Growth forces you to take risks that are not always sensible

Ecosystems have consumers with problems, authorities seeking to facilitate resolutions, and entrepreneurs who see growth in attempting to resolve it. An interview with Anand Deshpande and Amit Ranjan

Charles Assisi

[Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay]

Amit Ranjan, architect of the National Digital Locker Project came across as brutal when articulating what may it take to create a software product business out of India. In an earlier avatar, he worked to create SlideShare that was eventually acquired by LinkedIn: “...that decade-long experience taught us that while startups in general are tough, product startups in India are brutal and punishing—possibly a reflection of the ecosystem’s concomitant maturity levels.”

But I thought I heard a note of cautious optimism in an essay he wrote after the National Policy on Software Products (NPSP) was announced earlier this year. 

On our daily morning call at Founding Fuel though, a question emerged: In the contemporary world, what is a software product? By way of example, consider the world’s most valuable technology companies such as Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google and Facebook. Are they services-driven entities? Or are they entities that create software products? 

Closer home, it is tempting to dismiss an entity such as Swiggy (or Zomato, for that matter) as a food aggregator. But after listening in to Dale Vaz, head of Engineering and AI at Swiggy, this assumption stands to scrutiny. While it is true that Swiggy delivers food, given the granular data it captures and the kind of technologies that power it, what is to stop this aggregator from morphing into something else altogether? 

But the more pertinent question is, is a food aggregator such as Swiggy a service as we understand in the traditional sense or a product powered by high technology?

A consensus was beginning to sound elusive.

For pointers to some answers, I called Anand Deshpande, founder and chairman of Persistent Systems. In the past, he has argued on various forums about why India must create a software product ecosystem. But Persistent sits at the intersection of services and products. How may he view the issue on hand?

On listening to him, a framework started to emerge. That this debate is not just about software service versus software products. Instead, it is about the ecosystem we live in and the three stakeholders in it. 

  1. Somebody has a problem. This is the consumer and can include individuals, large entities and countries. Their problems may be economic or social.
  2. An authority (such as the government) must either resolve their problem or facilitate a resolution.
  3. Ecosystems contain entrepreneurs who believe there is an economic opportunity in resolving the problem.

People such as Anand Deshpande and Amit Ranjan are entrepreneurs. How they go about resolving a problem may differ. More pertinently, how do they pick what problem to work on? Having done that, they must deal with authorities who can choose to make life difficult or easy as the case may be.

It was inevitable then I ask them if they may be amenable to get together and take questions on what they think are the most wicked problems of our times, how do they view the government, and as entrepreneurs what are their learnings. They agreed. 

In taking questions, both were blunt and to the point. They shared much about what they think about how the government operates, the misplaced euphoria around starting up, why most entrepreneurs do not want to take on wicked problems, lessons learnt from the road and the toll it takes on mind, body and soul. 

By way of example, the significance of scaling a business up, how long it takes, how lonely it gets, and the kinds of risks it compels an entrepreneur to take that may not seem sensible to anyone else. 

While this conversation is a reality check around the euphoria of starting up, it is also a primer on the complexities of entrepreneurship, and an ode to optimism.

Here's an indexed video of the conversation. You can go directly to the topics indexed, or watch the full video. The video is best viewed in full screen mode (in the video, click the square on bottom right). On the smartphone, rotate your phone to view it in landscape mode. Click on the Table of Contents icon next to the video title to jump straight to specific sections in the video. Scroll up and down to see all the topics. 

(Play Time: 51 mins) 


(Note to readers: This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity)

Charles Assisi: The both of you have witnessed entrepreneurship and policymaking from close quarters. Basis your experience, what are the big problems that must be addressed urgently by entrepreneurs and policy makers? 

Anand Deshpande: You've put a loaded question. Actually, there are lots of aspects to what you have mentioned both in terms of the hard problems and entrepreneurship. In my opinion, they are related but not exactly the same. 

So, I'm going to split these into two different aspects. On one side, if you look at our country right now, it's clear that technology has to drive our next round of innovation. 

Our next level of growth is going to happen by improving efficiency across various things. And technology has to help us get to the next level. 

