Bangalore: There is much to be said of the gambler that is good. He can be at the table for hours, rolling the dice, calling the numbers, believing Lady Luck is due for a visit even as he runs out of money, dice-roll after dice-roll. The gambler is an especially persevering species. In a different circumstance, he might have been an entrepreneur.
The gambler and the entrepreneur—the kind that knows what the buyer wants before the buyer knows it—share an abundance of the same gene. It’s the gene the researchers call DRD2. A specific code of this inheritance is a receptor of dopamine, the brain chemical that stimulates a rush of pleasure from taking risks.
K.A. Srinivasan, it would seem, stocks this code in plenty. He’s founded two companies, both pioneers of sorts. Impulsesoft Pvt. Ltd, which he co-launched in 1999, was among the earliest firms to develop Bluetooth IP and platforms even as the technology was being standardized.
There’s a note of pride when Srinivasan says that. He had turned entrepreneur on a lark—“one of my friends wanted to start a company”—and he had crossed the curve already.
Before that, Srinivasan was with IDeaS Inc. in the US, writing software. It was his second job. He wasn’t married. Money wasn’t a worry. And he wanted to keep life interesting. “We had everything to learn and nothing to lose,” he says.
His friends and he tried a few products, including a blood bank system that would page donors if a requirement came up. It didn’t find takers. They tried a few more products before they hit on Bluetooth. And they stuck with it as the enquiries built up. Seven years later, in January 2006, they sold Impulsesoft to San Jose-based SiRF Technology Holdings Inc. for $15 million.
The team now had a learning, and money, that they wanted to put to use. A couple of years after selling Impulsesoft, his friends and he set about planning a second company. “We had to correct all the mistakes we made,” Srinivasan says. So this time, they actually laid down criteria that would define their firm: Disruptive—it should change how the industry behaves; scalable—Impulsesoft wasn’t that; India-focused; and fun.
The caricature of him on Amagi Media Labs Pvt. Ltd’s website shows him swatting arrows, a sword in his left hand and a shield in his right. “Srini is a man with aggression,” the description of him says. Srinivasan claims to be a marketing samurai, it says, “though he has never set foot in a B-school.”
Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
Amagi sells space for targeted ads on television. Its patent-pending technology allows local businesses to advertise on television in specific regions, instead of having to spend big to advertise all over the nation for a lack of choice.
For all that enterprise, Srinivasan doesn’t believe entrepreneurs are a design of nature. He learnt to be an entrepreneur, he says; “I never planned to be one but grew to be one.” The gene can’t take the credit.
The gene is amazingly malleable in the hands of the sociologist. It can claim merit for the achiever—the marathon runner, the magic dribbler, the thespian, the prodigy virtuoso—or serve to extenuate the oddly twisted—the addict, the gambler, Shylock.
But there’s no such thing as an entrepreneur gene. Scott Shane, author of the book Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders: How Your Genes Affect Your Work Life, says in an article published on Entrepreneur.com that “there’s no single gene or even set of genes for entrepreneurship.” But “hundreds of genes probably influence whether or not we become entrepreneurs,” he writes.
In another paper titled Is The Tendency to Engage in Entrepreneurship Genetic?, Shane and the co-authors argue that genetic factors—proven to influence aspects of human behaviour—“might influence the tendency of people to engage in entrepreneurship through a variety of complementary mechanisms.”
The DRD2 variant, for instance, the one prevalent in compulsive gamblers, would likely propel people with more of it to “engage in entrepreneurial activity” because the specific gene code increases the pleasure derived from taking risks, the researchers theorized. Other gene sets might trigger extraversion or influence a tendency to seek out environments favourable to entrepreneurship, they wrote. The gamblers were almost there; just that they didn’t have the entire right combination of genetic code.
Shane is the department chair, economics, at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and an expert on entrepreneurship. For the study above, the co-authors and he observed hundreds of identical and fraternal twins to analyse how they made their choices.
They concluded that 48% of the propensity toward entrepreneurship is influenced by genetic factors, or in other words, can be inherited. “Genetic factors influence the tendency to become an entrepreneur,” they wrote, “However, they do not indicate that entrepreneurship is genetically determined.”
