6 Learnings after 60 days of WFH – for Founders

Yesterday was the 60th day since we shut down our office, but it feels much longer. Partly because of the roller coaster journey I have had with a concept that I could not understand, i.e., working from home. In the last 60 days, I have gone from hating to loving the work from home concept and from working myself to the bone to appreciating the freedom and higher productivity this concept brings to my team and to me.   

There are several posts on how to manage employees that are working from home, but very few focus their attention on the founder that is leading their startup through troubled waters. I had 6 distinct learnings that reshaped the way I thought about working from home: 

 

 

  1. Hyper-productivity has its limitations 

    I was guilty of indulging in this mistake for the first 30 days. Theoretically, I saved 90 minutes of commute time; therefore, I decided that I could take on more tasks and responsibilities. Thus, in addition to my duties as a fund manager, I was reworking budgets with our portfolio companiestook on the chief editor role for Artha’s blogs, and I was conducting multiple team calls a day to keep the team focussed and engaged. 

    It was exciting and new the first couple of weeks, and I enjoyed working myself to the point of exhaustion because it kept all the negativity around the crisis out of my mind. However, hyper-productivity began providing diminishing returns the more I indulged in it. 

    It started with general irritability and slight distractions, but eventually, the focus on work suffered, and the list of tasks pending on me started to pile up. Finally, there was just a general numbness to all the work. The enjoyment of completing one task was quickly replaced by the groan of watching the tasks list continuing to expand

    became aware of the toll my hyper-productive avatar was having on my physical and mental health. Eventually, it started affecting my interpersonal relationships – at work and at home. With some sage advice, I toned down my hyperproductivity ambitions and focussed on quality instead of quantity. I concentrated on completing 5 tasks per day (nothing more or less) and utilizing the extra time to expand my knowledge horizon.

  2. Recognizing and dealing with Zoom fatigue 

    It was fun to be on an endless stream of Zoom calls. The meetings were shorter, I drank fewer calories, and I could do double the number of meetings. Then as Brad Feld put it, I started to experience Zoom Fatigue. I caught myself replying to emails, responding to internal team chats, or editing investor newsletters during these online meetings. I was there, but I was not present

    It did not help that I made my meeting schedule so tightly packed that there was no room for error; therefore, if there was an unscheduled call, it would be a couple of days before I could get back to them. 

    At the start of this month, I reduced the time I allocated for online meetings. Encouraged with the results, I have limited my online meeting schedule to just 3 hours a day from this week. This workaround will give me ample down-time to catch up with my inbox, tasks, and team chat – allowing me to be fully attentive during the online meetings 

  3. Taking a break 

    It is ironic that I would find it challenging to take a break from working while working at home. The opportunity to take a break (my TV) is less than 10 steps away, the bed just another 15 steps. Despite my intense working schedule over my 15year working career, I continued to watch at least 1 new movie a week on averageHowever, in the last 9 weeks, I have watched a grand total of 2 new filmsand I had to split watching each one over 2-3 weeks. 

    The fact that the opportunity to take a break was so close developed a false sense of comfort that I could take a break at any time. That time did not come because there was always something pressing that needed my attention.  

    Although it was late, the benefits of taking breaks finally dawned on me. A couple of weeks back, I took a 3-day weekend (I still ended up working for half a day), caught up with friends, and on my sleep. I had a fresh perspective on projects & a spring in my voice when I resumed work, convincing me that taking a break is an imperative undertaking for any founder.

  4. Setting boundaries 

    When we are done with work, we shut our laptops, stuff them into our bags, we commute back home, switching off all the work-related tabs in our minds and refreshing the tabs for our personal livesWhat happens when that commute is cut down to 90 seconds? 

    In my first month I was taking work calls from 8 am to 10 pm daily, I slept with work and woke up in it. There are several times in a year when VCmust put in those types of hours, especially when we are closing multiple deals. However, this was different.

    I did not have time to work out, I took tons of notes with a mental promise to review them but could not find the time to do it. Many a time, I could not remember what I ate for dinner and in what quantity! These endless hours started to take a toll on the team as well.

