Monday, 27 August 2012

Think You have a Million Dollar Idea? Put it Through This Test!

Next post in the series on - on evaluating your ideas. Link here.

Picture this – you’ve been working at a job for some years, and the entrepreneurship bug has bitten you. You’ve decided to go solo, chart your own path and disrupt the ecosystem. You might have a few exciting ideas bubbling in your mind but need to figure out which one to pursue. Or you might still be searching for that unique, zillion dollar idea behind which you can dedicate time and effort. What to do next? What tools are available to research your ideas? How much time do people take to decide on “their idea”? Who can help at this stage?

Let’s use an example to make this more real. For the past few months, I’ve been ruminating on creating the next generation of a task list manager – essentially a “To Do” app. I live my life by my “work to be done” lists, and these have served me well over the last decade. Having my work list spread across everything from Post-It notes to text files, Excel and Outlook, I need a better solution. Something that is mobile, captures and categorizes my work, and enables me to retrieve them easily on various platforms and applications.

Clearly the above idea – of creating a list of tasks and managing it across multiple platforms – is not unique. However there is a clear problem that is not getting solved today – at least for me! My goal here would be to find out if this is a real problem or a minor inconvenience, if there are enough people other than me who face this problem and if sufficient value would be generated for me to make money(now or eventually!).

Become an expert: We’ve all heard Newton’s famous quote about “innovating on the shoulder of giants”. Well the only way to “climb on giant’s shoulders” is to know and understand what all has been done in a sector before you. While search engines have made research convenient, be more comprehensive. Top entrepreneurs and venture capitalists tend to give great information in their blogs. Industry forum websites are a great resource to understand the state of affairs. And analyst reports can provide a valuable expert view of the landscape from the public markets perspective. In the case of our task list app, a good resource is the Flurry blog – they are a mobile analytics company and provide great (and free!) market level data on apps, platforms, customer behaviours etc. Another useful resource might be Vision Mobile that provides the developers point of view on platforms. Guardian UK also provides interesting perspective on apps in their blog. Read away!

Network like a maniac: The first lesson I learnt as an entrepreneur was how critical networking was to success – everything from the first customers to early hires came because of a serendipitous meeting. At the ideation stage, networking is even more critical. If 5% of the relevant knowledge is in text, the rest 95% is in the heads of people around you, and speaking with them is the only way to get access to that! Initially cast a wider net and meet people across the ecosystem. In case of my task app, I would start with potential customers – for example, office workers – and get a sense of how they manage current tasks and if they face any issues. Also I would speak to productivity software vendors to understand their approach to task lists, and what their customer feedback has been. Also some investors/angels who have invested in and around this space can provide a valuable perspective on the dynamics of this space – both domestically but also internationally. Most entrepreneurs and VC’s are generous with their time, plus you might be able to catch the hard-to-get ones at conferences (setup the meetings before you get to the venue). I’ve found the most relevant inputs come from people who’ve tried something related and failed – they can not only give useful feedback on your idea and but also be great future hires. So no excuse to not put your networking hats on!

Understand your customer: In vetting out the market opportunity there is none as important as your potential customer. Often times there is a danger of playing into the “I like this so everyone must need it” mentality. Be careful! This is especially true when exploring consumer Internet or mobile ideas, where one might easily get convinced of the value of the idea based on personal preferences. So try to identify potential customers and spend time understanding their problems – at this stage don’t focus on your solution. Use tools like SurveyMonkey to conduct surveys about user preferences, current alternatives and willingness to try new solutions. Survey design is critical so think about what information you’re trying to collect and how best to ask the questions – a few tips on survey designs are available here. Survey data can become an invaluable reference guide in case you decide to move ahead with your idea, plus early investors love to hear the customer’s voice so make those survey results visible!

