I am obsessed with Pasta. Ever since I traveled to Italy to get trained in the factories there (I used to work in my father’s socks factory), I cannot get Pasta, its permutations, shapes and sizes and of course how it is cooked – out of my mind.
In the context of Pasta, Al Dente in Italian literally means ‘To the tooth’. This refers to that ‘perfect’ moment when the Pasta is firm, strong, crisp and cooked – but not soft and supple. It’s just the way it should be. The best way to get your Pasta to be Al Dente is to keep nibbling on a piece of Penne or the Fettuccini while it is boiling. The very moment you can bite into the pasta and yet feel its firmness, it’s ‘Al Dente’. Immediately drain, add whatever you have to into your Pasta and enjoy (I like it with very little garlic and mushrooms sautéed in olive oil with mixed Italian herbs and top it with grated parmesan cheese). Buona Appetito!
Now, observing the ‘Al Dente’ method has inspired me to think of ‘perfect moments’ as they appear in an Entrepreneur’s life. As they say, you can never time anything to perfection, but just like Pasta, if you know when your best time is near, you can leverage it well.
Some of the instances when an Entrepreneur can enjoy her ‘Al Dente’ or perfect moment:
I can barely cook, but my cooking is better than yours.
Sometimes, knowing little of something absolutely new is better than knowing everything of something very old. To explain – in 2003, when we began working with Sony television in India on Mobile VAS, we were the only Company in India to understand ringtones, sms gateways etc. Just the fact that we could manage ‘mobile stuff’ won us the Indian Idol business in India and 50% revenue sharing across the board. Circa 2009, everybody knew how to do everything and the party was over. But in those 6 years, we managed to fund and exit the business!
Grow the Walnut – Don’t try to eat it if you can’t open it.
In 2006, Mobile2win China was in business since the last 5 years and the operational difficulties in China were increasingly hammering us. We had a great platform, operator connectivity across the length and breath of the PRC and very scalable technology. With all this, we were still struggling to make money. We had grown and ripened a beautiful walnut but couldn’t understand how to open it and enjoy it. If we waited too long, the fruit inside would rot. As we were wondering, the Walt Disney Company came along. They were keen to have a ready-made mobile platform with operator connectivity in China! They weren’t looking for revenues in a Company but an operation with employees and licenses and the knowhow. They bought out mobile2win from us in an all cash transaction that made us 6x on our original investment. Disney was the squirrel who was destined to eat the nut. We were fortunate to find them at just the perfect time!
Being the first item on the buffet table.
By 2007, lots of VCs who had made money in the MMOG (massive multiplayer online games) business in China and Korea were punting that India would be the next geographical bet for massive valuation businesses using these games. Their thinking was that China and India were similar in many ways, and if Shanda and The9 could become billion dollar plays in China, the same story could repeat itself in India. As part of this punt, VCs began looking at entrepreneurs in India who had gaming experience, and my name along with that of my co-founder – Mahesh Khambadkone popped up. A few meetings later, we had co-founded Games2win and were given a cheque of 5 million dollars by Clearstone Venture Partners to start up that business. It’s full credit to Clearstone that they quickly accepted our point that MMOG was not working and allowed us to change our business model to casual snacky browser games. But Games2win was started up because we were the first set of entrepreneurs that the VCs met when they came to the buffet table. I guess we were the right people, in the right place and at the right time.
‘When’ is a matter of personal taste…
If you look at the cases of Yahoo passing Microsoft, Groupon saying no to Google, it’s the chef saying, ‘I don’t want perfect Al Dente. I’m happy to serve the pasta maybe soft, maybe supple but at the time I want to serve it’. Nothing wrong with that! Yahoo and Groupon continue to march on. On the other hand, Sabeer Bhatia sold Hotmail much earlier than the Al Dente moment. Given the way valuations have soared, Hotmail could have fetched 4 Billion, not 400 million? Who knows?
If there was ever a perfect ‘Al Dente’ moment, it was when Steve Case sold AOL to Time Warner. A small fledgling company positioned itself so cleverly to an old media behemoth and the values that it extracted are now historical and soul shattering. Unfortunately, in the case of Time Warner, what they thought was ‘Al Dente’ Internet Pasta turned out to be Al Dente Rotting Garbage. Billions of dollars of value were destroyed cleaning up that horrible stinking kitchen (AOL+Time Warner).
Chef’s tip: Be your own Chef. Taste your Pasta at all times. When you think the time is right, just serve it – ‘Al Dente’ or not.