We Need to Create a Product Culture

I keep getting this question a lot – why don’t we build products like many US companies?

We at Chennai, do not yet have a product culture, like they do in Silicon Valley or Boston or Austin. When we don’t have something we need, we should go ahead and create one. Creating an eco-system is not as difficult as it seems. It may take a while. But we need to get started.

Here are some initial thoughts about creating a product culture in Tech.

1. We need Builders – a group of people who are passionate about building products. These can be small.  What do I mean by small? Firefox/Chrome extensions, Google gadgets, Facebook apps, Twitter apps etc. They can be mobile apps on any one of the popular devices. Or they can be simple gadgets, tiny robots, sensors, sensor based devices. The key drivers? A low capital requirement and short cycle times (weeks or months)

2. We need a set of supporters. These can be people who test and use these products and provide constructive feedback. They are the early adopters or micro-investors or  marketing, communication and sales people. We need to get them involved right in the beginning and get regular feedback on how to communicate the value and get some publicity. We can use some help from bloggers, Tweeters, tech columnists and any one who can add value in some way. So we need a community where all of us can come together.

3. We need some evangelists. These are people who encourage the builders and supporters and spread the word. They fill the knowledge gap between the producers and consumers. They are essential to the next stage of building the product culture.

4. We need to take this cycle of building-supporting-evangelizing into various places – colleges, informal communities (like the Open Coffee Clubs), more formal communities like TiE and NASSCOM. We need them to support and spread the word and get involved. They can  help create awareness and reach beyond the smaller communities.

5. We need events – Product show cases (like proto.in, headstart), discussions, meetups, tweetups, tech meets, unconferences, hackathons, sprints. Some of them are happening already.

6. We need to get companies involved. These may be big IT companies or global software companies. The most valuable contribution they can make is to provide channels for the distribution of these products. You can think of companies like Amazon, Google, Microsoft who are already active in India. They can sponsor events, send in experts and provide lots of useful advice.

7. Finally, we need to get the students involved. Once we know how to build these mini-products, we can communicate that knowledge. Almost every student needs to work on a good project in their final year. So we need to start early and get them involved. We can work with  NEN (National Entrepreneur Network) to reach out to students.

We need to get this going. We need to raise awareness and build competence. We need to show first and tell later. This will increase the credibility. We need to start creating this mindset and demystify the process. We need to start this chain reaction – as soon as we can.

Heard at TiE Chennai Unconference Panel Discussions

At the panel on Scaling Businesses at TiE Chennai Unconference on Sep 18th.

The Panel

The panel consisted of  three charter members of TiE and two eminent people one from Thoughtworks and one from a Govt body.

  • Chandu Nair – ScopeKnowledge
  • J. Krishnan – Founder Unimity (popularly known as JK)
  • Sudeep Jain (IAS and chairman of MSME Institute, a government body),
  • Ketan –  ThoughtWorks, and
  • Raghu Rajgopal – Energeate (a serial entrepreneur and helps Chennai Fund).
  • Companies some times need to shed skin like a snake, Chandu Nair
  • Your first venture should not be capital intensive – some good advice from Sudeep
  • Scaling has been through customer reference as we had no marketing dollars – JK
  • Repeatability is very important. Can you repeat quality, delivery etc? – Raghu
  • You need to look at a model of non-linear growth – a way of building partnerships and ecosystem to grow – Ketan
  • You can grow not only by acquiring more customers but providing higher value to existing customers. Engage deeply, look at their business problems and see where you can help – Chandu Nair
  • Don’t build your business with VCs in mind – JK
  • Partners – Comfort must exist even before you start. You need to evaluate partners not only on their value system but also on their ambition levels to find a match- Raghu
  • Promotion of entrepreneurship is at a very nascent stage in India – Sudeep
  • Assess your readiness to scale. You can’t do that by just hiring a bunch of people – Raghu

How Can We Keep The Conversation Going?

We had great un-conference, the first ever in TiE Chennai, yesterday. The energy and enthusiam were awesome. It is nice to see people engaged, deep in discussions. The whole thing was self organized. You decided the topics, you participated in discussions, you hung around in hallways and started conversations.  There were some great discussions.

I will write a few blogs about the event and the sessions. But one question keeps popping up in my mind. How can we harness the energy and enthusiasm and keep the conversation going? I have listed a couple of my thoughts below. Please feel free to add yours to this list though comments here or elsewhere.

  1. More frequent unconference style sessions with specific themes (say once a month)
  2. Theme based mini-meets
  3. An active online forum (we will start a Google group ASAP)
  4. A knowledge sharing wiki (we will use Google sites which is a bit less geeky)
  5. A Google Moderator for voting up/down topics for discussions for these events

There are a few other thoughts related to working with other organizations.

