Categories
General Thinking

Two Steps Forward One Step Back

When people write history, they like to smoothen the curve and make it seem like a constant journey from one milestone to the next. But history is, if anything, really messy. It is a process of attempting to move forward while repeatedly falling back only to find your way again. Between 1800 and 1900, many discoveries were made which improved the lives of people substantially. Just before the first world war, the magic of electricity changed the lives of people in unimaginable ways. 

This was followed by 2 World Wars separated by the Great Depression, it was certainly a huge step back. From the ashes of war emerged a stronger world that moved forward in meaningful ways. This led to the improvement of the quality of lives of many across the world. Life expectancy increased, job opportunities multiplied, and access to education improved. At the beginning of the 20th century, we had a little more than 1 Billion people in the world. By the end of the century, we had more than 7 Billion and still managed to create employment for more than 90% of them. For any person living today, no matter which continent, it is normal to feel that the world is taking a step back. 

A pandemic, global climate catastrophe, an unbelievably bad economy and incredibly bad leadership – everywhere! Seems all bad.

It will change.

Even if you were to look at the stock market charts or the share price movement for any company, zoom out! All you would see are mountains – peaks and troughs. This would be true, no matter how successful or unsuccessful a company is. This is the only truth of life.

You take two steps forward and one step back.

As an individual, you need to be able to see your lives through the same prism of this forward and back movement. Unfortunately, in life, much as in the case of history, we are taught to expect life to be a smooth curve upwards. We feel disappointed and let down whenever things do not play out that way. Do not expect a smooth curve; life will take you back and forth. My mother told me, life will keep coming at you like waves. It is this nature that gives life meaning. Otherwise, life would become far too boring. 

What makes this narrative even worse is when you measure life only from one dimension.

Your Narrative

I have myself suffered and watch several entrepreneurs suffer through challenges in life. In the early days, cash tends to be short in supply. If your plans do not pan out the way you had imagined, you can find yourself cash-strapped. In a world where success is measured only by the size of your bank account; it is normal to feel that you have lost everything. Rather than a step back it feels like you have jumped into a bottomless abyss. 

Invariably what I have also noticed is that these individuals grow immensely as people. Their ability to absorb pressure, their ability to analyse practically and the insights that they possess, sharpen a great deal. The world cannot see this or measure it. It is a travesty when the individuals themselves have no realisation of what they are gaining and fixate only on financial success. 

Life is a series of disappointments, hiding moments of contentedness OR life is a joyful, hiding moments of disappointments. It is only a question of how you choose to look at it; it is the same. It is all in your head and a reflection of your mental toughness and outlook toward life. 

When you feel you are taking a step backwards, always remember there is some other facet of yourself where you are taking a step forward. Keep moving!

Categories
Entrepreneurship

Competition

Mentoring startups gives one a ring-side view of the way entrepreneurs think.

I have often been in a situation where an aspiring entrepreneur wants to pitch me their idea and hear what I wish to think about it. Travelling across the country and meeting thousands of entrepreneurs also means that I hear more than my fair share of ideas.

Often I come across situations where somebody comes around to pitch an idea, and my immediate response is ‘There is someone does something similar’ or ‘Is this not the same as XYZ?’

What typically happens at this point is this ‘aspiring entrepreneur’ will go back and research the hell out of this supposed competitor and read everything written about them. If this supposed similar company is doing well they get all bent out of shape that there is a strong incumbent and if they are struggling, read about all of their struggles and get depressed!

When you are starting a venture, you need not worry about a competitor, or someone doing something similar. If at all anything, you need to be worried about the absence of competition. If a real opportunity exists, why is nobody else seeing it?

You need to avoid being flustered by competition because:

You need to focus on your own strengths and find the best way to showcase that strength. Also, there is more than one way to do a thing or solve a problem. You need to focus and make sure you are solving it.

The market is large. In a country like India, there is always enough market to go around amongst several competitors. Can you think of any industry where there is only one player? This also means that there is enough diversity and nuance in the market for the problem to be solved in different ways and see adoption.

If you are introducing a new concept, you want many people popularizing the idea rather than you alone. Orange County, Coorg spent crores in advertising popularizing the idea of vacationing in Coorg. No sooner was the location recognized, hundreds of players moved in. It would have been nice to have had some competition in the early days.

The best way to learn is from watching others make mistakes. The other way to learn is to make those mistakes yourself. Having competition is the cheapest way to learn.

If there is no competition in the market even real or is this all a figment of your imagination?

