Business, Culture and Entrepreneurship

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Four Things Entrepreneurs Can Do (More of) in 2009 to Win

In 45BC, Julius Caesar decreed the Julian Calendar. This formalized the then-new trend, that a calendar year begin in January—which for centuries before had started in March. Little did Caesar know that two millennia later, even with the minor modifications of the Gregorian calendar, the world at large would use this time to take stock.

With our own startup still finding its feet and so many good friends looking for jobs, I thought it might be appropriate to look at what entrepeneurs can do in 2009 to win. Even for those of you lucky enough to have a job, as Tom Peters said many years ago, you are the CEO of Me, Inc. and may want to check these out.


So here are 4 things that entrepreneurs need to do more of in 2009

[a] Give - as in contribute freely, your knowledge and at least some of your time. Start with your employees, who may be worried about the company, their own jobs and unclear how best to contribute. Share your learnings with peers in your trade organizations, with customers and prospects - be it in a blog, newsletter or a speech. At the very least, you will realize that you are not in half as bad a situation as many others are. Giving is not only psychically fulfilling but is an investment in your own future that makes just plain good business. And on any given day, giving need not take more time than a longish lunch break!

b] Reach out - get out in the field, in front of prospects & customers every other day. This means you—not just your marketing or sales person. You can't talk to customers too much (in a single meeting you can, but then you may never be called back!) The silver lining in a downturn is that customers have time to talk. So reach out. You can start by calling on all those folks you haven't connected with, just this last year, and work all the way back to those you haven't spoken to since high school! Remember you are not trying to sell, but to connect.

[b] Listen - having reached out, it is important to listen. You would be surprised at the insights that arise when we truly listen to our customers. Often customer themselves gain clarity when they talk and so many of our own assumptions get uncovered and prove to be baseless. Listening requires both preparation as well as asking clarifying questions. Only those of us who do this well will get invited back.

[c] Simplify - this is a great time to simplify everything about our business and jobs. Simplify your products, your collateral, your sales pitch, your internal systems, your website - you get the picture. Make it easier for people to find you, to understand what it is you do, why you do it better than anyone else and why buying from you and using your products is going to simplify your customers' own life and work. Simple is not easy - simple is hard! So the sooner you start the better.

In a downturn it's easy to batten down the hatches and focus on the numbers - which is important, but we are never going to dig ourselves out of a hole, let alone grow or thrive with just a defensive game. So it is important to stay the course with Giving, Reaching out, Listening & Simplifying (GRLS). While this sounds like a lot of work, it is not. GRLS require passion, planning and perseverance - but aren't these the very reasons you got into business in the first place?

You might want to check out the following two articles for interesting takes on this topic.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Letting Go of a Founder

We've all read of horror stories of VCs forcing actions leading founders to leave their companies. But are there reasons for a founder to leave voluntarily or being asked to leave by other founders or the management team? Many a times, the answer is yes.

My latest article in the Hindu Business Line addresses this issue.

When people set out to start a business, a few jump in with little planning. Most though, do so after much forethought. Even when a good deal of planning has gone into starting a company, it is the rare entrepreneur who has actually thought about a scenario in which the founder leaves.

I realize that the very thought may sound nihilistic to some readers — can there be a start-up without the founder or can start-ups that survive without the founder do well or at the very least exist meaningfully?

Read the rest here.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

5 Things to Do When You Lose Your Job!

Last week, I began getting a flurry of invites to connect on LinkedIn from ex-colleagues, all of whom were at the same firm — a sure indication that pink slips were in the offing! Alas, I was right, as the entire location got the axe on Monday. I suspect the first day every engineer in the place was in a state of shock, not to mention folks in finance, admin and marketing. It was hard to see folks that I admired, liked and even loved, struggle with what to do next - even as I counseled some, made calls for others and helped with resumes.

As a veteran (survivor, victim and instigator of) numerous layoffs stretching from my first week at work in August 1988 through the mid 2000s, I thought I should share my learnings on the Top 5 things to do when you lose your job. Not Surprisingly my first list looked very similar to the Top 5 things to do while you still have a job! Further thought and reflection helped refine it. So here goes....

  • Plan: Write down a set of objectives for next 90 days
    As the man said, when you don't know where you want to go, any road will take you there or NOT! So it better to know where you want to go first and then we can figure out how to get there. So get a plain piece of paper and a pencil and write down a set of 90 day objectives. This could be as forward looking as "I'll figure out what I want over the next three years" to "I'll have at least six/twelve/twenty four interviews." Break this down into what you will get done in the next 5 days, 15 days, 30 days, and every two weeks beyond.
  • Create Collateral: Get your resume re-done
    With the 90 day objectives in front of you, create at least two versions of your resume/curriculum vitae

    • The first one is a plain vanilla, one pager (or one sheet, if you have to go to two sides of a hardcopy resume) that highlights your skills, summarizes accomplishment and a quick employment summary. This is useful firstly for yourself to hone in on what you want to highlight and particularly for headhunters to get a sense for who you are.

      You can do a second, more detailed one (build on the first, don't waste time), that adds an objective up front (what are you looking for) and expands on specifics of what you have done or skills you possess to make you the right person for the stated objective. This you tweak for each company/interview that you appear for. Feel free to bring in an updated CV to the actual interview, particularly if there's been a phone screen.

    Doing your CV also means making yourself easy to find - so update your profile on LinkedIn, Spock or other business networks that may be relevant to your business. Regardless of your feelings or advice you may get to the contrary, it is worth posting your resume to the job sites - be they Dice.com, Monster.com, Shine.com, Naukri.com or whatever specialized job sites may be there. Don't forget your alumni sites, regardless of how long ago you graduated or it was only an executive ed program you attended at that school.
  • Reach out: Work the phone/email/fax
    Be clear that you are in sales, regardless of what job you are looking for. Sales is a numbers game - so you have to set a clear target on how many folks you will call, how many mails you will send out and if you have to fax stuff, you'll do it! Ten (10) is a nice round number, as are of course, 15, 20 or 25. Set realistic goals for the number of mails you'll send or calls you'll make EACH DAY. And then just do it every morning. Yep, start your day with this. Once you connect with someone, or when you can never connect with someone you are trying to reach, you'll figure out what's the best time, if it is not the morning. You don't have the luxury of "I didn't like how he spoke to me," "Will she think I am desperate?" "I'm not sure I want to work there" - regardless of the truth of the these statements, they are EXCUSES - just move to the next call/email on your list.
  • Track
    When you lose your job, the only thing certain is that you are going to have a few lousy days. The best way to keep these short, is to stay busy meaningfully which is best done by tracking two critical things.

      Who did you send a resume to, or make a call, where did you already attend an interview, who said they'd give you an intro. Write everything down, so that nothing falls between the cracks.

      What worked and what didn't on a given day & how you felt. So any day that you feel down, you can see what you got done that day or at the least find another day that was lousier, that you already survived and so you know this too shall pass.

    I find using a daily diary or a notebook with one page per day is the best way to get this done. You can carry it with you and there is no boot-up time nor do you lose it because the battery died. I know folks who use MS Excel and a diary - choose your favorite method but do it!
  • Volunteer
    Instead of sitting at home or in your cubicle (till your last day), get out and keep yourself busy. Volunteer to help out at your friends' startup, at a local VC firm, at a non-profit - with your specific skills - be it letter (copy-)writing, programming, project management or basket weaving. Firstly this prevents you from moping around the house and bothering the spouse, kids or pets; more importantly it keeps your game sharp through practice at something real it helps you make new contacts, potentially learn a few new things and finally builds psychic karma for doing good. If it opens your eyes to new opportunities or insights about yourself, that's icing on the cake.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Communicating to Reassure - Lessons from the Real World

Stories of personal heroism and the extraordinary effort are slowly appearing from the survivors of the terrorist attack on Mumbai.  Besides the obvious lessons on preparedness (or lack thereof ), there is an important lesson for all of us on the criticality of timely communication. Much of the anger and angst felt by people towards politicians and the media , during and after the attacks, stems from the vacuum created by the absence of a single official source of information. Even if it were to tell people, "We don't have the facts yet, but we are staying on top of it and will let you know the moment we know something," people would have rallied around the speaker and the message.

