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No Rubber In The Soul

Our fear of falling down has cost us a important lesson—how to get back up

No Rubber In The Soul
Illustration by Sorit
No Rubber In The Soul

Are we, as a people, still learning to deal with failure? Considering the sheer amount of commercial real estate littering our roads—whether it’s the dhabas, glittering malls or office complexes—you would think the ability to take chances and the willingnes to fail are distributed uniformly across the country. But such essential qualities of entrepreneurship are anything but commonplace on our streets. Even if it’s not coded in our genes to play it safe, it’s enforced by the way things are.

Experts and entrepreneurs say too little has changed in New India, even though opportunities to run businesses are no longer scarce and attitudes towards past failures are slowly changing. It’s true enough that there are many more successful entrepreneurs out there today, but most face stiff resistance to the very notion of striking it out on their own. And it’s only a lucky few that survive long enough to record the tales of their unsuccessful ventures.

“There is a long way to go,” says Harsh Wardhan Mishra, an associate professor of strategic management at the Management Development Institute in Gurgaon. Management education has “methodically discouraged” the critical skills that entrepreneurs need. The culture of rote-learning is so pervasive in schools and colleges that B-schools have to struggle to re-introduce the habit of thinking for oneself among their students. Often, there’s really little that can be done.

“You could go from a single outlet to a chain a decade ago. Now, you need the chain plan built in from the start.”
Ameera Shah of Metropolis Healthcare

With the economy booming, thousands of new private companies are being registered in India every month, and the numbers are doubling every few years, according to data from the ministry of corporate affairs. From around 5 lakh companies (public and private) in April 2001, the number grew to over 7 lakh in October 2005. Then, they nearly doubled by 2008—mostly in the private sector. So, while there is a clear rise in entrepreneurship, it is almost never business as usual once long-standing attitudes, coupled with dynamic economic forces, swing into play. As more Indians try to break out of the job mould, many more are learning to temper drive and ambition with patience and learn from failures.

Failure is a lesson ad professional Prasanth Mohanachandran is well versed in, having launched two independent ventures, both solo and with friends, in the past, and now into his third. After the first one tanked, he says, he learned not to leave everything to chance. “You need to manage even a start-up professionally,” he says. His second venture, a dot-com, was launched in 2000, at the height of the dot-com bust, in spite of the naysayers. “I figured, what better time could there be to start a dot-com than during a slump. There was nothing to lose, so our risk was more calculated. And clients came cheap. So we did it,” he says. And it worked—his second company was bought by Ogilvy Interactive.

Such learning, however, doesn’t come easy or cheap. According to Vikaas Gutgutia, who launched Ferns N’ Petals, an online florist and gift-delivery business in 1994, risk-taking frightens many people—they may not have that entrepreneurial spirit for independence. Though, usually, people are just unprepared to dig in for the long haul from the starting gun to the pot of gold. The risks start seeming like they are “too much” over time. Gutgutia says he started out simply enough, with the Rs 5,000 “pocket money for a Delhi visit” given to him by his mother, but didn’t make a profit for seven years. “By the time I made my first buck, it was 2001 or 2002. By then, enough people had advised me to quit. They now congratulate me though,” he says.

It’s just this “staying on” quality that, many say, separates the grain from the chaff of entrepreneurship—though precious few recognise this as an asset. For many, the first taste of success comes early: with getting a “first” rank in school, topping the class on a test or scoring at a sporting event. Yet, there’s a warning hidden in there somewhere. “A vast majority has never known success. So much so that, even when they’re on the brink of winning, they wouldn’t see the signs of imminent success, and give up prematurely,” says cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle, who recently co-wrote with his wife Anita Bhogle, The Winning Way, a book delving into the anatomy of succeeding. The book, which adapts his learnings from the cricket field onto the field of business management, dedicates an entire chapter to the other side of winning: losing, and learning to fail.

“We Indians focus on winning so much because we are afraid to fail. Fear of failure only attracts more failure.”
Harsha Bhogle, TV commentator

“We Indians condemn the losing team in a match. We focus on winning so much sometimes that we force children into getting 80 per cent in board exams at any time. We do these things because we’re very afraid of failure. We’re so scared we forget that life is 70 years long with many opportunities ahead. We prepare to fail rather than win,” Bhogle says. In his own life, Bhogle says, not going to IIT was the “best thing that ever happened to me because I eventually found my calling”.

If it isn’t the formal education system or the pressure to perform along a pre-determined path from an early age, they are both economic and cultural aspects that combine to curtail ambition. Ameera Shah, 31, runs Metropolis Healthcare, which her father founded. She has done well, but believes the economic climate has made it tougher for the really ambitious to start from scratch. Ambitions have grown exponentially, she notices, but the lack of capital and the high real estate as well as human resource costs are “big barriers to entry” for first-timers. “You could take a venture from a single outlet to a chain-store a decade ago. You can’t now. You need the chain-store plan built in from scratch,” Shah says.

Fortunately, with an economy on the rise, there are way more financial institutions and venture capitalists out there, ready to help ideas with promise. What hasn’t changed as much is attitudes: Shah, Mohanachandran and Gutgutia all faced resistance. One because of gender—healthcare is a male dominated profession—and the others because success didn’t come easily. “But once you’re able to overcome these three things, then you’re pretty much on your way,” Shah says. For others struggling with success, getting to the blueprint itself is a challenge. Bhogle suggests not buckling under pressure or giving up easily. “You lose when you die, that’s the idea to run with. Fear of failure means you will attract more failure,” he warns.

Indeed, the other side of the risk-taking coin is courage, says Professor Mishra, which, he says, is a difficult thing to inculcate in formal education settings. Like other character traits, you either have it or you don’t. “Admission rigours, high investment in higher professional education, desire for and dependence on secured jobs, all these tend to promote conservatism and low risk-taking cultures,” he contends.

In India, potential entrepreneurs are seemingly everywhere; the economic boom indicates there’s a huge hunger for success. Though people are starting from scratch, they dream of running large companies and opportunities seem to be flying about. All the young entrepreneur needs is courage, patience, tenacity, money, and the right idea—a tall order in any economy anywhere. For India, failure is an idea whose time has come—the quicker we wake up to it, the better.

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