Startup life – bite size working

Working in an early stage startup is invigorating because of the diversity of challenges that one tackles through the day. The number of challenges and never ending task list that come along can be potentially overwhelming and unlike a bigger company there aren’t enough hands on the deck to throw the work to.

I now force myself to take smaller bites than what I was accustomed to. Putting less on my plate than I normally did enables me to have those smaller bites.

I think of work as a buffet wherein I can go back for seconds at any point in time or skip through to the desserts. However, if I fill my plate up to begin with, it is likely that I am going to miss the dessert.

I adopted this method in the last month or so. Work became so much more fun – once I got past the mental block of “I am not doing nearly enough”. The main reason of greater enjoyment is that I got results faster and each of the results comes along with a dopamine hit of accomplishment (huffington post on dopamine).


Entrepreneur of the year goes to the old man on the street in Istanbul

Yesterday, I was at Emononu, a ferry station in Istanbul and spotted one of the most entrepreneurial person that I have seen. I was blown away by his entrepreneurial spirit.

PC: Harpreet Singh

The Sultanahmet area in Istanbul is teeming with tourists and so if you are a tourist and have spent anywhere beyond a day or two, you get used to being approached by shop salesmen trying to entice you with their wares. I don’t want you to get an impression that these guys are in your face and asking you to see something without an iota of originality in their sales pitches (a la a phone vendor in a typical US mall). Almost all of the guys have a super interesting hook to start a conversation with you and bring you into their shops.

These sales guys set a high bar — they nail the cold call opening!

Perhaps the highest bar in selling was set by Ibrahim at the Tuncer Gift shop who by far has been amongst the best salesperson I have ever seen and I have worked with many. Ibrahim had a unique conversational style that differentiates him over everyone else. He differentiated himself as opposed to the goods while selling commodity goods through a shop. (See his TripAdvisor reviews). Perhaps, I need to write a blog about Ibrahim but I have digressed.

Now coming back to street vendors, my default reaction to street vendors — typically guys carrying tea, chips or other such sundries is a terse no. That’s just the way it is, I don’t want to hear or even see what the vendor is offering. I presume this is the reaction of most folks when approached by street vendors.

Anyways — so if I have painted the picture that between the high salesmanship standards by shop salesman, my general dislike to being approached by street vendors and the fact that this was my third day in Istanbul that it was a high bar for someone to standout.

Then, we saw him and lets call him Abu (Urdu for father) an elderly gentleman, perhaps in his late 60s or early 70s, with a weather beaten face. Not the ones that look tired and indicate a life endured by hardship but a weather beaten face with an underlying glow backed with a smile that shows a life well lived and worked hard with honesty and integrity. He was wearing a suit and in the middle of 24C day, it must have been genuinely warm. The suit was worn down too.

Abu had a canon camera around his neck and a a big bag slung over his shoulder.

The bag had a kodak photo printer hacked with a battery pack to provide power to the photo printer!

Abu, thus had positioned himself next to the ferry station of the Bosphorus tour and was reaching out to tourists who were waiting for the next tour to start at the dock and getting them to take a picture. His unique selling point, was a hard copy of your photograph. Not a regular tea vendor — that wasn’t for him.

Why did we give in and get a picture clicked?

He had a photo frame!!!

He was framing the pictures in a photo frame and I (Mr. Customer) got a choice between two colours. Totally unexpected and completely delightful (delighters anybody?).

This is interesting in itself while we were waiting and not really looking at him. We saw him from the corner of our eyes, he had just finished taking a picture of a Russian family and then get this — he offered them a choice of white or a black paper frame to go along with the picture. The guy had thought about everything — amazing.

When we saw the picture frame, my wife and me decided we have to take a picture from this enterprising human.

Here is the picture that he took for us.

Delightful product and elated customers

Now, I typically will not pose for pictures and Abu made us pose right for a great picture and he did that every other customer that we saw. All in the 30 seconds that it took him to take the picture while not speaking a word of english. Amazing!

I regret not taking his picture though :-(.

So Abu from my point of view has done everything right as a CEO of Abu, Inc.

  • Product — check. A high quality hard copy picture of your family while you wait impatiently to get on the Bosphorus tour. This is not the crappy grainy picture that comes from a Polaroid.
  • Marketing specifically packaging — a picture frame to enticingly frame your picture so that it doesn’t end up in a drawer somewhere. This is where Abu nailed it imo — he truly brought in the notion of a delighter and absolutely surprised his customers and delivered more than they signed up for.
  • Sales — Perfect timing to approach customers. There is about 10–15 minutes to spare between buying a ticket and boarding and people usually don’t have much to do but get bored watching the boats.

All this for 4TL or about $1!

I wonder how things could be so much different if he was in Silicon Valley — he could very well be running a successful company.

But then again, who says he is not successful?

