Students turning entrepreneurs.. are they?

A journalist friend called up yesterday, she was researching on the trends of students turning entrepreneurs straight from campus, in the wake of the economic crisis, and wanted my opinion to form her own perspective!

Funny, I don’t have too many facts to side with either thought – whether or not there are more entrepreneurs coming out –

Is it more difficult to be an entrepreneur now, so people would be less adventurous and stick to their jobs! Funds are said to be drying up and so are the corporate spends on a variety of things. Hiring might be put on hold for a while, even as layoffs aren’t exactly beyond the horizon!

But then, if you can be capital efficient, have a clear revenue model – Talent would be somewhat cheap now, with limited options, there’ll be fewer players and hence limited competition – Not exactly a bad idea either!

In so many words, as the proverb goes, these are the best of times and these are the worst of times!

My guess is, people would be more willing to join existing startups for a while, for the sake of the experience, rather than starting themselves from scratch!

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Psychology of an Entrepreneur!

Kevin O’Connor listed down some traits that makes entrepreneurs tick.

Though I’m a little unsure about some points, but since this allows me some justification of my lunacy, behind the veil of an entrepreneur, I think I like this one 🙂

1. Need to control and believe you control
2. Self-
confidence
3. Rebellious
4. Need to innovate
5. Urgency, strong drive
6. Conceptual ability
7. Low need for status
8. Objective, non-
emotional
9. Attracted to challenges, highly competitive, gut feelings
10. Big goals, long term vision
11. Charisma

And then he wants you to evaluate how you score on this chart!

Let me try scoring myself, won’t try assigning weightages as yet, but i’ll give myself scores outta 10 on each parameter.

1. Need to control and believe you control – (9/10)
2. Self-
confidence – (8/10)
3. Rebellious – (10/10)
4. Need to innovate – (9/10)
5. Urgency, strong drive ( 7/10)
6. Conceptual ability (7/10)
7. Low need for status(6/10) – Dunno what he means by this!!
8. Objective, non-
emotional – (6/10) – I tend to waver sometimes!!
9. Attracted to challenges, highly competitive, gut feelings – (7/10)
10. Big goals, long term vision(6/10) – Albeit a clouded one!
11. Charisma (5/10) – The effect only starts showing after you reach 8-9 🙂

So, overall, it seems I’ll average above 7 overall.

Not bad if I think of myself as a 24 year old college placement dropout!

The scoring is a little misleading. It might lead me to believe that being a rebel shall make up for the missing charisma! Would it? Really?

Good Time to Startup?

With a good part of my digital media consumption coming from international blogs, typically talking about the startup and technology scenario in the US etc, I figured I needed to spend some more time closer home, understanding Internet in India, what the user behavior is like, what’s really happening and what’s expected to happen!

With financing drying up and the risk appetite of investors on a low, for a startup, these are the best of times and these are the worst of times.

Best of times, because if you can live through this, survive, evolve and grow through this phase, there’ll not be many survivors left at the end of the game.

Worst, because if you’re not among the survivors..

Got only the Internet in India 2007 report, coz the 2008 one is still paid! If the hypothesis I’m getting to from my preliminary exploration is correct, the picture isn’t particularly exciting for startuppers looking at the Indian Market.

But then, as the story goes,
Two sales agents of a shoe company went to Africa, a few centuries ago. On their return, one reported, ” Terrible news, they don’t even wear shoes there, there’s no market”

The other said, ” Glorious opportunity, the whole market is available, they don’t have shoes there yet”

The problem however, is you need to survive and sustain while you wait and see people learn wearing shoes!

You gotta be in it for the long run(means, have the capacity to stick around), or perhaps come back later!

Sure there are no bad times if you can really innovate and capture the fancy of the mass of indians – who’re happy chatting/mailing and orkuting, love to listen to music online and a smaller section, that watches videos too!

If you’re committed and decided upon sticking around, good Luck, may the force be with you

Outsourcing.. Smart or Stupid?

 

Outsource? Smart or Stupid?

Outsourcing? Smart or Stupid?

 

Conventionally, the domain of tech start-ups has been seen as the playground of computer science graduate. You’d rather be able to write raw code yourself, to be in complete know of what you’re doing. However, you can’t code shouldn’t mean you can’t do a web startup. Of course, it just becomes a LOT more challenging.

