K Srikrishna

The Entrepreneur Life

3 Ways to Turn Your Job Interviews into Learning Sessions

4 minutes, yep FOUR minutes. That’s all it took, for my interviewer to figure out the limits of my domain knowledge.

Brent Gregory one of the earliest employees at Synopsys was the fella interviewing me for the role of a product marketing manager. 

His R&D team had developed the tech that was going to be productized and I would be marketing it if hired. 

The first six odd years of my career had been in technology development in manufacturing. A job rotation program let me try out a corporate marketing role for six months. I never went back. 

Then business development/sales/marketing roles in two startups overseas before returning to interview for a tech marketing role at Synopsys Inc in Mountain View. 

Earlier that day I’d had lunch with the VP of Marketing, now friend and former boss Sandeep Khanna, with whom I’d had couple of phone calls. We’d hit it off like a house on fire. 

Now came the true test. What will the tech folks feel about me? I’d never had an interview like I did with Brent. Soft-spoken and polite to a fault, he began asking me what I knew about electronic design automation. Since the answer was very little, that was short conversation. 

Without accusing me of modesty, Brent spent a few minutes probing, using direct questions as well as analogues. Once he had a measure of my technical understanding, he spent the rest of the 41 minutes educating me—about the problem, their approach, the current status and his expectations what a marketer would do for them. 

He not only had me excited but I left the meeting a whole lot smarter. Even if I didn’t get the job, I was better off than when I’d walked in the room.

What I learned that day has stayed with me to date and helped me and others in innumerable occasions.

  • Every interviewer can be a different audience with different needs
  • Understand their careabouts (with your own questions) and
  • Shape your message appropriately to address their careabout
    (even if it is to share what you are not a good fit for)
  • While your desired outcome from the process is to get hired, 
  •  Outcomes for each interviewer can and will be different 

And yes, interviews may go well yet employers can ghost you—two ways to benefit are:

  • Treat each interview as a practice run—to understand your audience & hone your message and the stories 
  • Capture your learnings explicitly so you always benefit

What are you favorite interview (good or horror) stories?

Keep the faith and good luck hunting!

Personal branding and other Sisyphean endeavors

Be authentic, we are told. Bring your whole self to work is another exhortation we hear often. What do these mean?

Karthik Srinivasan points out several issues that (Indian) CEOs face, and at times create for themselves, in the pursuit of a personal brand.

One of the big challenges of the ‘always online’ and ‘everything online’ is in figuring out, for ourselves first, what is authentic and what is performative.

One way to not fall into the trap of a social media treadmill and the emotional rollercoaster associated with the (non-)performance of a post, reel or video is to:

Know Thyself
Whilst answering the question “Who am I?” or “What do I want to be known for?” might be a life-long question, its worth attempting to answer it before you invest a lot into “personal branding” or social media.

In important part of knowing yourself, is not just what you want, but how emotionally sensitive you are—are you a dopamine junkie; does one bad comment or rant send you to a dark place? How would you respond?

Why are you on social media?
Also ask yourself WHY are you doing it? As Karthik points out for a corporate CEO likes/engages may not make sense as they would for an ad-revenue driven influencer. And once a quarter or year is worth revisiting if it’s still true.

Corporate vs personal
This is the professional vs social quandary we’ve faced even before social media. How separate do we keep these two spheres—clearly national and local cultures play a part in this. And social media has torn many of these walls down.

This is where the “whole self” problem presents itself. As we’ve seen with the war in the Middle East, being authentic has been a minefield as many a social issue has turned political. Yes there are no definitive right answers but only answers that are right for you, in a set of circumstances.

What are these for you?

Mental & emotional wellbeing
The only thing that matters is your mental & emotional wellbeing. The mental health issues that teen girls face due to social media are well documented. As are issues of YouTubers facing burnout and the mental health challenges of startup founders. Joshua Doležal, Ph.D. and others have written about the pressure writers face to build a personal brand whilst trying to make a living.

