Tag Archives: Entrepreneurship

Few Things I Learned As A Entrepreneur in Last One Year

About this time last year, I wrote about my experiences as an entrepreneur. Another year has passed and also that Wishberg completes a year, I am sharing some notes I scribbled thinking about the time that has passed.

  1. Having your own product roadmap is one thing. Building what users ask is another. Choose what the user wants.
  2. Most successful products have very similar characteristics. Here are 15 Steps towards building a Great Product.
  3. Scaling up is much simpler problem to solve. Concentrate on initial growth and traction. When you come to a stage where you want to scale, there will be enough money in the bank.
  4. Ship Fast. Let things break. Often.
  5. A bug is bug only when its noticed.
  6. Focus on doing one thing right. That is enough. We decided to drop everything we did and focus on ‘wish’ for Wishberg.
  7. Chase a vision, not an idea. When you have a vision, you will get 100 ideas to achieve that.
  8. For success you need to try 100 things, one at a time. Make sure you have enough runway to try those. One of that will work. If you are lucky, that would be your first; if not then start-up life will test your perseverance.
  9. Break your long term strategy in to multiple short term targets.
  10. Spend over 30 minutes in shower everyday. You will never run out of ideas.
  11. Concentrate on doing one thing right. You may still fail, but its far more better than getting distracted by trying 10 different things.
  12. Growth hacks that have worked for other startups will not work for yours. Startups can’t be so easy. Find your own hacks.
  13. Success is not easy. Don’t expect it to be.
  14. Every week try to use your product as a new user who has not used it earlier and knows nothing about it.
  15. Doing a startup has a huge personal opportunity cost, no one talks about. This too shall pass, I tell that to myself. Everyday.
  16. Entrepreneurship is not sexy. I personally discourage people from taking it up. Specially the ones with a family to support.
  17. Anyone can take decisions with data. And data may not be available always. Nothing new or ground breaking was ever built based only on data available. Trust your instincts / guts to do build something new. 
  18. Try and fail, don’t fail to try.
  19. Luck is important factor. Wishberg got funded the same month I was about to run out of money. I already ran out of my funds and savings long time back, I refer to the personal loans I took up to keep it going.
  20. Startup as early as possible in your life. Debts, Loans kill your ambitions. Everyday.
  21. Everyday will give you 100 reasons to close down. You need to have that one strong reason to keep it going.
  22. Delegate. But be hands-on. You should know more about your business than anyone else.
  23. Team is your family. Choose wisely whom you want to add. Genuinely love your team and be concerned about them and their well being.
  24. Fight. Argue. Debate. Discuss. Don’t carry things outside office. It all should get over by the day.
  25. Ignore 99% advice you get. The 1% that comes up again and again – think about it.
  26. Funding does not make you rich. No matter how much you make others understand it, they will not. Stop wasting your time.
  27. Everyone struggles. Even a start up without funding. Even a start up with millions of dollars of funding.
  28. Funding just gives you a little more runway. To try out multiple things. Its just a little more runway.
  29. Unfortunately funding is perceived as success. I received invitations to speak at conferences just cause we got funded. Damn! And no one ever called me for any discussion or debate while I predicted Indian startup scene so accurately. tl;dr – I’m not going.
  30. Investors who take over a week to come back to you; who say keep us posted; who say lets keep in touch and so on – will never invest in you. Don’t waste time on it.
  31. Investors who really want to invest in your startup will not take much time to do it. One of our investors committed to us over a Twitter DM in less than a minute. Another one on WhatsApp again in about 1 minute.
  32. Investors fund / invest in you. You. And your ability to grow the product / company.
  33. Don’t say no to money when it comes knocking your door. I said no to it twice (rather my ego said no it). Cash in hand is much better than perceived valuations.
  34. Don’t choose investors based on the valuations. The best investors bring in value. The worst investors bring in just cash.
  35. Build feature products (unlike what investors / advisors say). But build that simple feature as a freaking awesome product that everyone wants to use.
  36. Check the history of acquisitions by Facebook or Google. Your feature product is more likely to be acquired if you build it right.
  37. Choose team, advisors & investors with whom you can talk about life over couple of drinks.
  38. Build something that you understand and believe in. Don’t build what will get funded or is generally considered hot.
  39. Never understood why using foul words in startup ecosystem is considered cool. I don’t think its cool.
  40. Let go of ego.
  41. Anyone who says they will disrupt are just talkers. Just be willing to change and adapt.
  42. Disrupt slowly. Unannounced. Feature by Feature. Before anyone realizes what happened.
  43. Competition will exists, don’t be afraid of that.
  44. One fine day Facebook, Amazon or Google will try to build what you are building. Its sounds scary, but its fun. Btw, I almost cried when Facebook launched a ‘Want’ button or Amazon started Collections or Pinterest tried to position itself as wishlist from a online pin board.
  45. Meet lot of users, lots of people. Get their ideas on your business, product. Some simple things will amaze you.
  46. Be Humble. Be Genuine. Its not very difficult.
  47. Smile. Have fun. As many times as you can.
  48. Build relationships. Specially with other startup founders. Some of them might be at the lowest phase in life, be there. At times they just need someone to talk with whom they can relate.
  49. With more power, comes more responsibility. With more responsibility, comes more stress.
  50. Do something to de-stress you. I try blogging, driving, and observing people when I travel by Mumbai Locals.
  51. Spend at least 1 hour reading up everyday.
  52. Spend one day of every month with your family and friends. Try to be away from the Internet on that day.
  53. Every mistake should be made only once. You don’t have time to repeat it.
  54. ‘Fail Fast’ is a buzz word. Failure comes with cost – money, time and spirits. So you can’t really fail fast.
  55. Value money. Think 100 times before you spend even a single dollar. Negotiate hard. Every dollar saved adds up to your runway.
  56. Don’t do anything or spend time behind anything (feature, update, task, product, or anything) that does not personally excites you.
  57. The single most difficult task of a startup founder is setting priorities. If you get it right, your job is done. 9 out of 10 times you will go wrong. Don’t regret, keep moving.
  58. Simple, short and sweet updates to your product bring the best results. Don’t over think or focus on too many big features.
  59. Focus is about saying No. Stop agreeing too everyone and everything.
  60. You learn most not from blogs or advisors or investors. You learn most from other founders. Connect and share your learnings with each other. We organized a #FoundersMeet in Mumbai.
  61. People around you are smarter than you think. Learn from them.
  62. The most important thing in life is not knowing everything, its having the phone number of somebody who does.
  63. Stay away from events, conferences and pitching events. It takes up a lot of time and energy. Both are precious.
  64. Be passionate. Be enthusiastic. About every new day.
  65. Not just your startup, even you as a person should grow yourself every day. Learn at least one new thing everyday.
  66. Have a bucket list for life, here is mine. Check it every morning, if you see things / wishes that are yet to be achieved, get back to work. Wishberg helps you build and manage your bucket list.
  67. Plug-in your startup in every possible way. I just did that in above point. But no kidding, having a bucket list is actually very inspiring, I have one since last 6 years.
  68. Every morning make a list of things / tasks you plan to finish in that day.
  69. If you are out to achieve something, achieve something big. Don’t set mediocre goals.
  70. Content or Commerce doesn’t go hand in hand. Most startups trying to do both get confused on what they really want to achieve. They really do. Focus on one.
  71. MVP is More Valuable Product. Everyone wants a more valuable product, no one wants a minimum viable product.
  72. Build your startup for growth. Not for exit.
  73. Ask questions. Lots of them. No matter how silly they are to you or the person you are asking for.
  74. Execution is everything. All ideas are equally great on paper.
  75. Startups are not easy. Neither is life.
  76. Build something awesome. Something that people will love to use.
  77. Be thankful to everyone you has helped you in this journey. Make sure you help others in their journey so that they can say thank-you to you. It feels great!
Done. Let’s get back to work.

