Are you ready to Jump with AI/ML? [Updated Session Dates]

[Update 6-Apr] New April Session Dates – Symposium RT is being scheduled on Saturdays for Bangalore & Chennai (21st & 28th April). 

Playbooks for Electrifying SaaS and more.

This is what we call the fourth industrial revolution…And companies are really transforming and bringing all these new technologies to connect with their customers in new ways.
Dreamforce 2017 Keynotes, Marc Benioff.

There is no doubt that Artificial Intelligence (AI), is one of the recent “tectonic” market shifts, creating a change in landscape, market, and opportunity. AI and  Machine Learning (ML), now in its eternal spring, has a deep impact on SaaS evolution. While the incumbent companies like Salesforce, Zendesk, Workday, have all invested heavily in AI, also global challengers across many verticals from Sales, BPM, CRM… to Security are focused on building higher order efficiencies and automation through AI/ML.

Over the last few years, our Indian SaaS entrepreneurs trumped the global SaaS growth by leveraging mobile first as there was no baggage of desktop, reduced sales & onboarding cost by perfecting the art of Inside Sales & Inbound Marketing, and efficient after sales support & service by leveraging remote success representatives. Our SaaS Mavens helped disseminate these leverages by sharing the best practices & modeling internal flywheels & experimentations. Many SaaS entrepreneurs successfully assimilated and got a significant boost in their growth journey. These levers are now basic table stakes for most SaaS startups.

AI has no breakthrough success stories, but it is helping create a level playing field – especially for our Indian entrepreneurs – to compete with global players and incumbents alikeStartups willing to make the jump, adapt AI into their products & business models to create meaningful differentiation, will experience a strong wind in their sails to leapfrog over the players who don’t.

Our entrepreneurs have a rare opportunity to be early adopters & global trailblazers. 

To take advantage of this our entrepreneurs ask very valid questions.

Q. Why & How should we entrepreneurs navigate this AI market shift? 
Q. How should we, given that we are untrained in AI, grapple with the 360° impact of AI on product, business, and technology?
Q. What AI leverage can we develop without requiring expensive investments for constrained resources? 

How do we enable our companies to create new AI playgrounds to analyze, surface, validate and develop higher order customer values & efficiencies?

AI Playbooks

Since adapting to the AI “tectonic” shift requires a new paradigm of thinking, we have launched a multi-step playbooks track focused on Playing with AI/ML for Indian entrepreneurs. In line with iSPIRT’s mission, our playbooks purpose is to help market players navigate market shifts. The goal is to bring the practitioner knowledge from AI Mavens AI-first entrepreneurs who are further ahead in their AI journey – to the AI-hungry startups and help them perfect the model of working with AI, get traction towards a meaningful AI-enhanced value, and become trailblazers for the community. If you are an AI-hungry startup who has either taken the plunge with AI/ML but early in your journey, or are actively looking to leverage AI/ML for your current products, then following the stepped approach below may help:

Step 1 – Attend an AI/ML Symposium RT – Getting prepared with Why AI and How AI. In our first kickoff session on 10-Mar, we had great discussions on AI data maturity, what can drive your AI approach, and more with our AI Mavens and ten startups (read more).

Step 2 – A cohort of startups from step 1 will be taken through multiple AI/ML Playbook RT for How AI – deep dives on topics to help with structuring an internal AI playground, competency with data product management, product positioning & branding, business model shifts, and more.
These playbook RTs will help the startups carve out a lean playground for rapid experimentation and analysis, with a 3-4 person team of a data PM, & engineers. The team, actively lead by the founder, runs regular sprints (business/product/engineering sprints) of experimentation and validation, and have review touchpoints at intervals with AI-Mavens and the cohort as a running group.
There is also an optional Tech Training Lab to build internal ML competency with a multi-day workshop with Julia experts.

Four startups have been initially selected for the cohort for the step 2 AI playbook RTs (Acebot, FusionCharts, InstaSafe & LegalDesk).

SaaSx5 – June 2018

We are working to set up the 5th version of our marquee SaaSx to engage with the larger SaaS startup community. We will definitely focus on the impact of AI/ML on SaaS and have workshops based on our momentum of the playbooks track on various topics above. Date & details to be announced shortly.

The AI+SaaS game has just begun and it is the right time for our hungry entrepreneurs to Aspire for the Gold, on a reasonable level playing field.

Click to Nominate or Register a startup for the AI/ML Playbooks Track.

Dates & Venue

AI/ML Symposium RT #1 – 10th Mar (Sat) 2p – 5p Done (read more)
AI/ML Symposium RT #2 – 21st Apr (Sat) 11a – 2p @ Bangalore TBD
AI/ML Symposium RT #3– 28th Apr (Sat) 10a – 1p @ Chennai TBD

May the force be with you!

* All iSPIRT playbooks are pro-bono, closed room, founder-level, invite-only sessions. The only thing we require is a strong commitment to attend all sessions completely, to come prepared, to be open to learning & unlearning, and to share your context within a trusted environment. All key learnings are public goods & the sessions are governed by the Chatham House Rule.

Featured image modified from source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jedimentat/7557276684

First AI/ML Playbook Roundtable – Playing With the New Electricity

This is a Guest post by Krupesh Bhat (LegalDesk) and Ujjwal Trivedi (Artoo).

AI is seen as the new electricity that will power the future. How do we make the best of the opportunity that advancements in AI technology brings about? With this thought in mind iSPIRT conducted a symposium roundtable at the Accel Partners premises in Bengaluru on March 10th. Accel’s Sattva room was a comfortable space for 20+ participants from 11 startups. There were deep discussions and a lot of learning happened through subject matter experts as well as peers discussion. Here’s a quick collection of some pearls, that some of us could pick, from the ocean of the deep discussions that happened there.

Products that do not use AI will die soon. Products that use AI without natural intelligence (read common sense) will die sooner.

– Manish Singhal, Pi Ventures

Starting with that pretext, it isn’t hard to gather that AI is not just a promising technology, it is going to be an integral part of our lives in near future. So, what does it mean for existing products? Should everyone start focusing on how they can use AI? Are you an AI-first company? If not, do you need to be one? After all, it does not make sense to build the tech just because it appears to be the next cool thing to do. If you are building AI, can you tell your value proposition without mentioning the word AI or ML? have you figured out your data strategy? Is the need driven by the market or the product?

Before we seek answers we must clarify that there are two types of products/startups in the AI world:

First, an AI-first startup – a startup which cannot exist without AI. Their solution and business model is completely dependent on use of Artificial intelligence (or Machine Learning at least). Some examples of such startups in local ecosystem are Artifacia and Locus.sh.

Second, AI-enabled startup – startups with existing products or new products which can leverage AI to enhance their offering by a significant amount (5x/10x anyone?). Manish has a very nifty way of showing the AI maturity of such companies.

The session was facilitated by several AI experts including Manish Singhal of pi Ventures, Nishith Rastogi of Locus.sh, Shrikanth Jagannathan of PipeCandy, Deepak Vincchi of Julia Computing.

Maturity Levels of AI Startups

After a brief introduction by Chintan to set the direction and general agenda for the afternoon, Manish took over and talked about the various stages of AI based companies. Based on his interactions with many startups in the space, he said there are roughly four growth stages where different companies fall into:

Level 1No Data, No AI: An entity that solves a business problem and is yet to collect sufficient data to build a sustainable AI business. The AI idea will die down if the company fails to move to state 2 quickly. Business may be capturing data but not storing it.
Level 2Dark data, No AI: The company holds data but is yet to build solid AI/ML capabilities to become an AI company. There is a huge upside for such companies but the data strategy needs to be developed and AI capabilities are not mature enough to be considered as an AI/ML company.
Level 3Higher automation driven by data and AI: These are the companies that have built AI to make sense out of data and provide valuable insights into the data using AI/ML, possibly with some kind of human assistance.
Level 4Fully autonomous AI companies: These are the companies at the matured stage where they possess AI products that can run autonomously with no human intervention.

Manish also noted that most companies they meet as a VC are in level 1 and 2, while the ideal level would be 3 and 4. He noted that AI comprises of three important components: Data, Algorithm & the Rest of the System that includes UI, API & other software to support the entire system. While it is important to work on all three components, oftentimes, the data part doesn’t get enough importance.

Do You Really Need Artificial Intelligence?

A whole bunch of solutions are smart because they are able to provide additional value based on past data. These are not AI solutions. They are merely rule based insights. Nishith from Locus added that there is nothing really wrong with rule based systems and in a lot of cases AI is actually an overkill. However, there are two cases where it seems apt for startups to look at AI for their predicament:

  1. Data is incomplete: An example of this is Locus who gets limited mapping for gps coordinates and addresses.
  2. Data is changing constantly: A typical case was of ShieldSquare where bots are continuously evolving and improving and the system deployed to identify them also needs to learn new patterns and evolve with them.

It is important to have clarity on your AI model especially when you communicate with your internal teams. Figure out what is the core component of your product – AI, ML, Deep Learning or Computer Vision.

What’s Driving Your AI Approach?

There are two major driving forces that can help one in deciding whether to AI or not to AI.

  1. PUSH: The internal force when decision can largely be taken if your business is sitting on a lot of useful data, may be as a side effect of your key proposition.
  2. PULL: The external market driven force where clients expect or ask for it e.g chatbots. We are already observing that AI can be a great pricing mechanism.

However, take great caution when using Customer data or Derived data, it depends on legal agreement with clients and can get you into legal troubles if it violates any terms.

Is Your Data Acquisition Strategy in Place?

Anyone interested in AI should have a data acquisition strategy in place. Here are a few points that can help you get one in place:

    • What data do you collect, How do you validate it, Clean it and store it for further analysis?
    • Surveys and chatbots can provide a steady stream of data if built correctly
    • Think of data as a separate entity (has its own lifecycle), it may help to think of it as a currency and plan how you would earn, store and utilise it
    • Capturing location, user interaction data can be insightful. This may include the interactions user has committed and the ones they have not committed (deleted/skipped/hidden)
    • It makes sense to invest time, resources and people to gather data properly
    • Have a unified warehouse (can start with economical options like Google Analytics and AWS)

It is also important to give some thoughts on how you are using aggregate data across the platform. In case, if your AI model uses a combination of customer specific data and the sanitised aggregate data available in the platform (“Derived Work”), then you should make sure that you have the permission to use such data. Without such clarity, you may run into legal issues.

