‘Be frugal in your spend. Be lavish in your homework’ – Nandini Vaidyanathan, author

September 7, 2018

Nandini Vaidyanathan is a startup mentor, author, teacher, columnist, climber and trekker. She joins YS Weekender in this interview on the challenges and opportunities of entrepreneurship, the role of mentors, and investment approaches.

Nandini is Chairman and Managing Director of CARMa Ventures, and author of Start Up, Stand Up (see book review here). Her earlier book for entrepreneurs was aptly titled Entrepedia.

Nandini Vaidyanathan

YourStory Weekender: What is your current field of research in entrepreneurship?

Nandini Vaidyanathan: In my workspace, which involves mentoring and teaching, research involves deep dives into the industry and technology, in order to understand and catalyse my mentees in their businesses. As far as teaching is concerned, research is about excavating diverse, interesting and appropriate use cases to drive my point home. Both research activities tend to be intense, all-pervasive and time consuming. But very exciting!

YSW: In the time since your book was published, what are some notable new startups and business models you have come across?

NV: The only new thing which has appeared on the scene but is yet to capture the imagination of the ecosystem is social commerce. Everything about this promises to be both exciting and different.

YSW: How big a role does academics play in entrepreneurship? Can entrepreneurship really be formally taught?

NV: So far none. Theory doesn’t cut ice in this space. You need practical experience and you need the skill to marry that with theory to bring real-time to your class. I haven’t seen any academic in India do that.

YSW: How were your books received?

NV: Both Entrepedia and Start up, Stand up have been bestsellers. Largely I guess because there is no book that talks about things I have talked about, in the language I have talked about. There is no theory here. Both were written based on my experience in mentoring real entrepreneurs.

YSW: What are some of the new investments or mentorship relationships you have with startups, and what do you see as the key emerging trends in this space?

NV: We never invest in any of the startups we mentor. I see it as a conflict of interest. I believe the organisation is bigger than the entrepreneur and if at any stage I feel the entrepreneur is being a deal-breaker for the growth of his organisation, I would like to retain both freedom and objectivity to tell him so. But the moment I invest, I might be tempted to protect my investment and not rock the boat. So we never take equity stake in our mentee companies.

I’m seeing some new ideas in the habitat. We mentor globally, so we have mentees from Puerto Rico and Mexico who have come up with some brilliant ideas in terms of new products using poplar, addressing issues of border control, and so on. Very different from the run-of-the-mill, cut-paste ideas which proliferate this space.

YSW: What are the typical challenges entrepreneurs face as they scale up their company from a startup to an enterprise player? How can these challenges be addressed?

NV: The biggest challenge is the mindset or attitude. Entrepreneurs like to believe they are a startup only in so far as justifying the absence of processes or paying market salaries are concerned! They tend to use the word ‘startup’ more as a band-aid to wish away all acts of omission! The word attitude, however, comprises two elements. One is cognition, which is awareness of the world around you.

The other and more important but understated one is conation, which is desire. It is not just enough to be aware of the world around you. You should have the desire to know what is right and then do it! Doing is easy. Knowing what is right is the hardest. And I think that is where mortality happens.

YSW: How should innovators strike that delicate balance between ‘stick to your vision’ and ‘adapt to a changed world’?

NV: The two are not mutually exclusive so where is the dilemma? Vision may be written in blood but the blueprint to actualise it is not and it behoves a good blueprint to be able to factor nimble-footedness (to rejig), conviction (to pivot), and flexibility (to incorporate new elements). So I don’t see a contradiction in terms.

YSW: It’s one thing to fail with a product, and a bigger dimension to fail with a company. How should founders regroup in these two situations?

NV: Both are different and yet similar. Different in the sense, when the product fails, it is mostly because the entrepreneur has focused only and solely on the product without bringing the customer into the picture at all. He may have assumed in his naïve enthusiasm that if he puts out a good product, everyone will queue up on his doorstep and become his customer. So he would not have focused on customer discovery and profiling at all.

But when the company fails, in all likelihood, it is a leadership failure. It is the failure of the product-centric entrepreneur to build an organisation around the product to reach it, sustain it and grow it.

But both are similar in the sense that at the end of the day it is the failure of the entrepreneur. He may cite plenty of excuses as to why the product failed or the business failed. He may make his team, customers, and even investors his scapegoats. But they remain just that. Excuses for failure.

As Lawrence of Arabia said, excuses mean nothing. The single most reason why he failed is he did not design appropriate leadership shoes for himself!

YS: What is your next book going to be about?

NV: I’m working on two books right now, one a manual for the modern woman along with my friend Janaki. And the second book is fiction, a collection of short stories.

YS: What is your parting message to the startups and aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience?

NV: Be frugal in your spend. Be lavish in your homework!

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