poojan-kumar
Business Management

For entrepreneurs, winning isn't everything, it's the only thing

This is a contributed article by Poojan Kumar, co-founder and CEO of PernixData, a server-side storage intelligence software company.

High-profile entrepreneur Richard Branson frequently tells interviewers a story about his first sink-or-swim experience (literally). When he was four or five years old, an aunt bet him 10 shillings he wouldn’t learn to swim by the end of a two-week seaside holiday. As the family was leaving on the last day, Branson made his father stop the car so that he could have one last chance at winning the bet. He ran to the water, pulled off all his clothes and swam a circle.

To many, Branson’s anecdote might illustrate a swashbuckling entrepreneur’s embrace of risk and adventure at a very young age. We love to think of entrepreneurs as born risk-takers – a special breed of swaggering gamblers who eat danger for breakfast. I see something different in Branson’s story: an unrelenting passion for winning, even against long odds. (Before Branson’s bet-clinching swim, he had spent two weeks unsuccessfully thrashing around in the ocean.)

I believe it’s a myth that a unique eagerness to take risks is the defining characteristic of a successful entrepreneur, though it certainly can be in the mix for some. In fact, some studies have shown that entrepreneurs actually dislike risk; they’re simply better than most people at exercising control over risks they perceive to be manageable.

The question of whether entrepreneurs are born or made has been debated for years. It’s an important question as we look to these creative minds to shape technological advancement that can make the world a better place.

When I look at my own life experiences on the road to becoming a successful high-tech entrepreneur, I see patterns of behavior that don’t bespeak risk-seeking as much as other traits. Love of a big challenge. Willingness to defy conventional wisdom. A belief that, like the great Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

In fact, I grew up in a risk-averse family in India. My father was a mechanical engineer who worked for the same employer for 30 years. He wished for the same kind of life for me and, for a while, I imagined it too.

Everything changed in my early teens when I started to repeatedly beat my father, an excellent chess player, in living-room matches. My father decided to enter me into a tournament – much like Richard Branson threw himself into the ocean – even though I would be competing against much more experienced players. I ended up a champion and played national-level chess in India, defeating more than 150 players, including India’s and the world’s #1 and #3 ranked players in the age group. In the match against the world’s #3 teen chess champion, the game reached a point at which I felt it would be extremely hard for me to win. I also saw, though, that it would be difficult for him to win. I asked, “Do you want to take a draw?” Sizing me up as a rookie competing in my first national championship, he quickly said no. An hour later, my prospects in the match had markedly improved. He asked me for a draw, and I declined. I won the game.

For me, this experience demonstrates a key lesson about entrepreneurship: you must be self-aware and think very critically about the path you’re on, whether you should change direction or whether you should go all the way. To me, this is more about evaluating and mitigating risk rather than embracing it.

I was playing six to seven hours of chess each day after school, had a professional coach and was well on my way to grandmaster level when I felt I needed to plot my next move in life. I chose to put away the chessboard and, blessed with natural talents in science and math, I decided to pursue a career in computer science.

First, I had to beat some more very long odds. I made it my goal to get into the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology. Of 100,000 applicants at the time, in 1995, only 100 got into the school’s Computer Science program. I aced an exam and became one of the 100. Of those 100, only four or five were typically accepted into the top graduate program for computer science, at Stanford. I was admitted and earned a master’s degree.

Again, I don’t see this as risk-taking but as dogged pursuit of a formidable goal. 

More tough odds: I graduated soon after 9/11, in a deepening recession, but landed a job at Oracle. I ended up co-leading the development of Exadata, a database appliance that was a daring move for Oracle at the time and is now a multi-billion-dollar business. 

In 2012, I had a nice job as head of data products at VMware when I decided to take another calculated risk: to co-found PernixData with VMware storage pioneer Satyam Vaghani (who also defied amazing odds and ended up in the same program at Stanford with me). Any startup is inherently risky, but I believed in the team and technology (and, if I do say so, we’re growing fast, with more than 500 customers worldwide and a recent expansion to 30,000 square feet of office space).

I think my life experience shows that love of risk is the wrong conversation when it comes to the qualities of entrepreneurs. You can build a successful business without being an elite risk-taker. You can’t, however, if you don’t hate to lose and if nothing excites you more than beating the odds.

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