Being ‘successful’ whatever that is, whilst not having your health, family or lasting community is a pyrrhic victory at best.

Let me tell you what happened to my friend…

“Capture the stories you already tell. “

This is one of the first exercises we ask students in our course—Personal Success through Persuasive Storytelling to do.

This creates a variety of interesting responses. There’s always the one person who immediately begins jotting down all the stories they tell—be that at work, at a party, wedding or reunion.

Then there’s the person who can’t recall a single story that they tell. And of course most folks fall somewhere in between.

I find myself telling three or four three kinds of stories. These include those

  • from my own experiences and idiocy as an entrepreneur,
  • of young (& not so young) entrepreneurs that I mentor/encounter
  • I’ve learnt as the parent of two young women and
  • that I’ve heard others tell—primarily my father and business partners

Though my father passed in 2011, my appreciation and understanding of him has only grown—primarily as his stories keep popping out of my mouth.

While many stories my father told were situated firmly at work or around business interactions, the occasional personal stories he shared, usually with a life lesson, have always been special. One particular story of his experience as 17 or 18-year old apprentice in Shimla, was the cause of much ribbing by his kids for the rest of his life.

My father came to the city—Chennai as a 16-year old, two years after he lost his father. An uncle who he’d hoped would help him go to college didn’t do so. With a widowed mother, younger sister to be married and two younger brothers still in school, he felt he had little or no options.

So he “ran away” (only his mother knew) to New Delhi. There a couple of friends he’d made in Chennai helped him get work as an apprentice at an accounting firm, they worked at.

One month the three friends were sent to Shimla, to conduct the quarterly audit at client’s offices. Shimla, set in the foothills of the Himalayas was the summer capital for the Brits (who were still running India in 1945/6). Once they day’s work was done, the three young men (boys?) would hang out at The Mall, what Wikipedia quaintly calls a pedestrian avenue. ie the main drag!

As my father tells it, one evening a young woman walked up to them, grabbed my father’s friend‘s hand, and declared, “Marry me!”

Keep in mind this is 1945 or 46. If this happened even today in 2024, it would be a scandal. So as you can imagine my father and his friends were flabbergasted. One of them squeaked out, “What do you mean?

“Well, I’ve seen you here everyday staring at me,” she said. “So if you like me so much, you should then marry me!”

My father’s friend was so mortified, that he could barely get his hand free and run away as fast as he could. My father and his other friend ran after him, and never again did they hang out at The Mall.

At this point in the story, one of us—sure if it was my mom or one of my sisters asked, “Was it really your friend’s hand she grabbed or yours?

My dad gave an enigmatic smile and said no more. From then on, whenever my dad narrated a story, we all ribbed my father with “And, this happened to your friend?”

Now every time I tell a story, my daughters ask me the question, “And, this happened to your friend?” So the story and traditions continue.

My father would have turned 95 earlier this week. I miss your stories, dad!

Four (plus one) writers who inspire and shape me

This week I found myself wondering why we wait for someone’s passing to publicly to praise them or to acknowledge our gratitude.

Nearly three months days ago, my father-in-law passed away.  The first few days went by in a haze and we had an endless stream of visitors —relatives, friends, former colleagues and many who were strangers to me. As at my own father’s wake, I learned how my reticent father-in-law had helped or inspired them in their personal and professional lives. Whether it was his personal tax accountant or nationally renowned captain of business, the story often highlighting his sense of humor, was one of specific impact delivered with genuine gratitude. I know my father-in-law would have been touched and even a tad bit embarrassed at such praise.

Whilst my own stories about him will have to wait, I reckoned its time for me to publicly acknowledge the many people (who I’ve never met) yet whose writings not only bring me great joy but educate and shape me. I hope some or all of them bring you the same joy.