Finally, I would like to leave you with this thought – Google was not the first search engine, neither did they enter a market without competition. Facebook was not the first social network, neither did they enter a market without competition. iPhone was not the first smartphone, neither did they enter a market without competition.

SpaceX is not the first private rocket maker and their competitors where all governments!

Embrace competition and seek it out. Watch them carefully. Ultimately your success or failure is down to your execution.

Categories
Entrepreneurship

Blockchain Evolution

Last year was when most of the non-nerdy world woke up to Crypto-Currency and Blockchain. For the most part this was thanks to the fact that Bitcoin was on a tear and was doubling in value every few weeks!

Blockchain is the fundamental technology which makes crypto-currencies possible. Blockchain essentially stores all data in the form of blocks. These blocks are connected in the form of a chain. These blockchains are further stored on every computer on the network. This makes it near impossible to fake a transaction. The primary reason for this being that the fake transaction would have to be entered into every system on the network! These are called distributed ledgers.

While crypto-currencies seem like a great application of blockchain, there are fundamental issues in there. It is great that the ledger is distributed but what if I am able to get hold of your password? I can steal everything that is in your wallet and there is complete anonymity. So apart from knowing that the currency has been stolen and to which address it was transferred you would know nothing.

This just makes crypto-currencies a poor application in their current form.  But blockchain has a lot more to it. It can be used to store any kind of data that needs to be immutable such as property documents, certificates, shares, etc.

The trouble has been that all of these solutions need to be implemented at a systemic level.

 

It is heartening to see some of these implementations take root in different parts of the world.

A bank uses blockchain to store data

A blockchain company called Coinfirm has announced a partnership with PKO BP, a major Polish bank, to provide blockchain-based document verification using a tool called Trudatum. The project is a an actual implementation of one of the primary benefits of blockchain-based tools, namely its ability to permanently and immutably store data. This announcement brings blockchain implementations out of the realm of proof-of-concept and into the real world.

Exchanges using blockchain as a risk mitigation tool

The Indian Factoring Exchanges – A.TREDs, RXIL and M1xchange – have launched a blockchain-based networking platform which aims to prevent financial frauds and double invoicing issues.

Banks using blockchain to secure and track international transfers

Blockchain boosters rejoice: A major bank is using the distributed-ledger technology that makes bitcoin possible for international payments of fiat currency. Santander, which had been testing it internally among its staff, launched the service today, making the Spanish banking giant among the few major financial institutions to go live with the extraordinarily hyped technology.

Now, countries are getting in on using crypto-currencies as a way of trading their most valuable exports

Venezuela, the world’s second-largest crude oil producer, is learnt to have offered a 30% discount on India’s petroleum imports from there—but only if payments are made using the cryptocurrency backed by that country’s government.

 

Categories
General Thinking

Its more expensive now…

Not really!

We tend to often assume that things are a lot more expensive now than they used to be and our parents/grandparents would have us completely convinced of the same.

I saw the chart below a few weeks back.

To think that the first digital watch would be $12,000 dollars today. People lost their shit when Apple launched the Apple Watch gold edition which was similarly priced. Some of the most recent products are actually a fraction of the cost.
There is another side to this story. A product launched today can confidently expect a global distribution chain to be available at its service. This was not true even 30 years back. To scale a product across a country would take months IF you had all the cash at your disposal.
Puts the iPhone X launch price of USD 1,000 in perspective does it not.

 

Categories
General Thinking

Knowledge fuels Ego

As humankind evolved, so did our curiosity. Curiosity led us to question. The process of answering any question often begins from what we already know. The trouble with most things we know is that, every one of those things are based on certain assumptions.

Knowledge is often passed on in the form of frameworks. This make it easier for people to understand and assimilate what is being passed on. Most frameworks have gaps and holes. The implicit assumptions are not always (almost never) spelt out. What we know for a fact today can be completely undone by a discovery tomorrow. We have always got to be prepared for this.

There was a time when the brightest men in the world thought that the Earth was flat. They had sufficient evidence to back it up!

Have you seen anything stick on a round object? Their belief in the flat earth was so strong that they were willing to behead those who claimed otherwise. Giordano Bruno was burnt at a stake in Rome in 1600 for claiming the Earth went around the Sun. Galileo was imprisoned, threatened of torture and forced to recant his claims.

These people at the time, thought they knew better; and were willing to bet on their knowledge.

Their assumed knowledge led them to a place of inflated egos.

I often see this in action in startups.