Contrast this with the role Rudy Giuliani played even as the World Trade Center towers burned during the 9/11 attacks on New York. As the New York Times reported ,

Three hours [after the attack began] ... he stepped into a press conference with Gov. George E. Pataki. 
“Today is obviously one of the most difficult days in the history of the city,” he said softly. “The tragedy that we are undergoing right now is something that we’ve had nightmares about. My heart goes out to all the innocent victims of this horrible and vicious act of terrorism. And our focus now has to be to save as many lives as possible.”
Through that day, Giuliani held two more press conferences and at 11PM, was seen walking around Ground Zero talking to rescue workers. While I was no admirer of Rudy Giuliani prior to 9/11 or his recent run for the 2008 Republican nomination, he demonstrated through his actions and presence, the signs of a leader - one who understood the need to communicate, to reassure, even when he did not have all the facts.

While the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra did appear on television several times, their unsubstantiated assertions on the number of terrorists, their origins and the state of the seige which changed with each interview undermined any confidence the public may have had. The Prime Minister too when he addressed the nation a day after the attack began, seemed to mumble incoherently and was insipid in the kind words of one editorial commentator .

It is a shame that the Indian political leadership at the city, state or national level failed to step up to the bar, to provide the focal point that people sought. Mr. Chidambaram, this might be your opportunity to provide such a leadership to reassure the citizens through direct, periodic and factual communication.

Leadership requires communication, be it good news, bad news or worse yet no real news. Communication done clearly and consistently is more likely to reassure listeners than silence, even if the crisis isn't over.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Decisions - how do we make them effectively

One of the murkiest areas of being a successful entrepreneur is how to make effective decisions . There are times when we make major decisions without even being conscious of the fact  — and others when seemingly minor decisions bring us to a halt.  I discussed this as some length in my Start-up Logic column last week. 

Life has a nasty way of springing surprises on you. The only certainty, it would appear, is that you will encounter a lot of uncertainty. Being an entrepreneur is no different. If you are like me, you might have thought you made your hardest decision when you chose to become an entrepreneur. Wrong! Before you know it, the business, customers, employees and the world at large are bringing problems that require you to make decisions. There also seem to be few easy decisions. Why didn’t anyone tell you about this? Well, you heard it here first — much of your productive time as an entrepreneur will go to making, hopefully, good decisions.

“Effective executives do not make a great many decisions. They concentrate on the important ones,” says Peter Drucker in his book The Effective Executive. Simple as Drucker’s assertion sounds, it is hard in the fog of entrepreneurial battle to focus on the important few. So how do you identify the important from the merely urgent or routine problems? Having identified these, how can you make good or effective decisions?

Read the complete article here.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

5 Things To Do While You Still Have a Job

Last week I had called a friend, with the idea of pitching our newsletter services. However the conversation rapidly turned to the unhappy state of affairs in my friend's company. Layoffs, spending cuts and a lock on the stationery cupboard (okay, I made that one up!) My friend was expecting the axe to fall again (& yet again, definitely on spending if not on people) and hoping that he'd survive. Of course having taken the job less than three months earlier, he was not keen to move — even if the job market were good — which it most definitely wasn't.

While I commiserated with my friend on the call, it set me thinking. A little bit of calling around made me realize that my friend was by no means alone. There seem to be hordes of folks, just hanging in there — some who actually like their companies but are caught in semi-stasis and yet others would like to get the heck outta there, but can't, till the market gets better. The shameless fellow I am, I urged all of them to quit and start their own business. Being good friends (at least one of them) they curbed their urge to lug something at me. For the rest of the folks that are hanging in there, here are five things to do, while you still have a job.

  1. Read - no, reading this blog does not count (not you mom!) - read stuff that you had intended to; whether the speeches of Cicero, The Artist's Way, Writing Down the Bones, RK Narayan or What Color is Your Parachute? The classics whether the Mahabharata, modern renditions of the Ramayana or Homer's Illiad will also do nicely. Or the first book that you come across next. Do this with a clear and committed goal (tell a friend to keep you honest) - one book a week or whatever turns you on. But treat this as you'd a project at work. Before you know it you'd be one well read person or at least on the road to becoming one.

  2. Share - the simplest is to write about the book you've just read. Or if that seems too heavy - write little things that others might find useful at work - first aid at home, How to get a PAN card, MS Excel tricks, FAQs, Employee Stock Options in plain English. Or if you are truly inspired convert the whole thing into a blog and share it with the world. Remember to teach is to learn! If you aren't ready, start with a journal - doesn't have to be a blog. Just a good old diary, of your thoughts, aspirations, desires and dreams and share with a friend to start with.

  3. Track your time - this is as good a time as any to see where your time goes - how much of it is spent Googling Daniel Craig or Sarah Palin, or just checking email or gossiping at the water cooler ("Can you believe what she wore to work today?") How much time do your kids, spouse or significant other get from you? How much of it could have been spent on a treadmill or a nice weekend hike? The sweetest thing about being in limbo, is you'd have all the time in the world — put it to good use.

  4. Network In the past, whenever someone gave me this advice, I always felt slimy — like one of those multi-level marketing guys approaching you at the grocery store or gas station (Don't ask!) But thanks to the Internet, you can now pass it off as learning about Web 2.0. So sign up on LinkedIn, Plaxo (they are getting better), get your family on to Geni and if that's not enough try Spock, FaceBook and MySpace. However keep point 3 in mind and track your time. Kidding apart, a slow business environment is the right time to re-connecting with all those folks from your past and meeting new folks. Of course with all your reading and writing you'd have much to share, yourself.

  5. Create three CVs It never hurts to keep your powder dry. At the least you will get a good blog post or maybe even a full fledged article on "How to write a killer CV" if you prepare three CVs. It can be a useful exercise to reflect on where you are professionally and where you'd like to head towards actively. So create a professional CV, much like you'd have in the past, create a personal CV, stripping the professional parts out or re-stating them as useful life-skills, as though you were going to run for political office and finally create one as you'd like it to look like five years from now. Of course the reading, 'riting and reflecting you'd have done would make this a piece of cake.
Once you are done with these five steps, still have job and time on your hands, start over at step one. Good luck!

The right time to start a business is NOW

The last two weeks, I have been working the phones trying to rustle up interest in our new startup's newsletter creation services. The sentiment out there, particularly in the Valley, is just horrendous. Folks have just battened down, not just with expenses. Nearly everyone I spoke with is trying to keep a low profile in an attempt to survive the tsunami of pink slips they perceive coming.

My own feeling is that this is probably the best time to do a startup - that thought led to another - that the best time to do a startup is always NOW! Hence my latest article in the Hindu Business Line.

"Timing the market” is a phrase I have come to dislike immensely. Much like telling a na├»ve friend how to do well in the stock market — “Simple, buy low and sell high” — there is a school of thought that timing is important in business. I’d be foolhardy to assert that timing doesn’t have a role to play, especially in these times of daily dire financial news and poor sentiment, but it is not nearly as important as you’d th ink at first. For entrepreneurs, especially those considering or just embarking on a business venture, the right timing is always NOW!

