Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

Is just being exposed to interesting things enough for curious kids? #parenting #personal

My friends and I have an ongoing debate about programming. They would like their kids to learn programming, but they say their kids dont enjoy it. Regardless of gender, they seem to have an aversion to development.

I am a geek at heart and love programming. I am not good at it, but I enjoy it. I dont get enough time to do it, but it shows on my face when I am developing something or learning a new language.

I have 4 kids, and we are a very geeky family. My daughter, 13, loves mockups, is building apps and is a pretty decent (for a 13 year old) front end dev – She does HTML and CSS with ease and is okay with Javascript. She would ask me to do most of her database development, which I was happy to do.

Kids still love selfies

Kids still love selfies

She recruited my son to learn SQL and he has been tasked to write the DB schema – for someone that does not understand the difference between Integer and Date, much less the phrase datatype, he seems to be struggling through it, but enjoying it.

All 4 of our kids have a laptop and the older ones have their own cell phone – they are all the same, except for my oldest daughter. They all have Surfaces, while my daughter has a MacBook Pro.

This is a point that many of our friends dont get – she’s only 13 or he’s only 11.

They are too young to have a phone and they will be addicted to it all the time is what I hear from them.

That’s a risk for sure. I know that. It is a risk we have chosen to take, since the exposure and benefits far outweigh the negative consequences.

Although my kids are 13, 11, 9 and 9, they seem to enjoy learning to code. They got started without Scratch, I would take 30 min to explain a few concepts, then turn them loose on a bunch of videos.

Then of course there’s Google. When they found out their dad’s limitations – syntax, libraries, etc. – they discovered that Google was their friend. Their first instinct is to Google and cut and paste. Apparently, according to my son, even the best programmers do it – so there.

Many of the basic concepts of computer science are not clear to them. They “kinda” understand that there’s a database and a user interface and a “middle layer”, but that’s as far as it goes.

Their programming skills are very basic (no pun intended), but I enjoy talking to them about programming.

The one thing I have learned is that if you just expose them to various activities and ensure that they are curious enough to learn, they will.

The fact that I dont monitor their PC usage (We do have a basic filter to make it child friendly, but we dont restrict usage) is also a big point of debate among my friends.

I dont, because I believe it does not matter. If you keep talking to them daily about the positives and negatives, they will learn to make choices. Sometimes, they make the wrong choices, for sure, but that’s unavoidable.

The only thing I do to give them the love for programming and coding is to be passionate about it when I explain things to do (since it comes naturally to me that’s easy).

I am sure if I were a finance person on Wall Street, my passion for that would show as well, which means they’d get that instead of programming.

The “problem” is that they have multiple interests – my daughter loves her piano and singing – she’s a good vocalist, my son is really passionate about his cricket. My youngest loves drawing and is a better artist than I am even now and the middle one loves sports of any kind.

I call it a “problem” with air quotes since they dont get enough time to spend on programming. So I make it a point to have them see me do some coding and development once a while. Which gets them excited again to do something new.

I am not sure if exposure, wearing your enjoyment on your sleeve and unrestricted learning models is sufficient, but it seems to work for us.

Why it is so difficult to spot unicorns when they are hatched – I need your opinion

Yesterday I was a judge at the TechCrunch event in Seattle. The meetup had 500+ folks from the Seattle area, with 9 companies being selected to pitch at the event. Over 100 startup applied – some that were idea stage, others with prototype and still others with a few customers and early traction.

TechCrunch Meetup

TechCrunch Meetup

Here are the 9 startups in a nutshell.

1. A bar robot that helps mix cocktails (home, personal use). It comes with 4 ingredients standard and you can add more ingredients (think of vodka as an ingredient and same for tomato juice as an example). It is meant to be counter-top friendly and starts at $99. They are building a prototype.

2. An Outdoor ad projection system for personal messages. According to the founder, as an individual, when you are trying to get your message out, there are few options other than those online (the rest are prohibitively expensive). So, he designed a projection system, which beams the messages at key spots outdoors. They are in 2-3 locations in Seattle right now.

3. Cashless POS and payment system for bar owners. The big problem is that busy bars lose money since it takes 2-5 min to get payment from the users – either with cash or credit card. Many bar owners lose money since patrons lose patience and instead opt to give up standing in line for a drink. This company produces a band (wearble) which you tap for contactless payment.

4. A lock screen app that replaces your lock screen (which most people stare at 50-100 times daily. This will replace it with images and photos from your collection on the cloud or the phone. The app has 100K users already.

5. A Car on demand service, replacing owning a car. Long term leasing or renting of cars. You can “rent” a car when you want for however long you want and keep changing. Need a small car for the weekday, rent it. If you however need a boat-towing Ford F150 during the weekend, no problem, replace your compact car with that for the weekend. In beta at Austin.

