The US Immigration debate

Vivek Wadhwa has been working on, and pushing forth the idea that the US needs to 'allow' more and more smarter guys in to start businesses and participate in the American Dream, so it can grow. There's some support, some opposition, some hate-mail. I'm not sure whether I agree or disagree with the Startup-Visa idea, but overall, he makes sane arguments for an open world. 

However, there's just one little hitch. The world's moving on rapidly while people argue on the allow/disallow lists! Sure, the US has been a major destination for folks across the world over the last 30-40 years, but the gloss is gone, and the action's moved/moving rapidly elsewhere.

In fact, the numbers of 'foreigners' doing ventures in India, tho small, seems to be on the up. China and India were 45% of the world economy till a couple of centuries ago, and it'll probably get back there quite quick. its just plain logical.

So while Vivek's attempts at ensuring his adopted country doesn't lose whats been its competitive edge for a long long time, it might turn out to be too optimistic an argument in that geography soon. 

India, on the other hand, needs to silence its Xenophobes really quick if it doesn't want to get into the same situation. Yes we're a lot of smart, entrepreneurial people, but special skills, smart ideas and a few more herbs and spices enriching our melting pot is not only a wonderful thing, its also been a tradition here forever.

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Catching the Entrepreneurial Bug : Side-Effects

Choices force thought.

Its true for startups (one reason I say delay the funding so you're forced to choose this over that, etc).

But so very true personally as well. Been getting "Opportunity" mails in the Inbox. A couple of them would've been dream jobs a couple of years ago, but now, I feel apprehension. Will it be too narrow a "Job Definition" ? Wait, what'll I even write on my CV - if I do even feel like sending across one - ohave done too wide a variety of jobs over the last few years to try and showcase this over that. Will I get bored in a 9-5, and will there be enough flexibility ? Can I even muster up the requisite formality - and I mean that in the most positive sense of the word - for a regular corporate setting ? 

On the other hand, there are half a dozen ideas. At some level or the other all seem worth pursuing. There are also other interests I am pursuing. Nothing's crystallized enough to warrant undivided attention, and to a great extent I just love the energy that pursuing multiple ideas creates. Thats one reason SlicedBread happened.

Which is the opportunity, and which the cost ? I only wish I had the benefit of some hindsight upfront :)

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workFront is moving too


Am quite sold on the ease-of-use, and they're importing the older entries as we speak. Cool.

The Great Indian Ecosystem

Some gems I heard over the last two days (All paraphrased. Non italicized bits are mine):
  • Indians don't take risks. Yeah, right.
  • Indians are immature. We should read more books. Whoa, there!
  • Indians don't know how to sell :)
So, more or less, "Me = All Indian" seems to be a strong foundation of the ecosystem. Add to that the repetition of the sentiment. And again. And expertise is thus born!

So the hordes selling Tally, and of course making it, and the numerous loads who set up Potels, and the Tata Nano and the risk associated with buying a JLR or a Corus, the buying and selling of Glaceau - I guess no Indians in any of those pictures, eh ?

Ok, sorry about the sarcasm etc. I will confess it did get my goat and this was not a mature reaction. Should probably go read a book to figure that one out :D

Seriously. Guys, please. There are numerous other Indians who take risks, sell awesomely, and while they might not read books, their business maturity will be the content of many. Hordes of them. We're the nation who's everywhere - amongst the largest trading, immigrating, innovating populations. (Its not, repeat not, repeat not about patents and lab research alone. Please get over that inferiority complex of yours. Please.) Yes, I personally suck at a lot of these attributes, and would love to learn how to deal with this gap. So do a lot many from the technology space, and this is surely a gap we need to bridge (probably through partnering).

So lets please find those Indians, learn from them. The sweeping generalizations will not help. A, amongst a gazillion similar examples, sucked as much, so the nationality tag doesn't help at all!

If we all become a little more straightforward, show a little more honesty and humility, and focus on the solutions, we might yet create an ecosystem. Judgmental generalizations, though, will probably not be part of that...

Why Kawasaki at Nasscom ?

Bangalore played host to the Nasscom Product Conclave over the last couple of days, and it was a brilliantly organized event. The best part of it, imo, was the cross section of participants the event was able to pull in. Such major industry events usually get a little intimidating for the smaller, just starting out guys - but this conclave easily avoided that. The sessions were useful, deeper than usual, and because of these reasons, packed. The networking was very very active, and I pretty much caught up with everyone I've met and come across over the last four years!

Amidst the relevance, interactivity and focus of the event, Guy Kawasaki - as a keynote speaker and twitter specialist :) - added the superstar draw for many folks. Guy's a great speaker with ready wit and humour, and very, very approachable. He's also a persistent marketer.

However, I do think he wasn't the best choice for the keynote. Also, the session he conducted was as much a distraction from the theme of the event as it was an attraction for many. Why do I think so?

  • The keynote presentation above was not the most relevant to the ground reality in India. At all.
    • We do NOT get people for free here - not that much of a resession after all.
    • We also are awesome "value" creators and it often makes sense for a large chunk of startups (especially as they learn about business) to start in the lower right quadrant - a small chunk of startups can shoot for uniqueness, and especially building a business around it. Execution, value hold they key to getting a shot at stage 2.
    • Twitter as a marketing tool in India ? Hmmm. I'd almost say a large chunk of active Tweeters were actually in that room :) I exaggerate, but you get the idea.
  • We need a couple of home-grown superstars who, like Guy, are great speakers and approachable, and are less jargon-laden than anyone who gets to some level of success has a tendency to become. Entrepreneurs building products need stellar examples they can relate to, as well as understand!
  • The Twitter 101 was a little too basic for a lot of the crowd. Some of the ideas shared both in the keynote as well as the sessions would be very very useful in a college, or what-do-I-need-to-know before I start out crowd, but a lot many attendees have progressed beyond that. We needed Marketing 102, or Sales 102, etc. more than this.
  • I'm completely guessing - but it must've been expensive :)
  • The Indian product space needs a little more grunt and grassroots and less superstardom-aspirations - and getting a major star like Guy can reinforce the wrong message. Too many folks already confuse the superstar dreams for passion.
Apart from this, though, I had a terrific time at the event. Made connections, and started out on my journey to understand the fascinating world of real world marketing and sales (I'm still in Kindergarten wrt those, especially sales). The CIO session was very useful (wow, people who really spend money on software :D) though one always would love more direct, straightforward and precise ideas about how the real world operates (no discussions on size difference related issues, kickback-demand handling, etc)

Nasscom has taken a very conscious step towards supporting product creation out of India. And from the evidence at hand, its at most an iteration or two before the geeks really connect with the biz folks, and magic happens.

Personal Finance Software

I was at a small town in Coorg day before. We - a local friend and I - were sipping a cuppa in the evening - when a guy ambled buy with a rather bulky handheld device. My pal greeted him, and took out a 500/- from his pocket and handed it over. The guy greeted him back, and immediately gave him a printed acknowledgement for the cash received.

Obviously, I was terribly curious by now!

Turns out, the District co-operative bank has a go-to-where-they-are scheme to create a small savings habit. This is a special account, and people can essentially hand over whatever little money they want to - 10/- or above - whenever the guy comes along. The smaller businesses there have managed to save a lot, and the saving habit encouraged this way ensures a little less is spend on 'god-knows-what'.

This is a fabulous example of the primary task of a personal finance tool/service! Not just provide fancy tools to those who've converted, but provide encouragement and some discipline to those who're open to develop a savings habit. The investment habit follows soon.

The bank offered a very small return on this saving, but I guess this idea is more about capital building than about growth. The collector also got a 2% or so share in the monthly pickings. Win, win, win!

Execution : What Use Is An Imaginary Business Plan ?

We covered this a lot in the recent PM Workshop we did.

