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Life as an Indian startup has always been an uneven ride. From navigating the tangled remnants of red tape and government bureaucracy in the wake of liberalisation to scrabbling for funding and recognition in the noughties, every decade has brought with it a fresh set of challenges.

But despite all of these obstacles, startups in India have always persevered. They struggled, they scrapped, and they ultimately established themselves as an indelible part of India’s economic landscape. The figures alone make that clear. This last decade has seen the startup ecosystem grow exponentially, with over USD 14.5 billion worth of capital raised in 2019 alone. Compare this to the USD 550 million seen in 2010. The Indian startup ecosystem had finally made it.

But as with so many other industries, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a cataclysmic impact on the startup sector. Widespread layoffs, pay cuts across the board, and in many cases, the shuttering of entire businesses. As per a TiE-Delhi and Zinnov report, there was a dip in overall funding by 50% during the lockdown as compared to pre-COVID levels. Approximately 40% of start-ups were negatively impacted, while 15% of Indian startups were forced to discontinue operations due to COVID-19.

Today, as I look back at a year that has challenged our nation’s startup ecosystem like never before, I think it’s time to draw inspiration from the lessons of the past. Both from our history and experience, and from the wisdom of great men who’ve faced and overcome their own adversity. These are the learnings, represented via some famous quotes, we must imbibe if we hope to overcome this challenge and go on to build bigger and better things:

All I knew is that I never wanted to be average – Michael Jordan

If a competitive ecosystem leaves little room for mediocrity, a pandemic-stricken one offers no leeway whatsoever. Existing as a startup in India has always entailed a hardscrabble existence. Competition is fierce, innovation abounds, and nothing can be taken for granted. The pandemic has served to cull the herd, leaving only the fittest and strongest to survive. In this new turbocharged environment, it’s more imperative than ever before to inculcate excellence in every aspect of your business. Excellence must become coded into your DNA, for failure isn’t an option and mistakes can prove lethal. In an environment like this, everything from your product to your supply chain and your sales apparatus must operate in sync, to transform your company into something greater than the sum of its parts.

The will to conquer is the first condition of victory – Ferdinand Foch

Once a company has achieved a semblance of perfection, it’s easy to relax. After all, what else can it be expected to do? But instead of slowing down at this critical juncture, it’s vital that it fully recommit to the task at hand. This hard-won advantage is often squandered, with employees at every level of the organisation taking their foot off the pedal. But this competitive edge needs to be maintained and sharpened. Startups must prioritise on building on this competitive edge, placing them in an unassailable advantage and outpacing their rivals. Never think about anything but number one. If you lose sight of this goal, there’s always someone hungrier than you are waiting to take your place, willing and able to put in the time and effort to dethrone you.

Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results – Phil Knight

A successful business isn’t built on the back of any one person. It requires a team effort, where every employee pulls their weight

and contributes their expertise towards a shared goal. The employees a business hires are its most valuable assets. As such, it only makes sense to hire the best you can afford. But even that isn’t enough. In order to encourage employees to give their best work, they need to be provided with an environment that’s conducive to growth. No startup can afford to let favouritism and office politics to come into play. Instead, establish a level playing field, a meritocracy in which hard work pays dividends. Excellence will always follow.

No one ever changed the world on 40 hours a week – Elon Musk

A startup is unlike any other business in the world. With a limited employee pool to rely on, everyone must pull their weight in order for the business to succeed and prosper. Under these circumstances, employees who view their work as a task to be completed rather than an opportunity to excel are always going to drag you down. If your team is more worried about getting the weekend off than on meeting their goals, the team you’ve built is never going to excel. Build a culture that is goal-oriented rather than task-oriented, that truly loves what they do. Once that’s been met, they deserve all the time off they want. Excellence is an ongoing process and ultimately comes down to the attitudes and values instilled by a startup’s founder.

So, my takeaway, as a startup founder, from this very unpredictable year can be captured by yet another very apt quote by Henry Ford “Coming together is a beginning, Staying together is progress, Working together is success.”

The author is the Founder & CEO, AlphaVector India Pvt. Ltd

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