Do startups reflect their founder’s cultural background?
We all have probably heard the saying – devil is in the detail. When I met my husband, at first I felt we were pretty similar, even though he is from Switzerland and I am from India. Two very distinct cultures. We had similar values and interests in life. The first time the detail devil was looking in our face was when we started our company together.
We realised just about how different we were in every aspect of forming our company. From the name of the company to logo, brand communication, product selection, marketing, sales and even for accounting we had different opinions.
Before starting our company, I worked in several multi-national companies in India, Singapore and Switzerland. Of all the companies that I worked for there was only one, where a difference of opinion was truly celebrated. In every other company, the consensus was the key. I felt this was even more important in the Swiss companies where I worked.
Not having a consensus with a colleague is very different from not having a consensus with your life partner who also happens to be your business partner. There is a very different charge of emotion attached to it. It surely overflows into your personal life. You suddenly realise that you stop getting your morning coffee prepared with love by your partner because he is pissed about you telling him that his idea about the business doesn’t make sense. This never happened to us, just for records.
There are two schools of thoughts when it comes to diversity in business. First, less diverse teams are faster. Because they understand each other and come to a consensus pretty fast. Let’s agree conflicts are not pleasant and often they are energy suckers. Teams with less diversity surely have more harmony and speed. The downside could be that they are moving very fast in the wrong direction, due to lack of questioning and challenge within the team.
The second school of thought says that diverse teams are more creative and strongly connected to each other, provided they survive! Yes, these teams like Dominic and myself are always on the edge of breaking up (professionally!). The art of `agreeing to disagree` is a hard one to master.
Most middle-class Indians grow up with a sense of fighting spirit instilled in them at a very early stage in life. Life is a race and there is no place for the ones who come second. Now, India is a huge country with over a billion people from different faiths and belief system. No generalisation works for this country. So, I speak only for myself and my observations of India.
Most of my time living in India and even now when I go back, I feel as soon as the plane touches down in Mumbai, my life is put on a fast track. Everybody seems to be in a rush. Everything has to happen now. There is no time to look into details, which is the Swiss national hobby, I feel.
In Switzerland, most people have time or they make time to look in absolute detail for making the most perfect products and companies (surely there can be exceptions, like with every generalisation). Unfortunately, Dominic is not that exception. The attention to every single detail he puts in our company is nerve-wracking for me. It’s like putting big iron chains around the legs of a racehorse who is losing sight of all his competitors who started the race long back. It is frustrating until I meet someone who tells me “Elephant Cross has a beautiful logo”. And then I remember the two months and some 100 odd designs that we worked on before we finalised our company logo.
But soon comes a new topic and a new frustration to find a middle ground. My desire to run fast, fall, get up and run again, try different things even I am not sure what they mean, take a calculated risk, build something, trash it, build again, is perhaps quite a roller coaster that Dominic does not like to subscribe to.
While both of us suffer in the process, it has given our company a unique personality. I can tell you several instances where it has been a big advantage to have this combination and I can also tell you several instances where I feel it came in our way.
Here’s my favourite. Our Indian manufacturer had given us the product price at the time of placing our order. This was in US dollars. 6 months later when we were collecting our order and making the payment, he gave us the bill in INR (Indian rupees). Dominic made the currency conversion and realised that the amount is much higher in INR when converted from USD. Even with the highest exchange rate in the last 10 years, the difference was over 1000 USD. Meticulously, he made the calculations of several scenarios of exchange rates. Our manufacturer was shocked at the detail calculations Dominic offered and in the end, agreed to accept the payment in USD as fixed at the time of placing the order.
In another incident, while placing our order I wanted to add to our collection, silk square scarves. I was convinced there is a market for it and we should just test it to find out. Dominic was not convinced with testing it at that time. We could not agree on it and it fell out of our collection. A year later, after receiving the request for these silk square scarves from many people, we are now preparing to introduce them in our next collection.
So, you win some, you lose some. In the end, is it worth the hassle? You need to answer for yourself. As human beings, we are similar and different at the same time. Each project is unique. And so are the project owners. What works for one, may not work for others. But it is totally worth your while to give it due consideration (the Swiss way :-)).