Earning a rupee in India is more difficult than earning a dollar in US! – Kumar Vembu, Founder and CEO, GoFrugal Technologies

ProductNation interviewed Kumar Vembu, Founder and CEO of GoFrugal Technologies. In a candid conversation, Kumar shares his experiences of dealing with Indian retail market and shares key mantras for succeeding in the Indian market. Read on…

Could you explain the rationale behind venturing into the Indian retail space through GoFrugal?

I started GoFrugal during the late 2004, inspired by the thought of solving problems local to India. At that time, my brothers and I were doing well with our other entrepreneurial venture – Zoho. We were primarily focusing on selling to US and European markets. However, an interview that I watched on NDTV with Bill Gates and Narayana Murthy, seeded my initial thoughts to focus on solving India-centric problems, specifically in the area of retail sector.

I distinctly remember Bill Gates lamenting about entrepreneurs not focusing on solving locally relevant problems. Having studied and worked at IIT Madras under Prof. Ashok Jhunjunwala and Prof. Bhaskar Ramamurthy, I thought that I had the right skills and expertise to delve into one of the most promising areas in the Indian market. This was my inspiration behind starting GoFrugal Technologies.

Interesting! What were the initial challenges you faced as you were setting up GoFrugal? What did you learn from them?

In the initial days of GoFrugal, I was quick to realize that I had not done adequate research in understanding the market dynamics. I probably got carried away by the size of the oppurtunity at initial iterations. I was of the opinion that if there was a good product that I could provide to retail customers, they would buy it. However, I soon discovered that many retailers had very little time or interest to evaluate my offerings, and even for those who had the time, they were unable to judge the value of the offering. I realized that most retailers made their buying decisions based on prior relationships or through references. Hence, I had to make drastic changes in plans to take into account these market realities.

I learnt that retail practices in India are different for every 100 kilometers, primarily because there are different clusters/communities that conduct businesses in very different ways, especially in terms of procuring and running their retail outlets. I also discovered that retailers were not open to adapt industry-wide best practices. They were more comfortable to consider automating their existing processes, even when we told them about better ways to manage those activities. All these early experiences led me to quickly reconfigure the entire process and goals at GoFrugal.

These are very vital insights. What factors do you think gave rise to this kind of buying/evaluating behavior in the Indian retailer? What are your ideas to improve the environment?


I can think of few key reasons that, in my view, caused such changes in thought process in the Indian ecosystem. Firstly, most of the retail entrepreneurs were self made, were forced into this business due to external factors and possibly did not have any formal training. Hence, they had their own view of how to run their operations. Most retailers did not see, that focusing on best practices could be a competitive advantage. Usually, you would find them thinking for short term.

Secondly, for those people who understood the relevance of differentiation, I found that they did not trust the software solution vendors. This is because many vendors could not profitably serve the demands of the customer due to lack of ecosystem and encouragement from the Indian market. Also, vendor refusal to address customization requests from customers, left the latter in a fix.

To tackle these two key issues, I think that market awareness and education is required. The high entry-barrier for software vendors approaching customers should effectively be lowered by creating bridges of trust and relationship. Apart from this, we also need to make the retailers understand the need to upgrade, in order to effectively tackle the onslaught of globalization.

Could you explain what specific interventions you did to enable GoFrugal to emerge as one of the leaders in this space, overcoming the challenges that you outlined earlier?

At GoFrugal, when we started, I was planning for a hyper growth strategy – driven by large-scale customer acquisition plans. However, when we understood the intricacies of market, we pivoted and expanded at a much slower pace than what was initially planned, but with more and more happier and repeat customers. Our current focus is to provide continuous improvements to our offerings on an iterative basis to ensure customer delight and retention. We also have standardized all of our internal processes across product licensing, support, development practices etc. This has helped us move forward and absorb such marketplace changes as in technology and customer expectations.

There was also a particular focus to make all functional teams agile, to be able to take inputs and change processes very swiftly to meet the external changes. This also meant that most of the existing team had to be trained in these new processes. I hired a lot of new talent who helped in leading this transformation internally.

Apart from these internal alignments, I also saw that the external environment was in favor of companies such as ours. I now see signs that the market is looking for more credible vendors, and that customers are warming up to the concept that the best products would win and are worthy of use. With more clarity on regulations from the Government, many opportunities will open up for vendors such as ours. Overall, due to the actions we have taken over the past decade, and the emerging external environment, we seem to be in a very good position to leverage the upside and do well.

Thank you for these insights. As a parting question, what message would you like to provide to tech entrepreneurs who focus on India as a market?

I can recollect a few aspects that every entrepreneur should not forget as s/he builds their enterprise. The most pivotal input is never to be complacent on any aspect of your business. Complacency is your worst enemy. What you have now will never be good enough for tomorrow – and hence always think of ways in which improvements could be made to your business. Next one is to focus on hiring quality people, especially if you are in the retailers’ growth/scaling out stage. This is absolutely crucial for the success of your company.

Lastly, on the market side, realize that adoption of IT based solution is very slow in the Indian market. Be prepared for a long haul. Do not have excess fat in any functional area of your enterprise. Always remember that earning a rupee is more difficult than earning a dollar!

