This is not one of the regular posts I usually write about. There is so much advice about Entrepreneurship already, many founders have shared detail about their journey. When I started my entrepreneurship journey, I wrote a post – ‘Lets blame it on Rio and not the ecosystem‘.
I meet people who want to start-up. Most have a brilliant idea, many talk about selling their companies after 2-3 years and retiring from work at early age. Raising venture capital is today considered success by wannabe entrepreneurs, which is not. 1 out of every 100 startups succeeds; given the amount of startups coming up – this will soon be 1 out of 1,000 or even 10,000. I guess there is too much press about startups these days, about getting funded, million dollar exits.
All this is attracting many people towards entrepreneurship without realizing how difficult the journey is. Sharing my entrepreneurship experience and hoping others don’t go through mistakes I made.
1. Control your own Fate.
To get stuff done fast, the very next day of quitting job – I outsourced product development to another company. Estimated 60 days task took 180+ days. This arrangement continued for more months. Burnt loads of cash, I consider that my biggest mistake.
Lesson Learned: Our success (or failure) is now in our hands, not in anyone else’s.
- If you are an entrepreneur, please check who is deciding/controlling the fate of your startup? If its not you, you’re in trouble.
- If you’re planning to startup, get your own team in place; Don’t start your startup by outsourcing development.
2. Things will go wrong. Again and again.
This is the 4th time we’re writing our code from scratch. First two attempts were with product iterations for Tyched, next was alpha release of Wishberg. Its initial version was written by the outsourced company, it started crumbling under its own weight as users and data grew, dumped it when we hit roadblocks. Our team is now building the beta version on own custom framework, that will help us ship product fast. Really fast.
- When users & data starts growing quickly, you should be able to iterate quickly. We lost about 4 months with legacy code. Choose product / tech architecture with tons of flexibility.
3. Stay connected with ecosystem.
I started blogging on beingpractical.com about 3 years back when I had no intention of starting up. I also manage the Internet & Mobile product management groups on LinkedIn through which I connected with product professionals across the world.
Being a product guy – helped, tested other’s alpha & beta products, provided feedback, tips on product management, gave suggestions to scale up products, user acquisition hacks. Thanks to that – it connected me with many founders, product geeks and few people in investment community. Many of them were kind enough to help me back whenever I asked.
Over last 12 months, I have a built a network of about 500 early adopters to help us on Wishberg; another 1000+ are on my list.
- Plug into startup ecosystem well before you start up.
- Don’t shy away from asking. People in startup community are always willing to help.
4. The flawed assumption about lack of early adopters.
I see more Indians on Quora these day, I recently tweeted - Future Generations may think Quora is a Indian product, like current generation thinks about Bata. India is among the top countries by users for many global products – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and so.
Almost everyone who claims about the lack of early adopters in India are from startup ecosystem. Many of them have not yet tried out products from other Indian startups. I’m a founder / entrepreneur and have decided to be early adopter. I try out every new product that comes my way. Anyone who has written to me about their product, I’ve signed up – provided feedback / suggestions to the best of my experience & knowledge.
- As founders we can continue to complain about lack of early adopters or decide to be one ourselves. My 2 cents are here.
5. Have a product roadmap. Don’t build your startup on just one idea.
Many product startups that hit dead pool rely only on just one idea. We only know successful pivots like Inmobi, Instagram, Fab, etc – but there are plenty of unsuccessful ones we never heard of. Pivot is not easy, extremely difficult in both ways – managing expectations of stakeholders as well as your own.
Talk to folks before starting up on potential of your idea, its possibilities. Avoid situations where you have build all that you could in 3 months and are clueless on whats to be done next. There is no thumb-rule to this; but at least have a product roadmap that extends into next 12-18 months, talk to users / customers in this while. They will tell you more.
- A idea that can be finished in 3 months might be a hack. It ‘may’ not be a product or company. Build your product around a vision, it may takes years to execute.
6. Don’t divulge what is not shipped yet.
This is a tough one to explain. To put it simply (or wisely) – ‘You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.’ Here the context is different. Everyone is looking for ideas, you don’t give it to them.
