Vijay Anand | The Startup Guy.

Archive for the ‘tips’ Category

This world is supposed to be full of systems, and systems that carry inefficiencies. Entrepreneurs are in my dictionary, those that can look at those systems – ticking and clicking, and notice where and how the systems can be improved. Some are driven by their hearts and start NGOs, and others get all logical and while at it, also make some money.

In my book, entrepreneurs are those unsung heroes who get set to transform the way – hopefully for the better.

That’s quite a long topic, if we step into that world, and let me narrow it down to the aspect of understanding your end users. Time and time again, we hear phrases such as “Understand your customer” “The Customer is always right” “User-centric design” which in most cases is defined as keeping the customer, and his demands at the centre of the equation and coming up with solutions around them. Do Customers, and users… and most of all humans know of what they really need?

I think this is a crucial question to ask, because analyzing needs and the capacity for a user to pay for a service defines sustainability and in some cases survival for companies – and in this economic situation, for a whole lot of them. So what do users want? Men or Women, as they might be.

I think we have kind of oversimplified the equation at most times asking direct questions about a product. If you get into the details of a product asking questions such as “Imagine if you had an ipod, but better and cheaper, would you get it?”, the obvious answer would be a yes. What one needs to understand, especially an innovator or an entrepreneur is to understand the intangibles. How would buying that product do in terms of the pride, and show-off calibre of that person. A lot usually tends to matter. Long story short, I’d strongly recommend not to ask direct questions. The answers are always in-between the lines. If you interpret it right, you win, otherwise not. But you get better at it over time. Thats the good part.

There is a reason why I am writing this. There was a recent study that I came across that was asked to a group of single men and women as to what is it that they look for in potential spouses. The answers were all tabulated, and then they were observed over a couple of sessions of speed dates. Most of the time, the kind of people that we are “attracted” to, arent the ones that we define as our perfect spouses. And the eerie thing is that, when they did the same survey right after a date, depending of whether a candidate liked a person who didnt match their previous opinion, the answers would sway totally on the other direction. Come back to them after four more weeks and you’d get their old answers back – as the infactuation wears off.

In Summary, we arent capable of knowing what we want. Thats why B2C businesses have such a hard time understanding what their customers are looking for, what ticks, what doesnt, and what makes it all worse.

B2B businesses in that sense are slightly easier, since businesses do tend to have measured and analyzed every process in terms of metrics – either as costs, expenditures, manpower, transactions, or revenue and its all about making a number rise and one go down, and thats easier to measure and deal with.

Do keep that in the back of your head, if you are ideating. As much as customers are king, and their word is final, in most times they also don’t know what they want. You would have to do a little match-making on their behalf. And with time, you’ll get really good at it, if you like doing such things – and that’s the thrill of building a product that clicks.

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This is a wonderful time to be starting up. You will come across very few people who will give comparisons to all the benefits they get working for big corporates. Its one such time. Hiring will be slightly easier, and retaining them will be even more easier.

Even in the midst of all that, it does seem that a lot of the Startup Companies are hardpressed for resources here in India. Here’s a solution.

A few of us have been talking about putting together a centre that trains people (as blank slated as freshers) on the common technologies that people use while building products – the usual PHP, Python, AJAX, MySQL, etc etc and getting them upto speed on mashups, APIs, documentation, and moving forward. That is the level of skill that most of the startup community folks are looking for it seems. Or am I wrong here?

If I am right, then there is a simple way around it. Every chapter of OCC in the country is doing quite well. I heard from Santhosh that Pune is a 300 people group now (though I do suspect that the turn out ratio would be still less), but who knew Pune had 300 people who would be open to being part of a community right? And the same case has gone on with Bangalore, Kolkatta, Hyderabad, Chennai, Delhi, and even now and then with Mumbai.

Here’s the thought. What if in one of the OCCs a dozen of the startup companies, especially the folks who can code and code really well, commit that they will run a two month training program for people in these languages? It is going to take a bit of time and commitment, but there are a lot of resources already on the web, and with a couple of screencasts, and proper documentation, you could essentially also use it as training material for the next batch of people that you hire in your company later on.

What I am proposing is that a batch of technology entrepreneurs, each taking a week to cover different aspects of the course, could put their hands together to collaboratively solve an issue which is haunting a great many of them. Read the rest of this entry »

So I know that there are a gazillion guys out there in the whole wide world, who have given “open” advise to Yahoo as to what they should do. I am neither an expert, nor am vested into the company to have such generosity towards them 🙂

A friend of mine and I, over some conversations were discussing about some of the bigger brands that we see around us and something along the topics of Return on Equity. Not sure if you are aware of, but Microsoft has a 52% return on equity. Yahoo has roughly about 7% and falling drastically and Google has one which stands at around 26% – and growing steadily. Whatever you may say, Microsoft has played this game with a whole new set of balls and one most people simply won’t understand. And if you ask me, they are a much better company in terms of strategy and products compared to Google, anyday.

