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Please give the startups a break!

17 June, 2016

After all the incessant media coverage of startups as the coolest career choice of 2015, it’s all supposed to be crashing down.

I’m amazed at how predictable it all seemed. A year ago, the only people worth profiling were those starting up, raising money and then raising some more. Media houses were tripping over each other to break the story on each new round, dedicating pages to all things startup.

The scariness of it all was complete when one of the most conservative ex-colleagues I ever worked with met me for coffee and discussed doing something ‘different’ from his day job at a bank. Starting up was mainstream, and suddenly everyone thought they could succeed at it. It was the perfect backdrop for Startup India.

Or not. Come 2016 and suddenly the same business models don’t make sense. Turns out the unit economics matter above all else. So, what’s changed in less than 12 months?

A few days ago I noticed a front page story about a venture capital firm losing three senior partners, allegedly because they weren’t promoted. Surely this isn’t the first time a company – any company – has lost senior people. How does this become front page news? Flipkart delayed hiring some people it made offers to at a business school. Again, not the first time (or the last) an employer postponed recruitment.

My point is that it’s high time to add some perspective to the narrative of India’s startup scene. Belts will need to be tightened and luxuries postponed. That’s no different from any industry going through a rough patch. With start-ups however the need to gloat over ‘I told you so” seems way too strong.

The reality is a bit more sobering. Some companies got lucky, raised lots of money, realized the numbers didn’t add up and need to make adjustments as part of a reality check. It happens across sectors and time periods – why the fuss? In the good old days, large companies just borrowed lots of money from public sector banks and never repaid them because they couldn’t care less. It was always a problem of non-performing assets, never a bubble.

As in the past, this post was inspired by a recent Uber ride. My driver mentioned the owner of his car – his ‘seth’ – was a pani puri vendor who’d saved well all these years. Well enough to buy a couple of cars deployed with Uber to multiply his earnings, while still continuing his ‘chaat’ business. Entrepreneurs all around us are working the grind, chipping away at solving real problems, trying to create meaningful setups without really worrying too much about whether Flipkart is worth $15 billion or $10 billion.

It’s challenging enough creating something that’s never existed. Startups and entrepreneurs don’t need the pointless headwinds, empty insights or worse, mass generalizations that essentially serve as gossip.

Manish Shah is the co-founder and CEO of BigDecisions.com.

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Please give the startups a break!

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