Doing a Startup? Here is one way to maintain focus

Am sure this is familiar to anyone in startup mode. Endless possibilities, danger of losing focus at every turn and no sight of a home. Homer, poet of Ancient Greece, shows how Odysseus, the hero of Odyssey, maintains his focus.

Situation

Odysseus is trying to get home. His immediate problem is to navigate along with his men beyond the Sirens, maidens of beauty and heart wrenching songs. Those who heard the Sirens abandoned prudence and rushed to rocky coasts.

Solution?

Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_by_H.J._Draper

Odysseus has his team’s ears blocked with beeswax, preventing them from hearing the Siren’s song. A song of unbearable longing that lures sailors, only to dash their ships to doom on treacherous seas. Odysseus is curious to hear the song, but is pragmatic enough not to trust himself, hence has himself tied to the ship’s mast. So the team is not distracted and he is tied to his purpose, literally in this case.

Thus, the team row their way past the Sirens. Odysseus survives the Siren’s call to doom by being firm in his commitment and a little foresight.

So, if you are working on your startup, be open to possibilities, both benign and malicious. But commit yourself to a schedule, a plan or your original vision. Do not heed every call to new opportunities and change course. Trust your intuition and keep moving. Beware unbelievably nice possibilities. And keep yourselves focussed on execution.

Makes sense?

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Conflict is Fuel for Creativity

scream and shout

But why do you hate them?“, said the slightly exasperated friend.

My reply, paraphrased, was “Hate is too strong a word, I need a psychological crutch for motivation. Even an imaginary conflict is useful. Just as we did for our previous product when our competitor had to die!

Conflict has a bad reputation. Much like anger it is painted in a negative shade.

But there is a constructive way to view the situation, especially if you are a fledgling startup.

At the heart of all progress and creativity is a small kernel that sees the world differently.

A better way to do work, a better way to watch movies and so on. This different world view might not be what entrenched incumbents want.

But that is how it always is. Incumbents want nothing to change. Remember incumbents are invariably ex-dreamers who got comfortable, who latch on to the present than reaching out for the future.

As a side note, it is best to assess oneself, especially if you have a history of having pushed yourself in the past. Are you still reaching out or are you grasping for what you can get now? Are you part of the future being born or a past holding onto what is left?

To progress one has to intimately feel that a better way is possible, the existing scenario should just be unacceptable.

What you choose to be in conflict with is dependent on what you wish to accomplish. It could be how you feel about any social condition, about how people listen to music, or how people read e-books.

What matters is that you feel the conflict and help push the scenario forward.

If you feel nothing or love the present dearly then I wish you bold and grand conflicts that inspire action!

Conflict is fuel for creativity. Embrace it.

Creative Commons License Mindaugas Danys via Compfight

Applause and You

There is little else more seductive than the applause of your peers.

To be looked upon with a mixture of awe, reverence, admiration and perhaps even jealousy.

As social creatures our sense of identity depends a lot on what others think of us.

Left unchecked it turns into a trap, a little ruse of our ego to deceive us.

Any recognition is good in principle, but to be drunk on it and forget what brought us here is an error.

Be wary of applause, as you would be of a boisterous drunkard who might go off at anytime. Keep your distance.

Your accomplishments driven by effort and diligence is beautiful on its own.

The adoration of half-wits is a blot upon your spirit. Do not yield.

Cloud Atlas, What Art Can Be

Cloud Atlas is a movie based on novel of same name by David Mitchell. Now a movie with Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer. Check the trailer below.

The best sort of art is not one which entertains or informs or clarifies or even celebrates. Art at its most sublime poses the big questions, leaves us with a sense of wonder and makes us grapple with the mystery of existence.

Simply wonderful to see movie makers attempt complex topics without compromise. Am watching this once its out.

Digg and Conditions that Make Failure Acceptable

Digg is dead. Digg’s failure was a chance for bloggers to speculate about Digg itself and what makes startups fail and rise up.

There were the usual condescending views on what happened to Digg. See picture below.

Failure of Digg

In case you did not get the joke, here is the actual cover published many years ago.

Failure of Digg, Original Cover

There were positive takes too, for example here is one from Sarah Lacy:

The lesson from Digg is crucial as Silicon Valley’s ecosystem has made it easier and easier to start a company. It’s that a great product is necessary but not nearly enough. Building a real company is harder, and it takes execution and leadership.

And Sarah ends the article with this:

There will be haters on this post. And that’s fine. But the people who write checks in the Valley have respect for what Digg built, whether the founders fell short or not. Smart people will always want to back these guys– as Mike Maples said on Ask a VC last week– and people like Arrington and me will root for them again.

