covered live on TV. The focus is on the machine and those driving it….most of the folks are just cogs, but definitely expected to kill it while riding along. If you do such a good job over your peers that you then lead a team…and then lead another….and then (hopefully) get to ride the ship a decade or more later. If it allgoes to shit though, as it sometimes does, you wont be blamed, your family won’t blameyou (Ok wont blame you TOO much, at least)

Joining early stage is like going on an expedition in the jungle to find a lost treasure; nobody knows a clue about where the f you are, if it doesnt work, people ll say “Of course it couldnt have worked, I told you so” But you’re doing it coz your input will matter so much to the eventual outcome, and if somehow you succeed, YOU will be a known entity

Another aspect to consider is that a startup in NO WAY reflects poorly on your CV, today in 2017. In fact, if anything, if you decide to join a barely decent one, it’ll eventually reflect you having learnt a lot more than the average person in the x months/ years you spent there and most large MNCs too are welcoming startup experience. So if you’re still charging a premium to a startup to join there…You’re fooling yourself, as well as the poor founder who might decide to still bring you on board out of the sense of desperation. I’ve seen WAY, WAY more Wannapreneurs than entrepreneurs, leading me to believe that looking at each senior hire as an “entrepreneur” might not even be the right thing. In one sense, they would be the masters of their own fate in the company, and loving the opportunity to fight tremendous odds. On the other hand, the very fact of joining into someone else’s dream might make one feel more like an employee and hence not like it’s “their company” after all. There might still be no correct answer to this and an aspect I would love to continue to learn more about

2. Pedigree and big brand experience, How much does it matter? Now, we’re obviously not one of those “Sexy” startups around. We’re not insanely (or even v well) funded, we have a small stuffy office and we pay decently but only post having proven oneself. So obviously the kind of convincing me/ the few others involved in recruitment @ WMG have to go through is fairly higher than what a Flipkart, Zomato etc might have to do. So recently, when we have 1 senior developer position vacant and we start seeing a few CVs coming in from an ecommerce giant(Who’s facing major issues currently), we would’ve thought that finally! Us lowly , poor souls might be able to get, and afford (During a restructuring/public crisis in existing companies’, candidates usually dont expect much of a hike) someone from a Tier 1 tech institute who’s spent 2 years at that company claiming to have done exactly what we need! Wow…this should be easy. Time to line up an interview….Should be a breeze….BAM! Turns out he didnt know too much about the language being used after all….No worries, this would ve been an aberration…we have 3–4 more resumes from there….But alas! The end result was the same, a few of them weren’t even brought to the 2nd round.

Surely some of these folks are actually smart, having cracked really competitive exams. What happened then? Have they actually not been given enough responsibilities in this company whose product has seen WAY more scale than ours?

Having said all this, we obviously don’t discount pedigree and experience while shortlisting resumes. We eventually brought on board someone even more senior for another tech role from this same ecommerce giant. But the way, in most cases, you could have always predicted (At least till ’14, not v connected to that world currently) the output from say an ASM from ITC/ HUL/ Reckitt, OR an RM from ICICI/ Kotak, you cannot predict the skill set a Sr Software developer could have from the Biggies of the Indian startup eco system. Why? That’s a question for another time….

3. “You’re a 3 yr old company, and yet you’re just 30 employees?”? This was a question we had to justify to someone who we were interviewing for marketing from a fashion tech startup. The fact that tech companies in general are supposed to be lean, is completely lost to a lot of us in the midst of this crazy time. The yardsticks to measure success were how large your workforce is….And if you went from 30 to 300 to 2000 within 2 yrs, and then back to 50 and eventually 0…Hell, come on. At least you tried “scaling up” fast!

4. “Willing to work in a startup”: Thanks for the intent, but I hope you don’t mean this as a favour. It’s not social service; working at startups is now thankfully the cool thing to do but still, I continue to interact with those whose tone varies with the degree of funding/ awareness the startup has. One individual in fact, and this is an EXTREME example just to highlight my point, forgot all basic social etiquette and believed in getting abusive to make his point heard. My “gyan” meant to give him a piece of my mind, although possibly overdone, was met by a few choice words which even I haven’t heard yet (and having lived in 5+ cities in India, I ve heard a few) Remember, this is a conversation post an application for employment:

A screenshot of our email exchange

This post mainly shares thoughts regarding those considering joining the Indian startup ecosystem as employees ; I’m barely drawing a parallel to some MBAs joining the industry almost a decade back, who saw one downturn, and in the long run came back stronger. The 2nd downturn is currently mainly affecting startups, and I only hope most of the employees in it are able to regain some humility and sanity, as Im sure they re still above average in terms of risk appetite and are in the right place

However, the “Mediocre but arrogant” phrase would surely apply in equal, if not greater measure to some other stakeholders in this mix: Founders and investors. Far too many founders have believed that just “Showing up” i.e Starting up, is half the battle won. The money flowing into the system will cure all. The reality couldnt be any more different. Too many of us have just copied business models from the west, tried “Acquiring” customers and then expected unit economics to just magically take care of themselves in the long run. Too many investors have encouraged, in some cases even given birth to the madness, while you would expect them to, with their years of expertise at least know better.

Hopefully we all learn from our mistakes and lend credibility to entrepreneurship in a market that actually has the potential everyone always assumes it does: Its just locked in a way that’s not easy to force open