Jnaapti – One Year On…

Time flies!

It has been a year since I started Jnaapti and it is time to take a step back and reflect on how things have fared during the last one year. I was reading through the mails and the Jnaapti weekly reports and was wondering if there is anything that I have to add to the 6 month report that I wrote back in December or if there is anything that I don’t agree to among the things I mentioned in that list.

So here goes:

  • Naming: Somehow, I don’t recall reading this anywhere, or atleast, didn’t think it was important. But, just like you do usability testing of your product, I think it is important to get the name tested with a few people before you christen your company. While choosing an Indian name, also remember to include people from various parts of India and abroad.
    The name Jnaapti is a Sanskrit word which means to “acquire knowledge”. I had a few things in mind when choosing the name:

    1. I wanted an Indian name – because the target segment was Indian to begin with
    2. I didn’t want to have a problem with branding, in acquiring domains etc
    3. Finally, I wanted the name to be generic enough to be used until the vision of the company has been achieved and shouldn’t require a change as I pivot.

    Turns out, people don’t get it.

    Here are some suggestions to people about naming a company:

    • Make sure the word is such that it can be pronounced by anyone and is easy to spell over the phone. You will loose out on a lot of branding if people search for the wrong keywords.
    • How would people come across your name? Would you expect people to search for it – if not, the logo along with the name should be catchy.
    • What are the closest other names to the name of your company? Is it easy to mis-spell it? If people search for it now, will Google suggest a more popular alternative? Do you expect to override it anytime soon?
    • Is your audience global or local? If global, go for something that is not specific to your geography or atleast easy for people outside your geography to pronounce.
    • Stay with the chosen word for atleast 3-4 days. Imagine yourself using it in conversations and see if you are comfortable with the word even after 3-4 days.

    Personally, I prefer short, single words for company names.

  • Pivoting is not free: Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of lean principles and I still religiously follow a lot of them. And I do understand that pivoting is not about abandoning one idea and moving onto the other or changing your vision as if caught in a tornado but I guess it is possible that people think pivoting comes without a cost when in fact the reality is not so. In short, pivoting has the same issues as knowing when to shut down your startup – should we persevere or should we rethink?
    When you have validated a part of your business model (eg: the demand, the problem/solution fit or say portions of your product) and decide to pivot another aspect of it, there is a good chance of temporary disruption in the flow (read target segment, getting users, revenue streams etc). It’s quite possible that you had been generating revenues due to your efforts, but now you don’t see it to be sustainable, so you decide to pivot. This may mean, you have to re-design your site/app experience, come up with a new marketing message and start over on the marketing efforts, and you need to be prepared to bear the cost. This may be tough, especially when you are bootstrapping the company. But then, you don’t have a choice because the whole idea of pivoting is to reduce the likelihood of reaching a destination that you didn’t intend to reach in the first place.
    Between validation and scale is an important step – “validating the scale”. As described in the lean stack, there are 4 stages when it comes to building a product – Understand Problem, Define Solution, Validate Qualitatively, Verify Quantitatively. However the MVP that works in Stage 3 need not work in Stage 4 and may require a strategy pivot, so be careful in Stage 3 to ensure that the same solution holds when you get to Stage 4. This is easier said than done.
    Recognize failures early – atleast have a weekly review of how things are going with regard to the company’s directions and make sure you make corrections in your path. Get it validated by people who can guide you.
  • Follow the ant philosophy: Learn from the horse’s mouth as he has described it well.
    Perseverance is important. Sometimes it feels like you are putting in a lot of effort, but things don’t seem to work, but sometimes the exact opposite is true. I have seen this with marketing efforts. It takes time for marketing to reach fruition and it is important not to lose your patience when the going gets tough.
  • Have a strong social network or add someone to your team who does: I can’t say this enough and this builds on the 2 things I mentioned in my previous post – “Get out of the building” and “The strange story of co-incidences and chance meetings”. It always helps to have a strong social network (both online and offline). The number of new people I have met (online/offline) has crossed 200 since the time I started Jnaapti.
  • Self discipline revisited: If you have decided on a rhythm, stick with it. Get good at reducing interruptions and handling unavoidable interruptions well. When meeting clients, time is not under your control, so get good at squeezing tasks into available slots between unavoidable interruptions. Time discipline is extremely important especially when you are working alone. Maintain a log of where you are spending your time and optimize what you can optimize. Get good at continual automation not just with engineering processes but with life! Make a note of key metrics that you want to track on a daily/weekly basis.
  • Be prepared to learn: This may seem obvious, but sometimes you may not realize the effort involved. Running a one-person startup has meant that I had to learn how businesses function, understand sales and marketing, negotiation, valuation, funding, recruitment, building and maintaining relationships, understand lead generation, cost of customer acquisition, designing usable products, build a great user experience and a host of other things in addition to engineering. I like it and is one of the reasons I am doing this, but then, not everyone does.

