“There was no looking back”

Pankaj Mishra March 1, 2019

Mainstream stories about startups and entrepreneurs are mostly about fundraising, business strategy, management hires, talent churn, and the such. There’s another important factor to entrepreneurship, the personal. That of the unseen others whose lives are joined to that of the entrepreneurs. The ones who are as much a part of the journey as the entrepreneurs, going through the same ups and downs and then some.

Santhanalakshmi Arvind was the wife of the late Arvindkumar Alagarswamy, co-founder of Attune Technologies, a healthcare startup. You will know his story from Pankaj Mishra’s article, Death of a startup founder. Santhanalakshmi’s conversation with Pankaj for this Outliers podcast from December 2017 captures her journey from the time Arvind first spoke about his entrepreneurial ambitions to after his passing following a struggle with pancreatic cancer. This is a story of a startup founder and his family’s struggles and small victories, of faith and hope, of entrepreneurial energy, of treasured memories. As always, thanks to Kanika Berry for the transcript.

Pankaj: Welcome to the Outliers podcast. Earlier, I had spent time with the family of a founder and narrated a story about his last few days. Most of the times in entrepreneurship we discuss entrepreneurs, of course, the money side of it, which is both the investment and how much you have to spend, the employees, the talent that you want to hire and such stuff. What gets missed in this entire journey is a very important capital, which is the family, the emotional capital that goes in ensuring that journey happens. We wrote about healthcare startup Attune’s founder, Arvindkumar Alagarswamy, who passed away in 2016, about his life and his entrepreneurial journey. The biggest learning for us was looking at this whole journey through the eyes of the family itself. So I am really privileged to have Santhanalakshmi, Arvind’s wife, with us because it’s important for us to look through this whole entrepreneurial journey through her eyes.

Santhanalakshmi: Hello, Pankaj, thanks.

Pankaj: Let’s start from the start. The first time when a founder decides to do something, you go back to your family and ask, ‘Can I do it? Will it be okay if I do this?’ Because it’s kind of a checkbox. In your mind you are thinking, ‘Ok, these are the 10 so-called permissions I need, it’s like getting a new project. So these are the government departments we have to go. And one of the checkboxes is the family. If you are lucky, the reply is, “Go on, do it.” If you are not so lucky, there are reservations. What do you think of that? And when you answered a question like this what were you really thinking?

Santhanalakshmi: Ok, this was when we were 30. Arvind was doing his MBA at IIM-Kolkata and he called me one night and said, “I am going to opt out of the placement offers and want to start a business.” Immediately I knew what business he was talking about because he did have a lot of challenges working in Philips Medical Systems in Bangalore, where he found that more of the functional expertise, you know, work, product development, can be brought into India but that was not happening. That was the only argument he used to have with the management. They did want to retain him but he was not willing. So when he said business, I immediately knew it would be on medical systems and he did explain it to me.

As Arvind’s friend and wife, I know he does his homework. So that confidence of what Arvind would do next was never a doubt. I was 100% confident and that’s it. I mean, immediately it came to my mind that, “Ya, please go ahead.” And the tone in which he talks, his passion, he’s always been a very live person and it’s always like, what next. So it was, “Ya, go ahead. As far as you don’t trouble me and ask me to do anything for it, I am fine.” He was like, “You sure? This would mean no money, I may not be able to earn really.”

I didn’t think it was a problem because we had been living simple. I am a spendthrift but I was able to manage that because I was earning. So luckily, the ecosystem, the family system was also well-balanced. We had a son and were looking for our second child. Of course, I did have questions, not immediately, but the first shot was like, “You sound quite excited, ya, go ahead,” and he’s like, “Ok, thanks.” That’s it. He didn’t want me to ponder over it further.

Pankaj: So as the journey went along, as you saw him build Attune, milestones or challenges, it’s a mixed bag, right?

Santhanalakshmi: Yes. The initial years were really very tough.

Pankaj: Were there, at times, more questions? As the journey evolved, what were all the questions? How did you look at this whole thing that people call ‘entrepreneurship’? What did it mean to you?

