Friday, 11 November 2011

The morning after

The morning after.....I gasp for what little air I can take. The sheer effort drains the little energy I have. Yet I must breathe, so here goes, once again. Breathe, breathe and breathe. At this moment breathing has become a conscious and deliberate effort for my survival. If I take a moment away from it, I will forget. Breathe, breathe I must breathe.

The journey started with so much expectation, after all, how hard would it be. I was a clever guy, with a brilliant idea, a vast network and excellent exposure. The plan was simple; I laid it out on paper and practised my pitch. I had done this before, the idea-writing and pitching. I was the best. I recalled my best pitch and the applause I got. Surely now, with such a brilliant idea, they would fall over each other to be part of the next big thing.

I remember pitching across the world, the audience varied with pockets dragging with gold and honey dripping. “If you are part of this,” I argued, “you will find your Nirvana.” Today, the morning after, when I can breathe a little, I open the emails I got after the first few pitches many seasons ago. “Brilliant,” they all said. “The idea is brilliant and definitely doable.” They all wanted to be part of it. With such feedback, everything was going according to plan.

Yet a month later, not even one investor had invested. We had planned to raise $5million dollars, initially tranche at $1.6m. That would take care of our needs. But, wait a minute; $5m is a lot of money. We knew this, but one had to look at the idea, it was the best idea ever. “Look at the returns”. “Look at what you will make out of this,” we argued. In any case, we had a benefactor who had already pledged $1m. We pitched to Russians, Americans, Africans and Europeans, individuals, family trusts and anyone with money. We knocked on so many doors and sold many a pitch.

It came to naught, and it was at that moment that it suddenly dawned on me. I had left my job, that cushy safe haven I once had. In my estimates I had thought, “Surely with my experience and exposure I can do more and become more?” I had overestimated. Here I was without a job, managing overseas expenses and living in a country no investor wanted to invest in. I had my first nervous breakdown.

None of the promises had come through and the initial benefactor who had been meeting all our expenses and had pledged $1m, suddenly pulled out. It was too risky, in his estimation. I remember thinking about what I would tell the team. After my nervous breakdown I reconciled with the fact that I had failed and it was time to reconsider everything. I even drafted a letter to a former boss, whom I hated so much; but I had heard he was looking for someone and I jotted down why I should be in consideration.

I got to the office with a heavy heart, ready to disband. As I got in, before I could say anything the guys spoke. “How much money to you have?” a question greeted me. “Huh?” I answered. “How much money do you have saved up and or in other investments?” the question came again. I reckon I have about $$$ in savings and another $$ in stock market investment but the market is down and it won’t make sense to liquidate

The guys had a plan.

“We have looked at all our budgets and expenses; we have studied the business plan again and have revised everything. We did not get the money we required, but we can bootstrap and start rolling out the project and get some income”. This I heard before I could even sit down. My mind was racing faster than the E type in a Le Mans circuit. I was now pacing across the room. I could not sit down.

Breathe, breathe. I must breathe, calm my nerves and hold my chest, just in case my heart leaps out.

With the little that we had, we made a plan. That day I learnt my first entrepreneurial lesson: Bootstrapping. Coincidentally, around about the same time a friend sent an email about a former Mckinsey partner who had gone back to India and stayed in one room with just a mattress and laptop. It was there that he built his first company.

My temporary abode with my mother became my permanent abode. I liquidated everything. I soon understood my erstwhile folly. One cannot ask other people to risk their money in one’s idea when they themselves are not willing to risk their own money. However, little it is. Secondly, by keeping an investment on the stock market it is an admission that other people are better managers of your money than yourself. If you are not an entrepreneur, that’s quite understandable, but quite ridiculous if you are starting a start-up.

And so the train moved, we launched and started moving. Three months later – which for a start-up is an eternity – we were bankrupt!

This time I did not have a nervous breakdown. It was much worse. Bankruptcy exposed all my insecurities as a man and as a person. I started gaining weight; I simply did not care much about what I ate. I started relying on my mother for the barest minimal in terms of cash; even petrol money. I was overly indebted to friends and family and frequently overstayed my visits when I travelled. The only person who knew this was my mother. Every Wednesday night she held a prayer vigil with her friends.

My mood swings were wild and unpredictable. The joys I had, I found in our office. There I learnt another important lesson in entrepreneurship: It’s a love affair. One must love it enough to die for it. It is a visceral ideal that requires steadfast confliction to see things through. It is not about a brilliant idea or brilliant qualifications. It was obvious we did not have money – no salaries were being paid out. But everyday people came to work and every day we held our own vigil.

We made it past another three months with the help of friends and family who chipped in. God alludes to the principal that if birds never go without food, surely mankind, God’s prized love, shall be taken care of. Indeed, we were taken care of. From as little as the lunch lady who started supplying food to us at concessionary rates and on credit (yes it was a $1 a plate, delivered to the office), to random letters of encouragement.

We were still looking for money at this time and never gave up knocking on doors. The promises were many, just as many as the disappointments. I questioned myself greatly and thought perhaps I had overestimated the idea and my capability. I was highly insecure.

What kept us going was the belief that surely we cannot die. I remember vividly a friend’s mother, who had heard about us, coming into town and sending word to meet me. She sat me down, and in the vernacular told me to remain strong. She quoted bible verses and spoke of Gideon, the valiant and courageous man. She intimated how this was not about the money or how far it would go, but about life, about survival. “At your weakest, your insecurities are like uncovered wounds for all to see,” she said. “Some will help, while others will take the opportunity to poke and inflict even greater harm. Remain strong. The spirit is strong.”

Thus it became about survival. If we survive a day, we have survived an eternity. Breathe, Breathe, inhale and breathe.

Yet, in those moments came the most brilliant ideas. Lessons in entrepreneurship. Because we had stepped out and were visible, our courage led us to people in the same industry across the world. Inspired by our courage and our business idea they agreed to partner with us and provide all the capex needs of our business. But, we would need to meet our recurrent expenditures (Their little way of keeping us hungry). That was great, but unfortunately we had no liquidity. It did not bother us one bit, but what would we tell all our creditors? Some understood and some did not.

Slowly we started making progress and contracted for projects beyond the borders. The morning fog started clearing.

This morning I woke up and did not have the recurring nightmare of creditors running with an axe after me. I thought of the monthly tummy runs, the cycle that usually starts on the 25th of each month. My brain and body has not fully comprehended the change. My limbs are weak and the heavy burden though lifted has left an overweening, throbbing and piercing headache.

Yet again, I must breathe, breathe and breathe. I must stay hungry. Stay focused. Never get tired.