The Ugly Other Side of Entrepreneurship

mA few years ago, I recall seeing a film made in India called Three Idiots. It’s a comedy about the college experience in India.  But there’s a serious undertone in that one of the issues dealt with in the movie is the pressure that many students feel about competing for precious few slots in top universities — as well as the pressure to excel once enrolled there.

In one scene, one of the students attempts suicide by jumping from a fourth floor dorm window.

The extreme pressures to succeed aren’t limited to India, of course. For years we’ve been reading articles about equally competitive environments in other countries like China.  Even the United States isn’t immune if one thinks about the elite private colleges and top public universities.

Unfortunately, the drive to succeed often follows students into the professional world in unhealthy ways. Several weeks ago, it was reported that a 33-year-old entrepreneur from Hyderabad, India named Lucky Gupta Agarwal took his own life after an app he had been developing failed to achieve the user acceptance and popularity he had anticipated.

The venture had started promisingly enough. After working for a number of years as a software engineer in a large Mumbai-based company, Mr. Agarwal developed a social networking app he named KQingdom that enables users to chat and photo-blog on the same app while earning rewards points for content created.

Mr. Agarwal believed that the features of his app were ones that were missing from Facebook and other social networking options.  He did many things right: He tested the app with fellow techies and social network users.  The app went through two years of development and alpha/beta testing to ensure that it worked smoothly.

When the app was listed on the Google Play store, it earned a 4.8 out of a possible 5.0 rating.

But Agarwal fell victim to over-rosy projections. He claimed to his family, friends and industry colleagues that the app would become more popular than WhatsApp.  He hired a staff of five to assist in the launch of the product.

As it turned out, after being launched in mid-2014 the app failed to garner the publicity or the engagement levels that Agarwal had anticipated. His financial situation deteriorated.  After having to lay off staff and downsize his operations, the entrepreneur sank into a depression that lasted for months before he ended his life several weeks ago.

In the wake of the news story, in the social commentary I’ve been reading on LinkedIn and elsewhere it seems that Mr. Agarwal’s situation isn’t an isolated one — even if the measures he ultimately took were unusually drastic. Clearly there are many, many other entrepreneurs who encounter a mismatch between their start-up expectations and the harsh reality.

Simply put, too many entrepreneurs don’t plan for failure even as they work for success. Even if a new product sufficiently fills a market need (whereas many of them fail for this fundamental reason), there’s still the challenge of implementing effective marketing and sales strategies, forging an efficient team of employees working together towards a common goal, and fending off nimble competitors who quickly react to new market moves with countermoves of their own.

And one other thing: Looking out from the safety of a job inside an established business, it’s very easy for a would-be entrepreneur to sense the shortcomings of staying in such an environment.  The siren call of becoming the head of one’s very own business is strong.

Unfortunately, many people are ill-prepared temperamentally to be entrepreneurs; it’s a big reason why so few ventures succeed. For every successful entrepreneur, there must be hundreds who fail — or whose efforts never even remotely achieve the level of success anticipated and hoped for.

Tragic incidents like the Agarwal news story remind us of the potentially tragic consequences.

Advertising that’s really on a roll.

Toilet Paper Roll Advertising
Here’s advertising that’s really on a roll — in more ways than one.

One definition of good advertising is how effectively it reaches the most people and engages its audience for longer periods of time.

According to that definition, placing advertisements on toilet paper rolls is a brilliant move that should “wipe away” competing promotional tactics, correct?

[On the other hand, you might think this advertising idea “stinks.”] 

But it’s just what two young entrepreneurial brothers are up to. They’ve formed a business – Star Toilet Paper – that supplies toilet paper to public bathrooms.  And the TP features advertisements printed right on the roll.

According to brothers Bryan and Jordan Silverman, Star’s toilet paper is made from environmentally friendly materials, with coupons and ads printed on them using a soy-based ink.

Their company sells space on the rolls for a half-penny per ad.  Coupons printed on the TP can be redeemed through the company’s own website.

Reportedly, some big-name advertisers like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream have signed on … as have some smaller businesses like physicians offices.  (No word on whether the doctors specialize in gastroenterological medicine.)

How are the Silverman brothers enticing restaurants, bars and other venues to stock their toilet paper? They’re providing the ad-filled rolls to these establishments at no charge.

Not surprisingly, this idea came to the brothers while they were students in college.

After patenting the concept in 2010, they’ve since formed their company, developed a business plan, and have already lined up approximately 50 advertisers.

How successful is the endeavor so far? No official word on whether the brothers are “cleaning up” in the business and “flush” with cash yet.

But Jordan Silverman notes that bathroom stall visitors are the very definition of a captive audience. “It’s an unmatched active audience. A person looks at the average advertisement for two to five seconds. People will look at ours for a lot longer,” he notes.

One of the customer segments considered to be highly lucrative for the company is movie theaters.

Come to think of it, this newfangled TP would be perfectly suited for the next Star Trek movie.

… You know, the one where the Starship Enterprise circles Uranus and wipes out the Klingons …