January 09, 2012

"Entrepreneurial Persistence" - Article by Sanjay Anandaram

In today’s world of instant gratification, when instant karma is sought, when words like “pivot” and ‘lean startup” have found their way into startup and entrepreneurial lexicons, compatible with the quaint approach of the dogged persistent entrepreneur? Is access to money and technology in danger of creating instant entrepreneurs but without the staying power required to create and build companies and organizations?

A problem that had confounded mathematicians for 358 years was solved in 1995 by Andrew Wiles who had been fascinated by Fermat’s Last Theorem ever since he encountered it at the age of ten. It was childhood and adult dream to solve it and he did it in incredibly style, working virtually in isolation during the last 8 years. He was a little more than 40 when he solved the problem!

Magellan, the first person to circumnavigate the globe, failed in his first few attempts but finally delivered – on his 7th voyage - on his claim that it was indeed possible to go around the world.

Mahatma Gandhi’s extraordinary achievements wouldn’t have been possible but for his stubborn persistence on following a vision and methods in spite of immense personal hardships.

The world’s greatest inventor Thomas Edison, while trying to find the right material for the filament for his electric bulb, experimented with over a 100 different materials before finally selecting tungsten.

Infosys was founded in 1981 and reached, after an incredible ten year journey, revenues of about Rs 8 crores (in 1991 dollars). In 1990, NRN Murthy offered to buy out the shares of co-founders as some had expressed fatigue. They stayed back with Infosys.

And closer to our times, Deep Kalra started MakeMyTrip in 2000 and, after the dotcom bust, with two senior colleagues bought back equity from the investors and went without salaries for 18 months. Kalra says, “It worked out, so we can say we were resilient. But at the time I worried I was just being stubborn. But I figured you regret the things you don’t do in life, not the things you do.”

These are but very few examples from the achievements of a great many people from all walks of human endeavour that bear testimony to their incredible ability to persist when confronted with innumerable problems and when, at times, all seemed lost. Great explorations in science, technology, archaeology, geography, medicine, sports and other fields would never have happened without incredibly dogged persistence. While some of the examples from above aren’t those of entrepreneurs as understood generally, they certainly are of people with amazing entrepreneurial mindsets – passionately driven by a goal, incredible problem-solver/opportunity grabbers and extraordinary leaders.

It is crucial to realize that, at the end of the day, entrepreneurship is about solving a problem or capturing a possibility. It is about the passion and almost obsessive desire to achieve the goals. To do so, one must be able to listen, learn, adopt and adapt from the signals from those around – customers, partners, employees, suppliers, competitors, experts, advisors. This forces the goal to be more focused and sharp while maintaining its fundamental promise. The means to reach the goal however have to based on market conditions. After all, if one is travelling from Bengaluru to Delhi, one can adopt different means of transport depending on the conditions, one’s desire and pressures of time, effort and money. But the start and stop points are fixed. So with startups. One’s vision has to be clear (“A computer on every desk” – Microsoft; “Organize the world’s information – Google”), the means can vary as they indeed should.

So the next time, someone talks about pivoting, ask them what they mean! More importantly, ask yourself if you are taking decisions based on signals from the market or based on your ego.

But at what point does dogged persistence become stubbornness, obstinacy and foolishness? What about the many who remain devoted to their approach, persisted in their approach and failed? There’s a thin line between foolishness and genius. The thin line separates those who listen, learn, collaborate and execute in a continuous cycle from those who remain insular, focused only on their approach. While the goals may be same, the methods clearly vary. History has shown that it sides with those who react to the environment.

Indeed, evolution has shown that it is the adaptation of a species to the environment that ensures its propagation. As the cliché goes, change is the only constant but the goals of every change are the same – a better, faster, cheaper solution!

Reinhold Messner, the greatest mountaineer of all time, perhaps says it best: “The retroactive giving of meaning is a typical consequence of real success. At the start, there exists an idea; then there are detours, setbacks, opposition, experiments, and risks. Only through tests, accidents, and persistence does the one right solution come out and future success become clear”

Sanjay Anandaram is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship in India; He brings close to two decades of experience as an entrepreneur, corporate executive, venture investor, faculty member, advisor and mentor. He’s involved with Nasscom, TiE, IIM-Bangalore, and INSEAD business school in driving entrepreneurship. He can be reached at sanjay@jumpstartup.net. The views expressed here are his own.