Two Years of iKen : Wins and Lessons.

When we launched iKen two years ago, (The Way of Successful Entrepreneurs and Launching Pre Entrepreneur Program) we weren’t sure if a “reality-focussed”, “deep-dive format”, “away from jingoism”, bootcamp would have many takers. More importantly we weren’t sure of the impact that we would have.  This was after all a side project for everyone involved.

Two years hence, this is a post looking back at that journey. We have covered quite a distance and have some great wins and have undergone few reality checks as well.

Wins

First the good news.

We have three chapters (Bangalore, Pune Atlanta), have given talks on iKen in four countries (USA, France, Nepal, India) and  ten cities(and counting). More than hundred participants (from 10 batches) and more than 6000 impressions (people who attended iKen talks). And most important metric of all, we have fifteen+ revenue making companies. Some have taken the investment route and have raised seed funds.

But the most important metric of all for me is many graduates have become dedicated anchors themselves, teaching, learning and owning the program. The online tools and the “train the anchor” manuals have made the program a smooth automated engine.

30% of the folks decided to temporarily park the idea and went back to jobs but continue to attend iKen sessions at regular intervals. 

iKen Stats

While we are immensely proud of what we have accomplished, however there are certain targets, which we did miss by a wide margin.

First lets look at the genesis.  The model we had in mind was that of a toastmaster. Peer supported skill building bootcamp with a rigorous structure of tasks.

The idea is to provide the following :

  • Learn entrepreneurial decision models (primarily effectuation but we also have lean components (business canvas) used in certain sections)
  • A space for deep and contextual discussions on entrepreneurship for early enterpreneurs (people who want to startup) as early enterpreneurs are either  ignored or misguided(sometimes even taken for a ride).
  • Antidote for the sensational, shallow and sometimes wrong information spread by media.
  • Enable co-creation and collaboration and build the space and environment for that to happen.
  • A neutral space (as opposed to cheerleading skeptical or derisive) where people are comfortable in deciding even not to do a startup.

Lessons

Roadblocks with Peer-to-Peer Models

Trust or lack of it is the major factor for failure of peer to peer learning. Lack of trust is actually two fold, one is doubt in capability and other is of trust in intentions and focus on control. The prevalent thought process that someone more knowledgeable and powerful (read mentor) will show the right way also contributes to devaluing what one has around them.

We have created the some tasks and rituals for participants to get over that habit but it has been hard. The teacher student model becomes more prevalent as you navigate away from Bangalore. However as they graduate and continue to attend the chapter the peer to peer collaboration has been immense.

 

Unlearning the Predictive Behaviour

One of the common patterns across all the cohorts is this belief that there is a way to game this “Startup” journey. Its almost like the cracking the interview; originality doesn’t matter, there are some packaged right answers and one needs to learn them.

I remember this one time in Sikkim where I spent an hour and half explaining why “starting with investors” is not the right way to think about a startup in early stages. The first question I got asked after the talk was “What is the right way to write the business plan so that I get funded ?”

Effectuation and iKen is nothing but intellectual support for common sense, but sometimes the power of accumulated “knowledge” is hard to ignore or wipe away.

Chapter’s Growth and Format

We expected at least 50% people to continue to attend the sessions even after completion of mandatory the 6-8 weeks. But that is reduced to one or two per cohort i.e 10%.  There are two-three reasons why this is happening :

  • Folks do not see the value in continued attendance as the focus shifts to the new batch.
  • People who have not started their ventures are shy of attending.
  • People don’t understand the value of agenda less networking.

The last one is really important and most people undervalue it. The trust is built overtime and we have seen incredible examples of camaraderie and trust built amongst the folks (mostly anchors but few regular attendees too) who attend at least two session in a month.

We have also realised the chapter’s success is dependent largely on the geographic location and the first few champions that get involved in the Chapter. Inorganic growth doesn’t get the right people and often dies away. Self-selected stake holders are the way to go in growing chapters and that takes time.

What Next ?

We will continue to focus on quality and continue to grow effectually. We have incredible set of anchors and a nation aspiring to break all barriers. Join us at https://ikenstartup.com/. Follow us @ https://twitter.com/ikenstartup; Watch founder stories @ iKen YouTube

Launching Pune Chapter of iKen, pre-Entrepreneur bootcamp !