Now, as part of a business I'm trying to setup (and am very very new to), there's a bunch of numbers on a spreadsheet which are what is popularly known as the business plan, and what I would rather think of as a rough draft :D

Investment ? How much ? When ?

There's a certain amount of seed capital, obviously, as the idea starts taking shape. What I'm doing is a little capital-dependent, so the initial 'sunk cost' is key. [ Notice I called it sunk cost since I do not want it weighing down the operation with numerical pressure just yet. ] Of course, in the sheets, and in life, there's more that can be done for greater returns. Its very very alluring to try and start just a little bit larger so it can start paying for itself soon.

But wait, do I trust that sheet ?

There are a bunch of revenue-side numbers in that spreadsheet that are key. Tweak them around a bit, and the end results change dramatically! And a lot of tse have been based on certain assumptions that produce a wide enough range of outcomes from hardly managing to break even to unbelievable levels of profitability. Obviously, the numbers are somewhere in between.

Re-examine your assumptions as you go along.

Then there are costs. And hidden costs accounted for as a percentage factor. Assumptions, and assumptions about assumptions :) The whole model is one big fairy tale, or so it seems.

So why build a model at all ?
  • Getting familiar with the assumptions. Play around with the sheet a bit, and you'll start getting the hang of the assumptions you're making in there. Make a note - at least a mental one - of the bits you're tweaking a lot to understand outcomes. I would not be surprised if over half your real-world numbers are what you might consider wild guesses :) Its important to know what you do not know.
  • Getting comfortable with the worst case, and then some. Taking risk is a major part of being an entrepreneur. Understanding these risks is even more so. Learning how to manage the risks, eventually, could help you become a successful one! The spreadsheet does help understand risks better.
  • It helps to have a reference as you execute. Since you're testing a bunch of hypotheses, you need to be measuring against something - perhaps ranges if not precise numbers. And its not just the numbers you might get wrong - but the assumptions about the bits and pieces that define your model itself - this needs to be validated before you start taking your numbers too seriously! Say, your business is a quick turnaround, low margin one - if you leave out - for lack of effort or knowledge or change in business scenarios - one variable that jacks up your costs by, say, 4% for every cycle, you've had it! Having this reference will help you understand how much you still need to figure out before you try and mesmerize the world with words like "scale" and "growth" and sink in a gazillion into this.
So there, this is coming from my experience-as-I-experience it. Will keep this blog updated with the aftermath, and how effective the fairy tale was in making my dreams possible.

I'm the User. Find me ads for my blog :)

Who's ever made money from ads ?

A large majority of people who write blogs (note: I do not say blogger) do setup adsense and keep the big G fed with below payment thresholds, and never make anything substantial themselves.

Most individual blogs (like mine) do not have a huge set of readers. Yet, some percentage of these blogs are very focused in terms of the topics they touch and the geographies they are in and write about. My tag cloud would mention cycling, bangalore, carbon, entrepreneurship etc.

Is there a case for a more targeted monetization for these ? Its like the hyperlocal (or hypertopical) of the online space, but isn't there a case for certain high value transactional ads (actual sale, or coupon download, etc) on a site like mine ? Of course, I do not want random ads from across a gazillion advertisers with a really remote chance of being of any interest to my readers. I'd rather pick and choose and get a few onboard that I think I would not be embarrased, and possibly even happy, about promoting, and that might have a better shot at actually interesting the readers I obviously know better (demographically, behaviourally) than some clickstream analyzer sitting a few continents away.

Sure it will not scale and is not appropriate for large sites with lotf of content and/or traffic, but conversely, for the huge set of small fries like us, a shaper, cleaner set of advertisers, or promotional content might just make a lot more sense!

// this post goes against the "I as a user" thumb-rule of product management. But many an opportunity is found in suchlike. Of course, the followup discipline for evaluating the opportunity is critical, and out of scope for this blog ;)

Product Management Workshop

Ashish ( and I (representing SlicedBread) are doing a workshop this Saturday, the 3rd of October, to try and get across a feel for what holding the the threads of a product from its conception to its maturity involves. Of course you're unlikely to become a great Product Manager (and I am still learning every single day!) simply because you attended the workshop, but it does introduce you to the structure around this role, indeed the very need for the role, and common mistakes we make during product development. Theoeore basic idea is to be able to connect the product development effort much better with the market needs as they're discovered, be able to respond to changes, and keep the costs of these cycles low.

More details here.

Chamak washes dirty linen in public. Execution, Execution!

Just yesterday, we had been discussing what else hyper/local play could do to expand business and create differentiators, and I'd mentioned to Indus that ironing services inside apartment complexes have always been a major point.

This morning, went downstairs to drop the kids to the school bus, and what do I see ?

Chamak - Neighborhood Washing & Ironing Services

Each kg of clothes is 40/- and they even SMS you once its done!

Quite obviously, its intended to be a big chain over time - a la Ferns And Petals for flowers. They seem to have about 10 locations in Bangalore itself. Someone obvioulsy heard the chatter about the pain points with the existing vendors etc and decided to give this a shot. I'm not yet debating about it being a great idea etc, but its and opportunity, and its heartening to see someone take a crack at it.

On digging just a little, here's what I found - introducing the Village Laundry Service funded by Innosight Ventures, and promotes individual entrepreneurs to run their rigs.

One's heard often that 10 other people have exactly the same idea at the same time as you have it (or even earlier), and it boils down to execution, but it was still a very wow moment to come across a real world example of one such.

Suspiciously Round Figures ?

While we were on vacation, Twitter raised a 100mill, supposedly at a #1Billion valuation!

As I read this, the nose twitched. What is it with the round figures ? I mean they sure do their due diligence, and Twitter probably did some work on how much cash they need. I can understand guys keeping it at back-of-the-envelope levels when doing seed stage, or even series A funding. But at this scale, for folks who're still trying to figure out monetization, sounds a little too strange. Why not 87 million (imagine how many startups you could fund for 13 mill!) and why not a valuation of 0.93 Billion ? Are these numbers arrived at through some kinda-shoulda-perhaps-maybe hand waviness ? Is there more ? Perhaps a contigency chest for an acquisition thats part of the deal but not really available unless... ?

Someone who knows the insides of these deals please throw some light. $100 million of a $1 billion valuation - it just reeks of laziness or fuzziness otherwise.

To Re-Iterate!

Had come across this long read - but its totally full of great points which are nevertheless tough to internalize!

Here's one about agility:

26. Ready, aim, fire. Back when Beowulf was a lad, he used his trusty old slingshot to attack his enemies, kill squirrels and impress the maidens. Chances are he didn’t aim all that much. What he did was just let ‘er fly. If the rock fell short, he adjusted so the next time he got closer, and closer the next time. Same thing in a new startup. The situation favors action over planning. It really should be ready-fire-adjust. One of my favorite cartoons is the one with the two buzzards sitting in the tree waiting for the man to die from thirst…”Patience, hell,” says one to the other, “I want to eat something.”
Action over planning is a great one to follow. Especially given that gut feel is often all you got unless you really want to believe internet driven 'research', your business-plan spreadsheets, and other related conjecture.

And some follow up:
91. Trust instincts, but drop bad ideas fast. The subtitle of this blog perfectly describes this entrepreneur: “frequently wrong, never in doubt.” That was intended to be somewhat funny, but the people who work around me would probably say it is so so so so true. Hey! If I don’t believe in my own ideas strongly, how will we actually find the RIGHT one? I don’t care if I am a universe of one, I trust myself more than some un-engaged focus group. And so should you. And, I never guaranteed that I would have only good ideas anyway.


94. Understanding of the Law of Requisite Variety. This is a law described by cybernetician Ross Ashby which perfectly describes the creative entrepreneur. Basically, the law says that in any system (company, department, a meeting) all things being equal, the individual with the widest range of responses (the most ideas) will control the system. To me this means that the gift or trick is in promoting plenty of ideas, fast and furiously. The process is quantity first, then quality. Lots of people can sift and sort ideas, criticizing and developing. Your job is to get the most ideas on the table, from you or others.

