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Startups: 475 days of unemployment, 14 lessons

Last updated on: October 18, 2012 18:05 IST

Startups: 475 days of unemployment, 14 lessons

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Courtesy Yourstory.in

Pravin Jadhav and Kulin Shah, Co-Founders at Wishberg share with us the 14 lessons they learnt while setting up their business.

Having been in the startup 'ecosystem' for long now, I meet people who want to 'start up' on a regular basis.

Most have a brilliant idea; many talk about selling their companies after 2-3 years and retiring from work at early age. Raising venture capital is today considered success by wannabe entrepreneurs, which is not. 1 out of every 100 startups succeeds; given the number of startups coming up this will soon be 1 out of 1,000 or even 10,000. I guess there is too much press about startups these days, about getting funded, million dollar exits and the likes.

All this is attracting many people towards entrepreneurship without realising how difficult the journey is. I am sharing my entrepreneurship experience here and hope others don't go through mistakes I made.

Wishberg.com lets you share your wishes, discover people who also wish for same product, showcase your experiences and get reviews on products your wish for.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier


Please click NEXT to continue reading...




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1. Control your own fate.

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To get stuff done fast, the very next day after I quit my job, I outsourced product development to another company. The estimated 60 days task took over 180 days. This arrangement continued for a few more months which meant I burnt loads of cash; I consider that to be my biggest mistake.

Lesson Learned

Our success (or failure) is now in our hands, not in anyone else's.

Advice

If you are an entrepreneur, please check who is deciding/controlling the fate of your startup? If it's not you, you're in trouble.

If you're planning to start up, get your own team in place; don't start up by outsourcing development.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier


Image: Your fate is in your hands, not in the hands of others


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2. Things will go wrong. Again and agan

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This is the fourth time we're writing our code from scratch.

First two attempts were with product iterations for Tyched, next was alpha release of Wishberg. Its initial version was written by the outsourced company, it started crumbling under its own weight as users and data grew, dumped it when we hit roadblocks.

Our team is now building the beta version on own custom framework, that will help us ship product fast. Really fast.

Lesson learned:

When users and data start growing quickly, you should be able to iterate quickly. We lost about 4 months with legacy code. Choose product/tech architecture with tons of flexibility.


Image: Remember Murphy's law -- If there is anything that can go wrong, it will go wrong

Tags: Wishberg

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3. Stay connected with ecosystem

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I started blogging on beingpractical.com about three years ago when I had no intention of starting up. I also manage the Internet and Mobile product management groups on LinkedIn through which I connected with product professionals across the world.

Being a product guy helped, we tested each other's alpha and beta products, provided feedback, tips on product management, gave suggestions to scale up products, user acquisition hacks. Thanks to that it connected me with many founders, product geeks and few people in investment community. Many of them were kind enough to help me back whenever I asked.

Over last 12 months, I have a built a network of about 500 early adopters to help us on Wishberg; another 1000+ are on my list.

Advice:

Plug into startup ecosystem well before you start up. Don't shy away from asking. People in startup community are always willing to help.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier


Image: Stay connected


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4. The flawed assumption about lack of early adopters

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I see more Indians on Quora these days, I recently tweeted -- Future Generations may think Quora is an Indian product, like current generation thinks about Bata. India is among the top countries by users for many global products – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and so.

Almost everyone who claims about the lack of early adopters in India are from startup ecosystem, many of them have not yet tried out products from other Indian startups.

I'm a founder/entrepreneur and have decided to be early adopter. I try out every new product that comes my way. Anyone who has written to me about their product, I've signed up, provided feedback/suggestions to the best of my experience & knowledge.

Advice:

As founders we can continue to complain about lack of early adopters or decide to be on ourselves.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh


Image: There are tons of early adopters in India if you look carefully


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5. Have a product roadmap. Don't build your startup on just one idea

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Many product startups that hit dead pool rely only on just one idea. We only know successful pivots like Inmobi, Instagram, Fab, etc -- but there are plenty of unsuccessful ones we never heard of. Pivot is not easy, extremely difficult in both ways -- managing expectations of stakeholders as well as your own.

Talk to folks before starting up on potential of your idea, its possibilities. Avoid situations where you have build all that you could in 3 months and are clueless on what's to be done next.

There is no thumb-rule to this; but at least have a product roadmap that extends into next 12-18 months, talk to users/customers in this while. They will tell you more.