Let us assume there are two co-founders in a company; one specialising in marketing, while the other in Finance. In the event that the marketing specialist came up with some ideas with regards to finance, would the same be readily embraced? There tends to be a certain amount of prejudice that tends to creep in when such a situation normally arises. The knowledge of the knowledge makes the finance specialist assume that he/she knows better.

There can always be a different perspective.

I was thinking about co-founder conflicts and the methods to resolve them. Often the kind of conflicts that become impossible to resolve are the ones where ego is involved. More often than not, when one of the founders feels that he/she is armed with some knowledge which the other is not, their ability to put ego aside becomes greatly diminished.

The ability of the one armed with facts to listen to the one proposing without, is the cornerstone of great co-founding teams. Incidentally, it also the greatest trait most successful leaders possess. Listening.

Irrespective of what you know and what you may have experienced; always listen. Perspectives make a great difference, none of us know everything. And even within the things we think we know, newer perspectives, or discoveries can emerge. So always keep an open mind. Don’t assume that you know everything that there is to know.

The real challenge often is to keep knowledge from turning into belief.

 

Categories
General Thinking

Speed is exaggerated

There is an excessive amount of focus on speed, when it comes to building startups. One of the advices that is often provided to startups is to get out of the blocks really fast.

The #FailFast philosophy has probably pushed more startups towards failure than towards success.

If you were building a house, would you want the foundation to be laid really fast? Or might you prefer that time is taken to ensure that the foundation is really solid?

A business is a marathon, not a sprint.

You can get out of the blocks fast; but then, what is going to keep the customers coming back to you? Continuously making yourself better is critical; that is what keeps them coming back. Customers will stay with you when you delight them, keep offering them something better and better to look forward to.

You get paid for showing up and making the product/experience better everyday.

A fast start is like a spark, continuous improvement and delivery is the fire.

Keep the fire burning.

Categories
General Thinking

Yahoo! – The Upside

A lot of ink has been spilt on the many mistakes made by Yahoo. How the company refused to buy Google or Facebook when the opportunity existed. Yahoo might in fact be a story of many missed opportunities. But those misses did not really define the failure. Yahoo failed because of a series of poor decisions and a company culture that did not permit it to move forward.

The implicit assumption in all of the criticism is that Google would have certainly gone on to become the company that we know today. Yes, perhaps there would have been one less competitor to deal with.

Those of us who adopted and started using Google did so because its simplicity and precision. Do you really imagine that Yahoo! which was always a portal, would have purchased Google and retained a blank white page with a box?

Cultural Deceit

Yahoo failed because of the things that made it successful to begin with. It was launched as a directory service and then went on to adopt the portal model. For whatever it is worth, it worked very well for them in the late 90’s.

The linked post on stratechery which talks about the development of culture.

Culture does not beget success but it is the product of it

When a company does something and it works out for the company, it becomes a formula. The people who join the company hear the same stories and do the same things.

An employee who joins Marriott hears stories of awesome customer service which helped them retain customers, got someone promoted. The formula to get ahead becomes, providing awesome customer service.

Yahoo was a portal and wanted to continue to survive in that paradigm. It was just much easier to sell the idea to advertisers and generate revenues through multiple channels. Google went with income from ‘Search’ only. Honestly, the good boys at Google did not want to do even that! Eric Schmidt had to wrestled them into advertising.

Yahoo’s culture did not allow them to adjust to the changing nature of the web. Much like Google finds it hard to adjust ‘search’ to the demands of smartphones. Facebook by comparison found it extremely comfortable adapting to mobile.

Mergers and Acquisitions

Yahoo may not have bought Google or Facebook, but they bought often and bought a lot. Here is a list of all of the M&A that Yahoo has been engaged in over the years. You may notice that there are a list of 114 companies there. In the space of 18 years, that is an average of 6 per year; or one every alternate month! Number deceive in the absence of context; they made 23 off those in 2013 alone. An additional 19 were acquired in 2014.

Yahoo made big acquisitions in the 90’s that did not pay off. GeoCities, Broadcast.com (founded by Mark Cuban) and Overture Services were all multi-billion dollar acquisitions which went nowhere. Flickr still survives and could have easily been Instagram, but is not.

I am sure had they acquired Google and Facebook, they would have been equally lost in the quagmire that was Yahoo. Throwing everything into a portal and melding it into one was not what was needed, but Yahoo could not help but do that.

Marissa Mayer kept deflecting criticism by acquiring one company after another. She closed 5 deals in Jan 2014 alone. When Steve Jobs went back to Apple he figured out the soul of the company and let go of everything else. Marisa Mayer did exactly the reverse in the case of Yahoo, kept everything and added more garbage.

