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‘Be like Vishnu, not Indra’ – 10 takeaways for entrepreneurs from the Bangalore Biz LitFest 2016

Madanmohan Rao
21st Sep 2016
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The second annual Bangalore Business Literature Festival, presented by ManagementNext and hosted by NSRCEL at the IIM Bangalore campus, wrapped up with a wide range of insights from startup founders, investors, social entrepreneurs, academics, authors and management experts. See my earlier write-ups on the 2015 edition of the festival, covering business models, the startup boom, and storytelling.

Here are my 10 takeaways for entrepreneurs from BBLF 2016; see also related highlights from the earlier Bangalore LitFest 2015 (‘If you make good samosas, your stall will do well’) and Times LitFest 2015 (‘Technology democratises entrepreneurship’, ‘From Infosys to Snapdeal: 25 years of startup wisdom’).

1. The reading habit: Why entrepreneurs must read

“You have to make it a habit to read,” urged Sahil Barua, Co-founder of e-commerce logistics firm Delhivery. He chooses different themes each year; this year, he is reading about the building blocks of technology. Sahil also writes reviews of the hundreds of books he has read. “I capture the feelings in my reviews, the joy of what I experienced while reading,” he added.

The book Managing Your Day to Day is recommended reading for entrepreneurs by Mukesh Bansal, Co-Founder of Myntra and Curefit.com. He reads on planes and in taxis; he also likes books about science and economics. “Reading is a meditative experience. Ideas connect unconsciously in my mind; I prefer to be entertained by the book rather than by taking notes,” he said.

Biographies are a good read, especially those about entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos. “Diversity in reading helps build resilience. But no book teaches you everything,” cautioned Manish Sabharwal, Chairman, TeamLease.

“I get attracted to stories about humble, successful people,” said Ashish Goyal, portfolio manager with a leading macro hedge fund, and the first visually impaired trader in the world. “Any free moment you get- read! Don’t wait for ideal reading conditions,” he advised, urging readers to share their reviews and feedback via blogs.

“One of the best books about creativity is The Agony and the Ecstasy,” said Manish, referring to the biographical novel of Michelangelo Buonarroti written by American author Irving Stone. “One of the saddest things about bookstores going away is the loss of serendipity in bumping into wonderful books,” he rued.

Members of the audience also commented that there need to be more books about failures, not just successes, as well as more biographies of Indian business leaders. “Indians don’t write good biographies. We are thin-skinned and don’t have a good sense of humour,” joked Ramachandra Guha, author of India after Gandhi.

“Make reading a habit, an investment - not a one-off problem-solving activity. If you can’t find a good forum to discuss books, create your own group, at home,” advised V. Raghunathan, author of Games Indians Play.

2. Learn from – and respect – grassroots innovators

While there certainly is a place for R&D labs, it is also important to recognise and reward the insights of India’s grassroots innovators. “We have conducted 37 Shodha Yatras to meet grassroots innovators by walking across the length and breadth of India,” said Prof. Anil Gupta of IIM Ahmedabad, Founder of the HoneyBee Network (see earlier article, ‘Grassroots entrepreneurship needs a lot more writing about’).

Grassroots farmers have deeper insights into produce qualities and consumer attitudes than lab scientists. “There is less awareness about patenting among grassroots innovators, but there is also humility - they do not boast about what they do,” Prof. Gupta observed. The HoneyBee Network has filed more than 800 patents for grassroots innovators. Prof. Gupta also advocates a new type of patenting scheme where it is okay to have people-to-people sharing and copying, while people-to-firm adoption is charged.

Grassroots innovators demand respect, recognition and then reward; their generosity should not be short-changed, he advised. For insights into gender bias in innovation, he recommends the book Mothers and Daughters of Invention by Autumn Stanley. “Women put their signature of creativity into everything they do, but Indian women have been denied access and power by society, and are not given the opportunity to innovate,” lamented Prof. Gupta.

3. Think local

Ancient Indian literature offers a wealth of entrepreneurial wisdom, according to Devdutt Pattanaik, author of a string of books related to Indian mythology and traditions such as The Success Sutra: An Indian Approach To Wealth. Such analysis offers useful clues into the strengths and weaknesses of Indian business.