  1. How can we work with NEN, Nasscom, Chennai Open Coffee Club, The Startup Centre and other organizations in Chennai that attract entrepreneurs?
  2. How can we work with other communities to cross pollinate ideas? Automobile, bio and a few others were mentioned during the wrap-up session. Energy was already there.
  3. How can we seed the unconference sessions with experts who enrich the session value?
  4. Should we keep it smaller or make it bigger?
  5. Should we charge and try to include some expert sessions and keynotes?
  6. How do we spread the word to make sure that people who can start conversations can all attend?
  7. How can we keep the essential lightweight nature in planning and running the event?

I am sure there are hundreds of other ideas. Please pitch in. As a follow up, we are planning to have an unconference style breakout session at TiECon.

Thank you all for being part of it. Let us continue the conversations.

How Will You Find?

If you are a technology based start-up with an idea for a product, you have to ask yourself a few questions. Here are some questions that come to mind.

How will you find :

  1. Whether some one will use the product if you build it?
  2. Whether anyone will pay for your product?
  3. Whether the product you are thinking about is not already done? Or freely available?
  4. Who the early adopters may be and how to connect with them?
  5. What the attractive price point for early customers?
  6. Who your typical customer is?
  7. How to come up with the simplest message to convey the essence of your product?

It is worth thinking about these and other similar questions. You may find some of the answers doing research on the internet or selectively tracking social media. You may find some answers talking to a few entrepreneurs who have done it before.

You may, however, find a lot more by creating a very simple subset (a minimum viable product) and just inviting people to use it.

In future posts we will look at these and other questions and talk about some techniques for getting these questions answered.

Random Thoughts on Startup Ideas

I was re-reading Paul Graham’s essay on “Organic Startup Ideas”  today. Paul (as usual) gets you thinking. This essay, may in fact trigger a lot of posts. I will share one of our own experience on an organic startup idea.

The best way to come up with startup ideas is to ask yourself the question: what do you wish someone would make for you?

This is how we came up with our product InfoMinder. I was doing some research on XML towards the end of 90s. I found many interesting sites and bookmarked them. Soon I realized that I had over 300 bookmarks. I figured that even if I spend a minute on each page, it will take me about 5 hours to go through them all. So had one of my developer friends code a simple script to import the bookmarks and check pages daily and send an alert when they change.  This way I needed to visit only the pages that changed.

Once we had this simple notification scheme, we realized that just getting an alert was not enough. When I visited the changed page, I had no idea  about the actual changes on the page. We added a small feature. When we detect  changes in a page, we highlight the changes and deliver a link to the highlighted page. This worked well for a while.

Very quickly we noticed a pattern. We were getting a lot of notifications for trivial changes.  So we had to add a filter to ignore trivial changes. And we gave the product to a bunch of friends. We started getting some really useful feedback and that triggered a whole set of updates to the product.

We did one mistake, though. We kept the bookmarks private for each user. So we missed the entire social bookmarking revolution, even though we had all the features delicious had.

So here is the lesson. While you can start with a useful product idea, try it out and even find a decent number of customers, some times it take a little bit of additional inventiveness to make it a movement.

If you are are startup or thinking of doing one, certainly read Paul Graham’s essay on Organic Startup Ideas.

Don’t forget to share your stories in your blog and post a link here or just add a couple of paras in comments.

Seven Ways You Can Help a Startup

I keep meeting people in the startup community. They share one attribute – passion. Some of them have great ideas and others not so great. Some of them are good at  building their products and others are still trying to figure out how to implement their ideas or build concept prototypes. Some of them are looking for partners and others are looking for some kind of funding. Most of them can use some guidance from more experienced people.

Why should you help a startup? Think about it for a minute. If you want to help some one at all, whom would you pick?Two types of people come to my mind – students and startups. I will cover helping students in a different post later. Here is a small checklist on how you can help a startup.

  1. Talk to them. Ask them what they do. If you are a potential user/customer of their product or service, wear a customer hat and ask them questions.  This costs you very little. Depending on your level of interest and time, you may meet one startup a week or one a month. You don’t know how to get hold of startups? Leave a comment here on this blog and I will send you a list of resources.
  2. Become a guide. If you are expert marketing person, teach a tech startup how to market their products/services. Guide them on how to find their first few customers. If you are an expert in selling, share a few tips with them. If you are a designer or  programmer, you can offer to review and make suggestions.
  3. Become a beta tester. You may need to spend only a few minutes a day or an hour or two a week. Helping them test an initial product and pointing out areas where things are not very clear is a great help. Be a part of their evolution.
  4. Become an early adopter. Many startups struggle to find initial customers. They provide their service for a discount or even free in exchange for being a referral. If you can use their product or service, this may be one of the best ways of helping them.
  5. Become a part-time coach. This is the amplification of “becoming a guide”. A coach can actually provide a service for a price. Just make sure that it is something they can afford. Pick an area where you can help them effortlessly.
  6. Help them raise or earn  money. If you really, really like the startup team and have some faith in their offering, help them raise some money. If you don’t want to invest or do not have any friends interested in investing, then give them some consulting jobs so that they can earn money. Most of the software companies are bootstrapped (self funded through personal money or consulting assignments).
  7. Become a mentor. If you are a successful entrepreneur, you probably have a lot of things many startups can learn from. Find a couple of them and share your experience.

