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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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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How does it feel to run a startup?

Running a startup feels like mystery

Warning! If your heart and mind are immune to poetry, and its ability to communicate complex ideas and feeling, please stop reading and come back later!

Silence yourself, really..whatever it is you are doing now, just let it all go. Done? Okay, here is a little poem that gives a hint of how it feels to launch a startup and create a product. As I said, if you have never felt poetry hit your heart, this might not work. Anyway, pay attention and read it now.

How to build an Owl

Decide you must.

Develop deep respect

for feather, bone, claw.

Place your trembling thumb

where the heart will be:

for one hundred hours watch

so you will know

where to put the first feather.

Stay awake forever.

When the bird takes shape

gently pry open its beak

and whisper into it: mouse.

Let it go.

That gentlemen is how it is. There is indeed a science and reasoning behind everything but a large part of it feels like a mystery. You could have been an Oracle in a temple of Delphi trying to figure out what the spirits are trying to say!

If there is just one aspect I have to highlight as most terrifying, then it would be figuring out what to build. That single question is like every imaginary evil figure come together just to mess with you. You think that is easy? Ah, I thought the same too. Let me clarify. This is like the Mule, Zombies, Satan, Voldemort and..and Sauron coming together..they all shake hands just to mess with you..exclusively. That said, it is an amazing ride and sure beats playing politics and putting up with mediocrity.

Credits: Poem by Kathleen Lynch, discovered via Jack Cheng.Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel via Compfight

Immortal Wound

It is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound — that he will never get over it. – Robert Frost

What struck me about the quote’s perspective was the notion of ‘right reader’. I thought about it for a while and have come to some understanding. The right reader is someone susceptible to the immortal wound. Someone who consciously opens himself to the pain of receiving the beauty of poetry.

Meera with her Divine Beloved

Perhaps it is this same susceptibility, or perhaps a naiveté, that makes the adventurer head out into unchartered seas, makes the devotee lose herself pining for the Divine Beloved or makes a creator stake his all into building something. Perhaps each was, and is, aware that it might all come to naught.

There seems to be one trait that links adventurer, devotee and entrepreneur types, each is a dreamer. Someone who overlooks what is, in pursuit of what can be. Someone who has to courage to be open to a wound.

We started with that sublime phrase ‘immortal wound’. Our little tangent seems to have gathered a potential oxymoron, susceptible + courageous.

What is the point you ask? Well, nothing really..just savor that phrase ‘immortal wound’, forget the rest.

Jack Dorsey, Twitter Co-Founder’s Stanford Lecture

Listen to Jack talk about the arc of curiosities that led him to Twitter and Square.

Ugly Adolescent Phase of Startups/Products

Fred Wilson of A VC captures the details of being in a trough after the initial high of launching a product. I quote a pertinent passage below.

The ugly adolescent stage is when you’ve built the product and are now building the business. It is when the team grows beyond the intial founding group and not everyone is getting along so well. It is when you are no longer that "bright shiny thing" that everyone wants to talk about. It is when your users are complaining that the service is not reliable or they hate that new feature or interface. It is when you have to figure out how to make money and get profitable. It is when the founder starts to wonder whether this CEO thing is for him or her. It is when you need that next round of financing and it isn’t so easy to raise this time.

Having conceived and launched a product this year I can utterly vouch for the generalities and specifics of what Fred mentions in the post.

Of course I have done this within the framework of the current firm I work for but it does not change the messiness in any fashion. In fact, if anything, it only gets more difficult because not only are you dealing with external competitors, enterprise customers with their glacial decision making speeds, looking for people who have the rigor to build a product but also have to deal with internal politics and organizational bureaucracy. And that can severely test anybody.

So far I have lacked a framework to understand what the heck is happening in my own context. Fred’s post has helped clarify that this is just another phase that has to be overcome and others before me have done the same.

Competing With Free

Time has an article on how four hackers almost caused the collapse of the entertainment industry. Many gems of insight in there, particularly how iTunes managed to succeed despite the availability of free music/movies on Napster, Bittorrent etc.

It turns out that there is something that can compete with free: easy.

Free is not an automatic choice if there is a cognitive cost or inconvenience attached to it. And easy by contrast is difficult to design and engineer.

The route to be taken will depend on the market you are in and the environment that you are trying to operate within.

In hindsight its interesting to note that all of them have gained immensely from the experience of executing their idea, though not necessarily on the monetary front. And they did not set off thinking to disrupt anything, they just wanted to have some fun and try out things. The tectonic effects within the entertainment industry was just a by-product.

Lessons for entrepreneurs who will end up disrupting an incumbent’s lunch.

Via John Gruber.

So You Want To Be a Consultant?

[Note, this is not a recommendation to moonlight, if you are already employed full-time. Always check with your company representatives if you wish to do extra commercial work on the side. As always this is my personal opinion. A rough version of this post was posted by me on Bangalore_Barcamp group on YahooGroups.]

These are hard economic times. The first instinct for many would be to huddle down and let the rude winds of economic depression pass. But the first instinct is not always right. It would be wiser to take these calamitous times head on.