I for one, have for a long time, worked on an outsourcing model. When that ‘outsourcing’ relationship became a rather close knit relationship between the people on two sides and the companies – can’t be specifically pointed out. So, much as I have great faith in the competence and commitment in my tech partners, there are quite a few situations where I’d felt really handicapped, simply because I didn’t have complete control over the development, as much as I desired.

 

Obviously, you can’t expect your partner’s employees to be too loyal, or stay excited about doing something world class. For them it’s just another project. They have to leave office at a particular time; they have to take weekends off. And if Mamta calls a bandh, they really don’t mind not coming to work. And if it’s Durga Puja in Calcutta, (where my team happens to be), the staff will want time off. The commitment or dedication of an individual or two, shall keep you hopeful, but at the end of the day, people working directly with you on a dream, versus people working on a contractual project, is a different game altogether.

A few thoughts on the merits and demerits of outsourcing, assuming that you’re not a techie yourself and don’t even have a techie co-founder.

The PRO: As a startupper, if you’re to build your own team, it includes a lot of visible and invisible work areas. Set up an office, get the infrastructure in place. Find people though head hunters or references, get them to join you, make sure they work well and don’t leave, if they leave, be ready with replacements. If you’re not a technology person yourself, it’s just about impossible to monitor and track their work/performance.

Simply put, too much of a job to start with. If you’re prepared to do all of this from day one of thinking of your business, I salute you! I was still doing my MBA when I’d started off, and thought I was better off focusing on the product/market and features I wanted, rather than get caught in the variety of administrative issues that start coming in morning, evening day and night!

 The PRO: It might seem expensive to start with, but along with the visible and invisible work areas, there are also several visible and invisible costs, that you may or may not see instantly. But it sure is going to cost you more ‘cash’. You might or might not see value in your time/effort saved, to be willing to shell out the cash. I’d think if shelling some cash saves a lot of headache, it’s worth it, assuming you’re doing something worthwhile with the time saved!

The CON: That’s for a start. Next, for any product development cycle, communication and job specification become extremely critical. There’s a world of difference between being able to sit in the office and explain to your techie what you precisely want, vis-a-vis trying to put it on a document and let him work on it.

For anything related to design or the look and feel, the iterations end up taking 4 times longer over an internet communication, than if you were sitting in the office and doing it together.

 The CON: Importantly enough, at a really early stage of your idea, you might think once that your product plan is ready and there won’t be any more changes. Impossible. Unless you’ve been the product manager and seen the lifecycles at a Yahoo or Google or started up before :). So changes are unavoidable – in priorities on what goes first, a specific feature that would now be built differently, and a whole lot of new features that would get introduced and some of them would be taken off and so on…

If your outsourcing partner chooses to play nasty, he’ll make all this evolution/changes/iterations extremely expensive. On one side, he’ll make you plan every move very carefully, so you won’t want quickfire changes. On the other side, there are no perfect answers and there’s always scope for improvement.. and you might want to keep the options open!

In my case, thankfully, my guys were sane and sweet enough to accommodate and understand the evolution of the product along with the surrounding market… so was saved.

The PRO: In a contractual outsourcing work scenario, you can decide the terms of payment, partly advance, partly after end of the project and you don’t tie any fixed monthly bleeds with yourself. If your job’s over in a certain period of time, there are no people on your payrolls that need to be paid salaries month on month.

The CON: The transition from an outsourced project done to an in house team managing it, is not a very convenient thing. But if you are to run a business, you’re eventually going to have to do this.

The PRO side to it is, you’d perhaps have matured a bit more by then, the product would be out in the market and more people would be willing to join you!

Again, in my case, I’m likely to absorb people from my outsourcing partner company itself into my company, so this would be smoother than any other scenario.

Overall, when you’re just starting and you don’t have a CTO co-founder, an outsourcing model might work better. However sooner or later you will end up having to move into an in-house model. The sooner you can find a techie you can bank on, the better.

 

Shall write separately on the goods and bads of playing with elances and scriplances to buy cheap scripts off the shelf!

Adventures and Misadventures

Still a boy!

Still a boy

As a 24 year old, out of college for six months, I’ll not think of myself as competent enough to really inspire or give a lot of gyan to people about entrepreneurship. A while to go before I get there! What I can still talk of is my own experience, first hand, straight from the heart and brutally honest!

