Working in Startups + Parents Have a Say….

Working in  startups in India is going to be a very different experience. The startup culture in India will evolve in a very different way when compared to Silicon Valley or the rest of USA. In India parents play a big role on whether their kids can work in startups. Yes, that is right Indian parents play a pretty significant role  and need to be persuaded and convinced on why their kids should work in startups or early stage companies.  Now this picture is so different from the US where people *want* to work in startups and in some cases will go to any lengths to land a job in a startup, especially if it is a well-funded company.

Yesterday I met with a group of young people working for a well-funded start-up in Bangalore. We spoke about startup culture in Silicon Valley and what it takes to build companies and why in startups people have to work long hours. Some of the points we talked about included:  How do startups work in Silicon Valley? What does it mean to have a good team? What does it mean when entrepreneurs in the Valley chant this mantra: the team needs to have good chemistry. We talked about these issues and I shared stories about Yahoo, Excite@Home (now defunct) and other companies and how they evolved during the dotcom boom.I recounted the famous story of how Vinod Khosla landed up in his lamborghini to meet with the Excite group and eventually ended up funding them. And how  folks in Silicon Valley startups typically end up spending long nights cranking away on problems and fixing that unexpected bug, and how Davild Filo, co-founder of Yahoo often crashed out in his sleeping bag under his desk when building Yahoo. I also shared my stories about working in startups and the long hours I put in. (Aside I would be up by at 4 am and at work by 5.30 am and spend 9-10 hours at work and then come home and work some more. And I was not member of the founding team of the startup!)

What does it take to work in startups? Working in startups means you need to put your family and other priorities in the backburner. This is a point that well-established entrepreneurs like Raj Jaswa and others will share with you when they talk about working and building companies from scratch. Working in startups means you have to go over and above your defined role to get the product or service or whatever the startup is focused upon building.

How do startups succeed or fail? How do you handle challenges in doing startups are some of the questions that I constantly ask entrepreneurs and technologists in my interviews. That is why I  spend time talking to entrepreneurs like Yogen Dalal, Raj Jaswa,Kittu Kolluri, Kaval Kaur and others to find out their war stories. They have already been there and done that and have a pretty good idea of what it takes to climb that mountain. But, what was their journey like when they made the trip to the top of the mountain? How did they handle doubt, fear, and their failures? How did they succeed? What did it take for them to succeed? Does money follow a good idea?

When I told this young group of professionals in Bangalore that they were lucky to be working in a startup…I noticed that some of them looked surprised. I pointed out that the current confluence of events in Bangalore and India is probably once in a lifetime event. This observation was met with a vigorous nod from many of them. But I was curious to find out why they did not consider themselves lucky about working in startups and that is when I unearthed the role of parents and their involvement in their kid’s career path. 

It turns out that quite a few of them from the group had to convince and lobby their parents on why they should be allowed to work in startups. Out of this group of 15-18 people only two of them had no objections from their parents. Most of the other parents had reservations and needed to know what does working in a startup entail for their professional career. One of them pointed out that he had an offer letter from a well-established company, but his heart was set on working for this startup. He had a long discussion with his parents and had to overcome their objections and concerns before he could work  at the startup. 

I recollect Vishal Gondal of India Games pointing out the struggle they had initially in getting people to work for his startup. Avnish Bajaj of Matrix Partners outlined how difficult it was for them to find office space. Realtors were loathe to rent them space since they did not know how startups work. He pointed out that it was not easy starting a company in Mumbai, especially after having spent time working in the US.

Here is the bottom line: young people who want to work in startups in India have to first convince and sell the startup company and story to their parents. Young people in India have to be consummate sales person before they realize their dream of working in a startup. And, I guess this poses a special set of challenges for entrepreneurs who want to build a successful company and are looking to hire a few good people.

Why are Indian parents so concerned about their kids working in startups? It turns out it is just not startups, but they are concerned if their kid has an offer from well-established BPOs and major IT companies in Bangalore. (This post is limited to the folks from Bangalore…I don’t the status in other cities and states.) These companies have something like a “parents day” where they help  parents understand how their kids are progressing and where the company is headed!  So, why are Indian parents so concerned about their kids working in startups?   Well they are concerned because they don’t know how or where the young company is headed and if they will be a successful venture and if their kid has a good and strong career path for the next 40 years of their professional life. My sense is that this concern stem from their (parents)  experience of growing up in India and having to listen to their parents about working in a good, stable company and having a steady run in an MNC, or getting into the prestigious foreign or civil services. And of course government jobs were always the best option because you got housing, and provident or pension fund when you retire. Governments do not go bankrupt or default on payments. This mindset or thinking reminds me of Japan, where until a couple of decades ago a Japanese professional also known as salary man worked with one company until he retired. Changing jobs and companies was not done by a salary man. Similarly in India it is all about stability and predictability and marriage prospects for their children.

Back to the group of young professionals working in startups. When I said they are lucky to be working in a startup in India I was in a way speaking from my own experience. This was not an option available to me when I graduated from school.  One of the group members responded. “I don’t think we are the lucky generation. It will be our children since we are laying the groundwork for them to work in startups. We are struggling to make our parents understand why we should work in startups.”  That statement helped me understand how differently I was looking at this whole startup issue in India. That maybe finding capital is not such a big issue as much as finding the right set of people to work with you.

