Recently, at a customer visit i was asked where i wanted Srijan to be in 5 years form now. This is a nightmare of a question for me. And i respond in several ways depending upon how and who asks it.
I don’t know
Perhaps too impressed – right or wrong – by Ricardo Semler, i’ve nearly always not liked the idea of putting numbers to define where i’d like to be. $1 million or $10 million are not numbers that come intuitively to my mind either. Apart from the zeros in them, i cannot visualize what that would mean in terms of the building, the people working there, the location, the environment, the happiness index – for myself and the people working there, etc. Numbers say nothing about all these ideas (and ideals?) i get inspired by and seek in the enterprise i associate myself with or like to build.
Large buildings and campuses that a company owns, accumulation of property, a 1000 people working – these sort of visions may evoke my envy surely, but barely inspire me for sustained durations.
I get inspired when something i did, touched and changed someone’s life. Like this girl at my office from Srinagar. During an offsite to a camp by www.exper.in, she revealed how during a meeting at office my acknowledgement of her thoughts/approach had touched her life in a deeply profound way. “For 22 years i have not spoken”, she told the group at the camp. “This was the first time i felt even i had something valuable to say”, she continued. It seems she called her mother after the meeting and told her that she had “found a voice” and that she was being heard. I had tears in my eyes when i heard this. I suddenly felt a sense of achievement and reward for my years of toil and struggle at Srijan. This is not the only incident. There have been many more, although with a less dramatic effect on me. Several people who i have been able to touch in a profound and deep way. And perhaps continue to through the medium of my day-to-day work, sharing, writing and one-on-one interactions in different settings. It seems, in their self-expression, i find mine.
Now this is a problem as well. It seems my personality type, is best suited for being a teacher, counsellor, coach, actor, artist, and so on. Yes, Entrepreneur finds its way in the list as well.
But i struggle with doing things like “project reviews“, “keeping a strong focus on money and profitability“, “building a strong vision for the company” and other hard things that CEOs must do as part of their jobs. This is the reason i’ve felt that i need a good CEO. But at the same time, i feel by seeking someone out like that, i am abdicating my responsibilities of leading people to the vision i have.
And i nearly killed Srijan with this
My style has always been to identify some good people – get them together, take care of their needs in life, and tell them – “Here you go… here is a set of goals we need to achieve, for all of us collectively to find money and live happily together; let’s find what in this we can do best and do it”. Also, “…and we’ll share what profits we make in an equitable manner”. But doing this, has burnt me. It burnt me and Srijan really badly during the 2009-2010 period. I hired about 4-5 really senior people (10-15 years exp in technology and marketing) within a span of 6 months or so (we were flooded with projects!), and shared all the sort of problems we had at Srijan, and asked them to help solve them.
In a few months of disillusioned working, one of the person who i parted ways on a rather unhappy note (yet i still respect) came to me and told me, “Rahul, we need leadership at Srijan. I don’t think getting a bunch of good senior people is going to magically solve your problems.” This was the truth. But i could not understand why all these senior people – and that too really motivated ones, who were all there at Srijan because they were all entrepreneurs at heart, had their financial needs taken care of – could not work together and separate jobs/roles/tasks between themselves and take Srijan to greater heights. This was a democratic setup, where they could argue with each other, and take on roles voluntarily, and by demonstrating to each other what they could do best.
On the contrary, there were constant ego-clashes, blame on me, blame the poor infrastructure we could manage given the breakdown of Delhi during Commonwealth Games. And projects – oh they were failing all over the place. I must acknowledge i had had my share of failings. Things i could have done a bit better. But only a bit, i feel. I have reasons to believe this, given that we’re doing so much better now, with similar interventions with a different set of people that i made.
Yet, nearly all these senior and great people we got on board during that one year, have been highly competent and skilled people, even quite evolved, if i may say, and yet it led to the near-collapse of Srijan. I continue to respect most of these people, be in touch, and even pass them business and references in areas where Srijan does not work any longer (nearly all of them have started their own enterprises; and Srijan decided to focus on Drupal only post the merger; and get out of Django, TYPO3 and some other technology spaces).
I can do some things well. And i just cannot manage some other things at all. Is it worth for me to learn all these skills. Perhaps, they are, if i were to fill the shoes of a CEO of a solid and profitable technology company. But this does not interest me, honestly. I do not run away from the “mundane” day-to-day routine tasks. That is not the point. Just that some things i feel, i have no natural caliber for. And no matter how much my friend and mentor Rajneesh Rastogi, points these out to me as must-dos to be an effective CEO at Srijan, i’m unable to bring constancy to these must-dos.
Perhaps, i am undisciplined. Huh, i just don’t know.
On the other hand, i started to call myself “Chief Potter” a year back. To me this role is about someone, who is creating, giving shape, to something beautiful – a new creation; an inspired piece of work. And how would i do this? By – once again – getting together some good people, and giving them space to find their self-expression and learning, and piggy backing on them to find my self-expression, growth, and financial goals.
