Common Problems Startups Face – A design thinking outlook

Common problems startups face – A Design thinking outlook

I have been directly associated with startups since 2006. That’s when I started my career as a member of a venture capital investment team. All the way to my recent years consulting them and young businesses, I have heard a multitude of problems that startups face. Problems that can largely be categorized under two main causes.

The first one of course, being investments.
The second, being the lack of traction, or growth in business.

With regard the problem of funds, you could further break it up in to funds you must have, and funds that are good to have.

Literally all of us are, more often than not, influenced by awe-inspiring startup stories. About those startups in the world that seem to be on a blistering growth path. With people and funds literally queuing up for an opportunity to invest in them.

Watched the movie ‘The Incredible Hulk’? The Hulk and the Abomination in that are like those few startups that receive disproportionately high amounts of funding.

Everyone is not like them. And even in their case, of the two, only Hulk was relatively stable with the superpower. The Abomination, as the name goes, became that way because of his lust for super-strength to beat the Hulk.

Similarly, even if all startups could be funded like that, or like Uber and PayTM and Zomato and others have been, there is no guarantee they will succeed. Because making a business stable takes managing a lot more variables than merely the investment one.

Which brings us back to the other alternative – funds you must have.

This is the basic minimum investment that you would need to get your startup rolling. It isn’t too tough to calculate it. Just make sure you have sufficient buffer. And keep checking those levels so you don’t realize it’s bad only once you’re broke. The advantage of this mindset, is that even if external investments never come, your startup will be built on a solid foundation and a sound business model. That, as opposed to one of hyper-experimenting, as is sometimes the case with super-funded startups. Take the case of TinyOwl hiring and almost immediately firing hundreds of enthusiastic freshers back in the day. Or Ola paying USD 31.7 million for FoodPanda a year and a half ago, only to fire a lot of the staff and suspend its operations recently.

While such news pieces might be good to hear, they are often not something to be proud of.

A bootstrapped startup will have its share of proud moments too. And they will be far more grounded and not the kind that could be easily taken away, unlike the case with some over-funded ventures.

Now let’s look at the other main problem area of startups. The lack of traction or growth.

In my book, Design the Future, I mention what is to me, a wonderful example from both an investment angle and a strategic one that depended solely on the understanding of customer needs.

One portfolio company whose growth my boss and I used to oversee, was in the car rental space. Around 2009, it was on its way to be the largest player in India, right on the heels of Meru. Meru was then leading the pack in terms of size of fleet.

However, what was interesting, was that Meru’s business had been built largely on debt. Ours had been built on equity. Which meant we were profitable sooner, and could scale much faster. Meru had just turned profitable around 2009-10, if I remember correctly.

And back then, our portfolio company was already onto the model of partnered fleet. That is what Uber is all about now. Our company was collaborating with small tourist vehicle operators to add their fleet and drivers to their own, in a revenue-sharing model.

Now think about this. A company founded in 2006, which was already employing a model that we in recent times popularly know of as Uber, what as of today, has a market capitalization of USD 69 Billion! And Uber was founded only in March of 2009 (conceptualized in 2008).

So what prevented our portfolio company from being the one valued at USD 69 billion?

In hindsight, a lack of better understanding of the stakeholders in the ecosystem, is my guess.

Our portfolio company and other players back then were perhaps used to a certain customer price level and profitability that they enjoyed in a tried-and-tested pan-India market.

However, perhaps we failed to see that we could considerably reduce the margins and incentivize the partner ecosystem, in an effort to gain massive scale.

And with customers, it is only in very select areas that if we offer something at a lower price, they won’t take it. But certainly not with transport.

So, Uber carpeted several countries with the initial attractive pricing, and more than encouraging partner revenue-sharing and incentives.

And companies like ours, that didn’t think huge enough, shrunk into insignificance in that particular space at least, which they had ruled for some years till then.

Putting investments and a better understanding of the stakeholder ecosystem together, it is not necessary that every business and every idea has to be Uber-sized!

You can as well remain small, exclusive and yet thriving in a small or select few areas or geographies, if that is your business vision. Or, as is the case with Uber, you can be the most recognized brand in ground transport.

