Category Archives: Personal

The #napkinStage of a company is the most fun

Over the last 15 years working with startups and entrepreneurs, I have finally figured out where I can add the most value and have the most fun as well.

I call that the “napkin stage” of the startup.

Napkin Stage Startup

Napkin Stage Startup

There are 3 most important reasons why I love the stage:

1. There are no bad ideas and no bad markets. They are all based on experiences and personal opinions. Which means I learn a lot of new things. I love learning about markets, sales growth and building scalable marketing channels, but after a while it gets to be more of the same.

2. If the idea is simple enough that you can express it on a napkin, instead of using a PowerPoint slide or need a complete prototype for someone to get it, then I get excited about the possibilities.

3. Entrepreneurs are most excited when they dont have to deal with hiring problems, marketing challenges, customer churn, etc. So, I get to work with them when there’s sunshine and roses all around. They have nothing but optimism at this stage.

There are challenges as well.

1. 90% of the ideas never “take off”. The market is too small, the customers dont need the product or the value is very limited.

2. The idea maze leads to a lot of churn, and many back of the napkin ideas really are a big waste of time.

3. Teams pivot constantly, are never settled and sometimes will change their mind to pursue a “job” if the idea is not appealing enough

I believe there are 5 most important things I bring to the table at this stage:

1. Customer development and validation. Getting early customer validation by talking to 10+ people and understanding the “real problem” excites me a lot. I have a decent enough network to ensure that I can call on 10 folks and get to understand any market in technology enough to understand if there are opportunities.

2. Market research and knowledge. Understanding, analyzing and projecting market needs is something I have enough experience with, and have done it for long that I really enjoy both the top-down and bottom’s up analysis of the markets and segmenting the customers.

3. Helping build your team, or finding a cofounder. Over the last 15 years, I have helped 19 startup founders find early (#1 or #2) employees, and about 11 founders find their cofounder. I love putting people together who I think might work well together and complement each other’s skills.

4. Build an early prototype, mockups or alpha version of the product. That’s the true use of the napkin these days anyway. I enjoy this the most. Reducing complexity and figuring out “Enough” to get by for a MVP is the most enjoyable experience in my mind.

5. Coaching the entrepreneur on structure of the company, financing landscape and whether they need to raise VC funding or make it a lifestyle business instead (which I actually have no problem with at all).

So, I am thinking about how I can help, add value and enjoy the ride with the “earliest” of early stages of a company – The Napkin Stage.

Why you should have at least 1 investor / advisor who has been an #entrepreneur on your board

I think the best thing you can do is to celebrate small milestones at your startup more frequently. They help you ride out the sine-curve of emotions (or the roller coaster journey if you prefer that analogy).

The interesting thing I learned last week from a founder of a small startup last week, was they have weekly celebrations. The reason was it forces the team to think about what they should be doing to celebrate in a few days. Every Thursday, their team would get catered lunch, and a cake, providing the opportunity for one person to be the MVP for that week.

When he was presenting this to us at the advisory board meeting last week, I thought it was pretty cool. I loved the culture they are building of celebrating smalls wins.

Another member of the board, who was an angel investor, nodded his head, and moved on to the next item, which was a milestone he really cared about – $10K in monthly revenue, which the entrepreneur had committed to last quarter. The progress was slower, and so it was likely they were not going to hit that number in the quarter, but he was confident they would in 2 months.

I gathered later (post the board meeting) that they were unable to hire a “Growth Hacker” to their team, since they had interviewed 3 great candidates, but they all picked up offers at other companies.

I asked him what the issue with hiring was. He mentioned that the companies they lost the candidates to were smaller, earlier and were wooing the candidate with a different culture (free food, benefits, pay were all table stakes) of work from anywhere and 2 weeks paid work from a place of their choice (think Hawaii or Bulgaria or anyplace you choose).

