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.

81 people have asked me about “Innovation – ways to make people innovate.”

That’s a hard question. Especially because I’m always wary of using such an ambiguous term. And more so, when there are far more qualified people to answer out there.

Since I have been asked the question, I am jotting down my thoughts on the subject here (the usual disclaimers apply):

I think the question really is about how impactful can a person be, rather than this nebulous word called “innovative.” In fact, I hate the word “innovation”, because the focus should be about problem solving.

Innovation (regardless of its definition) is almost always the by-product of a successfully executed product. You don’t start by wanting to be innovative. You start by looking at interesting hard problems. You only end up being innovative. So, Solve the Problem first.

For example, I always find it amusing to see the feedback on isbn.net.in – people have said “It’s awesome! It’s wonderful!” I replied “It’s just a bunch of regexes!” … But it just goes to show that what matters is how much the user values it, not how it is implemented.

Now, back to topic: If you want to be able to attack interesting hard problems, then my honest opinion is that you need to keep this equation in mind:

Creativity x Organization = Impact

Scott Belsky at the 99% Conference

Regarding Creativity / Ideas:

  1. “If you think you don’t have any good ideas, that’s because you don’t really have bad ideas. You get one good idea only after you get a hundred bad ideas.” — paraphrasing Seth Godin in his latest book Linchpin.
  2. Frequent Inspiration helps. A lot. Keep reading Springwise, Yanko Design, Quirky everyday and you’ll be inspired to “innovate” as well.
  3. Observe. “If you’re looking for problems to solve, you’re better off to be around real people whose problems can be solved via your trade (such as software).” — RWW article
  4. Follow the Trends, such as Gartner Identifies the Top 10 Consumer Mobile Applications for 2012 and 10 Tech Trends for 2010 — Time , and more importantly the kinds of technology and products that are being created, follow those “cutting edge” technologies that we love to adore and wonder “Wow, how did they come up with this stuff?

But you have to be careful when ideating, because it is very easy to get into “analysis paralysis”:

Another important thing is to not get so carried away by the shiny new things that you forget the basics:

Regarding Organization / Discipline

  1. There is this guy in Adobe Bangalore office who is a “patent machine.” He files for a patent every two weeks. No kidding. And these weren’t only trivial ones either.
    What was his trick? He spent a dedicated half hour every single day on thinking up new ideas or solving problems. It’s as simple as that. This is called the Seinfeld “Unbroken Chain” philosophy.
  2. Body and Mind need a predictable routine and that’s when it’s optimal. And once it has a routine, it is hard for the body and mind to accept any other way.
    That’s why smokers find it so hard to get out of their addiction, because body and mind is used to it and is craving for it. Same goes for coffee, same goes for writing code, same goes for creating new ideas. It is so ironic that discipline breeds creativity. It’s a truth that we don’t want to accept, because it makes us sound less “human”.
  3. Don’t judge an idea to be good or bad until you have tried to manually solve it yourself once or prototyped it. After your first attempt at solving the problem, if you still feel good about it and feel that some pain point has been relieved, then it is a good idea.
    Take Jack Dorsey’s simple approach to creating as an example: draw out the idea, gauge the right timing, and iterate like mad.

To summarize:

  1. Focus on the problem, not the solution. As Dave McClure says: “problem, not solution. customer, not technology. UX, not code. distribution, not PR. acq cost, not revenue projections.”
  2. As Seth Godin would say, “Artists who ship” have the most impact. Read Linchpin to internalize it.
  3. What is your impact? Can you qualify it? Can you quantify it? Measure it every month – Within 6 months, you will know whether you are “innovative.”

Update #1: Related Reading, as pointed out by Srikanth in the comments: The Discipline of Innovation by Peter Drucker. Looks like I keep reinventing what Drucker has already said.

Update #2: See 10 Laws of Productivity by Behance team.

My alma mater, PESIT (in Bangalore), has an interesting proposition for startups – mentor students and get office space in return.

