When my colleagues and I were new to a sales job, You Can Win (1998) by Shiv Khera was a famous book we had read for inspiration. It was full of powerful stories with important lessons to influence our attitude and thinking.
One of those stories is very relevant to today’s startups.
A biology teacher was showing his students how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. He pointed to the cocoon and told the students that in the next couple of hours, the butterfly would struggle to come out of it. He told them to wait and watch, while he left the room for another work.
As the students waited and watched, they saw that the butterfly was struggling hard to get out of the cocoon. And then one of the students experienced feelings of sympathy and thought he should offer help. He broke the cocoon to put put an end to the butterfly’s struggles and make it easy for it to come out. A little later, the butterfly died.
When the teacher returned and came to know what had happened, he explained to the students that when the butterfly struggles to break out of the cocoon, its wings become strong, which is why it is able to fly once it is out. When the boy broke the cocoon, he had deprived the butterfly of the opportunity to struggle and thereby develop strength to survive.
It is important to note that the butterfly’s story of struggle is a real story and not a fictional anecdote. It is actually, science.
What relevance can a butterfly struggling to break out of its cocoon have for startups?
Startups are like butterflies, struggle can make their wings strong.
Accelerators, incubators, government support are all fine. But even all these put together won’t help much even in the short term, much less in the long run, if the wings are not strong.
We know there are a lot of successful organizations that did not receive any support when they started out. They fend for themselves and in the process they learn both survival and growth hacks. Two successful organizations that I had worked for were founded in the living room of the founders. They had bootstrapped all their way to success to become national brands.
I had myself cofounded and successfully bootstrapped two startups in the past. The responsibility of paying the bills had put me on my toes and forced me to learn how to get business or how to deliver better services to stay in the game while competing with established brands. When I look back, I feel that if I had somebody else funding it, I may not have had the heat on me. I would have been relaxed or I would not have put in enough efforts. Or I would have been careless and made critical mistakes, because anyway somebody else is paying the bills, not me. Of course, I did make some mistakes as part of the learning process, learned my lessons, had my fair share of ups and downs, and experienced good as well as bad days.
Does this mean startups should not seek funding or support?
No. But initially, if you can independently go through some struggle to test yourself, your concept, your commitment and your skills before you start talking to investors, you are more likely to be successful. Government initiatives like Startup India Stand Up India are providing critical support by making paperwork easy and relaxing tax liabilities. In my time, we had a hard time in this regard with corrupt officials standing at our gates and harassing us to pay different kinds of taxes.
Once you have your startup up and running and it is time to scale, VC funding becomes inevitable, but at this point your wings are strong and you are ready to soar higher.