Show me the money framework for improving decision making skills

PC: Michel Curi

2017 was the year I agonised over buying a Tesla Model X. I ran through all the reasons I needed it — beautiful, gorgeous, drives fantastic, best technology and green. I just couldn’t come to a conclusion, because the price was a serious consideration. The problem at hand was that the reasons I wanted to buy it were intangibles.

That brings us to a key component in decision making — what do you do when you are facing a decision and there are numerous intangibles at hand? Paraphrasing Lord Kelvin, the famous British physicist, “The challenge of intangibles — when you can measure something and express something in numbers, you know what you are speaking about. If you cannot speak about it in numbers, then the knowledge is meager and you have scarcely advanced the state of science.”

As I looked around in other areas of my life, I saw that there were a number of other decisions that I couldn’t make progress on. They were also stuck because of intangibles. Some good examples that come to mind in the life of a product manager are: the value of open source software, when your product is driven by OSS; the value of adoption of open source software; what does virality mean for success of a product — how much should we be investing in virality; how to choose between competing features to make the most impact for the organization. I could talk to these decisions very well, had anecdotal evidence and experts backing those decisions…but they fundamentally were intangibles.

I have always been fascinated by literature on decision making and find that most recommendations range from “Just do it” to mind-numbing, if-then-else analysis. Douglas Hubbard presents a scientific, probability-based framework to reduce uncertainty through your decision making progress.

Paraphrasing Hubbard, “Decisions fundamentally are about a choice in the path ahead where decision makers have imperfect information. This lack of information causes uncertainty. Measurement is a type of choice among others to reduce this uncertainty. For any decision, you can typically measure a large combination of things, but you can never achieve perfect certainty.”

Thus, the right way to think about decisions is that a decision is a decision because one cannot articulate the right value of each of the choices ahead. The way to reduce the uncertainty, then, is to measure the things that reduce that uncertainty, knowing fully well that you cannot — and should not — measure everything that informs the decision, because too much information causes information overload. The key part of measurement is to assign an economic value to the measurement. Let’s say, you as a decision maker are looking to improve delivery of value from the organization. Measuring productivity of employees could be a type of measurement, and instead of measuring how much time an employee spends on each of the activities, quantify the business value of each of the areas she spends most of her hours on. Thus, if you get the employee to spend more time on activities that drive more business value, you can get more productivity from the system.

So how does one proceed, so that one isn’t stuck at the end of a spectrum that has “just do it” as the starting point and “analysis paralysis” as the ending point?

The ladder of better decision making starts by stepping back and questioning the decision. Check if you are asking the right question. Most hard problems in life and business can be solved by asking the right questions. If you are indeed asking the right question, then do the following (Hubbard calls it Applied Information Economics; with some color from my past readings on this topic).

  1. Define the decision. If the decision isn’t informing a significant bet, don’t measure anything. If the decision is easily reversible, just make a decision and move on.
  2. Determine what you know about the decision. Identify the key informational vectors that inform you more about the decision (hours working, vs hours spent on the most impactful activity).
  3. Compute the value of additional information (if none, go to step 5). Additional information is the information that you need to drill down into and measure.
  4. Measure where information value is high (return to steps 2 and 3). High information value implies tying some sort of economic benefit to it (improving productivity implied measuring and identifying most impactful hours). This really is the key to better decision making — tying some sort of economic value to your intangibles.
  5. Make a decision and act on it (return to step 1 and repeat as each action creates new decisions).

Typically, as you do steps 3, 4 and 5, you will find that each decision opens a cascade of micro-decisions that may have their own measurements to help build the case for the overarching decisions that you will rinse and repeat on.

So how did this framework help me?

  • I made the call on the Tesla before I read the book and was pleasantly surprised that my mental model roughly followed the framework. I put an economic value on each of the subjective axis, compared with the cost of the vehicle and came up short. I passed over the Tesla for a Lexus RX 350, knowing full well that I will evaluate my decision in the year ahead and these values may change — c’est la vie.
  • On the “business value” delivered by my team, I have instituted a “business value pointing” system offered by a tool called Aha. The vectors that constitute the business point are subjective. That is okay, because the scores on the vectors are informed by the expertise that my team has built up so far. We are drilling down on step 3 right now.
  • On understanding the “value of adoption of OSS” or “virality of a product” — I am on a journey and am hoping to find the right measurements to taking the decisions from “expert-led” to a state of science.

What decision frameworks work for you? Let me know in the comments section, below.

– Article heavily influenced by How to Measure Everything, by Douglas Hubbard.

If you want to be a good leader, live these 4 principles

“Look at what you have built – did you ever imagine that this was going to be so big?” A colleague asked me this question at a team event fairly recently.

My answer – “always”. I was confident in my response because I had laboured over for years on the degree of impact my/team leadership had on the realisation of goals dreamt years ago.

