Vijay Anand | The Startup Guy.

Posts Tagged ‘startups

There are only a whole total of 14 tasks that need to be done before the event,and given the capable team that we have this time, and the sheer level of enthusiasm flowing, I dont see that to be a problem. The core team from Chennai, Bangalore, and other places are starting to fly in into Delhi starting tomorrow – Our flight leaves in exactly another four hours. The team is busy getting their laptops on datacards so that we can still remain effective, even on the go. We are prepped, geared and all ready for it.

What did didn’t expect is the sheer push of some magical moment that has happened within the community to attend the event. we are nearing 400 attendees for the event, and that’s a “significant” jump from the 250 that we had last time – and trust me when I say that I am genuinely surprised. I always thought that the southern states were more entrepreneur-centric. I suppose it takes a good shot to really prove and debunk theories and myths as well.

In the following two days I am going to be writing to you to prep you to help set some expectations and in terms of some of the activities that we are planning at the event. The Innovation brainjam on the second day is something I am personally looking forward to. The credit goes to Amit Somani of Google, who threw open this open-ended way of brainstorming that they practice at google and as we pondered over the possibility of doing that in a conference. It should be loads of fun.

If you are a blogger by any means are a little rusty, this is the time to sharpen your skills. It’s going to be a liveblogging marathon this time, and we even have a surprise for the best live-blogged summary of the event. If you are the logical, knowledgeable one, well take heed. The quizzes are there to die for. I’m sure you’ve enjoyed the quizzes on the blog, and you’ll see more of it live in action, and as random teams come together to compete.

We are still looking for folks to take up various activities (If you are a good photographer, do let us know). So if you would like to help volunteer, the mailing list for the same is the first place to start, Have fun, keep your heads up high, and as we get together, let the voice that we always echo, echo once more – may the startups win!

PS: We’ll mostly be lurking around the venue starting tommorrow. Feel free to drop by and say hello. We do take encouragement in terms of homemade cookies too 😛 – Just kidding.

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I’m convinced that we are doing something wrong.

During a conversation with someone who has experience beyond my age, on how the product landscape in India is evolving, he smiled, took the time to coin his words (into something more politically correct) and said, “Nobody is really changing the rules of the game. Everyone is looking to make a quick buck”. When I met Subho Roy of IAMAI a few weeks back, he pretty much resonated with that and almost let out the frustration saying “This is all turning into a valuation game. Where are the days of building solid businesses?” Is there something wrong with that? Thats what I am hoping we can discuss, argue and debate about here.

It’s that time of the year for Proto.in – got barely a month to go and usually this is the time when we are finalizing all the companies and lining up the speakers for the Fastrack Sessions. We are talking about… How to sell, as a Startup? Not how to sell-out, more like how to sell your products and make revenue. There is much that seems to be obscure in the land of the startup community with so much millions and trillions discussed about – especially the size of the VC firm’s wallet.

I have been touching base with a fair slew of guys who have natively built and sold products here in India. Tally is one such company that I got in touch with and the response I got really got me thinking – because it resonates with what Mr. Experienced told me before. He wasn’t sure if he could make it to the event since he has travel plans, but left with a note saying “I wonder if people are ready to hear the heartache of building a business over 18 years. It might even depress a startup.”

Lets not make a mistake here saying that Tally just didn’t hit it right. Do you know how long it took for Bose to become a double digit million dollar making company? More than a decade. There is a joke within circles that Bose would be a bad company in a VC’s portfolio. Infosys took 25 years to attain maturity and go public. Look at Wipro. Look at Microsoft. The list is endless.

Arguably so, there is a compression in the age of the entrepreneur, the pace at which modern businesses move and grow, and it certainly has shortened, but has it also shortened the lifespans of the company?

