Strong Entrepreneurial traits – How to develop a thick skin

Over the weekend I was at the IPMA conference hosted by Ravi Padaki and his team. I was in at about 11 am and missed a good session by Ram from eBay. I was at the session with Alok Goel of RedBus. Long an admirer of Phani, I am even more impressed with his ability to recruit star players such as Alok. His talk was funny, insightful and full of great examples.

After the talk, I was part of a panel with Sanjay Jain of Kosha labs and Dhimant Parekh of Hoopos. Both are strong product management experts and I was excited to participate in the event just to hang out with them.

The session was billed as a product clinic, which is similar to the ThinkNext events we run at the accelerator and what we have done at Delhi, Bangalore and other cities. In this session 4 entrepreneurs were to bring their product issues or go to market issues and were given 5 minutes to present their company and problem and the jury got 10 minutes to help troubleshoot. The cynic in you might say this is “gyan” session and what some people term as “too simple”. I disagree completely with that thesis that you cannot provide some guidance, largely because most issues with companies fall into the basic 3-5 buckets of problems which are easy to diagnose but hard to provide solutions to.

One of the presenters was the founder of a company that started in July and had built 4 products. One of the products was a dentist appointment system for patients. When he presented he mentioned the market was fairly commodity and that his product was one among 5 others with similar capability.

It was fairly obvious that they were trying a lot of things to see what sticks, but it baffled me that if he knew that the market was commodity and he still chose to build a product with no immediate differences than what was already available. It seemed to me that he was really building a services company with an interest in products as opposed to having a product focus upfront.

I did admire the founders ability to build a team of 13+ people in <6 months, get 3+ paying customers but did not get a chance necessarily to point that out, given the short amount of time we had.

So I chose to point out the need for focus and mentioned that he ought to try and get one great product as opposed to 4 commodity ones.

He was genuinely upset.

I could totally relate to his reaction, given how tough it is to accept criticism of any sort towards your baby.

One of the things I do admire in a lot of successful entrepreneurs is their ability to have a thick skin – the ability to take criticism well, take a lot of body shots and still keep going.

Then I read an interview with Ratan Tata over the weekend.

“In my interactions with business leaders in India, as against elsewhere, there is this feeling that they are looking for cracks in your armor in order to pull you down; this happens not just to me but to everybody,”.

I am torn. I really admire Ratan Tata and I think he’s a role model for many, but I cant help but feel that the emotions are misplaced.

I try to help entrepreneurs do it with the intent of making them stronger and better. Not with the intention of “pulling them down”, but I can totally understand if it comes off as “beating them up”.

I never intend to really deflate another entrepreneur’s zeal, but a reality check is in order.

I think the best thing I could do is to “say it better”.

With empathy and emotion as opposed to with a detached sense of being.

So I am committing to do that.

If you are an entrepreneur and in any of the clinics I do make it blunt and you get a a sense that I am “beating you up”, feel free to call me out.

It will help me be a better person.

Regardless of people like me, please do develop a thick skin. It is the trait of strong entrepreneurs.

15 thoughts on “Strong Entrepreneurial traits – How to develop a thick skin”

  1. Quote: ‘In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.’ – Anton Ego, Ratatouille.

    Quite often I see this manifest itself with investors, mentors, accelerators, and people associated with nurturing the startup space. More often than not, honesty is confused with disdain.

  2. Mukunt – I started reading your posts since last week, but this is 2nd time you’re apologetic for your mistakes. Not sure you’re right fit for the job to mentor others 🙂

    I agree you need to be a critique, but, maybe you can be more polite to point out and give suggestions to those buddies.

  3. Mukund, I was there and saw the exchange.

    I don’t think your actual statement was too harsh. More likely it was totally unexpected – they wanted you to comment on pricing, channel, etc. But you were questioning their basic approach.

    Your voice also had a tone of finality in it, which might have thrown him off. You said in a very matter of fact way ‘You have to look at your 4 markets, and kill 3 of them’ – your tone implied that it was either kill markets or die. To him it probably sounded like you were randomly asking him to kill 3 of his babies – without explaining why.

    I’ve seen similar exchanges, and they rarely go well. You will need all the empathy and emotion you can muster!

    I felt your ‘diagnosis’ was spot on in all cases. But like you say – it’s the solution that’s hard – the diagnosis is trivial with experience.

  4. Sometime you get good critics and sometime people pass comments in every opportunity they get. There will be people who will look at your product meaningfully and then criticise in the other hand there are people who criticise based on their pre-context without having a good look at what you have. So as an entrepreneurs if one can master to filter the bad critics, the product will evolve and hopefully will do good. And yes, having a thick skin helps 🙂

  5. I guess creative persons are sensitive and hence are easily hurt when they don’t hear what they wish to hear. This blended with the fact that they approach every investor/mentor (of course with an overdose of ‘hopium’) with an expectation that they’d be immediately taken under their wings and so when things mildly go against their expectation they react emotionally.

  6. Mukund,
    As you have pointed out, any entrepreneur will get upset when harsh things are said about their product or service. But if your feedback is genuine and has merit, you can be sure that most entrepreneurs will have the good sense to reflect on it when they have calmed down and take away the necessary points to improve themselves / their products. By the same token, most of us entrepreneurs are sensible enough to discount the bs as well upon reflection. So, if you are convinced that you are giving useful input points that will help the entrepreneur in the long run, you must go for it. If you are still not sure, maybe you need to develop your own talisman, like the great Mahatma Gandhi that will tell you what to do!

  7. You meant good. From what I read, your advice is spot on and thats exactly what he needed to hear. No need to be apologetic. Please do not change your approach. People who tell the truth to the face are scarce. World needs more of them.

  8. Me and one other team member was on the receiving end of your onslaught recently during the Qprize. The other member was so devastated by your sharp observations that he decided to quit. But I believe each and every observation was bang on target and have resulted in far greater clarity among the remaining team.
    On the other hand if the observations would have been communicated in a more diplomatic manner it would not have made such a huge impression and would have failed to cut across the thick skins.

  9. A thick skin is absolutely required. In my line of business, too many people that I know have no idea how markets or traders work. Some are seriously talented in their own fields but they couldn’t draw a moving average if you hit them on their head with a candlestick chart. So while I might take their advice on how a business should be run in general, I’m not inclined to agree with their views on my particular business especially where it reveals a lack of knowledge of the underlying market.

    Akio Morita, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Richard Branson and even Dhirubhai Ambani. They all had thick skins, otherwise they wouldn’t have built what they did. A professor may argue that you can’t find a 100 dollar note on the road because technically if it was there, someone would have picked it up. But if you see a 100 dollar note on a road, will you just walk by saying the professor’s right?

  10. I am sorry for Prateek. IMHO, entrepreneurs need to take good care of themselves because they are way above these daily grinds. Commentator is emotionally alienated from your baby and can point fingers at the areas where you might not, owing to lop-sided perspective. Commentator dissects, guide mends.

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