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Tag Archive : advice

The passionate vs the obstinate founder

Recently, I had a long conversation with someone about the challenges I faced working with an obstinate founder that they referred to me. The person countered that the founder was passionate about their business idea, and I misunderstood their passion. I disagreed with their assessment.

During the week, I have contemplated the difference between obstinate and passionate. I realize that it was difficult to separate the two. Obstinate is often misunderstood to be obsessive; a term often used to describe Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Brian Chesky, Elon Musk or Jack Ma.

I love obsessive founders. I considered myself an obsessive founder. I am probably even more obsessive as an investor. Why VCs love obsessive founders is well explained by Mark Suster in this Medium post titled Why I Look for Obsessive and Competitive Founders. If you are a VC investor, then you should read this post.

Moral: Obsessive is good, but obsessive is not obstinate.

Obstinate is what Oxford defines as stubbornly refusing to change one’s opinion or chosen course of action, despite attempts to persuade one to do so.

Obstinate founders can take a fantastic thing and reduce it to rubble because their need to be right is more important than their need to win. It is the classic winning the battle but losing the war syndrome.

Gordon Tredgold wrote a wonderful article explaining the difference between stubbornness and determination, aptly titled Don’t Confuse Stubbornness with Determination.

In it, he provided a list of signs that can warn a founder whether their stubbornness is becoming an issue.

  • If you never win and you never quit, you’re an idiot
  • Will power vs. Won’t power
  • Remember that your goals must be measurable
  • Think about results
  • Consider adaptability
  • Your goal will remain the same, but your plan for achieving it will be different

His suggestions are absolutely banging on. I encourage you to read the article if you constantly find yourself butting heads with prospective and/or current investors.

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The Indo-African perspective on the role of mentors in your startup

Over the weekend, I was a guest of Baljinder Sharma, a serial entrepreneur and a highly respected individual in the India & Africa startup scene. He put together the first India Africa Entrepreneurship & Investment Summit in Mauritius.

The event started as an idea to create a bridge between two ecosystems that houses over 1/3rd of the world’s population. It culminated in a 2-day event attended by over two hundred illustrious participants of the African & Indian early-stage ecosystem.  

The number of close relationships forged at the event is the barometer of success for such an event. On that scale alone – this event was a resounding success. I made several new friends, some from India and many from Africa. I will strongly encourage Baljinder to make the event a permanent annual feature for both ecosystems.

On the first day of the event, I was on a panel with an impressive list of panelists viz, Stephen Newton, Jonathan Mazumdar, Eric Osiakwan. Atim Kabra deftly and expertly moderated the panel channelizing our experiences and energy into a coherent narrative. Our discussion topic – the role of mentors and incubators in our respective ecosystems. Our discussion on mentorship got extremely engaging so much so that we did not enter into any meaningful conversation on incubation.

My co-panelists came up with a host of discussion points, but we unanimously agreed that the title of “the mentor” was thrown around very casually in our respective ecosystems. Often, service providers are self-anointed mentors, and their misrepresentation can have disastrous effects for the founders, their startups, and their investors.

On Sunday night as I boarded the flight back to Mumbai, I put down those discussion points that resonated with me; here is that list.

A mentor should not cost the company money.

This point is not to say that the mentor should work pro-bono. However, mentors that offer hourly/weekly/monthly/annual payment plans are service providers. If your proposed mentor charges money to meet you for an evaluation – please be smart and avoid them. 

A mentor’s role is to guide, not to become the founder.

I have committed this mistake a few times, so it hits home. Many times, founders start abdicating the decision-making role to the mentor, and there are several times the mentor starts getting too deeply involved. The mentor is not the CEO or a co-founder, but neither are they above the CEO or the Founders.

If you have crossed this line in your mentor-mentee relationship already – it is time to scale it back maybe even take a break. 

A mentor’s job is to do /advise you on what is best for you, not to make you happy.

This point is a personal favorite.

The mentor’s role is like that of a coach – they are present for the overall success of your company, not your success alone. Therefore, they must offer advice which is best for the company.

A self-respecting mentor will promptly quit if they get the message that their presence is to be a rubber stamp to your whims.   

A founder should have multiple mentors.

This learning was new to me. A founder should seek out multiple mentors that can help them with different aspects of their business or challenges. As the startup grows, there should be a churn in the mentors with new mentors taking over from the mentors that have finished their role/utility.

