Is the Entrepreneurial Grass Green? Asks Sumit Mehta
A First Person Account
Our world is dictated by a symmetry of dichotomies- the good versus the bad, white vs. black, right pitted against the wrong. For every winner, there has to be a loser, for every pro a con- isn't this how we make sense of our being?- and, for every head a tail, for every long a short. Yes, coming to think of it, nowhere is this searing dichotomy more evident than in financial markets, driving their behavior, their popularity and their fortunes.
My personal experience of working in financial markets has imbued in me this very black-and-white perspective- it has taught me to choose, to take sides. But with the additional dimension of odds- to make money, it doesn't just matter whether you get it right or wrong, but also, what was the market consensus at that time. And thus, it has
made me glorify the underdog, respect the counter-view and has turned me into a devil's advocate, constantly waging tiny battles against the powerful forces of numbers, and perennially trying to sniff out opportunities to go against the herd.
And to cut a long story short, it is this nonconformist attitude that drives me to write an article on this esteemed online council of DIY-professionals. After all, I have no place to be here- I'm one who followed the rat race (nonconformist? you ask, I am a man of contradictions!). Unlike others, neither am I going to whine about the corporate life- I chose it for specific reasons and they've ensured that I'm very happy with what I do ( actually I don't do anything!). Nor do I feel wasted, unrewarded or trapped in my claustrophobic cubicle (hell, I don't even have that privilege, I just have a small desk!) In short, I've got nothing to say which will rationalize your brave decision to go solo, nothing which will uplift your spirits. (I can hear your mouse sprinting to the Close Window button.)
But what I can offer is a honest straight-from-the-heart counter-view to what is usually written and said about entrepreneurship, not with a view to provocate, discourage or insult, but simply to share my unique perspectives to it: I happen to be the son of an entrepreneur; I hence was part of a family that weathered the vicissitudes of business cycles; and I'm bearer of a childhood often marred by reflections of luck, what-if and the virtue of money.
Starting a company had always been the dream of my energetic father- a bright chemical engineering graduate from BITS, restless but penniless, passionate but obstinate. A few years of imprisonment in the corporate world was enough to frustrate his free spirit, and soon ready to take the leap of faith, he bought a plot of land with money borrowed from the government and started his venture.
As kids, the factory was a sort of picnic spot for us, a (very ugly) getaway home. Our visits were mainly fuelled by intrigue at my father's dedication to it, matched in its enormity only by the hugeness of the Venturi scrubbers that adorned its vast space. It was also only in the factory that he personified life, scurrying around shouting orders to his workers, answering loud phone calls- he cringed with stress every moment, but there was no taking away that sense of pride and ownership from his demeanor. This was his baby, and nothing could ever take that away from him.
But it also meant that his business was synonymous with his life, and soon had encompassed ours. We could never be sure about any evening plans because he wouldn't know when he'd leave for home until he actually did, and his mood always depended on the daily events in his business- sometimes the loss of key workers, some days the frustrations of un-progress, but always the constancy of stress. And not to mention family holidays- the concept was peculiar to us, Dad never being quite secure to leave his company unmanned for a long period of time.
But where it affected us most was the volatility of our fortunes. The highs were exhilarating, but the lows were excruciating. Worse, the business always seemed like an abyss- we seemed to forever pump money in it. Some days he'd have secured a big order and we celebrated with an evening out, making grand plans for the coming Diwali, only for a major theft on the factory a week before the festive season to steal away our hopes. There was always a faint regret in us, when we compared his life to neighbor's fathers' or batch mates, and wondered what if he had gone the corporate route.
Almost all articles touting entrepreneurship as the "only way to live" are a hackneyed song, the lyrics of which often always include "break the shackles of corporate fiefdom and work for yourself", "unparalleled sense of achievement", "don't let your talent be wasted", etc, crooned by seemingly successful young entrepreneurs to the bestselling tune of wealth.
I partially disagree with this misleading representation. Not everyone is successful, and though we all know that, our vision is clouded by all the media emphasis on the successful ones, a familiar adverse selection. The ones that don't make it big struggle for years and years on end, and not always by choice, because after a certain age you become too old to do anything else. The ownership has its own pitfalls, not only for you but also your loved ones- unlike a corporate career, you bleed when your firm bleeds and die when it dies, and not a single moment goes by when you aren't worrying or stressed. Finally, I wonder if it is really the panacea for a wasted talent- you could be incredibly bright but easily end up in a vicious circle of struggle and miss out on the incredible opportunities offered by MNCs in today's globalized world. I speak all of the above from personal experience.
As I grew older and started thinking what to do with my life- the only thing that was beginning to matter to me was a secure job and income. I went to MBA school and was surprised to see everyone declaring entrepreneurial ambitions in their CVs! - it surely seemed like the "in" thing- but somehow I didn't relate to the fuss about challenge and initiative. My drivers were simple, disgusting though they may seem- I didn't want to get my hands dirty, and I wanted a comforting, luxurious lifestyle. And I've got all that and more. I don't rule out starting something in the future, but I'll do it only with a healthy bank balance in tow. I've heard many pundits say that you should start out young or you never get down to it- I'll take that risk, because I want to ensure that my kids don't suffer because of my search for initiative.
Last year, my father celebrated his 60th birthday by staying up all night at his factory to supervise over a order deadline. When I heard that, I was overcome with a strange concoction of frustrated anger and deep pride- "Is he out of his mind??!! Oh yeah, he is, when it comes to his work!" And then I remembered how excited his youthful eyes seemed when he last explained to me his 5-year plan for the international expansion of his firm. At 25, a full 35 years behind, I can't match up to that :)