Find comparables, and competitors: While trying to do something that has never been done before is laudable, for most ideas there is some part of the problem that might have been tried before somewhere. Even though we tend to think of competition as something negative, it can be a good thing. Having good comparables clearly shows that someone else also saw a similar opportunity and was able to create value from it. Of course, trying to blindly copy a competitor will not work; but understanding what problem their solving, why they succeeded and what opportunities are available for you will provide a useful “outside-in” perspective. Also try to get a sense of the market size from your competitors’ size – do you see billions of dollars of value, hundreds of millions or few millions? Remember that even if you think you’ve selected a space with no competitors, you’ll come across half a dozen the night before you launch – so might as well do the research today!

Once you’ve spent some time to become knowledgeable about your space, spoken to the experts, understood the customers’ problems and examined what competitors are doing – you should have a 360-degree perspective to re-evaluate your idea. Does it still sound as relevant as it did when you started? Maybe you even got some new ideas that you can add-on to make your vision more exciting. So now thinking is done, time for some action which I’ll cover in my next post.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The Entrepreneurial Journey, Step #1 Know Yourself

I'm authoring a series of guest posts on YourStory, below is the first one published last month. You can also read it on here

The entrepreneurial journey
My day job allows me to interact and learn from a wide range of entrepreneurs in various stages of their journey - from folks who have been contemplating to “screw the man” for many years to serial entrepreneurs who have created millions of dollars of value and are hungry for more. Each entrepreneur is unique – their passion, ideas and motivations to pursue their dream – however there are a few common threads that are visible. Through this platform I hope to share some things I have learnt from entrepreneurs that I work with. Please note that all ideas shared here are my own, and not those of any organization/institution I am or was a part of.
The first question that often pops into ones head as you think about entrepreneurship is “Is it right for me?” and “When is the right time to try something entrepreneurial?” These are clearly the million dollar questions – are you naturally inclined to create something on their own, and when should you jump in the game? Interestingly early-stage investors also rack their brains thinking about the same question – are they backing the right team and is this the right time to take this idea to market! While I’m not sure if there is a blueprint for an entrepreneur, there are certain hints that might make you want to rethink the move, or the kind of opportunity to  pursue –

·         “Try it out for few months/years” mentality – If one follows companies like Instagram, it is easy to believe that entrepreneurship is akin to a roulette table. Bet your chips on the right idea and you might have millions of users in a few months and a billion dollar exit in a couple of years. Of course for every one such success there are thousands of companies toiling away for many years. Imagine if you had jumped into the mobile VAS space 5 years ago – India had 200 million mobile subscribers and expanding rapidly, users were hungry to try new products and services, and mobile operators were pushing VAS as fast as they could. Fast forward to today and apart from a couple of larger players, most companies continue to pivot and innovate to find success. Undoubtedly, it’s a long term game!

·         High fixed costs – Each of us has a different financial risk tolerance – some need a regular salary no matter where they work, others can live without income for many months. Knowing where you lie on the spectrum will help you decide not just when to turn entrepreneur but also what kind startup will be right for you. Do you have high fixed costs (think loans, personal costs etc.) that need to be paid no matter what? Maybe a later stage, well-funded company might be better suited for you today. Banking on institutional funding to sustain your current costs, while practical, can be challenging – what will you do if funding suddenly dries up? Take risk, but be realistic. 

·         Helper versus Doer: In a market where most things are getting created for the first time, startups need people with the ability to do things, often starting from a blank slate. A startup I work with is aggregating offline services and bringing them online. None of founders have done offline sales before, nor is there a clear leader in their vertical to emulate. In such an scenario, everything from how to build the sales pipeline, managing cost of acquisition, negotiating contracts, determining revenue sharing etc. has be to figured and done. Are you someone who likes to roll-up their sleeve and dig a path, or are you great at running on an existing path faster than anyone else. Similar to the point above, figuring out your strengths will help you make the right choice and minimize failure.

Now assume you’ve crossed the first hurdle and decided that in fact starting something on your own is the way to go. You might have a few exciting ideas bubbling in your mind and trying to figure out which one to pursue. Or you might be striving to find your unique idea, behind which you could then focus time and effort. What tools are available to research your ideas? How much time do people take to decide on “their idea”? Who should you definitely connect with at this stage? I will share some thoughts on this in my next post.

