The challenges of being a first-generation entrepreneur

Nandini Vaidyanathan highlights the challenges that a first generation entrepreneur faces

Somewhere in the volatility of the last two decades, the average Indian household figured that there was no angel or government coming to magically free them from their poverty. And the awareness that the only weapon they had to rescue themselves from the tyranny of being the helpless class was to educate their children. So the American dream was fed along with daliya and ragi balls to their sons – be a 90 percentiler in 12th, get admission into a good engineering college, be the star on placement day, walk away with a job offer that promises beaucoup bucks, an on-site job with one of the IT MNC’s in the US, buy us a house back home, get your sister married to someone like you, and send us flight tickets to visit you both once a year.

Imagine whilst this dream is being embellished, obsessively nurtured and fervently believed in over nearly two decades, the prodigal son comes home after placement day and announces: I sat out of placements because I want to be an entrepreneur! Apocalypse! And mind you, this is just the beginning.

I always say this: for any aspiring entrepreneur, the worst thing in India is his family. The best thing in India is also his family. However contrarian this sounds, I think most entrepreneurs know exactly what I mean. Parents in India set so much store by how their children will transform their lives when they grow up that any chapter which hasn’t been included in the original script is looked upon as betrayal; and entrepreneurship definitely does not figure in the ambition of parents.

There is a good reason for that parents  who grew up and experienced India between1960 and 2000 saw the ignominy associated with the then word for entrepreneur – BUSINESSMAN. It carries so much stigma with it that even businessmen discouraged their children to become entrepreneurs!

Conversely, the respectability associated with being an EMPLOYEE is so extreme that there can be no argument against it! So given this scenario, what are the challenges that first generation entrepreneurs face when they decide to take the plunge? Let’s separate the challenges into personal and professional so we understand the double whammy inherent in the decision.

Personal Challenges
1. Loss of income/potential income: If he decides to become an entrepreneur after working for a few years, there is the decided loss of paycheck at the end of the month. If he decides to take the plunge soon after college, he loses the potential income that he could have earned over the next few years as an employee. This in India causes a lot of heartache to families, more than to the entrepreneur. For the latter, the excitement of the journey, the glamour associated with calling himself an entrepreneur as opposed to being an employee, the adrenalin of building a product and then an organisation around it more than makes up for the loss of the income. For his parents, it is as if somebody pulled the rug from under their feet. For his wife and kids, it is a terrible changeover in lifestyle; and neither parents nor wife and kids have any such serotonin-inducing substitute to accept a decision like this with its painful ramifications.

2. Slave: The other bummer is the notion that when you become an entrepreneur, you have the freedom to own your time. It doesn’t take long for the entrepreneur to realise that as an employee he had the luxury to ‘switch off ’ from work; as an entrepreneur, he has sold his body and soul to his stakeholders. He is the proverbial Vikram with the Vetal hanging on to his shoulders!

3. Attitude: If the transition is from a student to entrepreneur, the biggest challenge is that since you have never worked in an organisation, how are you expected to know how to build one? If you are becoming an entrepreneur after being an employee, the biggest challenge is how do you learn to own the whole piece of business? In your corporate job, you owned a tiny piece, may be coding, may be recruitment, and may be balancing books. How do you learn to be the butcher, baker and the candle-stick maker in one shot?

Professional Challenges
1. My way or the highway: In most cases, it is the idea of a product that drives a person to become an entrepreneur. The typical tendency therefore is to demonstrate hubris that since you know how to build a product, you are also the expert in building the organisation. This is the biggest challenge that every entrepreneur faces and how he navigates the tricky waters to overcome it determines whether his company grows successfully or dies.

2. Everyone loves French fries. The hiring process, especially in a startup is illogical. There is no science to it. The assumption is that since you are being offered a job in McDonald’s you must love French fries and that should motivate you to work here for a pittance. No one pauses to consider reality. One that French fries are not a feasible substitute for market rate pay; two, someone may actually hate French fries!

3. Amnesia: it is very strange that most entrepreneurs forget the reason why they became entrepreneurs in the first place as the company starts to grow. Paradoxically most entrepreneurs quit organisations because they didn’t like their bosses and they didn’t like the organisation culture that hired such bosses. They vow to build an organisation which boasts of a nurturing culture. But as they divest equity and draw up a blueprint for becoming a unicorn, there is amnesia about what drove them to become entrepreneurs and eventually end up building an organisation with toxic culture, worse than the one they ran away from!

4. Level V leader: I read a disturbing report yesterday that came up on my feed that most leaders are psychopaths. How does a coder learn to evolve into a leader who knows how to balance between ‘sach’ (what is true) and ‘sahi’ (what is right)? And in the process retain his own equilibrium? The lists under both personal and professional can be elaborated endlessly. Suffice it to say that when he decides to become an entrepreneur, he needs to take an oath like the monks, that he will cultivate garuda-dhrishti (an eagle’s 30000 ft overview) and sarpa-dhrishti (a serpent’s eye for every detail around it) in equal measure. Without this, he will be the harbinger of more unsavoury challenges.

The columnist is a published author, entrepreneur, business consultant and mentor to startups.


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