Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Future of Entrepreneurship—The next unicorn will fuel more startups: Girish Mathrubhootam

When we share knowledge, experience, successes, and failures, we make entrepreneurship more accessible than before

Published: May 12, 2021 12:47:32 PM IST
Updated: May 12, 2021 02:46:49 PM IST

Future of Entrepreneurship—The next unicorn will fuel more startups: Girish MathrubhootamIllustration: Sameer Pawar

Future of Entrepreneurship—The next unicorn will fuel more startups: Girish MathrubhootamOnce only for the bold, entrepreneurship is now becoming mainstream. More and more millennials are choosing to build a company instead of taking that first job. We’ve moved into an era of massive investments—with more funds available than ever before—and increasingly higher valuations. The speed at which companies can scale has never been faster. And we’re seeing new businesses every day that solve problems we never could imagine.

So, what is the future of entrepreneurship? From my personal experience, both in growing Freshworks and being part of independent angel investments, I see several trends pointing towards a bright future.

Entrepreneurship as a career
Entrepreneurship used to be taboo—it was only for the bravest among us; those willing to take the risk. We were encouraged to get an education, find a job, build a family, and lead a safe and assured life. When balancing the risk of failure with the relative ease and safety of the traditional path, what would you choose?

When I started Freshworks over 10 years ago, being an entrepreneur was definitely not considered the safe path. But I looked at my decision as a no-loss scenario. I could try out my idea and if it worked... win. If I failed, I knew I would learn a lot along the way—training that would be invaluable for my next ‘real’ job... also a win.  

Now perceptions have changed. Over the last decade, we’ve seen entrepreneurship become a viable career path. There are university programmes—business schools, engineering schools, master’s programmes and more—focussed entirely on entrepreneurship education. In the future, I expect it to be completely ‘normal’ for a fresher (new college graduate) to eschew the comfortable job and embark on a path of entrepreneurship.

Many can and will embrace different levels of entrepreneurship. Now people think about multiple dimensions to their career: Working at a company and running a small business on the side. Or they seek out ‘intrapreneur’ roles—opportunities to be entrepreneurial within their current organisation. According to entrepreneur Gifford Pinchot, “intrapreneurs are employees who do for corporate innovation what an entrepreneur does for his or her startup”. Think about how powerful that is!

Growth of global entrepreneurship
Long gone are the days of the Silicon Valley monopoly for startups. We’re seeing new businesses come from every corner of the world. According to CB Insights, in April 2021, more than 48 percent of the current 654 unicorns across the globe are not in the US.

Now, India is becoming a hotbed for innovation, with 31 unicorns of its own. India as an outsourcing provider is an outdated stereotype; the rich talent pool that once provided back-end support for US companies has turned towards entrepreneurship, delivering billions in revenue today and expected to grow to $20-25 billion over the next four to five years. I believe the current Indian innovation ecosystem is creating a flywheel effect for the future—creating huge opportunities for Indian entrepreneurship.

Innovating through a global pandemicNo one could have predicted 2020 and the challenges we’re still seeing. In the blink of an eye, the pandemic forced companies to reimagine nearly every facet of their operations. Customers stopped going to stores and employees started working from home. What we buy and how we buy has changed… as is what is important to us.

But life and business must go on. As NYU Stern School of Business Professor Arun Sundararajan said, “Crisis can be… a catalyst or can speed up changes that are on the way—it almost can serve as an accelerant.” And that’s exactly what we’re seeing as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

There is a huge opportunity for those entrepreneurs who can reimagine the future. Food, groceries, and all essentials are growing. Fashion and luxury have taken a bruising. And past entrepreneurial trends no longer seem important. Digital transformation? It’s already here. Collaborating better with colleagues? Zoom. The real opportunity is with accelerating existing trends like automation and contactless everything. Or you may find a way to build a wholly new market with technology by simply reimagining health, fitness, and energy.

Funding availability
There was a time when finding the money to bankroll a new business was difficult; banks were risk-averse and often required massive collateral. Venture capitalists (VCs) were rare. Most turned to friends and families for support—definitely a finite resource.