    I instituted a pm deadline on myself for all workrelated meetings. Everything that could not get completed by 7 pm would get pushed to the next day. To commit myself to this deadline, I started working out on cure.fit with a partner who would ensure that I did not miss workouts, therefore, ensuring that my work-day had an ending

    Without boundaries, the boon of working from home can quickly turn into a curse. Therefore, it is a good idea to schedule winding up and winding down activities so that there is a psychological boundary between work & home. 

  5. Schedule tasks into your calendar 

    There is a big difference between being busy and being productive. One can be busy all day but have nothing to show for their busyness at nightOn the other hand, productivity demands results, it demands focus.  

    I learned an excellent productivity hack that has worked wonders for me. Instead of having a to-do list or a task list – I get my tasks directly scheduled into my calendar, thereby blocking out time to focusThe scheduled slots are limited to 30-45 minutes chunks, with a 15-mins break at the end for contingencies and to report to the team after the job assigned to me is completed. There is an excellent post on Effective Scheduling for more on this. 

  6. Take a vacation 

    It sounds ironic that I would propose vacation time amid an economic crisis, especially when we are working from home! However, a lot of founders have forgone summer vacations due to the way this crisis creeping upon us. As a founder, we must recognize that vacations are essential with several scientifically known benefits of what breaking routines do for our minds & bodies

    While there are minimal options for us to travel for a vacation, there are other ways to take a break from the world and give the body & mind time to recharge their batteries. The Washington Post provided an excellent resource for vacationing at home, aptly titled, The completely correct guide to vacationing at home.

    Oh! You will find the perfect vacation auto-response in my 18-month-old postPerfecting the vacation auto-response.

My Funding Picks For The Last Week (W21)

Every Monday, I sit with my team to review the funding activity of the previous week. From that list, I pick out 3 companies that I would have loved to invest in or find founders that are doing similar things. Click here to know about my rationale behind this weekly exercise.

 

Another 2 weeks of lockdown (probably more for metro cities) should not dampen the investment spirits. Deal activity continues to temper, but it hasn’t completely stopped. Last week saw 13 startups raise $88 million – 8 of which were in the early-stage space.

After sifting through the news (aggregated from Tracxn, Inc42, and YourStory), I picked out these three as my favorite funding news from last week!

 

Name: Refrens

Amount Raised: Undisclosed from Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Anupam Mittal, others

What does Refrens do?

Edited from Traxcn: Refrens is accounting software for freelancers. The features of the product are expanding customer base by referrals, budget planning, creating GST invoices, reminders, and more. The product is free for freelancers such as software developers, logo and graphic designers, digital marketers, to name a few.

Why do I like Refrens?

The recent economic earthquake and the related job losses will give wings to the gig economy. Several platforms help gig workers promote their wares, but not many that will help them with organizing their back-end operations. The stellar angel investor star cast backing this deal should provide Refrens an edge over the indirect competition.

 

Name: Log9 Materials

Amount Raised: USD 164K from Deepak Ghaisas

What does Log9 do?

Edited from Traxcn: Log9Materials is a startup in the nanotechnology space. It focuses on graphene-based materials. Also, it undertakes custom synthesizing orders. R&D is centered on energy-efficient technologies based on graphene derivatives. As of November 2016, the company is developing graphene quantum dot-based LEDs and foldable displays and graphene composite based water purification systems. They have developed ‘Smoke-Free’- graphene-based cigarette filter and claims to reduce the risk of getting cancer by 90%.

Why do I like Log9?

I had looked at Log9 in the past when they were utilizing graphene-based technologies for fuel cells & filtration. However, their new product, CoronaOven could get serious traction as the importance of disinfecting things before using or consuming them is taken seriously. If the technology works as it is supposed to, there is a massive market for this product.

 

Name: Scribble Data

Amount Raised: Undisclosed from unnamed Angels

What does Scribble Data do?

