How Kanishka Sinha built Stillwater – a $500,000 leadership development business, after choosing not to join Google
1. Hello! Who are you and what expertise-based business do you own?
My name is Kanishka Sinha, and I work with high potential managers and senior executives who have been identified as future leaders and need to have a high level of emotional intelligence and self-awareness to be able to handle the pressures, decision making, communication challenges, etc. at higher levels. We help them ace these factors through workshops and individual executive coaching.
2. What were you doing before starting this business, and what is it that you wanted to accomplish?
I began with a conventional corporate career in Engineering from Imperial in London, CA from Arthur Andersen in London, MBA from ISB, Sales & Marketing at HUL. Then I attended a leadership self-awareness program as a participant while at HUL. This made me realise that that’s what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life. I called up the company that had done the training and said I would like to bring their work to India, and they appointed me as their India Country Manager.
I wanted to contribute to the managerial and leadership skills of Indian leaders (corporate, NGO, educational, sports, governmental, etc.). I felt that I could best contribute to helping India move forward in terms of prosperity and happiness.
At the same time, I wanted to use my strengths of logical thinking and honesty and do something meaningful to me.
3. What problems were you facing in achieving your dreams before this business started?
What was missing was a lack of meaning. I didn’t feel the work I was doing was making the world a better place. The other option I considered was joining Google because I thought they were trying to make all the world’s wisdom available to everyone for free. I got my offer from the training company the day before my call for the final interview at Google. So that’s another path I might have taken. But I think I would have always ended up doing the work I’m doing. I guess I like freedom too much to enjoy reporting to anyone else.
4. What insight led you to start this business?
I realized that I was not conscious of many of the desires I had that were derailing me in certain situations. By becoming aware of those patterns and the impact and considering alternatives, I could find ways of doing things that contributed to my happiness. For example, I would feel confined in romantic relationships because I would take it personally if my partner was not happy all the time. All I needed to do was change the belief to ‘it’s ok if someone is upset for a while, they’ll cheer up tomorrow, and you don’t have to think that you’re with the wrong person just because they’re upset at something for a while.’ And now it seems ridiculous that I could have even thought the way I used to, but I can see that a lot of people are struggling with issues because they don’t have conversations with people who can see, from their external neutral viewpoint, things they are doing that make no sense.
I felt that only people with serious issues go to see psychiatrists. Still, a lot of the principles that are used by those experts are relevant to a much larger population to make them happier and more effective in their ways of thinking. I wanted to McDonaldize some of those ways of thinking.
5. How did you acquire your early customers and validate your market?
I joined the company that had trained me, and so it was straightforward to see there was a world where people were already doing the sort of work that I had wanted to do. Executive coaching and leadership development programs were very established businesses. And the work at HUL I did as a participant showed me how effective it was for organizations. I felt that other Indian companies would also find a lot of value in this sort of work.
A lot of leadership development work in India is theoretical and based on lectures and abstract models or, at the other end, related to religion and spirituality. I felt there were a space in the centre that was about self-reflection and effectiveness but done through logic and ordinary language conversations (like ‘what kind of work do you enjoy doing?’ as opposed to ‘what destiny do you feel is calling to you?’)
6. What were some big setbacks in your early journey?
I was young for a leadership trainer when I started, just around 30. And I was coaching people from the top schools who were 15 years older than me. Also, at the price point that we were aiming for, clients were more comfortable paying for international trainers from the US/UK. But I knew that would be the case at the beginning and I was fine experiencing a higher rate of rejection earlier in my career because I felt that by the time I was 40 (when people from other industries are thinking of making a shift to coaching), I would already have so many hours of experience in my chosen field that I would one of the leading experts in the area. I feel like it has worked out for me in making that bet.
Initially I found it stressful always looking for business and selling rather than simply getting a fixed salary credited to my account on the first of every month. But starting my own firm (with my wife and friend) forced me into taking decisions myself rather than reporting to someone. I felt I grew up faster in the process and learned to trust my judgement.
The lack of business during upheavals like demonetization and the pandemic was disconcerting at times, but we have found ways to deal with that uncertainty; I feel we have even more confidence now because we’ve faced the worst possible situations from a business point of view (short of nuclear war) and we were able to navigate through them. I feel we’ll always find answers in the future, and since we can’t get sacked, the sense of uncertainty is less now than most people I see with regular salaries. But it takes a while to get there.
7. What were the significant achievements after your early journey?
We were lucky to get a few big clients very early. We got HUL’s Management trainee program because we were ex HUL MTs. We got a lot of business from Aditya Birla because some people from HUL had given references to them. And then, when Sameer Bhakri (HR Director of Crisil at the time) took a risk and gave me the opportunity to coach Directors and Senior Directors very early on in my career, it gave me a CV that was almost instantly credible.
