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.

Influencer marketing and the luxury marque

Eight years ago, I was pondering the meaning of “authority” on the web. Fast forward to 2016 and the language has moved on. It is no longer about authority but about influence. Brands, including some luxury brands, are engaging in “influencer marketing”.

The web is awash with “advice” for luxury brands on the criteria for choosing the right influencers; these include relevance, reach, engagement, previous brand endorsements, and that old chestnut called authority.

But should luxury brands engage in influencer marketing at all?

I have no doubt there are some, who were influenced into buying a Breitling because of John Travolta, a bonafide and accomplished pilot and a 2007 inductee into the Living Legends of Aviation. Travolta was the face of Breitling until in 2012, Breitling shocked many by picking David Beckham. Beckham is a famous former ace footballer but now mostly a celebrity model, who reportedly turned down Calvin Klein but later appeared in Giorgio Armani and H&M ads — for underwear.

How are Breitling’s brand values aligning with this new choice of influencer? What aspirational quality or relatable values is the brand projecting with David Beckham? Notwithstanding his sporting prowess, Beckham is a peculiar and unimaginative choice of influencer for a brand that, since 1884, has been known for engineering innovation driven watches.

IMG_3407During the AW16 shows in Milan, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele officially invited — and collaborated with — Trevor Andrew whose love for Gucci had made his “Gucci Ghost” persona well known and gained him a huge following on Instagram (31K at the time of writing). Andrew bought his first Gucci watch at age 17 with the money he earned snowboarding. Gucci wasn’t giving him money to talk Gucci all this while (for the various shades of disclosure between bloggers and luxury brands, read this). He is no ordinary influencer for Gucci to engage with. He has his own creative lens on things, including to his music — he is a man of many talents — with a rip-mix-burn approach he puts to practise and that resonates with web users. Web culture has indeed moved on from the early binarity of creator v consumer, to co-creation and hacking.

Does Andrew resonate with Gucci’s brand values? They are, after all, rooted in the Italian and Florentine heritage and craftsmanship. Where does Andrew fit in? Perhaps with Gucci’s fashion leadership and success with authenticity? Andrew is authentic, creative, successful with his own style of craftsmanship. There is synergy perhaps, and Gucci put its money where its mouth is by producing a collaborative collection with Andrew.

Both brands Andrew and Gucci have influence over their audiences.

But in the collaboration, who influenced whom? It is hard to tell. It is more like a circle of virtuous mutual influence! This kind of serendipity, overlaid with a strategic twist is not available to all luxury brands.

Luxury brands are currently torn between many dualities. The democratic nature of the web, versus the exclusive, aspirational image of a luxury brand. The reality of who is spending the money now, versus the need to build relationships with the potential customers of the future. Even the heritage claim becomes difficult to ride on, when the brands are addressing markets with their own heritage vastly more expansive and richer than the luxury marque’s own.

Amid all this, the question — should a luxury brand engage in influencer marketing at all?

My considered answer to that is No.

A luxury marque is, at its core, a Veblen good. Influencer marketing — including the lazy marketer’s option of celebrity endorsement, never mind their tenuous relationship with sales — on the other hand is an attempt to get in on the bandwagon effect (economists call it “interpersonal effects on utility”). Influencer marketing, given all the variables in the mix including the influencer’s own “brand” and its values, is cognitive dissonance-inducing in the luxury brand discourse.

“But, but what about the young generation and our engagement with them?,” some might ask.

The clue might lie in a 600 year old brand that somehow survived and thrived.

With the old fashioned idea of always being the keeper and regaler of the brand story, the craftsmanship story, the collection story. Even the influencers it has worked with in recent times are now collaboratively embedded in its glorious historicity.

When it comes to influencer marketing, true luxury marques need to remember just this:

Don’t borrow someone else’s influence. Be the influence.

Towards a multidisciplinary future

Last week, I attended a workshop on movement building for social change.

One of my breakout groups was discussing “shared purpose”. I used the word “asymptote” to make the point that with the best shared purpose, we need to know we only make dents and some progress, and although we never fully bring about the exact change in the exact format we want, the movement gets closer and closer to our purpose over time. It caused some mirth in my breakout group.

Later in the morning, I caught myself likening the ideal scenario of the broadening of the appeal of our vision, our purpose, our movement to “fractalisation“. Both terms were, in my view, efficient, succinct, and the best explanations for what I was aiming to say.

The giggles caused by both set me thinking about the other terms with very specific meaning normally used in maths, physics, communication theory, political science, economics that I often use in specific discussions in business. Some are from secondary school maths and physics, the others from further education. A non-representative list of such words would include vector, variable, f(X), non-trivial, calculus, parametric, SNR (signal to noise ratio), transmission error, attenuation, but also words such as equity which may need to be understood in context.

I asked some of my friends, accomplished in law, business, design and academia, if they found the use of secondary school maths and physics terms odd in a business setting with educated colleagues.

A few admitted they did not know some of the terms. Some friends said they would use plainer words. Another said as a data scientist, she aims not be misunderstood. Yet another, who is the most well-informed social justice aware person I know, pointed out that oversimplification can run the risk of the person oversimplifying being seen in devalued terms. And finally, one friend encouraged me to “go Gurl!” because she is of the view that these terms can often explain business models, industrial design, UX, customer behaviour and other insights well.

