A couple of week back I attended fourth meet up of Delhi Barcamp . It was a great event by every yardstick . Cool venue (Amity University) ,Excellent turnout of campers ( more than 200 people participated) , some great demos , few informative sessions , inspiring talks. Add excellent food, Free T Shirts, and After event Beer Party from sponsors and you have a recipe for a excellent day. Isn’t it ? But at times I was sad .
It was my fifth Barcamp . I have attended all four meetups of Delhi Barcamp and also participated in First edition of Barcamp Bangalore. Apart from that I have attended 5 meetups of Mobile Monday Delhi, which is a Barcamp for Mobile enthusiasts. This experience of attending so many of startup centric event has given me an perspective, I can see a pattern . almost like a pre written script . I want to share the same with the readers of this blog .
These events start with a very enthusiastic crowd of participant , entrepreneur present their product , I sit through the demo , I like the idea, find their UI & Workflow to be intuitive , Team seems to be competent and enthusiastic about the potential of their venture ,they answer with an air of self assurance which makes every one look up to them ,skeptic in the room usually don’t speak much , Atmosphere in room is supercharged. Its hard not be excited . in the end there is a round of thunderous applause ,entrepreneur is beaming . Everyone in room thinks that they have just witnessed history in making . On my way out I see the startup guy talking to a Junior associate of a VC Fund (these guys are always there and they get paid for that . I envy their job ). They swap business card and talk for 10 -15 Min .
I guess this guy secures an appointment . Few months down the line I see them again ,at another meet up, they are still struggling , most of them are not funded yet but they are still convinced about the vision, couple of month later I learn that one of the founder has quit or the company has started doing some consulting project for a Big Name IT Firm or for another VC Funded startup .next time I meet them I notice that they avoid talking about their venture beyond “its doing well” and . I have seen this happening so many time that it has seize to surprise me now .This makes me SAD . Very rarely I have seen any company bouncing back from that phase.
Now don’t take me wrong . I have only the greatest respect for anyone who has the guts to start a new company. My analysis may sound harsh, but remember that anyone who gets as far as this is clearly a star for me . (stolen from here) But I seriously think there gotto be a way to avoid this fate. Not a 100% fool proof strategy, not a slam dunk but
A rational approach which increases any startup’s odd to avoid such fate.
With this thought in mind I spent last few days smoking, thinking about the acts of these companies , I called couple of the promoter and had a candid conversation . what emerge out if this discussion was the fact that its inevitable , you will encounter this phase in your startup journey,you have no choice with that, you have a choice in how you deal with it . Here are some strategy which I feel should help
Echo chamber is a term given to the phenomena where we a single message is repeated so many time that it creates an illusion of affirmation from multiple source . Once you are in echo chamber you overestimate the strength of message and literally everything is ok as long as you can hear an echo from somewhere .
Much of your initial years in a startup [especially of web2.0 type startup] are spent in such echo chambers , a close knit community of entrepreneurs, aspiring entrepreneurs. on top of that there is a whole industry coming out of organizing these startup events .In short propensity and probability that you will stumble in to an echo chamber has never been higher .Now we all know that statistically 99% of all startup will fail, so putting it very bluntly 99% of what you hear in these echo chamber is a recipe for disaster . Trick is to identify these echo chambers , use it for what they are good for and move on . Allow me to elaborate.
Once your product is out in wild and you are out there promoting it you will feel following issues
- Motivational : Team looses enthusiasm for idea due to stagnancy in growth .
- Team Dynamics.
- Financials : Team Might Run out of cash .
I admit I don’t have solution for each one of these issues but I believe that Most of the above mentioned problem can be addressed by a sustained growth in user base . Once you have 100-500 people logging on to your site or your site is crashing every fortnight or you see 50-60 support request or
feature request in your inbox daily .there is hardly any scope for such stray thoughts . There is no big motivation than a challenge which can be addressed with in your competencies. Which is the most exciting company on internet ? Which is the most troubled starup on internet ? same answer :Twitter . but as long as they have passionate users I don’t see any threat to their survival. Like Guy Kawasaki says “Sale fixes a lot of thing“ .
Now how this issue is being addressed inside of echo chamber? By participating more in it. Its like runnig on steroids . eventually it will take the toll . Have you ever wondered how you come across same faces in all the event? Where will the growth come from? Lets get this thing straight: In India Internet is not mainstream. Majority of people don’t log on to internet with a mindset of exploring new sites . Most of them are accessing net from cybercafé and know where they need to go before login. How to reach them ? I mentioned some tips in my previous post here .
Have you ever thought How these guys discover new sites ? TV , Newspaper & Email Fwd . Now you can say Big Deal !! I already knew that but If I had money to buy Advertisement on TV or Print would I be reading this article with such anticipation ? but what you probably don’t know is that in this era of proliferation of TV Channels its never been easier to come on TV and talk about your stuff . There is a dedicated TV show for young entrepreneur on a leading business news channel . and I know how desperate they are to have someone on their show who can produce good sound bite . Can you?