“As soon as I get enough experience, I will start my own business,” is a common refrain of many prospective, usually young, entrepreneurs. “I need to understand how the value chain in retail works,” or “I will work in a small/large firm to learn this, that or the other,” are all reasons that I hear soon-to-be entrepreneurs give to put off getting started. I would assert that there is never going to be a better time to start your business than now, particularly with the current financial troubles that are roiling global markets and making everyone in business antsy. Even if it gets worse before it gets better, a downturn such as this is the best time to start a business.
Read the full article here.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Board members you'd rather not have had

When I wrote my first article for Outlook Business, on why a board of advisors is important for start-ups, a couple of folks wrote to me asking about best to handle having a "wrong" board member. Jack and Suzy Welch have discussed this at some length in a BusinessWeek column of theirs.

I decided to added my two-cents to the discussion and the result is my latest article in Outlook Business. Excerpts from the article:

"Anybody can ask questions! When I bring up a problem, it's because I need help. What's the point in just asking questions or giving a lecture without offering any help?" The questions were posed rhetorically, by a good friend who was the VP of Engineering at a technology firm. He had just returned from a Board meeting where he had been called up to present the development status of the company's newest product. "And the Chairman just sat there, not saying a word!" My friend's predicament brought to mind, the question of what is the role of a good board member and as a reader recently posed, "What if you get the “wrong” person on your board?"

Start-ups particularly, and entrepreneurial firms in general, can use the benevolent oversight of an experienced team that a good board of directors can be. If finding the right people for the board is an important task, getting an inappropriate or incompetent member off the board is even tougher. Therefore, one needs to have a clear understanding of who would be a good board member for a company.
Read the rest of the article here.

Managing Time - our most precious resource

The new startup that I have been threatening to do has actually arrived and so I have fallen way behind in staying at least regular with my blog. Ironically, the going has been slow with the startup as well, despite all the time I have been spending there. So in case of physician heal thyself, I have chosen to write about managing our time as entrepreneurs, in the Hindu Business Line.

"Remember that time is money,” said Benjamin Franklin, statesman, philosopher and one of the founding fathers of the US. Maybe it’s because he made this statement 260 years ago in 1748 that many of us don’t remember it. Capital, people and even technology can be obtained by debt or equity, hiring or licensing. However, the one thing that no entrepreneur can get more of is time. Yet most of us treat our own time as a fungible commodity available in endless supply. Bankruptcies, broken marriages, debt traps and nervous breakdowns have not cured many of this fallacy. To be successful as entrepreneurs, it is critical that we recognise time is a perishable commodity.
Just as our favourite foods are probably the least healthy, we will discover that many of our favourite activities as founders and entrepreneurs are the biggest waste of time. Even as crash diets don’t work, and diets have to be combined with exercise, using our time effectively calls for both a balancing of our activities with objectives and a good deal of self-discipline. Self-discipline, in particular, is not a strength of many of us entrepreneurs. At times, we even wear our lack of it as a badge of honour, mistaking ad hoc behaviour for freedom and lack of discipline for being creative and unfettered.
Read the rest of the article here.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Building brands for Startups

From the latest article in my Start-up Logic series in the Hindu BusinessLine

If I had a dollar for every prospective employee who said he loves what he’s seen and heard at our company but his father/spouse/friends feel more comfortable if he joins ‘Giant Co Ltd’ next door, I’d be a rich man. And every one of those prospects was honest enough to admit that their father/spouse/friends felt far more comfortable with the safety, reputation and BRAND of ‘Giant Co Ltd’.
Brand, the very word seems to connote a variety of images. Advertisements, billboards and neon signs, models and Bollywood stars are what many people associate with the word. If you probe further, you may hear AirTel, Britannia, Disney, Coca-Cola and Pepsi or Sony and Samsung as companies that people think of as brands.People in the trade, be it marketers or financiers, talk of brand equity, brand loyalty and brand names. 
When you talk to entrepreneurs about brands and what it means to them, they, particularly those in the early stages of their business, admit that brand is important and something that they aspire to build one of these days. However, right now they have to run and take care of this cash flow matter or woo that key hire, so they will get back to it when they have more time and when it’s more appropriate!.

Read the rest of the article here.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Capt Kirk's Leadership Style - Is it right for entrepreneurs?

A casual search of the blogosphere, with the words "Capt. Kirk" and leadership spews a long list of largely positive descriptions of Capt. Kirk's leadership style. In fact, a secondary school principal, has actually written a referred article on Captain Kirk, His Leadership Style as a Model for Principals in the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) Bulletin!

For those of us old enough to have caught William Shatner as Capt. Kirk, admiration is usually the first response (especially if we were lucky enough to miss the priceline.com ads - I had to move out of the country for this). Capt. Kirk cut a dashing figure - a man who surrounded himself with smarter folks (Spock the scientific officer, Bones the Doc and Scotty the engineer), always prepared to lead from the front and always got the girl! I am sure I am not the only 40+ fella who wished he were in Capt Kirk's shoes, when we first encountered him.

Albert J. Bernstein and Sydney Craft Rozen, in their book "Dinosaur Brains - Dealing with All Those Impossible People at Work" speak of cheering Capt. Kirk as he staved off an attack by the Romulans, even as he just recovered from a problem of rapid aging. "What a manager!" was their first feeling. Then they began wondering "Or was he?" They go on to say:

In our culture there is some confusion between management and heroics. The distinction is quite simple: The hero handles everything single-handedly; the manager delegates. If a manager is indispensable, is he or she really managing?
What is true for managers is truer (in spades) for entrepreneurs, who inevitably are in leadership roles which they play all too often from Capt Kirk's heroics' handbook! I am certainly competent to speak, having been an adrenaline junkie till recently (others may argue I still am) - always charging off (in my strapped sandals, we don't have much use for steeds, white or any other color) to solve problems. Luckily having great people around me, who were neither shy nor too polite, cured me off this, I'd like to think. However, as Capt. Kirk himself has shown, having good people ("Dammit Jim, I'm a doctor not a miracle worker!") around is not a sufficient reason for not falling into the "I'm here and will take care of everything" habit.

So stop for a moment and take a look at the ol' mug in the nearest mirror and ask yourself "Am I a leader or merely a hero?  

Mentoring folks - can start-ups afford to not do it?

From the latest article in my Start-up Logic series in the Hindu BusinessLine

"Maybe you can tell your team about your desire to partner with us.”

As soon as these words left my mouth, I realised that I had made a major faux pas. The words were addressed to the visiting CEO of one of our major prospects; one we had been trying to get interested in our products and services for nearly a year. I was young and probably viewed myself as the hotshot marketing guy and the words had rushed out due to my frustration at dealing with the lack of coherence within their company.

Our chairman, who had put his personal credibility on the line to bring this gentleman in, was still reeling from the shock and the look on the face of our CEO made his desire to eviscerate me amply clear. In this instance, except for some ruffled egos, no permanent damage resulted from my inopportune directness. It could have been a lot worse. It is through such avoidable mistakes that many of us learn the nuances and subtleties of doing business. In this particular instance, our chairman — luckily — did not confine himself to dressing me down (in private), but counselled me on what I had done wrong and how it could have been handled better, even while getting my message across.

I wish I could say such specific feedback and mentoring happens all the time in companies, let alone start-ups, but this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Read the rest of the article here.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Is a Board of Advisors important for a startup?

From my latest Outlook Business article

A board of directors or advisors can play the same role for a company that a good mentor would play in the life of an individual.

