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Binding the PHDs with Startups

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PHD Thesis

Most of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) PhD students who want to pursue career in academics end up in corporate or non-academic work, according to Eva Amsen. This is mainly due to repulsiveness of the work place in academia and as well as the benefits offered at non-academic settings. The academic job market has gotten tighter for last decade or so due to many reasons. Alternative education platforms have come up and they seem to work much better, TreeHouse for an example. Currently, TreeHouse delivers its courses to more students with zero debt at the end than all US CS departments combined. That’s just within 3 years! Then there’s the issue of getting the accreditation from a university with a huge student loan debt at the end and it is the biggest debt that the US has faced now. That is a debt that won’t go away even if you file bankruptcy. People are looking for skills-based approaches in their professional development than the standard academic route. Tech giants like Google has openly said that they really don’t care about hiring the top college graduates.

Wealth creators

In my perception, startups are more wealth creators than any other out there. Wealth is not money. Wealth is how you want to live, what you want to own, wherever you want to travel, etc. Several hundred years ago, people had wealth without money. They exchanged tangibles and as well as non-tangibles. Money is really just a medium that helps move wealth from one place to another. Irrespective of how much money a startup makes, it creates more wealth than some of the large corporations. Let me explain. A startup that makes a million dollars a year may influence and create more wealth than a corporation that makes a hundred million a year. For an example, a startup like Task Rabbit that enables people to hire someone to run their errands may create more wealth by allowing people to have freedom and may be making someone make a few extra bucks by doing a side job. The more startups out  there, the more wealth that is created.

Does a PhD mean success in startups?

Absolutely not. It is scientifically proven that startup success has no correlation to age, gender, race or the academic background. One good exit in a previous startup also does not mean that there will be another one either, although the experience will certainly help. It is also seen that the successful startup entrepreneurs had no better ideas than the unsuccessful or no-so-successful ones. There are a lot of dynamics that come into play like the location, funding, skills and certainly luck as well. You can build the best product with the smartest people and have a bad market-fit. The fact that you will have a PhD adds a level of credibility and recognition. For a startup founder, funding, making contacts, help of the peers, support of the family, etc are very important factors. The fact that you have PhD, it makes it easier in many ways to take a startup route. You have access to low interest rates, academics, access to people and the list goes on.

Why PhDs should take a startup route(Or the other way around)?

PhDs should take a startup route and startupers should also take the PhD route. From what I have read and people I have spoked with, a PhD is more like running a startup. Searching for a supervisor is like looking for the first customer. Getting a manuscript approved is like finding an investor. They all share the same level of uncertainty and stress. Both PhDs and Startupers have deep knowledge in whatever the domain they work on. The only real difference is that a startuper would not have the work documented the same way a supervisor or the university would want to have for a PhD. Wether a startup makes it or fails at the end, it would still add value and contribute knowledge into the ecosystem. For a startuper, a university may give a great platform to speak and network. In some situations, the startup route needs pure disruption in a very unpredictable manner and in certain situations it may require some level of discipline and that can very well be added by your supervisor.

What is in it for the University and for the Startuper?

Universities certainly would want their students’ researches to be converted into successful startups. It adds value and looks good on their portfolio. As for the startuper, it gives him credibility to have a PhD. In reality, startupers put so much effort and research into building a product and better or for worse why not have a PhD for it?

What if there was a community and a market place that matched the right supervisor with the right startuper to bind the two dynamics? A service that would guide a PhDer to create a startup based on the research they are into?

Less is More: The Minimalist Entrepreneur

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Hamster Wheel
Hamster Wheel

If you have been working 18 hours per day, you’d exactly know what I’m about to write about. Micro-managing and trying to be involved too much in everything is a disaster. It effects your productivity, creativity and causes a lot more stress than you’d anticipate. I’m not necessarily talking about ‘lifestyle-type’ businesses here and I’m not really a fan of those either. Although they may seem to make money, having the need to have certain type of a life style and building a business around it doesn’t look that exciting. Anyway, what I do want to talk about is dealing with the minimum number of unwanted issues to focus on the areas that are most important for your startup! Here are few hacks to do so.

Figure out what matters most. It doesn’t matter what scale your startup is at, there are things that matters the most. Figure those out. Spend the time on what matters most and try avoiding the things that doesn’t make an impact. If you are just starting out, read The Lean Startup, practice Validation Board by Lean Startup Machine. Identify what makes your startup progress each day.

Disconnect from people who don’t bring a positive change. It can even be your own family members. If they are not adding any value to you or vice versa, disconnect! Else it will only drain your energy down for no reason. Surround yourself with people who inspire and mentor you.

