The side effects of a socially connected world

We have lost the power to express ourselves truly.

Every thought we have. Every piece we write.  Every picture we snap. It has to cross a certain quality threshold. Has to qualify to be good enough to be expressed. To be posted on Facebook, or wherever we publish our curated thoughts. If it isn’t that good, it might not even surface to our own consciousness.

Advanced analytics, social upvoting and feedback, all the sophisticated tools, seem to drift us away from our true inner voice, our intuition .

Hopefully, this is just a phase. A temporary displacement caused by the rapid growth of personal computing and the social internet in recent years.

Today it occurred to me that when I was a kid in school, I used to maintain a small diary in which I would write a thing or two everyday. Anything that came to mind.

That seems a long time ago.

Startup Lessons

I have been reading some fantastic startup blogs lately, all of them eye openers in various aspects.

Here I am trying to summarize in a concise way, some of the key lessons from these readings –

1. The most desirable form of investment is from customers, sales bring your company an investment that also pays interest.

Sales >> Bootstrap >> Friends/ Family >> Angel >> VC

2. The idea of minimal viable product is not to build a half assed product, it is to build only the most important part of the product and ship it out the door. Let the product breathe in hands of real customers, only then you will realize what are the features that your users really care about and should be a part of the product.

MVP helps you discover the true essence of the product.

3. Most startups seek validation at the wrong places – VCs, angels, mentors, peers, friends, self. The only person whose opinion matters is the customer, the customer who is going to pay for using your product. All other forms of advice are the sum of other people’s experiences on what they have seen before, which might be right in one particular set of circumstances but not necessarily yours.

Understand with clarity the context of your issues and use advice appropriately. The biggest mistake that startups do is not that they don’t take advice, the biggest mistake is that they don’t know when and from whom to take it.

4. Solve a real problem. Engineering, design, marketing, sales are all means to an end, the end being creating value and brining it to the right people.

That’s it for now.


Solving a problem

Raising money is not going to solve the problem.

Hiring an engineer is not going to help.

No matter how skillfull you are, its all irrelevant.

The only important thing is for you to see and identify the opportunity.

The operational skill set is totally different from the visionary one.

An entrepreneur needs to learn when to be what.

The value of ideas in a startup

Lately when talking to startup founders, there is an interesting theme that I have come across.

Almost every founder seems to have unanimously accepted the theory that in a startup, the idea doesn’t matter. Execution is king. I believe such thinking is wrong, wrong in a big way.

I totally respect Paul Graham and am a believer in most of YCombinator’s principles on startups and the process of building technology startup companies. And although the “ideas don’t matter” paradigm has been around for a while, I think Ycombinator’s official Apply without an Idea article has made some founders take this concept literally and apply it to even their non YC funded companies.

So here is what I have to say- when building a startup, ideas matter.

In fact so much that in a startup they matter even more than they do at a big company. A big company can get away with a product which does not solve any real problem, is based on some cliched idea and which is a nightmare to use. They might still manage to sell hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of that product just based on the company brand.

With YCombinator there are multiple factors that compensate for the lack of idea – most importantly the vast experience and mentorship that YC itself brings to the table. Every other startup which is not part of such an incubator must keep this in mind before jumping on the no-idea bandwagon.

So, ideally startup founders should spend some considerable amount of time in forming the idea, validating it and clearly defining the value proposition it brings to the market. Once they do that, the company has a stake in the ground.

From there on they can pivot and iterate and do what not, based on user feedback and so forth. But user’s would give feedback only to something which solves an essential problem for them. They would want a better version of only a product that is useful at its core.

Now how do you figure out something that would be useful to a lot of users without building a product spec or basic prototype?

For that you have got to have vision. The one rare quality that ticks entrepreneurs with the right ideas and gives them the courage to execute and build an amazing company around it.

Airbnb and the Competitors.

Its interesting how Airbnb has evolved from a crazy little YC startup, to the ebay of spaces it is today.