The evolving roles in product ecosystem

I was catching up with Avinash (@avinashraghava) earlier today and we were chatting about product startups in the country. If you’ve been in this ecosystem, and seen the evolution of product companies, some interesting changes happened over the past few years.

Back in 2001, at AdventNet, the Product Manager role was created, and so was the Usability Engineer role (which were primarily UX Designers). There used to be debates about project managers and product managers and I’ve had a chance to see these debates well into 2007-08.

While interviewing with Yahoo in 2004, the recruiter was not quite sure of what they wanted me to highlight (since i didn’t come from a software programming background) and asked “have you taken any short courses on programming languages, that you can highlight in your resume?”. I had to politely decline modifying the resume – it would’ve also meant not highlighting the UX-related work I’d done while at AdventNet. Guess that was a time when the tech world was still coming to grips with the need for Product Managers in product companies.

Those days, Yahoo had a good bunch of UX Designers, and not enough companies felt the need to have good UX Designers. I was lucky and fortunate to work with some very smart designers while building products such as Yahoo! Maps, Yahoo! Local etc. Those days, there were conversations about 2-pizza teams (at amazon), 3-people teams (PM-UX-Dev at google) and emerging agile teams.

By 2006-07, the ecosystem had recognized they needed product managers and many product companies started looking for pm talent. And they were getting started on hiring User Experience Designers.

When I moved to InMobi in 2008, we built the PM team, the UX team and also realized that the way to build great products was by leveraging the data we had, to generate analytics and insights. Helping the user with understanding of what’s happening in the system with respect to their work/needs was a great way to get the user engaged with the system. This starts initially (at low data scale) with basic reporting tools – tables, charts etc. As the data grows (and boy, does it grow fast!), these tools have to evolve into more sophisticated ones. The decision systems also crunch lots more data to generate their outputs. And who better to help with those than data scientists.

By this time, most companies and the recruiting world were familiar with and looking to hire UX designers.

Getting a lead on understanding data and building newer insights helps Product Managers think about smarter ways to solve user and business problems. It also helps UX Designers to visualize newer ways to portray information as well as overall experience. It’s no surprise that companies are now looking to hire Data Scientists quite early in the game, especially the ones that want to build world class products. The VCs are also paving the way with roles like Data Scientist in Residence.

I did a small experiment last year, looking through the websites of various companies in the data services spectrum (data warehousing / analytics / data consulting etc). I went through their archived websites of 2008-09 and saw that terminology such as “data warehousing”, “data analytics” etc had given way to “Big Data” starting 2010. I think this is an important trend to understand – tech businesses are prolific at creating data. To leverage that, they need a pretty significant set of people who can understand and make sense out of it.

Now that the world’s all mobile + tablet, the new challenge is “user acquisition”. Growth hacking anyone?

Fireflies lighting up the sky

Some years ago, Infosys and Wipro put Bangalore on the global map. Now, Bangalore is once again marching ahead. It is creating a new kind of technology ecosystem, which is culturally different from what exists today.

Today’s tech-ecosystem is about a few ‘hathi’ firms doing IT Services. Metaphorically, this is about manicured lawns, straight rows of carefully planted flowers and an occasional oak tree. In contrast, the new ecosystem is about hundreds, nay thousands, of small tech product startups. It evokes the image of a vibrant forest with fast running streams, wild flowers and bamboo shoots. If you think of the current ecosystem as a cathedral, then the new one is a bazaar.

Behind the cacophony of the new tech ecosystem are two powerful trends. The first one is about Software as a Service (SaaS). Gone are the days of buying big servers, expensive software licences and bulky implementation services. Increasingly, business software is just rented and used by employees much the same way you and I use Yahoo mail. This seemingly small shift has momentous implications.

Since a software company doesn’t need an army to sell and deploy its business application anymore, size is not an asset; focus is. So a plethora of small single-minded startups have emerged. And some of them like Zoho, InMobi and Fusion Charts are making waves around the world.

The best days are still to come. SaaS is spreading like wildfire. Doctors’ offices are using it for less than a price of a Café Coffee Day latte. Apartment complexes are using ‘ERP’ type SaaS business software for Rs15 per apartment per month. Lots of small companies in Peenya and Okhla are using world-class payroll and leave management SaaS business software for Rs10 per employee per month.

Basically, SaaS is going into nooks and crannies where no business software has gone before. Just like mobile phones brought telephony to the masses, SaaS is bringing useful business applications to all SMBs. Indian startups are at the forefront of this emerging revolution.

Complementing this SaaS trend is a grassroots movement for strengthening the tech ecosystem. Gone are the trade bodies; in its place have come in volunteer-driven think tanks and communities like iSPIRT and HasGeek. Much like the Aam Aadmi Party, they use bottoms-up participation to fuel a collective process of creating public goods that everybody consumes.

Entrepreneurs help other entrepreneurs by putting their winning (and even losing) playbooks in the public domain. All this is inspired by the amazing success of the open-source movement that created Linux and Wikipedia. Based on all this, a new glow is visible. Look out for the fireflies lighting up the sky.

