Author Archives: Mukund Mohan

5 very interesting #startups at the NASSCOM Product Conclave in #Pune

The super hospitable people at Pune invited me again to their wonderful city to participate in the NASSCOM Product conclave #NPC #Pune event. Having been there at least 10 times in the last 2 years, I have a very soft corner for Pune and its really wonderful entrepreneurs. We have 5 companies (out of 31) at the Microsoft Accelerator which are from Pune. That’s the largest representation outside Bangalore.

The NPC event itself was a 1 day workshop format session (as opposed to the 3 day Oct NPC in Bangalore). Most of the workshops at the NPC13 event were repeated at this event. Over 400 entrepreneurs registered to make this the largest attended startup event in Pune.

I flew in early with the Intuit team who run a great workshop called “Design Awesome”. It is a hands-on, instructor facilitated 2 hour (abridged) session for product entrepreneurs. I had the chance to meet a few startups myself during the event, and there are the top 5 that caught my attention.

1. Sujata from Ascent Informatics provides a SaaS service for monitoring industrial devices in real-time. Think of the multiple devices that are used in a manufacturing setup and how one can monitor them to check for pollution, maintenance, performance and energy.

2. kPoint Tech had Sunil tell us about their cloud-based video creation and sharing platform. The example I thought was the most relevant, was many product marketing folks do 1-2 hour webinars. These are “recorded” for future review. The problem is they are long and are not easy to search, splice and view in pieces. They host and manage your videos with their technology.

3. Qualitia has built a Selenium based test automation platform that does not require scripts. If you have ever written test scripts using products such as WinRunner or LoadRunner, you know how much of a pain they are to maintain. Rahul and team have built a product  to reduce time and maintenance for testing.

4. SaveTime Technologies helps you find the right doctor quickly. They have a fairly large database of doctors and reviews from patients in Pune. Mitesh and team have built a product that is like ZocDoc and others, but up and running already.

5. ANTfarm robotics was a pretty cool product that helps you control the electrical devices at home using your mobile phone. Subhojit has built a pretty cool product that helps you switch on your microwave, fan, lighting etc. even if you are not at home using your mobile device.

After the event, where I had a 2 hour workshop on Sales for startups, (Check out the tweets yo), we went to Bedekars for the world famous Misal Paav.

Intuit Team outside Bedekars - Misal Paav

Intuit Team outside Bedekars – Misal Paav



Some very interesting #startups at the Wharton India Economic Forum #wief14

I am at Philadelphia this weekend, participating at the Wharton India Economic Forum 2014 with Sanjiv Bikchandani, Alok Kejriwal and Rajesh Sawhney. The forum brings together about 100+ students, local entrepreneurs and investors together for a day long session. It is hosted by the the Indian students who study at the Wharton school of business.

This year they hosted 10 startups (5 in the idea stage and 5 with some traction) to pitch to us for both investment and feedback.

It was great to see some very interesting companies from both India and the US. The 5 idea stage companies had 3 women founders as well and some very compelling ideas.

Here is a summary of the companies.

Idea stage companies. This session featured companies founded by Penn or Wharton students.

  1. AmbitionI: Neha and her cofounder are building a product that uses algorithms to help career counselling for young professionals. Imagine you are working at a large company and always wanted to be an Investment banker. It will connect with your Alumni network and LinkedIn to find out who are the folks that have a similar background as you and have already become investment bankers. Then you can learn how they became an investment banker and figure out how to get some advice to make a career change.
  2. Level Counsel: Aditya and his cofounder are targeting Indian and Chinese XI and XII grade students who need advice on which colleges to apply and which major to pursue. These students will be matched with students who are currently studying at the colleges they want to apply to and connect them so they can get mentorship and advice. They are trying to disrupt the existing career counselling services offered who charge a lot of money to help students make choices on college applications.
  3. Travel Gourmand: If you are travelling to a new location and would like to taste local food but don’t know where to eat or if the restaurants are hygienic or not, this app is for you. They pair you with a local “food guide” who will take you on a 1-3 hour “food tour” and take you to some local hot spots and places to eat. Sayeed Banerjee has a team in Delhi who can help you with food tours in Delhi currently. They plan to expand beyond Delhi soon.
  4. Vhelp: If you are looking for some advice from a lawyer, or a doctor but are not able to get a person at the location you are at, then Kushboo and her team can help. VHelp gets you experts at your fingertips. This is a platform that will help you get advice if you are a rural location but don’t have experts available locally.
  5. WishGuise: This app won the Idea stage competition. Tanvi Chopra’s company helps you rent high street fashion and Ethnic Indian wear. Indian women spend a lot of money on ethnic wear, and they end up not using them too frequently. I think they will have a challenge to prevent perception that they are renting used clothes, but if the top designers are willing to sign up and offer their latest, then I can see how this can scale. It is similar to a company called Rent the runway in the US.

