Traditional Wisdom for Investors and Entrepreneurs

Much of the wealth of knowledge passed down from an age when writing had yet to be popular is in the form of terse sentences (or phrases) that hold condensed drops of wisdom, referred to as sutras (which which roughly translates to aphorisms in English). One such sutra, which embodies a key aspect of traditional wisdom for investors and entrepreneurs and has direct applicability in many other areas of relevance today is the subject of this post.

When I started investing in the stock market,  I was excited, brimmed with confidence, and wanted to trade in larger volumes in order to capitalize on smaller fluctuations. That was when my father gave me this advice.

अल्पारम्भ: क्षेमकर:| (alparambha: kshemakara:) - Small beginning is conducive to growth, prosperity and well-being. Traditional wisdom for investors and entrepreneurs
अल्पारम्भ: क्षेमकर:|
Small beginning is conducive to growth, prosperity and well-being

The idea is simple. When we begin, we know very less about what we’re doing, and are mostly driven by excitement and (often misplaced) confidence than any real or deep understanding of the possible outcomes and their odds. It is very likely that we are seeing only the possibilities that we want to see, and completely missing the potential problems and risks – consciously or otherwise. So traditional wisdom  in risk management says, start small.

This is similar to how a young couple who fall in love with each other are blind to all negative qualities of their lover and are thus able to see perfection in their partner. That is not really the time to commit to a life-long relationship. If they stick on for a little longer, understand each other a little deeper, they should be able to more clearly see each other and themselves in the relationship. So give it a small, cautious start. Have some conversations, go out together, engage in activities together, get introduced to the other’s friends and family, and see what path the relationship takes, naturally. If it is going in the right direction, commit more and more of yourself to it, if not, let it die a gradual, painless death before you’ve too much to lose from a failure.

This is also the idea that leads to the concept of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) in technology startups. If your product is path-breaking, it is also unproven. For the creators of an idea, it might seem to be the perfect solution for their customer’s problems. But whether the customer really has that problem and if they are willing to adopt this solution is something that only the customer can say.  So a typical product development cycle starts with generating the idea, getting initial thoughts from a small group of trusted potential customers, creating a prototype and getting more detailed inputs, building further on the concept, creating an MVP, taking it to market and getting customer feedback, and using it to decide the fate of the idea.  On the other hand, those who have too much confidence in their idea unilaterally decide what’s best for their customers and go all out in building a product based on gut feeling, often ending up with an elaborate solution that nobody wants to use.

This principle also applies to following your passion. A call that is most generously given and even more religiously followed by many in this age is to follow their passion and do what they love. “Give up our job, throw everything away, and start doing what you really love to do” – this is what those who make a living by selling dreams like to tell us, and they say it so forcefully that the candle of reason that would have thrown some light on the ridiculousness of the idea blows out. For example, there are those who would leave their job and set out to travel, hoping that their travel blog or YouTube channel can generate enough revenue to cover their travel costs on top of basic living expenses. That there are a few who are able to do that does not mean it will work for everybody else. If they really love travelling, they can find time for it while continuing on their jobs. They can start small by planning trips on weekends and vacations. If after a couple of years they still find time for and enjoy it as much as (or more than) they did at the the beginning, if they find that others are sufficiently interested in it for them to be able make money out of it, they can follow it with greater involvement and commitment. Without due consideration, jumping into something with all you’ve got, right at the beginning, is patently unwise and potentially suicidal.

Every law has an exception. In order to fully appreciate the applicability of this sutra, we should also be aware that there are counter cases in which its wisdom is not directly applicable.

A striking example that I see is how many movies build up a pre-release hype and are released across multiple theaters in all major cities/towns, simultaneously on a maximum number of screens. They cannot afford to start small, because the objective is to get as many people as possible to watch the movie before any of them gets a chance to utter a word on the movie. Note that here the objective is not to sustain the success of the movie over time, but to maximize collections while initial hype lasts. If the movie does not have any super-stars to boast of, and no such hype to take advantage of, it is much better to start small and spread to more screens based on growing demand fueled by positive viewer feedback.

War is another scenario in which starting small can have catastrophic consequences. A war is best avoided; but if absolutely required, an ideal option would be to mobilize all your forces for a massive first strike, crippling the enemy’s capability to strike back, and making it possible to end it quickly, with minimum casualties (on either side), conclusively, and – most importantly – in your favor. This strategy, however, will not hold if we do not have sufficient information on the enemy’s capabilities, or if we lack the resources to achieve a decisive victory. In such cases, the battle is likely to be long drawn, and our sutra in risk management becomes more applicable if we are to last till the end.

Even in a one-on-one fight, if you clearly know the strengths and weaknesses of your enemy, it might make sense to launch a full-fledged attack right at the beginning. But in most cases, you don’t know what your opponent is capable of or what he intends to do, similar to the situations in investment and entrepreneurship where the environment and circumstances are your opponents and you can never know them fully enough at the beginning. Rather than blindly jump into an attack, it is much better to wait, throw some feints to see how the enemy reacts, and once you know what they’re capable of and are able to identify a weakness or an opening, attack with all you’ve got.

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