Do I need a co-founder?

This article is the second in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on Sept the 16th, 2016.

Those who read my last column may have noted my ambivalence towards the “previously successful business model applied to a different market” line of thinking. That holds good for start-ups as well as people. I am not interested in people’s role models.

I do pose one question to the founders who come to me for advice: “What things are you definitely not good at?”. It is an uncommon but essential way of bringing self awareness to the journey the founder is about to begin. Most founders giggle then start with low impact observations such as “I eat as soon as food appears; Instagramming food is definitely not for me”. Soon enough, other things emerge: “I am not really good at cold calling,” “I lose track of money easily,” “I cannot face telling people they are messing up at their job,” “My coding skills are limited to the front end, but the product I envisage needs full stack development capabilities.”

Here is the visceral realisation of John Donne’s oft-cited line “no man is an island”. No founder is an island either. Her success in realising her dream relies on many skills and many people.

Wisdom and experience tell us that one needs a team. The team would ideally consist of people, whose skills and experience complement those of the founder. But could these people be cofounders?

Becoming a cofounder is about believing in and committing to the idea, as much as the first founder does. It means being able to face up to staking one’s reputation on an idea that one did not think of, but is convinced enough to join in and make into a success. It is about committing one’s skills, networks and work ethic to building the venture. Being a cofounder requires one to champion the venture at all opportunities, to the exclusion of everything else. It may often also need one to do all of this while earning no more than sweat equity and not getting paid much or at all, till either there is enough traction or till external investment is raised.

But do these people need to be your cofounders?

Arguably, yes. Not because you need them but because while solopreneurs are successful in raising capital and making profitable exists, venture capitalists and accelerators do not often take a chance on them. It makes sense.

There are exceptions. If you are creating an e-commerce platform or setting up a marketplace, you could use an off the shelf stable technology solution with support services for implementation bought in from the platform provider, while you focus on customer and supplier development. Over time you may find yourself doing too much work and feel the need for support and help especially in areas of work which are your weaknesses. These may or may not be cofounders.

So where does one find cofounders?

When first teaching undergraduates in India in 2012, I wanted them to work in teams, an idea not encouraged in academic settings often enough. Culturally too, the vision of a lone ranger is seductive to young people. I started by asking them about the start-ups and entrepreneurs they admired. The usual suspects including Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Flipkart and so on were mentioned. I then asked them to name the founders. Suddenly the penny dropped: the realisation that none of those was a lone ranger narrative or a solo success.

Naturally they wanted to know where they might find these cofounders. “Look around you”, I said, “Your potential collaborators, co-conspirators and future partners-in-crime are in this classroom with you.” It is not clear the suggestion was believed completely. Fast forward a few years and some of them are building their ventures together.

It is not always so simple, of course. In the wider world, start by telling everyone you are seeking a cofounder. Share your ask in entrepreneurs’ communities. Build your venture’s profile on AngelList and post a job seeking a cofounder with an outline of skills you seek. Evangelise your company and briefly pitch to everyone you meet. Hustle, hustle, hustle.

When you find your cofounders, hold on to them. They are now the joint custodians of your vision. They will shape, along with you, the future success — or failure —of your venture. As the founder, you must commit to rewarding them fairly and meaningfully, to sharing information good and bad with them, to resolving disagreements quickly and keeping the wellbeing of the venture in mind. These are not unlike requirements scripted in wedding vows.

Not only will you cofounders build your venture with you, they will also witness the journey. More importantly they will be the people you clink glasses of champagne with, when you all succeed in creating something meaningful and lasting out of a mere dream.

Authenticity and Vedic wisdom for luxury brands

Alicia Keys, the talented musician and singer, was in the news recently for having chosen decidedly to eschew makeup. In a monograph in a newsletter, she said she feels no need to cover up any more. She talked about her journey to self discovery and finding her authentic self which did not need to be hidden under layers of makeup.

On cue, and missing all the irony of Keys’s commentary, Harper’s Bazaar featured 74 models in selfies with the faces they were born with. Hashtag #nomakeup.

Ladies & Gentlemen, authenticity is now on trend, and branded.

In a related development, one of my favourite web friends, Jackie Danicki, has started writing Burned Out Beauty, a beauty blog which is my new not-so-secret indulgence. She was the original beauty blogger in 2004 on the world’s first beauty blog Jack & Hill.

Jackie is not being a contrarian. She took a break, so to speak, and she is back doing something that she loves, enjoys and is knowledgeable about. Jackie is authentic.

The good thing about being authentic is there is no need to be contrarian.

