Leaving IonLab

Yesterday was my last day at IonLab, the company that I built with a few friends. It has been a wild ride but I could continue no longer. I am leaving due to internal differences on the progress and transparency in the company.

We have been well-supported in our experience, right from a Govt. of India grant to being one of the few to be selected as a TiE Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program mentee. We owe special gratitude for the people who made that happen and supported us.

But as any been-there-done-that startupper would expect, we delivered on technology, but we sorely lacked in maturity of management skills.

Simply put:

“Shipping is a feature. A really important feature. Your product must have it.” — JWZ

I can’t explain more because it would then amount to washing dirty linen in public.

Anyway, time to move on. Hopefully second time will be better!

I have been reflecting on many of the experiences I’ve had. So I thought I’d jot down the biggest lessons I learned as a startupper:

Stop reading. Start doing.

For every hour that you read, you must gain 3 hours of experience.

I read so much about entrepreneurship, although only after jumping into the startup. One and a half year later, we had made all the mistakes that those articles warned us about. The problem is not in the reading or understanding, the problem is in internalizing what you read. Wannabe startuppers read all the Paul Graham essays and say “Nah, that’s not going to happen to me, I’m going to be awesome and successful”, but when I read his latest essay What Startups Are Really Like, it felt like he crept into my head at night, stole my experiences and wrote a letter to me. Yes, really, it felt like that. But, of course, you won’t believe me. Until it happens to you.

What was the most common response from the YCombinator startups to Paul Graham?

When I look at the responses, the common theme is that starting a startup was like I said, but way more so.

Read those last few words repeatedly 6 times.

And I repeat, my warning to you is that simply reading A-Z of books and essays is not important, you have to internalize the learnings by testing it out on the field and realizing the value for yourself instead of saying “that makes sense” and forgetting about it a few minutes later.

Empathy matters

It is funny how most people will discourage you from doing a startup, and, today, perhaps because things have changed now because of all the media hype, most of my friends were discouraging me from leaving it now!

There are two aspects to this. First, read The Dip and you will know why I decided to quit. As Seth Godin says in the book, “The old saying is wrong – winners do quit, and quitters do win. Winners quit fast, quit often, and quit without guilt – until they commit to beating the right Dip for the right reasons.”

Second, as one of my friends observed, I talked to about 7 people (both acquaintances and friends) whose judgment I trusted. 3 of them sympathized and agreed with my decision and 4 of them admonished me and asked me to “hang in there.” You know what was the clincher? The first 3 had done startups themselves and the latter 4 had not. The latter 4 did not really understand the context, even though they meant well and are intelligent folks.

Imagine that a decision like this was so hard for friends-who-know-you to understand. Imagine how much empathy you should have for the motivations and work life of your customers!

Business is not a big deal, it’s only a mindset

The day I realized that I had started to think in terms of business was this conversation:

Friend: Hey, I wanted to talk to you about a gadget idea. Most phones have large storage space and bluetooth facility. Most cameras have small storage space. I have both of them on trips. I usually run out of space on the camera. So can there be a gadget similar to a bluetooth dongle that can move photos from the camera to the phone?

Me: Interesting… there is much to evaluate there (for example, I want to understand how much battery power it would eat up, which is the major concern when on a trip). But if you’re thinking about such a product, I think we should skip bluetooth and talk about peer to peer WiFi*.

Friend: What? Bluetooth is there on every freakin’ phone out there!

Me: Yes, but by the time you build this new gadget, all the devices would have moved to p2p wifi because it means supporting only one standard. Right now, phones have to support two standards – both wifi and bluetooth which is additional hardware and headache for the manufacturers. Since p2p wifi builds on top of the existing wifi standard, it makes business sense for them to standardize on that. Comparatively, the only advantage of bluetooth, AFAIK, is low power consumption, and that factor will reduce with increasing battery life. So, in 1 or 2 years, bluetooth won’t be the in-thing, and that is when the product will be ready if you start now.

Friend: stunned silence

Me: Did I say something wrong??

Friend: You really are a businessman now.

Me: Heh

See? It’s not a big deal, you just have to learn the right mindset. Note that I didn’t say it was easy, I’m simply pointing out it’s simply a different mode of thinking, and it is doable.

