Author Archives: Mukund Mohan

I love hacks that solve the problem hackers have #linkedIn #Inhackday

Over the weekend I had a chance to visit the LinkedIn office and judge their Hackathon. They had about 400+ people register to hack and they finally selected about 200. Of these, 20 teams were formed and a set of 9 hacks were chosen to present to the final jury.

As expected many of the hacks followed the “I want to connect with someone, but I don’t like business cards” problem. That’s such a known problem and there are so many people that are aware of it that I see a variation of a solution to the problem in almost every hackathon I attend. At this hackathon, there were 3 of the 9 companies that presented a solution they felt would solve that problem. One was pretty interesting given that they used Google Glass, but nonetheless it was a trendy take to solve  the same problem.

I am always impressed by and energized to see hacks that developers build to solve their own developer problems.

One such problem was Xkeys (a Chrome plugin). This product uses the accessibility keys and features on websites to help you map keyboard shortcuts to surf the web with as little usage of the mouse as possible. Very neat problem. I love using keyboard shortcuts all the time and it helps me be more productive.

Another such problem was solved by a solo developer who built a solution to convert HTML tables into spreadsheets on the fly at any webpage. This allows you to cut and paste a column of the table instead of copying the entire table into Excel and manipulating it. Again, a real problem and a really interesting solution.

The winner was a solution that uses face recognition to solve the “sleepy” car driver problem. Mount your smartphone on your car dash and if have a pebble watch (or any other device), it will detect when your eyelids are drooping and send alarms to your watch or make a loud noise to wake you up. It will also alert you to the closest coffee shop so you can grab a caffeine jolt.

There were other hacks as well that provided a real time table reservation update to your favorite restaurant – one that needs to be updated by the restaurant owner, which I felt was going to be a pain.

Another hack was an app which uses GPS to allow you to track all your friends, when you are all trying to meet together. Imagine if 4 of your friends were all trying to go to a movie and instead of SMSing or Whatsapping each other about your location every 3 minutes, you could download this app and it would map your location and the 3 other friend’s locations as well.

Overall I saw some really high quality apps and as is the current trend, the LinkedIn offices were really swanky. The winners got MacBook Air’s and the runners up iPad Air’s and the 3rd place winners got iPad mini’s.

Farhad Manjoo misses the point on Apple and contradicts himself

There’s a piece on Apple at the New York times today.

Farhad says Apple has done very well “financially” under Tim Cook. That’s the measure of any CEO’s success. So Tim Cook according to him should be praised not criticized.

Here’s the thing:

Under Steve Ballmer, Microsoft revenues doubled and profits tripled. He was still criticized as “not a good CEO”. I disagree on that BTW.

The stock market notwithstanding, Ballmer did a great job given what he was supposed to do.

If you read Farhad’s piece on Steve Ballmer a few years ago on Slate, he was a bad CEO, because he moved from music players to XBOX to other things. He also said later, that Steve Sinofsky leaving meant the wrong Steve leaving.

So much for consistency.

So which is it Farhad? Why should Steve B be maligned for boosting profits and revenues, while Tim C be praised for the same?

<This was the Twitter conversation the two of us had on the topic>. Great to see him engage to tell his side of the story.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo

Plantar Fasciitis: I learned something new a week ago

I have a new condition in my foot called Plantar Faciitis.

It comes from poor running habits and my insistence on wearing chappals with poor sole support apparently.

For males, plantar fasciitis becomes more common before and during their 30s and decreases afterward. Engaging in heavy physical activities such as marathons, football or basketball are considered major causes.

So I have two options – either go with a arch supported shoe or buy socks with padding support to wear them with my sandals.

Painful.

If you think it is hard to be an entrepreneur, you should try bootstrapping

I met with 2 entrepreneurs from the Microsoft Accelerator last week for lunch. Both are among the nicest people I know.

The first entrepreneur used to have a really easy job at a large technology company. He had a 9-5 assignment and as comfortable a life as you can imagine. Great pay, good work-life balance, and a family that was very happy and content. A year ago he decided to leave and start his own company. He asked his spouse and a close friend to join him as well. They are among the best developers, architects and engineers I have worked with given how diligent, thoughtful and industrious they are.

The first 4 months were spent trying to better identify the problem they were solving, which is one of those that’s really easy to explain, but hard to pinpoint. Meaning, the problem when articulated, was one of those which has everyone go “Yeah, that is a problem”, but when you dig deeper after 30 min, there were many workarounds that people had already figured out.

