The Entrepreneur Life

Category: LifeHack (Page 3 of 4)

Separate the personal and professional – lessons from a mentor

You don’t know my children – they will take care of their mother!

My father was in the process of making a will, and was not too happy with where the conversation was going. Badrinarayanan, chartered accountant, good friend and a mentor, didn’t back down – he was polite yet firm. “I have no doubt your children are the finest people. But it is better that you make sure your wife is not dependent on any of them.” I think my dad did not speak with Badri for a few days after that – yet he did go with Badri’s recommendation.

Photo : Ravages via Compfight

Photo : Ravages via Compfight

In this meeting and many others I had a chance to see Badri handle a variety of issues with a great deal of finesse in his own understated style – never raising his voice, using humor, often self-deprecatory, to overcome objections or cut through hard problems.

Here are two lessons that I’ve learned from Badri.

Separate the personal and professional Badri and I met when I was working for his brother – so it was a social connect. It was when I was toying with kicking off my startup – a full year and half after quitting his brother’s firm, that he connected me with my future partners. With them I went on to build, grow and sell our first startup Impulsesoft. Since then Badri’s been the auditor for two of my startups, his firm were my personal tax accountants, till I took my (miniscule) business to a one-man firm. Through all these changes – working with his brother, working with one another professionally and then not – our relationship has only grown richer and deeper. Badri sends a steady stream of young entrepreneurs whom he believes may benefit from my experiences – even though I probably learn more from them! Through the last 18 years, he’s repeatedly been an exemplary model of professionalism worth emulating.

Keep a sense of perspective Just as his business was taking off, Badri faced some serious health challenges, which severely stressed his professional and personal situation. The manner in which he not only traversed the hard times but the optimism and good cheer he carried with him to the other side is not something I’ve encountered outside of books. The acute sense of perspective – of what is really important has enabled him to balance the endless challenges of work with the needs of personal health and family. He’s my role model when I find myself either getting too self-important or overwhelmed by what’s happening around me.

Thank you Badri, for being a wonderful friend,  an inspiration and a role model. I’m grateful that you are in my life and appreciate all the support through the years.


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

Make Haste Slowly – lessons from a mentor

Now lookee here! You gotta sloow down!

via Comfight

via Comfight

I was fresh out of college, all rearing to go. My work buddy, mentor and fellow process engineer Ken Bohannon had been working longer than I’d lived. The very first day it was clear none of what I’d learned in nine years of college was going to be of much use, as we set out to build a green field semiconductor factory. The team was a motley crew of experienced hands and fresh grads, split probably right down the middle. Our little work group was itself a virtual United Nations – Ken, from Louisana, Tony from Samoa, Mohsen from Iran, Joel the token Washington native and yours truly from India.

Ken and I couldn’t have been more different – he was a 6 feet 4+ inches tall, built like a linebacker, spoke slowly with a Lousiana drawl that was never too far. He was unflappable, patient, ready with a question and slow to jump to conclusions. I was a foot shorter, easily excitable, prone to act first and think later. Hence his frequent reminders to slow down!

In the short two years we worked together, 18 months in the same department, Ken taught me not just all about diffusion and furnaces, but how to work well with operators on the factory floor, all of whom had vastly greater experience than us, the maintenance crew who were suspicious of all the college kids and engineers and vendors of all stripes. The real lessons I learnt from Ken are:

Making haste slowly We were building new processes, on new equipment and in some instances we were building the equipment themselves. This was the time when six-inch wafer were being used for the first time and so the number of things that could go wrong was enormous and things did go wrong. So rather than run yet another 12 hour experiment overnight, it made sense to stop, take stock, think through what it is we were seeing and what made sense, if we wanted to get the production line fixed before the next shift showed up. All clearly sensible in hindsight. However, Ken’s calm approach and gentle prodding is what taught me to balance my need to rush forth with some forethought – hence making haste slowly. Can’t say I’ve mastered it but Ken is where it all started.

