Category Archives: Personal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I published a personal social network app

I started blogging in 2006. It has taken me over 7 years to build an audience of 60K. When I started, I believed that the best content always won. Now I know that the best content with the best distribution wins.

In 2006-7 the prevalent method to distribute my posts was RSS feeds. I focused a lot of effort to get RSS subscribers. Then FeedBurner got acquired by Google and I noticed that my subscriber base was dropping slowly from 2000+ to under 1000.

I realized that SEO was another mechanism to get new readers to read my posts, but I was not going to do anything unnatural to optimize my content to be “search” friendly.

I focused my efforts on Facebook to distribute my content between 2007-2009. I grew my readership from over about friends and readers to over 4000 in 2 years.

I realized late in 2009 that the Facebook feed algorithm was being changed constantly. This meant fewer friend had a chance to see my posts on their news feed. From an average of 25% of my friends who would read my posts via FB, it started dropping to < 10%.

From 2009 to 2011 I got focused on getting more users on twitter to follow and read my blog posts. I have over 10K followers and about 10-20% of the users come to read when I post.

Some of my friends were in the US, others in India. To optimize time and delivery I created 2 accounts. On one, I’d post at the local US time and at local India time for the other. This was to ensure a better chance of delivery on their twitter feed.

In 2012 I noticed many of my friends and readers from twitter coming to my blog also started to drop. Turned out that most folks were following multiple people and unless you timed it right for that person, it was near impossible for them to see it on twitter.

From 2012 to 2013 I put a lot of efforts into building my email subscriber list. Which has helped me go to about 60K+ readers. Then Google tabs happened and my email open rates dropped from 25% to ~18%. Many of my friends asked me when I stopped blogging. Turns out my blog posts were going into their social or promotions tab in their Gmail. There were not seeing my blog posts at all thanks to the new Gmail tabs.

It was frustrating to see the effort I put into building a channel go waste in 2 years. The more frustrating part was that in all these cases I was not in control.

During the last 7 years I have been constantly posting my thoughts and have not significantly increased or decreased the # of posts per year. I still average 120+ posts a year or about 2-3 a week.

The other part I wanted to clarify was if the quality of my posts dropped, which may have been the reason my readership rose (expectation) and fell (reality).

I think there might be some truth to that, but  engagement with my posts has constantly risen throughout this period. I measure engagement by time spent on my blog, average number of posts per visit, the number of comments and the # of Retweets / Likes on Facebook.

By all measures except Retweets my engagement has steadily risen over the last 5 years.

Over the last 6 months I noticed that more users were reading my posts on their mobile phone than PC or tablet. I also wanted to create a deeper sense of engagement with my friends and readers, and since I like to build a deeper connection I thought the best way to do this was to build a mobile application.

It is available on Apple app store and the Google play store. The Windows phone version will be out soon.

The apps are going to be my primary means of engaging with my friends and folks in the startup community. I am giving up on email and slowly paring down from facebook. It’s lack of immediacy in a real time world bothers me a lot.

There are 3 primary features I wanted in the app:

1. Ability to post items and get feedback / learn from my friends.

2. Find ways to meet friends and readers when I am “close” to their location.

3. Create a close network of friends who can help each other.

The beta version is out now and I’d love for you to give it a spin and connect with me there.

The future of all education is hyper-personalized

As part of my looking ahead series, I will publish a few blog posts on what I see as the future of certain areas that I am really passionate about. These pieces may also appear in other media, so I will let you know if they are cross-posted.

Across the world, nearly 4.9% of our GDP is spent on education. In countries such as USA and UK, the % is much higher and in countries such as ours, much lower. As we look into the future to get our citizens more educated and informed, we find that the biggest change will be the end of the “one size fits all model”. The future of education will be hyper-personalized, catering to individual students needs and focused on learning outcomes that enable one to do something meaningful with their learning.

At the heart & center of the education, we tend to sometimes forget, is the student.

What would be the ideal learning environment for the student? From Kindergarten to 12th grade, higher education through graduate programs and finally ongoing learning for skills refreshment, what helps the student learn better?

If you ask a student, they’d like to a) be inspired to learn, by having the subject brought to life with examples and experiences, b) learn at their own pace and enjoy the subject and c) learn so they can apply it towards a task they want to perform.

Teaching can be broken into 3 elements – “instruction”, “application” and “review”.

