Founder Playbook: Getting ahead of Covid-19

The aftermath of the pandemic spread of the Covid-19 virus has hit financial markets where it hurts the most – their ability to bank on the future.

These are unprecedented times as countries close their borders, the Italian government shuts down businesses, and schools, colleges, and universities are shutting their campuses and moving classes online. The disruption in business and how it will get conducted in the near term has created a tectonic shift that is rattling global markets.

When the most capitalized financial market in the world starts oscillating like a 5-year-old getting on a swing for the first time – it is time to sit-up and take notice.

Even we felt the tremors far away, i.e., in the venture capital ecosystem. Sequoia’s calling Covid-19 spread The Black Swan of 2020. This spread is dangerous, and the situation could spiral out of control – quickly.

Therefore earlier this week, Vinod and I had organized a conference call with Artha Venture Fund’s founders to address this growing situation and to work out how we could get ahead of the problem. Here is a brief synopsis of how our founders are tackling this issue (thank you, Arvind, for these notes):

  1. Do not panic but stay vigilant
    1. Keep an eye out for a demand drop in the next 3-6 months
    2. Respond to it quickly and decisively
  2. Remember that a typical downcycle in VC lasts for 18-24 months
    1. Survive this period, and you will thrive when the tide is back
  3. Investors are tightening their belts
    1. Be prepared for long delays in fundraising
    2. Drop-off in valuations
  4. Prepare fresh budgets
    1. Be conservative in revenue estimates
    2. Cut unnecessary & discretionary spends
    3. Find ways to control the burn, i.e., increase revenues or cut the costs
  5. Despite your best efforts if you envision run out of money in the next 6-9 months, then
    1. Raise an additional buffer right away and extend your runway to 15-18 months

As an optimist contrarian, an economic upheaval offers the best opportunity to gain on the competition. One must remember that people will continue to consume goods and services, but the way they consume it is going to change – temporarily.

A founder must watch the customer’s consumption patterns closely, prepare to pivot the business to serve his customer base, and capitalize – even in these adverse business scenarios.

A note: I do not attempt (in any way) to disregard the seriousness of this virus. The severest impact of this is on the part of the population that has pre-existing medical conditions. To me, it means that entrepreneurs are in the higher risk category due to entrepreneurial stress they undergo (I have written about in the past). The recent turmoil is just adding to that stress.

Therefore stay calm, stay positive, keep your ears close to the ground but keep your hands clean and off your face. 😊

Funding Friday – Team Vaayushastra

A group of students from  Fr. Conceicao Rodrigues College of Engineering formed Team Vaayushastra in 2012 to compete in SAE Aero Design East competitions. The students have competed well against teams from Georgia Tech, Michigan Ann-Arbor and Concordia to name a few and ranked 5th in the competition in 2017.
SAE Aero Design East competitions provide undergraduate and graduate engineering students the opportunity to work on real-life problems. Here is how the SAE website describes the competition:
First and foremost, a design competition, students will find themselves performing trade studies and making compromises to arrive at a design solution that will optimally meet the mission requirements while still conforming to the configuration limitations.
I love initiatives that encourage youngsters to innovate and take risks. I am contributing towards this project through Ketto.
Here are video highlights from the 2018 SAE Aero Design East competition:

Setting Outcomes for 2020

On our last working day of the decade, i.e., the 27th of December 2019, I asked the Artha team to congregate in our conference room. At 5 pm, 24 Artha team members stuffed themselves into a space built for 8, and another 6 joined in from Ahmedabad on Zoom.
First, I enquired how many attendees had written down their resolution for 2020 – it was less than 10%. From that sliver, I picked on the newest hire, to share her resolution for 2020. Along expected lines, the newbie said, “I want to be fit.”
Thanking her for sharing their personal goal, and I also made a solemn promise that unless she changed how she worded her resolution, she was going to fail. She was shocked, but my reasoning was straightforward.
Her resolution was so generic that even a 100g drop in her body weight would mean that she had achieved her goal. Instead of pointing the finger at their colleague, I asked the team to utilize her example and replace their resolution setting or list of “to-dos” with plans to deliver outcomes that they wanted to achieve.
To help them understand the outcome setting concept, I showed a Tony Robbins video on the Rapid Planning Method (RPM).

As Tony says in the video, it takes a bit of effort to retrain oneself so that we make plans for outcomes, not activities. The good news is that the brain adapts quickly to the new system and starts to deliver fantastic results! I utilize the RPM method for planning and for my weekly reviews with team members that directly report to me. It takes some effort at the start, but I am amazed at the tremendous ability of the mind to find new ways and energy to deliver an outcome. It should not be a surprise that I am a big proponent of this planning method.
I even had a clear outcome for conducting this training. I wanted my team to internalize the message and put the outcome planning into action. Therefore I tasked each team member to share 3 outcomes that they wanted to achieve in 2020. The had to find 3 outcomes for the personal, professional, and social/charitable spheres of their lives in the next 4 days and share it on the company-wide group on Microsoft Teams.

