Don’t be Kupamanduka

Reading Time: 1 minute

Don’t be Kupamanduka

When someone just joins your organisation, get their first impression of their experience within a few days of joining. Then, after you run them through the standard tour and the paces, and get another view within a month or two. See if there is a significant drop in the ‘illusion’. And if so, why. Learn the difference between what an outsider sees, and what the outsider sees, when he or she gets inside.

It’s one thing to think your company is great. Quite another thing to ask someone who has left one to join your company. Great learning in the newcomer’s view of your company.

‘Kupamanduka’ is Sanskrit for ‘frog in the well’.

***

Look forward to your views. And if you liked this one, consider following/subscribing to my blog (top right of the page). You can also connect with me on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

The Non-Financial Side of Business

Reading Time: 2 minutes
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!

***

Look forward to your views. And if you liked this one, consider following/subscribing to my blog (top right of the page). You can also connect with me on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

Why Design Thinking is Here to Stay

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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?

***

Look forward to your views. And if you liked this one, consider following/subscribing to my blog (top right of the page). You can also connect with me on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

Venture Capital Elevator Pitches

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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.

***

Look forward to your views. And if you liked this one, consider following/subscribing to my blog (top right of the page). You can also connect with me on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

What the Customer Wants

Reading Time: 2 minutes

What the Customer Wants

There has been the occasional debate between two schools of thought:

You need to ask the customer what he/she wants; and,

The customer doesn’t know what he/she wants until we show them (remember ol Steve Jobs?)

A bulk of the views I’ve come across so far lie on the side of ‘ask the customer’. However, it isn’t often that you find companies that build sound offerings and experiences that delight customers. And when questioned, a lot of them agree that no one really asked the customer. The huge divide between logical sounding answers on innovation, and contradicting real-life actions.

In fact, it all depends on how much improvement you want.

If you only need an incremental edge over competitors, your company’s efforts too will be similar – marginal targets, marginal budgets, marginal efforts. This might include a superficial but fancy-sounding customer survey, or just a few managers in the meeting room thinking of ways to tweak the existing product. In all, uninspiring intent, uninspiring effort, uninspiring results.

However, if what your business needs is a leap in growth, you need radically new offerings. That’s where customer inputs come in. From personal experience, I’ve come to realize that customers themselves often may not know or be able to hint at what might be a final solution going forward. But your interactions with your customers will be the only thing that will spark of that genius idea for an innovative new solution. Nothing else can trigger that. No research reports or internal ‘brainstorming’ can. But it is the customer who will help you get there. And the whole journey isn’t like a surgical missile strike or a silver bullet or an instant mix; but more like clay pottery.

You start with a meaningless mass of possibilities, spin them around, try things, make corrections, keep spinning, more tries, more corrections, till finally you have something wonderful shaping out. Something previously unthought of. Something incredible.

***

Look forward to your views. And if you liked this one, consider following/subscribing to my blog (top right of the page). You can also connect with me on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

B-schools, MBA grads & Their Priorities

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Many b-schools in India are tilting less toward business, management, and ethics; more toward finishing skills. With a strong (and often desperate) focus on placements, they go an extra mile to add superficiality to students. From a scary importance on cracking interviews, having a cocky attitude, and the ability to fib-on-the-fly.

Unknowingly, they’re doing the students a great disservice. Students who enroll with little or no work experience are about as clueless as many of us were back in the day. But the overconfidence is only creates more problems for them.

It’d help to keep things a little more real, more on-the-ground. What institutes often churn out, are individuals who can talk their way through interviews, before they run out of steam. Some might blame that as regular millennial disposition, but I refuse to buy that. I’ve met exceptional millennials. People I’ve learnt a lot from, enjoyed having meaningful discussions with, and who are really pushing themselves to the maximum.

But the problem with many b-schools, is the pressure to fill batches by leveraging past stellar placements. And that goal drives their actions and priorities. Students on the other hand, are strongly influenced by these actions. If you have negligible prior work experience, the institute is your biggest windows into corporate life and its workings. Institutes’ concern ends the moment a student has cracked a job interview. So that’s where their efforts are channeled toward.

I received an email yesterday from an MBA with less than a year of total experience. It attempted a ‘shock-and-awe’ structure. Starting with something wrong about some aspect of your business/website, etc., before seeking a suitable role, which wasn’t even related to the ‘issue’ pointed out. And I’ve interacted with a fair share of them, when conducting workshops or giving talks, with MBA interns, and friends.

It takes some years of working the ropes to even attempt to sound cocky on emails or in person. And it has to be backed by solid stuff. This email turned out to have been by the candidate themselves, and not influenced by their b-school. But there are a lot of placement coordinators and college staff, filling impressionable minds with little tricks that work in the corporate world. Institutes need to be responsible for moulding their management students to be more receptive, and a little grounded. Not attempting to pull off such gigs with strangers on email with the expectation of landing a job, or even an interview.