"I am trying to hire a CEO for my manufacturing business. If I give him equity, what should I do for my existing GMs?" One of my early-morning jogging partners shot this at me recently. Mine was a group of men, all in their early- to mid-forties. Many members of the walking (some ambling) group run their own businesses. Many a morning, we end up discussing the challenges someone in the group faces that week.

It surprises me to see that many firms lack a truly functional board of directors or, at the very least, an active board of advisors, though they have become reasonably successful. Each of these firms fulfils the mandatory requirements for the appropriate number of directors and periodic board meetings and minutes—often honoured more in the breach than in the observance. Ironically, this state is probably truest in entrepreneurial firms that would benefit the most in having such a functional board of directors or advisors. Read the rest online.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Hiring for a startup

From my latest article, the first in the second phase of the Start-up Logic entrepreneurship series in the Hindu BusinessLine.
Her father is in the lobby, waiting to meet you,” I was told. I wasn’t sure I had heard right, so when I stepped out into the little passage that served as the “lobby” of our start-up, there was indeed a gentleman, probably in his late fifties, waiting there. Granted it’s not every new employee’s father who travels 2,000 km to meet her prospective employers, but as a start-up you should expect the unexpected. More importantly, be prepar ed to do the unexpected to find, hire and retain the right people.
Read the rest here.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Five reasons why you should switch to Open Office today...

In these last ninety days I have learnt a whole lot more than any forty-five year old should legitimately have to learn about software - but the good news is that it has all been good. A couple of posts ago, I talked, ok likely gushed, about how I have been using Zoho.writer and Zoho.sheet in a quest to be free of my desktop Microsoft Office suite. I have been using Microsoft Word at least since the mid to late eighties (yep, that's 198x) when I wrote my PhD thesis with it (I think I used WordStar for my MS thesis). Since then having spent most of my working life in marketing and trying to raise money meant working Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint like there is no tomorrow. In the late nineties I actually prototyped application UIs with PowerPoint, including mouseovers and sliding drop-down menus. In other words I could make both PowerPoint and Word sing - why be modest!

This was all the more reason I was surprised at how well both Writer and Sheet in Zoho worked. Somewhere in the dawn of time or maybe the early 2000s, when I got the bright idea to transition to free software, I downloaded OpenOffice and within one use session got so disenchanted and had to wait until this year to even try Zoho. But neither Zoho, nor Google docs, who's spreadsheet application is pretty good, could hold a candle to Microsoft Powerpoint. Guess just to build my character further, the new laptops my lovely wife (LW) and I got had Microsoft Works, which for reasons I can't fathom has its own native format. Thank god for Rich Text (RTF) that I could move documents around - assuming we remembered (each time) to switch the Save As filetype to Rich Text Format (of course our friends at Microsoft have not deemed it necessary for users to set, say Rich Text Format .rtf or Word 97 .doc as the native format). Which brings me to the point of this post.

I went back to OpenOffice.org and downloaded the latest OpenOffice 2.4.1 and what an epiphany! The acid test for me was in opening, editing and saving some reasonably complicated PowerPoint presentations my colleagues had created (in MS PowerPoint 2003) with no loss of fidelity! Since then I have written a couple of articles in OpenOffice.org Writer, laid out a (short) magazine, worked with a number of my old Excel sheets including creating a few new ones and really gone to town with their presentation software OpenOffice.org Impress (can't say I am too hot about the name).

So here are my top 5 reasons

[5] Its Free; OpenSource and extensibilityPublish Post
[4] Cross platform, Zoho and Googledocs support
[3] OpenOffice.org Writer (word processor)
[2] OpenOffice.org Calc (the spreadsheet)
[1] OpenOffice.org Impress (presentation)

Of course I have not yet used the database, math or drawing tools - all of which seem promising and make OpenOffice far more than Microsoft Office and make only give us more reasons to switch sooner!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Mentors - why we need them and how do you find them?

The day I turned forty, it was as though someone threw a switch - I suddenly became incredibly smart! The reason I know this is 'coz that's when I realized, what an absolute idiot I had been for a great part of my adult life. Since then, hard as it might be to imagine, I think I am growing smarter still, as I continue to unearth stuff that had been staring me in the face, but I had obviously chosen not to acknowledge let alone learn from it. But then again, as the old adage goes, "If youth knew or age could..." the world would be a different place. One of the reasons that I made it this far without constantly tripping myself, is because I was singularly lucky in having a series of incredible mentors, who coached me, encouraged me and where needed placed a firm boot on a rather well endowed portion of my rear!There's a whole another series of posts required if I begin with my earliest mentors (my materal grandfather and paternal grandma) - so I will skip them in this one and stick with my professional mentors starting with the most recent ones. Before I wax eloquent, let's step back and try to answer some basic questions.

access and availability, no axe to grind and real-world experience are the key criteria for someone to be a good mentor
Who is a mentor? The dictionary, as always has something to say about this - "A wise and trusted guide and advisor" - in other words, someone you trust and knows more than you (if you are like me, nearly anyone else) can be a mentor. In my view, availability and access, no axe to grind and real-world experience are the key criteria for someone to be a good mentor. In hindsight, I have been surrounded by such folks. What does a mentor do? A mentor often advices or cousels you. But there's more to it than that. A lawyer advices or counsels you. For instance, she can tell you the pitfalls of doing a certain deal a certain way. However, while you may learn about your options and their consequences, you are not necessarily in a better position to make the right decision. A mentor focuses more on the HOW, than the what, you do something or get something done. He ideally teaches you and guides you while you learn something by doing. In many ways its apprenticeship by the hour or the minute! Any good manager of yours can tell you what options you have or the consequences of, confronting a critical but intransigent team member. Your mentor will show you how best to go about it, to achieve the desired result at the least emotional and business cost to all concerned!
A mentor focuses more on the HOW, than the what, you do something or get something done
Why do we need them? Simply put someone needs to keep us honest - hold up a mirror to us and not let us get away with taking the easy path. Advisors, experts and professionals can all augment and make up for any gaps in our competencies or domain knowledge - however most times we hire them for their services (inputs) but retain the prerogative of whether to act on them or not. A mentor need not be different - but a good one will be, in that they will ensure [a] that you act and [b] that you act in enlightened self interest - the greater good so to speak. There will be times, regardless of our job role or even in our personal lives when decisions will have to be made, and the people you'd usually consult themselves will be stakeholders in the decision. In such an instance you'd want to go to someone else whom you trust but is not a stakeholder. Of course finding such a mentor, unlike looking for the flashlights after the lights go out, is best done before you need them.
someone needs to keep us honest - hold up a mirror to us and not let us get away with taking the easy path
Mentors can be people who are already in your personal and professional lives. That way the trust and relationship already exists and if there is mutual respect, familiarity need not prevent the necessary candor for successful learning and growth. Chandrasekaran, the chairman at my first start up, despite having been a somewhat formal advisor in my previous stint at Sasken and subsequently becoming a good personal friend, served as one of my mentors. Whether handling things in my personal life (now you know who's responsible for the mess! NOT!) or intransigent customers (I am sure you have never faced this!) and most importantly in learning and I hope, mastering cash flow management, Shekar was an invaluable mentor. Similarly my partner in crime, co-founder and CTO Baskar (who'd be embarrased if he read this not merely 'coz he's decade(s) younger than me) talked me through so many self doubts (what? I never have any) and showed me the true meaning of unflappable (I have it written down somewhere) that he has been one of my subtlest mentors yet. Mentoring can happen in a nanosecond, as in when Mr. Raghavan our angel investor, told me "Go for it - only when you take risks you are going to make things happen and learn" as all of us were agonizing over entering the retail business. And it may happen over months or years, as I realized has happened with my dad and me. And any number of ways in between - the only definitive is that you will be a better person for it. So stop reading this, recognize the people who you've already been mentored by, call 'em up and thank 'em. If you can't think of any, what are you waiting for - go out and get yourself at least one.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Back to Basics - Entrepreneurship

From my final article in this first phase of the Start-up Logic entrepreneurship series in the Hindu BusinessLine

Much like riding a bicycle or swimming, with entrepreneurship too, no amount of study or theory can take the place of plunging right in. Yes, some scraped knees, water swallowed and spat out and wounded egos are likely to result, but nothing helps you learn like real-world experience.