It is not clear to me is if the technology we need to grow for the next 5-10 years is available indigenously. And are we are thinking hard enough on how to make it happen? 

What I find common across many conversations is that we are dependent on external companies. We are Ram bharose to that extent. In some sense, we are dependent on something to happen from somewhere else, and it might work out to our advantage. 

But we are doing very little thinking about what we need and investing in what we need. So, that's really my one specific comment on the hard problems. 

Entrepreneurship, I think has improved a lot in India in the last few years. And you know, I've been (an entrepreneur) for the last 30 years now. I do see both in terms of quality and quantity, substantial innovation is happening in the early ecosystem. 

But I believe that we are still not hitting our potential.

Amit Ranjan: I agree with Anand on his opening remarks. India is clearly at a very important phase of economic and social development. And we have seen how technology can play a transformative role. 

In fact, technology is the very thing that is going to help countries like India leapfrog, where we've actually found ourselves wanting behind the developed world. 

My thoughts... before I get into that, I want to make one correction.  You mentioned I come from Silicon Valley. I would make a slight correction. I built a platform, which was very global in nature. But I've never worked in Silicon Valley. My co-founder was based there. But I was all along based in India. I was in Delhi as part of SlideShare. I used to travel back and forth between Silicon Valley and India. 

In that sense, what you'll hear from me is the perspective of an Indian product entrepreneur, who has had the fortune of actually having built something for the global audience, but with a strongly Indian rooting. So that is one point I’d like to clarify at the outset. 

One of the ideas I have thought a lot about is that this technological transformation that is happening, there is a lopsided view to it. We see action in certain areas. And there are certain other areas, whether it is products or platforms, where the country needs to do far more. 

And while I think in other areas like local commerce or building local solutions for an Indian ecosystem, we have made a start. I agree with Anand that we don’t have a lot of depth and a lot is being built on borrowed technology.

To my mind, we actually need to have multiple goals.  You have to build for India, build local solutions, and be ready to fight the bigger  battles with the global powers that be. And for that you need to start thinking. The recent software products policy that was launched by MeitY (Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology), it starts a conversation around that and we can get into more of that, as the conversation progresses. 

CA: Anand if I were to come back to you, and extend the conversation to go beyond the point you made about entrepreneurship—you made the point that the quantity and quality of innovation is not sufficient, it is not keeping pace. Would you want to delve into that?  

AD: Let me step back and give you a very high scope of the areas I think where we need to invest first and tell you why we don't see enough action in the areas where we want to see activity. 

If you look at our problems from a very broad level, they are food, water and energy. These are going to be the three big issues that we will have to worry about in terms of the very broad things that we are going to need and we don't have enough of.

Jobs and employment is going to be the other big area that we need to focus on and see how do we create jobs and employment at scale. And technology has the potential of reducing job employment creation as a proportion of the growth in the economy. 

So, we have to do something more than just say, oh, we're going to have growth in the economy to create jobs to happen. So, that's a very fundamental thing. 

On the other side, I think healthcare, logistics and payments—meaning banking, finance, all of those things—the fact that goods need to be moved. And the fact that you need to have healthcare and healthcare related support areas—these three are very broad areas that touch so many people that I think we need to have a national initiative around how we're going to deal with some of these things. 

I'm very pleased to see the activities on the payment side that have already started to happen. But I think we need to think similarly on both healthcare and logistics as other areas. 

And when I'm referring to technology, I'm not necessarily referring only to computer, software and software products, because a lot of the activity in health, food, water, all these things would require significant investments from biology or next generation genetics and genomics, and various other things that may have to be done. 

We are thinking GMO (genetically modified organism). But do we have a point of view on GMO? Or is it dependent on somebody else telling us what that is? So that's where the broad spectrum is concerned. 

Now, if you look at these areas and look at entrepreneurship in the context of these big problems or broad problems, this is not a very exciting area for people to jump in because people are very afraid because they don't know what the government might do next. What (policies) might change they wonder or (they) ask if their innovation (is) going to be useful. 

How are we going to invest and make something happen if I invest in this? Am I going to get returns out of these kinds of areas? 

I think the environment today for entrepreneurs to invest in these hard problems is not exactly conducive for making these kinds of investments. 

