It’s okay to step back

It is 5 AM in the morning and I am in the midst of wrapping up my cover story on SAP Labs India, while simultaneously thinking of a topic for my editor’s note.

I decide to take a break and start walking around my home office when I stumble upon an article titled ‘Founder’s Hell’ in the previous day’s Mint newspaper. It touched upon the topic of stress and agony faced by entrepreneurs, especially those who are battling with tremendous cash flow problems in their ventures.

Ironical as it many sound, I had just written in the cover story about how Dilipkumar Khandelwal, Managing Director, SAP Labs India, one of the world’s largest enterprise software companies, wants to learn from startups. In fact, I had titled my cover story ‘Inspired by Startups’.

After reading the Mint article, I wonder if I should change the title, because, a research conducted (a study of 2000 companies between 2004 and 2010) by Shikhar Ghosh, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, suggests that failure rate at startups is at about 75 per cent (where startups failed to return the VC investment.)

Yet, I stuck to my headline. The reason being, in order to compete in today’s world, especially in the software industry, it is crucial to operate like a startup. You need leaders who’ll give it all, take risks and hope for the homeruns, without jeopardizing their core business. The inspiration for large companies comes not from the 75 per cent of the startups that fail but from the 3 per cent – 5 per cent that make it large, just like SAP did, after it started up. There is so much to learn from them – agility, efficiency, ability to experiment and more.

The phrase ‘Inspired by Startups’ also gels well with the mission of building for the future, pursing new business models, using disruptive technologies and adapting to an ever-changing world. On the other hand, needless to say, these behemoths also in turn play a bigger role in inspiring startups as time tested lessons on scaling up, managing large teams, integrating acquisitions, executing turnarounds and such, can be very relevant.

However, to me, one of the biggest traits that young entrepreneurs can pick up from seasoned professional (non-entrepreneur) leaders is their ability to take a step back and look at the business from outside, from time to time.

While it is not right to generalize, I believe it is much easier for professional leaders to maintain a personal brand that is an arm’s length away from their professional avatar, maintain their composure in times of trouble and often realize that their current professional career is only a stint in their overall career and life.

On the other hand, entrepreneurs, sometimes, take it too personally (of course, not without reason as it’s their passion that has led them to set up their business) and end up putting too much stress on their lives, thinking their world begins and ends with their business.

Nowhere am I suggesting that an entrepreneur’s passion towards what he is doing should reduce, but, he or she should be able bring in that gap between himself/herself and the business. And the article I read in Mint, just reiterated this belief and reminded me about the numerous conversations I have had with failed entrepreneurs. Their personal lives were a mess. But, over time, most of them have moved on to jobs that make them really happy and they now realize all that stress could have been avoided.

What I am trying to bring out here is that while many professional leaders like Khandelwal are encouraging their teams to take ownership in the business, it is also imperative for entrepreneurs to take one step back and treat their journey, perhaps like a day-job, may be not always, but from time-time when things go awry. Of course, this is totally contrary to one’s natural reaction when things get out of hand.  But, this will help them in two ways: one, clear their mind and create a sort of temporary detachment; two, it will also give them a dispassionate perspective to the issue at hand.

After all, it is a two-way street. It is good to inculcate traits from both sides of the fence. And entrepreneurs will be doing themselves a favour, by taking a little step back, away from their startup from time to time.

Prem Sivakumaran is co-founder & CEO of Growth Mechanics, a leadership and entrepreneurship-focused business content company in India. Growth Mechanics publishes The Smart CEO, a publication focused on enabling peer-to-peer knowledge exchange among C-level executives and board members. The platform reaches over 1.2 lakh CXOs across its website, app, print publication & CEO Round Tables, and has featured on the cover India’s leading business leaders/founders from Infosys, Mindtree, Tata Sons, ICICI Bank, Biocon, Yes Bank and several others. In addition of Smart CEO, Growth Mechanics also organises the Startup50 Conference & Awards, an annual event to recognize India’s top 50 startups every year. Startup50 Alumni include Freshdesk, Oyo Rooms, Urban Ladder, Capital Float, Paperboat Beverages, among others. Growth Mechanics’ primary business model revolves around linking CXOs and Brands around engaging content and has worked with India’s leading companies including Mahindra Group, Godrej & Boyce, BASF, Airtel, Tata Docomo, Fiat, IDA Ireland, Yes Bank, Prestige Estates, Frederique Constant, Indian Terrain