Working with younger people Today as a father of teens and working with young entrepreneurs professionally, it is only recently I’ve learned to appreciate what Ken must have gone through with me. At no point did he make big deal about working with clearly no-nothing, not-prepared to listen folks such as myself. Even more importantly, he was very willing to learn from us, the few things that we did know a little more about – whether the VAX VMS systems or statistics or wordprocessing software.

Knowing what you love Even in the backwaters of suburban Tacoma in the late eighties – NY city or Silicon Valley it wasn’t – a lot of the people in our company were hustling to get ahead. Ken was not only laid back, or maybe he was laid back, ’cause he was clear about his priorities. He was the first person that I heard say I don’t want to be a manager – of course he’d been there and done it. He was comfortable with himself and who he was, clear about what he wanted and confident enough to be vocal about it. I can’t say I understood it then, but since then clearly I’ve gotten a little smarter and envy his clarity and courage of conviction.

Ken, thank you for all that you’ve taught me – including what March madness was. I’m yet to master slowing down, but am grateful for having you in my life and putting to good use a great deal of what I learned from you.


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

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3 Darn Good Reasons You Need Advisors Who Think Differently

“When are you going to sell your company?”

Photo Credit: Oberazzi via Compfight

Photo Credit: Oberazzi via Compfight

I was taken aback. My good friend and former boss, Sandeep Khanna had suggested that I talk to Pravin Madhani, kick-ass sales guy and serial entrepreneur who’d just sold his previous company for a sizeable chunk of change. My intention in meeting with him, was to learn about raising capital. This was in 2000, when the internet bubble had burst and we were still holding day jobs as we tried to bootstrap Impulsesoft, our Bluetooth startup.

I think my first response to Pravin’s question was a somewhat offended “We’re trying to build a business here – we’re not going to sell it.” To Pravin’s credit, he kept his laughter to mere chuckles and persisted.

This was the first of several meetings I had over nearly two years – usually months apart. Every time we met his first question would be about selling the company – a variant of “When are you..” or “Have you already..” Initially I felt very uncomfortable about this question and wasn’t sure if I really wanted to talk to him. To my we-are-trying-to-build-a-Sony-or-HP sensibility, his questions seemed far too commercial. Luckily good sense prevailed and I did continue to meet with him and he too met with me enthusiastically, despite my clear discomfort.

I came to not only value but look forward to my meetings with Pravin. Three critical lessons I learned from Pravin

The need for clarity Why are you in business or for that matter why are you doing whatever it is you are doing? Examine this closely. Each time you seek to answer this, go past the easy or evident answers. My meetings with him were always the exercises in asking Why five or more times. And clarity can only be achieved by asking uncomfortable questions

The power of diversity Of all the advisors I sought, Pravin was probably the one who was most unlike me. This I have to admit made me uncomfortable. I suspect I initially avoided or at least procrastinated meeting with him. The very fact that we were so different, thought very differently is what made my meetings however short and far apart, invaluable. To this date, I find myself asking “What would Pravin ask?”

Being yourself Pravin was the living embodiment of being yourself. What you saw is what you got – he made no apologies for the positions he held, which in hindsight all seem tame. Neither did he hesitate to say “I don’t know. I don’t understand it.” Several years after my first meeting, Pravin sought my marketing inputs for one of his startups. His engineering vp had persuaded him to have me come in. He told me “I thought marketing was all fluff and am never sure marketers really do anything.” I refrained from retorting that this was rich coming from a sales guy! The very next morning he called me and said how useful our meeting had been despite his initial skepticism. Despite his multiple successes (he did sell this second startup as well) Pravin’s been the same plain-spoken person with no airs about him. An example well worth emulating.

Thank you Pravin for being the person you are and challenging me on every occasion you’ve had. I’ve learned a great deal and in a small way passing them on to the next generation of entrepreneurs. I’m grateful that I got to know you and to work with you.


This is the third entry in my 30 days of Gratitude series.
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Practice makes perfect – lessons from a mentor

Ma’am, TTV wants Srikrishna.