Dear Accelerators

2 years back I wrote that India has a premature incubation model. Things have changed now – Accelerators / Incubators is the new trend here. Simply too many and too much buzz around it, its all smoke without fire. I had a unfortunate encounter with one of organizers of an accelerator who claimed that its program is more beneficial for startups than YC or 500 Startups. That incident still makes me laugh, wrote about it last year.

This post are suggestions to Accelerators and is based on my personal interactions with many startup entrepreneurs, investors and enablers in ecosystem.

1. Stop looking for startups with traction. 

Accelerators start by looking for startups with traction. Its puzzling, because startups with traction are looking for investors, not accelerators. Wouldn’t it be simply awesome if accelerators start saying – ‘Join us and we will ‘help’ you gain / build traction!’.

Unfortunately, since there are too many startups, the competition and market dynamics will not make this real. But seriously, can some accelerator stand up and say – ‘Join us and we will ‘help’ you gain / build traction!’. Entrepreneurs will have more faith & trust in you.

2. Be a little transparent.

Your metric for success is simple – success of the startups that have graduated from accelerator. Tell us that story, maybe you could learn a bit from TechStars that lists detailed performance of its portfolio companies.

No matter how flashy personal brand you manage to build for yourself, all that any entrepreneur really cares about is his / her own startup. So let startups that are applying to your program judge you ‘only’ by performance of your earlier startups.

And if your startup performance report is bad, here is some ‘free’ advice for you – pivot!


3. Prove your worth before asking too much.

With exception of few top accelerators, most startups end up applying at other accelerators after they have failed to raise investment from angels or failed to get through the top accelerators (yup, I am being practical – this is the reality!).

The top accelerators take between 5% to 8% stake in a startup for $20K to $50K. You be the judge how much equity should a startup give you, in my opinion it should definitely not be more than 5%. Don’t act too pricey, you will have to prove your worth before you ask for anything more. There are also bootcamps and acceleration programs that offer similar benefits for startups at no investments / no equity.

Also from perspective of founders, 8% to 15% dilution at accelerator (some startups go through 2 accelerators), 15% to 25% dilution at seed / angel-round, 20% dilution at Series A. By this time with a 10% ESOP pool, entrepreneurs are just left with their skin-in-the-game.

PS: And if you are adding clauses like permanent non-dilution; offering your (little) cash in tranches or after several ‘gentle reminders’ from founders – there is a special place reserved for you in hell.

4. Startups are not one night stands.

No matter how much accelerators would like to think they can change the fate of startups in matter of few weeks – they are wrong. Startups take years to grow, they are not overnight successes as many people perceive them to be and most of the growth comes once they face the real world (which is after the demo day). It takes time to find the product-market fit and it comes with multiple iterations on product.

Your so called focus on batch after batch, this sounds like one-night stand with startups. Founders have trusted you, please get into a long term relationships with the startups. Be there when they need you (and even when they don’t).

5. Your partnerships with Investors means nothing to startups.

Many accelerators ‘flaunt’ their partnerships with venture capital firms to startups and also occasionally drop names of influential angel investors. First time entrepreneurs are often misled by such talks and tend to think it as an assurance that they might be funded on graduation day / demo day or their chance of getting funded is higher through a accelerator.

Honestly – these partnerships mean nothing. Venture Capital firms are always on a lookout for their deal-flow; the word ‘deal flow’ explains almost everything in this industry. Any partnership that any VC has with any accelerator is only for the purpose of deal flow, they do not want to miss out on any hot startup but this partnership is definitely not a investment commitment (unless it is on lines of YC – $80K on convertible notes).

6. Be more transparent on utilization of time (and funds).

Not many accelerators (and also many entrepreneurs) realize that the biggest resource startups should be worried about is not money, its time. Time runs out fast, for everyone.

While there are programs and activities that directly add value in building product, any time that is gone outside of that (relocation, attending events, visiting places and so on) means staying away from building product which decelerates the start-up. Make founders aware of that well in advance – so that they can make their plans accordingly or alternate plans like one of the founder stays back and manages day-to-day tasks.

Same with funds, if there are any programs, costs (legal, travel, etc) that will require startups to pay the accelerators – please be transparent about them and mention that to founders well before they join the program.

7. Mentoring the Startups

The kind of startups entrepreneurs are building today did not even exist few years back. The skills startups required today are – design, data, distribution, product and technology. Unfortunately, we do not have great talent for these verticals in India.

So accelerators are getting investors to mentor startups, this is where the model starts falling apart. 99% of time the investor will be advising / mentoring the startup without using their product or experiencing its service! I don’t mean to offend anyone here, but the fact is – Investors should be investing, not mentoring! (unless they have skin in the game).