Three Waves of Indian Software

When I started JamBuster with Suneeta in 2004, I wanted to build a technology management software products company in India.   Little did I know, that we would be part of a three-wave phenomena in software industry in India.

The first wave of this is the software outsourcing, now a bit old story, but still the legend by itself.  By different accounts, the outsourcing of software development by global multinational companies started in mid-1980s. This trend while definite was still very slow, but steady as seen by the fact that Infosys, the iconic harbinger started in 1981 had grown to only $20 MM by mid-1995 with about 900 people.  The Y2K fears fueled an unprecedented growth, so much that by March 2000, the revenues grew to more than $200 MM – a ten-fold growth in 5 years.  The exponential part of the S curve has just begin. By 2005, revenues grow from $200 MM to more than $2 B.  The Infosys employee population grew from 20,000 in 2005 to more than 100,000 by 2010.  The break necking growth created it challenges and by 2010, it was clear that the Software Industry has entered the final leg of the S curve, with growth tempering off.

By 2010, Indian software outsourcing pioneers of 1980s, InfosysWipro and TCS had become multi-billion dollar giants, each with more than $4Billion+ in annual revenues, 100,000+ employees and ADRs on global prestigious stock exchanges.  The Indian Software Outsourcing Wave that started in an apartment in 1981, now has turned into a $100B+ IT outsourcing industry.  The Indian Software Revolution, however, was just starting with the second wave.

The pioneering success of Citibank and GE in leveraging India for business process back office work, paved the path for global in-house (GIC) or captive India Software Centers.  GE was one of the first multinational companies  to outsource back-office work, data center and call center operations to a subsidiary in India, and its outsourcing operation, with a staff of 17,000 by 2004, is one of the largest set up in the country by a multinational company.

Next wave was just beginning to gather the steam- the multinationals opening their captive R&D centers for software and other expertise.  By year 2000, thus  global giants were starting not only to look at India for outsourcing, but also for permanent resources for in-house software development.  Between 1995 to 2000, more than 50 companies had opened their dedicated software development center in India.  More than 500 companies had opened captive software offshore development centers in India by 2005.

According to NASSCOM, by 2012, 750+ Indian Captives of multi-nationals had reached annual revenues of USD 13.9 Billion.  With more than 450,000 employees, it is now 21% of IT export revenues and 1% of India’s total GDP in FY 2012.  Of the 750+ captives, about 28% of them have multiple locations in India. NASSCOM reports that by category, 50% are Engineering R&D, 40% hybrid, 5% BPO and about 5% IT.   What is staggering that in last two years about 200+ Engineering R&D captives.

What started as maintenance or testing jobs, Y2K fear, had permanently opened India as a key resource destination for multi nations.  The focus to use these resources to get better value means that with over 700 software captives that employ 400,000 employees, India houses critical technology hubs for some of the largest corporations in the world.

These centers have evolved into doing more IP-driven work, including product architecture and complete design, apart from fully owning the product or product line. Their contributions to global parent is getting recognized from a recent trend.  Global in-house centers (GICs) or captive units in India of major multinational companies such as Target, Bank of America and HSBC are starting to shift lower-end services such as application maintenance and testing to vendors, and are focusing on more complex product development projects, according to industry experts.

It is therefore not a surprise that by 2010, next wave was starting to gather steam. Having tried outsourcing and built software captives, true software techno-entrepreneurs were starting to look at a new challenge.  This time, it was nothing less than the holy-grail of any company calling itself a technology company – the product R&D.

Today, more than 1000 software product start-ups are trying their luck in India that are looking to leverage software in their core offering. Indian software product companies like Quick HealTallyFusionChartsZoho have made their mark with their products and productized services, each in their own way!

Quick Heal was essentially a customer focused PC maintenance services company, when its owner Kailash Katkar realized that the customer PCs needed more maintenance due to growing spread of viruses from internet.  Quick Heal’s story could have been legendary just on how Kailash saw an opportunity for an Indian made anti-virus software, given the high cost of imported Symantec and Norton offerings at that time, and that his brother Sanjay developed not only the initial versions of their anti-virus but also the innovation that followed, and it became a huge success.  But it is their decision to go head-to-head with global giants, get them to reduce price in India and then Quick Heal to start moving on to their global competitors’ backyard, is what seals its leadership place in this third wave of Indian Software Revolution.

Tally has grown from an accounting package for SME’s to a complete business software for all types and sizes of businesses. Today, the company providing innovative and easy to use business solutions to more than 20,00,000 businesses across 94 countries. Pallav Nadhani’s FusionCharts is a story still in making in that the wonder kid’s charts for grown-ups continues to grow their share of the market segment worldwide.  These early examples demonstrate that Indian Software Product makers are capable to build some of the most technically complex software for local customers and then take them global.

With the experience of outsourcing, knowledge from the captives, Indian Software Industry is getting its the third wind, propelling it into this third wave – Indian Software Product Companies with product R&D done in their backyard.  If Bill’s Microsoft was disruptive to brick and mortar global giants, Kailash’s Quick Heal and Bharat’s Tally are providing a preview of how Indian Software Product wave is about to disrupt the world again.  Get ready for the software products and productized services from India.

