By Anna Joke Breimer Bharati
I had lunch today with an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur I would like you to meet. The type of visionary founder you come across just only now and then. A poster-boy founder for this generation; someone who wants to change the world, not just make big, quick money. We spoke about his mission, the expectations he had when he started two years ago, and the frustrations he has today for not being able to meet those expectations. We spoke about moving fast, building something that goes beyond yourself and about getting things right. Of course this discussion wasn’t new to me. Because this person I would like you to meet is my husband Vikram, founder of Tribe Theory. We talk about these things all the time. In the past two years I have witnessed from very close by the highs and the lows of the entrepreneurial journey. Two weeks back, he interviewed me on a lazy Sunday morning. I agreed, with the promise he would return the favour. And so please read on for our very candid, personal lunch conversation.
You have a clear mission with your company Tribe Theory. Tell us about how you came to this mission.
Our mission for Tribe Theory is to enable the creation of one million businesses worldwide by 2030. Ten years from now, we’re going to measure the success of Tribe Theory by how many businesses we’ve helped create and thrive. We want to become an entrepreneurial ecosystem in every major city of the world. This is different from your typical coliving or coworking startup. We don’t just provide a place to stay or to work. We really want to have an impact on the people in our community, add value and support them in their entrepreneurial journeys. To be a pivotal moment in the history of one million companies worldwide.
These don’t have to be big businesses. It can be a million small businesses. Some might become big, some might stay small. It doesn’t matter. Someone might come in touch with our ecosystem and gets inspired through our community to set up a flower shop, great. Someone might follow his dreams to start a pastry business. Whatever it is, if we foster the dreams of these people and help them realize a million businesses, we are going to have real impact on the world.
Let me give an example. There is this Indian entrepreneur. He came to stay with us in Singapore. He was about to close down his business, really just struggling too much. But then he stayed with us, met all these other people who were also talking about their constant struggles. They became his support system. He kept going. Now his business is doing much better and he feels that without that stay at our place, he would have shut down his business. That I feel is real impact. And in the past two years alone we had many stories like this one. So that makes me think: “What if we do that a million times to a million people?”
It helped me make our mission more audacious and more tangible. In the beginning I would say: We connect, inspire and empower the world’s entrepreneurs. But it was too vague and not bold enough. I needed something everyone in our company, in every country we operate, would right away understand. From community manager to cleaner, something everyone would know how to act upon. And so there it is. We want to enable the creation of one million businesses worldwide by 2030.
You started a year and a half ago, how well on track are you today?
My expectations two years back were much more ambitious than where we are today. The plan was to be in ten countries by the end of 2019. It turns out it is going to be seven. So we hit the seventy percent mark, which in my view is coming up quite a bit short of the original plan.
I feel it is still a good achievement. I know in theory we should be happy with how far we have come. However, there is still a piece of me that is not happy with these shortcomings to our ambition. It has been a lot more difficult than what I initially thought or imagined. I thought it would be a lot easier. Even to get to where we are today, we are barely hanging on. It has been a very challenging journey to get where we are. There is a frustration that comes with this. From how earlier expectations of how much easier we thought it would be versus the realities of how difficult it turned out to be.
Some might challenge how realistic these expectations were to begin with, but they seemed realistic at the time. Other people have been able to do this. I see others achieving what we envision. I see that happening every single day, so I know it is realistic.
I suppose maybe part of the frustration comes from a comparison with other people who have been able to do what we haven’t been able to do. I understand that what we have achieved is pretty damn good, but when I start to compare myself to other people who started a company two years ago and achieved a lot more, then that comparison clearly frustrates me.
It is like swimming. I feel like we are coming up for a breath, really struggling to swim, trying to stay afloat, and continuously getting pushed back in the water, barely being able to come back up for a quick breath and then going back in. It is like this constant churn of being stuck in the wave. You come out for a short breath and it feels great. Next thing you know you’re back in the tumble. It feels like a lot of ambiguity. It seems that we are always just trying to catch up and trying to stay afloat.
Up until now we have been experimenting. We are in phase one of the business. But now we need to get into phase two, which is to professionalize. We need the right team in place, the right processes, the right organization. Without us going into phase two we will always be stuck in phase one. In order for us to get into phase two, we need investment. So we are at this very critical juncture of going from phase one to phase two. If we don’t make it to phase two, we are not going to be able to survive. Whatever is happening now is going to pave the way for our success five or ten years down the line.
You are currently in the midst of fundraising, something you called ‘a very critical juncture’. How is this process going?
For the past year and a half I’ve essentially been constantly fundraising. It is probably the most difficult part and by far the most draining part. For an entrepreneur this is what keeps you the most stressed.
