Upbringing

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Upbringing

Here’s a thought regarding upbringing. Views welcome; and especially so if you have kids and your parents either stay with you, or you visit each other often.

You know how curious for information kids are. And parents often ask them to say or sing something they have learnt, in front of family or in the presence of guests? As a parent, try to think of the reason why you do this.

“What is your intent behind requesting your kid to say or sing something in front of the family and/or guests?”

Is it more for amusement (and possibly family bonding) or to show-off your child’ progress, or something else?

And in case it is for ‘something else’, what is that something?

Similarly, ask your parents the same questions. Especially if your parents aren’t all that literate (or if you have grandparents, ask them as well).

What’s the thought/ point behind this?

Back in the day, grandparents or parents didn’t always have access to the best of education. In such instances, they would often request their kid to say something they had learnt. Especially in the presence of visiting family or friends. Is it possible that was less for amusement, and more as a matter of pride or accomplishment?

Nowadays parents have obviously received a good education (in most cases). They usually know know more than their kid does (be it something as basic as English, etc.). In such cases, is requesting your kid to say something in the presence of others more for amusement, and less out of pride or humility that the elders might have felt?

How does this matter?

Is it possible that in the past, those kids would sense the the humility and pride, and in present times, would sense the amusement? And would the reactions of kids be different given what they sense? And does that influence their actions? For instance, would that feeling of humility or pride they saw in their elders push them to strive harder? And in more recent times, do kids see themselves as being entertainment for elders, and therefore sometimes tend to strive to please or entertain instead?

While earlier generations were overly concerned about “what society will think” regarding different aspects of their professional and personal lives, are the current and younger generations very different? Aren’t the younger generations also overly dependent on social acknowledgement, attention and approval, even though it might be for contexts different from those of earlier generations?

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My book on design thinking titled ‘Design the Future‘ is out. If innovation, design thinking, problem-solving, human behaviour or ideation are areas of interest, am sure you will enjoy this book.
You can order your paperback copy via Amazon, Flipkart & Infibeam.
Would be great if you could leave a review on Amazon once you’ve read the book.

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The Reaction Buffer

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The Reaction Buffer

When you have a layer between the incident or the surrounding and your own thoughts and emotions, that is the space where you can evaluate your reaction to the external.

You can evaluate, you can learn from your reactions, and choose a different way to react to the next instance of a similar situation. That’s where you learn.

I don’t know how easy or difficult it is to create that layer. I just know it can be done.

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My book on design thinking titled ‘Design the Future‘ is out. If innovation, design thinking, problem-solving, human behaviour or ideation are areas of interest, am sure you will enjoy this book.
You can get your paperback copy via Amazon, Flipkart & Infibeam & some other popular online bookstores.
Would be great if you could leave a review on Amazon once you’ve read the book.

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Look forward to your views. And if you liked this post, do follow or subscribe to my blog (top right of the page) for similar topics that encourage reflection and discussion. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

The pros and “Cons” of Storytelling

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The pros and “Cons” of Storytelling!

Storytelling. Steve Jobs wasn’t the first to talk about, or practice it. Nor was he the first one to focus on the customer and build differentiation. Function and form. And he wasn’t the first to capture customer personalities, traits and passions in their marketing and communication, instead of just reading a dull list of product features. but he is probably the most famous or identified storyteller ever.

Storytelling predates writing. Its earliest forms were expressed orally, accompanied by expressions and gestures.

The world has come a long way since Jobs’ famous 1997 address and introduction to the ‘Think Different’ campaign. We increasingly appreciate being told stories. By companies and their advertisers, by friends and colleagues, and gurus – be it religious or management. We prefer stories to reading out technical specifications and product features, or trying to grasp complex situations or concepts.

And not surprisingly so. We are emotional beings after all, not logic machines. We give priority to emotions over even compelling factual information and the most compelling of logic. Unfortunately for us, not all those stories we believe, spring from a clean motive.

Companies, politicians and a lot of people in-between have become professionals at storytelling. And when the motive is not backed by good intentions, all it takes, is finding out the audience’s buttons. Accordingly, out comes a relevant, sometimes conveniently modified story that has the resultant effect.

A lot of companies are spending progressively higher on marketing and image and positioning of products. Lesser and lesser on the product itself, let alone the customer experience. Same goes for services. And politicians.