Why share the outcomes publicly?
If writing the outcomes is half the battle, publicly committing to those outcomes is the other half – the winning half!

Because my team (obviously) includes me I, too, wrote down my 2020 outcomes. But in addition to sharing it with my teammates, I am sharing them publicly, today. I had done a similar but unfocussed exercise in 2018. Overall, it delivered fantastic results because of the pressure it put on me. Why then, I thought to myself, should I change something that is working!
So without further ado, here is my list of outcomes.
Professional

  1. Increase Artha’s assets under management to over Rs. 300 crores+ ($40 million+)
  2. Invest in 25+ new start-ups
    1. When I achieve this goal, I will complete a century of start-up investments!
  3. Pay-out bonuses of 60 lakhs+ ($85k) to deserving team members

Personal

  1. Go to Tony Robbin’s Unleash the Power Within with a family member and an Artha team member
    1. Besides, go for Tony’s Date with Destiny and Business Mastery workshops
  2. Author a book
  3. Complete 50 scuba dives

Social/Charitable

  1. Support a crowdfunding project every week (#FundingFriday)
  2. Set aside 2 hours a week to mentor a child (@mentormeindia)
  3. Build or Upgrade ONE school along with the Artha team

That’s the list for you to track and me to deliver, let’s roll…
I wish you a happy new year full of achieving outcomes!
1/2020

My atrocious car buying experience is a lesson in after sales treatment for all founders!

I am re-reading How to Sell Anything to Anybody by Joe Girard (book review coming soon).
Earlier today, I finished his chapter on Winning After the Close wherein Joe talks about the importance of ensuring customer satisfaction AFTER completing a sale. He gives examples of how he goes out of his way to ensure that his customers sing his praises to their friends and family. He links the importance of satisfying his customer to the Girard’s Law of 250, i.e., each person has a direct connect to 250 people; therefore, an unhappy customer can directly influence 250 people. Consequently a salesperson or a business that disappoints two customers a week will have 26,000 negative influence every year!
Why is it important to follow what Joe Girard says? For starters, the man still holds the Guinness Book of World Records for being the most successful car salesman in history. This man was selling six cars a day (on average) while the average salesman struggled to sell one. He was out making $500,000 a year selling cars in the 1970s, i.e., eight times the per capita income in the US of A – TODAY!
So yes, when that man says something – it is worth our time and attention.
I am coming back to my point for the post today.
I just bought my first car in India. It was an important moment for my team and me. We were ecstatic on getting the car delivered on Tuesday evening. However, instead of reveling that moment and remembering it for the years to come, all we cannot forget is how the salespeople delivered the car with just enough fuel to get the vehicle to the closest petrol pump!
The saleswoman blamed the empty fuel tank on some dealership policy of ensuring that customers get a bone dry fuel tank. I could not disagree more with her firm, her firm’s strategy, and finally with the saleswoman herself. If she was so embarrassed about her firm’s stingy policy, she could have ensured a happy customer by filling up the tank herself – she would make more than the Rs. 2200 it cost me to fill the tank.
Buying a car is one of the most important purchases in one’s life. I can still remember, like yesterday, the first car I bought with the money I earned by working during the first summer semester in college – a 1996 Mercury Sable with a v6 engine. I was so proud of the car even though it was six years old at the time of purchase. The moment gives me goosebumps even today.
Then 17 years later I buy my first car in India, a Honda Civic, and it is an expensive car (for my standards), but it was delivered as though the dealership was running out of money. It left a sour taste and you won’t have to think hard whether this dealership (Arya Honda) will be recommended by me to anyone. The answer is no.
I must re-emphasize that a happy customer is the best salesperson. He/she will boast about his/her positive experiences to their closest network. On the other hand, an unhappy customer will tell anyone that would like to hear him/her of their negative experiences and feeling cheated by a car dealership. Unfortunately, these car dealerships operate under old maxims therefore continue to misread their customers. Any start-up founder that is reading this post should not.
Your customer whether they are B2C, B2B, B2B2C or B2B2B or B2B2B2C (and so on) must be happy with their purchase of your goods or services. To hide behind the veil of corporate policies is the old way of doing business, and you must ensure that your salespeople are sufficiently empowered to ensure post-sales customer satisfaction, at all costs! It is just as important that those negative experiences are corrected by changing policies and processes.
The process in which the company acquires a customer, gives them lousy experience, and allows the salespeople to blame an insane corporate policy is a sure indication of a deeper rot settled in that organisation.
A rot that every entrepreneur should guard their companies against the cost of all their corporate policies.