[ Plug: this and related stuff will be covered here. I think the date's likely to change, given Dussera. ]

Substitutes, Alternatives and Opportunity

Here's what an ISP is having to contend with, in South Africa.

This reminded me of something we read in our networks course - "Never underestimate the bandwidth of a truck full of tapes hurling down the highway" - Andrew S. Tanenbaum

Sure, this is a stunt by a really pained customer to highlight the pain point. But it brings alive an interesting fact - that you never know what corner the competition will come from. The obvious ones are never the only ones to worry about.

And when looking for opportunity, do not be discouraged merely by what seem like saturated markets served by existing players. Despite better-than-South-African-speeds, the above did get me to think if there is a logistics business to be built here in India around short distance high volume data transfers. Of course it needs more market research than I want to do around that - but nevertheless, the opportunity that pain points present are numerous. A better email service seems dumb, but who knows. Or a common kitchen in apartment complexes.

Out of the box is the only way, or at least a terrific one.

Update: Ashish discusses the same example here. Its a very strong example - and this opportunity is something we'd discussed over chai. Sure its a little crazy but hey, the message is - think hatke.

Customer Focus : Why the online travel space is not with it, mostly

This post is NOT a rant, but something that highlighted how difficult it is to really understand the business you're in, and serve the needs of the customer, not what you think you should be selling!

A short story, to start with (Mine)
I've recently gotten involved with The Tour of Nilgiris as a volunteer to help organize the 09 edition. This year, one major focus area is to up the level of accommodation provided to the riders and support team, as compared to the previous edition. Being a little connected to the startup world, I thought it might be a good opportunity to provide some startups an opportunity to showcase themselves, and the difference they can make.

The target audience, in this particular instance, is just perfect : upwardly mobile, made-it-in-life audience willing to pay for convenience, travels, is adventurous, and usually, invariably online (which is otherwise a big pain point for Indian startups trying to get to the right TG).

So, I dashed out a couple of mails to startups I thought might be interested and able to help out with the request.

The brief : we're 90 ppl and need to book acco for each day of the tour (7 nights). Promised to provide publicity for both the hotel as well as the hotel-partner (TFNs gotten a huge number of enthusiasts and media support, and thats growing all the time) and need very competitive pricing (provided rates we'd and a end-to-end solution in return.

Guess what ?

Startup 1: Got lost in the "response" process! :) Auto genearted mail, with a ticket number and everything, and a couple of SMSes confirming that someone was looking at the same! No real responses though - at all!

Startup 2: Personal email to a couple of the guys running the show. Got responses. In a couple of days, mails with rates that were actually worse than what we managed ourselves. Re-emphasized that we wanted an end to end solution, and that with a certain %age of costs shaved they'd be the hospitality partners - included in all communication. The response was astounding - I was given some soundbytes on how, instead of the usual 10%, we were being charged only 5% by the startup over the hotel's rates. That, as you can imagine, was that!

Thr trouble is, the users are looking to travel for a purpose, and the journey/hotel is one piece of the whole experience. They want to be assured of a certain quality and wants a no-hassle experience. And all thats on offer is inventory, with some lip gloss on top by way of an interface, and possibly sorted by this or that.

What about the guy who want to fly to Delhi from Madurai and may be open to combination of either a bus+flight or a train+flight ? From either Chennai or Bangalore. What about the NRI-in-India-for-a-month traveling to 3-4 destinations who'd hire a car, a cell, take a couple of domestic flights, perhaps a holiday to some destination while here, maybe even love to have a data card ?

Your users are looking for very different things. Playing "agent" for a ticket trasaction, or a hotel reservation, is hardly what I'd call sticky, or a customer delight strategy. What is the value that you're creating ? For OTAs - and there are almost as many as airlines - its even fuzzier these days without a deal or discount. Not long term at all, I'd imagine.

And please do not talk to me about the reduction in your cut as a benefit - I really could not care less about that!

Forced Entrepreneurship ?

Amongst the elites of the blogosphere, this is a phrase used often, and usually somewhat condescendingly, to discount the efforts of those who run mom and pop stores and businesses, only, as the argument goes, because the they did not have a choice.

Yet one sees a whole bunch of of these "forced entrepreneurs" flourish, learn better than most "choice" entrepreneurs about managing cash flows, hiring, marketing, CRM, and even scaling. Sure - its not usually about 10x scale (though a few do turn out that way) but thats a very VC driven attribute, and entrepreneurship is defined by so much else.

A plumber whose service my wife employs for certain rainwater harvesting and water management projects they undertake is one example I've seen. The guy now has a bunch of other guys he's trained, manages, finds work for, supervises. He takes bottomline responsibility for the team, has printed business cards and invested into a van for transporting his team and material more efficiently. He's been known to go ahead and market the idea amongst potential customers. He's managed growth - both of his business and of his role. Sure, he was probably forced into this - but that has hardly stopped him from embracing entrepreneurship.

There's a couple of legendary tales of paan-wallahs who've built business empires from their vantage points, while continuing to humbly assemble the daily dose for customers. There are small grocers who've adopted the aisle format and setup chains without losing their USPs of delivery, cash on delivery and the personal touch they had when operating a single small store. They've obviously managed hiring very closely since that was key to the whole experience.

Darshinis which grew into large catering businesses. Tailors who now own brands. Local courier companies which now manage logistics for corporates across the country - there's just tons of examples.

In some sense, aren't techies who're "forced" into entrepreneurship because of circumstances - perhaps a stream of bad bosses and workplaces, or the peer pressure of everyone else around them striking out on their own - also "forced" into entrepreneurship ?

The point of this huge rant ? Its not important how you got there. What you did, learned and what you managed to make of it afterwards is. So next time you use "forced entrepreneur" dismissively, think again if there are lessons there that you could instead gain from.

Some references to "forced entrepreneurship":

And, from a different perspective (and continent) ...

Hiring, Motivations, Pay Structures & Rewards

Attended the last Unpluggd where the topic revolved around signing up folks for startups.

And then saw this:

Amazingly, was also thinking (during a bus ride today) about why we do some things despite severe odds, or hindrances, or the need for effort and learning curves, and certain others never get done irrespective of how easy, or 'within our scope' they are.

What is this motivation thingy ?

As a result of all of the above, here's some word/phrase groups to consider:

Reward, risk, compensation, appraisal, objectives, measurement, schedule, 1x1, incentive, weekly status report, stress, problems, constraints, roles, job descriptions, job, prove merit.

Dream, buy-in, belief, desire, effort, solution, honesty, freedom, fail fast and free, lateral thinking, boundlessness.

Of course one's made to sound rosier than the other. But pause and examine which of the above are the truths caused to/by/around you.

We buy ideas, rewards, philosophies at a level we never execute those at - its the day to day efforts and battles that its about. Its like honesty - unless you really really buy it - not as a 'good to follow' truth but somethings that part of you bloodstream - you'll slip here or there in the day to day.

So the stock options stop having any connection with the product features.
And marketing to the guy who's doing the appraisal is the be all and end all.

Would you not rather have people who were paid adequately, and then did stuff purely because they either love to, or they think its necessary to do it ? Would you rather not people have the guts, freedom, desire and authority to, say, pull the plug on something even if its 90% done if they really really get convinced it's no good.

Of course, thats not to say that you need to let chaos reign - but if you have free, smart people, they will listen to reason. They will learn and you will learn from them. Thats an orthogonal problem to solve - but having people who're "into it" can only help even there.

The video proves what I've always believed - creative, fuzzy-result-oriented work needs free minds. Don't try and pressurize these flows - either through incentives or through disincentives. In fact, incentives usually imply measurement/observation, which implies expectations. And sometimes, things that "being discovered" need to be done without those disincentives weighing them down. If the people involved are good, and they're really into it for belief/faith/interest/passion, something useful will evolve.