Guest Post by Satish Kamat, Jambuster Technologies

SaaS Pricing – the role of customer value proposition

The trend of pure-play SaaS providers and on-premise software ISVs diversifying into SaaS is on the rise. SaaS revenue for global top 10 ISVs forms 40% of all software revenues. According to Gartner, the SaaS revenues will grow annually at 17.5% to form 24% of all software revenues in 2016. This would amount to USD 22.5 billion up from USD 14.5 billion in 2012. While SaaS makes a perfect business sense in the long term, in the short term, SaaS providers face unprofitable business for two or more years among other challenges in marketing and product management. SaaS has given birth to new ways of pricing like fixed-fee or usage based pricing, pay-as-you-go, freemium model and so on. Pricing is an important aspect of SaaS business.

I will be covering SaaS pricing through a series of blogs on topics like concept of value pricing, role of segmentation and tiers, pricing structure, metrics, managing pricing over product life cycle, competition and product positioning. I start with concepts of value and role of segmentation.

A Google search throws up ‘n’ number of SaaS pricing models. But success of any pricing model is always rooted in a sound value proposition of the offering. Cost plus pricing is common, seems financially prudent thing to do but is known to leave a lot of money on the table. Also remember, even when offered free the customers would not pick up your offering if they do not perceive value in it. The first step in pricing strategy is to ascertain value of your offering.

Demonstrate value of your offering

The economic and emotional values are the primary drivers of purchase decision. The economic value of your offering is has two components – price of the next best alternative and the value of what differentiates your offering from the next best. You have no control on the competitors’ price. Therefore differentiation is the way to go to provide better overall customer value and better price. Sometimes customers may not perceive the value. It is critical your marketing communication ensure what is important to customer, specially differentiated features and benefits come to the buyers’ notice. So develop your value proposition and communicate it clearly to the customers.

A simple equation for the value proposition is (Value = Benefits – Costs). For this, you must quantify the economic value of your products features together with the emotional and psychological value. One way to do this is to quantify impact of your offering on customers’ revenue, productivity, profitability and so on. Here is an example of computing economic value of a feature.

A midsize software product MNC in India was considering moving to Google Apps. Google Apps offer benefits to two entities in an organization – IT and end-user. The IT benefits include cost savings on licenses, IT infrastructure and operations and maintenance. The end user benefits include – 1) productivity gain due to improved email search, spam filtering, archiving and improved response times, 2) quicker issue resolution and decision making thru shared editing of documents and 3) improved response time to customers and partners. Let us see how we can calculate productivity gain from just one benefit, say, and faster email search. Assume –300 employees, 5 day workweek, 50 work weeks, average per hour employee cost of $10, average 1 hour email usage per day, and a 10% saving (estimate based on previous implementations). This translates into an annual productivity gain worth 300 x 1 x 5 x 50 x 0.1 x $10 = $75 K.  The total benefits (productivity gains + IT cost savings) for three years operations worked out at $81K, $111K and $123K. Total subscription costs in this period were $18,900 (300 x $63 per user) per year. There were initial costs for transitioning from legacy system, testing, pilot and training amounting to $5K.  The overall risk adjusted net present value of benefits (including several other benefits like archiving, SPAM filtering, threading, IM etc.) was $205K. The customer went ahead with the purchase.

Segment your customers

All customers do not have same needs, value perceptions and the willingness to pay. Targeting the whole population with one product and one price is not the way t best financial performance. It leads to leaving money on the table for some customers who are willing to pay higher and losing out another set of customers who can’t afford the price. Thankfully, the customers can be sub grouped or segmented based on certain similarities. Value based segmentation helps create pricing commensurate with the perceived value by those customer segments.

Segmentation requires creativity in addition to analysis. It must reflect your marketing strategy. For example, Zoho, Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365, compete in online document management area (word processor, spread sheet, presentations, email).  However, Zoho Docs views the market in three segments represented by personal, standard and premium licenses priced at $0, $3 and $5 per month per user. Office 365 has more complex view of the same market. It segments it into seven segments, namely small, midsize and enterprise business, education, government, professional and home with fourteen different licenses ($0 to $20 per month per user)! In contrast, Google Apps has just one offering at $5 per month per user. So, why does Microsoft has seven segments and fourteen price points? A closer study would reveal that the breadth and depth of features / functionality offered by Office 365 far outstrips Zoho docs and Google apps. It allows creation of diverse bundles of features and pitch them to different segments at price points that meet respective value perceptions. By doing this Microsoft is able to capture the students segments (low paying capacity) while maintaining premium pricing for the enterprise. Microsoft would lose both lot of money and a large chunk of market if they decided on just one segment with one price. Interestingly, it is possible to create segmentation and variable pricing without bundling different sets of features i.e., on an identical offering. For example, railways transports grains at much cheaper rates compared to manufactured consumer goods in the same wagon. There is very little difference in the inputs that go into transporting the two items. I have yet to see this in software or SaaS.

One more point in favour of segmentation is as follows. In a high fixed cost industry like software and SaaS, it is a good strategy to capture the large volume of customers in the long tail with a price that is just equal to the offering’s variable cost. This is good for revenue. Generally, more segments the better. The factors that limit number of segments are complexity and sales administration cost, smaller differentiation between the offering for adjacent segments and customer propensity to select the lower priced segment when differentiation is small.

