Category Archives: Focus

#Complaining is not going to get you anywhere,so entrepreneurs must #TakeAction

I have a friend who I have known for a long time. She constantly complains. In person, social media, everywhere. If it is not the traffic, it is the weather, else it is her manager or the number of people waiting ahead of her in line at a restaurant.

I read Tim Ferri’s article on “I did not complain for 21 days and it changed me“, and forward it to her with a hint – try this.

Late last year she was laid off unfortunately. It was an acquisition by a larger company that made her role redundant and she was let go. She called me up and told me that the first time in many years she was “without a job” and felt scared and slightly unnerved at the same time.

After many days of back and forth, I suggested this was the opportunity for her to be an entrepreneur.

She hemmed and hawed for a few days and told me after a week that she had no ideas to start a company.

So, I asked her to stop complaining on Facebook or telling anyone else about her complaints, and instead asked her to write all the things that bugged her about her life in a notepad. Daily.

Then after a week or so we talked again. She had 11 things. She said she still had “no ideas”. I said she had 11 opportunities.

Everything that you complain about is an opportunity for you to do something about I mentioned.

It took her a while, but the “Few opportunities for women in tech resonated with her the most”.

She’s started a company 4 months ago. I rarely hear from her – either on FB or the phone anymore.

So I called her last week to check in.

I know how to push her buttons, so I mentioned that I was missing all her complaining.

“Who has time to complain”, she said. “If I am not doing something about it, I am likely the cause of the problem”.

Bingo.

Dont complain.

Do something about it.

That’s an entrepreneur.

Everyone else who complains is an opportunity to be solved. Likely someone whose job will get automated by a robot or software or intelligent technology.

Solve problems that you have complaints about.

The first step to disciplined experimentation is to capture all possible ideas

When you have a great startup culture and hire awesome people at your startup, you will attract a talent pool that has tons of ideas all the time. Many of those ideas may not be relevant to your startup, but I firmly believe that it is not only the product managers, engineers or marketing folks that can have ideas that have an impact on your startup.

If you create an environment that encourages active listening, experimentation and risk taking, you will have a good mix of innovation all around at your startup.

One of the most effective ways to encourage is the impromptu “Lets just chat” weekly sessions that I see at many new startups. These are not larger company-wide all hands sessions, but smaller sessions usually hosted by a very junior, but engaged individual at your startup.

Most times they are held with 5-7 people at your kitchen or during lunch or casual drinks in the evening. The ideal size of the team is less than 10 is what I have found.

Ideas pop into people’s heads at all times. I tend to get most of my ideas when I run. Many people get them when they are stressed, others during vacation, and still others in the shower.

Ideas require a stimulant, and while I have not read the research yet, I believe one of the key ways to stimulate ideas is to exercise or rest your mind.

Capturing these ideas to whoever it occurs is possibly the best start you can have. Many people use idea management software like User Voice or Brain Storm.

I think more people are starting to use Slack for idea capture at their startup. I have seen it with 3 different startups and it is starting to become a thing.

Slack for Ideas
Slack for Ideas

The challenges with Slack are that idea rating, idea management, voting, tracking deployments are pretty challenging.

I would highly recommend you use the one app / messaging platform that EVERYONE in the company uses (possibly email, and if you have Gmail, then use plugins to manage emails to ideas) and put them into a single place.

The best way to review the ones that will have impact is to understand the value of that idea in the context of your key milestones. Some of them will impact your milestones immediately, others will improve aspects of your stated goals. Still others may do neither.

The most important framework I have used is to understand the effort and impact.

Impact versus Effort Matrix
Impact versus Effort Matrix

I think putting the ideas generated into the matrix and focusing on the ones with most impact and low effort (has to be delegated) tends to give you the ability to have good value.

When do you know that it is time to fold your #startup?

Honestly you never will know. There is always a “what if”.

There are many times during your startup journey, when you get a sense that things are not worth it. When your cofounder leaves. When your customer bails. When you cannot articulate success.

The simplest situation is when you run out of money.

The biggest challenge is knowing when way before your run out of money if something’s not working out quite right.

You get a nagging feeling that the same time and energy you have can be spent on other things to get a better return – whether it is on the next startup or another job.

The constraints that most entrepreneurs face tend to be masked by their bravado.

I hypothesize that the only time you know when it is time to shutdown and move on is when you no longer have a desire for the end state.

When you lose your passion.

That’s it.

If you still have the desire for the space you are in, and the problem you have chosen to solve, then overcoming all other odds is easier, because you still believe there is a wrong to be righted.

Most founders, though dont realize they have lost the desire for the space or the problem until much later. They are taught that persistence is the key to success, so the slog through the early warning signals.

How do you find out if you have lost passion for the space, earlier?

“Going through the motions” is one way to find out.

“Not getting excited to get up and go at it” is another way.

