Recently Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at NYU Stern, published an article on what’s the best time for an entrepreneur to quit or, in other words, when should a founder raise both hands and announce “I’m done”. It reminded me of Sunil Gavaskar’s famous quote that top cricketers should quit when the public is asking “why” instead of “why not”.
It’s hard to determine the perfect time to quit. Government employees have it easy because there is a predetermined age to retire, while politicians have it much better because there is no age to leave. Everyone else in between struggles to get this right. Most people decide to quit way after their sell-by date and, in some rare instances, folks quit even though they still have a few good years left in the tank.
I fought my own demons on this front and I have written extensively on this in my book Failing to Succeed. Indiaplaza was under severe stress for capital and the company needed me to keep fighting the good fight and remain positive every day, hoping things will get better the next day. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and it all ended badly.
In retrospect, one question I keep coming back to is whether I should have thrown in the towel earlier. I have always believed that a founder must battle hard and keep moving forward till it is no longer possible to do so. Consequently, I am not a big believer in two other related start-up principles: pivoting and failing fast.
Start-up circles believe that when things aren’t working out, entrepreneurs must learn fast and fail faster. This seemingly makes sense but for one problem. Entrepreneurs invest mind, body, heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears while trying to build something. This requires single-minded focus, and any option that allows them to shut shop and move on at the first sign of setbacks is not a great idea. There’s no doubt founders must learn from every setback and use this as they move ahead, but the learn-fast-and-fail-faster approach sounds like an escape route. Successful businesses are built over time, through grit and determination, and a Plan B can be distracting.
Pivoting is another popular practice. Start-ups rightly make product changes based on customer behaviour and needs. If a start-up manufacturing glass-based furniture moves to wood-based products because consumers prefer this, it’s not pivoting but a sensible product change. I have no problem with this. But starting off on a space venture and then shifting to a cafe serving a wide range of coffees and teas is not pivoting. It’s a whole new venture. The distinction is important.
I strongly feel many start-ups fail fast and pivot because it is fashionable to do so and not because it makes sense.
Entrepreneurs by nature are optimistic people. Positivity in the face of extreme challenges makes founders different and is the essence of building successful businesses. Ventures will face setbacks but entrepreneurs must keep walking ahead, one step at a time.
(The writer is a serial entrepreneur and best-selling author of the book ‘Failing to Succeed’; posts on X @vaitheek)