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.

Note: I no longer work with IonLab since Nov 12 of 2009.

Amazon conducted a poll just before the start of the year 2009 asking people on what are their New Year Resolutions. The top two resolutions were (1) Lose Weight and (2) Get Your Finances in Order.

What is strange is that you and I would think these are solved problems, right? But yet these are the top resolutions for the new year!

We all know how to lose weight – eat less and exercise more. But it requires discipline. We all know how to get our finances in order – spend less and earn more. But it requires discipline.

Our vision for the “Track Every Coin” system that we are building is to exactly help you do this – to help you spend less, save more, and in the process help you get your personal finances in order.

So what is the problem again?

We tried out many personal finance websites and software existing in the market, and we faced the same issue again and again – they are either cumbersome or are afterthoughts.

Most of the software that we tried out did not make it easy to make entries such as expenses and made it a boring chore. And yet, this is the starting point to use all their features.

The ones that work automatically with your bank account are afterthoughts – they are good for overviews and for viewing graphs at the end of the month, but do not help in actively managing your money at all.

So we started adding in our own ideas on what we would want to use.

So what is the product?

It consists of two parts:

  • The active agent where you make your entries – which is either a hardware device or a mobile phone application, based on your preference.
    • The hardware device is for those who like to have a cool-looking gadget to carry around, and want to make entries within 10 seconds.
    • The mobile phone application is for those who have GPRS connections on their mobile phones.
  • The data analyzer – which is a website where you get to slice and dice your data.

I like to think of it as analogous to the “iPod-iTunes” combination – the iPod was designed to do one thing well: play music, and it left the complicated parts of managing music to the iTunes software. We intend to achieve the same effect for personal finance. This is our unique twist.

TrackEveryCoin - How It Works

Features

At its core, the system is an expense tracking system, simply because that is the first step that every personal finance writer recommends. If you don’t know where the money is going, you won’t know how to manage it.

The logic is simple : We need data to improve, whether it is the school score cards for your kids or the mileage for your car or statistics for your favorite cricketers. We bring over the same facility to you for your money!

Now, how is this different from a spreadsheet? Well, the data collection mechanism, obviously, and lots of features, but most of all – this is a specific system that helps you with so many aspects:

  1. Expenses
    • Know what you are spending on – categorize, tag and add notes to your expenditure
  2. Reimbursements
    • Know how much money you have to get back from your company – save time wasted in filing expense reports
  3. Income
    • Plan your money – How much money from your income is budgeted for expenditure and how much money goes to savings and goals
    • Never forget to pay your bills on time again – Reminders will be automatically be saved as expenses
  4. Goals
    • Buy that thing you really want – Save money every month towards your goal, whether it is downpayment for a car or that big trip you’ve been dreaming of
  5. Budgets
    • Never overspend again – Set limits on how much you want to spend and you will be reminded every time you are about to spend
  6. Sharing
    • Never worry again about splitting bills – Keep running counts of expenses shared with your roommate or when you go for dinner with friends, and settle easily
  7. Events and Trips
    • Know how much an occasion will cost you – Stay within your trip budget, know how much a weekend trip will cost you, know how much transportation accounts towards your trips, and more.
  8. Graphs
    • Analyze where your money is going – Know if you are spending more on fuel, if you are spending too less on your hobbies, or how much money you need on an average day.

To know more, visit our website www.TrackEveryCoin.com

We aim to launch the product in July 2009. Sign up now at the website to get special offers when we launch!

We’ll be writing more about how we have designed and built TrackEveryCoin on our company blog. We look forward to your feedback either here on this blog or via email.

Note: I no longer work with IonLab since Nov 12 of 2009.

Today is the second birthday of our ION USB Charger and we are happy to announce that it is now available in a new and improved packaging!

We needed some improvements to our packaging because:

  1. Our previous packaging did not have the product visible.
  2. The packaging needs to have a hook so it can be hung – that is how all accessories are placed in a retail store these days.
  3. We had room for improvement on the look of the box.

The new packages arrived in a box:

The packaging has arrived

And we soon formed an assembly line. I removed the ions from the previous packaging:

Taking out the old packaging

Vikram filtered out the new packages, including rejecting any damaged ones:

Clean 'em up

Varun folded the boxes and put the new ions in them:

Varun putting the ions in the new packages

It doesn’t sound glamorous, isn’t prestigious to talk about, but it sure was a lot fun and exciting. That’s what startups are about!

