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CoffeeDay: The Price to pay for Entrepreneurship in India

Today morning started with a letter from V. G. Siddhartha, founder of Cafe Coffee Day, an immensely popular coffee shop brand, often dubbed as Starbucks of India. 

The letter states how Siddhartha considers himself to be a failure because of piling debt and although there are enough assets to pay everyone, he disappeared after writing the letter.

To me, this is a wake-up call for the Indian society to recognise that they are losing amazing entrepreneurs to the Western countries, to silly jobs, and now to what appears to be a suicide attempt.

According to reports, Siddhartha got off from his car near a bridge across the Nethravathi River near Mangalore, about 375km from Bengaluru, but did not return even after an hour. The driver looked but could not find him, he then alerted the family members who in turn informed the police and the search is still on for Siddhartha.

This letter will resonate with most entrepreneurs, who have, at some point in time, felt helpless and crushed from all sides. Some fought, some gave up, some became employees.

Why does this happen?

Risk-taking is not considered brave in India.

Innovations, unless they generate a shitload of money, are not considered worthwhile. Everything is measured in money, and intelligence is just for getting into IITs/IIMs. Otherwise, intelligence is just an ornament.

I know this struggle when I started my business with just a laptop 10 years ago. Banks wouldn’t open my proprietorship account without a ‘reference’. I remember an incident where one of my friends measured me by the turnover of my one-year-old company. Customers would gauge my need and pay accordingly and not my skill or delivery. Employees would quit without notice on a weekend, resigning on SMS.

Startup events were packed with people exactly like me. Worst of all my parents would ask me regularly if I was making any money and be pissed that I was being thrifty. I did not have any money for the first three years of my business. I was just growing a service business by re-investing everything. No one seemed to care about the talent, hard work, the quality of work that we were doing for such a small company, the kind of clients we managed to score, the level of output we delivered.

And this is not just me. Most of the startuppers I knew about 5 years ago are working as employees somewhere or have ‘pivoted’ their startup into some kind of a service business that has no scope of achieving scale. And I know some amazing founders, coders and business people.

This is not just limited to entrepreneurs. I can tell you about a guy who invented a new musical instrument, someone who writes brilliant Hindi poetry, a young graduate who wants to be an independent journalist, a fashion designer who is regularly called tailor by her friends, a teacher using innovative play methods for kids, a yoga teacher whose family doesn’t support her dreams.

Tons have been written on this, movies have been made, a whole TVF Pitchers season dedicated to how big a struggle it is. But every time there is a V. G. Siddhartha, a part of me is disappointed that nothing has changed in the last ten years.

Of course, you can build a successful business in India. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is a bigger struggle than it should be. It just means that there are amazing founders who will work ten times harder to overcome all the obstacles and still build a company. But how long will we test them?

For this to work, for innovators to stay in India and not disappear, we cannot rely on the resilience of founders who do not yet see the option of leaving the country. We need an ecosystem where banks are open to new ideas, customers are willing to be fair, media writes about the true innovations and not just about Ratan Tata photo-op for investing a token amount in some startup, the legal system that protects innovation and upholds contracts.

More than that, a founder’s success should not be measured on a linear scale. They create an impact in various ways. I made a decent amount of money before shuttering my service business right after I got my first term sheet. But what I value today is the learning that enabled me to go ahead and build more businesses, that the employees who learned something still call and thank me, customers are still friends who come back for advice and beer, and mentors who notice how I grew in those years.

Risk-taking and innovation is not just the responsibility of the founders. To provide fertile ground for innovation to grow is society’s responsibility. Else, we will have to be happy with TCS / Infosys donkey-coding jobs while more V. G. Siddharthas disappear.

Footnote from Naimish, CEO of Coin Crunch India: Pareen’s article shows the predicament of Indian Entrepreneurs. There is widespread notion that if you aren’t progressing, it is your fault which I disagree with. Not everyone has the same level of aptitude for all kinds of work that is required for startups and businesses. It is crucial that a government supports its budding entrepreneurs and artists by easing the regulations, the barriers and help them grow in a nurtured environment. Our heart goes out the Coffee Day Family and we hope there is never a situation like this again.

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