The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Surya Abhishek Singaraju
Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.
In this interview, Julia Skupchenko speaks with Rishi Kapal, an India based author of Kites in a Hurricane, a Transitions and Entrepreneurship Specialist, and the Managing Partner of Global Scaleup. He shares a story of a lockdown where the workload increased a lot. With regards to the startup ecosystem, companies in the E-health, Education, Energy, E-commerce, Entertainment and Cybersecurity started to get more attention. So the key milestones had to be achieved much faster than planned. He shares his view on the competition, which over the lockdown has turned into cOOpetition — coordinating, collaborating and helping people at large.
Where are you calling from, today?
Rishi: I am in India. I am happy to be in a call with you, all the way, thousands of miles away. Fortunately, today the weather is nice. We have been having thunderstorms for the last couple of days. But today is a bright, sunny day and I hope it is the same for you and everyone over there as well.
What do you do as a business? I know that you are in three different lines of work. That is interesting. Tell me which is your business.
Rishi: Seven years ago, I moved out from corporate life and I have three things right now that I do as you rightly mentioned. One is that I work with start-ups for strategic growth and fundraise. That is the work which we do in global scaleups as an organization. Other than that when I find some time, out of passion, I work on helping professionals for career transition and if they have it outplayed, I push them to have some resilience and move in the next direction. The other passion I have is writing and I have already written five books. Now I help budding authors and advise them to write effective communication material. So this is what takes my time at this point in time.
I guess lockdown affected all of them in one way or another. What was the effect of the lockdown on your advisory practice for example? The scale-ups, the start-ups, what are they doing right now?
Rishi: Okay. Interestingly the work has increased. What has happened is that while we were dealing with multiple sectors of start-ups, in five or six sectors, the interest levels of the corporates and investors went up. Those sectors were health, energy, eCommerce, education, entertainment and cybersecurity. Of the 10–15 company portfolios that we had, companies in this space started to get a lot of more attention and our work started pivoting from a particular sector to the 5–6 sectors. So I would say the ecosystem had been active and a lot of corporate professionals who knew that there is uncertainty in the long run also became entrepreneurs.
There was a lot of ecosystem chatter on people talking to us as to how can we start up something of our own rather than being dependent on a job. So from this start-up scene, there is some decision delay but the ecosystem is extremely vibrant and I believe it is equally supported by people and friends like you as well. Let me come to the work that I do in the career transition and outplacement.
Earlier people used to believe in the credibility of the coach, say the coach has 30 years of experience and would have worked in 7 top Fortune 500. That is not the norm any longer. These candidates basically have very little time and they are very nervous. This is about mindfulness and emotion management. They basically want to hear a use case on have you really helped anyone and if you have helped anyone, what happened to that person. So earlier, the coaching was dependent on my personal credibility as a coach.
Now the coaching is dependent on, “you might be whoever you are but have you really helped anybody in life.” So these candidates have very little time to choose who they want to talk to. That is why they are more wanting to listen to a use case on what have you done for others rather than what have you done for yourself.
And coming to writing, actually, I had a contract from an international publisher to complete a book in six months but because of the lockdown, they told me that since you have got nothing to do why don’t you write the book. I have actually told them I have enough to do but they became very persistent and on 31st May I completed the book which I had to write. The book will be out by August-September.
So writing continues and I have gone very active on LinkedIn now. I really follow AlterContacts, and I see what is coming up there, and I try to work around that as well. But just to summarize from a start-up ecosystem, the sector of focus has changed from a career transition perspective people don’t want a lot of theory but want to know whether your practice has helped anybody or not. Writing continues as a passion so something I could have finished in a long duration, now during the lockdown there was time to keep myself mentally agile. I actually focused a lot more on writing and completed the project before time. So I am just trying to keep myself happy.
If you go back a little bit to the scale-ups and the start-ups, you mentioned that there are some industries that have become more active. Can you tell a bit more about the companies you have or maybe how they felt when the lockdown happened?
Rishi: Yes. So we have companies in the education and healthcare space. And when we were talking to them about the ecosystem, a lot of people had a lot of other things to do as well. People were focusing on, at that point of time, auto components, the automotive sector as well as the real estate sector. So people used to give us slots when their calendars were free. But now when you go with an education or healthcare company, people are willing to talk to you before the others.
The challenge it has created for us is that we expected some of our companies to be prepared for certain milestones in six months, now we have to do in three months. So when the demand is there, you need to be ready then. You cannot say “I will be ready when I am ready and you meet me at that point of time.” The whole resilience of the ecosystem got really tested but people are really very supportive. We have companies, which are based in the US, which are based in Canada and Singapore and in India but now they are finding themselves to be globally relevant. An Indian company who is doing education for India is also getting demand from the UK. A company, which was in Canada in the healthcare space, is now negotiating deals in India, Thailand, Singapore and Dubai.