That’s when it struck me. You will always have investors who have been through the startup experience and those that have not. Those that have not, will not understand the nuances of what it takes to actually be an entrepreneur, so they are less appreciative of the “many little things” that go towards making the big things happen.

What this entrepreneur was planning to do was to have candidates attend their final interview (if they went to that stage) on a Thursday, so they got to see the culture in action.

In this particular case, the outcome that the investor cared about was revenue. To achieve that though, the #1 thing they needed to do was to hire a good marketing person (Growth hacker) and the #2 and #3 things were to build a good pipeline of opportunities for their newly hired sales people and tweak the on-boarding experience for new customers.

Unfortunately the entrepreneur had failed to explicitly communicate this to the other investors, who were not entrepreneurs before.

If you do not have investors and advisors who are entrepreneurs, make sure that you are clear about the “little” things that need to happen to make the outcomes happen.

The Bay Area’s obsession with the “it” company syndrome for “poaching talent”

In 1995 when I reached Silicon Valley from Baltimore, HP was the company to poach talent from. Most startups and mid-sized companies during that period were keen to hire away from HP. It was known as the place that had a very refined “Management API”. Every executive and manager from HP was defined as having been through rigorous training, experiences and situations to help them navigate the complexity of running technology companies.

A few years later, the “it” company to hire from was Cisco and then Siebel was the target. Now it the “it” companies to poach talent from are Google and Facebook.

Surprisingly if you are a founder, and have an exit, you have lived through hell and back, but if you crave relevance and recognition, then you are better off being the 150th employee at an “it” company than the founder of the 150th exit.

In fact the most sought after founders are not serial entrepreneurs with a small exit, but an early to mid-stage employee at an “it” company.

That’s the Silicon Valley “meritocracy” in action. Working at “it” companies is regarded as a proxy for good pedigree. If you don’t have a Harvard or Stanford degree, but are working at an “it” company, you will be courted.

Yesterday, I had a chance to drive up to the airport with a good friend, who had a good exit (small, <$20 Million at an ad tech company in NYC). He had a very surprising observation to make. For all its “meritocracy” discussion, the only thing the valley values is pedigree. Which is not surprising. Which also means Silicon Valley is more similar to Hollywood than it is to any other place in the world.

Let’s say you are a successful entrepreneur (good, but small exit) and are looking for what’s next. You head over to the valley VC Mecca – Sand Hill road, thinking yeah, you have been successful, made money and have been thorough the grind and know how to exit and make money, so people should be interested in funding your opportunity – right?

Then you are in for a rude shock, because no one gives a damm. Most of the folks are chasing the ex-1200th employee at an “it” company, who worked on an arcane part of their advertising solution. That employee may have never actually built an entire product let alone a company, but they are “it” right now.

So, how do you break the mold? Only by showing success. It is the path that will be harder to take. It will be road with more obstacles.

You may hear stories of how an ex “it” company engineer raised $5 million on the back of a napkin over cocktails. That’s not going to happen to you.

You may hear that 2 engineers with a prototype got a series A term sheet, while you with a product and revenues, are still struggling to close your seed investors, even though you are in the valley as well.

That’s the nature of the valley, so don’t be disheartened. You too will shine and grow. Until then though, focus on building your business and keeping customers happy enough to tell others.

The rest will follow.

What’s working for B2B startup blogs and what’s not working as well? #entrepreneur #marketing

Content Marketing is being touted as the way to educate your customers and create your brand. For both startups and individuals trying to build a personal brand, content marketing is always being pushed as a means to engage with your audience.

Even though blogging has been the staple of most content marketing efforts on the small startup side for the SMB prospect, and the whitepaper as the staple for the B2B marketer in the enterprise, the rules of the game have dramatically changed for “quality” of content. The bar is much higher given the amount of content and the need to fight through the clutter and noise.

The primary changes are thanks to the mobile phone and the reducing attention span that most folks have.

The things that I think are not going to work anymore:

1. 0-1000 word blog posts. Most folks dont have the time to read a lot of text. On the phone text is being swiped faster than photos.