Vikram totally excited
ions galore

Here are the newly-packaged ions stacked back in the box:

Stacking them in a box

Just to put things in perspective, here is our packaging and its size compared to the competition:

Comparing our size to the competition

And here is our previous and new packaging:

Old vs. New packaging

Here is the sleek “product photography” version:

The ION USB charger

You can grab an ION with the new improved packaging at www.ion.co.in :)

Note: Cross-posted from our company blog

Note: I no longer work with IonLab since Nov 12 of 2009.

Vikram has written an interesting post on whether the name of a brand matters which got me thinking.

I don’t think it’s that simple. I believe that Company name doesn’t matter. Product name matters.

This is because the product’s name is not just a name, it conveys the image that pops into the person’s head when they hear the name.

For example:

  • Apple Macbook Air. “Apple” doesn’t matter. “Air” means light.
  • Maruti Swift. “Maruti” doesn’t matter. “Swift” means fast and light.
  • “Lifehacker” matters. “Gizmodo” matters. “Gawker” doesn’t matter.
  • “Engadget” matters. “Gadling” matters. “Weblogs, Inc.” doesn’t matter.
  • Paypal. Pay your pal.
  • AllTop. All topics.

It can be argued that this is the result of the company promoting the company name more than the brand name, but then again:

  • Twitter vs. Yammer. For whatever reason, I intuitively like the former rather than the latter’s name.
  • MobileCrunch vs JKOnTheRun. Same reason.

If it doesn’t convey the right image, it can be a problem:

  • If a name evokes mixed meanings, then it has a bad branding. For example, Eclipse wants to be many things to many people, and not just a Java IDE. But, as Steve Yegge says, it is difficult to change that perception now.
  • If it’s a hard name, it will negatively affect uptake. For example, ebay has kijiji but now wants to change the name to something simpler.
  • Having a name facilitates emotions. I just find it hard to relate to the Nokia phone naming scheme such as N70 or N93, whereas I like names like Xperia, Dream, Storm, etc.
  • I just think a good brand name is like a marketing message.

Even if the name contributes just 10% to the “cool” factor of a brand, I think it is worth glossing over, as long as it doesn’t become a bikeshed debate.

It’s funny that this internal debate is now continuing in public.

What do you think?

Note: I no longer work with IonLab since Nov 12 of 2009.

When I meet people and have a conversation, they eventually ask the question “So, what do you guys do?”

I like to say “We make stuff” but that’s hardly understandable. The best example I like to give is the Swinxs (found via Springwise).

The Swinxs games console is designed for active games both inside and outdoors. The Swinxs console can talk, can recognize, encourages and explains games. It even acts as referee. The console is light, compact and due to its sustainable battery, is easy to take with you to the park, playground or the beach.

SWINXS

My favorite part is that the children get RFID-tagged colorful bracelets to wear. The tags serve multiple purposes from identifying each participant to keeping track of their scores. For example, if there’s a running race, the child can just bring their hand close to the game console at the finish line, and it’ll immediately recognize you and tell how much time you took.

And there are a lot more games to play:

The downloadable games are divided into age and category. The games possibilities are endless and vary from traditional hide and seek to educational quizzes and adventurous games. The games can be downloaded FREE from this website. Stories and music can also be downloaded on the Swinxs, as well as games.

The video demo showcases the product really well:

Kids these days are addicted to gadgets like Gameboys, mobile phones, etc. The Swinxs is in the same category but it actually encourages them to be more physically active as well as more social with other kids.

There are many other salient features that appeal to us:

  • It is useful. Especially in terms of providing functionality that is not normally available through any other means.
  • The device connects you with the real world. It’s not a world onto its own.
  • It is fun.

This is the kind of stuff that we dream of, the kind of stuff that we like to work on.

What’s interesting is such products bridge the offline world and the computer/online worlds. After all, shouldn’t technology be helping you to live a better offline life, than making you spend more time with the technology itself?


Note: Cross-posted to our company blog.

Note: I no longer work with IonLab since Nov 12 of 2009.

It’s been nearly 5 months since I last quit my job. Five months. Wow. It’s weird because it doesn’t feel that long.

I spent most of the first few months whiling away, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I did have some plans though. For one, I was hoping to go for an M.S. in the USuAl places but the American universities didn’t think well enough of me and asked me to stay back, heh.