When I started this journey, it was supposed to be a one year stride. The fact that it is Jun 2012 and I haven’t lost confidence means that this is going somewhere and I intend to continue along this path into the near future…

Jnaapti – A 6 month Report

This post is not quite about Jnaapti‘s vision and why I am doing it, but more about things that I have learnt since I founded Jnaapti.

I can’t believe it has been more than 6 months already and what an experience it has been! I can easily blog a few hundred pages about my experiences, but here is the MVP (Minimum Valuable Post) – the key things that other wantrepreneurs and newbie entrepreneurs can learn from:

  • The art of self-discipline: If there is one thing that I should pick among the various things that I learnt in the last 6 months, I would pick being self-disciplined and maintaining a rhythm in the face of distractions that are not under your control. Time management is extremely important. When you are handling all aspects of business, there is a good chance that you need to meet someone at their convenience, or you are asked to provide a service (in my case training) and these are not under your control. So you need to get really good at handling these, and getting back to your work as soon as this is complete. For productivity freaks, I use a combination of Pomodoro technique, Hamster, Workrave, this hack and a simple Libreoffice document to manage all my data. I wish it could have been simpler and someday, I hope to continue my efforts in building productivity tools.
  • Get out of the building: I can’t stress this enough. Nearly everytime I got out of the building and started speaking to people, there was some new insight or a business deal that happened. A lot of the times, it seems purely co-incidental (read the next point). The initial couple of weeks were very haphazard and it just seemed like a humongous project that was lying in front of me. While I did have a huge list of tasks/ideas to work on, I didn’t know where to begin. What should I build now? No clear answers. As I started hunting for answers, I ran into the Lean Startup concepts and fell in love with Ash Maurya, Eric Ries and Steve Blank‘s philosophies. I followed the lean canvas way of capturing the business model religiously and it has worked out very well. If anything, it helped reduce noise, cut to the chase and build something of value “now”. The idea of prioritizing validation and learning before scale has worked in my favor. The first cut of Jnaapti’s offering didn’t even have a software component and was entirely conducted over email – because I realized that the MVP didn’t need a software component. I concentrated less on the website messaging, since most of my contacts were through my personal network.
  • The strange story of co-incidences and chance meetings: Nearly every business contract I got seems like a pure chance meeting and the more this happens the more you believe in what is written here. This kind of also proves that there is a critical mass of startups in Bangalore now, and there is a good chance that you will bump into someone who is a startup founder or early employee when you visit coffee shops or technical events. This has worked out so well that I have made it a point to meet, on an average one or two new people every week. Till date, I have met more than 80 new people (including Jnaapti Learners), and that’s an average of 10 people per month!
  • My experiments with pricing: An early learning for me was about how you need to get pricing right and it’s almost always never. The inital couple of months I was demanding way too less for my services and slowly as I found out the value of my services, I tweaked it to a point which seems reasonable both for me and my clients. But that said, every new assignment is a new negotiation.
  • Understanding waste reduction: When you are the only person working, and you have the 3 aspects of an organization in front of you – business, product and engineering – every moment you spend, you need to think twice. Is this the best use of my time? It helps a lot to reflect on how you spent your time and look at what you could have rather NOT done. This is the art of waste reduction.
    On a similar note, I have started maintaining what are called “Implementation reports” for Jnaapti’s product development phases. An implementation report is an assessment of

    • how a specific phase fared
    • what features we set out to build
    • what was our reasoning about why they should be built
    • how are the features being used now
    • if they are not beng used, why so
    • can its usage be improved
    • should it be chucked
    • how can we ensure that we don’t have such waste in future
  • Getting to ramen profitability: There is one thing I can tell you. We, as software engineers in India, don’t value money (I am speaking generally). We get an awesome package (stop cribbing you guys) right out of college, and then we get into this spiral of work-get paid-work harder-get promoted-ask for a raise. And when things don’t work in our favor, we start complaining or switch our jobs looking for a better role or more pay. If you want to value money better, quit your job to know what others go through. In the face of inflation, the rupee v/s dollar prices and rising infrastructure costs it has been tough to keep up, but then you got to pay a price. I am close to achieveing ramen profitability and I hope things will be better next year. And while achieving ramen profitability is important, it is equally important to ensure that you achieve profitability via the business you are in and not via some job that doesn’t help you validate or learn more about your business. And yeah, if you want a piece of advice, to get to ramen profitability soon, just invest your savings in some place that is not easy to suck from!