Deepak Vincchi explained how Julia Computing is emerging as the programming language of choice for data scientists. The platform can process 1.3 million threads in parallel and is used by large organizations to crunch data problems.

In all this was an extremely engaging 3 hours without break. Guiding the session with real examples by Nishith, Shrikanth and also shared learnings from Navneet and others really helped bring to life Why AI and How AI. This symposium is part of an AI playbooks track was aimed at kickstarting cohorts of startups ready to jump with AI and help them get traction with AI, more will emerge on this shortly.

10 startups attended this mini-roundtable session – Acebot, Artifacia, Artoo, FusionCharts, InstaSafe, Klove, LegalDesk, Rocketium, Rubique, ShieldSquare.

Thanks to volunteers Rinka Singh and Adam Walker for their notes from the session and Ankit Singh (Mypoolin/Wibmo) for helping coordinate the blog post & note

* All iSPIRT playbooks are pro-bono, closed room, founder-level, invite-only sessions. The only thing we require is a strong commitment to attend all sessions completely, to come prepared, to be open to learning & unlearning, and to share your context within a trusted environment. All key learnings are public goods & the sessions are governed by the Chatham House Rule.

Featured photo by Matan Segev from Pexels https://www.pexels.com/photo/action-android-device-electronics-595804/

Playing with the new Electricity – AI/ML Playbook Sessions [March Update]

[Update 29-Mar] New April Session Dates – Symposium RT is being scheduled for Bangalore & Chennai (21st & 28th April). 

“Tectonic” market shifts happen every few years creating a change in landscape, market and opportunity. The most recent “tectonic” shift is the emergence of the Artificial Intelligence era. In just the same way electrification in the early 1900s transformed major industries globally, AI, Machine Learning & Deep Learning are poised to transform a multitude of industries, services & products.

It took 100 years from the discovery of electrical generator to electrification of industries. AI is doing this in a span of 70 years (from the time of the Turing Test).

AI/ML has gone through many winters and is now in its eternal spring. It portents a new framework for startups to navigate and evolve from an internet era startup into an AI era startup.


Every new era shift begins with a lot of smoke and hype before it is well understood. iSPIRT ProductNation & Julia are launching a set of AI/ML playbook roundtable & workshop sessions to dispel the hype around AI, and help bring a pragmatic mindset & process change necessary for product startups to leverage AI/ML. We believe AI is not just a technology shift. It is a combination of product, business, and technology shift. Adapting to it requires a new paradigm of thinking to build a viable value strategy. This needs to be done mindfully and in context of the value you offer to the customer, do not rush in with the AI hype.

These multi-step playbooks are for all categories of startups regardless whether they are AI-First or SaaS, and MarTech, FinTech, HealthTech or any other <Domain>Tech category, startups who are looking to deliver a higher order value to their customers by leveraging and applying AI models with their data.

Since AI/ML is still in its early years there aren’t any proven success playbooks. Hence these deep sessions will bring together AI experts, AI Mavens (entrepreneurs who are more ahead in their AI journey), iSPIRT Mavens, and selected startups, to discuss & share their insights, challenges & learnings on the mindset shifts outlined above and best practices adopted. The 2-step playbook roundtable sessions focused on founders (+1 typically CXO) and a hands-on lab workshop are a sequence of:

    • AI/ML Symposium RT (step 1) – An invite-only 3 hour mini-symposium playbook with AI/ML experts, first mover AI leaders & Mavens from our startup community and 10-15 invited startups, focusing on Why AI/ML? What was the higher order value being created? How to identify the opportunities to leverage AI? What do you need to get started with AI (if not already running)? Data needs for AI/ML investments… The shared awareness created in this session, combined with the commitment by startups to articulate their AI/ML opportunity, and detail their approach will lead to the next AI/ML roundtable.
    • AI/ML Playbook RT (step 2) – Startups at similar AI readiness from the Symposium will be invited for a 5-hour deep-dive roundtable discussion on the AI/ML challenges in the context of the startup domain, effectively going through their AI/ML readiness & approach (a review & teardown). Topics would emerge from the Symposium RT and could cover data collection & modeling strategy, AI transformation algorithms, Business model innovation, Success metrics… This session is restricted to 5-6 startups (having similar AI needs) per roundtable and an AI Maven to facilitate the topics & discussion. Possible outcomes for each startup would be to develop an action plan/checklist for next few months of execution. Additionally, startups can identify a tiger tech team to go to the AI/ML Training Lab to get traction for their checklist…
    • AI/ML Training Lab with Julia Sandbox (optional) – A 3+ day workshop intended for the 3-4 person tiger tech teams (CTO, Engg, Data guy, PM…) from each startup. The workshop will help focus on building competency, getting traction & executing implementations related to the checklist developed at the roundtable.

For the first set of these playbooks, we are inviting nominations/applications for startup founders (+CXOs) who are either directly focusing on AI-based opportunity or have started integrating AI/ML as a core strategy for their product growth/success. Please provide your nomination for startups you believe should be part of the first series of the AI/ML playbooks. If you are a startup and interested to be part of this please register below. On final approval, an invite confirmation will be sent via email.

Please submit your nominations here. A registration link will be sent to your nominee.

Dates & Venue for the first of the series:

AI/ML Symposium RT #1 – 10th Mar (Sat) 2p – 5p Done
AI/ML Symposium RT #2 – 21st Apr (Sat) 11a – 2p @ Bangalore TBD
AI/ML Symposium RT #328th Apr (Sat) 10a – 1p @ Chennai TBD
AI/ML Playbook RTApr-TBD (Sat) 11a – 5pm @ Bangalore TBD
AI/ML Training Lab w/ JuliaApr-TBD @ TBD (Bangalore)

While the sessions are in Chennai/Bangalore, we believe this topic is of emergent interest to startups across the country and would invite all to register.

AI Mavens

Ashwin Ramasamy – PipeCandy
Manish Singhal – pi Ventures
Nishith Rastogi – Locus.sh
Shrikanth Jagannathan – PipeCandy

Cost

All iSPIRT roundtables are pro-bono (read below for how that works)

This series of playbooks is being setup by active support from our Mavens & Volunteers – Ankit Singh, Deepak Vinchhi, Karthik KS, Praveen Hari, Ravindra Krishnappa, Sandeep Todi.

P.S. Some great material for pre-reading

I strongly recommend all to go through many of these.

* All iSPIRT playbooks are pro-bono, closed room, founder-level, invite-only sessions. The only thing we require is a strong commitment to attend all sessions completely and to come prepared, to be open to learning & unlearning, and to share your context within a trusted environment. All key learnings are public goods & the sessions are governed by the Chatham House Rule.

* The Julia team is on a social mission to train a large number of people in India to develop grassroot skills and competency with AI & ML.

+Feature image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/gleonhard/34046647175/

Product Teardown explained in 10 minutes (well almost!)

Last Saturday we had an awesome teardown roundtable in Chennai moderated by Suresh (KiSSFLOW) and Bharath (FreshDesk) 🙇🏻.. This was my first direct experience with the teardown. Six companies participated (PickYourTrail, FoodEngine, SysCloud, CustomerLabs, Tagalys, and ManageArtworks). While the entire session of 4+ hours was extremely intense, I want to quickly share with you in 10 minutes (almost) of what happens in a Product Teardown.

Teardowns are coming to your city. Please apply here (Limited Seats).

Product Teardown Framework

The iSPIRT product teardown (esp. for SaaS websites) is primarily structured around 5 key principles outlined below.

Idea 💡

What is the problem you are trying to solve? Who is your target user? It is critical to have a clear picture of your target user persona, their problem and how your solution solves their pain point. Essentially establish your problem-solution fit and articulate it for the customer journey from Discovery → Conversion.

Discovery 🔍

How do customers find your product? Is it through google search? Is there a channel they frequent? Have you identified your TAM (total addressable market), SAM (serviceable addressable market) and SOM (serviceable obtainable market)? Use this model to help identify strategies to have your SOM discover your product.

Website 🕸

Your website is the first & most important way to establish trust & relationship with your customer. This is true even if you don’t use inside sales. What is your first message or hook for your target user persona? Are they able to connect your product with their problem and the path through which they discovered your product? Are they able to understand how your product solves their problem, and why they should use it? Once they identify with your message and establish trust & credibility the rest becomes easier.

Sign up 💰

If the customer has understood your solution and found it fit for their needs, the last purchase decision is the cost. As Suresh said

If the cost connects, signup happens!.

WoW! reaction 🌅

Post signup, is there a WoW first experience? Whether it is a try & buy experience or a first purchase onboarding, it is important for customers to experience some instant gratification for the grueling journey they just went through. Believe me, making a purchase decision can be taxing. If you can make this journey pleasant and the final destination fantastic, you have a winning product 🏆.

Do go through the video above and hear Suresh’s simple explanation. And if you like what you hear remember you can apply here for a teardown in your city.

Coming soon – 2017 SaaS Survey

While I still have your attention, we are excited to announce that we would be launching the third edition (2017) of the India SaaS Survey in a week from now. This survey is an annual exercise conducted jointly by SignalHill and iSPIRT to gather valuable data for drawing insights which help various stakeholders in the ecosystem understand this space better.

Please click on the following link to access last year’s survey results

Please stay tuned to this space. We will be providing a link to this year’s survey very soon in an upcoming blog post.

PS

The amount of time & effort Bharath & Suresh provided to review and analyze each product before the actual teardown is simply inspiring. 🙇🏻. to their commitment to the community.