Later stage companies. This session featured many companies from India who applied to the program directly.

  1. Qlicklet: Vivek and his team help monetize Wi-Fi Hot spots at various locations in India using advertising. They are currently running at Delhi airport. If you as a consumer want free Wi-Fi and are willing to watch an ad before you get access to free Wi-Fi for 45 minutes, this app is for you.
  2. Targeting Mantra: Saurab’s company provides analytics and tools to eCommerce companies to help them increase their conversions. They currently have 10 eCommerce companies in India including Yehbi using their product to personalize the website for users and increase customer conversions to purchase.
  3. Sammaan: Ifran’s company provides a mobile van that reaches out to remote villages and rural locations which have no hospitals. This mobile van makes money by charging patients Rs. 25 per visit and also makes money by offering discounted prescription drugs and referrals to diagnostics providers. The cost of each mobile van is about $50K and they are currently operating 1 van in Patna.
  4. ZoomCar: David and his cofounder are building the ZipCar for India. They offer self-driven cars for folks that would like to rent a car for a few hours or a day. They currently offer 6 types of cars currently from Reva’s to Scorpios. Operating currently in Bangalore, this company is currently in the Microsoft Accelerator in Bangalore.
  5. Zostel: This company with 7 founders, some of whom are currently studying in IIM Kolkata offers hostels for backpackers. I met the company before in Kolkata and they are currently operating 2 hostels in Jaipur and Udaipur. They offer a very edgy brand and great value for money at Rs. 400 per bed per night. They are currently seeing 60% utilization at their 2 hostels, and are primarily catering to international travelers. They plan to expand to Goa, Mcleod Gunj and other locations. They won the competition for later stage companies.

I absolutely loved meeting with local entrepreneurs and was part of the VC and entrepreneur panel where we talked about the investment scenario in India and the challenges faced by Indian entrepreneurs worldwide. Wharton accepts about 850 students each year for their MBA program and nearly 50 of them are from India, so they have a lot of knowledge about India and problems faced by Indian entrepreneurs.

Why WhatsApp is an absolute steal for Facebook at $19B

I have been the contrarian on the Whatsapp deal with Facebook. I think this is an absolute steal for Facebook. Here is why I think that:

The email address was the unique id to identify anyone over the last 30 years. Turns out that’s only true for about a billion to maybe 2 Billion people. Now, almost everyone that has an email address (or will very soon) has a facebook account.

The mobile phone number is the new unique id. That will be the unique identification for the NEXT 2 Billion people OR more.

By any conservative measure, Whatsapp will be at 2 Billion people in 2 years. They have executed so well so far to get to 450 Million users that it seems very likely they will get there.

There is a small risk they may not, but a risk Zuck’s probably willing to take .

So, if you were Zuck and you got 2 Billion user’s unique id for 1/10th of the price of his company.

Twice the number of users at 1/10 of the price. That’s got SALE written all over it.

Why would you not do that?

FB has 1 + Billion users and is valued at $160 B with a revenue of $6 Billion.

WhatsApp will have 2 Billion users and is valued at $16 Billion and is breaking even / profitable already.

No brainer deal and an absolute steal in my mind.

The future of communication is up for grabs as well. Email is clearly not the preferred medium for my kids and the younger folks.

