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Starting a business? Say goodbye to your ego

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February 16, 2007

Part I: Entrepreneurship: Do you have it in you?

Part II: Entrepreneurship = 60 hours of work

If you want to get into business, forget your ego.

If you don't love to make money, do not start a business.

Yes, a humble attitude and a love for money are very two important attributes of a successful entrepreneur -- according to Subroto Bagchi, author of The High Performance Entrepreneur-Golden Rules For Success In Today's World, and co-founder and chief operating officer of MindTree Consulting.

To know more, here's an excerpt:

Entrepreneurship is about egolessness

Many people want to start companies in the prime of their careers, often after winning accolades as professional managers in large companies. That is great, but when you start your own company, you must know that you leave your past behind.
That is easier said that done.

A persons's corporate success often comes from the power of the chair he sits on. He often underestimates how much he is an extension of that artefact. So, when that person steps out, the world repositions him without his knowing.

People have a hard time coping with the attendant loss of identity. The day you step out of the collared existence of a blue-chip company, you are a mongrel. The first thing you have to do is to forage and run and duck and breed and forage some more.

In all this foraging, you will come up against strangers. Some will love you for reasons you will never be able to fathom. Some will be brutal with you.

I remember fondly a meeting with an irate customer. He demanded that I see him immediately and I took a late-night flight from New York all the way to California and showed up at the appointed time. I stood outside his glass door while he remained busy on the phone for a full forty-five minutes -- all the time knowing very well that I was standing there. When he finally showed me in, he did not apologize. The one-hour meeting was largely a one-sided rebuke. He did not offer me a glass of water or a coffee. After I came out, for a fleeting moment, I felt hurt. This man, in my past life would have had to take an appointment to see me --that is what my ego informed me. In the very next moment I realized that this was a set-up destiny to prune me.

I am sure when a rose bush is pruned, it does not like the experience. But without the pruning, it will not give great blooms. In the early years of setting up shop, one has to budget for a lot of pruning.

Sales people learn this early in their careers. Sometimes with reason and sometimes quite mindlessly, people keep them waiting, shut the door on them, or are otherwise rude. As you grow up, you learn to deal with such responses, one way being not to take things personally. Even service engineers learn to deal with rejection. But most people who come from other areas of expertise, specially senior people, become quite shaken when they face such experiences. The worst thing that you could do is return the volley. Sometimes, life is just testing your ability to weather storms. Even if you are entrepreneur material, possessing patience, resilience, empathy and politeness in very difficult situations, the sense of rejection can lead to occasional self-pity. That is the last thing you need in such situations, to even think, 'when I was a senior executive at my last organization, this man would not dare deal with me like this.' The 'senior executive' and your 'last organization' are past and best treated as fiction. This man is the current reality and is best treated as someone who may be holding the key to your future.

One day, very early in our existence, I went to General Motors (GM) with Sandeep Sabharwal, at that time a sales director in the US, to make a sales presentation. The fact of the matter is that GM's IT outsourcing runs into billions of dollars and every large IT services company camps inside and outside GM's Detroit office. The giant EDS, a business and technology solutions company, was born out of GM. And here was I, with less than 500 people and under $20 million in size, making a spirited pitch to explain why we were good enough for them. After a half-hour of involved presentation, I asked the gentleman from the purchase department what he thought of our proposal. He cleared his throat and said. 'You are so small that GM could chew you and spit you out before you knew it'. I laughed, but inside it hurt.

Sandeep and I stepped out, brought ourselves brownbag lunches and headed out to the next port of call. We were to meet someone at the Automobile Association of America (AAA). It took us some serious ego massages to be able to repeat the dog-and-pony show at the AAA, where too, in all probability, the prospect was ready to chew us up and throw us out. As we settled into the conference room with some effort to raise the spirit, I again started to explain who MindTree was and what it was about. To my surprise, the client just took over and told us that he knew about us and how high in his esteem we were as an organization. He had learnt all about us from his previous stint at Citibank, during which he had come to India as part of a delegation. He had met Ashok very briefly and was absolutely sold on MindTree. It was balm on a bruised ago after the rejection at GM. Sandeep and I told ourselves that our man at the AAA was the reality and the gentleman at GM was just another bad sales call.

Shortly after, I learnt that the gentleman at AAA had left his job. Another corporate reorganization! That part, as of today, we are still to do business with AAA. The gentleman at GM is probably still there somewhere but through some other opening, we actually do business with one of the GM companies. So, acceptance and rejection are equally transitory, result in equally unpredictable outcomes and must be treated with equanimity, without involving your ego in the results.

Finally, another point about egolessness. Till yesterday, you flew business class, had a secretary make appointments for you and checked in at the choicest hotels. When you start out on your own, for a long time you will have to forget all tat.

Investor money is meant to bring in customers, build and deliver products and services and generate cash before you start leading a life of such luxury. So, being economical with your expenses becomes critical to success. Six years into MindTree, none of us fly business class -- with the exception of Ashok. All of us pick hotels at $50 or less on whenever we travel overseas.

While we do all that, our colleagues whom we left behind in earlier organization are entitled to great creature comforts. We know that postponed gratification is the essence of ownership. Hence, we do not compare ourselves with what we have left behind.

Entrepreneurs love money

If you do not love to make money, do not start a business. You will hear that many times over from me.

I meet a lot of people who love technology, so they want to start a company. I meet a lot of people who tell me that they have earned enough in their life and now want to set up a company to 'give something back'. None of these people will ever make great entrepreneurs. Sometimes, we think love for money is all about spending power. Some people have disdain for money because they associate money with being consumerist. In the hands of a creator of wealth, it is not always so. Some people use wealth to build more wealth. Some people like to make money so that they can change the state of things around them. Some enjoy the recognition and some just get a sense of high.

Some people have a deep need to build a legacy and see wealth as the way to do so. John D. Rockefeller's wealth created many legacies in many walks of life. The most memorable contribution made by him was the Rockefeller Foundation that started in 1913. In 2004, the foundation's assets stood at $2.4 billion, and in that year it disbursed grants, fellowships and programmatic funds worth $124 million. Jamsetji N. Tata, born in a family of clerics, seeded a business empire in 1859, just two years after India's first war of independence. In 2004 his Tata empire stood at $12.8 billion in size, and spanned 93 companies in seven businesses.

A lesser known fact is that 65.8 per cent of the empire is owned by charitable trusts. The Bill and Melinda Gartes Foundation is arguably the world's second richest charitable organization with assets that stood at $26.9 billion in 2006. In each of these instances, the founders were guided by a sense of legacy. It became the deep driving desire behind growing their enterprise so as to make their names remembered by posterity. Without affection for wealth, men like Rockefeller, Gates and Tata could not have created their legacy.

In the Hindu pantheon, wealth is granted by a goddess named Lakshmi. She is extremely jealous and possessive. She does not come to those who treat her as if she is incidental. Even if you manage to bring her in on some pretext, mythology has it that she flees at the smallest act of neglect. So, if someone says money is not my prime motivation, know that the goddess is listening.

Part I: Entrepreneurship: Do you have it in you?

Part II: Entrepreneurship = 60 hours of work

~ Excerpted from The High Performance Entrepreneur-Golden Rules For Success In Today's World by Subroto Bagchi, published by Penguin Books India, Rs 395, with the publisher's permission.

~ Would you like to buy this book?

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