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.

Brexit and the luxury brands of Britain

(A version of this article appeared in LiveMint on November the 17th, 2016.)

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit to India and trade talks with her Indian counterpart take me back to the midsummer’s day in 2016. We in Britain woke up to find that the Leave campaign, colloquially called Brexit, had won the referendum. The pound plummeted and for a while, the stock markets were in chaos. Markets stabilised but the pound continued a downward trend, beating historic lows.

Britain luxury brands are known for their heritage, design, craftsmanship, and quirky individuality which together shape a luxury narrative matched by no other country’s. London too is a choice destination for the experience of buying both British and non-British luxury brands.

The weakened pound was good news for tourists visiting the UK. The month of Ramazan, which traditionally brings wealthy visitors from the Middle East to London, followed. Flight bookings from Europe as well as Asia reportedly rose after the referendum. Premium and luxury hotels benefited from a rise in reservations and stays by overseas guests too. All this made London the hottest and cheapest luxury shopping destination this summer. Much shopping took place as is evident from UBS’s analysis of tax refund receipts. Tax refunds, which are typically sought on big ticket goods, rose by 36% in August.

So far the Brexit vote looks good for luxury shoppers from outside the UK. The picture for luxury brands is more complicated.

The iconic British brand Burberry has seen a 30% rise in sales in its British stores in the last six months. Facing headwinds otherwise, Burberry has also cut prices in its Hong Kong stores, taking advantage of the weaker pound as the brand notably incurs 40% of its costs in Britain.

It is a mixed picture for luxury watches, which are often presented as investment pieces, hence seen as considered purchases not impulse buys affected by currency fluctuations. Many coveted luxury watch brands are imported into the UK and the weaker pound has made the imported goods more expensive. Prices for brands such as Cartier and Mont Blanc, owned by the Richemont Group, have been increased while Hublot, Omega and Tag Heuer, owned by LVMH and Swatch Group, are holding on. The latter category of brands is taking the impact on its margins. For now.

The British luxury watch maker Bremont however is quids-in despite 30% of its costs being imports of Swiss watch parts, which are now more expensive. A weaker pound has helped the firm deal with falling sales in Asia and come out stronger.

To complete the picture and London being a hub for creative entrepreneurs, I spoke with proprietors of several upcoming luxury brands. My conversations revealed a mixed picture. Many small luxury brands source parts, finished products or packaging abroad while serving mainly local British customers. After the referendum, the bill of materials is decidedly more expensive by 10-30% depending on where they import from. As small businesses and nascent brands, however, they cannot always pass on the costs as price increases to the customer. Some however are slowly edging up prices of some products while keeping other prices steady. Overall this does not bode well for smaller, upcoming British luxury brands. Tighter margins will hamper their growth, and in many cases, their ability to survive.

It is also important to remember that despite the outcome of the referendum, Britain is, at the time of writing, still operating in the single European market with free movement of people. This makes it easier for people from Euro countries to travel to and shop in the UK. Any change in the ease of travel will affect Europeans travelling to and shopping in the UK just based on a weaker pound.

Luxury marques already under pressure, such as British car maker Aston Martin, expect a short term lift from the weakened pound but that may only last till Britain quits the single market. The automotive supply chain is global, and that will continue to affect the brand’s margins and profitability especially if Britain loses single market privileges and is not able to strike similarly attractive deals with the many countries where Aston Martin sells.

Some luxury brands are already thinking long term. For instance, Bremont is collaborating with the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield to reduce its reliance on imported parts. Aston Martin too has made recent investments in product development and a new plant in the UK although its reliance on imported parts will continue for a while. But absent any clarity on the nature of trade deals Britain may be able to make, the return on these investments remains uncertain.

The pound recorded a brief recovery on November the 3rd, 2016 after the High Court ruled that the government will need parliament’s approval to trigger Article 50 which is essential for the official start of negotiations with the European Union. The judgment has temporarily buoyed the Remain voters. The uncertainty is further compounded by the government choosing to appeal the decision in the Supreme Court.

Luxury brands, like many others, will just have to sit tight and watch. After all, what is a couple of years in the grand schema of luxury brands that have lasted or intend to last for centuries?

Of pigs and predictions

The Trump victory has left many of my friends reeling and in disbelief. It has also already brought out criticism of pollsters and polling data. Some sceptical ones go a step further and condemn all prediction makers, and mock machine learning and artificial intelligence. This condemnation is foolish and tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Prediction models turn on data, collected from the right questions being asked of the right statistical sample of people. Reductive questions generate neat data sets which then provide all the right answers.

But as experienced market research people will tell you, far fewer people, than those who enthusiastically nod and say they will purchase a new product, actually do. It is not that people are lying, it is just that human beings tend to give answers to please the asker. On politics and other emotionally charged matters, this tendency to give socially acceptable answers to minimise confrontation is especially pronounced. People also change their minds over time.

If the outcomes of any large exercise, where people actually make active choices, shock us it is worth remembering that the only truth is revealed preference i.e. what our actual choices reveal about our preferences. Human beings do not always seek to maximise utility, often preferring to use simplifying shorthand or heuristics to make decisions. The heuristics could have encoded in them experience and knowledge, as well as prejudices and received wisdom.