What is most important, is to first decide where on that spectrum you want to be. Then you need to find out (not in meeting rooms, but by spending time with stakeholders), what their likes and dislikes are. What drives them, what their profit expectations are? And how flexible are they on pricing; or, is there a better way you can offer them what you do? Something that might completely be poles apart from how you offer it right now.

Scenarios in the startup ecosystem are limitless. And so are the possibilities.

Originally written for NODD app and posted here: link

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If you own, manage or work at a company, and are grappling with a complex challenge or are in need of innovation for growth, get in touch. More here.

And you might find my book, ‘Design the Future’ interesting. It demystifies the mindset of Design Thinking. Ebook’s on Amazon, and paperbacks at leading online bookstores including Amazon & Flipkart.

Choosing Business Opportunity to Avoid Change

Choosing Business Opportunity to Avoid Change

As an individual, if you have a habit your core doesn’t fully approve of, you’d find a disconnect that you might, either align with, or from time to time try to fix.

It could be diet, fitness or even ethic related.

And often, between control or restricting something for your own benefit (like a diet restricts the irresistible food), and something you could buy to compensate ( like a pill), most people would be inclined to buy (and take) the pill as opposed to the challenge of resisting tempting, unhealthy food.

It’s amusingly similar with governments and businesses.
Choosing business opportunity to avoid change.

Consider school shootings for instance.
The obvious solution is the curb the sale of guns to the masses. But that’s bad for business and apparently against civilian rights (of all the ancient rights to desperately hold on to). So instead, while gun sales continue, you get interestingly innovative products being created to combat the inability to restrict gun sales.

Like unbreachable door barriers for schools. Now they’re toying with installing microphones in school. To monitor conversations, and use machine learning algorithms to preempt a shooting based on tone and words used. Imagine the pointlessness of that.

From what I’ve read about school shootings and behaviour, it is more like an excuse to become more intrusive. Not so much to actually solve the problem.

We reflect human weakness in our inability to directly tackle a problem. And also when we allow it to thrive while we build business models around the growing problem.

And this business opportunity to avoid change comes in different sizes:

Leave you with Pearl Jam’s Jeremy (about Jeremy Delle), which, albeit a suicide, involved a gun in a school.

If you own, manage or work at a company, and are grappling with a complex challenge or are in need of innovation for growth, get in touch. More here.

And you might find my book, ‘Design the Future’ interesting. It demystifies the mindset of Design Thinking. Ebook’s on Amazon, and paperbacks at leading online bookstores including Amazon & Flipkart.

Whose Viewpoint?

Whose viewpoint?

Consider times when you address people. Be it as entrepreneurs pitching to a banker or equity investor. Or as managers, giving top bosses a review. Or teaching students an odd topic. Or even just explaining something to someone, especially an elder.

Whose point of view do you consider when preparing?

We often tend to look and think very sharply, from our own perspective and viewpoint. We might skip some vital information. Because we understand it clearly, and think it’s obvious or too silly to mention. We have also probably been preparing for the explanation for a while, and have been looking at the content multiple times. And it all seems so logical and obvious.

However, before we begin, we must understand whom we are pitching (or teaching, or talking) to, and why.

Whose viewpoint must the pitch or presentation or speech or explanation focus on?

It can almost never be our own viewpoint. Not even when you have been invited to talk about your life experiences.

Ideally, consider focusing broadly on one key issue in such situations. And gauge the level of understanding by putting yourself in their shoes. Even a highly capable person from a different industry might not understand ‘the obvious need‘ of your path-breaking new technology or business model. A post-graduate student might not understand a simple, non-technical concept as easily as you might assume they should. And without ‘seeing the opportunity’, no banker or equity investor will be sold to your ideas.

So let every communication be ‘for them’, and built from ‘their viewpoint’ as anchor.

I’ll wrap up with one of my many favourite scenes from an exceptional movie, My Cousin Vinny. See how the perspective instantly shifts when Marisa explains it. NSFW! Use headphones if you are in a public or work place, or there are children around.

If you own, manage or work at a company, and are grappling with a complex challenge or are in need of innovation for growth, get in touch. More here.

And you might find my book, ‘Design the Future’ interesting. It demystifies the mindset of Design Thinking. Ebook’s on Amazon, and paperbacks at leading online bookstores including Amazon & Flipkart.