“There has always been a tension between the hermit and the householder in Indian mythology and culture,” said Devdutt. Business practices have been embedded in Indian cultural activities in a number of interesting ways. Temples have it good - people give them money in the hope of making more money, joked Devdutt. In the Jagannath temple, the chariot is broken each year, which results in jobs for carpenters.

“Be like Vishnu, not Indra – become desirable, and Lakshmi will come to you,” he advised; in other words, startups should be attractive to investors! Mythology is about stories; ‘religion’ has connotations of tolerance and intolerance, said Devdutt.

“Nothing lasts forever – unless it is renewed. India has been asked to reinvent itself in the age of globalisation,” Devdutt said, emphasising the need for creative interpretations of Indian culture as sources of new business wisdom.

The Muslim custom of zakat is great – where a certain percentage of income is donated for charity, added Prof. Gupta; other cultures should also start similar practices and support social entrepreneurs. The CSR regulations in India formalise such thinking at the corporate level.

4. Grow and interconnect the ecosystem

“There is great opportunity in connecting grassroots innovators and rural consumers,” said Prof. Gupta, pointing to the use of windmills to pump water. India needs to come up with heuristics for rural innovation impact and test them systematically.

“We need to focus on asymmetrical and non-reciprocated acts of good will,” said Prof. Gupta, urging entrepreneurs to focus not just on private gain but also on sharing some of their knowledge, insights and learnings publicly.

Entrepreneurs must also help the public sector innovate. “We need more focus on innovations in public service delivery in India, otherwise we will not be able to scale good ideas and projects to a billion people,” urged Prof. Gupta.

“Don’t just be a good functional manager, create value consciously - otherwise, you may destroy value unconsciously. Don’t just be a businessman- be a business winner,” advised Gautam Mahajan, author of Value Creation: The Definitive Guide for Business Leaders.

5. Framing: From pivot to reinvention

Much startup business literature has focused on the importance of pivoting one’s course, product, feature or branding along the entrepreneurial journey. Sameer Dua has written a book titled Declaring Breakdowns: Powerfully Creating a Future that Matters. If there are internal or external tensions, people declare a ‘breakdown’ and reinvent themselves. “It’s one thing to be blind, it’s another thing to be blind to one’s own blindness,” said Dua.

Atul Satija, Founder and CEO, The/Nudge Foundation, shared how he left the MNC life to join the adrenaline rush of the startup life, and then re-focused on the NGO sector. “My NGO, The/Nudge Foundation, has given me the best satisfaction in life,” he said. Blindness occurs at multiple levels – personal and professional.

Vishal Dhupar, Managing Director, Asia South at Nvidia, shared how he had to force himself to move out of the PC era comfort zone and into the mobile era. Many other companies have not managed technology evolution and transition in a sustainable or successful manner (see my review of the related books Invent, Reinvent, Thrive and The Road to Reinvention).

6. Develop a hunger for innovation

“Indian corporates lack hunger for innovation; more MNCs have approached me to scale grassroots Indian innovations than have Indian companies,” observed Prof. Gupta. There has also been no major design change in products like Indian bicycles for decades, though they are used by millions of Indians not just for transportation, but all kinds of mechanical activities. The attitude seems to be: Why innovate if they are selling well?

There are scalable ideas in India, but not many Indian corporates see value in them. Innovation should also extend to safe practices. “Why do we see no ads on the safe use of chemical pesticides? Or no protests about that?” he asked.

Innovation also exists in platforms to connect suppliers and consumers. For example, there are huge opportunities to aggregate kitchen/home garden produce in Indian cities. “Gardening is therapeutic as well as economic. Connect your soul to the soil,” said Prof. Gupta.

7. Sustainability beyond jugaad

Indian startups need to go beyond the copy-paste, me-too or romanticised ‘jugaad’ types of innovation. “We need more tech-enabled localised solutions,” said angel investor Naga Prakasam, pointing to Saahas as an example. “Bengaluru produces at least 5,000 tons of waste each day,” said Naga, pointing out that systematic solutions are needed to tackle it. Success metrics for entrepreneurs should be defined by audience impact, profit margins and environmental impact.

