26 December 2015

Indian startups ecosystem: Fear of failure grounds our success story

The Indian startup ecosystem has taken shape and exploded in the last few years, and so have the countless stories surrounding them. Unsurprisingly, lessons of unsuccessful ideas and attempts haven’t gotten as much precedence as successful counterparts.

When such discourses on entrepreneurial challenges do happen they are usually ascribed to inefficient governance, and shortfalls in infrastructure, investment and institutional involvement.

A factor that is generally overlooked, but has profound effects, is the cultural impact at micro (familial) and macro (societal) levels, on the process of entrepreneurship. As a society, we have imbibed the taboo of accepting failure. The instilled fear of risk-taking and the difficulty to even characterise “failure”, do not help the cause. For an entrepreneur, this could define the fine line between pushing an idea to the last mile and giving up on it entirely.

In the summer of 2002, I was an inquisitive 15-year old prowling the internet over dialup and dabbling with programming, building one of the earliest blogging engines, the rather unimaginatively named “boastMachine” (bM). The idea of weblogs was just becoming mainstream, and the handful of blog engines available were overly technical and cumbersome to set up. Countless hours of development over the next two years made bM popular worldwide. At its peak, it powered several hundred thousand selfhosted blogs, gained institutional users such as the Michigan State University, was available in 17 international languages, and had become a regular candidate in the offerings of web hosting companies. A lot of this was before the advent of WordPress which appeared at the end of 2003. However, bM soon ran its course as its peak coincided with the completion of my secondary schooling. A break was unfathomable.

Moreover, the success of a product on the internet was not seen as a measure of success at all, and its pursuit, maybe even monetisation, was thwarted by the fear of not being able to go to college from high school in a span of a few months. While I realise it was too early for my own family to comprehend internet entrepreneurship back then, the countless number of unwilling students going to engineering colleges still paints a grim picture.

The irrational fear of an unconventional path and the inability to think beyond the traditional framework of success kept me from pushing a globally successful product its last mile. There may be numerous innovative ideas and products out there that never come to full fruition because of spirits dampened by social circumstances. Reducing entrepreneurial red tape is indeed essential, but as a society, how do we go about bringing the muchneeded fundamental shift in attitude in the way we measure success and failure?

Originally published in the Economic Times