“Instruction” is the explanation of the theory and concept with a few examples. Most of the sciences & math are taught this way already. The social sciences are largely taught this way as well, but the examples are replaced by stories in history, locations in geography and local government examples in civics. For languages the theory is replaced with a large dose of rules. Most are arcane and require rote memorization. Teachers, tend to force students to learn every concept at the same time, regardless of the student’s ability to learn. Inexpensive tablets and applications on those will replace the blackboard based teaching in the next 10 years. Currently instruction is also done in a linear fashion and uses the same tools and techniques for everyone. I know in my own personal case this is meaningless. My son, a 9 year old, prefers if I explain it to him using stories, but my daughter wants to watch videos about history.

“Application” is currently performed by repetition and practice. Instead of applying the learning concepts to a project (in some private schools they are given projects), students are asked to do the same “problems” and answer the same questions multiple times. The expectation is that repetition will ensure you will remember it. The future of application will be based on science kits, drama renditions of historical facts and real-world recreation of circumstances where you would use math. The student is more likely to remember a drama they participated in about the Mughal Empire than the multiple chapters devoted to them in the history textbook. This will also help counter the folks who claim that computing is making students “insular”. The fact that you are doing a project (or a drama) requires teamwork and cooperation.

Finally, “Review” is done by tedious and stress-inducing exams, with emphasis on how well you learned to “learn”, instead of learned to “apply the learning”.  Computing is already replacing the paper-based exams in the higher classes, and they will continue to do so even in the lower grades. Reviews might also get replaced by multiple “demo days” at the end of a semester – with the emphasis on “show me what you learned”.

The future, will feature personalized applications based on experiences with inexpensive tablets and mobile phones replacing the text and images of the 2D text book with voice, video, interaction and text.

While teachers won’t be replaced, the tablet will enhance the teacher’s ability to be a facilitator instead of setting the pace. While some favor setting the pace approach, research has proven that most students are motivated to learn certain subjects faster than others.

The teacher’s role will change to be a curator of great material and a person that understands the unique needs of each student. This obviously means, that not all students in a class will be at the same “level” during the class. Some might surge ahead in Math, others in Literature and still others in Art. Which is a good thing. It will help the students excel in “something”, rather than be ordinary at “everything”.

The future of all student education will be hyper-personalized. From Kindergarten to elementary, middle school to high and from undergraduate programs to post graduate and beyond, each student will focus on having their “own” teacher, their “own” curriculum and their “own” books.

Lastly I want to highlight the differences between hyper-personalized, customized and individualized. They are not the same.

Customized means take a curriculum, tweak it somewhat to the local “needs” of the school and then teach all students the same thing. This is followed by most of the private schools in India. They follow ICSE or IGCSE and “custom” tailor the curriculum for the entire class.

Individualized is what home-schooling is. The focus is on what the tutor (in most cases the parent) feels is best for the child. Individualized programs will work for kids with special-needs in the future, and those with learning disabilities. It requires in many cases, a therapist or instructor who understands how the child learns and only focuses on teaching that material in that particular way. In most cases they use the same curriculum as the mainstream programs, but tend to use the same techniques over and over again.

Is the bias against women in technology subliminal as well?

I know I’ll get into trouble for writing this, but I dont know any other way than to write what I think. Sometimes I have thoughts that I feel bad about. This is one of those. I am hoping that writing this will help me remember and correct my bias. Although I dont think I have a bias, I think I am trying to be politically correct in speech but my own thoughts need better refinement.

I have always considered women and men alike when it comes to technology of all sorts. There may be fewer women in tech, but most all of the women I have worked with (I have had 3 women managers as well) were as good as the men I worked with.

So before I got into my bias (or perceived bias) I have to say I am a big fan of Marissa Mayer.

This morning I read Marissa Mayer’s Tumblr post on their new logo. I read it in its entirety and was pretty thrilled with its content, and she did a great job on the storytelling. After I read it though, I wondered if the CEO of a large company like Yahoo should have spent so much of her time on the logo. My first reaction after that was, imagine if she spent that time in front of customers convincing them to spend more on Yahoo ads. Or with the product team on a new feature.

Then I remembered later in the day reading Vic Gundotra’s blog post on Steve Job’s icon ambulance a few years ago. I remember being very impressed with the line

CEOs should care about details. Even shades of yellow. On a Sunday.

Then I wondered if I was as biased as everyone else.

Is it that she’s a woman, so I trivialized her obsession on the Logo and font? Versus Steve Jobs obsession of almost the same thing?

