“Holy crap…There’s not that much time left.” - Realizations of a reluctant entrepreneur
Gautam Shah, a social entrepreneur and founder of the Kenya based startup Internet of Elephants*, stands as an example that whether you’re an entrepreneur or a student, the method in which you pursue a goal should ultimately depend on the metrics by which you measure yourself, and not what may or may not ultimately be a best practice. This stands in stark contrast to what the internet would have us believe — that by reading enough blogs and watching enough TED talks, we can eventually life hack and checklist our way from a college dorm/garage to entrepreneurial riches.
While Gautam talks largely about the struggles of Entrepreneurship, it should be noted that since the time of writing, IoE has received initial seed funding and is currently prototyping its first product.
Gautam and I meet at the Hackathon for Wildlife his company hosted in Chicago on November 14th/15th 2015.
* The name Internet of Elephants, a play on the term Internet of Everthing, has shown itself to be remarkably evocative for people who use the internet and have seen an elephant at some point in their life, aka the majority of folks on the planet.
RILEY MASUNAGA: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
GAUTAM SHAH: My name is Gautam Shah, I am the founder of Internet of Elephants (IOE), a social enterprise startup based in Kenya developing and looking at technologies for use in wildlife conservation. I spent almost 20 years working for a large IT company called Accenture. In working with Accenture, I spent 4 years working in India, 2 years working in Argentina and then 2 years working in Kenya as part of [the company’s] non-profit group, and that’s how I got a lot of exposure to the social enterprise sector.
I got to this point in my career where I wanted to make sure that the things that I did professionally were being applied to what I really cared about. My passion has always been around animals ever since I was a kid — that’s always been my passion and when I worked at Accenture, it’s where all of my vacation time and extra money was spent, traveling around the world to see different animals and have different wildlife experiences.
So, I decided I was going to figure out how to apply my knowledge and background in IT towards wildlife conservation, and thereby combine my experience and background with something I really cared about.
That’s how I decided to quit Accenture with really with no plan other than to somehow figure things out.
RM: How did you make the leap? I mean, how did you come to the decision to quit Accenture and take on a very specific mission as a full-time entrepreneur?
GAUTAM: It was a number of things either coincidentally… or maybe it was in the stars I don’t know — but one thing was a bit of disillusionment with the job I was in. In many ways I wasn’t enjoying some of the stuff that I was doing… I was doing a lot of strategy work, but wasn’t getting the chance to implement my solutions.
I was seeing a lot of work end up as pretty Powerpoints and reports that would sit on shelves and never get implemented, so I was really keen to get back into actual implementation of things.
Also, I think there’s confidence I gained working in Nairobi in the social sector for 2 years… It really feels a little bit like Silicon Valley in the late 90’s here, except it’s the social sector. When you’re in the middle of things you’re seeing a lot happen and it gives you confidence that there’s a role for you to play in your industry.
I’d always felt the same thing — I’m not a PHD, I’m not a biologist, I’m not a Zoologist — Noone’s ever going to hire me to do anything in the wildlife conservation sector. But [working in Nairobi,] I gained a lot more confidence that there actually absolutely is a role for me to play and I can figure it out.
All of these things together gave me a lot more confidence to go through with [becoming a full time entrepreneur]. I knew that I’d never [start] if I just continued working at Accenture… I’d never allocate the time or the priority or I wouldn't have the ability to do it, so I knew it was time.
It definitely helps to have a little bit of a [financial] cushion [from having had a career], at least to know that you have the room to try to figure things out. But I think that might be where money stops helping, because I’ve really recognized that entrepreneurship is not necessarily my cup of tea, but I’m lucky to have enough savings to buy time to figure things out.
RM: It’s interesting you say that [entrepreneurship] isn’t your cup of tea. How does it feel to be an entrepreneur but someone who self admittedly doesn't necessarily feel like they’re designed for entrepreneurship?
GAUTAM: Yeah I’ll tell you it’s hard — I was at a conference, and one of the seminars [I rushed to] was about mental health for entrepreneurs. It was just a long conversation about why [entrepreneurship] can be so difficult. You read everything in the blogs and the papers about all these success stories etc and then you just look at yourself.
You can get caught up thinking that’s how it’s supposed to be and that’s how [life] is for everybody — but it’s actually really really hard and there are lots of moments where you don’t know how to attribute your success or non- success.
You don’t know when you’re making progress, you don’t know how far you are from your goal you don’t know if it’s bad luck, you don’t know if it’s somebody else’s fault and you don’t know it’s your fault.
[Entrepreneurship is] very very different from the IT consulting world where you have a budget, you know what the end goal of the project of is, you have metrics to know whether you’re on schedule and on budget, and when you’re not you know exactly what you’re supposed to do to try and fix it.
In [entrepreneurship] you don’t know any of this.
I don’t know where I should be right now. I have no idea… So I find it really hard.
RM: Yeah I can definitely understand you on this point — I find this is especially [difficult for] people who become Entrepreneurs because they see this it as the best way to support a cause, or for freelancers who stumble into it. These are people that love their work don’t necessarily like entrepreneurship.
GAUTAM: Exactly. This is the work that I want to do. I want to do tech for wildlife and there are specific areas in tech for wildlife that I want to do. If someone wants to hire me to do it and it aligns with my vision, I have no problem with that. I didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur so much as I set out to do the work that I wanted to do and I set out to live a life that I wanted to live. As it turns out right now, entrepreneurship looks like it’s the best means to get there but yeah I’m not a guy who wants to start a bunch of companies.