I will close this blog with a quiz. Given below is the old pricing page of Serverdensity (http://www.serverdensity.com). Serverdensity is a provider of cloud based server monitoring. They have tiered pricing based on number of servers that a customer has. What is good, bad and ugly about this pricing?

Please look for the next blog on SaaS pricing metrics.

Fifth iSPIRT Playbook Roundtable: Product Manager, the Skill in Demand

It is a cliché to say product management is both art and science. The product manager’s function encompasses a range of tasks, only limited by the company’s vision. Deep Nishar, Senior VP, Products and User Experience, at LinkedIn, told the audience at Nasscom Product Conclave 2012 that, “product managers should have brain of an engineer, heart of a designer and speech of a diplomat.” The product manager with such an expanse of skill set is hard to find in India. With the intention of bringing experiential learning and to ignite conversations among product entrepreneurs so that they learn from each other, iSPIRT, the think-tank for startups, is organizing Playbook Roundtables that facilitate transferring of key knowledge through an open discussion. In the fifth Playbook Roundtable organized at Chennai by iSPIRT, Sridhar Ranganathan, who has rich experience as a product manager, shared anecdotes quoting from positions he held at Zoho, Yahoo, and InMobi to define who a product manager is.

Sridhar’s naval architecture career did not last long. A chance meeting with Sekar Vembu, founder of Vembu Technologies, landed him a job at AdventNet (all three Vembu brothers, Sridhar, Sekar, and Kumar were part of AdventNet then). He was placed to manage a team that was working on a product. Not a geek, he took three months to understand Java Script. A management shake-up at AdventNet properly designated him as product manager. Then began his tryst with product management. At Zoho, the discipline of product conception, execution, and delivery was practiced with a high level of checks and balances. With a small team and margin for error almost non-existent, Sridhar learned to work with constraints to deliver software products. Moving on, he headed the team working on Maps at Yahoo. This proved to be challenging as managerial oversight was nonexistent but any senior level meetings thrashed any feeling of achievement. Sridhar by now had crafted the art of product management and he had an excellent team to work with. Then at InMobi, his challenge was scale. He was able to successfully navigate through the phase where InMobi’s ad impressions went up from 50 million per month to 2 billion per month.

The product culture

There were 15 participants from OrangeScape (Suresh Sambandam and team), Fresh Desk (Smrithi, product manager), Kallos (George Vettah), LPCube (Lakshman Pillai), Array Shield (Vasanthan Kumar), ContractIQ (Ashwin), Twenty19.com (Karthikeyan Vijayakumar), RailsFactory (Mahendran), Fix Nix (Shanmugavel and team), Social Beat (Suneil Chawla), and Humble Paper (Vivek Durai), represented by its mostly founders. Suresh was keen to know how with a small product team (Zoho instituted a culture of a seven-member team to work on a product), Zoho was able to recruit college drop-outs and train them to work on products. Sridhar said if the company is big enough and has a strong culture (such as escalation of wrong codes, build times, and customer complaints to the highest level if not done within a set time frame), such experiments are possible. In Google, you know the person who is going to work because of the recruitment process but at Zoho, you have to groom the person.

Sridhar strongly emphasized that data plays a big role in product management and went on to say that “if you build technology products, your core data model and technology stack determines your business model.” He listed various challenges faced by organizations such as SalesForce to remove duplication of data. For example, to change a primary key, Zoho needed 14 months. George Vettah added that Ramco had to reengineer its offering after SAP effectively took away its market share. Sridhar gave away one more of his product philosophies: “If there is a constraint in the product, and if you have the market, you could only pray that the market does not go away till you reengineer the product.”

Education to Product: the product continuum

Through a graph, he illustrated the various stages of the product continuum: Taking problem complexity on one axis and scale or impact on the other, he said, for low problem complexity and low scale, education (of the customer to tell them why your product) is needed. At the next level, process needs to be defined (to quote an example, the process of how to apply for a passport online), Still further, at the higher complexity and more users, you need to define the procedure (how to fill in the form of the passport application), and still at a higher level, you need to provide a solution to the problem. But for a very complex problem with the highest impact (nonlinear), you need a product. So by understanding the need and the impact, you can execute your product strategy.

The product manager

He said that the fundamental role of the product manager is to identify the product that has the maximum probability of success. “The success metrics of a product determines the product manager’s action,” he added. This was followed by an interesting discussion on how the founder passes the baton to the next product manager as the company scales up. Kaushik from OrangeScape provided a fine example. The product manager has to work on three aspects: hygiene, spoiler, differentiator. A hygiene part of the product is not impactful but without it the product wouldn’t work. The spoiler is beating the features of the competition, and differentiator is the difference that your product makes. Further, at the first level, the product manager has to find users for the product, at the next the user level should be scaled, say from 2000 users to a million users, and further at the next level, if there is a drop in user level due to competition, the project manger has to devise ways to retain the user level. These three different stages require product mangers of different skill sets.