You cannot buy passion. Or creativity. Or ownership. You will surely lose it if the attempt is to coerce it using fear, however subtle. Do not try corelating risk-reward, probation, appraisal cycles with work directly. People need money to live, spend on nice things, secure their future. Not to work. Do that for them.

Enagage, and focus, on the usefulness, and marketability, and goal-appropriateness of the work they're doing. Not on the carrots and the sticks that those will lead to - thats so last-century.

Product Identity Crisis ?

[ Cross posting from the SlicedBread blog ]

Ashish wrote a post about the importance of recognizing exactly what business you are in.

This cannot be over-emphasized during the early days of a product, or a startup. You cannot be nebulous about exactly what problem it is you’re solving, and for whom. The trick is to tackle this at as fine grained a level as you can (and not just at a we’ve-built-a-tool-let’s-see-how-its-used-level). If you cannot answer clearly enough for the first guy who asks this question to understand, its unlikely that users will see easily that its for them!

One trick I’ve found useful is to think in terms of nouns and verbs first when describing use cases, and avoiding the adjectives and adverbs. Also, pick verbs that can be acted out immediately – say – in a dumb charades or pictionary game. Or at least something multiple can clearly visualize as the same action or activity. “Evaluate”, “enhance”, “express” are some words that could be too ill-defined to capture or communicate a use case effectively. “Add as friend”, “read the shared content”, “rate the movie” are much clearer. As you start capturing it clearly, you will start debating the value each brings to your core idea more clearly as well.

And – this is my favourite take on all things computer science – its all about inputs and outputs. So given all those verbs and nouns, what does your product ask for, and what exactly does it give ?

Who are you ?

Update: One of my friends tweeted this morning (that I'd RTd) about FB's identity crisis. Quite relevant!

Ownership Issues. Founders too!?

At first, there's an idea. There's some debates that follow, some iterations that help refine the idea. Then there's often a co-founder, some hectic activity and a prototype! The job is bid adieu to, the servers bought/rented, expenses planned for and the passion-of-the-founder has soon given birth to another startup.

Pitches are readied and made, and if you're onto something or an investor thinks you are, you get funded! Nirvana!

A year later, there have been hiring issues (people are so tough to find, or too expensive otherwise), development issues (its never as easy or as complete as you'd imagined), and issues with selling the product that you pushed off to 'once the product's ready' right from the beginning. The traffic hasn't taken off, and you take shelter behind the "alpha" tags, and in any case, the "full, matured" version with some critical pieces that will make all the difference isn't done yet. That will fix everything.

Iteration 2, and 3 and more come and go. Things don't look that great. You tire a little. There may be telltale signs, from a diffused market strategy that tried to please all, to multiple major projects running simultaneously - one of which will hopefully do it for you. You engage with a designer to fix UI, a mentor for advice, a PR firm to try and fix it on the marketing front, and maybe even get some big names on board to shake things up.

Familiar story ?

Somewhere, the tiredness does bite, and the ownership starts to dim, and even entirely vanish. Why ? Its the same people who were madly optimistic about their idea at one stage, after all.

Carrot uncertain, stick missing ?

Human motivation has got a lot to do with either the pursuit of pleasure, or the avoidance of pain. In fact, more or less all actions could be linked to one of these. At first, the dream that the idea promised is big, possible and a huge motivator. But, especially during a turbulent phase that comes after multiple bad patches, the dream can, and does fade.

Unlike a home loan, though, there's nothing to pay back! So hardly any stick. Sometimes a little bit of a pressure does help to come up with smart solutions that make things work. Sometimes you do your best only when you come out fighting from a no-hoper. But there's little egging you to do that.

I'm hardly suggesting that VC funding be replaced by loans - but its also true that founding a startup, at least for some and at some stage, does become merely a sexier, and in fact more comfortable job. Sure there's more to do, but if you're looking for that sort of a thing, its a great, risk-free (once you get funded) opportunity to have a ball! Its not just the founders though - even potential employees often tend to look at startups at a no-loss-possible situation. Better salaries, cooler image, better work and responsibilities so why the hell not ? The "struggle" bit is more or less limited to the pre-funding stage. Once there, there's only an upside...

If I were a VC, I'd be working on models to change this. Or even if I were a founder working on a new idea. If nothing, to ensure that the wrong kind of motivations got weeded out.

Entrepreneur, share thy burden. The VC-Entrepreneur Story part II

After this post about the need for investors to get to, and continue to know their portfolio a little better, happened to have a chat with an investor on similar lines.

Apparently they sometimes run into what was described to me as a Chinese Wall, although the context was not potential insider trading, and for the purpose of this topic there is no conflict of interest. A few examples were shared that I obviously cannot talk about here, but boy, was that a revelation! I'd kinda assumed that being important stakeholders, and often with controlling stakes, they could breach any such walls that came up. But clearly, there are other dynamics at play, at least in some cases.

Some follow up thoughts:
  • If/once, as an entrepreneur, you ask someone to invest (and its a whole new topic whether, and when, you should), their interests are are your interests and their interests are ... you get the idea. The more you share, the more likely it is that you may get an decent perspective of your business that you can miss/gloss over while involved in the day to day running of it.
  • Tough questions are better asked early. If there are no tough questions, and no revenue, be worried. VCs can, and should play that role. And as an entrepreneur, it would do your business a lot of good to pester them for it. Your comfort zone is surely a bad place for your business to be in. The final call is still yours, and you need to treat the advice as an input, not a command, because even the best of VCs can miss aspects of the business that you may understand better. Yet, they do bring in a concerned outsider's viewpoint so seek it aggressively.
  • Trust. Its key to all startup activities. Be it with employees, partners, customers, investors, vendors. And this is even more true in India, where a ton of business happens in good faith and 'carrying people along'. There's also no ownership sharing without trust.
  • All the above is all great - but whether as an investor, or even as an entrepreneur, you'd still do well to have an "outsider" driven in-depth assessment of your business on a continuous basis. Not that you're sucking or that this will solve everything, but it brings in functional expertise with an unbiased viewpoint, and thats rarely a bad thing. Its also less dependent on maintaining relationships, worrying about appraisal cycles, and the like. In the finance world, auditors are almost always external, and I'm guessing they serve more than just a "external policing" role.
On a tangent, a question was asked about whether any business in India was VC fundable at all !?? Thats the topic of a future post, but at the outset, I'd wonder if the VC model is necessarily a static thing, or does it need to adapt to a different market, different set of rules, and success rates ? The endgame is to essentially provide a 25%+ return while promoting entrepreneurship, isnt' it ?

Online ? Who's online ? Get outa there....

... and be where the customers are!

Context : was pleasantly surprised to see this along with our morning newspaper a few days ago. And there was another one this morning.

Now everyone's been talking about hyperlocal, but guys like CommonFloor and Open2Save seem to be actually doing it.

I've believed for a while now that
  • Hyperlocal is big
  • The internet is a tool - it may not be the final consumer connect but can enable a lot of it
So its good to see both these players trying to connect online with existing channels, though not everything has been tried or figured out yet. Purely as an advertising play (some coupons are little more than plain ads) this serves a market which cannot afford and does not need city level visibility, but did not necessarily want to go with what was being offered by the guys who print and ditribute flyers on cheap paper. Given the "aggregation" of deals etc, there's also a better chance of the user being interested in one or more of the deals, and retaining the coupon, unlike single-business flyers.

There's a bunch of other ideas that can be tried in the web-as-a-tool for hyperlocal businesses space. But I'm pleasantly surprised to see efforts to look beyond the web and work with existing behavioural patterns and business flows to provide a better mousetrap within those. The changes can then be effected once some traction happens.

Who says its all about web 2.0 ?