I believe that while the lockdown and the pandemic are unfortunate, but it has brought the world together. So wherever there is a solution to a problem, it is now not geographically constrained. It can be discovered in any part of the world. And that has also added to anxiety at our end because we really want to serve. We want to be ready when people need it. That is what is happening at this point in time.
Banking and financial services is an essential service. So anything which can make it safer, more secure and faster is also giving a lot of traction. So we have had a lot of new learning. I don’t belong to the healthcare sector. I am more in corporate and education but I thought I will learn something in the next three to six months and then talk to the ecosystem but now I have to learn 24x7 because the demand is now. So it has also pushed me to be upskilled and reskilled faster than what I was expecting it to be. But yeah, four or five sectors as I have mentioned will be the drivers of the economy by the time the actual manufacturing sector starts to set in.
You mentioned that the start-ups and scale-ups that were in healthcare had to adapt to the 3-month cycle instead of the 6 months. And I think we can already look back at it, right. So it is already done. It is managed. Is there any specific story or anything you could share with us?
Rishi: Yes. There are certain success stories but since they are not publicly announced, on behalf of the founders I do not want to make the certain commitment but both from business scale-up and from funding, this month and the coming month, we already have some soft commitment and some serious paperwork going on. As I said, it might be happiness on a few faces but all the companies that we are supporting are committing to employment. So this is not about saying how much money I make, it is saying I make money faster and I will distribute it faster. So those wins are there on the table but those wins are not just to have a chip on the shoulder that I did something. They are actually already identifying people.
For example, I will tell you the name of one company called Crowdera. And Crowdera gives free crowdfunding platform to any cause that matters. So if you go to gocrowdera.com, he has made a commitment for the next six months through global scale-ups and if he finds anybody who needs crowdfunding, he will not charge for it. So he has been scaling them up in the US, he has been scaling them up in India and very happy to work it up with you in the Netherlands as well. But these are the kind of people who have left the money part of it behind. They are saying, whatever I earn, I will deploy it for employment. If I am not earning anything, I will give my solutions for free. So I still consider that as a success story because you know the mind is resilient to that level.
Maybe we can a small transition into your other business which is advising people who are looking to transition in their employment, right. Maybe there were some qualities that you noticed in the entrepreneurs in the scale-ups that you would be writing about, to your potential clients in the future. Maybe there were some qualities that helped them deal with the lockdown such as stress resilience or something interesting?
Rishi: This is now as a mix as you rightly mentioned. There are entrepreneurs and there are people who want to become entrepreneurs. So one thing everybody understands is this is a struggle for existence. This is more or less survival of the fittest because everybody has been impacted. Covid has not been specific to gender, caste, creed or geography — I will impact this and I will not impact that. What has happened in the corporate space where people want to transition as entrepreneurs are that 90% of them have been managing teams. They are scared that when they become entrepreneurs, they will be on their own — they will not have people to delegate and they will have to do it themselves.
The discussion with them has been to say, “Guys go back twenty years in your career and think when you were an individual contributor, that you don’t have to manage people but there are people ahead, to be managed.” So you have clients to be managed but you will not have a team with you. That is the most difficult transition which I am seeing in the professionals who want to become entrepreneurs that they say: ‘Can I do it myself? Because for the last ten years, I have been making 20 people do it for me.’ That has been one thing.
The second is there is a lot of personal frustration because a lot of them have liabilities. And these are liabilities say, home-loan situations or they have got a car loan and all that stuff and nobody is going to give them a respite. The advice I have for them is, you have transferrable skills. Rather than waiting for something to happen, lets at least attempt something which is right now in our control. So there are start-ups that are made by young entrepreneurs but they do not have seasoned professionals to guide them. I have been asking these corporate professionals “Why don’t you actually move in the direction of guiding these start-ups rather than waiting for something to happen.”
But next what has happened is, it is a game of the mind. So if the mind says ‘I have a problem but I want to see how to solve it’ is one part of it. Saying that ‘I have a problem but I just wait for something to solve it’ is a situation which a lot of them are facing but rather than upskilling and reskilling, the people I am working with are looking for transferrable skills — what they can transfer from corporate to entrepreneurship and the second is the resilience to do things with their own hands rather than the behaviour or the habit they had of delegating for the last 10–15 years.
