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Business Leadership Random Thoughts

Why be a unicorn when you can be a phoenix?

We know there’s a start-up boom everywhere. Particularly in developing countries like India. But then there are some who’ve either been part of it or have observed/studied the trends for quite a while now. And while the VC world’s looking for the next big unicorn (like the Ubers, AirBnB, WeWork, OYO, Ola and a whole list of other companies you haven’t even heard of) I believe there’s still value in building a company that’s built to last.

I spoke about this last year and the sentiment still goes strong — not every startup is going to be the next unicorn. Period. We can cite countless examples of investors who’ve raked in millions but if you’re the one citing those stories, chances are you’re not going to get there anytime soon. That’s just a fact.

And what I fail to get is the sudden shift in every businesses focus — from building a company set on a solid foundation to wanting to become the next big thing in the start-up ecosystem (yeah, they’ve got one too)! That’s exactly the kind of thinking (narrow and awfully short) that drowns most start-ups within their first year of existence!

For a change, how about we go back to the old days and work on building an actual business that actually stays. In other words, that’s ‘built to last.’ It’s quite doable, just that the growth will be much slower and you (the leader) will have to work awfully hard since you’re funding your own growth by creating value for your customers. Doesn’t sound sexy, right? But if you go back in time and study some of the greatest companies out there, that’s exactly what they did. Worked hard to build a business that’s sustainable and then went public to scale further. I know that’s an insanely long time to wait for big money to roll in but what’s the rush anyway?

Like any business, you’re in the business to serve customers. If you do it right, the money will follow. The challenge could be that you’ve been focusing on building a product that can be shipped quickly, iterated, and then sell it off to a bigger company. And what does the company do? Tinker with the ‘product’ for a few months before shutting it down completely? Or perhaps take the leaders onboard, hoping that they’re going to work just as hard to make the product super-useful as originally intended. That seldom happens. Particularly if your number one goal was to make a ‘sellable’ product.

Let me be very clear — I’m in no way suggesting that all the unicorns started off with a noble mission. There are always exceptions. What I’m suggesting is they all started with a product that solves a problem. It’s the problem solving bit that put them on the map as both the target audience and the investors saw the tremendous value in the product offering. They became unicorns later. And even if they hadn’t, they would’ve done just well as a small business. Probably more focused with much less scandals and controversies.

Ultimately, it’s a leadership thing. If the intent is right (to serve customers/clients) the leaders would know that money will follow even if it’s just enough to keep their companies humming and feed the members and their families. Also, the lack of funding keeps the teams self-reliant, resilient and creative with their limited resources. The result is a company that’s smaller, nimble and truly focused on serving their customers well.

Yes, they may/may not get a million/billion dollar funding anytime (or perhaps never!) but if they stay focused on their true mission they would have built an entity that’s bigger than themselves. A legacy that will last generations. I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s something. Probably because I know companies like that don’t happen by accident but are made that way thanks to the leaders at helm.

One great example is Basecamp. I don’t use their product (they just have one) but I’ve always loved the way they’ve carried themselves. Their thoughts on leadership and the choice to remain small has inspired me (and many others) to appreciate the true nature of small businesses.

Last evening, on my way home, I tuned into to Masters of Scale, where Ried Hoffman interviews John Elkann, chair of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, on the legacy of Fiat and his leadership journey. It was an insightful conversation. More so, it was fascinating (and so much validating) to hear John’s take on business that have outlasted generations, including his own.

I believe there’s so much value in building a company that’s centred around service, excellence and longevity than multiple rounds of seed fundings. As I mentioned, a lot depends on the company’s leadership and what direction they would like to go. If you’re like me, go south because everyone’s busy going north.

Let’s make a ruckus doing something different — like serving our customers and help them grow.