VC, Know Thy Fundee

The Venture Capital industry in the US has given extremely poor returns in recent times, and some consider it broken. I'm not sure what the India numbers are, but the focus, modus operandi and problems facing the space are similar, and in some senses, less effective. The huge factors in their favour are the relative stability and ever growing domestic markets (of course, for those focused on India, and more so for those primarily into the PE story), and of course tremendous cost tractability vis-a-vis the Valley, for instance.

Now, imagine:

Don Corleone invests in a million bucks into a "business" run by a fledgling caporegime in a territory with lots of promise. A few months down the road, the monthly meeting is in a dark room full of cigar haze with tough questions flying across the table, and the Godfather surprising the capo with info gathered from the street that the capo might be trying to hide, or gloss over. It could either end in the capo getting a thumbs up for establishing firm control, or a "Its strictly business" list of to-dos to strictly be followed for ensuring the family gets there profitably.

Or, a traditional business family in India pitches in to get a young chap striking out on his own in a new town/business/opportunity afresh. They obviously need to buy in to the idea, and measure progress often enough. They also dig up every source to keep tabs on where the markets headed, what the guy's reputation, image and credibility is as he engages with the market, and offer both advice and tips, as well as harsh feedback on specifics that is passed on immediately and well - transparently.

Thats how businesses get built, sustained, nurtured.

The Venture Capital industry plays an important role in discovering and nurturing new market opportunities. In fact, the businesses they try to help build are usually much larger than what an average capo or a family businessman would attempt at creating. These businesses need even more nurturing, and inputs. Theoretically, at least, the VC not only brings capital to the table, but also helps keep the ship on course, plugging the gaps as they're spotted. They can help engineer the right contacts, aid the best executive hiring, enable appropriate mentoring amongst others.

But then, there's a gap when it comes to those value adds, at least in the Indian context. Unlike Don Corleone, or the average business guy on the streets, venture investors often fail to connect with their startups' work - operationally, technically and sometimes even from a consumer/customer point of view.

The best understanding of the businesses investors have today depend on "other-investors'-opinions" and on their own take on it. Generation, technology gaps, lack of empathy with the target market, and an uncertain understanding of what's really getting built ensure that the meetings are once-a-month "updates" affairs, and the data collection is usually limited to what their protégées tell them. Sure there's some cross questioning, and the numbers sometimes start communicating the true story (often too late in the game).

But to be able to really relate to whats happening, whats right and whats not, and most importantly, what the options are from thereon, VCs would benefit from a deeper, independent assessment of the businesses they're banking on. And of course, the technologies, products and target markets those businesses are banking on!

There is a need for a role which can better understand the domain or technology that the startup is built around. This is truer for technology startups than the others, but there's usually something technical/domain specific about every startup (at least the better ones) that differentiates it. Most investors are generalists and connectors, because of which they bring together a wide array of skills, perspectives and contacts! Obviously, their understanding of what's happening inside of their portfolio companies, and what course corrections could and should be made, is limited to the level of a higher level business scenarios that can only make uncertain assumptions about the finer, and often crucial, details of the product or domain. And we do hear a lot that execution is everything!

So, how do investors get to know better ? Call in the experts!

To someone in the know, the red-flags show up all over the place as you dig a little! One hears of huge investments in companies build around technologies (sometimes mere features) that could be build primarily around commodity stuff that might even be free to download off the web. Other startups build vanity-features that are unlikely to see much usage amongst their target audience. And a whole lot of startups do not even figure out who this "audience" is, and at the same time worry about the numerous textures the product could have.

Then there are obviously numerous "high technology" stories where the potential is enormous, but the success is extremely dependent on both the core as well as the packaging and positioning of the product. A lot many might potentially succeed in one of many avatars, and would benefit from rapid experimentation enabled by flexible product design.

Clearly, VCs would benefit a lot if they got dope on some of the above, early and regularly. This obviously needs a continuously updated understanding, and measurement, of what their companies are doing. Every decision around the product feature and roadmap, its architecture, and even the robustness of the process through which these are arrived at, makes a huge difference to the product's chances in the market. These cannot be gauged easily from a short monthly interaction with the CEO. You need a sharper focus on the goals, and ongoing engagement at various operational levels to ensure those are being worked towards.


What are the companies goals ? Are the same goals visible to all functions across the organization ? Are those the ones driving value for users/customers ? For instance, you're trying to create a service that delivers content over SMS along with contextual advertising, and a product loophole that allows people to essentially send free SMSes to friends could be the one driving traffic!


Is the Product Roadmap in line with the goals ? Often, beyond the first release, nimble startups get into a reaction mode where every little piece of feedback from users, VCs, the media and other assorted sources is incorporated, and every little idea that comes from competing sites, or merely sounds cool, gets implemented. You end up with a host of features and functions that are no longer coherent or cogent to your primary USP, which was .... ? Obviously, even the metrics gathered start reflecting this, and there's confusion both externally and internally about what the product or service really is ? Crispness is key.

Team, Hiring, and its first cousin - the Burn Rate!

Funded startups are usually at risk! There's money, and folks now have the luxury of pursuing the various ideas that have not been able to get attention so far! Add to this the ability to right away target multiple groups of customers and consumers, do branding, create pitches and soon, you're lost in infinite activity thats gong nowhere. There's a need to link all spending, right from the size of the team, the skills needed, the necessity of doing certain things all together, to the goals and the roadmap.

Keeping the burn rate down not only helps focus, and it gives the startup get operationally viable sooner, and provides both the founders and the investor a lot of buffer!

Obvious Benefits

The returns on getting onboard an operationally focused team are quite apparent. An investor would do well to have help at hand for regular, clear understanding of what's happening in the portfolio companies. This would ideally be a team which brings in both technology and product management experience from a in-the-trenches perspective. The startup would get better help, better focus and probably leaner.

Quite obviously, whats better for the startup is better for the investor!

Disruptive ? [ Fly standing ]

Its pretty straightforward - if most people are a little shocked and taken aback with the idea or change you're suggesting, it could be one of those big ones. Sure there's a risk, but just might be worth taking!

For instance, I've been wondering why, even on flights that last not longer than an hour - everyone needs to sit! Especially in nicely padded seats that cocoon them. People do take the tube and stand for those lengths of time, and its conceivable that a "rest your butt against" something design works. At the least, rows of long benches can surely optimize space.

Of course, the first reaction is "it compromises safety". But I'm very curious, as a percentage, how much of a role better seats had in reducing fatalities. Unlike road skirmishes, if it fails up there, you usually say your prayers. Yeah, I hear ya about the "every life is worth saving, etc. But,

  1. You're assuming the cabin overall cannot be made safer for standing passengers! I'm talking about redesign not mere re-fitting.
  2. Air accidents take far fewer lives than road accidents than pool drowning incidents....
  3. Despite how it sounds in the context, there is something such as a tradeoff. Else, we'd be all outfitting our cars with roll cages, wearing helmets inside them, and donning safety gear before driving anywhere. Everything is percentages.
Its an industry in deep trouble. They need to make more, so we can all continue to fly. We need to reduce our flying footprint. So go ahead, innovate the hell out of that cabin space and we can make space for a few more, and keep things cheap too.

Sounds crazy ? But to start with, disruption should. Its a question of figuring out if there's a feasible path to getting there, and making those numbers work.

Data-Driven Decisions vs. Intuition : Is it really a "vs" ?

Its very hip to talk about being data driven, and as engineers, very appealing as well. Its also a more provable way of justifying a decision. User A/B tests on various designs prove it like no amount of brainstorming can, and clickstreams, sales numbers do not lie!

Yet there are majorly accomplished folks that disagree vehemently with the data-centric approach to decisions, and that makes for a good debate :). Here's a very good 360 around that particular one.

So, is the "versus" in the debate actually called for at all ? As engineers, do we beat too many things down with the data club ? (I somewhere suspect the opposite is not that strikingly true for designers, decision makers, etc who are seen as "following instinct")

Let's deconstruct this data driven decision thingy, shall we ?

