Ugliness level is definitely a subjective criteria. But I can take liberty in generalizing it in the similar way we generalize beauty. Website of Apple is beautiful, Reddit is ugly. If you agree, we are on the same page. Till few months back, design aesthetics was one of the primary consideration I had before working on any application. But then things changed with a simple understanding – the beauty of a website or an application is not always relevant to its functionality. And then there are live examples – Amazon.com, Reddit.com, Coolmath.com, Craiglist.com, berkshirehathaway.com, HackerNews and to some extend Facebook. Also Tally (accounting software), Google docs and Wikipedia.
Unless, the purpose of an application itself is to look good, which can be a good purpose for selling say lifestyle products, it need not be aligned with a good-looking website. If the purpose is to increase sales, the primary design decisions should be derived from the sales metrics. Amazon would have come with their design after millions of split testings and optimizations. If the purpose is engagement, that should be the primary purpose and Facebook is a good example. Coolmath website conveys that they are not marketing their products and probably their target customer is more comfortable with using such website. Similarly Reddit and HackerNews meet all the test in usability and functionality for their target audience, the look and feel does not matter.
A nice look and feel of your application or website is neither a necessary condition nor a sufficient condition. Aligning it with the purpose is more important. And the only way to do it is using real metrics based on user testing. What looks cool or beautiful can serve no purpose and your target audience might not care about it.
ClickTale tracks the user experience on website and helps in improving the user experience and conversion rates. Userfly is another alternative and I am sure there would be many such services available. These services track the mouse moves, clicks, scrolls etc and create videos of customers’ browsing experience. The heat maps generated can also help in making some important design decisions.
We use Clickdesk to provide live chat service on our website. Being a consumer service company it helps us in having inbound interaction with our users. We have multiple ways in which users can reach us – feedback form, email, phone number and live chat – and it seems that users prefer live chat more than anything. The experience has been good so far if we discount the irrelevant or junk messages we get sometime (no fault of Clickdesk).
Intercom is clean and simple CRM for tracking users and communicating with them. Intercom helps us to know when our users log in and to message them inside the app itself. It is not very feature heavy application but the its simplicity makes us always logged on to it in spite of having our won in-house CRM system.
After trying out tens of tools, Workflowy was an end to the search of a good project management tool. Like Intercom, it’s the simplicity of Workflowy that makes it so usable and worthy of occupying one permanent tab in my browser. A to-do list can grow to be very complex, specially for startup teams since there is too much multi-tasking (and lot of things to do!). Fortunately, there is workflowy that makes all the lists look simple. “One list to rule them all”, rightly quoted in Lifehacker. With simple collaboration tools, now it is not just a personal to-do list.
My earlier post covered tools from Google but I missed out this one. There are many other A/B testing tools available but nothing beats “free service” for startups running on shoe string budget. Google website optimizer helps in split testing landing pages or other important pages in web app. Sometimes, taking empirical is better than taking decisions based on past experiences or gut feeling.
For creating a good “launching soon” page. We used this to create a launching soon page for our QnA platform and it saved us lot of time by not worrying about hosting, css, html etc.
When we set up the fan page for Eduflix, I did not know about Wildfire or Wildfire-like services. It took almost a day or half a day to create a welcome page. This time could have been easily saved had we known that there are services to create such pages. Wildfire came in handy when we redesigned the welcome page [although now we don’t have any welcome page]
For creating the landing pages and A/B testing the pages. We have around 10 landing pages for our website and creating a new page and creating variants to split test it always take up lot of extra work. Although we havent used it yet, in future we plan to use some service like Unbounce to make this process faster.
This completes the list as of now. Would love to hear more about such services that can speed up processes in a startup.
After writing this post, I realized that all the tools discussed above are for marketing. In part 3 of this series, I will cover technologies and frameworks that can be used in product development.