So, we end up investing in smallish things in some sense. I wouldn't call them small in the sense of economy stuff. E-commerce and other things, while they're all very important, and create jobs, that in itself is not going to solve some of these hard problems. 

We need a balance, or we need some systematic way of ensuring that our entrepreneurs have the opportunity to look at the entire landscape of our needs. And are not forced to pick on things that are just easy to do just because of the mechanics, the infrastructure and the government policies that potentially make investment in these areas much harder than they ought to be today. 

That's really what I mean by the fact that yes, we have seen improvement in quality and quantity. But when it comes to the fundamental areas for which we need to solve our own problems, we don't see enough entrepreneurs who are taking on these challenges

CA: That's a very interesting observation that you make. What I hear you say is that there are some big fundamental issues around sectors such as food, water, energy, and these are, quote unquote, not very sexy problems to solve, so to speak, as far as entrepreneurs are concerned. Is that what I hear?

AD: See, these are hard problems. So, if I'm an entrepreneur and am looking at a short time window for investment, solving the problem, getting it done, then these are not areas that I would want to start an investment. 

And if I'm looking at small amounts of investments such as $3 million or $5 million, managing all these things is pretty hard to do. These kinds of problems require significant investments, significant long-term planning and may not necessarily come from startup type entrepreneurs. 

It may come from other people who have that vision and the ability to last that long. But we need very strong cooperation from the government and entrepreneurs and the ecosystem, that there is clarity on the returns that can be possible for making the kinds of investments that are needed for these kinds of things. 

CA: Amit, how would you view that? 

AR: I think that's a valid point. And I guess, the thing that Anand is saying is that, there are certain areas like roti, kapda, makaan, and health care and logistics, where whether we like it or not, we are still largely a controlled economy. 

The government has a hand in every pie here. So, the moment you start thinking about entrepreneurship or setting up businesses in these areas, the reality is you have to negotiate the government. And  there’s policy, there’s regulation. These are not areas where you have complete freedom to go and act the way you want to. There is government intervention. It is not easy and it reflects in the ecosystem. 

I’ve been working in the government for the last four years, I get hit by a lot of people trying to sell to the government. And one of the things I constantly hear is that the moment VCs hear that your business has a government angle to it, they put two crosses against your pitch deck because the government is not an easy entity to deal with, especially when it has undue influence in that space.

CA: If I were to play the devil's advocate for a moment with the both of you, in interacting with the government, the bureaucrats—for instance, when researching Project Aadhaar, the sense that my colleague Ramnath and I got was that those in government are the ones who are tuned in to the most hairy, audacious problems that our country faces. 

And entrepreneurs, on the other hand, especially Indian entrepreneurs, seemed to be looking for the next round of investment, or an exit path as fast as possible. 

Would that be a fair assessment, or am I missing the woods for the trees?

AR: You are probably right in saying that bureaucrats and also politicians, they can talk of the bigger problems. But it's also true that people like them essentially are peddlers of hope. They have to paint the bigger picture. And that is what they are doing. They are pointing towards the large problems that afflict the country. Although the problem with that approach, and I say that often at MeitY also, is that it's good to point out what your end goal is. But what you also want is an actual plan that dovetails into that goal.

Can you come up with a really workable game plan? Do you know of a solution for how are you going to actually map out the overall goal into its elemental projects? Or milestones? And then how are you going to go about doing that? I think, probably governance, in my perspective, is weakest in there. It's actually pretty good in pointing out the big picture. But it is not great at mapping out that goal into what you would actually take to achieve that goal and you'll see the government failing the most in execution.

CA: That's a pretty strong statement to make from someone who is embedded in government and working very closely with the government. “Peddlers of hope” is the line that you use. Anand, as an entrepreneur, and someone who is a mentor to many entrepreneurs, basis your personal experience, is this an assessment you would agree with? 

AD: I do agree with the assessment . But you have to see why that is happening. 

If I'm a small entrepreneur, I'm trying to start something on my own or I'm looking for small amounts of VC funding. I'm not going to go pick on a big hairy problem. I’m going to pick on things that are very local that can be handled very quickly. And there is in general, support in the ecosystem for solving small problems. 

