Autonomous cars and luxury marques

Aston Martin, James Bond’s car of choice (except when he went through a BMW phase), showcased a powerboat at Monaco Yacht Show this year. Writing in the Financial Times, Philip Delves Broughton laments that Bond’s legacy is being junked by this luxury marque and outlines the dangers of brands diversifying into unrelated categories, especially those far away from the brand’s core, while also acknowledging the financial pressures that may have brought about the powerboat.

Those are great arguments; indeed they are in line with the “we have heritage” argument that keeps many a luxury brand in that strange place where they are simultaneously desirable and at the risk of going out of business very fast. Those are also arguments that arise from a steady state style of thinking applied to the stark challenges faced by luxury businesses.

The challenge is altogether different. Existential, in fact.

As autonomous vehicles get on roads outside the Bay Area, indeed here in the UK not far from the Aston Martin Headquarters, the existential crisis facing luxury marques in cars is too urgent to ignore. They overwhelmingly pitch their cars as being about the pleasure of owning and driving a car as beautiful such as the Vanquish (I have my preferences but please feel free to imagine the marque that makes you go weak at the knees here!). There is a primal connection between the man and the (stunning) machine that is at the heart of the purchases of such cars.

With autonomous cars around the corner, the makers of such luxury cars may go out of business altogether.

What will be their offering, their raison d’être?

What deepest desires in our hearts will they be appealing to, with their beautiful — but self driving — cars?

Yes, I hear you cycling through Kübler-Ross. I am doing it too so you are not alone.

Meanwhile, let’s not pretend that the Aston Martin AM37 powerboat is only about the financial bottomline. There are existential choppy waters ahead. Aston Martin has found one way to navigate them. Unlike Bond, makers and purveyors of such luxury vehicles may not live to die another day. They have to think fast to remain relevant and in business at all. More previously unthinkable business models may be forthcoming from luxury car makers.

Mr Broughton meanwhile can perhaps take solace in the possibility of the next boat chase on the Thames featuring an Aston Martin! Bond’s heritage may be alive and well. For the time being.

Cofounders and the dating analogy

This article is the third in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on Oct the 3rd, 2016.

The search for a cofounder is analogous to dating. There is an ideal checklist of attributes — skills, qualities and more as you will see — and then there is the ineffable chemistry check.

Since no two people are alike, we will naturally encounter both similarities and differences. Over the years of working with startups, I have developed a framework which can help you think through the dilemma.

Values of cofounders should ideally be the same or similar. A key value to consider is the importance of control. Extensive research by Noam Wasserman of Stanford finds that there are people, who want complete control and ownership, and there are people, who understand that some control may need to be given up to build and grow the venture’s reach and value. This understanding is pretty fundamental to building a venture, especially if you plan to raise external investment to do so. A fundamental disagreement here would not make for a a good cofounder relationship.

Goals, needless to say, have to be similar not different, although one can work with  the possibility of changing mind later. For instance, a cofounder may commit today to work on the venture till an exit event but a few years down, agree to give up an active role in running the venture. Such possibilities are hard to predict but if all else is working, they are negotiable.

Skills are best if different or complementary. It helps if the cofounders bring different domain expertise to building the startup. If you are a techie who does not have experience in speaking to early adopters and customers, and your cofounder is the customer facing person essential to driving adoption and bringing customer feedback on board, you have brought together two essential skill sets.

Work ethic is best if similar. Some people emphasise hard work, others outcomes. A startup needs both but it needs outcomes and growth milestones more than anything else. If a founder thinks hard work is substitute for results, it is not going to work. It is therefore best if cofounders are on the same page as to the purposiveness of the work ethic. It is worth noting that work hours are not the same thing as work ethic. Work hours are often negotiated with the needs of the start-up in mind. While a developer can work late into the night coding, a customer facing cofounder has to work the hours when she can meet customers and partners.

Networks serve a startup best if different, or complementary. This would help the start-up maximise reach into customers as well as investors. The eagle-eyed among you may note this may not work when your cofounder is your former classmate from University, as mentioned in an earlier column. In such a case, look for the contacts you need in another cofounder or an advisor. Ask yourself “what things are you definitely not good at?” and go from there.