They struggled and pivoted, changed course, modified their release plan and kept brainstorming, talking to each other, seeking advice from many people and finally released an absolute dud of a alpha version. I used it and I am not sure what it did.

They changed course again. Over the next 6 months, they hunkered down, painfully pivoted and modified their goal posts again. Released a beta version, which most people went “huh?”.

I personally know that even if they did not succeed, they were so good that they’d get a job at any large tech company in a matter of a month. They were that good.

I was happy that they persisted though and secretly hoping they release a product that everyone of their critics would go “Oh wow. Like wow. Really”.

They left the accelerator a few months ago. The last 3 months had been the most painful he said. He had so many fights with his wife, his father, his co founders, family and many sleepless nights, that he was extremely tired and at the point of giving up.

The team stuck through the lows and kept trying to find a way to solve the problem they felt was rather important to solve.

When he met me last week there was a man I met who had been to hell and lived to tell the tale.

They had just raised $800K in funding (money in the bank, yay!) and had commitments for another $200K.

Then he mentioned how he endured the lows and the number of days he cried and wept himself to sleep over the last 2 months,

I could relate. Those are exactly the set of emotions I have been through many times in my life.

The first 6-12 months of your bootstrapped startup are hard. If you think something is hard, take that and multiply it over 100 times, and imagine doing an alpine, freestyle, obstacle course avoiding maneuver on a double black diamond. It is that hard.

The worst part of the journey is the emotional roller coaster.

The downs, the further downs, the abyss and the chasms. There is no up. A “down” actually seems like an up.

The second entrepreneur’s story is more poignant.

I met him 8 months ago when he was introduced via a mutual friend. He was a very experienced trade professional with over 20+ years of successfully running his own company, but not in the technology space.

Here was a man, who had made good money, built great relationships and had some excellent success as a services professional.

He and his American co founder then decided the future was in building a product. The only problem was they were not developers or technical people. They had to hire a team of technology experts to build their product.

They were bootstrapped as well. He and his wife, put their life savings into the product. His co founder moved from the US to his homeland to reduce costs and they started building their product. His co founder continued to talk to potential American customers remotely and keep them excited about the opportunity.

They did get a “verbal commitment” from angel investors in Hyderabad, who backed off at the last minute. They had been bootstrapping for over 21 months.

The most amazing part was their customers were so excited to use the product, some of them gave an advance (small amounts of money but real hard cash) for their product.

Since they were not technical experts, they made many product mistakes. They underestimated the amount of time it would take, they put a really bad user interface together which most people could not figure out and they also hired wrong.

The most poignant part of the story was when he told me that his wife and he had to move apartments 3 times (that’s 3 moves) in the last year just so they could keep reducing their monthly burn rate at home.

Imagine moving kids, your wife, uprooting your family so many times so you can follow your passion.

He caught up with me to tell me about their seed round. They just closed $500K with a commitment for another $1 Million from investors outside India.

To them and all the other entrepreneurs who have endured these and many worse things, there’s nothing more I can say. I am just in awe.

When you could easily “get a simple job” and “enjoy life”, you chose to take the road less traveled and the harder path.

There’s another part of the story I want to highlight.

These stories are ones that ended on a happy note – well they both got funded.

For every two of these entrepreneurs, there are 100′s I know whose story did not end up with funding.

It ended with a company that closed, or a marriage that fell apart and a kid that had to go to a tier 2 college, because they had spent a lot of their life’s savings in their startup.

To them as well, I say “you tried, and did not succeed, but you did not fail”.

Those who “failed” are the ones who did not try at all.

The ones who failed are the ones in a safe job, 9-5 assignments who keep telling me “they want to start a company some day”.

I think we should have entrepreneurs that succeeded and those that did not succeed.

I liken it to giving the gold for the successful ones and silver to the unsuccessful ones.

The ones watching on the sidelines and commenting are the ones that “failed”.

So long and thanks for all the fish, but not really

We moved to India 6 years ago from the valley. I started BuzzGain and then wanted to start another company, but ended up at Microsoft instead.

Now we are moving back to the US in July or August. We are heading to Seattle.

I will still come to India every couple of months and the team here will continue to report to me, but I will live in Seattle.

Microsoft Ventures in India has 2 leaders – Ravi Narayan and Rajinish Menon. Ravi focuses on the accelerator and Rajinish on the community and engagement with the ecosystem.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in India and have made many friends and a few enemies as well. I have made more than my share of mistakes. So for all those mistakes and the people I have messed up, apologies.

