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!

Luxury’s talent conundrum

A version of this essay appeared on Hudson Walker International’s Opinion section published on November the 4th, 2016.

The Luxury sector is facing headwinds. Single digit growth seems here to stay. The behaviour and the expectations of the elusive but coveted millennial consumer remain somewhat a mystery with conflicting trends emerging. For instance, millennials seem disinterested in owning houses and cars, but are nonetheless happy dropping $25 Bn on diamond jewellery. The luxury consumer is globally mobile and digitally savvy, thus requiring brands to think of narratives that remain relevant and accessible in the many contexts in which the consumer might encounter the brand. The traditional luxury maison with its aura of exclusivity is also under challenge from the small, nimble luxury brand that not only knows where to find the new consumer but also to serve her well with messages and products that appeal to her, and do so in an agile manner. The emergence of these new brands is not unrelated to the technological developments challenging and reshaping the entire luxury value chain.

Like many other industries being redefined by technology and the warp speed of the web, the luxury sector too is facing a talent shaped challenge. The sector however remains quite conservative in where it sources talent, privileging industry embeddedness over attracting outsiders. These outsiders may come in and ask uncomfortable questions but they also have the ability and aptitude to shape the future of the industry. The need for luxury sector leadership to shake up their thinking on talent is apparent.

But how can they do it? Well, here are some ways to examine the existing thinking critically.

Consider whom you are attracting. While seeking to fill a position, if the hiring manager in the luxury maison sees applications from only those already working within industry, there is a problem. Pretty much every other industry has had to learn, some grudgingly, others more willingly, ways to reach out to active and passive talent where the talent hangs out and to make their brands more relevant to those professionals who would not otherwise consider them as possible employers.

Ask whether you are hiring for what they can do for the maison, or for what they have already done in their careers. This is trickier than it looks at first pass. Research suggests men are often hired for potential while women have to have proven it before. The luxury sector overwhelmingly sells to women, who have increasing economic power as well as alertness to governance issues in companies they buy from. The hiring-for-potential-or-proof challenge is exacerbated when companies are hiring for a future that is not fully spelt out and is unfurling as we watch. If you are seeking to acquire skills that are themselves nascent, consider that those skills may well have been acquired and demonstrated outside formal employment. As the boundaries between work and non-work areas of life dissolve, it is worth remembering that we bring our whole selves to wherever we go. Hiring conversations need to evolve from the curriculum vitae to exploring the passions of the individuals in their life. This will have to become normal as people pursue and build many careers within their professional lives, which brings me to the next point.

Before even seeking new talent, think deeply about how you will retain them, once they are hired. The adage that “employees do not leave companies, they leave their managers” needs modification. Employees leave in pursuit of fresh challenges knowing well that having multiple careers is now not a novelty but the default, and that only they themselves are responsible for shaping their work life. This challenge is multiplied manifold when the talent freshly hired is a a star and aware of her star power. Monetary and non-monetary incentives are the hygiene factors. Retention is about giving them something to believe in, something that lifts the game daily from mundane transactions to an opportunity to make a meaningful difference.

Lest this monograph should make these challenges sound insurmountable, I should add that this is where a seasoned and well-networked headhunter comes in. A good headhunter serves as the consigliere or consigliera to the maison. He or she understands the essence of the luxury brand, and can communicate it faithfully to a prospective candidate in a manner that bridges elegantly the gap between the narrative of the brand and its salience to a candidate’s aspirations. This is a crucial skill as a luxury mason’s success in attracting, hiring and retaining talent now depends on how well the leadership articulates their vision of the future and demonstrates that it is in line with the future emerging before our eyes.

The industry whose mainstay is heritage and craftsmanship is up against rapid technological and socio-political change. Something’s got to give for the industry to remain relevant and thrive. Talent is where the solution to that conundrum lies.

On fancy job titles

This article is the fourth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on Oct the 19th, 2016.

In one of my corporate venturing roles with a large Indian conglomerate, I served as the country manager of a European country. That was also the job title on my card and in my email signature file. The important sounding title was not just about sitting in a fancy office overlooking Zurich lake. I made a lot of calls and set up my meetings with prospective clients for business development purposes. I also went daily to the post office to collect our mail, printed and sent and filed my own faxes, made coffee and washed my own coffee cup, took out our recycling, and did a whole bunch of administrative work that people in large companies do not even think about or farm out to secretaries and assistants.

It was, after all, a new and small operation albeit with a BigCo parent company.

Startups are no different. In the early days of a startup, founders do everything from washing cups to taking and making calls to filing papers to paying bills. They do VAT returns, meet account filing deadlines, minute board meetings, keep an eye on the cash in the bank and so on. They pack products and take those packages to the post office for mailing. They also go out and represent the company to customers, partners, vendors, media and financiers. There is nobody else to talk about the brand, the company, the product but the founders who created the business. In other words, early days are when the startup founders are always selling, trying to sell or fulfilling orders.

Is there a need for startup founders have important sounding titles? Some even argue over them!

Titles serve a purpose.

Titles are useful in signalling to customers, partners, vendors and other third parties about the roles of the individuals they are dealing with. Giving such comfort and confidence is an outward facing utility of titles. Yo can go the ego-boosting heavy title route, or take a leaf from Craig Newmark’s book. He is the founder of Craigslist and calls himself “customer service rep”.

