Category Archives: Mentors

What criteria should you use to judge a hackathon?

I was on the jury panel at the Angel Hack event over the weekend with others.  Over 150 attendees were at the event, and 50+ hacks were presented on the final day (Sunday). They ranged from the sublime to the trivial. The best part was there were attendees from over 10 different cities including a few that came from over 1000 kms away. Each team was given 2 minutes to present their hack and 1 min to answer questions.

The first  thing that struck me was most of the attendees were awake to present their hacks. In previous hackathons most of the presenters have been rather tired or sleepy so they tended to gloss over their work.

This is the 5th hackathon I have judged and I dont think I have a clear idea on what the criteria should be to judge a hackathon.

This time the winner was a product that’s been in the works for a few months, and the developers made some changes / modifications to their product over the weekend. So, really it was not a “new” hack over the weekend, but something they have been working on for a while.  The runners up (not announced) was a company that’s been in the works for a while. They were well thought-out ideas, fleshed-out products and good implementations.

That obviously ticked off a few developers who had built a new hack from scratch over the weekend (and it showed that their idea was a one weekend project), and I got 3-4 angry emails on why we chose to declare the mature product as a winner.

Did we know that the winners were “mature” and not “weekend hacks”? – we did and did not. Did, because we could make out that the products were well thought out, which is hard to do in one weekend. Did not, because we were not told that we had to only look at weekend hacks.

So what does a weekend hackathon really accomplish?

I think it provides an ability for developers to learn something new, try an idea and experiment. That’s it. Globally, according to Startup Weekend, fewer than 2% of these weekend hacks actually turn into a company, but many (dont know the %) of the developers get hired because of these events, many ideas are added to an existing product and many products are enhanced post the hackathon.

There will always be folks that keep working on their idea over several hackathons so their ideas will mature quite a bit and so will their products. The good part of this hackathon was I did not see a single team that had presented the product / idea before at any of the other hackathons. There were many rehashed ideas, but largely new teams.

I think the top 3 criteria for judging hackathons should be a) how unique & interesting is the idea given the constraints of the hackathon, b) how close to “product” has the hack been over the weekend and c) how creative have the developers been in their implementation

I think the key thing that hackathon organizers should do is to form a jury of 3 hackers / developers and maybe 1-2 other folks from the startup world (VC’s or generalists like me).

Our panel on Sunday was comprised of 1 designer and 1 developer. The rest were generalists (3). So it was obvious that we were going to be biased and look for how “big” the idea was, how well thought out the implementation was etc. If the goal of the hackathon was to look to turn weekend ideas into startups, then an even mix of generalists and hackers as jury members would make sense, else they should be weighted towards developers as jury panelists.

Do you think we should even have generalists as jury members? I think that 1 might be sufficient for most parts, but if they are not developers, what’s the point of having them on the  jury?

The fallacy of providing “great mentorship” in 1 hour chunks

I have a good friend who has been a successful corporate executive for over 15 years. Off the charts smart and with a keen sense for the “inner issues” driving other people, he is able to figure out the root cause of most problems faster than most people I know.

He does though have a lack of time, like most other people. Having been in a large company for most of his career, he wished to live vicariously through other people and was keen to “mentor” young entrepreneurs. My advice to him was to focus on helping younger people in his company rather than entrepreneurs. He seemed to think about my tip, but chose to ignore it.

He setup 1 hour mentoring sessions with 3 entrepreneurs who he felt were working on problems that he was keen to understand more about and wanted to help them while he learned more about the market they were targeting.

Each session was fairly standard and given his corporate background, were scheduled a month in advance with consistency and a sense of purpose.

After 2 sessions, 2 entrepreneurs said they were busy and could not make the call or be in person.

He did feel he brought value to them in both the sessions and heard from the entrepreneurs that his advice was valuable. While he was in the process of scheduling the follow up, one entrepreneur told him rather bluntly that he did not have the time.

My friend took it rather well, and wanted to understand how he could make the time more valuable. Both entrepreneurs said the same thing.

There were pieces of advice that they could get from my friend, but they did not have the time to execute on his suggestions and felt that while well meaning, most of the suggestions were not precise enough.

Note that they did not say that the suggestions were not actionable enough. They said that the recommendations were not precise.

I get nearly 2 executives and mid-career professionals from larger companies and older entrepreneurs wanting to be a mentor at the Microsoft Accelerator each week.

Most we reject.