But how can brands find where their authenticity lies? Indeed what is authentic and what are the sources of authenticity?

Eagle-eyed readers will remember my agonising over the “authenticity” of the Porsche symposer some time ago. I ruminated on it a while. After all the car is man-made, as is the symposer, and it is humans that manifested the Porsche vroom in the car’s engine as well as the symposer. It is not about the engine, it is about the sound. Once I had reached that essentialist unifying thread, I was at peace.

Where a sensory signal is not the only or the main signature of the brand, a brand may have to work a tad harder to define what it stands for, what its authentic self is.

A beautiful and effective tool is to be found in a Vedic method of inquiry.

What the essence of something is is often arrived at by answering what it is not.

Neti-Neti. Not this, not this.

Unlike other fixed signals of authenticity, the process of Neti-Neti also accommodates indeed nurtures growth and reinvention. If we are no longer something, if we no longer stand for something, we are one step closer to being our authentic and whole self.

So with brands.

When luxury brands with deep heritage struggle to reinvent themselves and their relevance in a world with modern technology and newness, they can choose to look inward and answer what they are not.

What are you not, any longer?

Authentic & still relevant

Sensor sensibility in governance

A PwC survey found in 2015 that nine out of 10 CEOs believe they “should champion the use of digital technologies to get the most from investment”. The discourse has moved on from digital transformation to the broader scope of the impact of cyber crime and digital terrorism, including state-sponsored malicious acts, on the business.

The same survey also found that companies are struggling to correlate digital investment with financial growth.

A quick — and related — Google search for “touchpoints” makes the myopia in business leadership — and dare I say “thought leadership”? — quite clear. The discussion on touchpoints is still fixated on how a business can sell a customer more of its goods and services. I see your arching brows. “But isn’t this good news about financial growth?”, you ask. Yes, it is but it is not only good news nor is it all of the good news.

The discourse on touchpoints is a mere nod to our ever-connected world of device proliferation. This problem is being exacerbated by the glut of data being collected from trillions of sensors and actuators. Our ability to make sense of this tsunami of data, especially in real time, is highly constrained. This is the “insight gap”, where the disconnect between digital investment and financial growth lies.

There is also a growing governance challenge arising from this data glut. From the point of view of the board of directors, whose job is about risk foresight, assessment and mitigation, failing all of which, crisis management, every touchpoint, every sensor connected to the business’s systems is a potential open flank for cybercrime or digital threats, many of which are unforeseeable.

Yet, as recent as two months before writing this in autumn 2016, the discourse on boards and digital savvy is focusing on how to adapt boards to a digital age.

The disconnect, ironically for a hyperconnected age, between what is and what is needed right now, could not be more gaping, the glacial pace of progress evident in the time stamps on the thought leadership pieces.

The challenge is that ole devil called “talent”.

The current crop of business leaders finds itself poised between the “digital natives” churning out as well as seamlessly using products and services that assume always-on connectivity, and the boomers, who use a bit of technology themselves and are in charge in corporate board rooms.

The governance talent that is needed right now, not tomorrow, not a year from now, is digitally educated (mere literacy won’t do!), business savvy, with a stomach for complexity and uncertainty, and some degree of good judgment. These are the people that need to be in board rooms now, bridging the gap, bringing everyone up to speed, representing and protecting the stakeholder interests in the face of challenges for which handbooks, governance frameworks and regulatory compliance requirements do not yet exist.

For boards, this talent is the governance equivalent of “sensors” who are in constant touch, seeing the glut of big data as well as finding insights in small data. And successfully translating between technology generations.

The question is: as a board director, where are you looking for this talent to bring on your board? In other words, are you sensor sensible?

(Disclaimer: These are my own views and do not reflect the views of the boards of either JP Morgan US Smaller Co.s Investment Trust (wef November 2016) or BeyondMe, where I serve as a director.)

Starting something new?

This article is the first in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on Sept the 5th, 2016.

“I want to be a founder.”

Alarm bells start ringing, when I hear these words from the mouth of a person with no more definitive an idea than being a founder. It is now a word with social currency, with swagger. It is a job title that winks and says “I will raise a lot of VC money, sell to Facebook, and be so rich, you will want to be my slaves, bitches!”. In practice, however, it is the one word explanation of why a person can no longer make it to your regular Friday bacchanalia, or organise your pre-wedding do, or even be on time for her own parents’ milestone anniversary party. It is the word that can strike fear in the hearts of middle-class parents, who scraped and saved to send their progeny to the best schools in the country, even the world, and who now do not know how to answer when their friends ask, “So what does your daughter do?” because heck, damned if they know what with the world buzzing with apps, SaaS, AI, ML, drones, robotics and such words as they never heard in the Bible.

