In a long bus ride, I read How I braved Anu Aunty and made a million-dollar company and I loved the book. The stories in the book are especially familiar to those who have faced the ire of family and sometimes friends at wanting to do a startup.

Anu Aunty Book

In the midst of the book, there is a passionate explanation by Varun Agarwal of why his idea of alumni T-shirts and alumni hoodies are important to people:

… The strangest thing was that my long-forgotten cupboard kept yielding one memory after another. I ran into a lot of my stuff from school that had got lost in the decade gone by. I started thinking of all those wonderful days. And that is when it hit me. That is what Alma Mater was about! It was about bringing those good ol’ days back. It was about taking you down that memory lane that leads to the wonderful times of school and college.

 

… We didn’t have Facebook then but we did have ICQ. One line none of us from that ‘era’ can ever forget is ‘ASL (age/sex/location) please,’ when meeting someone new on ICQ.¬† We had atrociously funny-sounding email ids – therockrulez@hotmail.com, dude_am@indya.com and the like and even funnier names in the ‘chat rooms.’ You couldn’t Google but had to go to altavista.com or approach Mr Jeeves for any queries and clarifications.

 

You still had to call a girl on her landline and muster all the courage to ask for her. The only place you could hang out at was Wimpy’s or McD and one still stayed away from the solitary Coffee Day on Brigade Road. Galaxy was where all the movies played and one had to stand in a long queue to buy tickets for Mission Impossible 2.

 

TV still played The Wonder Years and The Crystal Maze and the world seemed far smarter minus the Saas-Bahu soaps and the reality shows.

 

You could still find the time to read a book in the evenings¬† and play cricket in your ‘gully’ on Sundays. ‘Canada Dry’ was the only source to get high and sweet, candy cigarettes were puffed at most of the times.

 

VSNL ensured porn still loaded one byte at a time and VCDs were all the rage. Hulk Hogan was perpetually rank one on all the ‘Trump Cards’ and Cameron Diaz from The Mask was in every puberty-hitting youngters’ dreams. The only operating system we knew of was Windows 98.

 

Anyone with a printer was treated with respect and the World Book Encyclopedia was the only source of information for projects. Hero Pen was the original Chinese nib was still preferred over the brash new ‘Pilot’ pen.

 

Azharuddin was still our captain and Jadeja and Robin Singh were our pinch hitters. Venkatesh Prasad was the only one with the balls to mess with the Pakis and we still lost all the test matches.

 

And I definitely cannot miss out wearing a ‘colour’ dress to school on your birthday and distributing Eclairs to everyone.

 

I could go on and on. but I guess you get the drift.

 

As I cleaned my room, I ran into my long forgotten collection of Tinkle. Gosh, how I used to love those comics.

 

I guess some of us might hate to admit it now but everyone of us have read a Tinkle at some point or the other in our childhood. Even though it would be really un-cool to talk about ‘Suppandi’ now, he was the coolest character we knew in junior school. Before there was cartoon network, before Swat Cats took over, there was Uncle Scrooge on Doordarshan and there was Tinkle.

 

… I guess Tinkle comics have long been forgotten but they will always remain with us in our memories and will always remind us of times when things were simpler, when Bangalore was greener, when one would get up at 7a.m. on Sundays to catch Talespin on DD, when Phantom cigarettes ruled and chakra was more than just wheels. When we wouldn’t worry about deadlines, meetings, Facebook and everything else that our lives have become today. We would only worry about when the next Tinkle comic would be out. Sadly, Uncle Pai, the creator of the series passed away recently. RIP Uncle Pai and thanks for the memories. We owe you way more than one.

 

So, you see, Alma Mater was not just about starting another company. It was about starting a whole new subculture. Of making you feel like you were in school or college again – that wonderfully delicious feeling.

Reading those words flooded my mind with wonderful memories – I could have written those words! I could relate to almost every single word – right from ICQ to funny-sounding email IDs to Wimpy’s to The Crystal Maze to gully cricket to candy cigarettes to Cameron Diaz in The Mask to Windows 98 to World Book to Venkatesh Prasad to Eclairs to Tinkle to Talespin. Phew!