Hype, buzzwords and deception. Many businesses have become like the average Bollywood movie. No plot, cast includes famous or artificially created superstars, but a ton of money kept for promotion. Create enough hype, cash out with a good profit in 1 week, and move onto the next shoddy project. The same words that once formed a bridge between great products and services to customers by way of storytelling, have now been degraded to spinning yarn to maximize revenues while the going’s still good.

To show you the power of words, here’s a “story” from the early years of my consulting practice days. Each project I choose to work on is holy to me. And apart from sometimes being ruthless with my views, I am equally critical about evaluating my own work. However, on occasion, for the fun of it, I’d send out feedback questionnaires at the end of assignments to clients. Requesting feedback on their view of the quality of the work done.

Now for the fun of it, if I wanted scores in a particular range, say between 4-5, I would word the question accordingly. Similarly, if I wanted ratings for a particular question in the range of 2-3, all that was needed was framing the question differently. It would nudge someone in a particular way. What it showed, was that simple words can influence what should ideally be the unbiased feedback of a client.

A tiny part of my mission through my consulting practice, is to try to prevent clients from falling into such traps by either wrongly reading their customer perceptions, or by unintentionally or otherwise adding their biases to their customer feedback. Or even to their assessment of their own performance. Even though I used to send such questionnaires for the heck of it, I could see how client feedback would be influenced by the words. Now since I do not disclose client names as policy, or come out with any client satisfaction statistics reports, there is no way I could leverage such feedback even if I was the kind that would. But there are many companies that can and do.

Let’s say the unbiased review of a product is average. However, with the right words, ratings can be pushed above average. This would reflect back on feedback statistics, in turn generating more trust and revenues. The cycle goes on.

Storytelling and anecdotes serve the purpose of almost instantly explaining even more complex concepts or situations. However, recipients of these stories often tend to take the story and the correlation at face-value. And they possibly even cement their impressions and views about a situation. What they should do instead, is use a combination of listening and sufficient questioning. Only then should they form their own views on the matter.

What happens when you only listen to a story without thinking much about it? The story always comes from a fellow human. And humans are a complex being full of custom biases. What’s worse, you never know when someone’s running an agenda of their own. Which means their selection of stories will depict only one side of a story. And stories tweaked enough to evoke the right emotions for the naive mind to believe easily.

As a result, country leaders can convince their people to go to war against a country for no logical reason. Hey, the story sounded compelling enough. It wouldn’t happen overnight, but it happens eventually. And people who have who have lived for generations with neighbours of a different faith suddenly suspicious of them. They begin to believe people they have never met. They believe biased stories, and marginalize generations worth of trust as a result.

From a business point of view, storytelling is an integral part of a successful business. But not without an even greater underlying foundation of offerings. Storytelling is only a bridge, not a destination. Companies should not be working on becoming increasingly manipulative towards their customers. They should be working on becoming increasingly transparent to them.

Below is a great talk by Mohammed Qahtani about the power of words.

Many of us can Think Different. Why not try to Be Different Too?

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Gucci’s Packaging – Not so Gucci

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Gucci’s Packaging – Not so Gucci

I recently conducted an interactive session on Design Thinking at a leading investment bank. It might be easy to assume that applications of design thinking at an investment bank are limited. It is quite the opposite though. And the applicable scope of design thinking just seems to grow bigger with each passing day. The team was also kind enough to present me with a thoughtful gift at the end of the session. A Gucci tie.

Now, once you’re in the design thinking fold, you are always processing and assessing products and services. As you might have noticed, the tip of the tie is a little crumpled. If I was the manufacturer of ties that retailed at anything between $60-240 or more, I would have been concerned about the experience a customer goes through of opening the packaging and seeing the product as well.

The tie came in a tall box which was in a slightly taller paper bag, fastened with an embossed ribbon. When you hold the bag upright however, the tie drops inside thanks to that often-neglected phenomena called gravity. This causes creases at the tip of the tie. Now while many might tell you it is ok to iron a tie, it is not something I’d recommended you did often. And certainly not something you would want to do with a brand new tie.