I realized that doing a tech business means you should know both tech and business really well (duh). And since I’m not there yet w.r.t. tech, I’m going to stick to that as my core for the next decade. Or at least, that’s the plan. Coding is still my first love. Update: After some thought and discussions with close friends, perhaps I can contribute in additional responsibilities such as product manager-type responsibilities as well.

* Also see What’s next for Wi-Fi?

Focus matters

A great advice I got from Muki, an entrepreneur was: “Start focusing on three things from day one – relationships, cash flow, balance sheet. You already know how to handle the rest.”

Notice he doesn’t talk about innovation, technology or all those other things. On the same note, the best explanation I’ve seen is that “Innovation is the by-product of a well-executed product”, which brings me to my next point.

“Focus” in the context of startups can be interpreted as good product management skills, which I strongly referred to in my StartupDunia guest post on the recent NASSCOM Product Conclave.

Maintain good relationships with partners, vendors, mentors, and all other folks that you meet in the course of your business. Don’t look at these relationships as opportunistic, look at it as an opportunity to co-create and learn.

Track your cash flow. Yes, you will earn millions later, but if you don’t have money now, you’ll die. You may not realize that the single highest factor why startups die is because of bad cash flow.

Don’t trivialize any aspect

Anything that is not managed will deteriorate, said Bob Parsons.

And it’s very true in this case, whether it is your legal company paperwork (yes, those stuff that you don’t want to be bothered with) or your project timelines (yes, tracking what’s on the critical path is very important, but you already knew that, didn’t you?) or thinking long-term as well as short-term, or networking with similar folks.

We, as tech people, think technology is everything and other people have it easy. I was like that. I learned it the hard way that “Easy is a term you use to define other people’s jobs.” I have a lot of respect for marketing and sales folks now. They have a really tough job, because it is about tenacity and psychology, compared to tech work which is write-once and scalable. Pop quiz: Did you really understand the signifance of that last sentence? If not, go back to my first point.

Have a sense of urgency

For every decision (and you will have a lot more of them than you realize), make sure that you do due diligence but at the same time, have a sense of urgency.

As Tecumseh Sherman said: “A good plan violently executed today is far and away better than a perfect plan tomorrow.”

Bottom-up always wins

This is the single most important learning, if I had to pick one.

Time and again, I’ve observed that bottom-up always beats top-down approach to problems. Note that I’m not discouraging you from planning, but I’m discouraging you from focusing purely on the plan. The plan is a guide to your actions, you should not spend more time on the plan vs. the actions and results!

And you can observe the power of bottom-up thinking time and again, whether it is in terms of societal change or productivity paradigms like GTD or the reason why Wikipedia and open source software are successful. As Linus Torvalds says “Software is grown, not built.” Mull that!

How does this apply to startups? Let us take one specific example: You have a new idea to solve a problem and you want to test if your idea works. If the prototype takes a couple of weeks, then you should go for the prototype. If it will take longer, how do you know that it is worth investing the time? Simple, use Adwords to assess demand for your new product/service. Same thing for doing market research.

Notice that in this example, we first start top-down by ideating and brainstorming, but then switch to bottom-up thinking once the initial plan is done – immediately jump to action by a real evaluation about the need that you are trying to solve. Then decide the second action based on the results of the first action.

How to define failure

This is how I explained failure to a friend: You walk into a new restaurant, and try the food. It can be good or bad. But you still have to pay the bill! You don’t know whether your effort is going to succeed or not, but you still have to put in the effort.

And the friend replied: The problem with most people is, they don’t want to risk eating bad food, that’s why they keep going to the same restaurant, even if they are bored of it!

When to call yourself an entrepreneur

I have this personal demarcation that I will call myself an entrepreneur when I have (1) created something new (2) made money. Until then, I’m a startupper (someone who has done or been in a startup).

This is the End

Hope these reflections are useful for future startuppers and entrepreneurs. All the best! (also see 10 things I wish I was serious about before starting a startup)

As for me, I’m cash-strapped (Didn’t I say lessons learned?), and hence looking for a job (product manager or senior technical role). Do let me know if there are any interesting opportunities out there.

Update on January 15, 2010: I joined Infibeam.

Update on July 04, 2011: Interestingly, Splitterbug is a YCombinator 2011 Summer Batch startup that is pursuing the very same idea. Just goes to show that the idea had and still has potential.