I wasn’t disappointed though. I thought I’ll spend some time in gaining some skills and get back to another job in the computer science areas that I wanted to explore.

But as John Lennon would say “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Vikram and I were working on reviving our iPod Charger business and since I didn’t have anything in particular to do, I did some of the running around. However, we still didn’t have a big picture in mind, just that we wanted it to continue.

Suddenly one day, Vikram called from USA and said that he had a brainwave to improve one of our ideas. We had last discussed it nearly six months earlier and shelved it because we didn’t think it would work. It suddenly dawned on us that the improved idea passes all our viable business criteria, especially the parameter that it is actually useful to people, it is doable, and it belongs more in the must-have category as opposed to the nice-to-have category.

After that conversation, everything changed.

Vikram quit a nice cushy job in USA, ditched his H1 visa and is back in Bangalore. He was so sure about this that his colleague Varun also got convinced about the idea and moved back to India.

Here we are, three people who have quit their jobs and working to create a new product. I hate using the latest buzzwords, so I’ll just say, yes we have our own company now. We don’t have any salary and we have lot of work.

A domain name I had registered long ago suddenly came into use. It was going to be the name of our company – IONLAB:

The ion was our first product we created, manufactured and marketed during weekends. Excited by its success, we are now working full-time on making our own products. Hence the “ion” in our name.

We are focused on designs and ideas, and match them to our capabilities. Hence the “lab” in our name, which emphasizes that we are about taking ideas to execution.

We have been having a ball of a time working on our own ideas full-time and gaining experience in expanding our ion business.

Regarding our specific idea, there’s no point in talking about it this early but we’ve described it a bit on our products page.

FWIW, I have no idea how far we will go and what will happen in the future. You may never even hear about us or our product. But one thing’s for sure, we’re going to give this our best shot and we’ll work to make it happen.

As we wrote in our company weblog’s first entry:

We love putting in effort. After all, it’s our dreams and ideas. What can be more exciting than that? As Mark Cuban once said, “The one thing in our business lives is effort. Either you make the commitment to get results or your don’t.”

Singapore Day 05 016

IONLAB is our dream, our destination.

The next experiment has begun!

Note: I no longer work with IonLab since Nov 12 of 2009.

Last week, we quietly relaunched ion, our USB
charger
. The very next day, we shipped ions to
customers in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai. And an hour
ago, I shipped one to Bhubaneswar. It’s good to be back! :-)

First of all, thanks to all those 96 people who wrote to us in the
past few months who kept asking us when we’ll be back in stock. The
fact that there are people really interested kept us going. And we
really needed that boost.

I’m sure there are a lot more people who would have also visited the
website, saw the ‘Out of stock’ sign but not written to us. We felt
bad in having to turn away so many people for so long. But we are very
conscious of delivering the best goods, hence we ended up taking a lot
of time to do it right.

<shameless plug>

The good news is that the next generation of ion, unimaginatively
called “ion2” is here and now available.

Not only does ion really solve a pain
point
, what sets
it apart from other USB chargers are:

  1. Is the smallest USB charger available in the Indian market.
  2. Of very high quality. It is CE certified.
  3. Works anywhere in the world. No more voltage conversions.
  4. Works with almost any device that can be charged via USB, including
    all kinds of mp3 players (the entire iPod family, Zune, iRiver,
    etc.), mobile phones, and so on.
  5. Advantage of ion working with so many devices is that you no longer
    need to say “Do you have an iPod charger” or “Do you have a Nokia
    6300 charger?”

    Just ask "Do you have an ion?" ;-)
    

Buy Ion

</shameless plug>

Note: I no longer work with IonLab since Nov 12 of 2009.

One year ago, on this day, we launched ion, the ipod
charger
. The launch was just one blog
post
.
That’s it. Within two hours, Atul Chitnis bought the first ion in our
online store. We celebrated.

But hold on, let’s rewind the story a bit.

As people might have heard in our recent running
talk
, it all
started when Vikram,
Niara and myself started training
together for the 2006 Bangalore
Marathon
.

During one of our runs, Vikram told us that he had created his own
charger circuit and came up with this wacky idea of manufacturing and
selling them
. I never took it seriously
but Niara did. She convinced Vikram to take the idea forward. Nearly
six months later, the idea had taken wings.

The prototype looked nothing like something we could sell.

