Posts Tagged 'entrepreneurship'

Book Review: Starting Something

I recently bought this book called “Starting Something” by a serial entrepreneur called Wayne McVicker. I found it in landmark and it was the last copy available, kind of torn in the corners and some of the pages already turning yellow. Not the kind of book I wanted to purchase from a place like Landmark. But, I read a few lines and thought to myself, what the heck. The writer seems to be authentic, let’s go for it! In retrospect, it was the right decision.

He is an architect by profession and yet ended up starting the largest ever internet medical equipment distribution company, Neoforma. Apart from the simplicity and authenticity of experiences narrated, what I really like about the book is that it is divided neatly into chapters representing the months in the life of the company from start up, to their billion dollar IPO and down again, right up to when he left (the company still exists by the way, I checked it up!).

So if you are an entrepreneur, looking to start something and wondering what the real journey might be like, it is a worth a read. He captures the ups and downs effortlessly in the simplest possible of English without an attempt to draw conclusions or make judgments or pass on learnings in the process. It’s like life, you take what you want and leave the rest.

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The “artificial” entrepreneur

The question is can entrepreneurship be taught or is one born with the skill? There have been endless debates on this topic and one of my favorite discussions is here (you can follow the leads of different people mentioned in the discussion for more dope!)

My husband and I were having a discussion on this the other day. For me the answer is pretty obvious. One can have a lot of talent but skills are a combination of practice and opportunity. Ok, so I’m going on and on about my side and he sticks vehemently to his point that you are either born one or not!

So, I gave him a simple example to kind of drive the point home.  So here goes, I said imagine if in 6th grade instead of your arts/crafts class or any other class that you would have preferred to drop the school had given you an assignment to set up a lemonade booth and sell lemonade (you can substitute that for paav bhaji or pani puri, if you like) – what would you have learnt from the experience?
Imagine that in the next grade, you were asked to design and maintain a “cake stall” (slightly more complicated in operation and need for preparatory skill) and then in the next grade a restaurant and next, a chain of restaurants and for the final board examination, you had to submit a proposal and working plan for a “dream” company that you wanted to form and how you would get there?
Of course, you would have done most of it in a group, it would have been for a short while and the money could have been donated towards some benefit work. But still, imagine all that you would have learnt along the way in those years and how much insight it would have given you about yourself and about people around you. Imagine what it would have taught you about looking at opportunities in life, learning from mistakes, yet going on! Imagine how much it would have helped you understand how to dream and design to make them come true. It does not matter that in a few years/months your dream has changed or that you wanted to be something/someone different, what really matters is that you had a chance to understand it way earlier in life and that when you had the courage to execute it – you had the right mindset, attitude, tools and experience to go make it happen!
What say people, we need to encourage entrepreneurship being taught in schools – not as a subject as a practice itself?
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When Engineers Ideated on Pins

I did a session on ideation at PESIT in Bangalore, recently, as part of Nandini’s entrepreneurship course there. This was different from the last time when I did a session at SIMB. You can read about the session here. Now, we tried to play with certain ideation related myths and in the end also gave them an activity on creativity, what the bunch of students did was mind-blowing.

This time round, we also did some thought exercises around how to ideate better and how we tend not to share our ideas for fear of peer ridicule. It was fun, as the engineers found their own shortcuts into the exercises which proved to be even more deadlier than the finer points I was trying to drive in. At the end of the session, we gave them a task to get as creative as possible with 5 paper pins, some of them were given an agenda of thinking big and some of them were asked to keep it as personally relevant as possible.

The teams sailed through the next day with ideas ranging from making toys for children and using the pins for color and shape identification to using the pins to make flexible photo frames. Some of them used it more symbolically to make a circuit to represent the importance of adapting to change and some others used the meaning of pins (to support or hold together) to launch a website to help with social causes. Some very practical ideas ranging from jewellery to insulin shots (through capillary action) also emerged. One of the teams had a very interesting idea on using the pins to create a solenoid effect and light up a string of LEDs and use pins to create a 3D effect on a picture. The most funniest idea prize goes to the team which came up with the thought that they could use the pins to do acupuncture on fish to make them unconscious while being transported live and then bring them back to life through another acupuncture process. They had the whole class in splits for several minutes!

The whole class had a lot of fun and shows tremendous potential. Wishing them all the best with their entrepreneurial ideas!

Ideas come dime a dozen…

I recently took a session on Ideation at SIMB (thanks to Nandini!). We both believe that the entrepreneurs need to realize the potential of thinking big and start looking around them for ideas. More often than not when participating in entrepreneurship workshops we tend to look upon it as another course and turn to traditional sources of information (read Internet) to get ideas. When starting up a company/thinking of starting up a company it is as important to look within yourself as to look outside. It is somewhere in the intersection that the magic lies…

Here’s the slide deck that I covered at the session. It is just pointers to different ideas that people have had over the past few years – some successful, others not as much, but great ideas nevertheless and that is where great things begin to happen.