The concept of revealed preference is, of course, flawed too. If I pick Candidate A over Candidate B, it does not say I prefer Candidate A, merely that I prefer Candidate A to Candidate B. In the future, if Candidate A is up against Candidate C, I may pick Candidate C not because of Candidate C’s superiority over Candidate A but because my preferences are not immutable. Faced with more than two options, we have a way to simplify the choice for ourselves as well as I have written here.

It may sound nihilistic to suggest predictive modelling is not really reliable. But if we are relying on flawed and mutating preferences, and treating them as immutable truths in our analysis, how can methodologies and predictive models generate anything reliable?

It would be akin to putting lipstick on a pig. We would have used up lipstick but the pig would still be a pig.

In the last UK general elections, the Brexit campaign, and now the US general elections, predictions have failed to, er, predict anything reliable.

It is time we learnt to judge differently — by expanding our comfort zones, by listening more, by asking and seeking to understand more, by being healthily sceptical, and by bringing critical thinking lenses to all those pursuits.

For now, if your side won, good for you. The advice to try and understand the other point of view applies to you too. But if your side didn’t win, dry your eyes, dust yourself up, and go out and talk to someone who is not cohabiting your comfort zone.

The narratives we hear will have rough edges, and not the cleanliness or reductiveness of survey questions. But that texture is the stuff understanding is made of. Less data, more understanding. That is what we need.

Slicing up the equity pie

This article is the fifth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on Nov the 2nd, 2016.

Cofounder conflict over equity sharing can often cause a startup to be aborted before launch or otherwise fail quickly, as many of us who work with founders in very early stages know well. Some founders do not want to share equity. It is fine as long as they understand what is needed to grow the startup and can buy that talent in. Early stage ventures often cannot afford to pay people market rates, nor can they risk core talent walking away easily. Giving equity to cofounders, who bring key talent, helps address these concerns.

Founders often ask, “how much equity should I give my cofounder for the amount of work she will be putting in?”. My brisk answer to this “how long is a piece of string?” question is: “it is what you negotiate and what all cofounders are happy with”. Inevitably it leads to a further question whether there is a formula to make this negotiation easy and the answer to that is “No”.

Founder experiences show that a long term and successful cofounder relationship is predicated not so much on the slices of the equity pie but on the sense of perceived fairness in the arrangement, including in the course of the relationship.

To facilitate the equity sharing discussion, I start by advising potential cofounders to develop their vision for the venture together. Creating a shared vision and defining broad strategic goals then help them understand better the contribution expected of each of the cofounders in shaping the startup. More importantly, they develop some appreciation of how much weight each cofounder is pulling, and how their roles and contributions may evolve over the life cycle of the startup. At this point, I often see relatively inexperienced founders starting to relax and then I remind them to consider probable contingencies.

Roles and responsibilities aren’t cast in stone. Scope creep can and does happen. What happens, for instance, when the person, who was in charge of customer development and marketing, ends up leading on user experience design, developing the product roadmap, and owning all revenue generation and operations, because they appear to stack together naturally? How would the cofounders deal if she wants to return to the drawing board and renegotiate the slicing of the equity pie?

People and their priorities change over time. What happens if the chief technical architect develops the core product and then wishes to leave for a job with more income security and predictable hours because her family is growing, but wishes to retain her equity in the business? How would the remaining cofounders deal with that negotiation while also ensuring that the future of the core product is not jeopardised?

What about unforeseeable things? What if the business runs out of money before lining up the next round of funding? What if, in the virtual team, one of the cofounders becomes unresponsive while holding the business to ransom? What if a cofounder becomes unwell or dies unexpectedly, bringing her partner or family into the picture in the way nobody has quite imagined? These are a fraction of the scenarios that I have seen played out in cofounded startups where the cofounders were caught unawares.

Envisioning these possible scenarios is a squirm inducing exercise for most founders. But it also makes clear that the relationship the founders are about to enter is an evolving entity with uncertainties and potential conflicts in the future, not an immutable one. Cofounders also start to realise that fairness as accepted by all sides matters.

They also realise that above all, at all times, a focus on the business is crucial. It is not beyond possibility that a cofounder decides that not only will she leave the startup she will also ensure the startup does not survive after her. It is uncomfortable to think of such a scenario but it must be considered in advance.

How do we ensure fairness then, if things are going to chop and change, and people are going to behave unpredictably, even maliciously?

Here let’s draw upon some common sense. While resolving a cake dispute, a parent friend of mine uses a trick. She lets one child slice the cake, and the other children pick the slices first. The resulting dynamic is fascinating and instructive. Stretched to a cofounder negotiation, one of the tests of fairness would be, if you were doing all that any given cofounder is doing, would you be happy with the share she is getting?

It is also important to understand that fairness must be perceived and seen as fairness by all parties. And that perfect fairness is an asymptotic goal, albeit one worth working towards.

In a later column, we shall discuss embedding these negotiations into formal agreements and what it means for the startup.