A Shahjahan-like approach to start-ups

(This article first appeared in the news magazine Tehelka’s financial newspaper Financial World and its portal here.)

The most complicated, ever-existing existential dilemma of human existence had always found its manifestation in simple words like ‘why’? “Why do we exist” has predominantly been the most bothering question for human minds across all eras. Western existentialists answered or silenced their questioning mind by concluding that “existence precedes essence”. For them, human beings exist, create their values and determine the meaning of life. Quite surprisingly, the similar question has not been raised by otherwise supposedly curious human mind, after or while entering the corporate arena, at least, not so openly in the public spaces and definitely not in loud voices. This does make the question appear redundant. But, that is the beauty of questions and life that they may appear redundant but they do not stop existing just because human beings ignore them.

This work culture of this era is built around the adage “One who knows the answer to every how, can take care of all why’s”. This philosophy behind omnipresent capitalism makes decision-making quite easier, but for the inquisitive one it leaves a lot to be answered. Moreover, it creates a breed of workers grappling with thick fog of confusion while trying to find meaning in work. This innocuous ‘why’, which is locked in the closet in the beginning of a lucrative and rising career, comes out and makes its presence felt in really awkward manner. Like love, this word has power to drive people crazy and make them do crazy things. The most common example will be of supposedly successful corporate folks jumping into risky unknown terrains like writing, performing arts or entrepreneurship. So, one should not underestimate the power of the innocuous ‘why’ in human life. When it comes to life, may be it is quite tricky to find the answer to this ‘why’, but in terms of work, the bull can be taken by the horns. And if we do that, the corporate corridors will start echoing with such sounds: “Why should one work on five days? Why not on all seven days? Why should organisations grow? Or, why do they even exist in the first place? There can be even more such haunting questions as answers to these why’s.

In the similar context, economists, corporate leaders and academicians often advised organisations to keep an eye on ‘demand in the market’ or ‘need of the service’. Corporate gyaan often talks of being opportunistic or looking for an opportunity in the economy. Management gurus even came up with the pronouncement that “The customer is the king”. The tendency of addressing ‘the existing need’ or ‘to serve others’ is the underlying theme of most of corporate vision statements. It is often cited as the reason for organisation’s existence and inspiration for the next generation entrepreneurs to start and bring a change. Entrepreneurs are advised to avoid industries, which are saturated or do not have a huge potential for customer base. Innovations and researches are being done keeping the financial returns in mind. Established management practices avoid entry into new markets and industries without analysis of customer needs and proper market research. This has contributed in evolving a culture of rational thinking business leaders, who are focussed on delivering products and services as per market demands.

In today’s scenario, when market demand has become the most important criterion for starting a venture, it becomes quite important to stop for a while and raise few pertinent questions, like “Was there ever a demand in the market for the Taj Mahal or the Kutub Minar?”. There were always cries for the likes of DLF, Unitech or their substitutes in the market. And, so far, the market has never disappointed in responding to these sounds. But, customers neither asked for the Taj Mahal nor for an aircraft. It was eccentric nature of Shahjahan or Wright brothers to continue with what they had to do. No research was done; customers filled no questionnaires and no questions were asked from market experts. It was sheer idiosyncrasies of couple of obstinate folks to deny the logic and give their lives to achieve something without seeking any materialistic return. They might not be considered entrepreneurial in a literal sense, but they were quite enterprising. And, they were quite instrumental in creating new possibilities. Now when lines between culture and industry are blurring, when creating literature depends on the trends in the publication industry, music has a customer-base instead of worshippers and dance movements are being decided by the demand of the era, the responsibility and power to create most of this stuff is in the hands of entrepreneurs. It is quite an intriguing point to ponder about “why these entrepreneurs are creating anything new”.

The number of eccentric obstinate individuals, who will be willing to go ahead with their plans without paying heed to the market demand, has diminished exponentially. They have been replaced with logical-thinking entrepreneurs. And, more than their whims, they follow market-driven strategy while taking their decisions. More often than not, this kind of approach has led to the building of successful business organisations. The only irony is that, creating successful organisation does not warrant a successful individual life. Now, before we get into the debate behind relativity of definition of success, let me take away the fizz from this controversial statement. Creating successful organisation does not warrant adrenalin rush or excitement in individuals. Rather, most of the time the so-called corporate failures and the ones flowing against the flow enjoy the excitement more than the ones who enjoy success. Although it is not mandatory that the taste of success and the taste of excitement should always stay exclusive. In my self-claimed, humble opinion, the connection between both of them is quite similar to the relationship between the number of vehicles and the number of crows in a town. Success is, more or less, a social phenomenon, while excitement is quite a personal experience.

The adrenalin rush while exploring the unknown can definitely be a good substitute to “why” of the work culture. Or, may be, this adrenalin rush or excitement is not a substitute but actually an answer to this “why”.

Deepak Dhamija is a serial entrepreneur and runs theatre group Shoelace.

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