A little thought goes a long way

My kids attend a public speaking course called “Think and Speak Up”. The main idea behind the class is that in order to be an effective public speaker, you need to think before you speak i.e. be prepared before you speak. A recent conversation with a very action oriented CEO who wants to launch in the US got me thinking that the “Think and Speak Up” approach applies to companies as well.

It takes a certain personality to go and strike out on their own. Small business owners and startup founders are generally action-oriented folks who want to get stuff done. This tendency, while admirable, can be costly especially when entering new markets. While it is very tempting to just go out and hire some people and just start selling, it is usually counterproductive in my opinion, unless you have gone through and analyzed the following.

The Market –  When selling your product/service, you need to have a clear understanding of what else is out there. For example, what do the options look like to your buyer? What trends would they be seeing that you need to factor in? Are there compliance directives in place or coming along that would impact your customers? In short, you need to understand the lay of the land.

The competition – The buyer is probably doing something internally to address the problem that you are proposing a solution for. In addition, there are probably other companies in your space doing something similar to you. Both internal and external solutions are potential competition for you. You need to understand what you are up against before you go out and sell.

Positioning – Given the market and the competition, where do you need to be? You need to figure this out well in advance of hitting the streets. If you don’t you will waste time and money chasing after the wrong prospects. Keep in mind, your positioning in a foreign market could be very different from your domestic audience. Also keep in mind that you may need to change your positioning based on market feedback aka pivot. However to enter the market without a positioning hypothesis is folly.

Value Proposition – Once you have a clear idea of the market, the competition, where you want to be, you need to come up with why you? What makes you unique. We are not talking bells and whistles here, we are talking about real value to your buyer. The value proposition has to be in the context of where you are operating and it could vary from geography to geography.

People say the difference between success and failure is perseverance and a deep pocket. I would argue there is a third factor that is at play here and that is thought. Action without thought might make you feel like you are getting somewhere but like a hamster on a treadmill you might be moving fast but not getting anywhere.

Agree, disagree or have another opinion? Would love to hear your thoughts.

It pays to be frugal – a list of money savers for companies

We Indians are notoriously cheap, second possibly only to the Chinese. There are countless comics in the US that make fun of both ethnicities, but for us it a point of pride, a virtue borne out of years of trying to make do with less. You can call it whatever you want, we like to say that we are “careful” with money.

Nowhere is that trait more useful than in a startup or, in my case, as the owner of a small business, where you are trying to stretch every dollar. So I have compiled a list of resources that are free or nearly free that could help keep a small business humming. While the list is US-centric, it might be of special interest to those of you who are just getting started in the US and trying to control your expenses.

Here goes.

VoIP Telephony – Almost everyone has Internet. Piggybacking a telephone service on top of your Internet connection gives you cheap International calling, and, if that is important to you, you get a US number in the process. Vonage, Ooma and Magicjack are just some of the many services available. Vonage, for about $30/month gives you International calling to 60 countries. Now that is a pretty sweet deal.

Google Voice It is a free service that gives you one number (usually a US number) to map any phone number you want to. So you get one number that your clients can call and be routed to wherever you want to take the call. It also offers voicemail which is a big plus.

Prepaid Cell Phone (for US) – Most US carriers tie you into two year contracts. If you do the math, you more than pay for your device and extortionist rates for voice, text and data over the  two years. Last year I discovered MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) and switched my cell phone to prepaid. MVNOs are companies that buy excess bandwidth from the major carriers and then sell prepaid plans on this bandwidth. So, if you like a certain carrier, say AT&T, all you have to do is find an MVNO that works with AT&T and pay a monthly, flat, prepaid fee for service. You do have to buy your own device but you still come out ahead. Now, I do realize this is a model that is prevalent in the rest of the world but for reasons that I don’t want to get into in this post, the model has traditionally been very different in the US.

Conference Calling – Conference calls are a must for many companies. Skype, Lync and Google Hangouts are some of the options available to companies at a low cost. However, there is another option available that is absolutely free. The only catch being that you get a US based number to dial into and you don’t get an 800 number. So, what’s the catch? None really. It really is a legit business for many companies like freeconferencecall.com (to see how they make money, look here ).

 Web conference – Critical for sharing a presentation. Google hangouts, Skype are great options. I use join.me, it is free and works like a charm.

Legal Help – While for anything heavy-duty, I’d recommend using a lawyer, for lightweight stuff, there are plenty of cheaper options. Legalzoom is a great resource for everything from creating a company to getting basic confidentiality agreements in place.

Email, Calendar, CollaborationGoogle Apps for business is wonderful. They used to offer it for free for businesses up to 5 employees. Now they charge $5/month/user, which is still a steal for a full suite of office applications like email, document sharing, calendar, shared storage and hangouts.

Accounting – I use Quickbooks Online Simple Start. At $12.95/month, it more than meets my needs and at the end of the year I have one place I do my taxes from. It tracks expenses, generates invoices and my credit card company directly links to it and I can suck in all my business transactions into Quickbooks and assign them to different buckets easily.

Credit Cards – I had a credit card for the longest time that had no redeeming features other than the fact it had no annual fee and didn’t charge overseas transaction costs. You can do better. You can get a card that gives you cash back, has no annual fee and does not charge any foreign transaction fee (especially important to those of us who travel internationally). If you travel internationally, you can also look at getting a card that gives your airline points and airport lounge access. For a few hundred dollars a year you get some pretty nice facilities. This might  be important to those of us who travel a lot.

