By Abhishek Chhajlani
Silence before the storm, or arrogance before a sinking Titanic!
The startup race is cruel, it’s punishing and it’s black and white. You go big or you go bust; quite honestly, there is no winning a small battle. You conquer or you get steamrolled.
Investors’ blue eyed boys can suddenly turn into eyesores and as harsh as it may sound, there is no place for eyesores in this world. When they want, VCs who are a Visionary Counsel can turn into Vulture Capitalists and there are enough legends, old and new to give more weight to this argument. What sells stays, what does not, perishes. The million-dollar or today’s billion-dollar question is; how do you thrive in this crushing marketplace?
Much has been made out of the recently inevitable Flipkart restructuring, and much will be made out of it in the coming days, weeks and months. Let’s objectively look at it as a business though.
Large brick and mortar stores and chains are still in better financial health compared with the e-commerce biggies. More food orders are placed telephonically compared to online channels. My neighbourhood carpenter still has a healthier bottom line than the online furniture brands. This, despite him being boot-strapped.
For weeks and months, there has been honest murmur about what’s wrong with the Indian startup ecosystem and entrepreneur’s business acumen at large, but it’s not murmur any more. The problem is real, and it’s right before us. Nobody is big enough to not fail. The biggest also have the hardest falls.
Microsoft was once touted to be the first company in the history to enter the trillion-dollar club, they’re not even the largest (in valuation terms) technology company any more. Becoming a Unicorn isn’t the end of the journey, it’s the beginning of the most difficult leg of the race - a race that is an infinite loop, where you can’t stop or decelerate, else you’ll be thrown into a lower orbit.
This brings me to an honest contention. Are we building the right businesses? We may build the best products, technology stacks, consumer experience, but, are we building businesses that can thrive?
The Indian edition of Professionalism 101 is very different from what is practised and preached the world over. Succession planning is something Indians have been doing for centuries, albeit for their sons, and in some cases, daughters. Professional succession planning is something we’ve clearly not established an expertise in.
People come and go, it’s natural course correction. However, founders and business leaders leaving, that is something we haven’t built contingency for; and when these people leave to explore ‘other’ opportunities, it’s an even murkier proposition. People don’t look at it with the right lenses, and they’re not to be blamed.
Businesses can alter courses, but when you lose key people, you lose out on an essential part of your organisation’s drive and passion. When these people leave under the assumed pretence of more fulfilling opportunities, these are warning signs.
Startups have to evolve into businesses at some stage, synonymously, fickle-minded entrepreneurs have to transition into stable yet passionate business leaders. Disruption is not just the luxury of mavericks, it’s also the weapon of choice of genii. Google is a prime example of that. They’ve built, broken and bought, but they haven’t stopped. Businesses like that create the right environment for visionaries to stay, and when boredom or lack of creativity strikes, they innovate again. This is the only way a business can continue to disrupt.
The Indian startup ecosystem needs a dose of fresh perspective and not another round of fund infusion. We may create young unicorns, young billionaires, but if we can’t create the right businesses, we’re going to ensure a lot of people lose their jobs and livelihood, and great organisations don’t do that. They’re as accountable to their least-paid employee, as they are to their investors.
In a way, great companies are like great nations. You could measure them by the health of their poorest citizens, and if they fail there, they haven’t built a great nation; they’ve only managed a beautiful façade.
For me, the Titanic sinking wasn’t as big a deal as the loss of faith in believers, people who thought the Titanic could never sink. Arrogance has risky consequences, investors and founders losing a few million-dollars is definitely not the worst of them!
It doesn't really matter how many Bansals Flipkart loses, what matters really is what the remaining ones do next.
The author is an entrepreneur and start-up trend observer.