Marwari household? Check. Parents and grandparents running businesses? Check. Son expected to eventually join said business? Check.
Meet Alok Kejriwal — the quintessential Marwari boy who fondly connects the dots as he relentlessly pursued his calling in Why I Stopped Wearing My Socks.
The book is a light read, divided into several minute chapters that end in "learnings" he picked up from his journey to make it big as the founder of contests2win.com and its subsidiaries.
This is a primer that all entrepreneurs can keep thumbing through to deal with specific scenarios that they would face at all stages of their career, even after they make it to the cover of Forbes. The wide breadth of topics covered with his anecdotal fashion means there is something for everyone.
The reason why this book is so readable is the absolute sincerity of Kejriwal’s personality. His style of prose is well-meaning, bringing out some of the entrepreneur's traits that could be called borderline naive. He genuinely comes across as someone who believes that business is not about squeezing people for profits, but about creating value for everyone involved. He uses his observation skills to identify a problem, and offers to solve it in a way that is beneficial for everyone.
It is this well-meaning nature, combined with a sense of humility, that makes Kejriwal’s attitude a cornerstone to his long-term success. Kejriwal recalls how people have abused him, and even called him a liar. He took these people’s words not as a personal attack on his character, but as opportunities to grow.
While he was helping out his grandfather in his teens, he was yelled at by a government employee for calling him “yaar”. Kejriwal took this up as a lesson to learn proper business etiquette. During his sock factory days, he was called a liar by a lady for not being able to answer a few technical details on sewing machines. Kejriwal “vowed” to learn everything there is to know about the latest computer design practices in sock making, even importing the latest machines to India. The result? He set up a sock exporting unit, leaving his family to earn profits in German marks.
After leaving behind the family business, Kejriwal was either cold calling people, or he spent several hours a day patiently waiting for a few minutes of his potential business prospects. When not pitching, he was out mingling with people. When not mingling, he was learning more about his business.
Does all this sound a bit relentless? Well, that’s the whole point. Alok Kejriwal believes business is what he was born to do. He finds pitching to clients as much a rush as in securing that big deal. He says his clients say there is a glint in his eye when he is doing a pitch. He feels accomplished when he finds an idea he can work on, and learns from if it falls apart.
Ironically, it is this sort of narrative that paints a less honest picture of one’s success story, inextricably linked to one’s life story. In his enthusiasm to push forward a helpful book, Kejriwal has steamrolled his flaws and vulnerabilities, making himself seem less human. This could be partly attributed to the book's anecdotal format that filters out everything but the author's best side.
What happens then is his more humane insights, like identifying and not letting toxic people get in the way, hold little currency with the reader. How did the man stick to his guns when family members, experienced business people at that, made fun and expressed displeasure over his ideas? Just how did he manage to keep his personal life together as he dealt with whirlwind days of building a startup? How did he deal with his emotions and move on, when he was forced to leave the company he helped build from scratch?
Learning about the vulnerabilities of these high achievers teaches people that we are all human, and can succeed despite our shortcomings, as opposed to failing because of them. Such insights lead people past the tipping point, to life-changing action.
Winston Churchill painted landscapes to cope with severe bouts of depression most of his adult life, Charles Darwin's loved ones made sure his work would get published despite his crippling anxiety, Fyodor Dostoevsky had a loving wife to ensure his book is published on time to pay off his heavy gambling debts.
Aside from being a lean, mean business machine, the only thing I know of Kejriwal from this book is that he partially missed out on being there for the birth of his first child (learning: family first, always) and that he is passionate about spirituality (learning: pray, even if a non-believer) and the Star Wars franchise.
Another part of the narrative that was glossed over was Kejriwal’s strong circle of support. While there is no denying his enormous efforts and perseverance to get to where he is, it is evident that Kejriwal also cultivated a strong network of mentors whose advice he never hesitated to seek when was faced with a life-changing business decision.
At various points, the founder of Rediff, trusted venture capitalists and industry experts have given their two cents to him as he made his final decisions.
If the reader is a recent engineering graduate frustrated and looking to give up after no venture capitalists picking up their billion dollar idea yet, Kejriwal notes, and wisely enough, that being an entrepreneur is a long-term game, and not for everyone.
If one has unshakeable faith in the need for their idea to be out there, then like Kejriwal, dealing with hostile clients/partners, making poor business decisions and facing countless disappointments over funding and business deals, it will all be worth it.
The biggest lesson? If this isn’t the kind of drive that makes one get out of bed everyday, don’t do it.