Tips for entrepreneurs and start ups

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Helping Entrepreneurs #1

Re-presented by C. Balagopal
The term ‘entrepreneur’ has not been fully understood and is often used interchangeably with ‘manager’ and ‘professional’. Hence much of the advice given to entrepreneurs is indistinguishable from that given to professional managers. I understand the term to mean a person who is innovative and seeks to find a different way of solving a particular problem, which is superior to the current ways, and seeks to build a business upon such an idea. He or she is thus a risk taker, as there is an element of the unknown and uncertainty about everything she undertakes, since they are mostly done on ground which is new and unfamiliar, on which others have not gone before her. 

Second, the image of the entrepreneur as a ‘lone ranger’, struggling mightily all by herself against great odds, is incorrect. Enterprises are team efforts, requiring the collaboration of others. The entrepreneur must learn to build a team, and to create the necessary conditions for that team to work effectively to build the idea into a business that can scale and succeed. Leadership is needed, but teams are equally necessary. 

In this edition, I will discuss a few tools that the entrepreneur will need to become familiar with and master, if she is to succeed in building a successful organisation. These tools are less about techniques, and more about mindset. Tools are of little use, unless handled by a person with the right attitude. The tools I will talk about are ways of thinking or habits that can be cultivated. 

1. Trial & Error: 
This is the most powerful of the tools in the toolbox. This tool appears simple and easy to understand, but it’s not easy to use. I will come to the reason for that in the next point, but would like to state here that where outcomes are uncertain because of the innovative nature of the venture or the essentially unknowable character of the future, there is only one way to find out fast whether something will work or not, and that is to try it out. Evolution wrought all its miracles using this method, and look at the glorious results in the forming of the magnificent life forms of all descriptions that have emerged from the same unicellular organisms from which everything evolved. Will it work? The question to ask is: Have you tried it out? 

2. Learn from Every Failure: 
In order that Trial & Error becomes part of the DNA of your company, it is necessary that you understand that Success and Failure are binaries in your efforts to reach a better outcome, and indeed are necessary steps on the ladder to that desirable outcome. In plain language, it means that you must not only learn to tolerate failure, you must in fact encourage your team members to court failure by trying again and again. This will mean some financial losses will be incurred during such trials, but without such losses, you will not only not reach the outcome you desire, but you will not learn important lessons that each failed effort throws up. I recall the constant trials and experiments that went on in our plant, on the shop floor and not just in the labs, as we strove to solve complex technical problems. It is testimony to our willingness to keep trying and failing, that we eventually solved all the problems that stood in our way, and put in place a manufacturing process that propelled us to global leadership in a highly technical and competitive field. 

3. Convey Bad News Fast: 
Related to these two points is the important willingness and indeed ability to convey bad news fast. This may appear strange to readers, who may wonder why this is finding a place in this edition of my jottings on entrepreneurship. Very few of us like hearing bad news. In fact, we are constitutionally disposed to avoiding bad news, and show our dislike openly. This means that the messenger often ends up getting shot. This will have the natural effect that bad news is then suppressed as team members, who become aware early on that something is not working out as planned, will think twice before bringing it to the notice of the boss. Valuable time for putting into effect countermeasures to solve the problem is lost, while the news is suppressed, often being buried inside dense reports. When the news finally comes out, it is already too late for corrective measures, and the damage has been done. 

4. Where The Mind is Without Fear:
Instilling a culture of fearlessness among team members is a necessary condition for people to report bad news. Only in an open work environment free from fear, will people be ready to speak up about their doubts and misgivings about a plan or strategy. Fear of failure prevents a person from trying out a new idea, and hence from learning from that trial. That is the fastest learning process known to man, faster than anything that can be learned in a classroom or in formal training program.

 This also means a management system based on fear can never lead to the building of a world class business. The insecurity based on fear of losing one’s job is not a good foundation on which to build a great team. The best ESOP programs will not work if they are packaged along with a ruthless hire-and-fire policy. People are not a factor of production, which is to be treated as a cost. Instead, look on them as a resource on which you must invest, so that your enterprise grows. 

My experience as an entrepreneur, building a startup in Trivandrum into the leading maker of hi tech blood transfusion bags in the world, convinces me that people are a resource and are capable of achieving remarkable results. For that to happen, you need to create the conditions necessary for them to exercise their skills and creativity and ideas, in a fearless and confident manner. Don’t waste time searching for the ‘right’ person for the job. Use the resources available with you, and deploy them intelligently and support them in their work. 

As a startup, you will not be able to afford the experienced and qualified people who could solve your problems. Don’t worry about that, and instead look on it as an opportunity to develop the talent and ideas of people in your team. The best innovations happen during the time of greatest problems and constraints, which is during the startup phase when you have to bootstrap. 

©Copyright C Balagopal. All rights reserved.

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