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.

 

Brand leadership has to change

A few years ago, shortly after the 2008 crash, American Express in the United States paid many of its less profitable customers to close their accounts and go away. The move garnered much attention and analysis then. It was seen as a de-leveraging move. Whatever hubbub surrounded the brand then has since died down and in an unscientific survey of my business-savvy friends, few remember that this happened at all.

It was a story of a brand choosing its customers, rather than the dominant narrative that conventionally goes the other way round. The latter powers the nascent GrabYourWallet movement.  Another campaign, Sleeping Giants, is similarly holding brands and companies to account if they continue to advertise on extremist websites.

These are interesting times, as the Chinese curse goes.

As consumers, we profess to love brands that are “authentic“, never mind that in many cases, contrived authenticity, not rooted in values embedded into the business’s value chain, is all we are getting excited about.

What happens when “authentic brands” meet programmatic advertising? Unfortunate, inadvertent outcomes, that is what. Brands are left scrambling to do damage control.

What happens when “authentic brands” take a stand that is vastly unpopular? What happens when the brand’s CEO tells a customer she is free to leave if she does not like their philosophy? Isn’t that just the brand being authentic?

What when all signs point to the emergent challenges being bigger than the more popular political bugbear of the time?

Is authenticity malleable? Should it be?

What if a brand never had cause to reveal some of its stances before and is now choosing to do it in a way that consumers find abhorrent?

And when that comes to pass, should consumers force the brand to comply with their idea of authenticity, or choose to walk away with their wallets?* After all, wisdom says, when facts change, changing our minds is no bad thing.

These growing disagreements and schisms are why, more than ever before, brands need values at their foundation, in their DNA, embedded in their value chain.

Real, defensible, explicit values that the brand is willing to stand up for.

Not convenient values that change with the times or fads du jour.

It is then that brand managers will truly be able to use programmatic advertising as a tool to help them rather be helplessly enslaved by it, while they operate in a haze, whether it be about their brand values or technology.

It is then that “customer choice” will come to mean both that the customer chooses, or rejects, the brand and that the brand chooses, or rejects, the customer.

[* Switching costs for small businesses on a shopping cart platform are not negligible but then that is an economic argument, not one about values.]

 

The real story in India’s demonetisation saga

“Who benefits if we all go cashless?”,  asked a friend* of mine. This is indeed the money question in India’s demonetisation saga with its moving goal posts. “I am not here for the enrichment of Visa, MasterCard etc.,” she added.

Apart from convenience and fraud protection, the economic case for an individual consumer is near impossible to make. Many problems solved by card issuers are those related to card usage, not arising from the transaction or commerce itself.

The benefits of consumers going cashless accrue variously to businesses, who can reduce the cost of cash handling; to various players in the payments ecosystem — card makers, technology providers, POS terminal makers, card issuers and acquirers, wallets, and schemes such as Visa, MasterCard and RuPay — who make a fraction of a basis point on each transaction; and to society at large, in aggregate and in the long run.

My friend* remains suspicious of ideas where consumers were required to participate without having any agency, since, she argues, we do have agency in using cash e.g. when hoarding cash as vulnerable women do.

This is a fair concern. But consumers accept the notion of a state-sanctioned currency as a widely accepted means of value exchange within a territory. Consumers make trade-offs to get things they desire while accepting certain loss of agency even if they do so holding their noses.

As it stands, the state has unfair power in determining whether the currency has the value it is supposed to have. It is a power imbalance where the consumer’s agency is considerably less than the state’s. Consumers begin first and foremost with the belief that the state won’t mess with them and their stash of wealth. This trust is essential to exercising the consumer’s agency in stashing away hoards of cash. Acts such as the overnight demonetisation and the cack-handed execution of it destroy trust. The cash hoards of those vulnerable women have been destroyed in value overnight. Their agency is hugely reliant on the state’s benevolence in this instance.

What happens when the state does mess with consumer trust such as by demonetisation or overnight devaluation of the currency?

This is where the conversation veers into virtual currencies such as Bitcoin that remove state as the holder of power and distribute power to the two or more parties transacting. It would be the subject of an altogether different essay on why we are happier trusting an algorithm than we are trusting elected representatives whom we can bring to account.

The chatter about the demonetisation of certain currency notes and going cashless — the latter being some ways off in India, given the lack of infrastructure needed to make cashless work — is just a sideshow.

The main game is data.

When the economy goes cashless, a lot of data will be generated and the aggregate economic case for society will begin to emerge. At the very least, there will be new money brought into the system with convenience reducing the friction in commercial transactions and money.

Professional — and armchair pro-am — economists have wondered a while how India’s GDP would change if the unorganised sector, including the vast cash economy of domestic and unskilled workers, quotidian daily purchases like cigarettes and paan etc were to be recorded formally. The probability of such aggregation will increase with more data collection, though it remains to be seen whether this newly counted GDP growth will weather, balance or exceed the drop in GDP predicted by many due to the demonetisation.

“Who benefits if we all go cashless?”.

