The Entrepreneur Life

Category: LifeHack (Page 2 of 4)

3 Steps to Becoming a Better Communicator

“What is this person trying to tell me?”

Haven’t you found yourself wondering this in more than one situation?  In my experience, the single most critical skill that leaders in general and startup founders in particular need is that of being a good communicator. While most of us find it easy to talk  and some of us may actually listen, it doesn’t make us a good communicator.

How many of the meetings you attend seem not only interminable but often indecipherable? If this were a problem with just meetings, you could excuse yourself and read the meeting minutes. But alas meeting minutes, like many emails or other forms of written communication seem to only add to the confusion.

“What is this person trying to tell me?”

All of us are just as guilty as we dash off memos, texts, and presentations, sowing confusion at best and mayhem at worst. Here are three steps to help us communicate better. Try them and let me know how they work for you.

Single central message Whether a 3-line email or a 6-page white paper, your communication should have a SINGLE central message – what our English composition teachers tried to tell us – the theme sentence! This answers the question “What is this person trying to tell me?” So whether it’s the personal — “You need to spend less money on eating out” (that’s to my daughter), “We need to re-do the In-app Purchase (IAP) in this game (the professional)” or “We need to ensure ________ is not elected this year” (the national) or “We need a new nuclear disarmament treaty (the global) we need to communicate a single central message and no more in each of our communications.

Short as possible but long as needed This is one I’m yet to master and often undermines my own communication effectiveness. Even when I have a single central message if I wrap it with too many words, my message is lost. This could be emotional content (especially with my daughters), or excess justification (social or business context) or plain verbosity. Yet, in a corporate context, major changes require context setting, such as environmental factors at play, why this course of action and options considered – alternates considered and discarded and potential outcomes of actions taken or not. So the 3-sentence email one of my friends insists on writing may not always do the job, but ask yourself, does your presentation require 48 pages or can you say it any shorter?

Choose your medium carefully Sure writing email is easy – heck texting someone is even easier. But just as most folks agree, breaking up with your girlfriend (or significant other) over text is not cool, there is such a thing as an appropriate medium for any given communication. I’d say easier a missive is to send, the more likely it’s to sow confusion. Sure there are exceptions, but in general, it’s a good idea, to take a moment, before you send that text or email, to ask yourself, is this the best medium to communicate this message. I find often after having written a draft email, that picking up the phone or walking down the corridor to talk to the person a much more effective way to communicate. Similarly, even when presenting to a group of folks, few words on a slide or a graph to accompany your verbal communication or a handout might be more effective.

In summary, these 3 steps will help us take the first steps to being better communicators

  • What is my single central message?
  • Am I saying it as concisely as possible with adequate context?
  • What is the best medium to communicate this in?

An earlier draft of this article appeared in LinkedIn

Negotiating well in groups

The entire company, probably little over 50 people, was in the room. It was the 9th of December 2005 and we’d gathered to discuss the news that we were seriously considering an offer to sell the company. Nearly twenty people in the room had been with us more than five years – through two major pay cuts and one minor layoff – another 20 with us over the last two years, when it was certain we were no longer going to die. So the topic of the meeting and its consequences were not merely financial or professional but deeply emotional. If we chose to be acquired, our success largely lay in the hands of the folks in that room, in their willing participation and agreement to the decision to sell. Early in the meeting, we posed the question what would be your biggest fear or concern, should we sell the company.

As you can easily imagine when you pose such a question, to a large group of people, none of whom were at a startup because they were shy or retiring, things could easily degenerate into a free-for-all. Also while we had planned to take half a day for the meeting, there was a lot of ground to cover. So the challenge we were posed with was, how do we get the team to not only have their say, but to get them to converge on a few important things, such that the biggest concerns not only get aired, but acknowledged and ideally even addressed in the meeting.

Amazingly the 50+ people were able to converge on their three primary concerns and were unanimous with their first concern – “What would happen to our culture, if we are acquired?” thanks to a technique called Nominal Group Technique. And were able to do it within 15 minutes. This is a technique that I’ve had the opportunity to use repeatedly in groups, as small as 8 people to as big as 55, – to get rapid convergence – often from a standing start – of even what the key problems were that we needed to solve and what are the top 3 or 5 things to do to solve them. The technique requires that I write a whole another blog post dedicated to it to explain the manner in which we’ve used it, adapting it for different groups not just across countries but across age groups, and different socio-economic backgrounds. This morning I read about the a technique called Indaba, that was used at the recent climate conference (COP21) to get nearly 200 nations to sign-off to a binding agreement.