Killer Design

Killer Design

What comes to mind when you think of possible consequences of bad design? Of a badly designed product or service? You might think the product generates less revenues. Or a rise in the number of product returns, and unhappy, angry or disappointed customers. Right?

But what about death? Of animals? Or worse, death of children?

In my book, I discussed IKEA‘s water dispensers for pets that were resulting in pet deaths. Why did that happen? Possibly because wizards on the IKEA product design team were lazy enough to use stuffed animals instead of real ones to test their design.

Think that’s bad? Enter IKEA (again!).

This time, for their dressers (a chest of drawers). Around 2016 and 2017, about 8 children (hopefully not more) died, thanks to IKEA dressers. The dressers designed in such a way, that when young children would open them and perhaps lean on to the drawer, they would tip over, crushing or badly injuring the kid.

Image: source

The company had to recall over 29 million dressers! It recently launched a new line of dressers that had finally solved the ‘tipping over’ problem by preventing more than one drawer from being left open at a time.

Now, what is worse than a poorly designed product?

When the company cuts corners, misleads, and denies they have a bad or flawed product.

That is where American toy manufacturing giant Mattel‘s subsidiary company Fisher-Price comes in. In 2009, Fisher-Price launched a product that would be a runaway success – their Rock-n-Play inclined sleeper for babies.

Image: source

Fisher-Price sold over 4.7 million of their inclined sleepers to parents, who probably thought it to be a boon to take away the agony of putting their baby to sleep. Based on some information about how children sleep better when held at an angle, they built the Rock-n-Play.

Instead of first conducting clinical research to validate the design, all Fisher-Price did was consult one family physician in all. One!

Eight years after its launch, following a lawsuit, Fisher-Price consulted a paediatrician about their product for the first time. Because of the lawsuit. The result of this callous approach to the design of a product for none other than infants, who require constant attention and utmost care, was the unfortunate death of over 35 babies!

One argument is that countries like the US don’t rely enough on regulators to endure product safety. And you might agree, especially in the case of smaller companies perhaps replicating a successful product.

But that can never be the excuse even for a moment for a now 89-year old company, Fisher-Price. The gross negligence in research, design and development of a product that could present potential risk of death.

Never stop when you think you’ve found what looks like a perfect solution. Especially when lives might depend on it.

If you own, manage or work at a company, and are grappling with a complex challenge or are in need of innovation for growth, get in touch. More here.

And you might find my book, ‘Design the Future’ interesting. It demystifies the mindset of Design Thinking. Ebook’s on Amazon, and paperbacks at leading online bookstores including Amazon & Flipkart.

The Mortal Risk of Riding Shotgun in an Autonomous Vehicle

The Mortal Risk of Riding Shotgun in an Autonomous Vehicle

Source: link

We live in strange times. And in interesting and amusing times.

A recent article I read, spoke about how most automotive manufacturers are misleading (or are confused themselves), when they claim to offer autonomous driving features in their vehicles.

Their mindset seems hugely flawed, if not shocking. Article here

Don Norman could have a field day ripping this mindset apart.

I have heard numerous stories since when I was a teen. Of people falling off to sleep while driving to or from work in the US. It never made sense to me. However, in the years since, I have seen and personally known fatigue while driving.

I worked in Pune in the manufacturing sector for a year and half. Work largely involved workday trips to relatively far off industrial sectors and every other weekend trips back home, I was mostly driving alone.

Then there were outstation trips, where I would leave early one morning, pick up one or two colleagues, and drive to another city, attend meetings at companies spread across a large industrial sector. The next few days would involve more meetings all day, before either driving back to Pune. Or driving to the next city for an encore. In all, over 33,000 km in under 18 months.

What auto manufacturers apparently offer with autonomous driving, is different versions of driving systems that take care of driving for you. It could be identifying and staying within lanes, measuring vehicular distance and safe braking, and using GPS to drive you to your destination.

You would assume you could completely disconnect and do your thing, as your car takes you places. However, auto manufacturers still expect you to be as alert as if you were driving, in case a sudden manual intervention is needed.

That expectation of theirs is absurd at best.

Humans are either engaged or not. Or as my Statistics professor would often quote the popular idiom, ‘she’s either pregnant or not, there is no somewhat pregnant’.

If you have someone drive a car, you can hope they are awake and alert. And yet there’s no guarantee, proof being the numerous accidents that occur due to distracted driving.