Some of them eventually become bigger than they start out with. And some have done well for sure. But a lot of these have been working on problems that are very consumer-focused and isolated from many of the hard decisions that need to get made. 

One of the things that we need to do in a very systematic way is to find a model, where the government, think tanks and universities work together on an ongoing basis, where there is a continuity of activities and a formal process of how these things are built, debated, thought through and policies created that survive the longer term, so that entrepreneurs can play a role in the long-term future of all of the stuff that happens. 

Today what happens is that there are certain committees that get made. People make all these projects and plans and put out RFPs (request for proposal) for some of these things. But when it comes down to execution, it's not clear who is supposed to execute, what will the government do, or what will the entrepreneurs do? I think an open dialogue across all of these things is very important and necessary. 

And I’ll go to the next very interesting but related topic on this one. So where are these people? Who's going to do all this work? 

We have a model in the government where the government has extremely smart people who are IAS or bureaucrats. And they have worked on a project mode. They do it for a few years and move on. So, depth of expertise is not exactly what one expects from a group that has to keep moving every so often. 

The universities, the academics could be doing more of this, but somehow we are not always including them in the process of how this thought process needs to happen. We have difficulty in finding who the experts are. On any topic that we might want to pick up, there are a small number of people who keep showing up. This broad basis of the community to do interesting solutions and finding solutions for these problems, is something that is worthwhile to think about. 

And I think we haven't done enough of getting these problems into the community. That's why I feel, some of the work that you do, Charles, and Founding Fuel, about getting this whole groundswell of activity where people get to see this and somehow get participation to be more broad-based, is what I find is the main reason why I'm attracted to your stories.

CA: If I may push the both of you along on another direction, the both of you have articulated concerns about the kind of pain points and friction from the government. But then on the other hand, both of you swear by entrepreneurship and have chosen to stay invested in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. And I would imagine you choose to do that because you think there is hope in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Do anecdotes, people, stories occur to you that give you a reason to stay invested in this ecosystem?

AD: Absolutely. Actually, I am very optimistic about the government also. I'm not pessimistic about what the government is trying to do. I think some of the last few things that have happened, for example on payments, or some of the activities people have been working on, such as Digital India, are very commendable. No question about it. 

All I'm trying to say is that we need to do a lot more of these. And need to do them very broadly and aggressively and deliberately. Today, sometimes we get into a situation when somebody says “Oh, we need this” and somebody goes and puts something together. And it's not very sustained. 

Take the health care policy. The document has come out well and there will be many more such documents. But they are documents. We need a group of people who include the medical guys, the tech guys, we need to broad-base some of these things to include more people on a sustained basis so the ecosystem gets built which includes entrepreneurs for sure. 

Entrepreneurs are the main drivers of many of these things to happen. And I'm very excited at the quality of entrepreneurs or their interest in entrepreneurship that has gone up in the country in the last 10 years. Definitely the number of entrepreneurs you see are amazing. And they're solving some good problems and some of them are making good money as well.

That said, I would like to broaden this out and direct them not just to a small set of easy to solve problems, but convince them to work on the hard problems as well. 

I think this can be done. There are enough hard problems to solve. I think that government, entrepreneurs, the industry and academics, we all need to work together in a model where we get to solve these hard problems, spend the time and energy to think hard about them rather than go about it in a superficial way where everyone says let's get this done in two weeks. Now here's our report. Take it. And have this we-have-published-this kind of attitude.

CA: Amit, how would you respond to that? Why do you continue to stay invested in the government in spite of feeling as strongly as you do, about the way the government currently functions?

AR: My experience has been that in an ideal world, you would want a strong government that inherently has the capacity to talk about these problems at scale and then muster up the resources, whether it be people or capital or whatever. So, that's an ideal world. 

But the reality is we are a developing low-income country and we know where we stand on various indicators across the globe. We all understand that. The reality is, the government, to my mind, unfortunately is like this meta organism that is responsible for each and everything that's happening in the country.  

I mean, it is your favourite punching bag. You can actually go and pin anything on the government. But in the real world, the government has so many things to do. And at this point, the government does not have the institutional capacity to think about these problems just on its own. 

