Facebook is here to stay

An interesting thing about being plugged into the startup world is the frequency with which one sees “new ideas”. Many of them, alas, are just old ideas being rebranded or old ideas that the person proposing them is not aware of.

Facebook’s widely documented travails, with legislators inquiring into Facebook’s role in the 2016 US Presidential elections – and possibly more – on both sides of the Atlantic, mean there is once again a swell of entrepreneurs clamouring to make a “new Facebook”. Within just the last week, one tweeted he wanted to make a privacy-first, open source Facebook. Another in a closed founders’ group described a portfolio company, which is a combination of “Facebook and Gmail.. no spying, no ads, secure social platform, where you own the content and the network .. no fake users, ever”.

Which reminded me of another interesting thing about being an old hand on the web: we know what hasn’t worked, exactly why it didn’t work, and all that it may take to make it work.

Anyone remember Diaspora? It was founded on three principles: decentralisation, freedom, and privacy. But as social networks go, how many people do you know who use Diaspora? I admit I know none.

Then there was ‘Ello, which I am somehow still on, though yet to figure out how it adds any value to my life. May be I am in the minority. There are and have been others such as Path (uh!), Google+, MySpace, and Peach (ok, I admit ignorance).

Successful ones include Whatsapp, which is embroiled in its own version of “fake news” controversy (link may require registration) in the world’s largest democracy. Others are Slack, with its purpose built groups, and Quora, the knowledge community with over a 100 million users.

But none has yet matched Facebook’s near-total control of the conversations among the global user base of connected, mobile, literate people.

An early adopter, I was on SixDegrees.com somewhere around 1997. Many people discussing these networks have not heard about it though a Wikipedia page exists, as it should, for the super early mover in the social networking space. My observations through the years say that we all want privacy, no-ads, control over who sees our content, no fake names or bots, anonymity when we want to overshare or share stuff we should not be sharing, ability to join or leave groups, ability to engage safely, and the freedom to take our data when we leave. However few of us really know what it takes to build something like that. Fewer still know what it takes of us to ensure all of that on the platforms we use.

Let’s take the privacy and control pitch. Facebook has excellent, granular privacy controls. I should know. I operate my Facebook like a walled garden. To work it, however, you have to be alert to how your life is organised, make appropriate lists, and then be diligent about controlling who sees what out of your shared material. As I have written elsewhere, user motivation to figure out your product is a huge – and unhelpful – design assumption. The product and the UI need to be simple to use and easy to figure out.

Google+ made much noise about making privacy and control simpler and easier but Google really did not succeed at converting a sizeable chunk of its Gmail user base into Google+ users. This highlights the importance of switching costs and network effects in building a successful social network.

Then there is that bugbear of fake names, bots, and anonymity. Quora is by far and away my favourite community since 2010. It started off well. With a “real names” policy. That is how so many of us participate and write there with our real identities. Monitoring and policing real identities is a job and a half. There is a reporting feature, which active users, Top Writers, former moderators, and topic gnomes use heavily. It is difficult for users to keep on reporting if they keep seeing the reported users come back with changed names, or bots and sock puppets returning with a vengeance to vandalise content. It reduces the SNR on the website and can damage the culture of the community rapidly. It takes lots of people. Or machines. To keep bots, fake names, and anonymous usage under control. Oh, and real names mean nothing. On LinkedIn, people use real names and their employer names and yet there is open and inbox harassment, racist remarks, trashy comments on people’s posts.

Which brings me to the problem of “using the web while <insert minority type here>”. Did I say Quora is my favourite community on the web? But I am asocial as hell there. Others cannot comment on my content, nor can they message me. How did that come about? I was enticed to Quora by the purpose of sharing information and learning. At one point, there was a massive growth through influx of users, who did not understand or care about community policies, brought their own cultural artifacts and assumptions, and had a considerable impact on the experience in the community. I was quick and preemptive in battening down the hatches but others continue to suffer – Muslims, Jews, black people both Afro-Caribbean and African American, LGBTQIA persons, and women in general. This is a problem that no social network has licked yet though noises are often made in this regard.