6. A curated collection of interactive STEM content (videos right now) for kids between the ages 7 and 15. This product provides way for children to get interested in STEM content watching engaging and interactive videos online. Has many users already.

7. A soccer ball sized Mic for student participation in class. Most teachers have trouble getting kids to listen to their voice, so they use a mic and speakers in the classroom. If they have to get the kids to talk, then they pass another mic in the classroom. This product has a mic built into a soccer-sized ball so kids can “engage” with the class and have fund doing it. Being tested by a few teachers in their classroom.

8. A learning system with games for your dog. They provide hardware that allows your dog to “learn”. These toys come with hardware that can be controlled and upgraded for new toys. When you dog plays with these games, you get notified via your smartphone. Currently looking for beta testers.

9. Uber for beauty. There are some days you want to look your best – party, interview, etc. For those days you can get a beautician “on demand” locally, who will come in and help you get your hair, clothes, etc. right and ensure you look the best. They use local beauticians and are a marketplace. Have a few users trying the service.

So, there you have it. 9 ideas and startups.

If you were the jury and had 1 min to listen to each of the founders, which ones would you pick to “have a deeper” conversation. I am not sure which of these companies will become a unicorn, or if any of them will be venture scale, but they are all promising ideas, and some have traction as well.

We declared one winner – the car on demand company and one runner up – the Uber for beauty. The audience choice was the learning system for your dog.

  1. If you were an early stage investor with $50K to put in one of these companies, which one would you invest in?
  2. Do you think any of them will become large in a short period of time?
  3. Which ones are cash-flow businesses – generating enough cash to be profitable, but not large.

Some of these ideas are really interesting, others I am not sure about at all – in terms of scale.

I’d love your opinion.

One way to explain the “What is your strategy” question to an investor

Inevitably when you get into second discussion with an investor you will get the question “What is your strategy for X”? The X could be mobile, pricing, customer acquisition, fund raising, etc.

What they are really asking is, have you thought through the various elements, documented your assumptions and have a point of view on the market that’s unique and different than others.

For larger companies with strategy teams and dollars to spend on McKinsey, the strategy question is usually delivered by means of a presentation with data to back up basic assumptions, historical trends and a prediction (again based on data), on 2-3 scenarios on what might happen in the future.

Given that most institutional investors have the rigor and background either in operational expertise (having been an entrepreneur before) or the experience with strategy in a far more detailed level than most entrepreneurs might, the question might intimidate you.

At the basic level, any discussion of strategy should be based on 3 things: Your idea of the landscape, your assumptions on what are the fundamentals and your vision for the future.

Strategy is not a pedantic or meticulous exercise in creating more PowerPoint slides though. Even if you explain it in a logical fashion with the 3 basic pillars of landscape, assumptions and vision, you should be good to go.

Lets take an example. I read the SouthWest Airlines strategy chart in a single “Activity System”, which is similar to what I have seen in many presentations.

SouthWest Airlines Strategy

SouthWest Airlines Strategy

So how did they come up with this chart?

First, as always, start with your customer. A day in the life audit will help you understand their “must haves” versus their “nice to haves”.

The most important thing I have learned so far is that it matters which customers you talk to. Talk to the late adopters and you will get the “Give me a faster horse” response.

Picking the right customers and documenting the vision for understanding the future is your first step.

Then you want to start to document what the world will look like in a few years (5, 10 usually suffice) but that “vision” is usually not that obvious. Most entrepreneurs tell me “I dont know what’s going to happen in 6 months, how can I tell you what’s going to happen in 5 years”?

That’s a fair statement, but a cop out. You have to come up with a view of the world and if you cant come up with one yourself, find a way to get to original thinkers in your domain and ask them to help.

The second step is to document the current state.Those will be the assumptions that are the key to revisit when questions come up. They also help you put the workable “plan” as opposed to a great set of strategy charts and graphs with no actionable information.

Finally the core tenets of your offering / product / solution (see the smaller orange balls in the SouthWest example above) explain your strategy in simple enough terms.

To recap, showcase the vision, then document the assumptions and finally put together the tenets of your offering and how it is different.

To get a more detailed view on how this is done in theory, read the HBR post by Michael Porter.

Being clear about the type and kind of help you need makes it easier to get support

I get about 10 emails or LinkedIn messages a day from entrepreneurs and potential entrepreneurs who are seeking help. About 2 of them will be referrals, but most are prospecting cold, either having read somewhere that I am an investor or looking at my profile on LinkedIn and hoping to connect.

I tend to read most (not all) messages) and am still not sure on which ones I do read and which ones I am unable to. I know that the ones I get referred to from known or trusted connections will get a response from me, but a good % of those that are cold also get a response.

