Launching a startup and building it is fraught with unforeseen risks. It calls for passion and commitment that extend beyond business goals, according to participants in a panel discussion at the Wharton India Economic Forumheld recently in Philadelphia. Four startup founders spoke about how they began their entrepreneurial journeys, found the right partners, went about raising capital and scaled their businesses. They shared stories of struggles to keep their ventures afloat when failure seemed imminent; battles against gender bias; and threats to work-life balance.
Cisco chairman emeritus John Chambers noted in a recent Knowledge@Wharton interview that more than 70% of all startups fail. Sometimes, when death seems near, survival might well be within reach if the startup team is enthusiastically involved. That is a lesson that a near-death experience at his startup taught Gautam Tambay, co-founder and CEO of Springboard, a three-year-old firm that provides online education courses in “new economy” skills such as data analytics and AI/machine learning. A couple of years after its founding, Springboard faced a crisis. Tambay and his team realized that though they had a good product and decent user reviews, usage was dropping, revenues were flat or declining, and they had only enough money to survive three months. They determined that their distribution model was flawed, and the only way out of the crisis was to raise more capital. If they failed to do so, Springboard would have to close.
That was when the 20-person team — which was “young and hungry” — took Tambay and his co-founder, Parul Gupta, out to lunch. They said, “We’ve seen the numbers. They are not good, and you must be stressed. Why aren’t you involving us?” Tambay said he was afraid that sharing the firm’s troubles might have led the team to quit. The team members reassured the founders that “they wanted to be part of the story,” which is why they chose to work for a startup like Springboard and not for a big company. “That was one of the biggest lessons, [although] it was counter-intuitive to me at the time,” Tambay said. A more involved team then worked together to revive the firm’s fortunes, he added. He changed his approach from one of being “the umbrella to protect everybody from bad news” to one where “you let the bad news flow as soon as possible, so you get more people working on the problem.” With offices in San Francisco and Bangalore, Springboard has grown since that frightening experience. It has now trained more than 200,000 students in 77 countries.
Deciding to take the plunge into entrepreneurship and giving up the security of a regular paycheck is the first big challenge startup founders face. Before she began her entrepreneurial journey, Krishnan had worked in business and product development roles at large companies including Microsoft and Comcast, as a venture capital investor, and as an executive at venture-backed startups. “I had seen it being close to the founder, but not being the founder,” she said. For Krishnan, the prime driver was her passion to make an impact in the education space by using technology “to make learning more fun and engaging.” According to her, startup founders must ask themselves if they would pursue their venture even if they knew that they wouldn’t make “significant amounts of money. If that drives you, you will fight all the fights along the way to get to the end point,” she said.
Singhal’s entrepreneurial journey began in 1999 when he was a student at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur where he won a business plan competition. He pursued his idea for seven years with little success before launching InMobi. “There’s no entrepreneurial gene in my family remotely,” he said, citing his middle-class upbringing; his father was a bank executive and his mother a homemaker.
“I had zero risk. The only risk was – what would my parents think about it? But that was manageable.” The security of a job could be compelling, he noted. “For all of us who think entrepreneurs are these geeky, rich people, the risk-adjusted probability return of a working professional is more than that of an entrepreneur.”
When Tambay had to choose between a career as a software engineer or becoming an entrepreneur, he followed a piece of advice someone had given him: “Find a person who is 10 or 15 years ahead of you or older than you and whose life you want – and then do what they did,” he said. That exercise didn’t take long: his models happened to be entrepreneurs. “I jumped right into it. I didn’t overthink it. If you want to be an entrepreneur, don’t overthink it.”
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