Irena Dumitrescu is a professor of medieval English and an essayist. Her latest newsletter is what triggered this particular post. Irena writes The Process, “a newsletter about pursuing a creative life in the face of modern distraction, exhaustion, and just all-around harsh vibes.” By her own admission The Process is not an “every Friday” type of newsletter, but each issue has dug deep. In fact the latest one made me lean over to my wife and hand her my phone and say read this! And to my surprise it had the same degree of impact on my musician spouse as it did on me—particularly the trying hard, the eminently relatable concept of the Romanian a se screme (well known to Tamilians as mukkal!). And certainly the advice “less self-chastisement, and more of a willingness to accept the experience for what it is.”

Joshua Doležal author of The Recovering Academic newsletter is a prolific writer, putting out two of three issues a week. Joshua is a lyrical writer—his prose just as visual as his poetry who’s love for the Montana he grew up in reminds me of Steinbeck’s (very different) America. Recently he’s begun a series around folks who’ve left academia (with an emphasis on those in the humanities) to find a job in the real world. His depth of thought, imaginative writing and sheer output (even while it makes me envious) is a joy and inspiration.

John Naughton, Irish academic and columnist for the Observer whose daily newsletter Memex 1.1 is the first one I’ve read each day (and the one I’ve read the longest!) He’s amongst the best content curators on the internet IMO.  With sections such as  “Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news,” “Long read of the day” and (my favorite) “My commonplace booklet” I find it uplifting, invaluable and an easy read. 

Heather Cox Richardson, historian, author and educator is the author of the daily newsletter “Letters from an American” is someone I discovered only this year. Whilst I avoid catching the “news” in any sort of real time, and Heather on many an occassion does cover the events of the day, her overall factual and more importantly optimistic take on the events of the day has now made her newsletter the one I read first each day. Of course she covers a good deal of American history using dates and anniversaries as a trigger—a thoroughly absorbing and education read. 

Om Malik (the plus one without whom this list would not be complete) writer, photographer and investor is the one blogger that I’ve followed across the years. The breadth of his writing—whether on tech, the business and people of tech, his prognostications, or photography or the personal he keeps it not just real but provocative. And he gives John Naughton a run for his money as a content curator.

My father-in-law would have been 94 this Fall. Even as I remember him and cherish the time I had with him, I want to acknowledge the these amazing writers who inspire and shape me today.

Throwing your laptop—not the best negotiating tactic!

“Is this some kind of negotiating tactic?” 

I was in the company pantry, at a major client’s office. They’d licensed a critical software component from my startup which would be bundled with their radio chips to sell to electronic manufacturers.

For the previous half-hour their new VP of Sales, the entire engineering team and I had been in a meeting. Notionally the meeting was between THEIR sales and engineering folks and I was in the meeting as part of the ‘engineering’ team, representing the ‘application’ group. 

The VP of Sales, who had been recently hired for his deep relationships and track record with manufacturers had just returned from a trip to Taiwan and China. We’d been discussing delivery dates and it was clear that the sales vp had made commitments to the customers that there was no way the engineering teams, either the clients or mine would be able to deliver on.  

Yet no one spoke up from the engineering team. Not their VP or any of the project managers. And the VP of sales was not asking but telling what the delivery dates would be. Finally the VP of engineering responded. 

“It’ll take us four weeks for us to be ready, once we have the software.” 

At this point all eyes turned towards me. 

“When will you deliver the software?” the VP of Sales asked. 

Thus far I’d not spoken up in the meeting as I felt it was their meeting. Which it was. But I was not happy! The engineering vp knew that our ability to deliver software depended on their providing us their new hardware and firmware. 

“The software delivery is scheduled for early May. And that’s the best case,” I said.

“Are you friggin’ kidding me?” Their vp of sales lost it. 

I didn’t blame him. I suspect he’d been given optimistic dates by the engineering team and he’d taken them at their word. Worse yet he’d committed things to the customer and was just finding out that we’d not be able to meet them.

I looked at their CEO who seemed happy to let sales tell engineering what they should do. And that too not necessarily in a pleasant manner. When the vp sales continued to press the engineering team and they remained silent, I just lost it. 

