Comfort Zone Musings

A lot happened this week, personally, professionally. Nothing new in the life of an entrepreneur (or anyone, really!). And as I find a quiet moment on a Saturday, the thought that bubbles up from the past week melee is about comfort zones. Different incidents, different people, different settings—but the common thread is that.

I had been in touch with some people I shortlisted for an open position in our company. One of the key ways for me to judge ability, as well as initiative, is to send them a test to do. It’s not an easy one, but it’s not rocket science either. But to anyone without initiative or the hunger (we are looking for), it would feel like rocket science.

So here I was, down to my shortlisted three candidates.

One did it splendidly well, but had omitted to mention that she had already found another job. So she was out.

Another replied with a mail that sounded like a combination of lying and excuses. And when I followed up on what she said in her mail, she didn’t reply. Maybe she never saw the mail, you might say. I use Streak, so usually I know who has seen my mail, and how many times. So I know she saw my mail about the test 10 times, and the follow up mail once. She didn’t have the courtesy to say, No, thank you. Sadly, I seemed to have been proven right about the combination of lying and excuses. So she fizzled out too.

The third person saw the mail, and chose to not respond either. But when I followed up, she said she was in advanced negotiations for a job, and that it would be unethical for her to pursue ours. So that candidate went bust too.

So when all three candidates didn’t work out, I did what I usually do, which is question my modus operandi. Am I being too tough? Am I being too picky? Do I not want to close this position (what if deep down my subconscious is sabotaging the efforts!)? And on and on.

Then I looked at what I am trying to build. It’s cutting edge stuff, it’s not stuff for the faint hearted. It requires a toughness and staying power that many people don’t have. And while many freshers have this, experienced people exhibit less and less of this. They have defined their comfort zones and want to play in that. Comfort zone of not being asked hard questions. Comfort zones of known evils vs unknown evils. Comfort zones of working for a brand.

And that’s okay.

The other way to look at this is that they have defined their discomfort zones for other aspects of their life: maybe their personal lives push them out of their comfort zones quite a bit, so their work becomes their comfort zone. That’s certainly okay, isn’t it?

Some of us treps go into a mode of lamenting that people just don’t want to play outside their comfort zones. Just because we do, and many of our team members do, it doesn’t mean that everyone out there must either. It’s not their calling. So let’s drop the lament, shall we? And focus on the ones who do like to be out of their comfort zones at work.

Then there are others who play outside their comfort zones at work, and seem to go off-balance really quickly. When you extend help or solutions, they listen but come back and say, “No, thank you. My discomfort zone, my rules.” Sure, that works too!

Then there could be others who say they want to play outside their comfort zones, to learn more, to earn more. But if they are not authentic enough with their work, it starts becoming apparent that their ability to step outside their comfort zones is limited. And then it can become discordant, in terms of being misaligned on what one says and what one does. Is that okay? For them, perhaps. For a manager or an entrepreneur? Maybe, maybe not. For me, it’s not okay.

So what are my takeaways this week from all this?

  • That I don’t have to hyperventilate about people not wanting to step outside their comfort zones. If I want people who do so, I will just have to keep looking and find the right people.
  • That comfort zones come in all different sizes and shapes and forms. And I don’t have to insist that your comfort zone has to match mine.
  • That in case of an integrity issue with what’s being said, and done about comfort zones (or anything really), I want to question it.

On that note, I look ahead to a week that will need me to be out of my comfort zone quite a bit. Both at work and at home.

Cheers!

Synchronicity: How Good Things Happen

Ever turned back to look at your life and realized that where you stand today is a result of meaningful coincidences? Back in 1920s Carl Jung came up with the term Synchronicity to describe “events are “meaningful coincidences” if they occur with no causal relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related.”

Ever looked at the synchronicity in your life? Here’s a look at some of mine.

I have a degree in architecture, largely unused, because I switched careers soon after I started working. So it was a waste, you might ask? No. During my five years of pursuing my degree in architecture, I made lifelong friends, and also came face to face with who I really was, for the first time in my life. That was value enough for me.

But 16 years later after I graduated, I would meet a person who would give direction to how I thought about myself and entrepreneurship. I met Darshan in 2011, when I joined his program on entrepreneurship. How did I come to meet him? Through my Architecture classmate (and lifelong friend), Virender.

And sometime in 2012, I remember sitting at a self development workshop Darshan was leading (and I was finding phenomenal value in), and telling him, “This is why I had to do Architecture. So I could meet you!” He smiled.

Meeting Darshan was the start of many synchronicities in my entrepreneurship life. I was at an IT SME event, in 2012. During one of the sessions I attended, I heard a person from the audience ask a question. What he asked, and how he articulated it, drew me to him. And I ended up exchanging cards with him that day. That was Rahul, the founder of an open source IT services company. He went on to be coached by Darshan and take his company to new levels of growth.