Finding the right product manager

Finding the right product manager is a challenge. Sridhar said the right product manager is identified by his ability to align with the vision of your organization and should have the potential to grow with the organization. For him, the hiring decisions are not done in a day. Sometimes it stretches to two months as he engages in long conversations with the potential candidate. Then an interesting discussion on organization structure where most of the times the product manger is asked to “influence without authority” was discussed. “The product manager has to be temperamentally strong,” stressed Sridhar. In many organizations, the developers and engineers are not direct reports of the product manager. Engineering team is headed by a senior engineering head. But your input on the engineer decides his grading. So at most positions, product managers have to work with teams that don’t directly report to them. By telling the team the importance of the product and by selling the vision (by exercising influence without authority), you need to get the work done. Smrithi, from FreshDesk, said influence without authority was one of the attributes looked for in a product manager in her earlier employment. George Vettah added that research has shown that for product managers did not possess strong right brain thinking (creative) or left brain thinking (analytical), but somewhere that balanced both.

Building the product, managing the team

The ideal way to enforce build discipline is to have a release ready after every build. This is practically impossible but if achieved, gives the product management team an edge on product release. This also makes sure that the product isn’t broken. Several R&D prototyping needs to be done before the product is handed over for completion to the engineering team. Once the product is fixed and passed to engineering team, it’s difficult to tweak again. So spend as much time in R&D rather than “release early, release often.” Sridhar said managing multiple products only requires you to have user interface and data operability aligned.

The product manager has to find the right time to pivot. Sridhar asked the participants to read Lean Startups by Eric Ries. The author has dwelt at length on pivoting. Failures are part of product management but how the product manager negotiates such down moments counts. The product manager has to be mentally strong. For any of the product manager initiatives, winning the trust of the stakeholders is key, stressed Sridhar. He added that the satisfaction of seeing the product completed after your visual thinking on it is immense. He said that the product manager’s role is cerebral as it involves a lot of thinking.

There were intense discussions when each of the issues was discussed among the participants. Vivek Durai, who is now solely developing a product, said his priority listing has changed and his to-do list has a lot of elements to add up to. Kaushik said his respect for his previous product managers had risen after this discussion. Suresh felt some more improvements can be made to the discussion format. Suneil felt that the discussions were insightful and opened his world to product management. Karthikeyan Vijayakumar said he would implement a lot of stuff from the discussions.

How to get your product’s content marketing juggernaut in place

Congratulations, you have just started up. It has taken so long to get here – you’ve worked hard, saved up, staved away every comfort, and your product is out, garnering rave reviews. Now you turn to the other important stuff you need to do – get your product in front of your market. It’s time for the marketing and selling push in a startup.

And this is when you know you have to set up a content marketing effort. You know it costs less, brings in way more, and can contribute to branding in an unimaginable way.

But how and where do you start?

I’ll try to answer that.

When I started out, content marketing was just about catching fire as a viable marketing channel. The field was nascent (and in many ways, still is) and everything we have learned about it, we have learned by doing. I’ve tried to make a small guide out of what we’ve learned.

The two towers of content marketing 

There are two separate efforts involved in content marketing. I call them the two towers. One of them is of course creating the content that will educate the market and convince people to buy your product. This is your first challenge. The other is getting it in front of them, what we call ‘distribution’. Even if you have written and designed amazing content, it’ll only be valuable if your audience reads it. Your second challenge lies in grabbing the eyeballs that will translate into greenbacks.

Wading in, then.

The first tower – content

1. Blog
2. Whitepapers
3. Case Studies
4. E-Books
5. In-product help texts
6. Infographics
7. Videos
8. Presentations

The list I have compiled above is just a snapshot of the things you can do. Platforms and formats abound for people who want to get more creative and tell stories in a new way. But to get started, the list above will do very well. For any B2B product, educating the customer about what your product can do and what your product can do better than others is the aim, and all the content generated should be tailored around specific takeaways for the audience.

I still believe in the blog as the key channel for any startup. A few months after my CEO Girish Mathrubootham had started up Freshdesk, he wrote a post on the Freshdesk Blog about how a Hacker News comment had been his inspiration to quit his job and start a company. The post went viral, people across the world read it, shared it, and were inspired by it. It brought us recognition on a scale we hadn’t even imagined. And this was when we didn’t even have a marketing plan in place. It is just not about the customers the blog brings as well; a good blog is a good branding statement. The first thing that most people look at when they reach your site is the blog. It just has to be amazing.

All of the rest come under the banner of educational informational content. Make it a point to tailor content to different stages of the sales cycle and deliver it when the customer has the most need for it. For example, when a customer is trialling your product, make sure he gets in-product help texts to help him navigate the newness of it. You can send him white-papers comparing your product with your competitors and tell him all the reasons he needs to choose you. You can send him videos showing him little tips and tricks in the product that makes his work easier. You get the point.

Now on to the trickier part of the equation.

The second tower – distribution

1. SEO
2. Social
3. The Community

Anyone getting into the Content Marketing equation should understand this first – one thing you do will feed into the other.

Now that you have created the stuff you think your audience will like, you need to get it to them.

Basic SEO is imperative. This is the most targeted form of inbound marketing there is. If you do not deliver content to the people who are actually looking for it, you might as well pack up and leave. And make no mistake about it, this is grunt work. You have to get down, get your hands dirty, pick through tags, metatags, best practices, measure impact, rinse, repeat. Use a tool like Scribe. Think keywords, SEO pages, landing pages and more.

