In a long bus ride, I read How I braved Anu Aunty and made a million-dollar company and I loved the book. The stories in the book are especially familiar to those who have faced the ire of family and sometimes friends at wanting to do a startup.

Anu Aunty Book

In the midst of the book, there is a passionate explanation by Varun Agarwal of why his idea of alumni T-shirts and alumni hoodies are important to people:

… The strangest thing was that my long-forgotten cupboard kept yielding one memory after another. I ran into a lot of my stuff from school that had got lost in the decade gone by. I started thinking of all those wonderful days. And that is when it hit me. That is what Alma Mater was about! It was about bringing those good ol’ days back. It was about taking you down that memory lane that leads to the wonderful times of school and college.

 

… We didn’t have Facebook then but we did have ICQ. One line none of us from that ‘era’ can ever forget is ‘ASL (age/sex/location) please,’ when meeting someone new on ICQ.  We had atrociously funny-sounding email ids – therockrulez@hotmail.com, dude_am@indya.com and the like and even funnier names in the ‘chat rooms.’ You couldn’t Google but had to go to altavista.com or approach Mr Jeeves for any queries and clarifications.

 

You still had to call a girl on her landline and muster all the courage to ask for her. The only place you could hang out at was Wimpy’s or McD and one still stayed away from the solitary Coffee Day on Brigade Road. Galaxy was where all the movies played and one had to stand in a long queue to buy tickets for Mission Impossible 2.

 

TV still played The Wonder Years and The Crystal Maze and the world seemed far smarter minus the Saas-Bahu soaps and the reality shows.

 

You could still find the time to read a book in the evenings  and play cricket in your ‘gully’ on Sundays. ‘Canada Dry’ was the only source to get high and sweet, candy cigarettes were puffed at most of the times.

 

VSNL ensured porn still loaded one byte at a time and VCDs were all the rage. Hulk Hogan was perpetually rank one on all the ‘Trump Cards’ and Cameron Diaz from The Mask was in every puberty-hitting youngters’ dreams. The only operating system we knew of was Windows 98.

 

Anyone with a printer was treated with respect and the World Book Encyclopedia was the only source of information for projects. Hero Pen was the original Chinese nib was still preferred over the brash new ‘Pilot’ pen.

 

Azharuddin was still our captain and Jadeja and Robin Singh were our pinch hitters. Venkatesh Prasad was the only one with the balls to mess with the Pakis and we still lost all the test matches.

 

And I definitely cannot miss out wearing a ‘colour’ dress to school on your birthday and distributing Eclairs to everyone.

 

I could go on and on. but I guess you get the drift.

 

As I cleaned my room, I ran into my long forgotten collection of Tinkle. Gosh, how I used to love those comics.

 

I guess some of us might hate to admit it now but everyone of us have read a Tinkle at some point or the other in our childhood. Even though it would be really un-cool to talk about ‘Suppandi’ now, he was the coolest character we knew in junior school. Before there was cartoon network, before Swat Cats took over, there was Uncle Scrooge on Doordarshan and there was Tinkle.

 

… I guess Tinkle comics have long been forgotten but they will always remain with us in our memories and will always remind us of times when things were simpler, when Bangalore was greener, when one would get up at 7a.m. on Sundays to catch Talespin on DD, when Phantom cigarettes ruled and chakra was more than just wheels. When we wouldn’t worry about deadlines, meetings, Facebook and everything else that our lives have become today. We would only worry about when the next Tinkle comic would be out. Sadly, Uncle Pai, the creator of the series passed away recently. RIP Uncle Pai and thanks for the memories. We owe you way more than one.

 

So, you see, Alma Mater was not just about starting another company. It was about starting a whole new subculture. Of making you feel like you were in school or college again – that wonderfully delicious feeling.

Reading those words flooded my mind with wonderful memories – I could have written those words! I could relate to almost every single word – right from ICQ to funny-sounding email IDs to Wimpy’s to The Crystal Maze to gully cricket to candy cigarettes to Cameron Diaz in The Mask to Windows 98 to World Book to Venkatesh Prasad to Eclairs to Tinkle to Talespin. Phew!

