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Archive for the ‘Professional’ Category

steve-blank4 One of my greatest teachers ever, Steve Blank, started writing his blog recently. He is the master of understanding the intricacies of the startups. He has a knack of telling these complex ideas in a very simple and fun language. His core idea is that there are patterns in successful startups. He calls his core model “customer development”. After going through a few cycles of startups myself I could tell you how right he is. Everytime I get in to a situation where I have a choice to go the “traditional product development cycle” or follow the “customer development approach” – I take a deap breath, remember Steve and choose the second path.

Chris Anderson calls Steve “a dude with serious street cred“.

Steve writes on his Blog –

I call this process “Customer Development,” a sibling to “Product Development,” and each and every startup that succeeds recapitulates it, knowingly or not.

The “Customer Development” model is a paradox because it is followed by successful startups, yet articulated by no one.  Its basic propositions are the antithesis of common wisdom yet they are followed by those who succeed.

It is the path that is hidden in plain sight.

Steve: Thanks for continuing our customer development class conversations on Twitter and blog now 🙂 Looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts. So far I used to refer my entrepreneur friends to your book, now I have two more places to send them to – your tweets and your blog.

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mark_zuckerberg_ceo_facebookI loved this short story about Mark Zuckerberg and how to “start” communities. [Taken from “What would Google do?”]

The scene was the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum International Media Council in Davos, Switzerland, as the head of a powerful news organization begged young Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, for his secret. Please, the publisher beseeched him, how can my publication start a community like yours? We should own a community, shouldn’t we? Tell us how.

Zuckerberg, 22 at the time, is a geek of few words. Some assume his laconicism is a sign of arrogance – that and his habit of wearing sandals at big business conferences. But it’s not. He’s shy. He’s direct. He’s a geek, and this is how geeks are. Better get used to it. When the geeks take over the world-and they will-a few blunt words and then a silent stare will become a societal norm. But Zuckerberg is brilliant and accomplished, and so his few words are worth waiting for.

After this publishing titan pleaded for advice about how to build his own community, Zuckerberg’s reply was, in full: “You can’t.”

Full stop. Hard stare.

He later offered more advice. He told the assembled media moguls that they were asking the wrong question. You don’t start communities, he said. Communities already exist. They’re already doing what they want to do. The question you should ask is how you can help them do that better.

His prescription: Bring them “elegant organization.”

What is an elegant organization? I would tell my perspective in a post later.

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True NorthI interviewed Bill George, author of best-seller books “Authentic Leadership” and “True North”. Bill is not just a great author and a leader himself, he is a wonderful coach and a teacher too. Here are the excerpts of this brief interview –

Hitesh: What is “True North” and how does it apply in the context of a business student or a budding entrepreneur who is just starting on a leadership journey?

Bill George: “True North” refers to the deeply held beliefs, values and passions. It is how you see yourself as a human being at a fundamental level. As a business student, it is easy to get lured to the seductions of the job search. It is easy to follow the herd and live the expectations of someone else. At this stage it becomes all the more important for you to discover your real self and find your sweet spot.

The book “True North” provides a framework because that allows you to create your own direction. Instead of other cook-books on leadership that provide the “10 qualities that make a great leader”, “True North” provides an individual approach and a framework with exercises. YOU have to figure out yourself your own values and point of differentiation.

Hitesh: How does one “frame” or “reframe” one’s life story? Is framing not by definition twisting the truth and thus not authentic? How can you have flexible leadership styles and still be authentic? Please help explain these contradictions.

Bill George: Good questions and I wrestle with these myself all the time. If you start taking these recommendations from the book to an extreme, that could be a problem.

We all see this world through a certain lens. e.g. If one grew up in a fundamentalist religious family and later on got exposed to multi-religious or atheist view points, then that opens up the mind at a much deeper level. Oprah Winfrey came to a realization at the age of 36 that she is not a “bad girl” as she always viewed herself as. She reframed her childhood abuse experiences by tracing her actions there and came out a much stronger person.

The flexibility referred in the book is the tradeoffs in your values that sometimes you have to make. These are tough decision moments where you have to make decisions like layoffs and sometimes have to reprioritize your values. The leadership “style” is a different thing than your authentic self. e.g. If the situation demands quick decisions then a consensus leadership style will not fit and you will have to adapt.

Hitesh: Any words of wisdom for the younger budding leaders?

Bill George: Get into the game. Do not watch it from the sidelines. Don’t hold back. Take the risk of failing to learn a lot.

[Please note that Bill’s comments are not verbatim and are based on the notes that I took. This was not a recorded interview]

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I read Randy Komisar’s “The Monk and the Riddle“. I just could not stop when I started reading it. By the time I finished reading it, the clock struck 4 AM. I think it was a night well spent.

Randy Komisar is a Venture Capitalist with Kleiner Perkins. This book tells Randy’s evolution (thus the word Monkey in this post’s title) and search for his passion. Autobiographies are generally boring but Randy does a great job by weaving his life nuggets with a great story of an entrepreneur, Lenny.

“We will put the Fun back in FUNerals”, says Lenny. He is trying to sell an internet business called funerals.com to Randy. This story is set in year 2000, when the whole world was going online – from pets and groceries to well funerals and caskets. I could relate to this story since a number of my friends were pitching get-rich-quick-internet-business-plans those days (and with Web 2.0 they are doing it all over again).

Lenny is a vulnerable soul like many of us who go through life in two phases. In the first phase we do what we HAVE to do so that in the second phase we can do what we LOVE to do. Randy’s point is to start doing what we LOVE to do NOW. He asks us to not live a life plan which is always deferred till we pay our dues. How practical is it?

