First Week as A Full-Time Entrepreneur

Finally the day arrived for letting go the monthly paycheck and starting working full time on my startup. The last day at office was busy saying goodbyes, cleaning up laptop and getting rid of all accumulations over the year. There couldn’t have been a better start to full-time entrepreneurship than a Lean Startup event in the evening that gave us an opportunity to pitch our idea to 60 odd people! I was excited about my pitch but didn’t get a second to prepare with all the frenzy at work.

Monday morning felt awkward without the early morning rush to catch a train, gazillion emails and phone meetings. I certainly didn’t miss it as my mind was occupied with the new design of our service, project timelines, and most of all – funding. My partner and I met at 9:30 AM and worked our day through till late in the night. It was a day full of discussions around design, product and architecture, calls with potential partners, employees and investors, and bunch of coding.

Despite a productive first day, the thought of not having a monthly paycheck kept weighing on my mind. It was obvious that I needed to set goals to measure my progress and get rid of this nagging feeling of being unpaid. On Tuesday, first we created a development plan to build our MVP with timelines. The next four days were focused on our plan with constant brainstorming with our design team, interviewing candidates, coding and networking with potential investors.  The week went by like a breeze but we made good progress on our product and business.

It is not easy to break out of the safety net and I am no exception. Everyday of the week I checked my bank account every few hours to reconfirm that our dough didn’t disappear with my job and questioned hard if I could do this venture with my job. I am out of the dilemma now and fully convinced that it is the right way to do justice to my ambition. The odds are exceptionally stacked against a startup so we don’t want to leave any stone unturned to move the needle, even if a tiny bit, in our favor. The first week was a test drive to how to manage my own time. I am sure next week will be better and it will continue to improve from here on. Welcome aboard an entrepreneur’s journey!

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Speed and Design: Key Differentiators for a Startup

We live in a fast-paced startup world. Anything you think is already in the works somewhere with very little whitespace for innovation in a crowded space of social, mobile and cloud startups. My partner and I have been working on ideas for almost six months and were trumped twice in the beginning by Facebook and Google that launched similar products. Having learnt the speed lesson, we didn’t waste time to start working on our next idea. We did some smart things like quickly launching a beta for validation and learning a great deal in the process. Our key learning being–programming is no longer a competitive advantage for a startup; it is speed and design.

The 1990s were heydays for technology startups when it was hard to find programming talent. Finding great programmers was a distinctive competency of any startup then, but not anymore. Don’t get me wrong, programmers still make or break a company but they are not the core anymore. In a fast-paced world where innovation cycles have drastically shortened and consumer expectations are sky high, it is the pace and design that sets an application apart. This is more prevalent in consumer startups but B2B applications are also seeing the same phenomenon. Today, the cost of startups has gone down dramatically and so is the time to market. Many entrepreneurs are embracing a lean startup methodology that promotes validation before scaling and being quick to market to collect valuable user feedback. We launched our recent service in beta in less than four weeks and almost 100 users were using it in less than three weeks of launch. A quick launch not only deters your competition but also helps you validate the problem space. The days of building a perfect and complete product before launch are past us. The mantra now is define a minimal viable product, launch quick, and iterate.

 

Apple has set a high bar for design. With less than 5% market share but almost 50% profits of the mobile phone industry, Apple has proved that design is not only dominating but also a profitable aspect of your product. The iPhone and iPad have set new standards for intuitive design that almost everyone expects from a new application. Today, designers are more expensive [and busier] than programmers and there is a talk in the startup community on how important it is to have a design person as a co-founder. A great usability is the gate to get your users into your service/application. Despite strong revenue streams being core to Web 2.0 companies, it is still eyeballs that define the success of your application. A low tolerance for poor usability sets high bar for an intuitive design for a successful application. Be cool is the new slogan.

 

Don’t wait–move fast and design awesome for success!

Startup Mantra I – Solve Real Problem of Your Customers

How often do you hear a technology startup is a cool place to work because one can unleash her innovative brilliance without much questions asked?  Many successful technology companies, including Google have legitimized this work culture by giving employees a free reign to work on their ideas during office hours. However, I think Google manages their process much better than a regular startup on the street as many of their ideas survive to see a day on the internet. Albeit most fails! Why does innovation fail so often in startups?

