Getting help for your startup

This article is the twelfth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on March the 16th, 2017.

Asking for help is an essential founder survival skill. But founders often do not know when to seek help, whose help to seek, whose help to accept, and how to evaluate and pay for any specialist expertise about which they, as founders, know little. Here are some key questions founders ask (and should ask) about getting help.

What help is needed? The answer often depends on the stage of the startup’s life. For instance, a competent startup lawyer would help with the legal structure, the shareholding rights agreement and other key legal scaffold in the early days. Essential help pre-launch could also come in the form of strong introductions to early adopters, potential channel partners, or influencers who can shape early adoption or off-take for your product as well as to people who can help access angel or VC funding and make introductions to advisors or board directors. The help needed post-launch varies. Customer referrals & recruitment, partnerships for growth, raising growth capital, geographic expansion, possible exit conversations are some examples. It helps a founder to map out the first growth stages

Whose help is needed? In my experience, the advisors that work with startups fall into three broad baskets: specialists, hands-on warriors, and famous-names. The first two are self-explanatory categories and include advisors such as lawyers and accountants, and people who are rainmakers, door-openers and hustlers on your startup’s behalf. Some of these are needed short-term or as-and-when. Others may be involved for short or longer periods of time. The last category however often dazzles and confuses founders. I recently advised an innovative social enterprise one of whose founders is a “celebrity”. While keen to keep control and wanting to be CEO and board director, the celebrity cofounder does not have time to do any actual work. This is problematic especially given the brand gains from keeping the famous cofounder on board. Could another advisor perhaps have a word and clarify expectations? Think of Theranos as a cautionary tale! A stellar lineup of directors and advisors, assembled for their political connections not their scientific nous, has not helped but hampered the company’s goals.

How to assess the suitability of advisors? The best way is to use a combination of verifiable credentials and testimonials. If asked for references or testimonials, I introduce the founder who is asking and one or more of the other founders I have advised, and let them converse freely. But this is rare. More commonly, founders approach me because they have been referred by someone who knows us both well. In such a case, I am the one who asks questions. Due diligence is a two-way street after all. This is when I find founders unprepared to talk or share information. Some ask for NDAs before sharing anything. Others go overboard in talking themselves up. None of these works. Advisors have finite time, and if you cannot sell your idea and vision to them, you won’t keep their interest very long.

How to compensate advisors? Startups often struggle with this question. The varying degrees of involvement required thwarts one-size-fits-all approaches. Many founders are pleased that some advisors are happy to accept equity. But equity is really the founders’ only major bargaining chip. Giving it away like toffee is unwise. Investors may also not be very happy with too much equity in the hands of advisors not actively involved. Some advisors such as lawyers, whom you want involved long term as you grow, may be better candidates for equity or options, than some other advisors whose advice is short-term or highly specific in nature. Then again not all advisors may accept equity. In such cases, the founder has to ask how badly that specific advisor is needed by the startup. Whatever you agree, put it in writing, alongside the framework for engagement; especially where you are giving away shares or options, clearly state the cliff and the vesting schedule.

Finally, how to manage advisors? This is crucial not least if you are paying your advisors. The keenest of advisors will not chase you, the founder, to give their advice. You, the founder, have to figure out a way to get their input. It helps to have a framework in place. One of the best frameworks I have worked with specified the scope of advice, the time expected of the advisor per month including roll-overs if the agreed time was not used in a given month, and the mode of communication that also identified which of the founders will be their interface.

Not all advice will be good, implementable, or effective. Some advice may be just awful. The relationship between advisor and advisee needs to be mutually beneficial and subject to periodic review. As founder, it is finally your call. It is, after all, your dream!

Going global

This article is the eleventh in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on March the 1st, 2017.

As we have discussed earlier in this column series, founders benefit from creating a scaffold, a structure that enables future success at scale, without them needing to come back later and fix things that should have been done right the first time.

This includes thinking global from the beginning.

Does this sound crazy? It really isn’t! The question “what if I want to go global?” is asked more often than you might think.

As always, the questions a founder asks will shape the business and ready it for taking on the world.

As a first step, validate your offering in your target market. One of my advisee founders is currently doing customer surveys and undertaking competitive assessments in another market to understand if her product offering makes sense and can be offered competitively, and if she may need some form of a local outpost to sell and offer post-sales service. Yet another founder, with a slightly complex healthcare related offering, is negotiating an overseas alliance with a research partner, who can help her set up a significant proof-of-concept study to obtain local data that may go down well with the regulators in that market.

