After being out of a regular job for well over a year now and now slowly moving into what can be called doing a start-up, I have to say the feeling is very similar to the year 2000 when I started working for the first time in my life. It was the fag end of the dot com boom and the onset of the bubble being burst at that time. The feeling was eerily similar — high potential, high paying domain having had the rug pulled from underneath its feet. The digital domain in India feels no different at the moment. There is paucity of ideas, there are a handful of winners and there is an overwhelming stench of defeat and listlessness. A lot of the feeling is quite justified — we needed a significant course correction, one that was brought about by the unintended consequence of the global financial crisis — but a lot of it is not justified either.
In the midst of multi-million dollar valuations, payouts that dreams are made of and other assorted vanities of the charmed world we inhabit, it is quite often easy to lose perspective of the larger picture in life. A lot of the thoughts behind this post were triggered after reading this post, on how difficult it is to do a start-up. For people accustomed to a particular lifestyle, going from a regular salaried life to doing something on your own can be a difficult proposition. Then again, how difficult are the things mentioned in that list? A vast majority of the world's population live without even the downgraded lifestyle mentioned in the post. For that matter, most can't even dream to have that downgraded lifestyle. It is as simple as that.
See, I am not someone whose heart bleeds for every poor person in this world, but I don't also have the illusion that what we are doing in terms of start-up is some epic struggle. A lot of people in the world work 13-14 hours a day under the most trying conditions without even knowing the words IPO or what an exit would mean. Yes, most of them are not creating the next Twitter, Yahoo! or Google, but if sacrifices were all it took to do a start up the world would be teeming with success stories. Yes, there is a lot of risk associated with doing a start up, but it is not the end of the world, nor is it earth-shattering. For most parts, it is like everything else in life with an associated risk factor that you try to negate to the extent you can negate.
The larger point to the post is the sense of gloom out there because funding has dried up, VCs are not spending a great deal of money in the digital sphere and there are a lesser number of people looking to break out on their own right now, compared to two years ago. It is not that the opportunity has gone away with the disappearance of the gung-ho sound bites. The opportunity is still there, but the opportunity to make a quick buck is certainly not there anymore. The joyride is over for most, but India has never been a nation of joyrides. It has taken a lot of balls to make things happen here, having not had it easy has not stopped many so far.
Think about it – someone like me, who belongs to a strictly middle class upbringing is the son of parents who earned much less all of their lives than I did in my last job. Yet, they managed to 'innovate' enough, even with limited cash flow, to buy land, build a house, a cycle, scooter and a car (yes, the Maruti 800!) educate two kids and still have something left to take care of themselves in their old age. If going lean for months on end is what a start-up is like, there is a whole generation of middle class parents who are successful entrepreneurs. And better still, they did it in an environment where opportunities were scarce and the going was tough. But you don't hear much about their supreme lifestyle sacrifice.
Then there are the entrepreneurs — ranging from the millionaire panwallah next door to the numerous businessmen out there. They have lived thorough the license raj and lot of them have prospered, as many as those who have burnt. You don't hear them speaking much about the tough times either. Risk is a part of living. There is risk in getting out of bed too, for, as the Gauls would tell you, the sky may fall on your heads. Everyday people invest, innovate, transact and follow the entrepreneurial spirit in the normal world in different ways. The chap who collects garbage from my house makes 3000 rupees a day reselling all that he collects. A local money lender I know gets returns on his principal that most investors cannot even dream of.
They all have risks associated with what they do, but we seldom hear about them in blogs or tweets. As I am writing this, it has been a constant struggle to not attack the start up ecosystem for all its flaws. But what I will say is that the opportunity is still out there. Yes, the way we have gone about it so far has largely been shown as a dead end, but that is where you need to correct our course and move in a different direction. Do not give up. We are a country that has come this far because of our ability to persist and do 'jugaad'. We are the nation of the imperfects and the chaotic. It is tough going at the moment, but ignore the easily trotted out stories of gloom or delight. It is time to do what we do best – put our heads down and work quietly away.