Take a break, read this post – Great Entrepreneurs will listen to you but will follow their own instincts.

Read 2: In 30 Days My Startup Will be Dead

Be valuable to the startups in your accelerator and get mentors who can really help them grow. Get Entrepreneurs or Senior Executives (who are entrepreneurial or proven achievers) and have skill sets that startup needs to mentor them. Alternative suggestion – get founders or executives from known Silicon Valley startups to mentor!

Mark Suster said few days back at PreMoney conference – ‘Networks of entrepreneurs helping each other are significantly better than board meetings for learning.’

8. Your over-extensive focus on demo day kills few of your startups.

If I were a part of any accelerator, I would have opted out of the demo day. Simply too much focus on demo day! Of the 12 week acceleration program, 3-4 weeks (effectively 33% of time) goes in its preparation, that is not all since you get in to meetings, introductions and so on, the chances are you will spend next 4 weeks on those follow-up meetings.

Mark Suster says it best – Demo days are showcase of who is best at on-stage presentations ~ coached and polished. They produce too much hype and too little value. Also in another post (more from a VC perspective), Mark explains the importance of proprietary deal flow for investors.

If you are observing this space – you would realize that even the startups graduating out of top accelerators are struggling to raise investments. Not all of them are getting funded or are able to close their investments quickly. Probable reason – too many startups? too much hype? could be anything else.

Elad Gill wrote a brilliant post on VC Signaling last year. I believe similar sort of signaling happens with startups in any accelerator too. In a batch of 20 – 40 startups, investors are bound to choose the best – the top 20%, or the best 4-6 startups that stand out on demo day, rest 80% startups will not find it easy to raise investment.

Worst is negative signaling effect, if any of the startups from that batch are unable to close investment in next 4-12 weeks post the demo day, it will be bit tough for them to close it going forward unless they get some significant traction.

So instead of flashy demo days, accelerators should focus on getting one-on-one interaction between startups and investors. Although it is apparent that from every batch there will be few standout startups., as an accelerator you need to give a fair and equal chance to every startup in your batch. For raising funds demo day works for few startups, but makes it difficult for many startups and unknowingly kills few.

Treat demo days as a demo day – show what product you have built! Not just to investors, but also to influential early adopters and potential partners.

9. Help startups with distribution. Not pitches.

Because of these demo day pitches, there is a certain glorification of startups – even before they are worth glorifying. Companies need to be glorified by their traction, revenue, customers etc not because of a nice punchline and a great deck. Demo days are setting a wrong precedent in the very first place. Pitching has its own importance but most founders today believe that’s the only thing to do.

I have said this multiple times – the easiest thing a startup can do is to build a product or pitch to investors. Toughest thing is – finding product market fit & distribution. Unfortunately, most accelerators are trying to help startups with easier tasks, not the critical ones. Startups don’t fail because of lack of money, they fail because of lack of product adoption.

If it is a consumer startup – accelerator should help it achieve its first 25K-50K users. If it is a enterprise startup – accelerators should make introductions to potential clients and help them get their first 25-50 paying customers. When a startup succeeds on this – they will not require to pitch any investor at all!

Concluding Notes:

Most accelerators ask startups on what they are innovating on, while they are trying to replicate the success of YC. The intention of this post is not to criticize accelerators, but a feedback for them on how they can start being more valuable to their customers – the startups!

Credits: Thanks to Kulin Shah (Co-founder at Wishberg) & Avlesh Singh (Co-founder at WebEngage) for reading the draft and their suggestions on this post.

The Minimum Viable Product (MVP) trap!

Before your read this post, I suggest you go over to Hacker Street India and glance through this thread – How much time it took for the first version (MVP) of your product!

If you don’t know much about MVP, glimpse quickly through the Wikipedia post on – Minimum Viable Product. The definition: “The minimum viable product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.”

There is much ambiguity in this definition. Lot of judgement is required by the startup founders to define what exactly is MVP version for their product since there are no bullet points to clearly define that. That exactly is a MVP trap!

If you were to build a Social Networking site today, the benchmark for minimum viable product is Facebook. A user will expect all existing features of Facebook to be in your product! For a email service the benchmark is Gmail. For a mobile phone messaging app it is WhatsApp. For a social QnA product it is Quora. For a crowd-funding platform it is Kickstarter. For a phone operating system it is Android / iOS. For search it is Google. For a tablet device it is the Apple iPad.

Early adopters loved the first version of Gmail because it was so much better (and fast) than existing products – Yahoo / Hotmail. They loved the first version of iPhone because it was much better (and usable) than Nokia or Blackberry or Palm then available. On other hand, Bing did not see a great adoption because it was another search engine with no compelling reason for users to switch from Google. Similarly, early adopters saw Microsoft Windows Phone as a different OS for mobile which did all that a Android / iOS phone did differently (different but not better).

If the idea of MVP is showing the product to early adopters and collecting quick feedback, most of that consumer feedback will be based on their comparisons with other products they use on an ongoing basis. To create a wow factor and a compelling reason for users to switch to your product, the minimum viable product you roll out should basically not just exceed current market standards but should also be much better than current offerings.

Otherwise MVP is a trap. Getting a so called minimum viable product (defined by yourself) out in 30 days makes no sense. Every product is different. No product was successful cause its minimum viable product was out in 30 days. You can boast about how quickly you rolled it out, collect feedback from users / customers (most of this feedback is predictable and chances are you would already know about it) and keep building features. Define MVP as not something you can roll out fast, but something that is more valuable than existing product. MVP should not mean Minimum Viable Product. MVP = More Valuable product! (suggested by Nischal)

This is also true for service companies. If you are building a ecommerce company today in India, customers would expect not just similar online transaction experience but also the same level of reliability in logistics or customer support as provided by Flipkart or HomeShop18..

Is there a way out of this? Yes – build really innovating products that don’t have existing benchmarks so you can define one yourself and for others to follow. Or build products in a domain were market leaders are yet to be established.

To succeed, you have to build a better product than one available in the market or innovate and build something that does not exists already! Post that stage you can – Build. Ship. Market. Learn. Build. Let the cycle go on.