Lounge Access at Airports – Some banks offer free membership to Priority Club that is a sweet deal for those of us who travel a lot. My Indian bank offers me that privilege. You may want to check and see what your options are.

These are just some of the things that I use regularly. Clearly there are many more. If you have other tips and tricks or simply a viewpoint, please do share your thoughts.

Move vs Hire – establishing a beachhead in the US

I have written many posts on what it takes to enter the US market. Most of my past posts have been around sales and marketing. However, there is a much more fundamental, one might say visceral, approach to entering a new market. How committed are you to it? As the famous anecdote goes of the hen laying an egg (the hen is involved) vs the chicken that gets cooked (the chicken is committed). Does the commitment involve time and resources spent in building an overseas organization by remote control i.e. while the founders remain in India or does it involve at least one of the founders moving to the US?

This is a tricky one and a dilemma that many startups deal with. On the one hand, we live in a highly connected world where it should be theoretically possible to build organizations remotely. On the other hand, one really does not get a good flavor for a market unless one is immersed in it. So what is the right model?

In my experience I have see three different models in place. Two work and one mre often that not, doesn’t. The one that is a waste of time and money, in my opinion, is one where the founder travels frequently to the US to try and make a sale and build an organization. I have found that this model takes an immense toll on the individual without actually achieving much since the commitment to the US market is lacking

The two models that seem to work reasonably well are ones in which either one of the founders moves to the US and builds an organization or the founders make a key first hire in the US and get that individual to build out a US organization.

So with that said, should one of the founders be US Employee #1? The answer is a qualified yes. However, there are clearly some things companies should think about before having one of the key executives move.

Known quantities – There is tremendous comfort in knowing who you are working with. If your first hire in the US is somebody you have worked with in the past, then the case for one of the founders moving to establish a beachhead is somewhat diminished.

Established support eco-system – If there is an existing eco-system of individuals in the US that the company has worked with in the past, it is a huge benefit and could outweigh the costs – both in terms of resources and time, of a founder moving to the US. The eco-system can be leveraged for initial growth.

High-touch vs low-touch business – Whatsapp made major inroads into geographies outside of the US and India even though they were not physically present in most of the geographies. If your product is high-touch, complex, high-dollar and requires evangelizing, you need a strong champion in the US – a founder moving to the US is usually a good bet. If not, think hard about it. Can you do it more smartly, remotely?

Business Objectives – This is critical. A company really needs to look at the short-term goals and figure out what is the most effective way of getting to them. If, for instance, a short-term goal includes raising a large sum of money from a Silicon Valley VC, well then one of the founders better high tail it over to the Bay Area sharpish.

Entering a new market is not for the faint-hearted. It takes time, patience and commitment and there is no guarantee of success. However, you can improve your odds being smart about it. So as to whether or not a founder should move to the US – I’d say “Probably, but it depends”.  So what IS the right model for you?

Agree. Disagree. Or have another viewpoint. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Go west my son; the Valley calleth.

Without a doubt the Silicon Valley or “Valley” as it is known leads the world in new technology breakthroughs. Day in and day out we hear of companies growing, getting acquired, of going public and of untold riches accrued to the founders and the investors. The recent Whatsapp saga is a classic example of a rags-to-riches story and so the legend of the Valley continues to build.

There is no doubt that the Valley is a great place to start new companies. With its network of incubators, investors and talent, it is a fantastic place to launch new ideas. On the flip-side, the Valley is expensive (think both salaries and real estate), talent is hard to come by and staff attrition is very high, travel costs can quickly add up (both monetary and the toll they take on your staff given the geographic location) and your customers may not be there. Given all the pros and cons of the Valley, it is worth a thought before deciding to establish a presence there.

In this post, we look at the factors that influence foreign companies to be Valley-bound and additional factors they should think about when planning to launch their operations in the US and whether the Valley is the best place for them to launch.

So what makes a company decide to enter the US via the Valley? In my opinion, there are three major factors.

Everybody is there – Almost every technology success story you have heard of has its roots in the Valley. There is an aura of success that surrounds the Valley that makes it very attractive to new entrants.

The happening place for Cool-Tech – Major breakthroughs are happening in the Bay Area. With its eco-system of innovative companies and research institutions, a lot of revolutionary technology is coming out of Northern California.

The VC factor – If the company is funded by VCs, chances are they have their origins in the Valley too. They either made their money there or their head offices are on Sand Hill Road. Their comfort zone is the valley and they will nudge their portfolio companies to go there too.

The Self-Perpetuating Belief – In human psychology, there is the phenomenon of self-perpetuation. If enough people believe something to be true, then it becomes true. So if enough people believe that the Valley is the place to be, then that is what it is.

But is the Valley for you? Companies like i-flex (now Oracle Financial Services) seem to have done very well without having a substantial presence in the Valley. So what should you think about before deciding on your first US location?

Are you a startup? – Without a doubt, the Valley is a great place for startups and has the infrastructure that startups need but chances are you are beyond the startup phase and in growth mode, does the Valley really offer what you need in this stage of your growth?

Are you Cool-Tech? – Do you truly have a revolutionary technology? Or is it a solution that piggy-backs off of existing tech stacks? If it is revolutionary, you should think of the Valley, if not, think again.

Where are your customers? – In the growth phase, it is critical for a company to be close to its customers. The Valley has technology companies like Apple, Google, Cisco and Oracle, but are these companies your customers or are the likes of 3M, Caterpillar, Citigroup and Wal-Mart more likely your customers? If it’s the latter, then think long and hard about where you want to be.

