Are you M positive?

Lincoln on money power

Today, I heard another pitch from an ‘entrepreneur’, and I was reminded of a similar exchange which I walked away from, some six years back.

At that time, I had just put in my papers at Nokia, to start my entrepreneurial journey. And the person, with excellent skills of persuasion and pester power, had cornered me into meeting at a coffee shop. The following discussion, though unimportant, hinged around me, my personal network, and how with just a few hours of work- read display of skills admired above, I could create an income source which grows even when I don’t work.

Today, I heard the same spiel, albeit more tech-savvy. Apparently, there are companies out there which pay people to click on their site and earn from referrals. So, all you have to do is create a network of “believers” online, and as they and you click and buy, you get a commission which pyramids into something substantial, even when you can’t put in an hour.

The catch: as in the previous episode, is you got to put in 3-5 years of hard work, creating, mining, and then exploiting the network. The bait, people like you are doing this, throw in a few big names, make sure you don’t really know them, to build credibility, and the hook, you need money, and your need your own time. If you had money, would you do what you are doing now? And life’s uncertainties are such that money will always be required.

That last thought got me thinking enough to blog about it. In the process, I am getting clearer about why I exist, and why I think the specious arguments in books such as “rich dad, poor dad”, “the secret” and all other self-motivational books are a load of horse manure, which benefits no one but the authors and publishers who laugh their way to the bank, while incredulous buyers and “believers” who subscribe to it, develop into a cult-ish following.

So, here’s what I asked the “entrepreneur”, since, you’re doing so well in terms of network income, what do you do with your time? I got some story about how I spend quality time with family and friends. Felt like saying, ‘been there, done that’, ask any retired person, and they will tell you how they miss the daily routine of doing something, anything. Even friends and family get tired of your ‘quality time’, and with all the money in the world, you will still run out of places to check off your ‘bucket’ list.

Then I asked how do you see yourself as an ‘entrepreneur’? this threw up a bunch of cookie cutter answers, probably inspired by the books and quotes above. The answer formulated itself something like, “I was an employee, want to move from other people owning my time for money; didn’t want to become self- employed and chase people for buying my time and collecting money; entrepreneurs have money because they have a system to get them the money from other people’s time, ala Ambani, Tata, etc. ( quoting big names, shows your benchmarks), and Venture Capitalists and bankers make money on other people’s time and money.

At this point, I think my eyes glazed over, one other person at the table called me ‘intellectually arrogant”, and when I said,” if you really know how to do it, come work for me, I promise you double the money, in half the time”, he actually walked away.

But this exchange helped me clarify in my mind what these words, “time”, “money”, “entrepreneurship” mean to me, and here’s what I understand. And this goes beyond “think, feel, believe”; words which somewhere lose their meaning when constantly examined under life’s shifting lens.

Time: is not linear, period. Sure, I live in India and am totally inured in the “kaalchakra” -cycle of time- philosophy, so the understanding of time in the context of life may be warped. I see time stretching when waiting in queues, and whizzing past when deadlines come up- somewhere that resonates with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. But, I learn a lot more from the under-privileged, and from them I understand, time and life are a privilege, not an endowment, or a right. Life’s misfortunes are just a mis-step away! So, time is an annuity, only when compounding interest. And that is an assumption to enable compounding of interest. Life has a way of holding a mirror up, and throw you experiences, that invert in reflection. If you were once up, you will be down, and if you were down, vice versa. Nothing prepares you, deal with it!

Money: is a marker. All notions of money, wealth and income are a construct. The value of what you do (taking orders from a boss as an employee) or the skills you sell ( to individuals or organisations as a self-employed person) or the product or service you deliver ( as an entrepreneur) or the way you connect money, teams and markets ( as an investor or banker), is what is marked as money. So, a lot of money earned, means you are doing something, producing something, creating a connect which people value NOW. But make no mistake, value is transient, and money moves easily to find the next NEW thing to chase. Money chases value as a marker. And all notions of money making money, are also dependant on someone or something deploying that money in areas where the rewards are so much greater than the risk, that Ponzi schemes are floated somewhere in the world, each day. With disastrous consequences, for the folks who get lured in, when the pyramid collapses or the kite flies out of control. Google up the sub- prime crisis which created yet another financial meltdown, or if you’re interested, follow the mis-fortunes of the poor in India, who bet their savings on high-yield chit funds, which turn out to be “cheat” funds.

