Moving Together: Big Lessons from Small Business-Community Ecosystems

What inspires people? To overcome their circumstances, their inhibitions, their challenges, their detractors and even themselves? And how do they do it?

And what is entrepreneurship? Or business for that matter? What is the best way to learn how to run and grow your business?  

Well, I learned a few approaches – 18 to be precise – on Saturday, 11th August, 2018 at The Lifestyle Portal’s (TLP) 1st Entrepreneur Meet-up in Mumbai. For starters, there were 23 people at the Meet-up, and they had 23 different businesses. Eighteen of the participants spoke on a given topic (How Challenges helped them) – unaware that they were being judged on presentation, concept and business model. 

So what, one might wonder. It’s just another event for ‘entrepreneurs’.

True, but there was a difference. These are all small, even tiny businesses … well, all except one (but that’s for another day). Businesses like Harshali Sawant’s stall in her college canteen. Harshali is a college student who attended TLP Founder Tanya’s talk on entrepreneurship at her college last week and decided to come for the Meet-up. She started her journey with a friend a little over a year ago when they put a ‘Apna Dosa’ stall in their college with a variety of offerings including a Szechwan Dosa. Currently, they have the food stall in the canteen and they manage to make a little bit of profit every day. Harshali is clear that she wants to be an entrepreneur and she’s trying to learn in every way she can. “This forum is a great support and learning opportunity for me and others like me. I am very young compared to everyone here and I am learning so much from everybody’s journey,” Harshali said during one of the coffee breaks.

So what, after all everyone is into mentoring and coaching and advising start-ups and businesses. 

True, but there was a difference. The age range was between 20 and 70 – as a Keynote Speaker, I should have prepared better. None of the examples in my presentation were of people older than 40 years. And, most of the participants in this Meet-up knew each other: they are already a community – this wasn’t a random entrepreneur event – many are neighbours, some have become close friends, and quite a few are doing business with each other. And these are real stories, not Excel sheet and Word document business plans that have a lot of investor money behind them. Some started with as little as Rs. 10,000 (that’s 150 USD) or less.

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Participants at the TLP 1st Entrepreneurs Meetup In Mumbai go through an exercise

And the stories are compelling. Like the story of Sunita Mundra, the Founder of Muskan Collection, a small (but established) business of Indian and Indo-Western women’s clothing. Listening to her, I realised that Muskan has already gone through all the stages of identifying market, zooming in on the correct target audience (customer-profile), planning and taking risks, and mitigating the risks in a typical manufacturing-to-sale cycle (e.g.: too much inventory, too less customers) – Sunita and her small team has already been through it all.

Like the story of Gaurang Chandrana, the CEO of Abhisti and Wellzee. Gaurang’s personal journey itself was inspiration enough given the hard-knock struggles he went through, but it was his willingness to change that was the key learning outcome for me. After spending more than two years doing the rounds pitching his business, he had an epiphany 90 days ago, and decided to change his entire approach and communication around how he presented his business. The result is that he raised some seed capital from multiple investors in recent months. That required him to abandon some of his long-held beliefs and he did, which takes great courage.

Like the story of Paayel Agarwaal, Founder of The Food Devotee, a business concept that Paayel is evolving around her vegan lifestyle. And it is not a hobby or an evangelisation, she has a clear concept articulated, services that she is already delivering, and vegan products that she already manufactures.   And the journey of Rashmi Bagri, an Experiential Corporate Trainer, who is trying to figure out how to expand the horizons of her training firm. 

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Keynote Speaker, Avishek Ganguly Of Calls Incorporated provided insights into Talent Acquisition strategies for small businesses.

Now how does one judge such a diverse group? That was something I hadn’t factored in when agreeing to judge the event – neither had the other judge, Avishek Ganguly (Founder Calls Incorporated). So we sat down and spent a good bit of time, debating and eventually coming up with some clear parameters for evaluating on a 1-4 Scale, and also how to address in case of ties. Eventually, Aparna Garg won for Best Presenter, Anushree Chatterjee Patni for Most Innovative Concept, and Salloni Malkani took Most Promising Entrepreneur.

And they hadn’t really come to listen to experienced ‘business’ or ‘corporate’ people – although they were happy to listen and appreciate what we had to say. They had come to listen to each other’s experiences and to support each other and to make the event a success because it was organised by one among them, and to help strengthen the platform that The Lifestyle Portal has created and developed for all of them.