A good friend and a budding entrepreneur Pete talked about some reason for it in his blog. He says that a startup is an organization working to deliver a service or product under conditions of extreme uncertainties. The uncertainty is not only in terms of the right solution but also the right problem for a startup’s customers. Pete had a point that many a times the problem itself is not very well defined, which makes the discovery process even more challenging. In my experience, most entrepreneurs can speak at length about their company’s solution but very rarely about the real customer problem they are solving. Why is it?

As a product manager, I am trained to uncover problems our clients face so that we build products that our customers will buy happily. Market research, client interviews and fact base creation are regular tasks for a product manager. The first lesson a product manager learns is to never ask a client about their desired solution but the problem they are facing. Mostly clients cannot articulate the solution but can talk at length about their problem. The question is how many startups go through this discovery route to find real problems of their [potential] customers?

Many of you might be aware of now popular Lean Startup methodology that encourages companies to unearth customer problem cheaply and quickly. Eric Reis, the inventor of Lean Startup term has been marketing his methodology aggressively and many entrepreneurs are embracing it. We also adopted it at our startup and decided to launch our first prototype for less than 1/3 the original cost. The idea is to test our hypothesis with a limited product and a controlled set of users to get an early feedback. These are still early days of our lean startup but we are already seeing the benefits of laser focused minimum viable product and longevity of our budget. We will know our fate soon [hopefully] but either way I will keep you all posted. Go lean budding entrepreneurs and solve your customers’ real problem!

The Second Coming of Technology

Success has a lot to do with timing. When I graduated, it was almost the end of the technology boom of the 90s and we saw one of the worst periods in software business in the next few years. While the technology industry was struggling, boom was happening in finance. Most of my batch-mates who went on to do MBA and landed jobs in investment banks quickly rose to senior positions while raking in big bonuses in the first half of last decade. No boom lasts forever, so finance crumbled in last few years. However, boom does have a tendency to reappear and it did–once again in technology. Internet companies are seeing another dream run but this time muted in PR albeit sky high in valuations. How are you participating in this wave?

Marc Anderseen, the founder of Netscape and now a legendary venture capitalist, wrote an op-ed in Wall Street Journal on why software is eating the world. In his article, he made the case for pervasiveness of software in all industries and in many cases software-based business models trumping the old models. My enthusiasm doesn’t scale the same heights as Marc but I agree with his point of view. The software industry is one of the fastest growing and highly profitable with long-term sustainability. The current boom is second coming for software companies. This time they have real business models, revenues and profits with the same agility and ability to start with minimal cost. The technology entrepreneurial dream lives on!

Internet pervasiveness and mobile device explosion has provided a robust platform to Internet companies to realize their unfulfilled dreams of the 90s. Innovation is happening at all levels of the stack–hardware, devices, OS, delivery, software applications, and consumption. Apple and Google are changing the way we stay connected and consume Internet, datacenters are building backbone of the Internet, cloud companies like Salesforce are providing anywhere access to business information, social networks like Facebook and Twitter are enabling constant contact, and many more. The good news is you can participate in this boom irrespective of your technical skill set. So don’t wait–the timing is just right!

Interesting Idea But Failed Startup!

Entrepreneurship is the heart and soul of the great American economy. It is a fact and manifests itself in so many successful and not-so-successful startups, self-made billionaires and success stories. Most of my friends and acquaintances are either running a startup or planning to start one. These folks are highly educated, successful in their fields and very ambitious. I am sure this is not unique to just my limited network but a typical story of an immigrant community in America. While a startup is a great way to unleash one’s potential, I am surprised how much of it hinges on the next great “idea”. Most people consider idea and startup as synonyms especially in the technology industry. I keep hearing – “I have this great idea” or “Do you have a good idea? We can make a business around it”. I wonder how much of a successful startup is about a great idea.