Start thinking a little about what skills you could use to make a living. This is applicable even if you are employed full-time, one never knows how the situation might change in times such as these.

In this post I specifically focus on being a consultant. I define a consultant as

“An expert in a specific functional area, who can engage with customers in a time-boxed manner to deliver business value in exchange for some compensation”

As compared to a full-time employee, a consultant is always hired for a brief period of time. The payment is mostly in terms of a day rate and tied to a specific deliverable getting out as a result.

Just to set expectations consulting is harder than being an entrepreneur who sells a specific product or service. To convince someone, at least in the initial stages when without a good portfolio, about the quality of the skills you have is a challenge.

That said, its always possible to break into this circle with the right set of skills, perseverance and relationships.

And these are the steps that have to be taken, in no particular order, to prepare and enter into the world of consulting.

Skills

You might be comfortable at many tasks. But focus on what you are really good at. Which of your many skills do you propose to highlight and gain customers. Is this skill in demand? Will customers pay for it and how much?

Competition

Who are the competitors in this particular area? Are there large and small players? How have they been doing? What challenges do they face today? And how do you intend to handle them?

Portfolio

What can you show to prove your skills are not your own opinions of yourself?

What credentials can you bring to the table? Can ex-clients, colleagues vouch for you? Is your portfolio available online?

Networking

Your first and best break can come from people who already know and trust you to deliver.

Are you on social networking sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter etc? Do you have recommendations from them displayed prominently, or at least viewable on demand? Are you actively reaching out to people online and offline?

Marketing

See the above point on networking. Do all those. Have a blog. Record your thoughts on it.

Let the world see what transpires in your head without them having to ask what you are up to.

Use your online presence as a means to draw attention and market yourself. Actively participate in relevant user groups online and offline. Reach out and ask people how you may help them in any way.

Differentiation

How will your contribution and ideas be different from the many hundreds competing for the same set of customers? How will you distinguish yourself in the marketplace in every aspect of running your consulting practice?

Seek to stand out in a positive way from the clutter.

Positioning

Don’t claim to have ideas to boil the ocean.

Start small and slowly expand your domain of expertise.

Slowly but surely you can build a set of people who trust you.

Legal

Get your groundwork in terms of legal entities, tax implications etc sorted.

Summary

Of course all this is just an outline, I will have more specific details to share in the coming days.

Consulting is a very satisfying and lucrative way of using your expert skills to make a living.

And it all starts by telling someone, “Hi, I am <your name here>. I do <your skill>. How may I help you?”

All the best.

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Not All Partnerships Are Equal

Dharmesh Shah on his startup focused blog talks about partnerships. For all of you who are contemplating startups, or working for organizations in merger/takeover talks, this is a must read.

A sample quote: PR Glow Lasts A Day, Lock-In Lasts Longer

The other points don’t hit you in the gut like the one above but are equally, if not more, valuable. I have seen the 4th point around what each company loses in a partnership play out.

The previous company I used to work for was a premium financial services consulting firm. With a set of blue chip clients, access to the C-level folks in the financial industry and consulting rates any services company would kill for it was a pleasure to work there. Not to say it was employee heaven though, shit happened but there was so much positive vibe and work happening that people generally got by without bitching too much.

And then they entered into a merger agreement with a much larger company. Right from the word go, regardless of what spin was attached to the partnership, it seemed doomed.

It has been 18+ months since I moved from the company and all of what I hear does nothing to make me want to go back. The larger firm brought as much strategic thinking to the table as a money lender would, was akin to a machine shop floor in its functioning, efficient but no finesse.  The smaller firm thrived on personal relationships, consulting deals won through intellectual rigor, contacts and old fashioned ear to the ground.

This was chalk and cheese in hindsight. But guess what, the larger organization barely skipped a beat. The smaller organization though got ripped, its value proposition gone and its best people jumped ship.

The most valuable lessons for me in this, as a humble foot soldier on the ground, was this –

  1. Balance sheets don’t tell the whole story – Not all aspects impacting a potential partnership can be deciphered through balance sheets and the counting beads of its accountants. Interact with the people at middle-management levels. This is typically hard to do when there is a blanket ban on talking to anyone but the official representatives on either side. But with so much of social media stuff happening, especially with blogs, facebook, twitter etc it should not be hard to get a sense of how the people at these levels think, how they work etc.
  2. Strategy is top-down, execution is bottom-up –  It is not enough if the C-level folks want the entities to merge, share infrastructure and gain operational efficiencies. Buy-in from the team on the ground is crucial. Or your ability to execute is going to be hampered. Like it or not a hundred processes that encodes the knowledge of your best people is useless. Unless you are a manufacturing outfit who will not change what you do for 10+years.
  3. Distrust yes masters – Do your trusted lieutenants agree with whatever you do? If so, fire them now. You do not have to share your thoughts with those who always agree with you. Get contrary view points. Also grow enough to know an opinion is not the person. Not directly relevant to any merger/partnership process but very necessary because the more number of heads spinning out perspectives the better your chance you have at making this work.
  4. Think very hard on the motivations of the other party – This one should be obvious 🙂

That is what I learnt. What else would you add to it?