Edited from Traxcn: Their platform, Enrich, helps prep data at scale (feature engineering) for data science, and our consulting services are aimed at turning every data science team into well-oiled machines.

Why do I like Scribble Data?

ML engineers love challenges. These engineers take on projects that test their skills and will build their reputation. Eventually, the projects get completed, and they venture out to find a new challenge, and the cycle repeats – but there could be a better solution. Scribble Data’s ML engineering as a service could offer exciting projects to keep ML engineers engaged but, at the same time, provide continuity at a more affordable & flexible payroll for the company. I have asked a couple of my portfolio company’s to reach out to Scribble and test out this hypothesis – the proof will be in the pudding.

Entrepreneurial lessons from 36,000 feet under the sea!

Image Credits: @Buck_Taylor_ on Instagram

 

Entrepreneurship is an inspired action. Many people equate entrepreneurs as business people, and that assumption could be valid most of the time, but it does not work vice versa. Therefore, an entrepreneur can be a businessman, but not all businessmen are entrepreneurs. There is a big difference in the mental model, as businessmen are analytical thinkers, while entrepreneurs are possibility thinkers.

Yesterday, I read a fantastic story of entrepreneurship, published in the New Yorker, Thirty-Six Thousand Feet Under The Sea. It is a story of Victor Lance Vescovo attempt to become the first person to reach the deepest points in the earth’s 5 oceans. He called this attempt the Five Deeps Expedition. Vescovo got another first along the way.

He covered the most considerable vertical distance (64,869 feet) without leaving the earth’s surface getting the Explorers Grand Slam, i.e., he is the only person in the world to have successfully summited Mount Everest (2010) and plummeted to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench (2019).

The New Yorker story covers the ups and downs of Vescovo’s entrepreneurial attempt in a gripping narrative. It reminded me that, like entrepreneurship, there is minimal room for errors when there is 36,000 feet of water above your head, the pressure is immense literally and figuratively.

Vescovo’s story will resonate with budding entrepreneurs and reinforce or answer several questions. Here are a few of them that it did for me

  • Hire for attitude
  • Perfection is the enemy of progress
  • Half done is well begun
  • You can throw money at the problem, but that will not solve it but the will to do it will!

 

Are gross profits the key to bulletproofing your startup?

6 months ago, I wrote about the real cost of customer acquisition after visiting the offices of a prospective startup that we were evaluating. After writing the blog, I provided the founder with explicit feedback on why I was passing on the investment. I had laid out our rejection feedback mechanism a couple of years ago, and we continue to follow it at Artha even today.

Handling rejection is not easy. I was in sales for many years, and I still consider myself to be in sales as I sell the opportunity of investing in our fund to prospective investors. As a sales manager, I trained, managed, and fired thousands of salespeople for almost a decade. Therefore, I have directly or indirectly dealt with rejection, a lot.

Hence it does not surprise me when I get a range of reactions to our feedback emails from founders. Their responses range from the grateful and gracious to anger fuelled expletive-laden multi-pager emails, giving feedback to our feedback. I do remember that this founder fell into the former group.

I believe that my post is more relevant today than at the time I wrote it. In 2019 (it seems so long ago now), the early-stage investment market roared on the back of a surge in micro-angel investors & a flood of friends & family capital. These uninitiated investors, many of them investing directly into equities outside of mutual funds, for the first time. They were lured in by stories of the 100s of Xs someone they knew had made.

Unfortunately, their ambitions made them blind to runaway gross losses their investee startups were making, i.e., the direct cost of revenue exceeded the actual revenue brought in. In layman terms, it meant that for every ₹1 of income the startup earned, the direct cost of generating that income exceeded ₹1. Not a sound business situation in any market condition!

My team and I met many of these hyper funded startup founders. We tested their penchant for profitability, at least at the unit economic level, but those were different times. The founders commanded and received unbelievable valuations. My team and I sat and gaped on the side-lines as we saw our anti-portfolio list swell faster than the list of startups that were in our portfolio! I wondered if we were facing a new normal, like a valuation black hole where the laws of economics did not function.