Where is your talent? – You will want to scale. You will want to find people – usually sales and presales, who understand your business and your domain. Looking for salespeople to sell into Financial Services will be a bigger challenge in San Francisco than in New York, Connecticut, Chicago or Charlotte.

Are you ready for the distractions? – For all the positives that the Valley has, it is also an incredibly noisy place. With all the conferences and meet-ups, it is easy to meet new people and new ideas and equally easy to be distracted.

So what should one do? The Valley has a lot of things that a young company needs so I would go so far as to say that if a founder can move to the Valley then he/she should. In addition, the second sales/presales hire should be in the Valley but as far as the Head of Sales, my thought is that if you have a customer facing (B2C) product or have a truly revolutionary technology – go to the Valley. If you are more of a B2B play and are targeting larger companies (Fortune 500), your head of sales should be more centrally located to allow easy access to either coast. Chicago and Dallas are both good options. In the end, the Sales Head should be close to where the potential customers are. And that is the bottom-line.

Agree. Disagree. Or have another viewpoint. Would love to hear your thoughts.

The curse of the horizontal solution or what to do when you think you have the product that can solve Global Warming?

There are many solutions that are targeted at a niche, that solve a specific problem. Selling these is relatively easy. You know the target, you know the problem. The challenge comes with the horizontal solutions, or ones that apply to wide variety of industries and business problems. There is tremendous potential opportunity there and yet they are devilishly difficult to sell for a small company. The problem is focus.

When you have a solution that you can sell to ten different types of companies, where do you start? If you have deep pockets, perhaps you go after every manner of opportunity, but if you are a small company, you neither have the resources nor the bandwidth to tackle all opportunities. So what does one do?

This is an issue I have dealt with in the past working with my clients, but it came to top of mind after a recent conversation with a company that has a horizontal solution. I have thought about this subject over many years and have a viewpoint on this. I thought I’d share my current thinking on this subject as it may be useful to some of you.

Think small – The solution has wide application but it helps to narrow the scope when you are starting. Figure out a specific business problem, in a specific industry, in a specific geography to address. Focus helps you with both your targeting as well as your messaging. In addition, it is an effective use of limited resources.

More cheetah, less monkey – Cheetahs need focus to survive. When you see them on a hunt, you can really see they are focused. Monkeys on the other hand, forage for food and are easily distracted. The tendency in startups is to go after everything – mostly through a combination of optimism and desperation. In addition, there are too many distractions when you are getting started. Be aware of that. Focus only on what is important.

Learn from Agile – The Agile software development methodology has a lesson for entrepreneurs. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, Agile advocates breaking a large  project into smaller, bite-sized chunks. These chunks, called Sprints, deliver specific functionality in a very short period of time. The idea is to incrementally build the software solution with all stakeholders constantly aware of the value addition. This is in contrast to the monolithic model of software development where big projects were delivered after months of work and considerable expense, often to users who clearly did not want what they got. You should think of your go-to-market strategy as a series of Sprints. Identify a business problem/target audience, develop a tactical plan and test it out. If after putting in effort, it is not working, change. You should always be looking to fine-tune your go-to-market, but at the same time have the discipline to stick to a plan, for a period of time, before starting on something else.

Leverage your successes – I am a big believer in this and have harped about it at length. If you have a success with a client, see if you can approach similar companies with a similar proposition. Do it consciously, with a plan and a value proposition. Even though this may be obvious, many companies, especially ones with a broadly applicable solution, seem to ignore this.

After running my own consulting outfit for a couple of years, I have a newfound respect for entrepreneurs. Starting and running a company is not for the faint-hearted. It is very difficult to make money, contrary to the feeling one develops working in the corporate world, where big paychecks just happen if you are good. With all the stress and uncertainty of working in a startup, having some structure and discipline around sales is critical. Whether you like my approach or not, please do consciously think about what will make you more effective with limited resources. It will be well-worth the effort.

Agree. Disagree. Or have another viewpoint. Would love to hear your thoughts.

The first call

The first call you make to a prospect is critical. It could make or break you. And yet, I find capable, well-meaning, highly intelligent people not putting in the effort to prepare for it. While it is obvious, and most definitely not rocket science, it helps to have a checklist to go against. I recently put together a short checklist for a client of what to think about when making the first call for a client. I am reproducing a version of it here that readers might find useful.

Before we go to the checklist, it helps to pause and think about the situation you are in. You may have been introduced by someone or you could be calling cold. However, if you have a live person on the other end of the telephone line, consider yourself very lucky. It is very difficult to actually get somebody to talk to when you are trying to break into an account. Recognize that and prepare adequately.

The Internet makes it easy to do basic research on companies and individuals, use it to your advantage. At a minimum

  • Learn about the company you are calling into. Some web searches and websites like Hoover’s make it easy.
    • What does it do?
    • Where is it headquartered?
    • Who are the main competitors?
    • Has it been in the news lately? For what? Is that something you can leverage?
    • If you are calling to talk IT/software, can you figure out what type of infrastructure the company has in place?
    • Learn about the person you are calling. Linkedin is usually your best bet.
      • What is the person’s background?
      • Where did they go to school?
      • Where did they work before?
      • Do you have a common connection?
      • Be clear about what is your value proposition
        • What do you have to offer?
        • Why should they care?
        • Clearly outline next steps
          • Ideally a call to understand their needs in more detail (if necessary, with a pre-sales person)
          • Ask for introductions to other people that you may want to connect with
          • If there is some interest worth exploring, then
            • Set up next call (with a presales person if needed)
            • Set the expectation for a face to face meeting where you will bring appropriate people AND ask the prospect to do the same

Sales does not have a magic formula. Contrary to popular belief the best sales people are often not the flashiest. The maxim “slow and steady wins the race” often is true in sales. Preparedness, more than anything else usually wins the bonus check.