Guiding the customer journey from Discovery → Signup → Onboarding for SaaS Startups

Are you ready for the product teardown roundtable in your city

As Diwali marks a Joyous celebration and heralds a Prosperous New Year for all, we kick off a series of Product Teardown Roundtables to help our SaaS startups prepare for a successful year ahead. This series of PlaybookRT will focus on Guiding the customer journey from Discovery to Signup & Onboarding.  The teardowns are being planned across our startup cities in quick succession (see tentative schedule below). We kickoff with a teardown RT in Chennai which will be facilitated by Suresh Sambandan (KiSSFLOW)Bharat Balasubramanian (FreshWorks).

Apply to get your slot here. (Limited seats).

Why are product teardowns important? For Explosive Growth!

Explosive growth is a common pain point for founders across startup stages, be it an early stage startup or a late stage startup. One key attribute to explosive growth is to make your customers market for you. Quoting from the article Six attributes of Explosive Growth Startups,

Nothing parallels word-of-mouth marketing

Why? Because the customers do this work for the startup. If this is to happen for your product it is important for your customers to have a clear-cut understanding of your product proposition, discovering it’s ROI and a WOW no-brainer experience of signing up and using it.

Our product teardown session is focused on exactly this evaluation for your product. Using our community of peers and leading practitioners, you would go through an intense journey and visualize how your potential customer discovers, understands, signs up and connects the product proposition and ROI to their needs. If you do a damn good job about this, you gain a big advantage because you don’t have to work so hard for marketing leads, getting you further on the path to explosive growth.

The teardown model

In this playbook series, we look at how to get your messaging right, and building a website and signup/on-boarding flow that converts with very little human intervention. This roundtable would begin with a deep dive into the company’s Idea, Discovery Process and navigate through the Landing Page, Sign Up, and its “Wow” experience. The format of the playbook is built around quick 10 minute demos, followed by peer-feedback moderated by SAAS founders & experts who have already built successful SAAS businesses.

Past teardowns

You can read some of the previous teardown experiences from the founders who participated.

Registration and Pricing

If you are keen to attend this RoundTable, do let us know by filling in your details here. We will confirm your seat subject to availability. All RoundTables are conducted pro-bono. The only payment you have to make is to provide your undivided attention and active involvement in the process. Playbook-RoundTables are a dialogue and there’s no monologue. None!

Teardown Roundtable Schedule (tentative)

City Date Time Register
Teardown RT in Chennai 4-Nov-2017 (Sat)  11am – 4pm Register
Teardown RT in Bangalore 11-Nov-2017 (Sat)  11am – 4pm Register
Teardown RT in Delhi 18-Nov-2017 (Sat)  TBD Register
Teardown RT in Hyderabad 25-Nov-2017 (Sat)  TBD Register
Teardown RT in Pune TBD (Dec) Register
(if interested please apply)
Teardown RT in Mumbai TBD (Dec) Register
(if interested please apply)


Notes

These are founder invite only events. Date, Time & Venue details will be sent along with the confirmation.
Since there are limited seats, we would request you to kindly apply at the earliest.

Playbook-RoundTable is one of the most sought after community events of iSPIRT. It’s a gathering of 12 like-minded product startups who are beyond the early stage. RoundTables are facilitated by an iSPIRT maven who is an accomplished practitioner of that Round-Table theme.

What I learnt from organising 100 #PlaybookRT. #iSPIRT

When I was a kid, the only goal that I had in my mind was to become a cricketer and play for India. But never did I get an opportunity to play beyond the gully cricket and few matches as part of the school cricket team and my cricket was just restrained to the park level.

My dreams of scoring a century have now finally been full-filled. Playbook RT, something that started in the early days of iSPIRT, turns 100. This is my first century, the gully cricket ones not withstanding.

Our elevator pitch — took us 15 sessions to get to this.

As crisp as that sounds, it took us around 15 Round Tables to distill this elevator pitch, and truly understand our own product-market fit.

This is the story of how it all began, and of the amazing journey, the lessons, the people who made it all possible. For those of you who love visuals more or are pressed for time, there is a photo-story at the end of this post — please feel free to scroll to the end of this post for that.

Inthe early days of iSPIRT, Sharad(iSPIRT) initiated the process of the mentoring program with Ashish Gupta(HelionVC), Aneesh Reddy(Capillary), Vivek Subramaniam(iCreate/Fintellix) in order to put together a mentorship program for product companies. We iterated over 10–12 calls about the format, audience, focus and how things will be run. Once everything was nailed down, Ashish took the lead of curating the first playbook and the facilitator was Shankar Maruwada(EkStep).

You can see the level of planning which went behind the scenes of the first playbook.

Planning for the First Playbook led by Shankar Maruwada(EkStep)

Pallav Nadhani(FusionCharts) & Ambarish Gupta(Knowlarity) were part of the first playbook and added lot of valuable insights and others benefitted from this learnings.

Ashish was a splendid host for the first playbook. I still remember the yummy samosas and kachoris that we got during the break and I still remember Ashish helping his office boy in serving tea to all the participants. I was blown away by the simplicity and the humbleness of Ashish. Thanks to Nikhil Kulkarni(Flipkart) for capturing all learnings in a subtle way.

The next goal was to conduct Playbooks around Product Management & Sales in different cities. I remember Amit Ranjan(then Slideshare) & Amit Somani(then MakeMyTrip) helping us with the Product Management Roundtable in Delhi and Aneesh Reddy(Capillary) helped in curating the Playbook. Ankur Singla(then Akoksha) then did a wonderful piece on Notes on Product Management — insights from Slideshare / MMT / ex-Google PM.

Amit Somani(then at MakeMytrip) & Amit Ranjan(then at Slideshare) led the playbook

Ashish Gupta also helped in connecting with Samir Palnitkar(ShopSocially)who kicked off the PlaybookRT in Pune. Sandeep Todi(then Emportant)helped with the blog on Challenges in Building a Global Product Software company from India. It was a little challenge initially to get the right audience, but we just got few good people like Mohit Garg(MindTickle) help in inviting few founders for this playbook.

I got to read a wonderful blog post by Sridhar Ranganathan on Products and I did reach out to him to see if he could help us with the Playbooks. He liked the idea and Aneesh did the selling to him. Sridhar travelled to different cities and did the first playbook for us in Chennai & Hyderabad.

The attendance for the Hyderabad playbook was thin, but the session was very interactive and the 7–8 folks who attended, had a lot to take away from the discussion. Here is what was captured by one of the attendees Don’t try to solve every customer problem by a line of code.

I learnt a lot from Sridhar’s playbook on product management. Vijay Sharma(then Exotel) captured the learnings of the playbook here Product RoundTable Bangalore @ Vizury Office

Sridhar Ranganathan(Credibase) leading the Product Management Roundtable at Orangescape

We did a late beginning for Mumbai and thanks to Avlesh(WebEngage) for helping us in starting the movement with Sandeep’s support. Avlesh disappeared in the middle of the playbook and he had lots of documents to sign as it was a saturday… But I remember Sandeep holding the fort till Avlesh came back and shared his learnings of building WebEngage.

One of the early playbooks on positioning that Shankar Maruwada(EkStep) did at Freshdesk just to get Girish hooked on to the format 🙂

Organizing and hosting a playbook is no small feat. It has taken us a lot of time to put together the following checklist. Feel free to use it if you would like to put together something similar for your community. We have built new initiatives like Cohorts, etc using the same principles.

iSPIRT was misspelt most of the times in the early days 🙂

Curator Checklist

  • There cannot be more than 12–14 participants. The sweet spot is 10–12 participants. Minimum number is 5.
  • We must select participants with similar levels of maturity in the context of the topic. (Over time we should develop a predicted coherence score and see if that prediction is valid based on post-RT data collection.)
  • Adequate discussion should take place with the Facilitator on the topic. It should be sufficiently narrow. It should not be about batting as a whole but about how to play leg-spinners. There would be a Plan B by the Facilitator if the topic ends up being too narrow. It is wiser to err on the side of being too narrow, rather than being too broad.
  • It is mandatory to for a first-time Facilitator to attend a PlaybookRT for at least one hour.
  • Curator should discuss Facilitator checklist. This discussion should happen before selection of the topic.
  • Four weeks advance notice should be given for PlaybookRT if it is not tapping into a pre-curated participant list (e.g. BEX or InTech50). This is to ensure cross-city participation.
  • Postmortem call (30 mins) is mandatory. Participant feedback and other learning should be discussed in this call. At the end of the call Curator should assign an overall rating (on a scale of 5) to the PlaybookRT.
  • Participant feedback for NPS Score must be collected.

Facilitator Checklist

  • You must select a topic that you are comfortable with. You must have expert practitioner knowledge about this topic.
  • You should reach out to startups to scope out the specific topic areas you’ll cover.
  • You should be part of the curation (i.e. shortlisting) of the participants… you must try and get participants at the same level.
  • You must do the homework on the final participants. You must learn about the startups by visiting their website. You must also understand the challenges faced and expectations from the PlaybookRT (this information is in the form filled by the participant).
  • Identify 2–3 participants that could be anchor attendees — folks who will trigger conversations and also add value to the conversations.
  • Engage the participants for the first 30–45 mins to break the ice. You should go beyond introductions — Something on the lines of: We are struggling to do xyz. The goal is to create an atmosphere of trust so that they spell out more details.
  • Participants are continuously requested to chime in with their views. You should also make sure that everyone speaks in the room. For instance, Shankar Maruwada asks very specific questions to participants along the way. He is able to do this because he has done homework on each participant beforehand.
  • Seating should be such that people can see each other.
  • Make sure that the focus area of the RoundTable is 6–8 points. It is difficult for participants to retain more than.
  • Encourage the usage of whiteboard with participants. This allows people to change position and brings energy in the room. Peer learning is vitally important. Don’t be a sage on stage.
  • Share list of books/videos/tools that participants should use after the RT.
  • Ensure there is a break taken after 150 minutes.
  • At the end, summarise key learnings by each participant. Everyone speaks for at least 2–3 mins.