You gotta decide about a product idea, or a sales strategy, or a marketing message. So typically, this is what you do (explicitly, or otherwise)
  • Imagine who might consume the outcome of the decision
  • Try and figure out something about the above set. Data ? Helps a lot!
  • Take a call on what'll work.
The data is an input (and comes in many forms!). Over this input is a layer of interpretation, analysis and the final decision is a reaction to this process. Data can help decide, but data cannot decide!

At what level is the decision ?

Are you deciding about a UI attribute for an existing, popular product ? Sure, do bucket tests and let the audience speak. Is it about the product's copy ? Hmm, a little less black and white. The positioning and concept you're trying to communicate about the product ? Well - there's no getting away from hard work and decision making on that. If you expect data to always provide all the answers in black and white terms, you're likely to freeze when working on a lot of things at a more "zoomed out" level.

For entrepreneurs, its often a question of whether the product (which is usually the company itself) is working, and if its not. If you need data to tell you that, you have other serious problems :) Of course you will be going through data, and what we popularly refer to as "instinct" or "intuition" does not develop in isolation of data. On the contrary, its something you develop as you learn how to sift through data, read between its lines and deal with the apparent conflicts it sometimes throws at you.

Conflict ? Aren't numbers black and white ?

Are they ?

Here's two data points from an example I remember reading about recently (sorry, do not recall the source). A survey of numerous car buyers in India put safety high up there in the lsit of influencers for the buy-call. Yet the actual purchase decisions (vis-a-vis the information requests) for models with ABS, airbags or till some time ago, even those with seatbelts at the rear said it was not necessarily an important factor.

The case study surmised that the latter was to be believed, and the former to be ignored. Its probably a more trustworthy data point! So the models which get ABS etc continued to be those at the top end of the offerings.

There - you already needed to pick and choose, and not trust every bit of data as is. But is that all ?

Weren't the consumers also communicating an aspirational need, or one that got negated merely because the cost differentials between the (usually high end) models with ABS etc and those without were extremely high ? Would these people pay a smaller difference for the same in an otherwise lower spec'd model ? Is there a way to lower the cost of including the safety add-ons ?

Do you have enough data ? Qualified ?

Very often, a new venture, idea or product does not even have enough data to start with. Product and entrepreneurship decisions are full of these cases. You still do your best to understand what the picture is, and base a call on that. Would you like to base your calls on tiny samples ? Or would you rather ignore them, unless a clear message emerges ?

And them, lets say you launched and had a couple of hundred thousand clicks on a new page/feature. Of course, you SEO'ed, maybe ran an ad or two, and maybe got some initial coverage? What was the quality/value of those clicks ? Did they all come from ad-clicks, with little repeat usage? Are they from the right target audience which might help in engagement and drive usage/consumption of the important features? Should a transactional site be very happy if a lot of folks turn up looking for info alone? Should it be despondent ?

The clickstream is quite useless during the early life of a product unless qualified. Yes you can collect more data for it, but each qualifier and context for data that you measure stems from a judgement call about why a number is important, and when must it be factored in. Of course, again, you can create a analytics framework to crack that as well, but at some stage or the other, its impossible to keep out human judgement and interpretation of data completely.

Its not "data vs intuition".

There's a huge risk to merely following data - in case you've not set the right context. You can be lulled into a sense of safety/driven into panic needlessly merely because the data says you doing great/horribly, and you forgot to try and see whether you were missing some part of the picture.

Data is only about the stated. The rest is conjecture or extrapolation!

Extrapolation (quite like analogies :) ) is a pretty strange thing.

You can collect data about what's out there. What did the user leave unsaid? Did they like your logo? Why did the dropoff happen at some point ? Did something trigger a word of mouth ? What about the not-clicked links - why did those get ignored ?

Some will need another round of hypothesis and data collection. Others will need some level of an educated guess so you can move on. You've got finite time and resources, and your product is not a grant funded lab!

Data is valuable. But the value is elsewhere.

A lot many great businesses have been built on instinct. That does not discount the research they did as preparation, or the amount of information they might have collected. It only highlights that the ability to make a decision with whatever is available is far more valuable. With the same data, the same inputs and for the same scneario, there will be multiple decisions that succeed to varying degrees, and numerous possible ones which might fail. It is an art, and the attempts to reduce it to a science can only work for low-granularity decisions, and that again for existing, running-state stuff.

What's probably more critical, and to be practised to improve one's judgement calls, is to actively seek to verify hypotheses through launch-and-test iterations, and do these cheap. Developing a good sense of what data to collect, how to read it in the context of other numbers, words around it - this will serve you much better than being a data driven automaton. Its a great help to have numbers, but remember to use them both judiciously, and honestly.

Its not yet time to let the machines take over ;)


Its been a month!

I've gotten together with a couple of other people who're Gurus at understanding various aspects of Products - strategy, positioning, technical understanding and roadmaps, analytics, etc - and created SlicedBread. The idea is to - oh, well - there you go...

Enterpreneurial Enterprises ?

"What can we do to make our employees more entrepreneurial?"

Thats been asked often enough - a couple of times even to me personally - inside larger, less nimble organizations. Over the last couple of weeks, I've had a few discussions in various contexts that have highlighted this need.


Large organizations need processes and systems that can be followed to replicate, predictably, certain outcomes. These need discipline, conformity and some sort of a hierarchy to get executed smoothly. This is true across functions of the organization - production, sales, HR, procurement, you-name-it. Product innovation and R&D is about the only one which has some leeway on this, but there's a tonne of effort to put measurability and processes around that, as well.


Businesses and their needs are dynamic! You get into new products, manage new regulations, expand into new geographies. Old models do not always work in these situations. You might need to package differently, market differently, or price differently. You may not get the product, or positioning right at the first go. You want to be agile, nimble and ready to experiment with more than one approach around the core idea, while measuring constantly to figure out what works and what does not. And you want to keep your costs down, while you figure things out. Be frugal.

Who's good at these fuzzy situations ? Entrepreneurs!

So obviously, there needs to be an element within large enterprises which is entrepreneurial in nature, from a risk taking and nimbless viewpoint, not bogged down by heavy processes and relatively comfortable with lack of resources and clarity. And within this space, folks need a free hand.

Once the core problem is solved, the corporate machinery can - nay - should - move in. Beyond the establishing of the models, processes are needed to ensure scale, consistency, reliability, profitability over a sustained period of time.

But when you gotta go-in-there-and-get-things-done, having a few "mavericks" (from the pov of established orgs) is a huge help.

And the other side

Entrepreneurs often know certain aspects of the business well. Many are engineers who know the product real well, and haven't a clue about other areas. There's often a disconnect from the real user out there, or about pricing models, or undertaking market research and the like.

This is where a stint within a large consumer facing organization will help! The ITCs, HLLs and Tatas of the world have sales folks who've been amongst users across the country, and have insights like nobody's got them. A successful marketing head who's sold gensets in a particular territory will provide important clues about consumer behaviour that will be pretty much impossible to find for a small startup. The pricing and distribution models for entry level mobile phones have a lot to teach entrepreneurs about aspirations, and managing them. And there's no better teacher than been-there, done-that.

Is there a symbiotic relationship here ? At least a limited, short term one ? Perhaps an "internship" or "guest worker" like program, where both benefit from each other and work towards cross pollination of specific skills and attitudes. Who could take the lead on this and do the connects, walk the program through its paces ? Thoughts, ideas welcome in comments.

The "small SMEs" space : Marketing and Sales

I think thats a huge market, and could start driving local software business over the next few years.

If the idea of selling to them appeals to you, and you're open to the idea of managing your own brand, drop me a line. You would, of course, know how to sell to this market and have some decent connects into it already. This is not a job offer by any means :)

More Resources for (Bangalore) Startups

[These are a completely different kind!]

