Lessons Learnt As An Entrepreneur For One Year

Customer relationship
Customer relationship (Photo credit: Claudio Cicali)

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]

At Eduflix: Blended Self Learning And Its Role In India

Blended Self Learning And Its Role In India.

Take note of this interesting fact –

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”

At Eduflix: Lessons From Video Learning (may we call it V-Learning)

Lessons From Video Learning (may we call it V-Learning).

[Reproduced in entirety]

While preparing various courses for Eduflix, we get a chance to go through video lessons from many teachers. While doing so, apart from learning from the content of videos, we learn a lot about the methods used by these content owners to prepare these lessons. While going through many such videos, we noticed these three points –

1. Duration of the lessons – Our normal classroom lectures are generally an hour-long. However, we are bound to sit in the classroom for this duration. In this one hour, our thoughts wander away from lecture multiple times. Even if we stop following the teacher, we are supposed to sit in the classroom. These constraints do not apply when we watch videos – you can walk out anytime, you can pause, rewind or fast forward. Further, In the age of multi-tasking – browsing, instant messaging, social networking – our attention span for one particular video is nowhere near that one hour allotted for physical classroom. All these imply that video lessons should be of considerably shorter duration. Or longer lessons be broken down into smaller chunks so that students can take breaks. Although it is very subjective, but my guess is this duration should be around 10 mins. Making a lesson interesting for more than 10 mins would be an uphill task. Check these two videos (both are awesome videos – but which one would you watch)

2. Recording of the lessons – Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of video lessons based on how they are recorded. One kind is classroom recording where there is a 
high-resolution camera recording the activities of a teacher on the blackboard. This gives a true feeling of a classroom. Students get to see gestures and facial expressions of the teacher – some of the key tools in imparting lessons. However, there are few problems with this method. Most of the time, what students see is the back of the teacher while she is scribbling on the board. Also teacher hinders the view of the blackboard. The other method is imparting the lesson on a PC screen using some drawing tool and capturing the screen with teachers voice-over. There are three main advantages of this method – Firstly, students can see the scribblings very clearly. Secondly, the costs involved in setting up this method are minimal – you don’t need a high quality camera. And thirdly, the bit rate needed to transmit this kind of video or the size required to store is very low. This makes the video accessible to students having low-bandwidth connections. The choice of which of these method to use would also greatly depend on the kind of lessons. Examples of both types –

3. Contextual information – Classroom lessons work mainly because the teacher has control over the class. Teacher knows the 30-odd students sitting in her class. She understands the kind of level she needs to go to sync up with the kids. Over that, kids can always raise their hands and ask questions. However in video learning, students lose these advantages. There are ways in which we can circumvent these problems and we are working on some of these. But one of the best solutions is to create the video lessons such that students have minimum doubts while going through them. This can be done by making the videos very elaborate and as contextual as possible. Five minus two is three – is fine. But what about you go to a shop and buy a candy for two bucks, but you have no change. So you pay five bucks and get three rupees in back in change. It will not work all the time, but will definitely provide better learning experience to students. Heres one video on simple equations –

These are just few insights, and there is high probability that some of these might be wrong. Nevertheless, I hope that we will keep learning more about this powerful weapon that can educate millions of students.

At Eduflix: 4 Stories And Many Questions

4 Stories And Many Questions.

[Reproduced in entirety]

Anil is a 16 years old kid living in Kanakpura, a town 50 Kms away from Bangalore. Anil’s dad is a teacher and like many parents in India, spends a considerable amount of his income on his kids’ education. Anil wants to become an Engineer and wants to appear for IIT JEE two years from now. However, because of his dad’s financial condition, he cannot afford to get out of his home town and take admission in better schools in the nearby metro. He attends local tuition classes but he also realizes that the one he attends is very sub-standard to get him through JEE. Anil shares his room with his younger brother who is in 8th standard.

Bhavani studies in Std 12th in one of the best schools of Dehradun. Bhavani loves visiting Facebook and chats with her friends everyday. Shalini and Jaya are her best friends and they spend most of their evenings together studying or playing scrabble. Bhavani also loves dancing and wants to learn Bharatanatyam. However, non-availability of teacher in her locality has hampered her progress in learning. Later in life, Bhavani wants to become a doctor to fulfill her grandmother’s wish.

Pawan was not able to get into a good Engineering college because of his lower rank in engineering entrance test. Not that he is not smart, he was just unlucky to be not well while attempting the engineering test. He loves programming on his new computer. However, he finds it extremely difficult to proceed when he gets stuck on some problems. His teachers are fresh graduates from tier-2 colleges who have become teachers because they were not able to land a good corporate job. Further, his friends are not equally passionate about programming like he is. One day, Pawan wants to start his own company to build software products targeting Indian market.

Aadithya is in sixth standard and clueless about what he wants to do in his life. He spends endless hours on internet browsing through youtube videos and articles about dinosaurs, new cars and gadgets. Sometimes he just stares blank on the screen thinking about which website shall he visit next. He is extremely smart and finishes his homework quickly before starting on his internet adventures. Sometimes he just gets lost in myriad of low quality content available online.

These stories are very common across hundreds of cities in India. Talented students out of their luck to get a decent platform to enable them to meet their true potential. Can we provide this platform to these students? A platform that can team up with kids’ ability and provide them with the much needed headstart in their lives? These are the kind of questions we, the Team Eduflix, keep asking and brainstormiing when we work on Eduflix. Can Eduflix become companion of Pawan and solve his problems when he gets stuck? Can Eduflix teach Bharatanatyam to Bhavani? Can Eduflix help Aadithya find what he wants and more importantly what is more appropriate for him? Can Eduflix provide the best learning experience to millions of kids irrespective of where they live, at an affordable rate? Only time will tell the answers. However, at this moment, we are trying our best to meet all these expectations.

At Eduflix: A New Company Is Born

A New Company Is Born.

[Reproduced in entirety]

Why are people so irrational? Why do people quit their cushy jobs to start a new company? Statistically, majority of the new companies fail. The remaining ones find it difficult to scale up. Then there is a family to look after – school going kids and  older parents to look after. Many a times, there is no bank balance for security either. Then why? Reminds me what Gimli says in Lord of the Rings – “Certainty of death, *small* chance of success… What are we waiting for?”

Well, people do take chances because the ring needs to be destroyed. Because there are other guys in the team who provide the support structure. Because the team has a common purpose. And because people are crazy.

Our story is no different. We have a purpose – to create a difference in key sectors of India using technology. And we are a fellowship – a family guy in mid 30s quitting his cushy corporate job and a 29-something family guy betting his career on this fellowship. We are going to add more crazy people to this fellowship. And we are irrational enough to stand at the gates of Mordor in the hopes that Sauron will turn his eye towards us and Frodo can destroy the ring – “There is always hope” said Aragorn. Come what may, we will keep working towards our goal and keep the hopes alive.

And as Theoden said – “So it begins”