Unbeknownst to the world, a novel virus was raising its ugly head some 4348 km away. In the flash of an eye, the funding flow stopped. Many founders were caught unprepared, and unfortunately, their cheap capital fuelled startups died a quick but painful death.

As investors have realized many times in the history of euphoric investing – it is a startup’s dharma to make a profit. One cannot run (or fund) a startup that makes losses, not for too long. A startup can be accused of buying revenues when its direct cost of bringing in the revenue exceeds the revenue brought in. In a cruel twist, a startup making a gross loss assigns a zero or negative value to the operations apparatus that keeps the doors open. It won’t take a valuation expert to tell you that if opening the doors is worth less than zero – it is profitable to shut those doors.

To clarify, I do not endorse a net-profit strategy for startups that want to grow and scale. However, profitability, at the unit economic level, is a must before a founder decides to chase growth. Fast-growing startups must invest in creating long-term assets (tangible or intangible) to manage hypergrowth because minor issues quickly become massive at scale. Therefore, even the best-managed fast-growing startups build capacity before productivity can catch up, leading to net losses.

A part of the cost of growth gets compensated by adding positive unit economics of every transaction, creating gross profits for the startup. The gap (if any) is filled by venture capital or private equity investors that want to capitalize on the startup’s growth potential.

Even in a harsh fundraising environment, a startup with gross profits can survive. The founders can cut non-critical investments & expenses, utilizing the gross profits to grow the business, even if it is slow growth. Only a gross profit-generating founder can choose to sacrifice growth for sustenance.

However, founders that attempt scaling despite unfavorable unit economics do not possess that luxury. They need a perennial source of capital to continue their revenue buying program. If there is any threat to their source of money, their startup will be in trouble, deep, deep trouble. Just how big is their issue, these founders and their investors are beginning to find that out now.

Moral of the story: gross profits are worth their weight in gold. 24-carat gold.

21 Point Action Plan to Corona-Proof Your Startup Dream

Calling the shutdown caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, an economic crisis is a gross understatement. It could be a crisis for the established business ecosystem, but it is the equivalent of a tsar bomba for the early-stage startup ecosystem. If all of us do not act quickly, the entire venture capital ecosystem is staring down at years of effort, getting incinerated in a matter of weeks.

When the Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, announced the Janta curfew, he talked about blackout drills and wartime curfews to a population where the majority hadn’t witnessed one. It was a reminder of a dark 15-20 period when India went through several wars with Pakistan & China. That ignited a mortal fear in me as well.

I feared that this crisis could destroy the decades of work that it took to provide confidence to young graduates to convert themselves from job seekers to job creators. We had to show years of results to convince Indian & global investors to pour money into startups via venture capital funds, angel networks, superangel syndicates, and venture debt funds. All this effort all this sacrifice, of the tens of thousands of people that make up the entrepreneurial ecosystem viz. over 39,000+ founders, 10,000+ angel investors, 500+ VC funds, several visionary politicians & government officers is on the brink of collapse.

However, real entrepreneurs are problem solvers, optimists, and overachievers. Any challenge, even something that challenges their mortal existence, will help an entrepreneur find another gear within them. As they say, even in adversity, they only see opportunity.

My team and I started to sound out Artha Venture Fund’s founders on the business impact the coronavirus pandemic was about to make a couple of weeks before lockdown. We asked our founders to create new budgets to account for the onset of nuclear winter in the fundraising world, bring their expenses down to the bare minimum, and to show patience along with courage at this time.

It has not been easy to convince the optimist in them to slow down for now and conserve energy to speed up later. Last week we put all our heads together on a zoom call to chart out an action plan for saving their dream – their startup.

I summarized the call in a 21-point action plan to save your startup memo for the founders. My team went a step further to make it into a beautiful & impactful presentation. In the spirit of joining hands during this adversity, I am sharing that presentation with you:

 

It is important to remember the immortal words of General S Patton:

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Together we will win the coronavirus fight in our homes, in our businesses, and our minds. Let’s roll!
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A Pleasant Surprise on the Upside!

