Business, Culture and Entrepreneurship

Monday, January 28, 2008

Entrepreneurship Series - Hindu Business Line

Thanks to my grandfather and numerous teachers along the way, reading is one of my greatest pleasures - and even today, while allegedly busy working, I manage to read one maybe two books a week. In my callow youth I felt, that any one who reads either self-help or how-to books must be somehow wanting. Luckily somewhere between ages thirty-two and thirty-five, I seemed to have gained my senses. And here I am today, practically bursting with lessons learnt from my grandfather, mother and father and a slew of mentors, a few I that I have met in person and a whole lot I have only encountered through their writings.

Running an entrepreneurial, cash-strapped, people-intensive, technology business is the surest way I know of having utter decimation of any semblance of ego – yet surviving the pounding each day and actually thriving and growing is probably the biggest boost to one’s ego as well – do it long enough and a true state of non-duality can be reached. I am not there yet – but along the way have learned a few things and reckoned its my turn to share with the world. With that in mind, I began writing a series of short articles, that are now getting published in the Hindu Business Line on alternate Mondays. Today the third in the series has appeared.

Business is about people
When most people talk about starting a business, they are thinking about commerce — buying and selling. At first glance, business appears to be about that. The street hawker who sells vegetables off his cart or the corner boot polish is indeed doing just that. Even in the case of these single-person businesses, people, usually in the form of customers (and occasionally as investors or moneylenders), are critical to their survival.

However, any business that does anything more complex very rapidly becomes all about people. Particularly for entrepreneurial ventures, it may seem that it is only about people. Make no mistake, capital, cash flow, products, marketing and sales are all important; yet these play the same role for other businesses including your competitors. Your people are what will separate your business from the pack. Full article here.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Storytelling and Culture in Companies

I was lucky enough grow up with a paternal grandmother, a maternal grandfather and even his mother, my great grandmother (GGM), who were always ready with a story. My GGM's life story itself is worth a whole separate post - widowed at nineteen, while pregnant with my grandfather, she raised him, through a polio attack (when he was two, that left him crippled in one leg), saw him through college, then when he was widowed with ten kids, she then in her sixties, raised the kids, (and the first grandkids) while managing the household, ten cows and a small farm sized garden.

Some of my favorite memories of my GGM are from dinner time. Six or seven of us kids, cousins and siblings, would be sitting in a semi-circle, on the floor of my grandfather's dining room. GGM would be seated with her back to the wall, at the center of the half circle, with a large stainless steel bowl of mixed steamed rice and yoghurt. Each night, she'd narrate a story as she fed us dinner. She'd scoop up one handful of the rice and drop a dollop in each of our outstretched hands, going clockwise. And with each handful or mouthful, she'd narrate what happened next, in the tale for the evening. Oh, on so many nights, we'd have to stop eating and console her, as at particularly poignant moments in the tale she'd stumble, stutter then sniffle before a stream of tears would run down her wrinkled face. At other times, she'd have to stop the story to urge us to continue eating or close our mouths as we'd listen to her all agog, our food and outstretched hands totally forgotten.

Those local tales of lions that came as bridegrooms and sparrows that stuffed themselves and the longer tales from the Indian epics have not only stayed with me but taught us the values that my GGM held dear. In a very small way I have tried to share that with my own two children. However, the larger lesson I have learnt is the value of stories and storytelling to imbibe culture in families and companies.

There is a large swath of didactic and somewhat intimidating academic research done in recent times on the role of storytelling in business. Leaving that to the experts, in every company I have worked with, there has been storytelling - of dream deals that were saved or won by heroic individual or team efforts; customers from hell or my own favorite, of a customer who insisted on paying by Sep 30th ahead of our delivery milestone, as his budget would vanish on Oct 1st, but wanting a handwritten personal note from the CEO assuring that we'd still deliver on our commitments; our own story of how we asked engineers and managers to have their pay raises deferred and then to take a pay cut and my wife's favorite, of how I was a zombie the day we lost that truly big, already-in-the-bag and company-saving quarter million dollar deal and the mourning we went through (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance - all in a day.)

