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If Darwin ran a start-up

Arun Sundar | June 11, 2015
The beauty I find in a startup is that it evolves with its people and the people evolve with the startup, and the evolution is fuelled by a passion to create a value that reflects the human evolution.

Arun Sundar

Recently, I was invited by CIO Asia's Online Editor Zafar Anjum to speak at the launch of his book, Startup Capitals. The book dealt with analysing and understanding what makes certain cities the perfect eco-systems for startups. For a moment, I wondered why Zafar who authored books like The Resurgence of Satyam, The Singapore Decalogue (a collection of short stories) and Iqbal (the biography of a renowned South Asian poet) would venture into understanding the DNA of startup capitals around the world. When I thought harder on this, it became evident to me that all his previous works were about 'creation and evolution' -whether it's of a poet/philosopher (like Muhammad Iqbal) or a business like Satyam (and its eventual demise) or The Singapore Decalogue which portrays a phase of Singapore's evolution in two different directions. It was but natural for him to feel the urge to understand what makes a city an eco-system of 'creation and incubation'.

At the conference I spoke on the theme of what makes a startup successful.  Having been in the world of startups and startup like systems for many years, this topic allowed me puncture many myths surrounding what makes a successful start-up, and its journey.

Most of these myths are fuelled by the huge marketing dollars pumped in with the objective to portray something 'cool' and multiply a venture's valuation. The focus on the portrayal are at times so profound that the fundamentals are forgotten. My learning distills the following six tenets:

  • A mission - A hunger to change the world, a desire for social revolution, etc., are quite common phrases that are thrown around when entrepreneurs and investors embark upon building a business. My personal view is that the world is a great place and let's not attempt to turn it upside down (at least not with a startup). However, every good startup is a reflection of the human brain's evolution. It is a cog in the wheel that helps the world improve and evolve. As long as there is a value addition to that evolution, it qualifies to be a worthy mission! Even a simple app that brings an improvement to the lifestyle of an individual or the functioning of an enterprise is of value.
  • The idea -Somehow, there is a general perception that people start off with a new business once they 'suddenly' have a great idea triggered by something like the Apple that fell on Newton's head. My view is different. They start off when they have a mission, and then the idea follows, and evolves. Quite often I have been associated with ideas (and businesses) which start somewhere and evolve to something completely different, and better. This again is a reflection of how humans have evolved over time. Many of what mankind thought was poison is today medicine. The proof though is in the execution and fruition of the ideas in a way that makes it relevant.
  • People - This is one of my most favourite learnings. The belief that nerds and workaholics who live and breathe technology and deliver better is absolutely insane, even in the world of start-ups. The best people to work for and work for you are the ones who appreciate life (not just work) and breathe fresh air (not technology). The ones who have a few passions like family, food, travel, beer, painting whatever - they are the ones who are typically well-balanced and the best of the lot. They are able to bring fresh perspectives and empathy to your products. Above all - they love life and understand that your business or product is a cog in the evolution (however small) and hence is the best reflection of their love for life and the world. Keep the nerds and workaholics away!
  • Value - "Transforming the customer" - Every time I hear this phrase (someone utters this to me as a customer or a partner) I stare in disbelief. The undertone here is that look, I know the customer's business or life better than herself. Value to me is anything that can take you from Point A to Point B (where b is better than A in something important). Even Facebook did not transform us, it gave us a much better way to connect. We still talk and meet friends - not just do FB! The relentless focus has to be on defining what that Point A and Point B are and how B is better than A.
  • Transparency - I recently came across a start-up which claimed to publish the payslips of their CEO - and were quite proud of their 'transparency'. Transparency to me is the transparency to oneself (whether its an individual or a team). When passion overrules logic, businesses cease to create value. Over the years, the startup world has seen products after products which are made by entrepreneurs who have stopped reflecting and who have continued on the path like an unmanned vehicle programmed for a destination irrespective of changes around. Transparency to yourself stems from the understanding that 'there is always a possibility that I am stupid'. When transparency reigns, your team can stand up and tell you that you are stupid! The best startups are made not by entrepreneurs, but by their teams who evolve together. Transparency fuels that evolution.
  • Culture - The most overhyped attribute in the startup world is culture. Culture is not made, its evolved. A very few people (including me) can even define what a culture is. This apparent limitation of articulation has probably given way to the meaning of culture being dominated by ideas/practices making it too shallow. I have come across quite a few millennials saying that Google has a great culture - they have bean-bags, free donuts and beer! Culture is beyond that. One simplistic definition of culture is 'the ideas and social behaviour of a group'. The best culture I have come across is a culture of 'giving and earning respect'. When you have people with high self-respect and mutual respect, things fall in place. Free beers and bean-bags do help but a home isn't a happy one if it just has a good living room!


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