And that for me was the big reminder and learning anew: a community has to be real for it to work. In today’s age, digital communities are mushrooming all around but do they stand with each other in real-world problems? I don’t know. But I do know from growing up with a large community of friends and family, that real human connections do stand with each other – they don’t abandon you in times of need, they see you through it, even if it is just by standing with you and being in your lives and doing nothing other than having chai with you as per usual. And the TLP Entrepreneur Meet reaffirmed that: this is a real community of people who are standing with each other so that all of them can succeed and have a support system for their work.

I call it a reminder because this was one of the reasons why RedstoneSummerhill had taken on TLP as a consulting engagement in the first place. RedstoneSummerhill was established in 2013 with a vision to invest time, knowledge and tiny amounts of money (that’s all we can afford) in individuals who have an overwhelming need or drive to make a business out of what at first glance seem like ‘non-business’ businesses or hobbies or additional vocations. And as part of that vision, we had engaged with artists, and engineers with diverse operational experiences and managed to launch a couple of start-ups.

Then towards the third quarter of 2016, TLP Founder Tanya had reached out for advise and guidance on how to grow TLP into a viable and remunerative business. Like many others in the TLP community, she was going through a transition phase, and was trying to focus her energies on rebuilding the 5-year-old TLP into something meaningful for the entrepreneurs TLP wrote about, and for her family’s future. After the initial study, my consulting firm, RedstoneSummerhill took on TLP – my main curiosity was to find out how the emerging small businesses-community eco-system would pan out. Frankly, I couldn’t see how these nano-micro businesses could grow because many of them seemed to be existing on an informal ‘barter of services’ mode – that’s why I call it a ‘Small Businesses-Community’. But after consultation with my Financial Advisory team, we assessed that potential returns in the long-term should outweigh any short-term risks.

In the two years since, TLP has grown in a planned manner. Two new revenue streams; 40% revenue growth, (although short of targets), client list is growing at a steady pace. Has the business guidance helped? Yes definitely, by giving shape and direction, but the ideas are still the same and there has been no dilution of purpose – which is why the biggest gain has been in the strengthening of the TLP community.  

Will TLP grow big enough for RedstoneSummerhill to make any returns? Mayyyybe. And that is a huge improvement from “We don’t see how, but let’s see how it goes.” Meanwhile, we are ourselves in discussion to add a couple of consultants to our team because the nano-micro businesses ecosystem seems like a surer bet than technology startups, mainly because this little sector needs the experience that consultants bring, and consultants and small, seed capital investors can learn a big lesson by engaging in some barter-style deals themselves, by deferring their income/fees to when small businesses start making significant growth – what my team calls ‘value-based investing’. But very few corporates are doing that. And so, these businesses are teaching themselves and they are much better at it than we are. Like Apoorva Mairal (Founder of The Sweet Store) and Paayel (just two examples of business owners who are also teaching others what they do so that others can grow their talents into their own home-business to begin with). One of the real finds for me was Advocate Nishant Makasare (he came in literally half an hour before the end of the Meet, recounted his journey in a 2-minute capsule, and kind of blew me away – but that’s for a very different post).

It’s a tough road, and requires immense patience. But the hit ratio is likely to be better because these little businesses are all run by people who want to make it on their own steam, most come from middle-class backgrounds, and as such their prudence is to not lose money (whether theirs or their investors’), yet they are willing to take risks and therefore they find really innovative ways to work with others.  (21 of the 24 business owners I met at the TLP Meet-up were women who wanted to build something for themselves and contribute meaningfully to their families and society at large). From where I am sitting, this is a movement of movements that is happening all across India right now and there are media, information, digital, skill-based, knowledge-based small businesses that are rising together, very slowly, but surely, and they are moving ahead because they are moving together.

These businesses are going to succeed because they contribute to society at the very grass roots. They will add 2, 5, may 10, 20 jobs in their lifetime but they will also drive their partner eco-system (on an average, each such nano-business seems to have a minimum of 5-6 enabling partners) that in turn benefits another 2, 5, 10 people and so on.  

Yes, this is very much worth any risk that I would perceive.

Breaking The Glass Ceiling … Floors, Walls & Windows!

Education, Food, Business, Design, Law …. Tanya Munshi presents an insightful article on women who have established themselves as beacons in their respective fields.