I had an interesting discussion on this with an iconic banker, who in many ways, shaped the way the banking industry changed and grew in India, in the post – liberalized economy. And he opined, “personal wealth loses meaning after a point, then you are just competing to see if your value proposition is better than the rest”, flip the thought, and you will notice, as another friend shared on social media, how a minimum wage earning driver practices his singing voice every morning before going to work. Again, even at the bottom of the pyramid, once the daily bread and rent has been paid for, money has no meaning, as all other aspects of life are access controlled. As the character Rancho played by Aamir Khan, put it in the movie “3 idiots”, “you don’t need to pay fees, to attend school, you just need to wear a uniform”. As the middle classes across the world discover, the poor are poor not because they have no money, but because access is denied based on identity or lack of a “place of residence”, or a “place of birth” to put on official documents. The rich, on the other hand, have these handed across to them, in the hope they hand out their money to worthy causes and institutions.

But, all this is changing. Even money can’t justify itself, in the face of greed, which creates pyramid schemes that start from sub-prime crises, and end in almost wiping out all notions of national wealth, ranging from Iceland, Spain, Cypress and so many others. Incidentally, India went through this gut wrenching change almost 20 years back.

As I keep repeating at various fora, India’s economic growth story was never a planned narrative. As a business journalist, I watched up close and in my face, the First Gulf War, that pushed up oil prices, and in consequence, India’s oil import bill to such an extent, that it tipped over the balance of payments, and brought the country to financial collapse. The next few steps, administered by IMF, included shipping all of India’s gold, held in store to guarantee currency, to London.

What happened next is a story of human endeavor, aspiration and effort, which was suddenly unlocked. And industries such as IT, mobile telephony, and IT enabled services, which no one understood at that time, not enough to regulate anyway, boomed. Money and valuation moved from bricks to clicks, till it corrected itself as value and expectations balanced out in the first dot-com bust.

And that brings me to “entrepreneurship”. When I started my career, 20 years back, respectability attached itself to stable jobs in careers around engineering, medicine or accounting and academics. In the early to mid-90’s, the world I exist in, was hit by a severe stroke of “MBA-it is”, which again unraveled  and was quickly followed by careers in IT, BPO, bio-tech, analytics. For the last 5 years, I have witnessed the power of the French word, “entrepreneur” used in every context, so much so, that anyone, without a formal job label, can call himself or herself one. There is one BIG difference! And it’s not about money or time.

It’ about value creation. Am sorry, you may be the largest franchisee of the biggest Ponzi scheme in the world, you are still an agent, not an entrepreneur. You may have the largest organized retail chain, where you sell cheap and buy cheaper, you’re a retail giant, but you’re still not an entrepreneur. You may be the biggest integrated producer of a commodity or product or service everyone buys, you’re an industrialist, but not an entrepreneur.

In my opinion, to be an entrepreneur, you need to be displaying the following behaviours:

  1. You have a view of the world, no one around you envisages. When Bill Gates thought of shrink wrapping and selling software, in a world where both were bundled, everyone thought he was a fool. But, software as a product owes its origins to that disruptive world view.
  2. You have deep insights and empathy with your customer set. I heard an interesting story about Steve Jobs. A bunch of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed telecom executives went from India, to meet and stun him with what they thought was a “killer idea”, an iPhone for India, complete with Indian fonts, scripts, and designs. They came back totally shaken, first because Jobs used language they hadn’t heard outside the playing fields of Bahadurgarh, and secondly, he said, “I build things for my friends in Cupertino, if you like your friends in India, build something they like yourself, stop messing with my stuff”. Others will read this as “intellectual arrogance”, I saw a canny entrepreneur, completely focused on delivering the next NEW thing to fans and admirers, who stood by Jobs even when Apple was down in the dumps.
  3. You have the ability to build teams. Look around every successful ‘entrepreneurial’ venture, and you will find a team, that stood by the vision and worked their butts off, even when there was no money to pay salaries. And that happens, when money and time are not on the table. Ordinary people inspired to work together, can and do achieve incredible things.
  4. You are able to listen intently. The key difference between a Thomas Edison and a Nikolai Tesla, both icons in their thought process and inventions, was just the way they were able to articulate the vision that inspired them and got people on board. That comes from an ability to listen HARD.

So does that make you M ( money) positive? If entrepreneurship is your way of making money, just forget about it. The road is too long, lonely and fraught with risk to even consider it as an option. Is the quality of time you spend at work, and your worries about the future, making you jump in? change your job, or profession, you will be happier. Entrepreneurship needs you to devote your time, energy and money in the pursuit of a vision that you hold, in the belief that if you succeed, you will have stories to share and battles to recount with the folks who fought on your side, and on your behalf, when it seemed too challenging. It also means that you can choose your battles and find new frontiers to work on, for example, Gates’ work on healthcare, Azim Premji on education. And you do it, because you can’t imagine a day without waking up to create value.

So, where does that leave money and time? See above. Money is a marker and time is what you do with it, right here, right now.

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