I dont know. I hate to think the answer is yes.

I felt awful for quite a bit thinking about this. I thought it was better to write this down than fight the daemons in my head.

Its okay for you to judge, but I would say that I have never felt that I have the bias ever.

How to be affectionate – From a shining example of one

My mom passed away last Friday. She was 65. She suffered from a Subarachnoid Hemorrhage caused by the rupture of an aneurysm in her brain. She was an amazing woman – and I am not just saying that because she was my mom. From reading the many messages that were sent to me and my sister over the weekend the one word that comes to mind about my mom consistently is, affection. She was the most affectionate person I have ever known – and to everyone she met, interacted with or had a chance to talk to.

She was born in a small town near Srirangam, and was one of 5 siblings. The only daughter to my grandparents, she was a twin. She has a younger brother as well, and the older brothers doted on her. There was nothing my mom wanted that she did not get from her family. Her dad was a functionary executive at a local temple, a very well read, endearing and disciplined man. My granddad would claim that my mom was the most-loved person in all of Trichy.

Most people make fun of me when they mention someone by name and I immediately find a connection with them – they are a friend of a friend, or a distant relative, or a college buddy or another remote connection – that’s my mom in me. She’d always have a connection.

Even if you have not heard of the term “people person”, before – close your eyes for a few minutes and think about what images come to mind, when you hear that word. You may have never met my mom, but most of the qualities & images that you associate with that word when your eyes were closed, would define mom. She was the original “people person”.

My parents were married in Trichy in the early 70’s. Dad was an urban city “Bombay” type and mom was from a traditional village. They moved to Bombay soon after the wedding and it took my mom several years to adjust to the hectic pace of the large city. She craved always to know everyone and took great pains to connect with as many people as she could even in the large city of Bombay.

There are 3 things that defined my mom – her immense belief in god and the power of prayer, her generosity and her love for music.

She would manifest her affection towards all people she met by one or all of these ways.

It would never take her too long to make you feel comfortable – many of my friends know her as a very welcoming, always supportive and easy to humor mom. I know many a time when we’d come home late at night after pretending to be “studying” together, when she’d wake up and make a full 3-5 course meal for all of us – from scratch – in less than the time it took us to wash ourselves!

One day a friend had come over to study with me at home. His parents were going through a rough patch and we had our exams in a few days. He went to to same school and grade as I did though, my mom had never met him or his parents. That did not matter though. The next few days he was told to concentrate on studying, while he was clothed, fed and sheltered from goings-on at his home, by my mom. She did not judge him or his parents, nor did she question. She just helped him get on his feet.

Prayer was one of the other ways that she showed you that she loved you and cared for you. I know a few of my cousins who believed her prayer was more powerful than any of the people they knew. I know of many other folks have mentioned that if she prayed, god would make it happen. After all, she prayed so much and so often and asked so little for herself, that god would keep all his reserve credits towards anything she asked for. I remember she would even pray for people she never knew. Simply because she that felt good things happened when you prayed.

Her generosity was another thing she was known for. Her generosity was selfless, all-encompassing and action-oriented. One of her core tenets was “paying it forward”. This was even before paying it forward was a meme.

I remember in 1987 a relative was suffering from immense pain, and mom traveled 8-9 hours by bus to take us to go and see them. All through the journey or the next few days, mom never mentioned to us that she was in severe pain her self, suffering through a very bad back. The only way we got to know about it was her favorite pain-killer – a heat rub, called Tiger balm, was finished by the time we got to the relative’s home. She’d  always think of you and do good for you. That, she herself, was in pain or need was largely ignored. The next 2 days she spent, in the kitchen, at our relatives home, cooking for her family, cleaning and helping out in many ways to ensure that she was able to rest through her pain, while my mom silently suffered through hers. She claimed that she was not in any pain, since she was serving others and their thanks were helping alleviate her pain.

She had no limits or bounds to her generosity either. From our help at home, to her relatives, to my own friends, my sisters or my dad’s friends, her generosity was all-encompassing. My dad would travel quite a bit during the 80’s and largely to Europe or the US. When he’d return, he would bring back loads of chocolates, clothes and stationary that in the 80’s, was largely not available in India very easily. My mom would first take about 40% – 50% of the stuff away and keep it aside for our help at home, relatives, her friends, friends-of-friends, an old lady, who lived next door to the neighbor of a friend, who she met 2 days ago. Then she would advice us to share the rest with our friends and folks that came home.