Context of Failure

In my understanding there is a specific context in which the sentiment “failure is acceptable” occurs. This context is driven by three factors.

First, the economic drivers of society have changed from being manufacturing oriented to one driven by information and software. Software products are not typically capital intensive, besides Moore’s Law ensures more CPU power being available for less cost. So software companies are born, grow and mature at a much faster rate than those that manufacture things.

Second, most major economies are globalized, coupled with spread of internet and internet based services makes an unimaginable amount of competition possible. The key here is that location is not an impediment to build and sell software. As long as connectivity exists, any service can theoretically be served anywhere. Theoretically because there are laws around what can be sold from and to in each nation. But in principle location is not a hard barrier for digital services.

Third, increasing complexity of societies driven by change in demographics of nations, the migration from rural areas into cities, availability of cheap communication devices, affordable internet connectivity and other factors drive an inordinate rate of change and new perspectives that leave little room for certainty.

Consequence

With the above three factors influencing our context, it is easy to work out why investors and entrepreneurs take the stance that “failure is acceptable“. Basically very few have any certainty on what product or service will succeed in the marketplace. A product that succeeds in the US, does not even start in Brazil or India or China. There are no clear answers.

The option to not failing seems to be to sit tight, which certainly is no option for dreamers and builders. Besides in software related services the life-span of vetting a product is quite short. Unlike manufacturing a car where it takes a few years to build one and then test to see if it succeeds, a prototype software product can be done in as few as handful of weeks to get feedback from potential customers.

So a couple of years spent building a software product that has failed is no big deal, the experience of having executed idea still remains valuable. These lessons learnt from failure and the endurance built up in execution can be reused. The VCs and entrepreneurs have thought through these dynamics, leading to insight that failure does not kill and one can always try again.

Bottom line, execution builds competency regardless of outcome.

Is it just a fashion?

I also think, this is no ephemeral trend..this is a deeper perspective of what makes work essential to us as humans. Beyond its ability to put food on the table, work infuses meaning to many of us and without that ability to leave markers around many would be unhappy. But here I digress into philosophical territory and will have to stop I guess! What do you think? What makes failure acceptable, at least in the technology industry?

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Aaron Sorkin – Commencement Address at Syracuse University

Aaron Sorkin is the screenplay writer for The Social Network, the movie about Facebook. If you have seen the movie it should be apparent how brilliant the screenplay was. So Aaron delivered the commencement address at Syracuse University. Some quotes below-

Develop your own compass, and trust it. Take risks, dare to fail, remember the first person through the wall always gets hurt.

Don’t ever forget that you’re a citizen of this world, and there are things you can do to lift the human spirit, things that are easy, things that are free, things that you can do every day. Civility, respect, kindness, character.

You’re too good for schadenfreude, you’re too good for gossip and snark, you’re too good for intolerance.

Being the storyteller he is, Aaron does a good job of narrating the trajectory of his career and life. I gained much, really think you should read it in full here.

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Doing the Right Thing

CSS3MachineHero

Last week I came across a review of CSS3Machine, an iPad app to create CSS3 styles and animations.

Naturally, I was eager to get any help on the CSS front and got onto the AppStore. When I tried to visit the app page, I got the familiar message that app was only available in the US Store. iTunes shifted to the US store and then threw an error saying app was not available. Thinking it must be an error due to a wrong link, I visited the website and tried again. Same result.

Determined not to be thwarted, I used the contact form and wrote asking why the app was not available. And I got a response from Daniel Eckhart, who I guess is prime mover for CSS3Machine.

It’s not just India.

I’ve made the decision to temporarily pull CSS3Machine all app stores. The recent changes to CSS3 “best practices” as well as changes to iOS and Webkit have conspired to put CSS3Machine behind the times, and I felt it was no longer a product I could stand behind.

I hope get it updated soon.

The product was pulled because, apart from technical reasons, the developer felt he could no longer stand behind it. This is a fine example of an ethical action, not a blind adherence to a random moral code, but the result of carefully considered possibilities and laced with ideas of pride in ones work, ownership and the ability to take a commercially bitter decision because it is the “right thing to do”.

Contrast this with the JP Morgan trader who blew two billion dollars trading in credit default swaps. Incidentally he was nicknamed “Voldemort” which I found charmingly apt in a curious way.

I have nothing against the trader. Doing the right thing is difficult. Greed and crude ambition clouds judgement. Weakness of character makes people take shortcuts. But in all that littleness around, there is Daniel Eckhart, developer of a tiny product who foregoes revenue because its the right thing to do. My faith in humanity grew a little more. I urge you to check CSS3Machine and buy it when its updated and re-released. And of course, in all small and big things we do it would help to “do the right thing”.