Some because they just want to add the mentor title to their LinkedIn profile and dont have enough time to provide.

Most others because they want to compress the “mentorship” in chunks of 1 hour sessions every month.

Its hard to do anything well in 1 hour chunks in infrequent periods of time. Even if its frequent the context is fairly limited.

Its even harder to provide any value in a 1 hour mentorship session.

Which is the prime reason I am not taking any new “meetings” to provide feedback and advice to new entrepreneurs who are not in our accelerator.

There’s very limited to little value that the session can actually provide is my experience.

I might feel good about it, so might the entrepreneur for about 15 minutes after the meeting. When the dust settles, though, after a day or two, they realize the multiple edge cases and scenarios that my advice or suggestions wont really work.

If you think you can provide value in 1 hour chunks as a “mentor” I’d love to hear how you are doing it and how you measure the value of your advice.

You think you are good at something only to find out you are not

There are a ton of people who have written about lack of quality mentorship as one of the main problems in the early stages at Indian startups. In fact, many accelerators and incubators are primarily focused on space and mentorship as the primary offerings as part of their portfolio of services.

Personally over the last 4 years in India, I have helped (I am going to avoid using the word mentor) over 50 entrepreneurs at a superficial level (day long or 2 days of my time) and 6-8 of them to a greater degree with monthly sessions on sales and go to market. Of those entrepreneurs, I financial backed only 6 of them, meaning I funded only 6 companies who needed my money and mentorship. The others I only provided my guidance.

All along, I have heard from the entrepreneurs that I was adding value and addressing their top 3 areas of concern – How to build a go to market plan, how to build a strong sales discipline at their company and helping them by opening doors to key people they wanted connections to. Turns out they were possibly being nice, to me at best.

So I generated a false sense of confidence in being good at something I was not.

I got a hard reality check a few days ago.

Over the last few months I have been helping many entrepreneurs on these exact areas, but without actually putting money in their company.

For most of them, I invested an enormous amount of time (many of them weekly) to help them understand their customers, go to market strategy and for some I helped with a complete re-positioning toward a large adjacent market. For others it was guiding them through funding options, calling a few investors who could be interested etc.

Turns out most of them (not all) only valued advice if they got funded. Else it was “gyan”.

In fact one of them mentioned that they whole point of working with me was to gain access to funding alone. Everything else was gravy.

I have written about this before based on my experience a few weeks ago.

You think you are good at something, only to find out, maybe you were wrong all along.

So, I called and asked a few entrepreneurs who they consider as high quality mentors in India. Surprisingly, only those folks that wrote checks figured on the list for many (again, not all) of them.

Rest were considered as folks who did not have “skin in the game” to help mentor, so they were detached from the outcome or the results of their advice.

There still is a need for high quality mentorship in India is my belief. I am not sure I belong in the high quality category though.

Commitment delivery percentage – an indicator of future success of startups?

Here’s an interesting new term for entrepreneurs to be aware of – Commitment delivery percentage. I dont know for sure but I think in a year from now, most startups will start to follow this metric more seriously than others. Some investors are already claiming this metric to be the #1 indicator of future success of startups.

At the Microsoft Accelerator in Bangalore, there are 11 companies in our current batch (Sep to Dec). Every week I send our reports to all our mentors with the weekly commitments that startups have signed up for and how many of them have met their commitments.

Since startup discipline is something I am very passionate about, it goes without saying that I track everything at the accelerator.

Commitments fall into 2 buckets – product and customer. Overall we focus on 3 areas in the accelerator – Product development, Customer development and Revenue development, but initially revenue development is largely ignored since most folks are building MVP and getting early adopters.

Each of these 2 buckets of commitments is not something the startup comes up with alone in a vacuum.  I typically discuss the commitments at our weekly all hands and it is a fairly public affair. While some teams try to lower the bar for their commitments, most are aggressive with what they commit to.

Product commitments are delivery of new set of features, versions or changes per a customer / early adopters requirement. Since many companies have mobile or web applications, most startups at the accelerator become customers of other startups so the feedback loop is quick and immediate.

Customer commitments are a combination of # downloads (if mobile app), or active users, engaged users or user feedback. Since I fundamentally believe that nothing’s possible without customer’s (who have a problem) at a startup, most companies have customer commitments from the first week. During the early days it was mostly meeting customers to get feedback and showing mockups, wireframes, etc.