This RedstoneSummerhill article is available for purchase on Glossaread: https://www.glossaread.com/business/finance/breaking-the-glass-ceiling-floor-walls-windows-article

 

 

Munnar – The Land of Three Rivers

Banana-leaf lunches, long-winding rivers, wild elephants, tea gardens, dense forests and wild national parks, Sanjay Mukherjee discovers these and much more on a monsoon trip to Munnar in Kerala, India.

This RedstoneSummerhill article is available on Glossaread.

 

Finding The Real Me

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A tiny young lizard makes its way across the pebbles, gravel, and sand on the banks of Pangyong Tso in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir; Photo: Suresh Narayanan.

The first time I saw this photograph by Suresh Narayanan, I immediately recognised myself in it.

Let me explain.

Once upon a time, long long ago, I found myself a job as the manager of a restaurant. So I put on a suit over formal clothes and tie, and went to work the first day. There I found 17 people segregated as follows: one accountant cum cashier, seven waiters, two captains, one bus-boy, one kitchen supervisor, one chef (he preferred being called a cook), three cooks, one bouncer (for the attached pub), and two cleaners. The Consultant and the Owner had both assured me that the staff would be thrilled to see a qualified and experienced manager, and that I just needed to focus on growing the business and increasing clientele. So I spent the first couple of weeks being the suit: planning, projecting, looking at the revenue trends, thinking of ways to increase clientele and revenue. I maintained cordial and back-slapping terms with the supervisors, chef, and cashier; and cordial communication with the staff. Once, the bus-boy sneaked up to me and asked to be trained as a waiter. Naturally, I pointed him to the captains and asked them to consider his request. Another time, the senior-most waiter came grubbing about not getting bigger tables which meant more tips, and how he had to run a family of 4 children. I nodded sympathetically, and spoke to the cashier and the senior captain and asked them to address his genuine challenges. In short, I smoothly slipped into the role of manager as defined by the people who hired me, because I figured that’s where they and the staff wanted me to belong.

On the third Tuesday, it all fell apart … and came together. Tuesdays were the day the restaurant ran on 30% staff since it was the traditional low-turnout day of the week (vegetarians stayed away initial work week, and so on). That Tuesday, the 200-seater restaurant did two turnovers for lunch, and one full turnover for dinner. Long story short, I promoted the bus-boy to Waiter, the senior-most waiter took on additional charge of order-taking (which gave him captain tips), the lone captain on that day quit because he couldn’t take the pressure, the cashier doubled as captain and customer manager, and I stood and cooked all orders for Chinese food alongside the chef who ran the Indian and Continental orders. From that day, the suit stayed in the cashier’s cupboard except during dinner sittings, and staff meetings included the entire restaurant. In short, I became the manager the staff needed, shedding my camouflage and they in turn, shed theirs and turned the restaurant around in the next three months, coming up with simple new ideas (e.g.: catch-of-the-day fish sold at higher prices, on-demand off-the-menu preparations at higher prices) and raising customer satisfaction levels, which in turn led to more customers and more spend per customer per visitor.

The camouflage cost me and them four months. But if I had stayed with the camouflage, it would have saved my job in the long run – I eventually got into conflict with the management because they did not want changes, and I walked away.

I kept donning facades and external personalities in many subsequent jobs because it was the easiest thing to do but it never improved anything. It took quite some time to muster up the courage to be myself first time, every time, in every situation. And even then, I still had to put on camouflage, this time for employees: because I learned that managements, managers, and employees are all wanting a great environment and amiable work atmosphere, but all three parties act on the assumption that the other parties don’t care and won’t change.

The Oxford English dictionary (am currently using the Eleventh edition from 2013) defines the noun “camouflage” as: “the natural colouring or form of an animal which allows it to blend in with its surroundings”. But this is the third meaning it defines. The primary meaning (more relevant to human behaviour) goes as: “The painting or covering of soldiers and military equipment to make them blend in with their surroundings”; additionally: “”clothing or materials used for this purpose”. If you are interested in history, this delightful article might engage you: A Brief History of Camouflage.

I believe I first came across this English word in secondary school, in the context of science studies, in relation to animals and their survival mechanisms. At about the same time, I was reading Commando, a series of comic books that illustrated specific events and situations and individual stories during the World Wars, and the Commando books introduced me to the nitty-gritty’s of camouflage in a much more accessible, albeit visual, manner. (Later, during graduation studies on history, I had occasion to think more deeply about camouflage). But it wasn’t until I started working as a journalist in my late-20s (when I was formally studying people, social behaviour and writing about various aspects of culture), that I started looking at the deeper interpretation of camouflage in everyday human behaviour. Later, exposure to different corporate environments led me to marvel at the extent of camouflage used by all of us, and the inherent, deep-rooted lessons on survival that we are all hard-wired with.

