Hi, I am Mike (Col Manoj Keshwar) and I am a Veteran, a Bombay Sapper officer of 1990 seniority. I took a voluntary retirement in 2011, and have had an interesting journey outside of military life. There has been a variety, ups and downs, failures and successes of life post military … and some learnings that would benefit anyone who is stepping out of the forces. While everyone goes through this but, hardly anyone shares them. It is a little long but, every bit of it will be worth knowing. Here it goes!
Fish Out of Water
It was in 2011 after finishing command of my Regiment, that I decided to step out of the Army and make myself a Second career. I was not too sure of what I would do, but, was certain that i wished to do something different and interesting for rest of my life. I grew up as an army kid, went to NDA from a KV, and then a nice military career.
The only thing one knew was the way it works in Army and the wonderful way of life in cantonments. In 2011, I was in my early forties, and was pretty pumped up to make things happen – the release came in the later part of 2011 and i was out in civil. Stepping out of the military comfort zone was really like a ‘fish out of water’ or as if someone had peeled the skin off a banana.
Unlearn & Relearn : IIM Lucknow
I soon found myself as a military-man with heavy baggage of attitude ( like, I am a Colonel guys …), inflated self-opinion (like, let me tell you how ..), telling stories (like, when i was in Siachen … ) and know-it-all ( we did it like this …) – You have the right hardware, but the software certainly had to be new. My hard disc needed re-formatting and loading of new upgraded, relevant soft-ware.
In the period from putting in my papers to a release from services, I enrolled myself with a first of its kind – Executive Global Business Management Program at IIM Lucknow. It was a distance learning e-program – with some contact classes at IIML NOIDA Campus. Most of these IIMs, XLRI etc offer this course now. This feeling of back to School was nice – and pretty different from whatever i had seen in the Army institutes. I was the only Military guy on the course – felt important and to-begin-with, widely respected.
There was a fresh kind of learning – contemporary, relevant and real. I began to realise that i did not know quite a lot of the business stuff. In course a few things made sense to me and i could relate to things like – Operations and Human Resources, but some things were greek and scary – like Finances, Marketing, Sales, Business Strategy etc. The course went off well and i did get a fair and nervous sense of what lies ahead – like FOG OF PEACE!
Life at McDonalds
Next to Military, the closest thing that makes us comfortable is a salaried 9-2-5 corporate job – need to have salary coming to bank account at the end of month. Good jobs of your level in corporate will always be through connections – very few Head HRs would have a vision to fathom your worth.
Through some good connections, I had this offer to head the HR for McDonalds, based out of Delhi. I did not want to be too selective. Fresh out of Army, i badly needed something that obviated the self created uncertainty of post PMR life. And so, i took the first bus that came my way – and propelled myself into a Corporate job. McDonalds was an iconic MNC and a trail blazer in fast food business.
Corporate jobs are nice, well defined, well structured part of the whole machinery – you are another cog in the wheel. It was a new learning at corporate. Some of HR – i knew well from forces ( my MS Branch days), which made me pretty comfortable with a lot of stuff except ‘salaries’ and ‘compensation system’. First six months was a steep learning curve – very engaging, i worked very hard, they liked me, and i liked the edu-curve.
Once i knew the ropes, i found that i am back into doing a routine, mundane, repetitive office work – I was missing the field work, open skies and green mountains. It was a good learning every single day, this new life and a thing called Business. One of the things I began to realise was that – the large organisations are all the same – it had a resistance to change, cronyism, status-quoism and politics – and unless you are a sail-along guy, you are quite likely to NOT like it. The existential question appears – ‘Did I leave Army for this …?’
So here I was, a year into a renowned corporate, and i was already having a mid life crisis – i had stopped liking it. It was not engaging me enough, it was not realising my full potential and there was not much to learn in current role. On the other hand, there was comfort, there was monthly pay, there was security – but there wasn’t Growth. I had begun to feel that the learning and challenge – had vanished.
I spoke to a few people among family, friends and business. It became certain to me that I needed more traction in life, more challenge & cadence and may be raising my own business would be quite the thing that would suit me. I decided to try entrepreneurship and raise a Startup of my own. Time had come to jump off the safe shores of a harbour, and to set sail for the high seas.
Startup Idea that does not Feel Like WORK
This was late 2012, and now began for me a new phase of thrill and infinite excitement – this was more than engaging. Start-ups are like a child – immense energies and dreams and growth and whatever you want to make of it. Its an open sky – boundless possibilities – and a potential to consume you completely – and it was consuming me completely. I really wanted to be right in selection of my Startup Idea. I allowed myself a few weeks – and the question I asked myself was –
- What would make my life worth lived?
- Something that fulfils my dream and makes a decent business sense?
- Something I would be excited to work day in, day out, and in my sleep too?
- Something that does not feel like WORK anymore?
I was always fond of outdoors and was missing being outdoor badly – motorcycling expeditions, trekking mountains, being with nature or playing golf in various courses gave me happiness . I had this child-hood dream to wander and see the World on Motorcycle and may be climb the beautiful mountains and see how the world looked from up there!