This should get you started.

Now to the social web. Your social presence is your admit card to the masses. You now have access to people all over the world who are looking for and consuming information just like what you are creating and some of them are ready to open their wallets for the product you have made if it is going to give them any value. But again, it is not something to be totally enthralled by. The worst thing you can do is consciously try to ‘go’ viral. Get on the social platforms that make sense for your business, and build a consistent and interesting presence. Share stuff that your followers are interested in, and not just what you create. Build a social community. This will give you credibility as well as an audience that wants to listen to what to have to say.

For a product, it is sometimes better to build communities by themselves. One way to do this is like how Dropbox does it, forging a community by giving users incentives to evangelize the product in exchange for more space. This is a great way to growth-hack, if your product is something as inherently social as Dropbox. But for other ‘normal’ products, several support tools let you build your own community, including Freshdesk. When you let customers talk to each other, put forth new ideas for your product, vote on new features, share tips and tricks and so on, what you have is an engaged community that co-owns your product, has a stake in it becoming better and even more amazing, and will go out of their way to help you make it so. This community will be the greatest pack of evangelists you’ll ever have, and your content will be shared and trumpeted by them, thereby reaching audiences far beyond what you’ll be able to reach yourself.

I was talking to my boss Vikram last night, and standing on the balcony of our 7th floor office, he told me about how “There is no shortcut to slogging. You just have to. Only then will anything worth learning be learnt.”

An so it is with Content Marketing. To get better at it, you need to put in your hours, grind it out, make mistakes, learn.

So that is what I urge you to do. Start.

Don’t Build Something Unless Someone Is Willing To Pay For It & Asks For It Twice!

Notes from the  Product Management Roundtable In Bangalore. Having attended the first ever iSPIRT Roundtable on Product Positioning in Bangalore and closely followed the second one held in Delhi, I was eagerly looking forward to the Round table in Bangalore on Product Management by Sridhar Ranganathan. Sridhar is a senior Product Management professional having spent considerable time in product management roles in companies like Zoho, Yahoo! and InMobi.

The 12 startups that participated in the round table consisted of a healthy mix of companies across various stages wrt their Product organization – some already had a PM function set up, some were scaling fast and were looking for ways to make their first PM hire and some where the CEOs or the founders were themselves donning the hat of a Product Manager.

The session started with a round of introductions and an open discussion around various aspects of Product Management – need for Product Management, hiring of Product Managers and setting up the team, prioritization, building an MVP etc. which set the right tone for the rest of Roundtable.

Sridhar shared his experiences of being a Product Manager and a Product Management leader in his previous roles. His experiences at Zoho were particularly of a lot of interest to the participants, as Sridhar was at Zoho during the period it transitioned from a company making Network Management Systems to the Saas giant it is today. He mentioned how the founders had a strong faith in setting up a Product Management function and empowering the Product Managers to lead the product efforts. He said it was like changing gears from moving in 4 big ships to 11 speedboats – with a Product Manager navigating each speedboat (a product). One insight Sridhar shared stood out, that the founding team needs to strongly believe that there’s a need for Product Manager(s) in the company and remain fully invested in the idea. Otherwise, there are very few chances of a Product Manager making a meaningful contribution and succeeding in their role.

Here  are some key insights from the discussions at the Round Table:

Product Management is a highly cerebral activity

The importance of setting a conducive environment for the Product Management setup was stressed upon heavily by Sridhar.  It is imperative that between the Product Manager and the immediate Product team (engineers, designers, QA), there be a very high amount of trust. The decisions of the Product Manager will directly impact the work, and subsequently the performance of the engineering team. Similarly, the Product Managers needs to believe that his engineers are capable and are able to solve the challenges he poses to them.  Laying the right foundation and building trust among the team is absolutely essential for the Product Management team to contribute significantly towards the company’s goals.

Framework to Solve Customers’ Pain Points

The discussion then moved towards prioritization of tasks, catering to customer requests for feature additions and customizations. Sridhar presented a very interesting framework which is quite handy to place customers’ pain points in the right context and solve them appropriately.


Depending on the target group size is and the complexity of the pain point, one can address the pain points in different ways

  • Education: Can you provide simple walkthroughs of the product through screencasts or tooltips, put down a set of FAQs that customers can refer to and get the help they’re looking for?

  • Process: Can you tell customers on how to do something? As an example, creating a 1-page document on how to apply for a passport and redirecting customers to that section would be a way of setting up the process.

  • Procedure: Taking the above example itself, if you actually build a feature to help customers apply for a passport, it would be creating a procedure to solve a pain point.

  • Solution: Any customizations/hacks over an existing feature/flow would fall under this.

  • Product: Enabling the customers to do something completely through the product itself. E.g. Employee payroll processing.

Building an MVP

How much time should one spend in building the MVP? One of the keenly debated questions was on the amount of time to spend to build an MVP. While there were multiple inputs based on the nature of the product and the market each of the companies was targeting.  However, Sridhar mentioned that one should invest enough time so as to avoid having to pivot at a later stage.