Don’t get involved in all kinds of businesses. You just can’t be successful in 50 different kinds of products or services. You can’t run a good design agency, while building a product, while trying to custom code for other businesses and doing private consulting work.  It simply doesn’t work. Select a niche. Focus. Master it day in day out. Read more about Malcolm Gladwell’s ’10000 hour rule’ on the book Outliers to get a sense of mastering a niche.

Go Cloud. Try to use as many cloud services as you can. There are cloud services for basically every aspect of the business process. Whether it is maintaining a code repo or having your own personalized phone service, there’s always a hosted solution you can choose. Handing over all the maintenance for a small fee is much less time consuming and much more productive in the long run than trying to maintain these yourself.

Try to stay paper-less. Having a deal with printed contracts, faxes, accounts books and everything else in between is a disaster. There are services to keep you up-to-date with a very minimal fee.

Be equipped with the most wanted not the most amount of things. Being a startuper requires a lot of travelling. You always need to base yourself where the next best opportunity lies. Unless you are in to some sort of a work-from-home type of a business or those ‘lifestyle businesses’ I mentioned earlier, you have to travel. There’s no alternative to it. Identify the gadgets or objects that makes you most productive and get rid of the rest. Maybe you don’t always need the latest iPhone that comes out every 6 months unless you are specifically building something for it.

Reducing doesn’t always mean de-cluttering. I usually have messy work spaces. Messy work spaces make me more creative. Some of the most creative powerhouses have had the messiest work spaces.

Quit running after fame! If you have made some money and want to buy a few luxury things, that’s fine. But quit trying to get yourself into a Hamster Wheel by maximizing the amount of things you will have to deal with in a day today basis. That drains your energy down. While you are on a certain stature with these among your friends, family and of cause the public, it needs constant overlook and attention. It can be maintaining your luxury house or the vehicle or consumes so much time you should be putting into the business. If you really really need to have some of these, hand it over to your significant other or someone whose close enough to be trusted.

You can always follow Lifehacker and they put out a lot of productivity tips and hacks to make things easier in life.

How We Made A ‘Minimum Viable Product’ For 2 Years And It Just Sucked!

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Minimum Viable Product - Image Credit Paul Kortman
Minimum Viable Product – Image Credit Paul Kortman

Back in 2010, our outsource model was growing. We were getting medium scale projects. I always worried about delivery of these with the limited amount of technical resources we had back then. After a few months of discussion, I ended up hiring one of close friends from an outsource model to head the technical team along with more technical staff. During the same time, I was learning so many lean startup techniques as well. Back then, it wasn’t called Lean Startups or Lean Development or whatever the fancy names we are used to hear now a days. I was just identifying what worked best to deliver products we were working on, the fastest possible way.

So the idea was pretty simple. I was on many different social networks and all of them were cluttered with so much junk data I didn’t want to read. I used social media to connect with people that I wanted to approach or stay in touch with. Most of them were my customers. That data was like gold for me! I was reading about what my clients and prospects would like in their real lives, their dislikes, personal info and the whole nine yards. I talked to them the best possible way they wanted to hear based on what I gathered from this social data. Their birthdays, funerals, weddings were so important for me. Going tru Facebook feeds, Twitter’s, LinkedIn’s Feed was a pain. I technically end up spending more than 2 or 3 hours a day trying to identify these types of information, which I called the ‘Pattern Breaking Events‘ in their social graph. I wanted something simple, some tool that gave me everything I wanted to know about my customers. I wanted to send flowers on their birthdays, I wanted to reach out to them if they are having issues with anything at all! That made a very special bond. They started reaching out to me every time they needed help.

I first had the discussions with my friend who was just hired and we started working on the product mid 2010. Of cause most of these big data companies didn’t exist back then so the approach had to different if it was to be built now and my friend was working at an outsource model for nearly five years and his approach to code products was way different than what I imagined it would be. There were number of times we had heated arguments on reaching milestones, committing code and whatever else involved in building technology products. I spoke to so many people about what I was working on and they all wanted the product when it was built. They all wanted to find easier ways to reach out to their contacts. In short, while we were arguing and making very slow progress is having the actual product ready, a service called Connected was launched in 2011 and was acquired by LinkedIn in late 2011. They were on the similar lines in what we were working on. By the time LinkedIn integrated the technology and the features they had, it was exactly like the features we had in our product! So the bottom line was, we had a great idea and while we failed to execute the idea, another company was launched, acquired and integrated in to LinkedIn along with almost each and every feature that was on the initial product mockups we had.

With a lot of experience in social space, I started working on a new product to measure skills. I want to make it the standard for Skills Measurement. Sign-up to get early access.

