Smell of the place

Take a deep breath. I did. Here’s what I noticed. I got up and the first thing I saw was the sunrise and the light mist rising up from the meadow and the rolling hills beyond. I stepped out and heard the faint gurgling sound of the stream flowing nearby.  The air was crisp and clean with a hint of freshly mowed grass.

I got to my office at ETH in Zurich. It’s again a pristine environment. My work deals with advising extremely bright teams with demonstrated technical excellence to convert their ideas into startups. The cafeteria is on the top floor of the building that overlooks Zurich city and the vast expanse of the lake, with a great view of the snow-capped mountains beyond.

Between my residence and my office, I never feel tired and have a perpetual bounce in my step.

Every now and then, I have to travel to Mumbai in India. When I go there during the summer, the temperature is about 35 degrees C, or 95 F, and the humidity is about 99%.  I feel consistently tired and low-energy. This is in spite of not really doing much. My peers from Switzerland often ask me if I’m doing too much sport when I’m in Mumbai. The fact is, I’m not doing much of anything. It’s just the environment that seems to sap me of energy.

The Late Sumantra Ghoshal, global thought leader, and someone I was privileged to have as my mentor during my MBA at the London Business School many years ago, called this the smell of the place. I’m inherently the same person, whether I’m in pristine Zurich through the year or Mumbai in the summer, with its pollution, heat and humidity. It’s the environment that either energises me and motivates to give in my best and find ever-increasing reserves of energy and motivation, or simply gets me down.

The smell of the place pertains to whether you’re starting a startup with a group of co-founders or considering joining one.

If you’re trying to start a company with a group of people, the smell of the place is the feeling you have when you’re discussing ideas with the team. This should be the most energising time in the startup, since it’s at this time that the sky is really the limit and you don’t feel encumbered by the operational challenges of it all. All that can come later. This is the time when you feel empowered to do anything you can set your heart to, where you’re in the same league as the entrepreneurial legends of our time, including Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, whether it’s envisioning entire new industries or establishing the first company to fly to the International Space Station, and being able to say with a straight face that you’d like to die on Mars, only not on impact.

If the smell of the place isn’t right, you’ll know immediately. There can be a whole host of factors. The other team members appear to have other priorities or are not willing to commit, or dither on initial decision-making or are not willing to talk about equity split between founders. If you’re the key driver, your option is is to align expectations and get the uncertainties (and often, the dithering team-members) out of the system, so that everyone is focussed on achieving the same vision. If you’re not the key driver, it’s good for you to remember that most start-ups fail because of team challenges. This is then probably a good time for you to walk away.

On the other hand, if you’re thinking of joining a startup, it’s easy to identify the smell of the place. Are the leaders within the startup trying to support and guide the energy of the people or are they trying to put systems in place to control and aggressively manage the people. Do your potential peers seem aligned with the vision of the startup and do they seem to be having a great time, or can you identify fiefdoms. The answers will help you to recognise the smell of the place as well whether it’s the one you’d like to have around for most of your waking hours.

A key question to ask to help you recognise the smell of the place: Would you still be working there if you had to do it without pay? It’s funny that contrary to what most people expect, a 20% salary difference does not bring sustained happiness, once you make enough to put food on the table. It does make a difference if you work in an environment where you have the opportunity to make magic happen and are appreciated for what you do.

In summary, if you can, change the environment around you so that it smells right. If you can’t, find a place which does.

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