Prologue: It has been a good year at Frappe. ERPNext has been steadily gaining traction and a few large customers, including India’s second largest conglomerate are starting to deploy ERPNext. The revenue is also growing steadily, though not as fast as traditional SAAS startups. We are getting better organized at understanding and engaging customers, though the process is still very fragile. It is clear that Frappe is onto something. Enterprises are discovering Open Source and the opportunity to service large companies is where Frappe can really build the revenue side of its business. We aspire to be one of the best software companies in the world. But are we ready for this?
Our flight departs just after midnight from Mumbai. With more than thirty excited souls from the Frappe team on the flight, it is the noisiest red-eye I have ever been on. It is almost 3am when we assemble outside Delhi airport along with the Bangalore and Pune teams. It is a cold and sharp February morning. The airport shuttle takes us to the parking lot where three buses are ready to take us to our onward trip. The bus driver makes a sheepish joke about women and freebies that defined the recent Delhi election, reminding me of how polarized our national capital is.
Frappe Team at Delhi Airport
We load our bags on the top of the bus and settle in. The smoky, monstrous freeways lighted by yellow lamps that enclose Delhi and its surroundings fly past as we drive towards the Himalayas. We observe the agrarian and semi-industrial scenery of Western UP as the sun slowly lifts up the fog.
Mixed agrarian and industrial landscape of Western UP
After a quick snack, most of us are awake. I am in bus #3 and the conversation drifts towards ambition. What is it that makes someone believe that they can be the best in the world? How can someone make such an absurd decision for themselves? We all take turns to share what fires each one of us. Early childhood wins, like being the brightest kid in the class or an encouraging parent, seems to be something everyone says they remember. The attention, recognition and praise that we get in such events will drive us to keep seeking it all our lives. But is recognition enough? Can we be great only feeding off recognition, or is there a deeper mystery? With such engaging conversations, we reach Mussoorie in no time.
It is lunch and we hit the “mall” to find a place that can fit forty of us. The mall feels like a crass and ugly mess of commercial establishments. We have a quick dal-roti lunch at a Punjabi restaurant, whose owner is glad to see some business. We move into our hotel and after a few hours of rest, we decide to explore the town on foot. I share my location to the group and ask them to follow me. We decide to walk to a local scenic point to enjoy the sunset. While we walk, the sun sets and the evening gets colder. Walking towards the point takes us away from the hyper-commercial mall road to the quiet and atmospheric Landour, the old town of Mussoorie. A few of us break away from the main group to set the pace. We pass quaint markets and lovely shops as we go through Landour, with the brisk walk and fresh air giving us warmth and encouragement.
Nightfall over Mussoorie
After the wonderful evening walk, we have dinner at our hotel and gather for a team discussion. On our last trip to Wayanad in Kerala, we had some great discussions after dinner that helped everyone to understand more about the company and the vision and in many ways brought us closer as a team, and I hoped this trip would be more of the same. So I am partly unprepared for the ambush that is waiting for me this time. Many team members complain that the evening walk was too harsh and strenuous and I walked too fast. I respond that my job as a leader was to set the pace and make a lesson out of it. Apart from that, there is also a conflict about room allocations that could have been sorted much earlier, leading to some hot and fast allegations. Ultimately it is sorted out and a room is swapped. It is long and tiring day, and we have hardly slept, so we decided to retire and take it easy the next day. I attend a drinking party in one of the rooms, but then crash out tired in a few minutes.
We start around 11am the next day, asking people to take it easy if they wished to. We take a bus to the Company (East India Company) Garden which is a quaint, old British garden with cast iron fences and light poles that were forged in Glasgow in the early 1800s, mixed with hideous shops, stalls and “rides” for the non-discerning tourist. Laissez-faire capitalism at its very worst. After that we decide to break up and have lunch. A few (about a dozen) of us seek out the intriguing Doma’s Cafe that we had seen at Landour in the earlier evening, while others decide to lunch at the famous Kalsang on the mall.
