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Go Visit the Cemetery

We are in a sombre mood today. Unfortunate death of someone who I met multiple times over last 3 months brought into focus the havoc wrecked by Covid. It pushed me to read ‘Death’ again. In the book, Sadhguru dwells extensively upon his inner experiences about death that are rarely spoken about. He deals with this distorted understanding of ignoring death by us, and suggests that even acknowledging mortality in our day to day life, could be an efficient way to make the life ahead, a cakewalk. In fact, he advises one to go and watch a pyre burning. The sight of a burning body is deeply unsettling and it brings a different kind of awareness and sense within oneself. The realisation of the fragility of your own existence brings in a profound relief and acceptance. Once there is a deep acceptance of death, then life will happen to you in enormous proportions.
What has all this got to do with the Startup ecosystem? Why are we talking about something which is a taboo in most societies? Startup is fundamentally based on the optimism & undying hope, surely there can’t be any common ground between a Startup & Death. Well, there is a lot of overlap if one pays close attention. Death of a person or an organisation or for that matter a startup is equally painful. But one doesn’t think about these things as long as one is alive. You hear these things happening to someone you know and you forget after a few days, almost behaving as if you are an immortal.

Startups are hard, very hard. And until you’ve been through a difficult startup, you probably still would misunderstand what that means. I remember when I was thinking of leaving the comforts of the well-paying Corporate job, the Startup ecosystem looked so tempting! No matter where I looked, I saw success stories. Funding news made it to the centre pages of newspapers and magazines, it made rock stars out of these entrepreneurs. Successful founders (Media has confused this with well-funded founders but that is a story for another day) appear on TV, on stages, shows, digital media. Motivated by all that, I jumped into this ocean of opportunities. Having seen it from close quarters now, the reality is very different. There is a good reason why 90% of new startups fail. In daily life, because triumph is made more visible than failure, you systematically overestimate your chances of succeeding. You think you are different & it won’t happen to you. This is what they call as classic Survivorship bias! And it is so easy to be a victim of this. Behind every popular author, you can find 100 other writers whose books will never sell. Behind every popular actor, there would be 1000s who would never be in front of the camera. Same goes for photographers, sportsmen, beauty queens and of course entrepreneurs.
Startup cemetery is full of stories which no one talks about, especially Media. Success needs lot of things to happen, the probability of which is abysmally low. The journey from keeping photocopies of restaurant menus in one’s drawer to turning that into a unicorn (No prizes for guessing the Food ordering platform here) isn’t going to happen for everyone. Besides talent, such stories need an extraordinary amount of luck. If you visit the graveyard of failed startups, you will realise that its founders possessed many of the same traits that characterize the successful ones. People think they just need funding to make it big; they couldn’t be more wrong. Another interesting fact – 75% of venture-backed startups fail. People systematically overestimate their chances of success.

Back to the starting point – well the mere utterance of the word, takes one to the subtle truth
of its inevitability. However, the beauty lies in its awareness. And with awareness, comes preparation. You will do well to keep that in mind. Being a founder is like being a Yogi. And guess what, traditionally every Yogi started his spiritual process in the cremation grounds. Many have used it as a spiritual process. Gautama Buddha made it mandatory for his disciples to go and sit in the cremation grounds for 3 months. But it can’t stop there. Bending and twisting your body has its benefits for your health, but there is much more to being a yogi. Funding & valuation has its benefits for the health of your startup, but there is much more to being a founder. Go and sit with failed startups.

My advice for budding entrepreneurs – By all means do the Start-up, let the low probability of success not overwhelm you. By all means do the Start-up. Let there be no two ways about it. There can’t be a more fulfilling journey than founding a new company. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. Never doubt it for a moment – the journey is indeed worth it. BUT having decided to do it, don’t fall for the Survivorship bias. You should DO everything to make a success out of your ventures. Take Help. Get the right mentors, get into a good accelerator program, talk to the experienced founders. Hang out with people who are already the way you want to be. Entrepreneurship is a romanticised word but it is an extremely tough world. You need all the help you can get to improve your odds of success.

It is critical to have hope but remember – Hope is not a strategy.

Manvi Mehra

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