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.

You Are What You Believe

Yes, we are also what we eat. And what we consume (read/watch/listen to). But that’s not what I want to talk about. This week has been about coming up against beliefs. Usually that is what a trep’s life is about – busting beliefs that mostly limit you, and hence the business. But the thing about beliefs is that they are so tricky; they are so ingrained that we might not even be aware that we have them. So it takes some work to spot them and then decide what we want to do with them. 

But first things first.

This week was about pause, first and foremost. It is probably the pause I said I should have taken in a post a couple of weeks ago. No, I didn’t take it voluntarily. The Delhi smog forced me into it. Coughing and sneezing, I had to hit the bed and stay there for 3-4 days. So a little lesson there: the body and mind need a rest, and it will find its way to get it. Don’t wait for the smog to hit. Just switch off and rest.

The bit about beliefs came into the forefront, also a couple of weeks ago. My doctor asked me to examine the level of belief I have in my goals. And even though he got me thinking, as soon as he asked me that, I knew, it was not 100%.

“Well, how can it be 100%? There are some clients who seem to be unhappy. There are cash flow issues. There are conflicts with co-founders, and team members. Failure is always staring at your face.

Right?”

Yes, it’s all your reality. But why do you persevere? In the hope that things will get better; the next thing will be better. This tweak here will make it better. That pitch there will make it better.

Hope is nice. But it doesn’t cut it. Hope keeps you simmering well under 100% of belief.

Ever heard of The Stockdale Paradox? You have to have 100% belief you will prevail, but at the same time deal with what’s in front of you.

Except that what’s in front of you overshadows the belief. And those throw up more beliefs you have, which are stopping from the 100% faith in your goal. And that’s what you have to get a hold on.

Here are some beliefs I have come up against with others, these past few days.

“I am not good enough.”

This is by far the biggest one I come across, maybe because I deal with it myself.

How do you beat that? Maybe you’re not good enough right now with this specific task, but that’s not who you are. Move on. Believe you’re good, notice all the times you were brilliant, great, good. Acknowledge them, celebrate them. The enoughness will soon set in. Spend less and less time where you think you’re not good enough.

“I am too ___ for that.”

Old, young, poor, dumb…you can choose your poison.

Really? Are you? Why do you think so?

Why? Who told you that? And why do you believe it? Is it true? Should you believe it is true?

If you did it, what would it make you feel? Try it and see. And if it still feels bad, well you wouldn’t be worse off, would you?

I don’t really know how to ride a bicycle; I can balance myself, just about. I did it once long ago. Did I imagine it?

Today, as I went with my daughter as she took her first pedals with cycling, I also took the bike for a whirl. Yes, I can still balance. And better than I remember. If you had asked me a couple of months ago to do, I might not even have tried. I am too old, you know?

Oh it’s not a battle I won. It’s a just a belief I dissolved, because I am just practicing my belief-busting muscle.

But there are so many for all of us to work through. Here are some that you might identify with:

  • Business is hard
  • Money is hard
  • I have to work long hours to make money
  • I will never have a house/car/vacation like that!
  • I can never have a relationship that great. Or friends. Or clients.
  • I am not an extrovert, so I can’t do that. I am not a sales person, so I can’t sell. Or something else equally limiting you have made out to be a belief.

So I am coming up against beliefs, and seeing what I want to do about them. With some I am ruthless, and throw them right away. They just don’t serve me. With some, I am wary. They have served me for a good while, and may be nearing some expiry date. I will wait it out with some of those.

But it’s the invisible ones, I know, that will do me in. The ones I don’t know about yet, I am blind to. They are such an integral part of me that I can’t see them for a belief. I sometimes spot them in conversations when I feel deep resistance to what is being said, and hence I become aware they exist.

So what do I do once I know I have to let go of them? I just try to be vigilant of what I think. I catch myself with the belief, and if I am with someone who gets this, I will air it out. So they can help me through it.

Or I go look up a video to help me burst through it. “A video? Which one?”

I don’t know, seek and ye shall find. The algos work well, nearly every time! (That rhymed!)

Bust some beliefs that don’t serve you any more!

It’s Lonely In Here

After I published the blog last week, I thought I knew what I was going to be writing about this week. But as with most things in life (and entrepreneurship), things turn out otherwise. They say, it’s all for the good. So, while the topic is a little sad, I hope I can show you that it’s worth your weight in gold.

I came out of the weekend all prepped to conquer the week. I had had an insightful discussion with my acupuncture doctor, and he had made me see something which I knew already but had sidelined in the course of life. So I came in all geared up with a Hell Yeah!

And I ran into my co-founder, Abhinav, worrying his head off about cash flows. He handles the finances, so there’s more pressure on him as he views his spreadsheets week after week. Expected payments had not come in. He was starting his week with a Hell No!

And boy, this was more hell than usual. Heartbreaking hell, close to ‘let’s close the business’ hell.

