"Tu beer hai," is a well-known line from a web series called TVF Pitchers that was inspired by and sought to portray the high-adrenaline world of Indian startup founders and the ventures they set up. The line, which captured the spirit animating the whole Indian startup ecosystem, became justly famous in startup circles and beyond.
Of late though, the much celebrated, lauded and envied startups have been dominating the headlines for all the wrong reasons. And going by the headlines, some leading lights of the Indian startup world actually seem to have taken the heady, dramatised sitcom version of startup stories a little too literally.
The most recent example concerns The Viral Fever — ironically, the producer of TVF Pitchers — whose co-founder Arunabh Kumar has been accused of sexual harassment by many women. It all began with an anonymous blog post on medium.com by a woman claiming to have worked under Kumar and detailing how she endured gross harassment at his hand.
"We will leave no stone unturned to find the author of the article and bring them to severe justice for making such false allegations," TVF said in a statement.
"I am a heterosexual, single man and when I find a woman sexy, I tell her she's sexy. I compliment women. Is that wrong? Having said that, I am very particular about my behavior," Kumar said, responding to the charge, in an interview to Mumbai Mirror.
That is not the best way to respond to a charge of sexual harassment. In fact, Kumar's statement sounds like a borderline threat. When a similar incident occurred in Silicon Valley in the United States, when Susan Fowler accused Uber of nurturing a deeply sexist work culture, the company assured the public that a separate committee was being set up to investigate the charges.
Another case currently in the limelight revolves around allegations made by online marketplace Shopclues co-founder Sandeep Aggarwal. In a Facebook post that he wrote, Aggarwal accused his wife Radhika Aggarwal of having an affair. He also accused his wife and current CEO Sanjay Sethi of having booted out two founding members and then calling themselves the co-founders.
Aggarwal's media team later issued another statement that said: "While he [Aggarwal] stands by each and every word, he regrets having used the social media to express such an emotional outburst."
Whatever the outcome of this messy dispute, the public mudslinging is certainly not going to help Shopclues' prospects at all.
In 2015, the flamboyant Rahul Yadav of Housing.com created a storm after he made a series of statements. First, he resigned from the company after calling the board "intellectually incapable" of running the company and taking decisions. But he returned in no time after resolving the conflict with the board.
He continued making controversial statements, though. He took digs at Zomato, Ola and the Infosys top brass. Finally, in July 2015, Yadav was sacked by the board. After being sacked, he billed himself as the next Tony Stark, the fictional billionaire philanthropist in the Iron Man movie franchise.
Many startup founders have been inspired by the likes of Steve Jobs but often they seem to think of themselves as being Jobs-like innovators a little too early in their careers. While the company or product they co-founded is usually still to be proven, riding high on venture capital money and sitcom fandom, they begin to think highly of themselves.
The Indian startup industry is still relatively new. So, often, amidst the swanky offices, cool T-shirts and incentives, there is little focus on inclusiveness, HR policies and better communication. According to a report by Factordaily, 90 percent of Indian startups have been founded by men. There are hardly any women in leadership teams and the 'bro culture' is omnipresent. This can have negative consequences when, for instance, no one realizes and flags an ad that is deeply sexist. There have many reports highlighting casual misogynist behaviour and the lack of sexual harassment policies in startups.
The handling of human resources has been another problem area. There have been massive layoffs in the industry in recent times. According to The Ken, struggling online marketplace Snapdeal fired 1,500 employees. While there is nothing unusual about handing employees the pink slip as part of business restructuring, startups have often handled the process poorly. According to the report in Ken, some startup managements handed relieving letters to their workforce with no other details or any support.
Startups have reduced the HR department's role to just handing out payslips and letters, and organising small events. Consultations with the human resource team for hiring or firing are few.
In 2015, another HR fiasco came to light when one of the co-founders of TinyOwl was held hostage in his Pune office after a lay-off announcement. The company was shutting down its operations in Pune, Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad. The employees said that they were not so much upset at being laid off as at being given post-dated cheques. According to some former staff members, that had been the fourth round of lay-offs in the company and in each round, there had been little transparency.
Amidst all the negative press, the one shining example has been Stayzilla. While the startup's co-founders are going through various troubles, the company has been very transparent in wrapping up operations and letting their employees know what is going on. Top level executives even gave out detailed reasons why the venture failed.
According to a report by Tracxn, a total of 212 startups shut down in 2016, including big names such as Peppertap and Doormint. Once popular companies such as Grofers and TinyOwl have sized down or merged their operation with other firms.
In any event, success and growth come with their own challenges. At such a juncture, forming a proper response is necessary. The Indian startup founders need to realize they are not Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Ratan Tata or Elon Musk just yet. Before any of them can reach that level many aspects of running a company such as public presentation, female inclusiveness, forming sexual harassment committees and giving more power to the HR have to be looked at.
It also boils down to the mantra that less publicity and more work account for greater success. The business a Silicon Valley sitcom. The jokes would work in a show but Erlich Bachman of real life might be behind bars.