Find out what makes mentors Sunil Rao, Himanshu Chakrawarti, Ganesh Krishnan, Mohit Saxena, and Sunil Jose – all corporate leaders – engage in the startup growth story. By Nandini Kumar
There may not be many barriers to start with, but there are certainly many hurdles to scale. This is something that young founders in today’s startup eco system fail to anticipate and eventually windup or end up in an embarrassing situation.
The startup environment is hardly as glorious as it appears to be, with over 92 per cent mortality rate in the first three years. As of March 2015, Bengaluru alone recorded 6210 registered startups out of which many have received first round of funding. But sadly, despite the patience period of 24 months until the second round of funding came in, at least six to eight per cent of these startups have
It is found that the number one cause of death among failed startups was premature scaling, excessive expense, rapid expansions, and over-hiring before a workable business model is put in place. But can having a mentor, with abundant experience, help?
Thinking it through
Bengaluru-based Harish Bijoor, a specialist in brand and business strategy, whose company manages over 200 startups, explains how. “Startups are essentially part of a new eco system that is young, aggressive, idea centric, brash and front-footed. I choose my words carefully as this signifies startups at large,” he says.
Bijoor feels that most of the startups have this attitude of doing things first and then thinking it out. “Founders and even private equity players get excited with technology and numbers. They often fail to understand consumers. That’s where mentorship comes into the picture. Incidents like what happened with Tiny Owl (the startup had to downsize considerably and founder, 24-year-old Gaurav Choudhary, was holed up by laid-off employees for 48 hours) would not have happened had they been patient,” he insists.
Ganesh Krishnan, veteran serial investor, chairman and cofounder of Portea Medical too emphasises on the role of a mentor simply because many people running startups don’t have the maturity needed to get past the various cycles it involves. “The luxury of learning on the job is limited considering the rapid rate in scaling up. Hence, it is best to learn from the top, from people who have been there and done that,” says Krishnan, who is the promoter of Big Basket, an online grocery delivery system (2011), and Fresh Menu (an online food business) that was founded in 2014.
Mentoring is not about opening doors. Mentors are those who people go to when they are in a dilemma, when they have hit a road block or for a third person view or to simply gain confidence — Ganesh Krishnan, serial investor and promoter
The startup thrill
Taking advantage of this growing demand for mentors are a crop of young, dynamic corporate leaders and senior members of major multinational companies who dedicate their valuable time in either mentoring young founders or invest their savings in a startup journey. They are mostly in their 40s, highly motivated, and come with abundant experience.
The intention, for many, is to simply experience the sheer thrill involved in a startup and they do so despite staying committed to their duties at their parent organisation.
Meet Sunil Rao, the country head for developer relations and startup ecosystem at Google India. At 41, he mentors a series of startups and has been doing so over the past four years. “It’s the kind of ideas that youngsters are coming up with that excites me the most about being involved with a startup. Some of these models are very different from the western countries. For example, cash on delivery is something that does not exist in the West. But entrepreneurs here have made it work,” Rao explains.
According to him, a lot of people working in international companies are willing to take time out in order to play a decisive role as mentor. “It works two ways,” he says, adding, “These mentors are important, and can give major perspective about the ecosystem. A good mentor helps you think through a business idea, suggests ways to generate that startup capital and provides the experience a start-up dearly misses. At the same time, for the mentor, it’s a great learning curve,” Rao says.
In the classroom
IIT graduate, and ex-COO for Landmark, Himanshu Chakrawarti (48), believes there is a generational change in how entrepreneurs think today – new age founders don’t think 10 years down the line. He explains, “In a set-up I am familiar with, when you embark on something new, the idea goes through multiple layers. They work on the process and total cost. A five-year projection with detailed strategic planning, investments and the returns for five years is calculated. But in this new scenario, they try to reduce the risks, speed the script, and implementations are quick. There is a radical difference in how things work today and despite 20-plus years of work experience, I feel like I am still starting afresh with this new approach.”
Chakrawarti now heads Hicare Services Pvt Ltd and has invested between `30 and `60 lakh in startups over the past two years and is on the advisory board of most of them. But he is aware that he can lose the entire capital if things don’t pan out as planned. “It is a big decision to invest this kind of money but with a full time job that pays well, I know I won’t lose everything if I lose the money,” he says.
Invest in passion
While there are those who enjoy the advisory role, there are corporates who invest big for they share the passion of young entrepreneurs who are vying to create innovative business models. Mohit Saxena, co-founder and CTO of InMobi, is one of them. “My motive is not to be a traditional VC but a fellow entrepreneur. I share the passion of the team in solving the problem in a different way. I am not worried about the financial returns, as I have not invested based on risk, but on the basis of the team’s passion and the scale of the opportunity being addressed,” he says.
Saxena has invested in startups such as Appvirality, Zimmber, DoSelect (all founded in 2014) among others, in stealth mode. Before investing, Saxena says he looks for two things – the idea, and the team. “I look for whether I can relate to the idea and whether the problem that is being solved is large. I also look at how strongly the team believes in the idea and if they are willing to bet big, work hard and go the length to be successful,” he says.
As part of a great startup story with InMobi, founded in 2007, which is into mobile advertising, for Saxena the key to success is to learn from failures. “If you have a high level of passion, you will not think of it as work. Learn from every failure. It’s an expensive lesson that you shouldn’t forget. Product, technology and culture – these are the things you need to learn how to scale to be successful,” he often advises.
Sceptics at large
There are sceptics, who believe corporates with full-time jobs can make little difference in a startup growth story. “People with top jobs have the money, and want to participate in this euphoria. But they might not always have the time. Also, it is an entirely different ball game. All that a corporate can do is open doors for business and help with his contacts and network. Mentoring is not about opening doors. Mentors are those who people go to when they are in a dilemma, when they have hit a road block or for a third person view or to simply gain some confidence,” Krishnan, who works closely with Nandan Nilekani and is on the board of over 25 startups, opines.
But that’s not always true. Sunil Jose (45), ex-vice president of applications at Oracle and managing director of Teradata, has proved to be a valuable mentor despite his commitment as top boss. He has helped startups like Talview (2012), a cloud-based HR solutions company, build a strong b2b sales force. He also advises startups on finding the right candidate to hire for senior roles, setting up sales processes and fine-tuning their market strategy. “My endeavour is to share my experiences and learn with startups, thereby marrying experience with young talent with innovative ideas. I enjoy spending time meeting such individuals and brainstorming with them on areas where technology can play a role as differentiator.”
Call for mentors
“As young founders we didn’t have a lot of experience in any particular function. We started Talview, with a lot of passion, and determination. Our core strength was building innovative solutions to valid problems that the industry faces. Once we had initial success the task was to scale up the technology and build a strong sales force so that our innovation reaches the potential users. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel and having mentors for these critical aspects helped us sustain our success,” Sanjoe Tom Jose, co-founder Talview.
According to Jose, the IT industry, of late has been attracting a lot of talent and new startups brimming with great ideas are making a significant difference in the industry. “I believe that we need to keep learning and adapting as an individual. For me, my passion of technology is the fuel that keeps me going. With technology being so dynamic in nature one needs to keep learning constantly to be abreast of the current changes,” he concludes.