Tag Archives: startup

Start-Up Dilemma 9: Board of Directors/ Advisors

23 Jun

board-mtg-cartoon Credit

A problem I have been seeing very often of late (more now when I meet many start-ups as mentor/ advisor, than when I ran my own) is – when should I appoint a Board? How many people? What should I offer them? Will they be interested? I thought time (after a big gap) to write another “start-up” series post, which answers the following questions:

a) What is the difference between Board of Governors/ Directors and Advisory Board; more importantly – when do I apooint one vs. the other
b) In general, at what stage of my start-up do I appoint one
c) Why/ what are the benefits of appointing one
d) What is a good number of people to have in the board
e) What do I have to offer them as compensation.
f) In return, what do I expect from them? How often do I contact them? Can I formalise this receivable?
g) How do the answers for the above change if my start-up is product vs. services vs. Non profit? Or if it is Indian vs. not? or if it is a Lifestyle business that I want to build to scale, vs. one I want to get valuation for, and exit sooner rather than later.

I have to confess, since I am by no means an expert, I ran a small survey amongst current and past entrepreneurs who have run various start-up organisations all over the world. It was a diverse group, though not necessarily statistically significant. I will include findings from that survey as we go along – disclaimer – use those findings as anecdotal only πŸ™‚

Board of Directors vs. Advisors:

This is a great article defining the different types of boards and their roles. And this is another good read on the difference between Advisory board and Board of Directors, and how to utilize them!

Basically, when you start out, an advisory board makes more sense – and obviously, you could run your org for-ever without needing a formal Board of Directors/ Governors, until you seek and get investment.

Even with the advisory board, I see start-ups in the western world, who have now seen the whole culture closely, feel the need to acquire, and actually leverage advisory boards much sooner than those in India (where it’s typically a bunch of smart techies, who have a super idea, (or sometimes just think they have), and want to create the next google). Also, as a corollary, or atleast a parallel, start ups who have been conceived to make lots of money very fast, go “by the book” more often than those that are being set up as lifestyle businesses.

Right Reason

Reason for Appointing BOD

As my own little survey showed, in the beginning, many start-ups, specially if they are either small, or the Non profit type, choose friends and family in the Board of Directors – generally just to suit legalities in certain countries e.g., in India, a Pvt. Ltd. company needs 2 Directors.

But, ideally, Board members need to be recruited for more than just statutory requirements. As this article talking about the mistakes that companies make when recruiting BOD says, Board members can be great resources who provide support, knowledge, and access to unique professional networks.

vijayamritraj

And indeed, as my little survey showed, the right competence or skills, and the ability to get contacts – either to potential clients, or to potential recruits, is the other big reason for Boards of Directors to be appointed. The next reason is obviously just the name-value, or reputation of the person (My husband recently got offered a seat in a Board of Directors, where one of the other guys was Vijay Amritraj (and ofcourse, I told him – “say yes, say yes” so I can maybe hob nob with him at some dinner stuff πŸ™‚ ))

Slide4

Not surprisingly then, when one looked at the average and top-2-box analyses for reasons, the ability to get contacts, and give advice, top the charts.

No. of Members

No. of Members in BOD

My survey respondents seem to like the number 3, maybe because most of them are really small and new set ups. Per the article above, Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures thinks a board of five members is ideal. He recommends no more than 7 board members (two founders, one to three VCs, and one to two other industry professionals).

I would agree that get the founders (no more than 3 – 3 being the magic number as per my earlier post on optimal no. of co-founders), get one or two “real” advisors with complementary skills that you REALLY need, and get one well connected industry person/ celebrity – who should be your business development/ recruitment channel person. The rest is superfluous — which, effectively means, that your choice of VC/ investor should also depend on then who will they put on your board, and which of the above roles can you get the investor appointed Board member to play.

Compensation for Board of Directors

Obviously if friends and family, one wouldn’t offer anything to the board. But, the commonest remuneration seems to be Equity – I have heard amounts ranging from a low of 0.25% to an average of 2% and a high of 5% to be parted with for Boards. This good common sense article talks about the difference between an advisory board and the board of directors, and also has some good sound advice on compensation.

Benefits to BOD

My survey showed that just the position was what most start-ups offered their advisors/ Board members. This is probably also because at the stage they are in, in most cases their BOD members are friends and family.

Issues with Board of Directors

Issues with Boards of Directors

While, my survey seemed to indicate that the founders weren’t really facing any problems with their BOD members, I assume that’s because they weren’t being utilized effectively! In most cases, the problems arise due to not being able to get time and attention from your directors/ advisors. You may expect to be put in touch with channel partners, or a new recruit, and the Director doesn’t, or is unable to do so!

In my experience, the best way of making sure you do get the value you expect out of the Directors is to use them as individual people, rather than a full fledged board – i.e., seek a fixed slot one on one meeting with the folks (say half an hour every two months)- set that expectation upfront, send agenda in advance, and just be focussed on getting your questions answered!

This old article provides some good advice on care and feeding of Advisors.

Just for disclosure, the profile of my survey respondents is as below:

Profile

Incidentally, for my friends running Non profits, the answers to the same questions are not substantially different – as a look at this article shows

I think I should end with providing a link to an old but fantastic article – which will put a lot of answers in perspective, and contains a lot of wisdom, including in the comments after!

Hope this was useful. Right in tell me your experiences!

exec board

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What Superwoman Lilly Singh taught me about Life, and Management

28 May

Lilly Singh

5,747,586 – that’s how many subscribers Lily Singh a.k.a Superwoman has! I was at her last show in India a couple days ago, and my ear drums are still ringing with the constant screaming of some 800 kids – mainly girls, who showed me what stereotypical celebrity concert hysteria is!