 Ideas are dime a dozen

One of the myths I wanted to dispel was related to the statement many people used “ideas are dime a dozen”. I asked the students to come up with a few business ideas – I got less than 5 from a group of 50 and later I heard about 3 more  – thats all. While it is easy to dismiss this statement, I take the following stand – what the statement really means is that “talk is cheap”, it really doesn’t mean that “ideas are easy to come by”. Also, an idea in itself is not going to execute itself and being an entrepreneur is a tough job. One needs to brace oneself for the roller coaster ride and not delude oneself that a “cool” idea is going to see you through.

Having covered some ground on that, I asked the students if they believed all of them had the capability to come up with ideas. The answer was a resounding yes – more confirmation to the fact that I was standing amidst potential entrepreneurs!!! It all starts with a belief that then gets tuned into your system that then constantly seeks for ideas or gaps in the current way of doing things that can be potential opportunities. So, it is very important to believe that you can do it and then start thinking and looking around for ideas like a habit (like breathing)

Lastly, we played a game together. I seed funded the 9 teams in the class and gave them one hour to make as much money as they can. What happened in the next 90 minutes was beyond my imagination! So, I will just narrate it. Each of the teams started with some idea and iterated through it quickly, with quite a few of them changing the initial idea that they had started with. One of the teams rotated their capital and did the same business twice over in the given time and the others realized that the customers will pay only when there is at least a chance of  them winning and hence, positioning matters. Most of them figured out a “good enough” market opportunity to address within the constraints of the “budget” and “time” given to them and set about their tasks. Some of them sold juice, some burgers, some bike rides to the nearest bus stand and a few others resorted to gambling (card games and sports bets).

The most interesting of the lot were two teams – one of who made the most money by throwing in a lucky dip contest and got about 90 people to sign up with them and the other team started offering an “internal services” to me for managing the various teams, their members, amount collected etc!

At the end of it all, we all had a lot of fun and made some money too! Loved the energy of the group and their enthusiasm to get going. Hope it was as much fun for the teams too…looking forward to more such interactions.

Tie-ISB 2009 – Part 2: Growth, Funding and Partnerships

This is the second part in the series on the Tie-ISB session and it covers growth, funding and partnerships. The panelists were Sundar Subramaniam (Cofounder, Dim Dim), Atul Phadnis (Founder, Whats on India) and Srinivas Pothapragada (Founder, Tidal Data).

Takeaways for entrepreneurs was:

1. Listen to your competitors’ customers very carefully 🙂 – don’t design features that you think is cool, design/make products/services that make the lives of the customers easier. In fact, one sure way to find out if that is the case is if they either pay upfront to get it developed or agree to pay on delivery. 

My take>> While, it is a good idea to listen to the customer, isn’t it easier when somebody has already developed the market through their efforts and now you are optimizing the pain points through your offerings. You can ask the customers what you like or dislike in a specific context very easily and much more objectively in a B2B than in a B2C market. Heck, your customers are so precisely defined that you know where to go hunt them. What if you are launching something revolutionary, innovative or game changing? Does it work that effectively if you were launching a completely new product or service in a market where the customers you might be tapping into a latent need? How do you ask the customers whether they want an iphone or a twitter, for that matter! Any insights? People who have done this inputs please?

2. Here comes the next point to the rescue – “Don’t solve a problem faster than a customer can create it”

My take>> An excellent food for thought and what can be a better example than Intel, here? They can go much faster down the innovation curve, but they stagger it and do incremental launches, giving people enough time to figure out problems that need to be solved, and lo, behold, there is Intel with the solution. However, I do think that, this tracking is easier done in the B2B market, like the previous point too, than in a B2C market. That is why we see many more failures like palm pilots in the B2C market. In the B2C domain, the intent to buy may or may not reflect a real need (for all you know, they might have been amusing you) and the nonchalance for an innovative concept, is not its death-knell either! Sometimes, if the cost economics work out, you just need to go out there and launch the product, right?

3. Ensure you are solving a large problem.

My take>> This is a repeated message from the last session too and you cannot overemphasize it. Find something that is big enough for you to solve and make space for competition. Counterintuitive, isn’t it? Who said competition was bad? In fact, if you are solving a big problem and you are in the right space at the right time, you will have tonnes of other people trying to solve it too and it just ensures that you are doing the right thing. Also, don’t forget, their pitches to partners, customers, VCs and all others – is “free market education” for you. Just know what you offer that is unique and different and strive on!

4. Know who your customers are and who are not – both of these are very important, it is all about being very clear about what market you are going after, whose pain points you are solving and spending your time and resources where it will get you the maximum returns!

