Beyond Unicorn dreams: the many paths to the entrepreneurship journey
Origin stories of some of the best-known companies make for fascinating history today.
Here are a couple of these stories that were shaped by moments of change in history.
1929: Boroline, that ubiquitous green bottle that we use for many everyday uses was created in Kolkata by a merchant who joined the Swadeshi movement and started creating medicinal products which could complete with foreign ones.
1942: It was the time when Quit India Movement was taking root in India while the World War II was raging across countries. Four friends realized that the temporary ban on paint imports was an opportunity. That gave rise to the company we know as Asian Paints today.
Globally, too there are many such origin stories of companies. While some origin stories could be enhanced, in hindsight, they range across several reasons. From spotting an unmissable opportunity, to building on skills over time and from minimizing regret to even lucky accidents and more.
But, even more than origin stories, what people seem to remember and care for the most are the outcome stories.
Let us look at the reality of the entrepreneurship stories today. The popular narrative around Entrepreneurship today is peppered with impossible Unicorn scale stories from often humble garage beginnings. Companies are celebrated for 100X exits and for blitzscaling to miracle valuations in record time. But for every such story, there are stories of companies such as Zoho and Zerodha, which scaled, on their time, and without VC investments.
In truth, entrepreneurship is far more nuanced and the journey to and during entrepreneurship can take us down many unknown roads. And in many cases, one cannot time this journey within a few years or with a single method of growth.
Let us first unpack this word, entrepreneurship. Just who is an entrepreneur and why?
A student who is chancing upon her first innovation
A solopreneur building a venture from home
A freelancer building a unique skill that people find value in
Someone looking to solve a multi-generational social problem
A young school or college student stumbling upon their first innovation
A senior citizen finding an innovative way to build her/his skills in a new venture post retirement
Each one of them, regardless of age, location, ambition, is an entrepreneur. Each one of them is building a unique road to innovation and financial freedom. Capital, and specifically VC/PE forms of capital will be a companion only in a few of these journeys.
Funding and scale are both choices that are made along that journey. Choices defined by an entrepreneur’s vision and sometimes, also by happenstance.
Let us look at these choices in the diagram below:
If we plot the period on the x axis and the growth aspirations on the y axis, we could create a 2/2 matrix around the different growth options.
In the initial stages, as founders start with their initial idea, they might already have an idea of the kind of company they want to build. Or they might figure it out along the way. Both are valid choices. We call them the builders.
There are those, who create innovative products which show early success. The temptation to avoid at this stage is to take too much capital before one is really prepared for growth. Some of these companies might see value creation opportunities through M&As.
Others might continue over time to find out diverse ways of growth. Term these shifts as pivots but, we believe that they are navigators. And they are navigating through each tough decision that comes our way in entrepreneurship as they find their destination.
And finally, there are companies that build steady and grow over time, to become large firms. Like the Boroline and the Asian Paints examples. Some might list on stock markets. Some might continue to grow as private firms. Their tenacity might help them create companies that are built to last, as Jim Collins had said. They know that entrepreneurship is not just about glitzy headlines but about the quiet and gruelling hours and years spent in building something that may last for generations.
Each of the entrepreneur personas that we discussed earlier, can make one or more of these strategic choices around time and scale.
And hence, Entrepreneurship stories can be multihued. Yes, India has 100+ Unicorns today and some of them will create value on their own terms and time. But not every company will be coloured in these Unicorn stripes.
And that is a disservice we are doing to our entrepreneurs today. We tend to call people who are not hyperscaling or looking at building billion-dollar valued businesses in a few years along with exits timed for investors, as lifestyle businesses or even more limiting, as small, and medium businesses.
But these definitions are no indication of the founder and the team’s growth plans.
And for India to really become a $5trillion+ economy, we need entrepreneurship of all shapes and sizes. In fact, what we need today is what Nobel Prize winner Edmund Phelps called as mass flourishing. Where entrepreneurship spreads everywhere across countries and where each community has everyday entrepreneurs solving local challenges, providing jobs, in that locality, and solving problems that the community faces.
As we enter 2023, let us make the definitions around entrepreneurship more inclusive. Because entrepreneurs will choose their growth paths, regardless of the definitions people try to bracket them in. And we need more of them today, more than ever.