You're a startup. Whether or not funded, you're better off not blowing up money. But then, you pretty likely do not have a conference room at office, and want to meet people at Coffee Days, Baristas, and the likes.

That Cappuccino is a 50, dude! And let's not even get into the Lavazzas etc.

So here's a few tips to stay frugal while you're trying to not stay hungry in the literal sense.

The Cafe @ FabIndia, Koramangala

This is in Madivala - on the Ring Road just before it meets the Hosur Road. Nice Chai for 12/-, decent sandwiches for 25/- and the setting's very pretty too. I've started preferring this to the coffee places not just because of the price.

2/3 Cafe @ HSR Layout

Kinda opposite the BDA Layout. Nice balcony, good filter coffee for 20/- and short eats at an ok price. Not particularly cheap, but way better than the CCDs of the world.

BMTC - Ride the Bus

Do the environment, your stress levels and your wallet a favour. Take a bus. Indus has been taking Volvos all over town for meetings, and manages to catch up on calls, save fuel, and understand a little more of Bangalore. It does take a little more time, but once you get the hang of it, its not that much more. All important routes have decent frequencies. I personally travel junta class on the 30/- day pass since I travel off-peak hours - and the Gold Pass is 75/-. It really frees you up from a lot of hassles, helps reduce a serious amount of your carbon footprint and saves some moolah as well.

The Sagars

Quick catch-ups and 20 minute meetings are perfectly do-able at a Shanthi Sagar or suchlike if its more for networking than a serious brainstorm or discussion. Their coffee is usually better than what CCD can come up with.

I'm sure there are many more such options all across town - do leave your favourite ones in the comments.

Some Interesting Resources for Startups

Here's stuff that i've used recently, or might use, that could be useful for startups - and for that matter for any organizations that are open enough, and broke enough, to experiment.

Get IMified
Your app can go live on GTalk, Twitter, whatever real easy! Opens up a whole new world. And UI challenges, of course :) Terrific stuff.

Yammer Away
Twitter for teams. Collboration gets a new twist - update and communicate informally a la Twitter, and keep it to 140 chars. "I started on code freeze, dnd", "1000th signup let's get ice-cream!" are all possible! The Firefox addon helps.

Just out of the foundry - functionally Yammer++, but the interface is a bit on the "ok" side. Fora, status updates, notices, discussions, groups - a Yahoogroup - meets - Twitter but needs more definition. Nice for informal sharing of sutff within the team.

Of course there's Google for Domains, with good ol' GTalk and Gmail, plus docs.

Mind42 lets you collaboratively brainstorm and develop ideas using Mind Maps, thoughts and on a related note, for sequence diagrams I used the very basic but quick and easy

For the basics, NettiGritty are pretty responsive and reliable (use them for domain registration and DNS management), and NearlyFreeSpeech quite cheap for those starting out, easy to get setup with (used this for the Wordpress install).

Zoho Business then gets you setup with mail, task lists, and a bunch of other stuff (even though its work in progress and there's lots of things it needs that could easily make some of the other tools unnecessary).

Will keep posting as I come across more stuff.

Smaller, cheaper, faster

I've come to believe in this philosophy for starting something, and here's some more support for the cause. (From Getting Real - a book by 37Signals) (Thanks Sid, for the link)

The main advantage that I think comes from working under constraints:

"Constraints also force you to get your idea out in the wild sooner rather than later — another good thing. A month or two out of the gates you should have a pretty good idea of whether you're onto something or not. If you are, you'll be self-sustainable shortly and won't need external cash. If your idea's a lemon, it's time to go back to the drawing board. At least you know now as opposed to months (or years) down the road. And at least you can back out easily. Exit plans get a lot trickier once investors are involved."
From even a product management pov

"Think hard and determine what's really essential and what you can do without. What can you do with three people instead of ten? What can you do with $20k instead of $100k? What can you do in three months instead of six? What can you do if you keep your day job and build your app on the side?"
Give it a read - the whole book's available online - free. Of course, there's a world of effort, training and belief between knowing it and living it. But there's always somewhere you start....

You Are L(ured) ? Self selling retail web


You're driving and drawl up next to this this majorly cool car (or cycle, or motorbike) at the lights - and you go wow! What's that ? A quick check on the phone brings up the model, reviews, price, blah.

You've memo'ed the specific medicine/grocery item/whatever that you need to pick, but thats not that easy to find. You cross a store where this is available, and your phone goes "beep-pick this up here" immediately.

You're in a meeting and totally dig that phone, or pen, or laptop that X-Y-Z in the room has. You're curious. Problem solved!

You're house hunting and pass a property you think you might be interested in. Check if something's available, prices, T&C.

The guys at the next table in a restaurant get served and you totally want to know what is the yummy looking dish they just! The menu presents itself.

Wouldn't it be great if these things could announce themselves, and inform, and even connect you to an interface where you could order it ?

Here's an idea for the RFID guys, retail, and a totally new store format.

What you need:
  • Smart tags (RFID?)
  • Phones with sensors for these tags
  • Brave new retailer
I don't think I need to explain more. Can be applied to non commercial stuff as well.

Some thoughts/use cases:
  • Its a distributed web of real things, way more contextual!
  • Its a distributed retail mechanism
  • It will lessen social interaction in some case, trigger them in others
  • Maybe poiliticians/marketers could distribute these real world URIs to campigners for info dissemination
  • A limited version of this is already in use at toll booths! So why not a larger "web" ?
  • Everyone could possibly be a walking blog!
Oh well, Sunday morning stuff :) What we call these - WorldTags ? LORs (Life Object Resource) ?

I'm already half sure someone, somewhere, has given this a shot.

Manufacturing Giant ?

Well, there's more than meets the eye, or gets the headlines.

"It’s not commonly known that India is the largest manufacturer of motorcycles, second-largest maker of small cars, and third largest manufacturer of automotive components. In the pharmaceutical industry, India has quietly become the fourth-largest producer of pharmaceuticals, while also showing the ability to innovate with the second-largest number of drug master filings. It is also one of the largest exporters of steel, has one of the largest forging facilities in the world, is among the largest consumers and producers of energy in Asia, the second-largest manufacturer of CD ROMs, and so on."

The Challenges are enormous, but there's so many growth stories, and so much happening, thats its tough to not be optimistic. The startup space needs to open its eyes to these and engage, understand and explore opportunity better. It may be less sexy than the current romanticized attempts at entrepreneurship, but it'll make better business sense for sure!


Indus commented on an article about Indian internet startups failing to meet VCs expectations, and I responded to his comment. I think my response there was relevant to this entry - so cut-pasting:
"The internet, by and large, replaced TV in India. Not malls, not utilities, etc. Some businesses have engaged a portion of of their consumers by using the web as a (cheaper) channel, but by and large, real business happens outside of the not-that-much-of-an-idiot-box.
Its not a question of lack of innovation (that'll happen), or of merely "following" a model from someplace else. Its the vacuum of real-life and real-biz requirements that causes the same to be more or less dreamt up over coffee - and with little follow-up validation.
A little more rubber off the soles, a little more connection with real needs, and the right ideas, right innovation and decent success are likely follow..."

The stories That Aren't [Told]

Everyone's heard of the huge IT Services in India. A lot many are giving products a shot. Some are exploring SaaS and a few are even swimming in the shark infested waters of the web-products-for-the-arrived world!

But there's some mundane stuff thats unknown, for the most part:

How big is the assembled server market in Bangalore ? Its AMCing ?
What margins do data recovery businesses have ? What are the volumes ?
What is the "chip-level-repair" industry ? Is it attractive ?

Is any of the above a scalable business ? Is there a Dell-on-some-scale waiting in the wings ? How much is the organized, and how much the unorganized market ? These guys obviously have a deep sales reach - what can that be used for ?

The current focus of the Ecosystem - especially the technology related parts of it - is limited to a narrow band of technology activity. This is probably driven by the dollar or potential-stardom value of the technology. Its a similar story for investors - both angels as well as VCs. The lack of exits in the current market has probably got to do at least partially with the huge valuations at which those wil make sense given current investment sizes.