Of course storytelling need not be just in front of the fireplace, over dinner or by the water cooler. Books, emails and memos can just as powerfully share stories and values. The best examples I can think of include

    • "Memos from the Chairman" by Alan C. Greenberg, former Chairman of investment
      banking firm Bear, Stearns & Co. In a series of memos, many at less than 150 words, he has shared his views, thoughts and narrated tales (with a fictional protagonist) in an informal and easy style
    • "Small Decencies: Reflections and Meditations on Being Human at Work" by John Cowan - a collection of fluid essays that narrate tales from John's personal and work life and lend tremendous insight into our own lives, without hitting us over the head

I'd recommend both these books for a hearty good read, even if storytelling and organizational culture are not your favorite topics!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Service - it's a mindset

For over ten years now I have tried not to miss the Palo Alto Library book sale, that's held the second Saturday of every month. In the early days I'd go berserk picking up every book that I could lay my hands on (at $1 for hardbacks and 25 cents for paperbacks could you blame me?). In December when I was in San Jose, I took a much more leisurely stroll through the sale. Besides a pulp novel for the plane ride, I picked up only one book, "The Customer Driven Company" by Richard C. Whitely. Little did I suspect how appropriate this book was going to be to my ride home. I guess when we are ready, the lessons seek us out.

It began at Chicago - despite some 200 flights being cancelled earlier that day, my flight to Paris was going to be on time! Thanking the travel gods, I ran to get into line for my check in. Once I got to the counter, is when my troubles began. To save you the gory details, the litany of woes from here on out included:

  • They didn't have a vegetarian meal for me - worse yet the lady couldn't care less - when I showed her my printed itinerary with the AVL tag on it, she said "That's Delta's computer system - its not in ours" (it was a code share flight). Then she coolly went on to call out for the next customer!

  • In Paris, they board all of us (still with no AVL), and after nearly an hour on board, announce they have a problem with the potable water system and engineers are trying to fix it. An hour later they say there are still trying and we should stay put. An elderly gentleman, walks up to a flight steward and tells him that he is diabetic and asks could he have some orange juice. The steward responds (I am not making this stuff up) "We have water - if we gave you juice, we'd have to give everyone juice." Finally after four hours (during which the flight crew was found snacking and drinking juice in the rear) we are asked to deplane - all 350 of us - and head back to the transfer counter

  • The only silver lining at the transfer counter (we get in line around 3PM) is that all passengers are treated with truly equal disdain without discrimination on the basis of skin color, nationality or gender. By 5PM we are actually given some bottles of water, juice and sandwiches arrive at 6PM. The plight of the folks who were unfortunate enough to be travelling with kids was truly appalling. Each passenger was being re-routed (next day, same day through Dubai, or via Frankfurt). The miracle was even at this point, NONE of the passengers were yelling or screaming. By mid-night there is a near riot, when the remaining passengers are told they may have to stay over yet another day. Till the time, I got my own ticket re-routed to London Heathrow and then onward to my final destination, no airline official had explained to any of the waiting passengers what was being done - let alone apologize for the inconvenience to the customers. The irony of standing in line reading "The Customer Driven Company" seemed lost to any the crew members.

  • Beyond all these indignities, what stayed with me was the surly nature and utter indifference of the crew even in the normal flight, going out to San Francisco from Paris and on the way back from Chicago to Paris. It made me wonder what is it that makes, an entire crew and later ground staff, in essence a statistically large sample of the organization behave without any semblance of a customer service mindset.

