Tag Archives: silicon valley

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.

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Are Indian entrepreneurs “thin skinned” or misunderstood?

There are so many great tech entrepreneurs of Indian origin in the valley who have been successful over the last 2 decades. A last count indicated over 40% of all startups in Silicon valley were either started by or had an Indian cofounder.

This has led to several of them (entrepreneurs from the valley) and a few “industry observers” commenting and comparing the startup ecosystem in India to that in the valley. Most are not encouraging. From the outside looking in it is relatively easy to say “There are too many clueless people running incubators” – actual quote from a self-proclaimed Silicon Valley expert, or “Focus on local opportunities, not on global ones” – actual quote from a Tech Crunch article.

In both cases, many entrepreneurs in some closed Facebook groups that I am a part of, were all up in arms about these broad generalizations. The articles themselves were focused on many aspects of entrepreneurship as well in India, and the quote alone, taken out of context would be construed as a “passing mention”. Nonetheless many entrepreneurs took umbrage and the conversations denigrated into an abyss.

Back to my question about Indian entrepreneurs. Are we just thin skinned or misunderstood?

First, our startup ecosystem is fairly nascent. Comparing it to the valley is not doing either location any good. Both investors and entrepreneurs complain about each other constantly in both locations, though. Many investors claim entrepreneurs lack the depth, knowledge of the markets and understanding of what it takes to build a great business. Many entrepreneurs claim investors are risk-averse, predatory and bean counters without the expertise to build a business.

They are both are right, but both are wrong as well.

Market dynamics and conditions in India force both of them to play hands they are dealt with and I think so far we have done well. Comparing a teenager (Indian startup ecosystem) to a mature adult (Silicon Valley) does not make any sense though.

Second, I do believe that we can be more appreciative of each others positions and show a lot more empathy for our investors and founders. I am not suggesting a group therapy session, but knowledge and understanding of the constrained markets India has and the small exits that we generate does not help investors is important. Neither does expectation of Silicon valley type exits or “traction” help entrepreneurs.

Can we all get a little more thick skinned as well? – possibly. For most parts if you read a “self-professed expert”, such as myself or others, claiming to understand the nuances of the ecosystem, which you believe are incorrect, be direct and point it out, with a cogent argument explaining your point of view, instead of vitriolic comment spewing or worse – name calling without context.

How the risk appetite of entrepreneurs affects their exits in Silicon Valley, India and Africa

I run this fun experiment each time at most events I speak at. I ran is again yesterday at the CII event yesterday in Bangalore. The experiment is to gauge the risk appetite among entrepreneurs. It is not scientific nor is it structured. It has though, given me a sense for the risk appetite among the entrepreneurial class.

I have run this experiment now over 30 times and have had fairly consistent results. If there are over 100 people in the audience, I ask folks three questions and request a show of hands.

Q1. If I gave you a 10% chance of making $2 Million from your startup, how many of you will take that outcome? I get a show of hands at this point.

Q2. If I gave you a 1% chance of making $20 Million from your startup, how many of you will take that outcome? Show of hands again.

Q3. If I gave you a 0.001% of making $1 Billion from your startup, how many of you will take that outcome? Final show of hands.

Over the last 3 months, I have spoken at 2 conferences in the US, 1 in Zurich, 1 in Africa, Singapore and over 5 in India.

The results give me a quick sense for the hypothetical risk appetite for entrepreneurs in that community.

In the US at both the conferences, the distribution was 30%, 10% and 60%. In Zurich it was 60%, 30% and 10%. Africa was very close to the US surprisingly, at 35%, 15% and 50%. It is almost as if Africans have nothing to lose and Americans don’t care for small outcomes, but both end up at the same place.

In all the conferences in India, it has been 70%, 25% and 5% (and that’s being generous in 2 conferences including yesterday, where 2 out of 150 people opted for the 3rd choice).

Rather than draw quick conclusions about the risk appetite, I thought I’d think about it more and understand why Indians are happy with smaller outcomes.

Given that the effort over several years to create a $10 Million outcome at your startup is the same as one that has a $1 Billion outcome, why dont we focus on the large opportunities?

  • Is it fear of failure?
  • Is it that we are “happy” and content with even the small things?
  • Is it that $2 million is such a large change in our lives that the $1 Billion does not seem worth it?
  • Is it that we really don’t aim big? Notice I did not say think big, I said aim big? Nuance, but a big difference
  • Is it lack of exposure to large markets?
  • Is it that we are not hungry enough?
  • Or is it something else?