Thank you, Varun Agrawal, for the nostalgia as well as a wonderfully written hilarious story on entrepreneurial struggle vs. Indian family culture. I especially love the way his bargaining skills with the auto rickshaw walla improved as he went further down his entrepreneurial journey!

Go read the book, it’s a perfect Sunday read.

Update: Based on the book’s recommendation, I watched Dead Poets Society, 1989 movie feat. Robin Williams as a teacher, and absolutely loved it – Carpe Diem!

I read the "Start-up Nation" book last week. This book was so engrossing that I read it within 2 days, keeping aside everything else.

After reading this book, I started seeing the patterns about Israel being high tech hotspot, for example consider just two pieces of news in the last 3-4 days: Apple buying Anobit, an Israeli company, for $500 million as well as building a research center in Israel and Cornell won the bid to build a university in New York city… in collaboration with Technion university of Israel.

What is important

This book taught me the importance and inter-play of:

  • Entrepreneurism
  • Venture capital
  • Being committed to own business and country at same time
  • When people are pushed for survival, only then do they show the zeal for entrepreneurism and trade – otherwise nation becomes lazy
  • Size of country does matter
  • Government policies
  • Immigration
  • Technology as future growth
  • Multiple fields learning
  • Defense Forces
  • Liberalization and freedom of speech

To highlight in a bit more detail, I have picked a few quotes and insights from each chapter:

0. Introduction

  • Story of Shimon Peres and Shai Agassi pitching Better Place to auto manufacturers – Better Place is re-thinking electric vehicles by making fuel stations swap out your battery with a charged one instead of pumping petrol or diesel into the car, highly ambitious, executed first in Israel, now in China, etc.

1. Persistence

  • Story of "Fraud Sciences" company pitching to Paypal to use their fraud detection service – Paypal ended up buying them so that the competition doesn’t get them – idea came from founders who were soldiers in the Israeli army hunting down terrorists – they found hunting frauds easier.
  • Chutzpah
  • Israeli attitude and informality flow also from a cultural tolerance for what some Israelis call "constructive failure" or "intelligent failures." Most local investors believe that without tolerating a large number of failures, it is impossible to achieve true innovation. In the Israeli military, there is a tendency to treat all performance – both successful and unsuccessful – in training and simulations, and sometimes even in battle, as value-neutral. So long as the risk was taken intelligently, and not recklessly, there is something to be learned.
  • Story of how Intel’s chip design vision changed purely because of doggedness of the Israeli Intel office to convince higher-ups and how that eventually saved the company

2. Battlefield Entrepreneurs

  • As usual in the Israeli military, the tactical innovation came from bottom up – from individual tank commanders and their officers. It probably never occurred to these soldiers that they should ask their higher-ups to solve the problem, or that they might not have the authority to act on their own. Nor did they see anything strange in their taking responsibility for inventing, adopting, and disseminating new tactics in real time, on the fly. Yet what these soldiers were doing was strange. If they had been working in a multinational company…
  • Company commander is also the lowest rank that must take responsibility for a territory. As Farhi puts it, "If a terrorist infiltrates that area, there’s a company commander whose name is on it. Tell me how many twenty-three-year-olds elsewhere in the world live with that kind of pressure… How many of their peers in their junior colleges have been tested in such a way? How do you train and mature a twenty-year-old to shoulder such responsibility?
  • In the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), there are even extremely unconventional ways to challenge senior officers. "I was in Israeli army units where we threw out the officers," Oren told us, "where people just got together and voted them out. I witnessed this twice personally. I actually liked the guy, but I was outvoted. They voted out a colonel." When we asked Oren in disbelief how this worked, he explained, "You go and say, ‘We don’t want you. You’re not good.’ I mean, everyone’s ona first-name basis… You go to the person above him and say, ‘That guy’s got to go.’… It’s much more performance-oriented than it is about rank.