After much experimentation elsewhere we feel confident and glad to Launch iKen in Pune on November 13th.

Please check the original blog posts on iken history at the blogs below.

https://pn.ispirt.in/launching-ispirt-pre-entrepreneur-program/,

https://pn.ispirt.in/kicking-off-the-second-edition-of-pre-entrepreneur-boot-camp-arthasiddhi/

At a high level iKen is a 6 mandatory weekend (and access to an year of sessions) toastmaster style bootcamp around entrepreneurial skills.

We had a pilot session in October and glad to find many high quality entrepreneurs willing to put their weight behind this chapter to retain the essential nature of  the program that is “By Entrepreneur For Entrepreneur”.

To gain more information about the program please take a look at stories of entrepreneurs who attended the program.

Please signup at https://ikenstartup.com/pune-bootcamp-applications/;

We deliberately limit the size to a very small group to make better impact. 

Contact/Tweet @doshi_darshan for more information.

Kicking off the Second Edition of Pre-Entrepreneur boot camp #ArthaSiddhi

So for all the folks who were eagerly waiting for the second edition (there were few who sent us requests through email and twitter), your opportunity is here. (For new folks take a look at this blog post to get some context)

There is lot of media hype around entrepreneurship now.  It had been dramatized, sensationalist and devoid of some key facts. This can be quite confusing to folks and can mislead folks into making a wrong decision. This bootcamp is aimed at looking at the realities of entrepreneurship minus the drama and focus on what happens inside an Entrepreneur’s head. It focusses on getting the clarity and leads them away from the predictions, projections and the hype. Listen to one of the testimonials from Rohan who is amongst the first one to graduate

We (Prasanna, Rajan, and I) had great fun anchoring this program and designing models for scalability and co-creating the program with ten incredibly smart folks.  This program, started as an experiment after many IVC (Idli Vada Coffee) discussions with Sharad and Prof. Saras, has taken quite a good shape now.

Before you sign up though, please consider the following;

  • This is not a passive listening program. Participants are expected to complete tough tasks that push them out of comfort zones. In first batch the completion/graduation percentage is only 33%.
  • Please plan for in-person sync up sessions of 2-3hrs a week, over 10 weeks on Sundays/Saturdays.
  • The program is targeted at folks who are serious about a idea/domain that they would like to start-up. Ideal participant is a person who would start-up within a month or two of the completion of this program, or is running a serious business on the side.
  • The selection process depends on who you are and your motivation amongst other things (Acceptance last time has been around 25%), so take care of filling the form in detail.

The program starts mid August; Please signup using this link http://goo.gl/forms/qK2qRl4kRG

Launching iSPIRT pre-entrepreneur Program

The clichéd but very apt picture provides the context for this program.

Pre-Entre-programThe media shrill is at peak right now about entrepreneurship and many are jumping headlong into it armed with in depth technology, product management and sales skills. While there is considerable information available on the tangible skills, one of the key skills is self-management and ability to deal with incredible amount of uncertainty, indecisiveness, FOMO, self doubt and various other critical but often ignored aspects. Most are also not exposed to this intensity in their normal corporate existence.

Few folks in iSPIRT have been dwelling on this and with a happy coincidence of many events have come up with a program to address this need. We’re piloting an iSPIRT pre-entrepreneurial program to sketch a path for builders/makers who want to startup, including resources, exercises, and activities that strengthens them for their entrepreneurial marathon. Bringing in the principles of effectuation, developed through observing 45 expert entrepreneurs who have at least 15 years of entrepreneurship. Effectuation puts the entrepreneur as the agent of change, owner of their destiny, and helps them create the future rather than predict it.

The program itself will be a journey through market and personal challenges that a founder must go through when they do a startup. Those going through this program will get tips from experienced entrepreneurs in the Indian ecosystem, frameworks to develop their own products/startups, and a support system through the entrepreneurial journey.

The program will include effectual entrepreneurship and skill-building. This will be a 10 weekend workshop, with 90 minutes per week. The workshop is tentatively scheduled for mid April.