Almost every other technology startup of its generation – Dropbox, Groupon, Tumblr, Foursquare etc. has managed to attract tons of competitors, Airbnb has none, it has managed to keep everyone out.

And although, each one of these other startups have also almost created an entirely new industry and stayed at the top of it, they have faced competitors left and right. Other startups coming up with better prices or better features, big tech companies entering their markets, even plain old look alikes.

What makes Airbnb command this exclusive position then?

I believe its a combination of various key differentiators:

1. The crazier the idea, the more time it takes for others to follow:

Who would have imagined people would be buying almost every item that they need online, without trying and testing it first? That gave Amazon the lead, for a very long time, long enough that it is almost impossible for any new entrant to beat Amazon in e-retail today.

2. Its difficult to earn user’s trust: had a very simple and powerful yet seemingly non workable idea. Asking people for their bank account details and storing all that on your own servers!! I still cannot imagine how Mint got their very first tide of early adopters, but now the idea seems more and more plausible and lucrative.

3. Its easier to build better technology than it is to build a community around your service:

Think Facebook, think community, think how tough it has been for Google Plus to even enter. Airbnb not only is a crazy idea and has earned its user’s trust, it has built a huge and growing community around its service. Its possible to compete with Dropbox on better tech or with Groupon on better deals, but to beat the community advantage is a tough game. Airbnb’s potential competitors know this, I hope they do before starting out.

There might be lots of other awesome things that Airbnb does right, but these 3 things they definitely do.

The software design paradigm

There is bad software and good software, and then there is awesome software.

Bad software – the user finds it hard to understand what the software is saying.
Good software – the user understands what the software is saying explicitly.
Awesome software – the software fully understands what the user is trying to say.

The rules are simple, following them is not.
In fact so hard that most of the software we use today falls in the first two categories.

The good news is, for us to build awesome software, we don’t need to be ninja programmers or rockstar designers.
What we need, is a lot more empathy and a little sense of good design.

The non-opportunity cost

There’s an opportunity cost to everything that you might want to do.
Whether you decide to go to school, start a business, go bagpacking in the mountains, or learn a new set of skills.
Its easy to measure the opportunity cost of any such pursuit and dismiss the idea if things don’t work out.

However, there is risk associated with not taking the risk.

The myopic in us fails to see the cost of going with the flow, of not taking the risk to pivot and change direction, of submitting to default.
If you are faced with the choice of either keep going or step back and validate, I hope you make this decision with a more biased, and less analytical approach.

Remember that the disconnect you earn by seizing an opportunity is a huge reward in itself.

Missed Opportunities

We all have a tendency to think a lot about the past, lost opportunities in the past specifically. The comforting factor about thinking in the past rather than in the future is that everything is certain. Nothing that happened in the past can ever change, nothing can happen otherwise. Its easier, almost effortless then for anyone to form logically sound opinions about the past.

What we don’t realize is that almost all such analysis never helps us in becoming any better decision makers. At best, such thinking doesn’t help at all. At worst, it creates a superficial, convenient layer of reasoning which justifies our indecision about investing in the opportunity to ourselves.

Seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? I thought analysis was good.

Well, the title of this essay is only a misnomer. It very clearly implies that you saw the value in something before it was general knowledge, that you had identified an opportunity but couldn’t act on this knowledge because of some external, uncontrollable and unreasonable factor.

In hindsight, its always easy to look at something and see the trend. The challenging and rewarding part is to take the leap, to believe in your idea, to take the decision, today.

Opportunity, by its very definition is not something that everybody agrees upon on. In fact if everybody does, then it most certainly isn’t an opportunity.

The term “missed opportunity” neglects the fact that a majority of the times you didn’t even see the opportunity when it was around.  The phenomenon should much rather be called “unseen opportunity”, that would be a lot more accurate.

Next time when you talk about how you missed an opportunity, think about this.