2. Infographics – most infographics are pretty useless and the bar for what constitutes a good infographic is great analysis and visualization, not just a bunch of numbers.

3. Anything blog post hthat’s not topical, since the shelf life of any blog post is now heading to minutes, not hours. If your blog post is something you are looking to create a book (for personal branding) out of your blog post, you might want to rethink that strategy. Books are being read solely by older audiences now and video trumps reading thanks to shorter attention spans.

What works then to draw an audience and help build a brand?

1 Content Marketing that works

Content Marketing that works

1. Blog posts that are data rich, visually attractive or long form – CB Insights, Crew and Buffer are proving that there’s still a place for great content in the traditional blog post. If you are into writing long form (1500+ words, choose to host and publish on medium instead of your own domain).

2. Video: Short, 3-5 min produced how to videos, interviews are still working well.

3. Podcasts: This has taken off more than most people anticipated. If you are starting a new company, I’d recommend you to go podcasting instead of text based blogs.

4. Slideshare presentations: Visually attractive, with high quality images, and tons of data in a simple PowerPoint slide is still drawing a lot of attention.

5. Great images and photos that can be shared on Instagram or Pinterest (even if you are a B2B company).

6. Real time video streaming – Periscope and Meerkat are two platforms you should consider.

7. Blog posts with very little text, but a lot of animated gifs: Thanks to BuzzFeed, these are extremely popular if your target audience is younger workers just joining the workforce.

It is not that I dont think you are great, but I am not confident about my ability to pick winners consistently

I had a very interesting conversation with an entrepreneur yesterday who I was keen to invest in. He had soft circled $250K of his $750K seed round. I have been a big champion of him and really respect his determination, thoughtfulness and diligence.

I committed to $50K and was going through the details of the investment with him, but letting him know that even if it took him a while to raise the remainder of the funds, I would ear-mark the $50K for his venture.

He then asked me “You know and influence a lot of other investors as well, can you please convince them to join the round”. I said that I can introduce him to investors who have invested in the past with me, but they will have to make their own decision.

I was not going to lean in on them to invest.

He mentioned that I “leaned in” on another VC to invest in a portfolio company, which is what he heard from the other entrepreneur, who I had worked with.

He was correct. I did lean in. So, the signal I sent him (although that was not my intent) was that I was not as committed to his venture as I was to other the one where I leaned in.

First, I dont have as much influence as entrepreneurs give me credit for. That’s just the truth. They may attribute the fact that I am at Microsoft Ventures as a signal that the corporation thinks this is a good investment, which is absolutely untrue.

Second, I believe there’s a HUGE difference between an angel investor (who I dont like to lean in on) versus a institutional investor (who I will lean in from time to time).

Most angel investors invest by reputation, connections and referrals. VC’s will judge an entrepreneur and their opportunity on its own merit, do their required due diligence and will likely pass EVEN if there was a strong referral from a person they trust.

Referral’s get you in the door with an institutional investors, whereas with an angel investor it will usually get you a deal.

Most angels I know have “day jobs” or “other interests” with angel investing being their side project, activity or means of giving back. That does not mean they don’t want a return on their investment, it just means they don’t do as much diligence as an angel group or an institutional investor would.

Knowing that, I believe the biggest challenge is the confidence in my ability to pick winners all the time. I am investing as an individual investor because I believe in the entrepreneur. I don’t know if that entrepreneur, problem set, idea or market is right for the other angel investors I know and invest with.

Well, I do know that to a certain extent, but with angel investors, the relationship I have would be personal as well as professional. With VC’s it is rarely (exceptions exist) personal.

So, when I meet the other angel investors over dinner, with their family, I don’t like having uncomfortable conversations about “the investment that went south”. Many of them are great folks, but not mature enough as an investor to realize many of these angel deals (in fact 70-80% of them) will return in loss of their investment.