51 thoughts on “Leaving IonLab

  1. Congratulations on IonLab’s success thus far! For what it’s worth, you’ve been an inspiration for many wannabe-startuppers. You’re one of those down-to-earth entrepreneurs that the average folk can relate to.

    Given your experience with your first venture, you’re more likely to produce the next Google, than ever before!

  2. Startup experience, good or bad, always teaches you a lot about yourself. Good luck Swaroop.

  3. Swaroop,

    Being there in same situation myself a couple of years back, I can relate to understand the thought process behind this reason. What you have done here is a very responsible thing of airing your thoughts without washing the dirty linen.

    You are an asset to any organization and am sure many will be too happy to have you.

    All the best.

  4. Swaroop,

    Sorry to hear about the fallout with other co-founders of Ionlab. But as you quoted, it is better to quit early than when its too late.

    I am doing a startup in Bangalore and we are working on some really challenging and interesting products. Ping me on my email address if you are interested in knowing more.

  5. Hi Swaroop,
    Thanks for great post. I won’t say its fail, because you learned the lesson. I would say you learned one more lesson in your life. Best of luck for your future.

  6. Wow! That indeed is a post I’m going to bookmark and refer until the day I graduate from being a “startupper” to an entrepreneur.
    But I really think that you may be back as a startupper sooner and not 10 years. After all, you have seen the better part in life.

  7. It is a surprise. I hope you have taken the right decision. It must have been a difficult one. I have more then half a dozen failed ventures experience behind me(partnership / proprietorship), I can relate to you.
    Good luck for the future.
    Meanwhile, mail me your resume – bharath (at) enterprisematrix (dot) com I am a head hunter, it will be a great pleasure for me to find you a suitable position.

  8. Inspiring stuff. If you’re looking for work, I’m looking for smart hardworking python programmers for my startup. Email me if you want to talk.

  9. Great Article.

    Most first-time entrepreneurs confuse action with activity. My experience is that one is a vector and one is a scalar. If you start with a technical solution and then you look for a problem, you are a scalar looking to become a vector. If you focus on a problem and a set of customers who are willing to pay for a solution (any solution), you will succeed when you can get some wood behind that arrow. It is too easy to keep yourself intellectually occupied with scalar activities. Wealth creation is a vectorial activity.

    Good luck.

  10. Hey, sorry to hear about it. But I am sure the next one will be much better, and thanks for sharing this, I am sure many people can relate with this all.

  11. “We, as tech people, think technology is everything and other people have it easy. I was like that. ”

    Well said Swaroop , a HR director once told me that the techies are only 55% of his assets. 40% are his biz people ( sales , service , marketing , legal , professional services ) and 5 % are rest of the folks. And today , I totally agree with him. There is little point in creating an awesome product with no one to tell the wold how awesome it actually is.

  12. “As for me, I’m cash-strapped (Didn’t I say lessons learned?), and hence looking for a job (a technical role). Do let me know if there are any interesting opportunities out there.”

    Dude – I hope interesting opportunities means “new startup ventures” . Yes ,I agree that your mostly cash strapped but by giving up now, you might be giving up all that you have achieved. I only hope this is passing phase and the thirst is still around.

  13. Hi Swaroop,

    I feel sorry that it didn’t work out for you. But it is always better to leave now that it is too late. But what matters more is the experience.

    I too run a startup along with my friend and do understand some of the points you’ve made and others we have to experience yet.

    Good luck in your future endeavours.

  14. Swaroop:

    Based on the bytes of little interaction I had with you — I know for sure “you have that thing in you”.

    This is not a failure but an outcome of little experiments which we do to prove our hypothesis; sometimes using money and sometimes time as resource. The proof may come out incorrect but the effort of putting together the equations is the thrill.

    Wishing you solid luck. The lessons from this endeavor would make you smarter.

    Indus Khaitan
    Morpheus Venture Partners

  15. Hi Swaroop,

    You did the right thing. It is tough to stick on with differences in the air.

    As you mentioned, there are lot of blogs that talk about start-ups but until you start-up yourself and go through the rigor it is tough to relate to those. Muziboo has had its share of ups and downs and it is kicking right now only because the Founders (Prateek and I) have managed to stay on the same plane. It’s great to see you share your insights!

    All the very best…

  16. Dude,

    Awesome post! Honest, reflective, and useful for those in the same boat or planning to sail in those waters.