Over the past several months, I have tried to walk through a typical, if there is any such thing, life cycle of an entrepreneur. From when the thought to start something first lodges itself in your mind through all the way to exiting your business, the entrepreneurial journey is a roller-coaster ride on steroids. As happened with me, and every parent prior to me, you are clueless when people tell you, “Your life will change once you have children.” They could just as well be talking about being an entrepreneur. All the reading, talking and thinking does not prepare you for it — it’s messy, sleep-depriving, unpredictable and will make you want to cry! Yet, it is is exhilarating, scary and fun all at the same time.
Read the rest here.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Exiting your business

From my twelfth article in the Start-up Logic entrepreneurship series in the Hindu BusinessLine

Whenever I read of a pre-nuptial agreement, I react viscerally. Not that I am particularly romantic, nevertheless there is a sense of foreboding. Putting in place an agreement should the relationship fall apart, even before the marriage, seems unsettling to say the least. In the Indian context, where marriages are still largely arranged and families actively contribute to heal rifts (and in some instances serve as the source), there is no major downside to a pre-nuptial la ck of preparation. However, in the case of entrepreneurial businesses, even those that plan well before starting up, often give little thought to how it might end.
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Top 5 Online tools - Life on the cloud!

Last month, I wrote of my Top 5 utilities that I can't live with. Guess the computer gods were watching and about five days ago my laptop gave up its ghost (of course tossing it on my bed and watching it slip down to the floor may have had something to do with it!). The loss was all the more untimely, as the first half of an overdue article was on the HDD! Frantic calls for sysadmin help, safe mode log on as admin and scraping the ascii text on to Zoho writer resulted in my getting the article out an hour after my Friday 6PM deadline! You can read it ("Selling Every Moment") at Hindu Business Line here .

The good news is that even a couple of weeks before this tragic moment, I had made a beginning to go completely on-line, as in render my laptop a mere client and operate solely on the net -- yep, store my data on the net and use apps on the net. So here's my report from life on the cloud!

GMail & Google Apps pretty much the bulk of my time is spent with GMail and more frequently with Google Apps, as we try to get our new business (still in stealth) on-line. When I first began using GMail (from being a Yahoo! mail user and Eudora client) it seemed outright strange not being able to do folders. My current use pattern leads me to pray each day that Google actually means its "Do no evil" pledge. Pretty much sticking to mail and chat in Google Apps and only kicking tires with their Docs and Sites utilities.

Skype - and now with video. Skype is the only utility that gives gmail a run for the first place in my working life. Between chats, international calls, peer2peer file transfers and now video chat it gets a great deal of use. For several years we ran most of our internal business on AIM and Skype has pretty much replaced this for both intracompany as well as across company (and country boundaries). Now with utilities with the ability to record (not a feature I have used yet) it promises only to get more important.

Zoho (http://www.zoho.com/) pretty much replaces the MS Office suite and my experience is that ZohoWriter particularly kicks butt. Am using Zoho Project and as a power user of Microsoft Excel I am amazed at Zoho Sheet (though miss the work offline feature). Not having used Office Office, I found both Zoho and Google presentation tools not as productive as good old PowerPoint on the local HDD. Got my neighbor using Zoho CRM (free for up to 3 users). Personally found the CRM feature, even for a motivated user like me, a bit heavy! Likely switch to

BaseCamp - was using this as my primary project management, planning, newsgroup tool for the last six months with other conspirators as we prepare for our next startup. Simplicity thy name is BaseCamp! I must admit though I have, since writing this first, switched to Zoho projects, as I needed to be able to track a whole slew of tasks, milestones that are overwhelming BaseCamp's simple(r) lists.

Blogger, Twitter and WordPress
For a while there, I had to physically abandon my computer, so that I could get over my growing addiction with trolling blogs. Now even without a self-help group, am doing better though Blogger probably gets more use than it should; planning to move this and other blogs over to wordpress eventually and so spending time there in installation and learning about it. Twitter, though my own contributions are bite sized, a fair amount of time is spent reading/tracking others posts & leads. The jury is still out on it utility beyond serendipity.

GMail Drive - in addition to using of course Google mail and their news alerts, I just learnt how to use GMail as a virtual Hard Disk Drive on which I can store my files. Of course this requires installing a Win Shell extension. But 2GB of storage on a virtual drive is not bad! There is a Firefox plug-in gSpace that does the same thing as well. As many of you pointed out this is not a lot of space - but I got my mom (yep, mom) to use it, so simplicity trumps all else (again!). In my case I also have a 500Gb Seagate drive on my desk, so I don't pretend 2Gb is all I'll ever need. But its pretty good to start with.

I realized that there are a whole lot more tools I use including RememberTheMilk and LibraryThing, but the first three above hog 80% of my time and effort. If like me you are poor at backing up, it might not be a bad idea to check these out.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Selling every moment - sales in an entrepreneurial firm

From my eleventh article in the Start-up Logic entrepreneurship series in the Hindu BusinessLine

No one looks forward to a visit to the dentist, especially if it is a root canal that’s in the offing. Yet, most people would choose a root canal over haggling with a car dealer. The words ‘used-car salesman’ have come to epitomise our loathing for the selling profession. The sweet-sounding young thing who keeps calling offering me credit cards and personal loans, is most reluctant to answer when I ask her if it is a sales call. So it would appear even s alespersons are at times ambivalent about their jobs.
Read the rest here.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Life - two weeks offline! Aoi Maturi to Zen gardens

From January 2008, several months before I got off the job treadmill, I had gotten a serious case of blog addiction and was going to sleep later each night as I found yet another post to read before signing of. Previously I suspect only the New York Times op-ed pages held that sort of neck craning, fatal car crash fascination. And learning how to use Google reader and doing "research" for my next startup were only excuses I suspect to feed my growing blog addiction. There is something mid-afternoon "Ricki Lake-ish" my-sister-stole-my-boyfriend quality about a lot of the soul baring blogs out there, and I don't refer to just personal or mommy blogs but even a wide swath of tech and political blogs. While I have been able to turn the telly off, I have had less success with blogs for reasons I am not too sure of. I have probably avoided going there anyways!

Now the good news is that I went off the air, not just in my own writing but also in browsing, lurking, reading or other forms of being online. It helped that I left town with family and that connectivity was intermittent (which I thought would be poor, was not - and yes, I did take my laptop with me). But just doing real world things such as visiting temples, attending festivals, such as the Aoi Maturi and sitting in Zen gardens pondering the imponderables and lots of walking (to/from temples, hole-in-the-wall vegetarian joints and 7/11 stores) and keeping two nearly teen kids engaged kept me unbelievably busy. It also provided some much needed distance and withdrawal from the whole blogosphere which seemed to be sucking my hours and what few grey cells remain. If in early May you'd have told me that I'd be off line for two weeks, I'd have though that serious withdrawal symptoms would incapacitate me - am happy to report that I couldn't have been wronger. And here I am back adding already to the navel gazing personal post category!

