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.

30 Days of Gratitude

As yet another NaNoWriMo opened on November 1st, my thoughts turned to what other things could be done in the next thirty days. Om Malik’s resolution in October to do 30 days of blogging was also lurking in my mind. For some time now I’ve planned to write about all the mentors who’ve helped me – not just with business but with life as a whole. The posts are intended to say thanks as well as share what it is I learnt from each of them.

So starting Monday Nov 3, I’ll be writing a short post – featuring one mentor – I’ll try to alternate recent mentors with some of my earliest. You can catch all the posts under the tag gratitude. Join me in expressing gratitude by sharing stories of your mentors or folks who’s helped you.


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

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Be Grateful – Lessons from my dad

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Image by EvenWu via Flickr

“I was in 9th grade – nearly 15 years old, when my father passed away.” I could see that my father was already in the past living through those first few traumatic months after his father’s death. “We continued in the same village where my father hand been the karnam – the village accountant.” My older brother was still in high school, two younger brothers and a sister in middle and primary schools. My mother did not know how she was going to put us through school – which she was clear we should complete at all costs.”

“At one end of our village lived the Mirasdar – there were two brothers, the peria (elder) and chinna (younger) mirasdar. I remember their house being a big pukka house. A family friend approached the younger mirasdar for help, when he learned that my mother could pay for only my elder brother to go to school. The mirasdar offered to pay my school fees. The amount of money involved, though small by today’s standards, was a huge boon and put me through high school. I don’t think I thought about it much at that time, besides being grateful for their support. After all in our eyes the mirasdars were the richest family in our village.”

My father after graduating from high school left his village for the “city” – Chennai and then onwards to Delhi seeking his fortune. After three years of being away, my father returned to his village for a visit. He was now employed as an accounting apprentice in Delhi earning a princely 300 rupees. In the meantime he had his share of adventures with his uncle declining to support his college education, running away to Delhi and landing a job, travelling to Shimla and other towns on his job. Wanting to share his good fortune and to thank his first benefactors he visited the mirasdar family.

“I was shocked to discover that the mirasdar family was not at all well-to-do.  They lived in a dilapidated house and in talking to others in the village I realized that they had probably been living in genteel poverty for the last decade or more. My youth and naivete, when I still lived in the village, was probably what lead me to believe that they were wealthy. I was all the more grateful and overwhelmed by their act of kindness and charity in paying for my education, when they could probably ill afford it themselves.” My father’s eyes were no longer dry as he recounted this tale of magnanimity.

His story did have a good ending, in that the children of the mirasdar family themselves went out to seek their fortunes and did well – which my father attributes, at least in part, to the good deeds of their parents.

“Things are not always what they seem,” was my father’s advice to me. “Keep an open mind and recognize that we often see what we want – which may be far from reality.”

“Be grateful for what you have and strive to help other people whenever you can.”

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