My take>> I cannot say it better than Srinivas put it, “Sales in the beginning is closer to marketing and is like an art – in that phase founders themselves are playing most of the roles. But, in the later stages it becomes a science and it gives clear instructions on who a customer is, what pain points you are solving, where you stand vs a competitor and then it is about execution. If your sales person is not sure whether the person he is talking to is a customer or not, you are doing a bad job of targeting. If your sales person is coming back with repeated feedback about the product (assuming your product is solving someone’s problem in the first place) you are doing a bad job of marketing as a whole – so redo that piece and if required change strategy/the marketing manager. In the lattery stage, sales scaling is where your growth is and it is about repeatability, just like in science, if your sales person spends time thinking or on feedback, you are not having a very repeatable process, are you?”

5. When working on partnerships – for faster growth, industry knowledge/experience or access to markets – always let the relationships win

My take>> Actually, this is more of a question that I could not answer. Atul’s company works on Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) for the Indian TV media and he is bringing different kinds of content providers and channels on one platform, it is a tough job but the threat of one of these players wanting to take over what he is doing is not that large. What happens in a market where boundaries are less clearly established and people are integrating forward and backward? How do you work on the partnerships, develop trust and good working relationships. Any insights here?

6. Finally, the highlight of the session and the buzzword for the rest! “Startups are about figuring it out as you go along”

My take>> Well said! What can I really add to that? When you start, you think you know where you are going, but as you go along a lot of different forces pull you in many directions and it is in making those small and large decisions day in, day out, that you figure out what to do and how to do, to get where you are going and sometimes, even that is not fixed! A good team, goes at it together and that is why most VCs invest in a strong team. You can see here how Mark Suster (General Partner at GRP Partners) says that he invests in a team (70%) and the market space/idea (30%) about their investments in ad.ly.

Overall, great takeaways and lots of thought provoking content was put out in the session. I would love to know if you were there at the conference, what did you think of the points above? Did anything else stand out for you? If you were not, even better, do the points above resonate with you? Do you have examples to share? Looking forward to your comments!

Do entrepreneurs need previous experience? – YourStory Blog

Here is the article Suhani published at YourStory Blog, it has my interview also in it along with a couple of other entrepreneurs. You can find the unabridged version of the article that I wrote – here

Thanks for sending over the link, Suhani!

Does an Entrepreneur need prior work experience?

I was asked this question by Suhani who is with YourStory.in. While, she will publish an excerpt of my interview with her I could not stop my thought process from rumbling on and most of that does end up in this space…so here goes (my take, the unabridged version…). Hope it triggers a good discussion and thought process on this.

The truth is, if you are asking yourself this question, you probably do need the experience. On the other hand, the young somethings that go startup on their own don’t ask themselves this question, they are the “doers” who go get things done. Occassionally, they might reflect on the sub-optimal use of their time/efforts due to lack of “proper” training/experience, but largely, that wouldn’t deter them from pursuing their entrepreneurial dream.

Now, defering your dreams to go get some corporate experience under your belt is not bad, if you are not using that as a bait to go down the least effort path. Instead keep your eye on the end goal and keep working towards it, relentlessly. What do I mean by relentlessly? Be on the lookout for potential partners and employees who can help you achieve those entrepreneurial (Gosh! I think they made this word hard on purpose) dream, try and get relevant experience in terms of implementation, marketing, sales, technical exposure, management – anything related to your idea(s) that will help you understand the market better (enough to uncover pain points, at least!) or understand the execution aspects better or make you better at hiring people, give you better networks to rely upon once you are on your own etc. etc…

Can you be really taught entrepreneurship? Short answer is – Yes, if you were to go out and build something on your own, you might end up hours trying to figure something out that with a good training might be a cakewalk. However, Do you need prior experience before taking the plunge? Hell, No! Look at what the young entrepreneurs of the world ranging from Gates, Jobs, Yang/Filo, Bezos, Dell, Brin/Page, Zuckerberg etc. etc. have achieved. While, it might teach you how worthwhile your cause is and how underutilized you are in your job at spur you towards taking the plunge, for others it might build a comfort zone or a cushion beyond which their dreams might cease to exist.  In fact, they might even get loaded with the “large corporate” baggage so much so that they when it comes to it, they can’t operate in a startup anymore!

So, the question remains – is MBA an answer, then? Can one learn to become an entrepreneur at an MBA school. My take on that is – No. As much as a manager needs to grasp a lot of theory to get on top of the world’s learnings on management, each company, each entrepreneur is different, how they learn and what they want to learn is different. No standard school curriculum can teach you that. At best, it can help you with resources, mentorship and networks (which is great, by the way and still rare to get all the three together in one place at the same time). So, what do you do? The only way you can learn entrepreneurship is by doing it and if you can attempt it on your own through your own networks and building your own safety net, great! Else, incubators are the place to be for you…

All the best and hope it helped answer the questions of at least some of you and do ping with your share of stories…looking forward to hearing from all of you!


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