Now, the market is seeing more availability of funding than ever before. Not only financial institutions, but VCs, angel funds, and non-traditional investors are looking for the next big idea—there is a lot of money chasing startups. It’s all about supply and demand: More demand for the next unicorn means more people exploring entrepreneurship, which fuels more investing, which fuels more startups, and so on. Ironically, it is the unicorn (plus a few other successful businesses) in a portfolio that allows for this expansion.

Focus on unit economics rather than vanity metrics like valuation, unicorn status. These don’t matter when selling your product

Innovating through diversity
We know from many studies that diversity is good for business—a diverse workforce is more innovative, which, in turn, drives more revenue. And there’s the added benefit that it is the right thing to do.

The whole concept of a startup is to create a product or service that is different—if you surround yourself with people who are all the same, how can you expect to build something unique? Diversity in the entrepreneurial mindset is critical, and I expect it will become the norm in the future, as it lends itself to better ideas and new ways of thinking.

Redefining success
As a founder, CEO, and investor, I’ve found both of these statements to be true:
• First, entrepreneurship is a game of chance, especially when you know that 9 out of 10 startups will fail.
• Second, and somewhat antithetical to the first: If you create a great product, run a solid business, and have a strong team, you will win.

But what if failing could actually be winning? I like to think of experiences as a collection of failures. And in a shareholder letter, Jeff Bezos said, “Failure comes part and parcel with invention. It’s not optional. We understand that and believe in failing early and iterating until we get it right.” It’s very hard to stomach the idea of failure—we’re taught from a young age that failure is not an option. And granted, the majority of us do not have access to the resources that Amazon does to keep iterating!

However, I believe that any innovation, any new invention, regardless of the outcome, is in and of itself a success. In the future, we’ll look at failure as an opportunity to learn, and then use those learnings to refine or even pivot. Failure, except in the most extreme cases, is never fatal—it becomes part of the fabric of our experience.  

Helping others succeed
I do believe we need to pay our learnings forward, and help others be successful in their bid to create the next ‘unicorn’. When we share knowledge, experiences, successes, and yes, even failures, we make entrepreneurship more accessible than before. That is why I, along with many others, created SaaSBOOMi, a community of founders who have opened their playbooks to share hard-won experiences and to benefit others by making these learnings available.

Entrepreneurship 101: The basics
Is there one tried and true formula for successful entrepreneurship? I don’t believe so—there’s always a new or better or different approach that works for one founder and doesn’t work for others. But if you break it down to its core, there are commonalities across most businesses: Getting the basics right, focusing on the things that matter, and winning the right way.

Get the basics right
Have a brilliant idea and create a great product. This is what I find most entrepreneurs do well. They have a long-term vision and know where they want to go and how to get there. And they get to market fit early.

Focus on the things that matter
Be a true craftsperson. Attract good people and create a great team. No one person can do everything; having the right people in the right roles is critical to running a successful business. But I also believe in the future we’ll see smaller but more highly skilled teams who will leverage automation to add capacity.

Focus on the unit economics rather than vanity metrics like valuation, unicorn status, etc. These things don’t matter when selling your products or building customer traction. It won’t help with looking at opportunities for expansion or finding new, valuable markets.
Culture is paramount. It is foundational to scaling your business. It’s also persistent—while products and people come and go, culture is lasting. A company’s culture can have a powerful impact on performance. It can be the difference between success and failure. And it’s the hardest thing for competitors to copy.

Win right
Events like fundings or IPOs are milestones; they are not the end metric or measure of success. But if approached with the right frame of mind, these activities will enable your business to grow, scale, and see success.

Build companies that both offer a return on investment and work to improve the world at large. And give back, whether through networking, cohorts where you can share your experiences, or charitable giving.

Today, we have the opportunity to build software for the world—software that disrupts, democratises, and delights. Now when a company can be up and running in the cloud within days if not hours, there’s nothing to stop the next generation of entrepreneurs from changing the world. There is so much opportunity just waiting for passionate people to seize the day.

Yes, the future of entrepreneurship is very bright indeed.  

● The writer is founder  and CEO of Freshworks

(This story appears in the 21 May, 2021 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)