It is not about working on your startup, it is about working on yourself

Lets take a look at some of the factors that determine success or failure of a startup in very early stages

  1. Having a vision
  2. Building a great team
  3. Building the product
  4. Finding the right product market fit
  5. Selling
  6. Getting funded (if required)

In early stages, most of these tasks are done by founders.

In early stages, startup == founders. And when you say that you are working on a startup, the fact is that you are actually working on yourself.

Now most of the people are smart in most of the things but there are some critical things that they suck at. And the primary reason this happens is because we are uncomfortable in learning these things. Instead of generalizing, let me just put down some of these uncomfortable things I had to deal with in my experience as a founder. I still suck at many of these but important thing is that I am aware about this fact.

Asking for help: Recently I attended a leadership summit and one of the speakers was talking about his experience of turning from a CXO in a large company to an entrepreneur. When he was a CXO people lined up to meet him, but when he turned up an entrepreneur, he had to line up to meet people at very junior levels. It was not an easy thing to do. Similarly, when we were pitching our product to schools, some of them made us wait for hours before giving us time slots. Some times we were shown doors without even a meet. As Subroto Bagchi had put it sometime back  – corporate executives are pedigree dogs, entrepreneurs are like mongrels. And its very difficult to turn from a pedigree dog to a mongrel. Asking for help is a big ego hurt!

Pitching: Have never been good with pitching. When I was working for someone else, pitching was not difficult. It was mostly about pitching new ideas to your team members. There was no time limit for pitching. And also the people you are pitching to, knew you very well. Most of the times it was actually other way round. Your boss is pitching you about the new projects. Or a candidate was pitching you in an interview to recruit him/her. In a startup, you are always pitching. You are pitching to your customers, you are pitching to investors and you are pitching to new hires. It actually needs a lot of practice.

Rejections: With pitching comes rejections. In fact just the fear of rejection made me a bad seller. Before I started Eduflix, I had worked on an interesting idea in education space. We had made a decent product but never actually sold it to anyone. The reason was that I was just too scared to call or visit customers. This time I crossed that boundary. Having a sales guy in my team helped (thanks to my cofounder). I got rejected many times. But I sold. Not just customers, we also got rejected by investors. I learnt that rejection does not mean that we are not capable or we are bad. There are n number of things that don’t work out. One has to live with that. 

Doing things that you dont like: I hate paperwork. I hate doing repeatedly same things. I hate operational work. I hate processes. However at some point, these things need to be done – for sake of the company.

Changing domains: From Microelectronics to software engineering. From embedded systems to internet and mobile. From technical marketing to product marketing. From Verilog, RTL, simulations to Python, Django, Apache. From managing people who are coding to actually coding self. From B2B to B2C.  Changing domains has been the easiest thing to cope with. Being a founder has meant unlearning lot of things learnt in the past and learning new things in completely different domains. I am sure two years from now, things that I will be dealing with will be completely different.

So the next time if I say that I am working on my startup, mostly it would mean that I am working on myself.

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]

8 Reasons Why You Should Not Become An Entrepreneur And 1 Reason Why You Should

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