To start with, let me be clear that as a lot, we—the Venture Capitalists—are the most entitled people around, and that is not just because we never have to practice what we preach or that we can give a lot of good money from LPs (investors in private equity and venture capital funds) to a dying start-up to keep it alive till our next fund raise. We do humble-brag about using Uber to make up for it.
The phenomenon of entitlement in start-up founders is not recent.
The first phase of the venture capital in India, the ‘dotcom era’, was known for investing in page 3 celebrities. Frankly, given half a chance, we would still do more of that.
One such semi-celeb founder promptly wound up operations, doubled the money raised via fixed deposits, and waited out the 10-year fund investment period to buy back the investors at a few cents to a dollar.
‘Connected families’ would do the same with loans from PSU banks.
The next phase of investments, was about corporate value, aka Ivy league, accent, and ‘selling skills’ of the founders.
Investment banking was considered as good as Silicon Valley middle management experience. These founders shared the idea with the VCs that India was a tech-poor and resource-poor country and no good design could come out of here.
Such founders had taken very significant pay cuts and their life was spent largely making a virtue out of it in public and regretting the lifestyle loss in private.
A founder famously went on his ‘annual family holiday’ with just three months of money in the bank for his start-up, came back and blamed investors for not helping him enough before winding up without a fight.
This mercenary class of founders keeps coming back every boom cycle, but you won’t find them ever coming back as returning founders.
Meanwhile, a third kind of entrepreneur was emerging in consumer start-ups.
This founder was the underdog, with just an ‘Indian Institute’ degree and tired of the tag of a ‘brilliant techie’.
These underdogs changed the way they ran the companies with their frugal personal ways, their ability to work 24 x 7 and their ability to solve the most complex problems by relentless persistence.
The investors found no connection with the individuals but could not have enough of them.
So why did this lot of young people without any baggage turn into an entitled class?
It isn’t about taking early exits to start angel investing, though that happened.
It isn’t about short changing early investors, though that happened too.
Most of the damage came from the desire to impress peers and alumni.
Fancy offices, hiring friends in meaningless mid-management roles, incubating fellow entrepreneurs on company premises, or town-hall meetings for photo ops were some of standard things.
An interesting thing was not letting go of people in bad times, not biting the bullet even at the cost of company’s survival.
The fact that these entrepreneurs continued their personally frugal ways gave them more power to feed their entitlement. The start-up became an instrument in fulfilment of the fancy of the founders.
Many would become returning entrepreneurs, and repeat the cycle, this time raising more money for even flimsier business ideas.
The amount of money spent on hoardings around Powai near IIT Bombay could have been used to give a 10% discount on real estate prices to every buyer in the area. Today, you would struggle to even locate a standee from a start-up in the same area.
On the whole, the start-up world has demonstrated good institutional memory.
The next wave of entrepreneurship seems to come from non-descript colleges as well as the well known ones, with nothing much to prove and nothing much to lose.
This lot is happy to take all the learning that they have, and are thankful for the opportunity to start up. As a back-seat driver, nothing is more fulfilling than to see the fearless swagger of a successful founder you have invested in. Some more cycles and we will see a lot more balance.