If this framework is lulling you into a false sense of security, don’t let it. Being able to judge these essential qualities is not simple or quick. Don’t rush the decision. Spend time talking through things and listening carefully, how they see failure and success, how they talk about disappointment, how they treat people over whom they have any kind of power, how they talk about people they have relationships with.

Occasionally someone may tick all the boxes and yet make you uncomfortable. Judging someone’s character is hard, and a lot more personal than judging their skills and experience. In such moments, listen to yourself, I say. Do not dismiss your instincts and do not dismiss your gut.

However as any person in a long term commitment or relationship will tell you, the marriage begins once the wedding is over. Committing to the relationship requires the commitment to work with all that comes with it. It helps to lay down early ground rules for all to adhere. That is the scaffold of your organisation’s culture, more on which a little later in this column series.

It is worth remembering that the advertised product may be quite different from what is delivered. In other words, people may disappoint you. They may demonstrate different behaviours in an organised and predictable environment than they do in a start-up. A start-up is a high stress, demanding environment where decisions are not hedged by a large team and wrong decisions can actually waste valuable money and time.You cannot predict all this but you can deal with it. More on conflicts arising and how to deal with those will be discussed later in this series.

(Note: a version of this framework appears in “Dear Female Founder” edited by Lu Li, who has kindly permitted the publication of this piece.)

Do I need a co-founder?

This article is the second in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on Sept the 16th, 2016.

Those who read my last column may have noted my ambivalence towards the “previously successful business model applied to a different market” line of thinking. That holds good for start-ups as well as people. I am not interested in people’s role models.

I do pose one question to the founders who come to me for advice: “What things are you definitely not good at?”. It is an uncommon but essential way of bringing self awareness to the journey the founder is about to begin. Most founders giggle then start with low impact observations such as “I eat as soon as food appears; Instagramming food is definitely not for me”. Soon enough, other things emerge: “I am not really good at cold calling,” “I lose track of money easily,” “I cannot face telling people they are messing up at their job,” “My coding skills are limited to the front end, but the product I envisage needs full stack development capabilities.”

Here is the visceral realisation of John Donne’s oft-cited line “no man is an island”. No founder is an island either. Her success in realising her dream relies on many skills and many people.

Wisdom and experience tell us that one needs a team. The team would ideally consist of people, whose skills and experience complement those of the founder. But could these people be cofounders?

Becoming a cofounder is about believing in and committing to the idea, as much as the first founder does. It means being able to face up to staking one’s reputation on an idea that one did not think of, but is convinced enough to join in and make into a success. It is about committing one’s skills, networks and work ethic to building the venture. Being a cofounder requires one to champion the venture at all opportunities, to the exclusion of everything else. It may often also need one to do all of this while earning no more than sweat equity and not getting paid much or at all, till either there is enough traction or till external investment is raised.

But do these people need to be your cofounders?

Arguably, yes. Not because you need them but because while solopreneurs are successful in raising capital and making profitable exists, venture capitalists and accelerators do not often take a chance on them. It makes sense.

There are exceptions. If you are creating an e-commerce platform or setting up a marketplace, you could use an off the shelf stable technology solution with support services for implementation bought in from the platform provider, while you focus on customer and supplier development. Over time you may find yourself doing too much work and feel the need for support and help especially in areas of work which are your weaknesses. These may or may not be cofounders.

So where does one find cofounders?

When first teaching undergraduates in India in 2012, I wanted them to work in teams, an idea not encouraged in academic settings often enough. Culturally too, the vision of a lone ranger is seductive to young people. I started by asking them about the start-ups and entrepreneurs they admired. The usual suspects including Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Flipkart and so on were mentioned. I then asked them to name the founders. Suddenly the penny dropped: the realisation that none of those was a lone ranger narrative or a solo success.

Naturally they wanted to know where they might find these cofounders. “Look around you”, I said, “Your potential collaborators, co-conspirators and future partners-in-crime are in this classroom with you.” It is not clear the suggestion was believed completely. Fast forward a few years and some of them are building their ventures together.