While redoing our website, I accidentally stumbled upon an interesting piece of information.

I wanted to create a portfolio filter that would allow a visitor to create portfolio cohorts using factors such as the year of our investment, whether we were current investors, which startups we had exited from, or which sector the startup operated in and so on.

While tagging the startups, my team discovered that 4 of Artha Venture Fund’s portfolio companies had at least 1 female founder, i.e., 66% of the fund’s portfolio! This statistic piqued my interest as I stress the importance of being gender-neutral when it came to choosing our founders. Yet our female founder representation was far higher than the 20% female founder representation reported in CrunchBase EoY 2019 Diversity Report published in January 2020.

I dug further to look into our upcoming pipeline, which told me that out of the 5 deals which were at an advanced stage of closure, 3 deals had at least 1 female in the founding teams – 2 where the female founders held the CEO position!

I still felt that my sample size was too small to form an opinion. So I widened my search. My team & I started an investigation into my previous portfolio that I had set-up through our family office, i.e., Artha India Ventures.

The team keeps granular information on my past performance to report to institutions and family offices that need the information as a part of their due diligence. It took a few hours to figure it out, but 22 out of the 69 startups I had previously invested in had one female founder, i.e., almost a 33% representation!

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The team went deeper to uncover that the female founder cohort delivered a 41% IRR with 4.3x multiple on invested capital in comparison to an overall portfolio IRR of 56% with a 4.6x investment multiple. Though the female cohort performance is lower than the overall performance; it does not tell the entire picture.

Our 330x multiple in OYO skews the numbers in favor of the XY chromosome cohort, but several of our female founder companies are raising new rounds of capital. One of them is months from becoming a unicorn, so it is a matter of when (not if) when the female cohort will be the alpha for the portfolio. While an eye-opener, I am not proud of beating the gender bias – not this way.

What I am proud of is that diversity happened without gender bias in favor of the XX chromosome. I am very vocal in stating that we do not favor a particular gender in our employees or founders. I believe that being entrepreneurial is a gender-neutral trait, and to invest in someone because they have or lack a Y chromosome is foolhardy.

Despite these results, I continue to stand up for what I said in last year’s blog post, Why I refuse to promote Women’s Entrepreneurship. 

The moment that I start treating a founder differently because they are women, it means that I do not see them as equals. I will skew my thoughts to cater to my bias, and it will hurt them as much as it will hurt my bank balance.”

To investigate if my lack of bias was something I felt or did it percolate down to our treatment of our female founders, I asked my XX founders whether they felt any bias from our end. Besides, I asked them why they gave a seat to Artha for their entrepreneurial journey. This is what they had to say:

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The diversity of the artha eco-system is felt in all the events we come together with Artha- where we meet entrepreneurs working on awesome ideas - pushing through- without feeling any differenc

In closing, while global reports state that the penetration of female founders in startups is very low, I have little concerns for the same. People whose investment lens has a filter against a particular group of people due to their color, country, or chromosome will lose out – lose big.

I am glad that our lens is crystal clear and that my team chooses the best people for the founder’s job. We follow an incredibly meticulous approach when it comes to choosing our founders.

Not always do we have the most qualified founders, but we attract the most passionate founders’ with a deep internal drive for the problem they are solving. We trust in our process of channelizing a founder’s energy to win one battle at a time and create category-leading companies.

Now if that means that our winning portfolio has a disproportionately high number of female founder companies – then so be it!

Startup Board Meetings 101

Most founders deem that their relationship with their board will be adversarial and combative. I assume that the founders must get sleepless nights before the board meeting. Maybe it provides the founder flashbacks to the nights spent they spent rolling their beds as they tried to present their school report card to their stricter parent, usually their dad.

Why do I think that?

The creative ways I see founders avoiding calling (forget conducting) board meetings as if it were the plague. Founders drum up excuses for delaying the board meetings, much like my classmates and I did to avoid submitting our signed and acknowledged report cards. Founders get sick; then a family member gets sick, then the ICU and next the morgue. Next when the health issues run out, then the team members are blamed; the reporting systems cop the blame – the list is endless. It is comical to witness the founder’s unnecessary creativity. However, the board is not a founder’s dad, waiting to rap them and it does not need to be that way.