I had a very interesting and illuminating time actually – there was a pre concert “meet and greet”, where I saw teenagers crying and hyperventilating at the thought of meeting their idol, and then there were folks who came upto my kids and said – hey, we are making a vlog – come join. The kids then sang some snippets of things that seemed to afford them great entertainment. (For those interested, that vlog is called chicken tikka brothers) On the ride back, I asked the kids in the car – what was the difference between a vlog and a youtube channel; and they ALL – including my 9 year old, told me – the blog is just about her life, following her, what she does everyday etc; while the youtube channel is the funny videos she makes that made her famous. In the YT channel, she stages it – puts lights, has a table, has a good camera etc. So I asked them why then wd she have both? Why not only one? And the young one told me – Ma, not all subscribers are fans . So, NOT everyone is interested in following her life! Early lessons to learn on social media, huh!

Then also followed this very interesting discussion on “who’s the youtuber you follow most?” Names like PewDiePie (who has some — hold your breath — THIRTY SEVEN MILLION subscribers!!! What does he do? put up videos of himself gaming, apparently!), Tyler Oakley, 6.9 mil, who started the channel primarily on LGBT issues, but has since broadened – and was even on the Ellen Show, Zoella, 8.2 mil, who makes videos on beauty tips, Miranda Sings, 4 mil, who is the SAME apparently, only an off-kilter avatar, as Colleen Ballinger running PsychoSoprano – 2.4 mil subscribers! Then there are travel guys like JacksGap, 4 mil, music guys like KurtHugo Schneider, 4 mil, and Collins Key, 400K, on magic.

Then the little one had her own favourites to contribute – Bethany Mota, 8.7 mil, who basically puts DIY tips type stuff, Rosanna Pansino, 3.9 mil, who makes cooking videos, Merrelltwins, 292K who write on I don’t know what, Jacy and Kacy, 231k, who run craft and cooking tips, and “challenges” – “challenges” are the BIG thing – bad food challenge, rainbow loom challenge, make up challenge etc. etc.

But, for me, the whole experience brought forth some very interesting lessons/ parallels:

a) Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown:
It’s a pity, but popularity comes with its own onus of responsibility! I googled Lilly Singh post the show, and she pops up FIRST as motivational speaker! And truly, part of the show was about happiness (her “happy place” is Unicorn island, which is the name of her tour), and how kids should believe in themselves; and how she picked herself up post severe depression, and how life is hard, but you most probably will get to see your dreams fulfilled if you work really really hard – but that being said, the hardest piece of work she ever did was to pick her up from depression and learn to be happy.

superwoman

I was like – woooaaaah – THIS is the funny Lilly Singh? But, then my daughter told me – “ma, she gets millions of letters fromm people who were very depressed and they tell her that watching her videos made them get out of depression, and cancer patients who tell her listening to her make them feel so much better etc…“.

But I was like – omg, poor kid! Here she was, just trying to have a good time, and then she is saddled with this whole 6 mil people, and she cannot say trashy stuff, and she cannot let them down…blah blah blah.

Folks in any kind of leadership position in any role will empathise – the minute you have fans/ followers/ subordinates/ children – you jolly well watch each and every thing you do/ say/ eat etc…as a senior leader in the org that took over my startup once told me, I really want you and your co founders to join me leadership – it’s really lonely at the top!

On this note, I just read this article on Kangana Ranaut declining an ad endorsement deal for INR 2 crores coz she didnt want to propogate the idea of fair skin! Way to go, and that’s a true example of responsibility beding executed well

b) Brand Reputation – and its sphere of influence:
So, as opposed to the screaming hyperventilating, sometimes crying teenagers, I was viewing the show on its own merit – I watch a lot of shows, and don’t watch a lot of youtube. So, to me, each of her famous lines were NOT famous, and her clever references, just words! What that meant was that i wasn’t in it for the celebrity/ fan-dom thingie at all, but just to watch a stand up comic-ish person.
Now, don’ get me wrong, I like her videos – I think she is funny, has a knack for hitting the right spot, and is very good at mimicry. But, as a stand alone performance her SHOW was , I wd say, just average! Then what price the screaming hysterical kids? Even post show, every child I spoke to, luuurrrved her/ thought she was rilly rilly funny etc..
I figured it was because she has built up a super image and fan base – so she cd get by, by just “referring to” her popular stuff on her videos – whether it is her collaborator Humble the poet and their songs, e.g., IVIVI, her parent characters, Paramjeet Singh (who says don’t wear Mini skirts and don’t talk to boys, and eat “jogurt”; and Manjeet Singh (who gives tips for spicyness and “seskiness”) , her superwoman gestures….whatever. After all, when the audience is in a mood to be overwhelmed, they WILL be.

It’s like the parallel with brands – they spend megabucks on advertising to build a brand – so that, sometimes when the actual product is not so great, the brand carries it through (for a while Google Glass maybe could be placed in this category. Oh btw, did you know that Google Glass may be coming back?). Or, in services examples, say Accenture builds up this formidable rep, and post that wins many deals on rep alone (nyaaahhh, doesn’t happen – but deal making does becaome easier)

The catch here is ofcourse that real brand value has to be delivered sooner rather than later. In this case, I’m sure it will be. But, does make you think about brand building, reputation and extensions (talking about “joghurt”, remember cosmopolitan yogurt?)
cosmopolitan-yogurt

c) RFC:
You’ve got to hand it to these youtubers – they really know the mantra for global appeal – and now even I’ve figured it out! You have to be either funny, (Superwoman is very very funny on her videos), “cool” – now this is a relatively more difficult to describe word, or well, not to decsribe coz we all know what cool is to us; but to enact/ BE! But I am guessing cool becomes cool more by outcome than by the input/ action – so it’s how your peers and idols behave when faced with this aspiring cool thing that determines if a thing is cool. But I also see, that most often, success comes with REAL stuff – stuff that’s straight from the heart, stuff that resonates with the audience and is not faked. To give kids their due, today’s kids are very very quick at detecting “fake” – and they react therefore positively to stuff that’s NOT. Lilly spoke about true life experiences, and touched upon stuff that ALL in the audience, whether 9 yr old like my young one, 14 like my older one, or close to 50 like their mom – could nod at!
(An interesting side piece of analysis seems to be that most of the youtubers I mentioned above are 26 – is that the sweet spot age for success?)
This I think is a great lesson for management folks, and also advertisers – actually, why stop there – parents, teachers, husbands, wives, you name it! It’s best to be atleast 2 out of the RFC trio to create success – but obviously, the R is the most important – it lets you reach people, and, as I have said before, it really is about the people!

