Build Before You Judge

Over the past few weeks I’ve repeatedly come across instances where the ability to build out an idea and get feedback as an atomic action has proved to be a huge advantage. While this won’t prevent one from spending time and effort on bad ideas, it does protect you from the more likelier instance of having a good idea and then failing to act on it. In fact, if you believe the challenges facing a good idea are all rooted in bias – then you’ll know that pushing aside bias is a priority. It’s easy to analytically tear apart ideas on a whiteboard but that isn’t progress. On the other hand, it only takes a single experience of a user’s delightful response to gain the confidence to invest more.

Serial entrepreneur out of Pune – Karamveer Singh, CEO, Ayush Software shared his commitment to rapidly getting an idea out to his target audience. The method he uses to push aside bias is to talk about the idea in past tense, “it’s already done” pushes aside the bias of aimless encouragement; and “someone else has done it”, pushes out any bias that you personally bring into the picture. An instance of where he cited this works is when you ask your Mother- “Would you use this?”

In “How to Get Startup Ideas“, Paul Graham points out to the inherent advantage of fast feedback loops. He says it’s a huge advantage to be able to build your ideas out, especially if the idea is something you want, and something with an unexpected flavor to it.

May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser who shared 2014’s Nobel Prize for Medicine for their discovery of the Brain’s inner GPS cited another instance of a fast feedback loop. What sets them apart is that they’re married – working partners. They unabashedly revealed that their ability to quickly refine ideas over breakfast helped them immensely.

The above supporting evidence makes a compelling case to keep the build-ship feedback loop tight, true and quick. And yet under time pressure, I find startup founders turning to outsourcing the creation aspects of their ideas to employees, other companies and even overseas. In other cases, they’ll share an underdeveloped startup idea with an exacting audience. I myself am not exempt. It seems to be another fallout of the prevalent startup culture that puts results before the process of discovery. Paradoxically, growing economic efficiency with every passing age only serves to underscore the act of creation.

Pune DIY, Tinkerers Meetup.

“What Did That Sound Like?”

Thomas Rhett on the Making of 'It Goes Like This'


Thomas Rhett on the Making of ‘It Goes Like This’. Photo credit Lunchbox LP.

Is Outsourcing Right for Startups?

A friend wrote to me and asked me should he outsource or not. Turns out a number of startups confront this question in the early days. Especially if there are concerns with respect to delivering software on time and within estimates. My answer doesn’t vary much and is shared below.
Its unrealistic to expect an outsourcing team to have the same level of ownership and I believe that most conflicts arise out of mismatched expectations. Which is also why startups seldom choose to go down the outsourcing route if they have a choice to put together their own team instead. Writing software is a creative pursuit; its pretty challenging to get precisely what you ask for due to the lossy nature of communication.
I will always recommend putting together the best team over outsourcing. Let’s assume we’re going down the outsourcing route:
Do they want the business – yes? I’ll only recommend an outsourced company if I’ve either worked directly with them, or if a colleague I know well has worked with one. I don’t think an outsourced company will go out of the way to scam you on the project or anything like that as it will make an obvious impact on their ability and reputation to deliver to west coast customers.
Due to the language barrier / discomfort with western professional environments – you might find that when a project begins to fall behind schedule, some engineer will nod his head saying that a crucial task is complete, when in reality it isn’t. This has been known to happen and I don’t believe it is always indicative of malicious intent. Its more to do with our cultural make up. Here in India, professionals try to be over-sincere and don’t know when to say “no”. This attitude leads to icky situations where teams overcommit and under deliver. I don’t intend to sweep it under the carpet; but I can recommend that you need to watch out for this and proactively take steps against it.
Can an outsourced team make the difference between success / failure for a startup company? Success maybe. Failure – definitely not.
What you can do to mitigate some of the problems that can arise,
1. Start small (1 or 2 people) and build 1:1 relationships with the people on your team so that they have the freedom to focus on being productive.
2. Stick to an agile discipline with 2 week or 4 week cycles so that you don’t go astray and can get back on track when you do.
3. Be aware at the code-level as to what is being checked in, why, who, … . Peer code reviews are a great idea if you can get involved at that level. Hook your git repository to send out notifications on every check-in.
4. Keep communication voice-based as far as possible; this way you can bypass the language barrier and create healthy, direct communication lines between you and each member of the team. Try avoiding the tyranny of email if you can.
Over time, you can ease back on some of the above practices.
Finally, it pays to become the CTO for your product. I doubt if junior developers can help point out some of the larger arcs that could actually play a crucial role either in,
1. your product, the technologies used and eventually the ability to deliver on your business goals.
2. your team’s productivity, the tools used internally to help foster collaboration and efficiency.
If on the other hand you don’t have the bandwidth for the above. I’d say put your time and energy into creating clear specs and if stuff does go wrong I’d go back to what I said earlier that it isn’t the outsourced vendor who will determine success / failure of the startup. You always reserve the option to move on. That’s the nature of the relationship.
A side note, I have heard of people having better success with hiring talented freelancers from the odesk / elance crowd. Again this is anecdotal and your mileage can vary … wildly :).

