Too many startups that don’t really start!

A thought struck me just today when I was thinking about a guy who pitched me an interesting idea in the education sector. He was young and was almost finishing up college. He had a team of five guys who were all going to work together to put out a working product in a short time (like six weeks). Then I never heard from the guy and later found out that nothing really happened.

We live in a time where startups are a sexy thing. Now I am not sure if it had always been this way or it’s just more ubiquitous now. Either way I see and hear about too many interesting startups that never even make it past the idea stage. I think larger part of the problem is this perception about starting up. Everyone wants to do it because it is cool to be a entrepreneur or a startup guy. Rarely you see a guy who really wants to solve some specific problem and truly care about the end user having that problem solved.

Startups are hard. Really really hard. Really really really really hard. There are too many times and reasons where giving up seems like the right thing to do. There will be people around you, sometimes your team, sometimes your alter-ego telling you that it’s time to pack up. And then it will happen again the next day. And the day after. To be able to persevere through all that every other day is when you even have the probability of succeeding. To have this sort of perseverance you truly need to be passionate and care about your solution and your customer who needs your solution.

So here’s something to think about. Next time you wanna tell someone that you are doing a startup you better be sure for yourself that you actually are doing it! And that is not because you had an idea, not because you started working on something, not because someone said your idea/product was cool or interesting, not because you got selected to a competition or accelerator, and even not because you launched! It has to be because you had some real validation. Real validation is when someone will put money on the table for your work (customer or investor), not because they are your rich cousin but because they don’t give a flying rats ass about you but they have fallen in love with your work!

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Empathy: A skill every good leader must possess.

EmpathizeMutual empathy is a feature of any successful relationship, may it be romantic, family or professional. It is more crucial in some relationship than others. The importance of this skill for a leader is quite critical.

Just think about it, how does it make you feel when someone just “gets” you. It makes your life simpler and makes you feel comfortable around that person. As a leader it is essential for you to keep your subordinates comfortable and concern free. People are productive and perform the best when their minds are cleared of any concern or worry and empathizing with them will help you as a leader to clear their concerns, solve their problems and help them see things clearly. So how does empathy work?

Listen to what they say

To understand is to first know. If you don’t know then you never will understand. The gap between knowing something and understanding it well is effective communication. People may not always talk about concerns/problems or worries they have. But when they do, listening to them and devoting the time to it should be the highest priority in your list as a leader. Selflessly involve yourself in their concern and care about it. Try hard to understand their situation. There may be a thousand other things on your plate but this comes first.

Make it easier for them to talk

It’s not easy for someone to talk to you about their concern, may it be professional or personal. It is your duty to make them feel you are there if they want to do so. The relationship you build with your subordinate creates and facilitates the climate for this. The culture and environment in your team plays an important role. You have to constantly assure directly or indirectly that you care and want to help.

Listen to what they don’t say

You need to constantly pay attention to the behavior of your subordinates. There are people who talk and there are those who don’t. Some naturally exhibit their concerns and worries through different behavioral traits, negative or positive. Though perceiving this is not an easy task, it’s important to pay attention. You should be careful not to assume the scenario based on behavior but this serves as an important channel to initiate communication. Little differences in people’s behavior will tell you that something is not right.

Sometimes people try to communicate indirectly. If you are not paying attention you may never know and they may never want to try again. This too serves as a great channel to initiate communication.

Put yourself in their shoes

It doesn’t matter how much you communicate with someone. If you are not trying to understand the situation being in their shoes you are not really empathizing. Imagination is important. Every other person thinks different and understands the world around them differently. This may be due to their culture, exposure/experiences, beliefs and other factors. You as a leader have to take the effort to imagine, see and feel what they do as people. You are probably never going to see it or feel it exactly the way they do, but the amount of effort you put in understanding and imagining may take you close to what they see and feel.

Acquiring the skill

Is empathy really a skill, and can it be acquired? Yes it can. For some people it comes naturally, but like any other skill practicing is the key to acquiring this one as well. It requires an undivided level of patience and care to constantly practice this. It is a difficult thing to practice if you are not good at it. You need to keep remembering to pay attention, listen and spend time on the relationship. It may take a long period of time to be good at it but constantly practicing is the key.