While there might be several ways to package it in a way that leaves an impression with the customer, it isn’t something I’ll spend time thinking of right now. The easy way for Gucci to solve this problem, would be by merely placing a card paper insert which is fixed to the sides of the box. It would hold the tie in place at the top, like a clothes hanger. That way, the tip of the tie would never touch the bottom of the box when held upright.

Little things go a long way in improving how customers interact with your product. And how they remember it.

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Airline Seats and Behaviour

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Airline Seats and Behaviour

Do you think those extremely uncomfortable airline seats have anything to do with our behaviour when we are flying?

Remember the last flight you took. Unless you were traveling business or first class, you can’t forget the tiny seats. And the armrests, that always seem to have gotten closer from the last time you flew. To the point your brain is rapidly calculating if this justifies engaging the claustrophobia-induced panic mode. But ever wondered why the backrests almost seem to cave in, making you hunch over?

If you considered it from an airline business point of view, all of it together would make sense. The tiny seats crammed together, with curved backrests. Maximizing the limited space inside the aircraft to fit the most number of seats. While pushing the average, overfed human into the most constricted position he or she could get into.

But there might be another reason for the curved backrests. It is possible, that they alter your behviour just sufficiently, for the duration of the flight. How?

Someone of average height sitting in the seat, has their back hunched slightly, shoulders rolled in, and head bent slightly forward. While this causes a certain level of irritation and discomfort, it also makes one feel a little less powerful, or less in control. Which means you look up from an almost servile position, at the airline staff that caters to you.

The advantage of this for the airline. Less chances of boisterous passengers being their usual self. Less tendencies of people becoming confrontative with the crew or fellow passengers, and a reduced tendency to interact with anyone apart from those seated beside you, which means lesser chatter and noise in the aircraft.

The opposite of this posture, would be what social psychologist Amy Cuddy would call the ‘power posing’. It is a posture that she claims, induces positive hormonal and behavioural changes in the person. The hypothesis has been discredited since. With scholars claiming to have failed to recreate its effects in follow-up studies. However, I’m with her on the soundness of the theory. While a pose or posture might not consistently bring about a desired effect in others, it still has considerable effect on the individual themselves. Confidence, overconfidence, anger, aggression, composure, and possibly even openness (or not) to others views. I believe these factors get altered, depending on the posture or pose.

And therefore, perhaps either by design or unintentionally, airline seats seem to be the way they are. Perhaps not intended for discomfort, but maybe towards a greater outcome –  a plane full of composed and manageable fliers.

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Need Ideas? Dress Down

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Need Ideas? Dress Down

Despite the Mumbai heat, I don’t miss an opportunity to wear a suit. Especially to a first-time work meeting with people. However, things are different if the agenda of a meeting is problem solving or ideating. Then, I not just prefer, but also strongly recommend a casual dress code.

Why?

Think about the times you get the best ideas. It could be about work, about hobbies, about fitness, recipes, or even new businesses. I bet if you were to look back on your life, two locations might be the luckiest places to have a light bulb moment.

Starting with the second first, those were probably when you were in bed, or in the shower (or even in the loo for that matter). In bed, good chances are you’re either dressed light, or half naked. Then there is the shower. Remember frantically looking around for someplace and means of writing your idea, because you’re sure you’d forget if you waited till you finished. Like the hundreds of ideas before. Seemingly priceless ones that unwittingly got swept with the flowing water.

So, next time you’re sitting to brainstorm some great ideas for your business or at work. No, don’t stroll in in the buff. But strongly consider dressing casually. You and your teammates would be more at ease. You’d be able to think of ideas that might have otherwise remained elusive. Especially because you were busy adjusting your trousers around the thighs, or feeling the choking feeling of the tie around your neck.

Is it why most innovative companies are never stuck up about things like dress code? Seems obviously so!
So remember. Need ideas? Dress down!