dashavatar-lord-vishnu-indian-mythology

d) The Art of the Split Personality
In our time, what you saw was what you got – maybe we had a school face and a home face, but that was it! Now, one has (and maybe should have), a school group 1 face, a teacher face, a school group 2 face, a home face, a facebook face, a snapchat face, a whatsap one, a linkedin face, a vine, a youtube, a …a….a! (Btw, as you may remember from my earlier post, each face SHOULD behave differently atleast in the social media channels!
Lilly Singh, has what the kids called, her “parent” personalities – each of them is her obviously, each of them now has independent twitter, and what she called “instantgram” handles. Each of them (or, well, she dressed up as each of them), promoted and asked for subscription to, each of these handles. Each of them exists in a parallel universe!
Now, dont get me wrong, split or even multiple personalities are as old as time. From Vishnu’s dash-avatar or 10 incarnations; to Jekyll and Hyde; to Batman/ Bruce Wayne or Superman/ Clark Kent or Spiderman/ Peter Parker, we are familiar with all of them. But never have all personalities existed simultaneously – which brings me to the question – how do these kids deal with these? Is it a generational cohort thing? or just a byproduct of technology? And more worrying to me as a parent, what then is constant? (And, to refer to an earlier thread, how do they which is REAL?)
This btw, spins traditional marketing completely on its head, doesn’t it? STP – who do you target if the target is multiple? do you disambiguate this multiple personalities, or address each separately? If former, or even if latter, which ones?

e) New styles of Marketing:
i) Marketing is getting more aggressive – witness multiple avatar handles marketed at same time; promo tours; the whole digital landscape
ii) Its more crowd sourced – The entity being marketed doesn’t necessarily have to do it themselves – there are apps/ twitter handles/ vlogs ….AND people taking selfies/ pictures all the time to post
iii) Younger and younger kids now understand it

So the question seems to be – are kids getting stuff too early? is success/ gratification/ the trappings of the material world coming too early? Isn’t it better if kids remained kids?

Also, in the whole hurry to take pictures and post them, aren’t the kids missing out on the beauty of what the naked eye sees and remembers? Out of the 800 show attendees, atleast 90% had the video/ photo stuff on ALL the time (intact, Lilly even said – guys, you watch my videos on the net all the time- now that I’m here, watch me LIVE)

All in all, it was a super evening – the kids met an idol and were part of a hysterical mob and I learnt many things about kids and kids in mobs and youtubing and vlogs.
I think, all else notwithstanding, Superwoman is quite amazing, and, as I told her during the meet and greet – the world needs more like her!

Lilly Singh Superwoman

How opposites attract, or, what makes a successful partnership

12 Jan

Two interesting things happened to/ around me this year-end: a) My husband turned 50 (we had a lovely celebration with family and friends). b) I completed two years of retired life.

Got me thinking even more about something that has been occupying my mind lately – which is, what makes good partnerships work.

A few facts:
1. My husband and I are the quintessential Venus and Mars couple.
– He wakes up early, I sleep late.
– He likes to always have the last word in an argument, even is it is pointless; I abandon an argument after a point – either because I believe everyone is entitled to one’s opinion, and it’s better to agree to disagree; or, because while I dont agree, I think this is a never ending exercise and keep my smug self satisfied feeling inside me…
– I like to sing, he is stone deaf; and therefore ….
– He likes the lyrics in songs, I like the drumming, the guitaring and the melody
– He is an amazing cook, my kids eat food cooked by me under duress
– He drinks whisky, I adore beer; he doesn’t touch sweets, I could make a meal out of them
– He reads financial thrillers and political satires, my favourite stuff is trashy romance; he likes blood and gore in movies, I am a hard core romcom addict
– He loves to network physically, I pride myself on maintaining steady email with …some people….some of the time…okay, steady-ish……..
– He is the financial wizkid and therefore manages all household finances – yes, even files my taxes; I plan all household schedules etc, ….we cd go on and on.
(This ofcourse may just be called efficient division of labour…but still…the fact is…chalk and cheese)

2. In a partnership of four in our startup, we had
– One alpha female, the driver of the enterprise, the one who always had the highest ambitions, who was most ruthless at delegation, the best seller, the face to the market
– Then there was the manager par excellence, the process person, the task oriented champion chaser-up who excelled at any job thrown at her at the right time and with precision perfection, the creative personna;
– There was the maverick trouble shooter brain of the enterprise, Mr. Client Man, always bending over backwards to please the client – and actually anyone who browbeat him,
– And then there was me – maybe exact fourth quadrant locus to all 3 above.
(Read here for an earlier view on the magic of co-founders for a start-up.
(this ofcourse may just be called efficient core competency matching, but still…the fact is…chalk and cheese)

So, what emerges? The sheer contrast of the elements of the partnership.

And that is what today’s blog is about!

One look all around you, and you see contrast everywhere!

