The Familiar Starting Point.

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It’s perfectly fine for teams – and  a whole lot of them to start off with the same, and familar starting point. The key is to ensure you have an original path beyond that. That burden, is no one’s but that of the founding team.

I imagine that a few centuries ago, before we learnt how to document things, or copy en masse, innovation and inventions were at the peak. Heck, its even fair to say that inventions and the spirit of it, is what drove the industrial revolution, and gave it, its steam (pun intended).

I wonder, if some of this was possible because early ideas didn’t get shot down by someone who thought they were similar. Its perhaps the reason why we have parogies, momos and samosas (all of which, in essence are very similar). I strongly believe that the connected world, has, and does hinder the nurturing of many ideas – either everyone starts chasing the same duck, or people start giving up on problems even before they are solved because they think someone else with better access to capital and resources is on it and they don’t stand a chance, only to realize that that team didn’t get to it either.

What I often notice when entrepreneurs pitch a solution, is how the audience judges the problem and moreso the solution and compares it to the first thing on their mind and asks if its similar. Truth is, it is, and its not. These are also not solutions which have attained critical mass (building a search engine to take on google right now, would be a silly endeavor), but shutting down a thought process, because there is another spark out there, makes no sense.

We need to cultivate many sparks. And as long as one hasn’t turned into a wildfire, there still is an opportunity to cater to the market. The creative mind needs space to breathe and to think through a problem, and evolve – and the starting point in most cases is a place where the mind is familiar with, and oft times the starting point will look familiar. Things that are out of the world – aren’t starting points – they are usually milestones of a much older thought process, and such ideas also run the risk of being ahead of time, or being repulsed.

So if you want to be useful, hear out the problem statement – if its valid, then give the solution a try. Just as we tried google despite there being altavista and yahoo and dogpile, just as we tried facebook despite there being orkut, friendster and meebo, just as we tried flipkart despite there being a thousand other clones, what you can do as someone *constructive* is to focus on the problem being solved, validate, and give it a try. Give yourself a chance to be pleasantly surprised.

If you are an entrepreneur, remember that you get leeway as long as it is a familiar starting point. But be original and while a “fast follow” is a strategy of its own, you want to be focused in solving the problem in your own way. Be a bit reclusive in your thoughts, and be different. Ensure that you leave behind something that is uniquely you in this world – its a journey of a lifetime, and take your time.

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Sumo Wrestlers vs Soccer Players

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Think of your startup team as one unit. The Silicon valley plays the game of Sumo wrestling. There is one giant fellow on each side, trying to get the other one out of the court. its usually one or two engineers who are paid 100K annually who drive things.

In most other markets, the rule to play would be like, Soccer, or Hockey – its not one player who is holding the cards, it is a team of 11 that is playing for your side. Everyone has a position, a role and their skills that puts them there. Teams that are driven by one or two rockstars, have issues to scale – the recent world cup is a phenomenal attestation to it – the message is loud and clear, a complete team is better than a few sprinkled rockstars. In most markets, especially in emerging asia, its not a 100K engineer, its perhaps 10, 10K engineers (whatever the local salary rates might be).

The key is to think of ways to make them act like one unit – that’s your job as a CEO / Manager

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A Better Way to Validate (Ideas)

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I usually get a lot of folks writing to me saying that they have an idea, and want to get my thoughts. I’m always happy to, but to be fair, I am not “validating” the idea – for better or worse, what is mostly happening is me giving my perspective from what I know and by seeing related ventures in that space. It is by no means a true reflection of whether the idea will succeed – Infact I start with the disclaimer that I could be totally wrong. However, if you do want true validation, here is your three step formula.

Step 1: Talk to potential customers (after you identify them)
Step 2: Build a prototype
Step 3: Take it back to them and get feedback.

I’d be able to add a lot more value to the conversation, post that stage when there is real feedback from actual customers. What follows is the talk about business models – if more such customers can be earned (acquired), and if the business can be sustainable. That is a far more realistic talk, than before that exercise and in the idea stage.

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Bootstrapping, not an excuse for being cheap

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I witness the scenario on both sides of the table.  A startup provides a solution to a problem; solves it elegantly. And makes it seamless for its users. They use a few other products too – that solves some of their non-core functions elegantly. They grow out of its free usage, but they don’t pay.

And they sit and break their heads, day in and day out as to why on earth,  many of its heavy users not converting. I too do wonder why.

Karma, is a bitch.

We don’t negotiate with the entity that provides the electricity, nor the ISP who provides the pipeline, nor the bank who keeps our accounts, or the lawyer who manages our legalities, or the accountant who keeps our day sane. Why then are we being partial to teams solving our operational headaches with tools they built, burning midnight oil? Especially if its a tool that does its job and is a revenue expense for you.

We don’t bicker about the sunk costs, but are cutting corners on the revenue expenses. You understand how that makes no sense whatsoever right?

If you really want to throw around bootstrapping as an excuse, take a lower bandwidth plan and save costs. Buy a Dell or a Lenova and not a Macbook Pro (or one with a retina display). Keep a feature phone, nor a smart phone. Work out of your bedroom, and not a fancy office. Print your business cards on modest paper, and at your corner print store, rather than throwing around Moo cards; catch the train or the bus instead of flying around or travelling in luxury. After you’ve followed all this, if you still are short, then use a hack – use google docs, notepad, or one of the many free tools out there which do the job, will make you put in twice in amount of work and time – because it looks like time is the only currency you have. If your time is precious and you value it, and you are a growing business, then you have no excuse to be a cheapo.

You can spot a good team, by their ability to differentiate, what’s their core competency, where they can make a difference, and what is non-core and can rely on dependable tools, and pay for it.

Next time, you look at the conversion funnel and ponder why your customers are not converting, make sure you are not looking at a version of you on the other side. Bootstrapping, and being a cheapo, are two very different things.



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