We had grown rapidly for years and I knew that I was doing something right but couldn’t boil it down to it’s essence. Then, a few years ago, I was at a Tony Robbins event where it struck me that I/our team was living the principles that he often talks about.

Principle #1: See things as they are

Not positive or negative but as they are. People usually fall into two camps: Glass half full or glass half empty.

The glass half empty camp looks at the world cynically – “things are never going to be better around here”. These are people that you should avoid – I know because I used to be one of them. I had role models who were cynical and responded to new ideas with a snarky comment – “Utterly uncool to try this new idea because it won’t work”… and it is devastating to effect any type of change.

The glass half full camp looks at the world optimistically – “things aren’t bad, they are actually wonderful and for the the stuff that doesn’t work, we will vision board the heck out of it”. I swung my pendulum from the cynical side to this side but slowly realised  that there always remained an incongruence between reality and the optimistic version which wasn’t healthy. Plus, one can never tell if things can get better because everything is pretty good to begin with. Ironically, wide-eyed enthusiast and a sceptic may end up achieving similar results. That said, I’d rather have an optimist on the team than a sceptic because coming into work is easy.

I have always looked for the buddhist “middle way” to bring disparate viewpoints together. In this case, the third way is that the glass is both half full and half empty at the same time and that is truly pragmatic.

Translated to leadership, the first principle is where you recognise the strengths and your weaknesses and your landscape. You aren’t irrationally optimist or pessimist but pragmatic.

This becomes all the more important in the startup world because your glass in a startup world is truly not half full but perhaps 1/8th full. You have some strengths and you have a number of weaknesses. Too often startups make mistakes because they either over-estimate their strengths “our key recipe is our secret algorithm that will make us successful” or under-estimate their weaknesses “we don’t need sales yet because our customer success team will create the necessary virality”.

Unless you have the capability to realistically assess where you are it is difficult to go to where you need to be. This brings me to principle #2.

Principle #2: See things better than they are

Essentially, know where the summit is where the flag has to be posted.

Why are you here in this businesses? You saw where things are and you know how to improve them. You have defined your why and  you will start your journey to the summit.  Some entrepreneurs do this very well but most are rather optimistic “we will change the world” … by bringing in app that sends a “yo” to someone-else – you get the point! This is why principle #1 is important comes before #2 to bring in pragmatism. As a leader, it is your responsibility to keep the audacious goals in the realm of achievability – usually this is backed by your domain and market expertise.

The eye-on-the-summit all the time is an important skill because others on your team won’t see it or believe it. I was often met with an incredulous look when I would call out the summit. Gradually, I learnt that some people cannot handle the summit height when they are at the base of the mountain and you have to break the summit down into series of milestones. I put people into circles and chose to expose the level of milestones, the summit or even multiple summits based on their capability to digest this information without freaking out.


Principle 3: Make things the way you see it

Easier said than done. You know the summit, where you are and then the journey begins. The journey is always two steps forward, 1 sideways, 1 forward and two backwards.

One of the key points that I have learnt here is that you need to be resourceful (Tony Robbins speak). Being resourceful implies doing a number of small experiments to see which ones work and tend to them further. I hate the term fail-fast because I find that fail-fast fosters a mental attitude of surrendering. I prefer that the investment in small experiments are based on hypothesis that are rooted in some prior work or research and then there is a healthy amount of investment done to prove or disprove the hypothesis.

Being resourceful also means to be out of a comfort zone tending into an eustress environment. A good marketing example is that writing a blog isn’t enough but getting it syndicated is called success; more so if syndicated on publications you have no prior relationship with. This will bring out the inner resourceful tiger in you. I have found that OKRs tend to foster the resourceful behaviour more than other commonly used management by objectives metrics.

Principle 4: Communicate, communicate and over-communicate

This was one of my most painful experiences growing as a leader. I would put the “plays” down, talk to the teams to make sure that everybody was on the same page and when I circled back, I found that there was a game of whispers going on and people were lost.

People don’t really listen the first, the second or the third time and when they don’t the empty vacuum is filled by conjecture or juxtaposition.

Over a period of time, I learnt to my job was largely defined to keep repeating the why, where we are and the goal post and I had to do that in one-on-ones, public setting, over drinks and dinners.

I have been doing these 4 principles repeatedly

My normal pattern for years has been been now to dive in, determine the landscape pragmatically, determine the north pole, start working on getting things to the north pole and communicate repeatedly on why we are doing on what we are doing.

These principles are (credit in huge part to Tony Robbins for laying them succinctly):

  1. See things as they are
  2. See things better than they are
  3. Make it the way you see it and
  4. Communicate repeatedly (TR doesn’t talk about this principle)

You have live these principles on a daily basis to truly bring your team forward. Tying back to my colleagues question to me on whether I dreamt of the success we would achieve – absolutely.

I’d really love to hear from you on this topic and if you decide to bring them in, share your experience with me. If you live by other leadership principles, share them with me too.