Thursday, July 12, 2012

Reassessment and Recalibration

I have been pursuing, with all earnestness, a particular dream for last four years, but I have reached a point to pause and think, and change directions, if necessary. Call this return of the practical, or even its revenge; however, it is my return to the real life in many ways. 

My problem has always been that I have been trying to do too much. May be I read too much new business mythologies and signed up to garage entrepreneurship without necessarily connecting the dots, that I am late in life to start, and not everything happens to everyone. This is not a new feeling, I have been here before: What is new is this - whenever I thought about this earlier, the full reality had not sunk in till then, and I saw giving up as a sign of cowardice! Cowardice - that's how I thought - in chivalrous, almost quixotic, terms! Now, I am trying to think like a grown up, and viewing giving up, at least some part of it what I wanted to do, or deferring, as pragmatism. 

My idea is to create an online platform for delivery of British education abroad. Working with colleagues over last few months, we refined the idea considerably - with open source technologies, smart partnerships to keep the costs manageable and even finding a way around the country-to-country regulation maze. However, as we came up with a smart business model where we needed only a small amount of money, relatively speaking, that very moment, Europe started cratering, and most investors sought refuge into the big and the known. Accordingly, for last six months or so, we had to go into a scramble for scale, trying to package our idea alongside a brick-and-mortar entity, a money-guzzling one so that the investment is of the right size, though this meant considerable departure from the pure passion of a start-up.

This was indeed a mistake. As I myself often say, each business has its business model. After spending six months to fit our business idea within the frame of a larger business, I have come to realize that aligning with a brick-and-mortar entity will not make the core idea any safer or sustainable: In fact, just the opposite, it has all the risks of derailing the business by crowding out our time.

Friends, who have been pointing out the obvious for a while, are astonished that I took so long to come to this relatively apparent conclusion. However, two factors kept me on this path as long as it did: First, that the business I was trying to align everything with was the one I worked on for a considerable period of time, and helped reshape the agenda, at least as far as I was allowed; and second, the path to start up, in England just at the time of the European meltdown, was not easy, particularly considering my own financial commitments, age and all that. However, it is still undeniable that I did not take the plunge, and was forever warming up by the side of the pool. I have now reached a point where I either leave the idea or jump in.

I am planning to do, expectedly, both at the same time. I shall abandon the pursuit of combining the two models - I already have - and return to the pure-play start up plan. However, this time around, I shall commit to start in baby steps, making small investments in the platform and the content, doing up the website, connecting with a team of people, etc. I shall approach this as play, not work, at least as long as it is not ready. This is where my big mistake was: Waiting for everything to happen before starting. 

I shall also continue working, though I want to change the nature of my work. I want to go back to more academic work - I shall again take on teaching and writing commitments - which will hopefully give me more predictable hours and work schedule. I shall now lock myself into a room and try to finish my dissertation in a hurry, and postpone my pursuit of a Ph D by a year. The idea is to go back to my start-up days, when I arrived in this country and took on odd jobs and counted days I actually could survive, while I build everything up from scratch yet again. 

All change, yet again, then, but that is a better way of living life than remaining stuck. I am passionate about creating a great online college which will make education available, in a meaningful way and without giving in to the cost spirals and pressures, and would work on creating this. But, this is not about fast-mover advantage etc: These things are never too critical in education. Education is a supply-deficient marketplace and all that matters is reputation, which stands on the back of doing a good job and having satisfied students. Elementary, indeed, but I indeed took my eye off the ball: It is time to get the focus back again.

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