Interview with Sramana Mitra

A Serial Entrepreneur with three startups of her own, She is author of the blog ‘Sramana Mitra on Strategy‘ and a strategy consultant. She decided to become an entrepreneur at an age of 15 years. She is now trying to help 1M entrepreneur reach $1M in revenue. This week we have none other than the awesome Sramana Mitra interviewed for you where she talks about her life, her entrepreneurial journey, her books and much more!

Q: When and why did you start blogging?

A: I started blogging in 2005 April. I have always wanted to write seriously. Om Malik (Ed: Read his interview) pushed me to start a blog and got me going. In the beginning, it was just experimenting with the medium, but very soon, it became a powerful tool for thought leadership. And for me, it has also become a powerful tool for entrepreneurship development. Many entrepreneurs from all over the world follow my blog, and I have very deliberately focused on making it an inspirational and educational venue for them.

Q: What topics do you generally blog about?

A: Entrepreneurship. Technology. Business. Finance. Strategy. Policy. Economic Development.

Q: You are trying to help 1M entrepreneur reach $1M in revenue. Awesome powerful thought. Can you share more details about it and the current status?

A: Absolutely. 1M/1M has been very well received by entrepreneurs around the world. Almost 3000 people have participated in the 1M/1M Roundtables. I have personally coached 150 entrepreneurs across 33 roundtables, and we continue every week on Thursdays at 8 am Pacific time / 8:30 pm India time. We also have a large team of ambassadors who are working on moving the mission forward. We have partnerships with many entrepreneurship development organizations, including an umbrella partnership with TiE Global across 54 chapters.

What 1M/1M is promoting is a methodology for entrepreneurship that is firmly grounded in pragmatism. It is based on my thousands of interviews with both successful entrepreneurs and those who are trying to become successful, as well as my own background as an entrepreneurs first, and then a consultant in Silicon Valley. The methodology encompasses issues regarding financing, bootstrapping, positioning, go to market strategy, customer validation, and also team building.

I have managed to scale this to a point using my blog and columns, as well as by choosing an online web conferencing format for the roundtables. The next level of scaling will come in the form of technology, which I am working on. By 2020, I hope we will deliver 1M/1M.

Q: Sramana, you are a serial entrepreneur. You have had three startups of your own and two of them got acquired, one you refused! Would you share with our readers lessons learnt, mistakes committed and your experience with your startups?

A: You see, I was very young when I started. Not as young as Zuckerberg, but still equally inexperienced. And we were the generation right before the Internet, so information about entrepreneurship wasn’t as freely available. But my first “job” was a CEO job, so I obviously made a lot of mistakes. I am not going into the details of my ventures since your readers have probably read that somewhere else already. Both the prologue of Entrepreneur Journeys Volume One and Vision India 2020 covers it. But what I learnt is the importance of bootstrapping the early stages of a company, and creating as much value as possible before getting external investors involved.

I drank the VC cool aid early on, because during the dot com era, capital was flowing freely. In hindsight, that wasn’t the best path. But hindsight is 20/20. What matters is that I learnt. A lot. And today, I am both learning more, and also, hopefully helping some other entrepreneurs learn to avoid the expensive mistakes that are avoidable.

Q: You developed your network to have access to successful entrepreneurs. You also emphasize on the need for mentors early on. How does a startup with a brilliant idea and a service/product have access to such talented people? What are the three most important things that he/she should be doing correct? How important is networking for an upcoming entrepreneur?

A: Networking is very important. I used the MIT alumni network early on to get myself oriented in Silicon Valley. Then, as I gained credibility, the network grew exponentially. Today, because I am an influential columnist and blogger, people come to me because they want to be on my radar. But I have been in this business for 15 years, so this is the product of many years of systematic value creation.

So how would a young entrepreneur do it? Start with people you know, and develop what I call a currency of influence. Do things for other people, and they will do things for you. I have added value to a lot of people’s careers, ventures, and lives. And that is what establishes credibility. Try to build yourself up as a high value person. That is the only positioning that matters. The network itself is a bi-product.

Q: Sramana, your father was a shipping entrepreneur. You decided to be one when you were 15 years old. Very few people can think what they want to do at that age. Did you always like risk taking and challenges? What were your fears? What did you want to start?

A: I guess yes, I did always like risk and challenges. I always felt a fierce ambition and self-confidence. There was no limit to what I could aim for. I think my father was a big part of this psychological framework. He never set any limits. He never made me feel there were any limits. I was never held back.

So for your readers, the take away is to try to instill this confidence in children that you are raising. It starts very, very early. What does a child hear? No you can’t do that, you shouldn’t attempt that. Or, yes, you can do anything you want. Of course, this needs to be mixed with a level of pragmatism, which I think came more from my mother. My fears, like many people, were around failure. But I have had failures, and I have learnt to take them in my stride. What I wanted to start in 1994 was a product company out of Calcutta in the realm of VLSI design. The realities soon caught up with me. I changed course. But that’s what entrepreneurship is about. You have to learn from the market conditions.

Q: From a technologist to an entrepreneur, how easy or difficult was the transition? Did the technology background help in your ventures?

A: It did. I have natural business acumen, which I have fine-tuned through practice and thought. But the technology background gave me the foundation upon which to build. For me, it wasn’t a difficult transition. Entrepreneurship is about leadership. I was a natural leader since I was a kid. I didn’t need to learn that. What I had to learn can only come from business experience. This is why, it is a very good idea to start being an entrepreneur early on, if you ever want to be one. That way, by the time you get to your thirties, you are seasoned.

Q: In your book,’Entrepreneur Journeys – Bootstrapping’, you even talk on philosophy. Does Philosophy or being philosophical help an entrepreneur? Can you help us with a few examples?

