Saturday, 6 May 2017

And I Became an Entrepreneur

I still remember vividly, this discussion in one of the lectures of my rookie first semester class of the MBA in early nineties. The topic was entrepreneurship and the discussion veered towards the most flamboyant and glamorous of the satraps of JRD Tata. I asked the learned professor rather naively, if this gentleman had exhibited all these ‘enterprising’ qualities and has delivered the goods then why would he not qualify to be an entrepreneur himself? What set JRD apart from this particular gentleman and indeed all other illustrious satraps of the Tata group?

My prof looked as if he had heard this question dozens of times before and probably he did. He said in his opinion there are three qualities that together make an entrepreneur. 1) He has unbounded optimism, 2) he is an incurable punter and 3) he is mentally inured to any risks. Known or unknown. The professor went on to elaborate these traits as follows :

1      Eternal Optimist : Infinitely optimistic about the future opportunity and extremely uncomfortable about the present situation
2      Incurable Punter : Ability to punt one’s own capital (almost always) and/or convince others to “invest in the idea” without guarantee of the return
3      Inured Risk Taker : Unflinching belief in the infinite upside while accepting or simply ignoring the downside

Merriam Webster Dictionary says the word entrepreneur has a French origin in “entreprendre” which means to undertake. It defines the entrepreneur as a person who starts a business and is willing to take risk loss in order to make money. One who organizes, manages and assumes risks of a business or an enterprise.

Won’t you wonder that the same entrepreneurial strands of DNA must flow in the veins of explorers, discoverers, inventors, sea farers of yore and mountaineers?  All of them exhibit the same qualities and are driven by passion to go where none has trodden before. They seem oblivious to risks and are willing to punt that they will survive the mission and come back unscathed. I am not a molecular biologist or an anthropologist but if you said these traits could also be found in the blood samples of a gambler, I would readily agree with you.

Circa 2014. I was interviewing for a job at a multinational bank. The Global CEO of the bank asked me if I had entrepreneurial abilities. I remembered my prof’s words of wisdom and I confessed I had none. I wondered then and I wonder now. Really? Do employers really expect to recruit “entrepreneurs”? Or the right question should be, 'Do entrepreneurs want to work for a salary?' “Employed Entrepreneurs”. Doesn’t it sound oxymoronic? Can you imagine a Christopher Columbus or a Captain Cook driven by a missionary zeal only to earn wages and an annual increment?

Now don’t get me wrong. I have been an employee till not so long ago. More than two thirds of the people – including the CEOs – I have met in my career have been employees. They are all bright, innovative, risk takers, visionaries but no, they are not entrepreneurs. They all take risks but they all expect salaries at the end of the month, no matter what happens to the business they run.   

I never really thought I had it in me to make the transition. To make a switch and chase my passion and forego the comfort of getting a certain salary. I did not ever accept that I had those qualities – all three of them – in me which will push me to take the plunge.

Let me narrate a more recent anecdote. I was interacting at a startup camp with a bunch of young people in their late teens and still in an engineering college. One bright young man introduced himself as the CEO of his venture and pointed at a few other kids in the room as his CTO, COO etc. Barely had he started elaborating on his business model that the irrepressible banker in me jumped out. I interrupted him and with a very clinical analysis explained to him over next 10 minutes  why his business model was flawed. The indomitable young CEO listened to me patiently (out of politeness I am sure) and began as soon as I finished my expert critique. He started exactly at the point I interrupted him as if the last 10 minutes did not exist. His mind probably blanked out the endless list of flaws in his business model which I had explained to him. He then spoke for next 20 minutes completely ignoring what I had said. One may make a case that he should have at least considered the risk I pointed out and thought of some mitigating factors. Or he built some defenses to make his business less vulnerable to those perceived risks. But when a mountaineer climbs towards the peak he doesn’t care how many meters of the steep fall it would be. He wonders how many meters more to the peak.

I have accumulated vast experience as a retailer banker. I have built several path breaking solutions and launched new businesses in the career spanning two and a half decades. I have spent vast sums of money on new projects, invested large amount of capital in new businesses, employed people in the course of my career. But it was never my money. I have always been an employee, working for a fixed salary.

And then suddenly I experienced that mad rush of passion. The adrenaline rush of a sky diver. I thought of building a consulting practice to help banks and NBFCs and Insurance companies embrace the latest digital technology. To help new fintech startups. I felt if the skills, the knowledge, the experience and the insights I have gained are really that good then these must be put to use to help other organizations reach their goals. Like an experienced Sherpa, I want to help other climbers reach their summits. I have become an entrepreneur.

I was told consulting is a cut throat business. I was forewarned against entering a crowded field full of bigger, better, smarter consultancies. I was told of the pitfalls and the hurdles. I heard all the well wishers and yet set my own sail. I have the same blinding belief in the upsides and the same indifference to the risks just the same, like that young undergraduate CEO.

(I have used the pronoun “he” or “his” as gender agnostic to indicate a person. It also automatically implies “she” or “her”)


  1. Nice article , today we came to know more about you. It was very exciting to work with you

  2. Nicely put it, beautiful way to move closer to establishing your own identity.
    Best luck & wishes for your entrepreneurship....

  3. Nice read! Brought back alot of conversations/memories I've had with people as well when I told them was planning on a startup :)

  4. Good luck Sir. Honest perspective.

  5. Wishing you all the very best sir!!

  6. Interesting read sir, It was always a pleasure working with you sir, Wish you all the luck in future

    Sudhir Shetty