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) ...