Rahul and I kept in touch, exchanging leads for each other’s businesses. Rahul was really interested in what I was trying to do (and had empathy for my entrepreneurship distress) and soon hired us for content development for his website.

This is where things turn interesting.

Darshan invited me to the launch of his new program for startups. At the launch, I listened to the startup founders talk about their companies and what they were trying to do. I particularly remember a youngster talking of heat maps and engagement rates, and his previous startup failures. I thought nothing of it.

But synchronicity wasn’t about to let go.

I ran into him again at a networking event. We ended up chatting for a long time that day over tea and snacks. That day I probably got to know his startup was being incubated by none other than Rahul.

Still I thought nothing of it.

One thing led to another. And one fine day, Rahul figured he was having the same type of conversations with me, as well as his incubatee. He said, why don’t you two collaborate and come to me with a single pitch?

And that’s how Abhinav and I started working together. Many collaborative pitches later, we merged our companies, because we realized it would create phenomenal value for our customers. 

Today, we are building, not one, not two, but three brands, along with Dhiraj, who joined us later as a co-founder for our product.

Synchronicity!

Here’s another stream of meaningful coincidences.

Both Abhinav and I had adopted our way of doing marketing to align with the principles of Inbound Marketing, made popular by HubSpot. In 2013, when we merged, we had pipe dreams of being the HubSpot of India, not really knowing what it even meant.

In 2015, as the largest inbound marketing event on the planet, INBOUND15 opened in Boston, a handful of us stayed up nights curating content around it. Through the next four days we created content based on the sessions being tweeted about and Periscoped. And before the event was over, we had over 20 blog posts live.

Our intention was to be able to report live on the event, so inbound marketing professionals who were not in Boston could find content on INBOUND15. Nothing beyond that. There’s a sense of community and giving which is inherent to inbound marketing. We were just practising that. And we really had no Call to Action for all that content. Not till Abhinav realized we had hit pay dirt (3X our normal traffic from the US), and overnight our white labeling services page went live.

And as always, we didn’t think too much about it. Till a few months later, when we thought it might be a new business opportunity waiting to be tapped. And that’s how we landed up at INBOUND16, trying to talk to US inbound marketing agencies, if they would be willing to outsource to us. YES! Said many.

But it was a serendipitous meeting with Douglas Burdett who runs the Marketing Book Podcast, that would change things for us. He was generous with his advice, and connected us to a company who had tried white labeling and then closed it down. We ended up speaking to one of the co-founders, who too was generous with her advice. We likely shortened our learning cycle by many months, if not years, because of that call with her. At the next INBOUND, we ended up meeting her and her partner, and soon after they became our client!

Synchronicity.

Today we are HubSpot partners, and we have multiple white labeling clients across the world. All because we thought it would be cool to virtually cover INBOUND two and a half years ago! Meaningless back then. Now it is feels like a meaningful coincidence. We are not the “HubSpot of India”, but we are among the only two tiered partners in the country. And we are building our own content marketing tool, so we may not be way off. Who knows!

Eagerly waiting for more synchronicities!

Pink Floyd, Tom Peters and Me

Did you exchange a walk-on part in a war

For a lead role in a cage?

– Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd

Today, when this song came on, I settled into it. And allowed it to take me where it would. There are songs that serve as reminders of certain phases in your life.  Some songs bring with them forgotten feelings…whiffs of something precious, happy or sad.

But this song isn’t like that. I don’t have a strong feeling attached to it. But it does take me back to a time which I can now say was the start of something that redefined me forever.

I started really listening to this song around 1999 or 2000. I was a copyeditor for a computer magazine back then.

I would listen to the song often. I savored “Can you tell…a smile from a veil?” and “Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?”

And then I hit that bit, “Did you exchange a walk-on part in a war for a lead role in a cage?”

It just caught my fancy for some reason. It intrigued me. And I found myself writing it on a piece of paper and pinning it to the board next to my seat at work. I would look at it from time to time. One of the bosses even peered at it once, and immediately went behind a veil. He knew he was in a cage while all he wanted to do was wage wars. I could see that, for him. But it didn’t seem like a thing that should have been about my life, my work. I probably saw it like a poster…something out there in bright colors on a wall. But outside of me.

At the time, my main reading consisted of books by Tom Peters. Of course my usual diet of Richard Bach was there, and some bit of Gary Zukav too. But it was Tom Peters who was taking over my imagination. I had no idea how what Tom wrote made any difference to what I did at work day in and day out. But it made me happy to read his books: The Pursuit of Wow, and The Tom Peters Seminar: Crazy Times Call for Crazy Organizations.

Today as I listened to the song again I allowed myself to register this: that time of my work life—with 4-5 years of work experience—was sowing the seeds of what would happen five years later. I would discard the lead role in a cage for a walk-on part in a war. Except the walk-on part would become the lead role, but certainly not in a cage.