There may be many other ways of helping startups. If you have ideas, share them in the comments section.

All of us  have a responsibility to encourage and help entrepreneurs. It is not the job of few isolated angel investors, incubators and VCs. Entrepreneurs provide employment, create wealth, provided much needed products and services. Helping them may be one of those random acts of kindness. You will not regret spending time with these energetic souls. It is my new found hobby and I am enjoying it thoroughly.

Linklog: Indian Product Innovation? Why Don’t We See Much?

From The Limitations of Jugaad by Radhika Chaada

Think of the R&D labs in India for Microsoft, Adobe, GE, or any other Western company. They are considered among the best within their parent companies – but only for solving pre-determined problems. The problems themselves are conceptualised and defined in the West.

When I spoke to Anand Chhatpar, CEO, BrainReactions, this is what he had to say. “The people in Bangalore used the same Dell Inspiron computers, the same broadband Internet connections, the same Microsoft Windows platform PCs, the same programming languages and databases used in Silicon Valley, but the people in the US were making multi-billion dollar Google, while the people in India were still testing office applications and doing grunt-work for American companies. Why? One of the investors, one of the scientists and a large number of employees in Google are Indians, the technology is the same, so why was Google not developed in India? In fact, almost 40 per cent of Silicon Valley start-ups have been formed by Indian entrepreneurs. Why then were the entrepreneurs in India still doing work on contract in the service sector and not innovating products for the world?” And he added that while globally, India was being heralded as a software powerhouse, he did not have a single programme on his computer that was made by an Indian company.

Fair enough. I used to ask myself the same questions. After spending most of the past two years in India, I see a lot of hope. Here is why:

  1. I visit several engineering and management institutes to give talks on Technology Trends, Entrepreneurship and I find a lot of students eager to start and looking for  guidance.
  2. Indian government is doing a lot with Innovation Fund. They give grants and are hard at work in setting up Incubation Centers. One of my recent talks involved Incubation 2.0.
  3. Informal startup communities are gaining traction. These include Chennai Open Coffee Club with over 1500 participants and similar coffee clubs in Bangalore, Pune and other places.
  4. The silos of professional societies like TiE local chapters, Nasscome Emerge Community and the informal startup communities are slowly inter-connecting.
  5. We are still a long way from producing a Google or Microsoft. But the product culture seems to be improving –  an encouraging sign.
  6. A band of us evangelize product innovation, point to social media as a lowering the entry barrier into global entrepreneurship and working to provide as much support as we can.
  7. Zoho is a beacon. I hope to see more companies following their lead.

Posted via email from Dorai’s LinkLog

Web 3.0: Every Major Franchise on the Internet is up for Grabs

Listening  to the podcast by Mark Pincus and Bing Gordon of Zynga. Here is the amazing part that shows up during the Q&A. They also talk about  Social ROI, Ghetto Testing and Golden Mechanics and Internet Treasures

We are at the beginning of the third business plan of the internet.

  • User buying s for stuff
  • Often digital only and virtual
  • Services found on the apps anywhere
  • Breadcrumbs you will stumble upon them
  • Every major franchise on the internet is up for grabs
  • Going from web pages to widgets and apps

LinkLog: Brainstorming Rules

From this amazing post A Complete List of 100 Attributes of People Who Start Companies

  1. Don’t allow criticism of ideas;
  2. Quantity over quality;
  3. Encourage wild, even dumb ideas; and
  4. Hitchhike on others’ ideas.
  5. Have fun, laugh a lot;
  6. Stay on topic;
  7. Realize that some people will not be comfortable speaking out;
  8. Acknowledge people’s ideas verbally and by their name;
  9. Brainstorm alone, first;
  10. Do not dominate the session yourself, talk less;
  11. it’s a real skill to facilitate a good brainstorming session, learn by practicing;
  12. Not all brainstorming sessions are called that, most just happen;
  13. Think about the five senses constantly and how they impact the topic;
  14. Be one of the first to present a really terrible, stupid idea, then laugh about it;
  15. Don’t give any rewards or bonuses for good ideas–it will stifle future sessions.