A CEO resigns her job, sells her apartment, breaks all her fixed deposits to follow her passion, and make a success of it
From 2 co-workers to 200
From a part-time office allowed to function in a kindergarten school to a clientele of almost 400
These are just three instances in a country with the third largest — after the US and China — start-up ecosystem in the world.
Now close your eyes. And, imagine.
The excitement and fear as one by one she dismantles the ecosystem around her –
Secure, high-paying job – gone
Owned apartment – sold
Fixed deposits – broken
The uncertainty of a young man from a small town, almost a “misfit” in the wild Delhi high fashion circuit. All he has is his talent that speaks for him. He starts with 2 weavers from the town he comes from.
He is from a family of bankers but he is told not to get into banking – “no respect for the work you will do.” He is encouraged by family to set up his own business. Gather some friends to start a business and one partner’s mother offers her kindergarten space to work from once the kids have all gone home. Business starts slow, gathers momentum and almost crash lands.
Till last year there were more than 50,000 start-ups in India, each with a different story, undergoing even as I write, a growth or slump trajectory which only the next couple of months or years will reveal. What is their mental and emotional status as they ride this roller-coaster? Do they feel a sense of fear? And as the big wheel moves fast and at times slow, are there thoughts that scream – “I wish I could get off now!”
A mid-career professional is “seriously toying” to “chuck the not-so-cushy job since the pandemic struck” and “launch my own business” but “it has not been easy. I have a family to feed and this includes my ageing parents. The thought of emptying the nest egg with some missteps is scary. But this to-do-or-not-to-do bit is annoying and honestly taking a toll on my mental health. I feel terrible when I am all grouchy in a corner. The wife is supportive but it is tough on the children.”
Keep a positive, solution-focused approach and focus only on controlling the controllable.
A 22-year-old trying out the “see-saw” that is entrepreneurship, talks on conditions of anonymity: “It is still very early for me to talk about anything. It has been a good ride so far but it does get maddening at times when I am not able to do the things I want to do. My internship months in two organisations brought home the fact that I wish to be my own master; as an entrepreneur who has just started out, work is crazy and challenging – the sense of achievement when I am able to put something right is immense, but the real challenge comes during people management and keeping the finances going, plus one too many hydras pop up so often. But this is a choice I have made and I have to stick to it”.
The operative words here are “stick to it”. How often do entrepreneurs in the start-up ecosystem wish to get off the lion they have mounted!?
Impression management is what social psychiatrists call this – fake it till you make it, all the while wondering, “will I be able to make it or will this lion devour me?”
Says the fashion designer Samant Chauhan who started out with 2 tailors and today works with 200 of them (including weavers) in Bihar’s Bhagalpur where he hails from. “When I started out, I had not worked with any designer. I did not know how the business of fashion works. So, it was very difficult for me. I was absolutely blank, and the fear for me was that I don’t know anything (laughing deprecatingly)! Each time the fear was of losing out everything! The first two-three years were tough. I was doing only menswear then. I started with my award money and whatever I would earn I would keep investing into my business. I did not borrow any money from relatives or friends and neither did I go for a bank loan. But yes, I created a support set-up around me. So, if I had to get some digital printing done or make a hang tag, I built a good working relationship with my vendors and they allowed me a long credit time. That was the key. It took almost 6-7 years to build my niche. And yes, there was a stage when I felt I was losing more and earning not enough.
“One day I sat down and calculated that even if I sell a hundred or 200 shirts, I will make only INR2-2.5 lakh which is not enough to grow or reinvest the money. I realised that I am doing something wrong. That’s when I changed tack. I decided to broad base and balance my collection with creative styles and some lines that could earn me the money I need.
“Money is critical. The fashion business is labour-oriented with a lot of hidden and fixed expenses. For me, the end of the month was very scary paying the rent and the team. I learnt gradually how to deal with it. It was only in 2011 that I launched a commercial collection and I saw a queue of buyers once I was done with my show. Some buyers bought a lot of my ready stuff, some samples too and it was then that I knew that I would be able to make it. We have since grown as a brand. One needs to be patient and slowly find your way.
“I had nothing actually. No one to fall back on if I lost out on my investment. And it was very early into my work that I decided I have to grow organically – plough back the money earned into the business so that even if I lose, it is entirely mine. First four-five years I used to sleep every alternate day! And at this point of time, I don’t think I can go back and do all that now. When you are young you want to do everything which is not possible, but that is how you learn not just how to run the business but also deal with the uncertainty. Now I am building my team. All of this is a process which is critical to one’s growth. We have to learn from our mistakes.
“One should believe in their ideas. My journey has always been in what I believe in. When I started no one used to sell whites and off-whites, and everyone wanted me to make in colour. But we kept doing whites season after season after season. Now we have built a clientele that does not want any colour from us!”