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The Non-Financial Side of Business

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The Non-Financial Side of Business
A call with an industry colleague last week set in motion, thoughts on how we measure individual or business success.
As a kid growing up in India in the 80’s, studies used to be quite a tricky part of life. Studying history, for instance. We had a ton of dates to remember, and it somehow never made sense. The pointlessness of remembering precise dates of events ranging from a few decades to a few centuries gone by. Instead of, perhaps evaluating people gone by, on the basis of their actions, or the sum of their actions. Perhaps we would have learnt more about values. About actions and consequences. But they would not have it any other way. Events and dates of their occurrence was clearly more important to them.
Then came interesting subjects like physics, and a few deeper questions around it. [Link]
Subsequently, there was the ’Must. Read. Newspapers’ phase. Not just that, I guess people also expected you to remember current events. For someone who is not a keen quiz player, I felt it was pointless beyond just having a fair sense of what was happening. Somewhere I believed storing irrelevant information wouldn’t really matter someday.
Then, thankfully, the internet came to our rescue.
In my adult life, all around, businesses seem obsessed with numbers. Financials. Be it sales and profitability, or costs, or more complicated ones. Cost of acquiring a customer. Shopping cart abandonment. Customer churn rate. Average profit per visitor or Product conversion rate. Among others.
The world became, and continues to be increasingly obsessed with numbers and ratios. And that’s all most businesses focus on. The employee or customer can be at the receiving end of the bare minimum that a tight-margin allowance to appease a ratio will allow. But not more.
The day machines take over a business function, efficiency will jump up dramatically, as will profitability.
But where would that leave us? Put differently, have we always been missing a bigger point?
What will matter when machines take over (finally!), is what customers really want. Because then we won’t be obsessing over the numbers. Hopefully not at least.
And hopefully then, we’ll start to see that it is not a numbers game. That business is about relevance. If it’s useful or good, they will buy. If a process is well designed as per them, they will use it.
Numbers, as I’ve always held, are an incidental, intermittent aftereffect of a non-numerical, ongoing end-user pleasing process.
I’m not saying that top and bottom lines and all those in-between are irrelevant. Sure they help as indicators. But they perhaps help more when we are doing the more important job. Of ensuring the main objective of our business is met. Once you focus on the non-financial aspects that really run your business, you’ll see how the financials catch up. Automatically!

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Why Design Thinking is Here to Stay

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Why Design Thinking is Here to Stay

A close friend recently shared this article titled ‘Why Design Thinking will fail’, written in 2013 by Jeffrey Tjendra. Jeffrey is a designer entrepreneur and strategist. Among some of us friends, there was were points of disagreement on the article. Jeffrey does seem to have a good understanding of design thinking. This post, however, is an effort towards taking a closer look at each point mentioned there. And to see if it makes sense or not. All of this, with my limited but growing knowledge of design thinking.

Before I begin, here’s a quote by Mara Wilson. While her quote describes storytelling, I believe it offers a more far reaching explanation. With products and services too, for instance. She said, “The more specific you get, the more universal it is. (It’s a special alchemy of storytelling).” – Mara Wilson

Back to the article, here goes:

