Sonia | November 26, 2014

Fellowship diaries: Structuring randomness at Skillveri

“I come from the corporate world” might not be in your best interest if you are looking at a career change in the development field. However, if you are courageous and patient enough in your quest for that one organization that would see beyond the professional stereotype, there might be some valuable lessons that you and your newly acquired partners might learn from each other.

I had been working for 4 years for one of the most reputed financial services providers in the world when I decided that the knowledge acquired so far should serve a better purpose. Some 30 applications down the line, I am working for a tech start-up in the field of vocational education in Chennai, India. The social enterprise I am working for develops innovative technology solutions for enhancing hard technical skills, aiming to help build skills for livelihood creation and contribute to closing the skill gap in India. Their first product is a gamification solution for learning welding built from scratch, for school drop-outs.

I have never played a video game in my life, nor did I know much about welding before interviewing for Skillveri, and I remember asking myself while reading the company’s profile: “Why did they even select me in the first place?” The answer to this question did not come in the form of some revelation, but started as a process of discovery that became more interesting with every insight in the social enterprise’s life. With every challenge faced and every problem solved, I got closer to understanding the value that I was able to bring to the organisation.

Weld Meet

Early in my journey, I have learnt that, most often than not, the entrepreneur knows what his business needs, but he is lacking the structure, systems, talent or time to get to the solution. One of the first things the entrepreneur told me when I started working was: “The way I make decisions right now is thumb rule. That needs to change!” In other words, urgency was the main driver of decisions; there was rarely data and objective criteria ranking that would form the basis for a decision-making process. For example, there were concerns with regards to the profitability of certain activities, but there was no standard production cost available or unit profitability computation that would validate or rule out these concerns. A social enterprise is still an enterprise and good decision-making is essential to get such entities to serve their clients at excellent standards, while remaining sustainable. Therefore, the respective processes and tools for gathering relevant information need to be designed and put in place.

As an enthusiastic architect of structure though, the next important learning was that processes and tools should work for the people, not the other way around. Coming from a very structured environment, you might be stunned at how many processes that are common in any established enterprise are completely missing in a start-up. But where there is nothing, there is an opportunity for you to create something! However, processes and tools should enable smooth operations, not clog teams with unnecessary administrative tasks. One of the essential characteristics of start-ups that enables them to compete in the market place is speed of reaction. I have learned to ask a team two important questions: before designing something: “Why do you need it?” and after designing it: “Does it serve its purpose?”

When the entrepreneur told me the business needed to have a budgeting process, I started to build a budget structure. Having too many “How?” questions in mind, I realized that I had no idea what I was doing and I went back to ask “Why?” The answer came simply: “Every month, I have no idea whether there will be cash at the end of the month or I have to work to bring inflows.” Therefore, what was needed was not budgeting, but cash management. The result of the design was a flexible tool that would allow the entrepreneur to rank the cash inflows as certain or probable, and the cash outflows as deferrable or non-deferrable. The tool therefore helps envision the best-case scenario and the worst-case scenario in terms of cash, information that is essential for a bootstrapped start-up social enterprise.

But perhaps the most difficult task till now has been learning to balance enthusiasm. Entrepreneurs are flamboyant optimists by nature, as they should be since they bring novelty to the world. Social entrepreneurs are also attached to the social mission of their enterprise and there is no limit to what they can dream of achieving. This might reflect heavily in their business model assumptions. However, if you talk to their CFO, they might have a different opinion with regards to what is possible or not. And this opinion comes backed up by data regarding past performance and the capacity of the organisation.

At first, I felt I was conservative when some of the entrepreneurs’ plans seemed too courageous and perhaps unachievable. But then, realising that my enquiries had a good foundation, I told the entrepreneur: “I think the entrepreneur’s enthusiasm needs to be toned down to meet reality.”

How much of this enthusiasm do you think needs to be driven down?” he asked.

“I think we should meet in the middle.

And that is because, at the end of the day, he trusts my inquisitive nature and pragmatic sense to meet his enthusiasm and long-term vision in order to strengthen the basis of this organisation, so that it can achieve the great mission it was set up to deliver.

This article was originally published in The Alternative