With all the gentleness I can muster, I ask, “A founder of what?” Then, sometimes, magic unfolds.

I hear the person describe a dream, where she tells a moving story of a childhood memory or an experience as a young adult newly launched into the world. The story sometimes describes a challenge that may or may not have affected them personally in a material sense, but did affect them at a deep, emotional level and strengthened the resolve that soon as they can, they will work on solving it. She goes further into details of how, over the years, she has thought about the issue, read up a lot of things that helped her understand the source of the problem and why nobody had tried to resolve it effectively, and formulated some possible ideas of how she would go about it. And that all those years, and that pain has brought her to the point where she says: “I want to be a founder.”

I must confess though, that this rarely happens.

What does happen is some version of “I want to be the Uber of this, the Air BnB of that, the Facebook of something.” In other words, the wannabe founder wants to copy an existing and visibly successful business model and apply it to some obscure problem.

Deeper questioning reveals some to have thought deeply about it, but most have not. The rumoured ease of raising VC money seems to have created a monster of an ambition but nary a dream. With a firm idea of the exact business model, albeit untested in their target market, some are very certain, impervious to advice and often resistant to questions. Yet others have even — sometimes irresponsibly — been advised by others to create a business that a specific large operator in their industry will be certain to buy for a lot of money.

Greed as a business model has not created many successes in the start-up world as we know it.

Some however have a dream, a vision. Many have an open mind but may or may not understand what a business model is. Some even realise the difficulties of copying a blazingly successful business model and the many ways it could fail in India. A few have a rough idea of what they want to do, and have tested whether anyone will pay for their planned product or service. A smaller number have spoken with a lot of people including successful entrepreneurs from the pre-VC world when losing the shirt off your back and the soles off your shoes were two essential ingredients of success. And a small number have done all of that, identified that they need a lot of help and advice, and have started to identify seed money, whether from parents or friends, or even their own saved-up rainy day fund.

These are exhilarating conversations. There is emotion, but there is also the acceptance that a dream is only as big as the work you put into realising it. There is confidence in the self, but also the humility to know the gaps in one’s knowledge and experience. There is belief in the idea but also finite understanding of the fact that it may need to be tweaked, adopted, changed wholesale — pivoted as start-up speak goes — for success.

This is where the engagement begins for an advisor. It promises to be a tough but fun ride for both the founder and the advisor.

Absent all this though, “founder”, the verb, is exactly what a wannabe founder will do.

Which description of a wannabe founder describes you?

Motivation as a design assumption

Holacracy. MOOCs. Food labels.

Holacracy isn’t working. MOOCs have low completion rates, and an estimated 90% drop-out rate. Food labels to help consumers make informed choices show mixed effectiveness and decidedly no downward impact on public health concerns re obesity.

Other than not working as well as optimistically assumed in their wake, they have one more thing in common.

Their design assumes that people have self-motivation in heaps, and when faced with choices, they draw upon that self-motivation to make the best decisions for themselves.

From organisations, to education, to nutrition and health, the assumption of the “highly motivated and self-interested individual” does not stack up.

The reality is different from the design assumptions made.

As Buffer found out from its year-long no-managers experiment, people were expected to direct and motivate themselves, the lack of managers soon became overwhelming, and an implicit hierarchy emerged nonetheless.

Similarly MOOCs assume that a highly motivated and self-driven student is the only kind around. A self-motivated student will benefit from auto-didactic methods disproportionately more than a peer who isn’t so driven. As a teacher, I can attest to these phenomena too: students have variable levels of motivation, cognition and learning capacity; they may or may not understand the sequentiality of learning certain modules i.e. prior art in a field, which, of course, is more essential in some fields than in others; they may not understand some content and that can be demotivating in itself; they may not have the time or dedication to complete assigned readings; and last but not the least, they will always have have questions and if not, a facilitator teacher can make them question their tightly-held beliefs in a setting that makes them think.

In other words, willpower depletion, by the many demands made on us by life, is a real phenomenon.

The design problem that technology entrepreneurs keep dreaming of does not have to bring about “disruption”. It is more complicated than that.

The design problem is to keep people with varying motivations involved, and progressing.

If at all we achieve step change or “disruption”, the design challenge is to do so the existing tools of facilitation and enabling, along with new tools of technology and emergent social contexts, to address the same problems of variable motivation, cognition, and commitment to learning.

A designer assuming a bottomless pit of self-motivation in its audience sooner than later discovers the ordinariness of the human condition.