“Why am I the ONLY one one telling the truth?” I screamed at their engineering team. “Why aren’t you guys telling him that there’s no way you are going to deliver this in May?”

I then stood up and threw the laptop that was in my hand on to the conference table and said “That’s it—if this is how you want to do business then I don’t want to your business.”

Luckily before anyone else said anything, their CEO intervened.

“We’re going to take a short break. Everybody needs to cool down. Get a drink of water or soda. Or walk around the block. We’ll reconvene in 10!” 

That’s how I found myself in the pantry. That’s when their VP of engineering posed his question, “Is this some kind of negotiating tactic?” 

I looked at him to see if he was serious. And boy was he serious. He was perplexed by my outburst and thought I was trying to play hardball to get the VP of Sales to agree to a new date.

It was my turn to ask a question. “You know there’s no way we are going to be ready. Why aren’t you pushing back?”

When we got back into the conference room, I first apologized for my outburst. Then I made my case that we need to both communicate better while being realistic! 

“Folks I know we’ve all worked so hard this past year and a half. I don’t envy the job sales has to do. Trust me, I do.  But I don’t think we are helping them by not being realistic. Worse yet we’ll hurt their credibility and burn bridges with our customers, which I don’t think any of us want.” 

We then began to have a productive meeting.

Surprisingly the vp of sales and I ended up becoming really good friends, so much so many years later he offered us the use of his cottage in Tahoe when I had family visting. We found we were both similar in being plainspoken and blunt. We both angered slowly but cooled down fast. 

Both our companies ended up being acquired by different buyers and all of us have learned much from one another, prior to that and since. 

I share this story with other clients, entrepreneurs that I advice or mentor and my students for a variety of different reasons

  • The need for clear communications to avoid misunderstandings
  • Being aligned internally before making customer commitments
  • Things that I’ve done that I’m not to proud of
  • How not to handle or resolve conflicts  
  • When do you walk away from a client (or not)
  • – How company culture can hinder or help success
  • Just because we speak in English doesn’t mean we are hearing the same thing
  • Even in prospecting calls as an illustration of how we’ll hold them accountable (of course without the throwing laptops around part!)

I’m sure you have many such stories that you tell. Question is do you have them handy? Written down even if it’s just four or five words? And do you repurpose and reuse them for different audiences, places and purposes? I’d love to hear from you. Share your favorite one!

If you tell stories (and who doesn’t) and want to be a better storyteller check out the upcoming cohort of our course “Personal Success Through Persuasive Storytelling” on Maven.

Crafting Powerful Stories in Tech Marketing

It doesn’t need any marketing. The technology sells itself.” 

That was our CTO at a nearly billion-dollar firm talking to our sales folks. This was back in 1999. The marketers in the room, including me, looked at one another and tried not to roll out eyes.

As Don Draper famously put it “Technology is a glittering lure!” So it is easy to fall into the trap that customers will be just as enamored of it. 

Ok, here’s the bad news. Technology does not sell itself. 

Stories are what sell whether the brand, a person, a product or a service. 

Good stories usually have a protagonist that the customer can identify with.

It can be someone the customer relates in their present role, whether as a project or sales manager or parent. Or aspires to be such as an athlete or leader or awesome human. 

Great stories are ones that they can make their own and retell!

Don’t get me wrong. Stories, however great, aren’t going to create sustainable demand without real substance in your product, service or offering. 

The customer should not only benefit but it needs to be apparent to them how they will benefit.

And they shouldn’t need a 1-unit college course to get it! 

This is the power of well-crafted stories. They meet three needs:

  • Relatable through empathy with the customer and their problem or need, 
  • Relevance how they will benefit and a vision of what the future is
  • Reason addresses why you are the right companion for the journey from here to there 

As you’ll see in the famous scene from Mad Men where Don Draper pitches to Kodak why their product isn’t a wheel but a carousel!