It has been a year I have been a full-time entrepreneur. Like any other entrepreneur I have had my share of peaks and troughs, the latter more than the former. We, as a startup, also made lot of good decisions and several mistakes. In the hindsight, it is always easy to rationalize our acts but it is equally important to analyze and learn from success as well as mistakes. Here are some lessons I can think of –
Product-market fit is more important than creating processes for scaling up: So you are driving fast to reach your destination, but what if the way you chose is itself wrong? Startups like ours face a lot of uncertainty. There are hundreds of things that can go wrong. Sometimes, we spent a lot of time in thinking about [and doing] things like creating the cheapest delivery service or increasing the size of the team. These things are definitely needed but concentrating on these things unless you are sure that your product will work is just like driving fast at the risk of choosing the wrong way. Scaling up, setting up most optimized delivery processes etc can be de-prioritized over quick validation whether the product will really work.
You cannot find answers in meetings: We also spent a lot of time in discussing about the right markets, product features, business models, ideas etc. We also felt disappointed lot of times when we were not able to find the right answers to our questions. One thing that I learnt is that no matter how much you research or read, there is no alternative to test your hypothesis. So instead of finding answers in the meetings, we should discuss more about tests that can be done as quickly as possible to get the answers.
There are two type of tasks in a startup: Any task in a startup can be classified into two parts – customer-centric tasks and non-customer centric tasks. Although all tasks in a business are customer-centric since the primary objective of business is to create a customer. I define customer-centric tasks as only those tasks that are directly related to customer – be it sales, support, customer feedback, product delivery etc. While non-customer centric tasks are indirectly related to customers – setting processes, server benchmarking, designing visiting cards, stationary, making perfect facebook page etc. Now when I look back, we spent a lot of time on non-customer centric tasks. While these wer also important but some of these could have been conveniently postponed for later time after customer-centric tasks were taken care of.
You cannot do too many things at the same time: There was a time when we were considering 3 to 4 business models and working on all of them simultaneously. This testing was required to understand the market better but being a small team, it took a big toll on our mind share. Then there are growth models – we worked on multiple of them at the same time. I think it would have been lot better had we experimented with one model at a time and ingested the learning going forward.
You should measure the right metrics: Numbers that look very encouraging can start looking very depressing if looked from different perspective. It can also be vice versa. And if you are making decisions based on these numbers seen from a wrong perspective, it can have serious repercussions. We were lucky enough not to fall for any vanity metrics [ for eg. 10K FB fans or 800 registrations etc]. We are also trying to come up with right metrics to measure our business.
Not hiring is better than hiring mediocre people: At least not when you are starting up. We were lucky to get really awesome people and it was great to see how much they were able to contribute considering the zilch experience they had. On the other hand we also made couple of mistakes – hiring unfit people. The worst part here is not the monetary cost to company but the amount of mindshare and overheads involved in keeping them in sync with the company’s culture and business objectives.
Things that you think are important may mean nothing to customer: So we designed a cool feature in our product, we discussed about it for hours and we were happy about it. Then customer says “oh ok” or doesn’t even notice it. I think by middle of the year, we started to realize, to some extent, what matters to our target customer and what does not. We might be still biased about it but now we are aware about this bias. Our customers are not “us” and hence what we think is cool does not matter to business. And to add to this, what customer says is not necessarily what customer wants and it’s the latter that matters more. Fortunately, we did not make many mistakes in investing heavily on unwanted product features.
And the biggest of them all – There are some things you will learn only by doing, sometimes learning the hard way. You can read hundreds of books or get advice from many wise people, you cannot learn swimming unless you jump in water. Before starting, if I were given objective type questions to answer based on the above points, I would have answered most of these according to what I have learnt now. But it would have been like knowing the theory of freestyle or backstroke swimming – which is almost worthless.
[These views are biased on what I think and it may be or may not be different from what my company, team or cofounder thinks. Also there is high probability that I will have to unlearn some of these in next few years because these will be not applicable in different settings]
It has been 8 months since the academic session started. Baluram has not yet paid the school fees for his three sons and one daughter and now he is requesting the school principal if he can pay it in kind – he has no money but has just harvested wheat and he can drop a part of his harvest at principal’s house. The principal has no idea what he would do with 100kg wheat – it would not even cover 25% cost of education he is imparting to four of Baluram’s kids. But he has no option – neither can he throw Baluram’s kids out of school nor can he reject this offer.
