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 gmail.com
This post is cross-posted on my blog.