Remember, the bar for Minimum Viable Product / Service is very high!

img credit: waltimo on flickr

#FoundersMeet 3 – Collective learning of 20 Early Stage Startups

Background – I was fortunate to be invited for the #FoundersMeet 2; informal get-together of 7 startup founders last year. This time around Anirudh, Sid, Nischal, Deven and I suggested to move it beyond our circle and extend it to 20 startups to come together and share our small success stories, failures and challenges. We also wanted to create a strong connect for ‘Mumbai-Pune Start-up Ecosystem’ which sort of never existed.

The 3rd #FoundersMeet happened in Mumbai on Wednesday 23rd Jan 2013 (a working day)., was expected to go on for about 7 hours, the interaction continued for 13.5 hours (yes!) with some amazing insights discussed and shared. I’m sharing this post on behalf of all the startups (& their founders) who participated.

Selling a SaaS Product:

  • International Customers are more inclined towards using self-service products. Indian counterparts expect hand holding and need assurance of customer service at arm’s length even when not required. 
  • Customers in India will insist even on customizing a standard SaaS product. This tends to be service-model trap, best avoided. 
  • As long as the user-proposition communicated during sales pitch or on the product is fulfilled, International customers are satisfied. They will switch the product fast if they find another product delivering more value. On other hand, Indian customers take time to switch product if a good relationship is established. 
  • If a competitor is offering a product for free, users will not like to pay you for that product.
  • Sell the product to the poster-boys of the industry, rest will follow by themselves. 

Product Pricing:

  • There is a disproportionate value in the word ‘Free’. Use it whenever you can. 
  • Over 90% of users will sign-up on the Free plan. When they move to the premium plan, they are most likely to use the plan that has the lowest value. Ensure that this low value plan has a disproportionate value for its price. That makes customers love you instantly.
  • When someone is making money because of your product, make sure you are making money out of it too.
  • Positioning your product / business is important. It can either be in Income side or Expense side. Always pitch / present your product on income side – “we help you generate money / your earnings will increase / your savings will multiply.”

Up-selling Product:

  • Acquire with freemium plans. Ensure enough hooks are in place that leads the customer to purchase the product post the free period or upgrade to the next paid plan.

Identifying Product Drivers:

  • A SaaS based product will not be driven by technical people, its driven by functional people. Build a product that can be installed by techies in less than 5 minutes, and can be driven by functional people without interference of tech people.
  • Sell the product to decision makers. Never pitch any product to a tech person. The tech person will always think that he can build it by himself.

User Acquisition Hacks:

  • For B2C products: Sell traction of existing users to new users. Create a feel that – Yes, there are people here, you’re not alone. That gives new users confidence about the product.
    Example – In Mumbai when you see 3 Vadapav stalls on a street, unknowingly you will go towards one that has maximum people eating and buy from there. 
  • For B2C products: Show activity. Existing activities drive more activities.
    Example – IRCTC, startup folks and early adopters think the platform sucks and fails whiles booking; common people think of IRCTC to be a big corporation that there is always high demand. That leads to perception of credibility for IRCTC.
  • Use Associations for Endorsements – IRCTC mentions – ‘A Government of India Enterprise’. This is a big endorsement for IRCTC and brings credibility to it.
  • Bounce Rate Reduction – A transactional consumer site was featured in leading newspapers. When they mentioned ‘As seen on Newspaper A, B and C’ on their homepage – it boosted its credibility and reduced the bounce rate.
  • Social Proof for User Acquisition – The Facebook widget that displays people who have liked the brand also builds credibility.
  • Real People – A SaaS based startup focusing on product for Chartered Accountant features a local/prominent CA on its homepage. That quickly build credibility for itself in eyes other CAs. It was easy to acquire more customers.
  • Investor Hack – For SaaS startups, whenever any VC reaches out to you, get them to introduce to its portfolio companies. Its quickest way to demonstrate more traction and more importantly to add new customers.
  • Physical World – Example., Printed Coupons redeemed at Restaurants are social proofs in real world. Makes other users curious on how did a customer get discount / where did he get the redemption coupon from. 

Ecommerce:

  • Thoughts on heavy discounting in current Ecommerce business in India, its like ‘Selling a Rs.100 note for Rs. 90’.
  • Potential in disrupting offline business is huge. All online businesses are not even 1% of the offline businesses.
  • Offline products are indeed cheaper than online. Consumers researching online and transacting offline is big. This market is ripe for disruption.
  • Ecommerce players are now less focused on doing marketing campaigns, but more focused on increasing conversion ratios of existing traffic.

User Experience:

  • UI is ‘relative’. Focus on User Experience.
  • Cleartrip is loved by all of us; but its clearly MakeMyTrip / Yatra that works with masses.
  • Make the product work 100% of time for what you promise.

Entrepreneurship:

  • Don’t fall in love with your product. Fall in love with being successful.
  • Things that work in west don’t work in India. Specially with funding and investments. Currency for investment in India is not traction, its revenue.
  • Be a salesman. Never miss a opportunity to make noise about your product.
  • Don’t focus on a niche market, there are very high chances of failure. Instead focus on a large market opportunity, its more likely to find success here.
  • Notice early signs if things are not going your way. Pivot fast.

Product Distribution:

  • SaaS products: Explore opportunities to integrate with large platform players – Domain Cpanels, or ecosystem creators like Shopify, BigCommerce, etc.
  • SaaS products: Label your widgets – ‘Powered by You’. They are most valuable for Inbound leads.

Product Scaling:

  • Don’t just design products for scale / growth; also ensure you design the business model for scale.

Essential Traits of Consumer Product:

  • Curiosity. Rely on Curiosity – (Example LinkedIn – 2 people have seen your profile today).
  • Build the – Theory of Reciprocation into your product.
  • Gamify some features, let users do free marketing for you before unlocking information. (Example – Tweet about something to show details).
  • Understand show-off value in your product. People love to show off on Twitter & Facebook. Capture such points to your product.

Social Media Marketing:

  • Twitter links have a CTR of 0.5% to 0.8%. Customer acquisition here happens in scale. Spend energy wisely.
  • Don’t spend time on talking to random folks on Twitter based on their conversations. Extremely time consuming and most unlikely to convert.
  • Facebook advertising does not lead to conversion. Its best suited for brand building.
  • Facebook Contests that involve sharing real pictures of users online brings lot of credibility to brand.

