It hasn’t been an easy few weeks for start-up founders in India. The sheen has worn off. The dramatic lay-offs and news of punctured valuations over the last year were bad enough but they were still only business excesses and faulty revenue models. Now, the dirt in the press is about arrests and voodoo dolls, confrontational relationships with investors, messy divorces and new-age entrepreneurs accused of age-old sexism and harassment.
The factory of entrepreneurship storytelling has ensured that even small start-ups (if they belong to the right ecosystems) often punch above their weight in visibility and media presence. This is great when things are on a high but the flip side is the scrutiny they face when the chips are down.
Building businesses in the age of social media isn’t easy. The slip-ups are glaringly public. Failures are dissected minutely. This journey to fame and its alter ego, controversy, is pretty rapid for many of our over-celebrated start-ups.
While being an entrepreneur under fire is tough, being a family member who is taken along on this journey can be rough and treacherous too. The headwinds of business obstacles are never restricted to the boardroom, or the workplace, especially at start-ups. Families get tossed around in the frenzy with no manual in hand. For example, it isn’t easy to wake up and find social media and the mainstream business press buzzing with bad news about your loved one’s venture. It hurts. It angers. It stings.
Sometimes, if you’re a family member who also doubles up as a sounding board, the reasons for the mess that the company finds itself in could be blind spots you might have pointed out, or cautioned against. Maybe to no avail. Equally, some blunders might come as a complete shock even to close confidants and a tight-knit family. The personal disillusionments are difficult enough to deal with. Yet the test of loyalty during a time of crisis demands that you keep lectures to a minimum and stick it out.
Not just families, friends and extended family struggle with the code of silence as well: Do you always stand up for your friend or speak up against what you know to be wrong? Do you ignore the buzz, stay off Twitter and bury your head in the sand?
I spoke to families of entrepreneurs battling lawsuits, closures and dwindling businesses. Here is some advice that came up.
■ Understand that often you will be able to do nothing to help. Accept it. It sometimes isn’t your battle to fight even if your impulse is to soldier down the warpath. Also, the founder is not the company. The company is always bigger. Or it should be. Don’t expect every decision that a company might have to make to be driven by what is right for your loved one.
■ Be as honest with friends and extended family as possible. If asked, do give them a straightforward account. Indian families and friendships often function in the complicity of silence. Relationships work because we don’t address what doesn’t work. The confrontations, controversies and complexities stay hidden. Yet ideas, help and suggestions from friends and family are possible only when they know what is going on. Those who will judge and gossip will do so regardless of whether you have chosen to confide in them or not. But you might be surprised to learn that with others you choose to come clean with, disclosures can bridge distances.
■ When things hit a wall, the spouse of a founder said it made her realize how important it was for their family to de-risk their lives and careers by making sure the two of them had independent careers, bank accounts and assets. A crisis is always a good time for prudent housekeeping.
■ Once things settle down, push for clear conversations on what went wrong. If there is a way that the business was run that made you uncomfortable, address it with your family member. If your life is going to be affected by what happens to the company, or at the company, raise it. Urge change and corrective action.
None of this is easy, of course. Survival never is, whether it’s at work or at home.
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.