That start-up boards must not have an adversarial relationship with the founders. This relationship should not disintegrate into that abyss is the responsibility of the investor board member and the founder.

For starters, the board must not get into the day-to-day working of the company unless there is a crisis, and the board must over-ride the management – it is rare but required. How can a founder avoid this situation is to be honest, in the founder’s hands.

A first step to building trust in the board-founder relationship is for the founder to get into the habit of organizing, conducting and following-up on productive board meetings.

  • A board meeting must be conducted every quarter – at the very least.
  • Some start-ups may require monthly board meetings, but a long-term plan of conducting monthly board meetings is onerous – on the founder and their board.

An important distinction that many founders fail to make is that a board meeting is not an investment pitch, but neither is it the investor update. A board meeting’s purpose is to get into the meat of things that the founders are working on versus the sizzle that sold to current and prospective investors.

If you, as a founder, are confused about what to discuss at your board meeting, I believe that Mark Suster’s How to Prepare for a Board Meeting to Make Sure you Crush It is a must-read for you.

Essential points that Mark delves into are the importance of a well-thought-out agenda, a solid deck and providing enough time to your board members to prepare for the meeting.

Now, if you’re scratching your head on what goes into a board deck, then Bryan Schreier’s post on Sequoia Capital’s website, aptly titled, Preparing a Board Deck should be in your reading list. 

A start-up founder that has an adversarial or a laissez-faire relationship with its board members is losing the plot. The best situation that a founder could wish for is a well-functioning board is their sounding board and guide for the road ahead. The board gives the founder a third party and a bird’s eye perspective on their venture’s progress because founders lose their objectivity in the day to day function of their ventures.

But it is important to note that the responsibility of creating the right board relationship must begin from the founder and supported by their board members – not the other way around.

How to deliver bad news to investors

Hey founders, today I’m going to address a crucial topic: When to update your investors with bad news. If you’re an entrepreneur and running a business, you will have to give bad news at some point.

There are many ways to give bad news. One of them is not to give any news at all, let everything go down, and then explain why you have only ruins and not a building on fire. This method isn’t recommended, but some people choose it – I don’t.

There are minor issues or bad news that can be managed in your monthly and quarterly updates. Like missing your quarterly numbers by 3-4%, or if you’re having a tough time recruiting people, or if a particular distributor who was contributing a large part of the business dropped you for reasons unknown or customer complaints. These are the kinds of things you can manage in your monthly and quarterly updates.

However, certain kinds of news shouldn’t be neglected. These should be communicated to the investors immediately. If a co-founder has left, or one of the co-founders has been diagnosed with severe disease and will not be available for the next 6-8 months, or your fundraising efforts are falling through, or a significant client that contributes a substantial chunk of the profit has left. These are the kinds of situations that need to be communicated to the investors immediately, preferably not on e-mail.

What I recommend is organizing a conference call or an in-person meeting. Explain what is going on to the investors face to face, in a way that is direct with no sugar coating. Be humble about the fact that things have gone wrong. Don’t try to play up things to avoid the investors being angry at you. If the situation is terrible, investors have a right to be irritated and will point out things that could have gone better. You should take criticism in your stride as you’re expected to execute successfully. Take responsibility, be direct, and you’ll find that investors will probably come back with solutions for you to manage the mess.

In adverse situations, you should have a turnaround plan. I would recommend having one if you’re going to have a face to face meeting. If you don’t have one, let the investors know and get back to them in a few days or a few weeks. There may be some questions the investors have, for which you may not have the answers. I would recommend not making up turnaround plans on the spot. If you don’t have the answers, tell them. Mention that you’re going to get back to them in 5, 7 or 10 days (or whatever number of days you believe you need) but ensure that you keep those promises.

