Long before it was fashionable, circa 1983, my brother, Anand Jagannathan, shocked the family by quitting his cushy job in Data General to start a company with his boss Dave Mahoney and another co-worker. The office they sublet, on the famous Route 128 corridor in Westborough Massachusetts, was the same one where Jonathan Sachs had recently developed the Lotus 1-2-3 electronic spreadsheet. My earliest memories are of their first task—to find a name for their company. Thanks to my brother’s desi heritage, “Banyan Systems” was born—a networking company named after, as my brother put it, “Nature’s distributed systems,” and they even had a product called “Vines.” Banyan was an instant success story, which was probably not such a great thing because it transformed my brother into a serial entrepreneur.
I didn’t know then that the man I would marry would follow suit. When I met my husband Raghu, he said he worked for a small start-up. I must have been young and foolish, because I married him anyway. This was Mentor Graphics, in Portland, Oregon, in the early days, and in a strange co-incidence both companies had the same investors—Sutter Hill Ventures and Greylock. Though Raghu was not a founder, he was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and started out with a boutique software company called Indius. In 1998, Anand and Raghu co-founded Responsys. A few years later, they moved on to start other companies.
I am not an entrepreneur, but I did flirt with the concept in the dot-com boom days of 2000, just like everybody else. I had grand plans for a web portal for book lovers. It was supposed to be a virtual coffee shop/bookstore where readers could meet and chat with authors and network with like-minded people across the world. This was in the days before webinars and Facebook, and I soon realized that even though my ideas might have been creative, I had bitten off more than I could possibly chew. I still have the domain name(Gulmohar.com) but that project went to the back burner and I decided to focus on writing content instead.
When I attended a TiE (The Indus Entrepreneurs) Oregon event a couple of years ago on “Startup funding ideas for tough times,” I realized, however, that I have learned a lot about the entrepreneurial process just by osmosis. One of the attendees at the event asked about the impact that a start-up would have on the quality of his life, and Carolynn Duncan, a micro-business expert and one of the speakers at the event, gave him good advice—to discuss it with his spouse and make sure they were on the same page before starting a company. So here are my two cents as a family member witnessing the ebb and flow of start-ups.
Be a Missionary not a Mercenary
Venky Ganesan, Managing Director of Globespan Capital Partners, a speaker at the event, put it very succinctly. When it comes to funding a company, venture capitalists, he said, are looking for “a missionary not a mercenary.” That’s definitely true, and my husband is a prime example. He drove the same Honda Civic he had for 10 years and parted with it recently only with great difficulty. We call his laptop the family pet because it goes everywhere with us—weddings, graduations, and vacations. And he doesn’t look for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, because for him, the rainbow is the gold.
Sure, there all these glamour stories of IPOs, trips to Davos and TED, and chateaus in France, but the reality for many spouses of entrepreneurs is years of your husband (or wife) missing piano recitals and soccer games and their getting a little irritable if you complain that your home has been converted into a warehouse.
Here’s a warning for spouses: Be ready for that long exile in a jungle in Africa, because that’s where you could be—converting the natives one by one.
Think Lke a Starving Artist
As a former scientist who is now a wannabe author, I can really relate to this concept. In fact, the TiE event was a lot like the Willamette Writers meetings I attend, except in our case, the product is a book and the VC is a publisher. So here I can give some of the advice I get as a starving writer: “A successful writer is one who didn’t quit.” I must say though, that with the changes in the publishing industry, it’s not easy to survive, unless of course you are an idealist like J.D. Salinger and don’t care if you are published or not.
The Catch 22
This is a question often asked at our writers’ meetings: How do you write if you have to work and how do you earn a living if you need to write? Most aspiring writers don’t quit their day job. They work week-ends and evenings until they get their first break—the first book they sell to a publisher. As it is with companies, success breeds success. If your first book is a best-seller then you get more book deals, and Hollywood will come knocking on your door for the movie rights. As Venky put it, “They (VCs) will give you an umbrella when it’s sunny and you don’t need it and take it away when it’s raining.”
The Rewards: The good news is that starting a company is not just about trials and tribulations. There are quite a few rewards:
• Freedom: You are the big kahuna. You don’t have to subject yourself to the caprices of an incompetent manager. No more office politics. No more being polite to your micro-managing boss.
• Control: No more dozing off at meaningless meetings, or being forced to go on a business trip to Israel. No more wasting time on “busy” work. Everything you do is relevant.
• Security: Strange as it may seem, there is more security. You are in control of your destiny, so you don’t have to worry about layoffs and re-orgs. Also, constantly being on the edge hardens you, and you are more prepared for tough times than your compatriots in regular jobs who can be jolted rudely from their complacency.
• Flexibility: Your family may complain you work 24/7, but here’s the paradox: You are never available, but you are always available. You may wind up working during dinner, family re-unions, even in the back of a school auditorium, but you will be able to take your child to the doctor on a weekday morning, take an afternoon off to watch your kid acting in a school play, or stay up all night watching a royal wedding… the list is endless.
My family comes from a conservative South Indian culture, with only spirituality in our ancestry, not trade and profit. But my brother and my husband, both IIT alumni, have veered from tradition, and somehow we have survived. Raghu and many from the original Responsys engineering team are now back in the same location—a slightly bigger office, more people, yet another start-up—Act-on Software. My brother is already exploring new ideas and the crazy road-trip continues.
The much sought after “Exit” has finally been attained. But the choice of that word, firmly entrenched now in the entrepreneur’s lexicon, is unfortunate. The Bhagavad Gita advises us to focus on a work ethic not the fruit of one’s labor. The bottom line should not be the only goal. According to Vish Mishra, President of TiE Silicon Valley, and Director at Clearstone Venture Partners, a successful entrepreneur is one who is dedicated to the upliftment of others. Ironically, when you serve others, the profits automatically follow. The most important thing to understand, if you are starting out as an entrepreneur, is the famous prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. As he said, “It’s in giving that you receive.”
Lakshmi Jagannathan is a writer from the Northwest and Executive Director of TiE Oregon. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org