I remember distinctly a time when my dad bought her a very nice sari, which he wanted her to have. A relative came home that afternoon and loved that particular sari a lot. My mom gave it to her without any hesitation. When my dad came home that evening and asked her why she did that, she said, “I think she would look nicer in that sari”. Yes, she was that selfless.

Most every time she asked us for any money, it was because she wanted to give it to someone else. Another of her core tenets was “The more you give, the more you will get”. I dont think any of us comprehended it at that time, but looking back, we have been immensely blessed with simply because my mom gave away a lot.

Her generosity was also very action-oriented – not in words alone. She would do things – cook and feed you, pray for you or give you stuff to ameliorate your suffering. When she used her words, you would recognize her sincerity and motherly instinct immediately. Her way to show that she cared was to remove one of the things that was bothering you and do it herself, without either your help or direction.

Besides prayer and cooking, one of her life’s biggest passions was music. I remember my aunts and uncles telling me that she was a very accomplished singer and a person with a very sweet voice.  You did not need to ask her twice to sing – another thing I got from her (minus the sweet voice). She tried her best to get my sister and I into Carnatic classical music, but I guess that gene we picked up from my dad. Were were interested and eager, but were not blessed with the same innate music sense my mom was. She would travel wide and far to hear young artists, encourage them, buy season passes to their concerts, attend a few and then give the rest away.

You may have never met my mom, but in many ways you know her, because I suspect everything I have told you about my mom is like your mother as well. She was the most amazing living embodiment of mom that god ever created. I suspect your mom is the same. So, talk to her. That was the only thing she’d ask me for. “Call me”, she’d say. This text message, facebook stuff is not enough. I have to hear your voice. I can tell if you are in pain or you are happy just by listening to your voice over the phone she’d say.

So, to honor my mom I thought I’d help you – over the next couple of days I am going to write a blog post on a list of 101 things to talk to your mom about. Just stuff that I wished I talked to her more about. If you have a suggestion or two, drop me a note. More than anything, talk to your mom. Your mom would be happy you called (regardless of time or day) and so would my mom.

P.S. I know many of you tried calling me, emailing me or text messaging me. I thank you for it. I dont know how to deal with losing my mom – so I dont want to talk to you over the phone. I dont feel it is cathartic. That’ my way of dealing with it. So, if you want to know what happened, please read my blog post. If there’s a story of my mom you remember, please drop me a note. I may not reply, because I’d probably cry some more when I read it.

On generosity, selflessness and bias towards action

I dont quite know how to separate my public, business and private life. I treat all of the people I know as friends. I got that from my mom. She is the most privately public person I know.

On Tuesday, she had a pounding headache at 812 pm and was taken to the ER at a hospital near home. My mom does have a history (recent) of both high blood pressure and diabetes. This, though seemed serious.

Since I got many calls (apologies, I ignored them all) and text messages asking for more information, I thought I’d outline what happened, whats the status and what’s possibly next.

My mom had and aneurysm on one of the vessels carrying blood to the brain. Medical experts mention that many people do have the same, and it does not cause immense damage to most people. The aneurysm was 2.7 mm in size and it spewed blood all over the brain. Since it was the main vessel that was carrying blood to the brain, the spread of the blood was extensive. Combined with the fact that she had very high blood pressure at that time (nearly two times the normal) and that she was taking blood thinners, the spread of the blood was fast and vast.

She went into a coma almost immediately and did not respond. A CT scan done at a little before midnight revealed the extent of the damage and the doctor’s at that time gave her a 10% chance of surviving. What they did say was that the next 48 hours were crucial.

She was transferred to an neuro-ICU later in that night. The blood pressure was an exceedingly high 180/120 and things were not looking very good.

Early Thursday, things did not get much better. The doctors mentioned that surgery to block the aneurysm was out of the question since she was not responding to sensory moves. In the scale of responses she was an M1 or M2 (very low on the scale of response to external stimuli except involuntary). In clinical terms she was a 5 (most critical). She remained in coma, responding to nothing at all.

After a routine check in the afternoon it became clear that unless her condition improved – which would be calibrated by normal vitals (blood pressure in safe range, pulse normal and breathing normal) the neurosurgeon would not risk any attempt to either a) do surgery to block the aneurysm or b) do any surgery to remove the blood from the brain. The former was extremely risky and had very little chance of doing any good, and the latter was going to cause more pressure in the brain since the blood in the brain was extensive.