If you know someone who

  1. wants to startup soon
  2. wants to learn the challenges and difficulties of doing a startup
  3. wants a peer group that can help them through the journey
  4. is open to learning about and changing themselves
  5. And wants to co-create this program with iSPIRT,

Please nominate yourselves (or them) here

 

Slumming in San Francisco

This blog is written for newbies, entertaining strong thoughts on Entrepreneurship, trying to pin point an idea and figuring out the various business models.

Let me start with “why”; Indian start-up scene is blooming with lot of money pouring into it from all across the world and there is immense focus on technology products; however, dig a little deeper, a clear distinction amongst the products that get funded and the ones that struggle emerges. The 3 broad classifications in the order of difficulty in getting funded in India are:

  • Pure tech products solving/addressing technology gaps (Ex cloud infrastructure, fundamental technologies such as compilers, libraries OS etc.).
  • Tech enabled products addressing the business needs (Ex Accounting software, HR, Customer Service, etc).
  • Consumer products (Mobile Apps, Web etc)

If you are in any of these and are globally focused there is not a reason for you start selling the product/idea from day 1 in US and valley in particular.

Even if you do not have a concrete idea, I would still recommend starting the exploration in here as lot of ideas simmer in the underground in domain specific meet-ups for a while before they get exposed to general public in SFO and then to the rest of the world.

Let us start with basics.

Accommodation:

San Francisco is extremely costly; a bed/bunker in a shared room costs about thousand dollars per month. One obvious option for most Indians is to draw on friends and family in bay area. But I would advice against this due to following.

  • Most events happen in SFO and commute from bay area can be quite taxing and costly especially during late evening when most meet-ups happen.
  • Most bay area folks live a sort of American dream life, which is the least desired environment for people in startup journey.

Airbnb is the real lifesaver in finding a reasonable accommodation. Plan for a budget around 50 USD per day. Try finding an apartment near SoMa (South of Market) area or at least an area where there is a direct access to one of the MUNI lines. This way access to Cal-train (to reach bay area where many VCs and big companies are located) becomes easier. Most start-up events tend to crowd around Market Street, which also has many accelerators and incubators at walk-able distances. Most of these host various domain meet-ups and startup experts. Notable ones among the accelerators that host many events are Impacthub, FounderSuite, Runway, FonderSpace, Startup foundry.

Start-up Community/Co-living Houses: This is an amazing concept started by some successful entrepreneurs. These are big houses which host early stage entrepreneurs who live and work out of the space. Some even have connects with startup eco system. So access to 24*7 start-up talk and getting the inside information from many sources. Flipside is many tend to be very dorm like environment with shared bathroom and kitchen with no privacy. But if you can deal with this, this may be an effective way of hitting the ground running. (More details here )

Be weary of some of the so-called community houses allegedly run by investors and listed on airbnb are not really startup houses but some kind of hostels catering to all sorts of folks. So do some background work before booking. Good ones tend to be taken very early on so plan well in advance before you land.

Commute:

San Francisco public transport is great a combination of MUNI trains, buses and BART trains. Great thing is an 80$ clipper card that would take one from anywhere to anywhere. Uber and Lyft also offer incredibly cheap rides of say 7 dollar to anywhere in San Francisco.

Caltrain is the access to bay area which is an hour commute (Mountain View, Palo Alto, SunnyVale) can be quite expensive with a day pass around 15$ so make sure you group meetings in bay area. Most meeting places in suburbs can also be reached by connecting buses from the caltrain stations.

Car (Renting) is inexpensive as well but finding parking and driving around in San Francisco where most startup events happen can be a tedious task.

Finally San Francisco is very walkable and extremely cycle friendly. One can buy a used cycle for 200 dollars, so if you fit into this mold you will have lot of fun.

Pitches, Meet-ups and Events

Pitch competitions with some prize money thrown in are regular occurrences each month. These are great avenues to get feedback on the ideas and catch fancy of some angels. Few regular ones are PitchForce, SharkTank, Soceity3, ElevatorPitch. There are special events organized by SFAngels as well.