Nature abounds with contrast –
– Everyone with atleast 2 children will tell you they are 180 degrees different always! One is the athlete, the other is the dreamer; one the carnivore, the other the vegetarian; one the sledge hammer the other the sensitive introvert (ofcourse in this matter opposites do NOT always attract)…for that matter what is the generation gap between parent and child but a study in contrasts?

symbiosis Credit
– Symbiosis is the phenomenon of persistent biological interactions (most often mutualism) between different species, that is seen in clownfish with anemones, lichens with tress and many other organisms

magnetism1 Credit
– It is common knowledge that opposite poles in a magnet attract, and like repel. This fact actually gives rise to many natural and anthropogenic phenomena – including, as an example, digital music that revolutionized consumption! of music

– Good story telling always means a good side and a bad side – if there is a Ram, there is a Ravan; a Harry has a Voldemort; Dorothy has Elfaba, Mufasa has Scar….and on and on….This article from Huff Post about storytelling using opposites is a good read on this

– And ofcourse, every good (or at least worthwhile) partnership has elements of “venus and mars”. Whether it is sparky temperamental brilliance vs. plodding dilligence (Sherlock and Watson/ Poirot and Hastings); or master strategist vs. executor (Chanakya and Chandragupta Maurya); or a typical good cop- bad cop routine followed everywhere and all the time in the world when negotiating/ interviewing/ dealing!

This feature becomes especially important when one is running something together – that partnership – one of co-founders at a start-up I sometimes feel is better/ worse/ deeper/ stronger whatever – than most marriages or sibling-hood!
This Article on some successful entrepreneurs and why their partnerships work makes for a good read on this…

The video below shows the different types of partners one chooses and why:

Dr. Helen Fisher talks about 4 personality types in men, and how figuring out which type you are informs the partner best suited for you. She talked about four brain systems that are linked to personality (not intelligence, but temperament):

1. Estrogen (pro-social/empathetic), “The Negotiator” – sees big picture, great verbal skills, imaginative and great people skills. These men often choose Testosterone types to be attracted to.

2. Testosterone (analytical/tough minded) “The Director” – analytical, logical, direct, decisive, tough-minded, good at math, computers, mechanics. These men go for their opposite — such as the high-estrogen type who is more big picture.

3. Serotonin (cautious/social norm compliant) “The Builders” – orderly, respect authority, traditional, conventional, conscientious, cautious and social. These men go for women like themselves who are also traditional.

4. Dopamine (curious/energetic) “The Explorers” – risk-taking, novelty seeking, optimistic, restless, spontaneously generous, creative, quite liberal and flexible. These men gravitate to women who are just like them, they want women who are also Explorers.

So the questions that arise are:
– Is it true? If “opposites attract”, then how do “birds of a feather flock together?”
– Does it need complete opposites to make a relationship work?
– What does it take to build success when partners are alike? Is it more work? Less?
– In case therefore one is in a partnership with “similar” people, does one of them have to change? Should the ego centric dominate the other?
– Why is it that there is only one “alpha male” in a pride of lions amongst many mates, and why don’t those mates kill each other?

Of course, as with any theory, there are many ‘counter theories” to this one too, and ofcourse anecdotally you and me could enumerate many instances to disprove the one above. One such article on opposites not really attracting is worth reading. And this article apparently gives advice about similarity being good for longevity in marriage.

I guess the answer really lies in – where do similarities lie, and where the differences. In basics/ broad moral/ ethical/ philosophical/ business values, it is probably good to have general agreement – and then if operational/ executional values and styles differs, it actually works better. (At least saves one from getting bored – so, differences makes for interest, but similarity for the glue in the relationship)

Having said that, I would think one has to WORK at every relationship – establish dos and don’ts, strengths and weaknesses, and embrace the difference while being secure in the similarities.

Which really means, if I were to shift the lens around on Manoj and me,

– (He wakes up early, I sleep late) – He can get the kids to school while I can help them revise for their exams
– (He likes to always have the last word in an argument…..) – While there aren’t continuous arguments in our house, atleast there are no fights!
– (I like to sing, he is stone deaf) – I get an audience when I do sing
– (He likes the lyrics in songs, i like the melody) – We both like music
– (He is an amazing cook….) – We are all foodies, and Thank Gawwwd, we get fed gourmet food often!
– (He drinks whisky, I adore beer) – We both like our drinks!
– (He reads financial thrillers and political satires…) – We both like books and movies, just different genres
– (He loves to network physically, ……..) – We are both ‘people” people!
– (He is the financial wizkid) …Our household runs smoothly, with no interference from non core folks πŸ™‚

What say? I think I’ll end by showing you this lovely story of opposites staying together

StartUp Dilemma 8 – What’s the Magic Number of Founders?

16 Jan

Entrepreneurship is a bit like marriage – you get married (willingly that is) either because you really like a person and would like to spend the rest of your life with him/ her; OR (seen less often in the western world, but very common in India) because you feel that this is the right time to get married (for whatever reason – biological clock and the need to guarantee perpetuity of race/ the desire to not live alone/ the pressure society is putting on you to find your soul mate/…).

Entrepreneurship also, very often hits either because you have an idea/ (or many ideas) that you really think will allow you to rule the world; or, because you want to start ‘something” on your own (“something” is undefined – and you are open to trying many of those). (Click here to read an earlier post on the right age to be an entrepreneur, and some segments of those!).

To take the corollary further, choosing co-founders is also a bit like marriage – you basically either know someone really well already, and are used to doing things with them – so they become a natural part of whatever you embark upon. Or, you kind of mount a hunt for someone who has what you need – it could be the code/ the BD contacts or skills/ the Ops knowledge/ the charisma/ and ofcourse the money!

So this questions often gets asked – how many co-founders should I have? Should I have any at all? How many is too much? And, how do I go about looking for founders.

Founder fin

Sometimes, (rarely though) this meeting happens a bit by chance – like it did for us. Debjani had a skeleton of an idea, her boss said – go for it; she knew Shoma of old, and said – OK, you want to try working from home/ in your pyjamas for a few days an hour, Shoma said yes; they figured they needed someone who India better, asked a neighbour if she would join, Asha said – not me, ask my friend (me); I was at a loose end and just getting bored with parenthood, agreed to meet Debjani and Shoma for a coffee (was in a hurry as had left 2 year old at home), listened to “idea” for 5 mins, figured there was no downside, wrote their numbers on the back of a tissue paper; Debjani figured now that we had 2 in India she needed one in the U.S. – asked her old friend Kyung if he would join – he was at a loose end too, said yes – EmPower was born!

