April 29, 2008

Employee Management in a startup

Have been pretty busy off late and hence , not been able to blog much and in the process have been missing many interesting events happening in Bangalore and Chennai cry

Few days back, I came across this article in LiveMint, which focussed on an important discussion from the perspective of a startup - Hiring the RIGHT kind of employees for a startup.Needless to say that every employee in a startup should have that KILLER GENE to make HIS/HER startup successful.Very important to note the term HIS and HER in the previous statement, which indicates that these employees are very clear about their basics - "If they fail, the startup fails and if they succeed , the startup succeeds".

But there are many issues in finding this perfect set of people for your startup and even if you get you MR/MISS RIGHT, it would be a much bigger challenge to retain them !!! This was the topic of discussion in the April edition of the Open Coffee Club, Chennai. Below are some of the excerpts from that meet.

[Thanks to Siddartha Govindraj for the minutes of the meet].

The first step is Hiring good employees. Good here means that they should have the attitude to learn and grow with the company. Better having someone who wants to work with you and then train them , rather than get someone who may have better skills but who doesn't have the attitude and would leave you, when given a better offer. Best is the right combination of attitude and the skills.

Once you get your right set of people , the next big challenge is to Manage them.Freshers can't be left alone because they need someone to guide them, so you need to continuously interact with them, help and guide them.This would help in boosting their confidence , so that they can take up more challenging roles in future and be a valuable asset to your startup.

Experienced people can be left alone, but many of them who have worked in larger organizations may not have the attitude of working in a startup. So, there are two things which are possible in this case - either they get frustrated or they get accustomed in doing all the work by themselves.

Generally, experienced people are good for high level strategy/marketing/advisory positions, and fresher/intermediates for development kind of work [but there has to be someone to nurture them & guide them). But if you get experienced people with the right attitude for startups, then thats great in any position biggrin

You need to interact with everyone continuously, so that they know where they stand. In case someone is not performing, you need to bring this to their notice.This should not be done in a confrontational way, but rather you can mentor them ,so that they can perform better.But if there is no further improvement than you need to tell them that either they are not right for us or we are not right for them.

Different people are good in different roles, so you need to keep an eye on mismatched roles. For example: Someone might be good at learning new stuff but may not be detail oriented, this kind of person might be good for research/prototype projects, while a detailed oriented person might be better for client production products. If they take up opposite roles, than it would be a complete disaster for your startup.

Avoid a situation when you hire some people and then don't interact much with them.In this case there would be a series of confusions about their role, their expectations, your expectations; which may subsequently result in a drip in their performance.This would in turn be a cost to your company and there is no time for such confusions in a startup !!!

At every moment of time, we should remember that the motivation level of the employees would always be different from the motivation level of the founders of the company hence, as discussed before[during the start of the article] always thrive the OUR attitude from the beginning.As long as your employees remain motivated and enjoy the work , they would stay and if they are not, you can be sure that they would join your competitor wink

Sometimes whatever you do, your employees would leave you...in which case, you need to check your attitude, hiring strategy and other important aspects which may lead to such serious decisions. Always remember,"One person might be wrong in judging you, but if there are a series of people who follow their footsteps, than it is high time, you raise the ALERT signal and get your officials to discuss this issue"

There are many proactive people in the crowd who would follow you and your startup from the day your startup was born.Always keep an eye on such people, since they can be future partners or employees in your company.You can always use the Stanford Shopping Center test to get your MR/MISS right in your company.

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April 17, 2008

Don't sell the website, sell it's uniqueness - Nithya Dayal, Co-Founder of Muziboo

Today, we have a guest article by Nithya Dayal, Co-founder of an online music community named Muziboo. Muziboo is a great example of community building and how effective is Word of Mouth marketing[WOM] in business.

In this article, Nithya focuses on "Mantras of building an Online Community" , something which has been an integral part of the Web 2.0 space.

Web 2.0 [ Of the people, for the people and by the people]:
It is not fashionable anymore to say that Web 2.0 is not as much about technology, as it is about people. When this is an accepted truism to such a degree, it is worth spending some time to analyze the dynamics of such a model [from my experience with Muziboo]

Before you build a website [hence a service] on the assumption and wish that users will come forward to generate content, you need to understand what it takes to drive those users to contribute content.

