Exploring Entrepreneurial Experience & Excellence

About three months back, I was introduced to Vidya Venkatraman, Postgraduate student at the London School of Economics who was working on a rather interesting research project titled – “Entrepreneurial Leadership: Exploring how young entrepreneurs become successful and effective leaders without the benefit of experience”. The introduction was made by the venerable, Ms. Bhairavi Prakash. In conversation with Vidya, she explained how while successful businessmen had written books and been written about, chronicling their efforts at getting to where they had, entrepreneurs had stories to tell and lessons learnt that had not really been documented or shared – thus explaining the choice of her topic.

 

The questions appealed greatly to me and sent me on a wonderful trip down memory lane. I was happy to have been a part of her research efforts. Hope it worked out well for her.

The entire length of the interview:

What type of work is organisation involved in?
Influx Interactive is a digital media agency. While we started out in 2005 as a website design agency, we today have a full-fledged creative team as well as a technology team that helps brands by building websites, online marketing campaigns, manages their social media presence as well as builds out applications for web, mobile & more recently, Microsoft’s newly launched Windows 8.

How long have you been involved in this?
Involved is a loose term. I started in this direction in a much disorganized manner when I was 16 (2000) in the form of an outfit that built websites for my mother’s friends. I used to sport the name ComPort Technologies back then! Influx in its current avatar has been around since 2004 though ownership structures underwent a change in 2005 & then again in 2011.

What sparked off the idea to start your own company?
Fairly early, I figured that the 44-year age gap between my father and me would manifest itself as a huge financial burden upon the gentleman when I turned 18 and ready for college. As a result, I wanted to be able to pay for college myself and I worked towards this general direction since I was 13. I started off with a library from home (Oxford Youth Library!) with books obviously my parents had bought and then one thing led to the other. However, it was after a brief stint with a technology firm in Delhi (1 month) where I earned Rs. 2000 as stipend that I realized that I would NEVER want to work for someone else. This was confirmed since in the next thirteen days after this internship, I went on to build out websites for my mother’s friends, three to be exact and made about 6 times the amount I made in the entire month. That was a math equation simple enough even for ME to solve!

Could you briefly talk about your educational & professional background?
I went to school in Chennai at Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan Senior Secondary School, Nungambakkam. I was in the first five of the class till around sixth grade after which I preferred to delve into extra-curricular activities just as much as academics. I soon moved down to within the top fifteen but ensured I made a mark with everyone in the school through my involvement in a variety of activities in school. Thereafter, I decided to pursue the law at Chennai’s (then) brand new School of Excellence in Law. Here again, I was doing well in academics till I decided I wanted to be more rounded. As a result, I preferred to participate more actively in Moot Court Competitions and represented the country and college at competitions across India and in Australia. However, since this was now running in parallel to a fast growing business, I did not get an opportunity to complete my college education. It’s not really a regret but something I might choose to try and fulfil at some later point in my life. I have never really worked in any company besides the 1 month internship stint mentioned earlier, while in Delhi.

Have you had any kind of experience in entrepreneurship or in the field/industry that your organisation belongs to? This experience could be in the form of formal education, training or work experience.
None.

Team composition and development

Do you have a larger team of co-founders or other team members?
I did have a set of co-founders right up front in 2004 but they weren’t in a position to commit full-time to the business. As a result, when my first angel came around in 2005, they chose to pursue their academic paths while I forged a very healthy alliance with my new found partner. The whole switch over was seamless and I continue to be great friends with my past co-founders. I later went on to acquire my partner outright in 2011 in what was again seen as a decision in the company’s best interests. So as of now, I have no partners or co-founders but a wonderful team of 34 people, some of whom I can proudly claim to be amongst the best in the creative industry.

How many employees does your company currently employ?
As on date, 34. We should touch 55 by January with the only hindrance being the easy availability of good people!

What are some of the most important factors you consider while hiring employees?
Willingness to experiment, accountability, levels of exposure to technology & social media, the desire for a better life.

Often, in entrepreneurial set-ups, there is no formal training given to employees owing to various factors such as time and cost. What do you think should be done in start-ups to enable employees to learn and develop? How does this work within your company?
Just as with other entrepreneurial set ups and as rightly mentioned, we too suffer from the same issue. At this point, it’s not really about the cost but more so the time since any time spent in training is usually seen as time lost in delivering projects. This is more so the case when you have managers down the line entrusted with delivering projects. However, we have plans for Super Saturdays which are the alternate Saturdays that we don’t work where we want to introduce fun based learning activities. We also have provided our staff with a training budget annually which they are free to utilize for any training programs they come across related to their work with us. More recently, I have been in touch with a corporate training firm to formalize a training structure.

