Collaborating Over Ideas

Innovators cultivate rich networks for the purpose of harvesting ideas*. While there exist many solutions for harnessing ideas within an organization, there’s hardly any solutions for harnessing ideas from ‘outside the organization’. I stumbled upon this apparent gap when setting up a venture group around school alumni.

Here’s a concise, 2 min video introduction that explains the problem in the context of the organization.

* For more, I suggest get a copy of “Innovator’s DNA“.

The Role of Intelligence

A friend once described his version of intelligence to me as the ability to discriminate that which is improbable from the rest. This definition isn’t a precise dictionary definition, but it’ll serve the purpose of this discussion.

Imagine the future intelligently. Imagine improbable outcomes that question the future of status quo. Then in that case, failure is a failure of imagination – assuming the ability to execute to be equally available to all.

2014 Goes By

A viral cold has brought with it an opportunity to reflect. Going over all the events that dot the past year, I realize how challenging it can be to nurture an idea to fruition. Tangible outcomes, the ones you can feel or touch, those that are real to you and everyone else; they’re hard to create from scratch.

I’ve joined up this year’s Startup Leadership Program from Pune. Although I was greeted with initial questions on “what are *you* doing here?”, as I went through the program it’s helping me open up in many ways. An interesting discovery for me has been to learn that a significant number of startup founders had begun their own spiritual journeys. A friend called that leaning out as “downshifting”.

Through the entire year, I trialed three different ventures. One which I setup at the beginning of this year, another which I joined in Bangalore in June and the final one only recently which stuck and continues to evolve. The experience of teaming up with collaborators to solve a problem energizes me for weeks together, although I don’t explicitly seek it out, the rush is welcome.

An emergent sequence of circumstances brought me back in the saddle of running the community website – for startups based out of Pune. With it came the ability to contrast design habits around products for the desktop and for the mobile-first world. I’m now certain that India is going to be a mobile-only connected audience.

My son’s growing up. He’s interacting and racking up those inches. He isn’t putting on a lot of weight. He enjoys sharing his world with us and vies for our attention, especially on days when my better half and I are working from home. He’s devised infallible ways of interrupting whatever we’re doing. Crawling up to my desk on all fours, he barks a sweet puppy dog bark alerting me to his presence.

Apart from the usual routines I’ve made it a habit to run, build software and meditate whenever I get the chance. I’ve signed out off the many digital social networks and they’ve been replaced by other networks of a different kind.

I’m looking forward to the next year.

Build Before You Judge

Over the past few weeks I’ve repeatedly come across instances where the ability to build out an idea and get feedback as an atomic action has proved to be a huge advantage. While this won’t prevent one from spending time and effort on bad ideas, it does protect you from the more likelier instance of having a good idea and then failing to act on it. In fact, if you believe the challenges facing a good idea are all rooted in bias – then you’ll know that pushing aside bias is a priority. It’s easy to analytically tear apart ideas on a whiteboard but that isn’t progress. On the other hand, it only takes a single experience of a user’s delightful response to gain the confidence to invest more.

Serial entrepreneur out of Pune – Karamveer Singh, CEO, Ayush Software shared his commitment to rapidly getting an idea out to his target audience. The method he uses to push aside bias is to talk about the idea in past tense, “it’s already done” pushes aside the bias of aimless encouragement; and “someone else has done it”, pushes out any bias that you personally bring into the picture. An instance of where he cited this works is when you ask your Mother- “Would you use this?”

In “How to Get Startup Ideas“, Paul Graham points out to the inherent advantage of fast feedback loops. He says it’s a huge advantage to be able to build your ideas out, especially if the idea is something you want, and something with an unexpected flavor to it.

May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser who shared 2014’s Nobel Prize for Medicine for their discovery of the Brain’s inner GPS cited another instance of a fast feedback loop. What sets them apart is that they’re married – working partners. They unabashedly revealed that their ability to quickly refine ideas over breakfast helped them immensely.

The above supporting evidence makes a compelling case to keep the build-ship feedback loop tight, true and quick. And yet under time pressure, I find startup founders turning to outsourcing the creation aspects of their ideas to employees, other companies and even overseas. In other cases, they’ll share an underdeveloped startup idea with an exacting audience. I myself am not exempt. It seems to be another fallout of the prevalent startup culture that puts results before the process of discovery. Paradoxically, growing economic efficiency with every passing age only serves to underscore the act of creation.

Pune DIY, Tinkerers Meetup.

“What Did That Sound Like?”

Thomas Rhett on the Making of 'It Goes Like This'


Thomas Rhett on the Making of ‘It Goes Like This’. Photo credit Lunchbox LP.

Rains Drench the NCL Venture Center Campus

NCL Venture Center Campus, Pune

Growing Children, Growing Parents

Our 3.5 year old boy attends a local Nursery not far from where I live. We’re fortunate that he’s been able to fit right in and that he looks forward to attending. We think it may have something to do with the attention that he gets there, the experienced teachers, the methodology but we can’t be certain.