It is not nice to call entrepreneurship war. But whether I realized it or not back then I was stepping into what would be as consuming, as damaging, as exhilarating and as strategic and tactical as war.

Maybe Pink Floyd planted that seed in my head all those years ago. Or maybe I already came pre-planted with a seed which Floyd then watered everyday. Whatever the case, I know this verse was a catalyst. And Tom Peters was showing me the right ways of being a professional, of being a company.

You connect the dots by looking back, to paraphrase Steve Jobs. Yes, while waging wars you are just doing your best to take the surprises out of uncertainty. But once you have come some way you can start seeing how the dots connect.

Pink Floyd. Tom Peters. Entrepreneurship.

When I said no to a lead role in a cage. And no, I didn’t exchange my heroes for ghosts!

Thank you, Pink Floyd and Tom Peters!

Allowing it Through

When you are a doer, you just keep doing. And doing, then doing some more. In fact when you are not doing, you feel like something’s off.

Sometimes you might hit a place where you’re running on empty. Even then, you just do, without even having to think much, or feeling passionate or anything really. When I hit that phase recently, and spoke to David Hrostoski about it, he said it felt like I was at a point of contraction right before a big opening.

Maybe, maybe not. But today when I look back on these past few weeks, I think it was just my mind getting out of the way for things to rearrange themselves in some order. So that I would not be driven to ‘fix’ or ‘force’ things into shape.

It made me think of a specific discussion in an entrepreneurship program I had attended many years ago. It had a really great format—entrepreneurs facilitating conversations among participants to answer questions that would bring phenomenal breakthroughs, which if allowed by the business owners would change their businesses as well. The session facilitator spoke about how sometimes solutions come when we have had some quiet following an intense time spent researching, exploring, doing, failing, experimenting, hitting walls, and so on. It’s the quiet—maybe a nice long sleep, or a walk in the park, or a relaxing bath—that brings us that little insight that is needed to allow all the pieces to fall into place. This happens more often than we realize. Call it the Eureka moment if you want. But probably it is not always that dramatic as Archimedes had us believe.

Back in December 2017, if you had asked me what 2018 looked like for me, I wouldn’t have been able to say. I would have been able to tell you some bits here and some bits there. But a cohesive picture? No. Not only did I not seem to have the grasp on the road ahead, I didn’t even want to talk about it. I was okay to listen others talk about it, and just listen. Not give inputs. I guess it was a probably frustrating time for my co-founders, but they let me be.

We had our team offsite in the first weekend of January, and the vision for the year ahead was laid out by my co-founder. Nothing new for the co-founders, as we practically live the vision everyday. But putting it together for the team to be able to see it as we did was important. I went through his vision document. And as I mulled it from the team’s point of view I was able to come up with the key themes to keep the team aligned for the year. It just took me a few minutes. Of course we would still have the task of translating the themes into each person’s day to day work, but that could be done over the coming few weeks. But at least we had a vocabulary for everyone to align to, to use in their work, to use as their North Star for the year.

The offsite went well, and we have been having some great conversations since. And we are also working on drilling down the yearly themes to daily work.

While the vision was clear and is in the process of getting clearer for all, we still didn’t have the year’s sales numbers locked down. During the course of a day earlier in the past week, my co-founder asked if we had to discuss something related to automation for sales. I said no, but I did need help figuring out the sales numbers. So we went into the conference room and sat for maybe less than an hour. And emerged with sales numbers that looked realistic, yet a stretch for us. It all just fell into place. These numbers had always been a struggle for us in the past years to arrive at, but not this year. They just came through. And it happened without any drama, any excitement, any debates, any raised eyebrows. Smooth and easy. And both of us believe in it too.

Why? What was different about this year?

I just think in the past few months we had already done all the hard work, the debates, assessing the highs and the lows, looking squarely at what was working and what wasn’t, what we wanted for the company and what we didn’t and so on.

When the quiet happened, all of it just cohered into oneness. And it all just felt right. All we now have to do is keep doing things as per the vision, the themes and the numbers. And correct course when we see things going off track.

So now I am back to doing. Just do. Because, for now, I have allowed the real ‘what needs to be done for the company’ to come through.

How Much is Too Much?

Some of us, especially entrepreneurs, have the capacity to take on a lot. Often take on a lot more than we should. And over time we get really good at it, and if more comes on, we might even take some more on. Or there will come a point where you say, “No, this is my limit. This is where a line is being crossed. This is it, this is too much.”

So how much is too much?

I don’t have an answer for that, because every person’s ‘too much’ is different, because each of us is different. Let’s look at questions that may help you answer your “How much is too much?”