I don’t quite have an answer. When I mentioned that I dont have an answer to the moderator Mohan Reddy yesterday, he expressed dismay. He was looking for an answer – was it our cultural background, our education system, our values, our government – someone or something had to be blamed.

I dont know the answer, but have a deep desire to find out.

Why?

As we start to invest in the early stage startup ecosystem in India, it is important to calibrate the possible returns and allocate funds associated with the returns. If most entrepreneurs in India are okay with smaller returns, it makes sense for us to allocate fewer fund here than China, Israel or Africa.

From our experience at the accelerator, where, over the last year we have “invested” our time, resources and energy in 23 startups, we know that the risk appetite is much lower among startup founders in India, compared to those in Israel for example.

We have already had 2 small “exits” and 3 closures in India. Israeli companies are still out there, fighting for their series A and beyond, while 1 company had pivoted dramatically in Israel, only to start again.

Is the reason something completely different? Is it that we are realists and don’t think the billion dollar outcome is even possible?

As Henry Ford said:

“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.”

Where is analytics headed in 2020? An insight gathered from 25 top #startups

The most amazing part of my job is that I get to learn from the smartest entrepreneurs in the world. I cant think of too many people who get a chance to talk to 3 entrepreneurs via video conference in California at 8 am, 2 startup founders from Singapore at 1030, have lunch with 4 amazing big data analytics company promoters in Bangalore and then wrap up the night with a conference call at 830 pm featuring a recently funded analytics company in Boston.

Most VC’s get a local perspective, Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv, Bangalore, or Beijing. I get pitched from all over the world. Most investors in the valley will tell you the best and brightest come to the valley, but I believe there’s a big shift happening. More on that later.

I wanted to share one very insightful thing I learned after 25+ detailed (over 1-2 hour) briefings with entrepreneurs who are all innovating in the analytics space.

The future of analytics is in offerings based on derived insights.

I just gathered this insight, so let me explain.

Historically the analytics space was filled with services companies. In fact  consultants would take loads of data and gather insights to help their clients with their business objectives. The best known analytics companies that dont call themselves analytics companies are Mckinsey, Bain and other management consultants. Then companies like MuSigma and others decided to “offshore” this insights service. The problem with this type of offshore services business is obvious – low margins (net of 20% and since they are people intensive, they dont scale as fast).

The purveyors of the software model of analytics are those that provided a SaaS product – names such as Cognos, Business Objects etc. Companies like Kaggle crowdsourced your analytics and there are hundreds of companies providing SaaS analytics, such as GoodData, Insights Squared, etc. The problem with this type of business is that most of these software products are “generic” hyper cubes and data warehouse / data mart models. Their margins are better than services, but still nowhere near the 80% gross margins that some industries command.

Since we all know that software is eating the world, many companies in industries such insurance, banking, finance, manufacturing are all facing a threat from new age software companies, who are re-imaging the businesses.

The next generation of analytics companies are those that take the insights gathered and create an offering in that specific area so they can benefit from the insights, instead of providing those insights to others in the industry who make more money from it.

Let me take a simple example. Global Analytics just raised $30 Million. They are an analytics company. They used to provide their insights to financial institutions by way of giving them “leads”. These leads were those customers who were worth extending credit to. An average lead in this case cost their client $30 – $100 (depending on quality).

While that in itself was a big and large market, the larger market is to extend the banking facility themselves, which means with their analytics and insights can directly offer short term cash loans to those that their analytics deems are the best. The average customer in this case will make them $500 – $5000 (depending on the size of the loan). They did this via their own offering Zebit.

Now, most founders with a background in software will say “Wait a second. what business are we in? Software or Financial Services”? That’s a good valid question.

But when you get into the “Financial Services” business there’s loads of things you can re-imagine and redo the right way with a “software frame of mind” as opposed to being a “financial services insider”.

Huge difference in revenue and margins.

That’s the future of analytics.

Using the insight gathered from the analytics to offer a product / service direct to customers and not selling the insight or analysis to existing players.

Let me give you some more examples.

Lets say you are foursquare. You have analytics and insights into where people check in, where they go, what their patterns are with respect to travel.

Would you rather sell this treasure trove of data to marketers (and face a bunch of privacy issues) or would you create an offering based on those insights yourself?