But what has happened with Aadhaar, and you asked me for my inspiration, I personally found what happened with the Aadhaar team and iSPIRT was that people from the private sector were willing to devote time, some working from the outside, some working from the periphery, and some like me ready to work inside the system. But a whole bunch of people are coming with some expertise from the private sector. 

The government is actually being honest enough to say that, “Look, we don't have the capacity and are willing to create space for you where you can come in and help us think through these problems and in some cases execute as well.” 

And so, to me, that has been very inspiring. And I agree with Anand. That it has happened in a haphazard or stage-managed manner. But you want to see things happen in a more institutional manner wherein expertise from the private sector is channelised into the government. I think there are some moves in the PMO to induct people from the private sector at various technical levels and those are welcome initiatives. 

But broadly, one of the ways to solve this problem is to get expertise from the private sector in an institutional manner, inject their capabilities into the middle, top layers of the government, because I think that's where you will be able to drive change massively. 

CA: A thought occurred to me last evening while waiting at a restaurant, wondering what awaits us later today when we engage. The people at the restaurant were unwilling to service me because there were a bunch of riders from Zomato and Swiggy who were getting pinged all the time and the restaurant owner had no time to service me because they were busy attending to the aggregators who were bringing in more business for them. 

These aggregators, so to speak, were far more profitable to them than someone like me seated there. 

It occurred to me that in conversing with the both of you separately at various points about Indian entrepreneurs, there is an overhang of services across the Indian ecosystem. Is that why we see service-oriented aggregators when there are other problems to solve? 

Anand, you made the point earlier that India has some wicked problems to solve which may not sound very exciting. But you had also articulated that given the nature of where we are, there are business realities to face as well and an entrepreneur must walk a thin line. How do you balance all of this out?

I wanted to throw this at the both of you and ask: how may you look at the evolution of the ecosystem, aggregators that are emerging, and that there is no taking away from that they are servicing a part of the economy. They are creating jobs as well. They may not be solving big problems. But they are having an impact on the economy. 

AR: Essentially, what you're referring to Charles, is largely a transactional play. What you see at least with with e-commerce or aggregators in India, is that there is a big movement towards setting up the kind of aggregators... this is a transaction businesses. 

The reason they are here is because they are online channels for erstwhile brick-and-mortar businesses that already exist. You are simply not creating a new complete paradigm. There is a new way of reaching the customer. There is a new way of servicing the customer. And that is the online way of using the internet or a mobile app. 

And hence, people are taking to it in a large way, whether it is retailing on Amazon or whether it is selling drugs and medicines on HealthKart and so on and so forth.

Where I feel that we don't seem to be making much headway is in core technology, in core platforms, and many of those are very different kinds of problems to solve. The transactional businesses require you to work in a very process-oriented way. 

You can be very delivery focused. Whereas working on core platform, core technologies, it's a much longer gestation play. You may have to work hard for years and decades before you come up with anything worthwhile. Unfortunately that's one area where we don't see much action happening in India. 

AD: I don't disagree with what Amit is saying, though, I don't want to downplay the importance of the Swiggy’s and Zomato’s and others who have done a fabulous job of defining how to build a scalable business, executing well on it and also creating jobs at scale. That's all important. I think we need everyone and we need more of everyone. It's not one at the expense of the other. That's how I would like to see this. 

If you want to take one theme from me on this conversation, it's the fact that I'm not trying to say that what's happening is not good. I think it's good, but we need a lot more of it. And to make that lot more of anything that we are doing happen, we need to be better organised, and we need to go all out to make that happen. 

We don't have as much time as we would have had if we were having this conversation 10 years back. In 2019-20, we have a few years where we have to make the most of it. So, every single aspect of our country's available resources in terms of academics, the industry, the technology and everything else, we really need to put it all together to solve these hard problems. And that's sort of what my mission or my own main statement is. 

I would never say that we're not doing well. I think we’re doing okay with what we are doing. But for the nature of our country, the size of the country, the quality of people, the quality of technology, all of these things that we are, we need to be doing so much more than what we are doing. And that's sort of where I would like to see the activity multiply rather than just be happy with what we have achieved. 

CA: There was one more very interesting comment you had made Anand in an earlier conversation and Amit you had concurred with it. 