Like many others on the planet, I have been propelled into an orbit where I am discovering new levels of integrity to lean into; or you could say I am finding parts of me that don’t feel integral to who I am. Which means I feel compelled to drop masks that feel completely stupid to keep wearing any longer. Or when I start writing posts for this blog, I say a whole lot more than I would usually say. There are blog posts that haven’t been uploaded here, because they are too honest, too raw, too much of my wading through troughs. It makes others comfortable. Or it gets some others to worry about consequences. Me? I don’t worry, I am not sure there are enough readers of this blog to really make any finite dent in the universe. But if it makes my people uncomfortable, then I will simply align to that, for now. So that’s the first question, and one that I will be dealing with for a while. How much is too much of honesty?

The first weekend of the year saw us have our lovely company offsite. We had a day of great conversations, discussions, drinks and dancing. The conversations continued over the week. One of the things that came up was that we don’t communicate enough. And one team member even pointed out that the co-founders need to be talking about their challenges to the team a lot more. We had another team discussion this week, in which the co-founders shared their experiences openly. It is not that we have not done this before. It’s just that we went a few notches further. More vulnerability, more rawness displayed to all. Is there a thing like too much display of vulnerability?

Here’s another one. You start a company with a certain focus, to really bring about a change in a domain you know you can make a difference to. And you do whatever you have to, to make it work. It builds, it grows, it stalls, it puts you through tremendous debt. And one fine day, you get funded. Nice! Now you have the wherewithal to make it bigger, and wider and deeper. And you do. Then the investors say, “Go buy that company out, because you have similar audiences.” You protest, but they insist (they are invested in that company too). So you agree to it. And then slowly (or maybe suddenly) no one is talking about that domain you were passionate to bring a change about in. How much interference is too much?

Here’s a really common one. You have it pretty good: a good job, money, a friendly spouse, a couple of great kids. You tick all the right checks: hang out with friends, take the vacations that look great on social media, banter with family and extended family, contribute to social causes, and so on. But somewhere deep down, you know this isn’t what you signed up for. When your best friend asks, “How are things?”, you often say, “Boring!”. How much is too much of boredom?

So many questions one can ask oneself.

How much abuse is too much? Emotional? Verbal? Physical?

How much of being taken for granted is too much? “She will do it for you!” “She won’t mind!” “She can do it by herself, she always does.” “She is a superwoman, she will manage.”

How much of helping others is too much? Thin ice, there. But a worthy question to those who can’t say No. And I know many of those; I have been there myself.

How much fear is too much fear? Of self, of others, of what others think?

How much carbs is too much carbs? Pass me those fries, please.

How much?

So it comes down to this: Where do you draw the line? Do you even know there is a line? And if you choose to have the line crossed, do you know why? And are you truly okay with that?

Whatever you answer to any of this, there will be naysayers. What will you do about that, especially if you have that ‘too much fear of what others think’?

The Year That Was

When you sit down to write a post on the last day of the year, what would it be about? It would be about looking back at the year, or looking forward to the next.

But I have no idea what this post is about to say. Let’s see what comes out. I have had the urge to write about some of the cool unbelievable things that have happened to me this year. So I will start with that.

 

Mighty Fan Girl Moments

This was a year when I stepped outside of my shyness to approach Internet influencers (nothing less than celebs, I would say). When I had to make a sales trip to the US in May 2017, I planned it so I could attend an event that Michael Hrostoski was going to conduct along with Molly Butler (it was called, Follow Your Love). But as things turned out, the event got cancelled, and I didn’t get to meet him. I have followed Hrostoski ever since I got to know of a book he wrote in 2013 called, August.

It’s been almost four years of having watched him evolve, go through hardship, heartbreak and stellar growth. And build a community of highly evolved individuals creating breakthrough businesses. I came this close to meeting him in person, and then it didn’t happen.

That was disappointing, to say the least. I was going to leave it at that. But, my co-founder, Abhinav, who had helped me plan my trip around Michael’s event, wouldn’t let me. He said, write to him. I laughed. “He won’t even see it,” I said. Even so, I took his advice and messaged Michael. On my way back from the States, while spending a long layover at Heathrow, I got a ping. It was Michael, and not a bot (he sent me a pic to prove that! How incredibly sweet!). And we ended up chatting for a while. He even asked me to send him a friend request. This was beyond mind blowing! And since then we have chatted a bit, off and on. And he continues to get awesome-r by the hour.

Following Michael has led me to follow many more interesting people, but the other person from his tribe/fam/community that I have recently started following is his baby brother, David Hrostoski. Who is going places where not many people have gone before. And I have ended up chatting with David as well. Very open, supportive and welcoming.

The other celeb breakthroughs (if I can call it that), happened in September. Like the entire inbound marketing world, I am a fan of Rand Fishkin. Abhinav, who got a selfie with him earlier in the year at Mozcon, was over the moon and told me how down to earth he really is. So I was excited that I could catch his session at INBOUND17. And what’s more, I could also catch his wife, Geraldine DeRuiter’s session at the event. If you have been to her blog, you would also have been equally excited. And I thought, what if I could get a pic with both of them together. I laughed it off, of course.