Empathy is probably the most important and most difficult people skill a leader must have. So don’t give up!

“To perceive is to suffer” – Aristotle.

Image Credit - http://www.artefactgroup.com/content/tool/from-theory-to-practice-designing-for-empathy-toolkit/

Hikka Hack – Startups in Sri Lanka

Hikka Hack

We had been wanting to do another hackathon for a while now. The Colombo Hackathon last year was evidence that such events are needed and it created the startup culture that is much anticipated by our young entrepreneurs. This time it was initiated by Prajeeth as part of Venture Engine. Sanath, Mafaz and Jeevan were all involved. Myself and Chandika got involved as well in organising and hosting the event. However Jeevan couldn’t make it for the weekend since he was out of town.

It was called the Hikka Hack this time since it was at the exotic Hikkaduwa beaches of Sri Lanka. We managed to get Citrus Leisure onboard and the event accommodated 11 teams at the Citrus Leisure hotel.

Applying

Unlike the Colombo Hackathon this time we got only teams to apply (and not individuals) for the event. The teams who applied had to have an idea of what they were going to work on during the weekend and also had to provide sufficient information about themselves when applying. All this had to be formulated since we were able have only 10 teams of each having 3 members due to limitations in accommodating at the hotel. Of course the teams who were selected were able to enjoy the facilities free of charge.

We also had Your Story working with us on selecting one team from India who was sponsored to be part of Hikka Hack.We had 3 applications from  India and Burma who directly applied to Hikka Hack as well.

The Selection

Selecting only 10 teams out of 45 teams was not a walk in the park specially due to most of the applied teams having valid and interesting ideas/products. So we had a selection round on the 29th of  May at Orion City. During the selections we did short interviews with the teams to select the 10 teams we were going to take. Understanding a team and their idea/business/product in just 5 mins was surely not the best method to filter them, however we were short on time and the teams had to bring their best pitch if they wanted to be a part of exciting and exotic weekend  full of startup energy!

After a full round of interviews and another round of pitching by selected teams we ended up with 10 good teams for Hikka hack. One team that was selected by Your Story from India was also prepped to arrive at Hikka Hack on the weekend.

The Hikka Hack

The event was on the 1st and 2nd June weekend. The teams arrived at Citrus Leisure on 1st of June on a coach that was arranged to take them from Orion City. There began a intense weekend full of energy and awesomeness. I had my doubts as to how many would be actually hacking as opposed to kicking back on the beach sipping martinis. It was great to see all the  participants working away engaging with mentors and other teams to give life to their idea. We had many mentors visit over the weekend while some stayed over and had a good time with us. There were talks conducted by the mentors on topics realting to startups. Quite a few teams came on the 1st of June with one thing on their mind and ended up with something completely different by the end of the event. Ideas have to evolve and pivot if necessary to become a great product. I think this is a great lesson all the teams embraced. Another strong attitude that developed was the importance of revenue in a product. Even-though these startups were at their earliest stage, it was great to see how the importance of revenue was taken seriously by most of them.

At the Beach

The pictures of the event can be seen on the Colombo Hackathon facebook page

The weekend was full of hacking and conceptualising to build products that can kick off and get funded. On Sunday evening the final pitches started and each team had 10 mins to pitch to the panel. The energy and the excitement in the room was invigorating. After 2 hours of pitching it was time to decide. The decision was not difficult since the scoring was done on a rigid structure and we used google forms which calculated and sorted the score. So we had the teams in order with scores running extremely close to each other. It was very tight competition. Following is the summary of the first six teams and their products.

  1. Try b4 Buy – This is a Indian team that built a fully functional mobile application that can visualise 3D models of furniture and home-ware in a room.
  2. Omni Channel – A talented team which can build entertaining video demos to communicate your idea just in 2 mins.
  3. Timely – A crowdsourced social app for tracking trains and managing travel time.
  4. Seedz – A community driven marketplace for gardeners.
  5. U-Grow Organics – A online organic vegetable store that delivers 100% organic vegetables.
  6. Lets Eat! – An on the go food ordering site that will save you the waiting time at take-away restaurants.