Meetup.com, eventbrite.com, moonbar.com and techcocktail.com are some of the sites to subscribe to get notified of the quality events.

Most events cost around $15-$20 tend to be very practical, first hand knowledge based and one could immensely benefit from interacting with the folks. Majority of the events provide food as well.

Keep a lookout for demo days of various accelerators such as y-combinator, 500startups, techstars, S3 and various others. They should be great way to understand where things are headed.

Workspaces

Most cafes (Peet’s, Starbucks and numerous boutique ones) are good places to spend few hours but specific ones stand out. Workshop café near market and Montgomery offers workspace at $2 an hour. My personal favorite is a spacious, brightly lit by sun and luxurious place to work out of is the “under the dome” in Westfield mall. It is adjacent to “bespoke” a retail incubator and is free with easy access to lot of places in and around Market Street. SF State university library also has lot of public access workspace, which is a great alternative for café.

Photo on 2-16-15 at 12.07 PM

Workspace at Westfield Mall

Some of the incubators and accelerators offer free workdays, which are great places to meet folks and get connected to the startup scenes. Please check the webpages to get specific details.

iSPIRT has recently opened this initiative called Athithi Silicon Valley helping to host (@workplace) Indian entrepreneurs coming to Valley and exploring product ideas. See if you are eligible to apply.

Finally, dealing with it all in a relaxed way

Pace of startup activities in San Francisco can be really overwhelming if you have not figured out a way to deal with this. San Francisco is a place for great hikes, cycle rides and numerous fitness activities. Many places offer free once a week classes. There are great many meditation centers (such as Yoga SFO, SRF, Zen Centers), which offer free group meditation in the evenings.

This is just based on my personal experiences, others who have done this and know better please feel free to add the tips in the comment and we can add them to back to the blog itself.

“The Way” of Successful Entrepreneurs

“The Why” : 

This blog is a very hard one to write and is almost equivalent to capturing what Po felt at the end of KungFu Panda (for uninitiated don’t worry next few paragraphs will make it clear). Therefore I am not going to attempt to explain the methodology in its entirety. There is lot of information online on Wikipedia and Effectuation. However I am going to provide crux of the learning (memorable one liners wherever possible) that I took away and urge readers to explore more. The questions from current entrepreneurs at the end also should help one to think of it in an applied context.

The concept is extremely powerful and yet very simple; but to truly get the gist one needs to have attempted at least one startup. In spite of this I recommend or even mandate reading this before anyone attempts Entrepreneurship. If you don’t believe me, see Mr Vinod Khosla’s handwritten notes and remarks of this paper written by Prof Saras (first good paper I have seen titled – What makes entrepreneurs entrepreneurial?

Prof Saras arrived at this insight after interviewing 45 successful entrepreneurial CEOs from varied backgrounds and industries. Success in this context is defined as Entrepreneurs who have been doing companies for over 15 years with multiple startups and at least one IPO. The interviews and the analyses focused on the decision making process and the personal convictions of the entrepreneurs apart from the business models and the numbers.

The “What”:

One of the strongest common traits that emerged out of this is the lack of belief in market predictions and trends. Instead these focused on what is tangibly available to them at that point in time. Basically work with whatever already is in your control and not predict the future. This obviously generated a lot of heated discussion amongst the early stage entrepreneurs present, as the first step of any business plan is market projection. It’s a very difficult concept to wrap the head around as most of us come from managerial background and have been conditioned to project a goal.

The second strongest common trait is “Co-Creation of future”. This is a phenomenal concept much different than prevalent thinking of co-founder, investor, and customer equations.

The method is called “Effectuation” (as opposed to causal) is ruled by few first principles explained below. (For folks clued into this whole thing there are some overlap/comparison with Lean movement as well as Theory of constraints. )

(pic source : Effectuation.org)
(pic source : Effectuation.org)

Bird in Hand:

Do not start with the result. An actual sale is the only form of market prediction that one should rely on.

Affordable Loss principles:

Invest only as much as one can afford to loose. In extreme ideal case it is zero. The affordability is not just about material aspects.

Crazy Quilt principle

Build a network of self-selected stakeholders. No competitive analyses.