  1. Misperception of Meaning – I’ll agree, it can be misleading to some. I use either ‘human-centered’ or ‘user-centered’ design thinking in an attempt to bring a little more clarity, especially when interacting with people I believe might misinterpret the meaning.
  2. Loss of Meaning – Can’t do much about that. A lot of effective methodologies often see phases of hype and a lot of randomness being packaged and sold in its name. But as the dust settles, only the real stuff and an increased respect remains.
  3. Misunderstanding and Not Accepting Creative Elements – True. However, any company or more specifically, a management that has ever worked on any form of creativity or innovation, knows how boring, full of trials and iterations, full of mess and uncertainty it can be. Look at your kid’s school projects for instance. If it isn’t too simple, it is bound to take a lot of ‘random’, before it starts to make sense. Anyone who doesn’t understand that, will surely not use design thinking. And that’s alright.
  4. Lack of Business Elements – Coming from a management and finance background, with experience in strategy and marketing, I tend to build those critical business aspects to a design thinking project. And that is especially why the design thinking team needs to have a wide-enough assortment of skillsets. Using only UI/UX people or ethnographers or psychologists is not going to do the trick.
  5. Language and Perspective Barriers – There have been worse instances of communication gaps. For instance, if you have heard the almost unbelievable and heroic story of the Gimli Glider. An obvious technical specification got so conveniently ignored, that it put at risk, 69 occupants aboard a Boeing 767. Read the fascinating story! So, it just boils down to the intention and seriousness of the parties involved. Nothing is foolproof or idiot-proof. But a lot of change and innovation can be brought about with the right intentions. And no amount of left-brain learning and practice can fix unpredictable situations either. Because a lot of left-brain thinkers often learn a process from end to end. Any deviation could potentially leave them baffled. Creative thinking, on the other hand, helps one focus on the fundamentals. On understanding the building blocks more and more. And then, irrespective of situations or deviations to them, there is often more clarity as the building blocks can be used to better understand complexity. And it’s often easier to communicate fundamental building blocks across language barriers, as opposed to communicating complexity to begin with.
  6. Missing Future – Even design thinking veterans like IDEO have made mistakes, overestimating future demand of tech products. A strong problem or opportunity statement (which is open to being updated when you learn more about the end-user) helps reduce the risk. As does an unbiased and strong mechanism to interact with, and observe and understand needs, behaviours and desires of end-users, and capture that information towards building a solution.
  7. Wrong Implementation of Process – Which is why a lot of products and ingredients come with ‘Instructions to Use’. If an ingredient needs to be mixed and cooked, simply sprinkling it will not help.
  8. Poor Direction Scoping – This is where an intention and objective to start with, matters. There are billions of people, billions of problems and billions more opportunities. Which one or ones do you want to target. That’s what you pursue. Ignore everything else.
  9. Co-creation at the End of Process – all I’ll say is, phone sex doesn’t help create babies.
  10. Misconception of Approach to Creativity – This is true. Some people would tend to follow the design thinking process like it is a treasure map, when in fact, it is navigating your way through hostile jungle. Your senses need to be on alert all the time. Any input can change a lot of initial assumptions. That lions don’t climb trees. Or that chimps tend to rely on third party to help resolve disputes.
  11. Wishful Thinking for Culture of Innovation – Completely agree here. Which is why, a startup whose founders have the right values and give importance to innovation, can build it better into their culture, as opposed to trying to inject it into a global behemoth that has a century of history.
  12. The End Process is not the End – true – design teams, just like any other specialty teams, need to walk the talk. Leaving projects with solution advice that is abstract to clients, won’t serve anyone’s purpose. A lot of large consulting firms were infamous for doing this back in the day. Leaving clients many million dollars poorer, and with a big “report” that the client was clueless what to do with.
  13. Risk of Stagnancy – As Zig Ziglar said, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”

Thoughts?

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Venture Capital Elevator Pitches

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Venture Capital Elevator Pitches

I left my job at a venture capital (VC) firm in 2010. After freelancing for a bit I then worked with a high-technology company in the robotics space. I then started my own strategy consulting practice, which over the years has matured into an interesting blend of design thinking, management strategy and human behaviour. Three fields I am keenly interested in, and which I use to help companies. I help them understand their customers and customer needs better. I also help companies tackle complex problems or pursue opportunities and grow.

VC funding, business plans and elevator pitches however, are areas a lot of clients associate me with. My initial list of consulting services didn’t even factor business plans or elevator pitches. However, along the way, by heavy demand, it became a prominent service. I continue to get a lot of inquiries for elevator pitches. There probably will never be a shortage of companies aspiring to get their entrepreneurial dreams equity funded.

However, I have observed one common aspect across a lot of clients and prospective clients. It is in their view of what an elevator pitch is. Or should be. Given the overly enthusiastic, almost orgasmic effect that venture capitalists have on a lot of business folk and new entrepreneurs, they tend to assume that that’s what an elevator pitch is about too. That the brief time the pitch gets in front of the investor, with or without the entrepreneur actually being present, should blow their mind. And to achieve this, they start thinking like advertisers. They think loud. Or blingy. Or just outright abstract.

They assume the pitch needs to be all glitsy and filled with high quality images, video, and graphs! That’s it! And on occasion, it has been tough convincing them otherwise. Reasoning with them that having been an investor, I might probably have a better sense of what might bring out the core essence of a venture. And what might be outright distracting, or worse, confusing. But it doesn’t work often. They are so enamoured by a faceless and nameless investor who probably frequents their dreams, to reason.

Sometime last year, someone made Uber’s first elevator pitch public. For those working on their elevator pitches to seek investment, and if you haven’t seen this already, UberCab – Dec 2008. How many captivating images do you see? They seem to me like just random pictures pulled off a Google search. A few phones, a few cars. No plot, no sub-plot, no theme, nothing. Just a vision and a compelling business proposition and a plan on how to make it happen! Nothing else matters.

