Shivram is co-founder and CEO of Smunch, an online canteen and office catering service that employs a team of 40+. He was previously group strategy at Delivery Hero and has a background is in venture capital and private equity across Europe and Asia-Pacific. He likes hummus and skydiving.
On learning from a mentor.
I grew a lot in my first job in venture capital. The founder of the fund was my mentor. He was strong and entrepreneurial, but also humble and down to earth. The fund was managing over $1BN within 3 years of its founding. You would still find him in the office stapling forms together at 8:00 AM if it needed doing. That taught me to take on anything your business needs, that nothing is “below" you.
On changing life perspectives.
I was raised in a small city in socialist India, in a lower-middle-class household. It meant that once you had a job, you stayed in it for life. My father worked in his research role for 35 years before retiring. A real family man, dependable and available. Growing up, I was taught stability: get a good education first, then a secure job. When my mentor at the VC fund died he was 42 years old and healthy. It was sudden and surreal: a coconut tree fell on him while on his morning run. This shattered my idea of security. If life can end in such a random manner, in an instant, you owe it to yourself to mitigate any potential downsides. But you must also do what you desire. It taught me that dealing with fear is like training a muscle. Every day, you have far less to lose than what you are afraid of.
On the hardest company stage.
The past year. For the first two years, we were very disciplined. We had raised a small amount and were executing well. With the following round, we started overspending. A common mistake, and we fixed it, but the correction was emotionally hard. We had to let nearly 40 people go the day before our Christmas party. Many of them understood and joined us the day after. It no longer was a party, but an evening with each other. Then, it was a sequence of events: we had some regulatory issues, my co-founder and good friend left the business. Every single issue we fixed, a new one appeared. The pandemic came and hit us. Not having enough victories to celebrate starts taking a toll on your team. You must learn to celebrate the small things around you. And there’s a lot of them happening all the time, even under tough circumstances. Right now, we are focusing on the customer experience side as much as we can.
On his company’s outlook.
The market is fundamentally changed. 30 to 40% of existing canteens will not re-open when the pandemic passes. The opportunity is huge. Our focus now is to improve our offering to take advantage of it when the time comes. Recovery is going reasonably according to plan, but we don’t yet know where the pandemic's second wave will lead us. We might have an extremely solid business case or cut down costs and enter hibernation. It’s a survival game.
On maturing in the CEO role.
Over the years, I find I have become thicker skinned. It helps offset my baseline personality, which is of someone who likes to be liked. As teams get larger, you have to become more comfortable with disagreements. A culture of ‘disagree-and-commit’ eventually becomes essential to the healthy functioning of the company. As I say to the team, we don’t pay people enough to be unhappy in their job. It is my role as CEO to both get people motivated and help them move on to a different challenge. This comes from a place of empathy, not anger.
On learning from crisis management.
Be transparent and proactive in bringing up what isn’t working. Two learnings: People will surprise you with how positively they react to tough situations. And that solving problem jointly is a powerful way to bring everyone together. When people have questions, I take as much time it takes to address them and debate. Having a diverse team is crucial for this. I moved around a lot through India, Asia, and Europe before deciding to live in Berlin. The moment you leave home, you somewhat fracture your personality. The upside is understanding the many viewpoints people can bring. To me, diversity has never been about races or genders. But in the number of perspectives, you can attract and bring together at the table.
On the role of sport in balance.
I meditate. We used to do it as a company, now I am looking to find the right way to do it remotely. Keeping active is crucial for your mind: I play basketball, I ski and snowboard, and enjoy skydiving is also very appealing to me. Standing on the door of a plane, looking at the ground, your brain doesn’t have the chance to worry about anything else. You can only think about what you are doing next. It’s like meditation. Your headspace is always in the moment.
On books that everyone should read.
Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company. It’s from the third employee and eventual third CEO of Intel. It’s real, tangible, understandable. Most of what we are supposed to do when running a business is common sense. Except that when there’s so much common sense to go around, you get lost. Keeping it simple is crucial.
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