Many of the angel investors I invest with are not in the “early seed market” for the long haul and have not seen ups, downs, sideways deals, etc. So, end up investing in 1 or 2 companies, solely because of referrals and recommendations.

I don’t think I have confidence in every deal I do to end up returning my money or generate a great return.

That does not still mean I dont believe in the entrepreneur when I invest in them.

This is truly one of those cases, when its not you, its me.

#MicrosoftBand review; What I like, what I’d like from it in the next revision

I have been sporting the Microsoft Band for a bit now. I am an avid #fitbit user and I love #MyFitnessPal. I am apparently the target audience for the band – I run 13 miles daily and I am mostly careful about what I eat.

For more context, I had given up wearing watches for 12 years now – initially because I would forever be looking at the time to stop meetings and other discussions abruptly, but also because it became inconvenient. The watches I wanted only told time and I preferred to have my cell phone to do that.

The band was recommended to me by several folks and I initially resisted, but caved in after I was told it would be a good way to see if it solves my “data entry” problem with fitness.

There are 3 primary things I wanted from a fitness device initially and 3 things I really would love to have:

1. Track all my activity accurately – not just walking or running – sleep tracking should be “automatic” instead of me having to tap a button or remember to do it.

2. Integrate with my other apps – MyFitnessPal at the least, but also MapMyRun if possible.

3. Provide me relevant recommendations – look at my eating preferences and tell me if I am eating less protein, more sugar and suggest what I should be eating based on my patterns.

I have used the FitBit Flex, Nike Fuelband and also tried the Jawbone Up before. I am still not 100% comfortable with the wrist form factor for many reasons, primarily because it feels like a load on my hands and gets “stuck” when I take off and wear on my jacket / sweatshirt / hoodie.

Anyway, I am mixed on the Microsoft band. What I like:

1. I love the crisp and multi-mode display. The display size provides me quick access to 2 things at the same time – time and one more thing – either my steps, distance, heart rate or calories burned. Compared to my fitbit zip, where I have to tap to get more than one thing.

2. I really like some of the notifications: Especially the short text messages I get on the band without having to reach for my phone. Emails are more difficult because most are more than 1 or 2 sentences, but I like the news alerts, and some of cortana’s notifications.

3. I am happy with the accuracy of the steps tracking. All 3 of my fitness bands are within 2-3% of the steps at any point of time, so I think they are all good in doing the basics.

4. I love the heart rate monitor. It gives me a great way to ensure my levels of activity are measured.

What I am not too thrilled about:

1. Battery life: The device needs charging almost every day. This is one more charger I have to carry and remember to charge. It does charge rapidly – 2 hours is usually enough, but I have to time the charge. If I am sitting in one place for 2 hours (I never do that at all), I could perhaps charge it, but that’s rare, so I have to charge it in the night, which leads me to the next point.

2. I cant sleep with it – so the point of sleep tracking is lost. It is bulky on the wrist and that’s the only time I think I can charge it.

3. The display gets roughed up quickly and the dings and dents are very visible. With “normal” usage my band was dented and dinged up within a week. The clasp is wearing out as well. The build quality on the display needs work. Even after a year of usage, my fitbit flex looks “like new”. Although the flex has a much smaller display and only shows “one thing at a time”.

4. The email notifications are pointless because you cannot respond at all. Even if I could use one of 4-5 standard responses I’d be thrilled, but that’s not possible. I do like that you can respond to incoming calls with a message saying “I’ll call you later”.

5. I dont like that I have to “switch it on” even to see time. The device display is normally off “to save battery life”, so you have to “switch it on” to see time. That small, yet normal gesture means I might as well pick up the phone. It should be gesture based so it can detect a swift movement of the arm from its “down” position to a “view” position and turn on display to show time. Else it should have a backlit “eink” display for time, which should be on everytime.