Agree. Disagree. Or have another viewpoint. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Brand “YOU” – guard it zealously


In the corporate world there are no certainties. There is never a “sure thing”, even the best businesses fail due to circumstances beyond their control. However, there is one thing that you can control: your brand.

Let us face it. Whether we like it or not, we are constantly selling. Whether it is our agenda as a design guru, a resume, a position, even a restaurant we want to go to, we are always trying to convince others to do something that aligns with our agenda.

Great leaders do this effortlessly while others struggle. I confess, this is an area I have struggled with.  Mostly because, as people who know me will tell you, I have been known to  be blunt to the point of being obnoxious at times. Let me tell you, it doesn’t work, especially when you have a team to motivate. I have had to change. I have had to soften my pitch and listen more.

There have been many lessons along the way but the following have been critical for me establishing myself as somebody who can be trusted. Here goes:

Mean what you say, say what you mean –  Too often we are tempted to say things to mollify the other party even if we don’t mean what we say. I can think of many silver tongued individuals who always say the right things, whether they mean them or not. This is a mistake. You don’t have to be a jerk but having clarity of communication and commitment establishes you as a person of integrity and people like doing business with people like that.

Keep your commitments – Whether it is showing up for appointments on time or completing deliverables that you committed to, you have to do what you said you will if you want to be taken seriously.  There is an individual who comes to mind, who always talked big, but never delivered on time. There was always an excuse. The behavior had a direct impact on this person’s relations with his colleagues and customers and had an adverse impact on the revenue he was able to bring in to the company.

A favor is a debt – Our network defines us. It is what makes us effective. New opportunities come from it. Be a net contributor to your network rather than a leech. Any favor you ask, should always hang over you as something you have to deliver on. As my old boss Rajesh Hukku said, “…always look for ways you can help your customer, not just in what you have to sell, but in every other way…”.  Perhaps their kid is looking for math tutoring and another person in your network is a great tutor. Connecting the two of them, adds value to all three of you. Without doing too much, you would have positioned yourself favorably with your client, what you sell will need to have merit but the client is more likely to take you seriously if they feel you add value to their life.

Treat people well – People remember kindness and people remember jerks. Choose what you want to be remembered as.

Admit when you are wrong or when you don’t know – Just because you are in a leadership role, doesn’t mean that you are always right. In fact, you are probably often wrong. Don’t be afraid to admit when you are wrong or when you simply don’t know enough. It builds credibility. And a credible brand is something everyone wants to associate with.

Keep things in perspective – Salman Khan of Khan Academy said it best when talking about people being successful in their endeavors, I quote: “…(enjoy your successes) but keep them in perspective. Enjoy the successes. But when your ego starts feeling a little bit large, keep in mind the sun will supernova one day, the galaxies will collide. We are just these small little mammals on this small planet. There’s a hundred – two hundred million stars in our galaxy alone. So have peace in the little success(es) “

Agree. Disagree. Or have another viewpoint. Would love to hear your thoughts. 

In praise of the Sales Playbook

There have been a lot of posts recently on the need to have a well-defined sales process: something I heartily endorse, by the way. The challenge often in smaller companies is that they are resource constrained and so putting thoughts down on how sales should be approached tends to rank way down on the priority list. This is a mistake. 

Call it what you want but a documented approach that talks about what your company is about, who the target is, and how you sell to them, is not only critical, but I would argue, the only thing between you and extinction. I know, at this point you are saying, “Yeah, yeah, we know this and we do something very similar”. The problem I have found is that even in successful companies, this successful formula/approach is locked inside the head of the star performers and the founders. A small company can’t afford to rely on a handful of resources; everybody needs to be on board.

If you can’t afford to spend the time or money to have somebody like me come and help you with developing a sales playbook and a process, what I recommend is you take a DIY approach to it and follow the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) philosophy. Just make sure it at least, has the following 

What is the business problem?  – Everybody, especially the sales folks, need to know where their solution fits in. Knowing about your product’s bells and whistles, won’t let them relate to buyer pain. They will be unable to articulate how your solution will help the buyer unless they understand the context of the business pain.

Who is the buyer? – An understanding of both the class of companies as well as the buyer profile will let your sales team figure out the best approach to reach them with. Instead of a generic message, just think of how much better a targeted outreach would be once you understand who you are selling to.

What is the competition? –  Other vendors, internal development or third party IT services companies, will all be likely vying for the business. Think through what your story is against each of them. There will always be situations where you have to defend yourself or create doubt for your competition in the buyers’ mind. Unless you have thought about the competition, you can’t do it effectively.

The three levels of pitches – At a minimum, your sales people need to be prepared for three pitches – the elevator pitch, the short pitch and a full-blown presentation. An elevator pitch, so called because it alludes to catching somebody in an elevator and having the length of the ride to get them interested, is a critical tool to have. Think conferences and chance meetings.  That’s where you will use this. If the prospect has a little more time, you can get into the short pitch. Lastly, the full-blown presentation is used when the prospect has given you time to come and pitch to them. In any/all of these pitches, you have to be careful to talk the language of the customer (don’t use technical gobbledygook, or clichéd phrases like “best-in-class”, “value-added” or “scalable”).

