A ride called entrepreneurship

I always admired my dad for being a businessman. He manufactured shoes and sold them to buyers in Europe between 1970s and 1990s. I always wanted to be like him — making money, building capital and wealth, and be a super successful woman. From my father’s journey, I superficially extrapolated two lessons:

a. entrepreneurship is the only path to financial stability;

b. once you attain this stability, you are successful.

Now that I run a business, I realize it’s not easy to be an entrepreneur. There are several aspects of my dad’s life I overlooked or simply did not register in my conscience during his growth years. I overlooked the amount of work he put in on weekends, the fact that he never had many holidays, the troubled relationship he had with my mom on occasions when his business was down, labour problems, etc. Overall, I never ever recognized that entrepreneurship is a ride — not a smooth sailing boat of stability.

Here are some of my lessons from this ride called entrepreneurship:

  1. Business partners are never easy to come by. You cannot take partnership for granted. Partnership is a highly fragile relationship. It is more a matter of trust and a continuous process of relationship building. No wonder couples make the best (and worst) business partners because the trust has already been established.
  2. Partners are like sounding boards. If you lose a partner, you not only lose a sounding board. You lose an anchor. That’s when you burn out and slip off the boat (usually).
  3. Stability is a mirage like horizon is. There is never stability in an entrepreneur’s life. Something or the other falls apart, either within your organization or within the larger ecosystem that your business is embedded in (global financial crisis, arbitrary government policies, natural calamities, speculation, etc) or between partners.
  4. Even when all’s well with your organization or in the ecosystem, you are always fighting an internal battle of vulnerability and ghosts.
  5. Running a startup is like writing a doctoral thesis. You start your PhD with a certain hypothesis and what you believe is a problem you are ‘actually’ solving. At the end of the PhD, you’ve produced something completely different from what and where you started with, and have solved some other problem. It’s the same with startups.
  6. Entrepreneurship is like addiction. I approach each day with the belief that tomorrow will be better than today and that success is only a few miles away. This is guised workaholism.
  7. If I don’t step away from the drug / marathon of workaholism and take time out to empty my (over-filled) cup of emotions, feelings, vulnerabilities and anxieties, I will continue to work harder, wondering why things are never changing. This goes to show that stability is not an external state. Stability has to be achieved internally in order to manifest as emotional and organizational stability externally.
  8. In the process of running a business, you may end up conquering your ghosts and vulnerabilities, and become equanimous in the face of highs and lows. I am told this phase of internal stability comes with age. I believe it comes when you start looking inward, recognizing and legitimizing your vulnerabilities. I now place greater value on silence and try to create more and more opportunities for moments of silence.
  9. Hiring is the best and worst problem, and perhaps lies at the core of organization building. I have not been able to solve this problem despite reading the most inspiring books and guides to successful hiring and retention.
  10. The primary lesson I have learned in the journey of hiring and retention is to be emotionally available to your colleagues / employees / partners. As a founder, I spend a large part of my time in being emotionally present for the people I work with, and sometimes listening to them at 10 PM at night, allaying their fears and insecurities.
  11. The notion of ‘employees’ and ‘colleagues’ is ever evolving in today’s day and age of internet, software and e-commerce startups. In my father’s day and line of business (manufacturing), the concept of labour was predominant. The concept and practice of labour was burdened with its share of politics and crises — labour unions, bonus as share in the business’s prosperity, constant battles over fairness and justice manifesting in the form of strike from work, obstinacy and submission. In today’s businesses, employees are partners in the growth (and valuation) of a company. In all ages, we are struggling and evolving ways to work with people. In my experience, a founder is a glorified career and psychological counselor for her colleagues.
  12. Founders are visionaries. They are also always the most over-worked and underpaid employees in the company. Founders often do grunt work, even if that does not show.
  13. I spend most of my time in ensuring that paperwork is in order, taxes are paid, and chasing sponsors and their accounts/finance teams to release payments. I also spend most of my waking hours in working towards maintaining a healthy cash flow for the company so that we have money to pay salaries and rent, and execute the next event successfully. This involves door-to-door sponsorship sales, and persuading companies and individuals to buy tickets to my conferences.
  14. Cash is king. You must always have enough cash to float your boat. If you don’t have cash in your bank accounts, you are driven to all kinds of depths and heights — and you lose stability in those times.
  15. As an entrepreneur, I believe I specialize in what someone called ‘chappal ghisaai’ — rubbing the soles of my shoes to go after companies, participants, vendors and speakers to sell my conferences and make sure they actually run successfully.
  16. Lastly, risk-taking is not just about leaving your job and starting a company. Risk taking is a continuous climb and fall. Whoever thinks it can be achieved in two or three years is probably doing a beginner level course in skiing, scuba diving or mountaineering. You had better give up a decade of your life to be an entrepreneur, or strike lucky to exit in a few years.

If entrepreneurship is so hard, do I want to continue to be an entrepreneur? Will I be two or three entrepreneurs starting multiple companies? Yes, I’d be. I love chasing wealth and creating wealth, but this only comes with building strong processes and cultures which lead to healthy organizations and legacies. I suspect this is my second phase of evolving as an entrepreneur — learning how to create and be part of processes that help in building stronger organizations and cultures. Until then, the journey is hard and often over-glorified, over-simplified.

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