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Startup Saturday: Seasoned mentor decodes path to success

TN Hari was in city for an interactive session with entrepreneurs where he shared his knowledge

pune Updated: Jul 21, 2018 17:10 IST
Namita Shibad
Namita Shibad
Hindustan Times, Pune
pune,maharashtra,startup saturday
TN Hari is strategic advisor at Fundamentum, which is a late stage venture capital fund set up by Nandan Nilekani and Sanjeev Aggarwal.(HT Photo)

TN Hari is strategic advisor at Fundamentum, which is a late stage venture capital fund set up by Nandan Nilekani and Sanjeev Aggarwal. He also heads the human resource department at BigBasket. He has been mentoring, advising and witnessing startups grow and falter. He has authored a book, Cut the Jargon: Lessons From The Start Up Trenches.

Last week, upon the invitation of Villgro, an early stage incubator for social entrepreneurs, Hari was in the city for an interactive session with a select group of entrepreneurs where he shared his knowledge and experience. He spoke about the lessons that he has learned in his journey by working with several startups. We present excerpts from the interactive session.

Lesson No 1: Be assertive.

It is important for founders of startup to be assertive. When I joined Daksh which was then a startup, I was in a meeting with Sanjiv Agarwal, its founder. At the meeting, I was busy taking down notes as I was used to in my previous jobs. After about 10 minutes, Sanjiv asked me if we should have a dialogue or whether I would just take down notes? This was a very important lesson that I learnt. Without being assertive, no company can flourish. Assertiveness is the bedrock of success. If the people in a startup do not assert themselves, if there is no healthy conflict, growth will get stifled. You need to have disagreements to reach better solutions. You need conflict to a certain degree, especially in a start up.

Lesson No 2: Execution matters

At Daksh, I learnt the importance of execution. At B schools, you learn about strategy. But without execution, it all means nothing. So even if it is a small cog in the wheel, simply executing your task on hand is vital. For this you need clear thinking, you need deep insights. But once you have thought through your plan, simply finish your task, whether you are the managing director or the delivery boy.

Lesson No 3: How to manage your workforce

People are the backbone of any organisation and startups have a bigger job to manage their people. When I was at Virtusa, which was a small niche player competing with giants like Infosys, people management became really important. We had hired people with high IQ who were managing inputs for the likes of Morgan Stanley and so on. You could not tell them what to do. This creates problems. Highly skilled and talented people can’t be told how to do their job. They will leave you and soon the word will spread that founders micromanage. You won’t be able to attract talent. So, you need to let them do their job and yet keep the goals of your company in line.

Entrepreneurship is all about having an idea, quickly find paying customers and then build your organization into a sustainable one. If you see from the outside, you will be able to distinguish the phases of growth of a start up. If you are in it, you may not realise this, nevertheless, it is important that you do.

Phase one is where you have a great disruptive idea and you have some customers who love it but companies are not built on ideas alone. A founder needs people. He needs to know how to recruit the right person for the right job. He has to find the right engineer, right finance personnel and right marketing personnel. If he cannot find such people, his company will flounder at some point in time. A founder has to have the skill of attracting good people to his company or learn how to do this.

Then comes phase two. You have great people working for you, but now you need to give them enough space to do it their way or you risk losing good workers. But it is a double-edged sword. While autonomy is great it can make people run fast and it needs direction. This can create crisis of autonomy where you have 10 different people heading 10 different teams and doing things their way. But what about direction? How do you give your team direction? While they are good at doing their work, it all needs to go in one direction. This is where processes come in. A founder has the duty to put processes in place so that there is a blueprint for team leaders and everyone to go by. A company may have a policy of say, no sexual harassment.

I had a young intern come to me and tell me her boss who was marketing head was behaving inappropriately with her. I knew from her tone and demeanour that she was being honest. This manager was very good at his work. And firing him would mean losing out a very valuable resource but the founders took a decision and he was fired. Processes and policies help give a company direction. Of course you run the risk of becoming bureaucratic. Earlier your employees had a lot of freedom and now they don’t. This can also hamper innovation. So what do you do?

This is the final stage in the life of a start up. Where you are faced with the challenge of balancing stability versus innovation. Bureaucratic principles can stifle innovation and innovation is needed for growth. How do you maintain that balance? A government enjoys 100% stability because they follow policy and processes. How does Amazon that is a giant, keep innovating? Because it is innovation that will keep you ahead of the game.

Let me give you an example of what happened at Big basket. There was a time when we were growing rapidly, our travel was broke. There were bills to be paid to taxi companies, to travel agents, the invoices were huge. How do we fix it? So we called on one girl whom we thought could find a solution. When we asked her, she came up with a list of questions like will I get resources to find the solution, how will this impact my day job, will I get paid extra for this work and how will it show up on my CV?

Then we asked another lady. She asked; will I get resources? How long do I have to figure this out? And in a week’s time, she had given us a solution to our huge bills!

As a founder you will come across three types of people; one who are the naysayers. Whatever you tell them they will say it can’t be done. The other are the ones who will say ‘it’s not my fault’. And the third category is the person who will just stand and watch. He will not get into the business and get his hands dirty. A startup needs people who will take ownership. Who will take responsibility to get things done. You can’t have an accounts guy who would say that he sent the bill to finance. His job is to ensure the vendor is paid, not just send the bill up. You need people who will take ownership.

First Published: Jul 21, 2018 17:00 IST