Ever since Tuesday morning, when the NDTV App on my phone broke the news of Café Coffee Day’s V.G.Siddhartha going missing, Vaani and I have not stopped sharing notes on our own 23-year-old entrepreneurial journey. We both are, in a worldly sense, “failed” entrepreneurs too. And so we could relate, in more ways than one, to the letter purportedly written by Siddhartha and to the agony that he may have been experiencing that led him to jump off that bridge on Monday evening. This post offers some of the many learnings we have gleaned from our lived experiences – these may be relevant to all entrepreneurs and to any student of Life.
(I am abstaining from commenting or conjecturing on what may have been the nature of Siddhartha’s financial deals and troubles; at the time of posting this, his body has been recovered from the Nethravathi river near Mangaluru.)
“A quick overview of our entrepreneurial story and Life currently”
In 1996, Vaani and I set up Asia’s First Reputation Management Firm, imagequity+. We grew fast – expanding to have a footprint across India and South East Asia in 7 years. But an ethical decision we took 16 years ago (in 2003) to separate from an unethical client – to whom we had a 60 % revenue exposure – plunged us into a debt crisis, and eventually into a bankruptcy in end-2007, from which we are still to recover! In over 11 years now, our income has never really been consistent nor has it ever covered even our living expenses as a family. In fact, we have endured, and continue to go through, long spells of worklessness and pennilessness. So, despite all our efforts, our debt to over 170 creditors still remains unpaid and we continue to, at most times, hang patiently, purposefully, from the edge of a precipice, with hope and Faith, investing unfailingly in a lot of hard work and prayer.
“The pangs of entrepreneurship are similarly debilitating”
Our contexts may appear to be different – Siddhartha had a large business empire, we ran a small consulting Firm; he came from a well-endowed business family, we are first generation entrepreneurs – our parents were salaried middle-class people; he had built a huge asset base, and we had created no material assets; his financial troubles may have been to the tune of hundreds of crores, our debt pales in significance at Rs.5 crore. Yet, when Life challenges you, the pangs of entrepreneurship are, we believe, always similarly debilitating. It feels just the same, irrespective of the scale of your business – when despite all your integrity and toil, your dream comes crashing, when your Vision goes up in smoke, when cash and debt woes stifle not just your imagination but your very being, when your choices and decisions in Life come back to bite and haunt you, when the entire world appears to chase you down with cudgels, when darkness, worry and fear incessantly consume you…
Vaani and I have been there. And we have felt this ‘hopeless-clueless-no-go’ feeling. Intensely. Fearfully. Numbly.
We remember writing to our investors in January 2008. Our Investor Memorandum was titled ‘Building a Business on Faith and Patience’ (see picture below). And the first, opening, line of that investor proposal was, to us, authentic and powerful. It read – “This Firm will survive.” That’s what entrepreneurs are often driven by – an inexplicable sense of belief and confidence – even when they have hit a dead-end. Only one of the many investors we approached got back. And he bluntly told me: “AVIS, we don’t want to invest in a ‘Failure’.”
Vaani and I still recall that stab on our self-esteem – we felt totally hopeless, clueless, worthless and useless. Suddenly, it was clear to us: no one wanted to consider our original and thus-far-perfectly-executed business idea, our values, our integrity of Purpose – they were all cast aside in one fell swoop. All people wanted to do was to point to our abysmal financial metrics and deny us any more investment. Our debt had ballooned by then, revenues were nil all through 2007, and all we were doing was borrowing from Peter to pay Paul!
It was a very, very dark time in our Life.
Well, seriously, what do you do, when you don’t know what to do…?
I have always found words failing me when I have tried to describe that gnawing, aching, quivering, feeling in us. An anonymous Tamizh poet is the one, we believe, who even gets close to putting words to that feeling. This verse below was written sometime in the 18th or 19th century (I have cross-verified this with heritage and literary expert Madhusudanan Kalaichelvan); it describes Ravana’s fear at seeing Rama’s arrow approach him in the final moments of the battle in Lanka. The poet equated this fear, among other apt references, to the anguish of a person in debt:
“vidam konda meenai polum
venthazhal mezhugai polum
padam konda panthal vayil
patriya therai polum
dhidam konda rama banam
serukkalathu utra podhu
kadan kondar nenjam polum
kalanginan Ilangai vendhan”
It translates roughly as: “Like how a poisoned fish flutters, like how light flickers in a candle, like how a toad caught in a snake’s mouth twitches, like how restless is the mind of a person in debt, such was Ravana’s state of mind when he saw the brave Rama’s arrows coming at him in the battlefield.”
We have felt darkness choke us on the night of 31st December 2007, when we were left with just Rs.2000/- in Life; and with a debt pile of Rs.5 crore, that we are still to repay. We have felt that helplessness on 3rd March 2008 when Aanchal, our daughter, turned 13, and we did not have money to even buy her a rose. We have felt completely clueless when we gave away the last Eighty Rupees we had to ride an auto to a friend’s place for dinner on 29th April 2014; that was the night we turned penniless. We lived through the next several months – groping in the darkness, dealing with imponderables, and turning penniless again on four different occasions! These few instances (from so many) may offer some graphic perspective into what continues to be a seemingly never-ending, enduring, saga of survival. Of staying afloat even when we are shackled and locked down in every material sense! And even as I write this, several challenges continue to plague us – those that come with a prolonged bankruptcy…including legal upheavals and a forever deficit cash situation with regard to covering our living expenses.