Moonshot Thinking & the film “The Edge of Tomorrow”

I got around to watching the new Tom Cruise sci-fi film “The Edge of Tomorrow” this long weekend. While I will do my best to avoid sharing any spoilers, I certainly enjoyed the movie for its portrayal of a fresh perspective and I’d like to figure out if I can share my thoughts as coherently as the movie itself.

The movie’s basic premise is that the world’s gripped by crisis. It has been overwhelmed by a technologically superior alien species known as the mimic, that wants our planet for itself. Europe has been lost and a press officer Major William Cage (played by Tom Cruise) has been reluctantly drafted to the front lines in a major counter-offensive. Unprepared, he dies on his first day of battle and wakes up to a unique phenomena.

Just like in a video game, every time Cage dies, his death allows him to re-spawn back in time to the point where he joins the other troops a whole day before the battle begins. The rest of the movie is about his desire and discovery of the abilities to win the war for humanity. Without spoilers, here’s what I think a summary of the story ought to be.

We can’t be absolutely prepared in skills, resources or else for any worth-while challenge.
As we take the only active steps we know to face it head on,
we discover that our initial anxieties about the challenge are unfounded.
We try and try again only to lose our way and find our way back in to this game we’ve created.
Eventually, our ability to rise above the challenge transcends odds and circumstances alike.

If by now you haven’t already figured out the metaphor, I believe the movie is alluding to moonshot thinking.

As goals go, the premise is that we’re bad at distinguishing between what’s truly impossible, and what’s hard but only just beyond our current means.

An apt example of this is where the word moonshot comes from, the US Apollo missions to the moon. At the time of the first moon landing, there was no precursor to the moon mission. Peter Thiel referred to the idea of simply ‘reaching the moon’ as the ‘Calculus metaphor‘, arguing that ‘a spaceship can’t ride on probabilistic thinking’.

Fittingly, this past week India managed to reach Mars on its first attempt, a first in itself. There’s more.

Today we’re gripped by an irrational exuberance with respect to the proliferation of personal technology in India. This is the same exuberance as I’d experienced in the past. It’s more certain now that smartphones can bring about technological parity between every Indian, regardless of his demographic and even education. In Android, Google knows it has the best chance to achieve this with what will be the next 300Mn Indians to go online.

Now is the best time to reset what we know and otherwise to welcome this transformation.

What’s Luck Got to Do With Breakout Success

I enjoy putting together a once-a-year panel of successful entrepreneurs for the Pune OpenCoffee Club. This year’s panel was posed an interesting question. Someone from the audience asked “What role do you think luck has had to play in your success?” There are two extreme perspectives that one might take. These were relatively young entrepreneurs, each one having distinctive achievements early on in their lives. On one hand, was the surprise breakout success each one had had. On the other hand, each one’s struggle was undeniably real. While each one of them listed the ingredients of their success, none of them mentioned luck. The audience on the other hand didn’t immediately believe that the panelists weren’t favored in any way.