3. The People of The Book

  • Almost every Israeli trekker in Bolivia is likely to come through El Lobo (restaurant), but not just to get food that tastes like it’s from home, to speak Hebrew, and to meet other Israelis. They know they will find something else there, something even more valuable: the Book. Though spoken of in singular, the Book is not one book but an amorphous and evolving collection of journals, dispersed throughout some of the most remote locations in the world. Each journal is a handwritten "Bible" of advice from one traveler to another. And while the Book is no longer exclusively Israeli, its authors and readers tend to be from Israel.
  • Israeli wanderlust is not only about seeing the world; its sources are deeper… there is another psychological factor at work – a reaction to the physical and diplomatic isolation. Until recently, Israelis could not travel to a single neighbouring country…
  • For the same reason, it was natural for Israelis to embrace the Internet, software, computer, and telecommunications arenas. In these industries, borders, distances, and shipping costs are practically irrelevant. As Israeli venture capitalist Orna Berry told us, "High-tech telecommunications became a national sport to help us defend against the claustrophobia that is life in a small country surrounded by enemies." … "Today, Israeli companies are firmly integrated into the economies of China, India, and Latin America. Because, as Orna Berry says, telecommunications became an early priority for Israel, every major telephone company in China relies on Israeli telecom equipment and software…

(more…)

Today is my last day at Infibeam.

I’m going to miss working in this environment because I learned a lot about ecommerce and online buying in India. For example, I was surprised to know how much sales go up during Diwali (in hindsight, not so surprising, of course) and was surprised at the amount of online buying that happens from Tier II cities. Then there was the learning on the huge amount of logistics that happens – the part where the customer visits the website and clicks on the Buy button is just 1% of the total stuff that happens behind-the-scenes.

I am also thankful to Ajay and Infibeam for getting me into the Rails wagon, I’m finally starting to see the light. Learning a new language and framework from scratch to delivering a full ecommerce platform in 4–5 months was a fascinating experience. And soon, anyone can set up their own online store on top of Infibeam’s infrastructure.

Infibeam has done many things right, has many things to improve, and rumors say they may face many challenges in the future. All in all, that’s a good thing. Infibeam launched at the right time and is helping to grow ecommerce in India, and it will continue to do so.

But alas, it’s time for me to move on. I can haz plans.


Listening to Stand Up by The Prodigy

A common question I get from non-techies is “Is ecommerce for real? Do people really buy online?”

My line of argument is that the future is digital, and hence buying
online is a natural consequence of that.

However, just saying that was not convincing enough. So I gathered some
statistics as proof and to wow them:

Closer to home:

Then there always is the trump card of how ubiquitous online ticketing has become…

As you can see, digital is happening in India and with RBI
reporting that 35% of transactions (and 88% of the total amount) were
electronic

and Cash on Delivery slowly
happening
,
how far will ecommerce
be
behind?

How would you convince someone that the future is digital and that ecommerce will be big in India?

We’ve all heard about how startups are key to the future economy of India and we’ve heard about how hiring should be a top priority for any companythen why is it that hiring is NOT a majorly discussed issue in startup events in India?

I ask this question because, in fact, it is HARD for startups in Bangalore to hire. The problem is of two extremes: The good folks you would want to hire either become entrepreneurs themselves (full of challenges) OR work for big money in big companies (may not have challenges, but feeds their social status). There seems to be no middle ground where people want to enjoy the work which is full of challenges and also have the stability of a salary and the promise of stocks.

Hiring has become almost impossible for startups – right from IIMB-incubated startups which have full of challenges and exposure to companies like Infibeam which does crores in revenue per year and pays market price salaries.

Where to find such good people?

  • What happens to all those people who started startups via iAccelerator and Morpheus Ventures and did not succeed? Do they go into consulting or join a regular job?
  • What happens to all the college students who talk enthusiastically about joining startups? What percentage of those students switch to chasing the money because of peer pressure? I’m told majority of students don’t end up joining a startup when they have a higher salary offer from a big company.
  • Who are the kinds of people who go to events like DoctypeHTML5? Are they part of startups or are they part of big companies?

I really wish Pluggd.in would setup an anonymous/discreet matchmaking service between “startup-mindset coders” (the scarcity) with good startups (which seems to be in abundance these days, the irony!), i.e. focus on finding good people first, and then promote the available startup jobs.