My kids only use Whatsapp. They also use YouTube as their search engine instead of Google or Bing.

These are the BIG changes being driven by MOBILE.

That’s the future. And Zuck now has gotten relatively cheap insurance against being a small player in mobile.

Why I think mobile apps are going to die in 3-5 years

I was at a panel yesterday talking about the “Appification of India”. This was part of the Social Media Week event.

I made a statement and tried in 2-3 min to clarify what I meant, but did a poor job of it. I thought it is better to detail my thoughts on this blog post.

I believe in 3-5 years mobile “apps” will be dead.

They will be replaced by a set of backend services that will be controlled by the smartphone OS.

As a user the only “UI” you will care about will be your phone UI controlled by the phone or provider. The current set of “apps” will be invoked on demand from the cloud by the OS (or the service layer developed by another 3rd party company).

The current problems with apps are well known. Besides games, which make up the significant part of the downloads, the problems with all other apps are: App discovery and app monetization are a huge problem for developersRemembering which apps to use and managing the apps on your mobile phone are huge pain for users.

I believe Apps get in the way of what users want to do.

You want a car ride from your restaurant to home. Why do you have to remember that the Uber app is the one to use, then search for it on your phone, bring it up, click a few buttons, etc.

Now imagine if you either spoke to your phone or typed on your phone – get me a car to go home.

The phone has a set of pre-determined services which can all handle the request “get a car”. The OS (or service store) on the phone will negotiate with these services to get you the best service (depending on whether you have previously preferred best price, best car, etc.) and confirm that you will have the car in a few minutes. You dont have to remember that you have to open the Uber app etc.

Now at the back end, it will get more interesting if these “services” will bid (auction style) on fulfilling the request.

Which is why I believe the OS wars are done and finished. Android won.

Now let the service management layer wars will begin.

The rise of student entrepreneurship in India #tatafirstdot and NEN

Today I had the opportunity to hang out with 1000+ student entrepreneurs from over 60+ cities and all states in India at the NEN #tatafirstdot event in RV College of engineering. The twitter buzz gives you an indication of the event’s energy.

NEN has been promoting student entrepreneurship for over a decade now and this was my 3rd event. They do a terrific job of turning the raw energy and talent of students into some great startups. The first dot event had 500+ students applications. Students from Srinagar (Jammu and Kashmir) to Kanyakumari (Tamil Nadu) participated and this time they had to present fully formed products / prototypes, not just business plans.

To set some context, in 2008, less than 1% of startups in all ventures were founded by students straight out of college. This year, that number is close to 3%. The number of startups has risen 3-fold during this period. We have over 20 Microsoft Innovation Center’s at various colleges in India that focus their effort on supporting great student entrepreneurs as well. These center’s serve to host hackathons, conduct entrepreneurship classes and encourage students and faculty to pursue building companies instead of “getting a job”.

I had a few questions from NDTV (Bala) at the sidelines of the event. One question stood out as something that needs more explanation and commentary.

“Why is it important for us to have more student entrepreneurs as a startup ecosystem”?

There are 3 main reasons why I am so passionate about student entrepreneurs:

1. Their “lack of experience” is a HUGE advantage. Most folks tend to think that experience is a good thing in entrepreneurship. I am a contrarian. I believe that experience (other than the experience being an entrepreneur) holds you back as an entrepreneur. Older and more experienced entrepreneurs are more in number, they are more successful, but they do not create disruptive companies. (p.s. I dont have data to prove this, just anecdotes) They see a problem, they solve the problem and become successful. Student entrepreneurs see something and are willing to question why? They refuse to look at the “current lay of the land” and find ways to operate within the constraints.

2. Their ability to take risk is much greater. When you are young, single and unattached, your ability to take risk is much larger, than when you have a mortgage, kids, hospital bills etc. The worst thing that happens is that you fail and get acquired by a larger company.

3. Time is on their side. Most mid-career executives wanting to start a company are fighting the lack of time on their side. It is NEVER too late to start a company, but if you measure the number of mistakes per unit time you make, then student entrepreneurs clearly have more chances to fail and finally succeed.