To all the wonderful folks in the various cities that have hosted me and been such a source of support when things were going horribly wrong, thank you very much.

Most of all, thank you very much for being good friends and supporting me with your emails, tweets, blog comments and messages.

Is there any advantage for an enterprise #startup product company to start in India?

Last night I had the chance to be at the event organized by Helion Ventures on Enterprise product startups. The event itself brought about 50 entrepreneurs and investors in the space. I believe the best part of these events is the quality of individuals, which has a direct correlation on the quality of the conversations. This event brought the best folks building enterprise software companies in India.

As a prelude to the conversations, Helion shared results of the survey they had commissioned. This survey had many CIOs (of Indian companies) and about 50 entrepreneurs building companies in the space.

While the results of the survey will not be surprising to those who live and breathe enterprise software, I thought I’d first highlight 3 most important things I took away from the event.

  1. Over 60% of CIO’s in India, were willing to “kick the tires” or talk to startups, engage with startups, conduct POC’s and look at early stage software solutions, but only 13% were willing to buy. Entrepreneurs selling to Indian CIO’s know this very well. CIO’s cited lack of understanding of enterprise support requirements and deficient customer service as the top 2 items for their unwillingness to purchase. (P.S. I rolled my eyes on this one. My 2 cents, they are just amazingly risk averse).
  2. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, cited the (in) ability to sell (hiring sales people, delivering strong sales value propositions and building great sales teams) as the #1 issue they faced, followed by hiring and building great product management talent in their companies.
  3. Finally both entrepreneurs and investors were more likely (over 60%) to focus on North American markets as their first (and in many cases only) target, followed by Indian markets or global markets. Another part of the survey was size of the target customer. While many were focused on large enterprise, there was a good mix of SMB targets as well.

The more interesting part was the discussions and key questions that followed, each of which could be a blog post in themselves.

  1. Is building an enterprise company out of India, an advantage or disadvantage?
  2. What should investors in enterprise software do to create a better environment for startups?
  3. Is field sales dead?

There were 2 other questions, but these were the most interesting to me.

Participants gathered into teams of 10 people each and they had to discuss the question and help come up with some potential topics and points to consider for research.

We did come up with a framework for the first question – when is building an enterprise company out of India an advantage and when is it not, and when is it a disadvantage.

I’d love more feedback on the framework we came up with to answer the question #1.

Manju Gowda (from i7 networks) and Sachin were part of the team that presented our point of view. The key framework we came up with was a 2X2 matrix with Cost of the product and Value delivered to the customer on the 2 axes.

If you look at the 4 quadrants, only if the Average Selling Price (ASP) was low and the value the customer got was very high – both in terms of time and the economic benefit, was being an enterprise software company from India an advantage. So SaaS companies that offer an order of magnitude better capability and value at a much lower price point (small enough to buy online without a sales person’s help) then being in India helped.

If however the ASP was high and the value from the product was high as well, then unless you have a field sales team that can help sell, you have a distinct disadvantage being in India.

Similarly, if you had a low priced product and the value that the customer got was low as well, it is neither an advantage nor disadvantage to be in India.

Finally if you the ASP is high and the value a customer got was low, then US enterprise software Product Company would do better.

We gave many examples how this model makes sense, but since this was something we came up with in 15 min, I was curious what the rest of you think?

Except if you have a low ASP and unreasonable ROI (Value) for the customer, I don’t think enterprise startups benefit from being founded in India.

Be Happy

I have a new farewell greeting that I am using. I think that “Bye” is too short and best for acquaintances, “Cheers” or “Ciao” is too European, and “Take care” and “Good bye” are too mundane.

So I am going to start saying “Be happy”. It signifies what I wish for others.

Lets see where this goes.

Be happy.

The 5 emotions you go through as a #startup founder

I love tinkering and trying to do new stuff. It helps me figure out what entrepreneurs are going though. Whether it is learning a new language (Javascript again), a framework (Angular.JS) or new technique to get customers (Instagram FTW). Some of these projects take a few months and others a year.

For e.g. we are trying to build a periscope camera to help you take photos when you are a concert and are not tall enough or have arms that are not long enough to take them. This will be connected to your smartphone so you can look at the lens from your phone before you take the photo.

This project was my attempt to launch and manage a kickstarter campaign. We have 2 college students who have the capability to build the Raspberry Pi  based controller and I was the marketing and kickstarter campaign guy.