So what is the upside?

For starters thank Yahoo that they did not acquire Google for $1 Million, you would probably be using bing today! Also, you might have been using Google+ had they ended up acquiring Facebook.

Yahoo redistributed 10’s of Billions of dollars to many startup founders through acquisitions. These founders went on to invest in other startups and created the startup eco-system that exists today. This is by far the most critical contribution that Yahoo made. This alone contributed significantly towards changing the trajectory of investments in startups.

Yahoo by itself might not have been a hugely successful business. A combination of cultural undercurrent and poor leadership ran the company into the ground. Having said that, Yahoo has made contributions that are valuable.

Not buying Google and Facebook are one amongst them.

Categories
General Thinking

Secrets about Sales

In the startup journey one of the hardest and by far the most critical things is to get sales for the company.  Sales is what finally drives the engine and brings the income that is required to prove that the business being pursued, is worth being pursued.

When a startup embarks on sales, it is important to be focused on how they go about the process. They need to be able to describe their dream customers who would not have any hesitation in purchasing the product or service that they are looking to sell. Once this ideal customer is defined, it is very important to go ‘Narrow’ and ‘Deep’. Addressing a specific customer is easier than addressing a mass market with a wide variety of customers who have a variety of needs to be addressed.

The temptation at the beginning is to start selling the product or service to the entire market. There is no surer way of failing. I wrote a post about this earlier here.

A startup thrives on building relationships. Early customers of the company not only patronise the startup but also provide a great deal of feedback to improve the product to better meet customer requirements. These individuals also play the part of marketers on behalf of the startups. It is hence extremely important to cultivate a great relationship with these customers.

When you feel personally invested in something, you want to see it succeed. You want your customer to be in this position. This is precisely the reason you need a very specific customer with whom you can have one shared interest – your business.

Going narrow allows the startup to focus on the individuals who best suite the dream customer profile and makes sure that the conversion can be quickly achieved. Going deep allows for a lot of feedback to filter through as well as enables strong relationships which the business can depend on. Such customers would not abandon the startup to move to another (let us say a competitor) very easily.

All of this put together makes it possible to truly delight your customers.

Marketing is broad and shallow, it tries to address the mass. As a consequence it does not enable relationship building, which is very critical for a startup. Also, the cost of marketing tends to be much higher and the returns on the same much lower than selling directly to a specific customer.

Sales is about relationships and even if you are a larger entity, the relationships need to be nurtured and grown. A larger entity needs to look at sales like a long distance relationship. You might not be able to meet or spend as much time, as regularly. Nevertheless, you can always keep the channels of communication open and communicate regularly.

When engaging in sales, it is also very important to look at the product or service from the perspective of the customer who is being sold to.  Most often one of the biggest mistake that most entrepreneurs make is to try and enforce their perspective on the customer rather than, get around to seeing the customer’s perspective.

If you look at the image above; at first sight, it seems like the image is one, of an old man. But a closer look makes it clear that there are two different people, one old man and a woman. Similarly what your customer sees or what you see might not be the same. Hence it is important to look at the frame of reference of the other person in order to convince them. This is easy, again, if a narrow and deep approach is taken.

Fundamentally, sales is a reflection of how well you understand the customer you are targeting. By going after a narrow subset of customers, startups can ensure that they know their customers well. When you know your customer well, your ability to see their perspective deepens and you are well positioned to close the sale.

Categories
Entrepreneurship

Taking the Small Steps

Large market size is important; but a startup invariably starts niche and then grows. When I try to explain this to entrepreneurs, I find that most people walking down the path of entrepreneurship find it very hard to understand the need to start niche. Everyone can use this product is the usual answer I get. Most entrepreneurs I come across, who are working on tech products or online businesses expect a million customers to show up in 6 months!

Starting a business is a marathon, not a sprint. It will most likely take 10 years of your life. It is in very rare cases that someone gets a Billion dollar exit in 3 years.

The larger goals and the larger market is important; but when you are starting out, the here and now matters more. You probably do not have the money or the capabilities to serve the larger market to begin with. What is most important is to keep moving forward a step at a time.

When starting a business the first few customers are by far the most important and the most critical. They are important because they put their trust in your product/service and decide to patronise you, at the same time, these are the people who provide you some of the most critical feedback which help shape your product/service. Also, it is probably the only time in your startup journey that you can spend time listening to each customer and understanding the qualitative richness of what they are saying.

