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.

 

On fancy job titles

This article is the fourth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on Oct the 19th, 2016.

In one of my corporate venturing roles with a large Indian conglomerate, I served as the country manager of a European country. That was also the job title on my card and in my email signature file. The important sounding title was not just about sitting in a fancy office overlooking Zurich lake. I made a lot of calls and set up my meetings with prospective clients for business development purposes. I also went daily to the post office to collect our mail, printed and sent and filed my own faxes, made coffee and washed my own coffee cup, took out our recycling, and did a whole bunch of administrative work that people in large companies do not even think about or farm out to secretaries and assistants.

It was, after all, a new and small operation albeit with a BigCo parent company.

Startups are no different. In the early days of a startup, founders do everything from washing cups to taking and making calls to filing papers to paying bills. They do VAT returns, meet account filing deadlines, minute board meetings, keep an eye on the cash in the bank and so on. They pack products and take those packages to the post office for mailing. They also go out and represent the company to customers, partners, vendors, media and financiers. There is nobody else to talk about the brand, the company, the product but the founders who created the business. In other words, early days are when the startup founders are always selling, trying to sell or fulfilling orders.

Is there a need for startup founders have important sounding titles? Some even argue over them!

Titles serve a purpose.

Titles are useful in signalling to customers, partners, vendors and other third parties about the roles of the individuals they are dealing with. Giving such comfort and confidence is an outward facing utility of titles. Yo can go the ego-boosting heavy title route, or take a leaf from Craig Newmark’s book. He is the founder of Craigslist and calls himself “customer service rep”.

Inside the startup, roles and titles can help start a useful and essential conversation about allocation of responsibilities as the early rapid growth forces functional specialisation within the founding team. The CEO should ensure there is enough cash, that the company is heading in the right direction, and that there are enough people on the team — or from vendors and partners — to do what is necessary. The COO’s role may be defined by the context often spanning revenue ownership, supply chain, operations and other processes. The CMO takes charge of all marketing and communications with an aim to establish the brand as well as drive inbound inquiries and sales.

Then there are the future employees. As founders, you sell the vision to future employees so they consider working with you. Some of these employees then actually want big corporate-sounding titles e.g. VP. In an early stage and relatively flat organisation, a title such as VP may mean little. But what it can do is catalyse the thought process required to develop an organisational structure that will support future growth including growing numbers of employees, their roles and their career trajectories.

I am no fan of hierarchical organisations but equally the evidence from holacracy as implemented by Zappos and others following their lead, and from self management structures as implemented by Buffer is mixed. So, for now, even for startups, organisation design for growth remains an active challenge on the table. Titles are not essential but they could bring much needed clarity as jobs evolve away from the traditional functional bases of design to other philosophies including customer at the centre of the organisation.

During my country manager stint, I had several meetings with big-cheese type persons in prospective client organisations. It was not uncommon, when I turned up, to be asked by the gatekeeper to the said big-cheese, “Wo ist der Geschaeftsfuehrer?” (Where is the boss?).

I was, after all, a petite and young Indian woman, turning up to meet an important man in their company!

Handing over my card with a smile, I would reply, “Ich bin die Geschaeftsfuehrerin, bitte.” (I am the boss, please!).

The big title? It always worked.

Authenticity and Vedic wisdom for luxury brands

Alicia Keys, the talented musician and singer, was in the news recently for having chosen decidedly to eschew makeup. In a monograph in a newsletter, she said she feels no need to cover up any more. She talked about her journey to self discovery and finding her authentic self which did not need to be hidden under layers of makeup.

On cue, and missing all the irony of Keys’s commentary, Harper’s Bazaar featured 74 models in selfies with the faces they were born with. Hashtag #nomakeup.

Ladies & Gentlemen, authenticity is now on trend, and branded.

In a related development, one of my favourite web friends, Jackie Danicki, has started writing Burned Out Beauty, a beauty blog which is my new not-so-secret indulgence. She was the original beauty blogger in 2004 on the world’s first beauty blog Jack & Hill.

Jackie is not being a contrarian. She took a break, so to speak, and she is back doing something that she loves, enjoys and is knowledgeable about. Jackie is authentic.

The good thing about being authentic is there is no need to be contrarian.

But how can brands find where their authenticity lies? Indeed what is authentic and what are the sources of authenticity?

Eagle-eyed readers will remember my agonising over the “authenticity” of the Porsche symposer some time ago. I ruminated on it a while. After all the car is man-made, as is the symposer, and it is humans that manifested the Porsche vroom in the car’s engine as well as the symposer. It is not about the engine, it is about the sound. Once I had reached that essentialist unifying thread, I was at peace.

Where a sensory signal is not the only or the main signature of the brand, a brand may have to work a tad harder to define what it stands for, what its authentic self is.

A beautiful and effective tool is to be found in a Vedic method of inquiry.

What the essence of something is is often arrived at by answering what it is not.

Neti-Neti. Not this, not this.

Unlike other fixed signals of authenticity, the process of Neti-Neti also accommodates indeed nurtures growth and reinvention. If we are no longer something, if we no longer stand for something, we are one step closer to being our authentic and whole self.

So with brands.

When luxury brands with deep heritage struggle to reinvent themselves and their relevance in a world with modern technology and newness, they can choose to look inward and answer what they are not.

What are you not, any longer?

Authentic & still relevant

Luxury watches and tech: who is driving whom?

Luxury products, it seems, are being trampled over by technology-enabled products enticing luxury customers.

Apple created its own version of ceramic enforced gold. The real number of the Apple watches in gold casing shipped remains a mystery although an estimated total of 10M pieces are expected to have shipped by the end of 2015.