But the moment you are not driving, your brain switches off, or switches to something else. Unless you are a professional rally car navigator, or in the armed forces.

On most long distance drives, be it with friends, family or work colleagues, the person in the passenger seat eventually nods off, and I’m almost certain it is not because of the company.

So, expecting someone not to drive, but have the alertness and rapid response times of someone who is, is asking for a lot!

Of course, the biggest reason for this expectation is not so much the flaws in technology, but rather human behaviour again. Many autonomous vehicle accidents are due to unanticipated human errors – be it pedestrians or other human-driven vehicles.

So the effort should be on improving that unpredictability in erratic human driving, before rolling out technology that could potentially cause fatal harm to customers who come with a very different expectation of the technology than what the manufacturer offers them.

Look at the quality revolution and process improvement. They took industry by storm several decades ago. And their impact on our machines and automated processes is unquestionable. But are we humans more efficient today, or are we far more distracted and poor managers of our time than we were? Phones, entertainment and noise to blame.

Maybe manufacturers are explaining the gaps in tech to customers before the purchase. Maybe even spelling out the risks and precautions to them. But there’s only so much you can change human behaviour in short periods of time.

And finally, it was amusing how this potentially life-threatening flaw got reported.
The article was titled, “..a UX risk!”
Why dilute a crucial message?
It’s a f@€k!^¢ risk to life! Far more than a risk to the customer experience.
Can’t have a bad experience if you’re dead. Why not highlight that?

If you own, manage or work at a company, and are grappling with a complex challenge or are in need of innovation for growth, get in touch. More here.

And you might find my book, ‘Design the Future’ interesting. It demystifies the mindset of Design Thinking. Ebook’s on Amazon, and paperbacks at leading online bookstores including Amazon & Flipkart.

What Qualifies as True Innovation?

What qualifies as true innovation?

The word ‘innovation’ does get passed around a lot nowadays. From large businesses to startups and perhaps even consultants like myself.

If you take a moment to think about it, innovation is not as commonplace as we might assume it is.

If you had an almost infinite budget, and you created a cutting-edge product, that is innovation, but probably not a great one, at least in my book, unless it is easily affordable by a good section of its total user base.

What does that mean?

In my book, I take a few examples. One of a hand-built, limited-edition supercar. Perhaps only a hundred, or even just 7-8 of them ever built. Each one will come with an astronomical figure on the price-tag. High input costs, the best of components and skilled manpower, and a high sale price.

The W Motors Lykan Hypersport, only 7 made at € 3.1 milion each Source: link

That is not a great example of a true innovation, because only a few people would benefit from it, and it is easy to add technology with a huge budget.

Contrarily, what if a similar amount was invested on an early-warning system for storms or earthquakes that could benefit millions? Now that would be a true innovation!

Another example I mention in my book, is of the USD 120,000 Ottobock Genium X3 knee. It is a state-of-the-art prosthetic foot, also referred to as ‘the Maserati of microprocessor prosthetics.’ Again, at that price, only a few differently abled would be able to afford it to improve their lives.

Then there is the BMVSS fitted Jaipur prosthetic foot, that retails at USD 30-45. It has benefitted over 1.55 million people worldwide since the late 1960s when it was invented.

True innovation does not happen on huge budgets and unlimited manpower and resources. True innovation happens with constraints. Not just monetary constraints, but others too. But that is also when you sometimes get products or services that the world never forgets. Products or services that truly change lives

If you own, manage or work at a company, and are grappling with a complex challenge or are in need of innovation for growth, get in touch. More here.

And you might find my book, ‘Design the Future’ interesting. It demystifies the mindset of Design Thinking. Ebook’s on Amazon, and paperbacks at leading online bookstores including Amazon & Flipkart.

Anti-Crime Balls

Anti-crime colour balls

Imagine you are a store manager, and a masked thief has you at gun or knife-point, asking you to empty the cash into his or her bag. How would you recognize the thief outside in a crowd of people? Especially if he or she had an accomplice, and the bag exchanged hands?