This incident is not new for Mr. Ravindra Sharma, also popularly known as Pappu Bhaiyya. In 16 of his life in educating rural kids, he has come across many such cases. Ravindra Sharma started Vyankat Vidhya Vihar, named in the memory of his father, 16 years back with his wife Maya Sharma in a rented house with just two rooms and 20 students. Before this school, the kids in his village had only two options – go to government school 5 km away with highly questionable quality of education or drop out and start helping their families in making livelihood.
Today, Ravindra and Maya Sharma educate more than 480 students till class 8th with students coming from around 15 surrounding villages. Around 60% of students are from farming community, rest are from tribal areas with occupations like digging, pottery, sweeping and – hold your breath – stealing. Ravindra and Maya Sharma have been trying to provide a high quality education to these kids at just under Rs 100 per month and may I say, they are trying really hard. Two years back Maya had to send her husband off for 6 months to do some other job and make some money for the family; they have a son and mom to take care of. Ravindra sold pesticides for 6 months and used the money earned to cover the salaries for the school
staff. Later he sold his family possessions, borrowed Rs 5 Lakh from Bank of India and some more from family and friends and build this structure that houses the school today (see pictures). The school even has a bus now that makes three rounds to pickup and drop students (please note, Rs 100 / month covers transportation charges as well). While browsing through the school files I note that they achieved 100% result in last academic year. Sounds impressive.
I also note that only 60% of fees was recovered in the last academic year. However, they had to pay teachers salary in full and on time – the total staff stands at 19 – 14 teachers, 1 driver, 1 conductor, 1 cleaner, Ravindra and Maya. Today Maya handles the daily chorus of school including the academics while Ravindra tries to bridge the cash flow gap. I am still struggling hard to understand the economies.
Ravindra and Maya are not from IITs. They are not even very well-educated in normal terms. Ravindra had to drop out due to family reasons and Maya is still pursuing higher studies – she had to take two breaks; one for her marriage and one while giving birth to her son. But that doesn’t really matter. What matters today is that they have changed lives of more than 1000 kids in last 16 years. And this number is going to increase manifold in coming years. What also matters is that their model is working – albeit with a lot of hard work.
The inspiring story of this couple raises two important questions –
1. Can we create more of Ravindras and Mayas in other parts of the country to solve the real problem facing our country?
2. And can we make their lives little easier in this journey by using some innovative finance model?
There are hundreds of articles written and many more lectures given that glamorize entrepreneurship. Then there are examples of great entrepreneurs and how they changed the world. It all feels just like being part of the movie, you being the hero. But then few days (or months or years depending on your endurance) down the line, you start facing the truth. Alas, none of those inspiring_authors_and_speakers told you about these. And even if some good ones warned you, there are some things you learn only after experiencing. Here are some reasons why you should not become an entrepreneur –
1. You will have to ask help from others many more number of times than you can help others. Very painful process specially if you are not used to ask for help.
2. You might stop enjoying the luxuries of life and good food in expensive restaurants. These will become objects with a price tag on them with an opportunity cost.
3. There is a large probability that you will not succeed and not become one of those heroes who inspired you to take entrepreneurship. This apply even if you think you are better than 90% of other startups [although you might not be]. You might just be unlucky.
4. Those precious moments that you used to enjoy – reading a book, watching a movie, writing articles – gets limited.
5. There is nothing like work-life balance. You life is your work. And your family needs to be understanding enough to understand this.
6. It will take twice (or thrice) the amount of time you are budgeting to make it click (if it clicks – see point number 3)
7. Unless you are very rich, your living standards will go down compared to your friends – who will be buying apartments, going on vacations abroad and throwing parties in expensive restaurants.
