Deploy your dreams into the world

On 13th September 2014, I gave a talk on “Deploying your dreams” to a group of 60+ 2nd year MCA students at BMS College of Engineering, Bengaluru. The talk was organised as a part of “Entrepreneurship Development” drive at BMS-MCA Department, where their intention is to groom students to graduate as entrepreneurs.

I spoke, from my experience of running VCreate Logic for the past 9 years, about the key skills, principles and lessons that are a must for an entrepreneur. While I lay them down; I want to confess four things at the very beginning.

  • I am not an expert in the field of entrepreneurship. I am not someone who has made it in this field. I am as much a beginner as most other people. However, I am not a shallow-gyan-giver either. Having been someone who has bootstrapped a business into a successful venture; I have had the opportunity to gather skills, understand principles and learn some really good lessons; which in my opinion are really useful for entrepreneurs in general.
  • I don’t want to come off as someone who is doling out a bunch of time-tested or fool-proof formula. What works for me may not work for another. I don’t know “the” path or the secret or the technique for deploying your dreams.
  • While I share about the lessons, skills and principles that I have learned during my journey as an entrepreneur – I don’t claim that I have mastered them. I am not an expert at leveraging those lessons, skills and principles to produce results in my life. But I do see their value and am inspired to master them.
  • I don’t hold a patent for any of the things I share below. All of the things I share below have been told by lots of other people in the same way and in several other ways.

So, here we go:

In my view, an entrepreneur is someone who is passionate about deploying his dreams into the world. And in the process, (s)he impacts other people with it, includes other people into it and shares whatever value that gets created with the people that are involved in it. My talk was oriented around what would leave one empowered to deploy their dreams in the world. I shared five key skills, lessons, principles that I have had an opportunity to discover during my journey so far.

  1. Freedom
  2. Focusing on one’s centre of influence
  3. We (will) have weaknesses, and its ok.
  4. Price of a product/service is always a function of the value it creates for the customer
  5. There is no secret

FREEDOM

The first and most important thing one must generate in order to “deploy their dreams in the world” is FREEDOM. Now when I say freedom, I don’t mean “independence”. I mean freedom. One has independence when one is not stopped by another or a group of others or by any external entity. Freedom is when one doesn’t stop oneself from doing or thinking or being whatever one wants to do, think or be. While most of us have a good enough degree of independence, are we free? We stop ourselves, don’t we – from doing what we want to do, from thinking what we want to think, from being who we want to be.

For instance some of us want to write a novel, but we doubt if we have it in us. Some of us want to travel the world, but feel that we don’t have the finances / physical strength for it. Some of us want to direct a movie, but we warn ourselves that its too risky. Some of us want to start a business – but we remind ourselves that we are no Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. No one is stopping us from writing that novel, from traveling the world, from directing a movie, from starting a business. We are all independent, but are we free?

An interesting thing is that, we use the tools that are effective in generating / gaining independence to generate / gain freedom. But they just don’t work. Its like trying to use a hammer to fix a software bug. It just doesn’t work. Tools like protesting, resisting, blaming, politicising, fighting, shouting slogans, running away, gossiping are very effective to gain independence. Because there is an external force from which one wants to gain independence and those tools are useful to make an impact on that external force in order to get liberated from it.

But those tools are of no use whatsoever for generating freedom. The litmus test for checking if one experiences freedom is to ask an honest question to oneself: “Am I doing what I really want to do?” If the answer to that question is NO, then honestly asking oneself “how come?” will reveal very insightful answers. The answers are mostly in the form of reasons, blame, resistance, fight, gossip, resignation or cynicism. Blaming the current state of affairs in one’s country / family, protesting against nay-sayers, fighting with family, shouting slogans against imaginary oppressors, reasons like “life is risky” or “family depends on me for money” or “its a tough world out there” or “the circumstances are not right” or any other reason for that matter are not going to generate freedom for one to really do what one wants to do.

I have used a lot of “independence-gaining tools” to deal with my lack-of-capacity-to-generate-freedom and I have sufficiently harmed myself. I still do it a lot – and I get myself a wound every time.

Generating freedom requires us to give up those tools while answering the question: “How come I am not doing what I really want to do?”. When we give up using all “independence-gaining tools” to answer that question; we will be left with the honesty, strength and courage to simply say – “I am not doing what I really want to do, because I am not doing it”. What happens there after naturally generates freedom. And freedom is always “generated”. Its never given.

For an entrepreneur, freedom is very important. An entrepreneur should be “free” to pursue his/her dreams, to boldly share his/her vision with people, to hold his/her head up in the space of criticism and resignation, to allow other people to mould and impact his/her life, to allow oneself to be coachable, to approach a problem and solve it, to sell, to include other people into his/her vision and if necessary to fire/let-go of people who don’t fit that vision.

FOCUS ON ONE’s CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE

The Seven Habits of Highly Effectively People from Stephen Covey – was a life changing book for me. In that book he says that – of all the things in the world that can have an effect/influence on us (called circle of concern), there is a subset of things that we can do something about. He calls it the circle of influence. He says that if we focus on the circle of concern, we end-up reducing our capacity to influence things in our life. All the independence-gaining tools leave us with reduced influence on our lives.

On the other hand, if we focus our our circle of influence – then we expand on the range of things we can influence and actuate in our life.