Prospective employees are normally attracted to the legacy/brand value or the money that a job has to offer in addition to the ‘job itself’. The brand value of an established organisation also creates a sense of trust in the organisation and credibility in the competence of their leader(s). As a relatively new enterprise, has it been a challenge for you to create a sense of trust and credibility amongst your employees? If so, how have you dealt with it?
In the initial days, it was simply about sharing my passion. I would speak at great length (as you’ve probably figured out by the time you’ve gotten down to reading this bit!) about my vision and expectations of my company and that usually helped convince people. As time went on and we realized the need to attract a ‘better breed’, I realized that I was the company’s biggest asset and started building a brand that was me. This is VERY VERY important for any entrepreneur to succeed. It’s not so much about gloating but about being able to convince people that they are a part of something much larger, ably led by someone they can count on in their time of need. At the same time, it’s important to realize when the time comes to move out of that mode and switch to a more organization motivated hiring role than legacy based hiring. This happened for us in 2012 and we helped make that happen by putting together an office that definitely stretched and pinched our budgets but is an instant win the moment a candidate walks in. This also translated itself into a more comfortable, convenient work culture that potential employees see when they walk in (pets at work, shorts, video gaming, etc) as well as keeps current employees satiated.

How do you motivate your employees?
Besides whatever mentioned just above, the one thing I ensure to keep them motivated is staying in close touch with them on a daily basis. This is easier when you are a small team but once you grow bigger, it’s natural to get castled in your ivory tower- beware! I like spending time with my staff, acknowledging and appreciating their contributions, celebrating our successes, discussing our failures, letting them participate in policy decisions, reaching out to them in their times of personal need, regular and healthy compensation revisions, off sites (we recently spent 4 days in Goa!) and great air conditioning!

Communication

How does communication work within your organisation?
As much as we promote E-mail based work flow, things still happen ad-hoc through face-to-face discussions. These aren’t even formal meetings unfortunately but are more discussions where quick decisions are made.

What are the formal and informal channels of communication in place within your organisation? Is there one channel of communication that you find more powerful or effective over another?
Yes, an innocuous little tool called IP Messenger that is like an Instant Messenger but within an office. It lets us chat and transfer files while logging everything that’s shared which makes it a great tool for easy communication. However, it also breeds a highly disorienting work process flow since it’s hard to maintain version of documents and files this way. It’s a known devil for now and we are slowly trying to reduce the reliance on it for transport of files and encourage its use only as a communicator.

Knowledge

A lot of times, entrepreneurial ventures are started by people who have gained several years of experience in the field. This experience gives them domain knowledge of the industry which helps them deal with familiar issues. It also gives them wisdom and a sense of intuition in dealing with unfamiliar situations by drawing on past experience.

  1. Has this been a challenge for you as a young individual in setting up your own start up?
    It was, but the advent of my partner in 2005 really helped. He acknowledged that mentoring was what I needed most and that he gave me with great patience. Else I definitely see how I would’ve struggled to learn the ropes and more importantly, make the right decisions.
  2. What are some of the specific challenges that your relative inexperience has created?
    Administration and Financial management. Even for those who come through business school, what they don’t teach you is how the system is built to work against you. Handling our country’s statutory requirements and bodies requires smart thinking and the only way to learn is through experience – either first hand or handed down. In the former, you’ll burn before you rise (if you manage to) and in the latter, you can just count yourself plain lucky. While online guides speak of when an entrepreneur should look to hire help to take care of aspects of finance and administration, for an entrepreneur trying to do business in India, do it right from day one. Else, you’ll spend more time than you can or want in hassling over statutory riddles.
  3. How have you dealt with it?
    My partner was a great source of learning. Along with him also came two great administrative staff who have been invaluable to the company. In eight years of existence, we have had only two people managing our administration and finance, the second still working with us having completed five years. It’s crucial to prevent too much churn in this department since it’s a nightmare to fill and till the right person comes along, you’ll be back to handling all the nonsense yourself.
  4. Is there stress associated with handling the conceptual, technical and interpersonal aspects of your job? How do you deal with it?
    Tremendous. You have to grit your teeth and trust in the future of your idea and back yourself. In fact, it helps to know right up front when you choose the entrepreneurial route that your life is going to be 24×7 right from day one till when your own end actually comes – it’s a burden you have to live with at first and an addiction that you’ll never want to give up as time goes along. 