Prima facie, services that can be offered remotely have a slightly easier time “going global” but may hit the buffers fairly quickly in some sectors. For instance, if you are a producer of conceptual films for advertising and public relations, can you really deliver the goods if you do not understand the idiom of the overseas market of your client? How good are the language skills available to your company if you are to serve a non-English speaking client? How might that impact your costs and margins?

Second, assess your assets and organisational readiness for serving customers globally. For instance, if your intellectual property is crucial to your startup’s success, is it adequately protected in the new territory? If yours is a product company, are you ready to deal with the logistics of shipping, returns, and associated processes? The latter is a harder question than it looks. It is tough enough sometimes to serve a customer within a massive country such as India or the USA, where states may have different local taxes, octroi and other levies. Delivering products across national borders takes more preparation. Can you deliver in various regions with different sales tax or customs regulations? Can your delivery partner deliver not only the goods but also the customer experience you are promising? Crucially though, you must work backwards to figure out the pricing of your products in different markets and communicating them clearly. Sometimes a customer abroad may be required to pay VAT and customs duty on the goods they have ordered. The landed cost could be so high as to make the product purchase unenjoyable. Is the communication on your website clear and transparent in shaping these customer expectations?

While on communication, there may be an additional consideration of website language(s). Are you comfortable signalling readiness to deal with customers who may be use a language other than English? Can you consistently support all website content being available in all the other languages? At what cost?

These concerns apply whether you sell products or services.

Further if for any reason, the customer wishes to return the goods, how easy have you made it to make those returns? Who will bear the cost of returns? Will your delivery partner also make the collection for returns? Is your returns process therefore clearly communicated to the customer on the invoice or accompanying papers? How do your internal processes work for checking the returned goods and restocking? For planning purposes, you may need to include an estimate of returns in your financial projections. If they are off by a considerable margin, you could have some significant trouble on your hands.

Each customer transaction, including returns, will generate a footprint for your invoicing and accounting system, as well as a corresponding entry into the bank account. Have you clearly thought of the process and tested that it works and can cope with selling in diverse regions?

A well-run, fine-tuned operation is essential to serving customers in many countries around the world.

A vital, final point here is about people. Do you, your employees, your service providers, indeed your board directors, mentors and advisors have experience of “going global”? Can they help you avoid common mistakes and help build a business ready to serve the world?

More crucially, if you yourself do not have the experience, how will you assess whether their skills and experience are right for your startup’s ambitions? We shall address this often asked question in the next column.

Risk culture and your startup

This article is the tenth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on January the 23rd, 2017.

A healthcare startup founder I know was in a dilemma. For a pretty sizeable chunk of the equity pie, she had agreed to take on as cofounder a tech development guy. He would in turn build the platform which would enable her business model. As delivered, the platform however was far from adequate. The tech cofounder however was not amenable to taking feedback. Lately he had gone completely quiet and was not responding to emails or picking up calls. Our healthcare founder was left with a platform that did not work as expected, with no access to the source code, and now a growing dread that the company was slipping away from her even before it was built. She had no more money left to bootstrap or to pay for legal advice to buy out his share so she could get the code and find another solution.

When I heard about it, I asked her if the equity was his outright or had a vesting schedule, whether there were ways of clawing back some of the equity as a BATNA, what checks and balances had been built into the agreement between them. What I found was not encouraging.

Through some wrangling, this particular situation somehow found a cobbled-up solution. It is, however, illustrative of why your company’s risk culture needs to be thought of right at the time of creating the startup.

Whenever I bring this up with founders, they ask if entrepreneurship is nothing but risk taking by any other name. It sure is! It is about taking those risks that advance your goals, not risks that destroy your dream. It helps to develop the ability to tell the two kinds of risks apart.

I am not recommending that instead of building your product and your customer base, you spend your time writing huge formal manuals or official policies. I am, however, strongly recommending that you give some thought to the values, beliefs, knowledge, attitudes and understanding about risk shared by a group of people with a common purpose, collectively the risk culture.

How to shape your risk culture in early days? Here are some tips to clarify your thinking.

First, ask if the risk advances your objectives, your dream. At what cost?

