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Returning to the startup pitch

  • Former startup founders often look for work in ventures in which they can leverage the skills and knowledge they gained while running their own companies
  • Startups have an entrepreneurial culture, and this is what former founders returning to a job look for

(L to R) Manyata Malhotra  and Nikhil Agarwal
(L to R) Manyata Malhotra and Nikhil Agarwal

As one of the earliest hires in the marketing department of apparel startup LimeRoad in 2014, Hitesh Rathee, 32, saw up close how the company grew from scratch. The learning opportunities and responsibilities were immense, and in 2016, armed with online expertise, Rathee left the company to start his own offline boutique in Gurugram.

“I tried to take it online as well but the e-commerce space was difficult. I needed to learn more," he says. Earlier this year, he returned to LimeRoad as a digital marketing manager to learn the nuances of e-commerce. His wife continues to look after the boutique.

“The feeling of having ownership of the vertical has really taught me a lot," he says. Rathee hasn’t yet decided if he plans to return full time to being an entrepreneur.

More than 1,200 new startups came into being in 2018, according to industry body Nasscom, but, depending on which study you believe, 50- 90% of all startups fail. So it’s likely many of the entrepreneurs return to the workforce. Some of them try to start again, but a fair number tend to return to their former workplaces or choose to work in another startup.

Startups have an entrepreneurial culture, and this is what former founders returning to a job look for. For the company too, an employee who returns after trying to be an entrepreneur is a boon.

“If we have two candidates with the same qualification, and one has tried to do something on his or her own, we will choose this person. They not only show an entrepreneurial mindset, but have greater risk-taking ability, which percolates down to the team," explains Yuvaraj Srivastava, group chief human resource officer,

He explains that such an employee brings insights into what works and what doesn’t for the company. “They have perspective that someone within the company may not—how it has changed, what is required to make it successful. We do not have to spend much time teaching him or her about the company. That said, we do check if he is still in touch with the reality of the organization, if he is still a cultural fit," says Srivastava.

Lessons learnt

Many rejoin companies within the same space so that they’re able to apply their learnings while picking up more expertise. Manyata Malhotra, 27, set up The VR Project, an edutech company that attempted to use virtual reality for teaching in low-income schools, in 2016. But the expensive technology and logistical challenges forced her to close it after a year.

Malhotra did not want her learnings from The VR Project go to waste, and she joined Meraki Foundation, a social impact startup that focuses on training parents in low-income households. She used her experience of dealing with these families to create the content for the Meraki website and also gave suggestions on various projects.

“I felt that I was more comfortable with uncertainty because I had tried to set up something on my own. A few of my colleagues at Merkari, on the other hand, would always worry about where they were headed," says Malhotra, who now plans to return to university.

A break from responsibility

Another reason to return to a salaried job after shuttering a venture is to take a break from being responsible for every decision. Harkirat Singh, 35, left MakeMyTrip in 2011 and co-founded We Are Holidays, an online holidays marketplace. He went through the startup’s lifecycle: building a team, raising funds, expanding the business and finally sold the business to Cox & Kings in 2017. “It would have been easy to start another venture, but I thought about the time it would take—six to seven years—and I did not want to invest so much time in another venture. I decided to come back to MakeMyTrip as director (online products) in March this year," says Singh. The comfort he shared with the team that made him choose to return, he adds.

Nikhil Agarwal, 33, spent three years running his home décor startup, but soon realized growth had hit a plateau because he lacked the expertise to build a better tech product.

Rather than letting it get him down, he decided to develop this skill set, and went back to a job at logistics startup Delhivery, where he’d earlier worked for two years.

“I had learnt operations and management of a large number of people, but I needed to learn about tech, and I knew my job at Delhivery would be the perfect place to learn," he explains. Agarwal also had to prepare himself for changes in the workplace, and the fact that peers would be his bosses.

“I had adjusted my expectations before coming back. Some of my former colleagues had moved ahead, but we still hung out," he says. Those colleagues gave him insights into the company’s environment and changes in culture. This is key information, and helped him make decisions.

Agarwal says the learning in one’s own startup is “very horizontal": one picks up a variety of skills, especially practical business skills. In a job, one focuses on a single area of expertise. A regular salary is an added bonus.

“I like the financial stability, predictability, and controlled learning environment in a job. But what I miss is the thrill and promise that comes with risk," adds Agarwal. The feeling that he can control his future makes him want to start another venture someday.

Power of networks

Should one look to return to the workforce, staying in touch with the industry as well as with employers and peers is important. Singh, for instance, made sure he stayed in touch with the MakeMyTrip founding team while at his startup. This ensured that his return was smooth and did not require chasing back and forth with human resource or recruitment teams.

Suchi Mukherjee, founder of LimeRoad, says founders returning to regular employment often worry that their peers would have moved ahead. “Instead they should focus on working on any skill gap that could impact their employability," she says. “Companies are moving away from human bias, of hiring someone because of only their loyalty, and replacing it with objective assessment," she says.

Companies don’t shy away from hiring entrepreneurs, whether the venture was successful, because founders have gained management and other skills, often showing an all-round understanding of how business works.

“When someone comes back from starting their own venture they bring that shared ambition back. Startup founders know how to work with limited resources, which is a benefit even in an employee. In a job I might have more resources, but I will make them last longer because now I am wired that way," Singh says.

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