How To Avoid Startup Execution Mistakes in Product Development

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Didn't execute soon enough?
Didn’t execute soon enough?

I had a pretty detailed chat with two visionary entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka yesterday, without even realizing we had talked over 3 hours. We talked a lot about execution and why it is important for any startup with products in the technology space. Execution is not just traction. Executing on an idea involves building the product as well. Here are some guidelines for startupers to avoid execution mistakes in product development. This information will best serve startups, on a lean budget, working on an innovative web or mobile product. Will not fit best if you are a corporate over 100 employees, working on the third version of the mobile app for a financial software that’s been in the market for 5 years! Hope you’d get my point..

1. Never Hire Developers from Outsource/Offshore Business Models – They simply have different DNA. Its almost impossible to change the service-oriented mindset to a product mindset. Product development is lean and very agile. The definition of ‘Agile’ is far different from one another. Developers from traditional outsource models tend to work with larger corporations and they are used to getting 300 page SRS documents. If you are working on a product, you can write the 300 page SRS for 6 months and your product will not have a market fit by the time you are beginning to code. If you have one of these types of developers leading a development team, that will be even worse! Remember, sometime, you only need to stay 6 months ahead of the rest to “make it!”

2. Technology Research – It is much more productive when the hackers themselves work on the technology research oriented work together. Just guide them! You are not going have enough time for your CTO to do the research on whatever the technologies you’d want to use and have him transfer the knowledge over to the developers. This happens in tradition outsource models, but it will not work for startups, rushing to get the product out or trying have a MVP ready to raise money.

3. Have Flat Discussions – If you have a team of 5 developers working on the product with a CTO, it’s not always best to make all decisions based solely CTO’s comments. When you discuss technical issues, get the whole team involved in it. Sometimes fresh developers tend to see product problems and its solutions much clearer than the experienced CTO.

4. Innovation Happens in Smaller Teams – During the product development phase, until you get the right market validation, keep the team as small as possible. Just make sure they are the best you can select. Innovation is best in smaller teams. When you have 20 developers or 5 MBAs in a room discussing the features, it won’t get anywhere. You will be ideating the product than building it.

5. Rapid Iterations and Deployments – It is extremely difficult when you have many hierarchies to develop a product. Your findings will change what you’d want to build basically EVERYDAY! The feature you so wanted two days ago, will be the last item you wanted built today. You will for sure have good reasons for it, but only you will understand. If your team is not used to this, they will probably think you have no idea what you are doing and they will probably say (with a lot of frustration) “this cannot go on!” That’s the last place you will ever want to be. Read Eric’s Lean Startup if you need help in this area.

I once worked on a product called “Get Interaction” for two years, trying to get the product out and by the time I was able to, LinkedIn integrated every little feature we had developed through an acquisition they did. That’s should be another post!

I’m working on a new product to measure skills. I want to make it the standard for Skills Measurement. Sign-up to get early access.

The Startup Depression and Entrepreneur Anxiety

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Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wikipedia Meetup
Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wikipedia Meetup (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is with deep sadness I am writing this post that the founder of Ecomom, Jody Sherman passed away. According to Pando Daily, the news on his death is pretty scarce. This is the second in a raw, after Aaron Swartz hanged himself in early January. I have dealt with pretty dark moments myself in my entrepreneur career and the Startup Stress does make you feel suicidal at times. In most cases, the inability to give up and start over does make you anxious and depressed. If you are one of those people who clock-in and clock-out on a daily basis, this post is not for you!

I have learnt many things in my entrepreneur journey and here are some tips for you to avoid being depressed and anxious running a startup.

Hire the right people, the culture matters! I have hired and fired many people in my career, both as an employee and an employer. I hire for culture. I always say ‘I don’t care if you have all the skills you need to do what I am hiring you to do, but what matters is whether you have the passion to learn whatever it takes to do whatever I am hiring you to do!’ I had been doing this for a long time and Brad Feld summarized this in one of his interviews with Jason at This Week in Startups. Look at the diagram below, so you have 4 different kinds you can hire.

Culture-Skills

#2 people are must hires. #1 you can hire and if they have the passion, they will learn whatever they need to learn fast! Be careful when you hire #3. I usually don’t hire the #3s.  #4 is a definite no. If you come across a misfit for your culture, fire fast! Don’t expect them to change and be agile to the culture you want.