“Inability to acknowledge the small wins” is a third.

I can list many more.

The next part of the question is how do you know if this is “temporary loss of passion” or “permanent lack of desire” for your startup.

It is a permanent problem when your opportunity cost of doing something else is more than your current situation.

The power of the “to dont” list and why you should keep one

I tend to get distracted easily. I have the shiny new object syndrome disease. I tend to take time to understand what made me master a task or a skill and so I tend to make a lot of mistakes.

Which is why I have a tool in my box called the “To Dont” list. It is not my idea or a new one, but I have benefited from it a lot.

It is a list I keep of things I am not going to do.

I have a list of 3 things I want to do each week and 1 thing I want to get done daily.

I have close to 45 items on my To Dont list. Examples – writing a book, learning Mandarin, learning awesome photography skills.

Every startup CEO and entrepreneur needs a To Dont list actually. Why?

1. Limited resources. When you are small you dont have an army of direct reports who can each own an initiative and “run with it”. If you, as the CEO, are not spending time managing projects and helping remove obstacles for people, you are not getting further ahead. I know a CEO who keeps blaming all the people she hired on her team for “not stepping up” to take responsibility for the top 3 items that the company must achieve. All along while she is working on priorities outside the core priorities she identified for the team.

2. Limited energy. If you are not spending time on your top 3 priorities for the day / week / month / quarter, and dreaming, eating, sleeping, brainstorming and executing those priorities, then your energy and brain power is being consumed by 100 other “shiny” non priorities. It tends to be the “death by a thousand cuts” problem where 7 to 9 things take up your time, and before you know it, it has been over 4-8 weeks and you have not made any progress towards the top 3 things you need to achieve as a company to get to the next milestone.

3. Limited time. If you work 10 hours a day, god bless you. If you work 15 hours a day, you are fooling yourself into believing that you are “working and productive”. I dont know the exact capacity and stamina that different people have for work, but everyone needs some time to rest their brain, their body and their mind. If, for example, you believe you should spend 8 hours on your top 3 priorities and only 2 hours a day on your bottom 7 priorities, I still would question your ability to focus.

The main reason is that it is not time alone that you are spending – you are spending your energy, which is another thing you have in limited supply.

I know that Google has said you have the 20% time where you can work on things that you enjoy doing, outside your core priorities, but you are not Google.

You are a startup, with very limited resources and time.

If you want to work for 12 hours, daily, by all means do so.

Just make sure that your top 3 priorities get the all of your attention – until they are completed.

There are some tasks that you might believe “you cant make progress” on, until there’s something else that happens outside your control.

Bring more things back into your control by spending time and energy on alternative paths.

For example, if you believe the “customer” will take 1 month to get approvals in place for you to get the POC ready, try to get another customer on board, or work the org chart of the customer to get other approvals in place. Dont spend time trying to talk to a new integration partner since that’s not on your priority list.

That should belong on your to-dont list, until it is important enough to belong on your To Do list.

The To dont list should be as sacred as your to do list. Put everything in there that catches your attention until it is worthy enough to make it to your to do list.

Counter Intuitive: To have a successful customer development process startups should qualify out prospects

There are many counter intuitive things that happen during a startup’s life. Many have been out there already – a) initially do things that dont scale b) focus on culture more than skills when recruiting, etc.

When I was in sales early on, I used to get this advice from my manager all the time – the objective initially was to qualify out customers.

That seemed rather bizarre. The whole objective of customer discovery is to find the right customers for your product. Or did we all get it wrong?

Turns out before customer discovery, there is actually a problem discovery step.

Before you find the customers for the problem you are trying to solve, you are trying to find out if the problem really exists.

There are many contours of the problem, and one of the best people I have seen articulate this is Manu Kumar of K9 ventures – he talks about Frequency, Density and Pain

To find a problem worth solving these 3 criteria are important.

So when you do find a problem, your next step is to find the contours of the problem along these dimensions. Are potential customers having this problem, how much of a pain it is and how often is this a problem?

Now the hard part of customer development and qualifying potential problems is that we all have cognitive biases which makes us want to fall in love with our idea. Instead, the best way is to try and find ways that you should not do this (idea) versus something else.

This is why I maintain a to-dont list. (pdf) Apply that to your problem discovery process.

The entire goal of customer development (after problem discovery) is to ensure that you only get those customers who have the 3 qualifying criteria of frequency, pain and density.

You will find initially that to make the problem “solvable”, you will need to focus on one feature or one part of the problem which is the “most painful”. Your potential customers are willing to sacrifice scale, failure, lack of bells and whistles, etc.  because it solves the one piece of the problem which is the most excruciating.

Deciding which is the most excruciating part of the problem is hard and tricky. You will get many head fakes from many of the people you talk to who could be potential customers.