Earlier this week the school invited us for an open day to share the kids’ work. Parents were asked not to speak to the teachers about how their kids were doing so, but they cornered the teachers anyway. It was eye-opening to see that almost every parent who was there shared the same question, the same anxieties.

As parents we do our best to grow our little boy. We hope that we’re imparting the right values, opening him up to the right experiences and that our contribution will enable him to grow and take life on on his own terms. On one hand, we know that it’s one life and on the other hand, one can’t take parenting too seriously either.

With that backdrop let’s revisit the question – “How is my child doing?” asked every concerned parent, including ourselves. I believe we were really asking “How are we doing as parents?” To every parent, the teacher is the neutral observer who weighs in on the values every child has picked up at home and displays in the classroom. My little guy is a tad unpredictable – he’s won his teacher over and at home we see a very different person.

His teacher shared a tiny insight into how his mind works. He loves to be approached as an adult would. His wish is that everyone around him respect his wishes and not necessarily adhere to them. Whether that is the key to his behavior or otherwise, I can certainly say that I’ve crossed that lines several times.

I get up in the morning and after getting through a few daily rituals, I wake him up to get ready for school. I then change and wash him. I do this daily. Although in theory, this ought to be pretty simple – there are days when I botch this up thoroughly. An explosion of yelling ensues as he gets upset and my better half has to step in to referee the situation. On good days we get through it in a breeze.

As he grows past the three’s, the most engaging activities for me as a parent are the ones we both can enjoy together. While I can’t ride the junior trampoline at the park with him, I certainly can enjoy trading ideas on what we can build together with his blocks. Recalling our quiet sessions assembling blocks evokes how every child feels, peeling away a sense of play, exploration, sharing and more. They renew my confidence that I can play and work with my child.

For a brief moment Parents be children; Children be parents.

Is Outsourcing Right for Startups?

A friend wrote to me and asked me should he outsource or not. Turns out a number of startups confront this question in the early days. Especially if there are concerns with respect to delivering software on time and within estimates. My answer doesn’t vary much and is shared below.
Its unrealistic to expect an outsourcing team to have the same level of ownership and I believe that most conflicts arise out of mismatched expectations. Which is also why startups seldom choose to go down the outsourcing route if they have a choice to put together their own team instead. Writing software is a creative pursuit; its pretty challenging to get precisely what you ask for due to the lossy nature of communication.
I will always recommend putting together the best team over outsourcing. Let’s assume we’re going down the outsourcing route:
Do they want the business – yes? I’ll only recommend an outsourced company if I’ve either worked directly with them, or if a colleague I know well has worked with one. I don’t think an outsourced company will go out of the way to scam you on the project or anything like that as it will make an obvious impact on their ability and reputation to deliver to west coast customers.
Due to the language barrier / discomfort with western professional environments – you might find that when a project begins to fall behind schedule, some engineer will nod his head saying that a crucial task is complete, when in reality it isn’t. This has been known to happen and I don’t believe it is always indicative of malicious intent. Its more to do with our cultural make up. Here in India, professionals try to be over-sincere and don’t know when to say “no”. This attitude leads to icky situations where teams overcommit and under deliver. I don’t intend to sweep it under the carpet; but I can recommend that you need to watch out for this and proactively take steps against it.
Can an outsourced team make the difference between success / failure for a startup company? Success maybe. Failure – definitely not.
What you can do to mitigate some of the problems that can arise,
1. Start small (1 or 2 people) and build 1:1 relationships with the people on your team so that they have the freedom to focus on being productive.
2. Stick to an agile discipline with 2 week or 4 week cycles so that you don’t go astray and can get back on track when you do.
3. Be aware at the code-level as to what is being checked in, why, who, … . Peer code reviews are a great idea if you can get involved at that level. Hook your git repository to send out notifications on every check-in.
4. Keep communication voice-based as far as possible; this way you can bypass the language barrier and create healthy, direct communication lines between you and each member of the team. Try avoiding the tyranny of email if you can.
Over time, you can ease back on some of the above practices.
Finally, it pays to become the CTO for your product. I doubt if junior developers can help point out some of the larger arcs that could actually play a crucial role either in,
1. your product, the technologies used and eventually the ability to deliver on your business goals.
2. your team’s productivity, the tools used internally to help foster collaboration and efficiency.
If on the other hand you don’t have the bandwidth for the above. I’d say put your time and energy into creating clear specs and if stuff does go wrong I’d go back to what I said earlier that it isn’t the outsourced vendor who will determine success / failure of the startup. You always reserve the option to move on. That’s the nature of the relationship.
A side note, I have heard of people having better success with hiring talented freelancers from the odesk / elance crowd. Again this is anecdotal and your mileage can vary … wildly :).


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