Yesterday my father would have turned 92. Though my father had worked for 37 years at the same firm—rising from accounting intern to the CEO of multiple group companies—he was my biggest supporter when I decided to quit my job and become an entrepreneur.
As a miniscule shareholder in my first startup but a major lender of working capital, he was our first angel. While I was in high school, my father used to regale me with a variety of tales, a surprising number of which came in handy during my own entrepreneurial journey.
As I’ve continued to learn from all that he’d shared, I’ve also had the good fortune to working with some incredible people who’ve mentored, coached, supported me and kept me honest.
Yesterday was also the day my first book, “The Art of a Happy Exit – How Successful Entrepreneurs Sell Their Businesses” went on pre-sale on Amazon (USAIndia). While I wish my dad were here to see it, hopefully some of his stories will live on and help other entrepreneurs.
I have always been curious about leadership and what makes for good leader. Leadership as with most other things is easy to talk or read about but harder to demonstrate in action. The events of this last week, since the murder of George Floyd, have enabled me to see some good leaders in action. Most notably, President Aoun of Northeastern University, who not only addressed the issue directly but declared a day of reflection in response to the injustice toward black people.
“We will join together in unity with those all around the world who are grieving and angry over persistent injustice toward African American citizens,”
Of course, as a privileged brown man, the response of the local community to #blacklivesmatter brought to fore the question of my own responsibility to address both anti-blackness within the Indian-American community or caste oppression in India.
Meeting author, Dalit scholar and amazing human Suraj Yengde, who posed the question whether we will [ever] see upper caste / Brahmins come out in support of Dalit struggles the way we’ve seen white people show up for black lives. Talking about caste or discrimination even within families (mine or any other desi) is a challenge; I know I’ve failed miserably many times in WhatsApp groups of even my peers. Yet what we as privileged folks face is mere irritation, relative to the every day mayhem Dalits face (beatings, murder, rape).
Suraj’s own sustained campaign for Dalit liberation in the face of sustained abuse in the social media sphere and his outreach across caste lines which at times draws fire from fellow Dalits is yet another lived experience of leadership in action.
So where do I start and what can we do? As Jane Elliot says in the video below, we can start with education.
I’d urge you, dear reader, to start with these two resources:
For those who have read this far, take a look at this video of anti-racism activist and teacher Jane Elliot. If we were to replace white people with upper-caste, and race with caste wouldn’t it be just as true?
Most of us do a terrible job, when it comes to reporting data in a visual format. Nothing new about it. Many decades ago, Edward Tufte (amongst others) tried to address this with his book Visual Display of Quantitative Data. Hans Rosling set the world on fire with his TED talk(s). If presenting data that’s already nailed down is hard, presenting data that is breaking (or being projected) as we see with election results or a pandemic is that much harder.
Which is why these two examples, of data presentation around the novel coronavirus COVID-19—one a static dashboard (Government of Singapore)
In a class that I teach on innovation, the students and I typically run through an exercise of “Who’s the customer? -> What’s her pain point? or need?” -> “What is our innovation to solve this?” Sometimes we do it the other way, starting with our innovation, what pain point it solves and who is this a pain (or need) for?
So when it was time to talk about LED bulbs, as an innovation, the class easily had a plethora of answers for who and what (longer life, lower cost of ownership, environmentally conscious.) When I asked “What if we add Bluetooth to the LED bulb?” the answers came on just as fast and furious—”I don’t have to get out of bed to turn if off,” “I can control at home remotely”.) So the consensus was clear that this was an innovation (ie “creates new value” for one or more target segments)
Now came the question, “How do we reset such a Bluetooth-enabled LED bulb to its factory settings?” (never mind, nearly 20 years since we began using BT we still need to periodically reset things, cause their state gets messed up).
Here was GE Lighting’s solution to this problem—this is their actual video and not a spoof, of which there are several built based on this real video.