There’s a point in time when you fantasize about these side-projects becoming your “$19 Billion exit”. Then reality hits you daily every hour. Even if you have cofounders, you will realize quickly that being an entrepreneur is a long and lonely journey. That means you will have several conversations with yourself.

I tried to capture my own “self-conversations” or “selfies” over the last few projects to understand the moments of doubt, fear, exhilaration, stress, joy.

Lets start with the idea. Most people get exhilaration, but I get doubt as well. It seems to me that having listened to 1000′s of ideas as a judge, VC and investor, there are no new great ideas any more. Then again, if you are unable to sleep at night and want to write down, code or document all your thoughts, this is the best stage of emotion.

Then you get to joy – for me that comes from a shipped product (call it MVP, beta, alpha, anything). Not necessarily the point when customers or users are using the product, but just when you get it “out there”. The time when you can declare on your FB profile or on your Twitter stream that “Product X is live” or “Launched Product X”, followed by a call for people to try it out.

Fear hits next when you either a) get a lot of users and many complain on Twitter or a Blog post you have written that they dont “get it”. Most people rarely get version 1 of anything. You as a founder tend to then worry about whether all the time and energy you spent over the last few weeks / months / years was even worth it.

Stress comes after that when you try to pivot and change multiple times to figure out “product market fit”. The stress comes from your own internal battles to tune, fix, change and modify your project in a race against time to keep your “self funded” project from dying.

Finally this stage ends with doubt – on funding, market, customer validation, hiring, investments, a whole entire host of self critical analysis and paranoia that results in hopefully a finish that comes back to exhilaration – of the funding round, the customer traction or a new, smart hire.

Going by the numbers in my own entrepreneurial network, I’d say exhilaration post these 5 emotions is on the rise. That’s a good thing. A very good thing.

Is it a bubble? I have been asked. I usually reply – Who cares.

There’s an “orgy” going on next door (Silicon Valley) we are busy arguing the size of “condom” we are trying on. Dive in, the water is warm.

What matters more at the earliest of early stages? Team? Or Idea?

I have attended over 45 hackathons in the last year. Some as a mentor, some as a participant and most as a judge. There are many biases I have, including a “developer bias” – I prefer developer heavy teams to MBA teams or sales teams etc. I know some of these biases and many I am not aware of.

So, it is always fascinating when I get a chance to meet the individuals first before they form teams and then see them selling their ideas to get quality hackers, hustlers (presenters, more than sales guys are needed for a hackathon) and hipsters (designers) on board.

I have been doing an experiment to help me understand how to evaluate teams and ideas better.

The experiment is fairly simple. On a white sheet of paper, I put the names of 5 people I think are the likely to win at the beginning of the hackathon. This may be based on just a 2-3 minute conversation with them. I dont know what goes in my mind, but I want to document it. I think I judge how they introduce themselves, what the first few words are, the background and education, etc. I think I have the same judgment biases as most investors and entrepreneurs have, so it is very likely that the top 10 on my list will be the same as any of the other folks who are judging or mentoring. I have shared these notes and the top 10 list with other mentors and asked them to share theirs as well.

Then when the ideas are being pitched I write down the top 5 ideas. I am sure many biases are being played in my mind again. I generally dislike the education and ideas aimed at solving problems that college students have, for example looking for mentors or finding internships. I am very partial to solutions aimed at developers or marketing audiences.

Usually at the end of this process I have my top 5 or 6. The reason is that I have found that in 4 out of 10 cases the “good person” on the list does not choose a “good idea” or the “good idea” has some “average teams”.

I have tried to then map my initial “picks” against those that win the hackathon eventually. In the 11 hackathons that I have consistently done this over the last 2 months, there has been only 1 case when a team from the “other list” has won the hackathon. In 6 of the remaining 10, my first pick has gone on to win and in the remaining 4, my first pick has made it either to 2nd or 3rd place.

I thought I was doing pretty good. Over the last 5 hacakthons I have let other judges and mentors in on this experiment and asked them to rate before and after so they can get their before and after picks.

Turns out most of the judges were in the same ballpark. So, my entire basis for being able to judge good teams was as good or as bad as other judges. There is no proprietary information to leverage since the meetings and information exchanges are so short.

The second part of the question is what mattered more – a good team or a good idea – this is only to win the hackathon.

Turns out good ideas win more hackathons than good teams in 5 of my 11 cases. I have insufficient information to find out how many of the good ideas will eventually turn out to be good startups, given how nascent some of the ideas and teams were.