And, for obvious reasons, while it turned out well for us, that is so not what you should bank on (co-founders falling into your lap pretty much).

So, start from the top – solo? (Obvious advantages – you are sole master, can control your destiny – have no one to blame, and ofcourse, get to take all your winnings home…) Actually, there are both pros and cons to being a solo founder, but in balance, it is better to have a team than not.

I can recall one successful Indian entrepreneur in the analytics field who did it alone (actually roped in his wife later) – but he got many advisors and early angel investors – and kept adding to his core management team who were all equity holders that helped him build his company – he’s done it really well. But he I think is a minority. (Though, to be fair, some examples of successful companies with one founder are Dell, del.icio.us, Facebook, plentyoffish)

Two? Sure, gives you a shoulder to lean/ cry on, a sounding board, and added expertise (in general, one is client facing, and the other is the techie/ content person). But, what if you have completely divergent views on a critical topic?

Hence, as a tie breaker – Three? Looks like VCs prefer 3. An old, but interesting article shows empirical evidence for the magic number to be —- yeah yeah it’s stat so it has to be weird —– 2.09 :). Also, this article on the “unicorn club” – i.e., those with Billion dollar valuations in recent years, seems to show that 3 is the magic number…

I agree – 2 to 3 is a good number. But, in our case, 4 worked well mainly because we were a cross border organisation – the market was primarily in the U.S., and development in India. So, both geographies needed the shoulders to cry on/ lean on – and sometimes bitch to, (about the other 2 πŸ™‚ ).

Ofcourse, the more founders you add, the more “noise” from fighting interpersonal battles emerges, and ofcourse, your share of the pie keeps getting diluted.

On this point, what do u do when u feel one is not pulling weight, or if you have a clash. Most startup failures are attributable to founder clash. Zuckerberg’s arguably ruthless treatment of his “co-founders” has been made famous in the movie The Social Network (watch this clip at 1.23-ish). Most people suggest a parting of ways is the best – if not the most pleasant option. Speaking for myself, we couldn’t do it ever. Not that we had major clashes, but there were times when one of us suggested that they just couldn’t work with someone else – and the others would step in, and say – “Hey, we started as a team, we will finish as a team, come what may”. Maybe not wise, in retrospect; but certainly easier to live with our own consciences – clearly, we are no Zuckerbergs πŸ™‚

On the search for a good co-founder, this article is a good read, and has a few good examples. A further few interesting tips on hiring non-technical co-founders can be read in this article

Finally, I think there is no magic number honestly, it is what you feel the need for/ can make happen. If you feel you need skills in areas you cannot provide, and can find the “right” people for it, for sure, go ahead and look. What is important is that they should have complementary skills, and the right chemistry.

Even the “unicorn club” analysis shows that Ninety percent of co-founding teams comprise people who have years of history together, either from school or work; 60 percent have co-founders who worked together; and 46 percent who went to school together. But, teams that worked together have driven more value per company than those who went to school together.!

I think the defining opinion on this topic can be found in the following article.

So, don’t spend too much time over thinking this problem – it IS an important one, just like marriage, but, do what feels right to you – the money will follow πŸ™‚

What I figured out last year

6 Jan

a-tale-of-two-cities

To borrow from my favorite Charles Dickens novel, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
Most bloggers probably write posts revisiting 2013, making resolutions for 2014. I thought I’d do my version of the same, but instead list out stuff that was eye opening/ confirmation of previously mildly held hypotheses/ new learnings/ breaking down of myths for me…So, here goes:

I learnt:

(On Retirement):

That it is possible to be busy without “achieving” anything
(Look at my previous blog post of outlay vs. outcome). So, being recently retired, I learnt how to make activities expand such that it fills time available.

This is by no means a phenomenon that affects homemakers (aah! I luuuvvv it when I apply this description to myself!) only – don’t we all know those colleagues/ subordinates/ even managers who procrastinate all day long doing gawd-only-knows-what, and then in the evening start looking/ being really busy, and/or calling meetings! I bet only 10ish percent of them are really overloaded – most are suffering from a time management issue.

I read a recent article in the same vein – about how an ad that goes viral doesn’t necessarily give great sales results! Click on this link for Mashable’s take on effective vs. viral ads (and a look at some of them).

A corollary of the above is the learning,

That lethargy is addictive.
(Look at another old post on habits, and hiatuses). So, not only does one have the ability to “feel busy” all the time, one can apparently do it over and over again! A tad dangerous, that!

And, finally on this topic of learnings from retirement,

That while workaholism is fun; retirement is funner.
For those gawking at me in disbelief/ or thinking wistfully “If only I could….”, here’s a good take on “giving yourself time for leisure”

(On Parenting) – since that’s the job I did do consistently both before and after retirement:

momhood

That parenting is the toughest job in the world
That u can manage thousands of people at your workplace, but, however phlegmatic you are, your pre teen/ teen WILL be able to draw out a screaming/ hysterical monster from inside you

That your children don’t really appreciate your “so called sacrifices”. Both my kids now feel it was better for them when I was at work than when I am home!

That battling the “sense of entitlement” modern day kids of reasonably-well-to-do-parents have, is a universal and perennial dilemma for the parents. I didn’t get to any answers about how to solve this – but just now read a nice take on it..may it help others like me!

That DNA is a real thing! – and really messes with lots of things.
I see kids of my friends – all bright/ super achiever type people – excelling in their chosen fields – makes me feel proud. In general, strangely, it is in inherited areas of skill – Namita writes well, Sharan paints and bakes well, Arjun and Gowri sing and play all instruments, Antara is a public speaker/ debater, Dhanya is a super sportsperson, Neel tops class in all subjects…

I also similarly see the lack of drive/ casual attitude in my kids – guess who I have to blame for it?..:(

(On modern communication/ technology etc):

That facebook newsfeed is different on phone than on PC.
Ofcourse we all know that FB has – just from a legacy perspective – been slower on mobile. But, thank god for that! I really truly don’t like the new newsfeed optimisations they are doing – where they try and show you content that is “more important/ customized” rather than new/ just being posted. So, I have a good way of getting the best of both worlds – my phone newsfeed still mainly populates newsfeed based on chronology, and that on PC, based on relevance – I just log onto both at the same time!

