10 success tips for entrepreneurs from the Bangalore LitFest!

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The third annual Bangalore Literature Festival featured three packed days of panels by authors and artistes covering topics ranging from politics and religion to music and entrepreneurship. Here are my Top Ten takeways for startups from many of the authors at the Festival, especially the speakers in the panel ‘Building your Own Blocks: Entrepreneurship in India Today.’

Featured panelists included Ajit Balakrishnan, founder and CEO of Rediff.com and author of ‘The Wave Rider;’ Harish Bijoor, branding expert; Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, managing director of Biocon; T.V. Mohandas Pai, chairman, Manipal Global Education; and Vishwas Mudagal, CEO of GoodWorkLabs and author of ‘Losing My Religion.’ (See also my earlier article from the Times Literary Carnival, ‘India needs more entrepreneurs: Nandan Nilekani’.)

1. Have the spark of an idea – and keep learning

Learn how to recognise good ideas and create your own. Keep challenging yourself even after you have one successful idea, keep learning to have new ideas and reinvent problems. Prepare yourself for lifelong learning – and unlearning. Be imaginative in every aspect of your problem domain. Unless you clearly differentiate yourself from the competition, you will not have a market advantage. Be original. “It's ok to play others' compositions but you really emote yourself when you play your own,” said guitarist Susmit Sen, founding member of the fusion band Indian Ocean, offering creative analogies from the world of music.

2. Explore uncharted territory

Truly successful entrepreneurs are really creative and are not risk averse in conquering uncharted territory. They are willing to create the next ecosystem, and not just a feature of a product. Deep and original insights are key for success. “Good humour comes from deep insight,” said Jane De Suza, author of ‘The Spy Who Lost Her Head,’ showcasing the role of originality in fields like humour writing as well.

3. Harness your passion

Identifying early problems and seeing them through complete solutions requires unrelenting passion. “You should be willing to bang your head against a wall until you find the solution,” advised Mohandas Pai. Passion comes first, then comes rewards, said Harish Bijoor – in fact, the expectation of only a reward is not the main driver for entrepreneurs.

4. Carry through with execution

Ideas and passion come aplenty for many, but the big challenge is making these dreams and products real and sustainable. This requires financial acumen, operational excellence and good teamwork dynamics. It requires a judicious mix of planning, project management and experimentation.

5. Work hard and make sacrifices

Seeing entrepreneurs and startup founders being interviewed in the media and speaking at conferences is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a mountain of brutal hard work beneath, and you have to sweat it out yourself. You also need to make sacrifices to keep at your mission. “I gave up spending on movies for a while so that my venture could take off,” recalled Kiran Mazumdar Shaw.

6. Be persistent and perseverant 

Unless you keep devoting yourself to your vision, you will not succeed in the long run. Vishwas Mudagal’s first book manuscript was rejected 14 times, but he kept refining it and making it better till it finally got accepted. Be a goal-setter and have confidence in yourself. At the same time, be flexible and switch your tactics as circumstances dictate.

7. Don’t think you have to drop out of college to succeed

It is a myth that college does not teach you enough to be an entrepreneur, and that you have to drop out of college like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. In many cases, unusually talented entrepreneurs conceived of their ideas in college and grew them also while in college, but only to scale them quickly did they really feel the need to find resources outside the college environment. So college does help you at least in the foundational aspects of entrepreneurship. Many successful entrepreneurs, in fact, did both things together – go through college and launch their startup.

8. Understand the relevance of failure

Entrepreneurs may weep when they face failure and not comprehend why things don’t turn out as expected. But failure is relevant to success because it shows the limits of your assumptions, and the endurance and insights you build up after failures is what leads you to success. Think about what you can learn from the failure you have just experienced – and be prepared to bounce back from the next failure as well. “Your victory only lasts till your first mistake,” said veteran journalist and author Shekhar Gupta. Vishwas Mudagal said he experienced failure when his first startup went bust – but then a Canadian company chose him to head its India operations because of the tech skills he had picked up along the way.

9. Have a sense of perspective

See your life from a big picture perspective, right from your childhood years – that will help contextualize your journey and give it meaning. You will realise what is worth winning only when you have lost something in life, observed Mohandas Pai. “My life is a series of failures,” joked Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, recalling how she wanted to become a doctor when she was a child, but could not make it into medical school. She studied zoology, then tried brewing, and finally entered a successful phase through BioCon. A sense of humour also helps; humour is like a “distortion mirror,” joked Zach O'Yeah, author of ‘Mr.Majestic.'

10. India needs more infrastructure and value ecosystems

Industry veterans and successful entrepreneurs need to focus on growing India’s infrastructure to improve productivity and innovation, especially for the next wave of entrepreneurs. India has only 15 million broadband Internet users, but needs 300 million to reach the kinds of scale that American startups can target in the US, said Ajit Balakrishnan. This also calls for better laws and policies for value creation to enable promising startups to raise money quickly on the stock market, advised Kiran Majumdar Shaw. Entrepreneurs in the long term also need to give back to society, and invest in not just business foundations but a vibrant open culture for the country.

In sum, the entrepreneurship ecosystem is ripe and rich in India with better days to come, especially if there are more serial entrepreneurs and entrepreneur-turned-investors. “There are close to 100 startups a month taking root in Bangalore,” said Shaw. Startups will be as important for the success of India as big companies in creating large numbers of jobs. The stories of these startups will be a powerful narrative in the rise of India in the 21st century.

 

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