Sharad Sharma: Entrepreneurship Means Building Something Larger Than Yourself
If something defines Sharad Sharma as an entrepreneur and you want to get a picture of his inner workings of his mind, it is this—spreading the sphere of influence beyond the boundaries that are defined by your formal roles. It is first about larger-than-yourself objective that you embrace and then spreading your sphere of influence to get the buy-in of people whom you don’t control by formal hierarchy. If any entrepreneur is looking for value lesson on the purpose of embracing entrepreneurship and inspiration for it, then read Sharad Sharma’s words with due care. He has offered an invaluable lesson in what follows.
YourStory: Your career graph is interesting: first you were an employee, then you became an entrepreneur, a technology executive, and now a venture capitalist. This could be my assumption. When you become an entrepreneur, you don’t go back to work under a boss again. What made you switch back to corporate roles?
Sharad Sharma: I don’t buy the thesis that you should embrace entrepreneurship because you want don’t want to have a boss. I don’t believe in that model. But many people believe this [being your own boss] is their motive to take up entrepreneurship. Because my sense of it [entrepreneurship], having been a cofounder and CEO of a venture-funded startup, is the purpose of your startup is building something larger than yourself. This has got to be the purpose of any startup. Infosys, Wipro are all institutions. Infosys is a terrific example where the founders started building something larger than themselves and which will outlive them. They were not saying let it be smaller than me. They were telling themselves let me build something larger than me.
This has to be a starting point of any entrepreneurial venture. So if you are starting with that as a mindset, then you are subordinating yourself to the goals and vision of the organization [that you started] and even if you are a CEO you are subordinating yourself to the board of directors whom you are reporting to. It is not as if you are working for yourself. You are working for something [larger than yourself] and you have to enrol others into the process and it is not as if you are trying to be a dictator and that your word is law. You have to subordinate yourself to a larger objective that you have formulated, which has been instrumental in establishing the organization.
Entrepreneurship is not about escaping the tyranny of a bad manager in a big company (smiles). The tyranny of a bad board or potentially a bad VC or a bad customer can be even worse than tyranny of a bad manager in a big company.
The reason I have been able to alternate between big companies and small companies is because I think there is something common in both, in the way I look at it. To me, influencing without control in a big company involves dealing with people who don’t report to you—your peers, your superiors, people in some other business unit, those in some other functional area, and being able to force them to embrace the change you are advocating. In a small company, you got to do that again. You have got to do that with investors, with customers, with potential employees, and many of them are outside the company and not inside. But the process of influencing them is the same. You use some combination of idea power and a combination of the outcomes for which you are responsible for to influence others. In my opinion, entrepreneurship in a small venture and intrapreneurship in a large venture are somewhat similar in connotation although the specifics of the challenges are different but the class of challenges are the same.
This attitude gives me the power, for example, to go to Yahoo! and say “Look, my goal is A, B, and C.” I may or may not succeed but I am going to give it a shot. If I succeed, well and good! But if I don’t, I am not going to stay on just for the sake of it. Then I will look for some other internal challenge or look for it elsewhere. So this is the paradigm on which I have been operating on.
YourStory: In the product space in which you have been operating so long, marketing seems to be soft bone in the Indian flesh. Early in your career, you were with an Apple-funded startup where you felt absence of marketing can derail a product business and Guy Kawasaki also said at the NASSCOM Product Conclave 2009 that Indians as marketing guys suck. What do you think is the need of the hour as far as marketing is concerned in the product space?
Sharad Sharma: A very good question. I can sort of appreciate this question. First of all, I think a lot of challenges in marketing become easier if there is proximity to customers. I am cautiously optimistic about the problem of Indian product entrepreneurs not being good at marketing getting addressed as they begin to deal with customers who are proximate, either they are tackling customers in India or abroad.
YourStory: Is it a perception [that Indians are not good at marketing] or is it true?
Sharad Sharma: I think it is generally true of our technology entrepreneurs. The technology education system in India is very different from that in the US. In our system, we don’t encourage people to evangelize their ideas effectively. We have a much more conformist approach. The US education system, from very early on, encourages people to have a point of view and evangelize it. Therefore if you build a team of only technology guys, then they are starting with a disadvantage. They don’t know how to evangelize their ideas successfully. We struggle to do that in our system because we don’t have to publish papers and we don’t defend ideas in the same way US education system encourages people to do. So I think there is a difference.
But Indians are quick learners. People who have gone to US have become very savvy in being articulate and in evangelizing like Guy Kawasaki was at Apple. [Guy Kawasaki was evangelist for Apple products when MacIntosh was launched.] One of the reasons they are learning quickly is because they are rubbing shoulders with customers and in that process figuring out if they are able to get across what they are trying to say and if they cannot, they are also learning how to position their message much more effectively than before, and also have the reverse dialogue, which is to get feedback what the customers are saying and incorporate it into their own proposition.
So I think that is improving very dramatically because customer proximity is coming down either because the customers are physically proximate or for companies selling their software products on the Web like Zoho, Fusion Charts, and other companies, they are also benefiting because the interactivity or the conversational media gives you proximity to your customer.
People are not any longer shy in saying I use it [a product or a service], and it is not what I expected and why don’t you try this. Indians are becoming good at engaging people in the conversational media. So I think the scene is becoming much better.
YourStory: Do you think B-schools can contribute to marketing in anyway at the grassroots level when the student is starting his career to change the attitudinal or conformist behavior in India? You said they learn when they go to the US.
Sharad Sharma: Yes. Marketing has become a discipline in itself with a whole body of knowledge around it. B-schools are doing a terrific job of imparting knowledge to their MBA students. So startup teams with people having a marketing degree and technology background make a very solid combination. That helps as well.
Part II of the interview