The moral of the story is that Indian parents need to be educated about the new India story, about capital that is flowing into the country, and about the new opportunities that are available to their kids in India. Today, many of them have more than one option, and more than one job offer and they don’t have to knock on doors to get a job. This scenario is so different when compared to the time I graduated from school, where I had almost zilch options. If I were to graduate today I could be working for a media company, a BPO, a content creation company or a major IT company or an exciting startup. I did not have those options when I graduated. And I am thinking that this would be the mindset of some of the parents, whose children are joining the Indian workforce. Maybe these parents too might be thinking on similar lines of the opportunities and options they did not have when they graduated in the 1970s or 1980s.

I came away with more questions in my mind about doing a startup in India and the challenges that need to be overcome to start a company in India.

Later in the evening I was talking to other entrepreneurs with startups in India and discovered something new. This information was kind of a clincher: folks who work in Indian startups often get better salary when compared to their counterparts in the USA. In some cases the Indian entrepreneurs have to match the salaries for their new hires to the fat paycheck that an Indian IT or BPO firm pays!  How different times are now…

I am curious to know if anybody has any stories or inputs about working in Indian startups. What has been or is your experience? Did you end up taking that job in a startup or take the safe option and are working for a large and established IT company? What about marriage prospects if you work in a startup? Is it a case of diminishing returns for startup folks in the marriage market?

Drop me a line at kamlabhatt AT

This post is cross-posted on my blog.

14 Responses to “Working in Startups + Parents Have a Say….”

  1. sash says:

    Having worked only with startups (until now that is), I can say theres more than meets the eye. I find the prob also has to do with overeager so-called entrepreneurs who set up companies(if u can call them that) and lose interest very soon. 6-8 months down the line, you end up looking like a fool. With short stints in your resume, recruiters always look at you suspiciously.
    So what did i do? Well, I have two jobs. One working at a large indian services company where theres hardly 8-10 hours of work per week. (The downside is i have to suffer fools for the rest of the time). Another at a small startup where I do what i love doing. Nimble as they are, the folks at the start-up don’t care where I am as long as I can be reached over IM. Best of both worlds really.

  2. Anuj says:

    Overeager parents/ society interfering in job search is something interesting I read in a recent Businessweek article as well. Initially my reaction was shock and surprise but then I realized that this is absolutely true in India. I know my dad would goto my sister’s job interviews and would come drop her sometimes to work. This would almost be unthinkable in many other parts of world.

    Thinking back, if I had decided to join a startup (which I kick myself that I didn’t) I would have to do a lot of explaining and including my in laws. Somehow I think this is not a big issue in the US. Could this be a reason why we lack big time entrepreneurship in India?

  3. Krish says:

    I think it’s not just *marketability in the marriage bazaar* or *fear of failure* that puts Indian parents off. There are other factors too.

    a) Intangibility – The end product is often a `solution to a problem’, ` a convenience’, ` a reduction in complexity’ or mere transition of an offline (shop) into online, they worry about your sanity since they don’t see you easily monetizing it. [Even Warren Buffet refused to invest in internet businesses since he couldn’t come to terms with it that saved him in the end].

    b) New age concepts are tough to be drilled in – The feasibility of a Social / Ad Network or NLS App where revenue stream originates not from its direct users, but from the advertisers – baffles them. Convince a parent on a `virtualization’ app…? Tough.

    c) Social stigma. Worse if you work for a startup that sells online pizza – they are mystified “itna kuch padke tumko or kuch dhandha nahin mila karne ko ?” [Translation : “You’re so well qualified, can’t you find something better to do than selling pizza?” ]

    So it’s upon the youngsters to evangelize it – first to their parents before they do it to mentors, angels or VCs. Most founders themselves are not clear on ways to compact / distribute risk into baby steps at every level. To them, it will be a good dry run because parents (who do business themselves) in their wisdom will come up with pertinent real world queries (more on the `risk’ side of the equation than on `reward’) that may not have crossed many a young mind.

    Isn’t this a good first hurdle to cross especially as it comes from those who really care? You bet.

  4. Kamla Bhatt says:

    Thanks Jason for your comment.

    I am not sure if the Korean Chaebol model fits the Indian context and the resistant from Indian parents or the reluctance for people to work in startups…India has its own version of Chaebols or Zaibatsus as they were known in Japan. Family owned family entities like Chaebols or Zaibatsus exist in India and in fact they tend to take risks and push their companies forward. (at least some of them do) There was a recent survey which pointed out that the bulk of Indian businesses are family-owned and another international survey said Indian owned faily business are not open to changes…I think Greece ranked behind Indian in this survey.

    I think it is a big deal in India for the short run as many of the commentators pointed out here, and those who sent me emails offline. You are right thought about the economy turning innovative. Big Exits is what folks want to see in India, and it is too early to have big exits considering the startup culture has just started in India…at least the Silicon Valley startup culture kind…

    Nishant: Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the thinking behind options and the career path folks make on whether they want to work for a startup or go with a big name company. I guess you need to have enermous patience and peristance to hire the right folks for your startup then. It is tough is it not?

    I think you hit the nail….folks out here need to see the Ferraris and other big ticket items that startups folks acquire through the success of the company. (The Indian film industry comes as an example in my mind. Interestingly until a few years ago, acting in films was a big no-no, now even the most strait-laced family is open to considering that option. I think…because of the money and fame …)

    Thanks all for sharing your views. There is clearly a lot happening and I have learnt a lot just from your comments and offline interaction.


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