Lemonade principle

Embrace and Leverage surprises (Not avoid them)

Pilot in the Plane

So if you can’t predict how do you operate? This viewpoint is, future is neither known nor predicted, it is made.

The two by two matrix below gives a categorization various perspectives on thinking about the future. Corporates and VC tend to go for first quadrant. While the most successful entrepreneurs operate in quadrant 3.

The “How”

In action the effectuation process looks like this. The great emphasis is on really knowing who one is and defining the affordable loss (Box 2) from left. From then on it is really finding the co-creators and moving ahead.

(pic source : Effectuation.org)

 

The session concluded with many real life situations of the entrepreneurs present who shared their problems and an effectual way of solving them. Some of them with crux of the advise by Prof Saras are described in brief here.

effetuation31) If one is not focusing on market research, how do you know which market segments to go after? (Adarsh of Aindra)

  • The first principles stress on doing what is in your control and getting a committed co-creator. So selection of the target segments should be dictated by these factors. (Bird in Hand) Affordable loss principle dictates how much are you willing to lose in search of markets and that will also play into decision on markets.

2) How do you decide when to expand on another geography? (Mukesh of MediaAnt)

  • Base it again on the co-creation and bird in hand principles. Expand when it makes sense from the control perspective and when you have a committed co-creator.

3) What happens when effectuation ‘s first step (what we know, who we are) leads you to too small a niche? (Natwar, Around.io)

  • Sometimes it is great way to cut the loss and attempt something else. However many successful entrepreneurs have found a general aspect that can be scaled into larger markets (Ex IceHotel niche realized that it can export iceglasses to major high end hotels, also curtain blinds company realizing it is in the business of light control and expanding into lamp shades.)

The crazy quilt and lemonade (Embrace the surprise) may lead the extended team and sometime co-founders to feel that founders are disoriented. How do you deal with such situations? (Avi, Levitum)

  • People management no matter what way you go is a tough challenge. It is good to take the next level into the mindset and make sure their affordable losse’s are aligned with the change in direction.

Effectiveness of such methods in Indian eco system where trust factor is low and getting committed co-creator is not easy. (Manjula of IronSense, Vikram of BookBuzzer)

  • While there may be some truth in this as traditionally Indian businesses are family/community owned, the situation is not very different in developed countries. Commitments are hard and going back on the word does happen sometimes.

What does it mean when a stakeholder is following up but not giving money? Also specific question by Zimply about how make publisher commit to the discussed pricing ? (Roxna of Zimply, Anjan of Inquirly).

  • Both of these require ability to peel the layers and get to the root cause of stakeholders (co-creators) commitment phobia. Finally it is better to move on and find a new co-creator to make sure you are within your affordable loss.

To conclude, I feel at the center of it all is a very crucial “people and communication skills” that would help people to find co-creators. Hopefully we can collectively build the techniques tools and use cases needed for these amongst our eco system.

Nuts and Bolts of Marketing & selling SaaS products to US customers from India for First Timers

In innumerable brainstorming and “gyan” sessions with friends, mentors and experts, one of the most stressed focus area is getting product market fit as soon as possible and then follow it up with scaling sales.  I think most early to mid stage entrepreneurs are instinctively aware of this but struggling with “Hows”.  So when I saw this playbook promising precisely to explain how, I grabbed a spot. I wasn’t disappointed. Suresh Sambandam is very down to earth and spoke earnestly and in detail about different steps he took while selling the OrangeScape’s product KiSSFLOW. Attendees who themselves run early to mid-stage companies and Kishore Mandyam of Impel CRM chipped in with their stories and inputs. Here is the detailed enough capture of the same.

The relevancy of this session is greatest to Early and Mid-stage entrepreneurs going from $0-5K MRR to $50K MRR selling to US MSB. This session is NOT meant for discovery or product market fit but I have inserted the discussion at the end.

The blog is organised as below Product Market Fit / Pricing as step 0; Followed by Inbound Sales and Marketing and then finally Outbound Sales and discussion on tools.

2014-11-15 16.37.05Product Market Fit

The absolute first step (may be zeroth step) in Sales process is getting the product market fit. You know you have a Product Market Fit with a B2B Mid-Market SaaS product when unknown folks start buying (Inbound sales is picking up traction). Unfortunately in cases that were presented at the session, the discovery process of the product happened organically based on another product that they were building.