That Big Data is more talked about than used
But, to be fair to it, this is true of a lot of things ahead of time. Nevertheless, for all the share of mind it gets on tech related content nowadays, the actual implementation/ results are abysmal – at < 2% of all servers.

That there is no accounting for what takes peoples’ fantasies
Have any of you looked at the list of the top 10 youtube videos in 2013? (I have been making discreet enquiries amongst my kids since then about whether they have seen Miley’s wrecking ball video!)

That there is NO end to the number of things you want to read nowadays
My list of “Things to read in the day” just seems never ending – no wonder, with, even back in 2012, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data being produced every day! Sometimes, I feel its better to stick to trashy romance πŸ™‚

(On body, mind, and mind over body):

That your body does have a mind of its own
If you've abused yr body for upwards of 40 yrs, it WILL show u attitude when u start working out. Hence, the slooowwww rate of weight loss that my husband Manoj and I see despite an infinite order of multiple increase in workout time (well, when the base is zero, any increase makes it infinity!)

That alcoholism is a real disease.
I always thought it was a simple case of willpower (or lack of it) – but learnt this year that it is a real, physiological disease!

That if u have the conviction, you CAN turn around things.
Even a largely apathetic nation – look at the wonders a very very new political party, the Aam Aadmi Party in India has done already – rising from nothingness to actually form the government in the capital city in a year and a half, arousing the largely apathetic middle class intellengtsia to vote in unprecedented numbers, forcing political stalwarts to “learn from them”, and giving hope to a billion plus population!

I see similar examples in the smaller scale but still significant good deeds that our community undertakes on many levels – schools in the neighbourhood, domestic worker camps, help for the aged…

It really needs a few people to say “I want to/ I can/ I will”

That you CAN teach an old dog new tricks.
I started music and guitar classes this year – and made some inroads into both. I guess it’s a question of wanting to do something badly enough, and then having no excuse to not do it πŸ™‚ (no time/ no money/ no teacher…)

inscrutable americans

Also, unlike in Inscrutable Americans, one of my all time favourite books, people now CAN haggle in shops in America, specially in response to showrooming.

Oh btw, this article indicates that you know you’ve fully integrated your new skill when you dream about it! I HAVE to now start somehow getting myself to dream of a trim runner’s body! Kekule anyone?

Again, I think examples of this in work life abound – e.g., flexibility seen in cross functional assignments – some companies really excel in developing this value in their people by posting folks in all kinds of functions irrespective of core skill.

That left brain and right brain are real things.
I see all around me the creative/ right brain types of people – and, this creativity is really truly multifaceted. Most of these folks cook, paint, sew, design, sing-play-dance, write with consummate ease. It unfortunately doesn’t seem so for the left brain types (I may be a good case in point 😦 ).

However, recent research shows that certain things are processed across both hemispheres.

(On New Words in the English language):

That Indulgence has a new nameself gifting.
So has second thoughts: self censorship (its also called spying when done by Facebook. But, also see facebook’s denial of this!)

And, very topically, a Drynuary doesn’t really help – it’s better to have a few “off days” every week!

(On startups):

That startups can always use help
It’s just that all don’t know when/ how to ask for it. Interestingly also, help is always available to those who truly want it, ask for it and deserve it (ask Harry Potter/ Dumbledore)!

In this last year, I have met maybe a start-up a week – ranging from tech/ services/ drama/ NGO/ sports – all topics. Each and every one of them has a set of bright, passionate, talented people – desperately trying to make it big. Each and every one of them is struggling with time/ money/ people/ clients/ content/ tips whatever. Some are good at reaching out and asking for help, others have to be pretty much be forced into it. Most agree that help is always welcome πŸ™‚

Interestingly, what I also learnt as a corollary is

That, if you’ve sold one company, you kind of are perceived as having the magic formula to crack it!.
The sad truth is that in many cases, it really is trial and error that leads to success – but ofcourse, atleast selling one company qualifies you to advise others in the field of “what not to do!”

(On life/ death and the in between):

That the world continues to be a male oriented one, with heinous crimes being committed against women on and on and on – and that I have done/ am doing nothing about it, despite now having time/ money 😦

That erstwhile people on pedestals are more bound to come crashing down than not – we’ve had so many scams – but I think the ones that personally bothered me most were, in chronological order: Satyam/ Ramalingam Raju; Shashi Tharoor, Rajat Gupta, and now Tarun Tejpal. (Sounds a bit elitist, but as I think about it – the take-aways are probably that I expect politicians to be corrupt, but not so much corporate folks 😦 – clearly not so true)

That, Marc Anthony/ Ceaser/ Brutus notwithstanding, ambition is not an endless/ infinte thing – atleast not for everyone.

(Ofcourse, I chose the Charlton Heston version πŸ™‚ (RIP), but for those who prefer the other one, here it is..)

I am NOT saying ambition is bad – it is, after all, probably a big driver for most of our deeds and achievements. What I meant is, that I discovered, that mine has an end goal – it reminds me of my cousin Anupam telling me years ago – “I only want enough money such that I don’t have to think about it”. I realised that I am now happy with my house/ car/ friends/ and many material things – and so am not looking for the bigger/ better…I AM however ambitious for kids and family – I want them to be happy, my body – I want it to be slimmer….so, maybe, it IS infinite – only, changes direction?

That happiness is truly a state of mind

That whatever u do, death is final

(not “new learnings”, but re-inforced as never before this year), and, finally:

That it IS possible to have a place look better than its picture postcards

(The Mughal Emperor Jehangeer is said to have once written about Kashmir: Agar firdaus bar rue zamin ast hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin ast! – meaning if there is paradise on earth, it is here…I think New Zealand could very easily have made the cut, and far better!)