Randy does a good job explaining the importance of following our passion, but he lacks concrete steps and examples to find out what that passion is. That search for passion is a very individual matter and requires a lot of personal effort. Bill George’s “True North” does a great job providing a framework to search for that passion. “True North” picks up where “The Monk and the Riddle” ends.

This book is a must read for anybody who thinks business is all about the bottom-line and chasing money. It will convince you to look at business and your professional life through a new lens.

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Gates and Jobs shared a stage and it was quite a show (better than a Bollywood thriller).

One thing that is quickly evident from this – Jobs comes across as a person who still has a lot to prove while Gates looks deeply satisfied like a Sadhu. While Gates looks like entering Sanyas , Jobs is still in the prime of his Grahastha Ashram. Again, there are a number of personal reasons (I won’t go there – Read iCon) that one could highlight why Jobs is still so thirsty. 

Jobs’ thirst is doing a lot of good for customers. Jobs has this beautiful left-brain-right-brain conflict going on that creates these stellar products. Go Jobs Go!

Another thing that came out from this was something that Jobs joked about: both of them being dinosaurs in this new Googly age. These guys will not be extinct anytime soon but their era is not what will define the next 20 years. iPhone is great but is that all? Surface Computing might not be the next killer device. This “Post-PC devices” era might not be dominated by Google either. Where is that next Google, Microsoft and Apple?

I think this picture says it all –

Gates & Jobs

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I met and listened to Vinod Khosla, a renowned Venture Capitalist, at a US-India Venture Capital Association meeting. His speech gave a glimpse inside his mind. It was a very personal speech unlike his previous speeches. Khosla talked about some of the decisions he made in life and why he made those decisions.

Vinod Khosla

Move to India – Remember 1993 – Technology world was eclipsed by Microsoft, the King. There were others like Nortel but mostly big things were happening in Redmond. Khosla lived in Northern California at that time with his family. At that time he observed a lot of action happening in Asia. To go to where the action is – he moved with his family to India.

Disillusionment – When in India he tried to find out about the non-profits that he could help and work with to make a difference. He could not find any good organizations. He was shuttling between India and the US – spending six weeks in India and six weeks in the US, alternatively. He was trying hard to help solve some of India’s biggest problems like poverty and rural development. He gave up – thinking that these are big issues and he is not even able to make a dent in these huge problems.

Khosla Version 2.0 – After spending three years in India he came back to the US again. The current run is his second attempt at solving world’s problems. This time he is more successful.

Positive Future – His prediction for future is that entrepreneurship and innovation will thrive with great opportunities ahead. He also predicts that with the growing complexity of the world, people would move to the more relevant (for happiness) things like relationships, family and enjoyment.

Responsible Capitalism – One of his core beliefs is that capitalist solutions work best for the global problems. According to him a sustainable solution is to have someone make money while solving these problems. Subsidies would take you only so far. His rule of thumb – For a long-lasting solution you need the venture to be in black within five years.

Open Source – He believes in the power of open source. One of his pet projects (where his wife is working full time now) is the open source text-books project. The goal of this project is to make textbooks freely available to all the kids. According to him California alone spends more than half a Billion dollars on text-books every year. That money would be rather well spent on the teacher’s salaries for example. Is open source (and free text-books) not contradictory to the capitalistic principles?

Gut Feeling – He mentioned that we never looks at the extensive spreadsheets and financials calculating ROI and all the good stuff for making investment decisions. He evaluates opportunities solely relying on his gut feeling.

In this meeting I saw in him an ordinary person like you and me who goes through contradicting battles in his own mind. One who is trying his best to make a dent in these massive world problems utilizing all his resources to the best he can. Good luck Mr Khosla in your pursuit of happYness (with a Y instead of i).

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I started my first business at the age of 9 (1984). It was a comic books rental service. I did that during my summer vacations. My first partner was my childhood friend Amit. I got all his comics, combined them with my collection and we had our starting inventory of books. We had books including Chacha Chaudhary, Vetal, Mandrake, Archies, Pinky, Ankur, Chandan, Champak, Lotpot, Motu Patlu, et al. This needed minimal investment and I started being cash flow positive on day one since most of my cost was sunk cost as we already owned all these books.

Chacha

I used the concrete space (front yard) in front of my home to setup my first shop. This whole shop was setup every day in the morning and removed in the evening.

Pricing was not that tough – we just had to be lower than our competitors (professional comic book rentals). It was 25 paisa a book per day. I also relaxed the late fee rules (just like what Blockbuster had to do after Netflix). No-late-fee was a very novel idea those days. This was critical to get our initial customer base.

We created buzz using the current viral marketing techniques. We gave one day one comic book rental free if you refer one friend as our new customer.

Customer Database was a simple notebook with columns capturing information about customers on one page and their rentals on a new page for each customer.

I used to reinvest 50% of my earnings back into the business by buying new comic book sets. One of these nights before sleeping I pledged to myself that I will invest 50% of my earnings always (even when I grow up) on books. I realize now how difficult promise that was. I still try to buy quite a lot of books but certainly not 50% of my earnings. I never understood at that time why these grown-ups always wanted to so many things in life. According to me all that you needed to survive was comics.

As an extension (a big one), I also tried to create my own comic characters. I thought about partnering with my cousin brother Avadhesh (who according to me was the best businessman I knew) for creating a new comic series. It never happened!

As I look back we used all the concepts that I eventually formally studied in my Berkeley MBA program. The basics of business remain same. The most important thing to keep in mind is to do what you are passionate about. My little comics rental business was successful because I was absolutely passionate about it. Follow your heart!

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