The first three teams were awarded with prizes that included entry to Venture Engine, Cash prize for the first two teams by Creately and SLASSCOM, Creately licenses for online and desktop products, Office space for 6 months for the 1st team at Orion City and Web hosting packages by ITC Asian Holdings.

All in all it was another great event for the local Startup community and I am truly honoured to have been part of it. Looking forward for many more such events that will create great startups that concur the world.

Why Real-time Collaboration? – Creately

After a prolonged wait we have finally taken up the time to implement Real-time Collaboration for Creately. Right now the feature is in Beta and can be used by anyone who wishes to take it for a spin. The real question is why did we not do it all this time? and why have we finally done it?

For those who dont know what im talking about, real-time collaboration is the concept of being able to edit a document/file at the same time from multiple different computers while seeing changes from each editor in real-time.

It’s true that the buzz around real-time collaboration was really a while before. But thats all about the coolness of being able to work with people located in a different parts of the world at the same time on the same document and see the changes happen like magic. It was a big deal for application developers to get this working in their tools and specially when it is a cloud app. We felt the same way back when we started Creately. We had to have it because it was cool and it can create lots of buzz. But we were blocked by many factors.

What does the user really want?

From the early days we have prioritized the road map of the product based on what our users wanted. This is one of the key success factors of Creately. We payed lots of attention to support requests, discussion forums and user votes on features. This almost always decided what went into each release of Creately. Real-time collaboration as a feature did have lots of attention as well from our users. But it was not always the burning problem. Smooth collaboration was a burning problem but that didn’t always mean real-time is required. We learnt this as we started improving the collaboration features. Users wanted to be able to easily share to edit or view, to easily embed and interactively view the diagram, to be able to discuss and notify users on changes and work together. We built features that enabled all of these. Real-time collaboration always seemed like that “cool” feature and didn’t convince us a as a burning problem over most other requirements in the diagraming space.

Revenue does matter!

Thats right, you know it! Real-time collaboration as a feature didn’t make revenue sense as much as most other development we have done around Creately. Series of the initiatives we did were to deliver Creately to bug tracking and wiki platforms like Confluence, JIRA and FogBugz and also build a desktop version of Creately. It would only make sense to hit the numbers while building and delivering great products. This added on to the delays.

Why now?

Creately is doing GREAT! While things are going well we wanted to get this feature out, a long lasted wish. But most importantly as we improved collaboration features we realized always something was missing. Collaborating in real-time is not about seeing the changes and feeling the magic (so to speak), but getting something done fast and getting it done easy. The real utility in words doesn’t seem a big deal, but when you are really using it you feel the difference. It makes life just so much easier.

Lets think back. When we didn’t have cloud applications it was all emails going around with attached files. Soon you had multiple versions going around with different users edits on them. This was solved by collaborating online. You had one file that was being changed. But still you had to go back and forth after making the change to communicate with the team. This can lead to lots of time wastage if you are not communicating well. With real-time you are seeing what’s happening and ideas are communicated well and all in one session you get to create and communicate what you want. You really dont have to worry much. To feel the difference, it has to be experienced.

We are glad we did this and we have lots more planned for this year. Stay tuned!

Colombo Hackathon – The startup scene in Sri Lanka!

It’s probably a bit too late to write about this because its been more than three weeks since it happend. However something like this cannot skip my blog specially because I was one of the organizers of the event. Since we (I and Chandika) came back from Startup Weekend we have been wanting to do something similar here in Sri Lanka and the first choice was naturally a Startup Weekend. However due to many constraints we weren’t able to pull it off. One of the key reasons being the financial requirement the event had on the participants. We were not sure yet if the local tech/startup community would fancy a expensive ticket to a event of this nature. When Sanath came up with the idea to do a similar event, we all gathered up for a discussion, myself, ChandikaJeevan and Sanath and followed the birth of Colombo Hackathon.

