Friday, September 13, 2019

Could “Create a margin of safety” be the toughest of the 8 steps to innovation to master?

Café Coffee Day founder V. G. Siddhartha’s unfortunate demise coincided with my class on “Margin of safety” in “Strategic Management of Technology and Innovation” course at IIM Bangalore. “Create a margin of safety” is the 8th step of the "8-steps to innovation" book I co-authored. Siddhartha allegedly committed suicide by jumping into the Netravati river near Mangalore. We would never know the exact reasons why Siddhartha took such an extreme step. Given the debt situation of Café Coffee Day group, could it be possible that Siddhartha lost track of margin of safety? And, if a seasoned businessman like Siddhartha can overlook margin of safety, could it be the toughest step to master?

When I discussed this question with my friend and co-author of “8 steps to innovation”, Prof. Rishikesha Krishnan, he suggested I read the book “Failing to succeed: The story of India’s first e-commerce company” by K. Vaitheeswaran. It turned out to be a textbook case demonstrating how difficult it might be to internalize the principle of “margin of safety”. Let’s look at a few anecdotes from the book which illustrate this point. But before we look at it, let’s note that we are looking at a venture story when it hit a downward spiral. The Indiaplaza story contains several ups and many things that the founders should be proud of. Moreover, innovators and especially entrepreneurs should be indebted to K. Vaitheeswaran for the candid narration of his experience. It is so rare in the Indian context.

June 2009:  "A jewellery vendor from Delhi came to our office with a few thugs and abused me with choice expletives in front of all staff members and threatened to beat me up physically if I did not pay up the dues within two days."

"An apparel vendor from Surat came to the office accompanied by a local policeman. The policeman threatened to arrest me if we didn’t settle the dues in one week."

August 2012: "I had stopped drawing my salary from August 2012, and worse, I had made the mistake of using my personal credit cards to spend for the company. Every day private collectors visited our home on behalf of credit card companies and loudly demanded money to embarrass and shame me in front of my neighbours and family. Then I decided to withdraw my Provident Fund (PF) because we desperately needed money."

December 2012: "The last week of December was terrible. On 31 December 2012, New Year’s Eve, a group of drunk people banged on our apartment door loudly and in front of my neighbours, family and some friends abused me for non-payment of dues. I was falling into bouts of depression and my health was taking a severe beating."

April 2013:  "When this deal (a potential acquisition) fell through, the creditors became furious. In a few days, our office was swarming with creditors in person. An electronics merchant, during the conversation in our office, pulled out a dagger and placed it on the table. The managing director of a big publishing and distribution house from Delhi met me in Bengaluru and said that he would ‘throw babies in front my car’ when I was driving."

August 2013: "I was standing inside the Ulsoor police station on Cambridge Road in Bangalore. I waited to be interrogated by the inspector on a complaint filed personally against me by a merchant."

8 December 2013: "I had quit and I was not coming back. I had nothing to show for my efforts over fourteen years except for several court cases against me, social media abuse, being avoided like the plague by people I knew and being branded a failure."

At one point the author says, “Whenever I read about people taking their own lives due to financial troubles, I confess, I can understand and sympathize with a moment of madness.”

Building a “margin of safety” involves asking two questions: “What kind of catastrophic risk is there? And, can I live with it?” From the anecdotes above it looks as if the worst-case scenario was not difficult to imagine in 2009 itself. And yet no major action was taken to protect oneself against such a situation. Hence, I am beginning to wonder if creating a margin of safety could be the toughest of the 8 steps to innovation to master.

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