Competition:

  • Once a user has signed up for the product; make sure it works it. Don’t bother about competition. He has taken pain to signup to your product, make the promise work.
  • You’re the only one who know about your competitors; not your customers.
  • Many SaaS verticals are getting crowded to an extent that price remains only factor to decide. Only the ones that are able to innovate will survive.

Visibility:

  • Founders should be visible on Social Media. Talk about the product and should be able to convince their followers about their passion. Only passion attracts initial traction.

Market Penetration:

  • If you are doing something innovative (either B2C or B2B) – you will need to spend good amount of time on educating your users / customers. Its easy to get frustrated in this loop.

Content Focus:

  • Don’t get carried away by ‘Content Marketing’ or ‘Content Sharing’.
  • Building products that have content plays is difficult – content creators are few and content sharers are in plenty (Usually 1% to 99%)
  • Look for plays that involves sharing of content already created.

Building Relationships:

  • B2B: Build great relationships with your marquee customers. Keep them educated on new initiatives, new market dynamics and help them monetize better.
  • B2C: Continuously stay connected with your early adopters and take feedback from them. Keep them informed of new updates, they’ll love you. Whenever any suggestion is considered, incorporated into the product – communicate to users.

Driving Engagement:

  • Build features that would enable discovery of relevant / contextual information – that leads to higher engagement on the product.
  • Keep users involved… the trick is dashboard views. They create the “I’m in control” feeling for users.

Search Engine Optimization:

  • Figure out what you are optimizing for & the competition on that. Example., if you are trying to optimize now for ‘Apple iPhone’ – you would be the millionth website trying to do that. Get your own niche, it works best.

Mobile Apps:

  • Discovery of mobile apps is biggest challenge for them. Notice that many apps are trying a generic name for better discovery while users are searching for any other app.
  • Integrate app with key functions of phone. For example, on Android – phone book integration, and so on.
  • There are many hurdles in mobile app development cycle, best to understand from multiple startups who have built mobile apps earlier.
  • App Ratings matters, a big consideration factor for user to download the app. Get the initial ratings by distributing the app between family & friends.

PR:

  • A press release in India goes not get you much traffic. Its great channel for visibility, but don’t depend too much on this channel.
  • International Blogs & Coverage had a higher conversion ratio for products. International users give a try to product, sign-up, explore and use it.

Mobile Advertising:

  • Despite all the hype, Mobile Advertising is still considered as experimental budget.
  • Mobile Industry – one cannot be stuck in a region or one product for more than 18 months. Fast innovation required.

Venture Capital:

  • Stop chasing VCs or attending events that have VC meets or Demo Days. Hardly any investments happens that way.
  • A VC is most likely to invest in your startup when he is chasing you.
  • Indian VCs are yet to understand product driven consumer web-plays despite traction. Skip them and move to the west, it also brings lot of traction.

Biggest Learning of #FoundersMeet: Keep Plumbing. (Those who were present would understand this!)

Note: Some of these thoughts/hacks listed above may sound very generic since we have decided not to mention the context / startup involved. Providing too much information in public domain would not be right for startups who participated. You can connect with any of them directly, the founders would be glad to help you.

#FoundersMeet 3 Participating founders: Anirudh, Deven, Nishcal, Siddharth, Kunal, Sahil, Pravin, Kulin, Sameer, Talvinder, Gargi, Garima, Shekhar, Avlesh, Rohan, Sushrut, Sarang, Raxit, Noel, Soum, Nitin, Ronak, Pranay, Annkur, Divyanshu

Many thanks to all startups who participated in the #FoundersMeet 3. Thanks to Nischal, Deven, Anirudh and Sid for reading/editing the draft of this post. Special Thanks to the wonderful folks at The Playce (a great co-working place for startups), Mumbai for hosting us.

Stay tuned for the next #FoundersMeet 4!

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Forget coding. Startup founders should focus on Product & Design.

Last year (2011) learning coding was hot, may be it still is. Sites like Code for America came up; startups like Codecademy, Learnstreet, Udacity, etc came up that were focusing on building products that enabled others to learn coding in an interactive way. Then it looked like a kind of movement, a revolution in making.

Being a startup founder some of those effects trickled down to India – that made me seriously consider coding. And there were some other reasons as well. We started Wishberg by outsourcing product development to another company. As deadlines were missed repeatedly, this whole ‘founders should be coders’ effect started growing on me.

During this phase I did two things a.) started hiring our own engineering team b.) learn coding inspired by this noise. I started learning very enthusiastically to an extent that my bio read that I was learning to code. Going through multiple forums, registering on these websites, taking lessons on LAMP stack and so on. A bit of background, being a engineering student (though Mechanical) – I had some basic coding background. Few years back, I even built some basic websites, did a bit of javascripts, etc.

As we started hiring engineering talent I asked myself two questions –

  • Will I ever come up to the level of proficiency that matches our engineering team?
    No. I was no where close to them.. while I was doing ABC of coding, our team was super involved in deploying code, implementing Redis / Node.js, building scalable architecture, mobile infrastructure and so on. I didn’t want my team to tell me I suck on programming (which I knew I did anyway). More importantly, I wanted the team to focus on building our product and not spend timing teaching me code or correcting my code.
  • Will I ever hire anyone who has learned programming through online sites?
    No

I also checked with few technical founders who raised investments; few agreed that being a tech founder was probably a added advantage while raising money. But many of them also mentioned that post investment they spent more time finding product-market fit, doing business, improving their product, user experience, managing investors (many a times!) and eventually spending lesser and lesser time on coding themselves.

Eventually all startup founders end up focusing only on consumption side of product (front end user experience, improving funnels and conversion metrics) than the one under the hood. This is when I gave up my decision to learn coding and started focusing on learning design (user design and user experience) which is as core to product as technology is. I started spending more time understanding design tools, design patterns and implementing them on Wishberg. I am no where saying underlying technology, architecture, speed, and scalabilty are not important.

For online businesses, there is no doubt scarcity of good engineering talent; but there is more scarcity of product designers and even much more scarcity of product managers. Startup founders knowingly / or unknowingly start getting into product management role.

I have been a product guy for about 7 years and now feel that I should have learned design long back. Our team not just gets product documentation from me, but also product designs including all scenarios and exceptions. There is a certain clarity of thought which engineers appreciate and exactly know what is to be built – which save lot of time while shipping code / features. Every month, we look at data, un-design by removing clutter, remove additional clicks and aim to improve conversions on every step.

