Journeys that bring you back
Amit Sinha, chief operating officer (COO) of online marketplace Paytm Mall, is proud of his collection of nearly 300 travel-themed books. They teach him more about the world than any soaring self-help literature or business biography can, Sinha claims. Not that he ever reads those, regardless of how famous the author is, or how successful the entrepreneur-in-focus has been.
His stated genre of choice, by extension, indicates an abiding passion for travel. This isn’t surprising for someone like Sinha. Exotic travel and unique vacation experiences are this generation’s fancy car, heirloom jewellery and hip real estate rolled into one when it comes to status and success markers.
As far as professional treks go, beyond Paytm’s recent steep climb up, Sinha has also been on an interesting personal itinerary: going down the professional-turned-entrepreneur-turned-professional-again road.
It’s a trip many start-up founders are finding they have to embark on as well. In the great start-up churn of the past 18 months, and the recent bust cycle, several entrepreneurs are forced to confront a return to corporate careers and working professional lives. This is an uneasy, challenging acclimatization.
Sinha made this journey when he left One97, Paytm’s parent company, in 2010 to co-found Akshamaala, an agribusiness aimed at helping farmers make informed market decisions. He had first joined One97 in 2007, when it was a 110-people company with work largely in VAS (value-added services) applications, after stints at Airtel, Keane Consulting and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). He had a good run at the company, building both the business as well as strong ties with Vijay Shekhar Sharma, its founder.
At Akshamaala, Sinha soon realized two things he hadn’t anticipated before taking the entrepreneurial plunge: that unlike technology ventures, agribusinesses take longer to sow and harvest, and that Akshamaala’s offering was possibly a tad ahead of its time.
He understood growth would be measured and moderate. Did it justify the opportunity cost? In any case, by early 2013, Sharma was eager that Sinha return to the fold. So Sinha rejoined One97, three years after he had left it. He continues, however, to be an investor in Akshamaala, which offers analytics, services and digital solutions to agricultural and rural markets.
Needless to say, the decision turned out to be a boon. Paytm’s rapid growth, and the adrenalin rush the company has been on over the past few years, has given its team an unprecedented opportunity. In February, Sinha became Paytm Mall’s COO.
Yet, he’s candid that his dream run isn’t the typical narrative. For most entrepreneurs, going back to work for somebody else usually doesn’t pan out well, Sinha cautions. “It would be very frustrating to go back to a limited role because your sphere of impact gets smaller. That isn’t something a truly entrepreneurial person would ever enjoy.”
In his case, an already established familiarity with the company, a solid rapport with the founder, and a frenzied growth spurt made the landing effortless. In fact, he was better off.
The experience of being a founder of an “extreme start-up” leads to lessons that you can’t get anywhere else, Sinha says. Not even in well-funded and large start-ups, however much they might stress on innovation and high-growth environments as their biggest employee perk. “Entrepreneurship teaches you the last unit of work; that you can have a client’s cheque in your bag but nobody to go deposit that in the bank. I now know what can or cannot get done on the ground,” he adds.
Not everyone is that lucky, of course. For all the hype around learning from failure, and the immense value of entrepreneurial experience, senior professionals-turned entrepreneurs-trying to turn employees find it a challenge to identify roles that build on their start-up experience as well as their professional skills.
Job-seeking can be an emotionally charged shift, say ex-founders, leading to a crisis of confidence and questions that haunt: Can I work with strong peers again? Can I lead without necessarily having ownership? Will the sense of purpose ever match up?
These are detours start-up founders don’t usually plot when they hatch new ventures, but, more often than not, must navigate if they have to survive the start-up life.
Surviving Start-ups focuses on the stories of the people (parents, siblings, spouses and friends) who make up an entrepreneur’s world. The columnist is the spouse of a start-up entrepreneur and draws from real-life experience.