Startups: Not for Everyone – Part 4, Last Straw?

Up until this time I had always worked for myself, had always been my own boss, and the transition to going and working for someone wasn’t as difficult as it was a mindset thing. Also it was one thing to have worked all my life in financial services, and quite another thing to change my profession from financial wheeler-dealer, influencer, financial guru and what have you.

The necessity to go get a job came about with the startup phases of my life not being as wildly successful as I would have hoped or indeed imagined.

Be that as it may, my predicament was as follows: Straddled with rather large debt, no regular source of income, the financial markets having tanked, the fag-end of the initial tech boom, jobs quite scarce. To top that off, no formal higher qualification. The only saving grace was the fact that I had completed my college (or school as we call it in the US), I barely scraped through getting a B. Com or Bachelors Degree in Commerce, from India’s top commerce college, The Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics. I didn’t even know if that was going to help. Heck, I didn’t even have a CV at that point.

Now I’m certainly not one to cringe, nor get all depressed, and I’m quite the fighter and then some. But, how the heck do you go and actually get a job almost 8-10 years after you have passed out from college? Quite the deterrent in itself.

See here is the thing about Sydenham, it had as its students, kids who were all determined to make it to the top, had great family pedigree, either being the sons and daughters of some business tycoon, or then some corporate big boss. If I said they were born with silver, if not gold spoons in their mouth, I would get away with it. Those who weren’t so endowed, were made of serious stuff, and had the grey matter, not to say, of course, that the ones so anointed by lineage, didn’t have the grey stuff. Not to say either, that I’m not a go getter, just in a very different way.

These are the circs under which I fell back on a college buddy, who had risen to the top at the erstwhile Arthur Andersen, and rather embarrassed, I called on my college friend. He was all welcoming, and at his office, I spilled the beans about what had transpired in my life. So job is the need of the hour, or rather cash is the need of the hour, and the job is merely a means to and end. See, job getting means having a little document called a CV, and me? I had never written a CV in my life. God bless his soul, what Bobby did is just talk to me and literally “extract” from me in my own words, what I had set out to do since I left college, and what I have chalked up in terms of experience.

Bhavna, that great mother of my kids, would keep saying, what are you doing? Go get a job….I just didn’t know how. After remaining in a state, for a longish time, similar to that of a deer frozen in the headlights, I finally called Bobby. And so it came to pass that, encouraged by Bobby, I sat and penned my set of experiences, and if I’m not wrong, he even helped me to craft my narrative of experience, into what would pass off as a CV.

Armed with the said CV, I scoured the papers, responded to zillion job postings, got in touch with so many head hunters, recruiters, placement agencies, even went and met some who condescended to give me the time of the day. Hell, I may as well have started a recruitment service of my own!

One kindred soul was Dr R L Bhatia, who at the time ran something called, Center for Change Management. He’d posted and advert in a leading publication, from amongst the ones I scoured daily, and spotted said Center f\or Change Management, which sounded promising. The meeting at his office in Juhu was quite brief, and almost instantaneously, he said he may have something for me. His client, Vikram Doshi of Atco Weighing Scales (famous market leader at the time) was looking for a CFO, and despite the fact that I was not a Chartered Accountant, nor had a MBA degree, or a formal higher education, he agreed to put me in touch with the CEO of said weighing scale company.

Appointment fixed for the morrow, suited and booted, I show up at the office of the CEO, and we just chat very briefly, or perhaps it was an interview? Regardless of the nomenclature, it was brief, and in five minutes, give or take, I summed up what I had set out to do, and what I had under my belt, in terms of experience. In five minutes he told me he needed a market savvy finance guy, and that was pretty much it. No JD, more of the “we can figure it out together” sorta job. I don’t know what it is with me and jobs, they have all been of the “we will figure it out” variety.

There was this “I done good” feeling and in that “spirits lifted” frame of mind, I called Dr. Bhatia, who was meeting the CEO the next day. This being the position, I settled into that state called, “the waiting with bated breath”, and therefore it came as no small surprise, when the afternoon came a’knocking at the door, announcing the arrival of a courier in the person of the CEO’s chauffeur. I wasn’t home when the knocking happened, I came home to fund a sealed envelope. That sealed envelope, that twist in my fortunes, came in the form of an offer. Delight, wonder, amazement, what words must I muster up to describe that feeling, I don’t quite know.

The telling of this tale is many years post those historic events, but despite the years gone by, as I write this narrative, I relive that experience as if it is in the present, or in the recent past. I was delighted with the financial package, and that was simply accentuated by the fact that I had been cooling my heels for the longest time, and there was no cash flowing into the kitty at all. My wife Bhavna was supporting me. Not a good feeling, not good for one’s self esteem, not good emotionally, not good financially, not good spiritually. Plain not good. Well, I did call and try to negotiate a better deal, but the CEO was adamant. No negotiation on package, take it or leave it. I took it.

