A Dinosaur trying hard to stay relevant

a dinosaur trying hard to stay relevant
© Moneycontrol A Dinosaur trying hard to stay relevant

I feel like a dinosaur. No, not because of size or ferocity, but as a metaphor for something that is prehistoric, almost extinct. I am writing this at a time when it is hard to make sense of the world and its incessant change. At a time when everything (in the world of work) is fighting for survival, I wonder who is the fittest. And, I am a millennial. Known to be a generation that can adapt to change. When I started my career, companies (as I knew them) were building for the long term. I remember meeting many global CEOs who spoke of 10-15-year careers (sometimes more) in the same company.

I now have a career spanning almost 15 years, and am noticing that we do not speak of long-term windows either referring to our own careers or companies. What we talk about now are quarterly sprints. From planning for the long term, we have become very short-term. Our aspirations, our goals and targets are all based on extremely short spans, and long-term thinking feels like a luxury (by long term I mean a year). Thinking long-term is perhaps contrarian in times when a venture capital (VC) culture has made work a never-ending treadmill. The problem, I think, is partly because many companies are not building for the long term.

Maximising returns – building for the short or long term?

As I dig deeper and speak to experts, what I also come to realise is that the problem is twofold:

1) Leaders today are more reactive than visionary;

2) VCs have fostered a sense of unreal urgency and a ‘measurement culture’ to quantify any and everything – sometimes fiction and mostly fantasy.

There is an unnecessary need for speed that is glorified further by Twitter threads that comes in the way of utilising sensibilities, especially in situations that are unprecedented.

However, let me also add that there are also founders who have been playing the long game and that reflects in not only their leadership skills but the style in which they run their companies. Is it a mere coincidence then that the following similarities emerge?

– These companies are mostly bootstrapped (many are profitable)

– They are Business-to-Business (B2B)*/ Software as a Service (SaaS) companies that have been around for at least 10 years (and more)

– Their founders put culture and people first (and guess what, when you talk to employees in these organisations, they vouch for this – so culture is not merely lip service)

**A key point to highlight here is that Business-to-Consumer (B2C) companies are cash-intensive whereas B2B ones are not and that could be the reason why B2B businesses have more runway and are more sustainable.

Putting people first

I am a strong believer that a long-term vision and a people-first culture go hand in hand in fostering capital gains. I can demonstrate through examples.

I wrote to Paras Chopra, chairperson and cofounder of Wingify, a 12-year-old bootstrapped SaaS company that has been profitable over the past three years, about his take on building for the long term.

Here is what he said: “Startups need to be narrowly focused towards product-market fit and that is generally short-term oriented. It’s almost impossible to predict success over the long term because there are so many variables involved.”

He pointed me to this blogpost where he wrote that “mature markets require mature products and getting there takes time. If you make an attempt to build a sophisticated product in the first go itself, chances are that you will miss many subtle but important details behind existing leading products’ dominance in the market.”

Which translates to a simple fact – build for the long term and sharpen your product and differentiators every day. Every product, startup and founder has their own journey, even if they are building for an extremely crowded market; these differentiators take time to build and are subject to volatile market conditions. Therefore, sustainability is key.

Building trust

As I was writing this piece, I came across N.S. Ramnath’s article, ‘The Contrarian’ on Zoho and its founder, Sridhar Vembu, that not only reinstates my own belief but provides further ammunition to what I am talking about. Zoho, too, is a bootstrapped SaaS company built from India, whose key differentiators include building for the long run (which in turn means refusing VC money – in many cases), hiring people and letting them fail, again a trait of companies invested in the careers of people and increased focus on research and development (R&D) to build its own technology, tools and infrastructure and a leader who sets the tone for company culture.

Says Praval Singh, vice-president of marketing, Zoho: “Successful companies build a culture where people can work with you for the long haul.” Praval himself has worked 10 years at Zoho, and according to him, a few ‘seemingly simple’ things stand out:

1) Employees aligning with the company’s vision

2) The talent they have been able to nurture and create

3) Looking forward to work every day (which may not be perfect, but still has you gripped).

Further, he points out how a bottom-up approach to building trust is very important as a company scales. Even the last mile has to feel the same vibe as the founder does for culture to really percolate.

My view? Going against the tide and taking a step back when the world is headed in the same direction may not be a bad idea. Especially when you are a leader. Have a short-term mindset to ensure sustenance, but a really long-term one to create value. It cannot be either/or. Also, your values have to take people along with you, not sacrifice them at the first instance of instability or fear. Moving fast and breaking things may be a great Valley tenet, but it may not be very feasible when it comes to people.

What happens to jobs, then?

It is only natural that when companies themselves are temporary, so are ‘structured’ jobs. Think of your career as a marathon and multiple jobs as sprints. Going forward, we will run many marathons and even more sprints. The crux of the jobs issue is deep rooted. We are not trained to run too many sprints, let alone a single marathon. However, the system expects us to run.

Grades, skills, expertise

Our approach to education is mostly rote learning and not a practical ‘makers’ approach’. For context, Sridhar Vembu wrote an article in the campus newspaper arguing that the Indian Institutes of Technology were taking in some of the smartest students in India and wasting their time. “We are not building anything. We sit in classrooms competing for useless grades,” he said.

Startups today are betting on A-listers, high-performers and those from meritorious institutions. Very few companies are bold enough to make a change, hire from lesser known institutes or not hire for grades altogether. Only grades are not the issue. It is also about skills and expertise.

In the current scenario, having a single degree for life is not enough. We should normalise going back to school/college in our 30s/ 40s/50s or beyond. Why does education stop, really? Organisations are not built for enhancing our skills and let us face that. We are responsible for ourselves. Learning and Development programmes are not designed for learning something new and relying on them is myopic. If you stop and give this further thought, like I do, you will also realise that many of these organisations do not create great leaders either. Everyone is put in the same mould (read job description) which is actually a killer of passion and originality, if you ask me.

Meeta Sengupta, FRSA, founder, Centre for Education Strategy, speaker, advisor and consultant, shares her perspective on the current times.

“Do you know the last line of the Mahabharata? It ends with, ‘and this is how the Yuga (era) ended’. Did the era actually end – did all of mankind disappear? No. A new era or way of doing things began. It is very similar now.” She continues: “Covid has only accelerated the pace, but as academicians we have been asking similar questions for at least seven to eight years. If we educate at the old speed, students will never be prepared for the new pace.” Meeta has workshops on what she has named Pivotal Skills that include the core 5 of Initiative, Improvisation, Insight, Influence and Impact. These are the five skills she proposes are essential to progress and career pivots. Can we be gutsy enough to abolish the current education system altogether and only teach/ learn for skills? I only wish.

We live in crazy times. There is no right or wrong – especially when you ask questions around building a lasting enterprise or making your career last. However, nothing stops us from taking a pause and thinking. What gets my goat is conforming and not questioning enough. We must. Our lives and livelihoods are at stake. Perhaps that differentiates us from dinosaurs. Don’t you think?

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