Santhanalakshmi: One thing I knew was that he’s enjoying. He is a very enthusiastic person but when he was in Attune, he never told me, you know, it was tough or that he was not able to make money. Only when we were looking for a second child, I think that’s the only time I had to talk to Arvind about him not earning. I said, “We are going to get our second child and, I mean, are we good?” That’s the only time I had my doubts, and he said, “Whatever is the money, I think we should be able to manage.” I asked him because I thought we should delay the planning for the second child.

For Arvind, planning for something, if he has thought of it, he is clear of it, he will never postpone, he will never hold it back for something else. See, people say, “I will finish my MBA and then start my company… I make Rs 1 crore per annum and then I will get married.” No, Arvind is like, I have really learnt that he does things parallel. At least, he is focused to be on the lookout in parallel, very focused. Like when we was in Philips Medical Systems, his yearnings started on why isn’t the functional expertise, the product expertise getting built from India when we have the talent here. So that had kept pondering on him.

Pankaj: When you are a founder or an entrepreneur, the challenges that you face, sometimes you can’t discuss it with your own employees. So you are trying to balance all these things. It gets lonely at the top. From what you have seen and observed, what was it?

Santhanalakshmi: The initial years, when it was really tough, there was an investor who wanted to put in money. They had planned the operations accordingly but finally the money didn’t come in. It was a big struggle to give money to the developers because they are all from the outskirts of Tamil Nadu and they have come here for the job. So that was the only pressure that he felt and spoke to me. All the others, whether it was to get the business or build the product, all that he was very clear of, doing his homework and being on top of the problem. Only this money which they had planned for, I think that was the only time he said that.

Pankaj: What role can family play when it comes to helping an entrepreneur deal with this loneliness? Because sometimes you can’t even share things with your own employees or investors.

Santhanalakshmi: Actually, frankly, when he started telling me, when he used to share these things with me, I used to get very stressed. But Arvind will never take in stress, that is, sort of a family thing for them. My mother-in-law also is a very strong person. My mother-in-law says, they are very strong people. Even when there is no money at home, still they will cook the broth and the best of it and you know, they don’t ponder over. I mean somehow they just pass by.

Pankaj: It’s in the genes.

Santhanalakshmi: It’s in the genes, yes. And so he stopped telling me and we were also looking forward for the second child, so he stopped telling me actually. I never knew about Norwest (Venture Partners) doing due diligence. It had run for some eight months or one year and all that, I never knew any of that. So it’s like good and bad, both he kept away from me. Not that he purposefully did it. Once he mentioned, “You are taking in the stress so let me, it’s ok, I will deal with it.”

Pankaj: I completely empathize with this. Even I do the same thing.

Santhanalakshmi: He had very good friends. K.C. Ganesh, he is, I think, the CFO or something. Very good childhood friends. Maybe he would have shared with him. I know he was in frequent touch with K.C. Ganesh. So wherever he knew that this is the person he can talk to and all that, he did. So when Norwest invested, Arvind one early morning, even before coffee, he brushed his teeth and he went out. I was like, what’s this way, where is he running. And he came back with a paper, The Business Line, and he showed me that page. Only then I knew everything about the background. It was a great surprise. So that’s the thing he held within himself. And I should mention this, whether he used to come at 2:00 am or worked the whole day, or has traveled and after 20 days gets back to the family, there used to be this light in his eyes. He used to tell me how they overcame the challenges and that too with full enthusiasm and energy. I was like, where do you have this energy. I am sure he slept well on the flight and he was like, “No, I watched movies.” Not a day he has told me that, “I don’t know how I am going to make this?” Not a day! He was very clear in his mind, there was no looking back.

Pankaj: I think that’s a great trait.

Santhanalakshmi: I think everybody, whether it was the investor or his customers, I think everybody would have observed it too. Somehow he put it forth to them and I think that did the trick too.

Pankaj: No, it always does with great entrepreneurs. I am trying to understand, should you tell everything to the family or closest in the family or you should hold back good, bad and ugly, all kinds of things. What do you think works better?