As things turned out, I watched Rand’s session, and then went off to see Geraldine’s session. Rand, who of course, is Geraldine’s chief cheerleading officer, was there too. Just a few feet away from me. And I found myself going up to him, shaking hands, and asking him if he and Geraldine and he would be willing to take a pic with me when she was free. Of course, of course, he said.

And that’s what happened after her session. Abhinav managed to catch the session too, in between his many meetings at the event. So he got to be in the same frame as Rand one more time!

I think I had a goofy grin all that day.

Next up, Scott Brinker. At one of the INBOUND17 keynotes, it was announced that Scott Brinker was joining HubSpot. Here I had been ruing the fact that we were going to miss his event, MarTech, which was just a weekend after INBOUND17, also in Boston. The announcement meant that he was in the crowd that day. This is a coup for HubSpot, and very exciting for marketing automation, in general. I tweeted to him the next day requesting a meeting. Unfortunately he was not around. But SCOTT BRINKER replied to me! Yeah, yeah, call me a silly fan girl.

Those were my brushes with celebrities this year. A damn good year, I should say! What else? Let’s go from meeting excellent people to experiencing excellence.

 

When Excellence Moves You

We get some moments where someone’s work simply moves you. You can see their hard work, their anguish, their grit distill into to a few minutes of incredible performance on screen or the pages of a book you want to hug hoping that the warmth reaches the author in some way. Here are some I can immediately remember:

  • Meryl Streep singing Abba’s The Winner Takes it All in the movie Mamma Mia
  • Every few pages I read from Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography
  • A-ha’s acoustic version of Take On Me for MTV Unplugged
  • Mostly anything I have heard Brene Brown say this year, live or on Youtube
  • Meeting Adam Kuczynski, the founder of TME, Poland. (The start of TME, literally from the streets of Poland. His passion to explore markets in Old Delhi and similar ones in Africa. His ethical way of doing business, and the decision to stay away from specific verticals that may not have everything clean and transparent. His willingness to be patient to grow the India business.)
  • Poetry by JM Storm
  • The way our team is developing an idea we put together from various sessions at INBOUND17, and is very close to building a brand new service offering!

I am sure there are more, but my memory fails me. As I look forward to 2018, I hope for more such moving moments to happen to me (and this time around I hope to write them down as they happen). I hope I get to meet more people I look upto, or can look up to. I hope to keep shedding my ‘hold myself back’ attitude so I can be in more of these moments of sheer pleasure. 

To a wonderful 2018!

You Are One in A Million!

The highlight of this past week happened on a feedback call with one of our agency clients in Australia. He said, “In the past one year, over a hundred agencies from India have reached out to me, seeing my role as a CMO on LinkedIn. Only yours stood out. You had done your research, and you had something concrete to offer. It was refreshing and phenomenal. It’s just common sense, but then that isn’t so common, is it!”

So we are 1 in a 100! He didn’t have to say that to us, but luckily for us, he did. We felt deeply appreciated, recognized for all the efforts gone to be able to create a service that brings out such effusive words. And we are super grateful for that!

We consider ourselves one in a thousand, perhaps, 1 in 10,000! Or least, that is an underlying approach, as we strive to excel, go further with our learnings, and adapt to changes in the market.

However, think back to what our Aussie client said, “It’s just common sense.” Then why is it so uncommon? We often have these conversations in our workplace. Trying to find patterns in people who demonstrate that they have the will and wherewithal to stick to common sense, and hence become really uncommon. 

Abhinav had a job in an IT MNC, where he could have easily stayed on and made good money. But he went to extreme lengths to deliberately flunk the tests for his job confirmation. Mind numbing work, where growth meant navigating politics to become Project Manager in eight years! He decided his life wasn’t about that, quit and became a partner in a startup the very next day! Uncommon.

Dhiraj struggled to code in his first year of college, when teachers expected you to know a lot more than most students did, and offered nothing by way of help. He spent his vacations taking classes outside college in various languages and came back a real coder, no thanks to his own college teachers. And ran classes after college hours for the next batch of first year students on coding. He ended up running two batches at a time, running from one class to the next, helping many get the foundation they needed for their coding life ahead. And to his surprise, his batches had his own classmates, seniors and MCA students. Uncommon.

Anubhav spent some years coding at the IT job mecca of India, and gave it up. Went to NIFT to study fashion technology. And not knowing what he should do, he decided to shadow the guy who seemed to know what he was doing, Abhinav. While Abhinav had no real job to give Anubhav, the latter stuck on, and found a way to help in a project that paid him a stipend, and then a salary. Uncommon.

