Jugez un homme par ses questions plutôt que par ses réponses, Voltaire once said. In English, ‘Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers’. Unfortunately, many Indian eCommerce startup CEOs have crucified Voltaire at the alter. Too many probing questions are never entertained; and they loose temper and calm at the slightest of chances.
I recently interacted with a pretty famous ex-CEO of one of the first startups in India over the phone – whilst waiting to catch a flight at the Bangalore airport. Over our conversation of over 45 minutes, I asked over 25 questions – since the eComm startup he was proposing to float practically didn’t have any USP; didn’t solve any need; and practically had no revenue model to it. Since I had just been out working for an Accel Partners backed eComm startup, SherSingh.com (part of the Exclusively.In Group) in New Delhi, which quite didn’t go down well as expected with the company being acquired by Myntra.com a few weeks back; I was reluctant to join another one which didn’t have a solid business plan and a revenue model in place. Anyways, we spoke at length about the offering (another Western-styled chic lifestyle offering for young women in India), the USP, why this brand name, the expected marketing plan, expected channels to target, CPAs for first-time buyers and so on. When he finally asked me – “What do you think? We’re are pretty well funded“. My blunt but honest answer was – “Looks good. But a NO. I don’t feel the need for another western-styled chic-n-sexy womens apparel brand in India. Not convinced about the revenue model – you would struggle to make money. And funding is not a necessity, its a requirement when you wish to scale up!” The person on the other end was quite upset – got angry – and could feel it. Anyways, we bid good bye, and since then never heard from him again.
Was I being too rude to ask so many questions? Maybe YES. But was being honest.
Good CEOs should NOT become agitated when asked a lot of questions. Don’t take the questions personally – the questions are NOT directed to make you sound miserable and sad – and doubt your ability – but directed towards the business. Towards the business model of the eVenture. Towards the validity of issues like – CPAs, brand loyalty, order fulfillment, and most importantly, making money at the unit-level transactions. If you’re making money at the unit-level economics, chances are you will make it; irrespective of the valuations in the market. There’s a fine line which when you cross – the ‘reasons for failure’ eventually stop mattering; for most companies – its becoming a Senior VP or SVP or CEO level.
Over the past year or so, amongst the best & worst interacted – I think these are my favorite CEOs/Founders in the Startup space – they are cool, calm, honest, sincere and never take questions to heart – however blunt I’ve been -
- Narinder Mahajan – CEO of popular womens apparel & lifestyle website, ShopNineteen.com. Recently launched another brand, Pehraan.com targeted towards the Ethnic market. From the very beginning, it has been a pleasure to interact with Narinder – exchange views about the eComm market in general, strategies and so on. A friendly CEO, this is what every CEO ought to be. Committed, straight-forward yet always smiling.
- Amit Rawal – Founder/CEO of Premier Style Lounge for men - Elitify.com; the place where the stylish & successful Men of India shop online. Elegant, friendly and open-minded whilst discussions, Amit is a perfect CEO for all settings; and moreover apt for the volatile Indian eComm industry. His calm essence is significant for a fast-paced environment where most companies are currently struggling. In all my interactions with Amit thus far, he’s the perfect CEO for an eComm startup in India.
- Sunjay Guleria - Co-Founder/CEO of Exclusively.In & SherSingh.com; recently acquired by Myntra.com. Sunjay is friendly, super cool, trendy, and probably one of the “friendliest” CEOs I’ve worked for thus far. Takes care of his employees like family; and always there for them. Overall, excellent to work for him.
- Sandeep Singh – Haven’t worked for FreeCultr – but Sandeep (or Sandy) is the Co-Founder/COO of one of the hottest and most successful lifestyle brands in India, thus far. FreeCultr. Always honest, straight-forward in communications, Sandy is always a pleasure to talk to. Practical with great sense of happenings in the eComm industry; he has a wealth of knowledge that he never hesitates to share with. Always a pleasure to interact with, Sandy is the perfect CEO material for me; and would be a pleasure to work with some day.
- Shantanu Mathur – Former Managing Director, Incubation Unit – Smile Group that manages some of India’s finest and well known eComm brands - FashionAndYou.com, DealsAndYou.com, BeStylish, Juvalia, Freecultr, Tyroo, Quasar. A buddy with an open mind, excellent eComm Industry knowledge and always a pleasure to interact with, Shantanu is definitely one of the guys to work for in the eComm startup space in India.
If you’re thick skinned, one doesn’t take the questions to heart. Otherwise its always painful to deal with a barrage of questions.
The English boss of my first company in London – a self-made billionaire, CEO & Founder of an Investment & Hedge-fund firm where I worked after passing out from Oxford, taught me a few invaluable lessons of life. From being able to clean up cups of all employees to being precise in calculations whilst calculating investments – one of the most important things I learnt from him was – ‘Ask Questions. Ask a Lot of Questions. Ask a Lot of Questions that dig for the truth. The honest ones will survive, the weaker souls will perish‘.
Thus, if you’re thinking of launching of your next eVenture, be prepared to be asked a myriad of questions. By your friends, foes, competitors, VCs and most importantly, by your employees. Questions that will rip you apart. Otherwise, you can always take the easy choice – launch a company, and make sure your wife and employees use it only. That way – you’re safe – your better half and your employees wouldn’t ask many questions. Of course, till you go bust.