I needed to attend to some legal issues from my time in Goa, and so was able to negotiate a week to join. The great believer that I am, in fate, in destiny, in karma, in the general goodness in people, and that despite my reversals, I didn’t really probe too much into the company or for that matter about the promoter. I decided that I will put in a lot of hard work, and let my maker decide the rest. That is something I believe in to this day, albeit, I’m a bit more realistic and do factor in what can go wrong, so I can mitigate against the twists and turns in life. And so I show up at work, am given the room earmarked for the CFO, that I have joined as, meet the team, and go through the on boarding motions. The next few days are spent in understanding the business plan, the vision and closeted in so many meetings that one’s mind was reeling. The vision of the CEO, that I just alluded to, was driven by nothing short of a visionary in the person of Vikram Doshi, MD and CEO of atcom technologies limited. I may have mentioned elsewhere in one of my blogs, that the assignment was that of transitioning from a brick and mortar business to a click and mortar business, both B2B and B2C. Did I know enough about the B2B and B2C business models? Clearly I didn’t, but as I’ve said before, I’m a lightning fast learner, and have the uncanny ability to assimilate knowledge, and use this new-found learning, rather quickly to extrapolate into thoughts and thence to action. So this was what I went about doing. I daresay that we are forgetting that this was my first job in a corporate, my first experience of having a boss, my first experience in working with peers, and in general learning something that a fresher from B’School will learn at his/her first job. Therefore I am at pains to remind my readers.

We are talking about startups, are we not? So let’s come to that aspect of this series of articles. The venture or the business plan and indeed the business model, was everything what a startup was all about. New business model, untried and untested, a greenfield seeking funding, seeking first customers for the new business models, plenty of doubting Thomas all around including within the family of the promoters. The family that owned the brick and mortar business interests, were not exactly supportive nor convinced about the success of the new way of doing business, and therefore one key element of my role, was to oversee a demerger, ie: a divorce of atcom technologies limited from Atco Weighing Scales Limited. This demerger, meant that I had to rapidly come up to speed with the legal aspects of a demerger, including understanding the petition that would be filed before the High Court, the financial aspects, the operational aspects, and ensure that there was no disruption of the BAU state. A big ask. So in terms of experience, new, new, new.

Seeing that we didn’t really have an efficient army, despite the best efforts of the CEO hiring the best of the best, and throwing money at them, we were faced with the prospect of pulling the big ask off, with one hand and one leg tied behind our backs. Vikram, quickly saw that I had the wherewithal to step up, and quickly at that, therefore more and more got thrown at me. Finance, even business development. Heck, I was the one who brought the first realy business opportunity to the table, that too with an oil major, Castrol. I also handled Admin and Infra, the creation of a spanking new state of the art facility, including a data center, and all its trimmings of servers, layered switches and such. I just loved it, I was working long hours, plenty of them spent studying. 

So it’s now 8-9 months into the job, and we have just moved into our beautiful new office building, and the proverbial goop hits the fan. It had to didn’t it? My life has been such, and I’m told numerology has something to do with it. My number is 8 or when laid on its side, it signifies infinity. The infinite loop when attributed to a person as per numerology, denotes struggle in career and finance, but also signifies spiritual advancement. The company is straddled with bills to pay, business has not come in, the brick and mortar businesses are not going to carry the burden of this startup, and we, especially me, are faced with irate vendors, irate employees, the works. I’m sure you get my drift.

As much as I would have liked to continue, I was compelled to leave atcom, simply because one really irate vendor had approached a certain infamous member of the underworld (dreaded until this day) to recover their monies. Being very much the party man, and as all good party men are expected to do, I came to the aid of the party. I filed police complaints, and through my rather influential network, and through some friends who had access to people of notoriety, brought pressure to bear on said irate vendor to cease and desist. After quite a few petitions before the seniors in the police administration, and after several meetings with said underworld bosses, I was gently told by friends (in the establishment and some well wishers in the underworld), that they would hold off on any proceedings against the company, till such time that I was in the role. In the same breath I was gently urged to step down, as my life was at some considerable risk, and that I could not be protected 24*7, nor could anyone reasonably guaranty the safety of my family.

Therefore, with heavy heart I tendered my resignation, and was back in the ranks of the unemployed.

All said and done, dust settled and so on, I came away licking my wounds, and made a conscious decision to dwell instead, on the learning’s from this assignment, which lasted all of 11 months. 

At some point I asked Vikram on what basis he decided to give me the job, and his reply was, the five minute summation you gave me about yourself, was exactly what I was looking for. That said, Vikram was a man far ahead of his time, a visionary in all respects. Great pity then, that this grand vision didn’t see the light of day. 

That ends the narrative of this startup story and at the time I am thinking, I’m so done with startups. That was not to be, and instead, despite my considerable stints with considerable and financially sound national and international corporations, in senior roles, both in India and four continents, I would still continue to deal with businesses, with roles and assignments, that all had in some way, shape or form, “startup” as the central pivots of the roles that I played. At ICICI as Head of Product Strategy of Treasury and Risk Management Products, I did beta products…from conceptualization, to product, to beta sale, to deployment. At HSBC I took over dysfunctional teams, condemned teams, set up new transnational teams, new business practices and models across the globe. Post HSBC, I finally ended up with Agile Financial Technologies, a startup not just in concept, but in every sense of the term.

To know more, read more……The startup journey isn’t over yet, not by a long shot.

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