In 2015, Facebook spent a reported $2.5Bn on capex including data centres and other infrastructure. LinkedIn is owned by Microsoft which has almost $90Bn in cash, Whatsapp is owned by deep-pocketed Facebook, Quora is a unicorn valuated at around $1.8Bn. The point is that even if the perfect product is created, and somehow users can be enticed to switch in huge numbers, creating and running a social network at scale is expensive business. One must not forget that users are used to “free”, so promises such as “no ads”, no data mining etc will lead to inevitable questions about the monetisation model.

All this can be summarised as “barriers to entry” in the social networking space.

And yet, every other day, there is an aspiration to create a new social network.

Back to Facebook then. With over 1 Bn users, Facebook is no longer a “social network”. Especially if information — fake or otherwise, and I am including Whatsapp’s challenges in this — is the stock-in-trade, Facebook fits the classical definition of “utilities” and, at the moment, it is also a natural monopoly. It is not a public utility. If, however, its externalities are anything to go by, including its impact on democracy and the information asymmetry created by its machine learning algorithms, it needs to be regulated. Those arguments have been made repeatedly over the last few years. One of my favourite commentators, danah boyd, wrote about it in 2010.

So how might Facebook be regulated? And will that reduce or increase the “barriers to entry” for new networks?

One of the best models of utilities regulation is the British one where regulation is seen as a second choice to a well functioning market. It focuses on consumer choice, competition, and forward-looking incentive regulation. Forward-looking what?

There lies the rub. None of us is paying for using Facebook. In fact, if pricing were introduced at this point, there will be an almighty uproar because, to many, it is like an “essential product” now.

If no consumer is paying to use Facebook, is it really a “market”?

As definitions go, we are in uncharted waters.

More importantly, how will regulating ensure or improve consumer choice or competition?

It is structural barriers, and consumer behaviour challenges, not Facebook, that prevent alternative social networks from achieving the same roaring success it has achieved.

In other words, unless regulators break Facebook up perhaps into consumer and business networks or force Facebook to shut down, or Facebook boldly starts charging fees, eroding its user base and reducing its own power, or an earth shattering paradigm emerges in economics and business regulation, Facebook is here to stay.

It may be forced to become more transparent, and build better governance like other listed entities. But it is here to stay.

 

Attracting talent

This article is the sixteenth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on May the 25th, 2017.

Apart from having a strategic direction and enough money to execute on the vision, the key challenge for founders is talent. Based on my experience, I will go out on a limb and say this: talent is not scarce. No matter what we hear about the “war for talent”. What is scarce is the ability to know what talent you need, find that talent, and find that talent efficiently, quickly, and affordably. This is truer still of the earliest hires, who shape your vision and your startup’s culture.

Here are some pointers based on my experiences with helping founders find people for their teams.

Making a successful hiring decision requires a process: knowing whom you seek, where they hang out, whether they see and notice your call for talent or otherwise know of your need, whether your call for talent is attractive enough, whether they are interested enough to apply or reach out, whether your hiring process confirms a mutual fit, whether you agree terms and, finally, whether they are still interested and have not been poached by a better offer in the meanwhile. This step-by-step looks obvious when one lays it down in black and white. In reality, most founders founder when it comes to hiring because they are haphazard and their follow-up is poor. Avoiding disorganised thinking and the ensuing chaotic hiring process, which can repel many a good candidate, is therefore the first thing to aim for.

The second thing is to avoid obvious and easy answers. At every step.

Most founders look in one type of spaces e.g. online startup communities or mailing lists or Slack groups. These are also spaces where your target talent is most likely to see all the other competing possibilities. Avoid being so narrow and niche. The wiser thing to do would be to tap your IRL network too. Ask the people you know who are not connected to the startup space and you may unearth several new possible candidates. As a bonus, your contacts would also have vouched for you and your startup before those candidates agree to talk to you.

People have CVs and people have side projects. These side projects in many cases provide insight into a person’s thinking as well as their skills. The obvious mistake is to not probe these side projects and thus miss possibilities. In two instances that I have been involved with, the side projects pursued by potential hires showed how those hires were perfect for the company’s international expansion plans.