Negotiations are difficult by nature. Managing negotiations between 195 countries in order to arrive at a legally binding agreement, on the other hand, is nearly impossible. This was the problem that United Nations officials faced over two weeks at this month’s climate-change summit in Paris. To solve it, they brought in a unique management strategy.

The trick to getting through an over-complicated negotiation comes from the Zulu and Xhosa people of southern Africa. It’s called an “indaba” (pronounced IN-DAR-BAH), and is used to simplify discussions between many parties. Read the full article here.

If you reckoned negotiating with one party was hard, be it with an employee wanting to leave or customer or partner wanting more for less, negotiating with more than one party is incredibly more complicated. Luckily there are proven techniques that can help you do so successfully. It would be good to get acquainted with them, well before you’ll actually need to use them. Better yet, try ’em out today!

I’ve written about negotiating before here and conflict resolution here.

Anger & Knowing One Self

ConflictLike nearly every family WhatsApp group, mine if often filled with all kinds of forwards – that I tend to largely ignore or quickly glance and not dwell too long on. This morning my sister shared this piece on WhatsApp and it made me stop & think. It’s always sobering to see oneself in the mirror.

As entrepreneurs, there are a million things that frustrate us, tick us off and many times we want to scream at someone – some of us do, others keep it inside and the rest try to drink it off I assume. But this little story or parable brings home the message of “responding and not reacting” – to recognize our reactions stem from what’s inside us and not things that happen outside of us. Enjoy.

A monk decides to meditate alone, away from his monastery. He takes his boat out to the middle of the lake, moors it there, closes his eyes and begins his meditation. After a few hours of undisturbed silence, he suddenly feels the bump of another boat colliding with his own. With his eyes still closed, he senses his anger rising, and by the time he opens his eyes, he is ready to scream at the boatman who dared disturb his meditation. But when he opens his eyes, he sees it’s an empty boat that had probably got untethered and floated to the middle of the lake. At that moment, the monk achieves self-realization, and understands that the anger is within him; it merely needs the bump of an external object to provoke it out of him. From then on, when he comes across someone who irritates him or provokes him to anger, he reminds himself, “The other person is merely an empty boat. The anger is within me.

Is Success Even the Right Metric?

“How can I be as successful as ….?” This is a question, that not just my daughters ask, but many of the young people I meet. Of course, this gives rise to the question “What is success?” No two people define success the same way.

While I’ve read and heard a variety of definitions, I feel, VR Ferose, the former Managing Director of SAP India said it best. Success is personal and often about yourself. To the young man who is the first in his family to have attended or graduated from college, that is a success. To the security guard at his company who’s the first, from his village, to have landed a city job that’s success. To the young woman who became the CEO of a tech firm, success is attaining that post.

So doctors, engineers, lawyers, politicians all believe various things that they have achieved or seek to achieve as their success. But is success even the right metric for our lives?

I’d argue, as Feroze did that day, that impact, what impact are we having or will have on others lives is a far better metric. Unlike success, where the focus is on you and your accomplishments, impact is about other people. “She’s created over 200 jobs, as an entrepreneur” or “He’s helped 30 kids graduate from college.”

Does this mean we should quit our jobs or not pursue “selfish” goals such as running a startup? No, absolutely not. But we should revisit how we measure what we do, what we believe as success in ourselves and others. Entrepreneurs are among the greatest contributors to society, whether simply as inspiration to others or in creating real impact on the ground it terms of wealth or job creation,

Does a Babajob, create new economic opportunities for those in the disorganized service sectors? Hell yeah! Does Vaatsalya enhance the quality of health care and life for folks in Tier 2 & 3 towns? Certainly. I’m sure you can think of many more. Of course, their being financially viable as a business is important to deliver the impact that they do. However, measuring or celebrating entrepreneurs and their companies as a success merely because they raised a round or their founders are cool is both limiting and unimaginative.

So what is the impact you and your organization are going to have today?

8 Secrets of Success

As the father of two teens, there are many moments when my children ask, even implore, me to “Just tell me what to do!

As a parent, it’s hard not to TELL your kids what to do. Of course there are far more times when they don’t want to hear the things I’d like to share with them. Mentoring entrepreneurs in many ways not that different from raising teens – you’ve gotta resist the urge to tell them “the answer” even when they ask for it and you’d better get used to your advice not being adhered to or at times even heard.

That of course never stopped me as an entrepreneur, mentor or parent from sharing, lessons and insights that I never cease to learn. Even while urging kids or entrepreneurs to focus on impact and the journey, rather than “success” – the question of how does one get to be successful comes up all the time. Luckily better men than me have grappled with this issue and here’s a short (3.5 minute) video that answers this very question. For those that prefer to read over watching a video, however short, I have provided a short summary at the end.

