Indian entrepreneurs | Mental resilience

Failure is the worst that could happen to an Indian entrepreneur, and it could also be the best thing. What flips the story?

Published 5 years ago on Jan 06, 2020 16 minutes Read

K Vaitheeswaran, known as the father of e-commerce in India, has said he can understand why an entrepreneur in India would take his life. He was talking particularly about VG Siddhartha (VGS), the founder of Café Coffee Day. “He may have told himself, I have not slept for so many days. If I just jump, I can sleep in peace forever,” said Vaithee (as he is affectionately known) to The Times of India. Siddhartha’s body was recovered from Nethravati River in July this year, two days after he had gone missing. The soft-spoken VGS was passionate about his coffee retail chain, hoping to make it one of the top three in the world. But the fear of not keeping his word and losing his pride might just have been too much to bear.

Vaithee, too, had once contemplated suicide. It was in 2012, midnight of December 31, when New Year revelry was ringing through the city. His family, which includes his wife and son, was pulling him away from the front door. Drunk goons were banging at it, demanding payment. Vaithee had had enough. The founder of Fabmart (later Indiaplaza), the country’s first e-tailer, had run out of cash, and vendors and employees were getting rowdy. One turned up with a dagger at his office. Nothing was said, wrote Vaithee later, it was placed at his desk like you would a phone. Another intimidated his family at their home and a third had threatened to attack his wife. On January 1, a day after being terrorised, Vaithee decided to end his life. He had read that his debts would die with him.

Thankfully, his wife and son understood his distress and did not leave his side that day. Vaithee survived, and today he advises global brands and mentors start-ups. He wrote later that a comforting word, a hug, a pat on the back or a jaadu ki jhappi can help a person get past that instance of madness.

Entrepreneurs and those in the C-suite are imagined usually as powerful and victorious. Their life seems to be bathed in the golden hue from the subdued lighting in luxuriant hotel rooms, business-class flights, or plush boardrooms. They are described in hyperbole — oracle, wizards and mavericks — and they seem to be spouting aphorisms all the time. The reality is far removed — closer to a Woody Allen movie than a Rajinikanth one — at least if we go by anecdotal evidence. There is more exhaustion, confusion and loneliness than believed, and less of signing deals with both hands. At the extreme, there are deaths by suicide and burnouts, says Mahesh Natarajan, a counselor and psychologist at Inner Sight Counselling.

This seems to be a global phenomenon. This March, the World Economic Forum’s website published an article titled, “There is a mental health crisis in entrepreneurship”. It quoted Dr Paul Hokemeyer, as “an expert in elite identity constructs”. The doctor said that our current thinking (zeitgeist) celebrates “founder burnout as a benchmark of entrepreneurial excellence”. That is a huge demand to make on anyone, and very, very few people are willing to talk openly about being overwhelmed and buckling under pressure.

Vaithee is one of the few who has spoken about his painful experience many times. He even wrote a book about it, titled Failing to Succeed. The first time he spoke about it was at IIM-B, and he remembers breaking down thereafter. His biggest impediment was cash flow. He was running his business as usual, in the early nineties, with regular expenses of operations, vendor payment and salaries. The only problem was there was no profit. The next option was to raise investment. He writes that it is not easy. While he was pitching, bills were piling up unpaid. He shared, in an article in The Economic Times, an imagery of being closed in a windowless room, with water rising. It reaches the knee and you are still hopeful that someone will open that door and let the water out. It reaches higher and you are worried, before you know it, you are chest-high in water and you are struggling to breathe from the panic.

The creditors call. First friendly, then menacing and then everyone begins to attack online and offline, he wrote in the article, “Like hell, just worse.”

Mariwala Health Initiative (MHI) and Ascent Foundation did a study recently, to gauge the mental wellness in our corner offices. VGS and Vaithee, they found, were not alone. Managing and monitoring finances was named as one of the biggest stressors entrepreneurs face in the country. The second is workforce management and, the third, the persistent fear of failure. One of the study’s participants said stress was a constant shadow.

“To be an entrepreneur, you have to be crazy. To be an entrepreneur in India, you have to be double crazy,” says CK Kumaravel, laughing. He is the managing director of Groom India Salon and Spa, which owns beauty salon chain, Naturals. He quotes a friend in North America, who runs a Rs.3-billion idli batter business. “He had run the business in India between 1994 and 2000, and he says entrepreneurs here should be awarded a Bharat Ratna. He said, opening a business is a problem, closing it is a problem and whenever trouble comes, government officials hound you without mercy. They only want to take advantage of you when you are drowning,” Kumaravel says.