If you are an introvert and don’t like talking to new people (which is most of us), then your initial customer development list is relegated to colleagues, friends, family and acquaintances.

Most of them don’t like to disappoint you, so even if your product is not solving the problem or not solving the real problem they will likely say things to ensure you are not discouraged. Which leads to you thinking that you are actually solving a real problem.

Which comes back to customer discovery and the goal of meeting every potential customer – it should be to qualify them out as a potential early user. The problem you are trying to solve may not be as relevant, as painful, as intense or as immediate as others.

You want to qualify them out. Early, often, quickly and constantly.

That’s very counter intuitive.

How #investors judge #entrepreneurs. Yes it happens all the time.

Over the last 2 weeks I had the chance to do what I like best. Meet and learn from entrepreneurs at the earliest of early stages. Hear about their ideas, learn about their problems and find interesting new ways they are tackling problems of funding, building products, hiring and managing teams and getting users and customers.

Similar to the Mazlov’s hierarchy of needs I have formed a mental model of entrepreneurs and their categories or types based on what they think they “need” from me. Most of them have an ask – connections, funding, advice or referrals. Which is expected, after all I am asking the question with an intent to help.

The hierarchy of needs are fairly similar to most entrepreneurs but the most self assured ones behave differently and ask different questions. They seeks perspectives on the problems they are facing and guidance on their choices.

The rest seek funding.

If your answer to the question “How can I help?” is ” all I need is money”, then you have lost the plot. I think most investors wIll judge you right there and drop you down 2 or 3 notches on their scale. That’s tough to hear but that’s the truth.

If your answer to that question is “I need to get connected to x customer, or y potential employee or a person for a partnership”, you will be viewed as a tactician. Nothing wrong with that, but hey just like entrepreneurs judge  investors, they do the same.

If your answer is “We are facing these challenges  and would love your take on how you’d solve the problem, you will be viewed as a smart, talented and open-minded entrepreneur.

If you answer the question with “I want to start a company but I don’t have a good idea yet”, then you will be judged as a wannabe. Someone that always fantasizes about entrepreneurship but never does anything about it.

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.

The 5 emotions you go through as a #startup founder

I love tinkering and trying to do new stuff. It helps me figure out what entrepreneurs are going though. Whether it is learning a new language (Javascript again), a framework (Angular.JS) or new technique to get customers (Instagram FTW). Some of these projects take a few months and others a year.

For e.g. we are trying to build a periscope camera to help you take photos when you are a concert and are not tall enough or have arms that are not long enough to take them. This will be connected to your smartphone so you can look at the lens from your phone before you take the photo.

This project was my attempt to launch and manage a kickstarter campaign. We have 2 college students who have the capability to build the Raspberry Pi  based controller and I was the marketing and kickstarter campaign guy.

There’s a point in time when you fantasize about these side-projects becoming your “$19 Billion exit”. Then reality hits you daily every hour. Even if you have cofounders, you will realize quickly that being an entrepreneur is a long and lonely journey. That means you will have several conversations with yourself.

I tried to capture my own “self-conversations” or “selfies” over the last few projects to understand the moments of doubt, fear, exhilaration, stress, joy.

Lets start with the idea. Most people get exhilaration, but I get doubt as well. It seems to me that having listened to 1000’s of ideas as a judge, VC and investor, there are no new great ideas any more. Then again, if you are unable to sleep at night and want to write down, code or document all your thoughts, this is the best stage of emotion.

Then you get to joy – for me that comes from a shipped product (call it MVP, beta, alpha, anything). Not necessarily the point when customers or users are using the product, but just when you get it “out there”. The time when you can declare on your FB profile or on your Twitter stream that “Product X is live” or “Launched Product X”, followed by a call for people to try it out.

Fear hits next when you either a) get a lot of users and many complain on Twitter or a Blog post you have written that they dont “get it”. Most people rarely get version 1 of anything. You as a founder tend to then worry about whether all the time and energy you spent over the last few weeks / months / years was even worth it.

Stress comes after that when you try to pivot and change multiple times to figure out “product market fit”. The stress comes from your own internal battles to tune, fix, change and modify your project in a race against time to keep your “self funded” project from dying.

Finally this stage ends with doubt – on funding, market, customer validation, hiring, investments, a whole entire host of self critical analysis and paranoia that results in hopefully a finish that comes back to exhilaration – of the funding round, the customer traction or a new, smart hire.

Going by the numbers in my own entrepreneurial network, I’d say exhilaration post these 5 emotions is on the rise. That’s a good thing. A very good thing.

Is it a bubble? I have been asked. I usually reply – Who cares.

There’s an “orgy” going on next door (Silicon Valley) we are busy arguing the size of “condom” we are trying on. Dive in, the water is warm.

When does serendipity play a role and when does it not?