A good mentor stands on the side-lines while you make mistakes.

An extension of point 2. Experienced mentors sit on the side-line while you make mistakes even if they could help you avoid them. The lesson of letting you experience failure and learning how to prevent future mistakes is more important than the experience of getting saved by the mentor.

A good mentor will warn the founder of the challenges but leave the final decision on them.

The mentor’s role is to guide the founder through their decisions, but in the end, the founder is the one that must pull the trigger. When a mentor starts making decisions for the founder stops taking responsibility for the results.  

It would be best if you chose mentors that have substantial previous experience in the areas you need help

If you want to learn how to build a billion-dollar startup, who would you go to for help? The founder that built billion-dollar startups a couple of times or the founder struggling to get their startup out of their garage? 

Even though this sounds like a simple point reiterated – I am surprised how many times founders commit this mistake.

The best mentors only take on mentoring projects that challenge them.

Good mentors get sought, but they aren’t running after the money. They are looking for a challenge. A challenge that will stretch them and help them grow thereby (and in most cases) helping the mentor and the mentee.

Mentors that are running after money will accept any project, regardless of whether it intrigues them are not the right choice for you and your startup.  

The very best mentors get involved before the founders know that they need them and leave before the founders question their existence.

An involved mentor that is “in-sync” with their mentee knows precisely when to increase their involvement and when to decrease or terminate their relationship. A mentor that must be asked to leave has stopped paying attention.

It would be best if you convinced the mentor that you are worth their time investment, not the other way around

When a mentor is chasing you, explaining why you “need” their mentoring or pestering you to “sign-up” with them, they are a service provider. Service providers have other motives driving them but they are most likely not in line with your mentoring requirements.

The best mentors are so busy with their projects. They place a high value on their time. Therefore, you must convince them that you are worth the opportunity cost of their time – without using money as the offset.

My takeaway from the panel: Choosing is a mentor isn’t rocket science, but neither is it a game of roulette. Choose wisely through the generous application of common sense.

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.

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

The Fastest Path(s)

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!

Be prepared for due diligence BEFORE your fundraising!

There are very few things that I do not love about venture capital but taking a founder through due diligence is one of them. I have written about the importance of due diligence in the past and a best-case scenario, due diligence should not take more than 30 days to complete. But realistically it takes anywhere between 90 to 180+ days. The delay is due to minor oversights made by the founder that pile up over a 12-18-month period but majorly it is their overall lack of preparedness for due diligence that delays due diligence.  

The unpreparedness of founders for due diligence is baffling to me. It should be advertised that successfully completing due diligence is more important than the fundraising itself! Because if a start-up loses an investment offer even after advance negotiations, they can recover from that but if they lose an investment offer during due diligence – it is the death knell for them!

This about it – who would want to invest in a company that has failed due diligence with another investor?

Therefore, I stress the importance of “preparing” one’s start-up for due diligence even before beginning the fundraise. Over the last 12 months, I have specifically told each of the founders that raised or attempted to raise money from Artha Venture Fund – to be prepared for due diligence if they want to see our money in the bank account as soon as possible.

For the uninitiated there will be several levels of due diligence like

  • Financial DD – that is carried out by an accounting or audit firm to verify that: –
    • All transactions and its bookkeeping have been done as per standard accounting norms
    • The traction numbers provided by the company are accurate
    • The financial model can be compared to the numbers in the books of accounts.
  • Legal & Compliance DD – that is carried out by a legal firm working in conjunction with a company secretary to verify that: –
    • The company has made all their necessary filings (monthly, quarterly and annually)
    • The commercial relationships that the company has entered have been captured in a proper legal contract that protects the company’s interests
    • All employees and independent contractors have signed contracts for the employment or services with the company – including the founders
    • All registrations, licenses, and permits that are required to operate the business have been procured and are current
  • Valuation – this is something unique to the Indian ecosystem and this usually carried out by a merchant banker to:-
    • Review the financial model for the company and its future projections
    • Deduce a valuation based on the above information
  • Internal DD – this differs from investor to investor but in our case we: –
    • Speak to former employers, associates, references and even your school to get a background on the founder
    • Speak to current or former employees, contractors, advisors, industry experts, suppliers and customers of the company to get their perspective on the company, the founder and the internal working
    • Conduct mystery shopping campaigns to verify/validate that the product/service is of the quality or efficiency that is being promised
    • Conduct on the spot checks on the company and its operations

Unfortunately, due diligence isn’t something that can be wished away by an investor in a sound frame of mind therefore founders would be better prepared if they would just prepare themselves for due diligence. So, if you are someone that is looking at raising money from us here is our standard due diligence checklist – be prepared for this before you send your pitch deck!