SoLoMo: Creating value at the three-way intersection

Guest article I wrote recently for NASSCOM. Also available here

Blurb: Social, Mobile, Local – these three areas are the honeycombs around which there is a buzz of activity in the start-up space. Nishant Verman of Canaan Partners looks at how SoMoLo start-ups can create value for their companies and get investors to stop and take notice.

SoLoMo: Creating value at the three-way intersection

Today there are 50 million Facebook users in India. Of the total 900 million mobile subscriber base, 27+ million Indians use a smartphone, and this segment is growing rapidly. These are staggering numbers and present new opportunities to build a hyper-connected, personalized and highly interactive user experience – something that was not possible even a year ago.

In the past access to a large user base and ability to acquire those users cost-effectively have been key challenges for startups. The 50 million people on Facebook are a tremendous opportunity to target a highly engaged, affluent and connected group of users. These users are more likely to experiment with new services and even transact online. However, today their usage is limited to posting status updates and playing farming games. Western markets have many other social and professional networks – alumni societies, professional organizations, review sites, and even Twitter. In India many of these have yet to be created – and Facebook’s critical mass makes it a good choice for this.

Mobile is a long running story, starting with rapid penetration of voice calling services in the ‘90s. To drive adoption, calling rates were slashed, devices became cheaper and 900 million subscribers later the entire industry started losing money. Now the rules of the game have changed – today’s phones are powerful devices with rich media capabilities, the data pipe has become fat and more reliable, and distribution is getting decentralized from the operator to app stores. Payments continue to be a bottleneck, but this issue is getting resolved through operators who provide billing services and as well as through uptake of electronic payments.

The focus on ‘local’ started with retailer information getting captured in yellow pages. Later this database moved online to make searching more convenient. Today local holds the greatest promise as it integrates both social and mobile to create a dramatically new user experience. Consider the common scenario of a user sampling a new Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood. Previously one would rely on mailers in the newspaper, or searching online for restaurants in the area. Now a user’s phone can show the top 3 Chinese restaurants that are highly rated by their social network within a 5 km radius of his or her location. Or show merchants who are offering a 15% off coupon to potential customers in the vicinity.  Clearly there is a tremendous opportunity to innovate here!

So if you’re a SoLoMo startup, how do you create value for your users? And what might make you stand out in the mind of potential investors?

1.       No space for me-too: Though this space is nascent in India, there is no doubt that many plays in the mobile and especially social space will be global. So the “Facebook of India” will be Facebook! There is limited space to create a new network and expect users to sign up just because it’s “made in India”. Rather figure out what India-specific application might users be looking for – from social wedding photo sharing to social commerce.

2.       Think about monetization, worry about engagement: We are in the first innings of SoLoMo, therefore having the long-term vision and near-term focus will be critical to survival. For example, since payment mechanisms on mobile are still getting sorted out, don’t let them be a roadblock to scaling up. Rather have a long-term plan around how you might eventually monetize and why would users pay you. In the near-term prioritize engagement – is usage increasing across different cohorts of users? If built right you should eventually be able pick a business model to convert this engagement into revenues – through advertising, ecommerce, subscription etc. 

3.       Go deep with metrics: Mobile lends itself to micro tracking of metrics – everything from number of downloads to minutes of usage and most used features. With social connect, factors like virality coefficient and cycle time become critical to driving exponential user growth. Tracking metrics will enable you to understand user preferences and shape your product accordingly, as well show early traction to potential investors.

4.       Experience is everything:  User experience has never been as critical as it becomes on a 3 inch screen with a tiny keyboard. Each key stroke and swipe needs to be thought through to make the user experience smoother. Remember that one of every four apps is used only once after download – therefore tightly controlling the user experience will make sure that you don’t push your users away. 

Today we are at a cusp of the next major revolution in consumer computing – brought about by the fusion of social, mobile and local. Historically such transitions have occurred at an accelerating phase – few decades for PC penetration, rise of the Internet in few years and more recently adoption of smartphones in few quarters. In the case of SoLoMo it is clear that time for rapid adoption will be measured in years and months, not decades or quarters. The time to start innovating is today, to prepare for the tremendous opportunity ahead of us. Full speed ahead!