Geek Example – The 2012 Formula 1 Season had 12 teams of which 4 had the winning Renault RS27-2012 engine on their cars. Yet there was only one winner – The Red Bull Racing team. The original Renault team (now Lotus Renault GP) which manufactured and supplied the RS27-2012 engine to Red Bull team stood fourth in overall 2012 championship. In fact Red Bull won the championship for last 3 seasons with the Renault engine. What really mattered – the product RB8 chassis. More importantly the people driving the product, its team – drivers Sebastian Vettel & Mark Webber, Team Principal and Chief Technical Officer.

Concluding Notes:
What engine you have under the hood (technology) matters. What car / chasis the engine drives (the product) matters more. But what matters most is who is driving / leading it. Don’t get over obsessed with technology, focus on product & design.

So all those who complimented us on Wishberg‘s product design & usability… need a hint on who was the person behind it? Yours truly.

475 Days of Unemployment (Read Entrepreneurship)

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.

Advice:

  1. If you are an entrepreneur, please check who is deciding/controlling the fate of your startup? If its not you, you’re in trouble.
  2. 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.

Lesson Learned:

  • 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.

Advice:

  • 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.

Advice:

  • 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.

Advice:

  • 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.

Learning:

  • 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 –

  1. One where making money looks real easily. (Enabling transactions, affiliates, advertising, lead generation)
  2. One that solves problems. (Usually loved by VCs)
  3. 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.

Suggestion:

  • 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).

Advice:

  • 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.

 

9. Take breaks from Startup Life at times
Entrepreneurship makes you so passionate about your product / work, that you end up talking about your product, vision, things you plan, how you intend to change the world, etc to almost everyone.
.
You tell folks stories about Facebook, Instagram, and so on. Be grounded to reality – there is life outside your startup too, find some time to be a part of it, unwind and get back. Time is most precious for every startup / founder. And startup life can be a trap., you’ll always end up postponing personal commitments for work very often, in fact all the time.
.
Advice:
  • Take breaks in a while. Spend time with your family and friends; make sure you live life outside the startup ecosystem as well.
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10. Technically, you’re unemployed. Accept that.
Though the respect for startup founders is improving in the startup-ecosystem, to the outside world you are unemployed.
.
You will be often reminded of that by folks you will never expect – like the customer support staff at credit card department – “Aapke pass to job hi nahi hai. 3 years ka company IT returns aap submit kijiye.” (Translates to – ‘You don’t have a job. You will have to submit 3 years income tax returns of your company to apply for one’). This is a top Indian bank, I’m their premier customer since last 10 years and it doesn’t matter.
.
This is the reason why the post title says – 475 Days of Unemployment.

Advice:

  • 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.

Advice:

  1. Though this offended us like anything, we stayed calm. We live in small world of founders & investors, never want to burn bridges.
  2. 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.

Advice:

  • 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.

Advice:

  • 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.

Learning:

  • 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.

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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.

Best advice any entrepreneur can ever get!

Last few months have been really hectic as we build our product, our company. Sleepless nights, anxious moments, multiple ups & downs, meeting people with or without expectations, lots of advice – good or unwanted (I won’t call any advice bad), and a list of endless attempts to get things right or at times even just to get things in place.

As an entrepreneur – you get lot of advice. On product, on user experience, on marketing, on capital utilization, on technology – through multiple sources like users, advisors, investors, other entrepreneurs, or by reading blogs, tweets and all sorts of information one would be exposed to.

In middle of this information or advice overload (at times) – I always end up remembering this one small story that I read few years back. Sharing this because I truly think this is a best advice any entrepreneur can ever get.

Here is the story…

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Once a king called upon all of his wise men and asked them, “Is there a mantra or suggestion which works in every situation, in every circumstances, in every place and in every time. In every joy, every sorrow, every defeat and every victory? One answer for all questions? Something which can help me when none of you is available to advise me? Tell me is there any mantra?”

All the wise men were puzzled by the King’s question. They thought and thought. After a lengthy discussion, an old man suggested something which appealled to all of them. They went to the king and gave him something written on paper, with a condition that the king was not to see it out of curiosity. Only in extreme danger, when the King finds himself alone and there seems to be no way, only then he can see it. The King put the papers under his Diamond ring.

Some time later, the neighbors attacked the Kingdom. King and his army fought bravely but lost the battle. The King had to flee on his horse. The enemies were following him. getting closer and closer. Suddenly the King found himself standing at the end of the road – that road was not going anywhere. Underneath there was a rocky valley thousand feet deep. If he jumped into it, he would be finished…and he could not return because it was a small road…the sound of enemy’s horses was approaching fast. The King became restless. There seemed to be no way.

Then suddenly he saw the Diamond in his ring shining in the sun, and he remembered the message hidden in the ring. He opened the diamond and read the message. The message was – ” THIS TOO SHALL PASS”

The King read it . Again read it. Suddenly something struck him- Yes ! This too will pass. Only a few days ago, I was enjoying my kingdom. I was the mightiest of all the Kings. Yet today, the Kingdom and all his pleasure have gone. I am here trying to escape from enemies. Like those days of luxuries have gone, this day of danger too will pass. A calm came on his face. He kept standing there. The place where he was standing was full of natural beauty. He had never known that such a beautiful place was also a part of his Kingdom.

The revelation of the message had a great effect on him. He relaxed and forgot about those following him. After a few minutes he realized that the noise of the horses and the enemy coming was receding. They moved into some other part of the mountains and were near him.

The King was very brave. He reorganized his army and fought again. He defeated the enemy and regained his empire. When he returned to his empire after victory, he was received with much fanfare. The whole capital was rejoicing in the victory. Everyone was in a festive mood. Flowers were being showered on King from every house, from every corner. People were dancing and singing. For a moment King said to himself,” I am one of the bravest and greatest King. It is not easy to defeat me. With all the reception and celebration he saw an ego emerging in him.

Suddenly the Diamond of his ring flashed in the sunlight and reminded him of the message. He open it and read it again: “THIS TOO SHALL PASS”.

He became silent. His face went through a total change – from the egoist he moved to a state of utter humbleness. If this too is going to pass, it is not yours. The defeat was not yours, the victory is not yours. You are just a watcher. Everything passes by. We are witnesses of all this. We are the perceivers. Life comes and goes. Happiness comes and goes. Sorrow comes and goes.

