Indian startups are in the midst of a culture crisis

By Pankaj Mishra 

Startups have been hogging headlines recently. Remember this?

‘Paytm CEO Vijay Shekhar Sharma’s secretary arrested for blackmailing him’. And today’s headline: ‘Binny Bansal leaves Flipkart after personal misconduct probe’

If anyone thought tracking startups is any less busy than making sense of larger, multi-billion dollar and publicly-listed companies, the above two headlines will make for quite an eye-opener.

From Ola to Paytm and Flipkart, none of these can be termed startups anymore. These are nearly decade-old companies facing growth pangs and potential midlife crisis. They cannot hide behind their “startup image” anymore.

And while the newshounds get busy with inside scoops, it’s time to go beyond these headlines and ask some serious questions.

Are these startups filing details on whistleblower complaints, sexual harassment complaints etc. as part of their regulatory filings?

What kind of boards do these startups have? Are there any independent board members?

How are these startups ensuring privacy and governance for millions of customers’ data? Who are the people accountable for any breaches?

Is there any code of conduct for startup founders? Who’s watching them? (To be sure, while the Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma has accused his secretary and other conspirators, the Flipkart co-founder Binny Bansal has denied the charges of personal misconduct.)

The crisis of cultuade, startups such as Paytm, Flipkart and Ola have seen a frenzied growth. Together, they have received investments worth over $13 billion, and their founders re

Over the past dechave become the demigods for starry-eyed existing and wannabe entrepreneurs looking to make it big.

Amid all the funding news and founders’ lifestyles, what gets ignored is the crisis of culture across these companies. More often than not, flashy workplaces get confused with work culture.

“It’s tokenism mostly,” a mid-level manager who’s worked across Ola and Flipkart told me on Tuesday evening. “Most of the senior hiring or firing is dependent on the next round of funding and investors’ expectations.”

The funding frenzy has blinded these startups.

It’s about time these companies shed their startup image and get real. Hiring seasoned human resource professionals and leaders who can help build and protect work culture must become their top priority.

Growth hackers are mostly mercenary talent. What these startups now need are missionary leaders who will help build and protect value systems.

Dummy boards
For anyone looking to understand how grave is the governance crisis at India’s largest and most important startups, a look at their boards will make a good starting point. Almost all the board members are investors and founders. While founders are busy chasing growth to justify valuations, the investors are mostly consumed in managing founders and keeping a tab on other investors funding the rival startups. Most of the focus is also on growth hacking, which is again linked to startup valuations.

The priority is creating value for the next set of investors, both financial and strategic. Finding an exit is the Holy Grail.

Most of the mature companies across the world look for different board leaders at different life stages of the company, depending on the kind of advice required. But if you look at most of the boards of Indian startup unicorns, it’s full of investors and founding teams. And they lack independence. They lack objective questioning.

At a time when toxic work culture and lack of adequate board governance are becoming the biggest threats facing fast growing startups, it serves investors and founding teams to think differently and shed their “startup mindsets.”

Too much is riding on India’s biggest startups for them to only serve their investors and founders.

The writer is the co-founder, writer and CEO of FactorDaily Disclosure: PayTM founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma is an investor in FactorDaily

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