As I begin to write about one of my biggest failures, as an entrepreneur, I would like to warn each of you, my intention to write about it after a decade is not to scare you off from entrepreneurship. I write this story to make a point to myself, that I can walk that road which I show to all entrepreneurs; that it is okay to fail in a venture. Also, however huge the failure may be, it is important to get up or move on and never give up.
This is something I have never done in the past. For the first time, I am giving you references and telling you about my life’s biggest failure, the candid way.
Many of you have heard me introduce myself as an entrepreneur from the age of 18, the Managing Director of an Automobile Research and Development company with my father, right? So for the first time here it is…
Kemm Multitech Innovations Private Limited. With my father as the Chairman and the engineering head and me as the Managing Director, the marketing, collaborations, patenting & operations in charge. We developed many products, patented them and sold them. I am going to talk about one of the products that showed great promise.
We were working on a product called Ottomaax – a Fuel stabiliser for internal combustion engines. An invention from my father, a patented product developed in India which was at the Lab level. We were working with the Vellore Institute of Technology with as amazing and dynamic team from the Mechanical School. Our product was giving around 80km/Litre with a Maruti 800. I can still remember it like yesterday, when I sat with my driver, and my father in the back seat, with the car fuel pipe hooked up to a can of 1 Litre of Petrol and heading out towards Salem. The only reason we could not proceed to a commercial product was because of two problems that my father was facing with the product. Firstly, the product, which was connected between the car engine and the petrol tank would freeze up after an hour of running the engine and secondly, the vehicle could not go above 40 Km/Hr. My dad was very confident he could fix both the problems. The emission tests would always be so low that the guy testing it (external petrol bunk) would say, that the air was as good as the one we breathe. Even as I write this today, it sounds so amazing… So exciting… Patented product, testing in progress, small hiccups and a trusted team. It sure does look like the right ingredients for success.
By the way, from the time I was appointed as the MD, I do not know how, I was like a fish in water. I enjoyed every minute of learning, working with VIT professors, the engineering team at the Lab. Once the lab level product was made we raised, ₹1 Crore from a Chennai based investor, ₹50 Lacs from another based out of Singapore and around ₹2 Crores from another Bangalore based investors (would not disclose the names as it is not my right to do so). With such funds raised, research going full swing in Singapore and VIT, things looked amazing. Does it not for all of you? It did for us too!
Then where did this BIG FAILURE come from?
Years passed by, with a blink of an eye suddenly, my father’s health, who was around late 70s, was going from bad to worse. In reality it deteriorated over a period of time, it would happen in short intervals and when you are in the churn of things, you keep taking it as good days and bad days so. As I write about it now, I know, that if I should have noticed these regular change of his health conditions. It was a signal for me as the MD and a daughter to get the documentations of the R&D and the product development in place. If I had thought of the system, the succession and the way forward, things would have been different.
First lesson for myself and all of you who read this, in business / startup journeys, document your offerings, don’t keep it all in your head thinking you will be there forever, make it a system that runs without you.
The second issue was that it was a family business. My kids until then were little, so my mother was busy and happy taking care of them as I worked with dad. As soon as my kids started going to school and tuitions, she found herself sitting empty handed. My father, as he loved my mom and was one of the most open minded person in this world at that time, decided to bring her on the board of the company as the Finance Director as he believed she was managing the home finance really well, so she could do great at office too. He sent her to English speaking courses and literally made an early 60s lady in 2004 into a dynamic finance director on board and in office. Again it looks great, another team member, a trusted one. But something changed.
The household issues started coming to work, there were times, well paid engineers were working on broken home appliances in the lab, my father would get into petty issues of family affairs and so did I. Thinking back, it looked like nothing, everyone’s intentions were right, everyone wanted things done but just that with this one decision, we had brought our home matters to office. Lesson for us, never ever think a family run business is an easy way out, it is tougher. It has more chances of blowing on your faces at the worst times and you would not realize what came and hit you. Think a zillion times before making your brother, sister, son, daughter, wife or a girlfriend your Partner. Even if you think you have a family member who can do an amazing job, as your partner or co-founder, make them earn that place, make them realize the rules of the office, and make them pay for their mistakes. Take them through every tough step to reach the place of your co-founder and do it for a prolonged period, till you as the founder feel that they have truly earned every bit of it. Because with that, they will realize the value of what they get to own.
So, the third and the final blow was my father’s death in 2008. The biggest blow. I still remember, Lakeside Hospital, 8am, 13th August, I was outside the ICU, when my uncle came and pulled me inside to see him, ‘he is sinking’, he said. I could not move, I could not feel anything, not even a muscle in me, he dragged me in, I was hoping that I was dreaming. I was his Princess, I was his dream business leader, I was his pride and I had done nothing. I had not launched his product, the world had not known about him, I felt I had failed as his daughter. I had failed as his Managing Director; I had failed him.
I walked up near the ICU bed and I saw his face, in pain, I knew then, I could feel his heart, he was telling himself, he had failed me. I was his princess and he was leaving me with an incomplete product, loads of liabilities and no one, not even family to turn back to. I could see his pain, everyone was talking about him sinking, his pulse going down, the doctors were waiting but he was not leaving. He was there, he was in pain, he was in between two worlds, I walked around his bed, I took a deep breath, bent down and kissed him for the last time. I whispered in his ears, “I love you daddy, you leave, you did good with me; you were, are and will be the best daddy in the whole world. Don’t worry about me, I am good, I will take care of everything and I will become what you wanted me to. So leave peacefully, be in my heart always and remember, you are the best father in this whole world. See you soon daddy”. These were the exact words, I moved back and I kept looking at his face, his expressions became less tensed and his face became peaceful and he slipped away.
He left behind his Managing Director, no data on an unfinished product and liabilities of a few crores. I could still feel nothing. I remember, I walked out of the ICU, hearing my mother, family, cry out loud and those sounds meant nothing for me. I was the Managing Director now, I took my phone out and called all my investors and announced his death and assured them that I was there and even though it was a private limited, what mattered were people, so I will make sure that their investments would come back to them. I wanted them to pray for my father.
Take a minute here… It’s a mixed feeling right? Sadness and strength… That is what is entrepreneurship; challenges and successes put together. Thinking back, I should not have just given up, saying I am not an engineering head, technology is not my cup of tea, I should have tried getting to understand the tech side as well. Things would have been so different.
It took me exactly 2 years of pain, struggles and learnings to clear my debts and move ahead to start something that I knew, I could do and did not depend on someone else and so this time, I knew I would learn from every mistakes we did last time and not repeat them.
The things I lost with that Failure were:
– Closest of family members
– Every penny I had
– I lost my father
The things I got from that failure are;
– Found family in friends
– Learnt how to make money
– I found my sons to be 100 times more than what my father was to me
– Found the depth of my strength
– Found lesson which I would carry till my last breath
– Found my passion was and is entrepreneurship
– Found my Startup Story – StartupsClub
3 losses and 7 gains… Who says Failures are bad for us? The numbers says it all…
So, well… I have taken so many years to write this out in words but here it is.
Moral for all entrepreneurs from MY STORY –
- Document each and every thing you create, as you are doing it
- Think 100 times before adding family members into your business
- Learn what you getting into, how ever difficult it is and impossible it may seem
Remember, you are an entrepreneur above everything.
To learn more about Salma, click here