I then ran a poll on Twitter and an encouraging 56% of respondents said they understand those terms, and a full 19% said that they would mock such a person.

What the Twitter survey found

What the Twitter survey found

Interesting discussions followed.

Do we mock out of fear instead of curiosity, or do we mock for broader social acceptance rather than standing out as a nerd?

Do we use specific terms to look impressive, or do we actually know what they mean?

Do we use these terms to establish superiority, or to create a shared understanding in the group, explaining with patience and genuine empathy when asked, to move the discussion forward?

Is such language isolating and credentialist, or broadening and embracing of diversity?

Before you dismiss this as an academic navel-gazing exercise, I should add this thinking was propelled by a digital insights event I attended earlier in the week. A futurist on the panel said multidisciplinarity was the future (she also had other predictions about future careers).

If we are to get to that multidisciplinary future, are we really serving ourselves, building our movement, making the right strides toward it, if we like to keep precise terms in their own disciplinary silos behind tightly drawn boundaries?

Why are we not asking to be explained by — and indeed why are we mocking — those, who let these specialty-confined words loose in other contexts, where they may fit and may indeed enrich the shared understanding of what we are building?

History shows that innovation does not always come from those deeply embedded in the specialist disciplinary networks they belong to. It comes from those who are on the edges of their discipline(s), bumping against the others on the edges of their discipline(s), or looking above the parapet to peek into what others are doing, and forming multidisciplinary teams to have a crack at a problem that one discipline alone cannot solve.

Whether leading a team, building a startup, or growing a business. what are you doing to bring that multidisciplinary thinking on board?

How are you building your movement towards the future?

Never “just business” for female founders

Apparently female entrepreneurship events are “weep fests”, according to this opinion piece published by a media startup. “Why can’t we, for once, stop looking at the whole gender thing whenever we have a roomful of women, stop talking about how tough it is to be women and businesswomen at the same time, and just talk about how tough it is to do business, period?”, the columnist asks.

Why ever not?

There is no point regurgitating data that continually show how women’s startups are funded less often and at lower valuations, with age sometimes a barrier too; how women, regardless of their standing, face sexual harassment and innuendo in the course of every work day; how, regardless of how well-oiled their relationships are or what their qualifications are, women do more work at home and “office housework” at work.

No point, because the screed is a narrow point of view that fails to acknowledge that women entrepreneurs — I prefer the alliterative “female founders” — the world over seem to have many shared experiences and many common themes in their lives. And that many of those experiences and themes have little overlap with problems that male founders face. Even where both bring similar business related competence and capabilities to the table.

I advise a number of female founders from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds — from eastern Europe to Indian to British to any number of hyphenated-identities — in the UK, India and the USA. Here is what I know about women’s entrepreneurship around the world today.

Women are creating startups, because they are ambitious. Most female founders I see are on their second or third careers; their ages range from the 20s to the 50s; some or more have partners; some or more have kids; some or more are also main decision makers for the care of elderly parents. But they share one thing in common — a burning ambition to realise their creative and wealth-generative potential, while juggling everything.

Then something called reality intervenes. Kids fall ill, partners leave, domestic crises arise, elderly parents get sick, funding is hard to find, co-founders are even harder to find and keep, employees need to be paid. In the absence of funding being on tap, many female founders are bootstrapping their businesses. It is at these points I see many female founders review their goals. What I find is not a weep fest. Far from it. I find determination and resolve. I find that these women acknowledge that life is tough but they want it all. Who am I — or someone not in the fray with them — to say what their desires and ambitions should be?

When women discuss issues and challenges — as they do in many closed, some secret, female founder groups that I am privileged to be part of too, aside of my one-to-one discussions with my advisee founders — they find validation. They find they are not alone. They learn that the magnitude of some problems is smaller or bigger than they thought. They get pointed to sources of help and resources. They get support, respite, and encouragement to pursue their ambition with renewed vigour.

That conversation is what these female founder events are for. They are safe spaces for female founders.

These female founder events celebrate the simple fact that many women founders like to live their life in fulsomeness — from heating breakdown at home, to kids teething, to squabbling partners, to communities they live in, to managing the burn rate and knowing how much cash there is in the bank account of the business. Indeed there is research that shows people bring their whole selves to work, not just some thin-sliced, compartment of a person. Hell, people bring their spouses to work with them, whether they like it or not!

These events also provide a place to understand how one can frame one’s tradeoffs, given one’s very specific circumstances. This can be aided by hearing others’ stories. One founder shares details of her divorce settlement to make certain decisions about salary. Another finds a way to balance her childcare needs by working different hours from her co-founders, who sign up willingly to the gig knowing her specific needs for the next few years. Yet another knows she has a roof over her head so she can experiment because her parents won’t throw her out.

If trading both troubles and coping strategies be seen a “weep fest”, I would take that any day over false machismo based on the pretence that it is “just business”.

To dismiss the wholeness of a female founder’s life is to miss the point of entrepreneurship. For entrepreneurs, it never is just business. It is all personal.

And in that “personal” their whole lives are wrapped. They will weep if they want to, but as long as they are forging ahead with their plans, it is all good.