If you are going to cold call, you  need a call script – Cold calls have a notoriously low success rate but they do work. I can attest to that since one of the biggest deals I ever closed came from a cold call I made. The reason that call worked for me, and why good cold calls work is that you have thought through what you are going to say on the call and are not winging it. Make sure you have a clear understanding of why the call is being made and what the action items are expected to be at the end of the call. 

What happens next aka the sales workflow  – Everybody’s time is precious. Nobody knows this more than the overworked folks in a small company. Make sure the sales process is widely understood and followed so that you are bringing in folks at the right time for the right reasons and not burning them out.  The sales qualification is ideally done by sales folks. Product folks/presales should come in on qualified opportunities. This can happen only if you have an educated sales force.

There are many ways to implement this approach. A document called a Sales Playbook is one way. Another way is to have lots of informal sessions where folks share war stories and learn from each other. What I have found is that putting thoughts on paper i.e. creating a sales playbook, forces you to think, which is never a bad thing. It also allows for easy transfer of knowledge and can be used for on boarding new resources. Just remember though that this is a living, breathing document that will frequently need to be updated as more information comes in.

Agree. Disagree. Or have another viewpoint. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Sell in the US from India or establish a beachhead abroad?

If you asked me this question five years back, I would have said unequivocally that you have to establish a presence in the US if you want to do business here.  My thoughts on the subject have changed. I believe the answer is, it depends. Let me explain.

Since it is the risk-reward equation that tilts the scales in favor of one vendor over another, we have to start out by thinking about how the buyer perceives you, the vendor. Buyers at this point are very comfortable and familiar with the onsite/offshore model for services. In fact so much so that one can argue it is largely a commodity. In such an environment, it is possible to do business overseas with little to no onsite presence. In other words, if you are a services company, offering services that the client is largely familiar with, you can get traction operating remotely with limited travel. In addition, one can design a low-risk services pilot very easily for the customer to try out a vendor. But what if you are a product company or offer non-traditional services? This is where it gets interesting. 

Is the pain real?  

Founders of companies tend to look at their world through rose-tinted glasses. The solutions that they have created, in their view, are the best thing since sliced bread. While this cheerleading attitude is admirable in a CEO/Founder, it might require a reality check before you launch in a new geography. If the perceived pain for which you are providing a solution is not yet felt, then buyer education is required. Your challenge as a seller is to move the pain from perceived to real. This is hard to do remotely. One of my old clients is a company that has an outstanding solution, the problem they had was the pain that they were addressing was something their buyers in the US really did not perceive as active pain. Despite repeated monthly trips by the CEO and promising leads, a sale did not happen. They needed to create an eco-system, or as my old boss called it, a “web of influencers” in the US BEFORE a sale could even be conceived. Doing that needs time and investment. This is not a message founders and CEOs want to hear, but this is reality. 

Is the buyer educated?

Assuming the problem is well defined and well understood, how informed is your buyer? Do they understand the problem and their options? An informed buyer can be a challenge for remote sellers for the simple reason that they know what their options are and may be willing to settle for a less-than-optimal solution that has local presence and support. On the flip side, if an informed buyer knows that you indeed have the only solution available to him/her, they might take a chance on you, despite all the risks inherent in dealing with an overseas vendor. This has happened to me. In a situation where the product I was selling was not established in the US, the fact that there really was no other solution that came close to what we offered, worked in our favor.

Is there a local substitute available?

If the answer to this question is yes, then don’t even bother doing any remote selling. Even if your product is better, it is only incrementally better. It won’t be worth the risk to a buyer unless you can prove that you are serious about the geography and have invested in it. 

Do you have a proven track record?

Case studies matter. A track record matters. Remember, you are trying to minimize risk for your buyer. With no presence locally, the buyer will want to be assured that you know what you are doing if they buy from you. Prove yourself in geographies where you have a greater chance of success first. Overseas markets are huge and attractive. However, entering them too early is a common error to make and one that is very, very expensive. 

Are you ready to take on a paying customer?

A sale is just the start of a relationship. Whether it is services or products, relationships can be sustained only by careful nurturing, and in the case of products, support. If you are a services company, can you deliver? do you have the necessary manpower to provide support? do they have visas to travel at a moment’s notice? If you are a product company. – can you support the product? do you have the manpower to do enhancements? are they available for support during the customer’s work hours? These are just some of the questions you need to address to give your buyer peace of mind. More than anything else, buyers are looking to minimize risk. Not addressing these concerns makes you high risk and highly undesirable.   

This is by no means an exhaustive list of things to think about. Just something to get you started. To quote an old Hindi proverb – “Door ke dhol suhavne lagte hain” or “The grass appears greener on the other side”.  Overseas markets, especially the US and Europe, are huge and potentially lucrative. But as I have pointed out in other posts, they are not for the faint hearted. Before you venture, you need to be ready for it both financially and on your corporate resume. Everyone of us knows someone in big companies in the US, often in influential positions. You are almost guaranteed an audience with someone of value if you reach out. Just because they will talk to you, does not mean they will buy from you. Too many people make the mistake of confusing the two. Ultimately, buyers are looking for a solution that not only solves their problem but also one that is low-risk. Unless you can minimize vendor risk for your buyer, you have a tough road ahead.

Agree. Disagree. Or have another viewpoint. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Lead, but consciously nurture talent

My wife forwarded me an article recently that Booz & Co. had written on India’s leadership challenge. You can read the full article here.