However the generic solution for early stage product discovery goes like this.

  • Create a landing page with a “notify when ready”.

  • Create a SEO/Adword campaign for getting early adopters. You need to be very clear about the product category and fine tune your Adwords to exactly match what product aspires to solve. There are usually two approaches to any product i.e Disruptive Innovator or Faster Better Cheaper. So Adwords need to be in line with these

  • Once people signup engage with them and partner with them to fine tune the product.

To put succinctly Bring-> Engage->Convert->Succeed; As you can clearly see from this model, “Marketing Comes Before Product” or as Suresh puts it bring the horse to the water.

Pricing and “Freemium v/s Free Trial”

So which model suits best for a SaaS product? Is there one preferable over another? Very subjective topic but the thumb rule seems to be for SMB / Mid-market SaaS Free Trial is a best method to go.

Models aside, what matters most to the conversion is the post-signup engagement and the price factor. Faster conversions are dependent on many factors but one of the key factors is pricing. If pricing is within the decision-making authority of the midlevel managers, it is easier to convert. The discretionary spending seems to be around about USD 5K. Keeping the price low per user and making minimum unit purchase of say 10 users per bundle works quite great.

Inbound Sales

WebSite – Suresh firmly believes that Website is a core asset for a B2B SaaS company and hence should not be outsourced. He advises to have a minimum team of Web Developer, Creative Designer and Automation Engineer.  This would help perpetual A/B testing in short cycles..

Couple of nifty tricks to make the whole experience frictionless is to have a one click signup. Visitor should be able to experience the main software within few seconds. The other participating companies in the round table have used various  techniques to authenticate emails like SMTP Ping, email pattern matching, etc.

It is also important to closely monitor the users interaction with the website, capture it and feed it back to the Engineers to close the gap and arguments between Sales/Marketing and Engineering. One of the recommended tools in this category is FullStory.

RajanSEO

Lot of interesting debates on this; discussion ranged from how get the right keywords for searches and what optimization works and how to track the metrics. Suresh again firmly believes in having a dedicated SEO guy and focus on defined key words. They manage about 28 keywords and track them very meticulously. Some thumb rules and objectives again are

  • Do it Slowly but Steady
  • Don’t alert Google
  • Build Backlinks (Naked and Anchor)
  • Improve Google Crawl Frequency

Adwords:

It is preferable to have one dedicated person with number crunching and finance background. This will help track the cost per signup for search ads

Content Generation:

While it is important to have this come from founders, it is very hard to find time for the founders. One technique employed by KiSSFLOW is to hire fresher from visual communication background who has a grammar nazi attitude and give a very specific target like 2 +2+2+1 per week (2 blogs published 2 interviews done, 2 assured interviews for next week and 1 research post). He also uses 10-80-10 formula for the content itself where beginning 10 and ending 10 percent are reviewed in detail by founders.  One of the other key points stressed was to have self ads in each of the content which leads to signup.

Outbound Sales

Contact DB

Obviously the most critical first step here is having a database of all the companies and the decision makers that you want to reach out. Linkedin Premium works best. This is how Suresh does it. He uses Linkedin DB to create a list of all target companies and then assigns the task of creating the contact details to an online consultant who was discovered on Elance. It usually works out to INR6-INR10 per contact. There are other dbs one can purchase directly from companies such as Data.com, Discover, rainking and slew of others.

Once contacts are obtained it is very important to use direct emails as opposed to using mailchimp, constantcontact, etc as most of them will not land in inbox. It also helps to be as personalized as possible.

Sales DNA

It is absolutely essential for the founder to set the tone of sales.  For US be ready to pull night shifts continuously.  Although it is the founders calling, it is good idea to assume the persona that appeals to US clients say Bob and position one as a sales manager. It is also important to make the sales hire to listen to the call handling to build on this.

Channels

Not all channels are suitable for SaaS and one needs to do some trial and error to figure out the best channels. The channels include Events, Road Shows, Reselling Partners and Referral/Affiliate partners, may work well but Orangescape has ignored them.