So yeah, you might find some dark sides which are usually left unsaid in such situations. I don’t have any hard feelings against anyone, to try to portray them in a negative light, but as I like to believe, ‘Perceptions are Realities’. So I can only write my perception or my side of the story.

The tales shall be interspersed with my own adventures and misadventures and some lessons that I perhaps learnt the hard way.

A lot of things that might have been obvious to someone with some experience in the internet space, came to me as realizations. I’ve learnt at my own expense. Sometimes the smart way from others mistakes, sometimes from my own. The learning has been steep, though I’ve been slow to absorb.

I might eventually be accused of putting this Disclaimer at the end of most such posts. Can’t help it! This is the only piece advice that I can confidently give!

Disclaimer: The only advice you should take seriously is, “Take every piece of advice with a grain of salt.”

For that matter, you should take everything you’re told with a touch of skepticism, not cynicism though.

So while you size me up for the sanity of my thoughts, I’ll try and figure out where to start this epilogue from!

The Journey

Just out of College!

Just out of College!

 

Just out of my MBA in May/June this year, Chetna from Business World wanted me to to pour my story out, something beyond what I’d spoken to any media till then, and this was perhaps the first self – written story of LiL, something straight from the heart!

 

Of course it’s dated now, but it largely takes you through my journey from being a student to an entrepreneurial aspirant. Here’s the first publication on Business World.
“There are two kinds of people who know what they really want to do in life. One, geniuses or the rather lucky ones. The second set of people is fools who don’t really know but are deluding themselves that they do. You’re a normal person, you should allow yourself to make mistakes and learn. What’s the big deal if you do something and it doesn’t work out too well? Would it really matter so much a year or so later?”

If I were to pick my most important lessons from life at my B-school, one would probably be this remark from Prof. Jha, not inside the classroom but in a personal discussion in his office. It eased me out of the dilemma regarding ‘opting out of campus summer placements’. I OOPSed.

CAT 2005… a delightful interview with IIM-C… a fond farewell to four really amazing years of college life… a month at home… and a dreamy and lost pair of eyes landed at the resort-like campus of IIM Calcutta, Joka — as it’s called, in the summer of 2006. It wasn’t too long before I figured that I wasn’t alone in being unsure of what to expect and what I really wanted out of the MBA. There were other lost souls around. The maturing process, however, was rather fast, compared to the freewheeling careless times of college. Soon we were made to realise the importance and the centrality of placements in our life at IIM-C.

The entrepreneurial infection that had started with being a publicity coordinator for IIT’s eCell activities had led me into being fascinated with this interesting way of life. While I skipped placements at IIT, running towards setting up something of my own was a stronger drive than running away from a job.

Opting out of summer placements followed and career wise, life took a somewhat serious turn thereafter. It caused a little drift away from usual campus life as I didn’t get an inside view of one of the most important experiences of a B-school life – the grilling and draining placement process. It also made me an outlier in some ways, as I wasn’t part of the preparation, meeting seniors for practice interviews, iterations of the CV, etc. Involvement with the student eCell continued here as well and my exposure grew even further.
Academics, though not a cakewalk, weren’t particularly difficult either, if one wasn’t particularly competitive about the grades. I quite enjoyed the project work and presentations so it was a comfortable sail, thanks to some good friends.

On the entrepreneurship front, having impatiently discarded one idea after another for over a year, I got stuck with Lifeinlines – an idea of being able to record one’s life, originated in the head of a friend Harpreet, now running his own campus recruitment related startup – cocubes.com. Having been a fond diary writer since I was 15, and lately a hobby street photographer, I had personally been fond of capturing experiences and moments that touched me or made me think and sometimes just reacting to something and venting myself out.

It’s like I was in a fast journey now, there was so much I wanted to capture, perhaps share with some people, so many times I needed to express myself and lifeinlines eventually grew into the perfect answer to all these things.

Work on this venture started in full throttle soon after my internship. There were just three people, one in Delhi, one in Mumbai and I was working out of Kolkata. The fourth term of the MBA just whizzed by as I had kept myself overloaded with courses so that I could have more free time later on. The work gathered steam; development of prototype started, and along with also began the buzz words such as revenue models and marketing plans!

However, two months down the line, it was turning out to be difficult to keep the pace going due to other commitments. Eventually, I lost track with other two partners and LiL took a backseat for a month or so. However, the enthusiasm was still there and the fifth term was rather light as well.