None of this can explain how Dhirubhai Ambani—the son of a schoolteacher and a homemaker in a village in Gujarat—or Steve Jobs—the offspring of an academic who later held various jobs in the hospitality industry and a speech therapist—became the businessmen they were. They were passionate, determined and capable inherently of sniffing out opportunities and taking the risks to see them through. Add Amagi’s Srinivasan to that list, the son of a state government employee and a homemaker.
As should be with any entrepreneur of any worth, Srinivasan says he possesses an irrational sense of optimism—to believe in an idea and make it work—and a risk-taking ability. “I have learnt to trust my instincts more,” he says.
“Risk-taking,” says Sunil Krishnan, “is central to an entrepreneur… he has to be born with it.” Krishnan had been a corporate hand all his working life until he turned a co-founder of Bangalore real estate firm Confident Group some years ago. “You can learn it but you would end up making mitigating plans. The one born with it will stick to Plan A and make it work.”
Krishnan says he’s confused about the nature-versus-nurture debate. “You can be a patient man or not a patient man, but does that mean you can never learn to be patient?” Certain traits, he says, are innate—quick decision-making, an affinity for risk, vision and out-of-the-box thinking. But even the most gene-blessed entrepreneur doesn’t pack the entire range. The key trait for a person of business, he says, is to be able to draw the talent to fill the gaps.
At Confident Group, founder, chairman and managing director Roy C.J. is the risk-taker, especially when it comes to land acquisitions. Krishnan brings strategy and governance. So when he puts on his angel investor cap, he spends a lot of time understanding the founding team to see if they have complementary skills. “To me, that is probably the most cohesive factor,” he says.
An entrepreneur now, after over two decades as an executive, the last as Hewlett-Packard Co.’s finance director in Singapore, Krishnan is finding his genes. “I have realized over five years I have a sense for what works and what doesn’t work,” he says. He’s a decent judge of people and their instincts. “It’s helped improve my entrepreneur quotient. I have become more and more an entrepreneur.”
Evidently, the art can be learnt. Or, at least, the latent artist can be awoken. The world’s best business schools that produce an assembly line of managers have been running entrepreneurial programmes for decades. Those might be passé.
Among Stanford University’s hottest entrepreneurial programmes, perhaps, is the 10-week Launchpad course offered at its Institute of Design, or the d.school. Out of those 10 weeks emerged the Pulse—a news reader application that featured in Apple Inc.’s App Store Hall of Fame and an Editor’s Choice pick in the Android market. The reader was created by Akshay Kothari and Ankit Gupta, products of middle-class Indian families.
In India, among the various B-schools that offer similar programmes, the S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research, one of the five founding members of the National Entrepreneurship Network for India, runs the Centre for Entrepreneurship Development.
Suresh Rao, a career executive-turned-management academic who established the centre in 2004, puts it like this: “Entrepreneurs are both born and made; it’s not either-or.” Traits thought to be congenital—vision, leadership, risk-taking—he says can be taught. “That’s the core of entrepreneurial teaching, really—besides business management knowledge and skills.”
And risk-taking may not be the big deal it is made out to be, because with the easy pool of knowledge and networks available now the odds can be worked out. “Students can be taught to handle uncertainties, make decisions under pressure, and make the decisions come through,” Rao says. That’s essentially what second-generation entrepreneurs are taken through—an incubation at home in the art of businesses. “However, their appetite for risk taking seems inherent,” he adds.
The centre has trained some 180 students in 10 batches; some 40 of them are now entrepreneurs. The 13-weekend course didn’t just create entrepreneurs, it also helped some decide it wasn’t for them. “Entrepreneurship schools help you discover yourselves, what excites you,” Rao says. But there’s one trait the centre can’t instill: “Passion, the fire in the belly… Drive, passion and energy, you have to bring that with you.” Then the academic kicks in. “But maybe even that can be triggered.”
Mint is a strategic partner of National Entrepreneurship Network, which hosts Tata First Dot.