6. It does no recommendations at all. I think if there were integrations with MyFitnessPal, which already knows what I am eating, the band can recommend (1-2 sentences) what I should eat at snack time based on what I ate at lunch and dinner and my preferences, so I can be “reminded” to avoid something with sugar, since my sugar intake for the day has been high.

7. I have to wear it “inward looking” instead of wearing it like a “normal watch” since the display is rectangular. Which means my normal gesture of wearing a watch had to be a pattern I changed.

Overall I am mixed as I mentioned. It feels like there’s more promise than its current avatar.

Would I recommend it – only if you have not used any device for fitness tracking at all before. Even then only if you still need text and email notifications in addition to tracking fitness. There are cheaper pure cloud-enabled fitness trackers.

If you have however used the fitbit flex or fitbit zip before, I would skip this.

In fact that brings me to the Android Wear watches and the upcoming Apple Watch. I suspect they will be the same – bulky, needing constant charge and “awkward” on your wrist. Although having seen the watch, with its ability to “action” notifications, I suspect it will be good, but that remains to be seen.

I have seen folks use the Android watches and hear they were not thrilled with it either. I am currently of the belief that human beings are so primitive that they still think that “digital watches are a pretty neat idea“.

A #contrarians viewpoint on personal goal setting and new year’s resolutions

Most people will have several goals for the new year. They will want to have a better relationship with their loved ones and publish a book, or travel to a far away place and get a promotion at work, or start a business, and quit smoking etc. It is the dream to “have it all”.

Then there are the folks who pick one for each – work and life for each year. That’s more realistic but still tremendously ambitious.

I have expressed my views on work-life balance for entrepreneurs before. If you think you can achieve it, then you are delusional. A startup consumes all your time.

If you have a new baby or have a close friend who has one, you’d know the feeling. They are always overwhelmed. They are planning the kids meals, nap time, play time, etc. There’s almost no “time” at all. That’s how a startup is. If you are not thinking about product, then it is funding, else it is sales or customer support. There’s always more stuff to do than there’s time.

Over the last 6 months I have been focused on one project – losing weight. I over-achieved my goal with a month to spare in fact.

Over the last 6 months I have written fewer than 15 blog posts. Compare that to the previous 6 months, I had written 82.

Over the last 6 months I had shared 78 items that I found interesting to read. Compare that to the previous 6 months, I had shared 431.

Over the last 6 months I have averaged running 13 miles every day. Compare that to the previous 6 months, I barely managed 2.

Over the last 6 months, I had 21 calls with entrepreneurs to understand their business and help them find investors, talent or be a friend and a guide. Compare that to the previous 6 months, I had the opportunity to work with 67.

Over the last 6 months I had 5 parties at home with my close friends over lunches, dinners, gatherings, etc. Compare that to the previous 6 months, I had 18. 

Over the last 6 months, I obsessed over my only goal – losing weight and getting my fitness back. It will be obvious to you that I did little else.

I only had time to go to work, do my job and come back to work on losing weight so I can suffer less from my plantar fasciitis.

We moved from Bangalore to Seattle so I was learning a lot about the way startups in America have changed over the last few years I was away. That would take up all my working hours.

In fact if you track my posts since March 2014 to Dec 2014, you will see the pattern. When I had a moment, I was working out or researching food options or focused on my job at Microsoft.

Here’s the thing:

I dont think anyone can do more than one thing very well, at any time.

Either it is work, OR home. Either it is business or personal. There’s only goal you can set for the new year and do a good job to over-achieve your goal.

So, my learning is this.

If you are looking to start your own company and start preparing for GMAT this year, you will do neither well.

If you are looking to lose weight and find a new girlfriend/boyfriend/significant other, you will achieve neither.

If you are trying to do one more thing than the most important thing in your life, you will not succeed.

So, do yourself a favor. Put one goal and remove all other “distractions” from your life. You will over-achieve, even if you are not motivated and lose some energy.

The reason is that if you are going to do only that one thing, then there’s nothing else to distract you.