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.

 

Leadership and the importance of changing one’s mind

Martin McGuinness, former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland and also former IRA commander, died today. I was shocked to learn he was only 66. Shocked because I have known his name since I was a child growing up in India, and had always thought he was much older.

But he wasn’t. In that short life, McGuinness, as many obituaries are reminding us, went from being “the butcher of Bogside” to “brave statesman”. In other words, he changed his approach to finding an acceptable settlement and peace. And he did it in the glare of the public eye.

Changing one’s mind, one’s opinion, one’s approach is an important trait for good leaders. It shows their ability to take on board new information as well as their ability to admit mistakes and course-correct. Not only are these traits indicators of an open mind, they also enable people around the leader to speak truth to power, for the consequences of silence can be many and unwelcome.

Yet we — the press, the analysts writing about companies, the electorate — find it difficult to forgive anyone, especially a politician, who changes his or her mind on an issue.

Not changing one’s mind is seen as a virtue, immortalised by Mrs Thatcher’s punny soundbite “You turn if you want to; the lady is not for turning”, before Mr Blair even tried his hand on the politics of soundbites.

Even the liberal press finds it hard to resist the chance to take a dig when it discusses a change in the direction of travel, a “u-turn“. See, for instance, the Guardian insist Philip Hammond digs in on his u-turn on national insurance for the self-employed.

This bald criticism creates pressure on leaders to be perfect, in-control, and always-right. It is unfair and wrong. And sad, because it demonstrates the rigidity of the electorate and the press pundits, who expect a leader to remain rigid, regardless of circumstances and possible outcomes of the original course.

An open mind is not cynical; an open mind is sceptical, inquiring and searching.

An open-minded voter or commentator does not distrust a change in stance as a knee-jerk reaction. What s/he does or must do is question the reason for the change, without sarcasm or without expecting an abject apology.

Is the change really just political expediency?

Is the change informed by new information?

Is the change driven by a new understanding of historicity, and how one might have been on the wrong side of history due to any number of reasons?

These questions hold good in both hierarchical societies as well as those who see themselves as more egalitarian.

Further, we need to remember that hindsight really is 20/20, and our understanding and memory of history both short and imperfect.

A friend and I were once discussing the leadership of Nelson Mandela. He is often cited in the same breath as Gandhi, who too had his flaws but steadfastly refused to support or choose violence. Mandela however categorically refused to denounce violence as a weapon in the pursuit of his cause. At the time the UK government under Mrs Thatcher was fighting another nationalist cause, which used terrorism and violence as its tools, namely the IRA. The policy of branding both the IRA and Mandela/ ANC terrorists was consistent with the thinking at the time.

As the President of South Africa, Mandela has been on record speaking in favour of luminaries, such as Colonel Gaddafi , the common cause being Africa and their shared identity as Africans. General Suharto was another one accorded high state honours by Mandela while he was a serving President.

Yet over time, the former “terrorist” Mandela came to be hailed as a hero. This shift took more than just one change of heart or mind.

In the United States, the Democrat Bill Clinton, the “first black president of the United States” did nothing to remove Mandela from the US Terrorism Watch list, while the Republican President George Bush signed a bill to change that in 2008. In the United Kingdom, where then-PM, David Cameron, who had once worked under the Thatcher government as a young whippersnapper, publicly noted in 2006 that the Thatcherite policy to brand the anti-apartheid movement terrorist was wrong. Predictably, the latter lead to many wondering aloud if Cameron was a Conservative at all — making one wonder if an extreme form of white supremacism is an essential quality to one being a Conservative in the UK!

But here is the rub. Post Robben Island, in his writings and speeches, Mandela was brutally honest in admitting his errors of judgment, mistakes, and shortcomings.

In other words, Mandela changed his mind too.

As leadership — and indeed, statesmanship — go, there are lessons in here for us all.

Especially in these times, when it is increasingly in vogue to dig in and refuse to consider the damage hard, inflexible stances can do.

Preferably before it is too late.

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!

Of diamonds and responsible eternities

Millennials, often described in media as hapless, poor and unfocused, reportedly dropped a cool $25 Billion on diamond jewellery in 2015. This indicator of current and future demand for sparklers notwithstanding, we are nearing the peak of natural diamond mining.

It raises the question as to why synthetic diamonds have not taken off.

After all, millennials as consumers are also focused on environmental consciousness and reportedly willing to pay a premium too. Further, laboratory-grown synthetic diamonds — not to be confused with diamond simulants, such as the non-precious cubic zirconia and the semi-precious white sapphire — are virtually indistinguishable from natural diamonds mined from the womb of the Earth in an energy intensive and ecologically intrusive process. The Gemological Institute of America now even certifies that the synthetic diamond you have just bought is real, authentic synthetic. Synthetic diamonds also come from a transparent supply chain with no human exploitation, which is an excellent reason to choose them.

Why then isn’t the world switching en masse to the more environmentally sensible option?

The answer lies in the deeper probing of what shapes our preferences. We don’t buy diamonds, diamonds are sold to us. There is hard nosed business behind shaping our desires even though the traditional reasoning behind engagement rings no longer holds water, and plenty of women can and do buy their own diamond rings.

The economics is simple enough. Synthetic diamonds sell at a considerable discount to real diamonds. Trade makes more money selling a real diamond than it does selling a synthetic one, even with a certificate. In turn, this means a consumer is likely to see many, many more real diamonds on offer than she will see synthetic ones. This shapes the consumer’s consideration set and undoubtedly influences what gets bought.