Watching this video even the first time was painful and for the nth time (with each section of the class I teach) it required some measure of teeth-gritting. Yet, as an optimist I sought the silver lining—they were clear what the pain point their (paying) customers faced, but the cure seemed just as bad as the disease. While some commenters on YouTube felt this was engineering (within GE) wreaking vengeance on marketing (or product management) not allowing them a reset button, it is the customer who has to pay the price. Some takeaways for me include:
The original solution (or specification) not accounting for end-user resets (should this be even required?) tells me that the use cases (certainly corner cases) hadn’t been thought through
The sheer complexity (not to mention mind-numbing) nature of the solution makes it clear that end-user inputs or consideration were not taken into account
While a good deal of engineering creativity (& cost) I suspect went into this solution, likely due to product design or legacy constraints, the sheer number of spoof videos shows that the brand (and likely product adoption) has taken a hit, that far outweighs any of the cost considerations that may have limited either the original design or the subsequent reset sequence.
Innovators too need their own version of the Hippocratic oath, “…I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous.”
The wife and I snuck away without the kids to the temple town of Kumbakonam, in Tamil Nadu. While visiting living temples dating back the 8th to the 12th c. CE was both awe-inspiring and humbling, the shower stall in our hotel had its own lessons. I’ve written in past about baffling designs we’ve encountered here, here and here.
I’ve never ceased to be surprised by the constant “innovation” faucet makers insist on foisting on us. Somehow hotels seem particularly vulnerable to the siren call of such innovations. On more than one occasion I’ve had to dash into the bathroom, when a hapless friend or spouse screamed from the shower. For Psycho fans, it was never a man with a knife, but invariably hot (or cold) water suddenly spewing on their head or their feet, when they expected nothing of the kind. Invariably turning, pulling, pushing, yanking up/down, seemed to do utterly different things in these showers. If this was not confusing enough, in the hotel in Kumbakonam, I encountered this faucet.
Fearful of getting cold water dumped on my head, I gingerly began turning knobs. This [Faucet] [Left] [Middle][Right] arrangement had me wondering if Left = Hot? and Right = Cold? and Middle = Shower? Or L=H, M=C, R=S? Did the fact that the Faucet was in the left rather than between the knobs less confusing or more? I don’t know about you, but figuring this out, at 5AM, without of a stitch of clothing on is not exactly fun. Of course none of the knobs had any markings, nor did they provide any affordance whether they’d turn 90 or 180 degrees.
It turned out that the left most knob—the one closest to the faucet—switches from faucet to shower. It of course turns 180 deg, so you can never tell, whether it is set to shower or faucet, till you turn the water on! The middle knob is HOT and the right most is COLD, maintaining the common left/right protocol for hot & cold.
Any shower design that requires your spouse to experiment and explain how to work it is a #fail in my opinion.
This was clearly a case of a product designer trying too hard to differentiate with little regard for a poor, naked, shivering customer’s plight. What would you have done differently?
One of the joys of traveling back to India in the summer is eating great food catching up with friends (and eating great food)! Last summer had its share of good times, but was also filled with its share of bad news – my cousin and namesake suddenly passed from a heart attack, a friend’s marriage fell apart and two friends, in their mid-fifties were diagnosed with cancer. While all this had everyone around me asking about my own health and how well I was taking care of it, I found myself both praying for my friends and pondering about purpose.
One of those two friends was Badri, who has been a mentor and friend to my father, my wife and me. Badri had a near inexhaustible share of stories to tell, in his own unique way, often self-deprecatory and delivered with a mischievous smile. A great devotee in the Sri Vaishnava tradition and an ardent reader of the Divyaprabhandam, one of his favorite vignettes was about the evanescence of self-awareness. Whenever we spoke of entrepreneurship or personal relationships, of the mistakes we’ve made and lessons we’ve learned, I invariably ended up asking why didn’t that lesson stick. It’s like mashana vairagyam—dispassion that arises in the crematorium—that doesn’t last, and tell this tale. I paraphrase.