I truly believe that students are going to be the largest part of entrepreneurs in India in a few decades. Until then we have Microsoft Innovation centers and NEN to show us how to get them motivated, excited and focused on building their venture.

Shout out to my friend, advisor, guide and awesome student entrepreneurship champion Sri Krishna of NEN. He is the person to connect with in India for all things student startups related.

#Biotech park in Bangalore

Quick note. I was invited to the Biotech park launch in Bangalore yesterday. This is a 56 acre piece of land to help Biotech startups in Bangalore. There is significant money being spent by both the state and central governments (approx $8 Million) to help startups in Bangalore.

The talent pool from BioGen, NCBS, Instem and others in Bangalore is large enough to support 20-30 startups each year is the thinking in Bangalore.

The space walk through was a 3D video. It was really cool. Loved it. Photos coming soon.

The #Kolkata startup ecosystem as seen through the eyes of #tiecon 2014

I had the opportunity to visit Kolkata and judge the #TieCon Kolkata startup pitches last month. As a background, I have been visiting Kolkata for the last 5 years, every year, during January, for various entrepreneur events, at times running a day long workshop on Sales and other times trying to motivate promising startups to apply to the Microsoft Ventures accelerator.

The Kolkata startup ecosystem gets largely ignored since larger and younger cities are making the right moves, quicker, but there are some very interesting companies that come from the city and the greater part of Eastern India. One of our accelerator companies, TookiTaki, is from Kolkata as well.

The city has a very vibrant ad-tech, marketing technology and digital agency market. Over 20 digital agencies and technology companies are based in Kolkata and some of them are doing over $5 Million in revenue each year for the last 5 years. A strong creative, design and literary talent pool contributes to the local startup scene. Check out IndusNet, A1 Future technology, Exactlly and Arun Agarwal for more about the local ecosystem.

The TIECon Kolkata, though surprised me with its turnout. To give you some context, most entrepreneur events in Kolkata, over the last few years, have featured about 80 to 100 attendees. This conference had over 550 paid registrations and nearly 100+ volunteers. I think it is time to start taking them a little more seriously than before. While I did not get the deep technology companies there, I got many interesting companies that investors might want to take a closer look.

The TIECon event had a startup pitch session the day before the event and there were 15 companies shortlisted of about 50 applicants. About half of them were not technology companies with the likes of a speech and hearing clinic, a aloe vera lotion and beauty company and also a women’s high street fashion company, Miss Chase,  founded by Ananya, who previously founded SoSasta (sold to GroupOn a few years ago).

Here were the most interesting companies you should look out for in the next few years, in no particular order.

1. Betaglide: The winner of the IIT KGP startup pitch, this company is fairly similar to Little eye labs, which was acquired by facebook recently. They provide mobile app developers analytics and data from their users and their usage to help get your mobile app ready beyond beta. Good team, little early traction, but I think they need more time to get their product to MVP.

2. FlyMyFood: An interesting eCommerce company, which has already reached INR 20K in revenue per day after 2 months in business. They offer delectable food from various locations – think Hyderabadi biryani from Paradise Food Court and fruit biscuit from Karachi bakery, from the comfort of your home, the same day. Since they feature top brands from various cities, those brands that have a following will help them grow, but this company is a logistics nightmare. Interesting to see if they end up focusing on snacks instead of lunch / dinner though, which was my suggestion.

3. KarmYog: They help bring education to the masses with music, arts and media. They have a partnership with Indian Idol and others as well, to help students and older adults learn via music and arts. Interesting idea, but still a long way to go to prove there’s a business here.

4. Zostel: They are a hostel for backpackers. They have 2 locations in Jaipur and Jodhpur where you can get dorm style rooms for young backpackers who want to travel on a budget. Overnight stay begins at INR 400 per day, for which you get a bed and breakfast with a cool eclectic ambiance and decor. This was too much of an “offline” company for me to get interested, but there are 7 founders from IIM Cal who have all committed to this venture.