Santhanalakshmi: Yes, family members can get stressed. So if you can hold it back, it’s ok. But if you have a person, I mean if you are confident that they wouldn’t take the stress… I knew no money coming in, so all that part was there but that was the known part, it was already expected and prepared.

Pankaj: It was the money coming in that was the unknown part.

Santhanalakshmi: We did land up soon. I mean not soon, I would say five years I think. I never expected anything from Arvind and that expectation was very clearly set. And one thing, he had savings also. He was 30 when he started so he had his savings. We just made sure we had a frugal living but that was always the case. I was busy with my children, their activities. And Arvind was a very simple person. He won’t even wear a watch… So that simplicity helped.

Pankaj: The frugality.

Santhanalakshmi: Yes, the frugality.

Pankaj: Entrepreneurship as a journey is very time-consuming. In fact, it consumes all the time you have and you are asking for more. Your things to do in the priority list can keep changing every day, every hour. Time becomes of essence. So what do you think of time and the importance of it?

Santhanalakshmi: One thing I didn’t realize, see the money part, the expectation was already set. But the time part I didn’t really foresee. It was frustrating and I have taken it very much on him. But again, he was a very clear person, so that didn’t bother him really. The time part is a great challenge. But Arvind made it very clear that the investor’s money is the first thing, so there’s no choice. Since I didn’t foresee the whole thing, it was quite a rude surprise. But my worry was, he missing out time on the children. But one thing to look back today, the time he spent when he was at home, those are very refreshing memories.

He would make sure when he’s at home he will talk to them and it’s not that just seeing TV with them, it’s not seeing a TV program with them, he will talk to them. You know, he even ragged my 12-year-old with his girlfriends and my son will be very shy, like, ‘Daddy, shut up!’ He used to take them out for cricket… he will take them to cricket practice because they also love cricket, or he will take them for a game which he plays because he wanted my son to see him playing.

Pankaj: Very nice.

Santhanalakshmi: See, after he breathed his last, it immediately sunk into me that if at all there is any dedication or tribute to what I had, I mean I love him, it’s only that I will stay positive like him, I will not go low on my energy. That’s the only thing that would be the best and somehow that very naturally came to me.

Even at my work today, my close friend, my colleague, she will be like, you are talking as if your husband has just gone for a tour, I mean, it’s damn inspiring.

Pankaj: If you were to pick two, three, four, life lessons from Arvind and the entrepreneurial journey he had, what would those be?

Santhanalakshmi: Yes, the first thing is, if you feel that you are really going to address a problem, you have the knowledge for it, you have the energy for it and you are passionate about it, don’t postpone. Arvind didn’t do that though he had a lot of pressure to postpone it or to do it as a secondary one. Arvind didn’t do that, he focused, he was at it. Lots of people have discouraged him. I mean it’s there in a lot of videos and all that but he was at it. So don’t postpone. And if you have the ecosystem’s blessing, just go for it. I mean that’s from Arvind’s experience again.

The other thing is, now to think back, he never was into a problem… So a lot of things, it can be anything, but he was never into the problem because of the problem. I am sure he didn’t sit down for extra five minutes. He was never into the problem. Of course, the problem did hold him back but he was always on top of it. And people problems are the toughest. Other problems, he used to do his homework and I am sure he had his way. But people problems, yes but somehow he never got into it.

And if it is for the family, he made it very clear to me. For none of the classes or children’s annual day, even my own worry was all that he was missing the children’s time, not more of children missing his time, but he missing children’s time, but he never felt guilty about it. I mean, somehow he was very clear. When he was there, it was never about work. He did complete justice. My son will remember that energy, so that was the best part.

Pankaj: Thanks for having this conversation. Now that I am done with this conversation, it felt like it was quite easy, not as tough as I thought it would be.

Santhanalakshmi: Yes, for me too.

(Kanika Berry has a Masters in Business Administration and has been a communications specialist for over eight years.)


               

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