I strongly believe that as a startup entrepreneur, the wrong person to meet is a VC. Keep in touch with him, listen to them, and get your due diligence out of them, but when it comes to business models, ignore what they have to say. They are going to want you to make revenue from day one. And the process to do that is to have an opportunistic view and that unfortunately is always short lived. Forget revenues. Forget business models. Identify the need. Understand your customers. Understand what the market is evolving towards. Then its upto you to perceive those needs and demands and formulate the solution and figure out the price discovery as to how much your customers would cough up to get that handed to them in a platter.

Instead, if you go to an investor much earlier on, on your toddler days when you should be focusing on growing, having fun and enjoying the time speaking mumbo jumbo with your peers and playing hide and seek, you’ll be wrapped in a straightjacket or in a war suit and sent to battle the mammoths of the battlefield. The end of that is not rocket science to figure out. But trust me, a kid in the middle of a battlefield will be sensational story – and trust me you will get the attention of a whole lot of folks. You just wont last long enough.

I’ll nitpick on one industry. The Travel Industry. If you go and pitch to anyone saying that you are working in the Travel Industry they are going to shun you thinking that you are the next travel portal claiming the cheapest price on the web. It has unfortunately come to that. But do you know how much inefficiencies are still there in the travel industry? The issues with checking in, tracking baggages, and even the legacy systems that they have to manage the passengers inside the terminal – the systems are really not keeping up with the explosion in traffic. Buying a cheap ticket is the least of the worries as of now. How many of you know of Sabre? They are pretty much the underlying platform behind the entire air fleet management and PNR systems worldwide. They are big, which means they are probably scared of radical change. Tell me what they are missing out on, what of that is adding to the woes of the traveller, and fix that.

I remember recently when I was talking to a publishing media about a recent magazine that they had launched. This is a magazine which is focused for entrepreneurs – and its quite well known by now. The magazine house has defined a period of five years for them to break even. I asked the man at the helm if the print industry had such a slow uptake. He responded saying “we break even in 14 months, but we’d rather make the investments in the first couple of years towards a solid start”. He made sense. Lots of sense.

How you lay the foundations for your empire matter. There is a parable in the bible about a man who build his house on the rock, and one that built it on sand. The way the house came up, obviously had a difference since the one on sand required much less work and it was all upwards, but when the rain came down, it showed which one was a much solid refuge to live in.

I think, err believe that startups should have fun. Build something people want, and build it having fun and in a way that you are passionate about. I am strongly against working 18 hours a day and racing against time to catch the wave. My most favorite teacher in school always said that it was much easier to fish in a calm ocean than in the middle of a hurricane. Ideas, concepts and the clarity of mind to execute are all luxuries that you can only enjoy in a calm ocean.

So tell me, if you were absolutely passionate about something and want to totally change the rules of the game of an industry, and would want your name to live on for years to come, what would you do? Think about it… take your time… ah, thats what you should be doing. Not living on Instant noodles. Let me tell you what, lets sit down with some candlelight, under the clear skies, and treat ourselves to gourmet – slightly tedious, painful and takes more time, but I tell ya, its totally worth it. What say ye?

I have seen this cycle happen over and over again. There would be a set of guys who’d be around in most barcamps and social circles and someday they’d decide to start a company, and eventually build a product that’d gain quite a bit of traction from the “first adopters” that you find in barcamps, MoMos etc and then the worst thing happens – they get funded.

I have stats that show that more than 80% of companies whose growth and traction flatten out after getting funded by a VC firm. I’m asking myself the question if the founders were such shrewed and capable executioners that they planned the entire stunt just so that the popularity lasts till they get funded – but I doubt thats the case. So what then?

I came across a note where someone mentioned that people who get funded barely go back to the social circles after that. Partly cause those circles disown them because of whatever has happened to them. VC funding is not the golden egg, its more of the long-term, high interest, loan that is given to a company hoping that it would make it big, but for most folks getting funded is the end goal and such folks starts treating companies that have gotten funding as if they are Cinderella’s step sisters. The welcome is not there anymore, and there is no reason for these founders to go back to those circles anymore. They retire to the boring life of going out to meet peeps in baristas and coffee days where more pleasantries are exchanged than the actual meaning or weight of words.