The key beneficiary of India going cashless will be whoever can make sense of the gazillions of exabytes of data that these transactions will generate, and that will enable the study of deviation from patterns to identify funds that may fail ATL/AML scrutiny. In an ideal scenario, the money that otherwise goes unnoticed while transacting in cash will be noticed and people in possession of it brought into the tax net, netting more money into the state’s coffers.

Money in all this is still the distraction. The real story is data.

As consumers, this real story should worry Indians because Indian citizens have no guaranteed right to privacy and India has no data protection laws to speak of. Despite a massive universal ID programme, named Aadhar, the government appears to have very little appetite for change in this regard. The Government of India’s open government data platform was launched in 2012 but is rightly criticised for incomplete thinking. A consultation on it  was opened to the public in July 2016.

My advice to my friend and to those watching the demonetisation story in India is quite simple:

If you want agency, watch the main game of data — and what unfettered, unregulated  access to data might enable — not the sideshow — of moves towards cashless society.

If this be the only lesson of 2016, so be it.

Here’s to not fearing the anomie of 2016 and to rebuilding in 2017!

*(Thanks are due to my friend, whom I do not name, for asking the vital question that sparked the conversation on November the 27th and 28th, 2016, and for permitting me to use her words in this post.)

Luxury’s talent conundrum

A version of this essay appeared on Hudson Walker International’s Opinion section published on November the 4th, 2016.

The Luxury sector is facing headwinds. Single digit growth seems here to stay. The behaviour and the expectations of the elusive but coveted millennial consumer remain somewhat a mystery with conflicting trends emerging. For instance, millennials seem disinterested in owning houses and cars, but are nonetheless happy dropping $25 Bn on diamond jewellery. The luxury consumer is globally mobile and digitally savvy, thus requiring brands to think of narratives that remain relevant and accessible in the many contexts in which the consumer might encounter the brand. The traditional luxury maison with its aura of exclusivity is also under challenge from the small, nimble luxury brand that not only knows where to find the new consumer but also to serve her well with messages and products that appeal to her, and do so in an agile manner. The emergence of these new brands is not unrelated to the technological developments challenging and reshaping the entire luxury value chain.

Like many other industries being redefined by technology and the warp speed of the web, the luxury sector too is facing a talent shaped challenge. The sector however remains quite conservative in where it sources talent, privileging industry embeddedness over attracting outsiders. These outsiders may come in and ask uncomfortable questions but they also have the ability and aptitude to shape the future of the industry. The need for luxury sector leadership to shake up their thinking on talent is apparent.

But how can they do it? Well, here are some ways to examine the existing thinking critically.

Consider whom you are attracting. While seeking to fill a position, if the hiring manager in the luxury maison sees applications from only those already working within industry, there is a problem. Pretty much every other industry has had to learn, some grudgingly, others more willingly, ways to reach out to active and passive talent where the talent hangs out and to make their brands more relevant to those professionals who would not otherwise consider them as possible employers.

Ask whether you are hiring for what they can do for the maison, or for what they have already done in their careers. This is trickier than it looks at first pass. Research suggests men are often hired for potential while women have to have proven it before. The luxury sector overwhelmingly sells to women, who have increasing economic power as well as alertness to governance issues in companies they buy from. The hiring-for-potential-or-proof challenge is exacerbated when companies are hiring for a future that is not fully spelt out and is unfurling as we watch. If you are seeking to acquire skills that are themselves nascent, consider that those skills may well have been acquired and demonstrated outside formal employment. As the boundaries between work and non-work areas of life dissolve, it is worth remembering that we bring our whole selves to wherever we go. Hiring conversations need to evolve from the curriculum vitae to exploring the passions of the individuals in their life. This will have to become normal as people pursue and build many careers within their professional lives, which brings me to the next point.

Before even seeking new talent, think deeply about how you will retain them, once they are hired. The adage that “employees do not leave companies, they leave their managers” needs modification. Employees leave in pursuit of fresh challenges knowing well that having multiple careers is now not a novelty but the default, and that only they themselves are responsible for shaping their work life. This challenge is multiplied manifold when the talent freshly hired is a a star and aware of her star power. Monetary and non-monetary incentives are the hygiene factors. Retention is about giving them something to believe in, something that lifts the game daily from mundane transactions to an opportunity to make a meaningful difference.

Lest this monograph should make these challenges sound insurmountable, I should add that this is where a seasoned and well-networked headhunter comes in. A good headhunter serves as the consigliere or consigliera to the maison. He or she understands the essence of the luxury brand, and can communicate it faithfully to a prospective candidate in a manner that bridges elegantly the gap between the narrative of the brand and its salience to a candidate’s aspirations. This is a crucial skill as a luxury mason’s success in attracting, hiring and retaining talent now depends on how well the leadership articulates their vision of the future and demonstrates that it is in line with the future emerging before our eyes.

The industry whose mainstay is heritage and craftsmanship is up against rapid technological and socio-political change. Something’s got to give for the industry to remain relevant and thrive. Talent is where the solution to that conundrum lies.

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.