Advice:

An idea that can be finished in 3 months might be a hack. It 'may' not be a product or company. Build your product around a vision, it may take years to execute.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh


Image: Have a product roadmap. Ensure you don't have just one idea to build up on


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6. Don't divulge what is not shipped yet

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This is a tough one to explain. To put it simply (or wisely) You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do. Here the context is different. Everyone is looking for ideas; you don't give it to them.

We met with one angel investor, had a detailed discussion about our product -- how we intend to market / acquire consumers. Few days later, one of his invested startup came up with remarkably similar approach.

On another instance, one investor met us twice in a span on 10 days, insisted we share our detailed road map ASAP. A week later his firm announced an investment in an overlapping category; he was leading the deal.

Learning:

We could crib or just move on. We moved on to building our product without complaining. I feel the line of differentiation between startups in decreasing. There are too many similar products in investor portfolio, make conscious decisions on which investors you want to talk with, do a small 'check' on their investments and portfolio.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh


Image: Don't divulge everything


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7. Do what's impossible, not what is easy

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If you have a brilliant idea and you think it's easy to execute, there probably are another 100 startups doing it already. You are operating in a crowded space.

I have often got this advice or being questioned, why am I building another social commerce product, there are already plenty of them.

Here's the answer -- we're not building a social commerce product. We're attempting a new method of social discovery for product intents. It's different, will talk of what we intend to build -- once we build it (my rule: don't divulge what is not shipped yet!)

I usually classify startups in three segments:

  • One where making money looks real easily (Enabling transactions, affiliates, advertising, lead generation)
  • One that solves problems (Usually loved by VCs)
  • One that changes user habits (Paul Graham calls them The Black Swans)

Suggestion:

There is enough competition for me-too ideas or easy/obvious ones. Don't be a part of that, unless you can completely re-define that vertical. Take up something that can radically change user behaviour/habits.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh


Image: Be unique; do what no one else is doing


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8. Your health is important

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In this period, I've suffered from hypertension; blood pressure shot up multiple times. Twice I fell unconscious and had to be checked into a hospital!

Long working hours, erratic sleeping times is a way of startup life. Managing time is myth, work manages your time.

For the last 15 months I've been working for 12-14 hours daily with 3-4 hours of daily commute (I reside the farthest as compared to everyone else in my office. It was a conscious decision to locate the office in a space convenient for all team members. They can put in more time without bothering about commuting in Mumbai).

Advice:

The amount of stress first-time founders go through in startup journey is unimaginable. I've learned to relax and have started paying good attention towards my health.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh


Image: Remember at all times that your health comes first


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9. Take breaks from the startup life at times

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Entrepreneurship makes you so passionate about your product/work that you end up talking about your product, vision, things you plan, how you intend to change the world, etc to almost everyone.

You tell folks stories about Facebook, Instagram, and so on.

Be grounded to reality -- there is life outside your startup too, find some time to be a part of it, unwind and get back. Time is most precious for every startup / founder. And startup life can be a trap. You'll always end up postponing personal commitments for work very often, in fact all the time.

Advice:

Take breaks in a while. Spend time with your family and friends; make sure you live life outside the startup ecosystem as well.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh


Image: Stop talking about your startup all the time


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10. Technically, you're unemployed. Accept that.

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Though the respect for startup founders is improving in the startup-ecosystem, to the outside world you are unemployed.

You will be often reminded of that by folks you will never expect -- like the customer support staff at credit card department who will tell you: "Aapke pass to job hi nahi hai. 3 years ka company IT returns aap submit kijiye." (Translates to: "You don't have a job. You will have to submit three years of income tax returns of your company to apply for one').

This is a top Indian bank, I'm their premier customer since last 10 years and it doesn't matter.

This is the reason why the post title says -- 475 Days of Unemployment.

Advice:

Plan your startup well. Talk to other startup founders before you start – understand what difficulties they went through. Startup life is not for everyone.


Image: Even though you may be busy as anyone else, you are at the end of the day technically unemployed

Tags:

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11. You will be humiliated; learn to stay calm

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Few people talk or act exactly opposite to what they say. One investor spoke at a conference how he thought Social was the next big thing with some awesome statistics. Kulin (my co-founder) and I caught up with him a week later -- he was a different person now, had only one thing to say -- 'Facebook can do this. They can kill you!'

A known investor turned up 35 minutes late for a meeting, did not apologise, later he ordered food and drinks with no courtesy to offer us. During the discussion he was ogling at girls in the restaurant all the time, found someone he knew and told her he will see her in 5 minutes -- all this right in front of us. We ended the meeting in the next two minutes and walked away.

Another day, another prominent investor met us. He disagreed on one of our points, he started off: "Do you know who you're talking to? Do you know who I am?"