This is actually very bad news. For the funded startup its very much so cause these early adopters essentially have dropped a baby on its head, just when someone agreed that it had potential. For the rest of the community, its also very bad since its a loss of a resource who probably had figured out how things work here and most certainly had knowledge worth sharing.

If you think I am just randomly spewing out stuff, I’ll make the entire point with one reference. J’lo’s single titled “I’m still Jenny from the Block”. That pretty much drives the point across. When your folks on the block are essentially who your early adopters are, and they disown you, it becomes radically hard for your company to survive without burning hard cold cash to see if someone would take you in for some cash in return. In the language of the hood, there is no love from the brothers no more.

I for one think that VC firms should stop advertising the amount they invested. Startups that get funded should make this a mandatory point with their investors. I know quite a few firms, like Ixigo for example who have gotten funding, yet not knowing the amount keeps things quiet, calm and life still goes on. Take any company that you know of [ and probably hate ], saying millions have been funded and crazy things like that and all of a sudden I am wondering if someone “deserves” that sorta valuation. Everybody thinks or says it out loud that its unfair and a lot of enmity grows in this little pool for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

Some companies would claim that announcing the investment amount adds credibility that will get you clients. Who are we really kidding? When you are small you need to embrace your brotherhood close to your heart and they will be your first set of customers whether you like it or not. An enterprise is a hard sell and probably is only worth aiming at when you are looking at your second round. If it happens, I’d be extremely happy but do be prepared to know and realize that your first set of customers are all folks you know, startups and SMEs. By the second round, you’d have grown to a much different positioning and would also have the strength to stand on your feet that you’d survive, and also would have weaned off the support system by then.

Until then, make no mistake, you need your community and the community needs you. Some things being in secret will make that happen.

Note: The media loves to flaunt numbers. So if you are not going to disclose numbers, don’t be surprised if they don’t run your story. Its okay, they too need to evolve, understand and adapt.

So this is how the evolution of services have been. First there were services which could not be expanded all over the place because the cost of rolling them out was huge. Take the case of banking services, telecom etc – it was not a simple task. Only the elite, socially rich could afford them because the prices were pretty much affordable only for those classes.

Then came software, commoditization of software and hardware and technology radically paved way for mass distribution of services everywhere and anywhere at a fraction of a cost.

The current stance is essentially is personalization. Not only is one demanding that they be serviced, but is also demanding that be serviced in a manner that suits them. Its the trend of the season and its gonna be here for a little while – bringing along with it, its own set of problems solutions and cause for change.

The timing that has been coincided with the proliferation of individual voices such as blogging, twittering etc have given this “personal me” a tremendous voice and power than ever before. It was said not too long ago, that the amount of noise that was created when AT&T blacked out a few years ago, is equivalent to the noise that is created when Robert Scoble or someone makes a comment on twitter these days. I am not surprised.

So what does this all mean? Two things. You have to ensure that you not only personalize and tailor make service for everyone, but you also have to keep them happy.

I am a little worried about our Indian companies in this space though. For one, lets take the example of the Telecom Giant Airtel. They have essentially become the 800 pound gorilla in the telecom space after they beat BSNL and just about everyone else in the way they’ve handled their branding, kept their market presence and with their customer support. But I’ve noticed something – a minor detail. I am on a prepaid Airtel account. I got a plan when some really strange offer was going on and i’ve kinda stuck to it – partly cause I see my colleagues struggling to keep up with running to the Airtel office every month to pay their bills. I really wish Airtel would do something along the lines of send a person to collect bills, atleast for those under a corporate banner. It would be a showstealer initiative. But coming back to the topic, I am on a prepaid account since its easier to recharge wherever you are, and my account doesn’t get disconnected on the note of not paying the bills in time. The occassional times that my credit does run low, I get this Interactive voice response unit which mentions that my account balance is low, and while it tries to fetch the balance remaining, it plays a tune saying “The feature is currently not functioning and is undergoing maintenance. We kindly request you to call after 6am tomorrow morning”. I heard that same note a year to six months ago. And I also have been hearing the same message from other users as well.