Thank you, Varun Agrawal, for the nostalgia as well as a wonderfully written hilarious story on entrepreneurial struggle vs. Indian family culture. I especially love the way his bargaining skills with the auto rickshaw walla improved as he went further down his entrepreneurial journey!

Go read the book, it’s a perfect Sunday read.

Update: Based on the book’s recommendation, I watched Dead Poets Society, 1989 movie feat. Robin Williams as a teacher, and absolutely loved it – Carpe Diem!

Let me start with a story I had heard about long ago when I was at Adobe.

There was this guy who had come in for interviews for a technical role. He passed all the tech interviews with flying colors, the team liked his personality and felt he would fit in well, and the manager was all smiles. In the last HR-style round with the group head, he was informed that the team works on products that are completely owned by the Bangalore-based group and that there won’t be any travel to USA. The guy was taken aback. He told the group head “Sir, please let me go to USA for just one day. If I have a USA stamp in my passport, I will get one crore dowry.”

Needless to say, the guy was not offered a job.

I’m sure you can draw your own lessons and observations from this incident, because it will come into context below, about a discussion we’ve been having on Twitter. It all started with @debabrata who read my previous blog post on the magic of foss.in and asked:

why this ‘5 years limit’ applies to Indian software pro ? In other countries people are happy being programmer after 20 years .

I asked the tweeps for their opinions, and it got very interesting.

@cruisemaniac said: society defined age to get married and settle down = ~27 = 22+5 failing which u’re an outcast!
and: also, post that age, ur risk apetite goes down due to family and other commitments…

to which:

@HJ91 said: True. Very true. Outcast is the right word, and its sad. Outcast. Insulting, hurting and pathetic.

Wow, this feeling runs deep.

so I asked:

You mean risk appetite or time commitment? … how does risk appetite relate to interest in coding?

And the replies came pouring in:

@mixdev: One of the reasons why brilliant people end up being (just) tell-me-whatto-do-n-leave-me-alone software engineers

@cruisemaniac: I’d say both… U cant risk a new tech and venture 4 fear of financial security… U want tat cozy safe zone and pay packet.

@cruisemaniac: time is a big costly commodity 4 us… we indians cant afford to spend it at our will with spouses and children at home…

@mallipeddi: It’s very hard to keep getting bigger paychecks yr after yr if you’re a 30 yr old coder. You’re expected to become a mgr/MBA

@abhinav: I believe the reason is our society. We tie success to degrees, and later, more ppl you manage more successful you are.

@abhinav: Where in western societies your idea fails, here it is you who have failed! Our society doesnt appreciate risk takers

@abhinav: Yes, more money, higher status, easy life. And most importantly, more dowry!

@mixdev: Because our goals are set by the society & achieving them also in their control. You get bored faster.

@debabrata: I guess to the great extent our society dictates us what we want to be unlike the west

I found it surprising that the situation why people cannot remain coders in India is almost the same as why people want to become entrepreneurs! It’s like this: The passion for coding will remain only when you’re doing cool and interesting stuff. But big companies (at least in India) want only stability which implies boring tedious jobs with standard languages and libraries. There is no room for experimentation. So the coder will have to move to a smaller company or a startup if he/she wants to continue to like coding (I’m ignoring the case of research laboratories for obvious reasons of numbers).

But moving to a smaller company or startup is, by definition, not encouraged. As @abhinav mentioned, there is societal pressure for more money, higher status, fancier cars and bigger houses. There is nothing wrong with wanting this, but don’t force it on other people! Alas, it is hard to reason regarding this. I remember having a long argument with an uncle of mine, he was, hmm, “strongly” suggesting that I buy a car and I reasoned out why it makes no sense (after all, most peers of mine use the car only for weekend drives, not for everyday commute) but it fell on deaf ears.

So I’m conflicted here: Are there not enough people who are actually interested in coding, or is it that the interested people are being peer-pressurized into “moving up” into managerial roles and hence lose touch with coding? Or are we completely off the mark here?

Update 1: As suggested by Peter, read this entry tited “Stuck in Code” by Ravi Mohan for his tale on this topic.