My job has been very simple, just keep hunting for the Curators & Facilitators and allow them to make the magic happen 🙂

Access the complete list of PlaybookRoundtables here. Some learnings from the Playbook Roundtables have been captured here by my friend Rajan(then Intuit). 90% of the Playbooks did get a NPS Score of 80+. Special thanks to Rajan who kept pushing for this 🙂

The Design Thinking playbook in Delhi by Deepa Bachu

From the 50th PlaybookRT

Shankar helped in putting together the 50th Playbook and it was good to get some folks who had attended the first playbook joining this one.

Product positioning is all about connecting emotionally to your prospective customers — Insights from the Positioning and Messaging PlaybookRT

Playbook at Kayako which was led by Paras Chopra, Pallav Nadhani & Varun Shoor

Mavens are trusted experts who pass knowledge to other founders in a pay-forward model in small intimate learning sessions.

Some of our Mavens are

Aneesh Reddy, Pallav Nadhani, Amit Somani, Amit Ranjan, Avlesh Singh, Deepa Bachu, Deepak Prakash, Girish Mathrubootham, Niraj Ranjan, Jay Pullur, Paras Chopra, Pravin Jadhav, Rushabh Mehta, Samir Palnitkar, Sanjay Shah, Shankar Maruwada, Suresh Sambandam.

Some of them who are not mavens but have helped us with few roundtables are:
Vivek Subramanyam, Sudheer Koneru, Ambarish Gupta, Phanindra Sama, Abhishek Sinha, Ashwin Ramesh, Shashank ND, Shivakumar Ganesan(Shivku), Krish Subramaniam, Ankit Oberoi, Arpit Rai, Varun Shoor, Dhruv Shenoy, Manav Garg, Naveen Gupta, Rajiv Srivatsa, Sampad Swain, Kailash Katkar.

A big shout-out to Suresh Sambandam for doing the maximum number of playbooks 🙂

Image Design by Rakesh Mondal

Special thanks to Niraj Ranjan Rout(Hiver) & Rushabh Mehta(ERPnext) for introducing the new format i.e the Tear Down sessions and helping early stage(pre-product market fit) companies on helping them find their product market fit.

All the Maven’s have signed the below code of ethics:

Our team of Dedicated & Committed Volunteers who made this happen in each city

Thanks to you who make time in your incredibly busy lives to make these sessions happen.

Companies who hosted the Playbook Roundtables and also hosted some awesome snacks/lunch/dinner 🙂

Many volunteers who have helped in writing blogs for and about the sessions and also help in editing some of my blogs… especially Sairam Krishnan & Kingston David.

I am terribly sorry if I have missed out someone here! I know you will be modest but please do let me know so that I can add your name here. In highlighting your efforts, we motivate others in our quest to make India, a ProductNation…

ProductNation Founders Tribe

There are around 1000+ Founders who have leveraged the playbooks and the list can be accessed here.

Founders right after the Playbook that Paras had hosted at his office 🙂
A recent playbook that we did at WebEngage…you can see the Happy Faces…that is the metric that i measure the playbooks : )

Iam really glad that I will participating at the 100th Playbook Roundtable in Chennai on “Inbound Marketing — Workshop for DIY Global SaaS Startups”. This would be led by Krish of ChargeBee & Suresh of KiSSFlow.

This marks an incredible milestone since our journey began in 2013, and demonstrates the increasing demand for our playbooks every year.

Circling back to my cricket story at the start of this write-up, we all start with an outrageous dream. It is definitely good to dream big but when there is a bigger calling, we should yield to it!

I am so very proud that we’ve reached this milestone. Thank you for your support, and I look forward to celebrating more milestones together in the future.

Thanks to Kingston David for editing this & Titash Neogi for making this look good 🙂

All these guys are waiting for the Next Set of Playbook/SaaS roundtables 🙂 If you carefully see in the big screen…the Big A of the SaaS industry is also asking the same question…Kab hain Next Playbook 🙂

There are hundreds of big and small moments that have made up this journey so far — it is impossible to capture them all here, but I am sharing some of these moments via this photo story — I hope to give you a flavour of the energy and spirit of what made us reach 100!

The first PlayBook Roundtable
A PlayBook RoundTable without Post-its is unthinkable!
In the early days, iSPIRT was often misspelled. 🙂
Typical hustle during a networking break at PlayBook RoundTables 🙂

See more photographs on the FlickR album and few photos here

Understanding Your Customers And Building For Them – #99PlaybookRT

Building great products requires us to understand customer needs and its nuances, are more often than not, counter-intuitive to our assumptions. The Design Thinking Roundtable session by Deepa Bachu helped us identify methods to bridge this gap between building great products and understanding customer need. I was lucky enough to be part of the small group of product managers, designers, and fellow entrepreneurs to have an engaging discussion onimportance of design as an innovation strategy. How well do you know your customer?

How well do you know your customer?

Deepa’s opening question “Do you know your customer?” probably got all of us thinking on do we really know our customer. Personally, I somewhat know my customer. Just for that veryreason I am sitting at my client’s front office to fulfill the basic requirement: that of understanding my customer better. Working with Enterprise businesses requires us to learn and appreciate that we have 2 types of customers: 1> Management 2> the Actual End-user. We build our assumptions from our conversations with the management team who are the decision makers, but it’s the end-user that matters. The end-user, who is the employee should stand to benefit equally or probably more than the management, for our product to succeed. Every designaspect, needs to be geared to make the daily user happy. Understand your customers

Understand your customers

After knowing who your customer is, the ascent for a better product begins with sitting down with the end user in an amicable environment to learn about their challenges and their day to day experience. Deepa pointed out the importance of empathy, active listening and observation to help capture the end-user’s experience. Her role play exercise with one of the participants around the difference in the approach on asking open-ended questions while actively listening and observing delivered a completely different set of answers, in comparison to when as an interviewer she was asking closed ended questions and was not actively listening. In short, let your customer speak & take notes!!

Participants in the middle of the interview role play exercise 

WhatsApp Image 2017-06-08 at 9.46.47 PM

Developing Insights

Remember that the customer is only explaining their challenges or sharing their activities. Value addition to our product comes with inferring from these observations to identify insights. To find that hidden customer need, we will need to introduce adequate structure to the information collected from the customer / end-user. Some of the tools for us to use are:

  1. Empathy Maps to record our observations, which helps us split the talk and action of the end user that we can use to interpret the observations
  2. Ecosystem Maps help us understand the customer’s environment and his / her ecosystem. A map to tell us the sequence of events that are leading upto our solution or after the solution.
  3. Problem Statement helps us see the customer’sview point and their emotionalconnect to the problem. From a product point of view, we can turn a poor customer experience into customer delight by evoking the right positive emotion after using our product. Mind you, these folks are your product advocates. 

Research

Customer Benefit

The core of design principles is not nailing your UI/UX, it is matching your customer need, the problem they are facing in the environment they are using / will use our product. Only when the experience matches this customer need will we really see true customer benefit. Value addition of this benefit requires the need to collect the right metrics to understand if we genuinely made a difference instead of vanity metrics like just increased downloads / users.

By understanding our genuine impact, we can course-correct our product with continuous improvement coupled with rapid prototyping to help us slowly move towards our product goals and vision.

What’s the one thing participants will do differently after the #RoundTable?

different

Overall a great learning experience thanks to Pensaar and iSPIRT for setting up this session.

By Rohit Krishnam, Co-founder of Lima Payments.

Editor’s Note: This #RoundTable happened to the 99th one and there was a small celebration on this occasion. It’s been a great journey so far and we’d like to thank all the participants, facilitators and volunteers who made this possible. Here’s to making India a Product Nation.

WhatsApp Image 2017-06-08 at 9.46.43 PM

WhatsApp Image 2017-06-08 at 9.46.44 PM

Are you having fun in what you do? #PlaybookRT

Michael Jordan once remarked: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game’s winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that’s why I succeed.”

Ask any entrepreneur, and they will say, well, this is the story of my life. Owning a business is one of the most cognitively challenging jobs. To move from a stable job with a steady income to one where uncertainty is the flavor of the day every day takes courage, competence and confidence. Most of all, it requires an emotional tolerance strong enough to deal with the pressures of change and unpredictability, not to mention the mental fortitude to navigate through it.

As iSPIRT approaches its 100th Playbook Roundtable, Avinash conceived the idea of a completely different roundtable theme. One that focused not on strategies and tactics that a founder could apply to his product but one that focused more on the tremendous evolution that an entrepreneur goes through in his or her journey. And who better than Abhishek Sinha of Eko to facilitate such a roundtable.

The playbook was held at Eko’s office on 3rd June 2017 with a select set of entrepreneurs in the Delhi NCR region.

Taking a leaf from Jeff Bezos’s playbook, Abhishek drafted a 6 pager that covered important phases in his entrepreneurial journey, and all the participants spent the first 30 mins going through it.

In this 6 pager, Abhishek shared real life stories all through his journey of 6d and Eko. These stories touched upon how he became desperate and did more of the same. How he understood for the very first time that it is critical to think different. How he attempted at thinking big and audacious. Why being young and with it being foolish and naïve helped. Once one has started on a big goal why it is critical to developing the understanding of the landscape especially regulations. How he learned the importance of execution, scaling and making money. The mistakes he made when Sequoia and Khosla wanted to write cheques and he couldn’t close the deal.

More importantly the lows in his personal life and how he sought help to get things back on track. How he has personally exhausted all options to lose and hence winning is the only option. Today, as a battle-hardened entrepreneur, why he has the conviction of success.

These thoughts set up the tone for an interesting set of candid discussions and expressions over the next few hours. I have captured some of them below:

Enjoy your journey

Most of us started on the entrepreneurship journey with the idea to create something cool or do something fun. It was never about creating a billion dollar business.  There was a lot of pureness to this thought as we went about solving one problem at a time, and having fun. But slowly we stop enjoying ourselves. We stop thinking differently and start doing the same thing again, and again. This brings in predictability but stops us from experimenting different things.