5. Quikvisor: Think of this like Uber, but for doctors. If you are in need of a general physician referral or need a pediatrician quickly you go to this mobile app and based on your insurance, location, etc. they will connect you with a consulting physician for $X / 15 minutes, using facetime, instead of a physical appointment. Interesting idea, focused on the US market, but I think the market is possibly bigger for a second opinion platform, than a referral.

6. Chitkara University: Blind-assist glove. This was the most intriguing. This student startup makes a glove (hand glove) which has multiple sensors that helps the blind, using haptic technology to provide sensor based information on whether they are coming close to a stair, are the stairs going up or down, if there is movement around them, etc. The sensors (5, one for each finger) are connected to an Ardunino platform, which is their primary processing engine as well. I saw a video demo, of the product, not a live one and if the video does half as much as the entrepreneur says it does, this one will be a clear winner.

7. SakRobotix: They offer online education and kits to help students and young kids learn to build robots. Not a company that will possibly scale, but I LOVE anyone that teaches something meaningful to young minds to help them appreciate technology.

Overall, I loved being in Kolkata, primarily because I have many good friends there. They are the most hospitable people and they love it when anyone from other ecosystems comes there to meet and learn from their startups. As an added bonus I had a traditional breakfast at my friend Abhishek Rungta‘s home. If you ever go to Kolkata, and want to meet startups give him a holler.

The InMobi #freedomhack had 200+ registrations and some amazing ideas

On Sunday I had an opportunity to judge the InMobi #freedomhack. Mohit Saxena, who cofounded InMobi, invited me to be a part of the event which attracted over 200 teams to hack for Aaron Swartz.

I think they had not anticipated such a large crowd to show up, so only 47 teams were chosen among the 200+ teams that submitted their hack ideas.

As an aside, I love hackathons. There’s something about a) hanging out with developers, b) hearing some really raw interesting ideas and c) building something from scratch that makes me happy.

I only had about 2 hours to be there since I had to go to judge another hackathon, but here are 7 ideas that I enjoyed learning about. I wish these hacks would go on to become some very interesting products. These were not the “winners”, but are the ones that I liked the most. In no particular order, here they are:

1. Socket_Timeout: This idea involved an integration with your calendar to look for “downtimes”, during key long weekends, etc. and suggest trips that you can take. It will then curate the best pictures from Flickr and Instagram in the key locations and “motivate” you to go there. They also help you with the entire planning (when to book tickets, when to book hotel, etc.) by looking, at your calendar for periods of “downtime” to help you get these tasks done.

2. WiseViz. There’s loads of data and many ways to represent the data with charts and graphs. Folks like me though, never know what the best way to show some piece of data is. This app will integrate with your data source and suggest the best way to visualize that data.

3. Lazy: Email platform with an appstore. Email products such as Gmail and Outlook have extensions and add-ins, but imagine an very simple email client (web or mobile) which has an appstore where you can add any number of “apps” as you please. If you dont like the “compose” feature that comes standard, you can choose from any number of “compose apps”. Another e.g. If FedEx sends you an email saying here is your tracking number and a link to their website, their app, instead, can directly show you the status of our package without you leaving your email client or clicking on the URL. I love the concept of email app store actually.

4. Miners: All Street Journal curates news and assigns latitude and longitude to each of them (where possible) to help you get a sense of what’s happening where. A map interface shows all the news (instead of a stream of news, which is currently the norm) with pins to show you the “hyper” location of the news. You can have filters such as crime news and create a heatmap of where specific categories of news are more prevalent. Great view of hyperlocal news.

5. Alpha-Devs: A mobile app, which will check the status of the person you are trying to call (who you have to know and connect with in the app), and suggest the best time to call based on their calendar, status message, location, etc.

6. Xteenz Hack: A hackathon voting app. It allows you to review all the hack abstracts and upvote / downvote ideas submitted and continue to refine half-baked ideas.

7. Finzo: a Peer-to-peer bitttorrent-enabled device that takes all the “free” data on the web – Khan Academy and Wikipedia for example and makes them available offline for people in rural / remote areas without constant Internet access.

