Credibility, lessons, storytelling: BigBasket’s TN Hari on what makes a good business book
TN Hari wears multiple hats: author, angel investor, mentor, and advisor to startups and accelerators. He is also Head HR at here)..com, and his six books include Saying No to Jugaad: The Making of BigBasket (see my book review
His other titles are From Pony to Unicorn, Sailing through a Storm, Cutting the Gordian Knot, Back to the Basics in Management, and Cut the Crap and Jargon (co-authored with Shradha Sharma – see book review). Hari is a graduate of IIM Calcutta and Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.
His book on the BigBasket story has been shortlisted for the annual Gaja Capital Business Book Prize, which honours authors who chronicle the spirit of entrepreneurship in India. With a prize money of Rs 15 lakh, the award is regarded the biggest business book award in India (see my awards writeup here).
Launched in 2011, Bigbasket has carved a unique space for itself in the business of grocery delivery in India, expanding to a range of other categories as well. The 15 chapters in the book span 170 pages (including eight pages of photographs), and are a practical blend of storytelling and business tips in various steps of the startup journey.
The book shares hard-earned insights on leadership, organisational DNA, frugal practices, core technology, customer empathy, and e-commerce trends. The material also covers ecosystem partnerships, environmentally sustainable practices, and acquisition of startups. “The big picture is important, but don’t lose touch of the ground reality,” the book concludes.
Hari joins us in this interview on the journey of authoring a book, business storytelling, and trends in 2021.
Edited excerpts below:
[YS]: What was the most fulfilling part of writing your book? And the challenge?
TN Hari [TNH]: The most fulfilling part of writing any book is to see the story taking shape. The best part is receiving endorsement from total strangers that they liked the book and found it meaningful.
BigBasket is in some ways a bit of a boring company. So, how do you still make it interesting for a reader was possibly the biggest challenge.
YS: What are your favourite or inspiring books about Indian business?
TNH: I don't myself read many business books. The most inspiring books I have read recently are the following:
Where will Man Take Us? (Atul Jalan - Atul writes better than Yuval Noah Harari and Kurzweil put together)
Indica: A deep natural history of the Indian subcontinent (Pranay Lal)
The Liberation of Sita (Volga)
The Palace of Illusions (Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni)
Fermat's Last Theorem (Simon Singh).
YS: What makes a good business story different from a case study or chronology?
TNH: A case study is depth as opposed to width. It seeks to prove something specific beyond doubt with a lot of data and insights. A business story on the other hand has a broader coverage with bigger lessons. There is no onus of proof on the author, at least not to the same extent as a case study.
YS: What are some creative elements that appeal to readers in business books?
TNH: A good business book has to tell a good story/stories. The stories have to be drawn from real life, have to be credible, interesting, and should carry powerful lessons.
YS: What makes a business book different from a series of long articles about the subject?
TNH: If the series of articles are chapters of a book, then nothing at all. The beauty of a book is that it tells a complete story in one place.
YS: What are your thoughts on using figures, charts or tables in business books? Why did you choose not to?
TNH: I'm neutral on this. Tables, figures or charts, if used smartly can add to the value of the story. It's just that I have chosen not to use them.
I try to provide numbers and the story they tell lucidly in the text, though one might argue that a picture is worth a thousand words. Frankly, it is time consuming, and I'd rather write another book than spend time on charts and tables.
YS: If your book were to be used in a business course, what advice would you give the teacher on how to leverage the material?
TNH: Every lesson, every insight, and every piece of wisdom has a flip side. Therefore treat these insights as being relevant in a particular context.
There are no universal prescriptions. Insights and prescriptions make sense only to individuals who recognise deeply that lessons are meaningless in the absence of context, and no wisdom prescription is above challenge.
YS: When you write a book about your own company, what are the challenges with convincing readers that it is not a one-sided narrative? How do you share internal mistakes and vulnerabilities?
TNH: The only way to convince a reader that it is not a one-sided narrative is not to make the book a one-sided narrative! I think it is as simple as that. Plus your reputation as an author and an individual precedes the book.
I have been known for speaking my mind without fear or favour, and my colleagues (in companies I worked for) and my readers know that. I have called a spade a spade, and have done that in this book as well.
However, over the years I have become a little more refined in the language I've used when I called a spade a spade. So, sharing mistakes and vulnerabilities came effortlessly. It's my second nature.
YS: What are the advantages – and challenges – of working with a co-author?
TNH: A co-author always helps by bringing in additional perspectives and complementarity. Having a co-author also creates the right amount of constructive conflict that is needed to toss around and churn ideas, and think innovatively.
YS: What are your thoughts on how the life of a print book can be extended digitally via online companions, videos, etc? What would you like to do with the BigBasket book in this regard?
TNH: Most books also come with a Kindle version and some also have an audio version. I have no plans for extending the life of any book. New book projects excite me more than extending lives of old books.
YS: As we begin the year 2021, what are some key tech and business trends you see?
TNH: Virtual work is here to stay. People may get back to office but will be there less often, and it will be a blend between working from home and office.
Travel for business will come down sharply. One wonders why we had to travel so much for meetings that could have been conducted from the comfort of our homes far more effectively.
The craze, and need, for living in metropolitan cities will come down sharply. People will be working from small towns for companies in metros. The urban landscape will undergo a change.
YS: What tips would you give for those writers who want to write a business book that is well-researched as well as engaging?
TNH: Research can only embellish a book. A great book is about great storytelling. I'm inspired by Shradha Sharma's (my friend and founder of YourStory) belief that everyone has a story.
You need to observe people and listen to their stories with empathy and respect. You can write really well if you develop this habit.
YS: What are the success factors for a good relationship between startup founders and investors?
TNH: Mutual respect for what each brings to the table.
YS: What are your words of advice for the aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience?
TNH: Entrepreneurs are smart. I'm very reluctant to give them any advice. The only advice is to be very clear about what you want out of life and then go after it!
YS: What would you do with the prize money if you were to win the award? What would the honour mean to you as well?
TNH: Every recognition is in a way humbling. As to the prize money, I have no idea what I would do with it. Maybe give it away to some dog shelters!