Posts Tagged 'startups'

Let the conversations begin…@coupl.in

A friend of mine from ISB, Vivek Krishna told me about this time last year that he was mulling on a startup. Our discussion veered towards his passion and it turned out to be about “passions” :). He was looking at making a platform for people to find soul mates based on their interests. And launch, he did. The site is up and running and is called coupl.in.

You might ask, what is new, there are so many matrimonial and dating sites around. Right? Wrong.

Most matrimonial website profiles are maintained and updated by parents in India and do not really give you a chance to meet the person unless it gets to a certain level and dating sites in India have not had too much success so far. At coupl.in, of course, the individual registers and it goes beyond the basics of “what you are” to “who you are” and gives you very interesting vectors to define yourself. For example, some of the things that people use is “aspirations” – “like become a millionaire” or “write blog more often” – I kinda like it, because at a large level aspirations define a person as much as what they are today or what their qualifications are, in fact, even more!

Vivek has a simple philosophy where he doesn’t charge users for login or registration etc. He lets people find and meet other interesting people and if you find a match, you pay. Many of his users are not really teenage kids looking to have fun, they are mature adults, who are lost in the stream of work and don’t have time to go out and explore the dating scene (and even if you do, seriously, what are the odds!). So, if you are single and ready to mingle or your parents are getting ready to post you on the matrimonial boards, I would suggest take coupl.in for a spin. You never know what you might find!

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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.

When Entrepreneurs Came A-Pitching

I recently sat through a couple of business plan pitches at PES School of Engineering, Bangalore, thanks to Nandini 🙂 (catch her here – forstartups). Some of the ideas I heard were very innovative and can compare against the best of breed any place in the world(execution still remains to be seen – but comparing idea to idea), while others, lacked the determination to convert a “very” feasible idea into a business. As the process unfolded, some aspects were extremely intriguing while others were very disturbing and I can’t help but write about them…so here goes.

1. Students when asked to look for ideas somehow refuse to look within themselves, their own experiences, their own pain points and even their own strengths in technology/marketing/writing skills. Instead, resorting to secondary sources to fetch ideas. When your baseline (the idea) lacks passion coming from somewhere deep within, it will be hard to sustain on an entrepreneur’s journey. We found that those few who either built on their strengths or perceived/real personal pain points were much stronger with their business pursuing plans

2. Students not looking beyond themselves sufficiently – now this may sound highly contradictory to what I just said above, but hear me out. When I said the above point I meant about the idea for which one needs exposure, which in turn can either happen due to chance or can be created. So, if only students realized that the real world is beyond the four walls of their home and institute and the “coffee” shop they hang out at, they would know where to go look for the experiences that in turn can help them create valuable businesses. Does this point make sense now vs the previous one?

3. No “real” world experience shows up in their operational plans – students need to go out and get as many internships as possible. It is not easy, I know, but just go and get the job or do some freelance work, create opportunities where you are creating something real and tangible and you will know the issues you face when creating/scaling operations. I’m not saying one should talk like a business tycoon, but no matter what you are not ready until you are and that “readiness” comes with field experience of some kind. The next best substitute would be to talk to a lot of working people in your interested domain/industry, but, secondary experience can only teach you so much

4. Students not leveraging technology enough – most ideas that we heard, the students had not thought through on how to leverage all the hi-tech around them to get a quick and dirty prototype up and running in minimal time, while at the same time giving them enough time to do a u-turn on the idea while the investments are still really low

5. They are still thinking about “doable”, “non-utlandish” ideas – all I have to say is guys – it is ok to do a doable, non-outlandish idea, but execution will be key. If you innovate, you have a chance to survive. Also, almost everyone can do a “doable” idea, the top 1% in this country should be creating disruptive innovations (market, business or technology) for the “real” needs that the country is facing

6. This brings me to the “last” and the “saddest” point – all the technology entrepreneurs – awesome ideas in the domain of Augumented Reality, e-waste management, electronic bike etc. – walked in alone, while all the “doable” idea guys walked in, in large groups. If we are to create a large entrepreneurial culture, we need to create innovation through products and services and we can’t afford our engineers and MBA grads to be shy of technology and true innovation related risks. Pull up your belts people, the wave will wash you over anyway, you can either surf it or chose to let it wash over you

I’d love to hear comments and thoughts around this and looking forward to more bplan pitches and lots of bubbling entrepreneurial energy creating interesting solutions and businesses from India.