The top 3 winners for the #freedom hack were – Power Train - a hyper local security for women / children app, Loners - allows you to connect with other lonely people near you to play games or chat online and Miners.

P.S. If you get a chance to go visit the InMobi offices, you should. They have the coolest office I have seen in Bangalore by a wide margin. Photos of the space on Facebook.

Some exciting startups in the HealthTech Space #health2india

James Matthews, a good friend and entrepreneur invited me to attend the Health 2.0 Conference for entrepreneurs and healthcare professionals today and speak about Health Tech investments. About 80 to 100 folks were in attendance, featuring about 30 entrepreneurs, 25 investors and the others were from Pharma companies, Hospitals and diagnostics chains.

Our panel featured an entrepreneur (Poonacha), a healthcare product company (GE) VP (Partha) and Ravi from Zanec.

There were 4 startups that were allowed to pitch the investors, and while there was no commitment from the investors, the startups were not looking to raise immediately either. This was a session for them to get some feedback from potential investors.

There are 3 high level observations that relate to investing and entrepreneurship in the space that I want to highlight first and then talk about the interesting companies.

1. Older Indians overall have little respect for preventive healthcare or do not value it at all. If you are in the wellness space or “be healthy” space, the market will be relatively small is what I gathered. I hear many entrepreneurs say their target market is 25-40 year olds. I think the real market for wellness products, services and solutions is 25-30 year old’s. How can I prove that? Look at gym membership in India. There are 70K members for the 300+ gyms and the prices are fairly high. Why? Because gyms are a luxury item in India. The average cost of a membership is between INR 500 per month (non chain) to about INR 4000 (Gold’s gym). It is not that older Indians dont want to live healthy. They think that paying for “wellness” is overrated.

2. Going after solutions for doctors, clinics or hospitals is a curse from hell for startups. Most smart entrepreneurs are focusing on the patient (consumer) via the influencer (doctor). Which means that for healthtech startups, distribution and sales are less of an issue, but consumer adoption and more importantly usage is more critical. Most consumers in India dont have the discipline to master wellness and focus on preventive health choices, and the ones that do are far and few between.

3. Indian doctors see almost 2-3 times the number of patients a day as American doctors do, and still make 1/3 as much them. Solutions to make doctors more productive by educating patients, transferring more work to nurses, etc. will likely do well.

Here are the 7 interesting companies I met at the conference today, and here is a summary, in the order of when I met them.

1. Diabeto: is a diabetes management analytics application and device. It transfers your glucose readings from your Glucometer into your smartphone and cloud so your caregiver can monitor it. Rather than do a lot of automation, which will force the company to get an FDA approval, they do just enough. Very interesting company and a neat product and they have many inquiries from distributors from other countries. The global diabetes care market is fairly large so I think they are on their way to raise some amount of early seed funding.

2. Zest.MD: is an online clinic for nutritionists. The SaaS solution helps bring any nutritionists services online so consumers can review and purchase via the web. Longer term the company is looking to be a curated marketplace for people wanting to make healthy choices. I thought this was fairly good, but I am still skeptical of the size of this market.

3. Praxify: is a connected patient records management for doctors and patients. They were positioned as an EMR (Electronic Medical Records) but the market for that is long gone and dead. The average doctor hates using the EMR product and the patients dont understand its benefit enough. Good team and product, so this is a company to watch. Disclosure: they are a Microsoft Ventures company.

4. Fitternity: is a directory, content website, ecommerce platform and database for people wanting to be healthy. The product is aimed at people who care about being fit, by offering advice, products and service referrals. I have seen many such offerings, so I am not sure what their differentiation is.

5. Care Companion: is a education tool for care-givers: nurses, wives, parents, etc. Since doctors dont have time to explain the same things to each patient’s care givers, this product aims to provide the standard advice my means of videos. E.g. Assume that your child, after a doctor’s visit has to to avoid certain foods, take pills in the morning and night, but not afternoon, etc. this product will provide those simple instructions by disease or symptom.