Tibetian motifs with pop art
Doma’s is beautifully and meticulously done. A metal plate with the words “Nothing happened at this site in 1897” greets us at the door. We admire the walls that we are told are painted by expert Thangka painters who were given no instructions, and were told to “do as they pleased”. Along with the beautifully hand painted walls, the rooms are full of old movie posters, specially of popular Hollywood movies dubbed in Hindi. I tell the owner that we had walked past the cafe last evening and thought that since they have made such a beautiful cafe, we have to come back today to have lunch here. This makes him very happy. We have wonderful discussions at Doma’s about art and stimulation. Dilpreet wants to take a picture outside author Ruskin Bond’s home which happens to be next door and I am able to convince her that since its a residence, we should respect his privacy. Some things should not be photographed and shared.
Beautiful hand painted decor of Doma’s
Aditya has been engaging me quite a lot on the trip, helping me to think through my role as a leader. That makes him quite a leader. Half of the Doma’s group decides to head back while the remaining six decided to go back to the scenic point for a stroll, since we are so near. On the way back we have coffee at the beautiful Lotte’s Cafe. Its a small, cosy, modern European styled cafe and the coffee, carrot cake and chocolate mousse are delicious and special. The discussion has shifted from ambition to art and we chat about books, movies and TV shows that we like. Spending time in places that are thoughtfully designed, refines our life experiences. The Himalayas and the cold are slowly seeping into my consciousness, and it feels like time well spent.
Lotte’s: A Dutch style cafe
The team discussions again take an ugly turn on the second evening. I am accused of favoritism towards a few team members, and specially Virat (name changed). Virat who is one of the top performers in the team, has also been accused of being rude and arrogant, which he can often be. I also understand that the top performers are intimidating and threatening to the rest because they challenge them by the very fact they exist, and their shortcomings are magnified. I respond by saying that as a leader it is my job to engage and work with those who show more potential. The problem I am looking to solve is how do we become a great team, and to me those who are most ambitious, deserve the most attention. I provoke them by saying that Virat would be last person to be fired on the team and people should cut them more slack. This pisses off most of the team and I can see it in the body language. I too am pissed off at the team for not being able to see the bigger picture.
We begin our two-day trek towards the peak of Nag Tibba on Day 3. We will be camping in freezing temperature tonight and I am already anxious if everyone will be able to take it. For some reason we are late to get off the hotel. The team organizer is the last one out of their room, and I am already annoyed at our slackness. A three hour bus ride takes us to the town where we begin our trek. We pack our backpacks, sign the consent forms and we are off on the trek. This time I decide to bring up the rear. My role as a leader now is to make sure everyone makes it to the base camp alright.
Beginning the trek to Nag Tibba
The trek is a consistent climb for 5 km on dry, thorny hills and it soon starts becoming tiring for a few people. My trekking experience tells me that the more rest we take, the longer is the pain we go through, so it is important to keep moving, however slowly. Like in running, the most important thing in the trek is to breathe steadily, find a rhythm and not focus too much on the pain. We enjoy the vastness of the mountains, the dryness of the shrubs, the rustling of the leaves and the chirping of birds with a mountain eagle circling above. I keep shouting at people not to sit down or self sympathize too much. I recall the scene from Remember The Titans, “What is pain? French bread” and suddenly I am Denzel Washington. In my pumped up enthusiasm I also volunteer to carry jackets and bags of those who are struggling. Slowly we make it to base camp by 5pm.
Dry, thorny landscapes on the climb
The leader group is already on its way to the summit. Half of the team decides that they have had it, and choose not to continue towards the summit. Along with Nabin, Umair and Jai, I choose to continue towards the summit. The summit is another 4–5 km of continuous climb in a dark forest, a stark contrast from the dry landscape till the basecamp. We see a glorious sunset, golden meadows and meet some snow on the way.
Golden meadows on the way to the summit
It is nightfall and cold and windy as we near the summit and it is clear that we will not make it. Somehow I lose my energy and feel exhausted. All of us decide to abort the summit climb midway. The climb down to base camp becomes tiring and it takes extra-ordinary energy even to speak. Aditya is still engaging me as we talk about the corrupting power of money.