Update 2: A related article in NYTimes recently titled “In India, Anxiety Over the Slow Pace of Innovation”

  1. There are not enough good problems that tech startups are working on and there seems to be no shortage of funds, platforms and ecosystem partners willing to help startups. The ecosystem is hungry for successes.
  2. Product Management skills are the need of the hour, NOT talks about talks about opportunities in X sector, and so on. When there is no culture of knowing how to execute, rest of the topics are moot points.

⇒ Read more at our event coverage at StartupDunia.com.

Update: This has been cross-posted to the official NASSCOM Emerge blog.

The irony in this world is that “To get somewhere, you already have to be there.”

From an individual perspective:

  • If you want to make money, you need to already have money.
  • To get a job, you need to be one-year experienced and not a fresher.
  • If you’re experienced and want to apply for a job that you really want to work on, you should already have the background of working in that area, and you should already know how to do all that the job entails.
  • If you want to write a book, publisher expects you to have already written a book before.
  • To be listened to, you need to be an expert, not an amateur, but how do you eventually become an expert if you’re never listened to?

From a startup perspective:

  • If you want to get funding, your startup should be in a position to not need funding.
  • If you want to stock your product in ezone, you should not be a 1-product company, but a 5-product company.

And on and on.

To get somewhere, you already have to be there.

P.S. I’m not condemning, condoning or approving of the situation. Just making an observation.

I just finished reading “Idli, Orchid and Will Power”, the autobiography of Vithal Venkatesh Kamat.

Just a few days back, a friend was telling me that the famous Utility building Kamat restaurant in Bangalore no longer has quality food and hence no longer a popular place. I read this book and it gave the background to this situation – it is no longer being run by the Kamats for whom hospitality is everything, it is now being run by the Kamat that usurped the properties. At least, that’s what the book says.

But that’s not what the book is about. The book is about the entrepreneur’s journey. What I liked about the book was that it was written in plain and simple English, and Vithal writes about his life and the hard work he put in, the mistakes made and the lessons learned from it. It sounds familiar like any other entrepreneur’s autobiography, but what made it special for me was that this was an Indian and almost everyone has heard about the famous Kamat restaurants! It was good to read the story of the restaurants and the people who make the place what it is.

Vithal Venkatesh Kamat
Idli, Orchid and Will Power!

During the story, some good traits of entrepreneurs were demonstrated:

  • Having knowledge, great ideas and executing them. For example, when Vithal was a kid, his uncle’s son was getting married and in that event, the soft drinks were not cooled and there was just 15-20 min before the guests started arriving. Young Vithal then used his knowledge of how kulfis are made, took fistfuls of salt and threw it on the ice which made it drastically go down in temperature and hence all the soft drinks were chilled in 15 min. The same goes for many of his tactics such as putting free buses to and fro the airport to his hotel, the Kamat Plaza, to make waiting less stressful for travellers and that became an instant hit. He said that brought in more customers than any amount of advertising could have done. Eventually, the airways people would suggest travellers to rest at Kamat so as to make them less annoyed about delayed flights, etc. A win-win-win situation indeed.
  • Doing a lot of networking. Vithal proves time and again how his networking and at the same time being known for their hospitality and credibility helped him in many a situation.
  • The importance of preparation. This is everything in the hotel business, he says. For example, that’s how you get your food so quickly when you order (instead of the hours that it would take if you cooked at home yourself).
  • Having a great dream, a great passion. Vithal has lost a lot while trying to make his dream ‘The Orchid’ come true, especially after all the property was usurped by his younger brother, and he had taken many high-interest loans so that he could build his dream hotel while his father was alive (who was dying of cancer). And yet, all the goodwill that he had generated and his will power slowly helped him eke out of the pit and the dream came true. This part of the story was heart-wrenching and inspiring at the same time. These are the kinds of stories that we see in movies but this is a real true story.

The only downside to the book is that you have to read the parts about the perfect character/attitude with a pinch of salt, because it sounds preachy at times and frankly, sounds too good to be true.

If you ever wanted to know what entrepreneurship is about, don’t read MBA sites, just read this book, if you can find it*. And then decide whether you are prepared for it. At the same time, you’ll finish the book feeling inspired.

* It is such a tragedy that this book is not available in any online Indian book store that I know of.