The doctor equated the brain to a pressure cooker, which if was let to relieve pressure from one side, would have the opposite side compensate by putting more pressure to create a “balance”.

That was possibly the lowest point – 2 pm on Thursday. The vitals were not stable, the prognosis was bleak and the outlook desolate. She remained in a state of coma.

A slight positive turn of events occurred when my ever optimistic sister spoke to her at the ICU and saw a few responses – attempt to pick her hand up, move her body. These were largely calibrated as “involuntary by the doctor”. The vitals stabilized during this point as well.

If you know my mother, you would know that the number of lives she positively touched with her generosity and selflessness was amazing. Prayers from all over were pouring in. Turns out, it worked ever so slightly. She was still coma, the situation was still extremely critical, but she stabilized.

Late Thursday night, things got even more “normal” – enough to have the critical nature of the situation to remain at 5, but the sensory perception moved up ever so slightly to nearly M3.

Early Friday things improve a little more (she was and is still in coma) but she was responding to our voice and attempting to hear / understand and respond.

The doctors now deemed the situation sufficient enough to warrant a surgery to prevent the aneurysm from rupturing again. This does not necessarily improve the condition but prevents another rupture from happening.

There were 3 possible options – Surgical clipping, Coiling or using a stent. These options are largely determined by a combination of the patient’s state, the size and location of the aneurysm and cost of the operation.

Surgical clipping, puts a metal (high end metal) to clip the aneurysm at the base preventing further rupture. This is an option only if the patient was normal – which my mom was not and hence, ruled out.

Using a coil was deemed the best option to prevent any further bleeding, which if it occurred would cause a further and irreparable damage to the brain.

The surgery, however, would not necessarily make the chances of her recovery better. It was to prevent a further deterioration of the aneurysm which could rupture again. Since my mom was deemed relatively young at <70 years of age, there was a good chance of her responding well to the coil. Given that all other functions were “normal” we remain positive, but we realize the chances are rather slim.

The key part of this equation still remains her own ability to fight through this trauma and get herself back on a track for the rest of the medicine to work. She draws positive energy I am sure from all the prayers and positive thoughts from you all.

Update on Friday at 5 pm – the surgery (2 coils were inserted) was completed successfully and she remains stable.

Off topic: Totally useless observation on Angelo Mathews

For those folks that dont follow cricket, this wont matter at all.

Angelo Mathews the captain of the Sri Lankan cricket team seems to have a case of “What he said”.

In the last 3 matches he has lost as captain, his post-match comments, have been a “replay” of what the previous captains said after matches they lost a day or two before. Bizarre. Its almost as if he prepares for the post match press interview by reading the newspaper in the morning of what the loser from the previous match said and repeats that.

After losing the semi-final match against India in the Champions trophy preliminary game he said Sri Lanka “Choked” – identical to what Gary Kirsten and South African captain said of their semi final loss to England a day before.

After losing the earlier match against New Zealand he said it was “a bad toss to lose“, an identical statement to what Misbah ul Haq, captain of Pakistan said after that team’s loss to West Indies a mere 2 days earlier.

Again at the Celkon trophy final, his team lost to India. He chose to focus on the fact that his team “showed character“, which were the exact same words said by Virat Kohli the stand-in captain for India a mere 2 days ago.

Now, I dont know Angelo too well, but seems to me he’s got a case of photocopy-itis for post match conferences.

The age of “speed gauging”: how entrepreneurs are changing cognitive decision making

I have been on a long road trip to meet investors and entrepreneurs abroad including, Sri Lanka, the US and Switzerland (besides many in India) over the last month. The schedule does not get any better for the next few weeks, so I am very disappointed that I am not able to write as much as I would like, but nonetheless, this is an important point that’s been brewing in my mind for the last few weeks.

Entrepreneurs the world over are changing one very important aspect of decision making – the pace and speed of it.

I spoke to over 135 investors in 15 min to 1 hour conversations (some in a group of 5-8 over dinner) over the last month to figure out that investors the world over are now under immense pressure to make decisions quickly. That was not the case a few years ago.

(P.S. I did read the PG piece on startup trends, so if he’s asking investors to move even more quickly than they are, he’s asking for a LOT, which I suspect most individuals are not ready to sign up for).

A few years ago a typical angel investor (individual, investing their own money) took 1-3 meetings and a month to make a decision to invest in a company. A venture capital investor (professional, investing other people’s money) would take longer, 3-5 meetings and at least 2 months. Then the legal paperwork and negotiations began post the “verbal commitment”.