This was the thought that lent the spark – at all of 44, I had at least 25 years of motorcycling left in me – and if i ride one country a year on a bike, in 25 years I would have 25 countries done – and that sure would be a life, well lived.
Viktorianz was Born
This spark of an idea was called “DREAM 25. And thus came up the idea for my business run on passion – that i would raise a Road Expeditions Company, that would provide people with a platform to live their DREAM 25. This business was to be called VIKTORIANZ – inspired from the Victoria Cross Regiment that i was fortunate to serve. Much later in journey, and to my utter excitement, News18 / Cars18 was kind enough to capture this dream of mine. Here is the link to click and see the interview and video.
Back then, I was not sure where this dream would take me. I launched Viktorianz – as an Active Holidays Company – a sole proprietorship company to begin with, which later became a strong Partnership company. We had a couple of record making trips within first year – a Motorcycle Expedition into North Thailand in May 2013 and an Everest Base Camp Trek in October 2013. These till date are our most subscribed and popular active holidays options.
Viktorianz has grown steadily over last 5 years from Scotland to New Zealand – with 19 road trips, 6 unique treks and 3 Golf holidays to offer around the globe. It has helped over 1000+ people live their dreams across the globe. Its a vision rolling forward at its own pace, and we are living a life of passion – that does not feel like WORK.
Interestingly, Viktorianz is completely staffed with ex Military or wards of Military Personnel. We wish to retain the original military DNA in our business – the culture, lingo, ethics and style. The partners are all ex military officers – with amazing adventure and military reputation. Viktorianz happens to be the only company of its kind in India – and in road expeditions space we occupy a premium brand position.
To Death and Back
Well all that sounds nice to hear now. The journey as I look back has not been as rosy as it sounds. There have been tremendous hurdles to overcome, mistakes to pay for, financial lows to suffer, points of emotional breakdowns, partnership challenges and near death physical exhaustion.
The failure storm struck us within first 6 months – and it brought bad times for all of us. We finished all our retirement & reserve savings, a few partners had to quit to join jobs, and Viktorianz went downhill. We had to rush and find money to run homes, so we decided to handover Viktorianz to our wives and raise DGR Security Agencies to keep afloat. That DGR help was a big-big saviour – it allowed Viktorianz to survive the storm.
Nothing good will ever come easy and anything that comes easy lacks the staying power. Financially in 5 years, Viktorianz has not broken even till date. But our net worth has doubled YoY, geography & customer-base has expanded and client reviews have been exceptional. Now that gives us damn good hope and feeling about its potential.
There are some fundamental things that i wish to share with Military men who have energies to enter the romantic entrepreneurial space . It is hard and difficult and it would put every capability in your skin to test. You have to get your hands dirty and become a young Captain again. In the next few paragraphs i wish to highlight these fundamental learnings that i have had ever since.
1. You Have, Whatever it Takes
Let me tell you this good news – You have everything that is needed to raise a business for yourself to be a master of your destiny. Your following qualities is the stuff successful entrepreneurs are made of – and that already puts you a notch ahead of others to run your own business. But your capacities begin to diminish with age. Be proud of your :-
- Resilience & Perseverance
- Overcoming hurdles
- Risk appetite
- Team leadership
- Mission Orientation
A person with reasonably good officer like qualities – will be able to make a good Entrepreneur. One thing you need to shun is your typically ‘know-it-all’ and ‘been-there-done-that’ attitude. In this new game, you actually DO NOT ‘know-it-all’ and have NOT ‘been-here-done-this’.
2. Secure Firm Base : Home Finances
Ok the salary days are over – there is no more CDA sending you monthly salary and pay slips! I am sure you don’t know how that feels in last 25+ years. My father does not know that feeling till today. Its not a good feeling, its a sinking feeling and you don’t have an idea how to handle it. Fear this one situation to your bones.
One thing that can kill your dream prematurely is your home finances. Your endurance to stay the course in a start-up is directly proportional to financial reserves or inflow of money to run your kitchen & pay your bills. This oxygen to your home kitchen – is the classical firm base from which your operations will be launched. The first thing to do therefore is to secure the Firm Base – in your struggle phase of 3-4 years where will the money come for kids education, food and basic standard of living?
As a rule of thumb in 2017-18 – if you are in a metro you would need approx. Rs. 1-1.25 Lacs if living in own house and about Rs. 1.6-1.75 lacs if in a rented house. Factoring in your pension, you will need Rs. 50-75K and Rs. 1-1.25 Lacs respectively to be arranged. This would be lesser if you are not in a metro.
If you don’t have arrangements for these funds for about 3-5 years! Well you are not ready yet? I jumped in when i was not ready, and i did fail …
3. When are You Ready?
Well that is a million dollar question. Typically, only 10% of the business is clear at the start, the rest of 90% will only be clear once you are into it. One will never be completely ready for the jump – the dive will be into some vagueness and uncertainty. This is like a 10m jump, where you have to step forward and let go in thin air. Your firm base, constantly improved business model and military attributes will give you staying power to cross-over the valley of death in a startup.