Maybe the need of the hour for our startup ecosystem is hiring-for-startup events (“get people to get things done”) rather than startup events consisting of motivational speeches (“listen to high-level talk about how to get things done”).

Sometimes I think that what is missing in Bangalore (and in India, in general) is a hackerspace culture and a geeks grooming culture. Let’s hope HasGeek has something up their sleeves…

This is just a thought running in my head which I’m expressing it here – I’ve heard the “Why can’t I hire good people for my startup?” question so often in the past few months, almost on a daily basis these days, that I really needed to get this out of my head and type it out!

On the other hand, if you think hiring for startups in Bangalore is not really an issue, please do advise, many people I know would be interested to know how to go about it :)

P.S. I’m writing this while I’m listening to sessions at the NASSCOM Product Conclave and can’t help but wonder if all the topics discussed here are even possible without having the right people with you in your venture, after all, the founders can’t do everything by themselves :-)

Note: This article was a result of a discussion with Ram of Metaome, a IIMB-incubated startup. They’re looking for good folks to join them, if you’re interested.

Update: Indus has a different take on this.

I had the privilege of visiting the Total Kannada Store in Jayanagar today. What is amazing is that it is an entire store dedicated to only Kannada entertainment – whether it is movie CDs, CDs of plays, CDs of comedy series, magazines, books, classic literature and even T-shirts!

The truth is that my diction and hold of vocabulary of Kannada is at such a nadir now (thanks to never having the need to read Kannada), that I don’t think I’ll be going back for the books. I will definitely be going back for the good old Kannada movies though.

I’m just waiting for my copy of Venkata in Sankata, which was sold out at the store. That is one good Kannada comedy movie, thanks to Ramesh of course.

Heartfelt thanks to Thejesh for letting me know that such a store exists.

What I admire about places such as Total Kannada and The Egg Factory is that they’re not just enterprises, they are a result of labour of love (of Kannada and eggs respectively). And it shows.

I’ve been pondering over the myriad of startups and ideas that have been in the fore recently (in my twitter stream). I have a new theory that has been developing in my mind for quite a while:

A founder has to do only two things right: invention and marketing. For the rest, he can attract/find people to fill the gaps.

Now, don’t jump the gun and start attacking me. Think about it for a minute (and then attack).

By invention, I mean making new things happen – whether it is product or process. Doing things differently to make new useful things. In the experimentation, eventually, there will be one idea that can go big.

By marketing, I actually mean “customer development” (as Manu pointed out in the comments). I mean the founder has to know how to sell. This means he/she should be eager to talk to customers, understand the real problems, understand whether his/her solution actually solves their problems or not, and simultaneously improve/talk/market/make happen whatever it takes to sell that product or service. [1]

When someone who can do these two things well, they eventually stumble upon a good useful idea, and it can take off.

Case in point, the cliched examples – Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. They all started as something interesting and eventually found or will find business models. The point is that the founders of Google knew they had something good, but they brought in Eric Schmidt as CEO because he knows how to run a tech company, i.e., they found someone who can help them fill in the missing parts.

On the extreme side, Airtel outsources most of its operations, but retains the core of maintaining a good network, and (1) coming up with new products and (2) marketing them.

Again, this is just a theory that has been developing in my head. Don’t know if it holds true. Thoughts?

[1] I am also looking at this as a proxy for a person who understands that the business side of things is far more overwhelming than the technical side of things. As Manu would say quotes, don’t use coding as a procrastination tool.

A question to all wannabes, startuppers and entrepreneurs: Does taste drive ambition or ambition drive taste for you?

In other words, Do you have a passion for Ferrari and hence want to become rich, or do you want to become rich and then perhaps buy something like a Ferrari? [1]

On a related note, a friend of mine told me about his theory about the generations of entrepreneurs:

  • The first generation entrepreneur works hard and has no time or is not interested in other things – they just want to prove themselves.
  • The second generation entrepreneur has the best of both worlds – having money to enjoy as well as being inculcated with the learnings of the first generation.
  • The third generation onwards, it goes downhill – because they are too pampered and they don’t need to earn any money since their ancestors have made enough money for next five generations.

