Design thinking Playbook Roundtable by Deepa Bachu


The core idea of a startup is to tap into the previously unexplored markets, identifying unsolved problems and bringing to the market innovation that disrupt the existing eco-system. It’s about understanding complex problems and coming up with innovative, disruptive solutions…a process that requires understanding the consumers’ requirements and behavior patterns to create a well-thought out solution for the customers’ benefit.

While most entrepreneurs spend weeks brainstorming about the idea, they often ignore the key ingredient to innovation : design.

Design /dɪˈzʌɪn/ (noun) – do or plan (something) with a specific purpose in mind.

The Design thinking Playbook Roundtable organized by iSpirit and conducted by Deepa Bachu from Pensaar helped startup founders understand the importance of design thinking and integrate design into their workflow. Here are some key takeaways from the Playbook Roundtable held at the head office of Instamojo in Bangalore:

Design thinking is not just about the graphic elements, UI or tools. It is a creative approach to a problem. It is a problem solving methodology – whether it is blueprints for a building, a beautiful graphic design for a brochure, a sleek UI for a website or a comfortable piece of furniture, design helps to solve any problem, visual or physical.

While it is important to engage a professional, it is crucial that everybody on the team thinks DESIGN. Entrepreneurs should be able to step away from their immediate environment to look around and view their idea from the perception of the consumers, a process that requires creative thinking.

As a good product manager, a startup founder should be able to connect the dots in non-obvious ways to come up with a unique and innovate solution for the consumers. It is crucial for entrepreneurs develop a deep insight of the problem they are seeking to solve and be passionate about it before coming up with a solution. More startups focus more on the solution and forget the initial problem statement. You must never lose sight of your problem, constantly revisiting it while fine-tuning and tweaking the solution.

A product is valuable only as long as the consumer users it. It is thus important for entrepreneurs to understand customer behavior in order to make their product user friendly. Usability studies though interesting, aren’t always reliable. Startup founders thus have to seek out customers and work with them closely to understand what they need, what they think, how they use the product and how they feel about it.

Customer behavior v/s customer intent – it is important to understand the difference between the two. While a user may want to do something in the ideal world (intent), she may not be able to do it in the real world (behavior). As entrepreneurs it is important to differentiate intent from actual behavior. If this is geographically impossible, startup founders should not hesitate to use data analytics to tap into the users’ behavior patterns and modify the product.

Design thinking allows entrepreneurs to look at their idea holistically and come up with the best possible solution for their users. Design after all enables people to create and come up with the unimaginable and unexpected designs.



Tête-à-tête with Ram Shriram

A mentor and guide to many, Ram Shriram, managing partner at Sherpalo Ventures and one of the first investors at Google, addressed a rapt audience last week at the Bangalore office of [24]7.  Opening the hour long session with his reaction to the start up scene in India, Ram Shriram applauded the dynamic vibe of the IT capital of the country, even as he lamented the lack of infrastructure and the paucity of good Universities to channel the talent of the nation.
A few snippets from the conference for those who missed it.

Get a team first.

Nothing can be done solo. Everything can be done with the right team.

I meet dozens of people in Bangalore, who when they realise I am an entrepreneur ask me my two
cents on starting up. Some of them have started up, some are about to and many want to sometime

If there is one thing common between many of them – it is the lack of a great team. Or any team
at all. I see people with great ideas and motivation, trying to hammer things around by putting a
pitch deck, putting some of their own money, or friend’s money, and outsourcing crucial parts of
the business to folks on hire or contract.

This saddens me immensely, because almost immediately I know that they will fail. Or will have a
long and hard road ahead of them before they surface up.

I know this with certainty because it has happened to me in my start-up journey and it has happened
to so many other people – it’s now a common wisdom – get a good team first. But almost always,
enthusiastic first time entrepreneurs ignore this and surge ahead.

It’s become such a common phenomenon around us that I want to reach out to everyone who has
recently started up, or is about to start-up and tell them this one thing  –

  • Get a team before you get an idea. How do you know you have the right team?

Here are a few thoughts around that -It’s important to be able to have fun with the people in this team.

  • It’s important to be able to have nasty fights with them at night and then look forward to
    seeing them next morning.
  • It’s Important to believe these people – to have faith in skillsets of these people.
  • It’s Important to be able to visit each other at home, cook together and share a meal.
  • It’s Important that everyone has a sense of humour – in some way.

This might sound crazy and completely irrelevant to doing business or starting up. But here’s the
thing – start-ups are painful, serious business.  They are a long commitment and need blood, sweat
and tears. And they are almost always impossible in solo mode. The only thing good in the early
years of building a start-up is the people. Each day – from morning till night it’s the people around
you who will make you want to keep going. It’s the people who will make the insurmountable odds
seem possible.

Start-ups should be fun – even when they are serious business. Because unless you are having a
good time doing something, you are highly unlikely to give your customers a good experience or
value. And it’s the people who make the start-up fun. So, get the right people around you before
starting up.