40/2019

v36.003

On whose advice should you pivot?

A founding team must (not shall) display a strong belief and deep commitment to their business. The teams that constantly shift their business model on the feedback of funders eventually find themselves lost at sea. So, there are many times to pivot your business – but a failed attempt at raising a round of capital just isn’t one of them!

As Investors, we evaluate businesses with a limited vision periscope and often, “tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

At Artha, we remind ourselves and founding teams through the disclaimer in our rejection emails.

Please note, these are only recommendations and as venture capitalists, we are only required to be right 20% of the time to be amongst the top VCs in the world. We can be (and are) wrong 80% of the time in our investments, so please do not consider this as the final word for your business.” 

Therefore, it is sane advice to any founding team out there that is currently raising capital.

  • Utilize the funder’s feedback to alter your business’ investment pitch.
  • Utilize the pitches that didn’t result in a sale to alter your business’ sales & marketing pitch BUT
  • Only take your customer capitalist’s (read: paying customers’) feedback into account, to pivot your business

39/2019 v36.002

My PR Experiment

Yesterday was an interesting day. I started off by tasting different blends of single shot coffee made by a start-up that we have been eyeing for a while now. They have been some gaining significant traction and the tasting culminated in the issuance of a term-sheet. In my next appointment, I visited several branches of a food aggregator that provides home cooked meals in an IoT enabled device. The heavy dose of caffeine from the morning helped me stay awake after an extraordinarily heavy lunch, but I really liked what the company was doing, and so we issued them a term-sheet too. In the last meeting of the day, I was with two entrepreneurs who are looking to fill the niche left open by Bira in the beer industry, and so I ended up tasting their different beers. Their product, taste, packaging and brand positioning are all unique and I’ll be honest, we are contemplating issuing them a term-sheet too. But no, this blog isn’t about tasting and issuing term-sheets, it’s about the commonality I observed in all three funding outlays, which I asked the founders to rectify i.e. instead of outsourcing it to an external agency, build an in-house marketing team to manage social media channels, PR and internal-external communication.

I used to erroneously advocate outsourcing PR and media management, but that viewpoint was permanently altered. I conducted a yearlong experiment in which I discontinued the services of our external PR agency and brought those functions in-house. Not only did I gain more control on what Artha (and I) wanted to communicate, but we also got more media mentions, got covered by the top journalists and were invited to renowned events around the globe. We also started publishing separate monthly and quarterly newsletters for our LPs and well-wishers.  All this effort has paid off through a marked increase in business for all the Artha entities, but most importantly, we achieved all these objective at 60% off our previous costs.

All of our PR (yes, all of it) was organic and genuine i.e. unpaid for. We did not sponsor events, pay for advertising in publications or authored articles. Things are moving so well that this year we are expanding the internal team by bringing in a Social Media Head that can move us from prose to video. Since we understand that the entire process isn’t a one-man job, we are allocating him/her a budget to recruit a team to facilitate this transition.

This massive cost saving got me questioning the PR/Media management agency model and whether it really works for an early-stage startup. I am afraid it does not. It takes many months and a lot of effort to get a brand new startup relevant and unpaid media attention. Unfortunately, early stage start-ups do not have the budget to compensate top-level agencies for their effort or even tier 2 or tier 3 players (unless they can secure a strong referral). Therefore, start-ups end up working with PR firms that themselves are starting up.  These PR firms overload their staff with multiple projects, to make ends meet, distributing the employee cost over the projects to make operations profitable. However, that divided cost also means divided time and focus on each project – a situation that does not bode well for start-ups trying to make a dollar for every penny invested in marketing. In fact, I have seen PR agents pitch 4-5 ideas to the same journalist in a single bid hoping to get any of them published. Is that really how you want your start-up to be pitched?

Another issue that works against the interest of the start-up is when a PR agency works hard to meet the KPIs they have promised and manages to do so in the first 15 days of the month. Having met their KPIs, they go radio silent for the rest of the month. This essentially means that their promised KPIs are the limit and not the base on which the agency works – completely opposite to how founders set KPIs for their internal team. After all, you can only create value for your company when you get more value than you pay for, isn’t it?