The value chain reason is more interesting. Making synthetic diamonds is a capital intensive business. The barriers to entry of a new player are significant. So unless the demand for synthetic diamonds is proven to exist, investment may not come pouring into the space. In a delicious but understandable irony and a strategic masterstroke, a De Beers group company owns a vast majority of patents in the manufacturing of synthetic diamonds. So while it is possible to manufacture synthetic diamonds, it may be darned hard to do so without committing patent violations. This is not trivial. From a consumer’s point of view, this changes nothing and everything at once. De Beers has invested in distribution as well as, since Frances Gerety’s virtually immortal “A diamond is forever” line in 1948, branding for diamonds. It would have been foolhardy and self-destructive, if De Beers did not try to hold on to those advantages.

The branding reason is, of course, the strongest.

Most diamond purchases are not rational purchases but rationalised, emotionally led buys. Feelings are notoriously difficult to dislodge and remarkably easy to hurt. For years, the intrinsically “forever” and “real” character of diamonds has been used as some kind of proof of eternal love and commitment. Would a synthetic diamond ring mean fewer flaws, more perfection but also fake, performative love on the cheap?

Here lies the opportunity.

The brand story for the category itself is ripe for change.

Millennials say they are willing to pay a premium for environmentally friendly products (though not always willing to make good on those intentions). If the positioning is right, synthetic diamonds need not be sold on the cheap. They could be positioned as the environmentally friendly, technologically advanced, ecologically savvy, energy conserving version of the gemstone for the new, tech-savvy generation, while their sparkle still remains celebratory.

Thanks to digital platforms, the engagement with millennials can be kept quite targeted and kept away from the prying eyes of the boomers or even Generation X, who may be confused by the messaging about synthetic diamonds or feel cheated.

Moves are afoot in the space already.

Until a few years ago, when I heard the word “diamonds”,  Dame Shirley Bassey’s booming “Diamonds are forever” rang in my ears. Mental concerts are a real thing, look them up.  The song is wall-to-wall marketing of the De Beers catchphrase of enviable longevity.

However nothing lasts forever, as the rock prophet Axl Rose reminds us.  Why then should sparklers bear this unfair burden of eternity and permanence?

Why not move the discourse from eternity and permanence to a more achievable and realistic exhortation to just “shine like a diamond”?

Move over Dame Shirley, Rihanna, the millennial maestra, is here.

 

Going global

This article is the eleventh in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on March the 1st, 2017.

As we have discussed earlier in this column series, founders benefit from creating a scaffold, a structure that enables future success at scale, without them needing to come back later and fix things that should have been done right the first time.

This includes thinking global from the beginning.

Does this sound crazy? It really isn’t! The question “what if I want to go global?” is asked more often than you might think.

As always, the questions a founder asks will shape the business and ready it for taking on the world.

As a first step, validate your offering in your target market. One of my advisee founders is currently doing customer surveys and undertaking competitive assessments in another market to understand if her product offering makes sense and can be offered competitively, and if she may need some form of a local outpost to sell and offer post-sales service. Yet another founder, with a slightly complex healthcare related offering, is negotiating an overseas alliance with a research partner, who can help her set up a significant proof-of-concept study to obtain local data that may go down well with the regulators in that market.

Prima facie, services that can be offered remotely have a slightly easier time “going global” but may hit the buffers fairly quickly in some sectors. For instance, if you are a producer of conceptual films for advertising and public relations, can you really deliver the goods if you do not understand the idiom of the overseas market of your client? How good are the language skills available to your company if you are to serve a non-English speaking client? How might that impact your costs and margins?

Second, assess your assets and organisational readiness for serving customers globally. For instance, if your intellectual property is crucial to your startup’s success, is it adequately protected in the new territory? If yours is a product company, are you ready to deal with the logistics of shipping, returns, and associated processes? The latter is a harder question than it looks. It is tough enough sometimes to serve a customer within a massive country such as India or the USA, where states may have different local taxes, octroi and other levies. Delivering products across national borders takes more preparation. Can you deliver in various regions with different sales tax or customs regulations? Can your delivery partner deliver not only the goods but also the customer experience you are promising? Crucially though, you must work backwards to figure out the pricing of your products in different markets and communicating them clearly. Sometimes a customer abroad may be required to pay VAT and customs duty on the goods they have ordered. The landed cost could be so high as to make the product purchase unenjoyable. Is the communication on your website clear and transparent in shaping these customer expectations?

While on communication, there may be an additional consideration of website language(s). Are you comfortable signalling readiness to deal with customers who may be use a language other than English? Can you consistently support all website content being available in all the other languages? At what cost?

These concerns apply whether you sell products or services.

Further if for any reason, the customer wishes to return the goods, how easy have you made it to make those returns? Who will bear the cost of returns? Will your delivery partner also make the collection for returns? Is your returns process therefore clearly communicated to the customer on the invoice or accompanying papers? How do your internal processes work for checking the returned goods and restocking? For planning purposes, you may need to include an estimate of returns in your financial projections. If they are off by a considerable margin, you could have some significant trouble on your hands.

Each customer transaction, including returns, will generate a footprint for your invoicing and accounting system, as well as a corresponding entry into the bank account. Have you clearly thought of the process and tested that it works and can cope with selling in diverse regions?

A well-run, fine-tuned operation is essential to serving customers in many countries around the world.

A vital, final point here is about people. Do you, your employees, your service providers, indeed your board directors, mentors and advisors have experience of “going global”? Can they help you avoid common mistakes and help build a business ready to serve the world?

More crucially, if you yourself do not have the experience, how will you assess whether their skills and experience are right for your startup’s ambitions? We shall address this often asked question in the next column.