IMG_4873

So, Happy New Year All – may the odds be in your favour πŸ™‚

Communication, the Hallmark of Success

28 Aug

communication 7 year old

Most working moms and dads recognize these little notes – i used to get about 5 a day, mostly shoved under my nose, and, most importantly, on top of the computer screen – thus MANDATING that i finally pay attention to my child! (I remember visiting a client at a leading FMCG in lovely Vevey once, and his bulletin board chock full of post-its with messages from his 6 year old saying – daad – u missed the ski-ing competition yet again! and such stuff..)

The point is, that kids figure out really early HOW to catch an (unreceptive) audience’s attention to get their point across.

As an organisation that worked in multiple geographies, and so each one having remote team mates/ clients to communicate with often, this was a really big deal. It started with us four partners (who by the way, hadn’t even all met each other when we started! – so ours was a bit more unusual situation than most!) getting on daily calls – in those days, we discussed fairly mundane issues (in retrospect) but we talked every single day, and ofcourse had the email on pretty much 24X7. We still got many “cultural” things wrong! Like:

– One early employee apparently spied a rat in our first office, and wrote an “annonymous” letter to a co founder who was based in the U.S. saying – “is this what you want your employees to be facing?” Ofcourse that co – founder, having never been to India, got very hot and bothered. It took the two of us who were managing the Indian ops to tell him to chillax since almost every house had rats – infact, we should count ourselves lucky that was the only vermin we got!!

– We were a “secondary research” organization, which meant we trawled publicly available data sources for our analysis. Our analysts would call the “raw research” material – a data dump, and often abbreviate it to “dump”. Imagine their horror when Kyung told them that dump in America meant poop!

(See some references to how communication across different cultures has led to interesting gaffes in my earlier post)

But this daily call/ email sure forged a bond – something really really important in a startup! I remember my co founder Debjani being interviewed for a journal, and saying – our big emphasis – commmunicate communicate communicate! Its true, and Debjani specially was paranoid about communication to the point of getting up at 2 am her time to repeat/ emphasise a point to the teams that needed to work on her clients’ requests!

But the outsourced world apart, communication is almost the most important “tool” that you need in business. In fact, at senior levels, that’s all you do – whether it is talking to the street to get their expectations right in a publicly listed company; pitching your co./ products/ services/ people to the next prospective buyer; getting ‘alignment” with your boss or the other department’s key folks on the right way to do things; motivating your team members to work the extra 2 hours when all they want to do is go watch the latest release in theatres and have a glass of beer after! Actually, now that I think about it, the “communication” is almost interchangeable with ‘sales” (see my earlier post on why we all are/ should be sales people . Interestingly, that features my 7 yr old too πŸ™‚ )

It is why there is a whole industry on “soft skills” training, and many dollars being made in teaching the “art of presentation”.

Indian Govt. Public School Kids

Having made a living almost all my life out of maybe this skill to “communicate” well, I now have a very different perspective – that of how important even basic facility in a language (well, actually not A language, but the English Language) is, to really get ahead in life. This gets set for me personally in perspective now when I teach a class in a government (read public) school in my community. I teach the English language to 3rd graders. These are kids who come from the locality, and have parents from the lower income strata. Some of the kids are really really bright – all of them have that bright spark in their eyes – but, they cannot speak English (the vernacular language they know is Kannada, one of India’s many languages). And it almost breaks my heart to think that these kids in general, (barring the success of our volunteer teaching program) will never have an equal shot at many careers because they cannot communicate in the English language!

Coming back to Achchu, and her figuring out multi modal communication to get my attention, she once sent me an e-mail from the other room saying – Ma! I have to write an essay on a movie for H.W., and I can’t think of a title! (She figured that while I was behind closed doors at my home office, the ONLY way to get me responding to an “urgent” need was email! She was right – I told her to write on Sound of Music!) She even gets the subtleties of – “I know mom is on a con-call, so let me ask her if I can eat forbidden candy. And, I know she will say “no” once, then twice, but the third time she WILL say yes!” Talk about “in your face” communication!

non verbal communication 7 year old

StartUp Dilemma – 7 (How Much Smoke is Permissible For My Screen – or the new 2 Ps)

8 Aug

vc strategy

(Credit: Nasscom for startups)

I was talking to a young duo today – they are techies, working on coding a product for the Legal Industry. Product is maybe 60% ready, and they are beginning client conversations seriously.

Ofcourse, they’ve done the checks for attractiveness of the product right from the beginning, with friends and family. They also have a quasi “beta product client” who is using the product and giving feedback. And, they are making all attempts to demo their product to as many folks as possible.

They are an exceptionally honest bunch – they had a couple potential clients who were interested in their initial pitch; but most interested in a particular feature. When asked, “can your product do this now”, they said no, but we can do it in the next version….result – client lost interest as need was “here and now”.

Brings me to the familiar dilemma – how much smoke screening should one do on one’s existing products/ services, to enable client acquisition.

I think most startups work this way – you have an end vision, you create some capabilities, you have belief in what you can do, and the rest you “wing”…

I think in all my time at EmPower (> 8 years) not ONCE did we say NO to a client. We built almost all our services from scratch. With the exception of maybe the first division we started, where atleast we had some rudimentary skills at execution, we knew zilch about the others – we created 2 additional service lines, and then a product/ tech platform because our clients led us that way. But, when asked by the client – “can you do this” – our answer was always, “sure!”. This, by the way, ofcourse the market facing/ bizdev guys said – but invariably the ops teams – who often didn’t have a clue on HOW – backed up the bizdev folks!