Are there smaller stories in there ? Take Bangalore's best data recovery guys nationwide ? Or help an efficiently run AMC business scale, reach out to the government and big business and grow ? Or explore if there's an aggregation story in there somewhere ? Or data collection and market research ?

I was speaking to my cousin the other day about some ideas. He's been in the hardware space for a while (hence the bias of the examples above towards that industry). He's moved from a large org where him and his partners sold a lot of hardware at low margins, and some services of various sorts at better margins, to his own outfit where he's focusing on the margins and has cut out the pain of sales completely! He also knows his customers really well ("not servicing the software industry right now at all!"), and can hit them for upselling related stuff!

There's many such entrepreneurs, and many such stories. We can glean a lot of wisdom from these, and possibly spot opportunities for co-operation, investments on a different scale/model, lowering our costs, getting a foot in the door with customers, etc.

I daresay my cousin's lessons in entrepreneurship have been a lot more valuable, richer than mine. I also think engaging with other, real-life industry around us will help us think of our work with more ground truths and reality included in our plans, pricing and projections. It will help us realize and respect true customer needs and sentiment, and step out of the echo-chamber for a while.

The breath of fresh-air-nee-reality will do us all a lot of good :)

The Ecosystem is Broke(n)

During the course of a conversation-over-chai after a meeting with fellow entrepreneurs, we eventually got to the usual analysis of whats happening in the startup and entrepreneurial space around here.

Surely enough, the echo-chamber that resonates its own thoughts, and has little connection with those outside, soon came up.

So what's paining/failing early startups/small companies/first time entrepreneurs ? What does a business need to make it ? You've got the idea, you might get to the product, or some version of it, but then you sometimes kinda get stuck. For lack of decent, honest, precise advice, information, knowhow, or even plain awareness.

Distribution, the right pricing, what should your outbound communication be ? Are the buyers interested ? Why not ? Is it technology, or support, or something else ? Do we even know what's really happening in the spaces we're trying to connect to ? Is there any form of market intelligence at all ? (I do not include a critical analysis of launches, PR statements and quarterly results in this - that often does not help a startup too much). What's the government's take on issues ? What are the infrastructural changes in the offing and their likely impact ? How do you engage in a dialogue with these (you're already drowning in work) ?

An early entrepreneur would surely love an ecosystem into which inputs that cover the above aspects are drawn in. An ecosystem, again, is not the creation or sole preserve of this forum or that, or some or the other online publication. Its the coming together of all of these, with dialogue flowing between the various stakeholders.

That ecosystem is quite inadequate in India, as of now.

As I see it now - be it major startup events (both structured and otherwise), or online coverage of entrepreneurial activity - there are two major problems:

There's no EcoSystem (but only a part of it)

Sure there's a bunch of enthusiastic VCs who participate. There's a few industry people who even mentor folks. There's a lot of aspirants who want to get going, and then there's a bunch of people who've seen and done a little, and pass off a lot as knowledge.

There's a lot of hype, jargon and very little honest learn-as-we-participate happening inside this echo-chmaber.

More importantly, where are the people who're connected to the real world ?

Are there any top sales folks from FMCGs, Financial Services, Retail, etc, who're telling it how it is ? Do we get real info on what directions business development is taking in healthcare, telecom, energy, real estate, etc ? Yes, you sure pick up bits and pieces of info as you run into these industries, but you're on your own, and its a very incomplete ecosystem without these inputs.

Things are being built, reviewed, validated in isolation from these realities, and only a rude jolt much much later in the process forces a rethink. By such time, some have lost too much money, or people, or enthu, or time. People seem to go through entire entrepreneurship lifecycles with little connection to their real markets - and with a very fuzzy understanding of its behavioural traits. User personas are tough, but even worse, they're probably non-existent in our startups!

A few honest tips from people who've sold stuff "out there", figured out causes and relationships on the ground, would go a long way. Having access to thoughts from a senior bureaucrat who might be able to analyze government policy and directions better than techie-turned-analyst/VC/blogger would give the ecosystem a serious leg up. And so on - for media and communication, for figuring out pricing, and a whole lot more.

We need "more-360". Its a very very small world right now with few connects into reality. Gotta change.

There's no co-operation

This is true for both the players that help create the current ecosystem, as well as for co-operation amongst startups. Everyone is trying to do everything, be everyone, and seems a little fearful of opening up to inviting folks with other competencies. The expansion of the ecosystem needs an honest appraisal of whats available today, and whats missing. There needs to be a concerted effort to expand it, collectively. Each resource, each forum is so small and ineffective at this point that talking about competition is plain short-sighted.

Some gaps that I think exist:
  • Experts for many aspects of entrepreneurship are missing from the discussions/fora.
  • The entire focus is on "how to start" and "how to get funded". Even the words mention otherwise, the actions focus on these two. What about the startup which has been around for a while ? What about those who need a redo, or are about to pack up ?
  • Exploration of new models. Right now - pretty much everything is a lift-and-fit from the Valley, and there's a tonne of traditional business knowhow thats ignored. The Nano was not created by adopting and stripping down an existing design. Need models for small ticket M&As, newer funding models that may not work like the current fund-of-risks model we see today (and that may have different investors from the essentially financial players one sees now), newer kinds of VCs, different models for hiring/organizational structure.
  • Way more co-operation between startups. Trying to focus on what one does best, and keeping burn rates ridiculously low, will help get better success. There's often failure induced by a lack of understanding of competencies that could easily be co-operated on, but that essentially smart folks fail at trying to understand and learn quickly enough. If you can get products out fast, marry someone who buys in and sells well. If you can network, help create and manage partnerships for others. More distributed ownership, higher stakes and commitment, lower "salary" costs.
Someone's gotta to take the lead on some of this. A few success stories (to whatever extent - its not just $100 million exist that count) and we'll see more entrepreneurial activity that's built on newer models, for our own markets, at our price points, and stuff that sustains.

Entrepreneurial Reasons

Why one should NOT pursue ideas:

  • Buzzword
  • Peer group seems to do similar stuff
  • Sounds cool/sexy
  • "But I would use it anyday"
  • I cannot stand my current job
Why one should:
  • Will make lots of money, surely
  • Will make decent money and be lots of fun
  • Will let me survive, and provide immense satisfaction
  • I cannot die with a "What if I had...." on this
  • I love to do this, what the hell (and I have worked out the finances bits)
Got more ? Disagree ? Discuss it here... or leave a comment.

New morning tomorrow

Ziva was a great journey that drew to a close this evening.

It helped me make the leap from techie to entrepreneur. Of course there's still a lots to learn, but the last 3.5 years have got me thinking and moving in the right directions wrt product vs business issues, helped me connect with a lot of great people, and forced me to learn multitasking like never before. It was fun getting stuff running from a scratch, thinking of the 360 around every little decision - from how it'd impact users, costs, developers, the story, and its opportunity costs. Pretty much everything was a tough call!

There were lots I read on blogs, in articles, and some of it even started making sense as we stumbled onto problems which needed those tricks to solve, and where the advice mattered. I got to push myself in multiple directions - managing myself, code, design, people, products, marketing, customers. Some I discovered a flair for, and others were a no-go and I learned my limitations. I learned how and when to factor in, or discount advice. When to back and not back my own instincts. To evaluate thoughts from multiple angles.

I'm not the kind of guy who can go back into a classroom to learn stuff after years of working in the real world. But the last few years have been a huge push towards a well rounded experience. Zook and its associated roller coaster was a fun experience. I learned the value of alternative strategies, and how to mesh the long term and short term goals and tricks.

I had fun. There was celebration, pain, arguments, glory, euphoria, and all that a startup involves.

I feel much more prepared for the uncertainty that I'm trying to embrace. Should be a lot of fun.