Now it is not unusual to hear investors in the US taking 1 meeting and 60 minutes to give a verbal commitment and 15 days to funding. In India, that number is changing to 3 meetings and 45 days to funding.

Most investors have 3-5 top criteria and a subset of 5-7 sub criteria for every opportunity they evaluate. The criteria is usually entrepreneur, market, product, traction, exit potential etc. The sub criteria for market, as an example might be a) Size b) Speed of adoption c) Competitive landscape d) Pace of change in that market etc.

I am very intrigued by the sub criteria for entrepreneurs. Since I operate at the very earliest of early stages, putting money or resources when there’s just an idea, with very little or no traction, it becomes absolutely important to make sure you back the right folks.

Since I am on the plane a lot and have a new kindle I get to read a lot as well. I have been reading these books and research pieces to understand how to be a better judge of people when time is limited and the stakes are high.

a. How to read a person like a book

b. Cognitive decision making – a mathematical model

c. Thinking fast and slow

I have built a 21 criteria list for evaluating people quickly (well, quickly compared to the fact that I was not doing it at all before) and I am trying to figure out over the next year, which criteria matter and which ones dont.

Before you think this is too many criteria, let me tell you that most sophisticated investors have mentioned to me that they use between 35 and 50 verifiable and “soft” criteria” and keep tweaking their top 5. Some of these criteria can be a simple yes or no and others require you to ask specific questions. The most cultured investors, who bet lots of money have a cognitive sense of evaluating every word spoken by the entrepreneur and putting them into buckets while evaluating if the criteria they are looking for are met or not.

I am not ready to reveal the criteria since people will game the system, but I am now able to process those better. My evaluation takes now about 20-30 minutes to process each individual after I have a chance to meet them for 30 minutes. Usually I do this when I have some downtime – during commute, running, etc.

The most amazing revelation to me personally has been that nearly 30-40% of my “gut instinct” on people dont match my criteria. I used to pride my people selection based on gut feel a lot more before. Let me give you an example.

I met a really smart entrepreneur in Sri Lanka. who had thoughtful answers to nearly 7-8 very difficult questions that I had, and was articulate, concise and honest. When I went back to my evaluation checklist (which I have documented on my phone), I found that I had overlooked a few important questions and decided to talk to him the next day to ask him more questions. He stumbled on them all. Then I realized he had been asked by many folks the same 7-8 questions that I asked before, so he answered them with aplomb, but questions which he had not encountered before flustered him immensely. I dont have a problem with people not having answers to questions, but he seemed genuinely confused.

I think this field of rapid cognitive evaluation is going to see a lot more research and work being done.

How to punch above your weight class

I have been mostly an under performer. There’s a big difference between an under performer and an under achiever – the later does not give 100%, but the former gives “his best” and is still middling.

I have had several teachers and relatives (especially those overachieving uncles) who would always tell me “You can do more”. They did not tell me I could do better. They would say I could do more. It was as if they almost knew I was peaking and still in the middle of the pack.

Whether it was grades, swimming or violin, I was always the “middle of the pack or lower”. I remember many parent-teacher (PTA) meetings, where my mom would be asked “What does Mukund’s dad do?” and after my mom mentioned, that he was a superstar, the teacher would be largely incredulous, shake her head and say “Then why is he just not doing well in <fill in the blanks>”? Back in the ’80s it was okay to be politically incorrect I guess.

It did not help that I came from a family that had very high achievers. I wont call myself the black sheep, its just that I was a pig in a family of sheep.

Graduating from high school, I was at the “top” of the middle of the pack. Not for the lack of trying.

I realized I was not as smart as most other people in my class. Neither was I really willing to work way too hard to make up for the lack of smarts. Well, actually I thought I was working harder than most, but I was not able to get much better. I was just wanted to flow with the tide and go along for the ride.

Things at college did not change much. Sam Lomonaco, who taught us algorithms, once asked me if I really was from India, since most of the folks he knew from there were “super smart” and he wanted to know why I was not so.

My confidence, was not at a super high when I started working at Cisco. My hiring manager, Mark really liked me because I knew the one thing that most of the other folks in his team did not. They were largely “business analysts” and I was the only “developer”.

That’s when I started to hit my stride.

They usually say “In a pack of ducks a swan looks ugly“.