Mantras of building an Online Community:
Keep in mind the following mantras , while trying to build an active community on­line:

Is your service unique?
During your whole thought process ­ while planning to start, build and maintain a new website­ , if ever this question sounded clichéd within yourself, you are sure to come up with a non-­starter for a service. Unless there is something unique in what you offer, how fair is it to expect people to spend their time in your platform to generate content, when either, they are already comfortable doing the same elsewhere (or) they do not see a new source of satisfaction in your service. This satisfaction as your uniqueness could be in any form for the user – expression, recognition, entertainment, social and business networking and so on and so forth.

Initiating a Culture and Driving the Culture
Once you have decided on what should differentiate your service from similar others, you as the owner should become one of the patrons and initiate that ‘culture’ among users, which will in ­turn give the desired uniqueness to the service. As the first few hundred users go a long way in giving a face and feel to your service, it is vital to have given due thought about your uniqueness at a very early stage of conception of the service. Also, one has to be around constantly, driving it in the positive direction. Majority of users need hand holding while you wait for them to acquire the taste of what you have to offer. This is the only way to bring in the kind of culture [that showcases the uniqueness] that you want to offer. Because if you leave it to the users to bring in uniqueness all by themselves or give them a good idea and not follow ­up with efforts to involve them in building the same, the only guaranteed result is the establishment of a culture characterized by stagnation and inertia among the users. Do not forget that this need for hand holding is not a reflection of the users intelligence – if you can come up with something too exciting that it needs no hand holding, then good for you – read Flickr blog to understand that Mr & Mrs Butterfield had to work hard to establish the uniqueness of Flickr, which is not just a photo sharing site but a thriving community.

Here it is important to note that this ‘uniqueness’ refers to a dynamic aspect of the site, which has the potential for something exciting or which has a proven record of enthusing users to contribute. It rarely or seldom refers to the uniqueness in technology that the site has adopted. And, more often than not, only while enjoying the ‘uniqueness’ will the users be spending the maximum chunk of their time when logged in – even if it is a little peripheral to the main service that you offer.

Unfortunately some websites after getting a whole lot funding, start operating on the premise that marketing the whole service will encourage people to register and generate content. It is not enough to ‘sell the website’, you have to ‘sell the uniqueness’ of the website after establishing one in the first place.

Post ­sign-up
User assimilation is a slow painstaking process. The new user should immediately be made comfortable with an interactive interface. With an interactive interface, one should make easy the process of a user getting acquainted with other members of the community.

Recognizing Users
Most online community members like recognition, [rightly so] either for the content contributed or for participation. Couple of ways to do that would be featured articles and featured users.

Empowering users ­ Democracy
Empowerment is a great form of recognition and by doing the needful on that count, as an owner, you manage to stay away from ruffling yourself with too many responsibilities. By empowerment, I refer to the minimal barriers that you put out for content acceptance. All generated content need not go through great levels of moderation or quality checks before being published. The motivation to contribute from the users end is highly dampened if they get spiked. Also if you shackle users with too many do's and dont's , you will have a lot of fire fighting to be done everyday as the service scales up. Democratize as much as possible. Let most things be decided on user votes and ratings.

Having a balance – So Much Democracy
In the nascent stages, many users come forward with their ideas – both functional and business. Some will always be more relevant than the others, the ‘others’ being the ones that do not align with your vision of the service. It is for the service owner to handle this embarrassment without stepping on toes. You do not want to paint yourself in a corner while asking for ideas, because when not implementing those bonafide suggestions, you are likely to come across ‘rude’ or ‘technically in­competent’ ­ both equally hurtful for your image.

Promoting Offline meets
Promoting local offline meets is also a way to create stronger bonds among the community members. Posting updates about such events on the site can enthuse users from other cities to initiate such activities.

It Ain't Easy [because if it is, then it ain't fun]
Does this need elaboration??....Neah; remember the community is very intelligent and can help make/break your business.

I hope you also enjoyed reading the article, just as I did.Thanks Nithya for sharing your thoughts with us smile Muziboo has been quite instrumental in all the aspects as a startup and has been covered a number of times in the press, you can find the articles here, here and here.

