[YS Learn] 5 lessons startup founders must learn from top explorers

In a masterclass, Vani Kola, Founder and Managing Director, Kalaari Capital draws parallels between world-famous explorers and startup founders, and details out important learnings.
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No entrepreneurial journey follows a straight line. But every turn, roadblock, and failure teaches the founder something new. 

However, the coronavirus crisis is a watershed moment, with no one prepared for a crisis of this scale, depth and magnitude. 

To help entrepreneurs navigate these tough times, Vani Kola, Founder and Managing Director, Kalaari Capital, draws parallels between world-famous explorers and startup founders, and the learnings the latter can glean from the former. 

Vani Kola, Founder and Managing Director, Kalaari Capital

In a masterclass, Vani explained that exploration, curiosity, and the drive to discover are innate in every human being. “And a big part of entrepreneurship is curiosity,” she said. 

Drawing the first parallel, she said every exploration led to new discoveries and changed the way we live, and that these discoveries led to paradigm shifts. 

“New discoveries make something more valuable and something else less valuable. Every new discovery creates new opportunities and takes away existing markets. Entrepreneurs should remember this as they are always going to be caught in market shifts and changes. Every new tech market that emerges can make an old one obsolete. For example, the digital camera market shut the industry of film cameras and film-making.” 

Explorations and expeditions can be compared with starting and scaling an organisation, and Vani believes that learning from the journeys of explorers can arm entrepreneurs with tools to fight crises. 

“No expedition, like any startup, has a smooth ride. It comes with several challenges and trials, and the explorer’s mindset during these crises and the choices they make can be great learnings for entrepreneurs,” Vani said. 

She draws up a list of learnings from explorer journeys that founders should focus on. 



Ferdinand Magellan: There is no right time to start up 

Vani began with the example of famous Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who completed the first circumnavigation of the earth and discovered that the earth was round and not flat. 

“It was the first time we understood that all the continents and oceans were interconnected. It was one of the greatest discoveries for its time. But Magellan was regarded as a traitor as he sailed for Spain. He was widely discredited,” Vani said. 

She added that one of the most frequent questions is regarding the right time to start up. However, there is no good time to start a company. You start a company when you are compelled to start. Quoting Ferdinand, Vani said: “The sea is dangerous and its storms terrible, but these obstacles have never been sufficient reason to remain ashore.” 

“Whenever you start a company, undergoing some crisis is part of the passage. You should start when you have a compelling cause. Another takeaway is that sometimes the true impact of a major discovery is not understood properly for a while,” Vani said. 

Ernest Shackleton: Clarity of communication 

Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton in 1914 led a crew of 27 people on an expedition to Antarctica, but his ship sank a few months into the journey. He and his crew had to seek shelter on a cold island and survive for 17 months against all odds. 

Eventually, Shackleton alone travelled in a tiny boat to rescue each of his crew members. Though he failed in his mission of reaching the South Pole, he is renowned for his leadership and survival skills that saved the lives of his crew members

“His clarity of communication and capacity to keep faith against all odds, and keep his men inspired in dire situations, are inspiring. Anything that we face in entrepreneurship needs to be inspired by his lessons in communication and clarity,” Vani said. 

“It’s our nature to explore and reach out to the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all,” Ernest Shackleton said. If you have dreamed of building something, it would be self-sacrifice to not do so.

Amelia Earhart: Successful entrepreneurs plan for every scenario 

Amelia Earhart was the first woman aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. While she didn’t survive the journey, her story is extremely inspirational. She faced several challenges as a woman flying was unheard of in 1921. 

Amelia, however, attributed a lot of her success to preparation. She believed preparation was responsible for two-thirds of the success of any venture she undertook. 

Amelia’s capacity for meticulous planning isn’t different from starting a company. Launching a product too quickly has a high cost, so is the execution of an ill-thought out plan,” Vani said. 

Quoting Amelia, she said: “Some of us already have great runways built for us. If you have one, Take OFF! But if you don’t have one, realise it is your responsibility to grab a shovel and build one for yourself and for those who will follow after you.” 

When you start a company, there are times you can build on an existing platform, like on AWS or Salesforce, but if you have an original idea where you need to build the internet highway, then you need to pace yourself differently

“Missionary projects take a lot longer to evangelise and take off. LinkedIn was started in 2002, but until the network effects didn’t take off for a decade, it wasn’t able to reach the scale or scope,” Vani added. 


Kalpana Chawla: The journey begins with passion and purpose 

Success isn’t always a happy ending. Kalpana Chawla was the first woman of Indian origin to go to space. She didn’t survive the journey, but is remembered for her passion.  

“The reason you start a company is because you really want to build something. The end outcome may not be clear or apparent. When there is no guarantee of success, the reason to start a company has to be because of the passion to do something that is compelling. And you need to be willing to take all the risks,” Vani said. 

Elon Musk: Don’t let naysayers dissuade you 

While not an explorer in the historic sense, Elon Musk’s startup SpaceX has brought space closer to humans.  

However, SpaceX had three successive failed launches that almost bankrupted the company. The spacetech firm was practically written off, and many said it was an impossible task. But look where it's now.

“There will always be naysayers for any startup. Don’t be dissuaded,” Vani said. 

As Elon Musk said: “When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favour.”

(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)

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