Kumaravel, whose business today is worth Rs.3.5 billion, felt the gravity of what his friend said, in 1998. His Raga line of beauty products had been failing. After the success of its herbal powder, making Rs.60 million in turnover by year three, he launched a soap, hair oil and paste. The last three tanked. The paste in particular had a formulation problem, of turning black from the original green after three months. The inventory began piling up from unsold stock and returns. In May that year, at around 6 am, his wife woke him up saying the police were at the door. 

“I blanked out,” recalls Kumaravel. “I didn’t know what was happening, they bundled me to the police station without telling me what the problem was. I was worried what my wife, my mother-in-law and my children would be thinking,” he adds. At the station, they dumped him on a bench. “It was a ruckus, with people abusing each other, bribes being asked and given… It was my first experience in a police station. If you don’t have to enter a police station or a court in your lifetime, you should consider yourself lucky,” he says. He was allowed to make calls but only of five minutes each, and then the phone would be taken away mid conversation. It was disconcerting.

“They offered me food but I was not hungry,” he says. At around 3 pm, he realised that the problem was a minor one. Someone had raised a complaint of non-payment of dues. Kumaravel clarified that he had no intention of cheating anyone and that the payment would be made, and he was allowed to go at 7 pm. “My business was not in much trouble then,” he says, “but this incident was a psychological blow. I cried on my way out of the station. After that, I could not focus on the business. I felt like Abhimanyu surrounded by problems, of demotivated staff, frozen bank accounts, aggressive competitors and falling demand…” In time, the number of cases against him rose to a 100, and finally he sold his business to his brother CK Ranganathan, founder-chairman of CavinKare.

Failure of ambition

Kumaravel had chased big ambitions, turned a millionaire before he was 30, “life was bliss” and then all came crashing down. Like Kumaravel, Ajit Panicker, too, wanted to scale up his family business. Their air-conditioning business had been doing well for two decades and more, when Panicker decided to partner with a multinational. The MNC was reluctant but he convinced them. For ten years, they ran the business together here, with his company installing air-conditioners at homes and hotels. “We had 13 offices and 300 employees,” said Panicker, at a conclave organised by MHI and Ascent. In the tenth year, the multinational opted out. They had tasted success here, thanks to Panicker, and now wanted to do business on their own. “We had 13 offices, 300 employees and a lot of debt,” said Panicker. The markers of success had now turned into millstones.

His business had been completely dependent on the MNC and there was a cash flow mismatch. While Panicker was paying the multinational in advance, he would receive the stock three months later and he had to extend one to two months of credit to his clients. When the partnership ended overnight, he found himself with a debt of Rs.150-160 million on a turnover of Rs.600 million.

“We were facing bankruptcy,” he says, and Panicker has been trying to forget the evening he realised that he may lose his house and flat, which had been placed as collateral. The only thing he had done was what is taught in every B-School, celebrated at every occasion and espoused by the best of leaders — he had taken a chance and worked hard for his dream. Instead of a roaring success, he stood to lose everything. “It impacts everything,” he said to Rajvi Mariwala, director, MHI, at the conclave. “It impacts your family relationships, it impacts your health,” he confessed. Thankfully, his loved ones stood by him. They negotiated with the bankers for more time. “It is very easy to say these things now,” he told Mariwala, “but at that time, I wanted to just end everything.”

The family did eventually work their way out, and today, he is the CEO of Nova Group and CEO-founder of Pureblu Technologies, which sells cutting-edge cooling solutions. “Nothing hits you harder than quitting a powerful position,” says Sandeep Goyal, chairman of Mogae Media. He had become the highest-paid CEO in 2001, heading Zee Telefilms at the age of 38. “It was a powerful job with top celebrities and some of the biggest politicians seeking your time,” he recalls.

Soon, differences began cropping up. Goyal had led an MNC earlier, Rediffusion-DY&R, and working for a family-run enterprise with its “mom-and-pop culture” became unbearable. “Losing a powerful position is like a car travelling at 240 mph and hitting a wall. You wake up the morning after resigning and your phone stops ringing. If there were four invitations that came each day, there were none now. People suddenly don’t want to seen with you. It is a very uncomfortable feeling,” he recalls. “At the peak, I had a company-provided Mercedes, club memberships and travelled business/first class. In a moment, all that was gone.” Bitterness set in. During that dark period, his wife was his biggest cheerleader. 

At least, Goyal had the option to opt out. When you own a business, it is harder to walk away. As VGS had told Outlook Business during an earlier interview, “Entrepreneurs don’t retire… they die.”  