What has been his mantra to ease the always-on-simmer tension? “Find your whistle! For me the way to release pressure is to take a quick lunch break, go out for a day, divert my attention, call my team and take suggestions from them so that any decision is not entirely mine! The minute I share, the tension is also shared.”
Debjani Mukherjee’s Nanighar is a food tech start-up delivering home cooked food with the provision of a cloud kitchen facility. “This is my dream to empower women – the homemakers specially and of course realising my own dream to do something of my own.”
From selling her apartment to breaking all her fixed deposits, to an approximate INR28 crore valuation (currently under way), the road was not easy. “I was a busy CEO with 3 young daughters and looking for trustworthy home food makers. I was not getting it and that’s how the thought came up of launching a platform where moms can cook, and busy people or senior citizens can have homemade healthy food. When I met a few mom chefs I felt that we need to build a community. Here were women who could cook up a delectable storm but with the kids having flown the nest there was that sinking feeling of emptiness. They needed our support, more so emotionally. That was the trigger and the kick.
“But when I was finishing all my savings, I felt helpless many a time, but the moment I met the mom chefs I felt energised, and all the toil felt like sweet success. Like every entrepreneur there is always a fear of failing and moreover it’s when a team and their family’s livelihood is depending on you. We are still bleeding but very hopeful. Nanighar is an initiative, keeping in mind women empowerment, supporting homemakers in realising their long-cherished dream of becoming a successful entrepreneur. Through Nanighar we have also tried to bring back old local culinary dishes which are becoming rare in daily family life due to time constraints. Not only Bengali dishes, Nanighar is set to serve many cuisines like Rajasthani, Parsi, Punjabi, Sindhi, Coastal, etc., to your home. It is not a mere food delivery company, rather a platform and an opportunity for those who have the best of talent to use their culinary skills, work from their home kitchen and become an entrepreneur.”
To cope with high pressure situations, it’s the attitude that matters the most.
Piyush Somani’s ESDS Software started as a web hosting support business in a shared space with INR25,000 given by his father and today it claims an INR160 crore revenue with more than 800 employees. In between he was staring at bankruptcy and that’s when he decided to rejig and recalibrate his business. “I had lost all my earnings and savings. We had grown fast and now there were lives dependent on us. It was a very tough period when I had to scale down from 60 to 25 people. From supporting web hosting, we plunged into web hosting ourselves working day and night, and even acquiring some companies in this space. It was in 2010 that we launched our first data centre, and six years down the line we had built one of the largest data centres in Mumbai.
“It was a roller-coaster all right and a fast moving one at that. We were resilient, we thought on our feet, making the right pivot at the right time and today I can proudly claim that more than 200 government organisations host their data on our cloud and we are touching the lives of 600 million fellow citizens”.
I talk to an investor to find out what they look for when putting their money out. Vikram Duggal, investor, mentor, advisor and managing partner at Ekcle Ventures — an angel syndicate that invests in early stage start-ups, and its sister arm, Ekcle Advisory Services helps founders scale up their business with market linkages, strategic changes in revenue models, and fund-raises up to $40 million says: “As investors, we look for founders who have strong domain expertise, passion, humility, resilience, flexibility and open-mindedness, and who can leverage their network and inspire teams to achieve the impossible.”
As an investor into start-ups, how does the high-pressure uncertainty weigh on the mind?
“Since this is a high-risk-high-return asset class, the pressure and uncertainty for investors is part of the package. Hence, one should choose a ticket size (investment amount) that one is comfortable to write off as a loss, as nine out of ten start-ups in the early stages do not survive or give back any returns. And yet, no matter how well one is mentally prepared for all this, when the losses do happen the stress is inevitable. But once an investor starts getting the returns and becomes more seasoned or comfortable with the high-risk nature of this asset class, it becomes much easier to deal with the uncertainty and pressure.
What can one do at the conscious level to help you ride the rough with the easy?
Try and maintain work-life balance by spending time with close family and friends, playing sports, listening to music, travelling, and doing things that you love or enjoy. All this helps keep things on an even keel and one must not forget that we’re all here for the experience of the journey, not just reaching the destination.
Dr Samir Parikh, an eminent psychiatrist sums it all: Having an entrepreneurial mindset means having a vision that is your own, and one that you believe in and are committed to. Highs and low are part of every journey, and resilience is key. It’s important for anyone starting out to take success and failure in their stride, learn from their mistakes, and find opportunities in what others consider crises. Open yourself to different perspectives, worldviews and life experiences. As you move forward, invest in people and take time to cultivate relationships. Be true to your values, yet be flexible and willing to seek guidance and ask for help when required.
To cope with high pressure situations, it’s the attitude that matters the most. Keep a positive, solution-focused approach and focus only on controlling the controllable. Take breaks and develop the ability to switch on and switch off from work – spend time with friends and family, and talk about interests other than work. At the end of the day, take some time for yourself to do things that calm you down, it could be spending time with plants or a pet, listening to some relaxing music or taking a stroll in the park.