8. You might have to learn the hard way. And you might have to learn lot many things. Even things that you don’t like. And sometimes learning those things can take more time than you expect (point no. 6)
However, there are other reasons that nullify all these points and make you go through the tough journey. And as I mentioned earlier there are some things you learn only when you do them. It’s totally worth doing it – just for the amount of things you learn and of course there are slight chances of success too. This is what Charlie Munger says –
Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Discharge your duties faithfully and well. Step by step you get ahead, but not necessarily in fast spurts. But you build discipline by preparing for fast spurts. Slug it out one inch at a time, day by day. At the end of the day – if you live long enough – most people get what they deserves
Starting a technology company has been becoming easier day by day [though same does not hold true for it’s success]. With the availability of so many cloud solutions, startups can save lot of money that was otherwise spent on expensive physical hardware. Here I have listed down 9 such tools that might be useful to you if you are starting a company.
1. Google Docs– The best thing about google docs is that multiple members can edit the same doc at the same time. One can actually see what the other person is editing in real time. In addition you can organize your documents into folders and subfolders. Easy integration with Google forms help in building surveys/polls. One can also chat with collaborators while editing the doc.
2. Dropbox (unto 2GB) – Dropbox has become a verb now – people are dropboxing their videos, files and photos. Although 2GB worth of space is free on dropbox, it is so addictive that you will soon paying for it to get more space. The best thing about Dropbox is that you can work on your documents even when you are offline.
3. Unfuddle– You can either set your own svn server and worry about managing it or you can start unfuddling. Unfuddle provides 200MB free space for one project to host your repositories. Free version supports unto two members. Code always comes with bugs, so there is also bug tracking mechanism in place. The best thing – you can request backups of your project.
4. Basecamp – Basecamp is a project management tool from 37signals, a pioneer is designing simple and useful things to make life easier. Enough of tracking things through excel sheets.
5. Linode– Amazon Web Services may look very expensive if you are working on shoe string budget. Before you move on to a full-fledged cloud platform, linode provides bang for your buck at a very good performance. With higher number of linodes, you can also scale your startup to a good extend before moving on to AWS. Best thing – gets you started in few minutes. Can be scaled up. Customer support is great.
6. Yammer – For internal social networking, specially useful if you have geographically distributed teams.
7. Read It Later– Consider this – you come across some interesting webpage, you copy paste the link from the browser and send it to your colleagues. Now consider this – you come across some interesting webpage and you just press “read it later”. Although “read it later” was meant to read pages later, but we got accustomed to use it for sharing links among ourselves. How? – We use the same account on all our browsers.
8. Zoho / Sugar CRM– The free account of zoho will last you enough longer before you move on to your own crm server or paid version of other crm software. Alternatively, you can install community version of Sugar CRM on your hosting server.
9. Gmail– Google Apps have good collection of free apps for your business, and the best among them is gmail. We all are accustomed to use gmail and have no doubts about credibility of google’s server. Gmail allows unto 10 email ids free on your domain. So instead of setting your own mail servers, one can delegate this task to google.
“This is not going to work. We have seen many companies dying trying this stuff. It has never worked”
It is not unusual to come across gurus giving their Gyan on random things in life. Remember when you were in school, there were always some people who gave you their advice on your career. And this keeps happening in your entire life, be it as a student, in a job or as an entrepreneur. It never harms to listen to wise people around you. Makes sense to learn from experiences of others, most of the times. But not always. Firstly, these opinions are based on the experience that the opinion-giver has been through. The environment in their context might be completely different from what we are in. Secondly, even the best of our people might go wrong. Earth used to be flat and was declared so by the wisest men of ancient times. But then it turned out to be sphere. So there are times when we need to listen to these opinions but not act on them. When we need to have conviction on your own thoughts and they might be different from what majority of people say.
Then there is consensus wisdom. “Invest your money in this blue chip stock, this will give you solid return in long-term”. Or “Since year 1982, this company has generated with CAGR of 123%”. Apart from hindsight bias (more on that later), there is a conventional wisdom – blue chips always do good, startups by experienced management always deliver, returns in long-term are always good. Again, most of the times, it is okay to follow the consensus. But, there is an irony – if everybody knows that there is money in e-commerce, why wouldn’t everyone start an e-commerce business. And if everyone gets into an e-commerce business, how can everyone make money. To make a real kill, one needs to go contrarian. Consensus + success is good and might keep you going, but non-consensus+success is what will set you apart. There is always a risk of failure.