Falling back on unconscious biases is another obviously easy thing to do in hiring. And avoidable. It has been shown that women get hired on proof, while men get hired for potential. If you are not finding or reaching talent of the kind you want, it would be foolish to let your unconscious biases against an entire gender make your hiring outcomes worse. Unconscious bias training goes some way not the whole way in addressing these flaws in thinking although it would be advisable for your own personal growth as a leader and entrepreneur. Emerging hiring technology could give a helping hand too. For instance, Blendoor enables merit based matching by hiding irrelevant data and thus widening your candidate pool.

Google’s chaotic hiring process in the early years has now passed into tech industry legend. It is also something best avoided and not emulated. It is crucial that founders build a creative but robust hiring process that scales, including for collecting candidate data, made simpler by platforms such as Workable, and conducting telephonic and face-to-face interviews. Equally it is important to make references as systematic and methodical as interviews themselves. Not asking meaningful questions and failing to listen actively to what the referees say is unwise, although it is easy to do cursory checks and feel you are done.

Last but not the least, avoiding firing people who aren’t a great fit is not a great move. Especially early hires, who will shape your startup’s culture, have to enable your vision and not sabotage it. If they are being disruptive or otherwise do not fit the startup, the founder has to learn to let them go. There are laws of the land that will cover firing within and outside probation periods. Of course this assumes you have given people employment contracts! It is also useful to talk to people in “exit interviews” before they leave to understand what you might have contributed to the disagreements.

Hiring is a contact sport. Putting this advice into practice will take commitment to solving the talent puzzle for your own startup.

Early employees and the art of equity distribution

This article is the fifteenth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on May the 10th, 2017.

As a professional and an advisor, I have been on both the founder’s and the early employee’s sides of the question of equity for early employees.

In an early stage venture, equity is an idea, and equity distribution an art rather than a hard science, regardless of how much algorithmic formula type advice you find floating on the web or from well-meaning people. At an early stage, both founders and early employees are driven by the vision and the possible value creation from realising that vision. Both sides need preparation and clarity on their best number, their best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA), and their respective exit strategies.

This column draws upon the several startup situations I have been or advised in and covers some essential considerations in such a discussion.

For her part, the founder sets aside a pool of X percent equity, from which early and later-but-crucial employees, and members of advisory board etc., will receive shares. Some of this X is designed to be given away as restricted stock, which is “granted” or “given”, and other as stock options, which must “vest”. The founder should have at least a rough plan for using this pool, with clear ideas on how the cliff, vesting, clawback etc may work. If she is unable to find how other startups are thinking about this, she may be able to get advice from an experienced startup lawyer, whose role in a startup has been discussed in earlier columns in this series. I have experienced at least one situation where creating the pool was an afterthought and created avoidable friction among the co-founders.

Often early employees are advised by well-meaning mentors to demand a percent of equity and not budge. Equally, founders are advised to make a fixed offer and stick to it. Both of these are poor advice. Not only is the making and the accepting of the offer a very personal decision for both sides where formulaic approaches may not work, but negotiation is also normal and an inflexible attitude does not help the situation.

Both stock grant and stock options have different implications for the recipient’s personal taxation and wealth generative situation as well as his “tie-in” to the company. Both may have a cliff, and a lock-in period or vesting schedule. The lock-in is where the founder’s and the early employee’s interests may diverge. The founder wouldn’t want a valuable employee to quit as soon as his options vest, for instance. The potential employee may rightly want to maximise his professional and wealth generative opportunities. The founder should be clear about communicating the terms of such grant or options. The potential employee will have to determine for himself whether the schedule and the lock-in are in line with his vision of his career and life.

It is worthwhile for founders to be transparent about exit avenues being envisioned or developed for the startup, and for early employees to understand those possibilities. In very early stage startups, this can be a fuzzy discussion. But it can be made better by discussing what the company is already doing, what the trajectories are, and what outcomes are feasible. This would enable the potential employee to make up his own mind about whether the offer is appealing enough for the associated risks of accepting a pay cut and the uncertainties that come with a startup.

