If you haven’t noticed already, I’m an Entrepreneurship Enthusiast. I’m a big fan of small teams that get things done. I believe that no [tech] company should grow beyond 25 employees, and companies with more than 50 in the same location should be banned. I think that outsourcing everything other than your core competency is good, but outsourcing is a bad idea when your sole motivation is to cut costs, rather than to be able to focus on your core competency. In the long term, everybody walks away dissatisfied from such an arrangement.
Intrapreneurship can enable innovative teams to thrive in large organizations. Unfortunately middle management (in India) is paranoid, unwilling to take risks and sometimes just plain clueless, so innovation often ends up being a forced phenomenon. (Although like in everything else in life, there are exceptions.)
Earlier this year unrelated circumstances forced me to part ways with my employer in a hurry. While looking around for new opportunities, I met Vinit who suggested that I attend the upcoming Lean Startup Machine event to meet new people and get new ideas. And boy, was that good advice.
I showed up at LSM with no expectations, nothing but a laptop and an open mind. When I learnt that attendees could pitch, I made the first one. 13 teams eventually self-organized out of the 64 attendees and mine turned out to be one of the top voted ideas. I was lucky to have an investment banker, a web entrepreneur, another lean entrepreneur and a CTO volunteer to join my team — and having that variety of expertise & experience in the team made all the difference.
We quickly bonded as a team and with the help of LSM Mentors we slowly but surely implemented lean principles in validating our idea. By day 2 we had a good idea of what we wanted to build, and by day 3 of pivoting and validation we even had several Letters of Intent from potential customers. Eventually we went on to win the competition and as a result SafeRoads India was born.
LSM was an eye opener and a fantastic learning experience, some of which I’d like to consolidate here. The advice and learning extended beyond the 3 days of the workshop into the followup sessions with Investors and Mentors (our prize!), and the new friendships that were forged amongst kindred souls.
Inspiration started with Drew Nagda, Director of Corporate Partnerships @lean narrating his story and how not to underestimate the potential of an idea to make you money. He went on to explain some of the core fundamentals related to Lean Startups:
- Defining “customer”, “problem statement” & “solution”
- Customer validation (using the weakest acceptable outcome as the minimum success criterion)
- Pivots (changes in strategy without changing vision)
- MVP / MVE (Minimum Viable Product / Experiment)
- The cycle of Hypothesize (riskiest assumption) -> Experiment -> Validate (get out of the building) -> Analyze
- Exploration (finding the problem), Pitch (collecting “currency”) and Concierge (meeting expectations)
For me the highlight of the event was the talk by Mukund Mohan, CEO of Microsoft Accelerator. It has been the most inspiring and practical advice I have ever come across, especially his quote that I have taped on to my desk: “My discipline will beat your intellect”. I have since been recommending Mukund’s Blog to everyone I meet. Mukund initially touched upon what they look for in the MS India Accelerator program, mainly a disruptive product idea, large potential customer base (interestingly only 1/10th of what they look for in the US market) and “coachable” entrepreneurs. He then talked about the outstanding benefits of being part of the accelerator, and trust me, they are very nice indeed because their primary objective is to engage and grow the startup community rather than make money off of it (Though I suppose that would be a secondary effect in the long run :-)). Towards the end he spoke about the 3 things he looks for in entrepreneurs:
1. Attitude — Never giving up, Being an opportunist.
2. Discipline — Because success gets money, not the other way round (a.k.a. “Success is determined by revenue, not funding”)
3. Storytelling — Painting a convincing picture and envisioning the dream for all three: Investors, Customers and Hires.
A close second was a mind-blowing talk by Sridhar Ranganathan, in which he dived into the philosophy of what is a Minimum Viable Product and reiterated my long-standing suspicion that in any project, only the top 10% items actually get done.
The next day, Prof. Nandini Vaidyanathan (CARMa Connect, author of Entrepedia) took us back to the basics of “social” (share, connect, collaborate, create). She shared some very interesting anecdotes, such as the one about the enterprising kid who was selling local chai to people waiting in line when Starbucks opened in India, about how eBags’ VP responded personally to a customer’s blog post about poor quality zippers — resulting in a change in their supplier and turning an angry customer into a devoted evangelist, and how 95% of Lego’s products are designed by their customers.
Haja Sheriff from Microsoft shared his story about making Microsoft a resounding success with Universities & Colleges in India, by applying lean thinking to change the focus from the perceived “market share” problem to the actual problem, which was to achieve increased employability for students.
- Don’t build from scratch (reuse)
- Don’t go back to the drawing board too often (build and iterate)
- Don’t try to do everything yourself (focus on the best use of your time, for everything else find someone else or outsource)
- Don’t stop refactoring (change is good)
- Don’t architect for depth (YAGNI)
- Don’t solicit unused feedback (everyone will give feedback but focus on the meaningful ones)
- Don’t formalize contribution within the team (can lead to imbalance and cohesiveness issues)
- Don’t ignore the ecosystem (build what is relevant)
- Try to build software that “auto-tunes” itself: self run, self service and self elimination of problems
On the last day, Deepak Shenoy shared his wisdom (learnt the hard way) about the 5 myths of being a financially lean startup, which was a big source of help for everyone in the room — because in a world full of people with ideas, it is execution that makes all the difference. Unfortunately due to communication gap he didn’t have enough time to complete his presentation, but I would strongly urge you to read about it here.
LSM was a very encouraging and enlightening experience. I would strongly recommend it to anyone who has a voice in their head and is trying to figure out whether it is crazy or not. Even if you don’t have a startup idea yourself today, it is a fantastic place to meet new people, learn new things and get new insights — maybe even play a role in bringing someone else’s idea to life. And it doesn’t have to be pure technology, ideas pitched at LSM included a Marriage Portal for Bollywood style weddings, a chain of healthy takeaway breakfast stores and a hotline for quick medical advice. So go on, get out of the building!