Sunday, May 04, 2014

Reflections and Interests: What I Learnt By Bootstrapping

I have 'boot-strapped' for slightly over a year now, living without a salary or even steady income, to get the business off the ground. I did preach that everyone should do boot-strapping at least once in life, and I have done this to remain true to my word. It was challenging, indeed: I was not just boot-strapping to start a business, but was doing so while simultaneously paying for my education and still settling in a new country. That way, this bootstrap was a somewhat mad plunge, and therefore, as great a learning as I thought it would be. 

This had the usual elements people learn in a bootstrap, like:

  • That you can't buy everything you want to buy, and I am not talking about diamond rings. Many a times, I shall control the impulse to buy a book, or a toy for my son, because it was not urgent.
  • That there are more efficient ways of doing things. I discovered the cheapest ways to get around in London during this period. I know now when to use my pre-paid Oyster and when to buy a season ticket.
  • That you are surrounded by extraordinary people. If I started thinking that all relationships are a kind of transaction, I needed to go through the time when I had less to offer. Suddenly, you discover that you had friends, even among people you didn't know so well, who were generous, kind and who will always buy you drinks without making you feel bad.
But, because this was such a madcap venture, there was more in store for me. I couldn't just afford to stop earning, because I was having to pay rent and still pay my university fees, as I would have done if I was doing this in my own country and at a different stage of life. So, I did try out different kinds of projects. This meant I was doing things which I wouldn't have actively pursued, if I was still in a job of some kind. I did a variety of things, in fact, whatever work I could get. Here is a list of the kind of projects I did during this period:
  • Taught a Post-graduate Leadership course in a public institution
  • Wrote courses for corporate training programmes
  • Wrote e-Learning Content
  • Delivered Distance Learning programmes funded by the British government
  • Helped arrange a Conference 
  • Wrote Research Reports on Global Education trends
  • Wrote paid blog posts and web content for education and technology companies
  • Created marketing plans for International Market Entry
  • Delivered guest lectures in colleges overseas
  • Worked in project advisory for Vocational Training initiatives in Africa
Agreed that this did not include driving a cab or working in a Tesco till, at least so far. I did not rule these out, though. I told my business partner, before we embarked on the venture, that I shall do anything to pay my way through, because I want to look back at this period with adoration, once this is over. I am not over yet, but I feel good about all the things I have done. It was indeed not all good: Some of the projects I liked very much, and some I hated. Whether or not the financial rewards were commensurate, this was the most extraordinarily productive period in my life.

I am now looking to end this period of bootstrap now by pivoting the business and organising my activities by focusing on the areas I liked. At this time, the experiences of the bootstrap is like a mirror for me to look into, because these experiences show me, in sharp relief, what I would like to do in the coming days, and more importantly, what I should like to avoid.

Several years ago, while I was still in my recruitment job, and when I was talking to my business partner and mentor about starting an education venture, his advice to me was to get into the Education sector. Which I duly did, working both as a Teacher and a Manager in the sector, over the last few years. However, working at the sharp end of the educational food chain, the chalk face exposure as an adjunct lecturer in a public college during this boot-strap, was possibly the best experience I could have had. If I was suspicious about the broken nature of traditional education already, this experience clearly exposed the limits of the traditional education model for me. My point of institutional corruption of education (see here), because a vast bureaucratic organisation takes over the institution once money and funding are made central to the proposition, comes from this experience. This is one thing - teaching as an adjunct tutor in a traditional setting - I would never want to do ever again. In fact, I have now decided that I must shift away my career and my business from the traditional education, and solely focus on educational innovation. So, for any new work, I am asking myself whether this relates to educational innovation or not.

This plays out in terms of arranging the Education Conference. I helped arrange one last year, which was modestly successful. I met a number of very interesting people, both from India and UK, and we had substantive discussions about investments in Indian education, and some deals thereafter. Given that the venture was profitable, and all concerned parties gained from the venture, there is a clear intent to run it again this year. However, I now want to shift away from the traditional education - the conversation about education in India is mostly about buildings and infrastructure and less about education - and if I commit my time to anything now, this should be about educational innovation. Indeed, I am not becoming choosy while I boot-strap: I am trying to end my boot-strap by using the lessons I learnt.

The other big take-away from this period is knowing what I want to spend my time doing. I needed a focus of some sort in my life, and I feel I got one now. At one hand, I see the technologies transforming the workplace and also the learning, and at another, working in public institutions in London and public and private institutions in other parts of the world, I know that most educators are sleepwalking into this future. It is not that they don't know that things are changing: Most of them just don't want to wake up. They see all change as a conspiracy, and their approach is to resist, to invoke a timeless ideal of education which never was, and to cover themselves with increasingly obscure rhetoric. And, indeed, this is having precisely the opposite of the intended effect: By calling all change conspiracy, they left the initiative of change to conspirators of some kind, those who indeed want to undermine the educational goals of freedom and emancipation and would rather use the tools of education to subjugate a vast majority of people into self-destructive binge consumption and indebtedness. Again, doing various kinds of things in traditional education, I was just perfecting aspects of this mouse-trap: The consumerisation of, for and by the students, the vacuous excuse of quality and excellence when it really meant nothing, and the pathetic surrender of initiative by well-meaning educators who are obsessed with their next entitlement, were all very plain to see from that vantage point. 

I intend to end my boot-strapping period in the next four to six weeks, by bringing about several changes in my life, by restructuring the business we do, and by fine-tuning my commitments to various projects. However, this period of boot-strap will hopefully be the guide that will help shape my next priorities.


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