For those of you not wanting to travel to the Orient (or other real world places) here's one of the most succinct articles on avoiding blog addiction!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Five utilities that I can't live without

When I read Marshall Kirkpatrick's post Five Tools Everyone Working Online Should Have (IMHO) this morning on ReadWriteWeb, it triggered the thought about the five tools (ok call 'em utilities) that I can't do without, especially when off line. This is somewhat ironical as I have over the last thirty days tried to move my entire electronic content on-line - basically trying to use my (now borrowed) laptop as a thin client. But that's for another day, another post.

Yesterday my wife finally got her Dell Inspiron 1525 (in a truly inspiring blue) that your's truly volunteered to set up and I realized that even without thought I loaded the following utilities first, so that her (and therefore my) off line experience stayed blissful (ok, maybe that's stretching it). So without much ado, here are the five utilities without which I cannot get through my offline work day:

WordWeb its hard to say which was the chicken and which was the egg. That fact that I had WordWeb made me the local authority (not just to my two kids, but to colleagues) on words from the (not always) Queen's language or that I positioned myself as the LA and found I could not maintain it without the help of WordWeb. Nevertheless, this tiny little program is an incredible dictionary and thesaurus, when offline and even better when you are off line. Get it today!

Gadwin ScreenPrint - for whatever reason I seem to need screenshots at the most inopportune moments and that too without the cursor, or with it and a delay built-in, or I need only portion of the screen/dialog box, want to save it file, clipboard or printer - you get the picture. Gadwin ScreenPrint is that it-slices-dices-makes-breakfast screen printing tool that doesn't need even a high school diploma to operate.

Google Desktop is likely the second most used combo on my keyboard. This is one of those tools that make me wonder how we ever made do without it. Sure I hear muttering out there about how someone's system got crawling after they installed GoogleDesktop but having installed this on five computers at last count, including my parents, I know that I'd install this in a moment's notice again in my next computer as well. Never had much use for the sidebar but primarily use the quick search. I have probably improved my file naming protocols but am likely overly dependent on this utility to find that document I created last year on Why mushrooms don't get their due credit or the scanned copy of my father-in-law's passport.

Picassa - I'd have thought I'd have picked IrfanView as the utility of choice - but it turns out that I don't do a whole lot of image gimmickry besides, storing, sorting and acting as the family image repository manager. And truth is we presently have far too much vested in Picassa, with location tagging as well as comments. Also I love the time based viewing of (searched) images so for instance, I can view a slide show of all pictures of my daughter Roz taken in Singapore in chronological order (don't even ask why!)

iTunes - I am just spoilt. Despite its reluctance to easily convert my wife's 300+ cassettes into digital music, iTunes is the music player of choice in our household and so it's got to be there. This is particularly weird since none of the three (I can't even find that original Shuffle) iPods we have in our house are actually used. But I never said this made sense.

Special mention (the only not-for-free app in my top list)

David RM's Journal - journaling and practically most of my writing is done in this. You gotta experience it. Comes with an addictive free to use for forty five days trial period.

Even putting this list down helped me gain some insight on how I work - do most of my work with words (hence The Journal, WordWeb, Google Desktop), use pictures reasonably (Gadwin Screenshot, Picassa and IrfanView) and actually listen to music (even though moving all our content on to the 500Gb HDD remains a dream) from the computer (iTunes).

What gems do you have to work off line?

Monday, May 5, 2008

Marketing your entrepreneurial business for success

From my tenth article in the Start-up Logic entrepreneurship series in the Hindu BusinessLine

Most people seem to have a reasonable idea of what engineering (design and build stuff), finance (manage the money) or sales (make money by selling stuff) do in a business. Marketing is another story altogether, being confused with sales in the best case or perceived as a money-sucking black hole in the worst. It is likely the most misunderstood part of doing business.
Read the rest here.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Bootstrapped Startups, first and second time entrepreneurs in Bangalore

Yesterday I read an interview with Kiran Nadkarni, former VC and presently founder/CEO of Kaati Zone on CitizenMatters.in. Kiran was one of the first VCs that I met when I came to India in 1995/6. At that time he had just begun working with Bill Draper's organization after having run ICICI Ventures and was before he got involved with JumpStartUp, I believe. It was refreshing to hear his thoughts from the entrepreneur's side of the table, particularly with reference to early stage funding, which as so many entrepreneurs and bloggers have noted is practically absent in India. Read the interview and check out CitizenMatters as well.

Talking of early stage funding I finally managed to get off my duff and to the NSRCEL (NS Raghavan Center for Entrepreneurial Learning) at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore. My erstwhile partners in entrepreneurship, Baskar, KAS and Vidhya had just moved their new startup Amagi Technologies into the incubator at NSRCEL. Never one to pass up on a free meal, I dropped in on them during lunch time to catch up on what's happening with their startup and their recent whirlwind tour of all the major VCs in India. I hope to have Baskar on here as a guest soon and will let him share his insights and learnings in his own voice.

The realization that dawned on me in the meeting with him, was the sheer number of bootstrapped startups that our friends and acquaintances have launched. These include:

Amagi Technologies - local ad syndication for digital TV;
Baskar, KAS, Vidhya; bootstrapped - looking to raise a round

diMobili - [in stealth mode]
Ganesh, Rajesh, Michael; bootstrapped - looking for angel funding

HealthcareMagic - consumer medical portal bringing doctors & consumers together
Kunal Shah; bootstrapped looking to raise a round

loconomy - finding, using & rating of local (neighborhood) services
Sanjay, Gaurav, Pallavi; bootstrapped

RightFields - business automation & ERP solutions around Microsoft AX
Raghu; bootstrapped, has revenue and looking to raise capital
Most of these are first time entrepreneurs and a couple including Amagi and HealthcareMagic are going around the entrepreneurial whirl for the second time - all of them have been India based, as elsewhere people wondered if it is foreign returned Indians who are doing a whole lot of bootstrapped startups. Only diMobili is still in stealth mode, with others having at least a website if not actually operational or a couple actually making revenue. I hope to get the founders of these startups visit us in this blog, sharing their thoughts and journey in the near future.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Excellent service should seem trivial - a SpiceJet story

This evening I had one of those AHA customer service experiences. I had flown into Bangalore from Chennai on SpiceJet's afternoon flight. Even as I was headed home in a cab from the airport, I realized that I had left my (simple ruled 200 page) notebook in the pocket of the seat in front of me. I pulled my boarding pass, which amazingly had the customer service numbers (both toll free and regular) on it and in a noisy call from my cell had a customer service request put in. Before I got home, I got a call from the airline (from their local person I suspect) to whom the trouble ticket had been assigned. She called me to say that they'd expect to get back to me within the next 24 hours. At this point I was happy to have just remembered where I had left my notebook and having called it in. Their acknowledging my call was just icing. So I figured.

However within the next two hours I had six calls from them. Six - that's right, six (missed) calls from SpiceJet's customer service department - spread over a 15 minute period. And once I got home, I saw that they had emailed me a copy of my formal complaint with the relevant trouble ticket info. And having been unable to reach me on my mobile, they had sent a separate email, informing me that they had found my notebook and it now awaited me (armed with the boarding pass and a photo ID) to be picked up. Wow! What a feeling it was and I am practically glowing still (in the dark as I write this) from that experience of nearly eight hours ago. And to think I had picked SpiceJet (the second time this week) for my flight primarily due to their value pricing - for those not familiar with crowded Indian skies they aspire to be the Southwest or Ryan Air of India, especially with the leader in that space Deccan now moving upscale after their acquisition by Kingfisher Airlines. Such service on the phone, on-line and in person was unbelievable - Good work, SpiceJet!