Metrics, Tracking, Tools

Meticulous tracking is critical and many tools are available to manage and measure the process. Some that are being used by the roundtable companies are listed below.

Metrics to track

Metrics to Track

Suresh SambandamTools

These are the various tools used by the KiSSFLOW team and other participant companies who attended the roundtable

tools

Conclusion

Very hard to summarize such a detailed session, but one parting thought stands out. Attention to details followed by automation and customization seems to be the way to go.

Women Entrepreneurs and Professional Networking

Few months ago a Nicole Jackisch German exchange student doing her Master Thesis at IIMB contacted me and requested to take part in a survey of women entrepreneurs. I filled up the online questionnaire that was mostly about who I reach out to when I run into problems in tech, business and other aspects of entrepreneurship. I forgot about it but few weeks later she called me and asked for one more session as she found my answers were an aberration in her data samples. Curious I spent some time with her.

Her research was about comparison and pattern analyses of networking traits between Germany and India’s high potential women entrepreneurs (On a side note a comparison on the same lines with American counterparts would be hugely valuable).  She chose two contrasting industries, Fashion and Technology and surveyed equal number of Entrepreneurs in both fields.

Apparently I was one of the very few who contacted generic expert folks as opposed to male relatives that majority reached out to. She wanted to analyze why that is so. I was very surprised as, for me it is just plain common sense to reach out to folks who have been on the same path. Fortunately I am also blessed with quite a few phenomenal men and women ex-colleagues, mentors, and folks in the eco system who I can trust to give me appropriate (and sometimes blunt) suggestions, information and further contacts.  It has taken time, but I am thankful for these folks.

It would be unscientific to interpret this any further and I would encourage you to read the report which also doesn’t interpret but notes data patterns. However it may be relevant to note my personal experience (and opinion) while networking (strangely this term does have lot of negative connotation in India). There are three types of folks you meet in professional settings.

    1. A small percentage of socially reserved people who aren’t comfortable in talking to women.   – This affects one’s confidence when you go with lot of enthusiasm to discuss some bright ideas and reciprocated with silence.
    2. Another small percentage is of offensive people who make off color jokes, politically incorrect discriminatory statements (sometimes unwittingly) and sometime just plain innuendos in the name of being friendly.  – These are downright dangerous as they can completely derail ones esteem and make one defensive and bring a sense of disgust and despair.
    3. Thankfully majority folks are very professional and can be professional allies once a common professional ground is established.

The task for Entrepreneurs is to deal with type 1 and 2 in a tactful manner and not to let those experiences stopping one from reaching out to the large, sensible professional majority.  Would this limit the possibilities, probably, but everyone will have to deal with their own unique limitations, so just keep the focus on the goal and march on

(With Thanks to Nicole Jackisch who graciously shared her report)

M & A Connect Roundtable on Structuring and M&A

Couple of key points that emerged during recent acquisition of startups have been issues related to structuring of the company.  Anil Advani of Inventus Law walked us through these issues in a roundtable organized by iSPIRT M & A connect program at the Microsoft Accelerator venue.

IMG_0553Many key aspects such as taxation (especially in the context of Singapore), seed funding, liabilities, ease of the process, ESOP and stock plans need to be considered, while deciding the location of incorporation .

Some key conclusions:

  • If you are a fresh company starting out and your scope is global, it is a no-brainer. Just go ahead create a US entity (Delaware C-Corp) with a fully owned Indian subsidiary.
  • The only companies who shld consider Singapore are those looking only at the India / South-East Asia market.
  • If there is an existing company with venture funding which needs to be flipped, there is more work involved since the cap table needs to be mirrored in the US Company.  The earlier you decide to flip, the better
  • If there is formal IP ownership in India, it gets more complex and several factors need to be considered before deciding to flip.

IMG_0552Some basic Q&A

1) How many people are needed to register a company.

Answer:    One.

2) Do you need a US citizen to register in the US ?

Answer:   No. A Social Security Number and bank account is needed and that can be obtained very easily in short time.

3) How much does it cost?

Answer:  Under 500 dollars from a US bank account with the money earned in US. There are legal processes to make this happen.

