The misplaced founder and the rightly placed Red Hat

[Guest post by Jaya Jha, cofounder of Pothi. She candidly summarizes some of the discussions that happened @ Proto.]

There is no universal rule for success. In entrepreneurship or elsewhere. It is good to take inspiration, it is good to try and learn from others, but each success story is unique. If it were possible to imitate your way into success, especially in an activity full of uncertainty like entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship would not have remained so uncertain after all! Further all this inspiration, all this learning, taken outside of the context could simply be disastrous.

“The mis-understood co-founder” was a conversation track at the fifth edition of Proto.in, which meant well. The idea had come from the experience of how and when people go around looking for co-founders, which includes

  • Writing mails to people like Ashish and Vijay and others in the ecosystem asking them to find a co-founder!
  • Trying to find a co-founder after a lot of ideation and probably even implementation has already happened.
  • Trying to find a co-founder amongst the people they have never ever known in past

In such scenarios, there are some questions that genuinely come up

  • Does it make sense to try to search for a co-founder like an employee?
  • Can you expect to get along with a co-founder in ups and downs if you have not nurtured the start-up from the very initial stages together?
  • Would you not be better off looking at hiring good employees, rather trying to find a co-founder? Since in these cases when you say you are looking for a co-founder, you are essentially saying that you want somebody smart, with complementary skills who would work for you for nuts or nothing! That probably does not work.

So, just when one had geared up to have a meaningful discussion around these questions many of the aspiring and existing entrepreneurs face, we had a pronouncement from the speaker. You do not need a co-founder or even better you SHOULD NOT have a co-founder. A learning from his life! And how exactly? So, I try to put together bits and pieces of what came out form the talk and answers to the questions:

  • He had a company (with a co-founder) which was earning enough money to support him through the four years when his successful-without-co-founder company was not making any money.
  • He then decided to go to the US for a prestigious MBA, and got lucky with hiring for this successful-without-co-founder company.
  • Over next two years, when the only founder was not around, the company grew (100% YOY?), paid for itself and is successful today.

Wonderful! And the learning is “You should not have a co-founder” stripped out of all the context like

  • The founder’s life did not depend on the success of the company.
  • It succeeded without even the founder – why should one learn anything about co-founder from that? (In fact it succeeded after the only founder had left it in the hands of employees! Makes me think of Indian Railways turn around more than anything else.)
  • It is a website around user generated content – not necessarily representative of numerous other kinds of start-up you have.

In nut-shell, the track did not address any of the genuine questions one would have around finding a co-founder. Even worse, whatever point it went on to make, was not made. Interspersed with bashing all “web 2.0 companies” in past 8 years, and challenging those who had co-founders to come back to him after four years etc. it, in fact, left a bad taste in my mouth. Somebody had twittered that it was not clear what the speaker was trying to say. I would have liked to say only as much too, but I had promised Ashish a blog post unfortunately.

But that does not mean that all the hope was lost from Proto itself ๐Ÿ™‚

Fast forward to next day’s Keynote by Bob Young and his story of Red Hat. It was an interesting take on how he himself went about learning and unlearning the rules of the game and finally came up with a successful company around something nobody in the industry thought could make money! The Free Software. And the best part was that he was not fanatic about it. He was very balanced and clear about where it works and where it does not.
He is not the kind of person I saw in the newsgroups of IIT Kanpur shouting from the rooftop that all the desktops should have Linux too. He hadn’t built Red Hat for desktop and was very clear as to why Linux may not be the best thing for home PCs in the hands of non-techies. He also ended his keynote by clearly stating and free software and open source cannot take good care of all the situations. Any advantage that comes from being able to play with the source code comes only to those who can actually play with the source code. So, there is no point selling open source to dentists looking for an dentist office automation software.

One big learning for me from the talk was something simple. Be clear of the context and value proposition. Sell to those for whom you have a value proposition, rather trying to force fit your solution for every situation.

Amen!

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