Walking into the office of The Minimalist, a design consultancy, one half expects a boisterous bunch sprawled around, dealing with different stages of midday ennui. Instead, there is an unmistakable “grown-up" vibe at the 50-member Mumbai office that has an average age of 25. Founded and run by two 25-year-olds—Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay graduates Sahil Vaidya and Chirag Gander—this three-year-old company started as a Facebook page. It now includes three business units and continues to be completely bootstrapped.

“The biggest challenge for any organization is ‘people issues’. With young founders, the problem is compounded because they lack emotional maturity," says Sushma Kaushik, investment director, Aavishkar Bharat Fund, a venture fund that invests in early stage businesses. With an ever-expanding team, the young founders admit that they learn something new every day about managing people their own age, and, in some cases, older. “We just try and be ourselves, that has got us this far. There’s a lot of curiosity because of our age, I think that works for us," says Vaidya. Here are some of their lessons at managing colleagues who are peers.

Into the deep end

The initial days were far from easy. Vaidya and Gander, who were in their fourth and final year of college, respectively, found themselves facing a sea of challenges—from renting offices and hiring to more technical issues like registering a company, accounting, payroll, etc. “The initial year saw us working 70-80 hours a week. Managing academics with the vagaries and uncertainties of a fledgling organization was quite stressful. My degree was hanging by a thread; thoughts of dropping out would cross my mind every other day," says  Vaidya.

At this point, young founders need a diverse set of mentors and advisers to guide them through the process of people management and retention. “Young founders should acknowledge the expertise that they lack and bring in professionals to help them with it," suggests Kaushik. As they learnt the ropes of the business, Vaidya and Gander were quick to admit that they needed counsel. They set up an advisory board with four CXO-level industry leaders who continue to guide them on strategic initiatives. 

Employees at The Minimalist’s office. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Employees at The Minimalist’s office. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Stumble and learn

After some initial hiring disasters led to attrition and internal strife, the founder duo decided to use the experience of their mentors for key hires. “One of the ways we deal with conflict is to make sure the people who join us are a cultural fit, any team leads have to meet our advisory board as well," says Vaidya. They also continue to be mindful of getting their hiring right and setting an attitude of respect towards everyone, regardless of age. “No one can just boss around anymore, you have to treat young employees as equals. We’re all here working towards a common goal. We’ve tried to build openness and energy into the team, we sit with them, not huddled up in cabins," adds Gander. “All young founders goes through their own journeys, they’re capable of it but they haven’t been on the other side (an employee) yet. That’s why they struggle to build institutions. But with some rules in place things can work out," says Kaushik.

Work-life balance

For a generation that always strives to do more, a sense of purpose is important to stay rooted. “A large part of our on-boarding programmes and team discussions are focused on giving people the big picture, showing them what they’re contributing towards building. They have to buy in to the idea that they are putting The Minimalist on the world map," says Gander. 

With so many 20-somethings in the room, channelling all that creative energy is a challenge. An energy room with a foosball table, scrabble and a breakout zone act as an escape till people “are back in their zone". They have a programme called “Minimal Talks" where industry leaders talk to the team about best practices; regular “hackathons" keep them competitive and up-to-date; and cross-functional rotations give staff a chance to experience other forms of media. “We make sure there are enough informal interactions, we party with our team, celebrate small victories and make sure they know we’re in this together," says Gander.  Employees also have flexible timings, and can take an occasional “work from home", if the need arises. “The team understands that meeting deadlines and customer satisfaction are our yardsticks, within those parameters they can design their work-life," says Vaidya.

Founders Sahil Vaidya (left) and Chirag Gander say being themselves has gotten them this far. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Founders Sahil Vaidya (left) and Chirag Gander say being themselves has gotten them this far. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Young and restless

"We gauge people on energy and provocation and that comes naturally to the younger lot who are not yet shackled by mindsets and rules," explains Vaidya. Constant effort to excite a young crowd that always wants more is definitely taxing. “Additionally, a lot of training in terms of professional standard operating procedures has to be imbibed into people who have lesser experience. This process is rather strenuous," he adds. For most people Minimalist is their first job. The duo say they accept the  huge responsibility to make sure that those who  join their team end up building a solid foundation.

How young founders can manage their employees

Be patient: On one hand there is the aspiration to grow fast and on the other hand, one needs patience to hold on to the workforce that you have hired and trained. Balancing both is important

Avoid buzzwords: There are many that float around for employee management and retention, mindfully pick those that are relevant to your organization.

Empathize: Some young CEOs have never been on the other side, they have not been employees, so they need to factor in that perspective.

Provide career aspirations: Don’t look at solving here and now problems, evaluate people on their overall
fitment and show them how they’ll grow in the organization.

Processes are important: Founders are top-line driven and often ignore to put in basic processes.

It’s not only about you: Young founders need to understand that they need to co-exist with their employees and share visibility with them when appropriate.

—Debashis Sarkar, managing partner, Proliferator Advisory & Consulting

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