Entrepreneurship Notes : 1 My Mistakes with Netprotraining.com

Now that my plans to get into a business soon have all but evaporated, I could manage to catch up with my reading on the subject of entrepreneurship. Whatever is its practical implication in my life, it is indeed stimulating. Surely, I was thoroughly entertained by Bobby and Sahar Hashemi’s Anyone Can Do It – their story of building Coffee Republic, or for that matter, by the engrossing piece on Sabeer Bhatia’s journey in The Nudist In The Late Shift. The good thing about these is that they are not empire-building stories, they don’t come with the super-human aura of Bill Gates, or the flamboyance of a Richard Branson [I also read Losing My Virginity in last few weeks], or the almost surreal presence of Steve Jobs. The Hashemis or Sabeer Bhatia come across as people like us, a bundle of aspirations, limitations, ‘lucky breaks’ and failures, and makes the subject of entrepreneurship a human story.

This also launched me into thinking about my brief flirtation with an entrepreneurship – my Netprotraining.com years – which was full of excitement, ideas and possibilities, but eventually came to nought. So, thinking back, I compiled a list of what we did wrong [or would have done differently if I was doing it now].

For a start, Netpro had brilliant possibilities. We had a great product – a training programme just right for the time [I met IT Training entrepreneurs in England and India who made millions out of running similar programmes during that time], cutting-edge advantage [We not only identified great curricula, being ahead of the pack, got great pricing deals too]. We spent a lot on infrastructure and got the best-looking training centre in the town, had brand new machines, and kept investing in making things better. We also marketed ourselves well, and generated a steady stream of footfalls right from the start. Yes, looking back – we got lot of things right.

But, we got some key things wrong, and that made all the difference. Some of them were not blindingly obvious, and therefore, I run the risk of making these again. But, I hope that this reflection will make me learn, and I shall avoid these from now on.

Mistake 1: Waited Unduly

We decided to tie up with Prosoft in February 1999, got a company structure in place by 1st of May, and then started trading only on 6th December. We spent all the time in working out numbers on business plan – an excruciating but meaningless exercise – but not on things which mattered, like getting right people etc. Some businesses may take 10 months to start, but not the Internet Technology training business right in the middle of dotcom craze. We missed out big time, and when we finally went to market, the timing was horrible, with two big scams breaking [training companies disappearing with student money] and the first news on dotcom crash coming through.

Mistake 2: Wrong Numbers
I don’t regret the timing so much – because I could do nothing to control it – but I do regret wasting the time on a meaningless business plan. Meaningless, because if I remember correctly we hardly added new ideas after 1st May, but spent all the time window-dressing the numbers. I was jobless at the time – heroically left employment to be an entrepreneur – and was on my credit card all the time till I find finance. Funnily, the investor we spoke on 1st May was the man who went on to finance the venture, but he made me rework the plan and project higher numbers – for ourselves [!] – many times over. Those numbers were meaningless, because by time we opened shop, all assumptions have changed.

Mistake 3: Wrong Aspirations
To this day, when in moments like this, I bemoan Netpro, I wonder what we set out to do. I don’t have a definitive answer. I wanted to have a global career – but surely one does not start a training business to achieve that. My financer, a young businessman with an MBA from Babsons, wanted to build a billion-dollar business in three years. Surely, training was not for him too. He wanted to start and sell off, and was always worried that we are not franchising enough to be saleable.

Mistake 4: People Mismatch
We picked wrong people, on top of it. We wanted to save on wages, and the VC was not keen on giving out equity. So, we ended up inexperienced people, and more critically, inexperienced managers. So, it was a non-starter from day one.

Mistake 5: When your heart is not in it..
The mother of all mistakes – by the time we secured the finance, I lost the game personally. I was aware of the market turning nasty, and also the protracted negotiation with the financers ate up my excitement. I gave away too much of the company and control – thinking back, not because I had to, but because I was almost sure that we lost the plot. I accepted defeat before we even started.

Looking back, I wonder why Netpro survived as a business for as long as it did, or did well at least for a period. I am tempted to think that if I stayed on, we would have still made it. But, no, above everything, I remain painfully aware of these mistakes, and I still know, for all my enlightening, all of them are very easy to repeat [I almost did, last year].


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