Apple approached Hermès, the 600 year old luxury marque for a collaboration. Possibly so Apple could open a new market for itself and Hermès could make its mark on tech savvy luxury buyers.

Hermès, however, is an odd choice, seeing as it is far from being the top luxury watch maker and seller. Apple gets to borrow Hermes’s aura, their channel and possibly their customer base — Hermès does not market aggressively to its masstige customer while its prestige customer may or may not like being sold to — and Hermès gets to sell some fabulous leather straps to Apple. The collaboration looked like Apple is driving it.

Meanwhile out of Rolex, Omega and Breitling, the top 3 luxury watch marques, only Breitling has dipped its toe in the smartwatch waters. With its Breitling B55 Connected.

Brietling’s vision is to make the phone subservient to the watch, to enhance the watch. To wit: “In creating its first connected chronograph, Breitling has applied a new philosophy placing the smartphone in the service of the watch so as to enhance its functionality and conviviality. The instrument of the future.” The Breitling B55 Connected builds on the earlier launch of B50, which is an an electronic multi-function chronograph movement, with analogue and digital displays. The idea was to serve pilots — Breitling’s primary audience, but also its aspirational audience — better and to pave the way for other developments.

A few others have made their first moves too. Gucci unveiled a high fashion version of Will.I.Am‘s smartband. Will.I.Am’s role as the creative innovation lead in Intel’s wearables business is not widely known. He is not afraid to fail or experiment. Movado has teamed up with HP to create an Android and iOS compatible watch – the Movado Bold Motion – which uses Bluetooth connectivity and vibrations and visual cues to upcoming important things, all while looking stunning as Movado watches do. At Baselworld 2015, Bulgari unveiled its Diagono Magnesium Concept watch. The watch uses WISeKey’s NFC chip to unlock an application that can store encrypted data on the cloud and communicate with other devices within its range. The data is reportedly secure in an underground bunker in the Swiss Alps. Um, ok. WISeKey’s technology works with both Android and iOS. Then there is Tag Heuer’s Connected, which runs Google Wearable OS, and the order numbers have just been upped significantly to serve the upcoming holiday demand.

With all these options, one wonders: What does a customer choose first — the watch or the technology platform/ OS? More to the point, will the technology platform ever drive a watch purchase?

Curious, I conducted an unscientific survey of (admittedly male) friends, who own watches each costing over £10,000. Unsurprisingly they are all eyeing the Tag Heuer and the Breitling, but not as their main watches.

“Look, I need the battery to last weeks not 6h. I sometimes have two flights to catch in a day and a tight meeting schedule in between.”, said one.

Another said, “As I become more senior, I am less interested in being available to all messages and people all the time. I need time to reflect, uninterrupted by pings and notifications, and as far as I can tell that is all smart watches are doing right now.”

“Whatever it is, I ain’t changing my mobile phone for a god-damned watch. Something will come along that suits me and does not ask me to suit it. Capiche?”, said another. Ooh, burn.

So, if the smart watch is not the main watch, is the connectedness spiel just another nice-to-have and not really a need-to-have feature?

What does that mean for the market that can actually afford luxury smart watches?

Who understands this subtlety of customer behaviour in the luxury market?

It sure ain’t Apple. Or HP. Or even WISeKey.

The luxury brand, on the other hand, owns the customer relationship and understands their customers’ behaviour and quirks. The brand also gets to choose which tech to use, and may choose technologies that are OS-agnostic so as to serve all of their existing customers. The brand, if not inclined to investing in development by itself, could always reach out to wearable companies such as Olio Devices, which were among the first to understand that the customer doesn’t want to change her phone OS, based on the watch she covets.

So, back to — who is driving whom as far as luxury watches and tech go?

Tech may have started it all but tech isn’t driving the conversation in this space any more.

As luxury goes, consumers rule, and luxury brands are expectedly showing a more subtle understanding of the consumer than tech players may assume.

PS: I am an all-in Apple ecosystem user.

Four For Friday (31)

This week’s links on design-thinking and design come right after I shared some observations made on a recent trip to India.

Apple is giving design a bad name, writes Don Norman, who established the User Experience Architect’s Office later becoming Vice President of Apple’s Advanced Technology Group. His co author is Bruce Tognazzini, a usability expert. A long read that Norman first said in August 2015 he was writing.

Apple is destroying design. Worse, it is revitalizing the old belief that design is only about making things look pretty. No, not so! Design is a way of thinking, of determining people’s true, underlying needs, and then delivering products and services that help them. Design combines an understanding of people, technology, society, and business. The production of beautiful objects is only one small component of modern design: Designers today work on such problems as the design of cities, of transportation systems, of health care. Apple is reinforcing the old, discredited idea that the designer’s sole job is to make things beautiful, even at the expense of providing the right functions, aiding understandability, and ensuring ease of use.

So, what is the special sauce that makes one an exceptional designer?

Exceptional designers have strong human values such as empathy, respect, and honesty. These values not only influence a designer’s approach to developing products, but also their approach to working with colleagues. After all, building great products doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Here is another twist on design. Our desire to design humans has a long and peculiar history. With a presentist lens much of it is quite squirm-inducing. But a worthy read.

Not all Americans who supported eugenics were racist and nativist. To a first approximation, everyone was a eugenicist in the early 20th-century US. But for the core of the movement, the eugenic tenet that any disability was all in the genes also put scientific teeth into laws setting racial quotas for immigrants. Reformers pressed for mandated sexual sterilisation of those deemed unfit, including the feebleminded, the criminal, the deaf, the crippled, those with venereal disease and other conditions.

Finally this eclectic collection of one hundred quotes on design caught my eye. Here is one:

Design is thinking made visual. — Saul Bass