Monday, August 03, 2009

Diary: On the question of Return

I am inside a busy Monday schedule, and to my infinite satisfaction, I could start early today. At work at 5:30am, this is a sort of ideal schedule which allows me to synchronize my schedule with my colleagues in India. There is indeed a potential downside: obviously I am expected to work till 5:30 in the evening, or beyond. But then I should not mind 12+ hours workday, never did before, and this is a sort of a make-or-break year when I must do my best to make things happen.

One thing I know I got to become far more serious about my future. It is not good enough to be idealistic and say that I want to make change in people's lives. Actually, being idealistic needs more physical effort than being materialistic, because one must meet the material demands of a normal life and then meet the extra ones because one wants to do more. I must admit that I have the usual bengalee laziness - often I shall try to find an excuse to do nothing - and this hinders my material progress and jeopardizes anything beyond that completely. So, again, back to 12 hour day, in fact, 14 hour days - I am sort of forcing myself to work long hours, and focusing on how I use all the time productively, more carefully than ever.

Over last couple of years, I have made different statements at different times on what I want to do. This blog is useful in a way that all records are kept, and I have written quite openly as well, and I can see the trail of my changing my mind over this period of time. Before that, it was pretty straight - I wanted to spend a number of years travelling and staying in different countries and at the end of it, go home and start afresh in Kolkata. This started changing after my mother's death, which made my linkages with Kolkata decidedly weaker, and gradually, my dealings with Indian businessmen convinced me that I would not possibly want to go back and get involved with a small businessman in any manner.

This isn't a snob effect, coming out of my years of staying abroad. I definitely knew most of what I know long before I went anywhere - through my two exposes to small business, one in 1993/4 and then in 1999/2000. I knew how things really work and how it is always about short-circuiting the path to success, and how I could never fit myself in that scheme of things. Besides, I have some interesting experiences in Britain as well, which convinced me that small businesses have some self-limiting traits everywhere. While I remain a deep admirer of entrepreneurs who start out on their own, I also know that there are reasons why some businesses become successful but most do not go anywhere. Besides, my exposure was primarily to education and training, and I have now spent a mini-lifetime in this industry. This experience taught me that this is one industry which is ideally suited for small businesses, but is also full of hidden minefields which no one seems to be aware of.

Let me explain. Education/training business usually have a low threshold and therefore small businessmen can enter and do well in this sector quite easily. The problem is that the business looks deceptively simple, especially in the context of franchising mechanism which some companies in India perfected to build a very efficient solution to scale issues. But, as I talked about minefields, most education/training outfits actually fail because though they need start up investments befitting smaller businesses, the service commitment and complexity of these businesses need scale and expertise, and an unflinching commitment to customer service and process orientation, which most lifestyle businessmen do not possess.

Besides, in my experience, I have seen two kinds of businessmen in the sector. The first kind went in because they could not have gone anywhere else. They came from a training background - either they were teachers, or training administrators, or something of that sort - and the only business they could get into was training. The second kind is just the opposite, they could have done, and did, other kinds of businesses and got into training primarily tempted by the low threshold or its deceptively easy formula. And, also, I must mention hubris - education is high visibility, high prestige - and many successful businessmen get into this because they want to move up a notch on the Maslow pyramid.

The problem with education/training is that only some people get it. Most do not even get its basic nature - high contact service - almost at par with hospitality. Beyond this, it is knowledge based and the structure of the business needs to be as people friendly as hospitality [I can argue it needs to be more people-friendly than even hospitality, but I am biased]. It needs to have the service standards matching an airline, regulatory hassles at par with food service, and an impact on customers which can only be matched by healthcare. So, once you are in, it starts getting complex, and unless someone has a real love and commitment to what the business is [and actually does not have an option but to stick around], it soon gets too messy to handle.

So, in short, the first kinds usually survive, while the second kinds fall by the wayside, mostly. And, then, the businesses reaches the point when it must take its next steps, scale up and go beyond the obvious, and this is where the first kinds start falling off as well. All their love and commitment was enough to run a mom-and-pop shop, but the child soon outgrows the stage.

Now, I have watched small businesses in this space for so many years, and seen some businesses successful calibrating each stage while most others faltered soon. It is indeed not an Indian thing: I have similar observations to make regarding UK businesses as well. What especially does not help is the tendency to shortcut in Indian businesses and the consequent assumption that the whole business of business is actually easier than it ever was.

Considering that I have to stay in the education and training space, and possibly running or guiding a small business, India does not seem, therefore, an attractive option. Corporate positions are a separate thing, but after all these years of independence, I may not be one ideally suited for that life. So, India is off the table for me, at least for the moment. I shall indeed go back, but then that may have to wait till I finished working and become completely ready to move on to another career.

What do I plan to do in the meantime? The short answer is - follow my heart. I made a mistake by committing myself to a job I did not want, and I need to start with correcting that. This isn't easy, because I am aware that it is not just me but a number of other people involved as well. I have started sorting things out, surely, by putting more sustainable structures in place in every country operation that I have been involved in. The process is frustratingly slow and difficult, and I am not sure whether I shall run out of time and patience before the task is complete. But, then, I have always been responsible in my life, and as I recognize that being idealistic is hard work. [But, I don't have a choice - if I am not an idealist, there is no difference between me and others.]

Once I am done with this sorting out, I shall focus on moving towards more enjoyable work. I keep saying the best job in my life was when I was working in a warehouse, shifting materials, taking photos and entering data, all for 50p a piece [we used to make £80 a day between two of us for 12 hours work - that's less than the minimum wage] - because I know that things can not be much worse. This gives me the confidence that a course change is possible and I have the strength to see it through. The principles should remain the same - hard work, commitment and love for the work at hand - and I do estimate that I have the strength to start again and seek the change.

So, no return for me and only more adventure in store! I am rather looking forward to it.

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