The Lean Startup

I recently had the opportunity to read the book ‘The Lean Startup‘ by Eric Ries.

It was a really interesting read. The author is a very seasoned entrepreneur and leverages his experiences to define a set of guidelines which have collectively come to be known as ‘The Lean Methodology’ which can helps startups of all shapes and size achieve their goal of success.

Eric’s blog ‘Startup Lessons Learned‘ is very famous among entrepreneurial circles.

Eric defines a startup as – A startup is a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty. Eric starts by explaining how startups can make sure they are progressing – validated learning. Many times, startups spend developing features that do not add value to the consumer. At times, they spend much time adding lots of features before launching. This can lead to a lot of wastage – in terms of time & human potential. The worst part is that startups sometimes fail to identify whether the features they have added are impacting their growth in any way.

The key here is to measure progress in a more real sense – in terms of customer-centric lessons learned rather than vanity metrics that might be false indicators. Startups make a lot of assumptions about the market, its value & growth hypothesis etc. According to Eric, every startup decision needs to be considered as an experiment. These leap-of-faith assumptions need to be rigorously tested. The best way is to build an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) that helps us  get consumer feedback. The idea here is to go through the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop as fast as possible. Any feature does not help learn about consumer insight in measurable terms is a waste. The main 2 things a startup needs to validate are its value hypothesis and its growth hypothesis.

This involves the concept of Continuous Deployment where you build & deploy fast, get consumer feedback and improve. Eric also suggests a method called Innovation Accounting to keep track of your progress. This involves using cohort analysis – using tests that can help us objectively measure whether a feature has impacted customer behavior positively – split-user tests, user-activity tests etc. All the tests need to satisfy the 3 A’s – Actionable, Accessible & Auditable. For eg., instead of looking at the gross growth rate, Eric suggests studying the compounded growth rate which is  the Natural growth rate – churn rate (attrition rate). Here churn rate – fraction of customers who fail to remain engaged with company’s product.

Eric heavily draws from his own startup experience as a CTO of IMVU as well as the lean & just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing methods (like Kanban) followed by Toyota & other successful industrial companies. He mentions the use of the ‘Five Whys‘ to drill down to the basic (mostly human) cause behind every seemingly technical problem. Another major insight is regarding the question of whether to pivot or preserve. Most startups face this question at some point of their life. Successful startups usually have success stories which highlight the persistence of their founders as the reason of their success – which can be misleading at times. Eric suggest that founders should be open to change and take decision based on measurable data that suggest whether they are failing or not to gain traction. He defines the startup runway (time till take off) as the number of successful pivots that can be performed without running out of cash reserves. He gives the example of the startup Wealthfront as a classic lean startup which has had a number of timely pivots before hitting  the gold pot. Eric has categorized and methodically analysed most types of pivots that we see in the industry as well.

In the last chapters, Eric talks about how to ensure sustainable innovation in large corporations as well. Some good reads suggested at the end of the book (in my to-read list) are The Four Steps to The Epiphany  by Steven Blank and The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen.

Startup Columbus – Startup Saturday

This Saturday (27th July 2013), I participated in Startup Columbus ‘Startup Saturday‘ monthly meetup. I came to know about the event from meetup.com.

The event was hosted at the Dublin Entrepreneurial Center. There were 10 participants in the meeting. It was scheduled from 9.30 am to 12 pm (though it got extended to 3 pm). The meeting was presided by Alex Jonas, organizer at Startup Ohio and Ohio Games Incubator. We started off by giving a quick 2 min. intro about ourselves. All other participants were employed and from various age groups. All were in various stages of their entrepreneurial journey – there was a guy Tim who is successfully running 2 startups already and had come to discuss about his third startup (25+ years experience). Then there was Victoria who had lots of experience (17+) in all kinds of administrative and marketing tasks – she had helped with the operations for many early stage startups.   There were also people who were simply interested in knowing more about entrepreneurship and had come for meeting up new people.