Actually, I am deeply compassionate at heart, and am in a hurry to solve the larger problems we face as a country and a global society. Mass scale Water Harvesting, Solar Energy investments, Waste to Energy, large scale Biochar production and adoption in villages, are areas that have inspired me for as long as i can remember.
Infact, when i started out on my own way back in 1999-2002, IT was to be a stepping stone for me to make money so that i could get into politics (and never bend an inch from my high principles for need of money) and solve the major socio-economic problems of this country and my people.
One thing i am clear about is that i know and realise my limited potential to dream big for an IT company. This is not to say, that i do not get inspired by what i am doing in IT. Yes, certainly i do. I get inspired by the vision of creating a “Small Giant“. I get inspired by companies like Semco which Ricardo Semler has modelled on principles of self-organisation. And by the work culture of ThoughtWorks.
I get inspired by, and relate to such statements:
“I don’t want to know where Semco is headed. It doesn’t unnerve me to see nothing on the company’s horizon. I want Semco and its employees to ramble through their days, to use instinct, opportunity, and ingenuity to choose projects and ventures.” ~ Ricardo Semler; CEO, Semco
The underlying principle in all these is the “principle of people” – their aspirations, their self-expression, the direction they collectively wish to give, a larger aligning of common goals of all individuals. Collective Leadership or even Leaderless-ness. The latter is a term i heard for the iconic music band “Indian Ocean”. After 20 years of 4 guys playing together, and one guy being the key motivator in keeping the band together in its early volatile years, none of them has any leadership role in the band. They share credit equally. Anyone can play anything, other than their designated instruments. Anyone can take lead while composing music (the rest allow this almost intuitively). They choose compositions for pursuing if “collective energy happens”, as they say. Deeply, deeply inspiring! And motivating!
Recently, Srijan Dharamshala happened. One of my friends, who i have come to trust deeply over the last 4-5 years – and has oriented all of his career to bring socio-economic change to Himachal Pradesh – has been pursuing me to setup Srijan in that region. I’ve always pushed him off, even though this is something i would have loved to do – have small companies in different parts of the country, amidst different cultures. This is a dream i have nurtured for many years, and even had a failed attempt at starting out in Srinagar, J&K. He came across this guy with 22 years in the software industry; a veteran who had sold his shares in a company that was being bought, made some money, reduced his needs to bare minimum, and moved to Dharamshala a year back – to be next to his first love – the mountains.
After carefully, slowly, and even skeptically, moving forward, i have come to trust him and his abilities deeply. The one big factor common in all of these Dharamshala folks is the pursuit of goals which are non-monetary and emanate from a state of an inspired mind. These people can live pretty frugally, are very down to earth and i feel, also have faith in people intuitively – qualities that i feel pride in myself for possessing and living by. This made working and negotiating with them a comfortable process.
So we have a Srijan Dharamshala happening. And with it a dream of Srijan fulfilling.
What is easy in this process is that, it is the head of this setup, who calls building a large IT company, “an unfinished business” for him. He brings on the values and the organisational work culture, which are not much different than mine. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, he has clear ideas about how software needs to be written, and is a trained Quality professional.
All this makes my job rather easy – and something i can do well. Market! Market him, the team, the values and culture through writing and all through the social and digitally connected world that we live in. Using the Srijan brand built over years of toil and hard work, to bring in business, makes this a much attainable and likable task for me.
Aligning goals of the individual with the goals of the collective
The vision is someone else’s, the support of that vision is mine. And in all of the models that i have laid out above – Semco, Indian Ocean, ThoughtWorks – are driven by aligning the goals of the individual with the goals of the “collective”.
So this really seems to be my calling. And i would not care if i were doing technology business, or setting up Solar plants, or building a responsible rural tourism company (something else that so, so, damn motivates me).
Reality of paying bills
However, amidst all this idealism financial constraints take over. The home has to run and bills paid. Over the last years at Srijan, i’ve not saved anything, other than funding 40% of the house to own it (rest my father paid). My wife earns more than me – and while this is not a problem at all to me (i’m actually proud of this, and like to state this to sexist/chauvisnistic male discourse in my extended family to shock them out of their wits), it is clear that i have to depend upon her to dig into her reserves in case of a family emergency – which so far by God’s Grace has not happened. I would also like to pay back my parents and atleast contribute to their finances. I continue to do such things in small ways, and get more appreciation than i deserve, yet i’d like to do “atleast enough”. What i do to payback is so small and insignificant, and often erratic, that it is clearly not satisfying.
Clearly, Srijan has not done well, and the road in the larger roadmap – to my own mind – is unclear. We are clear about being recognized as the #1 Drupal company in India by end of 2011. We have metrics to measure ourselves for being #1.