So when you are questioning your journey and your growth (success or lack their off), just remember you are where you are supposed to be. It will work out fine, just trust in your journey. Sit back and relax and enjoy the ride. You will be surprised where it takes you.

Once you get to the top of the mountain you may come to miss the fields below. So take the climb one step at a time and enjoy the journey, entrepreneurs.

Destiny

Abhishek reflected on near-death experiences in his business and how he managed to get over it. He hasn’t been able to put my head around why a certain deal fails and why one succeeds. Ambarish from Knowlarity too chimed with a similar thought where atleast one or 5 occassions, something happened that kept him and his business going. If one simply applies theories of probability to these random events, the result becomes even more inexplicable.

This has driven Abhishek towards the realm of spirituality and over a time trust in a higher energy which has taken care of him. He has become a strong believer in destiny and a higher power, and that if we pursue our dreams the doors will open up.

At the risk of being cheeky, I couldn’t help but share this SRK dialogue.

Believing in destiny though is not about sitting back, and letting whatever is happening to happen.

Create a Cause or Purpose that People can relate to

Abhishek mentioned how he takes inspiration from religious organizations that create a cause that people can relate to, and inspires them to work towards its goals. Mark Zuckerberg in his recent commencement speech at Harvard also touched upon this, where he mentioned that when President Kennedy was visiting NASA space center, he asked a janitor what was he doing, to which he replied “I am putting a man on the moon Mr. President.”

A sense of purpose truly comes from within, and you can’t find meaning with a company that doesn’t share your values. So one of the simplest ways to cultivate a meaningful workplace is to stack your team with people who share the passions of your company. When everyone is aligned as a part of a bigger movement — that’s when the true meaning behind your work (and your company) shines through.

Ambarish shared how he ensures that all candidates, interns and vendors in his company are interviewed personally by him. This does take away a sizeable amount of him time, but it helps in multiple ways:

  • It keeps his team on the check as they know all vendors and candidates have to get past Ambarish
  • In his interview, Ambarish dissuades candidates to join by spelling out all the challenges of working at Knowlarity. This ensures they don’t just actually hire but let those people who in who really want to join Knowlarity

Driving ownership in teams and individuals

Entrepreneurs are problem solvers and product people, and are able to spot patterns & problems in the current scheme of things, and the relevant solutions very easily. And we immediately get our teams to work on the solution. This is a bottom up approach. You instruct an employee to perform a task or even accomplish a goal. But in effect you still own that task or goal. You tell the employee what you want, you define success and you create metrics to measure that success. That’s accountability. The employee takes responsibility for getting done what you want.

However a top down approach requires entrepreneur to only mention the problem to the teams and outline the contours, and let them come with the solution. This requires patience, and as more often than not, the solution will be staring right at your face while team members will go though their own curve before they discover it. But once the team members do come up with the solution, there is more ownership as this is now their baby.

Ownership happens when an employee comes forward and says, “I’m going to make this happen. Here’s what I will do. Here’s what I will accomplish. And here’s how I will measure progress.”

If you only have one or two employees and you love to micromanage, you can get by with hiring people you will simply hold accountable.

But if you’re truly trying to scale your business for growth, micromanagement soon fails. There is simply no way a chief can be involved in every task, process and decision.

If you foster a culture of ownership, you don’t need to be involved in every detail. You can focus your attention elsewhere, secure in the knowledge that owners will always come to you when they have problems or need help.

Be Different and Not Just Better

It’s not about doing more or better, it’s about doing different. If you can create that which is new and different you stand a greater chance of success. You can find white spaces that you can fill in.

When you break rules, you experience something unique. Ensure you savor this uniqueness even if your ideas bomb because these unique and different efforts will create experiences that themselves are unique.

Create Crisis In Your Mind

An entrepreneur often needs to play mental games with himself or herself. These games allow you to challenge yourself and create a crisis in your mind that pushes you to think creatively and innovate. If fear of the unknown has you tied down, try this: after you find yourself posing the “what if?” question to yourself, answer it. By doing so you bring that unknown fear into reality and make it more tangible and certain. With certainty comes clarity and with clarity comes opportunity to crush all challenges.

Remove Safety Nets and Bring Focus

Having safety nets or diversions lead to entrepreneurs loosing focus.  It sometimes become imperative to remove these safety nets. When you have safety nets, you are not all in. It makes you timid to jump in with both feet. But when you remove all these safety nets, you have only one choice: take the leap.

Having your back against the wall you are forced to go all in, forced to make it work, forced to believe in yourself.

The session culminated with Abhishek sharing how he is taking inspiration from the Android model and smartphones that creates an unbundled experience for consumers. Feature phone could do (i) calling (ii) messaging (iii) entertainment / games (iv) value added services like calendar, alarm, notes etc. Though all these are fairly tightly bundled and hence customer couldn’t exercise choice – take it or leave it. Smartphone is an unbundled architecture. It offers the same four functionalities though as its architecture is completely unbundled and open – it empowers the customer to make the choice basis their transaction scenario / context and cost. A similar framework could be applied to several industries to create unique products and solutions.

As the session ended, one could sense how Abhishek had been socialised to the highs and lows of business life. The mental game of entrepreneurship often feels like Snakes and Ladders. There were days for Abhishek when he just wanted to run away, where he felt as if he was in freefall and plummeting to the ground without a parachute. But, looking back, those are the moments that defined him. He has accepted – sometimes with a lot of delay and a good fight – that he was the architect of the bad situations and he accepted full responsibility for them. That is how he bought his freedom.

It’s only by acknowledging your failures that you can build on your successes.

Guest Post by Rajat Harlalka, Volunteer for iSPIRT

0 – 100 customers! How fast can your SaaS startup accelerate?

The toughest challenge in your startup journey is getting to the milestone of first 100 customers. iSPIRT’s 97th PlayBook RoundTable, ‘Zero to One’ was held last Saturday in the hot and humid city of Chennai.

Ankit Oberoi from AdPushUp moderated the RoundTable which was attended by 13 other startup founders eager to know how to crack this. The PlayBook didn’t have formal presentations but rather involved everyone into an engaging conversation that was both informal as well as informative.

First things first, as early stage SaaS startups, “Kneel down and build your product well, when bootstrapped” was Ankit’s advice.

Identifying Target Customers

Emphasis was made on identifying your target customers to help you build the right inbound and outbound strategies. Ankit mentioned that a good way to find your target customer type is to look at your top ten customers. Few entrepreneurs looking to generate quick revenue might tend to drift towards a service model.

Arvind Parthiban, CEO of Zarget had an insight on this trend — “Going the service way will work only if one can scale up right and maintain profitability in the longer run”.


Inbound Marketing Tactics

A majority of the discussion was about inbound procedures. 3 simple things should make up your Content Marketing strategy –

  1. Identifying your target persona
  2. Creating quality content
  3. Setting up distribution channels

Just creating content will not cut it! You need to market it right to do justice to its quality.

Though it is a painfully long process, bootstrapped startups have the luxury of time and they should invest in building on content strategies around long tail keywords. Much emphasis was given as to why content should be created for personas. An example that was pointed out for this was Groove’s blog where the focus is exclusively on founders.

It is right for early-stage startups to focus on generating traffic through content but the real focus should be on giving value to the readers. Conversions can happen even later and not necessarily while reading your content. Growing a subscription list through your blog is not only a no-brainer, but a must have item in your growth stack .

Ankit stressed on how Neil Patel talks about why you need to urge your readers to subscribe right from the start. When you have a subscribers list, you can nurture them to share your content and build a bigger subscribers list which will ultimately increase your brand value and improve your customer base. Initial days of your startup journey are when you can do such things that take time to scale.

Intent Defines Inbound

Categorize your efforts based on intent when you are going all out on inbound marketing. Content writing has to be segregated widely into two types –

  1. Buyer Intent
  2. Value Intent

Buyer intent content are the ones written with the focus on ranking higher on search engines. These should have focus on keywords and the main objective of these content pieces are to sell your product.

Value intent is when you become a Thought Leader of the industry you are in. Helping your customer persona should be the name of the game when you generate such content. At times, you don’t even have to put a link back to your product when you write such content. Educative long form content with simple writing works best.

Just like content writing, content distribution too has to be categorized based on intent.

  1. SEO intent — You share the article/blog with search engine ranking in mind
  2. Sharing intent — You find avenues where people are bound to share the post more
  3. Distribution intent — Sharing in one place that sets off a chain of shares

Be spot on with your content!

Creating a content calendar is a must! Knowledge sharing on this topic pointed out that the calendar should be finalized, ideally, in the first few days of the month. Decide on buyer intent topics with the help of keyword planners. Thought leader articles can be written with the help of community platforms — find answers for the most-asked questions. Quora is a gold mine to search for blog ideas.

The consensus from the more experienced entrepreneurs at the RoundTable was that content has to be tested too. The headline is the most important bit of your article/blog. Ankit spoke about how 75% of your readers don’t actually read your content but rather scan for information. He shared a personal insight on how just a headline change helped AdPushUp make an article go viral overnight! Check out this article here.

As much as headlines, the first few lines matter too! In fact, most people who share an article actually read the intro and then skim through the article. Sharing happens not because people read it fully but because they feel it is relatable to something they would read and want to express to their circles about the type of content they would read. Your formatting should be spot on to help them digest your post in just a few seconds!

Headlines need to be tested extensively. Vengat from Klenty stressed on how testing one variable at a time is imperative for success. Ankit talked about how he narrows it down from a couple dozen headlines for their blogs. A/B test between the best ones to ensure you get the best variation.

Types of articles to try…

The Zero to One #PlayBookRT stressed on a few interesting article types startups should try –

  1. Summarizing Comprehensive Blogs — Found something useful? Write a brief, original summary of the blog. This will rank organically. Ensure author credits are given.
  2. Roundups — Take a pick of useful tips, quotes, tools etc., and do a roundup. Reach out to the people/products/companies you mentioned and they will share it to their followers
  3. Skyscraper Technique — Find an awesome content and piggyback on it. Find linkable assets, make it better by adding in your thoughts or collating ideas. Reach out to the authors of the post and share it on social media.