Picture 253
Picture 252

Later, I was planning to attend the first
proto.in
. Vikram and Niara
joined in and we went together. I was totally floored by the energy of
the people there and the fire in the eyes of these startup guys.
I told those two that they should talk to this guy called Arif
Vakil
of “Vakil Housing” fame and how he was
looking to fund interesting ideas. Immediately, Vikram swung into
action, approached Vakil and started explaining the idea.
Surprisingly, he showed interest!

Luckily, Vikram had brought his prototype and went to fetch it from
his bag. Then Vikram started searching for his iPod when Arif said
“Let’s try with my iPod”. Wow. That moment. Imagine if your VC is
a would-be customer and the product solves a problem that he himself
faces. Nothing like it.

We connected Arif’s iPod to the charger and the charger to a power
socket. The blue LED came on. The iPod was showing the charging
symbol. We all had smiles on our faces. Arif was impressed and went on
to even ask us where we live and so on. That means he really was
interested.

After that incident, it was time to head back. Vikram was on an
all-time high. That was when we were all convinced that we were on to
something. And throughout the bus journey from Chennai to Bangalore,
those two convinced me to join ion. I wasn’t so sure. Yeah, it was
a Saturdays-only part-time thing. Yeah, Vikram and me had discussed
about such things endlessly. But still, I wasn’t sure.

I thought about it the next day and thought “Why not?” I don’t lose
much if it bombs and it was a good excuse for us three to keep meeting
up.

For various reasons, we didn’t approach Vakil for funding and put in
the initial investment ourselves. And we went from shopping for
running shoes to shopping for resistors and capacitors and modifying
Drupal code.

Picture 053

Then there was the countless decision-making sessions like coming up
with poster ideas and then the stories about how we decided the logo
for ion
, how we
landed in trouble with the
cops
, and
finally the launch of ion.

We sent an email to friends asking them to forward to their company
internal groups and anybody who would be interested. We also gave
posters to put up on their company notice boards. That was pretty much
our ‘marketing strategy’. The idea was that we marketed it as an iPod
charger and our target audience was the techie crowd.

We marketed it as an iPod charger even though it will work with
anything that can be charged with USB right from mobile phones to
battery chargers. We use the term iPod charger because that’s what
people have most demand for. The second part about targeting techies
was because they will be the ones who will look to finding a solution
that is cheaper than the official charger which costs 2000 rupees but
still is reliable. Ours was one-fifth that price.

The most humbling experience for me was trying to sell ion outside the
Aerosmith concert. That was such a good example of a wrong person (me)
in the right place doing the job not suited for him. But yet Niara and
me did it for ion.

Then came the amazing customer
feedback
and our highest
point – getting featured in a half-page article in Economic
Times
:

ion in economic times

And yes, Arif congratulated
us
.

But you want to know what’s the craziest part? We made just 200
pieces of ion
. Yes, that’s it. 200 ions. Crazy. And see how far it
went.

After that ET article happened, we ran out of stock. That was six
months ago
. Many people have asked me why we’re not selling more
ions. So I thought I’ll tell the hidden part of the story today – We
never intended ion to live longer than those 200 pieces. It was just
a business experiment for us, nothing more. Why? To learn what it
takes to convert an idea to a reliable quality product and take it to
market.

We never called ourselves a startup back then. That has happened only
in hindsight. In fact, I was in it because I thought I could help
since I had some experience in maintaining my own websites and maybe
I can learn a thing or two in running an ecommerce store.

After we managed to the finish selling the batch of 200 pieces and
made decent profit, Vikram moved to USA, Niara moved on to other
things in life and so did I.

But the response hasn’t stopped. Even last Thursday (Apr 17), we got
emails from four different people in a single day asking when we’ll be
back in stock. Crazy, I tell you.

I have had so many personal failures and failed projects in the past
few years that it seemed stupid to kill a successful project of ours.
So Vikram and myself have been working on reviving ion. We hope to be
back with a batch of second generation ions in the next month.

The experiment continues.

Note: I no longer work with IonLab since Nov 12 of 2009.

