For Want Of A Nail…

Nathu, a sweeper at a local bank, complains one morning to his friend, the washerman’s son, that he was thinking of quitting his job because the manager had not paid him his salary for 2 days. The friend agrees to look out for a new opportunity for Nathu. Later, he tells one of his clients that Nathu could join her as a gardener because the bank was not paying him.  The client’s husband overhears this and tells his friend that the bank must be in dire straits if it could not afford to pay even a sweeper’s salary. The friend immediately withdraws his money from the bank and spreads the word. The news spreads like wildfire and soon, the bank actually collapses.

2 days later, when Nathu turns up at work, he learns that the bank has shut down – he walks away wondering who on earth could have caused such a big institution to break down in a matter of days.


I read this story – titled ‘The Boy Who Broke The Bank’ – in a volume of collected short stories of Ruskin Bond. When I mull over the tale, I feel that it was not really Nathu who broke the bank – it was the manager. He had neglected to pay the boy’s salary – possibly considering the delay to be of little or no consequence. If he had not been remiss, the boy would not have complained, and the unfortunate chain of events would never have occurred.  I had a similar experience at work a couple of days ago.

We had signed an MoU with a vendor to develop a web application. The vendor company was founded by alumni of one of the world’s best B-schools, and is a promising young startup. We were looking at a business of ~INR1.2 crores a year from this tie-up.

On Wednesday, I got on a call with the founder – let’s call him Mr.H – to explain our requirements and how we envisage the final product. I told him that I needed a particular set of features to be implemented on a priority basis, without which it would be impossible to roll out the product. He interrupted me and said, “Sorry Ms.K, that feature set is not available. I understand your requirement though, and here is what we can do…” He then offered me a less appealing workaround. Implementing this meant a lot of work from our side, and this was not really what we wanted.

After the call ended, we had a discussion internally to decide which route to take. . We went back to the drawing board and took a second look at what we wanted from the product. The more we thought about it, the more we realized that Mr.H’s suggestion would not be feasible. At one point, we even started questioning our decision to tie up with Mr.H. Would it be wiser to just pull the plug before we invested any more time and money in his offering?

It was not an easy decision to make – backing out of the MoU would mean that we’d have to start looking for other vendors and go through the painful process again; or we would have to develop this internally – but we didn’t have the resources to do this. That meant hiring  – most definitely not a quick and dirty process. Finally, we decided to bite the bullet.

I gave Mr.H a call to say that while I appreciated his proposal, it would not work for us. It would be best for us to shake hands and part ways. But something made me explain our requirements again, exactly like before. This time, he listened. And said,

“Oh – that can be managed quite easily. We can roll it out by mid-August.”

I was silent for a minute.

Then I told him, “That’s exactly what I’d asked you for earlier today, and at that time, you said it wouldn’t be possible!”

“I thought you meant something else – I thought you meant feature set Y.”

“How is that possible? I never even mentioned feature set Y!”

“Well, anyway – that’s cleared up, isn’t it? We can implement this for you soon enough.”

I agreed that it was indeed cleared up, but requested him to send across the minutes of the meeting with all our specifications clearly spelt out. I didn’t want any more confusion.

He did this, and now the deal is on again.

Mr.H is quite cheerful about the whole thing; to him, it was just a couple of phone calls made in the same day to clear up a small confusion. But he has absolutely no clue how close he got to losing our business. And at this stage, he really needs our business.

As a startup with limited resources and big plans, every decision we make is thrashed out with the team over and over again. Every meeting with potential partners and vendors is minutely planned – what would our message be? How would we pitch it? Depending on the response, what would our next step be? When we sit across a table and talk business, the person on the other end sees just the first tile in a train of dominoes. The outcome of the conversation could trigger a chain reaction with significant consequences. It was  by a fortuitous accident that we had a chance to clear the misunderstanding – what if I had just told him that we couldn’t accept his proposal, thank you very much? He – and we – had narrowly escaped a lot of loss and trouble.

So, the lesson really is that nothing is too humdrum to be treated less than seriously, especially in business. Listen carefully, arrange your thoughts and measure your words.

After all, it was for want of a nail that a kingdom was lost. 🙂


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