So, case in point. Airtel can’t manage the details. Perhaps its right that they don’t bid to go buy out south african companies yet. Not that reliance is any better. It’s also sad cause ever since Vodafone stepped in, Hutch which was the underdog, has become the bulldog of the turf and a few days ago there was a news that a fair bit of the top airtel executives were exiting. It’s a bit of sad news for an Indian company actually to get beaten up by Vodafone like this.

It doesn’t stop with them. I do have an account with Standard chartered and you wouldn’t believe some of the things they do, and expect people to walk away not noticing 🙂 They are one the slowest banks in terms of any service and charge for just about everything. But the state of all banks are as such here in India as of now. There is not much to say in comparison to anything better. Maybe HSBC and ICICI are fairly okay in that perspective. There is a company named Vyasa which was featured in proto.in which was exactly working towards this goal in the banking sector – to enable large banks to still mine data and provide customer friendly service.

This is where startups could thrive. Personalization and personal services are key to winning the heart of a customer. It’s crucial, nay a survival strategy for startups to understand and represent that attitude.

So lets say a startup does understand and embrace it, and grows to become fairly large. How does one still ensure that they keep that personal touch? I oft keep repeating that there is so much to learn from other sectors. In this case, the answer is very simple. Look into the case study of Mariott Hotels. The entire hotel was based on the ideology of offering a home away from home. They’ve scaled and expanded and yet kept that philosophy alive. Kingfisher in many aspects also embraces the same philosophy and it has become part of its branding. When you merge your core vision of setting your priorities as part of the branding of your organization, it becomes something much powerful than you can imagine.

Try it.

Create. Collaborate. Contribute. I think that’s pretty much the Mantra for the next step of Technology innovation for this country. Whoever came up with those three words must have been a genius 😛

All Jokes aside, those three words actually do sum up everything that we need in this place to build something that lasts and climbs up the ladder in terms of positioning in the global space.

Let me get to the concrete stuff. The Create, Collaborate and Contribute aspects first of all represent the Entrepreneurs, Industry and Investor Community and the Talent Pool. You could call them the three main facets of the innovation ecosystem – Idea. Money/Support. Talent. You have this in place – which is the bare essential – and the rest becomes fairly easier to manage.

There is also a second level of interaction in all this: The Collaborate bit. More than what I could ever say, Atul’s Talk at Proto.in on what it takes to be a technology leader summed it up. If we want to even dream about getting to a point where we can dare take down some of the assumed leaders, we are gonna have to make a leapfrog in terms of how we think, evolve, develop and innovate. The crucial aspect in achieving that leapfrog will come from collaborating.

To Quote Atul on This:

If a country has to be seen as a technology leader, it would mean that its not in the sum, or the various companies like Infosys or Wipro who do well, and hence decide whether India is seen as a technology leader, but its more than that. It is essentially how various companies interact, how they leverage the resources of each other, rather than each company reinvent the wheel. If you have a strength in a particular area, and someone else in another – rather than sitting in corners and reinventing the wheel, collaborate. The minute you start doing that, you become bigger than the sum of your parts. If you start doing this in a national level, thats when people start to sit up and take notice of a leader.

I think engaging with the Startups, and the need for Proto.in to bring them all under a common umbrella extends beyond just having the thrill of seeing the energy flow in the corridors of such meets. This is the first time in our history, after a long time, that we are in a position to set standards. This is the first time in a really long time that we are focused on building products and solutions, understanding the needs of the market. And as an entire community of “product centric” companies, it is this generation of startups that will define the next W3C, or GSM equivalent here in India to set the standards. Today we are mere consumers in the underlying technologies that power us. We build, but we build on top of what has already been defined by other markets. In a conversation with Veerchand Bothra, the man behind the MoMo movement in India, I was telling him the exact same words : “No longer do we have to say that we do not have the talent. No longer can we say that we dont have the subscriber base – we are one of the largest subscriber base for the mobile market and growing in the internet space. If we want to define something as to our whim, desire and convenience, we should be able to”.