We didn’t have much time till the event and there was much to be done. However thanks for the resourceful team that came together, we were able to get everything organized in time without having to put in much effort. Special thanks to Jeevan for providing the venue and other required arrangements. When we put out the registration form we were taken by surprise to see the number of signups that occurred during the first two days. We had hit the quota of 50 by the second day. We kept the form open and by the second week there were close to 190 registrations. We had to limit the invites to 125 due to resource limitations. On the event we had close to 80 show up and around 75 participate. During the initial pitching session there were 29 ideas that came up. 14 ideas were selected to work on during the two days. 13 ideas continued to work and produce working demos. 4 pitches won and turned home as startups! It was magic to see the kind of energy and enthusiasm that went around in the room. During the initial pitches, even-though they had never planned for it, some walked up to the front to talk about their ideas – driven by the energy in the room. This is exactly what we wanted to see and this is exactly why we did Colombo Hackathon. All in all it was a massive success and we sure plan to do it again soon!

Coming back to that, why did we do this? It’s simply because we are those geeky startup guys. We love to see ideas form and come to life. We’d love to see a startup community form in Sri Lanka and we want to see a (tiny as it may be) silicon valley in this lovely island. For the past few years myself and Chandika and many others have had this discussion. Why are there not many startups in Sri Lanka? Us being a startup that created a world renowned product, we badly needed that here. We wanted to create that here and I am glad we did this! Thanks to the inspiration from Startup Weekend India and also Venture Engine which has greatly supported this. Here is an interesting article about why startups are important.

Amidst all the excitement and energy it was sad to see quite some negativity going around. It was all mostly about the worry of one’s idea being stolen and why would one talk about it in public. There was even a blog post referencing the Winklevoss twins as an example incident of a stolen idea. Taking startup advice from one who’s only startup experience was the movie “Social Network” is like taking parental advice from Britney Spears. I get it, Facebook is what everyone knows and thats what they talk about.  Ok so lets talk about Facebook then? how authentic and unique is the idea? It’s been done a 100 times before, some quite exactly the same as Facebook. But how did Facebook become so big? A startup is not about just an idea. Ideas form every other minute. Startups are about the people! If anyone other than Mark Zuckerburg had done Facebook, it would have never gotten to where it is now and thats the fact. For a startup to be successful it takes a lot… the confidence and motivation to stand up every time you fall, relentless hard work and decisive execution, sticking around with the right people and connections and letting the wrong ones go… and lots more. If you did come to the Colombo Hackathon, you’ll know. I am very happy and excited that we were able to inspire at least eight different teams to continue executing their ideas into real businesses. Until the next Colombo Hackathon… Adios!

Startups Rock!

Colombo Hackathon Facebook Page – http://www.facebook.com/cmbHack
Colombo Hackathon Twitter – https://twitter.com/#!/cmbhack

Startup Weekend – Bangalore

Its about time that I forced myself to throw in another post specially right after the Startup Weekend in Bangalore, India. Yeah, I was there. flew to Bangalore just for the event over the weekend with Chandika. I have to admit, it was worth every bit.

What is this Startup Weekend you ask? it is an intense 54 hour event which focuses on building a web or mobile application which could form the basis of a credible business over the course of a weekend. The weekend brings together people with different skill sets – primarily software developers, graphics designers and business people – to build applications and develop a commercial case around them. The Bangalore event was at the Microsoft office.

Despite the reputation Startup Weekend had, initially when myself and chandika set out to the event I was quite skeptical about if there was going to be enough participants or if the caliber of the crowd was going to make it challenging enough. I was worried if it was going to be a waste of a weekend than an eventful one. For us it was a weekend to break away from the post startup life we are in with Creately (still awesome!) and to re-experience the exuberant rush and energy produced in the early days of a startup.

So on thursday we went in and as the event started it was a promising crowed with the organizers making way to get started on a very busy weekend. I was stunned by the informality and counter-culture nature of the event. Even-though initially it all seemed unstructured and rebellious, it set the right spirit in the environment and among the participants. As the pitching session began I realized that almost everyone in the room had something they wanted to pitch. I was impressed by the quality of ideas that were being pitched. Even-though not many of them were very internet/cloud focused, I found quite a few interesting idea’s that I wanted to be involved in. I had initially gone in prepared to pitch an idea of mine, but by this time given the number of ideas that were being pitched I was convinced that I wanted slide into a much more executing/hacking role than my usual planning/managing role during this event.