Fall in love with someone who’s as crazy as you are! As an entrepreneur, you will always be doing crazy things. There’s risk in every move you make. Nothing is set in stone. You are dealing with extreme uncertain situations all the time. Your wife or girlfriend has to understand what life is like for an entrepreneur. Don’t get involved with someone who likes regular jobs and who wants to ‘settle down’ as quickly as possible. At the same time, make sure your partner keeps you sane and align with everything you do in your life. They might not understand everything you do in a business, but they will need to understand the basics in a relationship like, being there for each other no matter what or calming you down when you are pissed off! You will be up late night all night, you will read emails when you are having sex, you will not be able to have dinner together like they always wanted to and there will be many things you will have to do that ordinary people might not do. Here’s a great piece David Brim’s girlfriend Lindsey Ament wrote on 10 Things a Startup Entrepreneur’s Valentine Should Know!

Don’t hire friends! I have had pretty bad experiences in hiring friends. You might think that they will do whatever it takes, because you knew them for so long, but you will be wrong in most cases. Don’t hire friends if you have not had any chemistry with them in the past in doing something together. It becomes so complex when your friend doesn’t do what you want him to do and you hope he or she will change at some point. You are not able to fire the person, because you don’t know how that would affect the relationship between families, what other friends would talk about what happened, etc. It’s not worth the effort. I simply don’t hire friends if I hadn’t done anything with them in the past. I have a friend who’s a great partner of mine in my business and we have done a lot of things together in the past. We have played in the baseball team together; we have run a small business when we were in high school. Unless you have chemistry like that in some sort, don’t hire them. Just because of the fact that a friend does talk about doing something different and wanting to be the next Steve Jobs doesn’t make him one. This is a different kind of a ball game, not everyone can do it, and else everyone will be doing it. Most of the school friends I have come cross want to make some extra money. They are not there for a socio impact. If money is the first motivation, you can’t do this job!

Only raise money from people who have invested money in tech! Tech valuations are different. You cannot calculate ROI like you would do at a restaurant. I have gotten offers from people are investors, but in different domains. I have turned all of them down. Only a tech investor would know what you really need. If you are doing a seed round of $50K for a product, a tech investor would only ask for 10% equity where as a non tech investor would ask for 50% equity. Just because the 50K is available sooner with a non-tech investor, don’t get the money. Remember, this is something you will be doing all your life. You will only need to partner with people who can understand what you will go through and who will be there for you for your problems. Angels are not just there to give you money. If they cannot advice you (which means they would have to go through what you are going to go through in your start-up journey), they are not the best fit for you!

Be comfortable being uncomfortable! There’s no other option. Running a start-up is an uncomfortable thing. You are learning new things every day. You will have to do thing you don’t want to do. That is the nature of it. Once you bang your head on the wall couple of times and settle down, you will get used to it. There are much bitter situations in running a start-up than actually glorious moments. If you think that it changes after you raise money or after you go IPO, you are wrong. People will talk about you. Get used to that!

The fact that running a start-up is a constant battle and it is not going to change. What matters is how comfortable you are dealing with these situations. Some will ruin their lives running a start-up  Startupers are a cult. They will share their darkest moments in life. If you are depressed, go and talk to one who has been there in the past. Keep in mind that life in much more than you think it is!

Monetization on Crystal Meth: The New Sponsored Page Likes on Facebook

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Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg (Photo credit: jdlasica)

We all heard about  the $100 ‘Direct-delivered-to-inbox‘ message to Mark Zuckerburg few days back and today I noticed something weird! My wife was looking at her facebook and she said ‘Hey I like this Saree too!’ I was trying to figure out what she was talking about and I finally went up to her computer to look at it. I was shocked! Apparently I have ‘Liked’ a clothing brand which I have no interest in.

 

How Facebook said I liked a clothing like I have no interest in!
How Facebook said I liked a clothing like I have no interest in!

 

This is just crazy. How can you show something as if I liked it on someone else’s Newsfeed when I have no idea what the product or the service is like? We all understand Facebook’s gotta make money, but is this even legal? I am just trying to make some sense here. What is  next?

Is this my opening to App.net and consider it much more serious?

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Originally posted on TechCrunch:

Editor’s note:Cherian Thomas is founder and CEO of Cucumbertown, a recipe-publishing platform. Follow him on his blog and Twitter.

For entrepreneurs, it is now both easier and harder to raise capital: easier because of powerful platforms like AngelList; harder if you’re not part of an accelerator or don’t have a strong network.

Silicon Valley has more startups than ever before. My startup, Cucumbertown, raised its first round a month ago, and during the course of this journey, I realized that, as a first-time entrepreneur without any solid Valley footing, my run toward raising funds as a non-American co-founder was somewhat unique.

Valley funding used to be an impenetrable fortress that opened up only by way of introductions. Your success in raising capital decreased to insignificant levels otherwise. The only other chance to make yourself noticeable was traction, which trumps everything. But the market dynamics of fundraising is…

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