Several people have told me that I don’t have it in me to run a business. I think they are right. Over the last 15 years, I have seen several of my peers race ahead (and seen several biting the dust as well). The only badge of honour I can claim is that we survived 15 years and we are improving every day. The charitable explanation for this is that since most of my energy was absorbed in architecting a complex product and platform, I had no time to think of what it meant to run a business. Building a business, it turns out, is much different than building software.
I have made more than my share of mistakes. The worst being bad hiring. Or hiring people without knowing what to expect from them for roles I had no clue about. Since I had a strong background in engineering, I think we did fairly well in running a very productive engineering team, but since I had no background in sales and services, we did not do a good job. Again, I am being charitable to myself. The real reason probably would be that I did not do a good job of planning and strategising business, so that most people who joined on the business side had no clue what was expected. Having failed enough times, I needed to do some soul searching.
This year, I went back into a beginner’s mindset and decided to understand what it took to run businesses in India. I had read several business books in my 20s, but without having the depth of understanding what it takes to run a business, all of that probably did not make much sense. It helped me understand some of the structural ideas that innovative products have to convince a small minority of early adopters before it can become a mainstream product, or a startup is a search for a business model rather than an execution of one, or a successful team is just more than a set of people, it is a cohesive unit that is tightly bound. But theory itself was insufficient. So I went hunting for books about entrepreneurs that had succeeded in the Indian context.
Earlier I had read books by the tech czars of India, but they were more about society than their own insights and frameworks. Nandan Nilekani’s Imagining India was all about his vision for digital governance, so was Narayana Murthy’s book about A Better India. Mr Ramadorai’s book on the TCS story did not offer any insight either other than, well the Tatas are great. So a few months ago I started on a new search for good business biographies from India. Surprisingly there are not many good books written about companies and founders in India, but I was still determined to make the best of what was there.
The CEO Factory
After searching online for recommendations and reviews, the first book I picked up with the idea of learning to build a business is The CEO Factory by Sudhir Sitapati - the story of how Hindustan Unilever (HUL) has been one of the best run companies in India. Compared to the other books, this is an exceptionally well written book that demystifies a lot about how large companies are run in India. The first thing that struck me was that the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG i.e. soaps, oils etc.) business is so much marketing driven. The sequence of chapters tells you the importance of how the company is run, and the first chapter is on marketing. The idea that you need to first identify a consumer need and then build a product was very interesting (we did the exact opposite, first built the product then went hunting for customers). The next thing is advertising and media. This was Capitalism 101 - the customer is at the centre of everything. What the customer needs and how to influence them. Reminds me of Marx’s quote that capitalism not only helps fulfil needs but also creates new needs. This is the marketing and advertising that not only HUL, but also Apple and Nike are so good at.
After that harsh lesson, the next thing I learnt was to always hire the best talent. HUL hires its top management exclusively from the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIM-A), the premier business school in India. They have a deep relationship with the institute and have become the employer of choice. For the best talent, a career in HUL is a guarantee to success, and then it's a self fulfilling prophecy. Along with this, HUL also appears to have a great culture where they encourage mavericks and diversity over traditional thinking (This is what the author says, but is hard to verify. "Values" is the last chapter, so I can’t say it is top of the mind for them).
For me this very simple thing of hiring the best talent was eye opening. We tend not to put much effort in our hiring. People who graduate from the best institutes have proven high intelligence, diligence and ambition. I myself did not work hard enough to enter any elite institute, so maybe I did not have the confidence of hiring people who went to elite institutes. I always thought, like, why would someone from an IIT / IIM want to work with the average folk at Frappe? They would want to work with peers who share their level of ambition and hard work. Then it dawned to me that maybe hard work and ambition is what it takes to make a great business, which we lack at Frappe. And that we are stuck in another vicious cycle, self-fulfilling prophecy.
Another related book I read about FMCG is Harsh Mariwala’s memoir - Harsh Realities. It tells the story of how a traditional business transformed under the next generation leadership of Harsh Mariwala. To me this was not as insightful as Sitapati’s book, and the lesson that got reinforced was that Mariwala had the courage and conviction to take big bets and hire the best people from other corporations. Reinforcing the fact that leadership from elite institutions is the way to build a great business.