Acquisition of Srijan is an option we have toyed with, and stated and shared with our people. Recently, we’ve got an offer. The person is a “financial buyer” (a term i recently learnt) and has bought a competitor, and would liked to buy us to consolidate his growth story to his shareholders at the BSE. I think that they payout to us would be really scarce because of the poor past finances. Besides, this is really not the kind of investment we require. We need a “strategic investor” who can help us solve our day-to-day problems of finding the next business. We’re competent of delivering really large scale projects in Drupal. We’re a set of highly motivated and talented and self-expressed people. We need good sales – while not lowering our brand value and dignity to “cheap Indian code-writing mercenaries”. We’re underdogs, but we try that much harder. Yes, often i have felt that the current societal environment does not value these.
What feels scary in an acquisition is that all the values that i have lived for and cultivated in people at Srijan – our own ethos – which is often difficult to state in words – but is “felt” constantly by most of us, may get thrown out of the window. The culture and leadership that we admire comes out from a very few companies in India – ThoughtWorks (Pune to be particular), and perhaps MindTree (primarily because of what Subroto Bagchi shares through his talks and writings). Infosys, yes sounds really nice, but is too far in the horizon for me to be able to form a judgement about – like some version of god who is not an equal to you. Being a ThoughtWorks or a MindTree (once again i feel from the brief interactions with its people, and through the writings of Subroto Bagchi) are honestly within our reach. I feel we can be like them; they are inspiring because they have managed growth without losing their soul. ThoughtWorks actually retains and cultivates the soul like i have not experienced. It is an ideal anyone our size and ideals, would like to emulate. And be acquired by.
Acquisition by US companies like Acquia, and some others would be really useful. Some of these companies are iconic in their brand positioning in the open source/Drupal community. This is a huge win for all the people working at Srijan, and a goal achieved for me, even if the values and core have to be re-aligned to their goals and values. For one, people working at most American Drupal companies are fiercely expressive, vocal and have their own huge brand value in the community. Often people in such companies are bigger than the company; but the company gives these people a platform for self-expression and the pursuit of excellence. Secondly, given our excellent experience delivering projects to one another such US company, we feel we can huge win for a US company, and shoot up their profits exponentially. This would be a goal worth pursuing.
Can i not create such iconic companies?
Can i? Can we? Like remain so focussed that we create a ThoughtWorks or a MindTree or an Acquia? Can we create a “Small Giant” instead – remain small yet iconic – like www.developmentseed.com – a company i, and so many of us at Srijan admire so so deeply?
In doing this, my own skills are a hinderance. Also, i’ve been badgered so much all these 10-12 years (bringing Srijan to wherever it is now has been surely tough), that i am scared of pushing for this only by myself and my ideas; finances are a concern as i have entered the latter half of my 30s (and the 40 is just a few years away). My risk taking ability is taking a beating. And i am NOT happy about this at all.
I am a person who loves to find new zones of discomfort. Infact, i really desire to go out start a rural tourism company. I just need the running expenses of my home taken care of, and some reserve to fall back on in case there is an emergency. Even the iconic Maharana Pratap struck a compromise with Akbar after his years of battle and sacrifice, when he saw his sons eating rotis cooked with grass (during his years in hiding in the forest and carrying out attacks on the Mughals from there). I know we will not come to this. I will find a boring day job, which will kill me slowly over the years, but i will ensure security for my family.
Yet, i would hate to see this life be wasted away with mundane living. It would be a loss for this “yearning soul” of mine, and for this world.
Riding on the back of other people’s ambition
This is the reason when our partner in Dharamshala unit/company says that “i will never sell“, and “i will make a big company“, it is such a relief. It is a relief because our values are so closely aligned, and he has stated his vision. I know he has skills to create a sound software engineering team, that this makes his vision viable and achievable. I have to do what i do best from the outside to ensure that i help him achieve his ambition.
So perhaps, just as for Dharamshala, for Delhi and for any future ventures such as Srinagar (which i am so determined to do) or Bangkok (we’re in early discussions with folks there to setup a Drupal JV) and our to-be-office in the US, the future is to align with more and more individuals who are determined to lead Srijan (as an over-arching brand) into a vision that they are motivated by.
This then must ensure independence of each of these units in choosing a course of direction for themselves. The Srijan brand does bring a lot of value of years of credibility (and yes, sadly and honestly, quite a few failed/challenged projects!), successful projects portfolio, mindspace, client references, developer community reach, industry reach, collective network of its various partners, etc.
I began writing this to clarify my own thoughts more than for addressing this to my readers. The trouble for Delhi is that both me and partner are both unclear and are probably looking at each other in defining the vision for Srijan Delhi.
The options are clear. Acquisition (or mergers) by a “strategic partner” for Delhi. And continue to ride on other peoples’ vision of what they wish to achieve and support them. In the process increase and stabilize my financial sources of income, my self-expression, other than helping them achieve theirs.
It is the modalities of equity ownership to keep things non-interfering whichever direction any of the units/companies takes – which is a bit difficult. But i am sure with some good financial advise and a CFO coming on board this can be solved – and i am meeting one such potential candidate today.
Let’s see where this goes.