I have taken enough breaks and I never felt that this was too demanding (although I do put in long hours once in a while). Needless to say, I am loving the freedom and the flexibility that I have and I wish I can continue this forever! Overall, it has been an amazing 6 months!

Adios Ugenie

About 1.5 years back I made a decision. It was drastic. It was unexpected. Frankly, I wasn’t giving it too much thought and was trusting my intuition. A few people called me up telling me not to. I had decided to switch jobs – quit an extremely successful career in IBM and join a startup.

The recession was expected to hit and it was supposed to be a bad time to switch jobs.

It was a roller coaster ride right from the beginning but I enjoyed it thoroughly. The first all hands meet (all hands meets in startups are NOT about going to a fancy hotel and spending the day playing games), we discussed the recession that was about to hit and several alternatives were discussed to cut the costs and extend the runway. Things didn’t work out as expected and the next all hands I saw the team strength reduce to roughly half!

Right from the beginning, I liked the “openness” culture that was part of the company. Engineers got to decide to a large extent the roadmap and product features, and also interact with and learn from the users directly. A lot of what was being built was being determined based on user feedback. We had a whole bunch of success stories on the way.

4 months into my job, I came to know that we were about to be acquired. It came as a surprise to me, because things appeared so drastic. We had only started tasting success. Why this sudden decision? What about my dreams of working in a startup? Will Ugenie continue to function like one? How will things be different? Will our dreams be crushed by this parent company? Will there be a change in culture?

However, things didn’t change a lot – if anything it got better. While we did gain some financial stability, which allowed us to think about and execute longer term projects (measured in weeks instead of days), things didn’t change drastically in terms of work and the responsibilities that people had. Plus, we got to work with an excellent team over at Lulu spearheaded by Bob.

Now when I look back, I feel, making the switch was one of the most important decisions I took in my life. The last 1.5 years has been such an experience that I could not have expected from IBM.

So, after this wonderful journey, here I am, making the next leap in my career. I have accepted an offer from an early stage seed funded startup and am beginning work early next week. Why the decision? Well, it just feels right and I am mentally prepared to take up the responsibilities that this job entails.

During the course, I made some amazing new friends each of whom is unique in their own personal way. I would like to thank every one of you, who I have interacted with directly or indirectly, for the many things that I have learnt from you. It was a pleasure to know you.

A parting quote:
…, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life. –

Steve Jobs

A painful adieu to Livejournal

So finally I took the plunge. I have migrated my site to WordPress and hosted my blog here. I am planning to permanently move from Livejournal to here.

Considering that I have been blogging in Livejournal since 2004, it wasn’t an easy decision to make. However I had to take the plunge some day, and I thought the time has come.

So what have the major painpoints been?

  • LJ does not allow script inclusions. In this world of Web 2.0, it is almost impossible to not have widgets in your pages.
  • Analytics: You have absolutely no idea how many people reached your site and via which sources or keywords and why your blog is valued the most.
  • Very limited customization – frankly the themes seem very Web 1.0’ish.

Things were not easy. Exporting my Livejournal blog posts and importing them to WordPress was one thing. Setting up WordPress as my primary hosting, while allowing the rest of the site to function smoothly was another.

Once these were done, the rest was easy and the results are fascinating. I was able to setup my photo albums, analytics, Feedburner and integrate widgets for Friendfeed, Twitter in no time.

There are still some minor issues here and there, especially with migrating my content from the old site to the new one – I will work on them as and when I find time.

So, feel free to browse my site and let me know what you think!

Big fish, small fish – my personal experience of working in a startup

It’s been about 3 months since I joined Ugenie.

Having spent about two and a half years in IBM, which is a mammoth on any scale, and working in Ugenie now, which has a really small employee strength, what changes do I see?