Of course, even after all the learning, I spent many years believing that camouflage is what other people do. Naturally, in my mind, I was transparent and a you-get-what-you-see kind of a person. Today, I know otherwise and here’s what I have learnt so far:

The most-frequent instance of camouflage that I come across is my Conditioned Behaviour when I am thinking of interaction with other people or when I am with other people (including family); This is probably as frequent as once every waking hour.

The second most-frequent instance of camouflage I come across is the Conditioned Behaviour of the people I meet. This is probably as frequent as once in every 4-5 hours a day. Which means, I am hiding myself four times more frequently.

The third most-frequent instance of camouflage I come across is the spotting of a grasshopper in our terrace garden (this is maybe once in a week or two).

The grasshoppers I see are usually bright green in colour, a finger to half-a-hand-palm in size, and yet it takes great concentration to spot them among the plants.

I can not, in all honesty, describe how difficult it is to spot the real intent of human beings from layers of social camouflage. Which is why I now focus only on spotting my own camouflage and dismantling it.

PS: Did you know that there are something called Tettigoniidae (leafhopper), which are very much like grasshoppers except that their antennae are much longer (at times, the antennae may be longer than their body length)?

The Leader

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LEADER ON THE MOUNTAIN: Inspiration can be found anywhere; Photo: sanjay mukherjee

Some time ago, I met this guy and he asked me, “Who do you turn to when you need inspiration?”

So I looked at him and said, “I get inspiration from anyone and anything.”

He thought about it, but was not satisfied with the answer. So he said, “There must be someone who you can always depend on to inspire you.”

“No, there isn’t. But tell me what’s troubling you?”

“I was just wondering how to cope with the meaningless routine of my work. No one gives a damn whether I am here or not. No one takes the trouble to appreciate the work that I do. But everybody pounces on me whenever the slightest thing goes wrong. I have spoken to other colleagues, but they don’t have any answers either. Who do I turn to for guidance? Who do I turn to for inspiration? If I have inspiration then I can really work. But I see nothing around me that is inspiring.”

“Do you see the sun every day?”

“Yes.”

“No, you don’t. In fact, I am quite sure you don’t look at the sun for days, probably weeks – you just know it is there.”

“I guess that’s right. I consciously look at the sun only when it is too hot or when it is cloudy.”

“But the sun rises every day.”

“Yes, it does.”

“Isn’t that reason for inspiration?”

“How can that inspire anyone?”

“The sun rises… everyday. It does not bother whether there is someone to rise for or not. It does not bother whether there is any need to rise or not. It does not look for inspiration to rise. It rises because it has to.”

“That’s too simple an explanation. The sun is not a person. It is part of a system.”

“That is true. And you are part of a system too.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know that viewpoint. I am part of the organisation; the organisation is an organism, blah, blah, and more blah.”

“Well, yes. You have a role to play like everyone else. So long as you are doing your part, your boss has no reason to say anything to you. So he or she doesn’t. The moment you don’t do your part, your boss pounces on you because the overall work is affected. That is probably how his boss behaves and how his boss’s boss also behaves… maybe that is why in some organisations no one appreciates anyone as a matter of habit. It’s not because they don’t want to appreciate you – they just don’t realise that they have to.”

“But I can’t work like that.”

“Are you unhappy with your role or your salary or work hours?”

“I am unhappy about the environment in which I work. I think it is fair to expect appreciation and inspiration.”

“But why should your boss inspire you?”

“Then why is he my boss?”

Now that question stopped me completely in my tracks. I don’t remember looking for inspiration in any of my bosses or workplaces. But that is because I had decided that it is too heavy a burden to place upon the shoulders of frail human beings. I have realised that people are able to inspire me to great heights if they don’t know that they are an inspiration for me.

But it is also true that I am always looking for inspiration.