M. E. Graebner describes serendipitous value in the context of the acquisition of a business as “windfalls that were not anticipated by the buyer prior to the deal”. source.

As the new buzzword in the startup world is serendipity I thought I’d take a few minutes to share the fear I have of many folks engineering serendipity.  Put many interesting (or intelligent) folks in a room they say and serendipity happens.

I do though unfortunately feel many folks are taking it to the extreme. Given the many conferences, meetups and events that occur for startups, I am sure its very tempting for entrepreneurs to make sure they are at all of those meetings, to ensure they dont “miss out”.  If you are however meeting the same people again and again and doing the same things, talking about the same 10 startups, there’s little room for serendipity.

At most startup events, I see the same folks who make up 50% (increasingly) of the audience both on the investors side and the entrepreneurs side. While its good to see many familiar faces, I am doubtful that there’s much serendipity and goodness that will come out of it.

As an entrepreneur the one thing you have on your side is time, besides your ideas and intentions. I dont believe you can really waste any time and much worse, attend meetings just to make serendipity happen. I would highly recommend a very strict discipline of attending events that you believe you will have a good chance to get something done, and then hope for more serendipity to happen.

If your sole purpose of attending events is to make magic happen just because you are there, then you are going to likely waste more time and get little done.

My discipline will beat your intellect

I meet 4-5 new entrepreneurs every week as part of my office hours on Go-to-market help for young startups. Most are based in Bangalore, but surprisingly some are from other parts of the world (Chennai, Singapore and Estonia, even, via Skype).

I have an observation about work ethic that I wanted to highlight among startup entrepreneurs from various parts of the world.

Most every entrepreneur will tell you they work extremely long hours. That’s par for the course. Some “older” entrepreneurs (usually over 35 years of age) will share their ability to “strike a balance” between work and life. Practically speaking (I hate to break this to them) that does not exist in a startup. If you have that balance, you are not serious enough about your startup.

I understand they have families and kids, but I have come to the realization that both smart work and hard work are necessary (but not sufficient) to run a successful startup.

For purposes of this post lets define success as a company that’s growing significantly and rapidly, but does not have an exit yet.

The difference between a rapidly growing startup and one that’s growing “well” is productive (smart) hard work, not just long hours.

If you mistake activity (# of lines of code, # of code check-ins, # of customer discussions) with progress (shipping product, usable and must-have features, or # of active users) then you are just doing long hours.

If you mistake milestones (funding secured, new employee hired) for achievement (# of paying customers, churn rate of existing customers) then you are just doing smart hours.

What then makes smart and hard work such a potent combination? And what really is “smart work”? And how many hours make up “hard work”?

I define “smart work” as a combination of 3 things – asking the “right questions“, having a plan and maximizing the number of experiments in unit time.

I define “hard work” as the most amount of productive work time, with limited to no distractions and ability to do it consistently, for years (not bursts of weeks, not months and certainly not just for a few hours).

Lets look at both smart and hard in detail. Smart, first.

The smartest people I know have learned the art and science of asking the right questions. They usually start with asking a lot of questions, and having literally, no or very few answers. Each answer leads them to more questions. Asking the “right questions” is what they derive from experience.They have assumptions that need validation, hypothesis that need testing and results that need to be measured.

They are also willing to conduct a maximum of 2-3 experiments and have a DIY (Do it yourself) approach towards conducting those experiments to see if their assumptions and hypothesis were valid.

Finally they have a plan to approach their experiments. Not just a “lets try this and if not lets try that”. They rarely “wing it”.

Its very easy to spot smart teams. They have a sense and measurement of what “Continuous Visible Productivity” is. They come to me with a list of 2-3 questions that they want to address in a meeting. They dont just come to the meeting and pick up the whiteboard and start to “brainstorm”.

Now lets look at teams that work hard.

Hard working teams dont ever mention “how many hours they did put in last week or yesterday or that they hardly got “any sleep”. They realize and are aware of their physical limitations and are usually well within those limitations. Rarely do I hear from them “We work the hardest of all the teams” or “We have not slept for 2 days”. They keep looking for time they can cut away from unproductive work to do more questioning, experimenting and planning. In other words they dont brag about their long hours. They assume its a given.

Hardworking teams also tend to compartmentalize very well. Some people call this “bucketing” or “chunking”. Just because they work hard, does not mean they dont give their brains a rest and goof off for a while. Rather, they “compartmentalize” their goofing off or exercising to derive the benefits of a relaxed mind and body.

Finally hardworking teams are consistent. They show up day after day, week after week and go through questioning, experimenting and planning with rigor and consistency.

I realize a that being smart at work and working hard as I have laid out is extremely difficult. In fact its rare. That’s why successful startups are rare.

The combination is what I call startup discipline. Which is why I firmly believe one startups discipline will beat another’s pure intellect (given that hard work is assumed) any day.