What I also think is that even if I took someone reasonably tech savvy regardless of experience, they would have a similar “wining picks” ratio.

This also calls into question the “experience” judges and mentors have gathered over the years and the exposure they have to all other competing ideas and companies. Turns out all that experience is possibly useful at certain other things, but at the earliest of early stages, it does not require a rocket scientist to figure out who wins the hackathon, within a low margin of error.

What do you think? Or am I taking limited data and generalizing to a trend?

Interesting ideas from the #prarambh #IIMUdaipur hackathon

I am in the beautiful city of Udaipur for the weekend to participate in the IIM Udaipur Prarambh hackathon. The IIM itself is only 3 years old and is located within the campus of MLS university in the city.

There were about 70-80 participants from various cities and towns near Rajasthan and a few from outside the state as well. 26 ideas were presented on Friday and of them 6 ideas and teams were formed (ones with the most votes). The city of Udaipur itself was a major draw and it is a delight to be here. The lakes, palaces, food and colors are amazing. The city slows you down with its colors and diversity and that is a great thing.

I was both a mentor and a participant. Here are the final 6 ideas that got the most votes. To see photos from my trip, check out my facebook newsfeed.

1. Anhad: This team was trying to solve the problem of helping students in the the 8th to 12th grade think beyond Engineering and Medicine. In India, thanks to lack of mentors and successful role models, many young students are forced to choose these two fields to study after high school. Ahnad is developing a website which will feature role models from 1000′s of alternative careers and professions. The idea is to expose students to find local role models who they can get inspiration from. E.g. A student in Bangalore wants to become a Radio Jockey, then Anhad will bring a local RJ to the school and have all students who want to be RJ’s attend the session and ask questions, interact and learn from the artist.

2. FindGuru.in Focusing on hobbies, this team wants to help you find a “guru” who can teach you to play the guitar, or tennis in you neighborhood. There are many competing services that do the same, so they want to focus on building a comprehensive profile for each “teacher”. The ideas is that everyone has some innate knowledge or skill, with which they can team someone else, so finding and connecting them is what FindGuru is trying to do.

3. WedWay. This is a pretty cool idea. High end weddings are elaborate affairs in India, with some costing upwards of $250K. Coordinating all the guests pickup, ceremonies, events, sharing photos and the like are currently done by the Wedding planner using WhatsApp. They plan to provide a mobile app to help wedding planners coordinate better. The app will be available to guests as well, to upload each of their photos, checkin to locations, explore local sights, share images from their camera so the entire wedding can be viewed through multiple lenses. There are a lot of other features planned to make sure the right people are picked up at the hotel at the right time, guests can interact and get to know each other, etc.

As an aside I have a perspective on “Use and throw apps” that are a growing category, which I will write more about later.

4. BuzzCaptor. The idea is to capture trends on twitter and facebook to categorize them into streams that are easier to consume. Aimed at PR professionals, the product will help them find influencers and key publications to target by category. E.g. You are Reebok and want to launch a few LeBron James shoe, you can with BuzzCaptor identify the top influential folks who talk about shoes, find out which color and patterns are trending on social media, etc. Another idea that has many competitors existing already.

5. Artin: This is an idea that pivoted from providing art & sculpture as a service to helping high net worth individuals find curated artists who can deliver on commissioned art pieces. Initially their idea was similar to ArtFlute, but since high-end “art as a service” has fairly limited demand they have pivoted to providing a marketplace that helps artists connect with art connoisseurs who want custom art at their home or office every month / quarter / year.

6. HelpmeHelpU. This started as a generic “Find real time answers for your questions” when you need them service to something that’s still evolving. The problem they are trying to solve is when after searching for 20 min and reading Quora, Stack Overflow and other websites you still dont have the answer to your question and need to find an “expert” immediately and get some real time help. They planned to make money by charging a commission to help connect you to the right expert. They were evolving into a book rental marketplace and finally a real time second opinion app.

The eCell at IIM Udaipur won the NEN award for “Entrepreneurship cell of the year” in North India. The event was extremely well organized, they have a encouraging coordinator in Joel Xavier and some very enthusiastic students who were all thrilled to host their first hackathon.

If you get a chance to visit Udaipur either on business or pleasure, dont miss the awesome local food – Pyaajz ki Kachori, Mirchi Bada, Jalebis and other delights. There are several local eateries but we went to the Jayesh Mithai Bhandar, which is a disarming roadside, hole-in-the-wall store which is a local favorite.