Is your product a ‘painkiller’ or a ‘vitamin’? It is important to understand this very well beforehand and pitch the product in the right manner to your first set of customers. You may be overselling if you’re trying to pitch a vitamin disguised as a painkiller and grossly underselling if it is the other way round!

What features get built into the MVP? Don’t build the product or a feature just because someone says it’s a good idea or if your prototypes ‘look good’. You need to validate that the customer is indeed willing to pay for the product. It’s even better if they ask for something repeatedly, which indicates that they have a pain point and they are willing to use the product/feature.

Taking the MVP to the market. Choose customers who can challenge you and make you think harder. The first 5% of the customers give 85% of the important feedback and the interest tapers off as you get the next set of customers. It is important to keep validating your view of the market and be ahead of the curve. You may have built something that was relevant at a previous time or maybe talking to a customer set that’s no longer representative of the larger market out there.

When to get a PM and what should the PM spend time one?

Sridhar suggested that whether or not there’s a formal designation assigned, there should be a Product Owner from Day 1, which is invariably one of the founders. Over time, it will be good if one can identify a good Product person from among the early engineers and have a Product person for a group of 7-8 engineers. The Product Manager should ideally be able to do 70% of everything! For the effective use of a Product Manager’s time, a helpful rule of thumb is that he spends 50% of his time planning for the future, 30% of the time on current initiatives and 20% of the time on firefighting.

Data, Intuition & Processes

How much does one trust data and how much does one rely on intuition to make decisions?

One of the participants remarked – “If you torture data long enough, you’ll get what you want”. It was general view shared among the participants and endorsed by Sridhar that data is good for discussions and not decisions. There’s a strong element of intuition and market understanding that go into making decisions and there should be ample scope for that.  Finally, it’s the Product Manager’s call on the direction of the product and he needs to be able to take views from multiple perspectives. Data alone being the decision criterion may not be the best way to go about it.

What about processes? Do they kill creativity or actually help in better productivity and accountability?

A quick poll on what the participants thought about process threw up some interesting responses. The hardcore engineers found process to be a bit of hindrance. However when they put on the founder/senior management hat, they found that there needs to be some way to maintain accountability and provide better visibility to a larger group as a company grows. As one of the participants rightly said, process is ‘doing what you say and saying what you do’.

Sridhar cautioned against having too many processes (don’t put policeman unless there’s a lot of traffic) ot of traffic), he also shared some interesting ways of bringing in process. Rather than enforcing process, can the employees themselves be stakeholders in implementing process and are ihe also shared some interesting ways of bringing in process. Rather than enforcing process, can the employees themselves be stakeholders in implementing process and are incentivized for taking an active part in the process and evangelizing it?

Each of the participants took away some key actionables which they’d go back and try out at their respective companies. They’d also stay in touch to share their learnings and experiences to help one another build a strong product management function. After all, we’re working towards transforming a nation with products!

How to get to 1000 startups in India ever year

I will be on a panel with several others at the IAMAI conference next week for the India Digital Summit and the discussion is about how to make 1000 digital startups happen annually in India.

I thought I’d put some thoughts together and get some opinions before I present at the panel.

Currently there are less than half that number of product companies being started each year.

There are various issues across the funnel, but I’ll focus on the #1 issue, which I believe is at the top of the funnel.

Great product entrepreneurs starting great companies.

I wanted to pick a specific example from our accelerator: two of the most amazing hackers and geeks I have worked with – Melchi and Aditya co-founded Cloud Infra after 6 years at Google here in India, building high quality products.

I would fund them just given their background and the quality of hackers they are. Regardless of what they are developing.

Anyplace else (Valley) they would have been funded first and then they would have been asked questions. I worked with them for 4 months.They are amazing.

India needs more of them to increase the number of startups from 500 to 1000.

Unfortunately that’s not happening and is not going to happen.

I may get a lot of brickbats for this statement, but:

I believe the best product entrepreneurs should have built & shipped a world-class product before they start a company.

If you have worked in a services company it does not count. Period.

There are very few software product companies in India – in fact fewer than 20 are really good. Of those 20, many, including Google, are cutting back on hiring and investing in India.

That’s just awful.

Yahoo, Zoho & InMobi in particular have contributed a LOT to the product startup ecosystem in India, given how many good developers they have helped groom.

If you worked at any of these product software companies a few years ago, then you are a candidate for a high quality product startup in India.

Granted, a small number of these folks are actually starting companies, but that can be fixed.

The trouble is there are not too many of them in the first place.

And the bigger issue is that the Google’s and Facebook’s of the world are preferring to hire more folks in the valley.

In fact many of the top IIT graduates who get jobs at Google and Facebook are moving to the valley. 2 years ago they’d be working here in India.

To get 1000+ digital startups each year in India, we have to work on making sure world-class digital software companies hire more of our top people here in India.

I dont think tax breaks will provide them any more incentive to hire here.

I also believe there are enough quality folks here in India they can hire.

I’d love some ideas on what will make them hire more people of high caliber in India and keep them here. I’d love to see them not cut back on hiring in India.

What are your ideas on how we can get these companies to hire great engineering talent in India?