If we really want to enable regional language SMS, embed regional fonts so that we can natively send them over air – rather than encoding on end devices like how its done – and we do come to this realization that we will need to define an SMS standard with 150 characters instead of the 140 that the world follows, just tell me… who stops us from doing it?

Collaborate, goes a little more than just companies collaborating. It goes to a systematic way of developing on top of what our peers are working on, building on our niches and strengths to deliver a unified platform that is extensible and available for all to use. If you need to think in terms of something which is already out there in the world, think of how the YUI came into place. Think of how the Ruby on Rails framework came into place. Someone developed it, someone else extended it, and a whole lot of people use it. Think about it from the Mobile, internet, and a much larger platform, and you’ll understand that the sum can truly be more than the greater than the parts. We’ve barely gotten there and when we do, there is much more fascinating things that we can expect.

Notes:
There is a Telecom Professionals Group that is already in place which brings together some extremely talented folks in the telecom space to collaborate, share and build on that. Building standards is part of their agenda.

Navjot Pawera was spearheading an Internet Standards Team, and it had quite a bit of response. Will update soon with more details on that.
Update: The name is Gurugeeks. More Info here.

Rajiv Poddar started this group named Voice of VoIP right after the barcamp bangalore sessions with some of the hurdles in the VoIP Space. That’s quite an active group as of now. You can join the group here.

Any other Standards and Technology Collaboration Development teams that you are aware of?

Social Networks are the way to the future. Ah, I can see people getting ready with pitchforks to nail me to the wall, but lets hear this out.

There is this basic ideology. The paradox of the masses. Whenever at any given network the number of members become too huge, the system starts to break down. It happened with all other social networks, it happened with the internet before that, it happened with ICQ, it happened with Orkut, and it will happen with Facebook. Lets take the case of Orkut, and with a much more real life example to follow it. Orkut was great till it was reference based, and then case the day when it was opened up to everyone and then the masses came in and so did the “frandship” requests. Long story short, I deleted my account in Orkut and am hiding in Facebook till that eventual doom also arrives at the door step of Facebook.

I think this is the logical thing that is going to happen to facebook. Imagine that you are part of an elite club such as the Lion’s club (if it is elite enough) or lets take the Madras Club (known for its elitism) and you were part of the elite 50 and you knew everyone who was part of the club. Most of the members in that club enjoy that lifestyle and keep it closed for the very nature that they dont want to democratize it. Lets say that they do, what is going to happen is that there will be 300+ people flowing in, soon you realize that you dont very much “belong”.

In the first order of things of all creatures, the necessity to belong is a crucial one. When that starts to erode, everything starts to fall apart. In my visual imagination, its like a tower that rises and rises, till it eventually starts to crumble under its own weight and falls apart, that smaller networks start to arise out of the ashes of the parent.

All this is to state one thing. The future of social networks is one where there will be niche verticals that will get created for various things. Imagine meetups with a social networking aspect and that is what will happen. Now this is happening in some level with Ning . But the issue with Ning is two fold. One it cant get out of the domain name of Ning.com (which can be easily fixed), and the other is the fact that I need to recreate the membership everytime. What if I create a new “community” pretty much like what we do inside orkut or Facebook, but outside of the walled garden?

So the future is pretty much a case where there will be skeleton frameworks available so that one can give it the look, and theme it to what they want, all the way from Mac Cultists, to Cricket Fans to whatever one fancies, and the social linkages will be drawn out of Opensocial. Using the linkages one can easily pass on how one’s friend is part of a new network and can draw out a larger easily accessible audience for each of these interest groups.

Now comes the fancy bit. Each of the these verticals will need to be monetized to be sustainable. And just as facebook has Beacon, there is a need for a Unplugged beacon which can power these networks and make these initiatives sustainable. Given that they will be such a niche target area, getting an audience of say 40,000 – 60,000 for each genre would be fairly simple and would make for a very focused approach for these marketers and advertisers. There will be new ways and means of delivering the content, message and engaging those audiences.