    Its a good restart, and yes, all the best!

    BTW, do not seem to have your gmail id. Ping maadi.


  17. Its never an end. Its always the beginning of a new day, new something else, new something even more infectious. The more often you reboot, the better your OS runs ;-)

    Take it easy, chill out and move onto something even more exciting. You already show the signs of a successful entrepreneur!

  18. Life is a series of experiences..
    Knowing you, I know you’ll do awesome where’ver you go!

  19. Hey Swaroop,

    Having failed twice earlier, I can empathise with what you are feeling right now.. but quitting and searching for a job is definitely not the way to go..

    Since you are cash strapped, you can take up some part-time/free lance work.. but shouldn’t move to a full-time job..

    PS: i don’t fully agree with your definition of entrepreneurship. I would rephrase it as:
    An entrepreneur is someone who has (1) created VALUE (2) made money.

    what do you say?

  20. Obviously, you can call yourself whatever you want, but I don’t think making money is the key milestone to being an entrepreneur. The key in my mind is when you cross the line where you realize you’ll never give up. This doesn’t mean you won’t fail (because you will, a lot), and it doesn’t mean you won’t give up on a particular business (you’ll give up on more than most people would think possible to start), it means that you’ll start the next one as soon as you’re done with this one, and probably never stop doing that.

    I’ve had several companies, I’ve made money, lost money, wasted years and had the time of my life. It’s a lifestyle. Once you’ve made it your lifestyle, you’re an entrepreneur, and success is almost inevitable at that point.

  21. +1 @Scott, I’m inclined to agree – I also think it’s a matter of attitude rather than going beyond a certain amount of “progress”. You could be a cash-strapped entrepreneur, I don’t really see a contradiction there :)

    Of course, I wouldn’t want to over-emphasize the business of nomenclature – like has been pointed out, it’s a personal thing beyond a point, so – whatever works for you.

    ‘luck with the next big thing! :)

  22. An interesting (though quite unexpected) account, Swaroop. Here’s hoping you find a job that interests you soon !

  23. Really shocked and surprised!! didn’t wanna believe the newsletter though. All the very best. You are still the same source of inspiration to me. I agree with everything you have thus far told. Hope you become an entrepreneur soon and a successful one too.

  24. Did you feel a lack of flexibility because it was a hardware startup ? Sometimes software guys are used to a certain flexibility and ability to make significant course corrections which can be very difficult with hardware.

  25. Wish you lots of good luck and Successes
    in the next endeavour.
    Your articles with openess have been
    a source of inspiration…
    Good Luck once again..

  26. Very well written, well explained. Wish you all the best for you future. Your writings are really a source of inspiration. I will be very glad to have your email id. Thanks.

  27. hi swaroop i have an innovative idea lets make it scrap me on orkut raghvendra.giri@gmail.com

    {“True success is measured by the feeling of knowing you have done a job well and have achieved your objective. Success is not measured by our position in life but by the obstacles we overcome to get there. Success in life is not determined by how we are doing compared with others. But by how we are doing compared with what we are capable of doing. Successful people compete against themselves. They. keep better their own records and keep improving constantly. Success is not measured by how high we go up in life but by how many times we bounce back. It is the ability to try again and again and again……..” R.G.Goswami}

  28. Whatever ‘scott’ has written is 100% true. Entrepreneurship is a lifestyle… and it has both success and failures but there are always innovative ideas involved and an entrepreneur stand out from the rest. That is when you will enjoy this short life !

  29. Swaroop,
    I am surprised and all the best. At an young age, you have been doing lot of interesting and challenging things and you are an inspiration.
    On other hand, you have done what many others like me wanted to but can not afford to.
    Good luck with your future.

  30. @Thejesh @t3rmin4t0r @Indus @Srinandan @Girish Thanks for the support and encouragement!

    @Ramjee @Abhinav @Mahesh @Roorky Agreed. It has been an amazing experience and have matured because of it.

    @Srichand You’re too kind with your words, thanks for the support.

    @Ashwin @Shabda @koolhead17 Glad it was useful for you. And let’s see, where life takes me :)

    @Bharath @Matt @Arun Thanks for the support. Will follow up with you.

    @Denny Completely agreed! That’s why emphasis on product management skills whose importance I’ve learned the hard way.