Let's talk about entrepreneurial stress

It has been fourteen days since VG Siddhartha took his life. In that time, the entrepreneurial ecosystem has heard arguments from several vantage points to understand the cause of the stress that led to his untimely demise. It is stomach-churning and thought-provoking stuff.

Various arguments attempted to place the cause of VG’s entrepreneurial distress onto a multitude of issues. His close political affiliations, the stress that different business bailouts had put on his balance sheet and even his battles with the income tax department. His balance sheet was funded using debt and private equity; therefore, the private equity guys were to blame as well. However, to place the blame on any one person or phenomenon is to oversimplify a very complex issue i.e., the effects of entrepreneurial stress. 

The one silver lining of this somber episode is that it has got us all talking about entrepreneurial stress. It is a real thing, and there is an excellent chance that an entrepreneur close to you is under this stress right now. Yes, even the most successful ones.

In the Indian ecosystem, a successful start-up founder is treated as a demi-god. The media can quickly relate that entrepreneur into a Tony Stark-type invincible personality – capable of resolving any situation and turning almost anything they touch into gold. The price of this success is steep because the lens of failure is brutal. Ask any of the high-flying entrepreneurs that witness a reversal of fate – the fall from grace can be cruel and lonely. 

The truth is that an entrepreneur undergoes the same level of stress as that of a high-performance athlete. Another reality is that this stress will not vanish. 

The first step to dealing with entrepreneurial stress is to admit its existence. This step is most difficult because it hacks away the cloak of invincibility that entrepreneurs take painstaking effort to build. However, unless we admit that this stress exists, we cannot act on its causes. Ray Zinn wrote a great post on Stress and the Entrepreneur that delves deeper into this.

The next step is to identify the factors causing stress. There are internal factors that the entrepreneur can control and external ones that they cannot. It could be the nature of the business (like running a stockbroking platform), an environmental factor (like the transit time from home to office) or a personality trait (like procrastination and putting off decisions). The factors that can be addressed, should be acted on immediately and earnestly. The factors that cannot be addressed can be overcome through several methods, which high-performance entrepreneurs utilize to channelize their stress positively.

Lastly, once the stress factors have been identified and dealt with, an entrepreneur needs to build a core group of people to fall back on. The people invited to this core (aka inner circle) play a critical role, and they need to be educated on the things not to do.  

This post is one of the toughest blogs I have written because I have had my personal experiences with entrepreneurial stress, which kept clouding my arguments. I kept reverting to the times in my career when I stared from the cliff of despair into the depths of failure. I know today what I did not back then. Even then, I sometimes find myself feeling overwhelmed, overworked, and slightly burnt out. It usually shows up with the burning sensation in my eyes, persistent pain in my back and a marked drop in my physical stamina. 

Initially, I did not know that it was stress. When I could self-diagnose, I took a short vacation, reduced my meetings load or delegated more. The awareness helped with resolution. However, the VG Siddhartha episode has awakened me to change my stance from a reactive one to a proactive one.

So should you.

The Fastest Path(s)

The fastest path to the CEO chair is very different than what you might believe!

Last week I concluded the appraisals for 2019 as well as inducting two analysts into our team at Artha Venture Fund. I attempt to have a conversation with each of the new inductees, and one of the questions I ask them is where they see themselves in the next five years. Most of them have plans on doing an MBA or becoming a manager, but very few have plans to become entrepreneurs.

Therefore when I do their appraisal, I ask them the same question once again, and it isn’t surprising that most of them have had a shift in their five-year goals. Invariably they would like to be in some entrepreneurial position whether that was in a start, proprietorship, NGO or as a fund manager. I hold the entrepreneurial energy that flows within the walls of our office responsible for this shift, and I am confident that I am the one responsible for dropping cans of fuel to flame any evidence of an entrepreneurial spark.

While I have recalibrated the goals for many team members, I have found that like the entrepreneurs that I have met, my team holds misconceptions about the path one should take to becoming a CEO/Founder. I could harp on my own experiences as a case study for them to follow, but it was a pleasant surprise to learn that the team of Nicole Wong, Kim Powell, and Elena Botelho were conducting a study that I could share!

In a ten year study, the trio assembled data on 17,000 C-Suite executive assessments, studying over 2,600 of them in-depth. They wanted to analyze who gets to the top and how and they went onto publish a book based on their findings called, The CEO Next Door.

Their study (aptly called the CEO Genome project) took a close look at the career paths of individuals that they have (once again) aptly called, CEO-sprinters. Their study discovered that on average, it took 24 years from the date of joining their first job to become a CEO. Therefore CEO-sprinters are those individuals that got the CEO title before 24 years.