Yahoo could emerge with an edge, if they leapfrog into other verticals following the same web-based advertisement network.

Yahoo could emerge with an edge, if they leapfrog into other verticals following the same web-based advertisement network.

But that’s not the focus of this post.

The conversation was that, if a company has Advertisement as its core strength and has built a competence in it, then its going to be very hard for the company to drop that and adapt the advertising network of its partner/rival. Well, for the case of survival they might, but since they do have the core competence, the resources and the minds that can think in that direction, what could they possibly do, was the question.

Fact: Yahoo makes most of its money via advertisement, and that too on banner ads.

This becomes an issue when you have so much internet portals and properties, but just simply have to fill them with advertisements in order to make them viable. And in this day and age of APIs, nobody might even come visit the site to get hit by the advertisement. You are forced to rethink in terms of strategically placing the advertisement within the content, but thats a very very hard thing.

My Take: I think this is probably the same route as making fiber out of rocks. There might be some way to do it, but whatever it is, its one rare, long process.

I’d say, flip the coin, and lets look out to the horizon. Go after other streams, television and Radio… to be precise.

Read the rest of this entry »

If there is one vertical that you MUST follow if you want to see some drastic changes happening, its essentially the media world. The way “media” is distributed, consumed and monetized is going to such drastic morphism that its hard to predict how its going to look like at the end. Like all things natural, a few business models would evolve, but the path to that is going to be quite a bumpy one with such established heavy weights.

We’ll most certainly get into the juicy details about this vertical, partly cause I am very much interested in it, but this post is not about that.

There was once a man who said that if you are looking at change, then you must go back to the fundamentals, look at the system at its bare bone and then see how it should go from there. That’s quite a solid piece of advice actually.

So this is the irony. Whats the difference between a jingle and a track? Quite literally none. While costs money to get it “aired”, the other demands money for people to buy and listen to it. Aint that quite interesting…

There was sometime back when was doing a rough math on how many live camera streams there are. There are some that are pointed towards the “habitat” of the Loch Ness Monster, there are enough live traffic camera, and plenty of them pointed towards a birds nest or so. And if you take the example of Justin.tv (which seems to be inspired by The Truman Show), even people are willing to play their part in all this.

Ofcourse all of this is a one way broadcast. Apart from adult sites which are apparently making their niche through two way interaction, there is not much that is happening in this space.

Is there any of that, that can be adapted into the “green” scenario? A couple of light bulbs went on and off and here’s the thought (or Idea):

MMORPG
The forest department today plans thousands of saplings every year on barren lands to convert them into lush green forests, but the biggest problem with it has been the case of watering them. There is not enough manpower to do those menial tasks – at the salary that the govt is providing – and there is also the issue of accountability where all the saplings near the roadside stand straight and well watered, but the ones in the interior die away because laziness kicks in for most of these workers. They are not to be blamed either when the scorching sun is merciless on them and they are poorly prepped for all that.

The idea is to basically plant all the saplings as the forest department does and then have water drums which can be filled periodically with water from trucks (much simpler task). The pipes to the saplings will be set on drip irrigation and there will be a soil moisture sensor in the soil which measures if there is water or not. Set a Camera that overlooks this area, connect it to the Internet and create a frontend to a MMORPG (Massively Multi-user Online Role Playing Game). If that’s too much of an acronym, think Second Life. People can “adopt” grids of these fields and take care of them. All they have to do is, once the soil moisture turns a bit low, hit the buttons that will start the drip irrigation and stop them when the moisture level is optimal.

There are already countless number of such “events” that happen in Second Life, where if one plants a sapling in the virtual world, an organization instead plants one in the real world somewhere. This would just be an extension of that.

Now, technically you can take this to the next level. Think of all the Wild Life Sanctuaries. The biggest problem today is Poachers (I am still worried if I have to show stuffed toys of Tigers as our National Animal to my kids someday), and the forest officers are not nearly paid enough to scout the areas – and they are very ill armed to protect themselves from these animals as well. What if we could setup a range of Wifi cameras, stream the videos and let people monitor them. I’m sure there are enough animal activists around the world that some might even take it up while we sleep. All they would have to do is to hit a button which will alert the officer if a Poacher is spotted. And give the front end the control to click a snap if they want to document something and we might capture poachers and exotic wildlife as souvenirs.

I think finally, and its about time that the conscious of having to go green is kicking in. And we are gonna have to do everything – not just to sustain – but positively influence this planet to make it sustainable and even stay on the existential path. Maybe entrepreneurship, technology and the enthusiasm of the global audience can create a network of Global Watchers, to take care of the assets around us – All this while getting to “play” their roles.

Startup Entrepreneurs are oodles of Fun to work with. Perhaps its that drive within them to change things, and the paranoia of taking on a bigger industry which adds to all that. As hectic as it could be, its nothing short of exhilarating – I seem to be gasping for breathe during the slow times for sure.

So the point is speed. Its a crucial element. I think its the first criteria anyone looks at to evaluate and measure the strength of an entrepreneur. “Fire in the belly” “passion”, are all just variables of the same thing being described, I’d say.

