5 Lessons For Startups From The Death of India’s Coffee King


By Major Sunil Shetty (SM) Retd

This week Indian business community was shocked and deeply shaken to its core due to the untimely demise of VG Siddhartha.

He was a billionaire and the entrepreneur who gave India its version of Starbucks.

Those who have been following the Indian business environment; can vouch that its entrepreneurs, both seasoned billionaires, and novice startup founders are going through troubled times.

Many for taking wrong decisions and others due to pressures from forces outside their business environment.

Vijay Mallya founder of kingfisher airlines, Naresh Goyal founder Chairman of Jet Airways and Anil Ambani, the chairman of Reliance Group, have seen their billion-dollar business empire collapse.

The reasons for the downfall of each of the entrepreneurs may be varied- that is not the point of a discussion here.

What the society at large misses out is entrepreneurs are also human, and when they hit an air pocket in business, they fall to the bottom all alone.

It was not the sudden demise of VG Siddhartha, India’s Coffee king as he was known, that shocked the business community, especially the budding Indian entrepreneurs.

What left them shocked and in pain was the way he succumbed to the pressure of business.

Siddhartha left a note saying; “I would like to say I gave it my all. I am very sorry to let down all the people that put their trust in me. I fought for a long time, but today I gave up as I could not take any more…”

I am part of a WhatsApp group- known as The Hyderabad Entrepreneurs (THE) group- as the name suggests it has founders of startups and leading business from the city of pearls.

Image Source: India Today

The news of Siddhartha’s death triggered a discussion among  THE group members; many come out sharing their experiences,  suggestions, and opinions.

One thing was clear that the tragic event had stirred strong emotions among the business community cutting across geography, size, and scale of their respective businesses.

Budding entrepreneurs can benefit by listening to and learning from the wisdom and experiences of THE group members.

Lessons for startups and early-stage entrepreneurs from THE group 

1. Do not chase the Unicorn; build a business on fundamentals:

Remember, Unicorn is a mythical creature and making it a parameter for assessing the success or failure of companies, and more specifically, startups are a big mistake.

It is like sounding the death knell of wanterpreneurs and budding entrepreneurs even before they begin their entrepreneurial journey.

According to Keerthi Kumar Jain, founder of AnyTimeLoan, entrepreneurs need to build their business on fundamentals and not just on investors money.

Remember, entrepreneurship is not easy; remove all the glamour and treat startup as a regular business. It has to make profits to survive and scale up only when it can sustain.

2. Do not be alone; have a sounding board:  

Many first-generation entrepreneurs get little support, from their friends or family, during troubled times primarily due to lack of experience and or understanding of business challenges.

Thus, “in tough times, most founder(s)  are alone,” says Prashanth Gowriraju, CEO of Timla Foods.

Hence, it is essential to have a close group of people who are your sounding board or counsel, and you can fall back on them when needed.

According to Dr. Hari Chava, founder of Home Office & More, there are times, when even entrepreneurs avoid sharing their ups and downs with immediate family members.

At such times it is a must to “have a few very close friends for support outside your family, says Dr Chava.

3. Let passion drives your business, not  obsession:

Ask yourself, what made you start on your entrepreneurial journey?  Was it the passion to create something special to touch human lives in some unique way?

Or, was it the obsession to be among the billion-dollar business club. If it is the latter, then you are on a wrong journey.

Personally- I have just one parameter for assessing a business- does it support a few families by creating jobs.

Of course, startups have to be profitable, and entrepreneurs need to make money, but at what cost?

Santhan Reddy, a founder of NexGen Wellness, had to pull down curtains on his healthcare startup.

He says, “let’s be cognizant of the risks we take to grow our enterprises. Let not our stepping stones crush us underneath” it “in the future.”

Don’t look at your business from the colorful prism of size, scale, and revenues alone.

As long as you are touching human lives, feed families apart from supporting yourself – you are doing good. 

Be grounded- don’t let your passion become an obsession- because that would be a sure recipe for failure.

4. People are the best testimony of your success:

The best evidence of your success are the individuals; whose lives you have positively touched, in multiples ways, during your entrepreneurial journey.

The Coffee day team displayed an emotional message, from one of its many coffee lovers, addressed to VG  Siddharth creators of the brand Café Coffee Day, also popularly known as CCD.

The customer rightly highlighted numerous ways that CCD touched peoples lives.

It was a watering hole -be it for startups to meet potential angel investor for their pitch or a place to hang out on the first date.

The note was right when it said  “Siddharth, “no, you have not failed, by any means.”

5. Be mindful of the dark side of the journey: 

The wantrepreneurs should be aware that entrepreneurship is not about revenues, valuations, funding, and awards. For the most part, it is also “psychologically traumatic,” says Raghu Gullapalli, a member of THE group.

Summing up the unseen trauma experience of most entrepreneurs;

He further adds, “the overwhelming sense of responsibility” toward employees, investors and once family; unfortunately, leaves very “very little bandwidth to care for oneself“- that is the dark side of this journey.

Notwithstanding the gloom of recent events that surround the Indian business landscape, let us salute the generation of entrepreneurs like VG Siddhartha, who laid the foundation for the next generation of Indian entrepreneurs. ” says Santhan.

(The author is founder and CEO of AskMentor.com. Views are personal).