Bootstrapping is goddamn hard.

In frustration, he said, “Let’s go meet Sam*”. He had never met Sam, only exchanged a few emails. But he wanted to hear Sam talk about his business, strategy and challenges. Why Sam? Because he is in a similar business as ours, also bootstrapped. So I asked Sam, and he was happy to meet.

Meeting Sam is always a joy. He is an entrepreneur, is principled, thinks a lot like us, is as passionate about his work as we are, has a loftier vision and bigger dreams than we do. And is the best in the business.

And seeing Sam and Abhinav talk was joyful too. Like two kindred spirits meeting. Challenges, solutions, ideas, growth, people—all the usual shop talk of treps.

But the loneliness was unmistakable. You’ve heard this before: Being an entrepreneur is a lonely ride. Even your supportive spouse won’t get the whole and soul of it. It’s good to have business partners, as invested as you. Then it may not be that lonely. Even so, it still is.

While working on a lofty vision that goes beyond profits, of doing something for the nation, or creating an awesome authentic workplace, the daily challenges of cash flows, clients, team and whathaveyou are something to be solved. In whatever way you know best at that point in time. You can look inside, or ask for help, talk to others, sign up for courses, or get into mastermind groups, and then learn to play it differently. So you move to the next level. Or you do nothing of the sort, and continue dealing with stuff with what you know. Sometimes this is an easy decision, most times it’s not. Most times you just can’t see through the fog. You just hope that the milestone is right in front when the fog lifts. And through it all you tread a sliver of a path, precariously balancing yourself, brave face up, so no one knows your private hell.

No one can see how precarious it really is. Maybe it’s your ego. Maybe it’s failure staring at your face. Maybe it’s the fatigue of challenge after challenge. No one can see it exactly the way you do.

And then it’s just plain lonely. Someone asks, why is that you do what you do? Why do you have to do it? Why do you have to struggle so much?

And the trep might reply with a different set of questions. Why don’t you see it? Why are you happy with a job that gives you no joy? Why are you not the go-getter, learner, risk taker, I knew in college? How come you stopped reading? Why is all your time spent discussing politics or binge watching some web series or the other? Why are you not doing anything about what you crib so much about?

But many of us don’t even say that. We just know all of us are different, on different paths. And it’s okay, whichever path you take.

We just chose the hard one (but, isn’t that just a point of view?).

Because we are happy building workplaces where people find themselves. We are happy staying a small team of 10-15 people, proud that we support that many families. We would be happier if we could support more, and that’s our effort always. We are happy building communities of what we believe in, helping each other out without any hesitation. And so on.

Back to Sam. His success metric is not the revenue target he hits, or the profits he makes, or how many houses he owns. His personal metric is what a phenomenal child he has been able to raise because of his entrepreneurship journey. He is already successful by that standard. But not by his lofty goal of creating employment for hundreds and thousands of people in the country. So he strives.

As I sat there and watched the two talk, it made me think of a similar conversation at a cafe a few months ago. We were with another entrepreneur who runs a company that’s rapidly growing, 250+ employees, offices all over the world. And while it’s clear success on all fronts for him, the loneliness was palpable. “You know, I can’t have this kind of a conversation with many people on a daily basis. So, yeah it can get lonely. And difficult. I had to see a therapist, and that helped.”

I thought back to many years ago. I was on a flight back from Hyderabad after a startup event. I was with another entrepreneur, she had won an award for her dream project there, but no investor had shown any interest. Put it down to  lack of sleep, gruelling conversations, and then returning with little hope—she gave in to her tears. The courage, the  persistence of over four years—all given up. And probably that was the point that led her to quit her business in a few months. She went back to a job and is doing phenomenally well. A few weeks ago, her Facebook memory threw up photos from that time, and she admitted it’s still her dream project.

There’s a price being paid for the lofty ideas and goals people have as they start up and scale up a business. And it’s not talked about a lot. All we see are funded companies making it big, but not enough of bootstrapped companies slugging it out, every single day. Therefore people with stars in their eyes about starting up don’t fully realize what they are getting into. They should.

My advice to them: Talk to entrepreneurs you know, and get a feel of their journey. And look within if you have it in you. If you do, welcome aboard!

And to the ones feeling lonely through their mission, I have this to say: seek each other out. Talk a while, laugh a bit, shed a tear or two,  get inspired by someone’s little breakthrough. It becomes a tad easier. Knowing there are others exactly like you. That’s what meeting Sam did to Abhinav. He came back with renewed enthusiasm.

I saw this on Twitter today, and that captures it all for me.

“It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” — Tom Hanks

*Name changed

 

Give Yourself Time to Recuperate

It’s been an incredibly hard week. At all levels one can think of. But that’s what trepping (my shortcut word for entrepreneurship) is about. One tends to think of the entrepreneurial challenges as these really hard ones that a few brave through. The revenue challenges, growth troubles, team problems, issues with clients, and skirmishes at the tax department. But that’s really a usual day at work for treps (entrepreneurs).

