A Note to Startups: Think in Systems
Posted April 5, 2008on:
What’s the difference between a driver on the roads of India, vs. a driver of the roads of the US? The US driver makes sure that he follows the rules, but probably doesnt even care about who else is on the road. They follow their own rules, keep their space, make sure that they do what they are supposed to do. But that’s where it ends. The Indian driver, as many of you would have experienced, makes a quick assessment of all the vehicles on the road, and almost makes a mental note as to what to predict out of the autorickshaw driver who will hit the breaks the minute he sees someone waving at him and will cause a heart attack to everyone behind him, the inevitable two wheelers who will try to squeeze in and around you as if they are the only ones for whom time moves and as if everyone else are laggards, that doubtful dog which is competing to get into history books just as the chicken did and is trying to cross the road in half-a-mind and not to mention the potholes that are inevitable encounters of everyday travel.
In short, a good Indian driver not only needs to follow his own rules, he also needs to understand that when the rules of the system around him changes, he needs to adapt and often within a blink of an eye. It is that kind of thinking that is required when you build a product, a team, a company and look into your markets.
There were a couple of things that triggered this line of thought and let me jot them down:
Systems, Not even Products. Think Beyond.
Something that people, especially aspiring and early stage startup founders fail to understand is that the world always finds itself in equilibrium. It always is in that state. As much as there are a million bad things and chaotic situations raging across every corner of the planet, there is stability, and there is enough good things that go on, that equilibrium still reigns over all. Every new element or product or even an idea, into a system which is in equilibrium will cause problems, and hence there is always resistance for change. Once you understand this basis of how markets are, then things become a bit more clear as to why everyone keeps insisting on ideas that change the world – in a big way. Unless there is a compelling case granting it the speed to break escape velocity, every idea will get sucked into the gravity of nothingness. That is the certain fact.
Recently, with my experience in trying to organize Startup Lunches and OpenCoffee clubs across the country, I am understanding a bit into the psyche of the indian entrepreneur. In a lot of ways that is the inspiration and the reason for this article.
I am actually a bit surprised as to how many people struggle to put some thoughts to organize a get-together. I do have this slight fear that people are not thinking outside of themselves, which is actually a bit scary. Not that I am holding them against it. There probably is a little bit of higher expectations since I have been involved with communities for sometime now, and people are probably doing their baby walks. Putting together an event, a get-together or any such initiative requires a bit of thinking in terms of all externalities. You need to check if someone else is holding any other event that might conflict, is there a cricket match going on, knowing the general convenience patterns of people, venue options, knowing where most of the audience is from, checking the weather to make sure that there is no downpour when you plan that outdoorsy meet, ensuring that people who come together dont have conflicting personalities – atleast not by much, setting the agenda for the meet, etc etc. A lot goes into it than most people think about. But its also the bare minimum that is required when you are dealing with any system and introducing something new. Think about it, its not so different from what it takes to launch a product, get people using it, and for the userbase to grow.
My mentor used to say, “Gone are the days when it was said build a better mouse trap and people will come banging at your door”. It’s true. Not only do you have to build a better mouse trap, but you also need to make sure that everything else that says otherwise and can stumble adoption or growth is managed.
Think of all the use cases, not just the positive ones.
There is a very contrasting difference between a hardware engineer and a software engineer. I am not sure how many of you engineers out there remember the Karnaugh Map that we used to draw as part of a logical design. If I am right, its one of those things that get covered in your first year of engineering life. The K-Map assumes all the cases, then focuses on the positive cases and then disregards the cases which dont have a chance of happening. Its a very efficient design, and considering that a hardware design is limited by the options that are put in by virtue of its design, there is not much that can go wrong. Thats not the case with software. While your code might be perfect, you might have forgotten that the other layers of apps and systems that you are building on, do have serious issues and you need to complement that in your design. In very short and simple words: Software engineering is a lot more complicated, a lot more sloppy and is usually not very effective despite the best of efforts. In its defense and as one from among the same camp, i think the key is to accept it, understand it and design for it.
Coming back to you, the entrepreneur, think as to what all could possibly go wrong, all the way from the simple functions within your code, from the business processes, and with the engagement with the market and ecosystem at large. Preempt your situations and be prepared with the answers.
I am totally in love with this country and even more so lately. It’s such a proud moment to see our boys go buy out companies in europe and all over the place. I guess we are finally coming back to those glorious days when an indian company doesn’t stand for anything less than the best. India stands for something mor than just cost arbitrage, and thats definitely a proud moment.
So when you are assessing your market, observing the competition and empathizing with the user whose life you could make better to come up with a solution for the problem, keep the system in mind, that system which always manages to find itself in equibrium, have the audacity to make the claim for change, dare it, and achieve it and reach a spot so that should you ever be pulled out of the system, the equilibrium would shatter. Essentially That’s what “market share” really means. Imagine that all the iPods in the world today would disappear in a poof, the reaction you can possibly imagine in everyone who is following it like a cult.. now that’s market share. That’s perhaps the best definition for Disruptive technology – something that comes into our lives slowly, steadily and just takes over a large scale adoption in everyone’s lives that its scary to imagine a world without it.
There is also another reason why this needs to be emphasized. While there are writers, journalists, singers, artists, dancers, etc etc who all follow the creative processes and are as right brained as an entrepreneur, while they express themselves in different forms, it is only an entrepreneur who creates a world that is born out of will and imagination. It’s crucial to remember that and create a world that is big, and at the same time holistic.
So Let me go back to where it all started…
Whether you believe it or not, statistically Indian roads are one of the safest with the least number of accidents. Follow the example of the Indian driver. keep an eye on everyone who is out on the street, and find a path even amidst that crowded road. Should you want to last long in the race be a little courteous who are traveling along the same road. and Remember, Even in the chaos, equilibrium finds its way!
Further Reading: Places to Intervene in Systems