Book review : The elephant catchers

the_elephant_catchersLet us talk about scale!

These days wherever I go, the topic of scale becomes inevitable topic of discussion among entrepreneurs. What was considered important during bootstrapping phase – having a great idea, creating value proposition, getting initial set of customers, building a great team to deliver, generating cash flow / revenue somehow not sounds exciting any more. There are multiple questions emerge (including our venture) as follows:

  • Do we need to come out of gorilla mode of execution and get into structured model?
  • Is sales is more about ‘gardening’ existing customer by cross-selling and up-selling adjacent diversification?
  • Do we need to create processes in the organization?
  • In case we are introducing processes won’t it kill the spirit of start-up?
  • Is process against the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation?

These questions seems are expected given the phase of the organization where, having a ‘profitable-growth’ takes the first priority in everybody’s mind. In order to scale the organization it requires a different set of thinking which is exactly called out by Bagchi in his recent book ‘The Elephant Catchers’.

As goes with other books, he takes a simple analogy (from his childhood experiences in tribal areas of Odisha) of catching rabbits and elephants. When tribes get together and go for catching rabbits there is more of noise and excitement which ensures they really end up catching a bunch of rabbits at the end of the hunt. However the same technique cannot be applied for catching an elephant, which requires specific set of expertise consisting of multi-phased process involving activities like digging a pit, identifying the path that elephant traverses, trapping the animal, pulling it out of the pit, bringing it back to the civilian locality, taming it to become sober etc. At an outset both instances (of catching rabbits and elephants) might look like ‘hunting’ but when it comes to execution they are radically different.

In similar lines, entrepreneurial ventures go through different phases at different point of time. Even though founding team might have a grand vision, it takes a lot to build specific expertise (similar to the case of elephant catching) in order to take the organization into a scalable and self-sustaining entity. Bagchi divides scaling into four parts:

  • Scaling your intellect – How far and how deep you can think?
  • Scaling your reputation – How to build a sustaining brand and re-invent on a regular basis?
  • Scaling your people – How to build an organization by scaling people?
  • Scaling against adversity – How to face un-expected issues and coming out stronger?

After introducing elements of scale, author gets into deeper aspect of every topic by sharing personal experiences and anecdotes from all possible organizations across the world. For example he quotes examples from how various religious organizations (ex: Nuns from say red-cross) are able to build scale in an area where technology and communications were totally unheard of. He covers importance of having right set of independent board of directors, ensuring organization does the right thing to build right set of reputation among customers, employees to really build on scale.

The most interesting and fascinating tales were about scaling people, where he talks about having right set of people for the right role. During my professional experience and currently as an entrepreneur I think this is the most critical and important aspect of scaling, which is the hardest thing to achieve. The main reason is because as an entrepreneur it is quite natural to get into the mindset of thinking ‘I can do everything’ as doing multiple roles in a given time is an inevitable thing to do. However when the organization requires scaling it simply boils down to scaling people handling right set of responsibilities. For example, a guy with innovative mindset cannot be in a routine-process driven role and vice-versa. It is super critical for the core team to identify this and ensure right set of people are hired for the right roles. This applies to all the cross functional roles like sales, marketing, engineering, operation, people function, strategy and finance of the organization. In my opinion chapter of ‘scaling your people’ is the most critical one from where I have drawn lot of insights about building a scalable organization.

Also scale is not for everybody. There are certain things that will be small and beautiful which can remain the same for years. All of us might have come across some of the other businesses (ex: A small fast food joint in Bangalore) which will remain the same for almost three decades no matter what is the opportunity that might exist in the market for the type of food that they are offering. The founding team of such organization might have opted not to go for scale and happy the way that they are running the business.

In summary scale is a choice, as it with any choices it comes with lot of challenges and compromises. It requires a different paradigm of thinking (remember rabbit v/s elephant catching) and a strong team to achieve the same, provided you have decided to go for it. I have been a regular reader of all of Bagchi’s books this one is very special because I have read it in right time of my entrepreneurial journey. Still there are many unknowns that needs to be conquered, but it has given me right set of mindset and framework to scale our organization.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.