Monday, July 29, 2013

Why should big dogs bite ?

This is an open letter to all the big guys from the industry. My pranams to all of you.

Whenever we talk of creating a conducive habitat for entrepreneurs, typically the stake holders that we include are investor, government, and civil society. Rarely do we include the large and established players in the business, like yourselves. How come you are exempt from this key responsibility? Shouldn’t you be my role model? Aren’t you ideally in a position to be the best mentors for newbie entrepreneurs like me? I’m making out a case on two counts.

Firstly, let’s say I am a new entrepreneur and have an enterprise facing product. My customers are the big guns like you in the industry, both Indian and multi-national. I know I have a brilliant product and I am sure it will enhance the intrinsic value of your products. My product demo has been successful, and I’m sure we are getting the contract. My euphoria lasts only till I see the terms of the contract. Unreasonable SLA’s, impossible non-compete clauses, outrageous pricing and a completely one-sided, no-holds-barred contract. 

As a thinking human being, I should actually shred it into pieces and throw it in the dust bin. But as an entrepreneur, I do the most irrational thing, I go ahead and sign this preposterous agreement.

Why did I do it? I did it knowing that if I didn’t, I would lose you, my customer. And you have so much brand equity in the market that I simply can’t not have you.

As we start servicing the agreement, I realize that the biggest killer in the contract is not just the price but the payment terms. It says clearly that it is 180 days after delivery. So to make sure I keep my end of the bargain, I borrow on my credit card, cajole other vendors to give me credit, and generally drain myself and my fledgling company dry so that I can deliver the product on time. On day 180, when I’m waiting anxiously for my cheque, comes my first moment of disenchantment. The signatory has gone missing in Africa, the invoice has got misplaced, the person who was to have processed the invoice has left the company, there are audit objections as approvals were not taken before placing the order, and the nastiest of them all, that you are not happy with my product. But up until yesterday, you told me that you were delighted with my product, says poor hapless me!

To make matters worse, I am also told, very patronisingly I must say, that if i want to succeed as an entrepreneur, i have to be prepared for such delays!

Why should I? Why can’t you big guys be supportive of entrepreneurs like me and not make it your mandate to push me to a corner? Why can’t you have separate policies that are friendly to people like me? Why can’t this be your new diversity policy, maybe even your new CSR? Mind you I’m not asking for any favours. I’m only asking you to be reasonable because we are part of the same habitat where we are all interconnected and if you annihilate me today, you are going to die tomorrow.

My second case is that as a big guy in the industry, why don’t you be my mentor? Instead of either dismissing me as competition or ignoring my existence, why don’t you take me under your wing and nurture me? Not only will my chance of success improve dramatically but you are my best hedge against risks! I don’t want you to give me money, I want you to share your experience and learning with me so that I do all the right things to build a great enterprise. Won’t you be happy if I succeed? And won’t it be in your interest that I succeed? Can’t we all happily co-exist?

To misquote John Donne, no entrepreneur is an island, entire of itself. Every man is part of the main, a piece of the continent. Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Yours humbly,
A rookie entrepreneur 

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Second Life!

I’m often asked why there aren’t as many women entrepreneurs as there should be. Over the years my answer has varied. Sometimes I say, it is because we play it safe. At other times I have said, it is because we don’t have enough faith in ourselves. But having mentored a number of women (as a percentage it is still miniscule), I have arrived at both a new explanation and a new solution. Before marriage, parents frown upon the idea of their daughter becoming an entrepreneur
(I mean a serious one), because god knows where her prospective husband is likely to be located and if she invests time, effort and money into building her business, who will run it when she goes away? So parents tell her that she should hold her horses till she gets married.
Then marriage happens. It takes her a while to settle into the groove and if in the meantime she discusses her entrepreneurial ambition with her husband, he, his parents and her parents will all tell her, have a baby first, then do it.
The baby comes. Five years go by, the baby is now in school, her ambition resurfaces. Let’s finish off with the second baby, says the husband. And   then you can do whatever you want, uninterrupted. She falls for it yet again. The second baby comes, five more years go by.
This is a time ideally for women to become serious business owners, but I think many of us don’t because of one nagging fear. We have pretty much lost a decade, the business environment around us has changed dramatically and we are not familiar with it. How can we bring ourselves up to speed and compete with youngsters?
If only there was a refresher business course that would help women like us on our feet, there would be more women entrepreneurs.
I have identified three market segments here. All women in their late thirties, early forties,who want to bounce back and would like a course that will help them reconnect to the business environment that has since changed dramatically.
One is the woman who says, I have lost a decade but I want to go back to the corporate and play catch-up..
The second category is the woman who says, I don’t want to go back to the corporate, I want to be an entrepreneur. Not a baker or a candle-stick maker but I want to build a Facebook.
The third category is the woman who says, I neither want to go back to the corporate nor become an entrepreneur. My husband is MD of an MNC, so when I go out with him to office parties, I want to be able to participate in the conversation and not be a wallflower.
Bingo, three categories of focused women, educated, enterprising and well heeled. Big opportunity beckoning for an online-offline course. Anyone listening?