Since it is cricket season, I am going to use that example. You might want to be the best national player, but you cannot say, you will play directly at the national level. You have to try to excel at club level, then get into smaller regional teams, and progress thereon. The greater goal of reaching the pinnacle motivates you but nevertheless you focus on the here and now. You try to score the century in the small matches that you are a part of. Shine at the opportunities provided to you. Make people realise and say that this player has got real talent. This probably helps a talent scout spot you and move you up into a higher level of the game, where you should be able to excel again to move forward.

Just because your product is online, does not mean that the world is your canvas. Start with the immediate; the people that you can reach out easily. Convince them to use it; take feedback. Find people who love what you are doing. They may be few, but that is fine. They will be the people who will make others patronise you. Keep growing the circle of people who love your product. As it keeps growing bigger and bigger, you will have a real opportunity to get into the big leagues.

Rome was not built in a day, it was not built in week or months. It was built over decades. That, most often, is also the case with businesses. Very few of them ever are built in a very short period of time. Have patience and build it one brick at a time.

Categories
General Thinking

What makes a business, a ‘Startup’?

All too often I come across young entrepreneurs, who are just starting a business through which they intend to hawk their skills. Starting a business does not necessarily make it a startup. It makes you an entrepreneur certainly, but not a startup.

Anybody, who engages in any kind of business is an entrepreneur but only a few among them can be deemed startups. I can’t go around saying, I have a startup just because I setup a Dhaba on NH7!

Unless… the business meets certain conditions; I shall list them below.

 

Attack a problem that has not already been solved

When you attack a problem that has not already been solved, you are creating a market for yourself. The kind of solution that you offer cannot be bought off the shelf and hence it makes the offering compelling.

I know web development and hence I started a web development company. Well, sure you did! But the problem with that is, you are not solving anything new, you are invariably going to compete with the many thousands of web development agencies that are out there already. You lack experience and most certainly the manpower that some of the more established peers have. From that point forward, it is an uphill climb. Besides, since this is a well-worn path, many entrepreneurs have tested and tried all kinds of permutations and combinations of selling the product or service. I do not deem such a business a startup.

Unless… you have found a way of doing the business differently.

 

Building a business model which breaks convention

Take a company like Uber; it is able to get into a business that is as old as the motor vehicle and able to find scale like no other business has been able to, till date. Many companies have tried  running a taxi business. Invariably the biggest problem with running the business successfully has been that the incentive of the owners and the drivers has been misaligned. This has meant that there is no global taxi business; until, Uber.

Uber used a mix of technology coupled with a business model, which is unlike any that existed till then. Most importantly, the company does not own any inventory of vehicles unlike every other cab business prior to it. They own the platform through which they are able to generate demand and they manage to match that with individual taxi owners who are able to deliver a standard product quality.

Uber is just one of the examples of how an old world business has found a new avatar through an innovative business model.

Examples of such companies include Airbnb, HotelsTonight, Google, Spotify, Pandora

The success of each of these businesses hinges on the fact that they did things differently. They changed the way the business was done in the past. Before Google, all search engines used to push the sponsored listing up on the search results without informing the users; precisely why the ‘Don’t be evil’ motto was coined. Spotify and Pandora changed how music was consumed and thereby changed how users pay for them as well. Airbnb changed the ad-hoc renting market forever; not only for home-owners who wished to rent out their houses/rooms as holiday accommodation but also for travellers who seek for cheaper stay options. Each of them have been able to change the way business used to be done, which brought them leadership role in the market and helped them get recognised.

 

Ability to grow across geographies and scale, providing exponential returns

Most of the businesses established prior to the onset of computers usually consisted of certain assets, which cost a lot to replicate across countries, which in turn slowed down the growth of the business. In the case of most startups, one of the defining features is that they are easy to replicate in different geographies and hence lead to rapid expansion across not only domestic but also international geographies. [Caveat: Certain problems are country specific and therefore cannot be scaled in a similar manner internationally]

In all of the cases mentioned above the companies were able to quickly spread the same model across boundaries and ensure rapid growth of their businesses. The increase in scale means exponential returns for any investment that has been made in such businesses.

Despite being restricted by copyrights, companies like Spotify and Pandora have been able to expand to tens of countries resulting in very high turnovers for them.

Scale is by far the greatest defining attribute of a startup. Companies that can cater to a relatively large market can scale continuously and therefore generate greater value for the investors in the long run by unlocking value in untapped markets. Squeezing more money out of the same set of customers often proves challenging and also results in companies acting in a manner which is seem to be contrary to the interests of the consumer.

 

These three attributes are by far, the most important for the business to be classified as a startup.