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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Learning entrepreneurship and life lessons from Desh Deshpande

Desh Deshpande needs no introduction. Serial entrepreneur and founder of many for profit and non-profit organizations, Desh spent almost 2 hours with the Fellows yesterday (April 16th, 2008).

It was an open session with Desh talking about his life’s journey, his entrepreneurial journey and taking questions from the awestruck and curious Fellows. It was a very inspiring session and I for sure was fast forwarding my life by 30 years and imagining myself in his shoes!!

But his journey was not easy and it won’t be easy for any aspiring entrepreneur (like the Fellows). However, Desh’s pearls of wisdom (‘Desh’s Gyan) would definitely better prepare us to deals with the bumps in the road as we start driving down the highway of entrepreneurship.

Desh’s Pearls of Wisdom (Desh’s Gyan)
Keep good company: Remember your mother telling you when you were growing up “make friends with good people”. If you ignored the advice then, it is time to follow it now. Keeping company of good and smart people not only helps you grow as a person but it also opens unexpected doors and creates opportunities. Desh mentioned that a professor whom he met at graduate school offered him a job at Motorola in Toronto. Desh’s experience at Motorola proved to be the foundation for his entrepreneurial journey.

Have a good gut feel and go by your gut: Big life decisions like marriage, having children, quitting job to start a company etc. cannot be made by any process as the unknowns overpower the knowns when one is making the decision. It is critical to go by your gut in making these critical decisions. There is no training to “improve your gut feel” but it gets better with experience and also learning from other’s experience. Desh talked about his decision to leave a cushy job at Motorola and plunge into the uncertain world of entrepreneurship. It was not easy as he had a family to support (two kids) but he went by his gut instincts.

Have guts and high tolerance for pain: Entrepreneurship is not bed of roses. The success stories we read are few and far between the numerous failure stories. Those who succeed have high tolerance for pain and are focused. Desh talked about ups and downs of his career and the importance of having the guts to take risk and the tolerance to take a hit, which in inevitable in any entrepreneurial journey.

Humility to make corrections in the planned course: Entrepreneurs by nature are driven and believe very strongly in their idea and business plan. More often than not, initial plans are wrong. Sometimes one gets stuck in a job or a situation which does not fit the personality or values of the individual. Having the humility to recognize the mistake and correcting it is extremely important for future success and having a fulfilling career. Desh’s first start up (funded by a VC) did not go well, but Desh quickly left the start up and went on to found Cascade systems which was a major success.

Enjoying and being passionate about what you are doing: One has to enjoy the journey of entrepreneurship. Initial days would be tough as you would be short of cash. “You should never feel that you are sacrificing” as that would mean you are not doing where your heart is. One has to enjoy the ups and downs of the journey.

Set deadlines: As an entrepreneur, one should set deadlines and work to achieve them. If you fail then it is the time to step back and change the course. For example, one could say - I will work on this idea and get VC funding within 9 months. If it does not happen then probably the idea is not good enough. It is probably time to look for another opportunity.

“Hunger” more valuable than “Experience”: Desh said that when hiring people, look for people who have “potential and hunger” than experience. He feels that “hunger” would trump experience any day. People who have done things over and over again get bored and that would impact their productivity. Desh has started many companies and not for profits. In each, he looks for someone young and hungry, who has the potential but needs some mentoring to be successful.

“Unshackle” your life: If you are planning entrepreneurship down the road, it is important to lead a very simple life. In America, people sometimes shackle their lives with huge mortgages etc. Maintaining low cost of living would make it easier to jump into entrepreneurship.

Good VCs are an insurance policy: If you are starting your first company, try to get funding from the top VC’s. Even if they take higher portion of equity, having big names backing you would prove to be very helpful in the long run. These VCs are like an insurance policy. They will work hard to ensure that you are successful and get an exit.

Inner strength is more important than any other trait: When asked what soft skills you look for in an entrepreneur? Desh said “Inner Strength: the ability to take risks, tolerate pain and self –confidence”. Soft skills like presenting and selling are important, but its more important to have this inner strength. Desh observed that there are many successful entrepreneurs who don't dress or present well, sometimes cannot put a coherent sentence together, yet are extremely successful entrepreneurs.

The MBA: Desh said an MBA is good training, so if one has the opportunity, one should do it. Desh talked about the success of Brontes, the Deshpande Center company that was sold to 3M. He said that the company used HBS students to explore 34 different markets, before they came to the one that made sense for the company to enter - and it turned out to be a big success.

India vs. US: If you are debating between starting a company in India or US, Desh says “India is a great place to be an entrepreneur. There is lot of excitement and activity.” So, those of you who are debating between Boston or San Francisco to start your company might want to add “Bangalore” to the mix!

Overall, it was a very inspiring session.

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