Tom Preston-Werner, Cofounder at GitHub has one way of looking at luck (from his talk at Startup School 2010 “Optimizing for Happiness“). As an entrepreneur’s wits get sharper with time (or hungrier, if you must) the way he looks at luck is both what he can control and what he can’t control. It’s both you and this constant we can’t change. He might not be able to control if someone will invest in him, but he can control if he will choose to invest in himself.

Tom’s journey began with that choice. He relates that he asked himself “Should I seek permission to build GitHub from an Investor? Or build it anyway?” He’s shared other choices in a similar fashion, including picking a big idea, moving to San Francisco, bootstrapping his company, giving Gravatar away to WordPress, choosing his cofounders, giving autonomy to his employees, deciding on an office space and so on.

In hindsight, I do agree with Tom that luck does have a role to play whether good things will happen to you or not. Before luck swings your way you cannot know for certain when it will strike. With that in mind it’d be foolish to assume that you can cease stacking the odds. Pick the objectives that you believe are right (or as Tom says, optimize on happiness) and keep at it. Learn to get better at recognizing what needs to be in your favor and its role in your eventual success. Interacting with a peer-circle of successful and experienced entrepreneurs is one way to stay sharp.

As Tom recommends, stop waiting on Luck and start acting on key decisions proactively. Then you have a real choice from day zero and a better chance of picking up on favorable winds.

Three “Letters from the CEO”

How do you convey a deep sense excitement for what lies ahead? How do you share a sense of reward after huge effort? Here’s three outstanding letters from Marissa Mayer, Jack Dorsey and Jeff Bezos that apply the written word well in conveying passion and direction.

Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos announcing the Kindle Paperwhite. His letter was front and center on the Amazon home page (pdf screenshot) marking the final turn away from ‘gold box’ offers and cluttered Amazon home page of the early 2000’s. Read the letter as reprinted on Kindle Chronicles.

Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer on renewing the Yahoo Logo “Geeking out on the Yahoo Logo“.

Square CEO, Jack Dorsey on signing up Starbucks “Onward“.

I added this one from CEO GoDaddy, Blake Irving (png) a little after publishing the post.

Hope you enjoy reading these as much as I have!

Single Minded

Most of these investors-cum-inventors are motivated by personal passion to create companies. Under this model, entrepreneurs often tap their own networks and wallets to finance their ideas.

“I don’t have any hobbies,” said Max Levchin, a co-founder and former chief technology officer of PayPal. “This is what I do.” …

Read the rest of the article – Entrepreneurs help build startups by the batch – NY Times.

Being single minded is one way that things get done. It can also become the reason why everything else starts to lose it’s color. Hang in there. Life will always be bigger. I guess that it is this need to transform what we work on, what we produce, what we’re affected by, to become all of life that keeps things greased.

From what I’ve read – Pixar is great at keeping this thought at the center of it’s creative processes. They know that they can get the best out of their teams if they allow them to seed and work on their own ideas. This is not to say that Pixar does not play a role, they play a huge role in refining these ideas, leveraging what they’ve learned as an institution in order to make these ideas work.

Emotional ownership at Pixar was significant enough for John Lasseter and Steve Jobs, Pixar’s boss at one time, to balk repeatedly at activating a clause that would transfer Toy Story’s characters over to Disney. They made the same call when even when they were nearing broke. When the sale did happen, it appeared almost as if Pixar would be buying Disney, retaining creative control.

Max Levchin, Slide

Why the MnA Market for tech. Startups in India is a joke.

An Open Letter to CEO’s, Tech, MnA Execs of Incumbents, Entrepreneurs.

This letter is greatly inspired by Dalton Caldwell’s open letter to Mark Zuckerberg and is aimed at making a corrective impression with those who drive the M&A in technology companies across India. This is an opinion letter written by me based on my experiences of over 6 years as an entrepreneur in the Technology and Internet space in India. I have only the entrepreneurs perspective to offer. But I do believe my experience and views will matter to you, especially if you are in any way connected to or affected by MnA’s of startups. This was not my first conversation around acquisition, I’ve had several in my journey. The funny thing is this story repeats itself every time. In fact, several entrepreneurs who read this post relate to it with their own stories which follow this pattern. Enough that we might even call it a broad trend.