The eight secrets are

  • Passion – be passionate about what you do (& the money will follow as Marsha Sinetar put it)
  • Work – work hard but have fun. As Richard St. John puts it, be a workafrolic and not a workaholic!
  • Focus – focus – on one thing is critical to being successful
  • Persist – persistence is an attribute that comes up consistently
  • Ideas – be creative and constantly come up with new ways to think & do
  • Good – practice, practice, practice – so that you get good at what you do
  • Push – you have to push yourself, past doubts & doubters, obstacles to be successful
  • Serve – be of service, whether with your business or product or in life

Acting on what’s important

Last weekend, two men, neither of whom I knew personally, died in separate accidents in North America. Yet this morning, as I sit down to write I find the deaths of Dave Goldberg, CEO of Survey Monkey and Parag Parikh, value investor have impacted me in ways I’d not have guessed. Yes we live in a world, whether the earthquake in Nepal (7500+ dead), war in Yemen (1250+ dead) or Syria (200,000+ dead) which in many way inures us to the news of death if not death itself. Yet the death of both these men, one admired in the startup community – known to many as the spouse of Sheryl Sandburg of Facebook (and Lean In fame) and the other in India’s value investment community, should make every one of us in the entrepreneurial community stop and take stock.

As founders of startups and otherwise active members of the ecosystem, we get caught up with the chase – whether news of rounds raised or customers won or milestones made. Our startups are constantly faced with existential crises be they cash flow problems, key employee loss or co-founder shenanigans. Many of us make it a badge of honor that we don’t have time for personal lives or the long hours we put in or how we’ve spent days at the office with little or no sleep. What little time we have we spend poring over startup news, networking and hustling. Many of us who left the corporate “rat race” have only traded it for the startup roller coaster, without the perks and the sobering truth of what working for oneself really is. Almost every one of these things is what makes the start up life the exhilarating and infuriating ride that it is.

The sudden death of these two men in their prime only brought home the truth of what’s important in our lives – our families, our health and what we can contribute to our communities. All too easily our own time can be taken away – so don’t put away what’s important to another day – don’t wait for Mother’s Day or any other special day to call on a loved one, to read to your child, take a walk with your spouse or a long hike with friends.

Stop reading and go give someone a hug!

4 Hacks to Handling an Interview Panel Well

Interview PanelOne of the joys of being around entrepreneurs and academicians is that you get pulled in to interview folks – in person, on the phone or Skype, and sometimes as part of a panel. This last weekend, I was part of one such interview panel – where nearly six senior candidates who’d been shortlisted were interviewed. Three things struck me about the experience

  • How vastly different approaches the various candidates brought to the interview process
  • Even the senior candidates made some of the same rookie mistakes that you expect only younger ones to make
  • How we, as the interview panel, could have done things better (that’s a whole another post)

Ask questions – In this particular panel, the thing that stood out the most for me, was how few questions the interviewees had for us as a panel. Sure they’d spoken to the hiring manager over the phone prior to the interview, but given the panel had veto power (did they know that?) it would have been better for them to ask more questions. While this is true even for 1:1 interviews, with a panel it’s important to understand what different people in the panel expect both of the role that you’re interviewing for and of the interview process itself. This will make sure you are neither blind-sided nor leave something unaddressed. Even more importantly your questions often will say a lot more about your than your answers.

Be specific A panel, with the very fact there are more than three people (ours had five), can easily get bogged down when it comes to decision-making. So it’s very important for you to be very specific with both your answers to their questions and even with your own questions. This allows you to stand out as a candidate. This requires you to avoid generalities – such as “I have strong networks in the community” and you’d be better of with specifics such as “I was able to recruit six mentors from the community in my first three months on the job. And these folks served with us on average for two years.” Balance the desire to be specific with the need to be concise – not always easy, but with practice can be done.

Be concise If you are like me (poor you!) the temptation is great to jump right in, when a question is posed. All too often, I get excited about the topic – which is usually why I’m there – and begin talking or responding.  Two tips to being concise – clarify what is being sought and validate whether you’ve answered their question. We make assumptions that may just not be correct – it is better to clarify before attempting to answer. In our specific job search, we wanted the candidate to make his organization, financially independent at some point. One candidate anxious that this was important to us focused on becoming self-sufficient within two years – which meant she recommended doing a lot of things, not central to the business, just to generate revenues. Clarifying the timeline over which the panel expected the organization to be self-sufficient could have easily avoided this.

