These are the best days of my life

Indulge. Find purpose and your True North. Become an entrepreneur. And fall in love with life all over again

Charles Assisi

[Image by Gerd Altmann under Creative Commons]

When it happened around two years ago, media circles were agog. A few colleagues and I had differences with the management about an assignment and we parted ways. It took me a little while to figure out that the earth hadn’t parted under my feet. What did sink in though is that I am not invincible or irreplaceable.

In hindsight, it was a good thing to have happened. If there is a god, I am grateful to the creature for making it happen. I now find myself smack in the middle of an entrepreneurial renaissance in a nation bursting with energy. I can’t quite begin to describe what it feels like.

Now, the thing is, I grew up much like any other middle-class Indian boy weaned on middle-class Indian values. I broke my folks’ hearts a little over two decades ago when I opted for journalism as a career. Pretty much like every other Indian parent, they so badly wanted me to be either a doctor or an engineer.

Even as they warmed up to my choice over the years, I broke their hearts yet again when I declined to take up any formal assignment after my last one and chose to strike out with two enterprising friends. Whatever their reasons, my Malayali parents think entrepreneurship is the preserve of traditional Gujarati, Punjabi and some other select communities. Everybody else, they reckon, ought to be employed at a reputed private firm or in a government job. The middle classes we came from are intended to be in (to use another Indianism) service.

Speaking of a renaissance, the first time I got to see entrepreneurial energy up close was in my years as a journalist covering technology in the late 1990s. Rajesh Jain was your average Joe entrepreneur who ran a tiny outfit called out of his Nariman Point office in south Mumbai. Every once in a while, I’d drop in to his cubbyhole to catch up over a cup of coffee. All that changed when, one day, an urgent invitation to a press conference landed on my table. It suggested a significant event.

To this day, the moment remains etched in my mind. The now disgraced Ramalinga Raju and the board of directors at announced their decision to buy for close to Rs429 crore. The audacity of the amount had all of us in the room stunned. Through all of the proceedings, Jain continued to look as diminutive and unassuming as ever. To his credit, he was among the first in the country to have spotted that a dotcom boom was inevitable and had the foresight to latch on to it much before anybody else did. He has since moved on to other things.

What followed was an orgy of obscene valuations. Many counterparts in the room with me then, inspired by Jain and his vault into the big league, tried their hands at building ventures like his. I was much younger then. To me though, it made no sense and I was reasonably sure the market would tank. That it did is another thing altogether.

Meanwhile, I simply assumed I’d move from one journalistic assignment to another until I eventually retire to some plush farmhouse, sipping single malt every evening and pontificating on matters of state as a guest on private television channels. When the proverbial boot came though, a farmhouse, single malt and dreams of debating on television got flushed.
But, contrary to what I always feared, getting the boot isn’t awful. I now live a magnificent life. Allow me to explain that.

I always assumed most people are selfish. That is why I always told myself the reason the high and mighty entertained and shared time with me was a function of self-interest. They had messages to convey and agendas to push. What better way to do it than through a journalist? Minus the trappings of power a press card conferred on me, I thought all of these connections would haemorrhage and die. How horribly, horribly wrong I was.

Out of a job and figuring out what to do next, the first life lesson I learnt is that people in high places get to where they are because they appreciate people—and not as resources to be used and disposed. Nothing else explains to my mind why the most powerful people in the country, whom I had interacted with in my days at an established media brand, opened up their doors to my jobless avatar, to share not just time, but generous doses of wisdom as well. When I sought advice on what course to take next, everybody argued maniacally that I take the entrepreneurial route. They had their reasons.

Mind you, nobody suggested it was about getting rich, but about finding purpose—the True North—if you will.

Consensus was that the so-called great Indian middle-class dream is dead. What remains are the rich and the poor. Between poverty and wealth, it’s a no-brainer. Allow me to place that in some perspective.

How many young folks can seriously think of buying a house in an Indian city? Developers don’t blink an eyelid when quoting a couple of crores for a decent apartment in the metros. Because public transport is so hopeless, most of the middle classes rely on cars. Add to this the spiralling costs of education, medical care as you age and crumbling public infrastructure, and maintaining all the trappings of a half-decent life in the longer term looks hopeless.

That it is easy to get all of these funded when you are young is one thing. What is lost in the hullabaloo that leads to the funding is how the mortgages get repaid. Because once you are in that spiral, there is no getting out. The choices are to get horribly rich or remain horribly poor, trapped in an awful life. Much as the sacred texts may glorify poverty, I don’t see dignity or virtue in it. That left me with two choices. Start out on my own, find my True North, and take for granted the money will follow. Assuming for a moment the money doesn’t follow, at least I will die happy I gave a pretty damn good shot at trying to find purpose as opposed to living a mediocre existence in service.