In a follow-up post to this one, I will share some experiences and insights on how to surround yourself
with the right people and build the team. Just as everyone isn’t born with a silver spoon, similarly
not everyone has the good luck of going to college with the right set of people. The post will
hopefully be of use to those folks.

How to hire like a hacker

In my past several years of running Themeefy, I have gone through many hiring cycles. Over time I have learnt that there is a particular strategy or set of things, that work really well — especially if you are an early to secondary stage start-up, and want to attract good talent, without necessarily paying a lot.

  1. Be clear on who you want — Do you want a CSS / HTML guy ? Do you want a server-side developer ? Or do you want someone who can do pretty much everything little bit? It’s important to clearly outline this in your mind, because people come with different skill sets and everyone has a different bent of mind. Server-side programmers, even if they can write CSS very well, should ideally not be used for that role — they might miss out Ux aspects that are crucial. Similarly, front-end developers might be capable of writing server-side code, but might miss scalability or other issues. Of course there are exceptions to this.

    Also, if you know the exact skill set you want, or the exact role this person will play in your team, you will look at the right places to hire. For example, while hiring UI people, you should be browsing Dribble, but while hiring server-side, GitHub is a much better place.

  2. Write a cool job advert. Be creative — Often, highlighting the non-monetary benefits of joining your start-up, can attract top talent. For example, in a recent hiring cycle, I started my job advert by saying “work for 5 hours a day and do cool stuff for the rest”. I didn’t lie. I just figured that days of high pressure work, nearing a release date, are often balanced out by relatively low pressure days when we are in design phase or doing beta testing etc. It all averages out to 5 or 6 hours of work a day, which can be a great perk for talented people. You also stand a chance of hiring folks who like to spend time in developing their own skills, ultimately benefitting your startup.
  3. Give measurable tests — Hiring is a risky business with a high probability of a wrong decision. This is because it has so many aspects and in a start-up we are always pressed for time and resources. Often, multiple rounds of interviews or tests are not possible, candidates are remote or are too busy in their existing jobs. The best way to cut through this is to send a set of small projects — for example a single page UI to a client-side developer, or a small DB problem to a server-side person. A set of goal oriented tests often makes it easy to see whether the person has the ability to achieve a task without much guidance and in a small time frame — a crucial skill for a startup.
  4. Build a pipeline — The fastest way to get people on board, is to have a pipeline of resumes / people that you interviewed in earlier cycles and have had a conversation with. People acquire more skills over time. . They might have been a “near-fit” back then and you found a better person. But six months or a year later, they might be the right person.
  5. Be open — Don’t have strict notions of work. Be open to work from home, remote work, flexi hours. Be cognizant of the fact that you are hiring people, not coding machines. Talent can come in unexpected packages and as long as you feel a person might be able to do the job, it doesn’t matter how they do it.
  6. Look for attitude — Because when the ship hits rough seas, it’s the attitude that matters more than the skill. No matter how good resumes look, or how amazing a GitHub profile is, it’s the gut feel you get when you see the test results of a person, or interact with the person on email or phone to which you should pay attention.
  7. Be a “closer” — When you are taking time to hire, or decide not to hire someone, make sure you send out an email to the person — especially if you have had several rounds of interviews or discussions with them. It is the right thing to do, and it makes sure your pipeline is open for the future. And as an entrepreneur it’s important that you work towards building a healthy industry culture.
  8. Rules are meant to be broken — There is no one-size-fits-all in start-ups. And definitely not in hiring. If you have rules like salary structures, leave policies, timings — junk them. They are barriers to hiring. Employees get confused and the focus becomes more on what am I getting, rather than on what is the culture I am getting into. Emphasize just one thing during hiring — that it’s a goal-oriented, trust-based and merit-based place. That’s all that matters and that’s how your start-up should be. Customise your offers based on your candidate and your current ground-reality.

Well, that’s it — my algorithm for hiring. You are free to fork and tweak this to your needs. Happy hiring ☺

Startup Hacks: What to do when you don’t have a complete team

If it’s a tech product and the core team is not a set of founders, then you should probably double your deliverable timelines. The core team should comprise of at least one tech geek and one design guru.

I have an idea but I am neither a tech guy nor a design guy. Get at least one of these two people on board as founders. Please do not outsource both the design and development of your product. That fails. Certainly. Period. Even when you throw a lot of money at it.

I have an idea and I am a tech guy but no design experience. Getting the design right is hard. I have learnt the hard way that design can never be outsourced. It’s like outsourcing your soul to someone. Certainly not at the very beginning. You need to get a designer inspired enough to join you as founder. Or work on equity. If these two options fail, here is how to hack the process of product design –

  1. Draw a basic set of wireframes, on paper if you will about what the product will do. Force yourself to think like the user. This in any case will be immensely helpful.
  2. Once the wireframes are done, spend hours on sites like Usabilla and design patterns, to see what people are doing to solve similar UI problems. Sometimes you might get similar products operating in different geographies or verticals. Stretch your imagination and try to retro fit your needs on these patterns.
  3. Look up font and color combinations on the web — there are enough free resources that will help you achieve this.
  4. Take up UI development based on the design patterns or existing pages you shortlist. It’s a quick iterative process, and you will need to either do the development yourself or in-house.