Demonstrate Interest Many interview candidates assume that they are demonstrating interest by showing up. Why else would they be there? However, while showing up is necessary it is definitely not enough to show your interest in the job. The most attractive candidate – going by their resume and phone screen – turned out to be lowest ranked in our panel, due to the utter lack of energy and interest demonstrated by his body language and cadence during the panel interview. Most organizations are looking to hire people with energy and a good deal of motivation to make things happen. Sure they want to know and prefer you’ve done it before but are you willing and ready to do it and more, again? So it’s important to demonstrate interest – which of course asking questions, clarifying and engaging will all help you.

Not surprisingly most of these tips are useful for 1:1 interviews. However, it’s both easier to develop rapport in 1:1 interviews as well as recover from mistakes, with a little honesty and self-deprecation. Even the best of candidates can be undone with a panel, if there’s either non-alignment on the other side of the table or you don’t address the primary careabouts for the key decision makers on a panel. Share your own experiences interviewing with panels and what’s worked for you. Good luck!

Leaders come in all shapes and other lessons from a mentor

It would be a lie if I said that I had a well-threshed out idea of who or what a good leader was, when I was 25. Sure, I’d already had nine years of college by then, lived in 5 cities across two countries. It wasn’t for lack of exposure. However, my idea of a leader, certainly till that time, had been all extroverted, Type A personalities, many larger than life. Starting with my father, maternal grandfather, role models in college and my graduate adviser, every one of them had fit this mold. And then I met Brad Bradford.

Eighteen months into my first job, I got promoted to be a section manager – fancy title for doing more of the same, but this time it was my rear that was on the line. Brad had been my manager’s manager and now here I was reporting into him. While I’m no physical giant, being much slimmer than me (not too hard, these days) Brad was small made. On top of it, he was quiet, understated and very measured when he spoke.

Brad made me completely reassess what a leader is and how a leader operates. Some of these lessons bear repeating as I keep falling into my old ways.

Bearing & carriage I recall my mom often urging me to stand straight and not slouch. Brad was living proof of what my poor mom had meant by bearing and carriage. The manner in which he stood, walked and carried himself communicated loudly even when he didn’t say a word. Once when the production line was down and we were furiously trying experiments, some of which were 12 hours long, to figure out what was broken. Brad would walk over to my cubicle and stand right there and look at me – not a word would be said to communicate that he was there to support us and to make sure we gave it our all. On that Monday day the factory was sold and we’d all been called to a meeting to tell us that we’d no longer have a job, Brad’s bearing and carriage said more about how we’d survive this and carry on than any words could have.

Action not words While I’ve always been voluble, some might say long-winded, Brad was – and I suspect still is –  a man of few words. This is not to say that he didn’t have a lot to say but he was the archetype of SHOW not tell. Whether pressing with upper management for more resources, negotiating with vendors or getting down to the factory floor to run or check on experiments, Brad was not big on “Let me tell you…” but got out there and did it. Never once in the two years I’d worked with him did I hear Brad raise his voice. All too often I had to strain to hear what he was saying!

Smile and humor For a man from Minnesota, working with a bunch of young, fresh graduates from India, Iran, Eastern Europe and laid back West Coast types, I’m surprised Brad didn’t throw things at us or at least yell even if he might have been tempted to take an axe (or the whatever weapon of choice Minnesotans had). As our factory was being, built once a week we’d have a crisis. The factory director, a storybook Texan with an enormous temper, would lead the raving and ranting that involved much frothing at the mouth. We young ‘uns would be easily offended and spoiling for a fight at being accused of doing a poor job. Brad on the other hand, unflappable as ever, would be an island of calm. He had a devastating smile and an understated sense of humor, that not only maintained his sanity but kept the rest of us cowboys in line.

Brad, thank you for showing me what leadership is and how you can lead effectively without being an Attila. I’m still learning to practice some of the lessons you’ve taught me.


You can read all the posts in my 30 days of gratitude series here.

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USB Cassette Player – a life saver!

cassettesAs a regular reader of Om Malik’s blog, I never cease to be surprised by the variety of topics he covers. In a shameless tip of my (virtual) hat, here’s a utility I found immensely useful and reckoned I’d share with you.

My wife, whom readers of this column know figures big in any new learning I have, as a classical musician, has an immense, I mean, immense collection of old style cassettes. Even after CDs became prevalent, a great deal of Carnatic music continues to be put out on cassettes. I’m not sure if it’s the price difference or some other thing at play. Nevertheless, things got really out of hand, when we moved a couple of years ago and discovered 20+ years of music in cassette form, a great many of them unopened, still in their plastic wrappers. Soon as we got settled in our new digs, one of my projects was going to be transfer these into digital MP3 format. However, after an initial attempt with a 2.5mm male to male cable from our mini-component system (remember those?) to my Windows PC, I threw in the towel.