We soon coached CEOs like Shaheen Mistry (Teach for India) and Ankur Warikoo (my junior at ISB). And because ISB knew me, they asked me to teach a core course in Communication even though we didn’t have PhDs. After that, it was reasonably straightforward. It’s always the first few clients that take a while to get because until you have clients, you can’t get experience, and without experience, it’s hard to get clients. We broke out of the chicken and egg situation very early with HUL, ABG, Crisil, and ISB.
8. Which tools were useful in growing your business?
Free programs for L&D managers. They were able to experience our programs first hand, and that was much easier in building credibility than hours of ppts in sales calls.
Being ISB Professors helped because our former students started calling us to work in the companies they worked for. Recently I’ve found that LinkedIn has very quickly made us a familiar name to people in the L&D functions who are our clients.
But initially, we (mainly Girish) also just did a lot of cold calls and pitched. Selling yourself as a trainer is much harder than doing the actual training itself. Anybody can be a good coach. Not everybody is willing to acquire the ability to deal with rejection in sales calls.
9. What habits and systems did you build for your growth and transformation as an entrepreneur?
Constantly improving our training by identifying what was working and what wasn’t and tweaking it relentlessly helped us create a program we’re very proud of. I think it’s easy to be satisfied as a trainer because you can get a lot of positive feedback, and it’s very easy to dismiss critical feedback as ‘they just didn’t want to learn’. But if you look at ‘what could we have done that would have made them want to engage’ then slowly, slowly, you can improve your process. For example, one thing that made a huge difference was learning memory tricks that would allow us to know all our participants’ names in the first 30 mins of any program, even if there were 50-75 people there. Constantly referring to them by name blew them away. They didn’t know the names of some of the people in their divisions they had been working with for years, and here we were, knowing them all in the space of minutes. We realised that we would get good ratings from people we remembered and poor ratings from people we couldn’t remember (whom we hadn’t engaged with). So we HAD to learn how to memorize everybody’s names, keep records of what they had said, etc., so they felt we knew them intimately. We learned how to use IT to document and share these things so that they were invisible to the participants, but it seemed like magic to them.
I think we’ve used IT to make our work much more powerful. Usually, people who are technical aren’t so good at people skills, and people who are good at people skills shy away from IT. But I felt there was a place at the meeting point of these two where we could use IT innovatively to provide a much richer and powerful learning experience to humans. In response to the pandemic, we wanted to challenge ourselves to produce an online program that was more powerful and even more intimate than our in-person programs, and I think through a lot of experimentation, risk-taking (and some very notable failures), we’ve eventually reached that place.
10. Which books, podcasts, blogs or newsletters have influenced your work the most?
I think rather than reading books or podcasts. I have benefitted by writing books on the subjects that interest me. The first one I wrote on psychology, philosophy, and coaching – ‘The Game of Life’ did not sell well, but it just forced me to think much more deeply about my work. And that rigour started showing up in our program delivery.
So my recommendation to anyone who would like to become an expert is to write a book on that subject you want to become an expert at, and in the process of doing that, you will become an expert yourself (even if your book doesn’t sell 😊)
11. What advice would you give to a 5-years (or 10-years) younger self?
Be passionately curious about the work you do. Don’t do something you don’t enjoy because you’ll end up doing just enough to get yourself promoted or to be better than your peers. But I think there will be something missing in your life because you’re not going deep. I honestly would do the work I’m doing for free (and initially, I did 19 workshops for free on the weekends, paying airfares out of my pocket to travel to cities to deliver programs for anyone who wanted to do our programs). So now it feels like I’m not doing any ‘work’ at all. It’s all play. And when I was doing work that I didn’t find meaningful, I might have been good, and I might even have enjoyed it at times and learned from it. But it worked.
But I think I did that without any advice from my future self anyway, so let me change the advice I would give – look after your health. Exercise every day. Don’t let the desire for recognition due to work success lead you not to prioritise health. I’m not unhealthy, but I don’t think I’m fit, and in covid, you suddenly realize that nothing is more important than health.
The other piece of advice is to spend as much time with your kids and spouse, no matter what stage you’re in your career. I’ve seen a lot of divorces and distant relationships that people only recognize after 15 years of a pattern set of prioritizing work. Covid has forced me to stay home rather than travel all the time delivering workshops. And I discovered a family that had been living at home all that time. I wish I’d recognized that earlier. The most important thing for me in the coming decade is spending as much time with my kids before going off to college. If I want to expand my business, I’ll do it later as a hobby because I enjoy what I do. I’m not looking to retire at 50. If I want to build my business into a large firm, that’s when I’ll start.