There is most certainly an opportunity to tap here, especially as we start to see eCommerce on the rise in emerging markets with such staggering numbers.

It’s a darn good time to be an entrepreneur in India – but only if you know whats available to you. I have been coming across a whole lot of resources that are available to an entrepreneur today, that you perhaps are not aware of.

The beauty about growing a startup or an SME is that the right set of tools really can make a whole lot of difference. Here are some tools that are sure to make your day.

Indian SME Toolkit: This is perhaps the holy grail of everything that you ever need. The initiative launched by ICICI, IFC and IBM has a host of templates for everything you need for running a startup or SME. Let me give you an example. There are close to a hundred plus templates on just invoices. Yep, you are going to need that to bill your customer, and when it does happen *fingers crossed* you wouldn’t have to ask around as to what all needs to go into it.

Zoho Apps: This is still the one stop place for most things that you ever need when it comes to tools for CRM, Project management, Collaborative work process, etc etc.

DimDim: I am sure that you notice all those high-flying corporates to be doing videoconferencing, desktop sharing and all those snazzy stuff. DimDim gives it to you at a price you can afford – for free. There were some minor reliability issues when I last tried it, from the revamp of the site and the positioning, I expect that that should be fixed by now.

TeamViewer: If you are collaborating remotely, and want to take over the computer of your counterpart to whiff up a rapid prototype for the UI, or show something, Teamviewer is an option. It pretty much looks like a desktop sharing app, but am hearing good reviews about it. Alternative Option: Citrix GotoMeeting

Weebly: While you are scrambling to put together your team, setup appointments with your auditors, and do those lineup of interviews and run around in unconferences, you probably dont want your website and domain looking dull. Weebly is one quick way to cough up a website which will keep the plate warm, till you have the time to get there.

Basecamp: Project Management, and the first name you ever and only need to utter is Basecamp. ActivCollab is a similar downloadable version which you can host in your own server. FogBugz is another option.

Skype: When it comes to interacting within the team, and at times even with outsiders, Skype wins hands down. Get some of those Skypeout minutes and I am told that the audio quality improves – not sure how much of it is true though.

Google Talk: For times when you dont want to hear the other person’s voice, but just want to touch base on and off, Gtalk is your friend. You dont want to rely on Skype for its messaging – at times the message gets lost in oblivion and comes back.

Financial Planning: I am told that TurboCash – Free Accounting Software (Though all that you need initially are some well done excel workbooks, and Wesabe are good options to look into to setup the financial processes quickly. You might want to run the final list through your local auditor though. Things change so fast in this scene that you dont want to take a chance in being wrong.

Shopify: You need to setup an ecommerce site and the going rate to build one with any freelancing community can be quite high. The even worse part is that you still don’t know whether what you are building will work, and you want to iterate quickly keeping your costs low. Shopify is a step towards that. It seems that most folks there have permanently stuck on to that, since the platform does give you a great commercial feel.

Freshbooks: Do you know the pain of sending invoices to your clients and keeping track of it? Most of all, the time when the lack of professionalism shows is when you are trying to keep that time of your interaction where money is involved as clean as possible. Freshbooks is an awesome tool and service for that. Highly recommended and I’ve gotten a few of my startups on it, and they are loving it. Blinksale is another option.

Campaign Monitor: Most of you guys are on the webspace. Which also mean that you send out a lot of mailers asking people to sign up for stuff. Let me be honest: Most of them look darn ugly that my first impression plummets, never to sign up for that service. Campaign Monitor is one good way to get such snobby customers onboard. Plus, I believe it offers a nice way to track responses.

FaxitNice: For those of you whoever are, or when your customers insist to live in the 90s day and age of faxes.

More to Follow…

Relevant Read: The Absolute Startup Essentials Series.

Credits:
Tools for Bootstrappers – Anjana Vivek
Setting up a Low-cost conference Room – Amit Ranjan


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