This brings to the theory of black swan (please read wonderful books by Nassim Taleb – Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan. And The Bed of Procrustes). A black swan event is something which has an element of surprise, has a major impact and is not expected. Internet was a black swan event. Nobody predicted it. It had a major impact and an element of surprise. So were many companies that exist today. Infosys was a black swan event in 90s, and so was the fate of Arvind Mills. If everyone knew Facebook would be big, why wasn’t it started by some large company? And anyways, why do new companies become big if there are already big companies with deep pockets and the best talent with them? Because, black swan events are hard to predict. Even by the wisest of us!
So anyways, the point here is that sometimes, to create an impact you need a black swan event and for that one has to go against the conventional wisdom and consensus. Today, the earth is flat.
Why are there not enough good schools catering to economically weaker section of the society? We all know the reasons – There is no financial incentive for an entrepreneur to open a school in area where people cannot pay. Compare this fact to metros and tier-2 towns where hundreds of new schools are coming with fees range of 15K+ / annum. These schools are either run by politicians, real estate guys or well-known companies [no surprises, schools are profitable model specially if you have access to real estate and cheap source of money]
Here are 3 ideas to solve this problems
1. The Education Fund – This fund is raised from people who look for social return on their investment. This is not donation but an investment that earns zero % interest or very low-interest rate and invested for a long-term (typically 10+ years). The Education Fund invests this money in instruments providing decent returns and since the investment duration is for a long-term, there is some guarantee of return, lets say, it is 10%. This return is used to fund the education of deserving students. Number of students who can benefit is directly proportional to the amount of money that can be raised and rate of return that can be earned on this money. Using technology enabled learning, lets assume that good quality education can be imparted with the cost of around Rs 5K per annum per student. That means, we need around 50K as principle amount deposited for each student. Now someone can ask – why complicate so much. If a person is purely interested in social ROI, why should he care about this complicated model and not just donate 5K every year? For following reasons – 1) It will save you hassles of writing cheque every year. 2) Probably, there is higher chance of finding an investor than a donor 3) The same 50K will impact lives of students for many years – which would otherwise need a solid commitment and discipline for such a long duration.
2. Guru Dakshina – In the age of Gurukuls, students did not get free education. It was kind of loan which students needed to pay back once the education was done. It was called Guru-Dakshina. Similarly, we can have a model where the payback comes when students pass-out and are employed. For few initial years this inflow would be zero [ as someone said, education is a very long-term investment]. After few years, we have a flow of cash, which makes it more self sustainable. 500 passing out students can fund 500 new students. This will also bring accountability on the education system – if we cannot make students employable, in a practical world, we have failed.
3. School in a Box – To bring down the cost of education. With such a large population and so little money, there is no other option but to cut the cost of education. Can good quality education be provided at such a low-cost. Technology and standardization may come to rescue. Lets say we have School in the box concept (phrase borrowed from UNICEF’s) – a completely standardized set of curriculum based on digital media and learning management system. If this can enable us to cut out dependency on good teachers and world-class infrastructure. In such scheme of things, can the cost of opening a new school be brought down? Can we build a good school with Rs 1million instead of Rs 10million.
No new idea comes without a problem. The first idea is not scalable, the second idea is cash flow negative for many initial years and the third idea needs a lot of investment and research to create such a concept. May be, if all the three ideas are applied together, these problems can be nullified. In any case, it is very difficult to say unless a solid research is done by getting on the roads. Hope one day we see these models working.
