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How Not to Run A Business – 01 – Sunil Prem

How Not to Run A Business – 01

In the beginning, there was darkness… Seven years ago, in 2010, I a brand new, first generation entrepreneur, was 46, broke, in debt and in the middle of a really messy corporate break-up – perhaps the lowest point in my career.

 

In that depth, I found two great companions – humor and introspection. The first kept me laughing at my follies (I also derived solace in having a business partner, who was as badly off as me). The second taught me many things.

 

On thinking back, I realized that the management books that I had lapped up on entrepreneurship, had not prepared me adequately for the pitfalls to come. Yes, they had all pointed to the pitfalls, but they had not made me feel the hurt of someone who had actually fallen, nor appreciate the doggedness required to pick oneself up and scramble back, the patience and thought needed to re-adjust the path, and the fortitude needed to plod on again, regardless of the discouragement and derision of others.

 

Therein lies my qualification as the author – for I, dear reader, confess to having jumped into more gaping pits on my way to entrepreneurship than anyone else that I know of!

 

And since I have hardly come across a first generation entrepreneur who has not fallen flat several times, I feel that the story of one who has, and who has somehow managed to make it back, would be of use to any aspiring business person.

 

Falling, and the hurt that causes teaches us a lesson better than any book can, just as success leads us to forget our hardest lessons. Yet it does not mean that one must, necessarily, jump into every pit to learn lasting, but costly lessons. I believe that a story can do that, for we feel stories with our hearts. A self-help book, on the other hand, we analyze, mistakenly, with our heads.

 

That then is my story – of jumping in and scrambling out of every entrepreneurial pit – and the hilarity of it in retrospect.

 

I decided to become an entrepreneur in August 2006, as a Colonel in the Indian Army posted at Dehra Dun. I remember being excited about V’s visit to our place. V has been a fellow student at IIT Kanpur in 1992 – a brilliant guy, pursuing a Ph.D. in Computer Science, while I was trying to do my Masters in Electrical Engineering. We became friends at the tennis court.

 

And here was V, with two friends in tow and a business proposal in hand – that of starting a Software Services company at Noida, near Delhi.

 

 

V’s two friends were a tall, unshaven character with long hair (Sanjeev Kumar – everyone called him Sankum) and another one named Keshav – shorter, crew-cut, hyper and dressed more like a Hindu priest than as a future businessman.

 

That night, we drew up grandiose plans for the venture –  we’d make unique software products for India. We would build a company bigger than Infosys – that was V’s ambition We would all be equal partners – Sankum, Keshav, V and I.

 

I at the time was toying with the idea of moving out of the Army. After 23 glorious years. I wanted some time with my family, to make up for my years in the Army. I was also feeling the urge to explore the unknown ‘civil’ world. Under the circumstances, V’s arrival was a God-send.

 

I decided there and then to quit the Army and to join these folks in business, with careless abandon flouting the FIRST CARDINAL RULE of business:

 

“Thou shalt be as careful, in choosing a business partner as in choosing a partner for life.”

This is so well known a rule, that I am sure you have heard of it. But the problem is that this particular pitfall looks so grassy and appealing, that everyone ignores the warning and practically jumps in. I did too. “What’s there to a partnership?” I said to myself, “Here is a partner who seems to know what he is doing, so he must be right. So that takes care of business knowledge and success. As to business ethics, since I am honest, fair and well-meaning, so must be he. Besides, we are friends, which covers for a hundred shortcomings which we’ll overcome together. And those are all the things that matter!”

Except that, that is not how one should evaluate a partnership or a business.

Just as when you marry someone, you commit yourself to share practically everything, in happiness and in distress, “till death do us part!”, so, it is, in business. Your business partner must be someone with whom you’d be happy to spend at least 16 hours a day over 10 years or more. That presupposes that you must share the same vision, at least in business. , Even more importantly, your mission and your core values, which cause you great unease if not followed, should be similar.

Two perfectly reasonable people join hands because of the strengths they have noticed. Then they split when they start discovering the weaknesses.

You are certainly not looking for a clone of yourself. The last thing you would want when in trouble, is your clone nodding happily to everything you say rather than someone providing genuine support.

A great partner should be such that you share the same vision and values, but not necessarily the same strengths and weaknesses. Ideally, he/she would complement you, acting as a foil for your weaknesses and blind spots, just as you do for his/hers. And since this is the real world, and perfect fits exist only in fiction, you should both be, of necessity, accommodating and flexible by nature. This is a must.