Rajat followed the common way of life for a while. Then he hit the authenticity wall at our workplace. He rebounded really fast and has reinvented himself twice in the last year or so. Software dude to digital marketer to career coach to scriptwriter. Uncommon.

In my third year of pursuing a  graduate degree in architecture, I decided that this was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. But I continued with the course just to get the degree and not waste my parents’ money. And became a writer as soon as I graduated. Probably a common thing now. But 22 years ago, uncommon.

I have more such stories, of people who have worked at Knowiz and Niswey. And this thread of  being uncommon runs through them.

You ask questions, question the status quo, deeply believe in something (other than money), and want to have a go at the dreams you have, or had long ago. That takes you on an uncommon path.

Some questions I have answered, as an entrepreneur:

In 2008, someone asked me, “How can you run a content business, when there are freelancers who write for half a rupee per word or less?”

I answered, “By choosing a domain like technology that most people find hard writing for, and then excelling at it. I am just going to raise the entry barrier for others.”

In 2009, someone said, “Content solutions are not enough of a value proposition for companies. Your business has no real meaning. Why don’t you shut the business down?”

And I said, “I have a good thing going, and I will just find the right partner to deliver digital marketing solutions, and the clients will be happier.”

In 2010, I found myself thinking, “I don’t like this gaming the system way of digital marketing. What about creating value for the prospect?”

I went looking for the answer, read marketing books, and finally decided that the inbound marketing philosophy felt right, and leaned into that. And soon enough I found a digital marketing geek who thought the same way.

If a client has signed you up for a retainer, but isn’t really using your services, what should you do?

Ask them to take a pause in the retainer, and decide when they would really want to leverage our skills.

If a client hasn’t paid you, and you have asked a few times, but they still haven’t paid, isn’t it time to give up?

No. Ask them again and again. And again. Most end up paying, even if they have scaled down, or are in trouble. If they have gone bankrupt, file a case.

All these answers have taken the company in a direction that is not commonly followed by others. So you end up being in a rarified place, not many exist there. And while that puts you in a highly differentiated place, it also means you have few people as examples to learn from. And it also means that the market you want to serve is hard to come by. But that’s just another challenge to solve, and become even more uncommon.

Become one in a million.

Grateful for Gratitude

Sometimes you hit brain freeze. Fatigue. A total shutdown. For whatever reason. And you have to find a way to crawl out of it. It happened to me.

So what does one do? Maybe sleep it off? Which I did. Maybe watch movies you missed out on watching as life caught up with you? I did that too. Have a beer? Did that as well.

But I couldn’t find the inspiration to think ahead, or work on stuff. Even stuff that would get my juices flowing. It was a shut down. My brain refused to intake any more stuff, that I usually find cool/inspiring/funny/intriguing.

Maybe I should have gone off on a break. Turns out I couldn’t, in my current circumstances. At least, not just yet. The break will have to wait.

So what can you do? To unfreeze?

I really didn’t know. The week went by, so did the weekend. And then came Monday morning. I was better physically, not feeling drained anymore. But wasn’t sure if I had my mind on right.

While I went about my early morning chores, something struck me. “Look up a book on gratitude,” I heard a voice in my head. And yes, I do pay attention to these voices, please don’t judge me for it. Some months ago, I had heard, “Be compassionate to yourself, Suma!” And it’s probably the best thing I have heard all year. But that’s a story for another time.

So I bought the first book that I felt drawn to, after looking at a few. It was The Little Book of Gratitude by Dr Robert A Emmons.

Being the spiritual types, trying to evolve and as a follower of all that new agey stuff, I am exposed to gratitude and its benefits. And to a large extent I practice it too. But I do have that niggling feeling that I don’t really feel it at all times in my bones. However, there are also some mind-blowing moments when I can feel it in my soul. It doesn’t happen a lot, but when they happen it is magic.

So here I was, Monday morning, downloading a book on my Kindle. As the title promises, it is a little book. In fact, I didn’t even get around to finishing it. Because in the first chapter itself I found the shift I was looking for.

“Grateful living is possible when we realize that other people and agents do things for us that we cannot do for ourselves.”

There is an exercise in the book that gives you a format to express the gratitude for something someone has done for you. That was enough for me, really. I couldn’t wait to start writing.

I got to work. And wrote through the day, in between meetings and discussions and phone calls and standups. And even at home, before I slept. I ended up writing 13 pages in my notebook that day, finding 24 instances when people had looked after me, done something for me, even though they didn’t have to. But luckily for me, they did.

I don’t know what it exactly did to me. But I slipped into a nicer place, in my mind. The unfreeze had started. But the cool thing was I wasn’t doing it for the unfreezing. I was doing it for the joy of trying it. Just write. And lovely instances came to my mind. Tears. Laughter. Amazement.

