News about media veterans quitting their corporate jobs to try their hand at entrepreneurship is commonplace. Less noticed is that many of these entrepreneurs have found their way back to the corporate grind - a counter-intuitive transition.
Sure, we've seen ad folk do this in the past; remember when KS Chakravarthy quit Leo Burnett to launch a production house called Persistence of Vision, before jumping right back into 'the agency life'? Or when Ravi Deshpande launched an ad agency called Lemon along with Euro RSCG - the agency he was working with at the time - before going back to an agency job at Contract Advertising?
The trend is noteworthy all the same for three reasons: Firstly, the number of entrepreneurs coming back to jobs has increased. Secondly, the counterflow has grown to include brand marketers, print media experts, television professionals and digital heads. Thirdly, the transition is smooth because today - unlike previously, when a move of this kind came with a stigma - employers see merit in hiring ex-entrepreneurs.
Lloyd Mathias, marketing head, printing and personal systems, Hewlett-Packard India, says, "These days corporate India is more accepting of switchers. In fact, many companies welcome employees who have had stints as entrepreneurs."
In 2012, after having quit his job as president and chief marketing officer, Tata Teleservices, Mathias launched a management consultancy called GreenBean Ventures. Today, he has no role in the company; it is run by his co-founders Sanjeev Sharma and Parikshit Bhasin. Why'd he move back to an organisation? "I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. But having tried it, I felt my skills were more suited to larger companies," he responds.
While Mathias may have found his skills better suited to a larger setup, there are others who go back to jobs that either offer a startup like feel or require them to build something from the ground up, just like a new business venture does.
Manu Kumar Jain, who quit his job at McKinsey to launch Jabong in 2012, has been working as India head for handset brand Xiaomi for over a year now. 'For', being the operative word. But Jain has an explanation for his unconventional move: "When I left Jabong, I left to start something new. But that's when the opportunity to launch Xiaomi in India came to me. Honestly, it wasn't very different from launching Jabong, because when I started out at Xiaomi, I was the only one. It was almost like starting a new company from scratch."
The challenges at Xiaomi, he insists, were "exactly the same" as they were at Jabong during the initial days: He single-handedly worked on the new business plan, figured out the partnership model, checked out service centre locations, worked on supply chain issues and recruited the now 30-member strong team at the company.
Jain adds, "Things would have been very different if Xiaomi had been a big, well-established company in India. Then I would have joined as a 'corporate employee'," something he cannot picture himself doing.
Not surprisingly, when it comes to hiring, Jain has a bias for former entrepreneurs. "Almost 70 per cent of my leadership team in India comprises ex-entrepreneurs." Just one example is Myshkin Ingawale, chief of staff, India, Xiaomi Technology, who is the co-founder of Biosense, a med-tech company.
"Ex-entrepreneurs are far more flexible, agile and understanding of the startup culture. They're not like corporate employees who have fixed working hours and well defined work roles," expounds Jain.
Ironically, a stint as an entrepreneur actually equips one to deliver better in a corporate system. Raj Nayak, CEO, Colors, who branched out in 2010 to launch Aidem Ventures, a marketing and advertising sales company, says, "The short time running my own business taught me much more than my corporate life did over 20 years. I learnt how to manage cash flows, optimise spends and reduce costs. I learnt that growth and profitability go hand in hand."
To Partho Dasgupta, CEO, Broadcast Audience Research Council India, it's the ability to take risks that characterises this breed of entrepreneur-turned-employee: "Let's be frank here. Companies don't employ highly paid guys unless they need something to be changed or have a new project to launch. I would like to think that I am 'that guy' - the one who can either set up a new thing, or turn things around for a shareholder."
Dasgupta founded Aurora Comms, a media company, along with Vishakha Singh, in 2009. Why'd he move back to the corporate jungle? "I realised I wasn't fully occupied. If I'm not creating something really big, beyond a point I lose interest - that's what happened in my startup. I enjoy putting things into place on a large scale. Striving to get a business on its feet is something I would go back to again and again."
Still others see the move back to a company as a natural progression. Consider the case of Jwalant Swaroop. Between his current corporate position - CEO, Sakal Media Group - and previous corporate position - COO at rival Lokmat Media - he launched Oshoyana Consultants (part of Happiness Infinite Solutions since 2014), a firm that consults with small and medium-sized family-owned enterprises.
For him, turning entrepreneur was "a natural desire after having accumulated vast experience in managing businesses," and the move back to a job has everything to do with "the lure of sharing the domain expertise you gained." How so? "When you come back, you're more mature, you can deliver better in your role... you have more appreciation for the point of view of investors and the company board," he says.
Rejecting the 'corporate versus business' dichotomy, Swaroop adds, "Even when you create something of your own, you're getting into the corporate world. It's the size that's different, that's all. For me, starting a business doesn't mean going away from the corporate world."