In a traditional lecture setting, 33 minutes after a lecture is completed, attendees only retain 58% of the material presented. By the second day, only 33% is retained, and three weeks after the course is completed, only 15% is remembered. (via ref 1 below)
This does not mean that classroom education has failed us. From the age of Gurukuls, classrooms have played a crucial role in the development of mankind. As noted in my previous article, classrooms provide ultimate learning experience by enabling live interaction with teachers and fellow students. However the fact that only 15% is retained, does mean that there is a need for self-learning to retain remaining 85% of what is learnt in the class . Not just that, in countries like India where availability of teachers is a grave concern, self learning starts playing even a bigger role. Add to that, poor infrastructure or system connecting students and teachers in a classroom environment.
That is where blended learning comes into play. Blended learning (sometimes called hybrid learning) is nothing but combination of traditional classroom form of learning and technology-assisted self-learning. Classroom environment provides the live interactive experience while technology-assisted learning (e-learning/ video learning) provides course content accessible any time, any number of times. Best of both the worlds.
According to reference no. 2 below, Studies conducted by Harvard Business School have shown that a blended learning approach enables students to learn five times as much material at one-third the cost of a classroom-only approach. Surveys indicate that students overwhelmingly liked the blended approach better.
Blended learning has not really taken off in India yet. The primary reason for this has been the low technology penetration –
1. The price of point of computer has not yet reached the affordability range of average Indian parent
2. Broadband penetration is very low.
Besides these, physiologically, technology assisted learning is not perceived of equal importance to classroom learning. However, things are changing now. With mobile revolution taking over India, the day is not far when these mobile devices and tablets will start playing key role in Indian Education. In addition, with advent of 3G and Broadband, the digital barrier would keep getting lower. And hopefully, with blended learning approach, people will also start realizing the importance of video learning or e-learning.
Blended learning will take time, but will start moving soon. As Victor Hugo said “Nothing can stop an idea whose time has come”
Jones, M. (2002) . “Building and Managing E-Learning Programmes: Why E-Learning Makes Sense”.
Mullich J. (2004). .A Second Act for E-Learning., Workforce Management February 1st 2004 ,Vol 83 No. 2
Shafqat Hameed et al. (2008) “Effective E-Learning Integration with Traditional Learning in a Blended Learning Environment”
Needless to say, Indian Education needs a lot of work. There are problems aplenty and these are clearly visible. On the other hand, there is already lot of work undergoing – new schools, engineering colleges, MBA colleges, eLearning companies coming up every day… hard to believe that it is not a bubble. In addition, it appears there is a terrible mismatch between the excitement in this sector and the problems that plague currently.
If we list down some of the problems –
– Lack of schools offering quality education at less than Rs 100/month
– Lack of teachers in schools
– Students passing out of engineering schools/ MBA schools are not employable
– Divide between urban and rural India
While, most of the investments we are seeing today, for instance, are in –
– Test prep, coaching classes, JEE and other entrance exams: more than $billion market catering to just around a million students
– eLearning companies making sub-standard content to crack K-12 exams (sometimes, in the name of animated content, it is just set of Powerpoint slides with a voiceover)
– Opening of schools in cities (charging more than Rs 1000/month)
– Opening of b-schools in India (now there are around 3000 B-schools in India)
And the reason for the above pattern is simple – making money is easy for these businesses. Parents are shit-scared to lose out not sending their kids to IIT coaching classes. Schools need to tick-mark if they support Audio-Visuals in their premises. People need B-school tag to get a job. What appears is that these businesses are built around opportunities that take advantage of the problems. However, in no way, they are solving the real problems. To be fair, making money in solving the education problems in India holistically is very difficult. How many people in India will pay in the name of learning? It has to be some entrance exam or some degree or certification when people pay. Why does someone have to consider opening a school providing low-cost education when there’s already huge demand in upmarket? And probably I would do the same thing – exploit the system unless you find a sustainable model. You need to survive and only then you can make a difference. Again to be fair, some people/companies are actually trying to solve real problems and have come with successful business models.
So what is the way forward? In the long-term, market is a weighing machine. Supply and demand keep swinging but converge in long-term. And if the current investment is not solving the real problem, the bubble will burst. But it can also become bigger than what it is now. It is also possible that I am terrible wrong here. Only time will tell.