Over time I started to notice when I do respondthe easy no is the fastest response, the easy action gets a response as well. The ones that require me to do a lot of thinking, work to connect, look up another piece of information or a lot of cut and paste get ignored.

I have an entrepreneur who is very tactical and is a friend who only reached out to me when he need to connect with one of my contacts. Initially I would do it since I’d want to help, but over time it has waned – it has become a chore to connect him to my connections – not because I dont want to, but because it involves my going to two different email boxes (Outlook for work, vs. Gmail for personal) which involves more than 30 seconds and I lose interest.

Over time I have figured out the things that will get you a response (quick yes or no) and those that will get you a favorable response (mostly this means the potential target is willing to give you time – for a meeting, for a call, for advice, etc.).

When the bar for the response is high, and especially when I dont know the person, expect a quick “no” response. For e.g. even if you are referred to me and your first request is for either an investment or an mentor opportunity, 99% of the time I would say no. That seems strange given that I might miss a “great” opportunity, but I am okay with that. Lack of time forces me to miss great opportunities, and I have found that my own sourced opportunities to invest generate a bigger return (so far) than the ones referred to me.

There is no shortage of warm introductions that most of us get from others, so the bar is now getting even higher on what requires a response.

A quick yes response is usually to a specific question that I may have written about before, which requires me to refer the person to a blog post.

A no response is when the person is not clear about what they want. Unfortunately I get 40% of emails of this type.

Do you want to have me invest? Do you want me to refer you to someone else? Do you want an introduction to an investor? Would you like to apply to the accelerator in India and need my referral? Or do you want me to mentor you? Or would you like feedback on you product?

When it is not clear after reading 3 sentences what your ask of me is, I will likely not respond at all.

“I’d like 30 min of your time to tell you about my new idea” is hard to justify time for. When I know 2 sentences will explain your product or idea, why would I be willing to spare 30 min? If you cannot explain it in a short sentence or two, then there’s more refinement needed on your part, which means there’s more work to be done.

I like napkin stage companies, but clarity of problem is what I expect at napkin stage.

Customer Validation as a Service (CVAS) – an agency for small startups

Customer discovery and validation is a pretty challenging area for most startup entrepreneurs. While most can build a product and maybe even hire people to help it grow, validating with customers and cold calling people to get feedback is hard for most technology entrepreneurs.

Customer Discovery

Customer Discovery

An entrepreneur suggested to me an idea to start an agency that does Customer Validation as a Service (CVAS) or Customer Discovery as a Service (CDAS).

The key part of this service is setting up the problem statement for the entrepreneur, distilling the list of potential customers (Both B2B and B2C) and finding – emailing, talking to and interviewing potential customers to find the top 3 pain points for which they’d pay money for.

Imagine if you were a technical developer entrepreneur and you can build a good product, but your customers were in another location, or they were people you were not able to get to easily.

If a service built a website landing page, setup Google adwords, Facebook campaigns, Twitter profile and ran a campaign for a week or so to give you feedback on what’s the interest, what are potential customers interested in and what would they pay for?

I think this type of service would be very valuable for entrepreneurs. I can easily see various offerings being add-ons to this service.

1. Pricing validation

2. Content (what to write, what medium – email newsletter or Youtube Video, etc.) validation

3. Budget validation

4. Technology landscape validation (what other products should we integrate with)

5. Go to market validation (Where should we advertise, how should we market, etc.)

In the Steve Blank Model for customer discovery above, this set is most useful in the Test problem phase, followed by the Verify phase.

What do you think?

Would you buy this service for $500 – Consumer startups and $1000 for Enterprise startups?

How we podcast; Our setup, flow and agenda: India Startup Chat

Over the last 4 months, I have been blogging every day to understand the discipline of writing and work myself into thinking and learning about new mediums of communication. I published a post on What’s working in B2B blogs and what’s not working a few weeks ago to capture my experiences.

One of the things that’s clear to me is that the number of people reading text-based blog posts is dropping and video is growing in popularity worldwide.

Combined with Mobile usage growth, the trends are pointing to a huge number of people watching short form video on the go.

Particular to the US, an increasing number of people are listening to podcasts during the commute or heading to the gym.

Noticing these trends, I reached out to Lakshmi Rebecca and Ravi Gururaj, two of my good friends from India, who are celebrities in the Indian startup ecosystem. I wanted to do a podcast every week on the Indian startup ecosystem.

The audience for this podcast was largely folks in the US (investors, entrepreneurs) who were keen to learn about the Indian startup scene. We also noticed a lot of people from India (entrepreneurs in particular) would be interested in listening to this podcast.

Lakshmi took the lead (as expected, since is the most creative and a media personality in her own right) and gave us detailed instructions on what we should prepare.