While on the topic of Content Marketing, the topic of paid promotions came into play and it was agreed upon that paid promotion for articles should be done with the intent only to hit a critical mass. With paid promotions, readership is not improved but only the views are artificially increased. A good insight from one of the attendees was to try and push notifications about blogs through live chat platforms like Intercom.

Hiring your inbound team

There are two types of talent you need on your inbound team for achieving success in your content marketing endeavours. The hustlers & the experts. Hustlers are those who understand the market and the distribution channels while the experts should be the ones strong in content.

AIESEC is one hiring venue that you should consider for smart and affordable talent.

You need to break down your web analytics — group traffic sources and optimize for each and every source. Ankit explained how Google not only ranks posts but also pulls down posts with the help of Ryan Fishkin’s social experiment. He urged people to open a top ranked post and immediately go back to the search results page. The search engine bots picked this up and realized people no longer find the post valuable and dropped it by one position!

We live in a smart world! And to outsmart Search Engines, you need smarter content tactics.


Quick look at a few other learnings

  • Arvind and Ankit then shared their experiences with events generating brand value and how that indirectly helps your inbound conversions.
  • PR is yet another way of getting social approval. It reduces sales cycle as well as helps with search engine rankings.
  • Vengat shared his learnings from Prodpad’s gamification for trial users that kept urging for additional actions for trial extension. This would inevitably lead to more activation.
  • There was a brief session on PPC campaign optimization and how Google’s Quality Score is important

Out-take on Outbound

Ankit stressed on the fact that if a startup concentrates well on inbound tactics and is all set for the long run, outbound becomes considerably easier. Most US companies go all out on inbound tactics. Being in India, we have the luxury to work on outbound marketing at relatively cheap costs.

Tools like BuiltWith, Datanyze, SimilarWeb are in this space. The problem to be addressed would be scaling the process without expanding the existing team. As you reach out to more and more people, the data bulk can be huge to handle if you don’t automate/semi-automate the process.


An entrepreneur’s journey is one to be cherished and the initial acceleration from 0–100 customers is enjoyable though dotted with challenges. The 97th Product Nation PlayBook RoundTable turned out to be a learning experience for everyone who attended and hope this article threw light on what was discussed to those who weren’t lucky enough to be part of it.

Never miss an iSPIRT event again — stay tuned to this page for updates on upcoming Product Nation events. Guest blog post by Kingston David, Zarget

Smart tools for SaaS founders to handle inbound & outbound sales processes – #PlaybookRT94

When #iSPIRT announced a roundtable on ‘Building & Scaling Growth Teams for Saas Founders’  with Ashwin Ramesh (Synup) leading it, I was thrilled to join it, assuming it would be a direct take off from Ashwin’s session at #SaaSx4. Well, we were not disappointed. I am sure the other participants share my feelings on the outcome – It was an action-packed interactive session on the strategies one can use to be successful in SaaS.

Most fellow founders who joined the discussion chimed up with a common theme, with questions on how to get good inbound leads, how to scale up, crack the game, and most importantly – how to switch from outbound to inbound.

In this post, I want to provide a summary of all the tools that were discussed in the roundtable to help in content creation and distribution, and tools that will help you do outbound in a structured way. The sheer number of tools that we discussed was overwhelming to the group, to say the least.

WhatsApp Image 2017-05-05 at 10.36.03 AMContent is still King, so let’s lead with it.

Content: Good content is more important than the fact that it is a blog or a post or guest post. It could be anything that attracts folks, and gives your product or service the attention span needed. Some of the examples of good content that were discussed include websites,  checklists (e.g. http://localseochecklist.org/), videos, visualisations, infographics, data driven content, Quora ads, & Answers wiki.

If you need ideas on how to create great content, take a look at https://tympanus.net/codrops/

Now that you have the content, let’s shift the focus to distribution. The traditional models of distribution have become saturated. No one’s going to come just because you wrote and published something. So you need to come up with innovative ways to distribute content. Well written content, if it is not reaching the intended audience, is a dead investment and one has to have deliberate policy of setting aside a budget, even if it’s a small one, for distribution of each piece of content. You should try the following options:

  • Start contributing on reddit, and especially to a subreddit specific to your industry, business area or technology. The strategy suggested is to become active participants of a specific community, engage in discussions, post comments, contribute and build your credibility. The content you may share here would be actively promoted by other participants and also gets picked up other channels. The key is to build credibility and be supportive to other members.
  • Another idea is to sign up to https://inbound.org/ and once again be an active participant, and a slowly become a regular contributor. 
  • A third option is to use services like QUUU to distribute or share content across social media including Twitter , Facebook.
  • Investing in FB paid ads also has been found effective for many businesses.
  • If you feel that the above strategy is high on investment and low on initial results, start using article syndication services like Outbrain or Taboola to engage your target audience while they are browsing or reading interesting content on the web. 
  • A good way to use Taboola or Outbrain would be to use it with  Bombora, one of the best B2B intent engines. It gives you better options to identify / reach your B2B customers. There are integrations available for Bombora with Outbrain, and you need to decide on the budget. 
  • If you need to reach out to key influencers to help you share your content on a wider scale, use Buzzsumo to build the list and also get an idea about what your competition is sharing.
  • Once you have the list, use Buzzstream to manage the outreach that is desired. It helps manage the relationships and also monitor the content sharing. 
  • One related area which may be of benefit is to reach out to journalists using tools like Haro and Bite Size PR
  • If you have good content, you can choose to distribute the same through newsletters. Look for a curated list of newsletter sites or owners and get your content into these newsletters. It is an ongoing challenge for newsletter publishers to get good content for their readers, so reaching out to provide them content becomes a win-win proposition

Social media is a powerful medium for reaching out to a wider audience.  Tools that may be used for leveraging social media audience are:

  • Lead Sift ( twitter )  – This is used to keep track of potential customer who are engaged by  your competition . Helps in qualification of leads and setting up engagements faster 
  • EngageWise : To help present your content to a wider audience based on the interest they show in similar content. This helps in growing the pipeline using the reach of social media.
  • Lead Feeder :  Identifies the visitors to the website thereby qualifying the visitors and makes better / faster engagement possible. Offers and integration to CRM as well.
  • Ad Espresso :   One can create and test FB Ads in a very short time and run ad campaigns instead of single ads to effectively reach the different sections of audience thereby reducing cost and increasing efficacy of the ad.

Any website / online content strategy has to consider SEO.  Some of the tools that can be used for SEO include ( apart from the tools offered by Google ) 

  • Screaming Frog   – This can be used for in-depth technical analysis on your site .  It is a website crawler, works very fast & quickly allows one to analyse the results in real-time. 
  • All in one SEO  :   It can be used to optimize WordPress site for SEO. 

Another key element of growth involves reaching out to prospective customers. For that , email is still the most effective mechanism.  When it comes to using outbound emailing, getting good data ( email ids ) is equally important as the mail content and delivery strategy . 

For Creating the Data ( emails ) the options available are 

  • Scrape websites for data  
    • Screaming frog : The custom extraction feature allows you to scrape any data from the HTML of a web page using CSS Path, XPath and regex
    • Scrappy :  An open source and collaborative framework for extracting the data you need from websites, in a fast, simple, yet extensible way.
  • Some other common tools are 
    • Builtwith  :  One may get to see leads in your list by known technology spend, the usage or non-usage of competitor or other technologies as well as the usage or non-usage of entire categories of technologies like A/B Testing.
    • Limeleads : Access to a large repository of business leads across multiple verticals
    • Zoominfo : ZoomInfo’s Growth Acceleration Platform offers the most accurate and actionable B2B contact and company intelligence 
    • Buy data from publishers like D&B . This link is useful for Indian websites only.

Once you have the data , cleansing or cleaning up email list is the next key activity 

  • External agencies may be employed to clean up the email list. There are many service providers engaged in doing this for an acceptable consideration.

Once the email list has been curated, then you have to decide on the best way to engage the prospects or identify a delivery mechanism. There are many tools which support a structured approach to sending mails in a personalised manner, away from the mass mailers.

  • Klenty : This is an outbound sales automation tool for your inside sales team to prospect, outreach and follow up at scale. 
  • Prospect : A simple tool for sales automation. Works well for cold emailing and drip marketing. 
  • Quickmail : Another simple tool to automate outbound emails. 
  • Outreach  : Yet another platform that supports emailing and calling. 

Any inbound process revolves around the sales funnel. Organisations constantly look for increasing the conversation across all stages of the funnel or improve the funnel itself. Some of the recommendations that came out of the extensive discussion included usage of Google Analytics and other exclusive tools for understanding the user’s journey in your website and app through session recordings, heat map analysis, etc.  It would be good if cohorts are defined before initiating analysis so that patterns can be identified. 

  • Heap: Automatically captures every user action in your web or iOS app and lets you analyze it all retroactively.
  • MixPanel: Follow the digital footprint of every user across mobile and web devices. Know precisely what happens inside your product.
  • Inspectlet: Inspectlet records videos of your visitors as they use your site, allowing you to see everything they do.
  • Hotjar: Can be used to understand user behaviour as it visually represents their clicks, taps and scrolling behavior on your website.
  • Crazy Egg: Through Crazy Egg’s heat map and scroll map reports you can get an understanding of how your visitors engage with your website. 

Other tools that were mentioned include marketing automation tools and A/B testing / multivariate testing tools. One common suggestion which came up was to use best in class tools rather than using all in one kind of tools. A few examples of specific tools are mentioned below. Since all of them are well known, I don’t think it’s necessary to add a description of what they do.

Marketing Automation tools / Communication tools: 

A/B – MVT Tools 

A big thanks to Ashwin and the roundtable participants for listing these tools and sharing their experiences in using them.  I may have missed out one or two of the tools discussed. Look forward to your comments on these tools and also suggestion of other equally valuable tools for inbound / outbound processes.