4. Do Less, Something Special
Most of us who have been handling large scope of work, and have an inflated idea about our capabilities. I used to handle construction projects in 250+ locations over 700+ Sq kms on Line of Control. Now all that was with a colossal support system. Without that support system you can handle just about 1-2% of that. So in your initial years at Start Up – be very careful about this limitation and tone down the expectation of your own capabilities. You would be able to accomplish very little – and everything will have to be done by just YOU – from business idea to banks to brooms. One of my early mentors Samrendra Kumar (founder, Mitkat Advisory), said ‘Do less, to do more’ – I cannot tell you how precious this advice is.
In the early Start Up years you have to select a very narrow niche – an area of your unique specialisation, thats different from market and there is a sure demand. Run pilot project if you need to. But you have to become a reasonable expert at your niche. Your focus has to be ‘Inch wide and a Mile Deep’.
5. There will be Struggle
Startups will never be easy – in fact it will be very very difficult – and it will extract every ounce of your mental, physical, financial, emotional and social endurance. And quite a lot of this will have to be done alone, unless you are in a partnership company. This of course will ease out as you move in the right direction – but until you find your firm footing and decent money begins to roll-in – this will be a Dog-fight and a Dog’s day.
While struggling in the startup years, you tend to neglect FAMILY and physical FITNESS. There is a tendency to put in every minute of your time into doing something for the startup – and that is the time stolen away from family, fitness and well being. You will repent if you allow this neglect to happen. This desperation to work endlessly can be avoided if Firm Base is established.
6. Agile on Your Feet
It would be rarest of the rare that the idea you begin with would be the idea that you end up working. You modify lots of things on the way. Like an agile boxer, you have to be quick on your feet. You have to have your eye on the mission and your ear to the ground. Constantly be on a look out of what is working and more importantly what is not working. As a rule – whatever is not working has to be closed or modified and whatever is working needs to be reinforced.
Listening to your customers is a big resource for making mid course corrections. They tell you a lot of stuff that would work for your business. You will soon find the way or a model that would work for your business. Remember – No point climbing a ladder fast, if its leaning against the wrong wall – Get your compass bearing right – first and fast.
7. Learn Selling, Marketing and Finances
An entrepreneur is an all roles rolled into one. As i mentioned earlier, one thing that really needs to be learnt is the art or technique of sales and methods of marketing. Military man – till he leaves uniform is bad at selling and he looks down on marketing efforts. And rightfully so – coz we believed our work will automatically speak for us. One major reason for a good idea startup to fail – is under-estimating the marketing effort, leading to poor sales. And that in some time will lead to death of a startup.
Finances is another thing a military man barely learns. He is in fact trained quite opposite – coz we believe that a money minded guy rarely makes a good soldier. Most of us are poor at accounts, hardly match the two sides of our payslips, or scrutinise the mess bills. That was good there and is not good here.
This insensitivity to money has to be completely unlearnt and re-learnt. In business its Money – you have to make more money than you spend. You have to think and track where is the money coming from and going. You have to know how much money is needed to run your house, how much money is needed to begin the business and how much is needed to run it next 6 months to a year and most importantly – where is this money coming from? Money is the ether of Business existence – if its badly managed – business will choke to death.
8. Re-Learn to Deep Dive
Military officer is a large hearted soul and a lot strategic than tactical. In fact he forgets to be tactical ever since he became a senior Major. He usually is adept at taking decisions basis ambiguity and scant information. That has to change too. While there is vagueness in the running of business, but there is no dearth of data and factual information or mentors and resources. You must re-learn the habit of diving deep – cull out relevant data – consult experts – make it look intelligent – and use it to good effect for your business. You can no more make broad based, off the cuff, un-consulted, intuitive decisions – everything must be data supported because everything costs money.
You would do good to get yourself mentors. Our community is very very helpful in sitting and spending time to guide you. But you have to go to them to seek advice.
9. Passion may Not become Business
A passion is a passion – and one is often blinded with passion thing. Unless you apply business sense to make money out of it – it would die down. One needs to distinguish between the two and understand that – not every passion can be made into a successful business. We began with a motorcycle expeditions company, moved to road trips and now we have finally called ourselves an ‘Active Holidays Company’.
If the passion product in not a Market fit, you should know early … and move on from it or modify it. A passion that does not make profit – is nothing more than a hobby. It happened to us.
10. Where is your Network
When i stepped out of the forces, i found that i knew no one in the neighbourhood and very few in the city. So where do i go for help, support, ideation or contacts? The people i have known all my life are somewhere in the wilderness serving the country – and none of those good soldiers can help with business contacts.
Everyone who is successful has a good support of a relevant network – they know a lot of people in a lot of places. Some guys told me that your ‘Net-Work is your Net-Worth’. Military man has a major hurdle to cross here – and one must begin early to develop and nurture a network that is relevant to your business.
One can go on and on in this journey. Entrepreneurship is a wonderful and adventurous way of life and it is not for faint hearted. You are your own boss, creating meaningful value, generating employment, always on your toes, immense professional satisfaction and leaving a legacy for generations. As military officer, You have it in YOU, all the QRs of a successful entrepreneur – To be the Commander you were always destined to be … May God be with you!