With the third largest start-up ecosystem in the world, the India start-up scene is rocking. And the pace is quickening. It has over 100 unicorns, getting more geographically distributed (over 50 per cent of Indian start-ups belong to non-metros now) and tackling all kinds of diverse areas and sectors. 

There is also a general consensus on the need to build a stronger ecosystem to nurture India’s start-up culture to drive economic growth, and enable large-scale job opportunities. Start-ups, particularly those with a digital imprint, have had a perceptible impact on the way people live, shop, make payments, buy food/groceries/medicine, avail of transportation and more. 

The world of start-ups and entrepreneurs has now captured the popular imagination and programmes like Shark Tank on television have only served to increase the appetite in people to know more about this phenomenon. 

That is why the book Start-up Compass: How Iconic Entrepreneurs Got It Right is timely. It is based on the ‘How to Start a Start-up’ series of IIM Ahmedabad and has detailed interviews with 15 Indian entrepreneurs. It attempts to distil lessons from their entrepreneurial journeys to help entrepreneurs, wannabe entrepreneurs, students and others in getting a better idea of what works and what doesn’t, especially in a challenging environment like India. 

Education matters 

Barring one college dropout, and one MBA dropout, all the others have impeccable educational qualifications. Is there a strong correlation between funded new age start-ups and institutes from which they graduated? It would appear so from the table published here and from what appears in the pink press. 

This also lends itself to the question – did the authors, themselves alumni from a premier B-school (IIMA), show a certain bias towards certain kinds of entrepreneurs? I’m pretty sure this can be a trifle irksome to someone who isn’t an IIM or IIT/NIT graduate or equivalent but still aspires to become an entrepreneur. 

Interestingly though, the authors rely on beginning the book with a foreword by NR Narayana Murthy, a co-founder of Infosys, seen today as an old-world enterprise! Guess there is no substitute for experience from the world of hard knocks! 

NRN says, “The book is timely, it must be read carefully, and the lessons imbibed.” His foreword goes on to mention nine lessons from his professional journey including the mistakes he made. 

The book is divided into ten chapters right from ‘Before the Start-up’ to ‘The Exit’ and everything in between. In each chapter, you have pointers, insights and experiences from the named entrepreneurs. It is a sequential path that the authors traverse, much in line with the classically favoured MBA logical-sequential mode of thinking.

The authors say it is ideal you read the book chronologically; however, each chapter can quite easily be read on its own too. The good thing for a lazy reader is that every chapter has a summary at the end of it with key points highlighted. 

Trials of entrepreneurship

There are nuggets to be discovered in the book. As someone who has been through the trials and tribulations of entrepreneurship and funding myself, the exit story of TaxiForSure resonated. Often, an entrepreneur is faced with the hard choice to sell because of the changing context. As co-founder Raghunandan wryly observed, “Founders need to have more outside-in perspective than inside-out.” 

On the surface, this seems to be at odds with what Sahil Barua of Delhivery says (pg 19). “The third thing he wishes he had known is that sometimes it is better to be focused inwards on the company rather than be obsessed with the competition.” An experienced entrepreneur will say that such seeming contradictions are what entrepreneurship is all about. What we can get from the book is how different entrepreneurs resolved various dilemmas or took certain calls. 

The Delta 4 framework of CRED’s Kunal Shah offers an interesting way to gauge the potential value in an idea by affixing efficiency values to current versus proposed ways of getting a job done. According to him (pg 48), ‘the best start-ups are those that create Delta 4 differentiation and powerful network effects.” 

Deep Kalra of MakeMyTrip, who had a torrid time post the Internet bust, has this to say to aspiring entrepreneurs (pg 4),”Don’t look in the rear-view mirror for 4-5 years. When you decide to start a company, you must be prepared to stay on the path for a meaningful period of time, not giving way to doubt and distraction as you go about building.” 

The chapter on Team shows the importance of putting values over skills especially when it comes to creating the founding teams. It also demonstrates the criticality of people in ensuring the success of a start-up; equally, how people issues can derail it from achieving its goals. 

It is the individual tales and anecdotes from the founders that add the most value to the book. They are often honest about what they did, what worked or what didn’t, what they wished they hadn’t done and importantly, give due credit to Lady Luck. Luckily, thanks to the entrepreneurs having different experiences, the perspectives offered also contrast. 

This book may be relevant for those about to embark on their entrepreneurial journey, wannabe entrepreneurs or students wanting to know more. Of course, it will also serve as a useful resource for those who like to track the start-up ecosystem. An index at the back of the book would certainly have helped as the table of contents is sparse. What will be interesting is a follow-up after say five years on the same entrepreneurs and get an update. Management professionals know the sad fate of certain companies listed in the seminal book In Search of Excellence.  

(Chandu Nair, an IIMA alumnus of the 1983 batch, is an entrepreneur, advisor and angel investor) 

Check out for the book on Amazon here

About the book
STARTUP COMPASS: How Iconic Entrepreneurs Got It Right 
By Ujwal Kalra, Shobhit Shubhankar 
Published: HarperCollins 
Pages:  277
Price: Rs 499 
Foreword by NR Narayana Murthy