Paradoxes of Entrepreneurism: Eight Lessons From Young Asian Leaders
Two Asian entrepreneurs – Deep Kalra of Makemytrip.com and Naoaki Mashita of V-Cube – share key lessons they learnt in their quest to build a successful business venture in the region.
Understand What Makes You Tick, But Worry About the ‘Big Idea’
Budding entrepreneurs must spend considerable time understanding the passion and motivation needed to be successful. Naoaki Mashita, CEO and President of V-Cube, and Deep Kalra, founder and CEO of Makemytrip.com, highlight the need for passion, motivation and drive towards achieving success in a start-up venture.
“Motivation helps entrepreneurs resist abandoning the project or venture when the chips are down,” said Kalra. However, entrepreneurs often take different routes to reach their goals or develop their products. “Statistics show that more than 90% of the ventures are bound to fail,” cautioned Mashita.
Most of the time, a successful business venture is very different from the entrepreneur’s first initiative. It is critical, therefore, that entrepreneurs continue to toil and persevere through the initial period of uncertainty. Kalra explained,
“It may take several years to get to the big idea, or the original construct may change several times, due to technology changes, evolving business plans, economic volatility or financial constraints.”
For instance, Mashita’s company started off as web creation service, but later evolved into an online conferencing service. Kalra, on the other hand, discovered that his online travel-booking platform was a little too ahead of its time for India. Hence he reallocated the marketing spend to the US market and relaunched in India half a decade later.
Be Fiercely Competitive, But Collaborate
Entrepreneurs always need to be ‘hungry’ for the next deal or next project. “They need to make things happen,” said Mashita.
However, a common mistake young entrepreneurs make is to try and do everything on their own. Kalra warns that the obsession to take on everything often fatigues entrepreneurs, who may lose the drive to persevere, especially through the tough initial phase.
It is important for entrepreneurs to develop a collaborative mentality early in their journey – find the right people to co-create products and play to their key strengths. “An open and collaborative mentality can accelerate the pace of product development or go-to-market, or simply add more pleasure to the journey,” explained Kalra. “Entrepreneurs should try and collaborate effectively with large enterprises. Although the process may be long and often tiring, as a result of working with multiple stakeholders, these partnerships will likely help the entrepreneur get to the next level.”
Be Focused And Persistent, But Open To Change
Persistence is perhaps one of the most critical attributes an entrepreneur needs to have. “Even if you think you cannot do something, you need to find a way to do it. You need to work 24 hours a day, seven days of the week, thinking about business all the time,” said Mashita.
While entrepreneurs need to stay focused, they also need to be adaptable to survive. The rate of change today is so quick that if an entrepreneur leading a young startup continues to do things the same way, a competitor “will come and eat his lunch,” said Kalra. Technology is changing quickly; disruptive business models are rapidly emerging; and mobile is changing the game for online services. “Don’t be wedded to your idea; be willing to change,” advised Kalra.
Operate Lean But Surround Yourself With The Best
New ventures need skilled team members, who are ordinarily lured by high compensation packages and very little else. But how can start-ups overcome this and attract talent based on other forms of reward?
“It is a real challenge – you need to build a good team, but you don’t have the balance sheet to pay high salaries. You have got to play the sweat equity or the stock option card very well,” said Karla. “Look for a person hungry to learn, a risk-taker who does not care about perks, size of the office cubicle or work-life balance.”
According to Kalra, some initial team members may join not because they believe in the venture, but because they believe in the leader. Thus, entrepreneurs need to take personal ownership of developing and motivating the initial team. He further advises budding entrepreneurs to be transparent with the founding team, and candidly share the possible upsides and downsides of being a part of the venture. By being upfront, there is a good chance people will not join the entity with unrealistic expectations.
Hire People with Passion, But Test The Difference
It is critical for early-stage entrepreneurs to hire a team or partner with a co-founder who shares the passion of building a venture from the ground up. However, it is just as important that the co-founders have complementary skills.
Furthermore, it is often the people who make you feel uncomfortable and challenge you that may be best suited to come in as the initial team or co-founders of the venture, not the ones who make for the smoothest or the nicest interviewees.
Treat Bad Times Like A Blessing
Both Mashita and Kalra agree that most start-ups run into ‘rough weather’ on multiple occasions, particularly during the initial phase. Such times could be either due to deficiencies in the business model or may be a result of economic volatility.
“[Bad] times are good opportunities for entrepreneurs to step back, revisit their business plans, and re-think their strategy,” said Mashita. “Our first five years [at V-Cube] were full of hardships. For two years we often asked ourselves what we were doing – to the point that I made an internal rule that we would limit ourselves to one ‘Depression Day’ a month. On ‘D-day’ we could all discuss problems, issues, challenges and reflect on things, leaving other days to [only] be productive,” he remembered.
Be Passionate But Willing To Let Go
An entrepreneur can ‘hit the wall’ or stagnate due to two circumstances. First, they do not believe in the vision any longer, and second, they do not have the necessary skill-set to take the organisation beyond the startup phase. Either way, it is critical that an entrepreneur finds a suitable successor when the organisation grows beyond the start-up phase. “The start-up mentality may not work when the organisation begins to scale up and enters the next phase of growth,” said Mashita.
In Kalra’s opinion, an entrepreneur should realise they need to give up the reins to a better-suited leader before the board does. “Young entrepreneurs are mavericks, and a common trait among them is to hold on. You have to consciously tell yourself that you have to let go,” said Kalra. “First-time entrepreneurs may not know where to stop because they are accustomed to doing everything themselves. Letting go of the business reins may therefore be very hard.”
Have A Backup Plan, But Do Not Throw In The Towel
According to Mashita, entrepreneurs must understand that the initial phase will be extremely difficult and there will be a great deal of competition. “Most companies disappear within 10 years, so it is critical to stay driven and motivated, and perhaps also think about Plan B and Plan C,” he said. Kalra adds that it is important that aspiring entrepreneurs do not throw in the towel too soon. In his opinion, some of the best companies do not see the light of day because the initial team did not stay with the venture for long enough. “Most successful leaders pivot their models or keep tweaking their plans around the edges till they find an idea that works,” he said.
Deep Kalra is founder and CEO of online travelbooking platform Makemytrip.com. Naoaki Mashita is President and CEO of V-Cube, which offers online conferencing services.
This article first appeared in HQ Asia Issue 8 (2014).