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The road to scale: challenges and prescriptions for success

From Pony to Unicorn lucidly describes the X-to-10X journey that every start-up aspiring to become a unicorn has to go through. The book effortlessly narrates the fundamental principles behind scaling. Guaranteed to make for a very interesting read, the book will be useful to entrepreneurs, leaders and investors involved in scaling start-ups. Here is an excerpt from the book From Pony To Unicorn:


In his epochal book, Small Is Beautiful, Ernst Friedrich Schumacher says, ‘even today, we are generally told that gigantic organizations are inescapably necessary; but when we look closely we can notice that as soon as great size has been created there is often a strenuous attempt to attain smallness within bigness.’ Big companies have tried to act small to preserve innovation. Extreme proportions, whether for a life form or an organization, is not natural. It is only in science fiction that one comes across animals the size of Godzilla. The network of blood vessels and nerves and the bone structures needed to support a life form of this size don’t exist in the real world. Even large organizations need intricate structures, speedy communication channels, an extremely strong foundation and flawless management. From time to time, a few organizations defy all odds and make it really big until a small start-up somewhere ends up disrupting them. However, the quest for scale is never-ending. One of the most enduring human pursuits throughout history has been to create things on a grand scale. Whether it was building mammoth pyramids in Egypt or connecting the mediterranean with the red sea through the Suez, or laying undersea cables across the Atlantic, the attraction for grandeur and scale has been incessant. Despite the obsessive and timeless allure of scale, the failure rate has been high. Failure to scale can be because of many reasons, some of which are quite universal and pervasive. They show up in almost every scaling scenario. An understanding of these reasons can be very helpful. It does not guarantee success but can raise the odds in favour of success appreciably. There are also unique challenges in every scaling scenario. You need to deal with these like you would deal with any ‘first time’ problem. Tolstoy’s quote from Anna Karenina is beautiful and sublime, but there are underlying nuances and variations in its meaning. It is the sheer variety and number of nuances that make universal prescriptions for success and scaling, as much as for happiness, almost impossible and often meaningless. This applies as much to start-ups as to families. The closest universal prescription for success was from Arthur Rubinstein, who once said, ‘there is no formula for success, except perhaps an unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings.’ Insights and prescriptions make sense only to individuals who recognize deeply that lessons and wisdom are meaningless in the absence of context, and there is no wisdom or prescription that can’t be challenged. However, given a clear context, an insight drawn from similar contexts can be very powerful, create those ‘Aha!’ moments and help you rapidly overcome the hurdle that is holding you back. Steve Blank, a highly respected author on entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley, in an interview with Kevin Ready published by Forbes magazine, defines a start-up as a ‘temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model’. Eric Ries, a successful American entrepreneur and prolific author, in his seminal book The Lean Start-up, defines a start-up as an organization that is dedicated to creating something new under conditions of extreme uncertainty. He further adds, ‘this is just as true for one person in a garage as it is for a group of seasoned professionals in a Fortune 500 boardroom. What they have in common is a mission to penetrate that fog of uncertainty to discover a successful path to a sustainable business.’


From Pony To Unicorn
By Sanjeev Aggarwal || T. N. Hari

This is a reasonably accurate description of what every start-up sets out to do. However, it is a bit too broad and would include many organizations, such as research laboratories and Fortune 100 companies that wouldn’t be considered start-ups. Therefore, let’s narrow this down by adding three other unambiguous filters before an organization dedicated to creating something new under conditions of extreme uncertainty can be called a start-up: a) the founder/s should still be active; b) it should be funded by venture capital (vc); and c) it should still be a private company. if these filters are applied, companies like Amazon, Google, Flipkart, Uber and Lyft would fail to qualify as start-ups, while Bigbasket, Doordash, Rubrick, Dunzo, Paytm and Swiggy would all qualify. While founder/s being active and the start-up not yet being a public company are understandable filters, the additional filter of the organization being VC-funded is relevant because that helps exclude mom-and-pop businesses that don’t have the same appetite for scaling as VC-funded start-ups.


Geoffrey West in his seminal book Scale, published by Penguin Press in May 2017, points out that scaling laws, whether for organizations, organisms or cities, are consequences of the optimization of network structures that sustain these various systems, resulting from the continuous feedback mechanisms inherent in natural selection and survival of the fittest. There is compelling evidence, even though there are the rare exceptions, that scaling of organizations follows certain power laws. He also points out that after growing rapidly in their youth, almost all companies end up floating on top of the ripples of the stock market with their metaphorical noses just above the surface. This is a precarious situation because they can drown in the next wave, and they are even more vulnerable if they can’t deal with the uncertainties of the markets and their own finances. While it is important to be optimistic and believe that by doing the right things your start-up could deftly navigate through the labyrinth of challenges, it is equally important to have the wisdom to understand that scale, especially extreme scale, is truly an exception and nature has stacked all the odds against it!

What’s new this December: books you can gift (or keep!)

