Working for a mission, not a boss: Interview with Suresh Shankar

Press and Media   |   
Published March 7, 2017   |   

I had a brilliant opportunity to interview Suresh V. Shankar, founder of Crayon, at Slush Singapore 2016. At the conference, he spoke about his experience—and the difficulties he faced—as an entrepreneur. He also talked about how he overcame them.
Suresh sold his previous company, RedPill Solutions, to IBM in 2009. However, his entrepreneurial journey did not end there. He went on to start a new company, Crayon, with the goal of simplifying big data.
Suresh spoke with me about company culture, startup mentality, and the relationship between freedom and accountability in open organizations.
What motivated you to start another company?
I have the always-wanting-to-do-new-things gene in me. So even in my corporate career, I was always setting up new divisions or launching new businesses or brands.
So from there to actually go and set up a startup was not an easy decision. But it was a logical step. Large companies like IBM are very good at some things but they only just want to take one thing that is proven and repeat that same thing over and over again. They are very good at scaling things, but as an entrepreneur, I want to innovate and do new things. To be fair to IBM, they did offer me various options to do these things inside the company.
However, I feel that the only way to do something that is truly disruptive is to let go of the baggage of the systems and thinking of a large company. What I meant by baggage is that it is something that constraints thinking outside the box and thinking of new ideas. To me, it is about doing all of that, and only when one is out of a big company can one become fully innovative and disruptive.
For entrepreneurs, there’s also some form of stupidity in us, and at that moment, my stupidity kicked in again and that gave birth to Crayon.
Why do you think that smaller teams will be better at making bigger changes?
There’s a lot of organizational theory behind “smaller teams” and “bigger companies.” But I think the issue here isn’t that they have big teams and more teams. I’ve seen lots of big companies building smaller teams too. The problem here is with innovation and several other issues.
For a big company to back an idea, it needs to be something that can make a relative change. So if I’m a hundred billion dollar company like IBM, your idea needs be worth a few billion dollars for it to actually make a difference in the company. So these companies aren’t interested in small ideas that only make a few million. They should be but they aren’t.
Whereas when you step outside the company, you would be able to start out with something small that eventually grows to a billion dollar idea. The size of an idea is one of the factors that prevents large companies from fostering a culture of innovation.
The second problem is that when you’re in a large company, there is a lot of “legacy thinking.” People would say “no, this wouldn’t work” without even trying. It’s not just the people but also a lot of systems that prevents things from happening.
To me, these problems play a bigger role than the team size itself. You would have seen a lot of these big companies setting up smaller teams in their “innovation labs.” Sooner or later, these smaller teams become victims to the large company when the company asks “how would this help us?”
But when you get out, you’ll be able to think in an unconstrained manner—you don’t just think about the size of the opportunity and who it will benefit. You would think differently and say, “I’ve done this and I’ll find someone who will be benefitted by this.”
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