Ankur Nigam, Group Director – Finance and M&A, Smile in a candid chat on startup culture and the working environment that the setup offers.
Why are professionals today excited to work in startups?
For decades, young professionals have looked at their parents, grandparents and others in the family do mundane, routine, 9am-6pm jobs, which were then a norm. However, today’s generation is different. Everyone wants to make a difference, and that difference goes beyond the realms of money making business to gaining exposure and experience that their job offers. Established organizations undoubtedly provide continuity, security, travel options and average to above average compensation among other motivational benefits — satisfying as it sounds these are often coupled with ennui.
Startups, on the other hand, don’t give, to begin with, most of what the big boys will give, but offer freedom and hands-on experience while handling multiple roles and responsibilities. They offer flat organizational structures, wide canvas on which to draw, vertical learning curve, and above all, modesty, as we all know the success rate of startups. Startups have a DNA which continues long after they no longer qualify as a startup. The most exciting thing that professionals, to my mind, is the sheer abandon of creating things, the flexibility to work in operations, technology, marketing, finance, all within the same company, something a large established corporation will never be able to match. The kind of learning that professionals can get in a year with a startup, will come through in a decade in a large firm. Added to it is of course the seriously disproportionate wealth creation that only startups can offer (over a period of time).
The environment at startups is different. Tha
t said, how does an environment like that stir innovation?
It’s really chalk and cheese. We have employees who dress for the weather and not for the person they are meeting. For a really formal Board Meet, we’ll put on a casual blazer over jeans and a white shirt. And it’s not just because people work in startups and want to dress like Zuckerberg. It’s linked to the whole idea of being unfettered in clothing, thoughts and ideas. In a startup environment, the idea is to g
o beyond what people are thinking and giving life to what you are thinking. So whether it is dressing up, calling people by first names, walking into a Board room with your orange bar half eaten, it ceases to matter.
The main objective is to foster innovation, in substance and in form. I’ve been a 15 year product of large established firms, and prefer to stick to my suits and have the Chairman to the intern tell me, “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to this and start dressing normally.”
It’s widely accepted and understood that professionals at startups gain access to wholesome learning experience. Please Elabo
Startups, by definition, are bootstrapped companies who think they’ve got the next billion dollar idea, and a committed team who are out to prove that they are right. So the typical framework will be 2, maybe 3 co-founders, who will work out of someone’s house/garage/basement etc. and try and bring the idea to life. This also means they are high on energy, sky high on hope and very low on cash. Also, they don’t want to involve more people till they have at-least a minimum viable product (MVP). Automatically, the same 2–3 co-founders are writing code, striking deals with angels, setting up the supply chain framework, negotiating with agencies, writing the books of account and ideating on what’s the best way to garner customers. Soon, this becomes the culture and DNA of the entity.
As more employees join in, they are tutored with the same methodology — “There are things to do and people to do those things.
It doesn’t matter what your qualification is. Pick up what you are most suited to do.” In one of our portfolio companies that has a seller market place for customized t-shirts, the CEO was carrying plant pots into the showroom the night before launch of the store!!
With fewer people in the setup, everyone becomes involved in everything. Yes, sometimes that does lead to a loss in focus, but the overall development of the professional happens in geometric progression.
What are some of the non-monetary compensation/long-term motivation schemes offered by start-ups?
I think it’s all interlinked. At Smile Group, for example, we have a concept of Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIR). These are essentially great people, with great zeal and fire to create something large, but haven’t cracked the
right business idea/model yet. Till the time the penny drops, they are linked to a portfolio company where they work hand-in-hand with the CEO of that asset. Though their take-home package might not match a CEO’s salary, they are identified as entrepreneurs/CEOs donning the hat of a crucial asset on the next big project.