After the intro, we were each given the opportunity to ask about any specific problem/ assistance/guidance that we needed. The whole team would then discuss and come up with various solutions. Problems like pricing strategy, marketing strategy, increasing & retention of user-base etc. were discussed. A participant Chintan (possibly Indian) had come up with a project called Qlyer. He wanted advice on gaining more traction. Another participant Naina had an idea but didn’t know where to start.  I personally didn’t have any problem to discuss. I told about the ideas and projects that I am part of. Everyone was really supportive and came up with lots of suggestions. Contrary to my expectation, the idea of DialBlood and TinyMail were well received. Another participant Ron, who had a Ph.D in Geography and is presently running his own mapping solution startup  was interested in our project ‘SMS based vehicle locating system’. The team suggested that we should look into possibilities of future collaboration.

After the discussions, we were taken for a tour of the DEC by Alex. DEC presently houses 90+ startups. In the same building, there was also a data center. Alex explained the story behind some of the recent incubatees. After the tour, the meet up was officially over. (~ 12.30pm). A few of us stayed back and discussed about various startup related topics. I got the opportunity to talk to Alex in person for some 2 hours. It was a nice interaction – he told me about various initiatives that he had started, about the state of entrepreneurship in Columbus and Ohio in general, about upcoming events etc. He also agreed to introduce me to a few people who are part of TechColumbus, another incubator. I told him about Startup Village and inquired about possibilites of partnering SV with DEC or TechColumbus or other incubators here so that startups in both places can be mutually benefited. Alex was interested in the idea and told me that he’s consider the options.

Lastly, Dave another participant who was a linguistic expert as well as a Karate teacher (and ofcourse a startup enthusiast) was kind enough to drop me back home. That was especially helpful since public transport is less frequent in Ohio esp. in weekends – I had only a single bus for returning, that too once in an hour and the nearest bus stop was a half an hour walk.

To conclude, the meetup was a very enriching experience.

TEC Institute – First day

It’s Saturday morning here. I’ve completed(successfully) my first week of my internship. I intend to write my experiences over a series of short posts. I work with the TEC (Technology Entrepreneurship & Commercialization) Institute at FCOB (Fisher College of Business).
Day1: I was asked to head down to Mason Hall at 11.30AM on Monday (15th July). I had not yet familiarized myself with OSU campus and was advised to start by 10.30 itself tor each there on time. I was getting ready when the airport authorities called saying that they’ve found my missing luggage and they’ll come around 10.45 AM. I was worried since I didn’t want to be late on my first day. But one thing I came to know later on is that people here make no compromises on punctuality and credibility. Baggage reached on time, I made a run for it and somehow managed to reach room 256, Madison Hall by 11.27AM. #phew

Dr.Michel Camp, Executive Director, TEC Institute and Erica Waite, Program Director, TEC Institute were in the room. I went in (heart beats pumping). They were very friendly – we had a very interesting discussion. I figured that the people here have a hard time figuring out how to pronounce my first name (Rahul) and mostly give up on my second name even before trying (Raveendranath). We talked about my profile, academic background, interest in entrepreneurship, the general technology & entrepreneurial landscape of Kerala (which is of course being defined by Startup Village)  &  of India. They made me sign an agreement similar to an NDA and one which entitles TEC ownership of any ideas I may conceive during my tenure here. Then they explained the idea behind and functioning of TEC.

They are TEC Institute and TEC Academy. TEC Academy has various academic courses related to entrepreneurship – syllabus mostly designed by Dr.Camp himself. TEC Institute is where I work – it’s sort of a consulting service that provide expert analytic services (market survey, competitive analysis etc) for startups in various stages. Also, Dr. Camp is very resourceful and his networking assistance is also an added highlight. So TEC works on a lot of proprietary and confidential data which is why I had to sign the NDA. Erica also explained to me that I’ll be working on multiple projects over my internship. Since I had an IT background, they also asked me whether I’d me interested in working on a project on symantic web and ontologies – which I was very glad to do. I was handed me over a lot of resources to read through for my first assignment (an IT one) – to figure out usability improvements for a custom made project management solution for TEC.