Recently while trying to avoid something more critical that needed to be done, I began researching once again a painless way to convert the music on these cassettes into digital form. On a trip the US MidWest, I checked out Radio Shack, Best Buy and other big box stores, but to no avail. Surprisingly they carried LP to MP3 converters but not cassette to MP3. Amazon offered a variety of such converters in Walkman-like form factors, but I was hesitant to buy these sight unseen. Having returned empty-handed the project languished, till a friend mentioned that he was traveling to the US. So once again I got online and voila this time discovered Ebay carried the darn things in India (the same Chinese units that were available on Amazon.com). So whipped out the credit card and got myself the EZCap USB Cassette Capture.

cassette2MP3

Two days later I had the unit in my hand and now have converted 5 of the hundreds thousands of cassettes we have. So far am delighted. If you have cassettes that are crying to be converted run out there and get it.

ps. I should add I used Audacity on my Mac running OS X Yosemite with the USB PNP Audio Device setting as my audio input and haven’t tried the software (for PC) that shipped with the EZCap. Has worked like a charm.

Be Bold and Reach for the Stars – lessons from a mentor

Do you think I could get a bottle of coke?

Gareth Thomas

Photo Credit: Photograph courtesy of the U. S. Department of Energy and the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Hardly words that change your life. But they did in my case. Gareth Thomas, then director of the National Center for Electron Microscopy at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL) and professor at the University of California at Berkeley was visiting our college at the Banaras Hindu University, when he asked for this bottle of coke. During the two days of his visit I had been unusually reticent as the rest of my classmates clamoured to get the “great man”‘s attention – I of course covered it by acting as though I was too cool to chase after him.

Long story short, I was tasked to get him that bottle of coke. I ended up jumping in his car en route to the airport. We made small talk as he asked me what I was interested in (damned if I knew). He suggested that I read his recent papers on ceramic composites and send him a note. Which for once I did – working like the devil – and in turn he offered me a research assistantship at Berkeley.

Gareth was a larger than life figure, whose impact on hundreds, yep hundreds, of graduate students has resulted in an entire generation of microscopists populating the best research schools across the US and UK. Working closely with him, taught me some critical life lessons.

Be bold Gareth grew up in Wales and as a Welshman in 1950’s Cambridge it was not easy to study and work in England . So like many before him he headed west to America and rapidly carved a niche for himself in metallurgy initially and electron microscopy eventually. He never let anything stand in the way of his vision of becoming the #1 in his chosen field, culminating in Berkeley and LBL becoming the go-to place for Electron Microscopy. The story of how the Center was built despite LBL sitting on the San Andreas fault and the slightest movement would make microscopy impossible is a whole another blog post by itself. So here was this fire plug of a man, who didn’t let a new country, new field, minor matter of earthquake country and money stop him from building a Centre that would add prestige to a University that boasted more Nobel Laureates than most other nations! Think big and go for it was a lesson Gareth lived.

Be imaginative By the time I showed up at Berkeley, we had probably the only one of two research groups that still worked on Iron and Steel (this was the early eighties, and classical metallurgy seemed passé!) We had graduate students doing some interesting work and our papers had to be peer-reviewed. Research was still competitive and so we were in a fix. Gareth located research groups in South Korea and India (the only places where iron and steel research was still happening) and reached out to them, so that a critical mass of researchers could be built up. Similarly when some of our early work in ceramics, aluminum nitride for instance was having trouble getting funding, he went across to Toshiba and other corporations in Japan to fund our work. To keep things on the up and up, he let his grad students do some of these as projects directly with the company as consulting gigs, so archaic University rules around corporate funding of research programs didn’t stop work.

Balance business and science Very early on Gareth recognized that doing good science or engineering required serious funding and that government alone would not be enough. Also while research is critical, its applicability in the real world was just as important. While other schools and sometimes other professors at Berkeley prided themselves on not working on anything applied, Gareth showed us that it as never OR – good science or good business but it is critical as engineers and scientists for us to solve real world problems or direct our research in a way that would have real world applicability. Of course the proof of the pudding lay in industry being willing to fund our research, hire his grad students or license the technology. The number of Gareth’s students who are today in critical research and decision-making roles in both government and industry is living proof of his success in balancing business and science.

Thank you Gareth for all that taught me, outside of microscopy and material science. I’m grateful to have met you and worked with you. I miss you.

Gareth passed away earlier this February.


This is the eighth entry in my 30 days of Gratitude series.
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