Every newspaper article , every tech feature in Business World has reporter’s email ID mentioned in foot note . How many times you have written to them ? and for the love of god don’t ask them to review your site on first email . Give them friction , add some analysis , use google, I am sure that reporter must have missed some aspect of issue in his article /story/feature ,bring that to her attention , establish your credibility and once you do that . You can ask for a plug . They will be happy to oblige .everyone is happy to oblige a smart young man with a dream . Problem is we put dream before establishing smartness. This dream before smartness thing works in echo chamber but outside of it ..Nah….Zilch…..Nada.
Find out maximum media outlets, establish reputation there and cash it at right time . Be aware it can be a full time job to explore and use these media outlet so make sure you enjoy doing it.
In most of the startups I have seen, there is an inevitable clash between founders at one point or another . Apart from familiar reasons like peer pressure, founder getting faint hearted or some personal tragedy . The other main reason of founder falling out stems from either stagnant growth or skill gap . We talked about growth issue in previous section .now lets talk about skill gap .
In most of the cases biggest skill gap is of missing Business development. Echo chamber is awfully bad at identifying and appreciating salesman. They seems to live in a denial, an illusion that blatant self promotion is a domain of low life . Look at how echo chamber response to a hint of Advertisement in Twitter . Your revenue is your headache . Echo chamber won’t worry about it . So sooner or later when founding team realize it then either one of the founder rise up to the challenge or they hire an outsider.
Problem with hiring an outsider is that trust is missing. Most of the founders expect him to pull a rabbit out of Hat .They never give him enough time to do the groundwork, establish a reputation for the venture , most of these Business development guys work with a time bomb ticking on their back .situation is so bad that once a two year old venture blamed their failure squarely on a Business guy who was with them for just 3 months . Fact is that they were looking for an excuse to quit. The Biz guy became an scapegoat .
Things are more tricky when one of the founder choose to play the role of Biz guy . Now this guy go out and try to sell idea to Potential Business partner like Ad network, distribution partner, syndication company, portals, enterprise user, big media companies, VAS companies and [god forbid] Telcos etc . Invariably he gets some free advice from these people. They tell him you need to tweak the product too make it appealing for them , they don’t commit but says that enhancement is the bottleneck in deal .
Now this guy comes back to office and tell the story to his partner , who fail to identify with the issue .Why?? Because this poor soul is still stuck in echo chamber. Where he was told that his product is Cool and near perfect in every sense. He might do the tweak for few times but since your client was non committal from the start , chances are that deal might not happen . After a few such iteration it will look like that Biz Guy is making an alibi out of product’s missing functionality. This is where the riff start. It may manifest as something else.
Key to avoid this situation is to understand that
- You are not the only one facing this. it happens to everyone .
- Some feedback from outside world are valid and other are just noise .learn to identify one from other. This post from Jason would help.
- Don’t let the emotions be bottled up …Communicate .shout….scream ..than Pat on your co founders back .. smoke together and share a drink ..Bitch about the world and its VCs…Talk about Steve Jobs …Get back to an Echo Chamber….recharge your self and get back to work.
- Get a mentor or some trusted common friend to rethink your execution and strategy .
- If at some point you feel that Sales in not your thing than its ok ..Find a new guy but make sure he joins as a Founder and you have immense respect for him.
This is the most painful truth I have learned . Contrary to widespread notion Most startup don’t die suddenly they die a slow death . And most of them die not because there was no money ..they die because there was easy money which diluted their vision .
Yes I am talking about Consulting work . In startups you are your own boss . you don’t have a client on your head pushing for shipment . You can take your time. Invariably a Consulting assignment will knock your door . you are cash strapped so it will be tempting to go for it . Should you or shouldn’t you ??
Well there is no easy answer ? IF you need money you need money . It depend how hungry or desperate you are. Can you protect your original vision ? Can you resist the temptation of making consulting a full time activity . Think long and Hard its easier said than done . no matter what you think right now chances are that you will end up accepting these assignment . so here is few guideline if you got to do it
- Burn the bridge : Declare that you won’t be doing consulting project ever .put it on your website .
- Don’t devote more than 20% of your time on outside projects .
- DO Upstream consulting: Only take those project where client is a Big Guy in your industry . Do a project for Yahoo, HT Media, IBN ,InfoEdge ,Times Internet etc . This will bring dough and help you cause a blip on their radar . if they don’t buy you out right than chances are that you will catch attention of some key executive there which might be helpful for you in guidance and plug .
- Do Tactical Consulting: If you do consulting for another VC funded startup than ask the top guy to recommend you . VCs put a lot of weight on recommendation from portfolio companies .
Neither this article not any other article in world can guarantee to solve all your problem . all we can offer is perspective [May be aggregated perspective J ] . I hope it will help you to avoid the mistakes committed by those who come before you . In the end I would like to share few lines I saw scribbled on a white board of a startup’s office
“ Ride a Wilde horse , Against the Sky
Hold Close to its wings , Before you Die
Whatever else you may leave undone
Just ride a wild horse , into the sun “