This confirmed something I have long suspected. While there are great leaders in the Indian business, there are very few great companies. Let me explain what I mean by that. In the business, we are in, i.e. IT, some companies have done very well financially, and yet, if you talk to employees at the very same companies, you will realize very quickly that folks aren’t happy. That they feel they are under-valued and under-utilized. That they have limited growth opportunities. That they are stuck in a rut. That has made for companies that can execute well, but cannot innovate.

That niggly attrition problem that so plagues the India IT business? Well, guess what, it doesn’t have anything to do with making an extra buck somewhere else. It has everything to do with having equally dreary workplaces that stifle growth. So if one has a choice to make a little more money doing the exact same mind-numbing work, well, that’s what one does. This is not just me talking. Check this out

I can empathize. I’ve been there too. 

So what’s the point of this post? After all this is supposed to be a blog about the software product business in India. 

The reason I write this is because we have an opportunity to create an eco-system of companies in India that are creative workplaces. Where individuals want to have fun and innovate. If we want world-class innovation out of India it has to start with the work culture. So to that end, I jotted down some thoughts on what we should be consciously thinking about.

Money is only a motivator in the short-term  – Many companies believe, IMO incorrectly, that giving people great compensation is more than enough. This thinking is especially prevalent in sales groups within companies. While you have to compensate your employees adequately and at wages that are competitive, money is really not a great motivator. And if this is the only carrot you have, there is nothing stopping your best employees from seeking greener (more carroty) pastures. 

MBAs are great managers(leaders), NOT – Many years back, just starting out in the workplace,  there was a clear hierarchy in new hires. There were the MBAs (preferably from IIMs) at the top of the heap, then there were the engineers (preferably from IITs) in the middle, and then were MCAs. The MBAs were fast tracked on to management roles whereas the rest of the people were expected to be the worker bees. That is a ridiculous way to build an organization. Many years later, the thinking persists and the results are evident. A degree does not make a great manager. Empathy and interpersonal skills, among other things, do. 

Doing a job well is not a predictor of management/leadership talent – I have seen this many times in my work life. In one particular instance, a person who was a fabulous individual contributor was an exceptionally bad team player. Well, he was elevated to a very senior position because of the fantastic work he had done as an individual contributor. I have lost touch with him so I don’t know how he fared. He is a very smart individual so I assume he figured things out but the company had done no favors to him or the company, by not grooming him for that role.

Just some thoughts on a topic I feel strongly about. I keep hearing of all the fabulous things that are happening in the Indian product eco-system and I am excited about that. But we must always be aware of the cultural baggage we come with. And the cultural baggage has a strong authoritarian component to it. Where commands are given and dissent is not tolerated. If we want to build a generation of leaders that can spawn multiple companies doing innovative work, this needs to change.

But all is not doom and gloom. Things are changing. One of my clients, Moonraft Innovation Labs, a UX design shop out of Bangalore has created a relaxed work environment to foster creativity. Titles are fluid, no assigned seating and an entire floor devoted to artsy endeavors. The quality of work they are putting out shows their approach is working. This is just one example. I am sure there are many more. The objective should be to drive the old command-and-control structure into extinction.

Agree. Disagree. Or have another viewpoint. Would love to hear your thoughts.

If you really have to enter the US market – some do’s and don’ts

A few weeks back I had written a post on entering the US market. It was very gratifying to see the response from so many of you on that post. So following the lead of that article, here is another one. 

In this post I talk about some of the basic things Indian companies can do to improve their probability of success in the US. If these come across as simplistic, its because they are not hard to do, but they are made hard by the cultural programming we come with. To paraphrase Dorothy from Wizard of Oz, companies have to be consciously willing to say – “Toto, we are not in Bangalore any more”. So, without further ado, here goes: 

Lesson #1

– Employee #1 has to be a jack of all trades

– The first person you hire will likely be required to set up office space, put in a phone system, hire new staff, set up payroll, healthcare, the list goes on. If you are thinking of hiring a sales top gun as your first employee, think again. You will need to have the basic HR infrastructure set up for your sales people to not have to worry about the basics. If you don’t do that, you will frustrate new hires and scare away high performers. 

Lesson #2

– 9AM EST does not mean 9AM – 10AM EST –

We Indians are hardworking, committed but we aren’t exactly known for punctuality. In the US, IST (Indian Stretchable Time) jokes abound. All too often, this translates into missed appointments with customers and prospects. Time is valuable. If somebody has given you an hour, respect that.  While showing up on time is important, ending on time is important as well.  If in doubt, ask. Nobody is going to mind if you ask for permission to go over your allotted time. 

Lesson #3

– Don’t talk over people. Its rude.

– Another very Indian trait is our love for intellectual discussion. Coming from a country of over a billion, we are used to shouting over each other to get our point across. Unfortunately it doesn’t work in other parts of the world. All too often we get carried away and talk too much for too long. Other times, we will interrupt a speaker to inject a point or many times simply to agree. I learned this lesson the hard way many years back, when a customer essentially asked me to shut up and listen (they did buy from me).

A much more culturally acceptable norm is to not interrupt a speaker. Let them finish, ask if they are done and then make your point. When making your point, use short sentences and stop often and ask for feedback. It is not natural behavior for us Indians but we need to be conscious of it. 

Lesson #4

–  Learn to say no

– We work hard and we love to please. Sometimes it translates into not being able to set boundaries. In the product or the services business, you have to set boundaries if you want to be profitable. If something can’t be done or will cost more, flag it. Customers expect that. We can’t please everyone but if you don’t set boundaries, you will please no one.

