Reciprocity: Simplifying Business Networking

A little and a lot, both can be said about business networking. To write about the little is to summarise all the many little things I’ve learned over the last 9 years. Its quite simple that every business conversation starts with give and take. As a novice I’ve found learning this simple protocol to be long and confusing. A short article can help accelerate that process.

The one word that I’d use to capture this idea is Reciprocity*.

The take: Knowledge of what you need right now is distilled from your priorities in that day, week and even quarter. You get the idea. Articulate what you want and suggest ways you can be helped. You can help me with <…> just fill out the blanks.

If you end a conversation without speaking about what you require, you’re missing out. Business relationships work both ways.

The give: This the part that I’m good at. I tend to offer more than I have to in the hope of getting things started off on the right foot.

Nevermind the generosity. What I figure works best is to understand who you’re speaking to and what their priorities are. Remember how you’re priorities helped you out earlier? That’ll work here as well.

Not all give an take has money on one side. They can also be sophisticated barters. Welcome creativity!

Once you’ve established some common ground, its time to apply the idea to the many types of people you will meet.

Investors are not different beasts as is commonly misunderstood. They too want things to be done. Maybe they’re priority on that day is to identify that interesting deal which will make his year. You’re deck or elevator pitch may not necessarily be sufficient if you get where this is going.

In that same picture, always ask based on your priorities. It need not always be an investment. It maybe something the Investor will know (an Analyst’s report perhaps), or maybe someone he knows (an Investee company?).

Moving on, time-based engagements (consulting) also follow this principle. This applies to people who are supremely busy, or have something you want desperately.

Sounds simple, right? I’m glad I’ve had good mentors to help me figure out this idea in its entirety. The biggest temptation being to avoid leaving the take to the context. Doing things this way leaves little room for grudges, disappointment, or entangling yourself in confusing priorities.

I enjoy meeting new people as a part of my work and I hope that by doing business with them it’ll lead to larger things down the road.

* The Key to Getting Meetings with Insanely Busy People, Fast Company.


My Experience: Startup Leadership Program 2015

After what has been a while, I’ve put thoughts down on paper. I decided to write about my experience attending SLP Pune 2015. It was in the nick of time too. Admissions to the next SLP batch close on 15 August 2015.

In a way, I’m glad SLP came along when it did. Mid-way through 2014, I was in half a mind to move to Bangalore and start from scratch there, which isn’t altogether a bad thing*. I turned in my application from Bangalore staying over at my brother-in-laws on an extended visit. Attending weekend sessions and meeting peers grounded me just long enough to continue to find a solution in Pune.

My complete experiences are captured in this post for punestartups.org.

* Bangalore was recently in the news for having made it to #15 as a startup destination globally.


What I Wish I Knew When I Was …

The central question around contrast in cognition is that you’d never know what you’d know before you knew it. No matter how much we try, we can’t be perfectly immersed in a different way of thinking without perhaps a deliberate effort and a great deal of abstraction.

What if you could ask how Bill Gates felt about his two lives? One as the founder of phenomenal software company and the other as the eradicator of polio. Is the choice of his second life a subtle hint that his first life wasn’t enough?

A short snippet from his “Ask Me Anything” with Bill Gates:

dgeek: Mr. Gates, Any advice on how entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow should go about balancing business and philanthropy… or do they have to succeed first in order to give later?

Bill Gates: Just creating an innovative company is a huge contribution to the world. During my 20’s and 30’s that was all I focused on. Ideally people can start to mix in some philanthropy like Mark Zuckerberg has early in his career. I have enjoyed talking to some of the Valley entrepreneurs about this and I am impressed and how early they are thinking about giving back – much earlier than I did.

 


Why Decision Making is Still Hard

The good news is the world’s just gotten smaller thanks to the information age. The bad news is that we’re still using second-best crutches to make decisions.

As an entrepreneur, I’m faced opportunities to make a terrible decision if I simply go with the fact that they’re available to me now. This applies to fundraising, who to partner with, who to hire, what technology to go with and more.

The underlying phenomena is easily explained when you look at how timing can sabotage the best laid processes. Let’s say you’ve just started putting together your business plan and haven’t yet gotten around to hiring just yet. Someone writes to you on having visited your website. Her credentials are definitely above average. Do you decide to hire her or not?

If not, you’re losing out on someone with intent to join you. If yes, you’re losing out on the other several hundred better potential hires.

What will you do?

The disciplined approach to avoid this bias is to be decisive about your position. For instance, ycombinator advises founders to think as follows “Either you’re fundraising, or you’re not”, “Either you’re hiring or you’re not.” and more. Most entrepreneurs won’t make this error if each step they take is thought out in terms of definitely timelines allowing them to reiterate if the previous round was inefficient.

Wish you dear reader a brilliant new year 2015!


Innovation’s Grand Illusion

This weekend brought with it an opportunity to background-think over the contents of design thinker Manoj Kothari’s talk to my SLP class.

We understand and appreciate innovation thanks to its promise of improbable outcomes. Occasionally, an entrepreneur’s first attempt hits the mark as a wild success. The norm is that entrepreneurs wish to learn to repeat the innovation process through practice.

No one’s done more work to dispel the hero myth than Richard Bach. As I mulled over what I’d learned, I made an odd connection back to a parable* written by him. It is a parable I’ve enjoyed telling myself over and over again which adequately explains how innovation suspends existing beliefs, allowing the re-imagination of the old as new.

The story is a short story of a creature that lives in a colony at the bottom of the river bed. Through the story, I believe the author wishes the reader to observe directly the nature of change; pay as little attention to the emphasis on the apparent heroism and other words that bring with them the unknown, or mystery.

Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river. The current of the river swept silently over them all — young and old, rich and poor, good and evil — the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self.

Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current was what each had learned from birth.

But one creature said at last, “I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.”

The other creatures laughed and said, “Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed against the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom!”

But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.

Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.

And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, “See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the messiah, come to save us all!”

And the one carried in the current said, “I am no more messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”

But they cried the more, “Savior!” all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone, and they were left alone making legends of a savior.

– From Illusions, Richard Bach.

When explaining a concept, a teacher’s intent is to share a complete understanding of the idea with the student. They often risk over simplifying it, or over exaggerating it and putting it out of reach of the student. I’d love to know how you felt about any insight that you receive through the parable.

* Parable’s are simple stories that I’ve found extremely useful in capturing wisdom and its context.


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.

Related:
Pune DIY, Tinkerers Meetup.
ProductHunt.com.

“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.


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 :).