I have thought about this matter for long and I have thought about this matter really hard and I have spoken to quite a few people and read was studied several works of art and philosophy as well. It seems to me that many of us look for inspiration every now and then. And at the work place, we look for this inspiration in bosses, peers, environment, maybe the leaders of the organisation and so on. What we tend to forget is that very few people are capable of consciously inspiring others. Let’s be honest: how many leaders do you see among our elected representatives? I see too few. But I see quite a few leaders in corporate fields. I recognise some in the field of literature, a handful in civil services, some in the field of social work and a host of potential leaders among common folk. I am troubled that I am unable to identify more than a handful of capable leaders in politics, entertainment, sports, and education – I am sure many people will beg to differ like most of my friends do. But I only see icons in sports and entertainment – I don’t see any leaders.

So who is a Leader and what is leadership? To me, leadership is a matter of investing the same amount of respect in others that you invest in yourself. Leadership is about keeping the arrogance of your ego aside and then looking at people and situations. It is about trusting other people. It is about nurturing other people till they rise to their potential. It is about giving direction when there seems none. It is about standing back and letting people do their own thing when required. And it is about having a vision that not only looks ahead but also understands the role of each individual in that future ahead and the trials and tribulations that the organisation or community or society would face before that future comes alive. A leader is someone who helps shape the future of others in a constructive manner for the common good so that the future of the society is secure.

That’s a really tall order. In all the while that I have been working in professional organisations (24 years now), I have found only one such leader: A lady going by the name Sherna Gandhy, the city editor of a newspaper I used to work for at an earlier time. She wasn’t talking and inspiring people, or nurturing or motivating them; she just got on with her job, defined what others ought to do, and gave everybody confidence simply by taking decisions and empowering her team to function fearlessly. She stood and led at all times. She was firm and clear at all times; jovial and amiable when occasion required it, flexible and decentralised in decision most of the time, demanded discipline and top-quality work from others at all times, took time to relax and play, and was respected by one and all throughout the tenure.

 Along the way I have worked with a few good managers, and some more good-hearted people who were in leadership positions. I have read about people and followed the careers and conduct of many others who seem to be good leaders. I see and hear about good leaders in various organisations around me. But leadership is not a size that fits one or all. And to my mind, there is no template that defines a leader nor one that can be followed to create one – my apologies to all those great institutions around the world that are evangelising programs that create leaders: it’s a fool’s errand or a very cleverly constructed business opportunity.

Leadership has some universal qualities and an ability to customise at the local level. And contrary to set notions, one need not have a following to become a leader. One can just stand up and be one by taking the lead in something no one else is willing to do or follow.

Of course I understand that we live in an age which is really corporate in nature and one has been taught to think of leaders. For such environments, I have always found it handy to think of people as:

  1. Leaders
  2. Managers
  3. People in leadership positions
  4. Icons
  5. Individualists
  6. Followers

 So what do you do when you need inspiration? I say, don’t wait for it. Take it from wherever you find it. If you are unable to find it, then you become the inspiration and lead others down the right path. The inspiration always comes from within your own self. While you are waiting for someone to inspire you onto greater deeds, someone else – maybe a whole nation – is waiting for you to inspire them.

But if you really cannot function without having a leader, then the following verse might be helpful when you are evaluating an individual as a leader that you may want to follow:

The Leader

Makes it look effortless, when it’s not.

Rolls up their sleeves, when others are stuck

Smiles and makes others believe it’ll be better, when it’s rough

Is humane when others would be tough

Is firm when others would crack

Is some times wrong and admits to being so

Is often right and does not brag about it around town

Grooms people by just their mere being

Follows, inspires and leads every hour every minute.

RedstoneSummerhill ties up with Glossaread

Pune, October 30, 2016:

RedstoneSummerhill is pleased to announce that it has signed an agreement to use Glossaread‘s proprietary platform for distribution of its specialised content.

The tie-up is a first for RedstoneSummerhill and it is aimed at enabling the company to provide more visibility to the works of writers and content creators that are engaged with RedstoneSummerhill.

The detailed press note is available in our newsroom.

 

Change

What does it take to change the world? What does it take to change a situation? A team? An organisation?

I have no idea.

But I have a fair idea what it takes to change myself: a tremendous commitment that has to be renewed every month, every day, every hour … some times every minute. But why do I have to change myself? Because I don’t expect anything to be different if I am not willing to move from where I stand: my position in the physical world, and more importantly, my position in my mind.

But why does anything have to be different? Why? Well, that’s what RedstoneSummerhill is all about. Finding out. And finding one’s self. And maybe, the journey might enable us to help in shaping the kind of world that we want to live in.