I was in ninth grade, when a tenth grader appeared in my class, asking for me. TTV – Mr. TT Varadakutti – was my math teacher – a slim, small made man, with a distinctive red mark on his forehead. He was one of the teachers who both excited us and gave rise to dread when he called upon us in class or outside. Why was he calling me?

I walk over to the 10th grade classroom and enter tentatively. I pointedly avoided meeting the 30 odd pairs of eyes that are staring balefully – so I imagined – at me.

Sir, you called?” I address TTV who’s busy writing something on the board. “Ah, there you are Srikrishna, tell me what’s ….” and he shoots three or four questions at me. For a moment, I’m flummoxed and then begin to answer him. I was so focused on his rapid fire questions that I lost sight of where I was and what else was happening. Then he drops the bombshell. Turning to the 10th graders, he says “Aren’t you ashamed that you guys can’t answer questions that a ninth grader can? ”

I beat a hasty retreat, without meeting the eyes of any of the tenth graders and tried to stay out of the playground the next couple of days!

Practice makes perfect While TTV didn’t usually pull us out of class to snub our seniors, he constantly challenged us and expected us to push ourselves. He’d expect us to be able to work out problems on the fly and in our heads, under pressure. His constant refrain was to practice, practice, practice. And he didn’t leave it to chance, he made us work on enormous number of problems.

Make learning fun When teaching us commutative law (or any other basic principles or axioms) he’d first write it on the board.

a + (b+c) = (a+b)+c

Then he’d read it out “A plus (pause) (superfast) b+c (pause) equals (superfast) a+b (pause) plus c – the first time he did this we wondered if something had happened to him. However, over the several months (and years) he taught us, he trained us adequately to be able to transcribe any problem he dictated correctly without his having to write it on the board. It also made it immensely fun. In the bargain, what seemed like a silly or contrived game – became thoroughly absorbing. We also developed great respect for brackets and parenthesis early 🙂

Expect the best from yourself and others As my little trial by fire in front of the 10th graders showed, I was likely the most surprised by being able to answer his questions. Starting with his evident passion for the subject, his high expectations from his students and his willingness to work hard with us, he never lowered the bar. Years later when I took Engineering math in graduate school or the IIT entrance exams right after school, his lessons stood me in good stead.

Thank you TTV sir. 35 years on, since graduating from your class, I continue to not only value, but use, the lessons you taught me. I’m grateful for having had you in my life and all that you’ve taught me.


This is the second entry in my 30 days of gratitude series.

God is in the details and other lessons from a mentor

Don’t tell me how our customers love us. Tell me when we’ll have the purchase order!

DSC05104Every 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.

Startup Founder Secret #2

StopwatchOne of the challenges in getting advice – even when we agree with it – is figuring out how in the heck are we going to find time to follow it. As an entrepreneur or founder, you’ve got enough and more on your plate – so while it’s great to hear you should meditate, how do you squeeze it into your insane calendar (you do have one don’t you?)

This is a secret that I learned from Stephanie Winston, organizing guru from her book The Organized Executive.  In three words it is

Meetings with yourself

Notice, when you have a meeting with a customer or prospect, a candidate you are trying to hire (or in some cases when a critical person is threatening to leave) you drop everything else to take that meeting. Look around you – your day is probably filled with meetings – product reviews, vendor negotiations. In fact if your day is anything like a typical founder’s day – meetings are the only thing that seem non-negotiable and you have to fit in your other tasks in to little time chunks between meetings. So rather than let this get you down, start by marking meetings on your calendar, with just one attendee – YOU!

This is a great way to get that blog post written, contract reviewed or to even meditate. It most importantly prevents you from using this time to take other meetings. So start now, and mark your calendar up for the next two weeks – or if you want to be bolder for two months – with a daily 20 minute meeting with yourself to meditate, or twice weekly to blog or fortnightly for date night with your significant other. Let me know how it works.


