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How I broke my corporate shackles

Saurabh Deshpande
25th Sep 2013
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I want to break free

Break free

I want to break free

You're so self-satisfied I don't need you

I want to break free from your lies

I've got to break free

God knows, God knows I want to break free

 

Can you remember how many times you have fallen in love? I can... At least, I clearly remember my 3 greatest loves. The first was for Royal Enfield motorcycles. I can still remember, as a 5-year-old, sitting on the fuel tank of my dad’s 350 cc Standard. Holding the handlebars - my palms next to my dad’s - the wind in my hair, the steady thumping of engine... I was definitely in love! Today, I’ve my second Bullet, a 500 cc guzzler who’s been with me for the last 9.5 years. May we never part!

My next big love was this beautiful girl I met at my first day at work, straight out of college. She had jet black hair which flowed down a few inches below her shoulders, deep brown eyes which always had a twinkle and an adorable smile which would always break into a hearty laugh every time I cracked one of my (in)famous PJs – no matter how bad the joke was, she would always laugh! Today, 11 years after we first met and almost 7 years of being married, I can’t ever think of being parted from her...

But this is not a post about Royal Enfields or beautiful girls. It’s about my third and most recent love – entrepreneurship. It was around a year ago, at the grand finale of TechSparks 2012. I had completed 10 years in consulting, of which 7 were at my first company – Hewitt Associates – which I thoroughly enjoyed. Then followed an MBA from ISB, Hyderabad and my life went topsy-turvy.

My mind was brimming with ideas and things I wanted to do. I took my first shot at a small, growing company. But it wasn’t really a startup; it was a small consulting firm that tried to adopt the persona of larger players, adding the adjective – boutique. It wasn’t our fault that we weren’t ‘start-uppy’; like a patient who always seeks out a doctor with grey hair, our corporate clients seldom valued consultants without suits. Yet we had a lot of the challenges of small companies – difficulty in getting good talent, occasional cash flow issues and an endless supply of midnight oil that never seemed to get over, no matter how much we burned! So at that time, a steady corporate job seemed like a great idea and I soon found myself at Mercer Consulting. I had a lovely boss, some awesome team members to work with and interesting projects, but I knew that something was missing...

Coming back to TechSparks. Shradha was a friend from college and she would tell me about YourStory – how she built it from scratch and how she had emerged triumphant fighting battles against those who told her the business didn’t make sense. I wanted to help her as a friend (yes, maybe a bit patronizing of me) and I did a team building workshop for the YourStory team. Then she asked me to come for TechSparks and I thought I would go lend a hand there as well. Used to typical corporate events, I landed up at the MLR Convention Centre in a suit! The YourStory team members were kind enough not to laugh at me but I did get tons of stares from the huge crowd of attendees who had come! But like my tie, I wore my dignity close to my neck and made some perfunctory attempts to help with registrations, throw around a few orders and offer suggestions.

I sat down in the auditorium just before Shradha was about to start her opening address. The thunderous applause that greeted her as she took the podium took me aback; so much love and admiration for my friend, as if this was some Bollywood celebrity or cricketer! After a very emotionally charged speech, Shradha introduced Shailendra Singh (MD of Sequoia Capital). I thought I was finally back in familiar territory; after all, VCs can’t be that different from corporate consultants. I was wrong. In Shailendra’s quick 1-hour talk (I say – quick, because I didn’t even get to know when an hour was over), I was overwhelmed by how deep this ‘finance’ guy’s understanding of people and leadership issues was.

During the next session – a panel discussion on ‘Scaling your Startup’ comprising startup evangelists from corporate biggies like Intel, Google, Amazon Web Services and Philips Innovation – I found myself getting a little uncomfortable. Looking at entrepreneurs listening with rapt attention, I found myself asking what I was doing there. Or, more specifically, what I was doing as a corporate sector consultant trying to help a friend when my calling was in building something myself.

I walked out of the session, only to bump into a group of entrepreneurs having a smoke. There was one guy who was planning a third venture, after two failures. He didn’t look a bit perturbed; in his eyes I saw hope. There was another whose shoes looked like a pair I had discarded a year ago and his t-shirt reminded me of my sleepwear in college. But in his eyes, I saw happiness – he had just launched a startup and they had their first customer. I then heard two people talking with a slight American accent and one of them was wearing a Wharton t-shirt. Thinking that they looked more like my kind, I walked up to them. If their look on seeing my suit didn’t say enough, their uninterested tone when I told them I was a consultant, did. These guys were just back from the US and were working on a startup idea.

By now, I was clearly depressed and decided to skip the rest of the event. I had always pictured inspiration as happy thoughts – those helium-filled balloons with smiley faces. This was more like standing under a tree and getting bird droppings on your face. But inspiration it was... I knew I had to change things. I could continue running the corporate rat race with my pay package competing with my paunch on who would get fatter. But I would always feel like the inter-caste lovers, who bowing before their parent’s objections, set their lives up for misery and regret by getting into arranged marriages.

So I spoke to Shradha and took up a part time assignment with YourStory. The idea was to come up with an idea! And in the meantime, learn more about entrepreneurship, while adding value to YourStory. Over the last nine months, I’ve co-authored a book, conceptualized and managed the Awesome Startup Workplaces Awards, helped conceptualize the Startup Jobs Fair, and managed to find enough business as a freelance consultant to keep me busy. And the more I’ve interacted with startups and entrepreneurs, the more I find myself falling in love with entrepreneurship – the passion, the belief and the courage to do what your heart tells you.

As Shradha wrote in her last article:

“After all, less than 1 per cent of the population which starts up succeeds. What if I am not in that coveted less than 1 per cent population? What worst can happen? I believe confronting this question is therapeutic and liberating in itself. You will be surprised that this one question has the ability to set us free.”

Join me and break your own shackles at TechSparks 2013 on 5th October.

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