Problem solving and Decision Making

Entrepreneurs such as yourself work in a dynamic, fast-paced environment. In such a situation where the time is short and the demands are many, how are decisions made within the organisation?
I love this part and unfortunately, my answers here will be specific to me and my journey. I am a completely intuition and gut based decision maker. Fortunately it has stood by me till date. I back myself to make the right calls and then do whatever it takes to ensure I see it through, while not being fool hardy to support a decision where it apparently seems to be wrong. I believe decisions are made up of two parts – conviction and doubt. The proportion of one to the other will determine how effective you are in decision making as well as how much time you spend researching, talking to family, friends, peers and others for nothing but validation or affirmation – to convert doubt to conviction. I must admit that I have been pretty lucky with my gut till date but would encourage most other entrepreneurs also to give themselves more credit than they usually do. 

What role do your colleagues (both co-founders if any and employees) play in decision making?
Today since we have a work flow in place, I have shifted a lot of the decision making at an operational level downwards towards my staff. I prefer to take the final call only on policy matters, strategies for clients, marketing and creative work.

Are decisions centrally made by the management or is it jointly evolved by the management along with the employees?
Jointly, as far as possible. It’s important to be inclusive though that may not necessarily always mean participative.

When faced with a dilemma or a problematic situation, what has been your most commonly chosen course of action in dealing with it? (For example, do you withdraw in order to think it through and collect more information independently [or] do you analyse the problem with your team to brainstorm and jointly evolve solutions. Or perhaps you analyse the situation and break it down into components and divide it amongst yourself and others based on their strengths.)
When it is a client or delivery related issue, it’s a team discussion and we try to jointly evolve solutions. When it’s a company related decision, I just trust my intuition.

Leadership development

What do you see as your main job as a leader?
Making people happy and accountable at the same time.

What experience(s) do you think have best helped you in your development as an entrepreneur?
Working with a myriad of people from across the country, networking, learning from mistakes and losses and working with my partner.

In the context of the issues and challenges discussed so far, what do you see as the three biggest strengths of your organisation and the three biggest challenges?
Strengths – client portfolio & creative abilities, work culture, quick decision making.
Challenges – efficient delivery processes, training, a better breed of technologists

Professionals often seek feedback to understand their strengths and weaknesses. Whom do you normally approach for feedback?
My staff, clients and a couple of close friends.

What advice would you have for young individuals who have aspirations to set up a start-up of their own?
Read Vidya’s compilation! I think this is a great idea and the questions are well formulated such that if one answers honestly, a lot of learning is available from these answers for future entrepreneurs. Few other points:

  • Take the plunge the moment you know it. I am not a big fan of balancing a job with entrepreneurial interests – it’s like having two wives and doing justice to none. Plan to sow but choose to sow it only when you are fully committed to growing it.
  • Try and bootstrap your idea as much as you can. It’s very easy these days to get carried away by reports in the media on funding and investments doing the rounds. Remember that what doesn’t get reported is the struggle each of them have had to go through to survive the first few years to ensure they come out successful and well-funded. The stronger your balance sheet when you go to an investor, the bigger the bargaining chip. Also, I personally believe bootstrapping helps you own the idea more passionately and ensures you are willing to stand by it, no matter what.
  •  There is no such thing as perfect. It’s great to chase perfection but it’s also easy to get lost in that pursuit. Sense when something is getting there, and move ahead so that you are never left wondering, what next.
  •  Scaling up or expanding is a HUGE decision. Take your time over it but don’t kill yourself over it. The first 20 employees and the first Rs. 1 Crore are the toughest targets. Once there, it will ease out for sure. Plan it well.
  •  Learn from your mistakes – I cannot stress this enough. Document, commemorate, and decorate your mistakes to ensure they are always in your face or at least at the back of your mind. 
  • Reward yourself – it’s important to celebrate success as much as it is to document and learn from failures. Let there be holistic celebration where you celebrate the success with your team as well as personal, material rewards that mark an achievement.
  • There will always be an easy way out – critics and literature will tell you that there’s no easy way out, but there is. What ensures failure or success in that route is your ability to gauge the risks and then decide whether to explore the route or not. Quick thinking on your feet and the ability to weather any storms that come by your way should govern your decision to take the easy route or not. Most often, the easiest route to anything starts with a great idea and measured execution. Good luck.