The background is that they are working to improve the quality of education in the IS / CS departments. One of the ideas they identified was to work with in-industry programmers who can answer questions from students on the innumerable topics out there, from a practical point of view. Of course, GIYF would be your first response, but students who are just starting out need face time and guidance to make them comfortable, even if the answer is going to be “Check this URL.” Some of the kinds of questions you can expect are:

  • How can I use the vi editor to edit my file?
  • What is CouchDB?
  • How can I compile my program better than typing javac myProgram.java?
  • How can I use the Facebook OpenGraph API?

The only way for PESIT to make this happen is to get motivated in-industry programmers to spare some of their time to mentor students. And what better way is there than offer office space to startups who can work out of the PESIT campus and mentor students face-to-face right there!

Startups can also get access to clusters of hundreds of machines in the computer labs and even get interested students to work as interns with you!

If this sounds like an opportunity for your startup and an opportunity for you to improve the quality of CS education, then go ahead and write to Mr. Harihara Vinayakaram (visiting lecturer at PESIT) at nextgenerationbangalore [at] gmail.com with “Startup Student Mentor” in the subject line.

Update on 5 Oct, 2012 : Still on Mac applications, but now using the free email mailbox option of my domain registrar Gandi.net + local Thunderbird email folders instead of Rackspace Email. Desktop apps are better for frequently used stuff. No matter how many times web apps lure me into “available everywhere” + “mobile syncing” feature. For example, the Brief addon for Firefox is so much more responsive and pleasant to use than Google Reader, although Google Reader’s advantage is that it works on mobile as well. I spend too much time with my mobile phone anyway, so it’s a good way to dis-incentivize me from using that screen.

¬†Update on 13 Jan, 2012: Most of my online services has been replaced by good Mac applications + Dropbox. I have moved away from Zoho services because their UI tended to be quite buggy, and using the browser’s “live bookmarks” feature as the RSS reader. The main things I’m still dependent on Google for is Feedburner (because it is the standard for RSS reader count) and Google Analytics (again, the standard for analytics).

Update on 30 Jul, 2011: I have switched to another paid option now – Rackspace Email.

Update on 24 Apr, 2011: I was using Zoho Mail exclusively for a long time, but I got tired of my email landing in spam folders of Yahoo! Mail and Gmail users. Going back to Yahoo! Mail was not an option (IMAP support is only in an expensive paid option and I don’t like the Yahoo! Mail UI any more), so the Hobson’s choice was to get back to Gmail. Sigh.


100% Google Free!A series of incidents and thoughts led me to try an experiment – to be “100% Google Free”. This turned out to be a lot harder than I thought, and ended up admiring Google a lot, and at the same time, worried and curious about what they do with all that data they have.

First things first, since I no longer use Google’s Feedburner, please kindly update your RSS readers to use http://www.swaroopch.com/feed/ instead of the earlier Feedburner link. For those 140+ people who are subscribed via email, I have migrated to MailChimp (emails were also being sent by Feedburner earlier), so emails will continue to be delivered to you from this post onwards. You can subscribe or unsubscribe for email delivery on this page.

Back to the main topic… there were a few reasons that led me to this experiment:

Phew. I think those were enough reasons to move away from Google, at least for a while.

And, boy, it has been tough. Let’s face it, it’s hard for companies to beat Google when Google makes slick products and gives it away for free.

Here is what my transition looks like:

  1. Search – The funny thing is I used Google Search only in 2004-2005, started using Yahoo! Search since 2006, and have moved to Bing exclusively since the past 6 months. (free)
  2. Analytics – Moved to Mint ($30) + Piwik (open source)
  3. Reader – Moved to Tiny Tiny RSS (open source)
  4. Feedburner – Moved to the default WordPress feed link + MailChimp for emails (freemium)
  5. Google Apps – Moved to Zoho for Business ($5 per month)
  6. Docs – Moved to Zoho Docs which turned out to be way more powerful (free)
  7. GTalk – Stopped using IM, it was a distraction anyway. (zero)
  8. Contacts – Exported from Google, stored only on iPhone (free)
  9. Calendar – Zoho Calendar (free)
  10. Google Groups – subscribe to RSS feeds of the group (free)
  11. Maps – Since the map application on iPhone uses Google Maps, no alternative
  12. Google Alerts – no alternative
  13. Google Adsense – This is still a todo item, haven’t looked into it yet. I have heard about Komli, Chitika, etc. but yet to investigate.
  14. Phone – My next phone is probably going to be an Android phone, looks like there is no alternative (I’m tired of having to use Windows just for iTunes, only because I have an iPhone)

As I’m sure you have deciphered, this took some installation of server-side software and some money to make this transition. These were the best alternatives that I came across that suited me.

