Sometime back I read a blog on Harvard Business Review. It talks of something called ‘Entrepreneurship porn’. In essence, the blog summed up the reality of the startup world, or rather how it is perceived by everyone. There is a distorted view of the life that a startup founder lives - often projected as rather glamorous.
However, beneath the glamour are always the lesser stories that get no mention. After all, most startups fail, very few survive beyond three years to achieve modest success and only a handful see the meteoric success akin to that of say a Flipkart or an Ola. Failure is messier than success, the stories of struggle can be depressing and the uncertainty (of cash flows mostly) is nerve wracking. One can’t turn a blind eye to that.
I graduated from Kellogg School of Management with a $145,000 student loan on my back. A few weeks after I graduated in 2010, I moved to California and we conceptualized Claro Energy. I prepared a forecast of my personal cash flows putting in a six-month lean period, post which I expected a modest salary for myself from the venture to cover basic lifestyle costs and a small repayment on my student loan. I put in a contingency of another six months to factor in the worst. In reality, the first salary (which by all means was very modest) we could pay ourselves was in July 2013, almost three years after we had started. The school was supportive enough to give me a moratorium of two years on my loan before I started my repayment. But by any measure, nothing prepares you for this. You need to know that such uncertainties are going to be there and that you’ll have to figure out ways to deal with them.
The first few months of an entrepreneurial journey are awesome. You’re the darling of all cocktail conversations. The very idea of being the captain of this new vessel is exciting. However, few realise how much it takes to sustain a new venture, especially in the initial years of struggle. This is a long haul, not something for those who can’t endure long periods of struggle. Do it if you can be in it for the long run. Stick to your guns. Don’t quit easily, something usually does work out.
Value your co-founders
Multiple co-founders is the new normal. Housing.com had 12 founders when they started out in 2012 (though that might be a bit of an exception)! The relationship between co-founders is very sensitive and critical to the longevity and success of the venture. Industry life cycles have shrunk significantly, there is hyper competition and one needs as many hands on the deck to survive the initial mayhem.
Soumitra, Gaurav and I fight, bicker, argue on just about everything on a daily basis, and in most of these arguments only one point of view typically prevails. But we’ve been able to arrive at this interesting but delicate equilibrium of mutual respect such that all three of us are able to curb our egos and draw comfort from the fact that at the end of the day the most relevant decision that benefits the venture should prevail. For instance, having spent 10 years working in the US, Soumitra wants a very Silicon Valley-style operation, while Gaurav and I are too eager to dismiss it on grounds of impracticality in the Indian context. But we realise that his US experience helps instil a sense of culture, professionalism and being detail-oriented within the organisation -- virtues that have helped us immensely.
All co-founders will be unique in how they deal with situations, especially the not-so-pleasant ones. They will differ in their ability to endure, having different patience levels. There will be conflict, disagreement, arguments and at times you will even question the value that your co-founder brings! It’ll be easy to let your ego go on a trip and logic might take a hike. Avoid that! You’ll get emotional easily but don’t damage the relationship irreversibly. You must rid yourself of such thoughts and respect each other.
(The author is co-founder of Claro Energy, a New Delhi based start-up that provides solar water pumping solutions that find application in irrigation & drinking water supply. With a team of 120 people, the company has a presence in 14 states across the country and has been profitable since 2011, the year it was formally incorporated in India. The author is an alumnus of Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, US)