We maintained our cool, thanked him for his time with a smile and promised ourselves never to see him again.

Advice:

Though this offended us, we stayed calm. We live in small world of founders and investors and we don't want to burn bridges.

Don't take names. Not online. Not offline. Not anytime.

Maybe those investors will never know, but I have given good amount of feedback and advice on product to founders of startups they have invested in. On other side, there are some extremely professional individuals and investors who continue to advice us and give us time whenever we've asked and have continued to open connections from time to time.


Image: Remember you will be humiliated; stay calm

Tags: Kulin

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12. Choose your investors/mentors carefully

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We had many funny incidents around getting funded looking for mentors or folks we came across in this journey.

One investor extending a term sheet on a condition that we agree to monetise from Day 1 (something I have not believed in).

One senior executive at MNC insisted we take him on the board of directors and he will open doors for us. (Since then I have felt being on board of directors is the new Page 3)

An incubator claiming they are better than Y-Combinator or 500 Startups. 'We can give you what they cannot.'

A so-called angel investor claiming to have invested in many startups, not ready to name a single since it's private and confidential. (Rocket Science? Even SpaceX investors were known.)

Someone who does not know 'C' of Coding telling us we should hire a Chief Technology Officer (he even suggested one with 22 Lac INR salary, who could join us at minimal hike).

Feedback on Design: 'Use bright red color instead of blue. Red means attention, users should pay attention.'

Throughout my startup journey, most of the folks I connected with in India had the common set of questions to ask -

Almost everyone asked: "How will you make money?" / "When will you make money?"
Very few asked: "How will you acquire users?"

Just one person asked: "How will you build this product to match your vision?" He himself is a very well known entrepreneur and angel investor.

We hold him in high regards for his advice and support from time to time, even without a formal association.

There is nothing wrong with this question, businesses have to monetise and make money. But few here realise that Social Products need to monetise at scale.

The ratio was just reverse when we spoke to folks from the Valley, very few asked the 'Money' question.

Kulin and I share this funny thought. Had Instagram pitched to some of these investors, we wonder what sort of feedback they would have got. Maybe – 'Stop coloring photos. Do some serious business.'

Maybe we met wrong people. But yes, there some really great folks available in India too.

My general observation is if you're doing a B2B start up there are good advice/mentors/investors available in India who can open connections, get initial customers.

For B2C product startups, India has very few people who can advice on Product, Design, Growth Hacking, Technology and User Experience.

We eventually started connecting with people from successful startups or individuals with relevant skills from the Silicon Valley to help us.

Advice:

Take money/advice from someone you respect. If you take money from someone you don't respect he will kill you with his advice.

Spend more time with people who can help you with your product than the ones who can help you raise money. If you have a right product, things will happen to you.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh


Image: Choose your mentor wisely


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13. Of hiring, people and team

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Till May this year we occupied a shared office (paying per seat and amenities as used).

We hired three engineers in a month and our costs went up three times. So we decided to quit that place and we were left without office space. During this time, one of our team members offered we operate from his home. And we did the same while our office got ready.

The only thing that matters for any product startup is quality of its team. There is only one rule for hiring at startups -- hire the best engineering team, and pay them well.

One good engineer is equal to three mediocre ones.

I have heard of tons of advice on hiring -- tell potential hires about startup, culture, fun at work, ESOPs, etc. This does not work.

Don't try to sell future employees what they have not experienced.

Let them join you -- create a personal bonding with every team member, nurture your 'friendship' with team members, they will be your extended family.

They will put in their best. Most of our team members joined us through referrals. Don't talk with them about passion or commitment, show them yours.

Advice

Genuinely love your team and be concerned of their well being. Create a bond with all your team members.


Image: Choose your team well

Tags:

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14. It's not always about the money.

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We failed innumerable times in this startup journey. This is the fourth time that we are coding our platform from scratch. Multiple mistakes have made. And there were plenty of distractions (most of them come to you as lucrative job offers).

When I quit my job, the very same week I got a call from the HR Head of a FMCG company to join their Online Marketing team.

I was interviewed for that position few months back. I refused and the next week Kulin confirmed to join me as Co-founder. I've passed many other job opportunities that came up in the last 18 months, including one in Silicon Valley.

So all those who are considering entrepreneurship for money or funding; the reality is different. It's not money that drives startups, it's the passion. There will be tests that will describe your passion, failures and distractions.

Learning:

Startup life is difficult, a daily struggle to make ends meet. The only thing that keeps you doing is your focus, passion and belief in yourself, your team and your product. Nothing else matters.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh


Image: If you're chasing only money, try something else


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