Who drives the process? Here is some advice specifically for the potential employee. Unless you are an absolutely crucial hire, the founder will get distracted if the negotiation carries on too long. In a start-up, there are always more important things to do than discussing your specific situation ad nauseam, so you have to be the one driving the process. It would be wise to agree on a date to close an agreement. This is just a practical pointer. Sometimes we can get so hung up on the maths that we forget to have the actual conversation.

Finally, if things do not work out, it is worth remembering that walking away is a valid option for both the founder and the potential employee.

Leaving on good terms may earn the startup a friend and there may be a chance to engage again sometime in the future.

How to be a valuable non-tech co-founder

This article is the thirteenth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on April the 3rd, 2017.

The excessive media focus on techies as startup founders often makes non-techies doubt their ability to found and build a startup and create value. Many non-tech persons I meet believe that they won’t get investment without a tech co-founder whom they then spend considerable time trying to find. Many techie founders on the other hand seem to not think of finding non-tech co-founders with the same keenness. Both approaches need a rethink.

For starters, both the tech and non-tech founders have to stop using the term “non-tech”. The term suggests the primacy of tech skills which, while not inaccurate, does not highlight its limitations i.e. unless the technology is solving a problem and can create a product or service for which someone will pay, there is no business there. “Non-tech” in other words is the business person in a startup team.

A well-known story where a “non-tech” leader changed the fortunes of a “tech” company is of Mark Zuckerberg, the tech founder of Facebook, bringing Sheryl Sandberg on board as the Chief Operating Officer. At the time, Facebook was privately owned, valued at $15 billion, making nearly $56 million annual loss. Within eight years, under Sandberg’s leadership, Facebook grew its revenue more than 65x, made nearly $3.7 billion profit, did a successful IPO and, at $320 billion, now ranks as the fourth-most valuable tech company in the world.

So, how to be a valuable business co-founder?

Bring an understanding of the target customers. Talk to as many as you can. Listen with an open mind. Don’t look for patterns too early. Don’t challenge their reported lived experience even if it clashes with research data. Just listen, with attention.

But what if you are building is something truly path-breaking such as Henry Ford’s car? Ford famously said if asked for what they want, customers would have asked for faster horses! Even in such a case, you will still need to listen, evangelise, recruit champions, and build an organisation to reap the rewards for the startup. That was the magic Sheryl Sandberg brought with her operational nous to growing Facebook!

In an early stage startup, the business co-founder would translate the understanding of the customer to the tech team building the product. Being the champion of the customer and the community through the development process is not easy and will require great empathy with the tech team and the development process as well. At the same time, it is important to emphasise how some tech decisions should not be made before the business issues are resolved. A startup I advised learnt to its considerable cost that it is wise to get the payment gateway sorted before signing up to the customisation of a shopping cart and e-commerce platform. This folly of putting the cart before the horse was also quite expensive.

Test your product, service or app yourself first, and do so remembering the customer feedback you collected. Go further and involve some of your strongest critics in that testing. Enable iterations with an eye on the customer’s concerns, balancing the customer journey with technological feasibility. In a startup I was involved in, the business co-founder wanted the website to be designed to be accessible even on low bandwidth as many consumers were likely to be. Her concerns were overlooked to such an extent by the tech co-founder that the end result was an unusable website, the death knell for the e-commerce-only venture.

Examine all the processes, interfaces, “touch points” where your customer and community interact with your business. Ask if you are treating them well – addressing their concerns, reducing friction in how they can pay for something or raise complaints or indeed give feedback to the business.

In another startup, customers wanted the ability to consult a human being on the phone or chat before completing a purchase. The lack of such a possibility was frustrating customers and ending up in no sales being made. Neither the tech nor the business co-founder had paid attention to that feedback from the customer testing phase, as they were both used to eschewing human contact in favour of online experiences while shopping.

Examine the processes and organisation design for whether they are fit for purpose, efficient, and scalable. Does your business have seasonal cyclicality? Will you need more staff to ship thus increasing costs in your high season? How will you process returns if all your staff is dedicated to shipping faster and more? These questions are often not thought of in advance, as I saw in case of a fashion startup, whose success exceeded their expectations.

 

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!