All this, when I had only spent a grand total of Rs 2350 ($55) at SpiceJet, contrasted with my experience two weeks ago of trying to get a spanking new (2-day old) Nikon that had stopped working, fixed. But that's a whole another story. This experience certainly showed how some training, committed service providers and simple follow through can make excellent service seem trivial.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Delivering on your promise

From my ninth article in the Start-up Logic entrepreneurship series in the Hindu BusinessLine

Every business sets out with a single premise and in the case of successful entrepreneurial firms this usually is a simple premise. If your business promises to deliver ‘hassle free online bill payment’ or to ‘keep all your contact information current automatically’, it keeps everyone in your company focused on what needs to be done. As an entrepreneur, you discover that just as you manage to get your ducks lined up, growth sneaks up on you scattering things once again.
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Keeping the cash flowing

From my eighth article in the Start-up Logic entrepreneurship series in the Hindu BusinessLine

For a business to be viable, money is important. Most of us understand this intuitively and deal with it constantly in our own personal lives. Yet, as runaway individual credit card debt or a cash squeeze in a large company and the occasional sovereign currency crunch demonstrate, it is not difficult to lose sight of where the money goes. Even as capital and sales revenues supply money for your business, inward and outward cash flow management is critical for survival. If you don’t track and control the cash flow in your business, you may not keep your doors open too long, unless, as in the case of Chrysler, an elected government bails you out. It makes better business strategy to understand and manage your cash flow rather than rely on the government to help you with it. Read the rest here.

Monday, March 31, 2008

New beginnings and firsts

For the first time since I began working, way back in 1988, I have quit a job without much idea of what I plan to do next. "Kidding apart, what do you really plan to do sri?" was the question one of my favorite engineers, posed to me. Obviously my earlier message that I might do some writing and possibly publishing was not serious enough. Another colleague, was more sensitive and subtler in his approach when he stated, "Sure we all have our dreams, yours maybe to write or publish, but what do you really plan to do?" So note to all of you out there who plan to make career changes, regardless of how vague or opaque your plans, it appears the world only wants to hear definitive things. I am still working on mine.


In this new life of mine, I have already achieved a first - a road trip with the family (to Mysore) without my laptop. Even on our last vacation (to Kumarakom, Kerala) I convinced myself (and the family) that I'd use the laptop only for journal writing and not for checking mails or doing work! I'm happy to report that not only did I survive, but I did not miss the luggable nor display any overt withdrawal symptoms. In an aside, actually got to read several essays from Stephen J Gould's "An Urchin in the Storm" - had to read several of the reviews multiple times, but that's fodder for another post.

Monday, March 24, 2008

People - the lifeblood of an organization

From my seventh article in the Start-up Logic entrepreneurship series in the Hindu BusinessLine

In every entrepreneur’s life, there comes a moment when a bulb goes off, “Darn! We are a real business.” You’d think that having embarked with much thought (or for some of us with little thought) on the path of entrepreneurship, learning that you are a real business wouldn’t surprise you. Of course, such a realisation usually occurs when the problems of running a real business put in an appearance.

When you first start your business, it all seems more fun than work — figuring out what you want, whom you are going to make the journey with, whom your customers are and what they want and if you have raised capital, what prospective investors want. Notice, but for the first day, you haven’t had time to think about yourself.

However, soon each new day seems to bring up a number of issues, ranging from life-threatening cash-flow problems to stumbling product development, stuttering sales and marketing and the inability to hire good people fast enough. We will look at each of these issues, and how best to address them over the next few weeks.

Let’s begin with the good news – you are not the first entrepreneur to go through this. The bad news is that this knowledge does not make it any easier to get through this period. As with adolescence that every one of us has had to go through, companies too go through an equivalent phase. Only this seems to appear a lot sooner for entrepreneurial firms and, at times, more than once; as with any hormone-laden teenager this will be a time of monumental emotional ups and downs for your company and you.

The one thing that can help you navigate your way through these emotional rapids is having great people on board with you. I spoke of business being all about people earlier and this is truest in such times of corporate hormonal sloshing. Hiring, retaining and motivating great people is far easier said than done and fixing hiring mistakes always takes far longer than we’d like. The truth is companies that learn how to do this well are the ones that grow and prosper in the end.

Read the rest of the article here.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

First time entrepreneur - raising capital or NOT!

The topic of first time entrepreneurs and specifically the experience of raising (or not) of venture capital is a recurring theme on a number of blogs, including Sujai in his Wireless India blog, Sramanamitra, Pluggd.in. To add to the discussion, here is a brief snapshot of my experience.

I have had the singular fortune of trudging up and down Sand Hill Road, Embarcadero Road and even places East of 101 the first time in 2000, about a year after we had started Impulsesoft to try and raise a series A with valley VCs. And then again in 2004, this time with a customer, with whom there were short-lived discussions of a prospective merger, to raise money as one (new) entity. While our business plan got better (not to mention our presentation skills) we had little else to show for it. We were of course flummoxed that direct competitors such as Widcomm were busy raising their series B, with pretty much the same game plan and San Diego burn rates. Luckily our inability to raise venture money was a blessing in disguise, for it turned out that we knew very little about communication systems (which is what we were building), product development (our first products were at least 18 months late) or even running a company.

In the intervening years, we spent a reasonable amount of time in India with both white-haired and as-yet-to-begin-shaving VCs. The most interesting insights I gained with the Indian VCs in the early years, was how new they were at it themselves; most of them were playing bankers without any venturing and many of them evolved to be investment bankers giving up any pretense of venturing. While we did get definitive term sheets (they wanted 40% of the company for a series A) as well as tentative offers (as early as 2001) from a interested corporate buyer, the best thing we did (in hindsight of course) was not raising any venture money. For had we raised money in 1999/2000, I seriously doubt we'd have survived the first industry downturn we faced in 2000/1 or subsequent periodic announcements by market pundits of the imminent death of Bluetooth. We saw funded Indian companies such as Karna, Kshema and Microcon being encouraged by their investors to merge or divide in an attempt to multiply. Others companies, such as SiliconWave (private and $90M raised) were picked up for a song; Conexant and Lucent quietly exit the Bluetooth business. Poverty, in addition to being character building was responsible for our survival. Of course, lack of capital did choke many internal initiatives so I don't recommend it as a business strategy.

NS Raghavan, ex-CMD of Infosys through his Nadathur Investments did invest in Impulsesoft as an angel investor (and he truly was an angel investor) and provided us with a line of credit as well. That and good old revenue served as well for nearly seven years till we were acquired by SiRF Technology Inc.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Communication and culture in organizations

A few months ago, I wrote about the need for communicating early and often and a recent article by Toni Bowers, Senior Editor, TechRepublic titled "Say what you mean, mean what you say" highlighted the sore need for clarity in these communications, even if done early and often! The readers' comments to that post, due to their specific nature were extremely illustrative, reinforcing the core message of how critical clear communications are, particularly when it comes to individuals and dishing them unpleasant news.

Less than ten days ago two of my long-time colleagues, sat me down and after some initial politeness ("you have issues rather than you have a problem") they got down to their core message "We don't believe you handle unpleasant stuff well, what do you think?" Talk about a topic for reflection! The reflection has made me particularly receptive to Toni's post and the discussion thread thereof.