Within few hours teams had formed and ideas had come together and people were already in intense conversations about their respective startups. The day had extended and I was too in a battle for balance in getting our startup towards victory. I was working with a energetic bunch lead by Jagat Iyer a smart, articulate and very passionate entrepreneur. Enjoyed every moment of being with the team working towards perfecting the idea of Shasthra (thats the product we were working on). This continued along with more planning and executing towards the five minute pitch that had to be done on Sunday evening. It was pressure blended with excitement and motivation amongst very little eating and sleeping. The next two days were spent meeting new peers and mentors talking and validating all aspects of the business at the meantime preparing for the final pitch. Having built a globally successful product, I was very familiar with the situations and problems we were coming across and was able to enjoy and work with the team on solving and overcoming all of it.

I was very impressed with the committed organizing team namely Pankaj, Chidambar, Gaurav and many others who were sticking along at all times making sure everything was taken care of in a timely fashion. There were talks about possibly having a Startup Weekend in Colombo this year as well. However there is nothing firm so far on this and we are looking forward to make it happen if Startup Weekend is willing to. All in all it was a splendid weekend full of energy and I can’t think of anything that was not right about it.

Startups forever!!

The very basics of a Startup Idea

This topic is something I have been wanting to put down since of late. The idea of this post is to discuss the nature of two basic factors of any startup idea. The two factors being the problem and the solution (… yes im serious). I know what you are thinking.. its just way too basic that any business idea cannot exist without these two factors. True enough, but are they always basis of new product ideas? Something that you see quite often is startups that come up with products for a given space just because the space is “hot” OR because you can easily build a product to compete in the space OR even for fact that there is plenty of money to be made in a given space. And these products most of the time compliment the space than dominating them for they were not built for the right reasons.

So what am I really trying to say? I guess what I am trying to say is that, you will be in the best position to start something if you fit the below explained criteria. This at the same time doesn’t in any way mean that you have to fit this criteria to come up with a good startup idea.

The Problem : Feel the pain

For an idea to form the pain needs to be felt. The problem needs to be something that is experienced by you. At least it needs to be something you understand well and know how it feels to face this problem on a regular basis. This inherently gives you a detailed understanding of the pain and why the problem exists. When you understand a problem well, you generally would be connected to a community who understand this problem as well. This intern gives you the ability to explore different perspective of the same problem. Since you do understand the problem you would already know the available solutions to this problem if they do exist. And you would also know why these solutions might be less than ideal.

The Solution : Turn the pain into joy!

The solution for the problem should eliminate everything that is a pain and turn the whole process into pure joy. Now to do this you have to come up with the perfect solution that eliminates all the little difficulties and pains in the process. To desing such solution you must be that smart guy with the problem solving skills engraved deep into your genes. You are able to come up with a better solution than your competitors because one of the key reasons for you to start this idea itself is your competing product’s incompetence. As you develop your idea and concept you will again be in a better position since you are connected to people who are looking for the solution on a regular basis who will be able to give you constructive feedback and even commit a purchase!

All in all you will always have the upper hand in putting together a good startup idea, if you are dealing with something that you well understand and are well connected to. Following are some of the products/companies that I found to have built good products that solve the problem well and have good adoption in their respective markets.

String (My Gengo)

Solving a very specific problem that has almost no competition. The problem does exist but the problem is niche enough that a good solution has not been come up until this one. String from My Gengo is a tool that enables you manage your language bundles against it’s translations. When you have an application that is in multiple languages, its quite a hassle to manages text changes across all translations. The translation company My Gengo being the ideal people who understand the problem came up with the ideal solution.

Balsamiq

A problem that has been solved many times but not so quite well. A former engineer at Adobe saw the problem and understood what was needed for him to get a simple wireframe drawn. Quickly put together a wire-framing tool that is making history because if it’s simplicity and completeness of solving the problem. The guy was facing the problem regularly and he sure was smart enough to get the job done right!

Facebook

I tried not to bring in facebook! but you know what.. it fits the case so well. Zuckerburg saw the problem and felt it. Thats what made Facebook different than any other social networks. Being part of the problem helped Zuckerburg put in the right touches to get it to where it is today.

Would love to hear any thoughts about this topic in general? Please comment.