I guess most large organizations have similar characteristics, so instead of naming IBM in the rest of my post, I will just mention it as ‘Big Fish’ to represent all large organizations. Again, I guess nothing is unique about my feelings of Ugenie and most startups have similar characteristics, so I will call it ‘Small Fish’.

If I look back into the days I spent at Big Fish, I have mixed feelings. There are quite a few things that I have gained, but some that I had to lose.

The immediate change that I saw in Small Fish is the rate at which things move. Ideas emerge by the minute, and are implemented within a couple of days or for ideas taking more time, a week. More time is spent in getting things done than on planning and processes. Long term goals are perhaps goals for the month and I guess there is no point thinking about a year down the line or anything on a similar scale! The ‘tomorrows’ or ‘over the next week’ are replaced by ‘now’ and ‘today sometime’. There are lesser ‘meetings’ and they are short. You definitely don’t need a calender for your meetings.

The second change I see is how large organizations spend lots of money on infrastructure and how startups tend to save on every penny. I remember the ultra modern conference rooms, the posh pantries/wash-rooms, the money that was spent on things like events, all hands, yearly gifts, interior decoration, posters talking about “X” day (replace X with Innovation, Mothers or something like that) etc, I could go on. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying Small Fish does not spend on its employees, but every penny spent is done so cautiously.

And now let me delve into the differences in terms of:

Breadth/Depth: I guess one of the reasons that made me stick to Big Fish is the breadth of technologies on offer. Every day, you would come across someone working on a project that you never knew existed or you come across a page on the Intranet that excites you. Every day, you keep widening your breadth of knowledge.

Things are different in Small Fish. Small Fish offers the much required depth.

I remember someone telling me of how there needs to be a balance between the breadth of our knowledge and the depth in some specific field. This is like the letter ‘T’, with the top horizontal line representing the breadth and the vertical line representing the depth.

Ownership: I don’t see too much of a difference here. While in Big Fish, I used to own the components I developed and I was responsible for timely delivery of that component and ensuring that the consumers of my work are kept happy. Things are similar in Small Fish, may be with minor differences. The ownership here tends towards the whole of the product/application than just the component you own. (This is closely related to the Roles/Responsibilities observation below).

Priorities: Back in 2005, when I was working on product development, there was a phase where I found it difficult to prioritize my tasks. There were a bunch of bugs to fix, there were some mails to respond to and there were some bug databases that I had to update and it seemed like all of them had the same priority.

If I compare that period with the present, I would say it’s quite similar. There is more work than anyone can handle, there are some things that only you can do and the deadlines are sometimes impossible to meet because of various technical/non-technical issues.

However I seem to be a bit more comfortable in my present position than I was back in 2005. This could be attributed to the fact that I have two and a half years of experience behind me now or to the fact that I am in a startup now and it is normal for everyone to have their plates full.

Roles/Responsibilities: I would say there is no such thing in a startup. While in Big Fish, we had clear responsibilities and having completed those tasks, we could consider our job done, in Small Fish, things work differently. There is no such thing as ‘my responsibility’. Or if you really want to put it in terms of that, you would have to say, ‘everything is my responsibility’. While many people don’t like that, I see every such occurrence as an opportunity to learn and I really enjoy it.

Opportunities: There is no dearth of this in Big Fish or Small Fish, but there is a difference. In Big Fish, you need to search for them or understand that ‘x’ is opportunity knocking at your door, while in Small Fish you would just take it up, without perhaps realizing that it was an opportunity.

Social network: Well, if we are talking of getting to know more people with diverse personalities and skill sets there is really no end to how many people you can connect with in Big Fish. This is severely restricted in Small Fish. I remember having some technical discussions with people who have significantly more experience than me in Big Fish and I should say the things that I learnt then are things that you don’t get to learn from a book. This has definitely added to my experience. It was about ‘learning from the failures/experiences of others’.

Smaller fishes tend to have a younger crowd. So while the teams are dynamic, the number of people with more experience than you and with diverse skillsets is limited. This has nothing to do with the actual people in Small Fish, but is rather because of the size of Small Fish, which, because of its very nature is small.

Awards/Recognition: Frankly, there was no dearth of it in Big Fish. But on second thoughts, other than the monetary rewards and the benefits of the actual work that you did to earn the award, do these awards really matter to the rest of the world?

Other activities: This is severely restricted in Small Fish. Big Fish invests a lot on employees. So every day you hear people being on training or attending some conference or even having gone abroad to learn some technology.