While my summer ‘Oops’ had taken people by surprise, and my senior — also my mentor was aghast. But on the other hand, my friends generally appreciated and respected. Post summers, it had become a usual question if I was applying for the final placements or not. It was a while before I was certain enough to start telling people that I was opting out. Funny thing with start-ups is, you feel like a salesman every waking moment. Anyone asks you about what you are doing and you need to present the whole thing properly. It can get really taxing sometimes, but after a little practice, you start enjoying it.

A new wave of energy flowed into the project after Deepak Daftari, a Kolkata-based entrepreneur running an e-learning company and a head hunting, introduced me to Nirjhareswar Bannerjee, CEO of Apex Division, a Kolkata-based web development company, that became our technical partner to develop the concept and I managed to convince my mother to lend me the initial investment. Now, it was time for long discussion meetings, making sketches and flow diagrams while sitting in the class, taking opinions from wing mates on how a page should look like.

Exposed to what technology could do, and obsessed with simplifying access to this personal diary, we added the capability to accept inputs via e-mails, Gtalk, SMS, and a voice call system – the first of its kind in India, where you can just call a number to record your voice which will be posted to your Web account instantly. Early discussions with potential users made us add multiple layers of privacy and next came multiple media formats beyond text, so the colourful experiences could be recorded thus, in images, videos, audios or MMSs.

To be taken seriously, and to take myself seriously, I registered a private limited company and called it Onelife Knowledge Services. It’s an essentially experimental spirit that’s behind Onelife, a reminder that you only live once so you should do everything that you want to do in this one life, without being too afraid of making mistakes. You don’t want to look back and wish that you had attempted something you wanted to.

It has been quite a journey with Onelife. Though having been drawn towards this project, I was lost in a world of my own and missed out some pleasant parts of MBA life, including missing the adventure trips, parties and poker. I guess I enjoyed every bit of it nevertheless, and I’ve gotten a great deal from my MBA both in terms of the lessons learned and the amazing people I got to know among faculty as well as my colleagues.

As I had decided, we managed to take Lifeinlines.com live on the eve of my convocation! I had to have something to show when I stepped out of the institute with a degree. One great thing happened — Maninder, a senior from IIT, and in a job with ITC for 5 years, agreed to join Onelife full time.

The two years of MBA are described fondly by Jokaites as the best “daze” of our lives, perhaps rightly so. Time just whizzed by. For many, like me, coming without a work experience this is the first step out of college. Marching on with life, it’s been a couple of months now after convocation and while it did feel lonely outside the hostel, I’m now moving on and setting up a base close to my earlier campus, IITB.

I am still learning my lessons in communicating crisply, having goofed up chances to make a pitch to a variety of investors and other prominent people as part of eCell at IIMC. It’s a good thing to talk to a lot of people about your idea. It brings out your own lack of clarity and forces you to think harder. A starry eyed ambitious young mind simply wants to do everything he can see, tries to make a product that’s everything to everyone. Talking to people is a rather good teacher, even if ‘they’ don’t tell you anything. You learn just in the process of speaking up yourself, in verbalizing and crystallizing your thoughts. My learning curve has only begun.

It did feel queer for a while when I would see my friends with pre-placement offers offering them really handsome money, when I would meet my consultant friends travelling in chauffer-driven cars and staying in premium hotels. It did seem tempting for a while, the high-flying life, but it soon settled down.

My folks advised me that I should at least take up a job and have some experience before starting this venture. Of course, the social value of making those big bucks is always luring. However, beyond a point, when they realised that I was adamant, they were fairly supportive.

The way you tend to lose track of your own plans by looking at what is happening in the market is scary. You want to accomplish everything. Then you pause, wake up one fine morning and decide on something new altogether. It’s a roller coaster ride, one positive word from someone takes you high and another trivialising remark throws you off balance. The whole process in a way strengthens you. You end up having to confront your fears, letting belief ride over scepticism.

There’s some amount of randomness in the world and you have to accept it. It would take some amount of glossing over calculations and what seems obvious. Best part is, you know you’re probably being foolish in some ways. But you still continue on the same path. There’s a good chance that you’ll actually be proven wrong, which you need to be prepared for. I’m only on the starting of the path right now, remains to be seen what I prove to be.

Ankur Gattani (23) is the founder and director of OneLife Knowledge Services, which runs the portal lifeinlines.com. Gattani opted out of the final placement at IIM-C in 2008 to start his own company.