What are the qualities you need to be a true alchemist?
True alchemists, as we found out in a study of 29 such people living in London, have three common Ds in their character-dedication, doggedness and difference. Theyre passionate about what they do, can keep going when things are tough and believe they are making some important contribution and thus difference to the world. They realised their dreams.
We asked them: how did you come to be this way? It turned out that they nearly always were second or third-born. The first-borns might be successful but theyre more conforming. These people in contrast were more experimental. Second, they were told by someone when in their teens that they were special. That gave them self-confidence. These people left school early. Some joined corporates but didnt quite fit in and would leave. Based on these observations, we felt the business world was increasingly getting divided into what we call elephants and fleas.
Unusual terms to describe businesses...
I thought of two bad words-elephants and fleas. But it seems to work with people. The elephants are the big players who are getting bigger by marrying other elephants. But they arent creative. So if you want a creative society, you need the fleas-the swift service sector businesses-or alchemists who can start their own ventures. Tell youngsters not to look for jobs in elephants but in startups.
Will fleas then govern future societies?
In certain industries, like oil, pharmaceuticals, power and automobile, well have big players. But even they will divide themselves into smaller ones or else interesting people wont join them. Already we find more people wanting to run dotcoms. For, small is fun. Youngsters are rushing to be fleas in the new economy.
Are you scared of dotcoms going bust?
Yes. IBM head Louis Gerstner calls dotcoms fireflies. Theyre alchemists but when the big boys come, theyll disappear. Remember, fleas have a short life. But the true alchemist will be reborn. In California, people start something and as soon as it reaches the second leg, they pass the baton onto the next runner-like Steve Jobs of Apple who went away only to return to rescue the company. I suspect of the 1,000 applications that came to McKinsey in Delhi for financing IT startups, 960 will fail early. Out of 40, only five will stay with the promoters.
What effect will the Silicon Valley model have on future companies?
What you see in Silicon Valley is subject to what I call Natures Law of Abundance. When a tree lets its seeds fall, there are more seeds than we need but only a few survive. Similarly, we have more dotcoms than will survive. But you must make allowances for wastage to foster creativity. So, you would expect America which is slightly crazy to be creative. As for Indians, you need to change your education system which is a bit too much into forcing stuff into people. Silicon Valley is a breeding ground for fleas run by Indians. You need some of your fleas to come back not just as venture capitalists but to trigger a momentum here.
You say our working life will span only 25 years. Why?
Isnt it funny that as our life is getting longer, our work life is getting shorter? We were programmed to work 100,000 hours in our job in our life and that spread over 47 years is roughly 47 weeks a year or 47 hours a week. Now we squeeze in 47 weeks in 30 years. People work 64 hours a week. But you cant do that forever. Many people dont work till 55 because they cant take it any more and their employers dont want them.
Dont stockmarket pressures hurt long-term interests of a company?
The bourses and shareholders have too much power. Its disrupting. Like betting on horses on the race track. Dotcoms that are selling dreams and losing money are valued crazily while others like Unilever are seeing their scrips hammered. Just because a scrip is low, it doesnt mean the company is up for grabs. Then a 23-year-old in Bangalore might own a Unilever. That will be interesting but not right.
Which company do you admire most?
British Petroleum. Its the worlds second largest oil company that wont be selling oil in 50 years. Its eating itself up as it were, but its 150,000 employees agree it must spend on r&d to look for alternative fuels. The ceo, Sir John Browne, has personally visited each of its 150 locations worldwide to achieve this. Thats what I call leadership and the "high-tech, high-touch model" that all companies must follow.