My friends are always encouraging and they try to say the right things. They are your friends so they will try to keep you energized. But I’m trying to understand whether this encouragement is real or not. Because when I talk to investors they say the won’t touch us with a ten-foot pole. So that definitely makes you doubt what your friends are saying. Because if it would all be so great as they say, there would be investors lined up to give you money. And quite frankly that is not the reality. I have reached out to probably 150 investors over the past year and a half and spoken to more than a hundred of them, and well yeah, it is hard to convince them to put their money down.
Before starting Tribe Theory, I was an investor myself. Having been around the investment landscape for a little bit of time I realized, 95% of the investors don’t know what they are doing and make the wrong calls. If you look at VCs they have structurally underperformed the market. So I logically understand that just because an investor doesn’t get it or doesn’t want to invest, doesn’t mean you are doing the wrong thing. In fact, logically I can argue that if investors don’t get you, it means you are on to something. Because if all investors would get what you’re trying to do, you are not doing anything new or different. Logically I believe in that.
However, emotionally it is hard to receive rejection after rejection after rejection. Going through the ups and downs of fundraising, it takes a toll on you. So the challenge is to keep your emotions upbeat at all times, despite the ambiguity of the process.
It is important for us to find the right investors. It is not just about the money. Our investors are our strategic partners, our gateway to achieving our mission. Like in our last round, when one of the investors we brought on was from Estonia. They linked us into the local Estonian startup community, with some phenomenal global players. Fast-forward a few months we have now a thriving location in the midst of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Being connected to the local community there helps us offer things like ‘legal support hours’ to our guests.
A similar story in our current round. One of our investors is a strategic partner to realize our aspirations for the Philippines. Within the next few months we will be opening a fantastic flagship location in Manila. Not just a place for entrepreneurs to stay and work, but a true example of a ‘business building machine’. It will offer entrepreneurs everything they need to help their businesses thrive, we will even have a recording studio that can be used for podcasts.
We are also very excited about the lead investor of this current ongoing round. We really believe this is the right partner who is going to help us achieve our goals globally and unlock new geographies for us. This is why it is about so much more than just the money.
You spoke about how you defined your company’s mission and how you are fundraising. What else should a great founder focus on?
To me a leader has three objectives: To set a clear direction, to find the right strategic partners and to bring the right team on board. You can have all the money you want and a great idea, but without the right people it is not going to fly.
We have a great team. Everyone is dedicated and committed above and beyond what I had ever expected. Our team is growing and evolving, as our business grows and evolves. We have to bring in more people. We have to professionalize. We have to bring our people along on our journey.
As a founder you have to ensure your people believe in the mission. If people buy into the mission that we are going to enable the creation of a million businesses, then we are unstoppable. Having a clear vision is something your team can really rally behind.
It is hard to find them though. People have so many options these days. You have to convince them with your vision. In the beginning you will get people who will want to be on board because they believe in you. It is hard for them to take apart the founder and his vision. When you grow, this becomes troublesome, because quite frankly, you can’t give your people the same attention you could when it was a smaller team. So as a founder you have to also think about how you scale your own support and engagement with the team. This is something I am very much trying to figure out right now. How to give our people the attention they deserve, the attention I have been giving them, without killing myself over it.
What keeps you up at night?
Well, I feel I’m in a bit of a funk right now. I am in a funk because I feel things have been dragging on for so long. You need to have patience when you go through investment rounds. I am waking up in the middle of the night to check my messages and see whether or not things have come in. I am getting so much pressure from everyone around me who are involved in this. And rightfully so. They want to know what is happening, because their plans are based on this plan. There are a lot of intricacies. A lot of things are linked to the success of our fundraising campaign.
Emotionally this does of course take its toll on me. I am hundred percent personally vested in this. This endeavour is who I am. I have been giving it my one hundred percent. It is an endeavour that I am fully fully fully hundred percent emotionally, physically and mentally vested in and maybe that is the challenge. Maybe that is an issue. It becomes very personal very quickly.
I really want it to work. Because I can see that it can work. I see the potential. I see that this has the ability to become something. I see the vision. I believe in the vision in such a way that I know that it is totally doable. I just believe in it. I believe in the possibilities of this thing. Of course it may not turn out exactly how we envision it, but most of it I think is something that can be done. And because I believe so strongly in it, I feel motivated, energized and vested in it.
Our mission is larger than life. It is a big thing to want to matter for a million businesses worldwide. It frustrates me that we struggle to get things going. That I am waiting for four months on things. Time is critical. Every day that goes by not working on our mission and driving us towards the realization of our vision is a frustrating day for me. Of course we have kept going during these months, but we need to accelerate our growth and our pace. We are not going to touch a million businesses at the pace we are going today. Life is short, every day matters.