Delivering bad news should not be difficult. It’s only tricky when you don’t want to give bad news, and you feel hiding is the best way forward. But it doesn’t solve anything. In fact, it only leads to the problem of getting bigger. If hypothetically, the company shuts down, and investors find out that you knew in advance, you could find yourself in a hot legal soup.

I’ll leave you with that, and I would love to know how some of you guys have shared bad news in the past. Also, if you have tips for other entrepreneurs, do share them in the comments.

The Indo-African perspective on the role of mentors in your startup

Over the weekend, I was a guest of Baljinder Sharma, a serial entrepreneur and a highly respected individual in the India & Africa startup scene. He put together the first India Africa Entrepreneurship & Investment Summit in Mauritius.

The event started as an idea to create a bridge between two ecosystems that houses over 1/3rd of the world’s population. It culminated in a 2-day event attended by over two hundred illustrious participants of the African & Indian early-stage ecosystem.  

The number of close relationships forged at the event is the barometer of success for such an event. On that scale alone – this event was a resounding success. I made several new friends, some from India and many from Africa. I will strongly encourage Baljinder to make the event a permanent annual feature for both ecosystems.

On the first day of the event, I was on a panel with an impressive list of panelists viz, Stephen Newton, Jonathan Mazumdar, Eric Osiakwan. Atim Kabra deftly and expertly moderated the panel channelizing our experiences and energy into a coherent narrative. Our discussion topic – the role of mentors and incubators in our respective ecosystems. Our discussion on mentorship got extremely engaging so much so that we did not enter into any meaningful conversation on incubation.

My co-panelists came up with a host of discussion points, but we unanimously agreed that the title of “the mentor” was thrown around very casually in our respective ecosystems. Often, service providers are self-anointed mentors, and their misrepresentation can have disastrous effects for the founders, their startups, and their investors.

On Sunday night as I boarded the flight back to Mumbai, I put down those discussion points that resonated with me; here is that list.

A mentor should not cost the company money.

This point is not to say that the mentor should work pro-bono. However, mentors that offer hourly/weekly/monthly/annual payment plans are service providers. If your proposed mentor charges money to meet you for an evaluation – please be smart and avoid them. 

A mentor’s role is to guide, not to become the founder.

I have committed this mistake a few times, so it hits home. Many times, founders start abdicating the decision-making role to the mentor, and there are several times the mentor starts getting too deeply involved. The mentor is not the CEO or a co-founder, but neither are they above the CEO or the Founders.

If you have crossed this line in your mentor-mentee relationship already – it is time to scale it back maybe even take a break. 

A mentor’s job is to do /advise you on what is best for you, not to make you happy.

This point is a personal favorite.

The mentor’s role is like that of a coach – they are present for the overall success of your company, not your success alone. Therefore, they must offer advice which is best for the company.

A self-respecting mentor will promptly quit if they get the message that their presence is to be a rubber stamp to your whims.   

A founder should have multiple mentors.

This learning was new to me. A founder should seek out multiple mentors that can help them with different aspects of their business or challenges. As the startup grows, there should be a churn in the mentors with new mentors taking over from the mentors that have finished their role/utility.

A good mentor stands on the side-lines while you make mistakes.

An extension of point 2. Experienced mentors sit on the side-line while you make mistakes even if they could help you avoid them. The lesson of letting you experience failure and learning how to prevent future mistakes is more important than the experience of getting saved by the mentor.

A good mentor will warn the founder of the challenges but leave the final decision on them.

The mentor’s role is to guide the founder through their decisions, but in the end, the founder is the one that must pull the trigger. When a mentor starts making decisions for the founder stops taking responsibility for the results.  

It would be best if you chose mentors that have substantial previous experience in the areas you need help

If you want to learn how to build a billion-dollar startup, who would you go to for help? The founder that built billion-dollar startups a couple of times or the founder struggling to get their startup out of their garage? 

Even though this sounds like a simple point reiterated – I am surprised how many times founders commit this mistake.

The best mentors only take on mentoring projects that challenge them.

