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Some Lessons I Learned as an Entrepreneur

While it is important to dream, we need to keep our eyes on the ground ahead and ensure that our plans are realistic This monthly series of jottings on various aspects of entrepreneurship started 12 months ago with a piece expounding why the present is ripe for startups, and went on to examine some necessary

While it is important to dream, we need to keep
our eyes on the ground ahead and ensure that our plans are realistic 

This monthly series of jottings on various aspects of entrepreneurship started 12 months ago with a piece expounding why the present is ripe for startups, and went on to examine some necessary conditions for entrepreneurial success. Aspects such as the importance of managing money, building a team, putting in place governance processes, and cultivating a sense of purpose among other factors affecting outcomes were briefly outlined. The purpose of this series was not to prescribe but to provoke thought and discussion. Judging by the feedback from readers, I hope this has been accomplished to some extent.

In this concluding piece, I would like to touch upon some aspects of being an entrepreneur that I have observed in my journey over the past three decades. First, while we are all hopeful that the enterprise we build will grow into a large and profitable one, we are not all setting out to build the next ‘unicorn’ that is going to achieve a market value of $1 billion. While it is important to dream, we need to keep our eyes on the ground ahead and ensure that our plans are realistic. This is what will persuade investors to back us. 

Second, entrepreneurship and startups are not all about technology and scale and making a lot of money. It is also about doing something worthwhile for the community in which you live, that will improve the lives of people around you. Such ‘social enterprises’ are very much needed. Communities everywhere need talented people to help solve problems and find better ways of doing things that will make life and work easier for all. The recent floods in Kerala showed how people can make a huge difference to communities through their ideas, their businesses and their effort.

Third, it is important for you to find your niche or slot, where you will enjoy working, where you can make a difference. Too many young people end up doing work that they don’t enjoy, regardless of how much they are paid. While the pay appears attractive when they are young, they soon begin to realise that life is more than just drawing a big paycheck, and having money in the bank. A few fortunate ones have their epiphany early, and leave their jobs to follow their interests and passion, discovering along the way a sense of purpose which then makes all the difference to their lives. Most take the default option of continuing to do what they are doing, thinking it is too late to change, or worrying about what others will say.

Fourth, business ecosystems are similar to the food chain in nature: each search for its niche. A supply chain is precisely that, a long chain of connected enterprises, each fulfilling a role that is relevant and important, as otherwise the chain will not be complete. It is not the destiny of every enterprise to become a ‘unicorn’, another Google or Amazon or Apple. But every enterprise that forms part of the complex supply chain that is knitted together by Amazon is equally relevant and important, at least in the eyes of its owner or manager.

Finally, it is said that every person has a story to tell. Some have stories that are short stories, some are longer novels, and a very few are epics. But everyone has a story that is relevant, important and validated by the person telling the story. Your idea may help an Adivasi hamlet to enjoy a quality of healthcare access that would otherwise not be possible. Your idea and the enterprise built on it will make a profound difference in the lives of those few hundred Adivasis. Your enterprise may stitch together homesteads in a rural community in a supply chain that enables them to sell their produce at better prices.

If you have an idea that you feel will help solve a real problem and enable people to benefit, then go ahead and see whether you can build a business model based on that idea. After spending 30 years building a business from startup to global scale, I have realised that top lines, bottom lines and return on investments are not the only metrics by which your life is to be measured. I find that the words of the Quaker missionary Étienne de Grellet make more sense today: “I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

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