The Anticipation Plot - Chapter 5: The Transformation Plot
I started up in 2009, and I exited my company in 2020. In a 6 part series I recollect stories and reflect upon my journey. This is the fifth chapter - The Transformation Plot.
No Place to Hide
On Christmas day, 2014, I woke up early for a Margazhi season event. At 6:30 in the morning, I drove down to Spaces, an event arena near the Besant Nagar beach in Chennai. Anil Srinivasan opened the concert, but I was there for an experimental piece directed by Anitha Ratnam1. She explained that the dancers would not be wearing their traditional costumes and jewellery. There wouldn’t be live music, or a “stage” and “lighting.”
The young dancers who took the stage danced as if it were a regular rehearsal - and a few friends had come to cheer. Anitha asked us to “not ask why.” But to consider that the music, lighting, costumes, and jewellery are scaffoldings. And that the dancers are performing without that safety net. If they make a mistake, it’ll be there for us to see.
This is exactly what working in a startup is like. There is no scaffolding. No safety net. Every success, and every failure is there for everyone to see. Even more so today, because of social media. There’s no place to hide one’s fault lines - you have to fix them.
In 2019, my daughter’s school2, which my IIT batchmate Rahul co-founded and runs, observed that Archana was rather stubborn and inflexible. Her pronouncements were binary - “I’m good at reading, I am bad at sports. I am good at math. I am bad at Hindi.”
Rahul is a true friend who has really been there for me many times over. In college, he was there for me when I was going through a really bad breakup. Years later, he was with me when I got into a brawl over a parking slot on a busy road. Much later, he helped Karthika decide on an important career move.
Apart from being my guardian spirit, Rahul is also an academic at heart, although very privately so3. He worked with Amazon, a VC firm, and a startup. But, now he runs a Montessori Primary and Montessori Elementary school, which my daughter goes to. So, he is now my child’s ‘wise-old-man’ too.
Rahul must have assumed that Archana’s mindset is a reflection of ours. So being Rahul, he did the most Rahul-type-thing-to-do. He sent notes on “Growth Mindset” to Karthika and me. And he advised us to pick up a new hobby - to relearn to fail. (I picked up the piano.)
In the 2009-15 period, as a young founder, I imagined that my employees expected me to “know my stuff.” But like most young founders, I had asymmetric access to information, i.e. I didn’t know shit. I was making educated guesses most of the time. Yet, I had to appear confident and self-assured. There was limited space for vulnerability. “I don’t know,” “I’m not sure” - these are sentences for which employees might leave, partners may ditch, clients may decide not to buy, VCs may ghost, etc.
Perhaps, I just slipped into a fixed mindset in this period.
The Transformation Plot is a fabulous storytelling trope. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the textbook example. Ebenezer Scrooge is a miserly jerk. He is visited by three ghosts who show him the folly of his ways. Scrooge transforms into a kind generous man.
In real life, though, it’s different. Transformation requires “mental fluidity” - the ability to change one’s position about something. It requires constant learning. And it requires time. And all of this, a founder has to do in addition to running his/her business.
For me, the before/after moment came in 2015. There was (earned) cash in the bank. Employees trusted me4. It was only then that I could afford to think of looking inwards.
The early years are an extremely hard time for founders. Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of Linkedin.com, says, “Starting a company is like jumping off a cliff and assembling a plane on the way down.”
Reid should have added that as you’re falling down, you will break down into pieces - mentally and physically. And you need to fix yourself (secretly) while assembling the plane.
Before | After
I’m constantly surprised by how much I’ve changed in the last 10 years. I was a brash upper-caste boy who wanted to prove that he could make it big without any help. In fact, for a few years at BLPS, I’d issued a company-wide decree to never mention that we had “IIT founders” or were “incubated at IIT” unless it came up naturally in conversation. In contrast, I started this story with the IIT connection. I’m also much less brash.
Ten years ago, I hated “advisors.” Everyone and their uncle felt entitled to give advice to young entrepreneurs. I used to believe that most of it is garbage advice - too generic and non-contextual.
I changed my opinion. In 2017, I appointed Rahul as a board advisor at BLPS5. I have also managed to find personal mentors. And, since 2019, I’ve had two executive coach journeys. My coaches6 have helped me become less aggressive and more deliberate. With their help, I’ve picked up new habits.
Everybody should get a coach. Surgeon-writer Atul Gawande, of The Checklist Manifesto fame, says in his TED talk7, “Like in sports, everyone needs a coach.”
The Next Chapter:
Rahul’s best public appearance to date is on Karthik S’ podcast Data Chatter episode 8 titled “Data Science for Babies” - link
Neither Naresh nor I would have survived without the loyal team of Sathya, Prateek, Karishma, and Karthika.
Rahul’s advice was invaluable during the MSL exit to S2M
in 2019, I joined HyperVerge and almost as a pre-condition, Kedar (CEO) asked me to get coached. I resented that he thought I “needed coaching.” But my coach - Cheenu Srinivasan - turned out to be very helpful. I owe both Kedar and Cheenu my gratitude. In 2021, Freadom gave us a choice of coaches, and I picked Sanjay. He coached me through a period where I was very weak - physically and emotionally. Again, I’m grateful, beyond words, for his help.