One of the interesting questions Dr.Camp asked me was regarding my future plans in case I chose to pursue entrepreneurship – whether I’ll be interested in entrepreneurship opportunities in the US or back in India. I expressed my interest in exploring the opportunities back in India. I said that I feel there are large gaps in the socio-economic conditions of India (wrt western countries) – gaps which can be filled to an extend by leveraging  technology properly; and that I feel I have a personal obligation to give back to my country & community – contribute to its economic development as much as I can. The fact that my high school education(Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya) and college education(CET) was mostly funded by the government could be a reason I guess.

Afterwards, Erica showed me around the office and assigned a workspace & desktop for working. There were two other analysts working with TEC this summer – Karthik and Ajlouni, Burouj (from Jordan). I interacted with them. The rest of the first day was spend going through the documents I was given. I left the office at around 6PM. I’ve some photos of the office.


My experience with Startup Village

My experience with Startup Village

I’d missed sharing this in my blog. so here it goes.

Note: The link seems to be broken after Startup Village migrated their blog to a new website. I’m posting below a draft copy of the article I had with me.


 

Since its inception in April 2012, I’ve been to Startup Village many times. Each visit has been equally memorable and inspiring and probably has impacted my life more than anything else so far.

I got my first real taste of coding and hacker culture during my SV funded visit to Bangalore for 55444 hackathon in July 2012. The first time I visited SV was with 8 of my college friends for a week long android training workshop, during our onam vacations of 2012. The excellent training by Mr. Zacharias (our dear Zac) and helped us start off on our mobile app development trail. Our stay was provisioned at Kerala Institute for Entrepreneurship Development (KIED).

The week-long stint at SV was marked by another memorable incident. The initial pitch for my first college startup happened then. Our startup ‘Hedcet’ was at its infancy then. I remember entering Sijo’s room with my laptop to demo the initial prototype of our product ‘campusLAN’, a campus ERP solution. The few minutes of talk was thought provoking and insightful. Sijo immediately connected us with many of his contacts exploring the same domain as ours. An important lesson learned that day was that its not just the quality of the product that matters, but making our customers aware of the need for such a product was equally if not more important. We got virtually incubated at SV then.  Presently. our the team of 5 has expanded to 14, we launched campusLAN as ‘Beehive’ at Oracle-SV MoU signing event. HedCet got listed among the top 5 student startups in SV. We even got the opportunity to meet and discuss our project ideas with Kris Gopalakrishnan (Chief of Advisory Board), who mentors startups at SV. He has agreed to be the first customer for our next product ‘TinyMail’ which is under development.

Since the 55444 Hackathon, I’ve never missed a hackathon if possible. Even more importantly, I’ve never missed a chance to visit SV whenever I am at Ernakulam. We readied our next major product ‘Medicol’, an appointment scheduling system for doctors by pulling an all nighter at SV. Another project by myself and my classmates, ‘SMS based vehicle locating system’ got virtually incubated at SV. We were also able to start a commercial venture called DialBlood (http://dialblood.com/) around another project ‘Automated Bloodbank management system’ with the guidance from Sijo as well as technical support from Mobme (the inspirational student startup from CET).

One other key take away from my visits to SV is the chance to interact with the startups incubated there. It is easy for anyone to come up with startup ideas. But these people there have actually taken the bold decision to pursue their dreams and make their ideas a reality. Talks with founders of Wowmakers, Verbicio, Exam Voice, Mashinga, RHL Vision, DhaneW Research, Profoundis, MindTree etc not to mention Mobme has helped me realize how it actually feels to work in a startup environment. Conversations are filled with gems of advice that only first hand experience can give. This itself makes the trip to SV worthwhile.

As much as I realise that my journey has just begun and that there is a lot more to be seen, explored and experienced, I cannot even imagine how my life would have been if it were not for SV. I consider myself lucky that Startup Village came into being at the same time as my college tenure. SV has numerous programs for students interested in startups. The recent SVSquare program and Fisher Collge of Business Internship program etc are a few examples of the initiatives that are offered. The 20% attendance scheme for student entrepreneurs pioneered by SV is also a huge relief for many students in Kerala. A chance for them to pursue their dreams.