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Executive Education is Useless

MBA

I got an email from INSEAD’s Leadership Programme for Senior Indian Executives (ILPSIE) on LinkedIn today. Their well-intentioned mail was to..see quote below

ILPSIE is aimed exclusively at Indian managers with an average of 14-15 years of experience. ILPSIE primarily seeks to improve fast growing Indian companies’ “bench strength” of skilled general managers, thereby enabling them to successfully capitalize on growth opportunities.

bench strength“..what the ****?! And “skilled general managers“?? I have nothing against INSEAD by the way.

I feel this is standard for the Indian/old world mindset, the ignorant belief that an MBA endows you with superpowers. Once that is done one could sail into clouds of senior management. Or get a coveted role within the financial industry. Or deal with rigors of managing any business in reality.

It used to be true when life was lot simpler but not true anymore.

An MBA teaches you basic heuristics and patterns of rational thinking. Anyone with 2 ounces of motivation and 1 ounce of opportunity can get the same thing, for lower cost and possibly faster, using books plus contacts in the old world and getting online in the new world. The value that society attached to degrees will cease being relevant. Old world HR departments, who cannot judge your technical skill, will still want to know if you have a degree and how much marks you got. Ignore companies with such HR folks and think in this fashion, there culture would be messed up anyway.

Knowledge can be gained if you have the interest for it. iTunesU is worth more than every average professor you have had.

Corporate sponsorship of MBA programs is another route where old world power brokers render favors to the devout. Forget it, you can make or learn way more if you will work for it.

A piece of paper that declares what you know is crap..what you reveal, share and deliver everyday is what matters. Over a 15 year career I have known folks with MBAs from prestigious institutions and got laid off because they were clueless for anything beyond college, textbook, or routine corporate scenarios.

The world is getting complex. The Dark Age, or Kali Yuga, the ancient Hindu equivalent of “Winter is coming” already here.

What should you do? Forget MBA. Learn how to program, understand basics of finance and launch a business..you will learn as much, if not more, as an MBA teaches you.

Photo Credit: Poster Boy via Compfight

How Would a Billion Dollars Sit on You?

instagram logo

Mike Krieger, co-Founder of Instagram, shares how their photo-sharing service was scaled to 30million users in under 2 years. The slide is at the bottom of this post too. What caught my eye though was the below quote on TechCrunch:

Considering his company was just bought for $1 billion, it’s a pretty remarkable effort, 185 slides in all.

Then it struck me, Instagram was acquired for a billion dollars less than a week back. And here is a co-founder sharing technical details of how the technical infrastructure was scaled. Not sure if it sank in for you but I spaced out for a few moments!

Imagine, you have many hundred million dollars on you, acquired by the largest social network on the planet, built the current hottest photo-sharing product and you talk technology to a bunch of geeks!

And no, the slide preparation might not have been delegated to a minion, there are only 13 employees!

Gentlemen, this is behavior worth emulating. Much much dollars have barely registered on Mike Krieger. And guess what I have seen people who fall for silly labels, who play power games for a tag worth nothing beyond corporate walls, or see themselves on pedestals for relatively small reasons. To be candid, I have fallen prey to this sometimes too, though I take care to remember where I started and come back to normalcy.

So, now to you. How would a billion dollars sit on you? Where does building things of lasting value sit in your priorities?

And yes, awesome tech details in the presentation, do not miss it.

(My colleague Jeethu brought this to my attention, a big thanks to him!)

Affiliation and Accomplishment

The shoe does not run

Runners run. Shoes dont.

Affiliation and Accomplishment, two entirely different concepts yet easy to confuse one for another.

An affiliation is a label, a marker of sorts. Usually granted to mark an accomplishment but not often as one would want.

The ones seeking shortcuts look for the affiliation first, accomplishment can be done later they think.

The wannabe runner who wears a Nike, does not magically become a runner who endures through physical and mental limits.

The one born into a priestly class, does not automatically become a man of luminous knowledge.

The professional desiring labels(Manager, AVP, VP, ‘anything pompous’), will realize gods of technology or strategy have not taken over his being.

The one who covets the label falls for the dumbest trick, a semantic sleight of hand.

Affiliation is sexy, it flaunts its labels like a super model would.

Accomplishment is work, it is sleepless nights, grease or ink tainted hands, aching wrists and bleary eyes.

Accomplishment is hard. It requires learning, thinking and doing. Over and over again.

Accomplishment is enduring. It survives opinions of lesser men, builds a lasting edifice.

How you are aligned now, whether to accomplishment or affiliation is not permanent either.

One has to choose to stay accomplished. One can choose to become accomplished.

Mere Affiliation is a bad place to be. Once you choose to fall for make believe you will fall for anything.

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