It is not always so simple, of course. In the wider world, start by telling everyone you are seeking a cofounder. Share your ask in entrepreneurs’ communities. Build your venture’s profile on AngelList and post a job seeking a cofounder with an outline of skills you seek. Evangelise your company and briefly pitch to everyone you meet. Hustle, hustle, hustle.

When you find your cofounders, hold on to them. They are now the joint custodians of your vision. They will shape, along with you, the future success — or failure —of your venture. As the founder, you must commit to rewarding them fairly and meaningfully, to sharing information good and bad with them, to resolving disagreements quickly and keeping the wellbeing of the venture in mind. These are not unlike requirements scripted in wedding vows.

Not only will you cofounders build your venture with you, they will also witness the journey. More importantly they will be the people you clink glasses of champagne with, when you all succeed in creating something meaningful and lasting out of a mere dream.

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

Starting something new?

This article is the first in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on Sept the 5th, 2016.

“I want to be a founder.”

Alarm bells start ringing, when I hear these words from the mouth of a person with no more definitive an idea than being a founder. It is now a word with social currency, with swagger. It is a job title that winks and says “I will raise a lot of VC money, sell to Facebook, and be so rich, you will want to be my slaves, bitches!”. In practice, however, it is the one word explanation of why a person can no longer make it to your regular Friday bacchanalia, or organise your pre-wedding do, or even be on time for her own parents’ milestone anniversary party. It is the word that can strike fear in the hearts of middle-class parents, who scraped and saved to send their progeny to the best schools in the country, even the world, and who now do not know how to answer when their friends ask, “So what does your daughter do?” because heck, damned if they know what with the world buzzing with apps, SaaS, AI, ML, drones, robotics and such words as they never heard in the Bible.

With all the gentleness I can muster, I ask, “A founder of what?” Then, sometimes, magic unfolds.

I hear the person describe a dream, where she tells a moving story of a childhood memory or an experience as a young adult newly launched into the world. The story sometimes describes a challenge that may or may not have affected them personally in a material sense, but did affect them at a deep, emotional level and strengthened the resolve that soon as they can, they will work on solving it. She goes further into details of how, over the years, she has thought about the issue, read up a lot of things that helped her understand the source of the problem and why nobody had tried to resolve it effectively, and formulated some possible ideas of how she would go about it. And that all those years, and that pain has brought her to the point where she says: “I want to be a founder.”

I must confess though, that this rarely happens.

What does happen is some version of “I want to be the Uber of this, the Air BnB of that, the Facebook of something.” In other words, the wannabe founder wants to copy an existing and visibly successful business model and apply it to some obscure problem.

Deeper questioning reveals some to have thought deeply about it, but most have not. The rumoured ease of raising VC money seems to have created a monster of an ambition but nary a dream. With a firm idea of the exact business model, albeit untested in their target market, some are very certain, impervious to advice and often resistant to questions. Yet others have even — sometimes irresponsibly — been advised by others to create a business that a specific large operator in their industry will be certain to buy for a lot of money.

Greed as a business model has not created many successes in the start-up world as we know it.

Some however have a dream, a vision. Many have an open mind but may or may not understand what a business model is. Some even realise the difficulties of copying a blazingly successful business model and the many ways it could fail in India. A few have a rough idea of what they want to do, and have tested whether anyone will pay for their planned product or service. A smaller number have spoken with a lot of people including successful entrepreneurs from the pre-VC world when losing the shirt off your back and the soles off your shoes were two essential ingredients of success. And a small number have done all of that, identified that they need a lot of help and advice, and have started to identify seed money, whether from parents or friends, or even their own saved-up rainy day fund.

These are exhilarating conversations. There is emotion, but there is also the acceptance that a dream is only as big as the work you put into realising it. There is confidence in the self, but also the humility to know the gaps in one’s knowledge and experience. There is belief in the idea but also finite understanding of the fact that it may need to be tweaked, adopted, changed wholesale — pivoted as start-up speak goes — for success.

This is where the engagement begins for an advisor. It promises to be a tough but fun ride for both the founder and the advisor.

Absent all this though, “founder”, the verb, is exactly what a wannabe founder will do.

Which description of a wannabe founder describes you?