We met with one angel investor, had a detailed discussion about our product – how we intend to market / acquire consumers. Few days later, one of his invested startup came up with remarkably similar approach. On another instance, one investor met us twice in a span on 10 days, insisted we share our detailed road map ASAP. A week later his firm announced a investment in an over lapping category; he was leading the deal.
- We could crib or just move on. We moved on to building our product without complaining. I feel the line of differentiation between startups in decreasing. There are too many similar products in investor portfolio, make conscious decisions on which investors you want to talk with, do a small ‘check’ on their investments and portfolio.
7. Do whats impossible, not what is easy.
If you have a brilliant idea and you think its easy to execute, there probably are another 100 startups doing it already. You are operating in a crowded space.
I have often got this advice or being questioned, why am I building another social commerce product, there are already plenty of them. Here’s the answer – we’re not building a social commerce product. We’re attempting a new method of social discovery for product intents. Its different, will talk of what we intend to build – once we build it (my rule: don’t divulge what is not shipped yet!)
I usually classify start-ups in 3 segments -
- One where making money looks real easily. (Enabling transactions, affiliates, advertising, lead generation)
- One that solves problems. (Usually loved by VCs)
- One that changes user habits. (Paul Graham calls them – The Black Swans)
I wrote about the third type of startup last year – The biggest innovations never solved any (stated) problem. They are difficult, high failure rate – but once they succeed, there is no looking back.
- There is enough competition for me-too ideas or easy/obvious ones. Don’t be a part of that, unless you can completely re-define that vertical. Take up something that can radically change user behavior / habits.
8. Your health is important.
In this period, I’ve suffered from hypertension, blood pressure has shot up multiple times. Twice I went unconscious – had to be check’ed in at hospital.
Long working hours, erratic sleeping times is way of startup life. Managing time is myth, work manages your time. For last 15 months I’ve been working for 12-14 hours daily; 3-4 hours of daily commute (I reside the farthest if compared to all my team. Conscious decision – office is conveniently located for all team members. They can put in more time without bothering about commuting in Mumbai).
- Amount of stress first-time founders will go through in start-up journey is unimaginable. I’ve learned to relax and have started paying good attention towards my health.
- Take breaks in a while. Spend time with your family and friends; make sure you live life outside the startup ecosystem as well.
Though the respect for startup founders is improving in the startup-ecosystem, to the outside world you are unemployed.
- Plan your startup well. Talk to other startup founders before you start – understand what difficulties they went through. Startup life is not for everyone.
11. Learn to stay calm. You will feel humiliated.
Few people talk / act exactly opposite to what they say. One investor spoke at a conference how he thought Social was the next big thing with some awesome statistics. Kulin (my co-founder) and I caught up with him a week later – he was a different person now, had only one thing to say – ‘Facebook can do this. They can kill you!’
A known investor turned up 35 minutes late for a meeting, did not apologize, later he ordered food and drinks with no courtesy to offer us. During the discussion he was ogling at girls in the restaurant all the time, found someone he knew and told her he will see her in 5 minutes – all this right in front of us. We ended the meeting in next 2 minutes and walked away.
Another day, another prominent investor met us. He disagreed on one of our points, he started off, “Do you know whom you’re talking to? Do you know who I am?” We maintained our cool, thanked him for his time with a smile and promised ourselves never to see him again.
- Though this offended us like anything, we stayed calm. We live in small world of founders & investors, never want to burn bridges.
- Don’t take names. Not online. Not offline. Not anytime.
Maybe those investors will never know, but I have given good amount of feedback and advice on product to founders of startups they have invested in. On other side, there are some extremely professional individuals and investors, they still continue to advice us, given us time whenever we’ve asked and have continued to open connections from time to time.
12. Choose your investors / mentors carefully.
We had many funny incidents around getting funded, looking for mentors or folks we came across in this journey.
- One investor extending a term sheet on a condition that we agree to monetize from Day 1 (something I have not believed in).