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Winning a multi-innings game...

I've been spending some time with a friend who raised an Angel round late last year. Like all smart entrepreneurs, he raised sufficient funding to get him through the following 18 months. Now 6 months post funding, we sat down to take stock of the situation and plan for the future.

Its no secret that the fundraising process can be taxing and stressful - from living and breathing customers and revenue, you suddenly shunt from one conference room to another, gulping tea and coffee and answering every question humanly possible (and then more!). So when one finally gets funded, the natural thing to do is to celebrate, pack away the investor decks and dive right back into the business. But what about the next innings?

My friend had done similarly - having received funding, hundreds of things had popped up, from building out his team, upgrading the office, signing up partners, evolving the product and of course getting more customers. Net-net, while there had been a tremendous advancement in the company strategy in the last 6 month, to show for it we mostly had half-done projects and open job reqs. In fact the only thing complete was the move to a nicer office! Metrics were still flat from the point of funding, and maybe rightly so since only a few months had passed since the money actually came in the bank. But  didn't feel like we were building a company that would make investors hearts beat faster as we approached the next port of call - Series A.

Do some quick math - you raise funding for 18 months, these things always slip so maybe you have 16 months of headroom at the start line. Given projections are just projections, hitting your plan right down to the bottom line is hard, which might further reduce your time by 1-2 months. So in total, you might have raised funding for maybe just over a year! Since you want to raise funding when there still some cash left in the bank, entrepreneurs might need to be back on the funding bandwagon within 12 months of raising the last round. So if you don't plan for the next funding early enough, one fine day you realize that today is the day you need to start the fundraise process, to give you realistic odds of closing before the money runs out. At this point, the story that you craft for investors might be decided by how you can force fit what happened to work till then into a believable story, rather than how the metrics support your mid and long term vision.

So what is one to do? Fundraising can be more natural if you accept it for what it is - a multi-innings game where each round is judged by not just by where you are today, but also where you promised you would be in the last round. Here are a few pointers that I've picked up from the best in the business:
1. Be a Perpetual Networker - As an entrepreneur, your biggest job is to evangelize your startup and make sure its well-resourced. That includes hiring, revenue generation and fund raising. The latter often takes a backseat post-funding, and instead many entrepreneurs might only restart investor interaction right around the time they start the fundraise. Not recommended! Keep investors in the loop, especially those that you liked from previous interations. For a few hours each month you can keep them excited about the direction of the company, get some useful intros and hopefully make the next fundraise slightly less painful!  

2. Get the Metrics Right - Develop a trackable bottoms-up plan before you jump into execution. Today its possible to raise an angel round showing only high level projections. But seriously, saying that you'll hit $X million in revenues in 3 years or grow at 50% CAGR is meaningless! How will you know if the last month/week/day was productive?? Break down your success metrics into the smallest possible trackable units that can then be included in your personal dashboard.

3. Work backwards - This is the easiest one, and in my mind the most ignored. Think about it - today you already know that you'll run of money in X months, so you'll need to start raising funding in X-Y months. What story do you want to tell investors at that time? What would get them excited towards your venture? How would they look at your performance, both on an absolute and relative basis. You already know these facts today, why not factor them into your plan? I would also pay attention to feedback you received from investors who did not invest in you.

3. Build thought leadership - Let the market talk about you, and you won't need to pitch to anyone, investors will chase you!

4. Don't forget your exisitng investors - It's no secret that angels invest out of passion but have a full time job on the side. Though they might not proactively be spending enough time with you, keep them engaged! They are your best champions, which is why they participated in the first place. Adopting a clear engagement plan with them will help you leverage them efficiently, and provide you with great references for the next round.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Walk down Silicon Alley...

