[OPINION] Dear Mr Biyani, it’s time we stopped slut-shaming our startups

8th Sep 2016
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Yesterday, at an event organised by The Economist, Future Group founder and retail’s Grand Old Man Kishore Biyani reportedly said: “[Startups have] become too sexy.” Mr Biyani, who is known to occasionally rail at startups, especially his e-commerce rivals, went on to add:

Let us take Ola, Uber. The revenues won’t be more than 3,500 crore. They are not creating any new economy. They just meet people’s need to commute from point A to point B.

According to Business Standard, he also asserted that 90 percent of startups are “nonsense”.

kishore biyani, future's group

Now, Mr Biyani’s dismissal of startups is itself a bit ludicrous in its singular lack of nuance. (I mean, what does he mean by “they just meet people’s need to commute from point A to point B”? By that token, Big Bazaar just meets people’s need to buy things.) The subject of this post, however, is something else: his invocation of the word “sexy” to describe startups that don’t measure up to his standards. According to another report on Scroll, Mr Biyani said the businesses looked “sexy because of one-page advertisements in newspapers”. Disclaimer: I wasn’t present at the event and am relying completely on these reports, though it isn’t hard to imagine Mr Biyani saying something to this effect.

Startups have been called a lot of things in the circus around them in the past two or three years. “Sexy” is a word that keeps coming up. Over cocktail conversations in the booming startup awards circuit, and at conferences like the one Mr Biyani was gracing, many of us have likened startups to dandies or divas dripping oomph. In the heady days of seductive valuations, “sexy” was a badge worn with pride. But with many gilt-edged startups tumbling and crashing, “sexy” has become a bad word, drawing sniggering attention to posh offices and lavish perks that weren’t supported by durable business models.

“Sexy” has become a mark of profligacy, something cheap, vulgar, shameful. That’s precisely the mood Mr Biyani was tapping into when he referred to “too sexy” startups that try to sell themselves through full-page newspaper ads (never mind Big Bazaar’s own double spreads splashed regularly in every newspaper).

This has to end. We need to stop using the word “sexy” as an insult. You know who else we talk about in the same sarcastic, degrading vein? Women who don’t conform to social mores and standards. There’s a term for it: slut-shaming, the act of using a woman’s sexuality to denigrate her.

Given how notoriously sexist the startup ecosystem already is, we don’t need any more casual sexism attached to it. And we don’t need people to believe that startups fail because they are “too sexy”. That’s just not true. Companies don’t die because they are sexy. Companies die because they lack substance. The two have no correlation, though anyone whose introduction to startups is through Mr Biyani’s comments may be led to believe otherwise.

Even if we concede that Mr Biyani didn’t intend to activate the larger cultural references that come with the use of “sexy” as an insult— which is a hard position to defend, since language is never used in a vacuum— what’s wrong with being “sexy”? Which business in the 21st century wants to be boring?

Even Mr Biyani’s own Big Bazaar, that hoary pioneer of organised retail, is constantly trying to sex itself up. Go to its new Noida store in the uber-sexy DLF Mall of India and check out the shelves heaving with the most un-Big Bazaar-like brands, high-end imported produce, even a full-fledged, swanky non-vegetarian section that’s quite a stunner for anyone used to Big Bazaar’s “strictly veg” Marwari heritage. Or the plush waiting area for customers, another haute new feature (although dysfunctional, if my recent visits are any proof) that attempts to give a makeover to Big Bazaar’s no-frills treatment of shoppers.

I happened to be in the Noida store the day it opened, as was Mr Biyani, proudly inspecting the aisles. I remember feeling quite wowed by this snazzy new version. It was sexy, and I loved it. Now, I wouldn’t have to run to Hypercity for my monthly stock of authentic wasabi and breakfast salami, or just to feel good looking at stuff.

In fact, let’s go back in time to Big Bazaar’s inception. I remember when Big Bazaar came to Durgapur, my small hometown in Bengal; it was our first experience of air conditioned shopping. It was exotic, an illicit pleasure almost. People used to come on trucks and buses from neighbouring towns like Asansol and Chittaranjan just for the experience, just to touch and feel. Nobody used the word then, but it was oh-so-sexy. If Big Bazaar were to end up a struggler, I wouldn’t look back at it and say, “I knew it. It was always too sexy for its own good.” There’s no reason, then, to take that tone with Ola or Flipkart.

Mr Biyani, startups— and Big Bazaar too was a startup once— will always be sexy. They will always thrill, tantalise, and caress the imagination. There is no shame in it, and it has nothing to do with the real problems: immature leaders, poor cash flow management, or cut-throat competition. In fact, not being sexy can kill a startup given the times we live in. If you are a startup, be sexy. Just be responsible for the choices you make. Hopefully, you will say something like this the next time you talk about startups.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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