“When there’s a death in the family, even as we take the body to the crematorium we feel sad, listless and wondering about the meaninglessness of it all. When we pour out the pot of hot coals on the body and it’s set ablaze, we think ‘What is life all about? It is ephemeral!’ We realize all that seemed real and important until then—ego, money, success—is actually meaningless. ‘Why did I even care about those things? My life is now irrevocably changed and I’ll never be the same again.’
Of course soon as we return home, my wife brings me coffee. I take a sip. ‘Hey! Why is the coffee so cold?’ I yell at my wife. Alas all that self-reflection and insights I’d drawn by the funeral pyre, didn’t last for long and didn’t survive first contact with the mundane—a cup of coffee that wasn’t hot enough!”
Badri would invariably laugh as he narrated this story always in first person. Through last year, as he underwent chemo and struggled with its aftereffects, he stayed in good spirits. With the arrival of his first grandchild—for which he he’d traveled overseas, he appeared radiant in the photos he shared.
Soon as I arrived in India in late May, I called to visit him. He was in the hospital, resting and recovering from a cough. His wife and I spoke agreeing that we’d visit him when he was feeling better maybe in a few days. But on 4th June, he passed suddenly. As family and friends gathered on the 13th day of his passing, they shared stories of what he’d meant to them and I found myself grief stricken and unable to speak.
Today as I write this, I recall Badri’s stories and the wonderful, loving and demonstrative person he was and hope I can keep his love and insights a little longer than the fella in his tale!
Both in startups and large companies—heck in any company—culture is critical to success. This is something that I’ve been waxing about for close to 20 years now. And the criticality of storytelling in businesses is another favorite and recurring topic in this blog. So I was tickled this morning, to come across an interview of Paul Teshima, CEO of Nudge (and formerly of Eloqua) being quoted saying
culture eats strategy for breakfast, and business culture can be built through storytelling.
What was particularly gratifying about this was his assertion was made in the context of marketing and sales. Sales folks have always understood that relationships are critical to their success. However their challenge has been to quickly identify and nurture the most promising ones, as they balance their need to deliver on results on finite timelines with the lead times of building meaningful relationships. Good marketers recognize that their job is to help sales shorten their selling cycles, by getting qualified leads to them consistently. Storytelling is a powerful to achieve this and a culture that promotes such consistent storytelling to customers and serving sales’ needs will always will the long game.
Last week, my daughter had a question for me about Transformational Leadership. While individually the words make sense, I can’t say I’ve kept up with all the kinds of leadership that’s in the literature, be it servant leadership or Attila-the-Hun leadership. In fact I’m still learning from my students and others. As I read up and discussed with my daughter, I understood that transformational leaders
transform themselves and their audiences in visualizing and implementing big ideas.
With that it’s easy to see why Dr. Martin Luther King and MK Gandhi who inspired him were both transformational leaders. I also realized how this lesson had been shared by my dad but not necessarily learnt by me that day.
“I want you to have this home for the aged built.” Jayendra Saraswati, then the head of the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt, and our family’s spiritual guru had told my father. This was in the late ’80s. My father, who’d lost his father early in life, had come up the hard way and was keen that he help as many people as he could, particularly when it came to matters of education. By the time of this conversation, he was in a good place financially and willing to spend, what he’d earned and saved, to serve others.
However, the family’s spiritual guru had one additional stricture, “I don’t want you to build it with your money. I want you to raise the money from others in the community and have it built!”
As my father found out, paying for something yourself is a whole lot easier, than getting others to pay for it. It is not that people were unprepared to give to a charitable or deserving cause, but most people in a position to do so, already had their favorite causes to give to. Thus began my father’s journey of getting people in the community to buy into the vision of an old-age home, one ideally that was co-situated with an orphanage, allowing for young and old to both interact, learn and grow with one another.
Unlike in his professional experience, where purpose stemmed from the organization and unlike at home, were as the head of our rather large extended family, he could set the direction, this project required the learning and practice of transformational leadership. In my dad’s time, he did accomplish one half of his dream—getting a functional old-age home off the ground and operating for over nearly twenty years in his life time. And surviving two transfers in operating leadership, when his co-founder passed, then my father’s own Parkinson’s and subsequent demise.