Processes: If you ask anyone working at a startup, especially someone who has worked in a large organization before, I guess one thing they would mention is the processes. What is my take on this?

I would say there needs to be a balance. While on one side too many processes is definitely going to be time consuming and a pain on the employees, having a well defined process would mean that everything that needs to be taken care of is actually taken care of. So if Big Fish is tending towards one end of this spectrum, Small Fish is towards the other end, with the best point being somewhere close to the middle.

So people ask me, do you think it was worth it?
Well, no doubt about that. I guess you have to lose some things to gain some things. And the things that Small Fish offers it’s tough to expect that from Big Fish and this, to a major extent, holds the other way round too. Now having had enough experience in Big Fish and no experience in some Small Fish, I would say, yeah, it was worth it and I am glad I decided to join Ugenie.

Now remember that these are my observations and I could be wrong in terms of how various Big Fishes/Small Fishes work or even in terms of the Big Fish where I worked and the Small Fish where I currently work. Also my own opinions might change as I gain more experience at Small Fish and compare it to my experiences in Big Fish.

Bye bye IBM, hello Ugenie

If 2007 has been a very long year, December has been a very long month!

I quit IBM this week and took up a new position in Ugenie today [1][2].

This news came as a surprise to many, who considered that I was quite loyal to IBM. IBM has been a splendid place. There is no dearth of opportunities there. The more you are ready to take up responsibilities, the more you are given.

So what on earth made me switch?
The primary reason for the switch is, I wanted to work in a startup on something that is directly used by non-technical end users.

How do we serve a large user base? How do we keep up with the ever increasing and conflicting demands of users? How are things prioritized? How is it that a small group of 15-20 individuals can do something in a matter of days, that large organizations take weeks to implement?

The equation in a startup is quite different from that of large organizations. I have read this before, but have never had first hand experience. So I decided to take the plunge and experience it myself.

And then there was the question of the 'right time'.
Is this a good time? Should I wait? What will I gain, what will I miss? The more I thought about it, the more it confused me. So finally I just chose to go with Ugenie.

The work seems to be interesting. I am looking forward to it!

With some people predicting a dot-com crash in 2008, was this a good idea?
Time will tell. But whatever the case, I am not quite concerned.

Internship 2008

I had been to SJCE last weekend to conduct internship interview for the current final year engineering students. The turn-up was much less than expected. We went quite late this year and many students were already offered projects in other companies. Also we had a cut-off of 70%. About 40 students took the written test. We short-listed 13 and ended up selecting 3 students. All 3 were from Information Science. We had expected 120 students to turn up and we were planning to select 9-12 students.

Congratulations to those selected. And a suggestion to those who were not: It is not the number of companies that you are placed in that matters, nor is it the pay. It is your fundamentals that will take you a long way. Don't blame the company if you are not offered a quality job. Ensure that you have what it takes to get one.

Eclipse workshop in IIIT Bangalore

So here I was conducting yet another workshop on Eclipse. This time it was in IIIT Bangalore.

The campus is great, so are the students. It was the most interactive session I have ever been to. The students were quite active throughout the day and all of us were filled with enthusiasm until the very end.

The workshop began at 9:30 am with Sudar Oli giving the kick off speech on IBM University Relation activities. This was followed by 2 theory sessions, followed by a hands-on session. The workshop lasted till 8 pm and I hear this is quite normal for guest lectures in IIIT!

Workshop on Eclipse in VIT, Pune

I was part of a team of three (myself, Sayeed Sanaullah and Gaurav Bhattacharjee) from ISL, who conducted a one day workshop on Eclipse in Vishwakarma Institute of Technology, Pune.

We had 3 theory sessions and about 3.5 hours of hands-on sessions. We covered the following topics during the theory and practical sessions:
* Introduction to Eclipse
* Plug-in development in Eclipse
* RCP application development in Eclipse.

The response was decent and I truly enjoyed the day, although at the end of the day it left us really tired.

This workshop was conducted as part of the IBM Technology Day series that is being conducted in various colleges in India. This is the second time I am being involved in a IBM Technology Day.

The very first IBM Technology Day in India was conducted in SJCE, Mysore in April. This was a 2 day workshop with about 7 speakers from IBM Software Group, Systems Group and Global Services. There were students from 7 colleges in and around Mysore who were part of this.