The weekly report I send out to all mentors (currently over 70 folks) are to people who are committed to helping these startups and are engaged with them every week, either making introductions or reviewing progress and trying their product.

As with most reports, I can tell quickly who has read the report and who has not. On average 30 mentors (less than 50%) read the reports each week. They dont take more than 5 min to read and review.

Most of the investor mentors were reading the reports (of the 13 investor mentors, 8 were diligent and even asking questions every week to clarify certain points).

Over breakfast and a few lunch meetings I had a chance to get & give some feedback to some of our mentors. One question most people asked me was:

What % of commitments were being met and which companies were best at meeting commitments?

The answer is a surprising 70% of commitments were being met consistently and 63% of companies were consistently (with 1-2 exceptions per company max) exceeding their commitments on both product and customer traction.

Most seed-stage investors in India have a revenue requirement (not all, but most) so I was surprised they were the most aggressive in asking me questions about commitments. Seems to me, thanks to the early visibility, investors, were willing to make earlier bets, but needed some sense of the team’s performance.

What better way to judge performance than see the team making commitments weekly and delivering on them?

Investors have mentioned to me the in their experience the #1 indicator of a venture funded startups’ success is crisp execution and if they are going after a large market, then fantastic execution makes a good team great.

So how can we help more companies get on this instead of just Microsoft Accelerator companies?

We plan to release a version of our startup connection system (internally called The Borg) to all Indian companies by mid January 2013. With this solution all companies (who opt to do so) can make their commitments and report them to over 250 seed and early stage investors, mentors and advisers. And yes, its free to all startups.

The next experiment is to see in June of 2013 if the improved visibility into a startup’s execution increases the chances of funding for entrepreneurs. We are currently tracking that as well, and will be able to report in an automated fashion.

Startups and mentors: How to look for a great marketing mentor? & A list of top marketing mentors in India

After the first post on technology mentors in India, the next person who can help the most as a mentor to startups < 2 years old is someone that can help with product & customer knowledge (or understanding user / customer behavior if its a consumer startup).

There are 3 primary categories of “marketing” mentors I’d recommend you think about. You dont need them all, just be clear who you need for what kind of mentorship.

Product mentors are people who can distill what customers would need and say into what you need to build in your product. There’s a big difference between a product manager and a business analyst. The latter, typically found in many Indian services companies, tries to give the customer exactly what they want, and end up building largely a custom piece of work for that client. Product experts on the other hand, observe customers, ask them tough questions and direct the technology team to build what the customer really wants.

Sales mentors are people carrying a quota (target). They are pounding the street or directing teams that are selling every day. They understand targets, compensation, lead nurturing, managing deals and sales opportunities. There are many types of sales people but largely they are either “farmers” or “hunters”. Farmers end up expanding your current opportunity and Hunters get new business from new clients. They both have their place. Mostly, I have found sales people dont make very good mentors because they are largely unavailable, but there are a few good guys around. Ideally they would help you understand and grow your sales team from “CEO is the sales guy” to building a repeatable, growth-oriented team.

Marketing mentors would help you with positioning, building awareness, lead generation and digital marketing. They can typically help you at the stage when you need to launch (largely after product-market-fit). Most marketing people tend to talk lots and do little, so if you get someone that can give you practical tips on how to build your funnel and grow your customer base by spending as little money as possible, then you have the right person.

The question usually is why do you need so many mentors. The answer is you dont. It all depends on the team you have and if they need advice, help and mentorship. I have seen startups with 5 mentors and many with none. Most have 2-3 mentors to complement the team. You can get as much value from mentors as much time you put into the relationship. I typically recommend most entrepreneurs to setup 1 hour every other week during the initial days (<6 months) and then 1 hour every month and finally 1-2 hours every other month.

Some recommended Product mentors:

1. Amit Somani (Make my trip)

2.  Varun Shoor (Kayako)

3. Vijay Anand (The Startup Center)

4. Girish Mathrubootham (Fresh Desk)

5. Sridhar Ranganathan (InMobi)

6. Amit Gupta (InMobi)

8. Preetham VV (InMobi)

9. Dhimant Parekh (Hoopos)

Some recommended Sales mentors:

1. Madhu Lakshmanan (ex Photon)

2. Abhay Singhal (Inmobi)

Some recommended Marketing / Online customer acquisition mentors:

1. Pankaj Jain (Startup Weekend)

2. Ravi Vora (Flipkart)

3. Karthik Srinivasan (Flipkart)

4. Sanjeev Gadre (Consultant)

Startups and mentors: How to look for a great technology mentor? & A list of top tech mentors in India

I am going to write a 3 part series on mentorship and technology startups. Rather than write about why you need a mentor or how to engage with a mentor (next series) I thought the first step for most entrepreneurs would be to seek out great mentors.