Now as you have read this story, just sit silently and evaluate your own life. This too will pass. Think of the moments of joy and victory in your life. Think of the moment of Sorrow and defeat. Are they permanent ? They all come and pass away.

Life just passes away. There is nothing permanent in this world. Every thing changes except the law of change. Think over it from your own perspective. You have seen all the changes. You have survived all setbacks, all defeats and all sorrows. All have passed away. The problems in the present, they too will pass away. Because nothing remains forever. Joy and sorrow are the two faces of the same coin. They both will pass away.

You are just a witness of change. Experience it, understand it, and enjoy the present moment – this too shall pass!

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As an entrepreneur if you are building a product, I’m sure your vision for the company is to be the next Facebook / Google / Amazon or Apple. Startup journeys are long, it took Mark Zuck 2918 nights to be an overnight success before Facebook filed for its IPO, is it end of story – No.

Always stay motivated – for your next milestone. Keep rocking, celebrate every success and failure. Keep learning and moving ahead. At any stage of success or failure, remind yourself of these 4 words – “This Too Shall Pass.”

I was thinking of adapting this story to today’s world of tech entrepreneurship cycle, but left it as it is. Best wishes.

Bollywood & Startups: Emotion, Drama, Tragedy and more.

India has two big fascinations – Bollywood and Cricket. I don’t follow cricket, for me its Bollywood and Technology. I have kept wondering how both of them are related (in a funny way).

So I finally put this up – sitting today waiting at the airport and during the flight time.



This is made just for fun. Keep focus on your startup, keep building your product. And have lots of fun while you do that.

Building Awesome Social Products

Number of Social Products are launched these days; everyday we come across a new one. While I am also busy building my own Social Product – sharing few of our learnings with other Entrepreneurs & Product Managers working on Social Products.

Social Graphs are all around us today – some like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter have extremely high adoption rate and have provisioned development frameworks for existing and new products to leverage social graphs behind them. Each of these social graphs are distinctive by type of connections and mindset its users have developed towards them.

Google+ has been left outside of this discussion – cause in my personal opinion it is yet to find itself a distinct social graph. In current position – Google+ overlaps with lot of existing and established Social Graphs. More notes on Google+ can be reserved for a different blog post.

 

Existing Social Graphs (everyone knows this):

  • Facebook – Social Networking for friends, (close) colleagues and family. These are users with whom you have interacted in real life.
  • Twitter – Loose social connections, people you know or are acquaintances with. Typically people who are celebrities, known professionals, subject or domain expertise are followed by others.
  • LinkedIn – Professional and Business contacts.
  • Email Contacts – Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, AOL, etc – all people or contacts whom you have/had private conversations over emails.

There are other Social Graphs like – YouTube, WordPress, Flickr.., those who are limited by its mindset or domain; also limited ways to leverage those social graphs.

 

Every Social Platform has Social Mindsets & Product Norms:

Social Platforms – no matter how big in user base, its users over a period of time have developed strong mindsets, product usage norms and social norms. They are usually not said or stated, but followed subconsciously by its users.

  • Facebook –
    Product Norm: Users can share status, comments, updates, photos, videos with “known friends”
    Social Mindset: Informal, between friends, perceived closed group communication.
    Social Norm: Example – Do not keep on updating status at same pace at which they tweet.
    .
  • Twitter –
    Product Norm: Follow like minded people, domain experts, known professionals, celebs, etc
    Social Mindset: Open conversations & thoughts expected by followers.
    Social Norm: Example – Retweet what you agree on, etc
    .
  • LinkedIn –
    Product Norm: Strictly Professional & Business oriented. Make connection with people you have worked with or intend to.
    Social Mindset: Share professional or company updates; Industry news & views
    Social Norm: Example – Do not post jokes or Facebook-like status updates.

 

Social Mindsets and Product Norms are difficult to break:

Users follow social mindsets and product norms subconsciously, they learn to follow it over months or years of product usage. Over a period of time, they become so strong that such platforms itself are not able to foster adoption for new products & features they introduce. Some examples are –

  • Facebook attempted to take on Foursquare with Facebook Places – but did not make much headway. Interestingly – there might be an 100% overlap of Foursquare users with Facebook.
  • Twitter struggled with getting usability for Lists feature. Users have added people to lists – but not following them for tweets. Twitter acquiring TweetDeck might be another sign of product usage norm.
  • LinkedIn struggled with its product LinkedIn Answers – while Quora scaled.
  • Google launched Google+ through GMail, but now struggles to keep continued engagement and adoption of Google+.

Because the Social Mindsets and Product Norms are difficult to break, products that leverage Social Graphs outside them become successful. (Facebook abandoned deals, but maybe it should acquire Foursquare as it is more valuable than Groupon, & LinkedIn should acquire Quora)

 

Some Perfect Examples of Social Products:

  1. Zynga – Leveraged social graph of Facebook and introduced Social Games like CityVille, FarmVille and others as a Social Application.
  2. Foursquare – Leveraged social graphs of Facebook & Twitter to introduce a location based check-in product on Mobile.
  3. Quora – Leverage social graphs of Facebook & Twitter to introduce a Questions product as a destination website.

 

The 6 Basic Principles of Building Social Products:

  1. Social Graphs are already Established.
    Do not reinvent the wheel and try to build social graphs again from scratch on your product.
    .  
  2. Social Graphs get built over a period of time.
    a. Over years – Users have made friends on Facebook, added professional contacts on LinkedIn or followed people on Twitter
    b. It will take loads of time, effort and patience if you try to build them again.
    Google+ is attempting this – we can wait and watch if it succeeds.
    .  
  3. Don’t build Social Products for sharing content & driving additional traffic.
    a. Most social products are built with this intention – sharing content and hence driving more traffic
    b. Existing social graphs are powerful and already allow sharing of content to drive viral traffic.
  4. Build Social Products that add value to users.
    There are many tasks and products that can be built outside existing Social Platforms which can add value to end users. While existing social graphs are established, users have a Usage Mindset about them, this is biggest incentive to build innovative social products.
  5. Don’t arbitrage value through your product.
    There is immense value in integrating directly with social platforms like Facebook & Twitter, do not try to arbitrage this value through your product. Users (if it is a B2C product) or Merchants / Publishers (if it is a B2B product) will at some point of time realize this and abandon your product to integrate/use directly.
    .
  6. Don’t build – but leverage Social Graphs!
    Rome was not built in one day! And so are Social Graphs. Choose the one that fits most with your product use case and leverage it.