    @The Other Swaroop, Yes, everyone has their role to play, no one is bigger or better than the other. How does not doing another startup mean “giving up” my past experiences? :) … and I’ve already mentioned that my goal is to focus on tech.

    @emacsian Yes, it was positive because it was a proactive decision. Hope the thoughts I wrote will help you avoid mistakes!

    @Nithya Completely agreed. In fact, truth be told, Muziboo has been a role model for me simply because you guys roughed it out and got so many things right eventually. Thanks for the inspiration.

    @Sameer Thank you sir. I’m happy that you approve of the writeup. Thanks for the support.

    @Subodh @Ashish @Ranganath @Manoj Thanks!

    @Neerav It all depends on what is the goal. My goal is to make useful stuff, for me, it’s not about running the show myself. Everybody is entitled to their own interpretation, this is my interpretation and I have my own reasons for it.

    @Scott @Neel @Eshanye I prefer this interpretation of my own because it is tangible, as compared to describing it as a lifestyle.

    @Rohit :)

    @AA Yes.

    @Jadu Thanks! My email address is on my contact page.

    @Raghu I do not have an Orkut profile, please email me and we can discuss.

    @Rk I want life to be always about pushing the boundaries. Otherwise, it becomes boring. I have had my share of struggles and I am always thankful for the support of my family and friends, without whom, I’m nothing.

  31. I am sad to know about it, but I am pretty sure you will be out in no time with another start-up :) Best wishes!

  32. Swaroop i am happy you have taken the decision. It doesn’t matter whether it is right or wrong. I see that you want to climb a different mountain and you have your goals set. Now it is even more easier for you to climb the mountain and reach the peaks cuz you have the experience and you know the pit falls.

    My dad always told me that when you make a mistake, try not to repeat the same mistake. Prior to pepper square i have started 7 companies and many of them failed. When i look back today i see those failures have taught me how to be successful (What is success in a business context – You are doing something you enjoy every day, It has a business value to your customer, you have customers who pay for your services, you have the money to pay your employees and partners, you have the time to enjoy the simple things of life and you go home and sleep peacefully).

    I have known you from 2007 Adobe days. I see the same spark in you even today. Go for it, it is ONE LIFE.

    Have fun

  33. Hi Swaroop,
    I am bit surprised with this news of leaving IonLab. But I could see good reasons for you taking this decision. The experience and maturity you have gained would be priceless! and I am sure that they would be counted in your future whatever you do. As Steve Jobs said it is very difficult to connect dots looking forward.

    All the Best.


  34. So far now i have analyzed your behaviour pattern from your Blog. You have done up to the mark for first start-up. You should have become Advisor VC for those who are interested in new start-up, I called it “Mediator” who don’t like fame. I am sure lot of people in need of that. Great going so far now. Best of Luck :)

  35. I am actually surprised by your decision. Your blog is insightful and a source of great inspiration to many wannabe ‘startuppers’ like me. Your thoughts which you pen on your blog are very insightful.

    All the very best in your future endeavour. Please keep blogging like before :)

  36. Well, I have not done startups, but I have started so many projects, blown weekends and nights taking it on a long drive and have dropped it on the floor never to pick it up again.

    That did not mean I wasted time! I have a bunch of other fairly successful products which were a result of the things I learned during all the “failed” projects.

    When we are faced by a problem that is not worth solving, we can either give in to emotions and say “Winners don’t quit” and keep making futile attempts to solve it, or move on to a new, shinier and more awesome challenge.

    Quitting is not bad! If you felt it was right, it would have been right!

    Good luck and keep writing :)

  37. Swaroop that was a brilliant post. I too am definitely saving this for later reflection. I had quite a few takebacks from this. The most memorable of them is “Start focusing on three things from day one – relationships, cash flow, balance sheet.” Take care Swaroop, wish you all the best in your future endeavours.

    Ps. To balance out Seth’s advice in “The Dip”, I highly recommend reading Mastery by George Leonard. I completed it just last week.

  38. @Divya @VinayakMahadevan @Hardik @Sriranga @Premshree @Pathik Thanks for the encouragement and support!

    @Muki @Sanish As Naeem Zafar said, “The price of not failing is incalculable – fail so that you can learn”.

    @Alireza Haha!

    @Veera Agreed.

    @Arif Thank you Arif. Will check out that book.

    @AbeOye Nice, I really liked that book.

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