Then there’s all that personal stuff to be taken care of: this week, atop the usual issues of having a dementia ridden elderly person at home, I found myself in the flurry of buying a new car, selling the old one, and then closing the week with the kid not doing well in school, going against her usually easy conquests at studies.

You know, these are not really hard issues, if you think of it. If you manage your time right, say No to a few things, focus on the key things, and stay balanced, you can slay the week.

But the fact is, I didn’t.

I am just exhausted. And happy to see my bed, and sleep for straight 10 hours.

If you look at what happened, there’s nothing out of the ordinary, this week. A client mail asking to take a pause in the billing cycle. Warning bells ring, cash flow issues ahead. If you’re an entrepreneur, then you know this. You’re up against this frequently, if not nearly all the time. This was followed by a call, where we set the intention to get things smoothened out, get teams aligned and focused on the same goals, and move ahead. Fairly common in an agency life.

But for once, this call wasn’t easy. I am of the opinion that we have done our work, and gone the extra mile several times in the past three months of an inbound marketing project just to get the client team comfortable and achieve their goals. I think process improvements are in order, and my team is ready for that. The client team is of the opinion, that there are no results, cleanly ignoring that the website went live just 27 days ago. And yes, there need to be process improvements, cleanly ignoring that the laid process has not even been followed by their own team.  

To avoid a game of ‘he said, she said’, and to be focused on the end game, which is to have a successful project, I went into the call agreeing to the pause in billing while we got things in order. And we ended the call with the right intentions going forward and to have a game plan with buy-in from all stakeholders.

Phew. Why does it have to so hard? Doesn’t anyone get inbound marketing? Why is the agency at fault for issues at the client’s end?

These were some of the questions running in my head.

And I am sure the various people on the client was thinking: they seem to be doing a lot of things, but there’s nothing to show for it. They don’t get strategy much. They don’t get execution much. Etc etc.

This happens all the time. And we have processes in place that tackle a lot of these issues. And still we falter, as each client team is different, and you need to have modifications in your process to enable smooth functioning.

It’s just a thing to be done so we can get back to the fun bits of creating great content for them, have a good ABM plan running, hit the ball out of the park with their social media and ads, and so on. The numbers are already looking good, and we are going to have fun with this.

But I was exhausted all the same.

Once the call was over, I headed straight to the car dealer’s where the car awaited us, and so did all the paperwork, the demo, the explanations, the ceremonies (they actually played devotional music, rang a temple bell to create an aura of sacredness for the purchase).

I was beat.

And trying to get my head around the last two hours: the stress of trying to not lose a client, which had exhausted me and the excitement of buying a car, which I wasn’t feeling. My friend heard about it and said, I should learn to see the humor in the situation.

That was Tuesday evening.

Then came Thursday morning. Weekly brainstorm with one of the co-founders on what’s next for the business. And got to hear some harsh things, about my work. I saw that what he said was valuable, and right for the business. But he isn’t exactly the diplomatic kinds, and doesn’t have a way with words when he sees incompetence.

I was already smarting from the call of just a day ago. And here was more; pride being attacked.

But we are treps, right? Never beaten down, right? So I agree with him, say that I see his point. And as GaryVee says, triple down on work.

And that’s how the week ends.

Nothing new in this week that should have crumpled me up, really.

But think back two more weeks, and that’s where it really began.

I had a trauma of sorts. Coming smack up against the realization that you will be let down by people who you took for granted, who you think have your back, will take your side at the time of reckoning. The day of reckoning came, and I found myself standing alone with my handful of values that no one cared for.

I grieved for a bit. And two and a half days later was back to work. A week passed, and I started to taste normalcy. The week ended. And then that Tuesday that I mentioned earlier happened.

So, here’s the thing. It’s not so much about the challenges. It’s about the fatigue of having a challenge after challenge.

And here I had thought I had overcome that a long ago.

But as with all things, you just find a new level to find your ease with.

Here’s my new finding this week. When a core belief of yours get challenged and you’re trying to put your head around it, your stamina to handle the rest of the stuff can go down. You might need extra support, or time out or meditation (or whatever helps you resolve and let go). Treps like me are used to being on our own and will not immediately see this. If I had sought support or taken some time off, I might not have finished the week this exhausted.

Sure, some of us think we don’t have the luxury of a time off. I do. I have great co-founders, a great team, clients who would understand. But I don’t allow myself that. I should have.

I can see it is detrimental. And why it has been this hard. I haven’t allowed myself the time to recuperate, integrate and find my bearing again. And without that, more challenges, even minor ones, will drag me down.

You need the stamina. I am telling this to myself, and any entrepreneur reading this who is like me.