In business though it always helps to be the “one with a different perspective”. I was the only one in Mark’s team asking technical implementation questions when they wanted to build anything.

My questions were deemed “smart” or really “different” since none of the others had thought of those. I, on the other hand could not think of any other questions but those.

The first rule of punching above your weight class is to surround yourself with people who you complement.

Later you can surround yourself with people who complement you. Early on though, you have to complement them. That way you achieve two things – you avoid “group think” and you really give them a perspective that’s different.

In late 2001, I had a meeting where David Reichman, (who managed me for a few years) during which it was clear to him that I was “making sh*t up” to answer his questions. After 30 minutes of grilling he said “If you don’t know, then say you don’t know or just ask more questions, don’t give dumb answers”.

Boom! That was it. All I did after that was start asking questions, since I was neither smart enough to have answers or disciplined enough to work hard to get those answers. Better to have smart people give me the answers.

I learnt the second rule of punching above my weight classPut yourself in a position where your biggest weakness becomes your largest strength.

A few years later, I started to be a little more disciplined. I actually learned to “think” much later in life. I guess I was a “late bloomer” in the field of “thinking”. My initial years were relegated to doing with the sense of “I have to do this because <fill in the blanks> – pass exams, get admission, whatever.

In 2006, I had a chance to make new friends at an event called Community 2.0. Francois was the chairperson of the event. I had dinner with him and others including Chris Carfi, Aaron Strout, Nate Ritter, Chris Heuer and Lee Lefever. I am not sure who said it but when asked them what the best part of their life was, even though they were not the super success they’d like to be, they said “That’s because I do things for myself”.

I then understood the rule three of punching above your weight class – do things for yourself instead of living to other’s expectations. 

Steve Jobs has also said this in his famous commencement speech at Stanford.

I now blog so I can go back and read my posts, I play tennis so I can enjoy the outdoors, I meet entrepreneurs so I can learn. That’s possibly selfish, but I figured out that if I am happy that’s all that matters to my mind.

Those who know me well are surprised that it took me so long to “figure this out”. I guess they thought that coming from a smart family with a super achieving dad, social butterfly for a mom, an insanely talented sister and an naturally smart wife, I have it all and I had been blessed, so I should have figured these things out much earlier.

I seek consolation from the fact that every person takes their own time. Every person is really different and hits their stride at their own pace. They measure up to others expectations and perceptions much later in their life, if at all.

Now when I meet entrepreneurs who are from an excellent pedigree and background, I am more cognizant of the pressures and internal daemons they face. When I meet entrepreneurs who have on the flip side, not had the breaks and chance, I try to give them time.

Mostly though, I apply this learning to the expectations I have of my kids. They will find their groove at some point. During the journey though, I realize the sense of disappointment I have with them not punching even at their weight class. Those expectations are the ones that I have to work on the most.

They too, will find their formula at a time that’s right for them. Until then they are doing just fine – for themselves. Which is what matters the most.

Startup idea: Product attribute database

There are over a million online retailers in the US alone and over 2.5 Million worldwide. Many are in categories that are large and well defined (apparel, electronics, books, etc). If you are a online buyer one of the many things you want to do is to research a product well – understand the features, options and compare it to other similar products.

These are defined by what I call product attributes.

Comparisons & reviews are largely subjective and prone to long tirades and endless sentences without getting to the point. Here’s an example. Notice that current attributes that are already stored by Yelp include time the restaurant is open, expected attire, etc.

Those are some of the things I’d like to know.

A large number of things I’d like to know are not really comparable.

They are mentioned in the 88 reviews provided by end users. Taste of the food, visual appeal of the food, softness of the bread.

Reviews that are unstructured are a pain – to sort, filter, compare and review.

There are many who claim that the product attributes for products such as cameras and mobile phones are fairly complete and those are problems already solved.

I think that’s broken thinking.

If you look at how people search for cameras, many (not all) “lay people” dont search for HD pixel density, dual core Snapdragon processors etc.

They search for “how to take good pictures in the dark with your <favorite phone>” or “how to record a live band in <favorite phone> without the background noise”.

The attributes that customers want are those they use the product for. Unlike the specifications and features that manufacturers (or producers / service providers) build them with.

I think if you build a product to classify the attributes that matter for every product (start small and build by category) with a combination of technology and crowd sourcing (or any other mechanism), you will build a valuable company. 

Not to mention that its highly likely that Google, Yelp, Microsoft or others will buy you.