The value to a museum of information that a potential customer is near their location is possibly $2.5  (that’s quite high I imagine if the tickets are $25).

Instead if foursquare offered a virtual museum tour or a personal crowdsourced guide to the museum, then they could sell that for $10 and have 40% margin on that offering.

Imagine if you had driving habits data about car owners – how they drove, what time, how fast, how safe, etc.

Instead of selling the “best driver” data as a lead to the insurance companies, who might pay you $100 – $200 per lead, you could create your own insurance offering based on miles traveled, safety of the drive etc., changing the long standing model of one-size-fits-all car insurance.

There are lots of examples that entrepreneurs are dreaming up these days and the most audacious ones I am talking to want to upend large established industries. It is both exciting and scary at the same time.

That’s exciting. Software will truly eat the world.

The difference between visible and invisible elements of a startup ecosystem

I was on the plane with Dr. Anurava Goswami of Indian Statistical Institute the other day. He is a very well accomplished scientist with a deep background in bio-mathematics and has multiple degrees from Harvard, and other institutions. He mentioned a very interesting remark on the state of “infrastructure” in Indian research organizations and their lack of “invisible” infrastructure.

His point was he could pay money to have big buildings, large labs and a great campus in India – these according to him were “visible” infrastructure. What was still missing was “invisible” infrastructure. The particular example he gave was the Fedex person who delivered at Harvard, samples of live cultures and he would be at the office at 6 am sharp with his package, knowing fully well how important that time was to the scientists. The Fedex delivery person was part of what he called “invisible” infrastructure.

I wanted to draw some parallels to the startup ecosystem.

The startup community and ecosystem in Silicon Valley is extremely well revered. Its speed of innovation, the consistent “hits” and the unparalleled dynamism of ideas is worth applauding. The visible elements of the startup ecosystem – dynamic entrepreneurs, indulgent venture capital and seasoned mentors are what I call “visible infrastructure”. I would definitely include things that make the US extremely easy to do business in such as setting up your company, bank account, labor laws etc. Those are the table stakes and the easy parts that every startup friendly ecosystem in the world is trying to emulate.

Imagine entrepreneurship is a cult and Silicon valley the “Mecca” or the “Holy land”. Something amazing happens to the converted when they visit the holy land. Yes, they are still religious and follow the “rituals” of entrepreneurship elsewhere, but when they meet other converted in the hallowed ground, they get an almost “born again” fervor.

I was at University Cafe a few months ago, waiting for a friend, when I was sitting next to a table of 2 young entrepreneurs talking rather loudly to another individual (you could say I was eavesdropping, but they were so loud I could hear them at the Apple store, a few blocks away, if I was sitting there instead). They were trying to convince the other individual to join them and it was a full on “change the world, ding in the universe, pitch”. Their excitement and enthusiasm for what I gathered was a “mobile application to tag users by keywords instead of social networks” was nothing short of hubris, but to them that was the only thing in the world and they gave it their best shot. I call it  “invisible attitude”.

At Ramona’s a few days later, there was an open “60 second demo” of developers to a group of their peers. I happened to listen to one developer who had a pretty awful time with the mic, then his app crashed two times and the projector resolution sucked so much we couldn’t really see his app at all. But post his “pitch”, he said “please download the app and give me feedback”, with a kinda sad look in his face. Within 10 minutes, during which time most folks were grabbing their beers, his app was apparently downloaded “30 times” and 5 people took time to review drop him a comment on his blog about what features they would like to see on his app. I call this  “invisible encouragement“.

Here’s my point. I know India does not have many great mentors willing to give time, and I am acutely aware of the lack of many early adopters and also the dismal seed capital availability. At the end of the day though, only the converted help other converts.

It is up to us entrepreneurs to help other entrepreneurs.

Forget about the government, venture capitalists, larger companies and experienced mentors.

Forget for a moment that you are competing with multiple other startups and entrepreneurs for your time under the sun.

Go out of your way to help other entrepreneurs.

If its helping figure out scaling php on the cloud OR if you have figured out how to setup your company in the US, with a subsidiary in India OR if you have figured out the best source of organic traffic for your B2B SaaS company OR if its taking 15 min to buy online something you would offline even it costs 5 bucks more, OR if its downloading a new beta app and providing feedback.

Help other entrepreneurs, with no intention of getting anything back. 

I assure you, it will surprise you back with its generosity.