As soon as we reach base camp, I take a couple of sips of brandy that allows me to breathe steadily. I seek a seat near the camp fire that Nabin and others are trying to rake. Slowly I regain some strength and our team discussion continues. I see around a dozen again in the group. We talk about our mission. We talk about capitalism. We talk about free software and our way of life. We talk about being the best in the world. We talk about the corrupting power of money. We talk about how little we care about what we do as a modern society, and how much we care about money.
To prove my point, I ask how many would care about Frappe’s mission if they were paid half their current compensation. Most people say, their obligations would mean they would have to find a new job. The answer I am looking for is that they would look at Frappe’s balance sheet and demand to be paid fairly. Quitting the mission should not have been an option.
We wake at 4am in the morning to start our descent towards our bus. It has been a cold night and the sleeping bags did not keep us warm. Twenty minutes into our descent I realize I have forgotten my wallet in the tent. Thankfully our local guide is still at the base camp and is able to locate my wallet. Suraj is in terrible pain and is unable to bend his knee. I keep him company as we slowly reach the town where our buses are parked. A few of us freshen up and soon we are on the long bus ride to Delhi. It has been an exhausting three days with little sleep. I am pensive that we were not able to bring the team any closer and the mission seems slipping away. I put on my headphones and play ABBA.
So the walls came tumbling down
And your love’s a blown out candle
All is gone and it seems too hard to handle
Chiquitita, tell me the truth
There is no way you can deny it
I see that you’re oh so sad, so quiet …
The mission is over, I tell myself. Frappe will never be a great company. No one really cares about the mission or about being great. Silicon Valley companies seek great people and have the money to buy them, we have neither the talent nor money nor fire to take them on. We are just a bunch of ordinary folk who are all too much consumed in our own pettiness and doomed to fail. I feel extremely heartbroken.
Chiquitita, you and I cry
But the sun is still in the sky and shining above you
Let me hear you sing once more like you did before
Sing a new song, Chiquitita
I realize we cannot end here, we cannot give up now, so I message to the team: “I am disappointed that we did not take this time to come closer or to build on our mission. Most of you are going to be sheep and lead lives run by other people, while you have your petty fights and victories. Think of this while you enjoy the scenery.”
I think this shakes up most people. We decide we need to talk before we break up, so a quick meeting is setup outside Delhi airport. The bus takes us through New Delhi and we see a few sights of the city. We gather in a circle outside Terminal 3. I can see everyone seems shaken up. No one wants to stand next to me and I stand isolated. I realize I have still not broken the team, so I walk away abruptly from the team circle before we start and check myself in. Within a couple of minutes everyone follows me towards the gate. “Thanks for proving my point”, I tell them, “This shows that you are all sheep”.
On the flight back, everyone is tired and sad. We have another team meeting at 2am, now next to the baggage belts in Mumbai airport. We have been on a rough Himalayan trek and are feeling sorry (or appearing to be). It has been physically and emotionally draining. I realize this is the opening I am looking for. I tell them we have all failed. I call out individual leaders for their failures, because I expect more from them. I tell them if we continue like this, we can never become a great company. If we burn ourselves today, tomorrow, we can rebuild. Aditya ends the meeting on a conciliatory note. “It is time we all rise and take leadership. We cannot lose from here.”
Team Frappe. At the end of the trek.
Postscript: It is exactly one week since the trip and we can already see the difference. People are feeling disoriented but also fired up. This is a small window of opportunity we have to take Frappe to the next level and I hope we capitalize it. The road ahead is much tougher. We are not going to be able to raise funds and find the best mercenaries to build from here. But we are a team of unlikely winners, that must ride on drive, ambition and luck. I can also see a lot of people have amazing potential to become leaders of the future. It is their time now, my job is to create the platform where they can shine.
Special thanks to Sahil, Chinmay and Michelle for pointing out typos