The Japanese Salad that nearly broke our team

“I can’t believe that you praised that da*n salad!” My colleague and engineering manager was furious. His team mate joined right in, “It’s one thing to be polite, but to go overboard like that!”

We’d just spent the whole day in a conference room at a Japanese customer’s divisional headquarters. My colleagues and I had flown in from India.

We’d then taken the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka. Then a local train and finally a cab to get to the village outside which their factory and offices were.

As we were scheduled to spend two days in discussions and negotiations our hosts had kindly arranged for lunch to be served in the conference room. Not just that, but they had accommodated our needs as vegetarians by preparing a special meal for us. 

It was this meal that had made my colleagues mad! No strike that. It was my praise of this meal that had made them mad.

The meal that was served in rather large bento boxes had vegetable tempura (not unlike Indian pakoras) and a variety of colorful and green salads with sauces. Having spent the previous two decades in California, I found the salads to be exquisite—fresh, subtle and tasty. 

My colleagues on the other hand found the experience most dissatisfactory—“as though we were chewing on grass” in their words. They ate the tempura and had politely made as though they were eating the salads, which were left largely untouched. I was oblivious of their travails whilst busily tucking in!

When we got started on the post-lunch session, our ever considerate hosts enquired how we’d enjoyed our lunch, whereupon I’d waxed at length how amazing it had been! 

I must admit I like my food and do tend to get carried away. 

By the time we returned to the hotel, my colleagues were not just hungry and grumpy but absolutely livid with me.

“Because of your dang praise, they are now going to serve the same da*n lunch tomorrow!” 

And they were right. 

My colleagues did eventually forgive me but never failed to share this story with anyone who was willing to hear it. 

Nowadays we get a good laugh out of it and even share it with customers and partners, who in turn get to share their own stories.

Each of us have stories like this – personal and professional, sometimes funny other times poignant or even sad. Stories allow us to connect with others and build relationships. Business at the end of the day all about relationships.

What stories do you have? And find yourself telling frequently?

If you’d like to learn to be a great storyteller, join us at the upcoming cohort-based Success Through Persuasive Storytelling course.

When my student became my teacher…

If I can suggest something…

I was meeting with two students who were struggling to get their team working. The majority of their team members were failing to do their part—from non-contribution through non-participation all the way to complete absence. The two students I was meeting with were left having to handle the entire project.

Each semester, across multiple courses that I teach there is a semester-long team project. A typical class ends up having between 6-8 teams of 5-6 members each. Every so often one team or another ends up having a team member not prepared to carry their weight. This understandably leads to unhappiness certainly and occasionally conflict within the team.

At the beginning of each term I tell the students what’s expected of them, and why being a contributing member of a team is not only the right thing, but one that’ll help all of them learn and grow. I also tell them that resolving conflicts within the team is their responsibility, one they’ll face soon enough in the workplace. Whilst I’m available to both lending a sympathetic ear and if required coaching, I state that my expectations are that they’ll do the work to resolve matters effectively.

Whilst student age & stage (freshman vs senior), culture and occasionally gender all lead to issues of mismatched expectations and behavior, coaching around giving and receiving feedback, particularly the use of “I”messages, has typically been enough to resolve matters satisfactorily.

It was when I proposed a script that had worked in the past, one of the two students spoke up, “If I can suggest something…” When I acquiesced she outlined a set of steps and effectively coached me on what she felt might be a better way to handle the situation.

And indeed it was and we implemented it. I was blown away by the experience to recount what happened to my wife, daughter and colleagues at work. And I realized I might as well share this with the young woman as well. Which I did.

The three step process she followed were:

  • Sought permission Started by saying “If I can suggest something…” non-threatening, seeking permission & buy in (she had no way to know how the “old” professor might be willing to take inputs
  • Call to action/reason She suggested a direct call to action, with a darn good reason to explain it to the rest of the team without anyone losing face or getting their back up “you should call a meeting,” (CTA) under the guise of “discussing our upcoming pivot” (reason, not due to anyone complaining about team dysfunction)
  • Anticipating potential objections She also made specific suggestions for discussion topics and even the beginnings of a script forthe proposed meeting. “I observed only a couple you presenting in class last week, and one of you was absent… etc.” These served to overcome any potential objections I might raise in not following my default methodology of expecting students to resolve things on their own.