Last week I had the opportunity to spend time with startups and tech companies in New York, aka Silicon Alley. The excitement in the startup and venture circles in the city was impressive. Previously where finance used to dominate all conversations, now its about ad tech, social/mobile and Pinterest clones. VC's seems to around each corner - from Accel, KP and Canaan, plus USV, DFJ, RRE and many more. More importantly, there is a passion towards entrepreneurship similar to what existed for maybe hedge funds previously, and investment banks before that.

The venture funding numbers confirm this transformation - in Q3 2011 New York beat Massachusetts for the first time in a decade to land $831 million in venture funding in 86 startups. Compare this to $260 million in Q3 2009 for 55 startups, and clearly something seems to be working to drive this growth. The successes coming out of the state also paint a glowing picture - Foursquare, Fab, Tumblr, ZocDoc, Gilt all are based out of New York.

What would it take to engineer a similar transformation in India? Could Bangalore, Mumbai or Delhi be the next hotspot of innovation? Speaking to a few veterans of the NY entrepreneurship scene revealed the following drivers behind this change:

  1. Macro environment: Wall Street is under fire, and engineers have realized that designing trading algorithm is neither very interesting nor might be well paying in the future. Inspite of its inefficiencies, movements like Occupy Wall Street seems to be chipping away at the image of financial firms. On the other hand Tech is cool, creates jobs and with the availability of easy venture funding makes for a no-brainer switch for many wannabe entrepreneurs. Though India's growth has slowed, we are still accelerating at a very respectable 6.9% rate - hopefully we can leverage this momentum instead of waiting for things to slow down before we start focusing on entrepreneurship.
  2. Government Support: The passion for entrepreneurship starts at the top - Mayor Bloomberg has himself founded a namesake company, and is an ardent supporter of startups in NY. Initiatives such as a new Tech campus in New York are ensuring continued supply of high quality tech talent. Plus NY's legislature is considering providing a 25% tax breaks to angel investors, while sadly here in India we are contemplating the exact opposite.
  3. Supportive Ecosystem: In addition to availability of capital (VCs) and techies, NY developed a healthy mentorship environment where experienced entrepreneurs advise new ones - giving back to the community. There are a dozen odd incubators providing early funding and support to startups. The last couple of years have undoubtedly seen rise of many incubators in India, however the level of support provided to entrepreneurs outside the top few is concerning. Incubators need to be powered by entrepreneurs - providing desk, chairs and few lakh rupees is unlikely to produce the next facebook from India.
  4. It takes time!: It took New York more than a decade of hard work to build the rich ecosystem that exits today. A few investors actively funded startups, some of these startups scaled up and provided a shining light for others to follow, as well as mentors to help guide them. As the next wave of startups continues to mature in India - from MakeMyTrip and Flipkart to InMobi and Snapdeal - hopefully we are also headed in the right direction.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

eCommerce: The Path Ahead

(recently published article)
Now that the ecommerce funding party seems to winding down, everyone is staring at each other to determine who danced with whom, and who will get invited to the next party! And what a party it’s been! 2011 saw $600+ million invested in a $10 billion market with 10 million customers. While there are already concerns of bubbles, consolidation and non-existent margins, the truth is that now is the time that real businesses are being built. It no longer matters how few days it took to close your round, or how many VC hearts you broke ;-). With eyes back on the real game, here are a few factors that we’ve learnt matter – in India as well as globally.

Let’s start with the prize – what might it take to IPO, assuming that most ecommerce companies dream of going public one day. Consider DangDang, the Chinese multi-category ecommerce company that IPO-ed on the Nasdaq in 2010. At that time, the company had 1.6 million daily unique visitors, 28 million registered users, 78% revenues from repeat customers and offered Cash-on-delivery in 750 cities in China.  Product offerings included 590,000 book titles and 460,000 SKU’s of general merchandise products – from beauty to apparel and electronics.  Truly aspirational numbers, but how do you get there?