WhatsApp Image 2017-04-29 at 7.01.02 PMDisclosure :  I am Neel Padmanabhan part of Team Lucep and head India Operations . Lucep is an instant response call back tool that is currently being used by several businesses around the world for handling inbound leads. The tool is designed to encourage visitors to the website to contact the sales team and get a response as quickly as possible.

The curious case of B2B SaaS Startup’s inside sales and marketing

Amazing but how? This question pops out of every startup founder’s mind while reading success stories. Persistence, determination & hard work, great to know, but nobody tells the real thing. Where are the techniques? With any magic, the logic behind is what a technician always looks for. So, where is the secret formula of startups having millions of dollars of revenue in SaaS?

‘XYZ’ startup got Series A $3M from ‘The one who every founder dreams of’ 10K Signups in a month (What were you doing? Tell me NOW!) $1M ARR in just 4 months of product launch (Who are these rich kids?)

These stories are highly inspiring, and to achieve such fabulous growth you need experience, the right product and perfect techniques of sales and marketing (Yes, funds could wait!). Being an early stage startup founder and that too into SaaS B2B, also an engineer who codes. I personally feel this is a deadly combination, where people like us know EVERYTHING when we start out BUILDING and half the way we realize about SELLING(hopefully we do!), the path to revenue, well the only reason we could be SUCCESSFUL.

The Invitation

While I was looking for my answers reading the book traction, building flows and learning by experimenting different traction channels, SaaSx happened (SaaSx was not like any other conferences or meetups, but really an experience to cherish, I now literally wait for the next one to happen) and there I met Avinash, he invited me to the PlayBook RoundTable Zero to One — Marketing and Inside Sales — SaaS happening in Delhi.

The invitation looked something like this..

Roundtable Focus Areas
– The PlayBook Roundtable will focus on how Early stage SaaS startups can get their first 10 and then the first 100 customers.
– The founders will share their experience of the initial steps to be taken, key metrics to focus on and the team structure for inside sales and marketing.

Facilitators
1. Sachin Bhatia (Ameyo/Inside Sales Box)
2. Ankit Oberoi(AdPushUp)

Bang On! it is very few times when you get the opportunity to hear from those who are just steps above you in the ladder, their learning from successes and failures could help you make the most out of your current situation.

Hops and Drops

11 founders at different stages of their startup journey in one round table conference hitting the bottom line with the right questions and right people to answer them.

  1. First 10 Customers, hacks to reach them? (Ankit’s hacks make you realize it is not that difficult)
  2. When to start marketing and help generate leads even before the product launch? (Conversations, Sachin even mentioned how first 100 conversations helped him get the Product Market fit)
  3. What is the actual Traffic / Conversion / Cost per lead from their experience? (These numbers helped to validate stuff you dream of)
  4. Initial Teams, Hiring Experiences and Compensation plans? (Most of us, funded or bootstrapped are struggling with this)
  5. Key learning in the initial lead generation and sales efforts?
  6. Content Marketing Strategy, to build for Google or Readers?
  7. Medium vs WordPress vs Your Own Blog? (It is not good for me to answer this here!)
  8. Launching product in the foreign market, the Hows of it? (SaaS businesses largely aim countries outside India)
  9. How to make your website the best marketing tool? (The number of leads generated from there, some mind boggling statistics we went through)
  10. To put pricing or not? (A million dollar question in itself)
  11. Hacks around Adwords and minimizing cost per click
  12. SEO, Keywords, On Page, the real metrics, and the lead generation techniques
  13. Tools to trigger drip marketing campaigns
  14. Social Platforms their reach and how to maximize with minimum efforts and cost
  15. The strategies worked for DIY tools
  16. Lead tracking, Website Chat
  17. Content — Blog / Ebooks / Video
  18. To go for PR or not?
  19. How to experiment more with current traction channels?
  20. Mistakes which led them to lose customers, and how reduce churn rate?

And much more.. A day full of insights, no presentations, no mind-boggling figures but real conversations based on the real fears we as founders and startups face everyday.

To not let go..

The journey of a founder has lots of ups and downs, engaging with the right people who could help you in a way you just imagined could be a path breaker.

Thanks a lot to the team at iSPIRT — Avinash and Rajat for making it accessible to the community.

Ankit and Sachin were as candid as they could be, the secrets of their business are going to help us take leaps with our startup.


If you wish to know the answers to the above asked questions, reach out to iSPIRT. I’d love to hear from all of you who are at different stages and learning like all of us in the space.

Guest Post by Anshuli Gupta, Co-Founder @WidelyHQ, My twitter handle @anshulix

Talking Software Products in Bangalore

Bangalore was the next stop for the iSPIRT product round-table around the theme of “Getting Traction for Software Products”. The goal of this round-table, hosted by Niraj Rout (Hiver/Grexit), Natwar Maheshwari (Around.io) Avinash Raghava and me, was to get peer feedback from a group of startups at a similar stage.

In this format, around ten participants meet and each one gets around twenty minutes to showcase their product and share their challenges. Everyone then gives feedback based on their experience. We met at the Hiver office at HSR Layout.

Hiver HQ (source: website)

We have observed that most Indian product startups are not very comfortable with the self-service model, where the goal is to reduce frictionto product adoption and hence drive traction. With this format we get to talk about topics like automated sign-ups, on-boarding, customer success, content marketing, positioning and quality and nudge the participants towards this model. Most other round-tables talk about how sales can drive growth. Here, we focus on how products drive growth.

We have earlier done this format at Pune, Delhi, Ahmedabad and Mumbai before coming to Bangalore. Being an outsider, it was fascinating to see how the city of Bangalore was rapidly expanding. This magnet for migration has become a mess of concrete blocks, narrow lanes, traffic jams and angry cab drivers. But this is also where the startup ecosystem is thriving. The number of technology startups is astounding and there are many strong companies being built. At the round-table, we had a bunch of really amazing and diverse product companies.

The amount of startup literature available is almost unlimited, and every third person is self-qualified to dispense gyaan. At the round-table, we avoidgyaan by discussing specific problems. Some of the problems we discussed were:

  • Entering new markets (like the United States or Europe)
  • Content marketing (how to get blogs to write for you)
  • Increasing growth (how do we go beyond the early adopters)
  • Launching new products (or pivoting)
  • Moving towards SAAS (from an on-premise model)
  • Competition (getting even with YC funded, slickly branded competitors)

At the end each one of us went back with at least one or two things we could work on.

What really stood out about this group was that this was a bunch of seasoned entrepreneurs. Almost everyone had real products. Their feet were firmly on the ground and were motivated to scale their companies to the next level.


I flew in to Bangalore a couple of days before the round-table to meet ERPNext customers and community members. It was both inspiring and humbling to meet users and developers who were working on a product we built. After all these years, I could see that the product had built a strong reputation and users were expecting a lot from us. Almost every conversation was around open source. Why? How? Are you crazy? I am certain that almost everyone who was uncertain about it before we met, had become an evangelist by the time our meeting was over.


On the evening before the roundtable, Niraj, Avinash, Natwar and I met at the Napoli Bistro at HSR Layout for dinner. Over pizza and soda, we chatted about the state of software products in India. While it was really nice to see product companies being able to survive and begin to prosper in India, there was almost no one taking moonshots, or outrageous risks, like Elon Musk. Most of the conversations we had were on the short term (survival) and medium term (growth).


On my way back to Mumbai, I reflected on what we were doing at ERPNext with open source and building communities. We believe that we are taking big risks, by breaking all the rules of how software products are built in India. In the context of the overall community it is important someone does that. With all the conversations I had over the past three days, I was convinced that we were on to something and we should take even bigger risks.

Whether we fail or succeed, is another matter. We need more moonshots.

Playbooks is one of the key pillars of iSPIRT bouquet.

Playbook in iSPIRT denotes entrepreneurial learning meant for Indian software product startups to become world class and be successful.

Roundtable is a format of learning intended for startups that have reached a happy confused stage. In this format 8-12 non competing startups are brought together to discuss deeply on a topic that holds them from jumping to their next level.A facilitator, who is an in the saddle entrepreneur deep dives on the topic by becoming metaphorically naked and shares his experience and gets a peer discussion going on the topic.Coaching including peer coaching happens through multiple mode – judgement of the discussion (VC mode), sharing experience (Sage on Stage), being a mirror (Guide by the Side). Playbook Roundtable tend to be more of the last category of mirroring.

playbook-ispirtThink of this as group study for 7th class students in an age where there no school & teacher and one has to pass the 10th standard board exam. Some one who has done that leads the group study.

Playbooks have a longitudinal impact so they are tracked via an input metric.  At the end of every roundtable session a Net Promoter Score (NPS) is calculated via survey, the average NPS score of last 85 roundtable that were held is about +80. (iPhone as a product has an NPS of +71).

Roundtable was initially architected by Shankar Maruwada, Ashish Gupta, Vivek Subramanian & Aneesh Reddy. Some learnings from past roundtable are captured here

Key organizing principles behind creating playbook roundtables

  • In the saddle entrepreneurs are the best to teach upcoming ones. Age, company brand plays no role.
  • Quality > Quantity which means traditional format of 1 to 100 classroom style  and metric of footfall attendance should be questioned.
  • Safe environment are absolutely necessary to have deep discussion.
  • Curation is highly important, ie. have non competing participants and bring people together in similar stage of startup growth.
  • A facilitator and organizer checklist.

I have had the privilege to shadow about 40 of 85 roundtables that have happened in last 3 years. If I describe it as saying that gold dust of the tacit knowledge gets shared it won’t be an exaggeration. Chatham rules apply in a roundtable i.e. to protect the safe environment no quote is attributed to a person. However this deck those captures some of the discussed tacit knowledge as directives

A good mental model to decide which roundtables can be used from the market map

2-3-map-by-rajan

Check details at the events section in PN blog

Playbooks is more than roundtable

The initial focus of Roundtable was happy confused product startup founders a later realization was that playbooks will need to extend across the spectrum of entreprenuership lifecycle.

kindergarden   > discovery (1st to 7th std) > happy confused (7th std) > pre-scale (10th std) > pre-growth(pre college)

Playbooks Progression
Playbooks Progression

 

Some of these additional formats emerged

Playbooks sets down one of the most critical foundation layer for India to be product nation.