Inside the startup, roles and titles can help start a useful and essential conversation about allocation of responsibilities as the early rapid growth forces functional specialisation within the founding team. The CEO should ensure there is enough cash, that the company is heading in the right direction, and that there are enough people on the team — or from vendors and partners — to do what is necessary. The COO’s role may be defined by the context often spanning revenue ownership, supply chain, operations and other processes. The CMO takes charge of all marketing and communications with an aim to establish the brand as well as drive inbound inquiries and sales.

Then there are the future employees. As founders, you sell the vision to future employees so they consider working with you. Some of these employees then actually want big corporate-sounding titles e.g. VP. In an early stage and relatively flat organisation, a title such as VP may mean little. But what it can do is catalyse the thought process required to develop an organisational structure that will support future growth including growing numbers of employees, their roles and their career trajectories.

I am no fan of hierarchical organisations but equally the evidence from holacracy as implemented by Zappos and others following their lead, and from self management structures as implemented by Buffer is mixed. So, for now, even for startups, organisation design for growth remains an active challenge on the table. Titles are not essential but they could bring much needed clarity as jobs evolve away from the traditional functional bases of design to other philosophies including customer at the centre of the organisation.

During my country manager stint, I had several meetings with big-cheese type persons in prospective client organisations. It was not uncommon, when I turned up, to be asked by the gatekeeper to the said big-cheese, “Wo ist der Geschaeftsfuehrer?” (Where is the boss?).

I was, after all, a petite and young Indian woman, turning up to meet an important man in their company!

Handing over my card with a smile, I would reply, “Ich bin die Geschaeftsfuehrerin, bitte.” (I am the boss, please!).

The big title? It always worked.

Cofounders and the dating analogy

This article is the third in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on Oct the 3rd, 2016.

The search for a cofounder is analogous to dating. There is an ideal checklist of attributes — skills, qualities and more as you will see — and then there is the ineffable chemistry check.

Since no two people are alike, we will naturally encounter both similarities and differences. Over the years of working with startups, I have developed a framework which can help you think through the dilemma.

Values of cofounders should ideally be the same or similar. A key value to consider is the importance of control. Extensive research by Noam Wasserman of Stanford finds that there are people, who want complete control and ownership, and there are people, who understand that some control may need to be given up to build and grow the venture’s reach and value. This understanding is pretty fundamental to building a venture, especially if you plan to raise external investment to do so. A fundamental disagreement here would not make for a a good cofounder relationship.

Goals, needless to say, have to be similar not different, although one can work with  the possibility of changing mind later. For instance, a cofounder may commit today to work on the venture till an exit event but a few years down, agree to give up an active role in running the venture. Such possibilities are hard to predict but if all else is working, they are negotiable.

Skills are best if different or complementary. It helps if the cofounders bring different domain expertise to building the startup. If you are a techie who does not have experience in speaking to early adopters and customers, and your cofounder is the customer facing person essential to driving adoption and bringing customer feedback on board, you have brought together two essential skill sets.

Work ethic is best if similar. Some people emphasise hard work, others outcomes. A startup needs both but it needs outcomes and growth milestones more than anything else. If a founder thinks hard work is substitute for results, it is not going to work. It is therefore best if cofounders are on the same page as to the purposiveness of the work ethic. It is worth noting that work hours are not the same thing as work ethic. Work hours are often negotiated with the needs of the start-up in mind. While a developer can work late into the night coding, a customer facing cofounder has to work the hours when she can meet customers and partners.

Networks serve a startup best if different, or complementary. This would help the start-up maximise reach into customers as well as investors. The eagle-eyed among you may note this may not work when your cofounder is your former classmate from University, as mentioned in an earlier column. In such a case, look for the contacts you need in another cofounder or an advisor. Ask yourself “what things are you definitely not good at?” and go from there.

If this framework is lulling you into a false sense of security, don’t let it. Being able to judge these essential qualities is not simple or quick. Don’t rush the decision. Spend time talking through things and listening carefully, how they see failure and success, how they talk about disappointment, how they treat people over whom they have any kind of power, how they talk about people they have relationships with.

Occasionally someone may tick all the boxes and yet make you uncomfortable. Judging someone’s character is hard, and a lot more personal than judging their skills and experience. In such moments, listen to yourself, I say. Do not dismiss your instincts and do not dismiss your gut.

However as any person in a long term commitment or relationship will tell you, the marriage begins once the wedding is over. Committing to the relationship requires the commitment to work with all that comes with it. It helps to lay down early ground rules for all to adhere. That is the scaffold of your organisation’s culture, more on which a little later in this column series.

It is worth remembering that the advertised product may be quite different from what is delivered. In other words, people may disappoint you. They may demonstrate different behaviours in an organised and predictable environment than they do in a start-up. A start-up is a high stress, demanding environment where decisions are not hedged by a large team and wrong decisions can actually waste valuable money and time.You cannot predict all this but you can deal with it. More on conflicts arising and how to deal with those will be discussed later in this series.

(Note: a version of this framework appears in “Dear Female Founder” edited by Lu Li, who has kindly permitted the publication of this piece.)

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.