I have been travelling across the Pacific (ANA, Cathay, Malaysian, Singapore, Thai) and the Atlantic (Air India, American, Delta, Lufthansa, United) for more than twenty years. In the last five years, I have travelled a minimum of five times a year internationally and put in my share of hops on Jet Airways, Kingfisher, Ryan Air and Southwest as well. This makes me a reasonable judge of the service levels for air travel. While by no means is poor service the sole prerogative of my (via) Paris trip, surly and inconsiderate cabin crew has been seen on Delta, United and occassionally even on Thai - the French experience was on an altogether new low. A casual browse through the Internet shows that my experiences are by no means unique.

Every airline has problems, often caused by things way out of their control - however, how they respond to it is totally in their control. This is true for every business and in our own lives. Truly successful businesses, Singapore Airlines and Nordstrom jump to mind, lay great emphasis on having a customer service mindset. And this shows how they respond especially when things don't turn out they way they are supposed to. As someone who has travelled with two kids multiple times across the Pacific, I can personally vouch for what a world of difference a customer service mindset can make even when the kids are sick and throwing up, the TV doesn's work and your special meal is no where to be found. A graceful smile, an apology, an understanding nod, maybe an extra blanket or pillow go a long way to not only making a passenger comfortable even in adverse circumstances but convert them to a lifelong customer. You'd think this would be simple - alas even good companies that knew how to do it well even on a short haul flight across California (such as AirCal, PSA) lost it when they were acquired by larger airlines and of course the trans-oceanic flight history is littered with its share of horrow stories (can you say TWA)!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Culture in Companies and Business Success

In November 2007, in what's becoming an annual event (okay, it was two years in a row), I attended a workshop titled "Values-based Leadership" lead by Richard Barrett. Despite the slow start, and initial misgivings when Richard quickly put on a video of his that's available on YouTube (hey, I have come to hear you in person, was my first thought) - the day proved to be thought-provoking and productive, for two reasons. Firstly a full day away from the daily grind at the office, just thinking and discussing things from the sublime, (Who am I? What is my purpose in life?) to grimy reality (What is the culture in your company?) was a much needed breath of fresh air. Secondly the workshop turned out to be completely about culture, ways of measuring it and the role culture and values play in the business success of organizations. Many thoughts that had been stewing below the surface of my conscious mind or even the few that had cleared the surface and were still nebulous at best, began to get some definite shape and dare I say, validation through the course of the day.

Before I push ahead, its worth stepping back and trying to get a working definition of culture spelled out. Many serious thinkers have come up a variety of definitions - ranging from the anthropological all the way to organizational - I will confine myself to the rather simple assertion, that culture is how people in an organization behave and expect others to behave, on a daily basis. This behaviour is almost always driven or at the very least most strongly influenced from the top, down. In other words the leaders (in small enterprises these are almost always the founders) set the culture and the everyday actions of the people in the organization reinforces this culture. Here again, I use the term actions to include explicit inaction or lack of action as much as deliberate actions taken. For instance, not confronting (constructively or otherwise), or avoiding conflict is as much an element of organizational culture as action such as yelling at your subordinates or sharing recognition and praise as well.

In the spirit of full disclosure I should also state my position - that I believe that culture trumps all other considerations in building healthy, dynamic and long lasting successful organizations. Yes, all those things we learnt in business school or at our fathers' knees are still true - operational excellence, technology and R&D, financial performance, killer products or services are all important for success but culture is critical to sustain and build upon the gains made. After six years of running a boot-strapped software company, from the giddy optimistic start, through axing one entire department and having those folks out-placed, asking the remaining team to take 10-15% pay cuts, even as we worked to deliver newer products, fend off competitors and keep those fickle customers who hadn't yet gone out of business in the downturn or been gobbled up , to achieving market leadership in our niche and finally selling our own company, the number one insight I have gained is that culture is the critical ingredient for organization success.

In the coming weeks and months I hope to share some of the lessons I have learnt from my journey as an engineer, manager, CEO and general factotum (they are nearly the same thing, you sometimes have a little more freedom as a factotum) and in the bargain, I hope to learn as well. The journey continues!