Looking forward to lots of further fruitful associations with SV.

The internship with Fisher College of Business

Things happened really quick. I’ll try to quickly setup the background.

I am presently in Columbus, Ohio, USA for a 2 month internship with Fisher College Of Business, Ohio State University. All thanks to Startup Village & Labx foundation. My internship here is a part of their novel initiative to give exposure to latest developments in business/research areas to students from Indian colleges (ones which are not as lucky as IITs/NITs in terms of exposure). I got this opportunity after going through a series of online interviews (google Hangouts) conducted by Lab-X and a final discussion with Dr. Michel Camp, the Executive Director at Centre for Entrepreneurship, Fisher COB. The support and guidance given by team Lab-X – Mr. Ketan Dande, Miss. Sampreeti, Chris Gary for my interview preparations was really great. They even found time to do two rounds of mock interviews for me before the final one with Dr.Camp. I really hope to make the most of this opportunity. I plan to take back a lot of experiences to share with my friends and hope to encourage more fellow students to step up and take initiatives.

Everything fell into place as destiny would have it. My internship with Amazon ended on July 5th. I had my 6th semester lab exams on 11th & 12th of July. I started for Columbus on 13th July morning 4 am. The journey was memorable. It took around 30 hours in total.  I met a lot of knowledgeable people during the flight and at the airports. It was a connecting flight from Etihad airlines via Abu Dhabi till New York. From there, I had to manually recheck my luggage and board an American Airlines flight to Columbus.

I reached Columbus by around 10PM on 13th July US time. Speaking of which, USA has 5 timezones. The one here lags the Indian time by around 9.30 hours. First surprise here – my luggage didn’t come through. Luckily, I had all my money and documents in my backpack. Not so luckily, I had none of my clothes or other essentials with me. I immediately registered a complaint with the Baggage Customer Service. They said it might probably be held up in Customs check @New York and that I can expect it in the next couple of days. Lesson learned – always carry your essentials and a pair of clothing on your backpack. Siddharth Mulay, a friend of Ketan and a PhD. student at OSU in Control Systems came to pick me up. He lives with another PhD. student and a software engineer. I too am presently living with them.

After reaching home, Siddharth took me out for dinner. Then we went straight down to Walmart – the biggest retailer chain here. Its open 24×7. I had to buy some basic clothing. We finished around 1.30 AM. I was asked to get a proper sleep so as to reset my biological clock. The next day was also mostly relaxing and getting acclimatized. Sid took me for a walk around the campus – or at-least a portion of it. The OSU campus is very big. It has a lot of world class amenities too – including the largest campus gym in the US and a very extensive library.

I’ll let some photos I took do the rest of the talking.

Entrepreneurship – Success and Passion

“When you really want something to happen, the whole world conspires to help you achieve it” – Paulo Coelho

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Couldn’t be more true.

Over the last few years I’ve had the opportunity meet and interact with lot of people considered ‘successful’ by the society, mostly from the entrepreneurship domain. I have also done extensive research on the lives of many successful entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Brandson etc trying to understand what sets them apart from the rest. Most were pioneers in their fields. There were also cases of leaders disrupting existing domains. No matter how and where they succeed, a single thing that unifies these people is their passion for what they do.

Doing things for a reason works, but only to an extend. Some reasons that drive normal people – money, acknowledgement, fame, respect from peers, possibility of career upliftment etc. When your actions are driven by a reason, it puts an upper cap on the extend you are willing to push your limits.

A piece of inspirational talk by Steve Jobs puts things in perspective-

You need a lot of passion for what you’re doing because its so hard. Without passion, any rational person would give up. So if youre not having fun doing it, if you dont absolutely love it, youre going to give up.And thats what happens to most people, actually.If you look at the ones that ended up being successful in the eyes of society, often times its the ones who love what they do, so they could persevere when it got really tough.And the ones that didnt love it, quit. Because theyre sane, right? Who would put up with this stuff if you dont love it?So its a lot of hard work and its a lot of worrying constantly.If you dont love it, youre going to fail.