If you want your business critically reviewed/reassessed, and love your business enough to be open to suggestions, I’ll be here.

Look forward to your views on the post. If you liked this post, consider subscribing to my blog (top right of page) for topics that encourage reflection/ discussion. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

Sharpen your Business Focus

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Image: source

When starting one’s business, a set of people will advice you to keep a sharp focus when it comes to offerings or purpose. Another group might suggest offering as many products or services as possible, to minimize risk. And both groups could defend their views till the cows come home.

However, in most cases, it is most prudent for you to start your venture with a relatively sharp focus, ideally with 1 offering. So that means, you can’t start an eCommerce site and try to rival Amazon’s breadth of categories on day 1. But it also doesn’t mean you start with offering only women’s’ jackets on your e-store. It could mean a focus on selling the latest European fashion online, in which case, that, is your focus. It’s what your customers should know you for.

It doesn’t mean the company should not diversify. What it does mean, is it should diversify within the sharp focus. When you need an app built, will you remember the person who builds apps? Or will you remember someone who builds apps, does web development, content development and social media marketing among other things?

Being an automotive company that builds premium sports cars is memorable. Being a auto manufacturer who builds low-cost hatchbacks, premium sedans and rugged SUVs on day 1 will not register in a customer’s mind.

While a lot of startups struggle to sharpen focus, a lot of older companies too, lose focus with each passing year. And it affects growth, whether or not they acknowledge or even realize it.

A scene from one of my favourite movies, Andaz Apna Apna perfectly captures the thoughts an unfocused mind.

Job Quotas or Meritocratic Politics?

Reading Time: 1 minute

Job Quotas or Meritocratic Politics?

Image: source

Developed countries continue to struggle to identify industries, areas of business, skillsets and employment opportunities that will make their workforce, abilities and manufacturing resources relevant again in a world of cheap labor and low cost manufacturing from developing countries.

At such times, instead of leveraging the inherent potentials we in India have, to gain more ground in the world; we stop and think, “how can we fuck up this great opportunity for us?”

Then, we hit jackpot: “Hmm, 27% quota in the private sector should really kill it. Look at the wonders its worked in education. Yeah, let’s do that.”

Instead, imagine politicians being elected based on merit of public work done. That, might be the only missing piece in the national development puzzle.

Here’s one of the articles about the proposed quota for reservations: link

***

Look forward to your views. And if you liked this one, consider following/subscribing to my blog (top right of the page). You can also connect with me on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

Business – whenever, wherever

Reading Time: 1 minute

If you got to start your business, you can’t always wait for real estate prices to be right.

Sometimes, you just start..Wherever.!

(Saw this on some random inner road on the outskirts of Pune)

For those still wondering, that is a car covered with clothes that a man is trying to sell to passers by.

And while I was there only for a minute or two, while trying to make a u-turn as I was a little lost, he did have a few customers.!

Pretty cool huh?!

Layers of BS

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Ever realized how much time we spend each day either building a thick layer of ‘unnecessary’, and/ or scraping a thick layer of it.

Rather than build quality products and services, we tend to build our own imaginary features, declare our products/ services to be the absolute best without the real stuff to prove it. Facts are covered up, hyped, or even distorted.

And customers on the other hand, while listening to people brag about their ‘best-in-the-galaxy’ offerings, have to spend most of their waking hours in a state of suspicion, of products and services they buy, of people they interact with, of ideas and suggestions they are given. Because, more often than not, there’s always a layer of bullcrap that customers are mentally scraping and making their own deductions. And usually, the more the BS, the poorer the impression they have of what you have to offer.

Sellers will ridiculously inflate prices. Buyers will be aware to some extent, and both will go through the motions till they arrive at a common ground. And it isn’t just about price. It’s the same with quality, safety, and a lot of such critical factors. One hypes it, the other either falls for it to whatever extent, or doesn’t at all.

Rather than spend time in building quality products and services, we have come to rely more on confident BS based on an illusion of supposed facts that we have created, and what we pass on to every new employee at most companies.

More emphasis is given on teaching the shortcuts, rather than on the product/ service or business know-how. Employees too would rather learn some quick fake facts about something they’re trying to sell, rather than know what they offer, inside-out; so that they could perhaps better understand it, better understand the customer, and help build an even better product/ service.

Guess the meaning of ‘learning the ropes’ has, over the years, slipped down the very same ropes.

Our innate attitude is towards avoiding that extra mile, towards quick fixes, rather than in the direction of building something that lasts.

The way I see it, that extra mile today usually saves several hundred extra miles in the long run.