I noticed patterns in my thinking, that were clearly not serving me. I remembered things I have already thanked people for in person, but I don’t think I can thank them enough for what their gestures meant to me.

By noon, I felt that I was back. Maybe not my 100% usual self, but this was definitely not that frozen person from the week past. I was unthawing.

I continued it the next day. And the day after that. And the next. And because this is December, and I was looking back at the year, it automatically became a sort of detecting the best moments for the company too. And as I would suddenly remember something we had quite forgotten, I would Slack it to one of the co-founders (the other was in sunny Goa!), so he could remember too and feel grateful. Then he started helping too: How about that person? And that instance? And so on. Very quickly, we agreed that while it had been a rough year, if we hadn’t had the support of so many people from across the world, we wouldn’t have been where we are today. How blessed we were to have met so many inspirational people through the year, who were incredibly nice to us and welcoming of our ideas. Wow. Some exercise!

Am I out of the freeze yet? Not fully, perhaps. But I am quite cool with this half-thawed person too. She is taking some time off from the world, being in silence by withdrawing from a lot of things that would earlier consume her, learning to switch off from social media, reading only the autobiography of Bruce Springsteen (that too sparingly) when it suits her. She remembers to be nicer to herself, not judge herself for all the failures and mismanagement, for any harsh words uttered.

And she can’t wait to hit her gratitude notebook.

 

A Study in Contrast

About three years ago, in one of our Goal setting sessions, I heard one of our new recruits talk about his goals. The goal setting sessions are ones where people decide what they want to achieve in the year, personally and professionally. People end up learning new languages, learn to cook or play the guitar, take two trips to the mountains, read 40 books, bike to Leh…you get the drift.

I doubt anyone was inspired listening to this youngster that day. I certainly wasn’t. He got some cursory feedback from the rest of the team. I was asked to give mine. I said, I think he needs to get authentic. Some nods and murmurs. And the next person came to talk about her goals.

When I said that statement, I had hoped, he would come up to me and ask me what I meant. To my delight, he did. And till today we continue conversations on being authentic. In fact he became so authentic that he left the company to find and pursue his passion, but is still is a part of our company. And inspiring others.

What really drives me to be an entrepreneur is this vision to create an awesome, authentic, purposeful workplace. Where people get to be the best versions of themselves, and often this means they first have to find their true self. And that can come as a shock to many. Those who just can’t bear to look at themselves, often end up leaving our company. Because we are being disarmingly honest in general. Yes, we tend to keep some bad feelings under wraps, but largely it is out there. Or at least our attempt is to get it out there, so it gets addressed and we can move to the next big thing.

We have a culture of freedom and accountability. You are free to do your work as you like, as long as you take ownership of the deliverables. Ask for help, learn, fail fast, get back into the zone. That’s largely who we are.

Of course, sometimes people who join us think they can abuse this freedom. And they learn quickly, they can’t. They get fired on the spot if they are caught lying about their work. Two months ago, an intern had to leave for this very reason. And it was not the first time we had fired anyone for that reason. I am happier to hear, “I didn’t work on it, I was stuck,” than a lie that goes like, “I have been working on it but I haven’t completed it.” There are timestamps, people. There are ways to know!

All this arises from the core of who we are as a company. And such conversations are a natural thing at our workplace.

Now for the contrast. Sometime this week, this happened. I could hear one of my teams on a call with a client’s team. I could hear the client person drone on for what seemed like a lifetime. When the call got over, I checked with the team what the discussion was about, and why it took so long. Effectively, it was a call that should have lasted 10-15 minutes, but took an hour. Why? Because the client team was simply not being authentic. They came from a deep need to establish superiority over us (after all, they are paying us!), and never, ever miss a chance to raise the blame finger at us. And where two words would suffice, they had to use 2000, to fill up the emptiness of their words.

The contrast hit so hard. Here I am telling my people to take ownership of who they are, fail and take ownership of that too. And then they have to go out and service people who can’t take ownership, and are scared to fail (they may lose their jobs, or just don’t want to lose the next promotion), and only end up sounding pompous and vacuous.

Of course this is my point of view. The client team will have their own point of view. That we are stupid, or incompetent or something. But that’s not the point here.

The point is there are these vast multitudes of people who are simply going through the motions of their jobs, not creating value and impeding any value being created. They live in fear – what will the boss say, what if I get fired, what if I don’t get promoted. They lead “unexamined lives”. And are in places of power. Trumping the rest of the people with a will to be different (yes, the word ‘trump’ was intentional).

My co-founders says it’s a big company thing. Where “Save my Ass” (SMA) is the culture code, and not what emerges of fancy terms like Integrity, Sincerity, Values and other big words pasted on the walls. Well, I am sure many big companies are not like that. And I am also sure many small companies are certainly like that.