As an additional bonus, I thought I’d list some good mentors in India so there’s a starting point (not comprehensive). Please feel free to add people who deserve to be on this list via comments (you cannot add yourself, someone has to recommend you, preferably 2 people).

We will focus primarily on technology startup mentors, which are < 2 years old. I believe there are 3 types of mentors you need at this stage: Technology, Marketing & Industry specific ones – that’s it. Everyone else is a nice to have waste of time.

Why?

Early in your startup, you should be focused on solving a problem and building your product, while at the same time, talking to customers and understanding their pain points. So if you are spending time doing anything else, its a waste. Mentors should help you do these things alone.

So, if you are thinking of getting that CEO of a 3-4 year old company which is doing well, as a mentor, he should fit in one of these buckets, else he a) does not have enough time to give you or b) does not have enough practical knowledge to share.

This post is about technology mentors. The next two posts are on marketing and industry mentors.

Technology mentors should help you think about the solution architecture, build & recruit a great engineering team and understand how to solve complex engineering problems.

I define technology mentors as people who are engineering managers, UX designers, architects & hands-on senior technical staff members in their day jobs. No one else qualifies. I would not put ex-engineering manager (now consultants at large, etc.) on this list. The reason is simple:

If you are not practicing, in the trenches, you don’t know the specifics and tend to give “Gyan” at a high level.

ps. US folks, I am trying to introduce some cool Indian lingo into your vocabulary, so please click on that Wikipedia link about gyan. :)

So how do you look for a great technology mentor?

1. Social proof – GitHub, Hacker News, Hackerstreet.in, HackerRank and Stack Overflow are great places to start. Also seek out folks at offline events such as Startup Weekend, Yahoo Hack Day and other such developer events. Dont look for technology mentors at generic industry or startup events. You dont find good technology mentors there.

2. Look at some awesome product companies – Cleartrip, Flipkart, Komli Media, Yahoo, Google (Map Maker), Microsoft Surface, InMobi, Facebook, etc. Get to know who runs their engineering and technology teams. Find out who their good senior, hands-on, architects and engineering managers are.

3. Reach out through your technical network: E.g. I am trying to solve this complex engineering problem, and we have a few areas where we’re stuck and would love some help. Can you please recommend someone who is a <machine learning expert> who is working on this area at <company name>?

Most good technology mentors I know like to work on really hard engineering problems, so the harder & more unique your problem the more likely you are going to attract a great mentor. Its a self selecting list (which is good) so if someone believes the problem you are trying to solve is not in their interest area, you dont want them anyway.

So now, on to a short list (soon to get long thanks to you all).

<EM> This list is biased right now. These are people I know, like and admire. Please feel free to help other entrepreneurs by recommending good people I dont know to this list. </EM>

Some recommended Engineering manager mentors:

1. Sachin Desai (Ericsson)

2. Mekin Maheshwari (Flipkart)

3. Hari Shankaran (Interview Street)

4. Jayanth Vijayaraghavan (Yahoo)

4. Indus Khaitan (Bitzer)

5. Bharat Vijay (ex Yahoo, Amazon)

6. Amod Malviya (Flipkart)

7. Srinivasan Seshadri (ex Kosmix)

8. Amit Ranjan (SlideShare)

9. Arvind Jha (Movico)

1o. Pawan Goyal (Adobe)

11. Pankaj Rishbood (Walmart Labs)

12. Rajnish Kapur (MakeMytrip)

13. Aloke Bajpai (Ixigo)

Some recommended Architect / CTO mentors:

1. Dorai Thodla (iMorph)

2. Prateek Dayal (Support Bee)

3. Shivkumar Ganesan (Exotel)

4. Avlesh Singh (Webengage)

5. Paras Chopra (Wingify)

6. Lalitesh Katragadda (Google)

Some recommended Cloud (AWS, Google App Engine, Azure):

1. Ravi Pratap (MobStac)

2. Perrraju Bendapudi (Microsoft)

Some recommended design mentors:

1. Sunit Singh (Cleartrip)

2. Rahul Saini (VideoPind)