What startup entrepreneurs could learn from writers

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto


Aspirants to business success could get valuable lessons from artists on what not to be

The past few days, people who follow the news began to see images of a sari-clad entrepreneur who they would soon learn is the founder of the online retail store, Nykaa. After her company began trading on Indian stock markets last week, Falguni Nayar became a billionaire, and hence another inspiring figure. Inspiration is a feeling people get when they derive from successful people all the wrong causes and impediments of success. And so there was much talk about her age, the fact that she was 50 when she started her business, that she was a woman, and so on. What people never know are the actual reasons for someone’s success.

Even so, inspiration is the most powerful emotion of our times. Feeling it, seeking it. It emerges from a subdued form of sorrow called hope. Across Indian cities today, the young and the middle-aged wish to be entrepreneurs. They wish to be rich. Working for a company is merely a temporary arrangement until an exceptional idea comes to them, or until they execute such an idea that has already come to them. Or, maybe, most of them don’t have ideas. They want to be wealthy entrepreneurs but they don’t know yet what their enterprise is going to be, even though they do love that quote about how wealth is a by-product of doing what you love. One thing inspiring people don’t tell you is that you need more luck to realize what you love than to make money.

Despite the dullness and illogic of most successful entrepreneurs, millions seek to absorb insights from them. As the hopeful wait, they routinely hear of some startup raising millions in some round, or a new company going for an initial public offer. What does so much inspiration, hope and intended imitation do to a society? It makes people unhappy, jealous, bitter and other things that are useful for success. But they need one more layer of information.

A few years ago, I was invited by a publisher to be in conversation with the British-Pakistani writer, Mohsin Hamid, to discuss his new novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Once members of the audience started asking questions, I figured why they had come. They thought the book was a serious how-to-get-rich guide. But in a way, they were in the right place. There is much that aspiring entrepreneurs can learn from writers. Also, from filmmakers and other artists. People don’t realise that artists are entrepreneurs. I wish I could say what you need to learn from them is how to be. And maybe you can. But they offer a more valuable lesson in what not to be. They are a foreboding of what is going to happen to you and why you have to be a better person than a writer and others of that bent.

It is possible that the reason writers and art filmmakers talk so much about public ethics and morality is that they have very little of these in their private lives. All of us have a quota of goodness we need to fulfil. So people who do not know how to be kind at home are often the ones who speak of macro-kindness, of national or global proportions. But one strand of their public morality also comes from the bitterness of failure and jealousy. That is why they commonly attack their more successful peers on moral and ideological grounds.

The recent success of young and middle-class entrepreneurs has created the notion that the startup culture emerges from equal opportunity. This is largely a myth because there is a lot of social equity hidden in startup funding. Yet, strong perceptions of merit persist in this new economy, and that deepens the sense of failure in a majority who are yet to make it. And I am beginning to see the same sad circles of disgruntled people as seen in the arts, wasting their time talking ill of those who have made it.

I do not wish to deny anyone the agony of envy. After all, it is a natural sentiment between equals, and all talented people who believe they are worthy of success would feel envious of their more successful peers. But when envy turns into sustained bitterness, it causes hyper-morality, which is the prevailing madness in the artistic world. Behind those men who call other men “misogynists", behind the accusations of “bigotry", behind the moral indignation of the art-house is usually just petty jealousy and a subconscious attempt to eliminate competition.

I see this happening among talented entrepreneurs whose startups are languishing. Their sense of failure and jealousy makes them speak the language of social morality. When we think we’re better than others, we tend to lose our humour, and humour is not merely the ability to be funny. It is the ability to laugh at our own circumstances, and that is a form of clarity. When people surrender their clarity, they unwittingly get recruited in larger political and corporate games.

Mainstream commercial art is a democracy where public opinion delivers either rewards or punishment. But for the middle and high arts, a cartel decides for all of us what is good. Here, validation is the currency. This infection has already permeated the very heart of our new capitalism. Disenchanted entrepreneurs who have been denied material success seek compensation in more abstract kinds of validation. At an innocuous level, they do things like creating a corrupt culture of awards and prestige. At a more serious level, their disenchantment has transformed into hyper-moral activism.

For instance, some disgruntled entrepreneurs who have taken to posturing call themselves “ethicists", and some of them create or fan fears around technology, privacy, enterprise and billionaires. And what was denied to them in the form of material success, they make up through acclaim.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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