Walled in
Corporate India largely comprises family-run businesses. It is not easy to work for them, and it is not easy to belong to them. In the MHI-Ascent study, a participant from one such family reported how his ideas are rarely implemented and, even if they are, he rarely gets credit for them. Another said that the family expected every waking hour to be dedicated to work. “The burden of expectation is always there,” he said. Saurabh Sharma (name changed) is a second-generation entrepreneur, managing his family business of refrigerators. He says that the economic slowdown has worsened his anxiety over cash flow. “Many steady businesses who were our customers have gone bankrupt. Often, you have to choose between cutting costs and giving up growth,” he says. Another second-generation head of a steel business, Vipin Kumar (name changed) says that the downturn has increased his despair multi-fold. “I’ve seen people lose their life savings. I have seen honest entrepreneurs depressed and the more desperate ones becoming unethical to survive,” he says.

The pressure builds and they are allowed little time off, in this 24/7 connected world of smartphones. Prakriti Poddar, psychologist and managing director of Poddar Wellness, says, “You may even step back into work at 2 am because someone pinged.” She points out how entrepreneurs have it even worse because they never take downtime, don’t sleep well, don’t eat well and don’t exercise. In WEF’s article, Dr Hokemeyer says that today, entrepreneurs are trained to routinely ignore their need for authentic relationships, overall life satisfaction and happiness. 

At the MHI-Ascent conclave, Mariwala called for urgent solutions and said, “We need to shift the conversations in the media and at B-Schools, and tell everyone that failure is okay. We need to say that, in fact, it can be the driver of innovation.” Besides embracing failure, we also need to train our leaders to spot signs of stress. Currently, they are working with a blind spot. Archanna Das, head, Ascent Foundation, asks, “When we have been raised to go to a doctor for physical illness; why haven't we been taught to visit a therapist for mental health challenges?”.

High-functioning individuals, such as corporate heads, have a tougher time accepting they are overwhelmed. “It is usually difficult for leaders to be seen as needing help,” says Innersight’s Natarajan, adding that there is also the expectation from them “to function as supermen”. Ascent-MHI’s report says, “An aura has been created around entrepreneurs as visionaries, innovators and leaders — which leaves no space in the narrative to discuss vulnerability or failure.” 

Shree Shivkumar, managing director of SKM Egg Products India, says, “The general feeling is that a person has to deal with the pressure themselves.” In 2009-11, Shivkumar went through his lowest phase. It was when his company was deep in debt and the market had collapsed. “We were not able to service our loan for those two years,” he says. This affable entrepreneur found it difficult to share his worries with anyone in the beginning. But today, he champions speaking out. His loved ones were generous with their advice and emotional support. His friend gave him sage financial advice, one that Shivkumar lives by even today. “He said that being debt-free gives you much peace of mind. Even if your business is not doing well, it is better to keep away from external commitments and grow through internal accruals,” he says. In 2009-11, going by this suggestion, he decided to fix the cash flow on priority. “We used to have cash flow meetings once a month. We made it more often, as once or even twice a week, till we were out of the red,” he says.

He urges entrepreneurs to be transparent about any bad situation to their bankers, employees and all involved. Also, when there is a cash crunch, liquidate all the unproductive assets immediately. Do not wait thinking things will improve. 

Turnaround story
Kind advice from a friend can turn things around for an entrepreneur, so can a warm or encouraging email. Mogae Media’s Goyal says that the moment that marked his turnaround was when he emailed Fumio Oshima, the then global head of Dentsu. He had written about his decision to leave Zee and his impending trip to Japan. “His reply popped out of my inbox in real-time and read, ‘Don’t delay your trip to Japan. Waiting to see you.’ It was like being lost in a desert and stumbling upon an oasis,” he says. The pall of gloom lifted. Soon, media got wind of his deal with Dentsu, he was back on the front pages and the phones were buzzing again. “It is a far cry from the loneliness that kills you in your bad days,” he says.

Kumaravel found his way out at a bookstore. He was browsing and came across Denis Waitley’s Innovative Secrets of Success. “It had innovation and success, both the words that I love, so I bought it,” he says. He thought it was a book, but on opening found an audio cassette inside. “I could not comprehend much English at the time, I come from a Tamil medium school… but this cassette I could follow,” he says. The first cassette started him on a lifelong interest. Today, he has a collection of over 1,000 such tapes. He has listened to Robert Schuller’s Tough Times Never Last, But Tough People Do at least 500 times, he says. He quotes all of them easily during his conversations. “Audio cassettes turn downtime to uptime,” says Kumaravel. He listens to them on his way to office, in the car, he listens to them while waiting to meet someone and he listens to them when he is out for his morning walk.