In hindsight, unlike me she did not over sell it! As one of my customer’s coached me, she “stopped digging once she hit oil!”

I’m grateful that I get to work with such amazing young people. And also glad that I was receptive enough that day to recognize a good idea when presented and smart enough to listen!

Delighting customers – how one packaging team did it for me!

TL;DR We bought an Anker SoundCore 2 Bluetooth wireless speaker and many of the small, yet thoughtful and nice design touches by the Anker packaging team delighted me. Hence this blog post.

Over the summer our younger daughter’s constant use of a Bluetooth speaker made it evident to my wife and I all that we were missing. Earlier attempts at using a Bluetooth speaker were marred by a cheap freebie we received when signing up for a membership. So this time we were determined to get one for ourselves, so we didn’t have to sneakily borrow our daughters while she slept in late.

Of course the Indian parent in me had sticker shock when I set out to buy a 10W Bluetooth wireless speaker. Fortunately the earlier bad experience ensure that I did not go in for the cheapest one but nor did I want to splurge multi-hundred dollars on one that also did a seemingly variety of things (of course despite 9-years of college, I could not understand a whole lot of features the high end ones boasted of, but that’s a story for another day!) Thus we ended up with the SoundCore 2.

Once I got the speaker itself out, setting it up and getting it going was straightforward. As I decided to put away the box, I saw it still had a small blue box inside. I assumed it was for the charging cable. It was. But it also contained a little card with the single word question ❇︎ Happy? on it. And on the back it had the question ❇︎ Not happy?

As you can see in the pictures above, the direction of text on either sides of the card was flipped, intuitively reading the right side up, depending on whether you choose Happy or Not happy! Most importantly, inside the card it told you what you can do, in case you were not happy and nudged you to share if you were.

Whilst there can be any number of nitpicky things around features (pairing with more than one device) that I could potentially quibble over, I must admit as a marketer feeling happy at the thought that has gone into this packaging delighting me as a customer. A great example of how customer delight does not have to be contained only within the product. Great job, Anker packaging (product?) team.

Entrepreneurship is a Team Sport

As entrepreneurs it is easy to miss or even gloss over lessons that other entrepreneurs have learnt and more importantly shared! It is human nature I suspect to avoid or deny things that we don’t want to face! I suspect i won’t be th last one to have thought “Oh, I’d never do or feel that way” or “Not going to happen! These are different times or circumstances!”

Umang Gupta, founder of Gupta Technologies recently passed away. As someone who lived in the Bay Area through the mid-80s and 90s, I knew him as one of the many pioneering Indian-American entrepreneurs who paved the way for all the others who’ve followed.

His obituary in the Wall Street Journal recounted his journey as an entrepreneur and brought to fore many nuggets, one of which I resonated with me. It was advice given by my Umang’s father—much like my own did often.

Oracle considered acquiring Mr. Gupta’s company in 1994, but he couldn’t bear the idea of selling what he called his baby—a decision he later regretted. In 1996, he resigned as chief executive and left the company.

“My dad once told me, ‘No victory is final, and no defeat is fatal,’” he said. “I hadn’t paid attention.”

James r. hagerty wall street journal

Mr. Gupta went on to speak about the lessons he took away from this.

“I started to think of all the things I should have done to make the company outlast me,” he said.

One of his conclusions was that he should have hired people willing to challenge his ideas. “Decisions can’t be based just on what the founder knows or his gut feels,” he said.

This has been my experience too. Having good people around you, who can question or challenge you and hold you to account make all the difference between achievable success and avoidable failure!

Ask yourself who around you, whether a business partner, colleague, mentor or a spouse can hold you to account! Better and cultivate that ecosystem starting today!

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