Lesson #5

– Over-communicate

– You have a client. The project has begun and the India-based team is working hard. The India team is telling you everything is on track but the customer keeps sending you emails on how she is not happy with the project. Sounds familiar?

In my experience, this happens most often because the Indian team does not communicate enough with the client. The already jittery client who has bet on an unknown quantity gets even more rattled by not getting any regular updates from India. Make a conscious effort to communicate every day. It could be just an email update summarizing what was achieved that day but it goes a long way in giving peace of mind to the client. 

Lesson #6

– Use your network for initial hires, if using recruiting companies, choose carefully

– Your first few hires are critical. They are best picked through people you know and trust. So, first look to your network. If you do have to go and hire an agency, be picky. Indian recruiters, and I am sure there are some good ones, come with the same set of problems as the rest of us from India. My sample size is small but in my experience (and the experience of many of my associates), they aren’t punctual and don’t call on time and their follow-up is terrible. Rather than getting prospects excited about your company, they end up pissing them off. So, do your due diligence and talk to current clients of the recruiting company you are thinking of employing. It is worth spending time thinking through your hiring strategy. Humans make the company. Don’t forget that. 

Every one of us is shaped by our experiences. My observations are shaped by mine. For what it is worth, my viewpoint has evolved on four continents over a 24 year period. Like everything else though, it changes through new interactions and experiences. These are my thoughts today. Tomorrow might be a different story.

Agree. Disagree. Or have another viewpoint. Would love to hear your thoughts.

So you want to enter the US market

As many of you know, Avinash Raghava is a persuasive individual. So when he approached me first to write for Product Nation, after some hemming and hawing, I agreed. On a recent call, he told me that nice though my writings have been so far, he was hoping I could help our readers with specific issues related to entering the US market.  He is absolutely right and I will start looking to him for guidance on what topics might be of interest to our readers. One of the first things we agreed, I’d write about is how companies should think about entering the US market. So here goes. 

I have been associated with the Indian IT business since 1989 and so I have seen the peaks and the troughs over the years. The IT services business and its offshoots into KPO and BPO have thrived over the years. And even now, if you are an entrepreneur and have a captive client, you can make a 20% return on your top line with some work and a tailwind. It is the product or IP related business that is a different animal.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to understand the product business during my rather long stint with i-flex (now Oracle Financial Services). I had patient bosses, excellent coaches and the opportunity to understand three very different geographies – North America, Asia Pacific and Latin America. There are a few lessons I learned along the way and I am happy to share them with you. This is not an exhaustive post on the subject by any means, just some thoughts. Here is the first set of lessons learned:

Lesson #1 – Stay away if you can, it may not be worth it – Entering the US market (or any foreign market for that matter) is a big, messy, expensive proposition, if you think you will make money from day one, think again. It will take time and commitment to make it work. For example, in my previous life, it took investment from our company in a full blown sales and marketing organization, PR, analyst coverage, partners etc for close to over two years before we saw anything resembling success in the US. Latin America was a different story, the company did it half heartedly and did not invest in what was needed. Needless to say, we weren’t too successful in that geography. Entering a foreign market is not for the faint-hearted, it will take time and resources AND there is no guarantee of success.

Lesson #2 – Product business is not like the services business – Given the extensive experience that Indian companies have in the outsourcing world, it is no surprise that many startups are founded by folks with a services background. And since they have a services background they bring some of that mindset to the table. The challenge is that the product business is different in just about every way that matters to the services business. The approach to selling, the pitch, the implementation, support, partnerships, the list goes on and on. Unless the management is willing to change its outlook, this will cause you problems.

Lesson #3 – Awards are great, case studies are much better – I often come across promising companies in India that have been recognized for the excellent work they are doing. While awards are great, they are not enough to mitigate buyers’ concerns around vendor risk. Remember, you are an unknown quantity for the buyer, and as the old saying goes – “Nobody gets fired for buying from IBM”.  That is where case studies come in handy. If you have a multinational client, try and enter a foreign market through one of their subsidiaries. I know this works because I have used this strategy before. If you don’t, perhaps you can build case studies around a business reason that will resonate with similar companies in overseas markets.

Lesson #4 –  Get your story straight – One of the biggest challenges I see for Indian companies is around messaging. Most startups are founded by techies.  As a result, the messaging is very tech heavy.  I suspect the current crop of buyers is suffering from an overdose of “Cloud”, “Enablement”, “Web2.0”,  “Enterprise-class”, “Multi-Tier” and “Mobility”. The problem is that when everybody ends up sounding exactly alike, nobody stands out, and the message doesn’t address the problem they are trying to solve directly. A good message should be free of geek speak (to the extent possible) and to the point. Always remember that to the buyer you are relatively unknown, highly risky and you have a short time to grab the buyer’s attention. If you can’t even get them to understand what you do, well, good luck with closing the deal. This is hard and requires skill. There are people (like me) who can help you with this but it is critical that you do it.

Lesson #5 – Have a plan but be willing to change – When you are trying to get a foothold in new market, it is very tempting to get opportunistic. You leverage your contacts and get that first critical deal. That is how you get into a market, but what you do after that depends on whether you have thought about it or not. I encourage my clients to think about going after prospects that make sense in the larger scheme of things. In a significant departure from the services way of thinking, product companies can’t be everything to everyone. You have to think about what you are about and what business problem you are tackling. Based on that, you form a hypothesis and a plan. Then you test it out in the market. If it works, you are golden, if not, you tweak it. The point is, you can’t go after anything that moves: you don’t have the resources for it plus it WILL dilute your brand. Get opportunistic within your framework and you will already be ahead.