Shifting Gears From Semiconductors to Education

I recently made a career shift from Semiconductors to Education and I’ve been asked why I made such a radical shift in Industry. For those who want a quick answer – I wanted to do something related to India and something that would be meaningful to me in some way. (Now, I’m not saying that semiconductors do not make an impact, they are at the heart of the digital revolution we are seeing today and will continue to remain so, for some time to come). For those with a patient ear, please read on, I promise not to dissapoint you.

I’ve been working in a strategic marketing role in the semiconductor Industry, located out of India. My short bio – I’ve a bachelors in Electronics Engineering and worked as a Systems Engineer for a couple of years before pursuing an MBA from ISB, Hyderabad. The strategic marketing role was my first job out of MBA school (You can read more about me here). Now, come to think of it, it is a weird place to locate a strategic marketing group for the semiconductor industry. For those who are new to this party – semiconductor market in India is very small in comparison to many other sunshine sectors like healthcare, media, education, financial services and so on…as well as, in comparison to other larger semiconductor markets worldwide – China, US, Europe, Taiwan, Japan and Korea (and the order has a reason to it…go figure!)

There are some parts of the semiconductor ecosystem that are very robust in India, thanks to the outsourcing wave. Those include design (both captive units and services organizations), applications and even R&D (to some extent) but there are large chunks missing – which include the customers, manufacturers and in turn, strong distribution networks and sales and marketing organizations. Those working in the design, R&D and applications in the semiconductor industry aspiring to move on to marketing roles in the same industry post an MBA in India, I have dissapointing news for you. Those roles are very few and lack the growth opportunities that you would dream of, when you go to an MBA school. I get quite a few calls every month from people working in this industry wanting to make the vertical shift and I never cease to get amazed by the sheer kind of talent that this industry attracts in India. So, if you are in one of these categories or an aspirant, consider yourself warned and feel free to reach out to me for more industry dope & specific options…

So, is there a chance we might be catching a market at its nascent stage of development? After all, you can look at the glass as half-empty or half-full, right? This is a question one of the aspirants asked me, while I was explaining my above analysis to him. Here’s my answer. Well, semiconductors is a mature B2B market. For it to grow in India, the customers – the electronic design and manufacturers – should be a large industry, which has not happened so far. And, with the overcapacity in electronics and semiconductor manufacturing in other APAC regions, the likelihood of a large electronics design & manufacturing base out of India seems bleak. (This is not to say that Indians are not innovative or brilliant at electronics design. In my own previous job as well as in the startup circule, I’ve seen quite a few brilliant designers and I also come across brilliant product ideas on a regular basis from students and professionals alike). But, there is a vicious cycle in action here, unless someone manufactures their creativity and makes a big success of it, the ecosystem will not kick in and unless the ecosystem kicks in, the “big success” will always be yet to come (and I’m not even talking about Govt. sops here). Of course, there are always cheap manufacturing houses available in China, but how many people have access to it at their tinkering and bootstrap stages? That brings me back to my point about the need for “tinkering shops” and more so, in electronics business for innovation and ecosystem growth in India.

Over the past few months, I had to make up my mind to continue in my cushy job (knowing that it had nothing to do with India and was not meaningful enough for me)  or take some risk and do something directly relevant to the Indian market. I’ve been interested in the education sector for sometime and finally, I’ve decided to take the plunge . I’m joining a startup, Ariem Technologies, based in Bangalore as their Director for Marketing and Business Development. It is a new journey for me and I’m really excited about this role. You can expect to hear more about my interest in the education sector (some of it you can read here), my learnings on my previous job (thanks KK for asking this question) the company, role and their solution in the next few weeks…

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!


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