How AdPushup Uses Content Marketing To Power Growth #PlaybookRT

Close to about 15 founders gathered on 1st October at the small and cozy office of AdPushup to participate in a Playbook Roundtable on Content Marketing. This was Ankit’s first playbook with iSPIRT and he did a phenomenal job.

AdPushup is a SaaS company that helps web publishers increase their ad revenue by letting them test and optimize their website’s ad layout. Their expertise has been content marketing, and Ankit shared several details of their experience, learning and strategy which have helped AdPushup become a leader in content marketing in the AdTech software space.

Inbound is a Culture

Ankit stressed upon the fact that when starting in inbound practice, founders themselves need to get involved. Inbound is a long term game and requires a lot of patience and perseverance. By getting their hands dirty, founders understand the intricacies involved in inbound and thereby are build the right team and culture.

Buyer Persona

The first step in building your inbound strategy is to put together a buyer persona.  It is basically a description of your ideal customer – someone who will directly benefit from your product or service. Creating content around and for them is what will get you more traffic, engagement and a sustainable growth. You could identify buyer persona by:

  • Interviewing Prospects
  • Feedback from your sales team on the leads they’re interacting with most
  • Looking at your Top 10 customers

A typical buyer persona will consist of the following:

  • Job Role/Title
  • Job Skills
  • Performance KPI
  • Tools used
  • Goals
  • Challenges
  • Personal Demographics (if appropriate)
  • Recent purchase and the decision tree
  • Online communities/websites they use to consume content

A buyer persona will help you identify the kind of content and channels you need to focus on in your inbound strategy.

how-adpushup-uses-content-marketing-to-power-growth-playbookrtContent Creation

There are two types content that founders can focus based on their industry and product:

  • Relevant to business or industry ( informative)
  • Relevant to the Persona (targeted and actionable)

The tone of the content should be educational and non promotional. Create content only keeping in mind – “is this helping someone solve a problem?”. At AdPushup, their target audience is long form bloggers and large web publishers. They write content which either informs them or helps in dealing with a painpoint (e.g. blogging tips, how to get more subscribers, how to get more traffic, user psychology, increasing user engagement, among others).

Each content piece should be:

  • Thorough and meticulously researched
  • Up-to-date
  • Well designed

Content should have:

  • Scannable text – bullet points, sub-headings, short paragraphs, images. Remember bulk of readers do not read but scan the content.
  • Actionable Insights
  • Content Frameworks
  • Citations and sources

Content ideas mostly come from:

  • Keyword research
  • What topics your competitors are writing about
  • Evergreen content (guides, tutorials, how-tos, best-practices)
  • What the industry experts are tweeting, sharing on social media
  • Comments on blogs and from relevant communities
  • Round-up posts

Nail the headline of every post that you publish and you will have won 70% of the battle. If your headline doesn’t inspire confidence, interest, excitement or any sort of emotion then readers wont click on it. Then even though your content might be brilliant and relevant, it will just not get the importance it deserves.

Content Distribution

An important rule of thumb to remember is that whoever is the content creator – allocate 50% of time in creating content and the rest 50% in distributing it.

Some of the channels for content distribution include:

  • Relevant Subreddits
  • Google+
  • FB Groups
  • LinkedIn Groups
  • Pinterest
  • Hacker News
  • Forums
  • Influencer outreach
  • Syndicate/Guest Post
  • Article that will rank on SERP
  • Refurbish for Infographics, SlideShare, etc
  • Competitor URL outreach

When you join communities on social networks, regularly engage with their members. This helps when you have to share your content there and not come across as a spammer.

Reddit is infamous for being ruthless with spammers and self promoters. So the only way you come across as neither is by providing all the value right there in the community post and add a small link in the end which says something like – “to read the full post, here’s the link” (and provide the exact url, not bitly or any short links). Provide the entire outline right there. Anyone reading it should only click on your post when they know exactly what is in the content and they would still want to read it.

Whoever you mention in our post, product or person, make sure to send them or the relevant team members an email telling them about the mention and encourage them to share it on their social media. Most people do actually share if you ask them. Also, it helps if you are relatively well known and the content is really well written.

Look for guest posting opportunities because they are an effective way to make your presence in the industry. And guest post only on sites that are relevant to your audience, have a very high volume of traffic and well respected (e.g. HubSpot, KISSmetrics)

Generating Leads

Once you have created content and distributed, it is imperative you capture details of the readers. You could devise several ways to do that:

  • Opt-in Subscription Forms
  • Banners
  • Email courses via drip campaigns
  • HelloBar
  • Native mentions (with disclosures)
  • eBooks, reports and whitepapers

Make sure your email marketing is sorted out. Put pop-up email capture boxes (and similar lead capture forms/boxes) in your blog to encourage visitors to convert into subscribers. Once you have a decent number of subscribers (300+) and are pushing content out regularly, start rounding them up and email them to your subscribers in the form of a ‘weekly newsletter’.

Here is a screenshot of how AdPushup uses its content to capture user details.

adpushup-blog

Measurement and Analytics

Finally it is important to measure and analyze your inbound activities. As Ankit puts it, “Inbound is a continuous rinse and repeat process”. Few key metrics to track include:

  • The channels that are giving more traffic
  • Channels that are converting better
  • Type of content that gets more organic reach
  • Statements/Emotions in the headline that perform better (e.g. questions, negative statements, suspense, informative etc)
  • Reader Demographics
  • Best time to publish
  • Best channel to distribute for every topic

Once you have a sufficient success in measuring ROI – cut out what is not working and concentrate only on what is getting results. And always keep creating hypotheses and rigorously testing them. You never know what product or customer insight you might stumble across.

Guest Post by Rajat Harlalka, Bellurbis

Learnings from iSPIRT Product Roundtable: Building a supercharged team in Silicon Valley

How should Indian entrepreneurs think about hiring and scaling teams in Silicon Valley? What are the thorniest hiring challenges? Who should the first hires be? How can founders scale culture globally?

To focus on this topic, iSPIRT  organized its 2nd Bay Area playbook roundtable– “Building a supercharged team in Silicon Valley”. It was moderated by Jaspreet Singh, Founder and CEO of Druva, a leading platform startup that operates across the Bay Area and Pune. Other participants included the founders of RecruiterBox, StrikeDeck, Supply.AI, 42Gears and ShieldSquare.

This blog shares themes that emerged from a discussion focused on Leadership, Hiring, and Growth.

Playbook with JaspreetHiring for wartime is different than for peacetime  

Borrowing from Ben Horowitz’s “peacetime versus wartime CEOs” concept, the group discussed how startup hiring is more like wartime whereas many well-meaning management principles are derived from peacetime environments, where certain scale and stability are assumed. Key ideas discussed included:

  1. In early stages, you just need 10X type talent i.e. women and men who can scale 10X on any problem thrown at them, and those who are 10X aligned with the founder’s vision
  2. Hire those who understand the “truth you know”, are deeply curious and aligned to your mission.
  3. This often means talking to 3-5 candidates to find the right portfolio of skills that works for you
  4. Using a sporting analogy, hire athletes who can scale as player-coaches, versus people coaches
  5. Stress test in interviews with questions as “if you fail in 90 days, where will you fail”?
  6. Recruiting is exactly like sales and founders should use all channels at their disposal including networks, investors/advisors, and personal meetings with talent in critical areas

Leadership and culture strengthen from hard Socratic questions

All the founders in the roundtable observed that scaling personally is the starting point to becoming a great leader and building strong leadership. Key ideas were discussed around how founders can scale.

  1. How do you know that you’re a good leader? One answer proposed was “when teams consistently come to you for advice” and you can see the advice worked.
  2. Startup founders need to balance “dictate” and “debate” – two default modes most founders fall within. Build leadership teams that counter and balance their default modes.
  3. As startups scale, founders should scale by metaphorically poking holes (asking the right business, product, or people questions) versus having a tendency to own every key decision
  4. If a founder really wants to go deep into a functional area (e.g. Product or Marketing) when they already have VPs, it helps to explain why the Founder wishes to own a function, take permission and build the personal trust to go back if things don’t work as planned.
  5. In the era of Slack and smart collaboration tools, having a large span of control, e.g. 7-10 direct reports should not be a problem for most startup founders as they scale employees to >100

Rapid global scaling needs clear processes and a robust culture

When startups rapidly scale across the US and India simultaneously, it can sometimes lead to parallel sub-cultures. The group discussed some best practices that help founders scale truly global companies:

  1. Approaches such as Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) are really helpful to institute discipline early on in a startup. Other processes can include having a dedicated person (e.g. Chief of Staff) to just own India-US communication.
  2. Teaching employees to self-evaluate themselves towards personal progress goals is more helpful than traditional performance management practices
  3. On prioritization, there’s a temptation for founders to take on simple tasks they know well, e.g. writing messaging copy. It helps to instead focus on difficult tasks (e.g. Quote to Cash or Demand Generation) that are critical to scaling
  4. Within a culture of transparency & trust, it is still crucial for founders to trust but verify, because the bar of product or company quality ultimately starts and ends there
  5. While founders offer feedback to employees, the shit sandwich (nice things + criticism + nice things) is far less helpful than being curious and just asking lots of specific question
  6. Team and culture “pull” is like product momentum, if you don’t see it or feel it, it means you probably don’t have the right team in place yet. Teams need to really bond with each other across borders and it is critical for the US team to visit the India team (more than just India teams coming to US).

Book references

Some book references were invoked during the roundtable. Here’s a list of the books mentioned

Good to Great, Jim Collins

The Art of Management, Peter Drucker

Zero to One, Peter Thiel

Only the Paranoid Survive, Andy Grove

The Hard think about Hard Things, Ben Horowitz