As this continues to get closer and closer to reality, and it’s getting very close to reality, I’m actually getting very nervous. I’m like “Holy &#*$. I’m actually going to have employees and I’m going to actually have a running business here”, and I don’t know I ever set out for that.
I was talking with a friend the other day who teaches social entrepreneurship, and we were equating it to when you meet a girl and it’s all fine until there’s the possibility where actually something might happen.
As soon as it’s a possibility that you might get together or that she might like you or something like that — that’s when it gets very very scary because that’s when there’s the possibility that you almost might realize [a relationship], but at the same time you have something to lose — where previously you didn’t have anything to lose.
Now all of a sudden it’s like “Oh this could actually happen”, and then the anxiety skyrockets.
RM: Ah, the ol’ relationship job metaphor has never failed me… There’s your forever job, there’s the job you keep for the benefits… But there’s something else you said back when we met in Chicago that stood out to me.
You mentioned that you’re at a stage in your life where you feel you need to be making an impact with the work you do. I find that this [feeling] is particularly [strong] with professionals who have 20–30 years of work experience.
GAUTAM: Impact is an overused word but I think you’re potentially right — I’m 44 now and I worked for 20 years before I started [IOE]. I don’t know if it happens to everybody, but I certainly got to the point where you look at the output of what you’ve done and you’re not that impressed.
If [your] output is a nice home, a nice car and some really great vacations and that’s your metric [of success] — then great, but my metric really just started shifting away from those things [to] what’s being accomplished and how do I actually feel about what I’ve contributed [to society]. I really just started thinking,
“All my life I’ve taken, taken, taken… And there’s other people who are giving but I’m not one of them.”
As someone that’s [always been] a nature lover, I was traveling all around the world. I’ve been in Antarctica I’ve been in Borneo, I’ve been in India, I’ve been in remote parts of Russia- I’ve been everywhere, but in many ways it was off the backs of others who are either fighting or working to make it possible…
I remember I was in Antarctica. It was 2011 and it was beyond spectacular, but it felt so completely glutinous to be there. It was a bizarre feeling but I remember leaving there thinking I’m not doing one of these massive expensive exotic trips again because [they] feel extremely selfish — nobody benefits from the fact that I took this trip except me. Maybe [this feeling] was slowly building and Antarctica was the final straw or maybe it was something about [the experience]. I don’t know, but all of this kind of culminated in this feeling that I’ve just been such a consumer… I’ve been a very nice person, but at the same time I’ve ever really given anything back to society.
For a long time you don’t think there’s anything you can give back. You’re like, “Well the best thing I can do is give 10% of my salary to charity” or something, feel good about myself and say “OK, I’ve done my part”, but that wasn’t working for me because it wasn’t really fulfilling from a lifestyle perspective. Maybe your conscious is eased, because “At least I’m giving something back”, but you’re not actually satisfied in terms of the way you’re living your life.
Then you realize, “Holy crap I’m 40… I’m 42.” There’s not that much time left. You’re here in Nairobi and you see all these 27 year old and 28 year olds that are working in agriculture and [social industries] — and these guys have 50 years to be super successful in what they’re doing. Maybe they’ll come to the opposite realization at the age of 42, that they should make as much money as they possibly can, but that was another thing that made me realize I need to do it now, think big, and somehow leapfrog 25 years ahead and try to make that type of impact really really quickly.
RM: How do you think being in Nairobi surrounded by people doing social enterprise has affected what you do and how you run your business and your mental health?
GAUTAM: In some ways I think this environment hasn’t helped because now there’s these new metrics of success -
What fellowship have you gotten?
What awards have you won?
How many times have you been written up on Fast Company?
What level of funding have you received?
You gain a new way of feeling insecure about what you’ve accomplished. You go to conferences and everyone’s going up there and spouting their success stories. They’re really really good at it, and it’s something different that I have to be careful not to get caught up in as a false metric
RM: How do you keep yourself from using [these false] metrics and keeping yourself grounded?
GAUTAM: In the beginning they affected me quite a bit. And actually, I wonder whether I do a good job of [ignoring them] now because, I’ll be honest, I have a lot of ups and downs. I keep trying to think in absolute terms of what I’m trying to accomplish — and is what I’m trying to accomplish impacted by whether or not I have those words, those articles written about me or not.
It’s much easier said than done
I had a really nice conversation with my friend the other day where I was describing the entire place I was at [with IOE], but I was describing it in a negative point of view, and he said, “Well wait a second, let me list out all the things that you mentioned”, and he listed them all out and he said, “This is all amazing — This is going to happen and this is not where you were last year”.
If you can keep things relative to yourself in terms of where you were and where you’re trying to go — it helps a little to get rid of all the other noise.
Because of that, I’ve also made a conscious decision that I’m not going after all these things. I’m not applying to fellowships, I’m not applying to grants… I have no desire to go to a situation where my social enterprise is competing against other social enterprises. Maybe that’s the right thing for me to do and that’s generally what everyone does, but I think this is also where finances and having a little financial security helps me. I can just say screw it — I’m not doing all that stuff. If I have to use my own money I’ll use my own money, but I’m not going to get involved in the game, I have the ability to bypass that for now. I do think that having some financial security has helped me kind of bypass a little bit of a game that I have no desire to be a part of.