“Don’t tell me how our customers love us. Tell me when we’ll have the purchase order!“
Every Wednesday morning, we’d have an Ops meetings at Impulsesoft, my first startup. M. Chandrasekaran (aka Shekar) our Chairman, who functioned as de facto COO and at times CEO when I was overseas, presided over the meeting. As a boot-strapped startup which relied on customer payments to pay the bills, these meetings were critical to get a sense of when we’d ship, when we could bill customers and when we’d get paid. The fact that Shekar was approaching 50 while the rest of the leadership team (excluding yours truly) was approaching their late 20s made for interesting dynamics all by itself. . We were shipping a wireless protocol stack (a piece of software that would allow Bluetooth to work) to some of the world’s largest technology firms – Acer, Panasonic, Siemens and trying to sell to Ericsson, IBM, Logitech. This meant long selling cycles often involving technical evaluations and demos. The fact that 100% of our target customers were overseas added its own challenges to both marketing and sales process. So all too often the discussion would come down to where things were at in an evaluation, when we think the customer might make a decision, then issue a PO, against which we could raise an invoice (for the advance payment) and even more importantly borrow from our bank!
So every so often Shekar had to remind us to get our heads out of how well things were going in an eval and to get us to focus on the outcome – the ruddy Purchase Order (or PO). As a business there were several critical lessons Shekar taught us, despite many of us dreading or alternately resenting the Wednesday morning meetings. In hindsight some of these seem self-evident, but its well worth remembering as well occasionally being reminded.
Actions speak louder than words Whether it’s a customer telling you he loves your product, or your company or even you, does he show that by buying your product, referring others to it or caring enough to give feedback that makes your business, product or you better. By the way this was a lesson he taught us not just about business or customers but in our own lives. Shekar was never late to a meeting and amply demonstrated through his actions how he valued punctuality and the worth of his word.
Keep the end in mind We were a business first – not that you’d have guessed this easily in our early days! We were far too busy having fun building cool tech (we demonstrated a working prototype of a Bluetooth-enabled watch as a phone accessory – what today Samsung and Apple ship as a smart Watch, back in 2004!). Businesses that make profits tend to survive and keeping in mind that’s what we were doing required frequent reminding. This too applied well beyond customers and revenues, whether in hiring folks or in personal lives, be it choosing a career path, making an investment or finding a life partner.
God (or the devil) is in the details This is the single biggest lesson Shekar taught me and I find myself in turn, with far less success, trying to teach young entrepreneurs. Know your business, know your people, know yourself and pay attention to the devilish details that demonstrates that you know these well. In these Wednesday meetings Shekar, would always start with a blank piece of A5 paper (a letter-size paper folded in half) and list the top 5 items – despite our having these on emails, Excel sheets and elsewhere. Similarly the top 5 or 10 outstanding deals, be they invoicing, billing or collection would be written from scratch on this piece of paper. What initially seemed archaic or quaint at times, was a real lesson in having the details of our business, at his fingertips. Regardless of how complex our businesses are, there are usually not 4-5 critical things that need our attention – and we’d better know what these are at all times. What did we bill last quarter/month/week or how many users/customers downloaded our application to what our attrition rate last month was – there’s a variety of metrics that govern our business. While the advent of SaaS businesses has introduced a whole slew of metrics to young entrepreneurs, far too few entrepreneurs and founders seem to know the details as well as they should.
All these lessons were invaluable in my own personal life – whether its’ remembering an anniversary or spouse’s birthday (devilish detail), articulating or demonstrating our love or gratitude (actions louder than words) or holding your tongue or retort with a child or customer (keeping the end in mind). Thank you Shekar, for being a patient and perseverant mentor and teaching all of us so much. I’m grateful for having you in my life.
This is the first entry in my 30 days of gratitude series.