What about a startup being incubated inside a large company? A startup is meant to be quick, and usually has no time for time wasting conversations, and the focus is on do, experiment, fail, improve, do…and so on. But if it’s incubated by a big company where the culture has become SMA, what happens? Chew on that. Maybe you’ll think twice before taking that funding from the big company’s investment arm. That is, if authenticity, agility, ownership and accountability are important to you.

All this year, all that I have read, all the videos I have watched, all the talks in an event I attended told me to be who you are, step into your uniqueness, be authentic. And I get all pumped up. And I step into more of myself, encourage my team to do so as well.

But then I also have to deal with this reality of people leading unexamined lives, because some of them pay my bills. What a dichotomy!

How the Odds Even Out

“Well, life has a funny way of sneaking up on you

When you think everything’s okay and everything’s going right

And life has a funny way of helping you out when

You think everything’s gone wrong and everything blows up

In your face”

– Alanis Morissette, Ironic


Have you ever noticed that?

Earlier this month, I talked of coming up against cash flow issues. It was exacerbated by the fact that we were staring at three clients pulling the plug – well, pulling the plug is a bit extreme, but we like to be prepared for the worst. With a tight cash flow situation at hand, and more impending, things were looking, well, grim.

The first thing to do in such a situation is stop the plug pulling, of course. In one of my earlier posts, I spoke about my co-founder yelling at me, and him being right. It was him yelling at me to figure out ways to keep the clients, not let them pull the plug.

So while I head sales, I just had to double up as an operations person and save the game. And that’s what I jumped in to do, along with the team. Got down and dirty with the daily hands-on stuff. Got the team to chin up, and do more, better. Spoke to the client SPOCs, where required, to figure out the way ahead. My co-founder did the same. And we hoped things would become better.

The next thing to do with dire cash situations is to cut the expenses, and look for money to sustain (by quick sales, or beg/borrow; no, not steal!). So we looked at one of our big expenses, rent, and explored ways to bring that down. We explored co-working spaces; we asked one of our clients if he could accommodate us, as he has extra space. He agreed too.

But once we white-boarded it out, moving out from the current place didn’t work out to be a good idea. Then we looked at our most expensive SaaS subscription, and moved to a lower package, after much negotiation with the company. Some money saved, going forward, without letting go of key stuff we needed.

The focus then turned to how to raise some quick money. And as if on cue, the bank called and offered us a loan, far more than we need. We white-boarded the interest impact on the business, and that also didn’t turn out to be such a good idea.

So, sales it was. Well, for us that’s a 3-6 month cycle, and while many proposals and good conversations are on, the closing takes it own time. The only thing to do here is find more ideal prospects, and pitch more. And that’s what we moved on to do.

We did what we had to. With no relief in sight, not sure where the money would come from, or how the clients would behave.

But do – that’s what we do.

And like Alanis says, life has a funny way.

  • Someone close to the business offered money at no interest.
  • The SPOC at a client’s who was planning our ouster, became respectful of our work, nearly overnight. It’s because the head of sales at the company was convinced about the impact of our work on the business, and saw it as detrimental to the business if we were let go. So he stepped in and guided the SPOC to see the light. First save!
  • We did some new samples for another client, who liked them, and decided, we were the right people to have on his team. Second save!
  • The third client, is still WIP. But it has become clear that if this relationship ends, it will be because we walk out. So, a sort of save there as well.

And what’s more:

  • An old client came back for more work. Because my co-founder asked her for referrals.
  • An existing client, out of the blue, asked for a whole new project to be started, right away. Because he likes the way we have solved the same problem he has. He wants a different approach, though.
  • A prospect we had been working on for a year, gave us some quick work to do. And she has said we will sign up for a retainer in January.

So, for now, things have worked themselves out. We didn’t let the gloomons (a word Richard Bach uses in Running From Safety, to describe negative concepts) hit, too much. We thought through issues, knew where we stood, did the right things, and kept doing. And life worked itself out.

But you know, life also blows up right in your face, when things are going okay.

The year had started on a high. We had a superb team offsite which had charted out the year ahead for us. The stuff we would do, the skill levels we would reach, the number of clients we would have, the brands we would build. Ah, the high of it!

And within 45 of days that, I had separate instances of both the co-founders quitting. When we got out of that mess, and became a tad happy, I came up smack against serious inefficiencies and incompetence in the team. There were people unable to deal with conflicts and having serious resentment festering.

Sigh, I should have quit. And yeah, the thought crossed many times, as they do every year.

People resigned, were let go off or coached. The youngest members in the team laid the path for the rest of the team to follow by demonstrating willingness to learn, being efficient and productive and staying happy. Today, we are a far more efficient team. Maybe not the happiest, but we will get there.

The only thread through all this is the willingness to continue, to stay the game, to not quit, come good or bad. And if that thread is held up, life will do its funny stuff. And the Universe too. After all, as they say, the odds are heavily stacked, in your favor.