Some of the data sharing from the study are thought-provoking:

  • 24% of the CEOs had an elite-MBA
  • 7% graduated from an Ivy League school
  • 8% did not complete college
  • 45% had had a significant career blow-up

The study concluded that the CEO-sprinters had three types of career catapults that got them to the CEO chair early viz:

  • Go Small to Go Big
  • Make a Big Leap
  • Inherit a Big Mess

Understanding these career catapults and experiencing them is crucial. Their importance is inferred by the fact that:

  • 97% of the CEO-sprinters had had at least 1 of those experiences
  • ~50% had had at least 2

I will review the book in a future post, but until then you can learn about the career catapults as well as other findings from the CEO-genome project at   

I concur with the findings of the CEO Genome project, and it has once again confirmed what my mentor & ex-boss used to ingrain into each leader that was led by him

The people that solve the most problems make the most money!

Lets start this debate

We are 6 to 15 months away from getting our forefinger inked for having voted for a new Member of Parliament, which will then decide the India’s next Prime Minister. Therefore, there is no better time than now to initiate the debate of what our issues are, the issues of the Lok Sabha and what kind of candidate we need to represent us. There many debates that have defended or destroyed the current government’s handling of our country, its economy and social fabric. However, these polarised debates have not helped in drawing up a resolution, which can be attributed to the style of debating where people are yelling like barbarians at the top of their lungs and embarrassing themselves in front of the entire nation.
I found a fresh new style of questioning and debating in the YouTube video below wherein Kunal Kamra engaged the BJP Youth Wing Vice President, Madhukeshwar Desai in a debate about what he as stands for, what his party stands for and most importantly what they both do not stand for. As a fan of stand-up comedy and Kunal Kamra I found that this video had the perfect balance with a little bit of everything i.e. comedy, diplomacy, maturity, uncomfortable questions and some leg pulling.
I want to engage in a debate to take our country forward and this is how I would love to do it.

22/2018

An Example of Horrible Pricing Strategy – Blackberry India’s BB10 Pricing

I must start this article by stating that I have been using a Blackberry for the past 10 years and I will continue to use one for the foreseeable future. It’s only using a Blackberry that I can punch out a 3 page email in under 5 minutes flat and I still receive emails on my Blackberry faster than any of my friends and while my friends may make fun of my “oh-so-yesterday” device – I am not one to jump ship on someone so quickly.
So while I may not be in the market for a new device as of now, I eagerly look forward to new Blackberry devices, hoping, praying and wishing that they finally get their marketing plans right and give the market what it really wants. The company has been doing very well under interim CEO, John Chen, by focusing its efforts on the enterprise market, promoting its QNX platform and launching new phones in partnership with Foxconn at multiple price points in the overcrowded smartphone market as it looks at selling its devices to the 85 million strong community of BBM users to buy its phones (BBM is available cross platform now)
These changes have definitely helped the company’s fortunes as the struggling smartphone pioneer delivering Q1 results that have surprised the market and the stock rallied 34 percent in the month of June 2014. The company launched a low cost device in Indonesia call the Blackberry Z3 (which is now getting available in all markets) and has announced a partnership with Amazon that will bring the Amazon’s appstore to Blackberry and allow the enterprise device maker to focus on regaining leadership in its core market.
 
Blackberry’s India strategy for the pricing of its devices is bewildering and confusing though. First they launched the Z10 device in 2012 at the same price-point as an IPhone which almost guaranteed the failure of the devices launch. Later on, it priced the Q10 and Z30 phones at even higher price points (oddly the Z30 was priced at almost the same price as the Z10 when it was launched) which only led to a faster exodus of Blackberry’s customers to rival phone makers. However, the Z3 was going to be its game changer, I likened it to the Blackberry Curve that was an instant hit with young professionals and teenagers and expected Blackberry to launch that phone at the same price point it had launched this phone in Indonesia of under $200.
 
However, whoever did the research and decided the price point for this device be put at Rs 15,990 made a grave and fatal mistake. For starters Z3 is priced Rs. 1000 less than the Z10 device and Rs. 9,000 less than the Z30 device. A comparison between all 3 devices is available here and it is clear that the Z3 is going to cater to the mid to low segment of the smartphone market and with that assessment I agree with Anupam Saxena of Times of India and Nandagopal Rajan of Indian Express who have given the phone good reviews but complain about the phone being priced out of the market.
 
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The Z3 at Rs 12,000 would have offered a very compelling and competitive case for those looking for low cost Android phones in a price sensitive market like India. Alas, Blackberry India has made another pricing and positioning error and this is extremely disappointing for a Blackberry enthusiast like myself. I request BlackBerry’s team to convene a meeting with its sales and marketing team (separately and then jointly later) and find out the acceptance of Rs. 15,990 for the Z3 in the market – they will be surprised and will be forced to react faster than they ever have before.