Therefore, I have come to a conclusion that PR agencies are useful for short sprints or Big Bang announcements, but the marathon work of building an image and brand for your startup should be done by an in-house team. In fact, even the 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing recommends the same!

37/2019

Entrepreneurial Ego…a Necessary Evil?

Vinod shared an interesting post inspired from a talk he gave at an event in Nagpur, on Sunday:

I read the article shared in that post this morning, and it was quite powerful. Let me state that I am not in agreement with the massive extrapolation of $1 million in 1878 to a $900m in 1930s. There is a gap of more than 50 years in which many things could have happened. Also, let’s not forget the fact that Sam Andrews died in 1904 so he would not have been around to enjoy his gain!

I do agree with Vinod that an entrepreneur must exude certain confidence, spunk and calmness under pressure. But most people are not born with such qualities so a ‘fake it till you make it’ attitude is required in the early stages which could be shrouded in a fake ego. However, an individual can quickly lose awareness of the fake ego and it can be replaced with a real one when success gets into the place it shouldn’t – the head.

But the one quality that has been consistent in successful entrepreneurs in our portfolio is their ability to drown the ego and ask for advice and help from people that can push them to get better in their role as an entrepreneur, manager or networker. They not only remember the advice given but also provide feedback on whether that advice is working for them or not and ask for pivots.

The creation, nurturing and growth of ego takes the entrepreneur away from the exact qualities that made him/her great in the first place. Therefore, I agree with Vinod that a fake ego is required but the entrepreneur should have a person who can act as their totem and remind them if they have gotten lost in the very thing they created.

16/2019

How Founders F@#%-up Other Founders

In 2 out of the 4 term sheets that we signed last month, founders have acted on legal advice (certainly the worst kind) provided by other founders. To use the legal advice provided by a fellow founder just because he/she has previously raised capital is as good as the argument that an astronomer should teach an astronaut how to space-walk, just because he has seen the stars, in space.

After a recent call with founders who argued animatedly on several points that were already in tandem with EXACTLY what they were asking for (they just hadn’t bothered to read carefully), I realised that instead of using the services of a legal firm they were acting on the gyaan (divine knowledge) so generously provided to them by a founder friend. This so-called “expert advice” was given to them without even having read the term sheet! Finally, we ran out of patience in dealing with these founders and the deal fell through.

Founders tend to forget that as Investors, we have an active interest in increasing the value of the company i.e. for all shareholders involved, including the founders. When their share value goes up, so does ours. However, when founders start asking for concessions that are not even granted to the founders/promoters of listed companies, it creates serious doubts about their intentions of raising capital and whether it is being raised for reasons thatare not being revealed.

It pains me to see excellent deals and founders jump off a cliff by acting on advice provided by people who themselves have a limited understanding of the terms. Therefore, I am working with Nikunj on a project to create a series of blog posts or vlogs that will explain the key terms in a term sheet in depth. We are in conversation with a few online publications and video channels to feature this series so that it will reach a wider audience and are considering producing it ourselves.

Until then, to all founders that are raising money, it is my sincerest request to, PLEASE! PLEASE! PLEASE! (please) reach out to an investment banker or a legal professional with prior experience in investment grade paperwork to get advice and not a fellow founder who has raised capital. It won’t cost more than a lakh and I can assure you that it will be money well invested.

97/2018

Scheduling a Weekly Visit to Menlo Park

I have inculcated a new habit of listening to podcasts during my morning routine replacing my old one of playing loud music to get me charged up for the day.  

Today I heard Robin Sharma’s podcast – The Secret of Massively Creative People and loved his suggestion to create a “Menlo Park” i.e. a place where one can disconnect from the world and give way for the creative side to express itself.  

When I started thinking about it I realised that my best work, especially the things that require me to concentrate viz. investor updates, blog posts, long emails, developing or understanding complex financial models, etc. have all come while I was completely disconnected from the world. I was either on a long flight or holed up in a hotel room.  

This powerful suggestion has me deeply enveloped in thought and I am strongly motivated (and encouraging entrepreneurs) to schedule a visit to Menlo Park every week. 

Would love to hear if anyone has tried doing this and what results they were able to accomplish.  

92/2018