In early days of developing a product, building user communities for early testing of features and pricing, capturing feedback and using it to improve the product, all cofounders may use their own devices to write code, collect information and user feedback, keep essential documentation. This is a good move to avoid spending a lot of cash on buying hardware that belongs to the company, if indeed the company as a legal entity exists at all in the early days. There are of course several possible existential risks at this stage. How is the repository for what the cofounders are learning being built and accessed? Where is the essential information — source code, names of suppliers, passwords for services to name a few — kept? Can all cofounders access it? Can it be lost or tampered with easily? What is the backup plan?

Second, think of mitigation plans required, should the undesirable event you anticipated comes to pass.

What if cofounders fall out, someone wants to leave, or someone dies? Can one cofounder hold the entire venture to ransom? What if your only supplier decides not to work with you, and they have copies of your sketches which they could as easily manufacture and start selling? It goes without saying that this mitigation planning needs to happen when you are making key decisions about cofounder relationships, product development, suppliers etc. One can, of course, deal with undesirables as they arise but it is likely to cost more money and time to fix than to prevent or have other recourse.

Last but not the least, by thinking through, however uncomfortable it may be, what happens if it all goes to the wall.

This is the tricky bit. Our healthcare founder was on the verge of incurring a heavy cost for not thinking through the apocalypse scenarios regarding her cofounder. His contribution was essential to her startup but his temperament and working style could not be mitigated by writing tough contractual terms. We don’t like to imagine doomsday situations, sometimes rightly so as they can be paralysing and demotivating. But it is important to know at some level what you would do to salvage your startup if the worst things you had not planned for happened.

Our risk propensity is about that we are willing to accept for just returns. A clear framework for the risk culture makes it easier to identify, preempt, accept or reject those risks. It is wise to start early.

Building your startup’s culture

This article is the ninth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on January the 9th, 2017.

To be fair, building organisational culture is usually not on many founders’ radars in the early days, when much must be done in very little time. However as I have written in earlier columns, it is wise to consider building the scaffold of your startup for blazing success. Because while failure gives time to ponder, success rarely spares the time to do things over.

How can one go about laying the right foundations for a startup’s culture?

Culture is a catch-all term applied to business practices, processes, interactions and behaviours that make up the work environment in an organisation. Culture in a startup is how founders’ values manifest in practice. Particular business practices and behaviours may also be shaped by the founders’ personal pain points that they may be addressing with their startup.

As ever, starting with the basics is a good first step. If you are lucky, you and your cofounders are on the same page as to the values that matter to you and that set the tone — both for the organisation you wish to build with your cofounders and for your cofounder relationship.

The cofounder duo behind PostFold, whom I advise, created their fashion startup after noting that affordable fashion was often poor quality in materials and craftsmanship, or failed to understand the structure of modern life where one can seamlessly go from one’s desk at work to an evening do without an opportunity to change clothes. Their research also showed that regardless of poor quality, the markups on fashion labels were high but this did not necessarily mean that the master tailor and the machinists got paid decent wages. This, they noted, was a significant factor in poor retention of tailoring talent, which is crucial to the survival and success of a fashion business.

Their shared values were quite simple but firm. They set out to deliver a high quality of materials and craftsmanship affordably to their customers, while delivering a superior customer experience. This was the idea at the centre of their business design. They also wanted to create an atmosphere of trust and respect in the workplace, which shaped how people interact with one another in the business. This idea is in line with their belief that happy employees ensure that customers are served well. Remarkably — and this may not be feasible for all startups — the organisational values are also their core brand values.

In turn, these values shaped how they designed their business processes e.g. how customer complaints and returns are to be handled, how employees may be able to purchase the company’s products at a discount or borrow samples for occasional use, or how employees could choose work-from-home while delivering on deadlines and ensuring their collaborative projects did not get derailed.

Further, the clearly articulated brand values have shaped their brand communication strategy. If something does not increase their brand’s prominence or does not better the customer experience they aim to deliver, they choose simply not to do it. Avoiding bandwagons allows them to focus on building the excellence in serving their customers and keeping their employees motivated and engaged.

To recap, values guide our sense of what is important and what is right. Culture is how our values manifest in practice. Our daily decisions and behaviours align to our values. Processes and incentives can create reinforcement of the values on a day to day basis.