However, these 11+ years have been special in a very beautiful way. They have awakened us to our Life’s Purpose, they have given our Life meaning. Through this dark time, we have learnt what Life and Happiness are truly all about.
“Lesson # 1: True Entrepreneurship = Deploying Resilience”
The first lesson we have learnt from this phase is that entrepreneurship is a state of mind – it is not quite just about being ‘self-employed’ or creating jobs or taking an idea to market or a getting a valuation and/or eventually exiting the venture, cash-rich, to ‘live happily ever after’. Entrepreneurship is fundamentally about bringing an attitude of ownership to whatever you do. So, it is really about taking responsibility for the gift you have been given, of this Life; a gift which you didn’t even ask for! We must understand that the very nature of Life is risky – it is totally inscrutable, there are no guarantees, there is so much uncertainty in every moment – anything, absolutely anything, can happen. So, entrepreneurship is taking ownership of the Life we have and embrace the risks involved in every choice we make in Life. But we must remember that Life is no MS Excel spreadsheet where all business plans always work out handsomely. There will be phases in Life when, for long spells of time, things simply won’t add up. So, being entrepreneurial really means being Resilient. Plain and simple.
And, as Vaani and I have discovered, that Resilience comes from wearing your Life on your sleeve. You are always stronger from facing Life than from fighting it or from running away from it. Fighting Life drains you, makes you weaker and running away from it makes you cower in fear. So, turn around and face Life, deploy Resilience. Talk to someone you trust, keep sharing – honest conversations always help. Or, if you prefer it, seek therapy. Bottomline: Do not keep your emotions bottled up. Do not think of what people will say or how society will judge you. Know that there is no shame in taking ownership for the choices you have made. Be accountable, responsible, reliable and responsive to all your stakeholders – no matter what they think, say or do – at all times. When you are Resilient, when you wear your Life on your sleeve, believe us, a lot of love, understanding and compassion, flows your way. You may not find immediate solutions to problems, but you are able to deal with them better.
“Lesson # 2: Beware of the Big ‘F’ Word”
Second, Vaani and I decided that no matter what, we are not going to allow the Big ‘F’ Word – Failure – to stick to us. Yes, when what you tried to do, with your Vision, with hard work, integrity and passion, has come unstuck, when your business has gone bust, when you have no money, when you owe people money, when you have to live off grants from compassionate people, some will call you a Failure. And you may well start believing them too. Besides, in business stories, when you cannot repay borrowed money, you may even be called a cheat – my own mother has called me so! But if you examine your thoughts carefully you will realize that letting a social definition of who are stick to you is what is pinning/will pin you down. Look within instead – isn’t the fire in you still burning? Stoke that fire. Peel off that label of Failure that society has stuck on you and shred it! Remember: Success and Failure are both imposters, both are impermanent. You came with nothing. And you will go with nothing. So, don’t get attached to either Success or Failure. Your only focus at the moment, when dealing with a crisis, must be on the fact that you have a problem(s); and that you must get down to solving it – no matter what people say, no matter how long it is going to take, no matter how hard it is to find a solution(s).
“Lesson # 3: Be Useful even if you can’t be/are not immediately Successful”
Third, no matter what happens, how bad the situation gets, you are never worthless. You can always be Useful, even when you are not immediately Successful. In our case, our conversations between us and our collective Resilience has helped us shrug off the bankrupt/Failure labels. We constantly reminded ourselves: “We are not the problem – we are going through a problematic, turbulent, phase!” So, even as we have tried to be Successful to earn money to first survive (and subsequently surely repay our debt), we chose to be Useful. In this time, we had learnt to be non-worrying, non-frustrated and non-suffering; which is, we had learnt to be happy despite our circumstances. So, we decided to go out and share this learning with the world – with all those who are willing to pause and reflect! Being Useful simply means living with a sense of Purpose. Which is why, I wrote my first book Fall Like A Rose Petal. Interestingly, our now bankrupt/defunct Firm, imagequity+, was founded on Aug 1, 1996. Fall Like A Rose Petal launched on our Firm’s Anniversary, 18 years later, on August 1, 2014. And tomorrow is August 1 again – it marks our 23rd Anniversary as entrepreneurs and 5 years of Fall Like A Rose Petal! It is remarkable, isn’t it, that I am sharing these lessons here on the eve of these special Anniversaries!
Thanks to our choice to be Useful, even when we haven’t yet turned Successful again (in a worldly sense), our Life’s Purpose of “Inspiring ‘Happyness’” found us. That’s how this materially broken Life of ours now thrives with so much meaning. We lead a very purposeful and immersive Life – I blog daily sharing lessons from Life we have learnt, Vaani runs an initiative to promote awareness for eco-friendly lifestyle choices, we both curate and host live, reflective, non-commercial Conversations on Happiness in public spaces in Chennai and we shares lessons on Life and Happiness from lived experiences with managers in the corporate world – that is, whenever we get commercially remunerative work as the happynesswalas!