These are just some initial thoughts. Remember that like anything else in business, there are no guarantees. What you want to do is to increase the probability of success. Do companies succeed without the points I have listed above? Sometimes. Do companies fail even after they do everything above? Sure.

I can’t promise you success if you follow my advice but you’d be ill advised to ignore it. If you have thoughts, experiences or comments, please do share.

“E” is for empathy

The last three business books I read were seemingly all different. “Wired to Care” by Dev Patnaik, “Nanovation” by Kevin and Jackie Freiberg and “Customer Centric Selling” by Michael Bosworth. The first was how humans are genetically designed to care for others, the second was the story behind how the Tata Nano was launched and the third was a book on more effective selling. But there was a common underlying theme to it all.

The theme was empathy. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines empathy as

the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this”

All the books in various ways said this and I am paraphrasing here – in order to to create a compelling offering you need to understand your customer’s pain and create a solution for it.

This should be self-evident but unfortunately that is not what we find in reality. What we find too often is a situation where a company creates a product without fully understanding how it will solve a customer’s problem. Even if they have a legitimate product solving legitimate problems, they are so caught up in the gee-whizziness of their product that they stop listening to their customers.

This is a big problem. A company that has a valid solution for a defined problem can last for a while. It might even get some early adopters but it will have a hard time sustaining its momentum and will run out of steam unless it starts a dialog with its customers and is empathetic to their needs. This is because your mainstream customers, the ones that will sustain you, are not early adopters and need to develop trust before they do business with you. One of the surest ways of building trust is to make sure the customer feels that you feel their pain and understand their unique situation.

This is not rocket science. It can be easily instituted in an organization. Designing a consultative sales process around understanding a customer’s needs first is a great start. But the culture of making sure that every touch point with the customer listens more than talks starts at the top.

The three stages of the buying mindset

The buyer had told you that they were in the market for exactly what you were selling, and the timing couldn’t be better. The pricing was right and your solution met all the buyer’s needs but lo and behold the sale did not happen. Has this ever happened to you?

If you are like me and many others, you have been in this situation before. Why does this happen? I had thought long and hard about it and developed some theories around it, and then about 10 years back my boss introduced me to a book called “Solution Selling” by Michael Bosworth. As I went through the book I realized that what Mr. Bosworth said made perfect sense and was completely consistent with my experience and hypothesis. We were losing deals in situations like the one described above because we were too late.

What Mr. Bosworth suggests is that there are essentially three phases a buyer goes through.

Latent Need – The need is either not defined or the buyer is resigned to the fact that no solution exists for her need. For example, it could be that buyer has collection of old 78 RPM records (remember those?) and has in the past tried to digitize them. The last time she looked for a solution it was prohibitively expensive to do. So she shelved the idea and the need to digitize became a latent need.
Pain – This is when a latent need becomes an active pain. In our example above, the need would become a pain if the buyer reads an article about a new inexpensive service that digitizes old records.
Evaluating Alternatives – This is the last stage. This is where the buyer is convinced that they have a pain and that a solution(s) exist for it. This is when they are in the market for alternatives.

To often, a smart seller has already taken the buyer through the stages of latent need and pain and painted a shared vision with the buyer to where they are “singing his tune”. When you come in at this stage you are at a disadvantage because you are playing a game that somebody else has defined the rules for.

The ideal situation, therefore is to think hard about what you have and help walk your buyer through all the three stages of their buying cycle. If you do it right, both the buyer and seller will have a shared vision of the end state. The shared vision will solve the buyer’s problem and result in a sale for the seller. A win-win situation for all.

Does your customer know what you are talking about?

Let us face it, technology startups are often founded by geeks, employ geeks and hence are, more often than not, geekdoms. There is tremendous value in it. However, there is a significant downside to this as it relates to communication.  Geeks speak geekspeak and unfortunately that is all the customers hear a lot of times. This is a HUGE mistake.

Never forget who you are in the business for. It is your customers. If your value proposition is not clear to the customer, you will perish. The customer needs to see value. She needs to know that you understand her pain and will help her. She needs empathy not geekspeak. And this is true even when you are speaking to tech buyers. You need to be very clear on how you and only you understand the pain they are feeling and can help them. If you can establish that empathy and can weave it into the product you are pitching, you are already ahead of the competition.

Abandon the geekspeak and the discussions on all the bells and whistles that your product has. Instead, focus on business value it creates or the business pain it alleviates. Use simple, easy to understand language. For example, instead of saying “the product has an enterprise class data warehouse based on a dimensional data model, supported by all major RDBMs, that houses information from disparate sources”, you can say that “using a single repository of data all the business users see the same version of truth. This allows for accurate and timely decision making and meaningful interdepartmental communication”. By eliminating geekspeak you have shown how the product is meaningful to the business user. Nice technology is good, in fact it is essential, but it is not an excuse for clearly articulated benefits. It is almost as though most technology companies operate behind a cloud of geekspeak, and it is the company that breaks through the clouds and communicates simply, that stands out.

So, spend some time. Understand the business problem you are solving, develop empathy with your potential customers and analyze your competition. You should then be able to come up with a story that resonates with the customer. If you are able to do that, you have the power to change the dialog, project yourself as the hero and differentiate yourself from the competition. And that can’t be a bad thing.