The last few months have been intense ones with a stated intent. Explore if there may be a creature called the Indian entrepreneur. That is why pretty much every other day, has been witness to conversations with people of all kinds.
Two conversations stand out though.
The first with a veteran who has seen the world. But he now chooses to keep a low profile, is content chipping away at his next big idea from Chennai, and insists frugality is the way to be.
The other with a man from Delhi. Until about five years ago, he was the kind of creature whom everybody laughed at. From the hinterlands, everybody now grovels to his wealth and sings peens to his unschooled brilliance. He insists on opulence and extravagance as a way of life.
The mind felt compelled to ask if he may take to frugality if circumstance shove it upon him like it did upon the veteran from Chennai?
Because after having disengaged with them, and with the benefit of hindsight on hand, in trying to connect the dots, no patterns seemed to emerge. But the human mind is such that it insists on finding answers. It is uncomfortable when confronted with ambiguity. Where may the truth lie?
Exasperation compelled the phone be dialed to call the good doctor Rajat Chauhan. When he answered it, he was someplace far away in a forest to watch tigers in the wild. Having heard me out, he said there is nothing he has to offer by way of advice. Except that the tigers he spotted are elegant beasts. And that there is much to be learnt from them. He promised to send some passages in the morning from a book about how tigers live. It had caught his attention.
The morning was greeted with an email with two passages from the book.
“When going for his prey, a tiger operates at lightning speed. However, this burst of speed only lasts a short distance. If he fails to get his prey, he gives up and tries again later. Failure is the rule; success an exception.”
“A tiger’s meal is not a gluttonous feast. This lone stalker feeds on his kill for two days, and the meal is finished to the bones.”
Whatever was this supposed to mean? The phone was dialed again. Rajat had intended it as a metaphor because he thought there is much merit in it. But I needed perspective.
Some conversation later, I was told, a tiger’s favorite prey is the deer. On the face of it, for a creature as exceptionally well built as a tiger, deer is easy meat. But both the tiger and the deer know a few things most of us don’t.
a) The tiger is one of the fastest animals on earth. When it sprints, it can hit 50 kilometers to the hour.
b) But the deer knows, the tiger can sustain this pace for only 32 meters and no longer.
c) What a deer also knows is that when the tiger leaps, it can propel the animal to another 10 meters.
d) Effectively, a tiger’s reach is about 42-45 meters.
Very simply put, a deer that can spot a tiger from as close as 70 meters away has nothing to worry about. It can go about grazing or frolicking as it usually would—so long as it stays outside the tiger’s reach. On its part, a tiger is aware the most effective way it can kill is to hide in the grasses close to where deer graze, and wait until the prey is within striking distance.
Studies have showed that a tiger’s success ratio is very low. For every 25 attempts it makes, it succeeds only once. That is why, when it does get to a deer, it eats the animal frugally—over 2-3 days. How is a tiger to know when may the next meal comes? As metaphors go, this, I thought this an incredibly interesting one. Because when looked at from the eyes of an entrepreneur, this is what the world looks like as well.
Out of the blue, the frugal entrepreneur in Chennai started to fall into place. Once upon a time, he used to be part of the ecosystem in Silicon Valley. On asking him why did he choose to move out of there where the capital lies to where he is now and insist on living the way he does, he offered a pointer.
“Because I have seen greed go out of bounds. In the greed phase, everything looks good and all you touch turns to gold. But experience has taught me crashes happens. That is the nature of things. I have been through three hype cycles. I have raised millions of dollars with just four Power Point slides that contained an idea. I paid the price for it and have to lay off 80% of my company when the markets crashed during the dot com bust. We moved from a beautiful office to an 800 square feet dungeon. This is how reality and capitalism works.”
After having gone through cycles like that, he is unwilling to go through the pain of having to sprint 24 times. He would much rather wait patiently in the grass, until the prey is within reach, and maximise his chances of success. It makes sense when looked at given how his hands were burnt in the past.
So, what sense are we to make of the extravagant tiger from Delhi?
Turns out, there is merit in his perspective as well. This emerged from another conversation with a veteran in the financial services business. To the Delhi-based entrepreneur too, the prey is capital to grow. And that lies with private equity funds of all kinds that look like deer to him. The world is flush with it and there are a few hundred billion dollars to be devoured. Most of it are parked in very low yielding bonds or treasury funds across the world. It is seeking ideas that can yield higher returns.
Not going after this money, to the entrepreneur from Delhi, is irresponsible and a waste of time. Because if the tiger metaphor is applied here, while the success ratio may be 25:1, it also includes the probability that when he goes for the kill, it is possible, he may be successful three times in a row.
This is because most of the deer in the wild graze assume tigers lurk in the grass and stay away from it. And others go about life as usual knowing that tigers can sprint only so far. But what if he goes around their assumptions and makes a few sprints, while some deer stay put basis their assumptions? If they don’t move, he can go for the kill and choose extravagance as a way of life.
While the chances are now higher he may hungry, it is also possible circumstances may change. Who is to know what may happen? That is what makes him an unpredictable tiger—or a very fallible human. Because all research has it that tigers which make too many sprints fail in the long run. They get too hungry and have to give up on deer, their prey of choice until they turn into man-eaters, are hunted down and killed.
But the man from Delhi doesn’t see it that way. He had grown up hungry and knows what it feels like. His claim is, extravagance is something he has chosen and that hunger is something he can go back to easily. To those who have seen him from the outside and have acted like he has in the past, they think he has the mental muscle to embrace hunger. This, they suggest, is because he is aware that all of what he has built is not on the back of his money, but on that of somebody else’s money.
What he has gained though are insights unique to him. And that is something nobody can take away. It is his and his alone. He can build everything from scratch if need be.
It made no sense. To somebody like me who can think only in absolutes, the idea was difficult to come to terms with. Until the eyes happened to fall over a passage from that classic Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.
MERCHANT: “… If you are without possessions, how can you give?”
SIDDHARTHA: “Everyone gives what he has. The soldier gives strength, the merchant goods, the teacher instruction, the farmer rice, the fisherman fish.”
MERCHANT: “Very well, and what can you give? What have you learned that you can give?”
SIDDHARTHA: “I can think, I can wait, I can fast.”
MERCHANT: “Is that all?”
SIDDHARTHA: “I think that is all.”
MERCHANT: “And of what use are they? For example, fasting, what good is that?”
SIDDHARTHA: “It is of great value, sir. If a man has nothing to eat, fasting is the most intelligent thing he can do. If, for instance, Siddhartha had not learned to fast, he would have had to seek some kind of work today, either with you, or elsewhere, for hunger would have driven him. But, as it is, Siddhartha can wait calmly. He is not impatient, he is not in need, he can ward off hunger for a long time and laugh at it.”
It all fell into place. The man from Chennai had seen extravagance at somebody else’s cost. To everybody who witnesses him from the outside, he is a loser who has lost. But he is a frugal tiger. The man from Delhi knows he is now an extravagant tiger because he can afford to be one.
Both implicitly know what Siddhartha means when he speaks about the value of hunger, fasting, and patience. It makes them tigers on the one hand, and deeply philosophical creatures on the other.
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