A: For me, philosophy was an enormously important part of dealing with a highly uncertain way of life. You need philosophy to be able to process what comes at you at a fantastic pace when you are living the life of a serial entrepreneur. Most experiments fail. A few succeed. Your assumptions and hypothesis often come out wrong. The odds of success are small. How do you prevent yourself from having serious existential doubts? Philosophy is the only way.

Q: Sramanamitra.com has a dedicated section for articles about India. What according to you are the biggest problems being faced by India at this stage? How do you think, the people in the USA perceive India as a Nation, today?

A: India’s development needs to become more systematic. I am very concerned with the urbanization trend. The cities are becoming unlivable. India’s development needs to have a strategic focus on a more distributed model. I have dealt with this in ‘Vision India 2020’. The other big concern is water. India must deal with the water issue. Also something I have dealt with in ‘Vision India 2020’.

Q: Your recent book is titled ‘Vision India 2020’. In the book, you have a chapter called ‘Rural and Slum Development’. With the rising Indian Population and the rising poverty levels, how do you think we can tackle this? How do we provide support to entrepreneurs-in-making from the rural and slum areas?

A: To address this, you need to ask the question: why do people move from rural India to the cities? The slum issue is a derivative problem. Once they arrive, they need a place to stay, and they have no choice but going to the slums to live. But if there were strong opportunities in rural India, or even small towns closer to the villages, they would not leave in the first place.

So the answer to your question is we need to create opportunities in rural India. It is crucial. And then, we also need to move people out of the cities and towards these opportunities. ‘Vision India 2020‘ deals with this extensively.

Q: Do you also invest in companies? Would you consider India? What are the 3 startups in India which you think have the potential to become world class ones?

A: I don’t invest in companies except for my own. The most important technology startup “model” out of India is Sridhar Vembu’s Zoho. It is taking software that is 5-10 times as expensive and disrupting major markets by completely changing the pricing model. India has the opportunity ahead to apply that principle at a very large scale. In every segment of software. The other model I am very interested in is Rural and Small Town BPO. Talk to Dr. Sridhar Mitta about this topic. He has a venture in the area.

Q: Your forthcoming book is ‘Entrepreneur Journeys – Innovation: Need of the hour’. Can you give our readers a sneak preview on what we can expect from the book?

A: Sure. ‘Innovation: Need of the hour‘ deals with practical challenges facing innovators and how to navigate the entrepreneurial journey given that backdrop. It explores alternative business models for innovators that are not predicated upon venture funding. I even submit that innovators don’t necessarily have to grow to become very large companies. There are very interesting, highly profitable business models to build strong companies outside of the traditional frameworks.

Q: What do you find to be the most gratifying aspect of blogging?

A: Impact. I have been able to touch a lot of people and impact their thinking. Between the blog and the Forbes column, I have taken on very important issues, and instigated action. And they are not only on the technology business. They span big topics like the future of capitalism.

Q: How, in general, would you rate the quality of Indian blogs? Share your favourite five blogs.

A: I will be very honest with you … I am terribly swamped, and do not have time to read a whole lot of Indian blogs. I collaborate with Alok Mittal at Venturewoods from time to time. I have also collaborated with the Indian Economy blog in the past. Same with Pluggd.in. So my relationship with Indian blogs is more predicated upon the people I work with.

Q: What is your advice to someone who wants to start a blog?

A: Define why you are doing it. What do you want to achieve? If you think of the blog as a highly active resume, that’s a reasonable reason to blog. If you view your blog as a platform for thought leadership or impact, that is very reasonable also. But if you are blogging for money, you better know what you are doing. Other than a few blogs, this isn’t a big money spinning business.

Q: Let’s conclude off with a few favorites.

Color: Red. Orange. Black & White. Clarity. Boldness. Sophistication.

Movie: Dead Poet’s Society.

TV Show: Fareed Zakaria GPS.

Book: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Vision India 2020.

Time of the Day: Dawn. Dusk.

Your Zodiac Sign: Libra.

That was an inspiring interview filled with lot of wisdom and tips for entrepreneurs, startups and corporates. Thanks a lot Sramana for taking time out for this wonderful interview. We are eagerly looking forward to read your new book and wish you all the very best for the same.

Connect with Sramana Mitra: Blog, Twitter

6 Replies to “Interview with Sramana Mitra”

  1. Very informative interview. I plan to start my own venture very soon. What are your tips for me. Is it advisable to start up leaving a well paid job. I plan to get married soon.

  2. Sramana,
    First time i read something where the graph of enthusiasm goes only on the upper side, it doesnt distress you with negetivities. Your clarity and truthfulness had been the best part. I may not be of your stature till now ( I am 24) but somewhere i feel that the Ilk & the Fraternity are the same. I would be starting a business of my own and i know that somewhere i am going to create a havoc. Just that thing drives me on. I have faliures and delusions all around me but i like merry-go-round rides and that fierce self-confidence you had talked about. I like pragmatic fairy tales. Could share a lot of nothing if you would reply.
    Want to join you in some ways.
    Dweep

  3. Very informative interview, I think it just goes to show how many different jobs there are for people to do. Everyone should be able to find something they enjoy doing to work at.
    Regards /-
    Jason Webb

  4. Assessing the cash flow is one more important element in the company strategy format, so as to sustain a normal money flow to meet the essential capital requirements. Probability of monetary crisis and also the ways of crisis management must be mentioned in the structure. The business strategy should consist from the advertising plans and technique leading towards the expansion from the organization.

  5. Nice interview. As a fellow entrepreneur coming from a tech background; I definitely have to agree…understanding how to leverage technology is a huge benefit when building a company…whether its to design infrastructure, automating grunt work or knowing where to spend money on tech. But in the end, as Sramana mentions, “Entrepreneurship is about leadership.”

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