6. Cyber Liver: They provide a breathalyzer which nudges you to avoid drinking too much alcohol. This is a extension (hardware) to your iPhone or Android phone that you breath into every time you drink. It keeps track of how much you drink each week and uploads that to the cloud, ensuring that you know if you had too much to drink. Very interesting idea, but users have to remember to breath into the device after they consume alcohol each time, and I don think they will do this often enough to make a difference.

7. mTatva: is a prescription transcription and alerting tool. Your prescription is scanned at the hospital to the cloud and your dosage and medicines are sent by SMS. Then it also send the prescription to your favorite pharmacist via SMS and will alert you each day and time with the dosage information. I liked the idea, but adoption is currently sparse.

There were a few other companies, measuring (using multiple sensors) the weight of your pill box to intelligently alert you when you dont take your medicines, etc.

Overall the signal to noise ratio at this event was VERY high. James has curated an excellent set of entrepreneurs and I was pleased to see such a diverse set of folks innovating in Heath Tech.

Surveys or open questions – What works better for initial product validation

Over the last few weeks, the new batch (fourth) of 16 companies at the Microsoft accelerator has been getting started with customer development. Some companies are fairly advanced, doing hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue, but most are early stage. Last week our CEO-in-residence from the Israel accelerator, Hanan Lavy, came by to lead them through our customer development framework. The first thing I gathered from many entrepreneurs after that session, was that they were surprised at how it helped them revisit some of the assumptions they had made when they had the first idea about their product.

There’s an old saying that good sales folks are used to quoting “Always be Qualifying” (as opposed to the more popular ABC – Always be closing”, which never quite works, but is popular). The “lean startup” generation has its own version of that at the early stages of the startup – Always be validating – your assumptions, your plan, your pricing, your offering, etc.

Customer validations, early on, start by asking questions of customers, mostly in face-to-face meetings and then “graduate degenerate” to emails and phone conversations when entrepreneurs are unable to scale. I dont think there’s only one way to validate though – a good product manager uses all techniques to get in front of her customers / users as often as possible.

There are pros and cons to each of the techniques to validate your idea and assumptions, so rather than focus on all of them and their efficacy, I thought I’d take some time to share what I learned from 5 of the startup founders who have been trying 2 techniques over the last week with both Indian and US customers to validate their problem statements, ideas and positioning.

Think of this as A/B testing the format of communication as opposed to the medium or the message.

The medium most of them chose was email, given that they had to provide a quick turnaround back to Hanan (they were given 2 days to speak / connect with at least 10 customers. They could have chosen face-to-face meetings or focus groups using Webex / Skype, in app questions or real-time in-app chat, but they all chose to email their potential and few existing customers.

Now that most chose email, the next question I asked them was how many of the sent customers open-ended questions versus an objective survey with 3/4 choices for answers.

Turns out 2 of them used an online survey tool with 5 questions and 3/4 choices per question and 3 of them chose to send and email with 4-5 open-ended questions. Response rates varied from 40% to 60% I was told (fairly high given that their potential customers had only 24 hours to response). The survey’s got more responses than open questions.

What I did learn was that for companies that were earlier (had started building product, but did not have a prototype) the survey format worked better since they were able to get specific answers to questions and make decisions on 3 features they had to drop so they could ship quicker and gain more feedback quickly.

The open questions format worked for those that had worked longer with their customers and prospects since they got good qualitative feedback and a suggestion or two, which they had not considered before.

I have a personal bias against survey questions, since the choices are predetermined. Survey’s tend to be much better when you want a quick pulse to make feature decisions, not direction decisions. Surveys also work when you have a large pool of responses. Open questions on the other hand work just as well with 5 people as 50 – but at 50 people you have a hard time collating the responses. Open questions also requires you have a better relationship with the folks responding since their commitment of time is more.

What I also learned was that while there are pro’s and cons to both mechanisms, the decision you are trying should guide your choice of format, not the speed of the responses.

There are many types of decisions one takes at the early stages of the startup. Product direction decisions are rarely going to be resolved with surveys or email. Those are the type that many people leave to gut, data and lots of soul searching.

On the other hand, validating assumptions is always better with open questions is what I have learned.