A media entrepreneur I advise has found a creative way of reinforcing the organisational values and culture within the team. He has created rituals and shared experiences to enhance the sense of belonging and the belief in their shared values. These shared rituals and experiences allow the team to speak freely, raise concerns, thrash out things and return to work with a renewed sense of commitment to their work and its purpose.

Like much else involving people and their interactions, the culture of an organisation evolves too, especially with growth and scaling. For instance, while the entire, currently small, team at the media startup I mentioned earlier can go on a shared experience, it will become harder even at twice the size.

Similarly, nearly all startups learn quickly that the formality of communications and the accessibility of the founders both change as the team size grows. This subtle change in culture can upset early employees and founders alike. At least as founders, you may find it helpful to make peace with that possibility early on.

In the next column, we shall talk about a specific aspect of building culture crucial to building a sustainable and well-run organisation.

Pay for a good startup lawyer

This article is the eighth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on Dec the 23rd, 2016.

I am aware this is controversial advice.

Especially since the last column said: “You pay for some things, you do not pay for some things; you should take your time to understand which is which.”

Especially since we all know free legal templates are available online, or a friend can send you their stuff, and you can take them and tweak them, and you are done. This is where I mention that I have seen startups in India working with documents that state their jurisdiction as England and Wales. They certainly found a template for free! But is it serving them and their purposes?

The ability to make sense of legal documents is not for everybody. The inability to make sense of legal documents could however be quite expensive. The advice of a competent, experienced startup lawyer is something founders would do well to pay for.

Here is why.

A good lawyer will not just write you legalese and lots of documentation but she will build you the scaffold for a future of success and high growth. It is something to plan for now, because let’s face it, when you are blazingly successful, you won’t have time to come back and re-do the paperwork assembled from a random assortment of templates.

One of the first decisions in a startup is about location and structure. A competent lawyer, equipped with adequate tax advice if necessary, will help set up the most optimal structure for future growth and in a location that works for you. “But I am incorporating in India,” you may say. Fair point, but a good lawyer, who understands the competing jurisdictions you could incorporate in, such as Singapore, will explain the options to you, thus helping you think more broadly and globally about your business right from the start. Tax is not the only consideration, of course. A location can often beat your default location on the entrepreneurial ecosystem, the ease of finding and hiring talent including from other countries, and most crucially, the ease of doing business.

With cofounders on board, you will need a watertight shareholding rights agreement everyone agrees to sign. A shareholding rights agreement outlines founder shares of equity, but more importantly, outlines important issues that may come up including cofounders wanting to leave, resolving matters in a going concern, potential conflicts arising and so on. I have lost count of how many founder conflicts could have just been avoided or resolved more easily, had someone thought of writing a sensible shareholding rights agreement up front.

As you build the business, you will need to think about several other contracts e.g. with service providers and partners. Service providers may send you their own contracts on which it would be wise to get legal eyes so you know what you are signing up to and what recourse is available to you if things don’t pan out as expected. Next come employees and their employment contracts, which for startups may be different from those offered by BigCo employers. A major difference, for instance, may be the inclusion of stock options in the employment contract, as well as termination clauses and what happens to unvested or unexercised options in different scenarios. Especially if your startup is a success, this is an important matter to not deal with in an amateurish manner.

Whether your website is transactional or not, it is an essential for business and brings responsibility. A good startup lawyer will help write the right policies governing the use of your website for the visitors, and policies disclosing how you will treat data you may collect on their visit, their interaction and their transactions with your business.

These considerations are common across startups. Some specific startups may need specialist advice.

For instance, if you are creating a startup in a regulated industry, such as FinTech, in which none of the founders has adequate deep experience, the importance of a lawyer with industry specialisation cannot be overstated. A competent lawyer can advise you on compliance and regulatory challenges arising from, say, your business model.

In case, you are creating a social enterprise or a non-profit, correct legal advice would save you much heartache. Can you set up a trading arm? Who can and cannot donate to your organisation? What tax benefits are and are not allowable? How do you ensure adequate transparency, disclosure and compliance?

And of course, if you are creating a startup with a patented product, you will have already dealt with a lawyer specialising in intellectual property, and the advice here would dovetail with your experience.

Ignorance of the law, in no jurisdiction, is an admissible excuse for violations or non-compliance. Ignorance is definitely an expensive indulgence should anyone, from your cofounders to your customers, bring about a lawsuit against your startup.

Be smart.