The backdrop.

A couple of months ago I was invited to meet with different executives of a potential acquirer with the purpose of acquisition of a technology that I’ve created. What we were selling was strategically ‘aligned’, could potentially expand the acquirers business, get  them to-market significantly ahead of time, and in turn solve a valuable business problem for both.

Continue reading Why the MnA Market for tech. Startups in India is a joke.

What Makes Entrepreneurs Entrepreneurial?

(c) 2001, Saras D. Sarasvathy.

Professionals who work closely with them and researchers who study them have often speculated as to what makes entrepreneurs “entrepreneurial”? Of course, entrepreneurs also love to hold forth on this topic. But while there are as many war stories and pet theories as there are entrepreneurs, and researchers, gathering together a coherent theory of entrepreneurial expertise has thus far eluded academics and practitioners alike.

What are the characteristics, habits, and behaviors of the species entrepreneur? Is there a learnable and teachable “core” to entrepreneurship? In other words, what can today’s entrepreneurs such as Rob Glaser and Jeff Bezos learn from old stalwarts, such as Josiah Wedgwood and Leonard Shoen? Or even within the same period in history, what are the common elements that entrepreneurs across a wide variety of industries share with each other? In sum, is there such a thing as “entrepreneurial thinking” that can be applied across space, time and technology?

Continue reading What Makes Entrepreneurs Entrepreneurial?

A Summer of Startup Teams

As I look forward to April, I can sense the anticipation of talented individuals who are about to embark on remarkable journeys. This is also is when the foundations for these companies are being laid. Some will be starting out with their friends. As the gears churn away in the minds of the founders, they are carefully going over an important question in their minds – how can I include my co-founder best in what we’re about to do? Founding teams are hard to build, and once built they should be equally hard to pry apart. And yet it happens all too often.

… It was like a breakup scene from a Hollywood movie: it was raining and we were arguing in the street. We couldn’t even agree on where to walk next. And so we parted in anger, heading in opposite directions. As a metaphor for our company’s failure, this image of the two of us, lost in the rain and drifting apart, is perfect.

These words are from Eric Ries’ book ‘The Lean Startup‘. Not very long ago, I had bought into the vision of a couple of ideas and had contributed myself to each one. Along the way, spin-outs were proposed and a decision had to be made. I think I made the right one by letting go, especially considering I personally was not contributing and did not wish to continue contributing in startup mode at the time. Erics’ words closely reflect the ensuing turbulence in my mind at the time. I could not understand my choice as I felt that I was missing deserved attribution.

If one were to think of reality in only this one way, the point of it all would be sadly missed. It would be like trying to guess what an entire Jigsaw puzzle might look like based on just a single piece. When you start off together you know so little about each other except for a gut feeling that you are both going in the same direction and that you would like to share success. Given enough time and pressure, your relationship will develop into something that is closer to family and is less like a purely professional one. Beyond family, a co-founder can enrich your venture in a way that resonates with the spirit of your team and complement your own skills and mindset.

If we look at those who work with us in this way, we might be slightly embarrassed about holding back on many things. For instance, you may have thought your idea and existing work is worth a great deal of equity, or you might have missed out on attributing someone else in the past. That’s alright. It happens to the best of them. Perhaps you were just not ready for it at the time. Founders can choose to auto-adjust to each other to make these deviations irrelevant. It is also ok to find out that things are not going to work out after all. If that is where you are, the best piece of advice you can get would be to accept it and continue to move forward.

Building a founding team is hard work and in contrast it might be better to focus on a challenge that comes before that – how to get started. Success is an irresistible magnet that will help you attract the best talent. From that point, finding a right co-founder is as simple as looking for the right vibes.

If you do have the opportunity to start out with someone I suggest that you err on the side of family and not on the side of being professional. It will lay the foundation to what I believe is necessary for a great company. It might sound absurd but not much more than common wisdom that great companies are especially so because of great founders – not limited by an exact sense of ownership, or propriety.