He not only internalized this lesson on transforming himself and others, through visualizing an idea and executing on it, but shared it with me and others. Today as I listened to Dr. King’s last speech in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968 — the day before he was assassinated, I heard him say
I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight.
Yesterday when I wrote about what can make your pitch deck sizzle, I alluded to the fact that there are excellent pitch decks out there. Rather than have you search for them, I’ve compiled two actual decks from AirBnB and Home61 here as well as templates recommended by two venture capitalists that I admire. Hope you find them useful.
Brad Feld, another of my favorite writers/venture capitalists also provides a counterpoint, namely focusing on the pre-deck face-to-face pitch. In his words:
Feld often prefers more of a free-flowing conversation. So how do you spark an investor’s interest in that conversation? “The pitch should be very clear about what you are doing, why you are doing it and why I should care,” said Feld. “If you can cover those things quickly and precisely, it’s easy for me to decide whether I want to spend more time with you or not.”
Once again as I begin meeting with young (two high school sophomores) and not so young (their kids are in high school), the issue of making a short, yet compelling pitch to investors arises. Though a wide variety of folks have created excellent posts on what an ideal pitch deck should look like, I reckoned it is worth reminding folks of two things:
What is it that venture capitalists or for that matter any institutional investor (including some angel investors) are looking for
How best to address their needs but also attain greater clarity for yourself
Following a recent NY Times article and Jason Calacanis’ sarcastic response to it, Jason Fried wrote a nice post, about what it is that drives venture capitalists. In order to increase their probability of delivering double-digit returns year after year, amongst numerous other criteria, there are three critical things investors are looking for. These are:
HUGE market If the market is large enough, the probability that high and rapid growth is feasible increases
Proven team If the team has demonstrated success, the risk that they will NOT deliver is decreased
Unique competitive advantage The product/service/company brings something to the game that sets them way apart, giving customers a reason to buy – sometimes this is demonstrated by customer traction
While there are any number of other things are good to have such as customer traction, rapid sales growth potential, advisors and other investors, having two of the top 3 is critical. If you have a proven team and key competitive advantage and are NOT serving a large market, the investors can help direct you to the large market. Similarly if you are targeting a huge market and have a proven team, you can seek out a unique competitive advantage. If you have only one of the three, it can be an uphill sell to investors.
With the above as context, your pitch had better address upfront four questions
What is the problem or need you address? And who is your target customer whose need or problem you are solving?
How BIG is this need (or market) – units, numbers or revenue potential
How is it being addressed (or not) now and what makes your solution different? In other words why would customers buy from you?
These usually should be your first 3 or 4 foils. And they address two of the top 3 concerns for your investors – market size and unique competitive advantage.
You’d follow this with what you’ve actually accomplished. The trials you have run, ideally the customers you’ve already signed up or paid for your product or service, the feedback you are getting, the growth or traction you are seeing. In other words, you are real business with growth potential. And what are your next steps or milestones for the next 18 months broken down by quarters and what is your ask, “We are looking to raise a $2M (or $20M) round and how you plan to deploy the money you raise.
Depending on the audience you address, you can open with the team — “We’ve spent the last 30 years buying advertising and therefore know the problems advertisers face” to segue into the problem. My own preference is close the presentation with what makes your team the right one for this. By this time you’ve shown—not just through your presentation, your responses to their questions and your overall energy level rather than merely telling why you are the right folks to do this. Never hurts to be explicit though!
It’s worth keeping in mind, that your pitch is a living document. As you learn from each meeting you have, try to incorporate those insights. You don’t have to react to every single input, but when more than two or three people have the same question or input, it’s worth looking at what it is in your pitch that’s either not addressing it or possibly has it wrong. And don’t forget to share you pitch with your own team—you might be surprised both by how much of it is news to them, as well as the discerning feedback you might get from them. Get out there and break a leg!
Over the last several years, I have written about startups, entrepreneurship and business in general in the Hindu BizLine and Wall St. Journal. I have compiled these for easy access in the column below.