Gandhi Jayanti Special, 2018
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi turns a hundred and forty nine years old tomorrow (may his immortal soul rest in peace), and as entrepreneurs begin fidgeting over the lack of productivity that a long weekend fueled with a national holiday extension can bring in, we would like to highlight a few Gandhian principles that are nothing short of solid gold when it comes to advice about running startups.
At his core, Gandhi was a misfit - someone who focused on shaking up the status quo based on what he truly believed in, and this aspect of his character even caught the eye of the late Steve Jobs, who referred to the Indian freedom fighter in his famous 'Square pegs in round holes' infomercial.
As an outspoken activist who believed in organized indigenous labor, Gandhi was responsible for the evangelism of cottage industries such as salt and cotton production, largely comparable as the 'startups' of the British Raj era. More than anything else, this man was able to recognize the merits of working tirelessly, working alone if need be, and working irrespective of perpetual criticism and cynicism - all of which are the kind of fears that inhibit most potential entrepreneurs from achieving true scale within today's competitive landscape.
Gandhi celebrated the power of both action and communication.
"The pen is mightier than the sword" - is an old Gandhian adage that many of us are familiar with, but the essence of this statement has often been lost in translation. Yes, it is primarily a jab at the use of violence in matters relating to sovereignty. However, in the context of independent businesses and leadership, it can simply be viewed as the necessity of transparent communication and less workplace provocation. An article that appeared in Quartz earlier this year, compared most Indian startups to 'sweatshops' that take ruthless action against employees who do not contribute as planned to the company's bottomline. There is very little honest communication between startup leaders and 'ground staff' regarding subjects such as the company's vision, fundraising plans, projected revenue channels, etc. When units within a business are not confident about the plan of action as a whole, it can spell doom for that organization. And this 'doom' is mostly passed on to the employees themselves, as pink slips that are nothing more than an admittance that the hiring and team management policies have failed.
Why? Because of a lack of transparent communication.
Lesson to startups:
Forget the axe. Start communicating with complete transparency and build a legion of trusted colleagues, not just employees that can be hired and fired at will.
The litmus test of user acceptance (or Gandhi's Talisman)
Those of us who were fortunate to lay our hands on an NCERT textbook in our school days, will remember this 'Talisman' or 'jantar' by Gandhiji - "Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man (or woman) whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him (or her). Will he (or she) gain anything by it? Will it restore him (or her) to a control over his (or her) own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj (freedom) for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away."
When it comes to integrating and launching (read: beta testing) new features in a consumer facing product, most entrepreneurs and product managers get caught up in a dilemma between their own instincts and what data reveals to be the popular choice. The entrepreneur named above (Steve Jobs) himself was known to be someone who believed that users knew very little about the benefits and merits of personal computing, and had taken it upon himself to evangelize an entirely new industry when people thought his ideas were nothing short of ridiculous. And today, thanks to his vision, we have an entire thriving industry that operates on the backbone of personal computing. Gandhi also said, "“The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problem(s).”.
As entrepreneurs and visionaries, it is a moral imperative for leaders to envision what will truly benefit their users, irrespective of what a trend might demonstrate in the short term. When billion-dollar product ideas and features are debated on the drawing board, many entrepreneurs make the fatal mistake of giving in to popular demand because they do not possess the confidence to imagine world-changing solutions. A clear sense of conviction is a must-have in order to build products that can really solve problems.
Lesson to startups:
When a beggar approaches you in the street and you are clouded by the doubt that they might not make the best use of your money, you often proceed to buy food for them instead, believing that it is the best way you can help them.
Now apply that same logic to your product. When it comes to a new feature, yes - put in a thorough analysis of what your users feel about it. But during implementation, do not let the pseudo sense of 'demand' lure you into integrating false allure. Build something that actually helps your users, and trust your instincts when it comes to being able to imagine that solution. That, and that alone is your superpower as a CEO or a product manager.
“If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.”
Mahatma Gandhi always emphasized the importance of continous learning as a path to both self-improvement and benovelence. Many Indian startup CEOs are in the practice of half-heartedly imagining an idea that they may have toyed around with, and hiring people who demonstrate a passive inclination of getting the job done. Yes, it still makes sense to hire smart people within your organization, but it is important to retain control of the knowledge wheel by being not the smartest, but the most informed person in the room.
Lesson to startups:
As a leader, it is your responsibility to ensure that every tech stack, every toolkit and every piece of technology that is used to bring your idea alive, is known to you.
Before a new tech stack or technological innovation gets implemented in your business by a senior technical architect/CTO/programmer, push yourself to learn as much as possible about it. Not only will this help you expand your own skill set, it will also safeguard your vision against any unforeseen absence/inadequacy/inconsistency with the people whom you've hired. Most importantly, it will free up your mind to focus on the real aspects where you are needed, instead of incessant anxiety about implementation.
Lastly, we must embrace what Gandhi said about being a 'lone' leader -
“It’s easy to stand in the crowd but it takes courage to stand alone.”
Without much riff-raff into the play of words here, I'm just going to point out that most revolutionary ideas are contrarian enough to inspire cynicism and criticism alike, from your closest circles. You might have started out on the path to solve a problem that most people don't even realize. Just like Peter Thiel states in 'The Contrarian Question' - Ask yourself. What is an important truth that a very few people agree with you on? Set out to justify that belief, and never look back at the hordes of people who are waiting to prove you wrong.
I wish the Mahatma a very happy 149th birthday, and implore you, dear reader, to share this article with someone whom you think will benefit from the lessons outlined in it. Happy Gandhi Jayanti!