I recently came across “Effectuation” (http://www.effectuation.org/) – an approach to entrepreneurship that fosters a logic of thinking for building successful ventures. I have come to really like and endorse Effectuation in my life. Effectuation was co-founded by Prof. Saras Sarasvathy. She encourages budding entrepreneurs to focus on “the bird in hand” – to focus on the means that an entrepreneur already has. It starts with getting clear about “who I am”, “what I know” and “who I know”. It starts bang in the middle of one’s centre of influence. And builds from there. I really love that approach. I have used that approach and have noticed that it really works.

Suppose that I want to write a novel and get it published. I could focus on my circle of concern: “who is going to publish a novel from an absolute new comer?”, “what if the story is not all that great”, “where will I find time to write a novel, my 9-5 job requires me out of home from 7-9”. In which case I will never get to writing it. Or; I could focus on my circle of influence: “write the first page of my novel today during lunch break”, “write 2 more pages on saturday afternoon”, “talk about my story with my family & friends”, “design the cover page of my novel”. And when the novel is done: “create a PDF and share it with a few people and ask for feedback”, “print 5-8 copies and knock on the doors of a few publishers”. I bet Chetan Bhagat did that when he started off. Today his circle of influence has expanded to include Bollywood. I am sure producers and directors wait for his book releases to make a movie.

(Off Topic: I think writing and publishing a novel is just as entrepreneurial, if not more, as starting a business.)

If one wants to start a business: one can start by putting together a rough sketch of the business into a business model canvas, look for co-founders, meet as frequently as possible with the co-founders, fine tune the business model, create a prototype, get feedback, print visiting card(s) etc. Focussing on one’s circle of influence causes one’s influence to expand.

WE WILL HAVE WEAKNESSES, AND ITS OK.

We are all good at some things, bad at some things and down-right pathetic in a lot of others. And its Ok. Infact, I think it is necessary to be good at only few things and to actually be bad at a lot of other things. Knowing that one is bad in certain areas – leaves one with the humility to collaborate with others who are strong at that and be compassionate about weaknesses in other people. Entrepreneurship is always a team game. A good team is one that has people with complementary skills – not one where there is one rockstar and rest are playing a supporting role. The humility and compassion that comes from knowing one’s weaknesses makes it possible to put-together and be in a strong team.

For a really really long time, I played the game of “being smart” at my office. It was really important for me to be the “smartest person in the office”. So I never hired people that were smarter, faster, better than I was. I HAD to be the best. What better way to massage my ego than to hire people with whom I can blatantly win the “smartness” game. And that really cost my business. Our company remained stagnant. We never made any significant progress.

(In no particular sequence) I am bad at QA, at project management, at administration, at operations, at marketing, at sales, at UX design. I am good (not the best though) in software design and development. I am good in leading training programs on technology platforms. Recognising that and being open about that (albeit very late in my career) allowed me to collaborate with people who were good in those things that I was really bad at. That collaboration resulted in the creation of a solid team, which in turn resulted in much better growth than ever before.

I think for an entrepreneur, it is really important to be aware of strengths. But it is even more important to be aware of weaknesses. It is really important to have weaknesses. The humility and compassion that comes from knowing one’s weaknesses is really valuable.

THE PRICE OF A PRODUCT/SERVICE IS A FUNCTION OF THE VALUE IT GENERATES FOR THE CUSTOMER

For a really long time, I priced products and services offered by our company based on the answer to this question: “How much money do we/I need to survive?” The price that I determined (and charged) on the basis of the answer to that question allowed me to do just that – “survive”. It did not make the business to “thrive”. The billing rates we used for our software development services were abysmally low when compared to the value we were generating for our customer. Our customers were obviously happy, given the low prices and good quality of work. But we were having a foot-to-mouth existence.

As an entrepreneur one must be very clear about the “economic value to the customer” (EVC) for every product/service offered – and price it as a function of EVC. I was never clear about the “economic value” of the products and services we were offering. I was always clear of the “software development quality value”, “software design value”, “code cleanliness value”, “enthusiasm value” of every product/service we offered. But was really clueless about – how much  worth it was in really money to the customer. That resulted in me under-pricing our products and services in most cases and also over-pricing in a few other cases. We lost some contracts because of over-pricing and we didn’t leverage a few contracts enough because we under-priced.

I learned this lesson really really late in my career. I made some course corrections after that. But it was really late in a lot of cases. But, better late than never.

THERE IS NO SECRET

For me, Kung Fu Panda is one of the most awesome movies of all time. I particularly like the scene where Panda gets hold of the scroll which is supposed to contain a secret that only a “master” can read and understand. And the secret gets revealed to him. The secret really is – “there is no secret.” Watch it here.

This year, between April and June I participated in Stanford Ignite – a program on Entrepreneurship from Stanford GSB. Prof. Yossi, then faculty director of the Ignite program, took a session on “Entrepreneurship”. We were given a couple of case studies to read and infer mostly based on those case studies the list of top five traits that an entrepreneur and business idea must have to be really successful. I went with “guts”, “vision”, “clarity”, “solid product” and “marketing excellence” as top-five traits for an entrepreneur and/or business-idea to be successful. That was in my opinion the “secret sauce”. Everyone from our cohort had their own version of the “secret sauce”. Prof. Yossi heard it all, put them all on the board and orchestrated a discussion that led us to throw them all out of the board as non-essential or generic traits. He concluded that session with a profound statement – “The key thing for an entrepreneur is to not have any pre-defined image or notion of what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.”

There is no secret sauce. There is no secret ingredient.

(Click here to watch the video on YouTube)

I especially like Steve Job’s rendition of this profound truth:

(Click here to watch the video on YouTube)

I wish for everyone to have their dreams be deployed into the world. I sure am waiting to be impacted by your dreams and for participating in your dreams. May the force be with you.