Partnerships usually break up either when the going gets really bad or really good. That’s when Ms. Fear and Mr. Greed bring out the best and the worst in the partners. Now getting out of a partnership is always difficult and painful. The baggage you accumulate along the way is considerable. You can avoid such a situation by visualizing success and failure scenarios, plus other future disagreements and divergences.

Ideally, you say to one another, “I am sure each of us has flaws and weaknesses. It is just that we cannot see those yet. Let us try to find out more. Better still, let us try to actually work together in some manner. If that works for six months, we can put ink to paper.”

I call this “business-dating” – understanding one another to appreciate each other’s missions, values, strengths, limitations, and flaws. If you can get to that level of understanding and decide to continue, most likely, you will be on firm ground.

Later in my tale when I reach the part where the first great partnership(s) were forged, I’ll talk more on this. Meanwhile, here are a couple of signposts to pitch along the road to entrepreneurship, as beacons for the naïve souls like me who follow:

That is what you need to check for before you get into a partnership – to check for these convergences and divergences in advance.

“Arre, we are friends. That is what matters!” – that is the worst place to start. Here are some practical ‘signposts’ along the road to entrepreneurship, which you might help you choose the correct path:

Sign-Post 1: “To wear the partner’s hat, don’t decide just like that!” Give the decision the consideration it deserves.

Sign-Post 2: “It is best, to apply some test.” Anything you measure should be more exact than anything that you do not. Measure your prospective partner in the ‘business’ context and invite him/her to measure you:

 

  • Shed all deference and hesitation, “How can I ask her this?” Once you are partners, believe me, you will have to be incredibly blunt with one another, incredibly often. Start in advance.
  • Share your vision, mission, values, strengths, and weaknesses, needs and wants. What value does each one of you bring to the business? What are his / her strengths and weaknesses? What are mine? Are we prepared to live with them?
  • Talk about specifics. Words mislead, even if the speaker believes them to be true. They mean different things to different people. Someone claiming no wants in life could be imagining a 5-star existence. Be specific, to avoid misunderstandings.  E.g., “For the first one year, I would not expect any salary, benefits or reimbursements. Thereafter, I would need  Rs. 1,00,00 per month after one year, to run my household. “
  • Do not go by words alone. Look at actions, especially under stress. Stress brings out the unguarded. A person who cheats a vendor or customer is quite likely to also cheat a partner. The opposite is equally true.
  • Ask! Everyone has a past, and that past is a ‘better predictor’ of the future than most other things. If a person has not been an initiative taker in the past, it is unlikely he will start doing so overnight.
  • Be prepared for the unexpected and be ready to live with surprises. No other environment would replicate what happens in a business. Beyond a point, everything is a good guess, so be in ‘allowance’ for many things that you expected in your partner, but did not find. It would be a lot easier if you remember, that he/she would be in a similar situation.
  • Most of all, look for:
    • Ability, which will lead to success.
    • Flexibility and empathy which will aid adjustment.

 

Sign-Post 3: A Written Agreement is Best

 

Having everything in writing reduces future ‘this-is-not-what-I-meant’ scenarios. As Partners, you should be willing to put everything down in writing, at some point in time, after getting it vetted by a good CA and CS.

 

If your partner feels there is no need for this, either he/she is naïve, or he/she does not wish to ‘commit’ to what is written and would like to keep things ambiguous. In either case,  your warning bells should be ringing!

 

Back to my story…

 

You must be wondering how I would analyze that partnership now, so here goes.

 

V and I shared similar vision and hopes – being our own bosses, going past our money cares, creating something of great value. Our strengths and weaknesses were balanced and complementary too. However, our value systems and principles, to get to where we wanted to reach, were very different. And we had never discussed these, even once, before embarking on our partnership.

 

Now, while I was busy daydreaming about V’s proposal, my wife of many years was fully awake and using all her senses. In addition, she was paying attention to something which is perhaps far more important than anything else – intuition! 

 

Which gets me to the next part of the story and to the next wonderful signpost:

 

Listen to your Intuition and to your spouse!!

Sunil Prem, Aug 2017
Your friendly failed entrepreneur…

 

 

Summary: Signposts

 

Sign-Post 1: “Do Not decide Just-Like-That, To share a Business Hat!

 “It is Best, to apply a Test”

“A Written Agreement is Best”

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