Or imagine if a home or bank, or the ATM or even the ATM cash van is being attacked by one or more robbers. Depending on if they have covered their faces, and on how well-lit or dark it is outside, you may or may not be able to recognize the culprits, even if they were in front of you in a police line-up.So what might help in such a situation

Surprisingly, the Japanese have had a solution for over two decades. And a very simple yet innovative one. They have been using baseball sized balls made out of colour pigment. The compound has a shelf life of a few years

Banks and other medium-to-high risk places have them at the counters. In case of a robbery, the employee at the desk merely throws a ball at the thief. The balls break on impact, spraying the colour over a 10 meter radius area. And the colour does not wash off easily, so the police or others would be able to recognize them relatively easily, even in a crowd.

So while even the sight of these anti-crime colour balls sitting in a bowl at a counter were a huge crime deterrent, it was found that whenever a crime occurred, the chances of the attendant throwing one at the criminal (perhaps for fear for their own safety), only about 3% actually threw it.

Even if this innovative solution does not find actual human use, imagine its applications. They could be used as part of automated systems that deploy these upon people crossing restricted or cordoned off areas. Or in case of suspicious activity around ATMs or protected areas.

More about it here: source

If you own, manage or work at a company, and are grappling with a complex challenge or are in need of innovation for growth, get in touch. More here.

And you might find my book, ‘Design the Future’ interesting. It demystifies the mindset of Design Thinking. Ebook’s on Amazon, and paperbacks at leading online bookstores including Amazon & Flipkart.

Changing User Behaviour

Changing User Behaviour

I am currently reading the book Hooked, and happened to read something very important. I shared the excerpt with a design thinking group I am administrator of. The snippet read:

John Gourville, a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, stipulates that “many innovations fail because consumers irrationally overvalue the old while companies irrationally overvalue the new.”

Nir Eyal

A recent member of the group asked if I could share examples of this.

I said any attempt by a company to break a customers habit toward a competitors product/service, is an example.

This concept needs to be looked at in context of a larger concept of value.

The book says that a product/service attempting to break an existing customer habit must offer 9-times more value than what the customer currently derives from something existing that he/she is habituated with.

One of my favourite examples, that I used in my book, is about keyboards. Interestingly, I found the same example cited in Hooked. This is about the QWERTY keyboard almost all of us are hugely familiar with. And the example of another product that attempted to replace it.
The QWERTY is a very old design. Early 1870s to be exact!

Along the way, a psychologist invented a keyboard called the Dvorak keyboard. After studying usage, he rearranged keys on his keyboard to increase typing speed. What was different, was that the most frequently used keys were put closer together and in the center. A user would spend less time moving to frequently used keys, which were now closer together. Thus Dvorak rightly claimed a significant improvement in typing speeds for anyone who used this new keyboard.

Want something that helps us improve our typing speed?
Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

Learning to use a differently-arranged device should not be too tough for humans from an ability point of view. Surprisingly, the Dvorak keyboard never really took off.

The Dvorak keyboard: image source

Look at the Dvorak keyboard in context of the above 9x benefit. Perhaps the benefit it offered was not high enough for users to leave an old habit (Qwerty). And learn a new one.

To wrap it up… The new guys are like Dr. Dvorak and team. They assume a better product that needs users to do things differently will be an instant success. What they don’t realize, is that users need to see a disproportionately high benefit first. It takes a hugely great product solving a pressing problem, to make customers learn a new way to do something. Little else incentivizes them enough. And in context of more recent startups, it takes astronomical amounts in funding to tempt users to change a behaviour. And that too with no guarantee they will still be around when the offers and freebies stop.

If you own, manage or work at a company, and are grappling with a complex challenge or are in need of innovation for growth, get in touch. More here.

And you might find my book, ‘Design the Future’ interesting. It demystifies the mindset of Design Thinking. Ebook’s on Amazon, and paperbacks at leading online bookstores including Amazon & Flipkart.

SHe

CrystalPlanet: SHe
How can we make it easier for them while dismantling the patriarchy?

SHe

Last evening, dad shared links to two tweets with me. Tweets from the UN Women and UNDP Asia-Pacific‘s accounts. Both tweets were about challenging patriarchal stereotypes this womens’ day. One of the tweets wondered if design thinking could be used to disrupt stubborn gender norms.

I don’t see why not!

Gender equality has been extremely elusive or random in society for centuries. And I really wonder how much change if any, witty memes and emotional ads can bring about. Because apart from the actual changemakers like organizations that have not blocked truly deserving women leaders from taking charge at their helm, or women of countries who have literally had to snatch their right to drive, and the small changes by individual in society, a lot of the noise is usually channelized by us only around one day in the year.