Toni's core message is -

  • Be direct and specific when giving feedback, particularly relating to problems
  • Don't be heartless but use simple statements that preclude misinterpretation
Key points the commentators added include
  • Communicate expectations up front (my early and often mantra) to avoid misunderstandings
  • Don't tell the team they have a problem, when you want to communicate to a particular person - do it one-on-one
  • Be open and interested to find out reasons for why you are where you are (ask and listen, not just talk)
As with all good advice, once stated it seems simple and self-evident. The fact that more of us don't practice it consistently only points to the need for periodic reminders. Which brings me to the whole running water and rock metaphors of many Zen koans. The Buddha said (with regard to cultivating virtues) diligent practice will work like a "... small stream being able to pierce rock if it continually flows." Alas this is true not just for virtues but for bad habits like poor or no communication, a constant stream of which can wear down the enthusiasm of even the most motivated team member.

Even one dinosaur brain manager or toxic teammate when not dealt with direct and clear communication can start a tear in the fabric of your organization's culture. Subsequent failures of communications, however small, only grow this tear till soon all we'll have left will be shreds! So whether rock or fabric, our organizational culture needs continual renewal through simple, clear and sustained communication - to grow and prosper!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Retention, culture and building products in non-urban India...

Sranamamitra talks about Sathyam's GramIT rural BPO project in a recent Forbes article and adds in her blog,

I would love to see more projects like this come about, get funded, and scaled in the commercial domain in India. I see rural / small town BPO as a very interesting opportunity for the next phase of India’s evolution as the world’s back-office
While undoubtedly true, her assertion does a mild disservice to a slew of entrepreneurs, who have already begun doing this, not just in BPO/KPOs but for tech software as well. Mainstream business media in India is still caught up with how many bodies a company has ("TCS plans Pune campus, to hire 10000") or how many million dollars they are going to invest ("Nokia Siemens to invest $100 m in India!") So the Sathyam story while definitely worth telling (and yes big firms can have bigger impact), it's the little guys who are leading the way. Entrepreneurial firms in India have been innovating in their business models, organizational development and culture, over the last decade by going to Tier 2 and smaller towns. Two such efforts that I have had first hand experience and knowledge of include an engineering development center in Vellore and Integra, a provider of pre-publishing services in Pondicherry.

Before I talk of these folks' experience, (better yet invite them to talk about it, to take a leaf out of Sramana's blog :-)) it is worth addressing one other question. A commentator on the original post asked,
Maybe you can comment on why Indians in 3rd or 4th tier cities would work for $1200 when they could move to a Tier 2 city and make many times that.
People in India, actually work in smaller towns (many times at or near their hometown) for the same reasons, that people want to work in South Portland Maine, or Kalispell, Montana - that they are not the Bay Area or Boston, where though the salaries are higher so are the house prices and commute times. And of course folks who work in small towns usually have (extended) families near. [Outdoor sports, unfortunately in most Indian small towns are yet to bloom unlike their counterparts in Montana and Maine :-(]

In both these companies the founders and operational managers discovered what Hal Rosenbluth (in his book "Customers come second") found when they set up their first backoffice in Linton, North Dakota. In his words - "a pattern of quality work, with no absenteeism and no turnover. [...] morale was high and that office was the epitome of teamwork." Granted Bangalore firms such as Zoho and earlier our own firm Impulsesoft have successfully built teams, sustained teamwork and retained folks through downturns and pay freezes/cuts, but the pressures of the big city exist as in the Bay Area. And in many ways everyone else has settled for 14-15% employee churn as normal.

It is possible to get away from this is what the folks operating outside Tier 1 and even Tier 2 cities have discovered - a motivated, eager to learn and committed, albeit at times inexperienced, workforce. One of the managers in Vellore stated it as, "People still have old fashioned views of work and contribution. Any engineer who moves to Bangalore whether he gains experience or not, gets an entitlement attitude within the year."

SNS Datascribe is another firm that I have come across recently, operating successfully for several years from the outskirts of Coimbatore. Anu and Sriram at Integra have grown from strength to strength operating out of Pondicherry. I will try to bring their voices to this discussion directly.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Customers - finding, keeping and letting go...

From my sixth article in the Start-up Logic entrepreneurship series in the Hindu BusinessLine

"A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him,” said M.K. Gandhi. As with many of Gandhi’s teachings, it is hard to disagree with him, but harder still to follow his simple advocacy of direct action.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Stake in the Outcome - Building a Culture of Ownership

These last six months, I have been doing a good deal of reading; on average maybe two books a week - at least one of which has been a business book! I have gone back to reading books that have been in my library a long while such as Paul Hawken's Growing a Business as well as reading new (to me) ones such as A Stake in the Outcome by Jack Stack and Bo Burlingham.

I ran across A Stake in the Outcome (ASitO) while browsing business books at the Easy Library (a great online library with a brick & mortar presence in Bangalore). Having read and been influenced by Bo Burlingham's more recent Small Giants, I began browsing ASitO at the library itself. As the saying goes, "When the student is ready, the Master will appear!" Certainly that's how I felt as I scanned the book quickly right there and subsequently brought it home to read.

Chapter 3 titled The Design of a Business, begins:

Most people, I know, don't think about the company they're designing when they start out in business. They think about the products they're going to make, or the services they're going to provide. They worry about how to raise the money they need, how to find customers, how to deal with salespeople and suppliers, how to survive. It never occurs to them that, while they're putting together the basic elements of the business, they're also making decisions that are going to determine the type of company they'll have if they're successful.
I felt someone had just hit me on the head with a two-by-four. Every week I meet someone who is thinking about starting something. Nearly every last one of them talks about their product or service idea and if at all they talk about their company, its only when they intend to "flip-it" ("Built-to-flip" as Jim Collins speaks of as does Sramana Mitra in a recent blog entry). Jack Stack in contrast, states clearly that

Ownership Rule #1
The company is the product
It is worth pausing here and reflecting on his assertion. All too often I see entrepreneurs, young and not-so-young, pitch their businesses as I have heard Hollywood scriptwriter's do! "Think Netflix but for Indian movies," "Waiter.com meets iTunes," "Google but for contextual search." I'll refrain from speculating whether the internet bubble begat this or this begat the bubble and what role VCs had to play in this. This focus on what a company does, rather than what a company will be, Stack asserts misses the opportunity to explicitly design your business from ground up. If you haven't figured it now by now, I agree whole-heartedly.

In many ways, the practices of visionary companies that Jim Collins and Jerry Porras discuss in their book Built to Last have been explicitly operationalized in Stack's company Springfield Remanufacturing (SRC). The big difference is that Stack's direct writing style and first-hand experience makes this a gripping read rather than an dry business book. Also unlike most business books that appear to document management's clever (often infallible) strategies, Stack walks us through both the good and poor decisions they made, as they set out to remake SRC. In the end (in fact in the epilogue), Stack quotes Herb Kelleher, cofounder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines responding to The Wall Street Journal's question on what he meant when he said Southwest's culture was its biggest competitive advantage.

"The intangibles are more important than the tangibles," Kellher replied. "Someone can go out and buy airplanes from Boeing and ticket counters, but they can't buy our culture our espirit de corps."

ASitO walks us through SRC's journey of building such a culture of ownership from that day in 1982 when Stack and his managers did a management buy-out of their struggling engine remanufacturing factory to twenty years hence when their 10cent stock was worth $86 (since then has grown to over $136). Most importantly the authors don't romanticize the journey and are explicit in periodically setting our expectations with insights such as "Stock is not a magic pill" (ownership rule #4) and "Ownership needs to be taught"(OR #7).

ASitO is a must-read for any one contemplating starting a company or looking to effect change in their organizations through employee participation and a culture of ownership.

A much more detailed summary of the book itself can be found here