I’d really want to listen in to your thoughts now that you are together about starting up being the easy part. And that this is what gets written about. But staying the course is where the challenge lies. And that is when it begins to get tough. Both of you made the point this is where rubber meets the road, but it is something no one actually pays attention to, or no one speaks about. Can you delve on this a little bit? What have your learnings been?

AD: Absolutely. Clearly, we have been as a country, especially in the last few years, glamorising the starting phase and the startups and all of those things, and I think it's important to do that. But reality is that starting up is not the real thing. A lot of people believe it's all about raising money from some investors. 

But businesses happen much after that. The fellows who can survive the business and are the ones who take 5/7/9/10 years or even longer for even the smallest of  businesses to be viable and profitable. 

So, people have to be willing to take a slightly longer-term view on how their startups are set up. When we are looking to promote startups, just the start is not the only thing we should promote. How to run a business successfully, how do you scale it, how do you grow it? One other very important thing we miss out on and I have been quite vocal about this is that businesses will start and survive if there are good exits. 

It's important to have businesses where you have good exits, because it's when an exit happens is when everyone makes money. And if people see money and returns, then it is reasonable to invest in a business. 

If I can make something out of the money I invest, I'll be happy to put money into it. Startups with no exits are a waste of money, energy and resources. And Amit would definitely agree with this. He is a role model for an exit and that's I think important. Without that, you will not survive. 

AR: Yes, absolutely. One thought that has stayed with me is, every startup is like a fingerprint. 

No two are alike. They all have different stories and go their own way. But there are certain common threads. At the end of the day, you're running a business. And a business has certain goals, you have stakeholders, you have investors, you have a certain role in society, you have to pay your taxes. 

I feel that somewhere you might start up and get caught up in a fad, such as starting up. It is a fad now and you see a lot of it happening as well. But that doesn't last you for more than the first 12-18 months. 

That's when you really get down to realise that okay, this is done now, we’ve got to get down to really building a business around it. And then you must find customers, generate revenues, have profits, pay taxes, get into typical roles expected of any business enterprise. 

You asked about what drives people during the entrepreneurial journey. One has to be focused over the long term. You cannot be short term. Exits are important. But it is a decision you take at a particular point in time. 

I mean, that's exactly what happened with is. We were doing it for 10 years. And then came an offer when we said, okay, let’s consider this option before us on the table. At that moment it looked like the right call to make. To us it was an aberration. Because we had strayed away from our long-term plan. But to my mind, that is how you look at exits. You cannot plan a business with this end in mind. But there are opportunities that are coming along your way, you’ve got to take momentary decisions that work well for the founders and the business and the stakeholders. 

But the ultimate goal of serving a role for society, your employees, for stakeholders, that has to be paramount. You will also realise that once this initial euphoria about startups settles down,  you'll see the ecosystem settle down as well.

CA: If I may ask both of you a personal question, in your career, in your entrepreneurial journey, how many death valleys have you seen? And how have you faced it?

AD: Let me give you my comment on this. In the first two years, we had that situation where we would have either survived or not survived, but after that it's never been about survival. 

The question that I would say this, I've been working a lot on scaling businesses. Scaling businesses is hard, growing it to the next level is a hard problem and it takes a lot of work to do that. 

Every time you make a transition from one phase of the business to another, it comes in with a lot of anxiety. It's not about life and death as such, but it's about are you going to make it or you're not going to make it? 

There are lots of anxieties a founder and a business has to go through every time you make a transition. In our history, we've been around for 29 years and I would say I've seen four major transitions in the business. None of those would have been life and death situations. But we have changed from what we were. That period of transition can last from six months to two or three years. It can be highly taxing and very challenging in multiple ways. It has an impact on entrepreneurs because you're touching too many things. 

And there are conflicts and a lot of other issues that come in. But you have to handle them. That's really what makes the transition from one place to the other. Because if you don't make that transition, you tend to stay where you are. And it's very hard to grow the business if you don't make that transition. I have spent the last 10 years talking to a lot of entrepreneurs, from their first orbit to the second orbit, and we've been working quite a bit on them. 