There were 3 steps we followed:

3 Step Podcasting Process

3 Step Podcasting Process

First was the preparation. We decided on the format (3 sections of 10 minutes each), time for each section and the topical items that mattered.

Since I was in the US, Ravi at his home in Bangalore, and Lakshmi at her studio and home office, we felt the best way to execute this was using Skype. After 3 false starts, poor recording quality and endless frustration with Internet connection speeds, we gave up.

Lakshmi then did some research to figure out that “double ender” format was the best way for each of us to record our podcasts on each end and then combine and produce it together later.

We also needed a logo and a name. Descriptive name won, although we were tempted to go with a more generic name like the Views podcast, we decided that we’d start by naming it “what it was” – a podcast about the Indian Startup ecosystem. The “Chat” was to indicate the informal nature of our riffing. So, India Startup Chat was born.

Lakshmi also put our logo together. We needed a 1400px X 1400 px sized logo for iTunes, BTW.

The next step was to do the actual recording. After a start with our own microphones on our machines, we found that  we needed a professional quality mic, since there was too much static white noise when we recorded.

I got a Blue Snowball Ice USB mic, which I have been pretty happy with, Lakshmi has a more professional setup.

Blue Snowball Mic

Blue Snowball Mic

Each of us also downloaded Audactity for recording.

We then got on a conference call ( so we could each listen to one another), and recorded at the same time on our own machines.

Lakshmi Mic

Lakshmi Mic

The final step was to upload our individual recording files to Google drive and Lakshmi then went to the Production studio to mix the audio tracks together. She mentioned it took her a few hours, but will be less as we get more familiar with the setup.

Production Lakshmi

Production Lakshmi

I then setup a SoundCloud account and posted the images and file to the site.

Please do give us a listen and let us know what you think on Facebook!

The board level discussions in the US that are affecting #startups in #India

Over the last 4 months I have been able to talk to over 30 Chief Innovation Officers and VP’s of Marketing or Technology who are customer’s of Microsoft. These have been largely 30-45 min sessions, followed or preceded by a 30 min call. The main purpose of these session is that “Innovation” and “Disruption” are now a board level agenda.

A brief, but short history. Innovation has always been about a major “theme”. During 1960-80, inside out innovation was the mantra. People were carrying books from Peter Drucker – Innovation and entrepreneurship and every person in the large company was asked to suggest ideas and help the company be more innovative.

Innovation Peter Drucker

Innovation Peter Drucker

Then between 1980-2000, the Japanese innovation and optimizing manufacturing, measuring outcomes and building networks were critical.

Japanese Innovation

Japanese Innovation

In the early 2000’s the Blue Ocean strategy took shape. The concept of “Outside In” innovation, talking to customers and having customers drive the innovation process became the vogue.

Blue Ocean Strategy

Blue Ocean Strategy

From 2010, Clayton Christensen’s book on the Innovators Dilemma is the most quoted book by innovation teams. The idea of “disruptive innovation” is in its peak.

Innovators Dilemma

Innovators Dilemma

So, if you are in a large Fortune 1000 company, you look at startups like AirBnB and Uber and get concerned that these and other companies will “eat your lunch” and change your entire industry with software and technology.

Which is why you see a huge spike (year over year) in the number of new corporate venture capital teams.

CB Insights Corporate Venture Capital Deals

CB Insights Corporate Venture Capital Deals

There are many tactics that larger companies are using to foster more innovation:

1. Starting offices in Silicon Valley, even if you are a mid-west retailer.

2. Opening a new innovation, analytics and venture funding organizations.

3. Partnering with startup accelerator programs to engage with early stage startups.

4. Starting your own accelerator program, even for a baseball team.

5. Announcing API’s that are available to startups to build applications on top of – even for government.

6. Running hackathons for Epilepsy to help learn about new ideas startup entrepreneurs come up with.

7. Partnering with your competitors to support startup innovations.

All of these and others, are a reaction to the extreme disruption that software, technology and mobile are causing to other larger, more established companies in all industries.

In talking to most of these Innovation officers, though I get a sense that they are “trying lots of things” to see what sticks.

What they are finding is that:

1. Silicon Valley is more expensive and hiring there is a big problem. Competing with Google, Facebook has many of those companies rethink that option.

2.  Innovation is now dispersed in China, India, Israel and other countries as well. Over 50% of the “unicorns” are from outside the United States.

3. Unless they go deeper to learn with the startups, they are unable to change the internal culture, which is where most of the work needs to happen.

Which leads them to India, particularly.

Many of the executives are keen to tap into the talent pool in India, but are concerned about high prices (what a surprise) and also attrition rates.

Most are trying to understand if they need to open Innovation and startup center’s in India instead of the valley.

So, for B2B, enterprise startups the next few years would be great with many of their target customers “coming to India” to source startup, instead of the startups that have to travel outside to get customers.