‘Tis the season to be jolly – and what better way to be jolly than with some new books! Here’s what’s new at Penguin Random House this month. Choose to gift a fellow bookworm, or treat yourself!


From Pony To Unicorn
Front cover of From Pony to Unicorn
From Pony to Unicorn || Sanjeev Aggarwal, T.N. Hari


From Pony to Unicorn lucidly describes the X-to-10X journey that every start-up aspiring to become a unicorn has to go through. The book effortlessly narrates the fundamental principles behind scaling. Peppered with anecdotes, insights and practical wisdom, the book is a treasure trove of lessons derived from the authors’ rich personal experiences in both building and guiding several start-ups that went on to attain the ‘unicorn’ status and became public-listed companies.


The Impeccable Integrity Of Ruby R.
Front Cover of The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R.
The Impeccable Integrity Of Ruby R. || Moni Mohsin


Ruby Rauf is an idealistic, industrious scholarship student with a fixed plan. She is going to ace her exams and get a decent job so she never has to suffer the daily degradation of poverty again. Yet, when she meets the compelling actor-turned-politician Saif Haq, her world is upended. Dazzled by his charisma, inspired by his zeal, she quits her degree midway to join his campaign as his social media manager.

With quicksilver dialogue, shrewd political insight and a thoughtful take on the MeToo debate, this sparkling novel reveals Moni Mohsin on top satirical form.


Masala Lab
Front cover of Masala Lab
Masala Lab || Krish Ashok


Masala Lab by Krish Ashok is a science nerd’s exploration of Indian cooking with the ultimate aim of making the reader a better cook and turning the kitchen into a joyful, creative playground for culinary experimentation. Just like memorizing an equation might have helped you pass an exam but not become a chemist, following a recipe without knowing its rationale can be a sub-optimal way of learning how to cook.


Not Many, But One Volumes I & II
Front cover of Not Many, But One Volume 1
Not Many, But One Volume 1 || G.K. Sasidharan
Front Cover of Not Many, But One Volume 2
Not Many, But One Volume 2 || G.K. Sasidharan


Sree Narayana Guru (1855-1928) was a spiritual leader and social reformer who led powerful movements to promote social equality. Not Many, But One brings together his work in two rich volumes of translation and interpretation, pieced together for a modern readership.


Your Best Day Is Today!
Front Cover of Your Best Day is Today!
Your Best Day is Today! || Anupam Kher


Your Best Day Is Today! is a compendium of experiences, lessons, and positive takeaways that will help you deal with the dark times in your life. It is a guide to getting in touch with your inner self and finding solutions to the problems that arise with adapting to changes in life. It is also a reminder of how you are not alone and there is always a way to make the best of any situation life throws at you. This book will inspire you and fill your heart with immense love, faith, and joy.


Non Obvious Megatrends
Front Cover of Non Obvious Megatrends
Non Obvious Megatrends || Rohit Bhargava


For the past ten years, Rohit Bhargava’s signature annual Non-Obvious Trend Report has helped over a million readers discover more than 100 trends changing our culture. Now for the first time, Rohit and his team of Non-Obvious trend curators reveal ten revolutionary new Megatrends that are transforming how we work, play and live.


Deadly Cross
Front Cover of Deadly Cross
Deadly Cross || James Patterson


A scandalous double homicide opens the psychological case files on Alex Cross… When a glamorous socialite and high school principal are found murdered, lying half naked in a car, the shocking double homicide dominates tabloid headlines. In a world of trouble, corruption, and secrets, Cross is left facing a desperate choice between breaking a trust and losing his way…


Paris By Starlight
Front Cover of Paris by Starlight
Paris by Starlight || Robert Dinsdale



Every night on their long journey to Paris from their troubled homeland, Levon’s grandmother has read to them from a very special book. Called the nocturne, it is a book full of fairy stories and the heroic adventures of their people who generations before chose to live by Starlight. And with every story that Levon’s grandmother tells them in their new home, the desire to live as their ancestors did grows. And that is when the magic begins…


Ready Player Two
Front Cover of Ready Player Two
Ready Player Two || Ernest Cline


Days after winning OASIS founder James Halliday’s contest, Wade Watts makes a discovery that changes everything. Hidden within Halliday’s vaults, waiting for his heir to find, lies a technological advancement that will once again change the world and make the OASIS a thousand times more wondrous—and addictive—than even Wade dreamed possible.

With it comes a new riddle, and a new quest—a last Easter egg from Halliday, hinting at a mysterious prize.


Front Cover of Dearly
Dearly: Poems || Margaret Atwood


Before she became one of the world’s most important and loved novelists, Margaret Atwood was a poet. Dearly is her first collection in over a decade. It brings together many of her most recognisable and celebrated themes, but distilled — from minutely perfect descriptions of the natural world to startlingly witty encounters with aliens, from pressing political issues to myth and legend. Dearly is a pure Atwood delight, and long-term readers and new fans alike will treasure its insight, empathy and humour.


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