Beyond the Resume: Exploring the Leadership DNA That Drives Startup Excellence

Ashish Sanganeria has played a key role in building the Digital & Technology practice for them. Prior to joining the Executive Industry in 2004, Ashish held several roles in sales, business development, and operations. For over a decade, he has been a trusted advisor for start-ups and entrepreneurs on talent acquisition and has worked with PEs & VCs to build the leadership teams of their portfolio companies. He has partnered with numerous unicorns in their journey of professionalization. Over the years, he has placed more than 400 senior executives in organizations that have filled critical competency or leadership gaps.

In the wake of the startup revolution in India, the term 'idea' has become synonymous with the inception of startups. While the journey invariably commences with a compelling idea, the intricacies unfolding behind the scenes are equally pivotal. Navigating the startup landscape is a delicate balance of fascination and challenge, with success contingent upon effectively bridging these elements. However, there remain crucial intersections that must materialize for fundamental stability in navigating this entrepreneurial journey.

The concept of "hustle" is frequently tethered to startups, and its significance evolves with the startup's stage. The nature of hustle in a Series A startup markedly differs from that in a Series C or D. Although hustle remains a fundamental aspect, practicing agility is equally crucial due to the inherent ambiguity that shrouds startups. Ambiguity can manifest at various levels, as exemplified by Myntra's transformative journey. Initially a B2B company selling customized merchandising in 2007, Myntra swiftly pivoted its business model, introducing sports categories, a Multi Brand store for Fashion and Lifestyle, and eventually successful private labels. Early-stage companies often undergo multiple evaluations to establish a sustainable business model, adapting based on product-market fit and consumer feedback.

Recruiting leaders and talent proves to be an uphill task, particularly when the brand is not well-established, and the company has only existed for a couple of years. In the fiercely competitive talent landscape, attracting individuals to the startup space becomes challenging. Corporates lure talent with established roles, teams, robust compensation, and attractive benefit structures. The compensation structure stands out as a significant reason talent hesitates to join early-stage companies. For instance, a recent IPO-bound SaaS startup faced challenges securing a leader from a large technology company due to resistance in trading Restricted Stock Units (RSUs) for ESOPs, viewed by candidates as a substantial cut(40% to 50%) in compensation. Apart from compensation concerns, other factors contribute to the difficulty in attracting talent, including a lack of sector understanding, unclear vision/mission alignment with founders, differing expectations, resistance to change, and cultural mismatch.

Upon joining a startup, amidst the hustle and agility, embracing the openness of startup culture becomes paramount. A leader transitioning from large organizations to startups, or vice versa, underscores the need for adaptability. Recently, a leader who worked with multiple unicorns, transitioned to one of the Top 3 management consulting firms, while addressing his team and peers he said, “Consider me as a kid who has joined straight out of college, and I still have a lot to learn and unlearn.” This approach is because of his everyday learning at the startups to grow it into a Unicorn.

The quality of nimbleness becomes particularly crucial for a leader transitioning from sizable corporations to a startup environment. This is due to the inherent process-driven nature of large organizations, leaving minimal room for experimentation and innovation. Bharatpe serves as an exemplary case, swiftly accumulating millions of merchants, and customers on their platform in a brief timeframe, a feat we don’t usually see in large corporate entities. This agility, inherent in effective leadership, is a prevalent cultural attribute across all startups. A leader's adaptability is paramount in facilitating continuous learning, unlearning, and relearning within the dynamic startup environment.

In addition to these considerations, leaders contemplating startup roles should diligently understand the intricacies of the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) structure. Asking pertinent questions about the vesting schedule, exercise price, taxation, etc., ensures a comprehensive understanding of the compensation structure, wealth creation, and the ideal time to exit.