 

Building your Perfect Social Product:

Foursquare, Quora, Zynga did it, so can your product. Introducing established social graphs to new products. Key is understanding what you manage and what you don’t – Social Graphs are not owned by you, your product is – seamless integration with your product makes it scale up virally.

It helps you in –

  • Viral User Acquisition
  • Introducing your product to user’s existing social graphs
  • User activity on your product generates updates for Social Graphs, which acts like contextual marketing.

Identify what are the validation use-cases for your product, allow consumers to share the same with his Social Graphs. Few examples are – Foursquare checkins, Questioning & Answers on Quora, reaching a level completion milestone on Zynga while playing its games and others.
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Solving the Chicken and Egg problem:

Social Products have more than one first users. Every initial user who registers to your product has his own social graph, he is the first user of his social graph.

The Chicken & Egg problem here is – what do you show to such first users who do not have any friends or activities to look at. Ask hard questions and look around for examples of successful social products.

First User Questions (FUQs) –

  • Facebook’s first user question – “Whom do I add as a Friend? Who will see my wall-post?”
  • Twitter’s first user question – “Who will read my tweet? Whom should I follow?”
  • Quora’s first user question – “Who will answer my question? How can I quickly get a answer for my question?”
  • Foursquare’s first user question – “Where should I check-in? Why should I check-in?
  • Zynga’s first user question – “Whom should I play CityVille with? How will my City grow?”

Try to figure out how these platform solved the first user question. There are multiple ways to do it, but idea is doing this right. The biggest challenge for any social product is solving the First User Questions – the approach and execution here makes or breaks your Social Product.

 

Validation Cycle of Social Products:

Defining Validation Cycle for your Social Product and reducing the time to validate it is the key goal for Product Managers. Validation cycles are reduced when you are at scale – thats a easy task cause at scale most of the things you do is just optimize based on data/feedbacks.

Take example of Quora – product validation cycle means getting answers from people with best knowledge about it. Since Quora has scale & adoption today – you will see few questions getting answered within minutes or hours of submission, while few take days to see first answer. But in its initial days – the validation cycle was not so short.

More crucial moments are in the first 10,000 users scenario. Have patience, learn from initial user feedback and pain-points; validation will be slow and takes time in initial days of adoption. Also to due slow adoption cycle in early days – the early adopters of any social product, don’t necessary get the best experience.

Example – My twitter profile (twitter.com/beingpractical) was created in Sept 2007; I had the First User Question syndrome. Same was the case with my profile on Facebook, LinkedIn or Orkut (Orkut showed me – “Bad, bad server. No donuts for you” 1000s of time).

 

Should it be an Application on Facebook or Destination site:

“Why is this not a application on Facebook?” is also a question you will hear from Investors. While there are different answers for this question when it comes from Investors, but for a product decision make your judgment based on –

  1. Your product idea or concept or product use case should deliver real value. The value should not equate to addition of features on Facebook.
  2. There are Social Graphs outside of Facebook that you want to explore.
  3. Facebook would want people to interact with people; not with applications.
  4. Product or Business use case qualifies to be a destination site outside of Facebook – like a Quora or Foursquare.

Remember again – Social Mindsets & Product Norms on Facebook are difficult to break. If your product requires to explore Social Graph and is outside the Social Norms of Facebook – it can be a destination!

 

The Key Questions to answer before getting started:

Have good answers to all of these questions before starting with build your Social Product –

  • The task your product is planning to solve – do people do it in real world socially?
    Social Products are reflections of user behavior in real world – People play games together, People want to hear answers from persons with best knowledge about it, and so on. If people don’t do such tasks in real world – they will not do it on a Social Product as well.
    .  
  • Is it a feature on Facebook or Twitter or any Social Platform?
    Feature products don’t last. Identify if your product can be a feature on Facebook or Twitter.
    .  
  • If B2C product – Is there a value to do this task outside of Facebook?
    Check and check again – Is your product idea meant to be a application or destination.
    .  
  • If B2B product – Is sharing and driving traffic to merchants / publishers the key aim?
    There is no harm if it is one of the propositions, but this should not be the key aim of your B2B product. Many social commerce products on top of Facebook project sharing & driving traffic as their core benefit. Marketers are smart, at some point of time they will self-integrate this on their Facebook pages.
    .

Always keep these things in Mind –

  1. People drive Social Platforms & Products. Not features!
    Features are how you want users to drive your product. But it is always people who drive it – make your features people-centric; not people feature-centric.
    .
  2. Engagement should be People to People
    People don’t login to Facebook everyday cause it is Facebook, it is cause there friends are there. Same will hold true for your Social Product.
  3. Don’t arbitrage on User Value
    Consumers & Businesses will eventually figure this out. So don’t do this in first place.
    .
  4. Don’t be Evil
    People love their Friends & Social Circle / Connections more than they love your product.
    Don’t mess with them. Don’t spam. Don’t be evil.

Happy Building your Social Product. Don’t forget to send me invites on pj(at)beingpractical.com.

 

The Biggest Innovations never solved any problem!

Being an entrepreneur is exciting. And one question you hear often is – “What is the consumer problem that you are trying to solve?

We try to reserve our weekend lunches for some awesome conversations over products, companies and where the world is heading in connected world. Last Saturday, Anupam Mittal (Founder & CEO of People Group, Entrepreneur behind Shaadi.com), my co-founder and myself discussed this over lunch – “Did Google or Facebook  solved any consumer problem?

Our interaction inspired me to write this post –

Solving a problem and creating a market are two different ways to look at any company or any product idea. Products or Companies that solve a problem are the Million dollar companies, while products or individuals who look at the industry from a radically different approach – are the most disruptive, innovative and create Billion dollar opportunities as they grow.

My conclusions were –
– The biggest innovations never solved any consumer problem
– The founders or entrepreneurs had a different approach to the industry
– In almost all cases, the entrepreneurs did not belong to the industry, had little or no experience in that industry.

Further thoughts are embedded in this SlideShare presentation –

Have a different approach. Think different!