The funniest/ goriest example (depending on which side you are) of this strategy was when we were considering starting our “pure play analytics” services. Now these were adjacencies to services we sold, and as we considered growth, almost a no – brainer to branch out into. The clients were common, the need was common, so it was really obvious. Our problem, it did need “specialist” skills – which we didn’t have, and were not necessarily ready to pay for, BEFORE we figured we would get traction.

So, after a fair amount of work, we did get a meeting with a senior analytics chap in an organisation – and, reasonably impressed by our pitch, he threw us a “pilot project” – a problem he was grappling with, that he said – “lemme test you on”.

Good news right? Wrong! We had no idea how to do it! In our usual way, we scrambled to “figure it out” – (by the way, I always feel that an alternative title for “entrepreneur” is “figurer out” – Imagine saying I am Sangita Joshi, Chief Figurer Out at EmPower!). So, we dug out our stats books, went to the net for quick tutorials and got one of our smart analysts to figure it out etc.. but then, someone hit upon the bright idea that since anyway we were looking to hire analytics experts eventually, let us start right now, and give this problem (disguised of course) as the “interview test”. It worked well for a while – we tested and interviewed scores of people and were able to glean a fair amount of knowledge this way. ofcourse, then the bomb burst – we got a call from our client who said – I understand you guys have given my problem out to someone else??? (One of the interviewees belonged to another company who had ALSO been given the same pilot problem, and they told the client). Much grovelling later, we extricated ourselves from the situation. Result – THAT was NOT when we started our analytics division!

But we also have success stories – our Information Support Services Division started again by our telling a client – ‘YES we CAN!” – which was borderline truth only. (The good part in processes is – yes, most people can – it’s not rocket science – the question is – can you do it WELL/ BETTER than others/ with expertise!) We hired, trained, set up and executed a project requiring some 100 people in a matter of 3 weeks – it involved a LOT of midnight oil burning, many palpitations and a fair amount of despair – but that division with the single client ultimately became our first/ biggest engine for scale, our excuse for better facilities, the reason for our acquiring a “second facility” via an outsourced vendor (read older post on this here), and probably an important reason contributing to a successful exit.

Similarly, when our first large client (one of the top five pharma companies in the world) came to us to outsource their entire media monitoring for their 29 brands – we were some 15 people, and had NO idea how we were going to scale to execute. But execute we did, and that client still remains with us.

So, what then is the answer – should one/ should one not smokescreen? At what point do you draw the line? If you are scrupulously honest, do you run the risk of never acquiring a client? But on the other hand, will you ever have a product/ service that can satisfy all clients’ needs?

StartUp Doubling Up
(Credit: Nasscom for startups)

Lets take a step back – first of all, serial entrepreneurs apart, the minute you decide to go on your own and begin a “start-up”, you are walking on (for you) uncharted territory. From being an expert in your field of specialisation/s, you become a wearer of multiple hats – owner, boss, mentor, coder, program manager, HR specialist, facilities manager, Finance guy, funds raiser, business plan creator, marketer, sales person, motivator. Its highly unlikely that you have done much/ any of this work before. So what makes you take the step? The belief that you can do it, right? You believe in a promise, and have sufficient confidence in your abilities, and your own judgement of your abilities, to know what you can manage/ how much you can stretch/ and, even more importantly, what is outside of the bounds of possible for you! You sell this promise to your recruits/ the angel funder/ VC whatever, and anyone of your friends and family who want to/ need to know, and are interested! Remember, you are the “figurer out”! (reminds me of the famous Beatles song )

…Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song,
And I’ll try not to sing out of key.
Oh I get by with a little help from my friends,…..
Mmm, I’m gonna try with a little help from my friends.

lux beauty promise

Secondly, and this is something I realised after many struggles with my conscience on – OMG, we are telling lies, we are selling fool’s gold to clients, we have NO idea how to do this etc etc…that, business, specially transactions, are ALWAYS done on PROMISE – so, when you buy the Lux soap, you do believe (or want to believe, in the “promise” of film-star-like-beauty). This means, that most clients REALISE that you may NOT have all the answers to their problems – but they invest their confidence/ time/ money in the belief – that YOU will be able to GET them their answers/ “figure them out”. So, its their belief in the PEOPLE, not so much the product or the service. (There, Promise and People – thats the 2 new Ps!)

Thats why, any investor, asks for the TEAM composition first, before even asking for the product description! As they say, “there are no new ideas, only new ways of making the idea work!”

Does this mean you sell all air? No, ofcourse not! You DO have in place your “minimum viable product” or service – this is the core set of capabilities that satisfy the bulk of your vision, and, as per your best knowledge, satisfy the bulk of your client sets’ needs. What defines this MVP? aaah – it depends – and it would be really presumptious on my part to answer that!

But beyond that, ALL business works on versions/ enhancements/ upgrades what have you – now, some lenses may call it smokescreens, but you are allowed your kinder version :). I remember, when the CEO of the company who acquired us was talking to us founders during the due diligence phase, we told him – “we never say no to a client” – he said, “oh, we’re in the same boat then”. The interesting thing was, and this is a 1.6ish bil USD/ 60Kish people company, remember; he said “our clients know we screw up very often – but our clients also know we have the ability to fix it”!

As all advisers to startups say – “its not important to get it perfect; its important to get it done!” Which means, baby steps is the way to go – as long as you TAKE those steps! (See my earlier post on goals and baby steps) Which then translates logically to, are there scenarios when your steps are short of what your client wants? And the answer is – “of course!”. So, should you turn opportunity down? Duh, why on earth would you do that?

As for squaring it with your conscience, even Yudhishtira, the Dharma Raj, “lied” for a cause! It is said that, for that lie, “Ashwathama hatha, narowah kunjarowah” (Ashwathama is dead, I don’t know whether it is man or elephant) which he told his Guru Drona, and the latter half of which was obliterated by Krishna loudly blowing the conch; which also led to Drona giving up the will to fight in the Mahabharata, Yudhishtira was taken past Hell on his way to Heaven!

So, Smoke screen or your version of the truth? What say?

drona ashwathama