Do you think this is a valid hypothesis?

[1] Don’t take Ferrari literally. You can substitute it with money to travel around the world, money to buy all the books that you ever wanted to read, etc.

Update (on Feb 23): After 51 votes, there is an equal split between the poll choices! So I guess my question could not lead me to any kind of answer. Nonetheless, it was an interesting discussion. Sometimes the question is more important than the answer.

Update: As of 22 June, 2011, I’m no longer with Infibeam.

Thanking the community

First and foremost, thanks to all who encouraged me, and offered support and help when I wrote about leaving my own company. Many people, without any personal benefit in mind, connected me to very interesting opportunities. And this is exactly how I got my next gig.[1]

What was specifically amazing to me was that folks were connecting me to opportunities that I would not have heard of otherwise, and enthusiastically vouching for me. Now that was really humbling. Within two weeks of my blog post, I had a job! And I didn’t even have to look for it, so thank you guys. As Seth Godin put it, who needs a resume indeed!

InfiBeam

So where am I joining? InfiBeam – which I can best describe as “Amazon of India.”[2]

infibeam 001

So why am I excited about InfiBeam?

In my previous startup, I experienced the phase of starting from scratch till creating a product. Unfortunately, I did not get to see the second part, the business side of things, including the hard part of selling, the act of knowing the customer, the logistics and operations, etc. I was still yearning for that.

At the same time, getting to see this second phase a few years later would not have made sense because I would’ve lost the enthusiasm and momentum that I have at this point in time. So, in that sense, I’m really excited about InfiBeam because I’ll get to be part of this second phase.

Second, I was specifically looking for companies in “core” areas, in the sense, someone who makes consumer products and services in India for India, and specifically, either ecommerce or mobile. And, voila, the universe conspired.

Third, I was being cautious and really looking to understand the people in the company and not only what the company makes. After all, it’s only the people aspect which makes or breaks your experience and enthusiasm. And I spent quite a bit of time interacting with the people I would potentially work with, and I came out of the discussions very happy.

Fourth, what I especially liked most about the company was their customer focus as well as the focus of building the right culture inside the company. It’s very hard for startups to focus on these soft aspects, because it easily gets sidelined compared to the hectic everyday.

InfiBeam Customer Service

InfiBeam Core Values (list)

There were quite a few opportunities that I explored, but I intuitively felt that InfiBeam was the place to be. And I went ahead with that gut instinct.

Both Business and Tech

And, as an example of a great fit for me, my job description says that I have to take up any product or strategy and deliver it end-to-end from the business model to the technical implementation.

I had thoughts of shifting back to pure coding at first, but then decided a business focus is indeed a good thing, and something I wish I had taken seriously right at the start of my career (better late than never!). For example, quoting from a recent Deccan Herald article:
> It cites Nasscom study which states that India faces IT talent shortfall of between 8,00,000 and 1.2 million workers by 2012. It observes that, though many producers continue to work with universities, government and other firms to improve the quality of technology education, and Asian countries continue to produce large numbers of IT employees, they, however, lag in comparison with North America and Europe in providing well-rounded technology education. Among Asian economies, the concern is that education systems puts too much focus on pure IT skills and not enough on IT in the business context. Likewise, top schools in the US and Europe, which do better in this area, face long-term challenges in cultivating science and technical engineering skills of its younger students. Thus, globally, the study posits that investment in skills development remains long-term imperative.

If it feels scary…

I am positive about this gig because I will be forced to become good at what I do because of the quality of people I work with, and knowing that you’re in a good environment when you consider yourself the dumbest guy in the room.

In such situations, I keep quoting Jeff Atwood:

If it feels scary, it’s the right choice.

Wish me luck!

[1] Specifically, a shout of thanks to Nimish Adani of Workosaur.

[2] Yes, this was a way of skipping the topic that, yes, InfiBeam’s current web design looks similar to that of Amazon.com design. Yes, I don’t like it too. It is a distraction which prevents potential users to proceed to the next step of appreciating the amazing services provided by InfiBeam.

Update on Jan 31, 2010: InfiBeam has launched the first Indian ebook store and the first Indian ebook reader.