Good mentors get sought, but they aren’t running after the money. They are looking for a challenge. A challenge that will stretch them and help them grow thereby (and in most cases) helping the mentor and the mentee.

Mentors that are running after money will accept any project, regardless of whether it intrigues them are not the right choice for you and your startup.  

The very best mentors get involved before the founders know that they need them and leave before the founders question their existence.

An involved mentor that is “in-sync” with their mentee knows precisely when to increase their involvement and when to decrease or terminate their relationship. A mentor that must be asked to leave has stopped paying attention.

It would be best if you convinced the mentor that you are worth their time investment, not the other way around

When a mentor is chasing you, explaining why you “need” their mentoring or pestering you to “sign-up” with them, they are a service provider. Service providers have other motives driving them but they are most likely not in line with your mentoring requirements.

The best mentors are so busy with their projects. They place a high value on their time. Therefore, you must convince them that you are worth the opportunity cost of their time – without using money as the offset.

My takeaway from the panel: Choosing is a mentor isn’t rocket science, but neither is it a game of roulette. Choose wisely through the generous application of common sense.

Let's talk about entrepreneurial stress

It has been fourteen days since VG Siddhartha took his life. In that time, the entrepreneurial ecosystem has heard arguments from several vantage points to understand the cause of the stress that led to his untimely demise. It is stomach-churning and thought-provoking stuff.

Various arguments attempted to place the cause of VG’s entrepreneurial distress onto a multitude of issues. His close political affiliations, the stress that different business bailouts had put on his balance sheet and even his battles with the income tax department. His balance sheet was funded using debt and private equity; therefore, the private equity guys were to blame as well. However, to place the blame on any one person or phenomenon is to oversimplify a very complex issue i.e., the effects of entrepreneurial stress. 

The one silver lining of this somber episode is that it has got us all talking about entrepreneurial stress. It is a real thing, and there is an excellent chance that an entrepreneur close to you is under this stress right now. Yes, even the most successful ones.

In the Indian ecosystem, a successful start-up founder is treated as a demi-god. The media can quickly relate that entrepreneur into a Tony Stark-type invincible personality – capable of resolving any situation and turning almost anything they touch into gold. The price of this success is steep because the lens of failure is brutal. Ask any of the high-flying entrepreneurs that witness a reversal of fate – the fall from grace can be cruel and lonely. 

The truth is that an entrepreneur undergoes the same level of stress as that of a high-performance athlete. Another reality is that this stress will not vanish. 

The first step to dealing with entrepreneurial stress is to admit its existence. This step is most difficult because it hacks away the cloak of invincibility that entrepreneurs take painstaking effort to build. However, unless we admit that this stress exists, we cannot act on its causes. Ray Zinn wrote a great post on Stress and the Entrepreneur that delves deeper into this.

The next step is to identify the factors causing stress. There are internal factors that the entrepreneur can control and external ones that they cannot. It could be the nature of the business (like running a stockbroking platform), an environmental factor (like the transit time from home to office) or a personality trait (like procrastination and putting off decisions). The factors that can be addressed, should be acted on immediately and earnestly. The factors that cannot be addressed can be overcome through several methods, which high-performance entrepreneurs utilize to channelize their stress positively.

Lastly, once the stress factors have been identified and dealt with, an entrepreneur needs to build a core group of people to fall back on. The people invited to this core (aka inner circle) play a critical role, and they need to be educated on the things not to do.  

This post is one of the toughest blogs I have written because I have had my personal experiences with entrepreneurial stress, which kept clouding my arguments. I kept reverting to the times in my career when I stared from the cliff of despair into the depths of failure. I know today what I did not back then. Even then, I sometimes find myself feeling overwhelmed, overworked, and slightly burnt out. It usually shows up with the burning sensation in my eyes, persistent pain in my back and a marked drop in my physical stamina. 

Initially, I did not know that it was stress. When I could self-diagnose, I took a short vacation, reduced my meetings load or delegated more. The awareness helped with resolution. However, the VG Siddhartha episode has awakened me to change my stance from a reactive one to a proactive one.

So should you.