“Next time you shelter under a tree during the rain, ask yourself, ‘Who planted this tree and looked after it?’” said Prof Gupta. Think of scale as the ramping up of a vision or network or values, not just a company or organisation, he advised. Inclusive development can help reduce disenfranchisement, anger and violence.

Wilma Rodrigues, Founder, Saahas, said that social enterprises need to avoid duplication of efforts and network with each other - unlike the corporate sector, where this is seen as competitive advantage.

8. Entrepreneurship is more than hard work

While perseverance and persistence are definitely the hallmarks of entrepreneurs, there is much more to the mix, said Suveen Sinha, author of The Tip of the Iceberg – Unknown Truths About Start Ups. For example, during his difficult early years, Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma only went home at late hours to avoid meeting his landlord, who was demanding rent. “To make it as an entrepreneur, you can’t be a normal human being!” joked V. Raghunathan.

“The temperament of an entrepreneur is important, along with a sense of timing,” said Ganesh Vancheeswaran, author of The Underage CEOs! Fascinating Stories of Young Indians who Became CEOs in Their Twenties.

Founders should also take failure as a badge of honour, provided they extract useful learnings from it and move on. “Even a failed startup on your resume is amazing. It adds value to your service even if you decide to take up a corporate job,” advised Suveen.

Making business plans helps develop a sense of focus, but should not serve as blinders to execution and agility. But above all, a startup will be truly successful if it effectively solves a real problem, and preferably a big problem, according to Suveen and Ganesh.

9. Entrepreneurship education

The festival also highlighted the need for more research into India’s entrepreneurial ecosystem; much literature understandably draws on Western (eg. Silicon Valley) models, but there needs to be more focus on resources and educational materials in the Indian context.

Academic and business books are also freed of the time and space constraints of mainstream media, and can obviously dig more deeply into entrepreneur case studies. More cooperation is needed between Tier 1 management, engineering and communications schools, and with other smaller institutes across the country.

“I want to focus more on children’s creativity. One girl suggested putting a note in tiffin boxes that would urge students to wash their hands regularly,” said Prof. Gupta, pointing to the unique insights of children and the need to upgrade our education system to teach them creativity and tap their spirit.

10. Age factor: Creativity, risk, finances, networks

A number of experts have debated the role and impact of age in an entrepreneur’s journey. Research scholar Pavan Soni cited work which showed that the relation between age and creativity depends on the domain, i.e. whether the area in question is poetry, science or something else entirely.

Some people are one-hit wonders, others serial entrepreneurs, and yet others are late bloomers. They also vary in the degree of originality (see my review of the book Originals by Adam Grant). Panellists and audience members shared insights on how risk-taking appetite and ability changes with age, as well as the desire to give back to society via philanthropic causes.

“At whatever age the entrepreneurial calling strikes you – and it is a true calling – you should heed it,” advised Ganesh. Parental attitudes towards youth entrepreneurship are also changing as more case studies and media coverage highlight entrepreneurial progress in the country.

In addition to these weighty topics, the festival had terrific moments of humour. The book launch of V.Raghunathan’s The Good Indian’s Guide to Queue-Jumping was followed by discussion on why Indians jump queues all the time, and what it reveals about our psyche, respect, values and behaviour.

“Soviet Russia also had shortages like India, but their queue system was much better,” joked Raghunathan. “When foreigners come to India, they pick up our queue-jumping habits too! Mumbai and Kolkata used to have good queuing habits, but not anymore,” he added.

The next edition of BBLF promises to be even more engaging, educational and entertaining. “Despite such a festival being seen as a niche one, it is obvious - both from the attendance and the high level of audience engagement - that business books and the writers of business books have found their readership,” said Shinie Antony, festival organiser.

“The power of stories in business literature was emphasised by the storytellers. As the chief curator of the fest, I'm motivated to work harder to expand the scope and depth of the business literature ecosystem in India,” said festival curator Benedict Paramanand.

 

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