The Billion Startup and The Everything Store
The other very insightful book I read was Mihir Dalal’s reporting of the Flipkart saga - The Big Billion Startup. It tells the story of the Bansals (Sachin and Binny, unrelated) who came from IIT Delhi with big dreams, landed a job in Amazon and then saw the opportunity to build their own Amazon. It also tells us about the fact that it was not only the Bansals, but the visionary investments by Tiger Global's Lee Fixel who envisioned an Amazon in India and sought out the Bansals and pushed them to greater heights by being a large investor. In this story the Bansals (specially Sachin Bansal) come across as ambitious and hungry but also naive and immature. At several steps, the delusion of Sachin Bansal was thwarted by Fixel through his lieutenant Kalyan Krishnamurthy who was brought in by Tiger Global to keep a leash on the founders.
The Bansals always preferred hiring from IIT Delhi, again reinforcing the idea of elite hiring. Also the fact that the Bansals found the right backers at the right time. Reading about Flipkart gave me a window into Amazon. We have all heard bits and pieces of Jeff Bezos’ management quirks - the 6 page memo, customer obsession, day 1 thinking. Some of this was implemented at Flipkart as well since both the Bansals were ex Amazon. The Flipkart story had a happy ending with Walmart coming in to take Flipkart because it needed its own tech answer to Amazon, and in a way Flipkart helped them set up their own “back-office” (sadly, that’s what we are).
Naturally, I wanted to learn more about how Amazon succeeded so next set out to read Brad Stone’s The Everything Store - the definitive story of Amazon where Jeff Bezos himself had given access to the author. Bezos himself was a precocious and gifted child. A valedictorian, he went to Princeton to become a Physicist but then joined the elite wall street firm DE Shaw. Amazon was based on the assumption in the 1990’s that the internet will transform commerce and retail and Bezos specifically went out to capture this opportunity. Again, Bezos only worked with the best of the best - graduates of Stanford, Harvard and MIT formed his leadership. He was a highly energetic, intelligent and driven leader. I had a friend who worked at Amazon in leadership and had told me that drive and energy came right from the top.
Bezos not only went on to build the top e-commerce company, but when he saw upstarts like Google come after him with much higher valuations, he also added a tech offering - Amazon Web Services. Jeff Bezos comes across as an extraordinarily driven leader - someone with relentless energy, extreme hard work and intelligence. His obsession with customer focus is very personal and he owns that for the organisation. All of this reinforces the fact that success at such a level requires exceptional energy and talent.
After reading these books, it has become painfully clear to me how naive I had been about building a business. In professional sports, recruiting plays an important role. Whether it is scouting for the American leagues or the auctions for IPL players, the best teams are often those that have the best players. Sadly this is not what Frappe is. Frappe is your friendly neighbourhood company that has big dreams.
Last month, I was talking to a CEO of a unicorn startup (someone who uses ERPNext) and they were telling me that it's not true. You don’t need people from the best colleges to help you succeed. I asked him which college he graduated from (in hindsight I should have checked his LinkedIn first) and he said, “IIM Ahmedabad”. So that says it all. There are very few outliers to this model. People say underdogs can win but there are very few underdogs who win and their stories get told over and over again. In the real world, professionals win. The recent movie, 12th fail, tells the story of a villager who triumphs against all odds to clear the toughest Indian Civil Services exams (UPSC). A statistic from the movie says that only 25-30 Hindi medium students clear the UPSC exams out of 200,000. Yes we love our underdogs because they are so rare.
In the startup world, there are very few underdogs, traditional outsiders who made it to startup success without going to elite colleges. The Vembus of Zoho and the Kamaths of Zerodha come to mind. Both of them did something right and it would be great if their stories were told. The little bit I know about Zerodha is that they are fiercely competitive and focussed. Maybe we need to find some of that focus as well.
A 15 year old company can’t change its DNA, at least not overnight. We are not probably going to hire the top talent from tomorrow and start executing at 10X our speed and excellence or acquire unwavering customer focus. Frappe has taken a very unusual path and while we don’t hire super stars, we have the ability to create superstars. What seems to be working at Frappe is that the extra-ordinary trust and freedom is bringing out the best from our team. Maybe we just need to continue that while slowly increasing our quality and focus. I don’t think we need to hire the elite, but rather people who have the courage and imagination to be more than what fate has written for them.
The latest Indiana Jones film had this dialog where Indy says “It's not about what you believe but how hard you believe it”. While this can easily be taken as delusional (religious) thinking, my belief is firmly in the idea of freedom and self-direction, and in our team and their ability to create magic. Or that I should takes lessons from books and not movies. Only time will tell.