I have an idea, I am a designer but no tech experience: As a designer, you are more empowered to build products than anyone else. In consumer web, design and experience is the king. You can build out the product as a mock in its every detail. Tweet it out or share it on face book — not the entire idea, but just a part of it. Talk to people about it. Chances are, that if your idea is compelling, and your mocks beautiful, they will force someone to join you and build it out with you.

Also, today there are tools like Macaw that will enable you to convert a mock into an actual working set of HTML pages. Try that route out and get enough interest generated. My order of preference for solving technology skillsets in a startup is –

  1. Get a founder or guy on equity
  2. Hire an employee and give them stocks
  3. Don’t outsource unless you have some basic understanding of tech or you have either 1 or 2 in place.

Awesome happy people build awesome happy products.

Being an entrepreneur is always tough, but the first attempt is always the toughest. The social and economic weather in India right now is thrumming with unharnessed entrepreneurial energy and the reasons for not starting up are becoming fewer and fewer.

The odds however, still remain quite high, especially for people who start for the first time. This post is a note on things I learned first-hand on my entrepreneurial journey.

A first generation entrepreneur, I’ve always had a strong desire to build new things and have a global impact. I spent a few years at a large multinational and then started up. I had a fair grip on technology and I had done some intra-preneurial work at my company — that is, built and managed a small product in the field of User Centered Software.

In retrospect, I realise that I did not know a lot more than I thought I didn’t know. I had no idea of how to productise a concept under severely limited resources, how to design products or, what product-market fit is. I had hired and built teams for big companies, but not for a new start-up. I just had a clear vision of the product and a dream to build it.

If you are sailing in the same boat, then read on. There is a lot written about starting up by a lot many people who are much smarter than me. My intention is neither to assume I know better nor more than them. This post is just a set of notes I scribbled along the journey so far. I am hoping this will help folks, who like me are starting up for the first time in India.

Talk to people. The more you share your ideas, the more lucid they will become and the stronger your conviction will become. And chances are, you will get help from a lot of unexpected quarters. Don’t ever be afraid of people stealing ideas. Thieves rarely make entrepreneurs, and even if they do, they are just testing out a new market for you.

Build a company. Not a product — Start by getting the right people on board, whether these are co-founders or employees. If the people are right, they will make everything right. When a product fails the market test, the right people know how to pivot. So one idea morphs into another.

This might be hard in India, considering people often get nervous about changing courses midway. So apart from hiring the right people- which incidentally is a very subjective term — the next thing is to make sure there is a lot of sharing of ideas, frank communication and discussions about the product. Not just daily heads down, code from 9 to 5 stuff. That just makes people robots and kills ideas.

Hire young people with spark. Pay more, hire less — Several times in my 3 years, I have hired fresh college grads over experienced folks, paid them slightly more than they would normally get, and gotten a lot more dedication and valuable contribution. Experience matters, but if there is already enough of that in one of the founders, then spark and energy outweighs that factor.

Hiring fresh grads is tricky. There is very little to judge them with, and the best way to start is to throw a small project or challenge at them. For example, when hiring a UI developer, send him a simple mock, and ask him to code it in a day or two.

Employees are not founders. Don’t expect that. Let me rephrase. It’s ok to expect employees to contribute ideas. It’s ok to expect employees to care about the product and give it their 100%. But it’s not ok to expect them to slog 16 hours a day and over weekends. That is for founders — you and your friend who started up, or you alone. It’s neither fair nor healthy to make employees kill themselves beyond what is reasonable. As entrepreneurs we have a duty to set the right culture across the industry, and to ensure that creativity and energy is not killed by burning people out.

If you are making your employees work weekends, 12 hours consistently, all in the name of product deadlines — you are doing something wrong and it will hit you sooner or later, maybe as killed innovation, bugs, or just bad karma. All of that matters.

Awesome happy people build awesome happy products. Bootstrap but don’t cheap out. If you build a team, because you need a team, then you need to figure out how to keep the team happy within the set expectations. While nice white offices, with MacBook’s and vending machines, is the ultimate way (perhaps) of keeping folks happy — that is not the only way. You will be surprised to find out how, if you can set expectations right, then simple things like letting people work flexible hours, working out of a nice neighbourhood cafe and footing their coffee or beer bills, goes a long way in thinking they work at Google.

Try to be the least smart person on the team. This is a known mantra but I have seen this in action, first-hand. And I need to put this on record that if nothing else pays back in entrepreneurship then simply the ability to hire people smarter than you, and see them execute, is payback enough. The point is, every guy you bring on board should do at least one thing better than you do it.