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What’s Wrong With Our Startup Ecosystem? Surely, we can do better?

I was at a major product conference recently. I also regularly participate in discussions related to entrepreneurship and the startup space at other events and of course online.

Over the not-so-recent past, it’s been obvious that the center of gravity of the conversations is moving towards funding, exits and related activity and the stars are the wheeler & dealers for these, and those seeking to build personal brands.

TooManyAgendas

Entrepreneurship is about much much much more than that. That funding is a need in many of the cases is undeniable, and that exits serve a purpose for some of those investing time or money is true, but there are other truths as well. There are alternative paths.

And here’s some things we could do much much better as an ecosystem.

The Celebration of the Small

Outside of the multi hundred crore exits and valuations at hundreds of millions of Dollars lies a world full of stories of grit, success, markets and needs being served by technology and products that may never aspire to or see these numbers, but are so worth solving, and fairly large and profitable.

I met a couple of those at this last event itself. For instance, someone who’s providing – profitably – a SaaS based platform for the construction industry, understands the industry deeply, and might touch a crore of revenue soon. Growth? Lots of options left, and lots many more industries might need the same solution packaged differently. But there’s no rush – or investor pressure – to crack it all this year. The level of maturity in terms of solving pain points precisely and not overcooking the product is amazing.

Entrepreneurs just cannot afford lose sight of the fact that these problems are in the real world, for real businesses or people, and they are central to the entire discussion. We cannot short change them, ever, and it’s the long term trust and relationships that’ll eventually help startups and the whole ecosystem around them much more. Somehow, it felt that many an entrepreneur who started out with a strong passion to solve something then has gotten too entangled in these (sometimes necessary) distractions and let the valuations game supercede completely the true value they started out creating. The conversations one hears everywhere reflect this all the time.

CustomerFocus

There’s many who’re relatively small, niche but very successful already – irrespective of their current valuation or their growth trajectory in the future. And this may have happened with or without funding – that’s orthogonal to what they’ve achieved already either in terms of a new market they’ve created by addressing latent needs, or through selling to segments hitherto imagined to be impossible to sell to.

We’ve got to start celebrating these. It’s not big bucks or sexy deals, but it is what creates a very sensible, huge base for entrepreneurship in the country.

Talking about the Other Guys, the Other Goals

I met a guy who’s working in the water space at this same conference. I meet such variously-ambitious folks often. They have multi-faceted goals – (adequate) money being one of them. Some are passionate about building a well recognized brand. Some care only for the impact they have on the people for whom the set of problems they’re trying to solve matters. Others want to solve horizontal problems with really cool technology, and build a very tech-focused company with a culture that they can be proud of.

ALL of these goals matter. But somewhere in the discussions that we hear most of the time around us, these are being lost, or at least not talked about. Because we’re letting one set of goals, voices and agendas dominate.

Conversations With, Not Just Talking (Down) To

Throughout my entrepreneurial journey, I have learned as much from the guy starting out as from the seasoned, “experienced” entrepreneur or mentor. A couple of friends who have been fellow travelers on the startup boat – each with their unique goals and mindsets – have rejected many bits of conventional advice to experiment with their own approach to go-to-market, building the solution itself, hiring, and a lot more. They all have other folks they have a chat with once in a while, but then take decisions as they see fit. They’re all smart, independent minded, and have amazing insights.

Are they all always right? Hell, no! In any case, everything works only in a context.

But try telling the gurus who frequent the hallways and get invited on to the panels at these events that. There is too much advice-through-prescription, too many motherhood statements and not enough of a open, two-way discussion with entrepreneurs at all stages. I suspect this comes from a strong need to create and further personal brands and interests. And along with this, sitting in the middle of what’s subliminally sold as the most important aspect of entrepreneurship – the funding funnel – is very very important to many. This gravitating around a just a few big names, brands and stories is not only narrow in its scope, it’s unhelpful and also intimidating to those starting out or aspiring to do so. Definitely doesn’t help.

Seriously, we have to respect the entrepreneur much more. Honestly, they know best. And we often have a lot to learn from even the most recent of them. So let’s play a strong supporting role, and celebrate and worship them, not ourselves.

[This is as much a plea to everyone in the ecosystem as a reminder to ourselves at NextBigWhat. It’s part of what we believe. We all need some soul searching from time to time.]

Image credit: Shutterstock

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