Other Guest Articles on Thoughtsprevail:
Ten steps to improve your E-commerce business
Financial Management for a Startup Firm

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April 13, 2008

Think Local , Act Global : Art of Customer Service

There are lot of resources available on the Internet about "Customer Service", how to serve customers like God, and how one customer can turn into a chain of Customers [just by hitting the bullseye with the first one biggrin]

Just came across an interesting video of a child selling peacock fans on the streets of Mumbai [near Hanging Garden], the special part is , He has learnt many languages, only to the extent that he can answers his customer's queries - "What is Peacock Fan", "It's uses", "It's Price" etc. etc.

Reader Contribution:
Mahatma Gandhi's definition of CUSTOMER:
1. A customer is not an outsider to our business. He is a definite part of it. A customer is not an interruption of our work. He is the purpose of it.
2. A customer is doing us a favor by letting us serve him. We are not doing him any favour.
3. A customer is not a cold statistic; he is a flesh and blood human being with feelings and emotions like our own....... More here
[Thanks Purnank Harjivanbhai Ghumalia]

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April 10, 2008

Time is now, the idea is to start and not think much : Sumit Jain, CoFounder - CommonFloor

In one of my Open Coffee Club meetup in Bangalore, I interacted with two young guys who knew one word well - ENTREPRENEURSHIP.They are Sumit Jain and Lalit Mangal, ex-Oracle guys and now Co-founders of a company named Max Heap Technologies

Max Heap came out with a concept called Common Floor, which is a local networking site for apartments.Common Floor is currently operational in over 150 apartments in Bangalore and has plans to take this concept to other cities in India.

Below is a small Q&A that I had with Sumit Jain from Common Floor.The Q&A session is divided into 2 parts : Common Floor and Entrepreneurship.

Note : "I" in the conversation refers to Sumit Jain.

Common Floor [How,When, Why etc.]

Q. Can you give a small background of you and your startup and it's founders ?
A. Both of us, Lalit and myself , are from IIT Roorkee and joined Oracle through the campus selection in 2006. We left in June last year. Yeah, in just 1 year. So both of us don't have much experience to talk about. We were the part of Oracle Enterprise Manager team. Lalit holds a patent under his name. Lalit loves reading. I love dancing.

Q.How many apartments in Bangalore are currently using this service ?
A. More than 150 apartment complexes in Bangalore have signed up to use CommonFloor as their interaction platform. We expect the figure to go to 300 in a couple of month.

Q.How do you plan to take your service to other apartments in Bangalore ?
A. Now as we have reached the critical mass, we can expect the word of mouth publicity to actually work. The associations of various apartments are approaching us and we are approaching them to take CommonFloor in their apartment.

Q.CommonFloor is a niche social networking site, what is your take on Social Networking and it's future?
A. I would rather like to call CommonFloor as the "local networking site". With CommonFloor we are solving a bunch of needs; social interaction is just one of them. We intend to be the one stop destination for all kinds of problems an apartment residents face, making their lives simpler. We are leveraging the geographical proximity of our users and giving them enough avenues to know more about each other.

About Social networking, I believe that in Asian communities social networking is not going to work the way as it is happening in US & UK. We are a different breed and have different needs. In India particular, internet has not been able to reach to the masses. So for any social networking site to happen, it has to offer a lot more than just the networking features. The social networking has to be done over a need. It has to offer something which people can relate to their real day to day lives. In short, it has to solve a problem.

Q.There are 3 people who commonly fund startups 3F's Friends, Family or Fools; so who gave you the first set of investment for CommonFloor ?
A. None of these three F's as such. Though our families have been very supportive, we mostly managed to run it by our own. In a startup like ours, you don't have to spend much on basic requirements and we chose to remain basic for some time biggrin. We had some savings and we took a couple of free lance projects in between to keep it going.

Q.What is your revenue model(apart from Ad's)...Do you charge the apartments with which you tie up ?
A. Ad's is always a source of revenue for any dotcom business but surely never a significant one until you manage to get the highly targeted ads. Apart from ad revenue, there are a few other areas where we generate revenue. As far as charging apartments is concerned, there is a basic version of CommonFloor which is free and top of it there are some paid features. So this would be another source of revenue in the future.