Let’s start at the top – how to monitor your traffic. Two good metrics to consider are conversion and bounce rate. Bounce rate is the percentage of people who come to your site but leave without viewing any other page. So if your bounce rate is 25%, quarter of the visitor who came to your website left after viewing only the first page on which they landed. Bounce rate hurts especially when your paid traffic has a high bounce – you essentially paid for clicks that never converted. Cutting your Google Analytics data by source should help uncover and optimize the non-performing sources. Conversion is the % of users that eventually transacted on your site, a great end-to-end look at your business. While we see typical conversion rates of 0.5-0.8%, sites such as ProFlowers in the US have 30% peak monthly conversion rates! So examine your funnel closely, and try to understand where and why any drop-off might be happening.

Traffic is good, but revenue even better. Most sites monitor overall and per customer revenue closely; however looking at revenue without the corresponding costs to get that revenue is obviously misleading. So unit economics – or looking at profitability per product - makes it apparent what was spent to earn a dollar. Amazon has a “CRAP (Can’t Realize Any Profit)” program – where they measure cost of each shipped product. They used data to realize that a best-selling folding chair was taking 20 minutes to pack thus obliterating all margins. Getting the supplier to send pre-packaged chairs solved the issue!

Cultivating your users to become loyal customers is the final piece of the puzzle – it’s no coincidence that DangDang had 78% repeat revenues, or that Amazon reportedly has a 65%+ repeat rate. It’s one thing to get someone to buy once, another to get them to come again and again. So check your cohorts by month – are you seeing a steady increase in per user buying behavior?

Off to the races!

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Brave new world...

Think about what role the mobile operator has been playing to-date:
  1. They own a pipe to transmit information (voice + data)
  2. They own a touch point to the customer (and hence impact the choices I make)
  3. They own a mechanism to charge the customer - either stored value or monthly billing
Long-term which of these will be critical? The pipe is a commodity - as I mentioned in the last post, we have 5-10 such "pipes" floating around at any given location in the country. The touch point is critical, to establish the connect between customers and the network - however once customers are connected, there is a resentment toward anyone limiting their choices...customers prefer the "chaos of choice" over a "curated calmness".
#3 here is the most critical, and in my mind, the lasting value-add of operator -- enabling me to pay. Why is this one lasting? Because customers themselves need someone to play this role, and who better than someone who already has a billing relationship with me, someone who has thousands of retail points across the country. Add to that the fact that customers are unwilling to use plastic, and I think operators are all set as the mobile payment enablers.

Now think of a new world where the operator magically accepts their new role, and transforms a broken industry. For the app creator, their side on the revenue share equation switches to give them majority ownership of the value created. With this new viability, the pace of innovation on mobile apps accelerates...leaving CBRT far behind :). Operators start providing open access to all apps created instead of this sorry excuse for an app store! ("Spicy Jokes", anyone?!). And while we're at it, all of Gurgaon's roads get repaired and Delhi doesn't flood during the monsoon!

But seriously, the reality might be something like this - starting from the current single player VAS world, 3 different providers emerge:

  • Traditional VAS: The legacy players hum along, supported by their legacy (but declining) businesses, while searching for new stream of revenue - both new products and new geographies. Smaller one die out as they're unable to cross the unexpected chasm. If you look at one of the public VAS player's quarterly revenues, the entire focus is on International, while India continues to decline due to "lower quality of users and reliance on the operator". Tough times!

  • App Economy: With 10+ million smartphone shipped in 2011, there are enough app hungry users today to dream of building a viable apps-based business. So everything from music and videos to location services and mcommerce will see action this year. Payments remains a roadblock, so while that piece gets figured out, businesses will focus on driving adoption and engagement - monetization to hopefully follow soon.

  • Hybrid Player: How do you (mildly) twist the operators arm and force them to share? Build a direct connect to the customer and effective remove them from the coveted middle-man position. App developers create and the user votes with his downloads. Continue to use the operators infrastructure, but since the operator no longer markets, they are relegated to a payment providers role and corresponding revenue share. Undoubtedly this is non-trivial - so companies with some kind of existing customer connect, either offline or through other media like TV, will be able to play here. But for the near future, this might be the most exciting mobile space...

Comments welcome...