So thought I’d share a few views. In the hope we can build on them and make some real, everyday change.

Firstly, where do we start? If we’re to look at it from a design thinking point of view, best place to start is by framing the problem/ opportunity statement!

Ideally, UN’s (tweet) problem/opportunity statement is perfect – about ‘dismantling the patriarchy’. But frankly, we all know how we men have been over the centuries. Look at a developed country like the United States. It has been the world’s poster child when it comes to democracy, freedom of personal choice and expression, and a melting pot of world cultures. And yet, they still have not resolved racism, or completely legalized a woman’s freedom to abort, or rid all industries of corporate glass ceilings for women. And what’s worse, in some states, maternal mortality rates are so high, a woman might have better odds surviving childbirth in the back of a car in a third world country. None of this seems to make equality seem anywhere close, especially in still developing countries like ours.

So, while we can all behave naive and think we’re ‘driving change’ by telling regressive men and women to change; in one way or another, I’d rather frame a problem/ opportunity statement that aims at finding faster solutions than waiting for generations to pass, like we have done so far.

So, how about an opportunity statement that goes: How can everyday for a woman be made more well-balanced (as per her individual standard), so that she may live a much fuller and fulfilling life?

And some solutions or thoughts in that direction:

  • A collective online repository of household or work hackswomen from over the world can learn from or contribute their own innovative ways to balance or reclaim their average day (could be how to use an app differently, or a template to better manage schedules, or a popular service that could help outsource house chores, etc.)
  • Cook for more than one dayIf women need to cook, which often seems to be the case, they could make something for multiple days… (definitely not being pressured to cook once for every meal, as happens in some reserved communities). That way, if the men want more variety in food, they can either cook it, order home, or help with house chores to allow for more time to cook
  • Mobile apps (already mentioned in the UN article) – that make life more efficient for women, on the work or home front

Changes in a corporate culture are usually far easier to implement than at a societal level. So companies could tweak processes so as to allow women (and especially young mothers) a more flexible schedule if needed. The way corporate culture silently taught underlings to follow the boss’ instructions, we could have corporate cultures where an “express” is added to an request by a young mother. That way, she can complete the project as per her schedule, not having to wait on colleagues, thus reducing some of the chaos in her life.

The entertainment industry should really take it upon themselves to help shift world mindsets. With content they create, and more importantly, with the type of content they choose not to create or showcase.

Feel free to add to this, or get working on one or more of these. If you think I can be of any help with ideating on your change idea, drop me an email or something.

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If you run or manage a business, and innovation, strategy, problem-solving, customer experience or ideation are areas of interest, there are a few ways I can help. More about it here.

My book, ‘Design the Future’ is available as an Ebook on Amazon, and as paperbacks across leading online bookstores including Amazon &Flipkart. Do leave a review on Amazon once you’ve read it. Thanks!

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Look forward to your views. For similar topics that encourage reflection and discussion, follow or subscribe (top right of the page). You can also connect with me on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

Goby the Fish

I recently came across an article about an initiative to create awareness about marine pollution.

Some folks living close to a beach (can’t seem to find the beach’s location), created a giant, transparent fish. Made of mesh and barbed wire, it had a signboard which read, ‘Goby loves plastic, please feed him.’

It made for a fun game for visitors, who helped fill it with trash lying around. But it probably also created a hard-hitting visual for everyone who saw it. A giant, transparent fish filled with plastic would leave a lasting impression in anyone compared to reading articles about marine pollution.

What’s concerning however, is that we humans are getting smarter by the generation. And yet it takes increasingly creative ways for us to register the consequences of the mistakes we keep repeating.

Source of the article: link

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If you run or manage a business, and innovation, strategy, problem-solving, customer experience or ideation are areas of interest, there are a few ways I can help. More about it here.

My book, ‘Design the Future’ is available as an Ebook on Amazon & Kobo, and as paperbacks across leading online bookstores including Amazon &Flipkart. I’ll look forward to your review on Amazon once you’ve read it.

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Look forward to your views. For similar topics that encourage reflection and discussion, follow or subscribe (top right of the page). You can also connect with me on LinkedIn and on Twitter.