Entrepreneurs who raise funds from venture capitalists can have a somewhat different way of looking at things. "Yes, I distinctly differentiate between the romanticism of being an entrepreneur and the reality of it," asserts BARC's Dasgupta, insisting that at the end of the day, the business-versus-job argument boils down to a "trade-off between your P&L (salary) and your balance sheet (shares)."
A common factor that sends entrepreneurs back to corporate life is the lack of scale in startups - not the size of their company but the smaller canvas they have to paint on.
Prateek Bhardwaj, national creative director, McCann, who founded an ad agency called Eleven Brandworks (the team later moved into McCann and became MWG-TAG) says, "While running one's own agency has its own rewards, it can get limiting in terms of the brands and opportunities one gets to work on. Though I was enjoying the freedom, and the responsibility, of being an entrepreneur, the copywriter in me was feeling a bit dissatisfied."
Businesswoman-turned-employee Minakshi Achan concurs, "Whether it's creative, media, digital or activation, there comes a time when you find that with most clients you are awarded only a 'part mandate'. You find yourself working on bits of the brand's needs. There's a lot of talk of providing full-service or integrated solutions but, by and large, clients are settled into their relationships."
Achan recently joined AND Designs India (fashion designer Anita Dongre's firm) as chief creative officer, brand, after exiting Salt Brand Solutions, an ad agency she co-founded with Mahesh Chauhan, the former group CEO of Rediffusion, in 2011.
As Hewlett's Mathias says, "it is the loneliness as an entrepreneur where one misses large teams and global level challenges" that makes people come back to jobs.
The conflicting needs for autonomy and scale have led some to find a viable mid-path. Take the example of Suman Srivastava. He quit his job at Euro RSCG to launch Marketing Unplugged, a marketing consultancy. Though FCB Ulka is his client, he holds the designation of chief strategy officer (CSO) at the advertising agency. Is this a golden mean of sorts? "Yes, I think so. I'm getting the best of both worlds," he admits.
Typically, startups like his work with a lot of small-to-medium sized clients. So, when Srivastava started missing the scale of large accounts, he took up the CSO's position at Ulka, one that doesn't require him to administratively run the agency's planning team but nevertheless allows him to work on the large clients such as Tata and Amul.
Some manage to strike a balance early on in their careers. Samyak Chakrabarty, managing partner at Pratap Bose's new venture, launched a firm called Electronic Youth Media while still in college. DDB Mudra bought it in 2013, a development that earned Chakrabarty the title of chief youth marketer at the group. Soon after, he launched Social Quotient, a firm that creates intellectual properties that enable positive social impact. He continues to run it today.
In a manner of speaking, he has worn both hats - entrepreneur and employee - simultaneously. "It's 'behavioural evolution'. Today, people don't want to confine themselves to one job role," he thinks.
Experts imagine an industry which easily allows people to move one way or the other through permeable walls. Some companies are creating what they call 'intrapreneurs' - employees who belong to smaller groups that focus on exploiting business opportunities for themselves and the company.
Drawing on his own journey - from founder of digital firm Magnon to head of the agency that acquired it - Vineet Bajpai, group CEO, TBWA India, says, "On one hand, entrepreneurs are inviting investments from bigger corporations and selling stake to become part of larger, strategically superior companies. On the other hand, big companies are giving ESOPs or stock-options to leaders to retain them. The line between 'company CEO' and 'company promoter' is blurring."
In corporate folklore, the entrepreneur has become such a hero that he is welcome back more than ever - irrespective of whether he succeeded or failed.
A Note From the Editor
The current image of an entrepreneur is of a bright young person, typically male, in his late 20s, who has been funded for an amount with so many zeros that they make the reader dizzy. The boring truth, however, is that most entrepreneurs don't get funded. They are also older than is generally imagined.
When a person gives up a job to start off on one's own, there are many fears to contend with. There is the immediate financial concern, of meeting EMIs, and having enough money to support the family. And then there is the professional anxiety about whether the decision is the correct one and whether the startup will succeed - or fall flat, as most do.
There are other worries, the primary one being: what will people say if I fail? It is the fear of looking foolish for having run after a dream - because you are expected to wake up from a dream, not chase it.
Thankfully, so much has changed. Executives are far more open to getting the startup bug out of their system by taking a shot at entrepreneurship rather than suppressing the idea. If it works, excellent; if not, they will return to corporate life.
That's what this fortnight's cover story is about. While the media is writing about executives who are giving up the company life, we have identified a little-known reverse trend: people returning to corporate life after having done their own thing.
We are talking not of young unknowns but middle-aged executives at the peak of their careers where the cost of switching paths and failing is high. Thankfully, there is so much folklore around entrepreneurship now, that there is much less shame in failure than ever before. The mere fact that a person tried to strike out on one's own is now viewed positively and he is often welcomed back into company life.
Adjusting to the old life again is not without its challenges. But as long as people can return, you can be sure that even more will leave to make their own fortunes.
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