The other day, mom was telling me why she has completely switched from
the traditional neighbourhood HOPCOMS (Horticultural Produce
Cooperative Marketing Societies) outlet to the
fresh@ store to buy the
vegetables. I got curious and asked to explain. She mentioned several
points:

  1. HOPCOMS doesn’t allow the customer to choose the vegetables/fruits,
    they can’t pick the good ones. fresh@ allows it and this ensures
    quality.
  2. A minimum quantity of 250gm is imposed at HOPCOMS, but no such
    thing at fresh@.
  3. fresh@ is open from 7am-11pm compared to HOPCOMS which is open for
    8 hours and is closed during the afternoon.
  4. fresh@ provides all kinds of items, like milk, curds, rice compared
    to going to HOPCOMS, neighbourhood shop i.e. different places for
    these items.
  5. fresh@ provides separate covers for each item whereas HOPCOMS
    requires customers to carry their own bags.
  6. fresh@ stores perishable food in the freezer whereas HOPCOMS keeps
    it in the open.
  7. fresh@ has a much better ambience and a more friendly environment
    (don’t underestimate this)
  8. They have many offers and a points systems – this is not important
    according to mom, but if you’re anyway going to buy from fresh@,
    people are going to use it.
  9. Amazing thing is that the cost is not the differentiator!
  10. The important thing is that mom never intends to go back to the
    old way. If fresh@ goes poof one day, it is going to have
    a negative effect. This shows that fresh@ is really making
    a difference.

This brings me to the 2.0 part… consider how fresh@ takes a leap
forward in bettering the customer’s life. Compare that to the latest
mumbo jumbo
startups

out there. Are they really adding value?

I think the first thing a wannabe-entrepreneur should consider is
whether it is a must-have or a nice-to-have utility that they are
creating.

I mean how many more photo sharing sites or video sharing sites do you
really need? And how many more social networking sites?

(Well, on the other hand, if you can sell your me-too social
networking site for Rs. 39.3
crore
,
sure why not?)

But seriously, how many people really know all the India-specific
social bookmarking
sites

out there? Ever heard of xoomly.com? Well, neither did I until just
now. And I’m probably never going back again.

I don’t mean to pick on only ‘social’ websites, but I feel many other
hardware and software startups out there are solutions looking for
a problem
. (On a lighter note, a christmas
tree
that lights up when I connect it to
my laptop via USB can be really handy).

As Paul Graham says:

Let me repeat that recipe: finding the problem intolerable and
feeling it must be possible to solve it. Simple as it seems, that’s
the recipe for a lot of startup ideas.

I can say that this is true because of (yes, you know it was coming)
our experience in ion.

In fact, in one of the interviews we have
given, we were asked the question “Why a product like ion?”, and we
replied:

  1. “To scratch an itch.” Vikram didn’t want to spend money on the
    expensive official Apple iPod Charger, and being an electronics
    geek, he designed a circuit himself and started using it to charge
    his iPod.

  2. Then, we discussed about many people who are facing the same
    problem. For example, people who are not aware of the official
    charger (or don’t want to purchase such an expensive one) even leave
    their computer switched on overnight just to charge their iPod!
    That’s a lot of unnecessary wastage of electricity.

  3. There are many unbranded chargers available in the market, but it
    is sold on the condition that it may or may not work, and there is
    no assurance on the quality, or even that your iPod will be safe
    when using these chargers.

The charger that Vikram built was a perfect fit to solve all these
problems, with reliability, and within a reasonable cost. We got
together to take it to market.

The bad news is that ion ran out of stock sooner than we expected
after the recent Economic Times
article
and we apologize for the
several customers who wrote in to us asking when it’ll be available.
We’re working on it and will update you all as soon as possible.

One customer said he desperately needed it before Christmas
because he’s going for a long vacation and he wants to be
able to use his iPod during the trip.

It feels good to know that we are solving a real problem.
It’s not life-changing but it does meet Paul Graham’s criteria.

Note: I no longer work with IonLab since Nov 12 of 2009.

First, there was the Mint financial newspaper’s article on
“casualpreneurs” in the July 8th, 2007 edition which featured
ion. FYI, Mint is a joint collaboration
between the Hindustan Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Then, there was an article in the BTW magazine’s 10th September 2007
edition on “netpreneurs” which featured ion.

And yesterday, there was a huge half-page article on ion in the
Economic Times
! (Bangalore
edition)

I can’t help but think on how much hair-pulling, teeth-gnashing and
forehead-slapping happens behind the scenes. But to see all the
response from
customers as
well as an article in the Economic Times dedicated exclusively to us
just six months after launch
makes it seem all worthwhile.

So, thank you to all our dear customers for making ion so successful!
And some of you actually like it so much that you spread the word
around for us! :)

P.S. Yeah, we know we don’t look great in that big photo, but hey, our
excuse is that we were too busy working on ion ;)