I don’t have clinical evidence on hand to prove my point. But that I am on the right track is on the back of anecdotal evidence built on conversations with people across the spectrum. And it is in everybody’s interests to get onto the entrepreneurial bandwagon for reasons I have articulated above.

If any evidence be needed that the middle-class dream in India is pretty much dead, allow me to share some statistics. Even as I write this, news outlets and those in la-la land insist India is the outsourcing capital of the world. And that getting into a company that offers outsourced services is a ticket to freedom.

The fact of the matter is, countries are staking claim to that status with even cheaper labour in parts of Asia and Africa. Manpower can be hired in Madagscar at an average of $0.18 to the hour, $0.23 in Bangladesh and $0.32 in Pakistan. As opposed to that, India costs nearly $0.50 to the hour. Add Vietnam and Mexico into the mix and you’ve got formidable competition on hand.

This may sound politically incorrect, but I don’t see any point in scraping the bottom of the barrel for pennies and to stay hungry and foolish. I’m not insisting here I ought to have a few million dollars in chump change lying in my account. But yes, I aspire to a better quality of life in my country of birth.

What do I mean by that? Allow me to quote from an article I stumbled across in Entrepreneur magazine by James Althucher, an entrepreneur and investor: “Studies show that an increase in salary only offers marginal to zero increase in ‘happiness’ above a certain level. Why is this? Because of the basic fact: people spend what they make. If your salary increases $5,000 you spend an extra $2,000 on features for your car, you have an affair, you buy a new computer, a better couch, a bigger TV, and then you ask, ‘where did all the money go?’ Even though you needed none of the above now you need one more thing: another increase in your salary, so back to the corporate casino for one more try at the salary roulette wheel. I have never once seen anyone save the increase in their salary.”

“In other words, don’t stay at the job for safe salary increases over time. That will never get you where you want—freedom from financial worry. Only free time, imagination, creativity, and an ability to disappear will help you deliver value that nobody ever delivered before in the history of mankind.”

Very concisely put; that is why I ventured out on my own. That said, I must concede that creating Founding Fuel, my current venture, from the ground up, was not easy, and it won’t be easy going. But what I have earned until now cannot be counted on the back of money. If I were to list some of them out, it would read like this.

  • The finest Indian minds on whose doors I knocked with my colleagues for advice did not stop at advice. They sit as formal advisers and offer us their precious time and bandwidth.
  • I had always assumed that when it comes to opening up their wallets, people baulk. But when an idea is presented with passion and conviction, they open not just their wallets, but their hearts as well. How else can I explain why people with formidable reputations have chosen to invest their money in this venture of mine?
  • Most people are not mercenaries. That is why when my colleagues and I knocked on the doors of influential citizens and institutions, Mint included, to partner a fledgling start-up, they didn’t stop at giving us an ear, but actually signed on the dotted line and delivered. So long as we could answer one question: What is your purpose?
  • If what’s holding you back from taking the plunge is the mandatory pay cheque, allow me to share this. You don’t need as much money as you think you need. Life has a thermostat that finds ways to meet your needs. Sure, lazy Sunday brunches at my favourite hotel in the city are out. But warm food cooked every evening in the hearth of my home over warmer conversations more than make up for it.
  • I continue to work bloody hard. So hard that oftentimes I think I’d be better off at a regular workplace with reasonable work hours and an armada to support all of my demands. But the fact is, each time crisis strikes or I’m needed elsewhere, my colleagues and partners envelope me in a blanket of warmth and trust of the kind I haven’t experienced ever.
  • My younger daughter, who is a little older than my venture, gets to see me more than her older sister, who only remembers me as a visiting parent. I suspect that is the reason why, when in distress, she calls out to me first. How does a father’s heart not melt and respond?

Like I said earlier, I am not sure if I will ever roll in the millions. If I do, it will just be a topping. What I do know is I have the freedom to indulge in my passion, experience first-hand what it means to be an entrepreneur in a country bursting with energy and understand why it is so addictive. The feeling is much the same I experienced when I first fell in love in Class VI and my knees went all wobbly. I am in love with life all over again. Without a doubt, these are the best days of my life.

[This article was originally published in Mint. Reproduced with permission]

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Sahil Singhal on Sep 25, 2015 7:01 p.m. said

This is a great website Charles. There's so much I take back from each article published here. I feel I'm becoming wiser every day. Keep it up !!

Anand MP on Sep 21, 2015 9:14 a.m. said

So true Charles. Lovely piece.
Unfortunately it is our success at the jobs that we did that holds us back from believing that we could do better. And with a lot more joy!

About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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