Q.What is the USP of CommonFloor over other such groups on SN sites like Orkut ?
A. CommonFloor does not complete with any of the social networking sites in the direct market. As I told you that CommonFloor is a local networking site which harness geographical proximity of its users which is absent in any of the service currently available.

Q.What are your funding options and where can people find more information about CommonFloor ?
A. More info about CommonFloor is available on request. We are in talks with a couple of angel investors and deal would happen latest by the end of this month.

Views on Entrepreneurship

Q.Both of you left your cushy jobs in Oracle to start off MaxHeap, what was the major trigger point?
A. The time is now. The idea is to leave and start and not think much. The journey is so exciting that it is worth taking a break and doing it full time. Rest is identifying yourself and going for it.

Q.You are a regular feature at Open Coffee Club,[Bangalore], how has such kind of events helped fostering Entrepreneurship?
A. It helps a lot. OCC is a great platform. I am very thankful to both of Bangalore OCC's Co-Founders, Ramjee Ganti and Vaibhav Pandey to take this initiative. For a startup, to keep himself updated and finding opportunities for synergy is very important and OCC is one of the right platform for it.

Q.What are the major changes that happened when you moved from an Employee to an Employer [or Entrepreneur] ?
A. There is a drastic change in the responsibilities. Now you are not answerable to anyone but to yourself. You get most of the decision making power and your decisions can actually make it or break it all. You learn self management. Time Management is first and most important thing you learn while starting up. You are risking your valuable time while your peers are busy getting hikes and great salaries, the pressure is immense. Other than hard work and motivation, it requires a lot of patience and persistence.

Q.What are your key advices to people who want to startup ?
A. If you want to do it, don't think that you can't do it. Always see that what you want to do and then how can you do it. Challenge yourself rather than questioning. If you are falling short of the confidence to start or there are other liabilities, join a startup, the journey would still be a lot more exciting.

Q.You are an IIT Roorkie Alumini, how important has IIT been in nurturing your Entrepreneurial talent ?
A. What I personally feel is that the best part of an IIT is its network of students and alumni. Infrastructure and the professors help a lot but you spend most of your time with your friends, seniors and juniors in the college. You get to network with the very hardworking and motivating people with whom you can discuss about things other than getting a good CGPA or a job. Most of the people are looking to go for higher studies and quite a few are exploring the startup world. The number of people who start out of IITs exceeds more than IIMs.

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April 1, 2008

Is your IDEA a Business OPPORTUNITY ?

All of us get ideas [many of them daily get plenty of ideas ] and feel that we can create a business out of it, but many of those ideas cannot be transformed into businesses. May be some don't make any Business sense at all, some cannot be taken up full-time [ but may be help you in getting some additional income].

Blogging is a good example; it can be thought of as a hobby or a past-time or a way to Change the World , but very difficult to go full time into blogging cry May be this question would be rightly answered by any of the full-time bloggers in the Blogosphere.

There are a couple of ideas that each and every one of us work on , but very few of them can materialize into a full-time startup.

In my current read Harvard Business Essentials , Jeffry Timmons; a leading expert on Entrepreneurship has highlighted 5 Characteristics that any Business Opportunity [ Product/Service ] should possess to certify it as a business.
  1. Creates significant value for customers by solving a significant problem or filling a significant unmet need for which they are willing to pay the premium.
  2. Offers significant potential to the Entrepreneur and investors - enough to meet their risk/reward expectations.
  3. Represents a good fit with the capabilities of the founder and the management team i.e. something in which they have the experience or the skills to pursue.
  4. Is durable - the opportunity for profits will persist over a reasonable length of time - something that is not based on a momentary craze or a need that will quickly disappear.
  5. Opportunity that might be eligible for financing.Though the funding scene is very different, yet a commercial idea at least gets the eyes of investors [ if not all, at least few of them ]
Reader Contribution:
1. An article covered in Forbes : Is your great idea a real business [Thanks Nithya Dayal]
2. Few of the points that I missed are:
Passion and Patience of the Entrepreneurial team [Thanks Manoj Awasthi]

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