I think the second most crucial aspect when it comes to that is the accuracy – The quality of implementation so to speak.

I wanted to briefly write about this, for a couple of reasons. There are quite a bit of early stage ventures out there – almost 2000 of them at any given point in time, and the truth of the matter is that less than 10% of them survive the first two years. That’s a lot of enterprises dying out. And if you really look at it, what stands as foremost in the list of reasons is the lack of guidance in terms of implementation and execution that counts towards it.

There are this couple of folks who are in the back of my mind (Who are part of the incubator) while I am writing this, and I am wondering if they would survive out there in the world, if not for day to day guidance. Probably not is what i’d say.

In a recent discussion with some investors, the enlightening moment was when someone made the statement that ‘investment is pretty much rocket fuel. It’ll help you go faster, dont know where though”. And I think there is more than an ounce of truth in that matter. Investments, especially money will accelerate the direction that you are aiming for – and God help you if you are aimed at the wrong direction looking at the wall, because the thud will just be that much louder. And as much as everyone claims that they will provide support, guidance and all that, ping me whenever that really does happen.

The truth of the matter is that early stage ventures require almost a weekly review meet. That’s essentially the time period when the company is accelerating and the strategy starts to fall in place. In three months (between board meetings), the company would have gone so off the tracks that it would take years before you can bring it back on track – and dont complain if that window of opportunity you were chasing, isnt there.

So if you are an early stage venture and someone promises you guidance, demand that the minimum guidance you require is one where he/she is available to you any time of the day, and will meet with you for atleast an hour once in a week or fortnight. Its crucial to be accurate when you are racing like a cheetah to take down the elephants.

If you are an advisor, I would suggest sitting with the team in the beginning and doing a brainstorm of all the possibilities in terms of directions, products, market trends and potential exits (its good to think of that distant tunnels). If a company has no scope of going IPO on its own, but will just create a whirlwind of an opportunity and spin to be part of another company, I dont think there is anything wrong with that – and having that clarity will make a lot of difference, because you start focusing on strategic partnerships much more intently.

So coming back to the advisor. Do one elaborate meeting – which you can continue to hold during every three months, and in the meantime meet every two weeks or so and talk about everything that goes towards that. Revenues, Morale, productivity, Team, partners – everything. Jot down all the questions, and start working out possible solutions. The percentage of solution creation is what should shift slowly – starting off with the mentor contributing the most, to a half and half to a point where the mentor just listens and corrects if something goes terribly wrong, and letting the entrepreneur take the helm. You gotta teach them to fish at somepoint Mister!

So Run, as fast as you could. Also make sure you are running in the right direction and doubly make sure that there is infact a door on that wall, and its open.

Question: I am interested in starting my own venture and have been doing the groundwork for it. I currently work for a company, but would like to do the pilot run while still holding my day job and as the venture stabilizes, take the plunge fulltime. What would you suggest?

Dear X,

There are a couple of ways to do this and a few things to keep in mind.

1. Usually all job offers have this clause that you have to solely focused on the job you are hired for at your primary workplace. Hence usually taking up another offer or even a consultancy (even if the employer may never find out) is done by getting a letter of permission allowing the employee to be involved with other things.

a) Though this is not required, it gets you a lot of brownie points with your employer, just for the sheer honesty. As much as Proto.in does not interfere with any of the activities of what I do here in the incubation centre – but only enhances it – I still wrote a mail asking for permission and to let folks know that i am involved in something. They go easy on me whenever proto.in is around the corner.

The point: Keep everyone informed so that they can give their support in whatever manner that they could.

2. If you are going to do this as a proprietary thing, then even step 1 wont help, cause its assumed that you are fulltime with the venture – when you are the 100% shareholder and the guy running operations. So what some folks do is register the company in the name of the spouse – if she is not employed, or if her employment contract is not so stringent.

3. One thing to keep in mind is something called the corporate veil. When a company becomes a ‘corporation’ it becomes an entity by itself, that even the founder is nothing more than an employee in it. Because of that structure, if the company goes down under, it still doesnt take the founders along with it – nor their assets, since they were just employees. But there are cases when they consider the corporate veil to be broken, which would be when the personal assets of the founder are mixed up with the assets of the company and in such cases, the founder can be sued – if in the future the venture gets funded and things go awry.

I don’t mean to scare you, but just giving you a heads up on all the things involved.

I would suggest:

1. Go ahead and register the company – if you are sure you want to do this venture.
2. This would be the time to bring onboard some advisors and get them involved in the venture – since there has to be a minimum of two directors to incorporate the firm
3. Get the permission from your current job to be involved.
4. Keep going with that setup, till you are comfortable making the flip – hopefully which wont be too far away.
5. During the process of step 4, at some point your venture will possibly take enough time out of you as your day job. Do talk to the management to perhaps transition into a part-time role if possible. Its good to stay clear with your conscience.

I hope that helps.

Vijay


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