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.