The biggest risk with a startup is to not find a viable business model. Since most start-ups are genesis of an idea, they generally lack a sustainable business model at least in the beginning. Startup failures galore, the rare success stories are full of mid-course correction or stumbling upon something different while working on the original idea. I believe it is not an “idea” but a “market-validated idea” that should be the basis for starting a new business. It is easier said than done as most of the time it is not easy to articulate the concept in early stages, let alone validate it with potential clients or markets. However, this is not a reason to cut the process short. It can save entrepreneur toil, frustration and lost capital on a promising yet non-sellable idea.

I recently learned in a “pragmatic marketing” training that “your opinion is interesting but irrelevant”. I thought it summarized the idea-based startup thinking very well. Everybody has an opinion [read idea] but is it worth launching a business or a product around it? Only a factual research can confirm it. There is a reason that early-stage business cases have sections on market research, sizing and potential customers. A thoroughly researched, market-validated idea is certainly worth taking a dip into the entrepreneurship ocean. Otherwise, it doesn’t hurt staying on the sidelines and enjoying the sun! So next time when you hear a cool idea, ask how many potential clients also found it useful.

Get to the Point – Have a Fierce Conversation

Communication skills are the most difficult to master and key to success in personal and professional life. I am still on the borderline if it is an acquired or a native skill? I am fortunate to have some great communicators in my professional network and friend circle. They are great story tellers, suave talkers, and interesting conversationalists. I am always mesmerized by such people and look for their secrets to learn and improve myself. However, unlike mathematical equations and scientific facts, there is no one universal style that one adorns to be a great communicator. Everyone has a different way. I am a straight shooter and like to communicate the way it is. I always wondered if it was the right way! Then I read a life-changing book – “Fierce Conversations” by Susan Scott.

The core idea of the book is how most conversations in both business and personal lives are fake with participants avoiding to discuss the “undiscussable”. I found the idea of laying out the issue on the table in first sixty seconds and having a constructive dialog around it to be profound and a game changer. It is simple yet seldom followed conventional wisdom. The example of a tough feedback session generally starting with appreciation and “fake” praise leading to a queasy topic is common place at work. The recipient can sense the negative undertone in praise and wonder what is going to hit him next. Now turn it around and imagine if the same session starts with a candid feedback but with the intent to discuss it honestly and constructively to help the recipient.

I followed this principle in a recent meeting with a very difficult client. This client got into a habit of raising trivial issues to our senior management and complaining about everything. In our call to resolve a recent issue, I asked the client if there was more to this issue that we are not hearing. I told them how much we appreciate their business and want to make them a happy client but can’t achieve it without learning and addressing their real concern. At first the client was struck by my candidness but she quickly opened up to tell us how communication failures in the past led her to directly raise small issues to our senior management to grab our attention. Imagine how much time we saved with this insight! We now have a decent chance to make them a happy client by fixing this problem.

I haven’t yet found the magic potion to be a great communicator but by following some of the advice from the book I will certainly become a better communicator. Simple ideas such as avoid loaded statements – sugar-coated and irrelevant statements, replace “but” with “and”, and use silence in conversations are highly effective to make any conversation thoughtful, and worthwhile. Stop me when next time I try to take a long winded road to my point.

Wish you all fierce conversations!

Techie to CEO Step II: Unleash the Salesman Inside

Sales is the king! I used to hear this phrase all the time and ignored it as a conventional wisdom not applicable to the unconventional technology industry. Isn’t tech all about innovation and cool products? Don’t cool products sell by itself? Products that people line up to buy outside your stores or online. So engineers should be kings and not sales people. After a decade, I am proven wrong.

I am absolutely convinced that irrespective of the industry, sales is the lifeline of any business. Nobody cares how cool your product is if it doesn’t sell. A business is not a viable business if it doesn’t make money. We might consider Apple and Google as exceptions but really they are not. The fact that both are public companies and measured by their financial results speaks for itself. Google is widely known as an engineering centric company but the recent news of their head of engineering and head of sales making the most bonuses indicated the balance of power. We all know how much other software giants like Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP are driven by sales.

Ok, we know it’s all about sales, but what should we (non-sales) folks do? The lesson I learned is to align yourself with sales if you are not one of them. I am not suggesting being subservient to sales but having your actions help close the deals. It could be as simple as dropping a line about your competition or delivering a product demo, but make sure you are closely aligned with this function. There is a salesman inside all of us; unleash it to magnify your potential.

 

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