- One senior executive at MNC insisted we take him on the board of directors and he will open doors for us. (Since then I have felt being on board of directors is the new Page 3)
- An incubator claiming they are better than Y-Combinator or 500 Startups. ‘We can give you what they cannot.’
- A so-called angel investor claiming to have invested in many startups, not ready to name a single since its private and confidential. (Rocket Science? Even SpaceX investors were known.)
- Someone who does not know ‘C’ of Coding telling us we should hire a Chief Technology Officer (he even suggested one with 22 Lac INR salary, who could join us at minimal hike).
- Feedback on Design: ‘Use bright red color instead of blue. Red means attention, users should pay attention.’
Throughout my startup journey, most of the folks I connected with in India had the common set of questions to ask -
- Almost everyone asked: “How will you make money?” / “When will you make money?”
- Very few asked: “How will you acquire users?”
- Just one person asked: “How will you build this product to match your vision?” He himself is a very well known entrepreneur and angel investor. We hold him in high regards for his advice and support from time to time, even without no formal association.
There is nothing wrong with this question, businesses have to monetize and make money. But few here realize that Social Products need to monetize at scale . The ratio was just reverse when we spoke to folks from the Valley, very few asked the ‘Money’ question.
Kulin and me share this funny thought. Had Instagram pitched to some of these investors, wonder what sort of feedback they would have got. Maybe – ‘Stop coloring photos. Do some serious business.’
Maybe we met wrong people. But yes, there some really great folks available in India too. My general observation is – if you’re doing a B2B start up – there is good advice / mentors / investors available in India who can open connections, get initial customers. For B2C product startups, India has very few people who can advice on Product, Design, Growth Hacking, Technology and User Experience. We eventually started connecting with people from successful startups or individuals with relevant skills from Silicon Valley / US to help us.
- Take money/advice from someone you respect. If you take money from someone you don’t respect – he will kill you with his advice.
- Spend more time with people who can help you with your product than the ones who can help you raise money. If you have a right product, things will happen to you.
I’ll write someday on how to identify good people who can advice you.
13. Of hiring, people and team.
Till May this year we occupied a shared office (paying per seat and amenities as used). We hired 3 engineers in a month – our costs went up 3X; We decided to quit that place and we were left without office space. During this time, one of our team members offered we operate from his home. And we did the same while our office got ready.
The only thing that matters for any product startup is quality of its team. There is only one rule for hiring at startups – Hire the best engineering team, and pay them well. 1 Good Engineer = 3 Mediocre Engineers.
Have heard of tons of advice on hiring – tell potential hires about startup, culture, fun @ work, ESOPs, etc. This does not work. Don’t try to sell future employees what they have not experienced. Let them join you – create a personal bonding with every team member, nurture your ‘friendship’ with team members, they will be your extended family. They will put in their best. Most of our team members joined us through referrals. Don’t talk with them about passion or commitment, show them yours.
- Genuinely love your team and be concerned of their well being. Create a bond with all your team members.
14. And in the end, its not always about the money.
We failed innumerable times in this startup journey. Its fourth time that we are coding our platform from scratch. Multiple mistakes made. And there were plenty of distractions – most of them come to you as lucrative job offers. When I quit my job, the very same week I got a call from the HR Head of a FMCG company to join their Online Marketing team, I was interviewed for that position few months back. I said no, and the next week Kulin confirmed to join me as Co-founder. I’ve passed many other job opportunities that came up in last 18 months, including one in Silicon Valley.
So all those who are considering entrepreneurship for money or funding; the reality is different. Its not money that drives startups, its the passion. There will be events that will test your passion – multiple failures & many distractions.
- Startup life is difficult, daily struggle to make ends meet. The only thing that keeps you going is your focus, passion and belief in yourself, your team and your product. Nothing else matters.
If you are new on beingpractical, please view my profile. If you are a founder and think I could be any help to you, feel free to write to me on pj [at] beingpractical.com or follow me at @beingpractical
Thanks to my co-founder Kulin for reading / editing drafts of this post.