The journey is extremely challenging. I have had it myself. I do not give any garden path to say “Guys this is heaven and the moment you do it, you know, there will be wining and dining”. It doesn’t happen like that. This is the time to tell them the truth that it will be painful but that pain will also not let you think a lot about the trouble that is happening in the external world. This pain will be at least something you will be taking for yourself. I know a lot of these people then become very good professionals. Corporate people, only 1% of them try to become teachers. I became a full-time professor for two years in my career. I have been telling these guys “You are brilliant in content. You are brilliant in communication. So rather than thinking about something wrong happening, come and become professors. Education needs you.” So, identifying the right sector, mend the resilience and be able to work on your own is something which I tell them at this point of time.
Can you tell me shortly about your competitors? Maybe you noticed some unusual activities on that side?
Rishi: There is competition in all aspects and a lot of people suddenly have become coaches. Whether they are coaches for entrepreneurs or they are coaches for corporate transition, you will see suddenly a lot of people who had twenty years of experience there and then. Coaches started appearing on LinkedIn when they might not even have done anything on it professionally. So competition always remains and it is good to embrace competition but I sometimes don’t prefer people to take credit for something which they don’t have. My worry is to have too much competition which is not in the interest of the candidate. And half of those people might not have actually helped anybody in time to come.
However, the real competition is right now collaborating. So for example when I deal with incubators and accelerators, earlier we all used to compete for the mind share of the investor. Now we know that the sectors of interest are limited. For example, there is an ecosystem which has an investor but then it is an education company which they don’t have. Then they come to us saying that “You have an education company and I have an investor. Why don’t we collaborate?” Then there are people who have solutions for universities but they do not know how to reach universities, which is one of our core competences. Then we tell them, “Fair enough. There is no competition in helping at the universities. So you have a solution and I have university access. Let’s go over there.” So at this point in time, the word ‘competition’ has become ‘cOOpetition’ where we are contributing, collaborating and helping people at large.
I think the only good part that should remain in this is that even after the pandemic is over, people should have that element of collaboration rather than going back to becoming a true competitor. But one is, I want genuine competition and second is the timing is such that competition has become collaborative. So right now I don’t have any complaints.
Could you share with us your plans for the coming months? The outlook for future?
Rishi: One is that I also get personally frustrated. I am human. So I try to ensure that if I am telling to be practising resilience, I practice it myself. So when I write something in the public domain, whether it is on LinkedIn, whether I am talking to people like you or to entrepreneurs, I try to ensure that I am mentally at peace. I worked with a company called “Ahhaa.” It was founded by a former monk. So he was a monk for eighteen years and he collaborates with Global Scaleup. So that is an organisation whose contents keeps us at peace, both me and the founder of Global Scaleup. So we basically rely on that organisation to keep us mentally resilient.
Second is the economy’s revival will be slow but it definitely will happen. We are very very carefully watching the lead indicators, especially in the sectors which are expertise I have. So every day we do a lot of reading, whether it is a report coming from anywhere in the world, we are going to read and collaborate on what’s going to happen and I am a Stanford lead alumnus and I have got a network of my own in which a lot of information is shared. So all avenues of information have been kept open, which is to take the positive news to me and keep the frustrating news outside.
The other thing is that I am looking at reliable partners. So earlier we used to deal with a lot of people who used to develop and evolve with us. But right now if I have to help somebody, I need people who are reliable and trust-worthy. That lens has come up very far. And we are looking at three kinds of situations in the industry from a job perspective. Some jobs are gaining traction, some jobs have saturated and some jobs are declining. So we are trying to tell people that if they are in the jobs that are in the declining category, see what transferrable skill can keep them at a saturation job level or a traction job level. Self-learning as well as preaching learning is happening.
As I said, my outlook is positive but keeping that outlook positive needs me to take somebody’s help and that is something that we do religiously. So optimism shouldn’t die. The moment optimism dies, you defeat your own self. So that is exactly I tell people not to do. Somebody else defeats you, it is just a game of saddle but you defeat yourself, does not have an answer.
I think it is a very important message. I would like to thank you Rishi, for doing this interview and sharing your insights.
Rishi: Thank you very much! I am a fan of AlterContacts. I know it is a global think tank for supporting sustainable development and entrepreneurship. I am really privileged to know you all and I wish you luck and carry on the good work. I am really really happy to be here.
About the Guest
Rishi Kapal is a 48 years old Stanford LEAD alumni. He gave up a corporate career of 2 decades across Avaya, Ericsson, Castrol, Qualcomm and Sony to become a full-time professor. Later he also became an author and global startups evangelist across sectors. Rishi lives in Pune, India and recently completed writing his fifth book. He has three lines of work. The first one being the Managing Partner of Global Scaleup, where he supports ventures for access to global businesses and investors. Rishi also tries to coach mid to senior-level professionals in their career transitions or if they have been outplaced. Lastly, being a marketing and communications specialist, Rishi continues to write books and help aspiring writers to become published authors.