In his worst phase, thanks to these audio tapes, he learnt to disassociate himself from his failures. “I used to tell my friends that my effort failed, and not me,” he says. “They looked at me like I had gone mad. I stopped explaining myself after a while.” He has developed his five steps to overcome a logjam. One, accept reality. Two, separate yourself from your failure. Three, believe in yourself. Four, take advantage of your failure. If you don’t learn from it, life will keep putting you through similar crises till you do. Five, never, ever give up. Perseverance, not talent or skill, determines success.

One of his favourite stories is of Thomas Monaghan, who founded Domino’s Pizza in 1960. The American entrepreneur faced many litigations and bankruptcy before finding fortune, and Kumaravel could relate to it. It helps to listen and talk to people who have been or are going through the same situation such as yours. That is what support groups like the one run by Ascent Foundation provide.

Around two years ago, steel businessman Kumar reached out to this group, and it has since become one of his anchors. “I didn’t come out of the last downturn in 2015 well,” he says and adds, “Over the past two years, I have invested a lot of time figuring out how to cope. Journaling and therapy are what help the most.” He is part of another group besides Ascent’s, which he says is “more of a personal, more introspective group” with people his age and who can relate to his personal or social life experiences. 

Dr Kersi Chavda, psychiatry consultant at Hinduja Hospital, advises a change of scenario. Goyal travelled. “I visited Singapore, Tokyo, Canada and my wife joined me in Switzerland, where we celebrated my 40th birthday. I spent a lot of time with friends and just hung out with them. It was my way of getting it out,” he says. For the time-constrained, Chavda suggests something that can be done closer home. “If the nature of your work is largely physical, do something more cerebral, such as reading or solving puzzles. If your work involves sitting in front of a computer a lot, you should try doing something physical, perhaps join a gym and go for a run,” he says. Crucially, he hails saying ‘no’ as a skill. “One may want to be in the boss’ good books, but sometimes, you need to put your foot down and refuse,” he says. Shruti Chakravarty, chief advisor, MHI suggests installing apps to track stress level, mood and sleep, which can help raise a person’s self-awareness. 

Fitness lane
Few people are open to therapy or seeking professional help. The Ascent-MHI study noted that entrepreneurs are more likely to use personal coping mechanisms such as walking, running, sports, unplugging or accessing support forums. “There’s still stigma around accessing mental health support,” says Chakravarty, adding, “but, finding the right kind of therapeutic service has usually been beneficial for coping with tough times.” Entrepreneurs are generally reluctant because therapy is seen as long-and-drawn-out, says SK Sundararaman, MD of Shiva Texyarn, a textile manufacturing company with revenue of Rs.5 billion. “They also believe that if they are seen as taking help from a medical professional, they would be perceived as weak,” he says. He adds that this is a misperception, because if the entrepreneur manages to be happy then the larger community does not really mind how they managed to get there. 

When the debt crisis hit, Shivkumar, who used to play badminton once a day, began doing so twice a day. He also started yoga and breathing exercises. In 2008, when Jumboking needed infusion of Rs.100 million and investors backed out at the last minute, the start-up’s founder Dheeraj Gupta sought strength in vipassana. It is a meditation technique he had been practicing since his MBA days. Shiva Texyarn’s Sundararaman believes in periodic isolation. “You have to spend time with yourself and your own thoughts, and the best way to do that is to take a long walk through the woods,” says the entrepreneur, who went through a rough patch last year when large orders were stuck in the pipeline, which affected cash flows.

The WEF article has suggestions, too, particularly for those nurturing start-ups. For one, practise destigmatisation. Investors can lead by being vulnerable and talking with start-up founders about their mental health challenges, even at the due-diligence stage. Second, let founders use part of the funding towards personal well-being. Perhaps, they have raised a few millions, but that does not mean that they pro-actively spend some of that on physical and mental health. Third is for investors to employ mental-health professionals, whose services can be availed by any of the startupreneurs under the fund’s umbrella. The authors also make more specific suggestions, such as taking into consideration the mental well-being of start-up founders through the WHO Quality of Life assessment procedure and taking the ‘Investor Pledge’ written out by Erin Frey and Ti Zhao. 

Rudyard Kipling’s poem If was inspired by grace in the face of adversity. It was written in admiration of Scotland-born Leander Jameson, after he lost a war to Boers in 1896. The poet believed that the commander even suffered abandonment by the British government, after the raid they had ordered failed. The dignity of a defeated soldier gave us this beautiful verse, and for that alone we must celebrate and learn from failure.