4) How long does the process take

     Answer:  Incorporating a Delaware C-Corp is pretty simple,      especially for an early stage company. Paperwork can be         completed in less than 1 day

This blog is too small to cover details and I would encourage folks to contact Sanat Rao, Partner (M&A) from iSPIRT for further details of company structuring.

(Refer to the Freshdesk blog for more insights )

 

Internet’s Truth or Dare game of anonimisation

A while ago, I broke my self imposed “participate in only one social network policy” when I installed popular networking app Secret. It was out of sheer curiosity and an intention to experiment with its technology of anonymous social networking. The underlying premise is very interesting as the people participating are from your extended friend circles but are anonimised by a combination of encryption and oneway hashes, time lags. As expected both vigilantism and mud slinging are rampant and there are lot of scandalous topics and dirt being posted regarding obvious taboo subjects, about people and sometime very personal intimate information, which if traced back to a real person can cause huge legal trouble, embarrassment and pain in multiple spheres of life. But can one be really anonymous online even while assuming the technology and intent behind such apps to be secure and trusted ?

Let us look at the recent case of data share in NY city which released anonymized records of all the cab trips that included, types of cabs, number of passengers, routes, times, fare and other treasure trove of information which could be used for intelligent planning of traffic, roads, cab capacity, parking, public transport. However some of the information such as drivers license number, cab license plates could be sensitive information as they lend themselves to malicious uses apart from breach of privacy. So that information was masked by the use of oneway hash (for uninitiated, it is an encryption technology which can never be decoded back to original text even if the key and algorithm is known). However one intelligent researcher saw this data and realized that license numbers are fixed format and there is finite number of possible hash results. So he simply computed all possible hashes (173 million records) and matched that with the datasets that identify all the cab drivers, their incomes and whereabouts.

There is a considerable research happening in the space of re-identification with the fact that only 33 bits of unique information to be able to uniquely identify everyone on the internet. This along with slew of public data statistics such as census records, innocuous social network data could mean the task of re-identifying anonymized information is easier than ever. As in everything with the internet, many such technologies are becoming commoditized, due to cheap availability of processing power.

Now lets apply this concept back to secret; With the secrets utility that informs how far the person posting something is located, whether he/she is a friend and pandering to one’s inner sherlock Holmes aka deductive logic one can potentially figure out who the people participating in that discussion are. This is in spite of the integrity of the app and security technologies being intact. Obviously any malicious hack could lead more devastating circumstances.

While secret is somewhat frivolous albeit interesting use case, there are many valid, business and legal reasons for protecting people’s identity while sharing relevant data for both academic and business purposes. Strong anonymization is desired in many cases, but often leads to loss of intelligence. Next few years will see an interesting race between anonymization and re-identification both providing useful application in various contexts.

 

Presenting the iSPIRT Volunteer Model

Last few years have been very instrumental in making iSPIRT what it is today. A lot of thought had gone into creation of this movement.  We thought it is a good idea to retrace the movement to its origins and codify the model with which we operate on.  The whitepaper at the end of this blog post details the model.

This whitepaper describes the foundational principles, operating practices and culture of this network. This is the volunteer model that underpins the network and (through it) all actions of it. The whitepaper is for public consumption and will be available in public space for other organizations to emulate if they see the merit in these models.

There are two foundational principles. The first one is that this volunteer network is pulled by passion and pushed by program management. Both are essential for success. The passion signifies a strong sense of mission and cause. Program management converts that energy into feasible actions and tangible results. Sustainability of the network comes from its ability to get things done. The second principle puts the “challenges” at the center of network. We expect the volunteers to become part of the network not for glory, but for being part of addressing a shared challenge. The bond generated out of working on something bigger than oneself is what binds this network together.

Operating practices describe how to define a challenge, select volunteers, onboard them, and manage the project. They also describe the assessment of projects, the overall work program, volunteers and the network.

Finally, there is a strong culture within the network. While no document can completely capture any organizational culture, key behaviors that have shaped the network are described here.  The culture holds the volunteers together and creates a strong bond needed to deal with challenges.

Hope this paper will be useful for people creating similar structures across the various communities.