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Startup Founder Secret #1

Much like the well-meaning father’s friend in the movie Graduate, almost everyone has advice for startup founders. Never mind that such advice ranges from “Unlike your brother, I hope you find a good job” to “Never give up, follow your passion.” I haven’t been averse to handing out such platitudes myself at times. And such advice, like a broken clock, will be occasionally true.

But is there advice, actionable and useful, that is applicable regardless of your startup’s life stage or your own for that matter. I’d argue yes!

Meditate!

That would be my one word advice to founders (and leaders) everywhere. It’s also a sneaky way of saying Take care of your mind which in turn will necessitate taking care of your body as well.

There’s a great deal of formal studies on the advantages of meditation – from how it can make you happier, make better decisions and how it helps the US  Marines do better by bouncing back faster!  More importantly there’s plenty of useful and actionable advice on what meditation is, how to start meditating, how long a session should be and when can you expect results.

Get started My two favorite resources are Eknath Easwaran’s meditation method – and the formal medical world, here represented by the Mayo Clinic’s Elements of Meditation.

Start today with 5 or 10 minutes set aside for meditation. Preferably first thing in the morning. Work up to doing 30 minutes of meditation a day, and once you get there, keep at it.  I suspect, you will find it so much easier to handle, life and everything it throws at you.


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3 Steps to Becoming an Effective Listener

Listening intentlyHow often have you found yourself tapping your feet impatiently, as you waited for the another person who as speaking to either pause or wrap, before jumping in with your own point of view? if you are like me, you may even end up interrupting the other person. Never mind, if we fully heard let alone understood what the other person was saying, before we are countering or questioning, what we think they said. This can be very frustrating for both the speaker and the listener (or interrupter).

Being a good listener, somehow seems a hard trait to come by and with so many of us struggling with it, is it a surprise that few of us are effective listeners? Brian Tracy – sales trainer, inspirational speaker and successful entrepreneur talks of three steps to becoming an effective listener. In the video at the bottom of this post, you can hear him speak on the subject. For those of you who’s rather get the gist of what he says, here it is.

Pause Once the other person has stopped speaking, pause before you speak. This ensures, that you don’t interrupt the other person, in case they are just taking a breath. It shows that you are giving consideration to their words and you’ll actually hear the other person better! So pause first.

Ask Questions to achieve clarity. Open ended questions help the other person expand on their responses and this will help you in turn understand better, what is it that they are saying.

Paraphrase In your words, state what is it you heard them say. Usually a statement such as “What you are saying is _______”,  helps demonstrate that you are paying attention and working at understanding what it is they are saying.

Brian also answers the question Why bother with effective listening?

It makes the speaker, be relaxed and happy which in turn will make them want to be around you.  Listening builds trust and self-esteem in the speaker. It also helps the listener (you) achieve greater self-worth through the practice of self-discipline. Watch the video below to hear this in Brian’s own words.

“This week” – the secret to managing your time well

to do list

“Honey, can you make the insurance payment? ” my wife would ask me.

“Sure dear, I’ll take care of it,” I’d respond.

Early in our marriage there were often fireworks due to such seemingly innocuous conversations between my wife and I. It took me a while to figure that my wife meant, “Can you get the insurance paid NOW!” And it galled her no end, that my response meant, that I’d get it done one of these days.

Fortunately for us, we arrived at a compromise that all such conversations, especially ones where I needed to get something done, meant I’ll get it done that WEEK! Twenty years on, we are still on talking terms largely due to this one agreement.

Each year, as I work on new projects and often with new team members, I learn a thing or two about managing my time better – even if it’s only what not to do. From my early Franklin planning days of the early ‘80s through the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People all the way through Getting Things Done and Wunderlist, I’ve tried my share of tools and methods to be more productive and get more of the right stuff done in less time. Truth is that it’s still a work in progress and I continue to struggle with procrastination.

As the parent of two teen girls, child of an aging, recently widowed parent, as a slightly overweight middle-aged man trying to get in shape, the operational head of a non-profit and spouse of a professional musician, my to-do list is overflowing. Even when it’s incomplete.