So far I’ve been very happy about this experiment, because I got to discover and try out new tools and realized that there is so much more cool functionality available out there that I would have never discovered otherwise!

And at the same time, I admire Google even more now (from a startupper’s perspective) because they discovered a business model because of which they are able to give away so much functionality for free, and hence brought more people online.

Update: Thanks to Helen (in the comments below), got to know that Leo Babauta (Zen Habits) wrote about the exact same topic just 2 days ago. Good to know that I’m not alone in my concern!

I had an itch – I wished there was a simple way of deciding whether to buy a book and where to buy a book. So I created http://isbn.net.in

isbn.net.in

The initial idea I had was to make a bookmarklet that will do everything – it will figure out the unique book number (the ISBN) from the current book page (whether a publisher’s site or any ecommerce site), and then search on all the potential Indian online book stores. I then realized that you can’t fetch from other domains because of the same-domain policy of AJAX (I could’ve used YQL or something like that, but I felt it was a slippery slope).

So I had to create a web backend that will do the searching on behalf of the bookmarklet and changed the idea to simply show a jQueryUI dialog showing the sorted list of prices.

Then I chanced upon http://isbn.nu and immediately said to myself: “I want that with Indian prices”. Since I was half-way there already, it took a few additional steps of buying a good domain name and configuring to use the simple URL format they used.

There was one major problem with the bookmarklet – on sites which already have jQuery, it used to conflict, and although jQuery itself can live with multiple versions side-by-side, I could never figure out if jQueryUI was loaded properly or not. I tried various things but had to give up in vain.

Finally, I decided the pop-up overlay thing was not important, and the bookmarklet can just simply take you to the correct isbn.net.in page directly.

So the “where” part of the question was answered.

I still had to answer the “whether” part of the question – that’s when a friend told me about Amazon ECS using which I was able to get the very useful Amazon ratings. Then I was able to get the image of the cover of the book and other details.

Then I came across bookseer.com which makes great book recommendations, so I included an automatic link to that on the book page.

So, after much ado, I present http://isbn.net.in to you. All the instructions are on the homepage.

If you have any feedback, please read the disclaimers on the homepage and the About page, and then send me feedback.

Implementation was a lot of fun – I used Ruby, Sinatra, HAML, Mechanize, amazon-ecs, jQuery, Blueprint CSS. It was the first time I had really used any of these.

Disclaimer: I created isbn.net.in because I needed a tool like this. This has nothing to do whatsoever with my employer. It is just a personal side-project.

Updates on Praise, Feedback and New Feature: See isbn.net.in updates article.

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.

Once in a while I come across something really inspiring, and this time it was The fun theory – a “thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behavior for the better.”

Getting people to use the staircase than the escalator

Getting people to throw into the garbage bin

Getting people to iron their clothes

Road Roller Iron

“Ironing clothes can be a boring task and getting the creases removed from your clothes perfectly is next to impossible. Now all you need to do is place your shirt on a customized iron board with sensors. You need to define the task. What is to be ironed? Shirt, trouser etc. The board defines your play area with lights depending on your selection. Creases are highlighted. Place the mini road roller iron on the shirt, sit back and let the fun begin. With a remote control you need to guide the road roller around the highlighted creases. If you move out of your play area, you lose points. If you get all the creases sorted in quick time you gain points.”

Getting children to clean their rooms

So what?

I hope to keep this inspiration in mind whenever I’m building products for others to use.

P.S. Go vote for the best entries before January 15, 2010!