The first orbit when you build your own business as if you're the owner of the business and you run it like it's your own thing. But then you have to move to a process and a team and—really better organised process so that you are more resilient and robust to scaling. 

The kind of things you do are quite different and what happens in every phase of the business actually stops working in the next phase of the business.

Growth of the business is traumatic. It has lots of issues and is challenging. It forces you to take certain risks, which are not always sensible at times. Sometimes you may over stretch beyond necessary and it creates a lot of angst both in the personal side, family side, all kinds of issues happen. But I wouldn't say it's a life and death situation. And many of these cases, it's a matter of planning and managing your risks. 

But the anxiety doesn't go away. Actually, that's what I found was the hardest part, the personal pressure that gets created and the fact that you're burning on every end and you're not sure whether it's going to make it and you're just driving yourself nuts in this process. The company would have survived, but it's just really very taxing from the personal point of view. 

CA: The four transitions that you spoke of at Persistent? 

AD: We are still in the midst of the fourth one. We are trying to make the change and all that is still going on. But yes, it’s a bit traumatic in many ways to make these kinds of transitions. Because you have to do some things differently. You have to bring in a different set of people. There's always a risk, right? 

So, sometimes it doesn't work and we've had that happen too. But it’s not a life and death situation. It's more about you might hit the kerb and in some cases and do some fender-bender damage rather than a life-and-death situation.

CA: Has Anand been the same Anand through each of these transitions? 

AD: No. Anand has evolved every time you make these kinds of transitions. You change the way you think. I know I can personally count exactly the kinds of things that have changed my attitude towards the business and how I look at life through all these transitions. 

Absolutely, each of these transitions creates an impression on you. You have the scars to show for it, and they kind of make the difference, but these are not binary decisions. There are many decisions that get made along the team. And that team has lots of different things you have to deal with. 

And it's not just a switch on switch off kind of things. You want to try many things. Some work. Some don’t. Some work better than the others. And each one of them has an impact on your life and your thinking and your stress levels. No doubt about it. 

CA: Amit, if you were to delve on your personal journey, what may it sound like?

AR: I think we've had multiple death situations spread out over a decade and each of these lead to some kind of a pivot. 

What we realised is that organisationally, if you have a tree with mangoes and the mangoes get ripe and you shake the tree, the mangoes will fall off. But there will be some that stay on the tree and that is what happens in organisations as well. Some things happen and some people just get shaken away. 

I have to say that it was very traumatic for me personally as an entrepreneur, because I was doing it for the first time. And now in 2019, one of the things I love about the internet is that there's just so much people talking about their experiences. They have written books, they're on Twitter all day long talking about their experiences, what it takes to actually build a business and products and things like that. 

So, you look around and you can actually say, okay, you know what, I'm not the only one. But a few years ago, that was not the case.

And I reconciled myself to that journey. Eventually, when I came across Peter Theil’s Zero to One,  when he talks about starting up, going from zero to one, and then from one to five, and then from five to 10, and from 10 to 50, and then for 50 to 200, and so on and so forth. And as Anand said, that is when you realise that at in every transition in the journey, you're going to need to look at different ways of working. You may need a different team. You may realise that you as a founder are perhaps not right past a certain mark. And that is why we agreed to the acquisition by LinkedIn.

Once you understand that this is a continuum and that there are various parts of this journey and each part of this journey maps on to a certain way of doing things. It could be a different study, it could be a different set of people, or it could be different skill set. I think you at least come to peace with that yourself. You say, okay, this is not just happening to me. It is happening to everyone else and you become a problem solver, you try to solve for that.

CA: I can go on and on. But we must stop. You have covered a lot of ground on what are the big, hairy, audacious problems we ought to tackle; what does it mean to be an entrepreneur, and you've offered us insights into your own personal journeys as well. Thank you so much for this, and I’m going to stay connected with both of you and look forward to sharing your thoughts and journey with our audiences. 

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Sharath Madhuranath on Sep 07, 2019 11:54 a.m. said

I have been a reader on the site for a long time, and would like to thank the founders and the article authors for creating this platform. Its always very insightful and extremely thought provoking to read the articles. I very much like the objective approach to each article, and the thought and research put into each of them.


About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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