If you are like me, your to-do lists are ambitious – maybe more hopeful than practical. The very act of opening them is daunting. But we still put too much for a day on ‘em. It finally dawned on me to apply the lesson I’ve learned in making commitments to my wife. Seek balance over a week – and not try the impossible of trying to achieve it each day.

Plan your to-do list for a week. Yep – not just for the day. The reality is some days you’re going to get only one thing done, if that. On other days you’re going to be on fire. By keeping your to-do horizon to be a week, rather than the day—things will be a whole lot less stressful. Sure the first week you’ll over commit, but very soon you’ll get the knack of it.

Now say after me, “I’ll get it done sometime this week!” 

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3 Things That Great Speeches Can Teach You

“Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.”

As I read Julius Caesar with my fifteen-year-old, I wonder what it is about Mark Anthony’s speech that’s made it a keeper. Sure the Bard had a way of words and it is him speaking rather than Mark Anthony. Yet the words alone, however powerful, fail to explain their hold over us.

Each of us across nations and times, have our own favorite speeches — often cutting across generations — Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” June 1940 speech, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” August 1963 speech, Steve Jobs commencement speech in May 2005 at Stanford, Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture in September 2008 and Barack Obama’s “Tuscon Memorial” speech in 2011.

Oratory seems to be a skill that politicians and lawyers (many of whom end up as politicians) have cornered the market on. Starting from Cicero, a lawyer turned politician from Julius Caesar’s time to Barack Obama, yet another lawyer-politician in our own, the power of a well-rendered speech have moved nations. Actors and clergymen, who’ve relied on the gift of their gabs to succeed have just as assiduously cultivated their oratory. In trying to understand what it is that makes their speeches memorable, worth transcribing, passing on through word of mouth from the dawn of time through the age of YouTube, three things stand out.

Content, Context, and Cadence.

Content What is said in a speech is clearly the biggest contributor to its success. No amount of skill or theatrics can salvage an empty speech. The content needs to be clearconcise and compelling. Like poetry it needs to be able to stand alone — complete in itself. Try reading the transcript of any speech you feel is well done and you’ll see why it works. Mark Antony’s speech is an excellent example as is any good tale, be it To Kill a Mockingbird or Cannery Row, content still trumps all. But you knew this.

Context When your spouse (or in my case my teen) wakes you up and say’s “I had a dream,” or when an interview candidate tells you “I have a dream” it doesn’t evoke the same sense of Dr. King’s words at the Lincoln Memorial. Context is important. When four men carrying a funeral bier in India, utter “Ram, Ram” or as Gandhi calls out “Hey Ram” when he was shot or in the epic Ramayana, when Rama’s father calls out after his exiled son “Rama, Rama, Rama” — the same words mean very different things. So context is what makes what’s ordinary and makes it extraordinary. The words “a more perfect union” when used by Barack Obama yesterday in the context of the Trayvon Martin case takes on a whole new level of poignancy than in his original speech titled “A More Perfect Union” in 2008.

For Brutus is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men

Mark Antony’s words taken out of context lose their power.

Cadence makes the difference between a good speech and a great speech. The pauses and silences of a speech often can and do say more than the words themselves.

When English teacher Taylor Mali narrates his poem, “What teachers make?

“I decide to bite my tongue……..instead of his” his pause adds emphasis.

When Jesse Jackson in his speech at the Democratic convention in Atlanta in 1988, says “With so many guided missiles ……… and so much misguided leadership, the stakes are exceedingly high” his pause serves to highlight the irony not unlike Mark Antony’s literal “And I must pause till it come back to me.”

Repetition is the other not-so-secret weapon of powerful orators.

Here’s Dr. Martin Luther King speaking at the Lincoln Memorial:

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.

Later in the same speech, the phrase I have a dream is used ten, yep ten times in consecutive sentences as is Let freedom ring nine times in his closing words. Cadence.

Content, Context, and Cadence.

Make sure your next speech covers the 3 Cs.

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