I have been quite blunt with clients when it comes to delivering a no-nonsense pitch. However, I have had my pitches go to design folk, artists, and even sent to experts in digital and web design to give them a ‘makeover’. And I’ve had others turn my pitches upside down to present what they believe is a better way to ‘pitch’. Only to then come back and use one previously made by me.

The reason being, at the end of the day, even if some people don’t agree, venture capitalists are humans too. They have similar attention spans. They aren’t fools not to spot a great opportunity, even if it is scribbled clearly on a restaurant napkin. And they certainly aren’t fools to accept a mediocre vision or action plan just because it was in a ‘beautified pitch’.

This is the third of a series I’ve written regarding entrepreneurs and VCs. In case you missed the first two, they’re here: 1. What’s Your Profession and 2. The Entrepreneur in a Venture Capital World

Hope you found these useful.

My attempt at sketching a puzzled investor.

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The Entrepreneur in a Venture Capital World

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The Entrepreneur in a Venture Capital World

Imagine a food connoisseur has a vision of opening a restaurant. Selling a carefully crafted list of delicacies, whose preparation has taken years to refine. This aficionado has thought of everything. The cutlery that would highlight the preparations, what the entrance to the restaurant would be like, the kind of chefs he or should would need. Everything.

Now imagine, you, as a customer, visit that restaurant. No guarantees you’ll like the food there. Or you might have preferred a better selection on the food menu. Now let’s say you, and your friends or family who have accompanied you, get to have a say in what the menu should be. Just because you’ll be paying the bill. Or simply because a local bank or relative bankrolled the entrepreneur’s dreams, they want to have a say in what food should be served.

Isn’t this the case with the venture capital investment ecosystem? They take a seemingly great idea, imagined by a dreamer. And after some funding, in an urge to “scale” it, they put it on steroids. Often at the cost of the original dream and vision. And with the VC community, their return timelines are shrinking, so their portfolio mutation is growing rapidly. They don’t care about profits. As long as there is sufficient sales and buzz, they’re on track. As opposed to keeping fund and investment choices a little more practical. So as to build a more, bottom-heavy business. On a steady foundation.

In a way, it would compare with a risk in the investment ecosystem called Maturity Mismatch Risk. This is a capital management situation that can disrupt business cash flows. It’s seen when assets held to meet future liabilities are not well aligned from a maturity time point of view. Short term assets should deployed for projects with quick returns. Otherwise, they could cause a financial crunch in the short term. ‘Entrepreneur-Investor’ relationship could be looked at in a similar way. Where an investor who is only there for a few years, sometimes changes the entrepreneurs long term strategy to suit their investment goals.

Now this might seem to contradict my VC related post from earlier this week. One where I said that the VC space seems to have more left-brained, finance, cold-numbers people, and less right-brained, creative ones who would appreciate a good, world-changing vision and back it up in a way that it really changes the world permanently. However, they are two sides of the same coin. Business models do take the world forward. But that doesn’t mean every other potential idea must first blow up with over-funding and investor control, and then explode! And all the while, the disinterested, minority stake-holding promoter is busy with other startups he or she has invested in.

Imagine a great idea and promoter being backed by an investor who actually sees the impact of the idea from the promoter’s perspective. That means, not just scaling an idea, but rather, letting it grow to have the impact it was intended to. Then maybe some of the great entrepreneurs wouldn’t actively shun investors and patiently bootstrap their way to world-change.

It isn’t just about the idea. The entrepreneur’s vision of how the idea pans out matters just as much.

I happened to see this post on LinkedIn when I was writing this post. While decisions like come on one end of the world-change spectrum, a lot of venture funded companies aspire to be on the other. In that they would like to achieve a strong global presence with the least marketing spend. And most importantly, make astronomical stakeholder returns. For the VC community, the ideal place lies somewhere between the two ends of this spectrum. Because in many cases, the entrepreneur sets out on a well-intentioned mission to fix a huge problem for a customer base.

Image source: link

Again, it isn’t just about the idea. The entrepreneur’s vision of how the idea pans out matters just as much.

The title image is that of a vulture. When I worked in the venture capital space, people sometimes referred to the community as ‘vulture capital’. Nowadays, looking at some investment decisions and entrepreneurs who focus more on personal investments rather than their own ventures, looks like vulture capital is contagious.

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