Author: Sesiri

Current State of the Sri Lankan Startup Ecosystem: The Rude Awakening Show


I posted a little infographic yesterday on Sri Lanka’s Startup Ecosystem. The intention was to create a conversation (which a lot of people have provided me feedback by now) within the community on what really matters to build a stronger community. I will recreate the infographic based on the findings the next few days. My personal opinion is that the current ecosystem is just wrong. The community is doing all the wrong things possible.

Brad Feld’s book, Startup Communities is great read and he talks about how he and other folks converted a non-tech, non-entrepreneurial Boulder to a high tech startup scene. This is indeed a 20 to 30 year plan and there are no short cuts per se. Back in early 2011, Startup Compass started ranking the ecosystems around the world based on several factors (The 2015 report is out now!). They factored things like funding, talent, performance, support, mind-set, differentiation, output and trendsetters into the equation to rank the places. Let’s review what we have in Sri Lanka, mainly the Colombo and its nearest suburbs.


Yes, the Sri Lankans are talented indeed. We have a set of good developers, there’s no question about that. Missing part are the product people (we lack both product people and product developers). There’s a clear distinction between a product developer and just a regular software developer. The academia puts out software developers, targeting largely the BPOs in Sri Lanka, mainly places like Virtusa. An ordinary developer you see in a BPO is used to look at an SRS and code what is asked. In most cases, these SRSes are sent from the product folks in foreign countries and in many cases they are foreigners. The worst part is that, once these developers do start working on a technology stack, they are stuck with it for the most part of their lives and they know that and nothing beyond that.

For a product developer, the story is very different. He has to challenge the status quo, build features over and over to see what works. He has to have his input and his say in the features built, what to prioritize and what to not. This requires playing around with all new products and tools that are coming out, every single day. It is a lot of work, but our guys can do it. The issue is unless you land at a place like WSO2, where the company is well funded with a visionary CEO, you might not get the chance to play around with these tools. He is going after some of the major players in the tech industry and that itself needs to be respected.

In today’s world, it is really not only about the technology stack. While building something people want to use, the design is another key element. Most cases, the product guys have to have a real good design sense to make it all work until Apple or Google puts out the next technical jargon or the paradigm shift to deal with. This makes iteration cycles smaller and we only have a few months to make things happen.

We as a community, are doing very little to fix this problem. In a startup ecosystem, talent is not just developers. Matter fact, it stretches far beyond than just the coding skills. This can only be done with exposure and it only happens with collaboration, which I will get in to in detail later on. The best example is Singapore, they have absolute very little developer talent within the country itself and they have gotten it from the neighbouring countries.



Funding is a real problem. Yes, as an Asian country, we all have the traditional conservative approach with money. But, certain things have to be changed to make it happen in a startup setting. It is still a great progress from where we were few years back to see Lanka Angel Network, BOV and others have come together to make it happen. I have heard that the equity splits for the fundings have been 40%-60% and even at times 50/50. This is not going to work. We need to keep in mind that the entrepreneurs are going to be working on the product or the company many more years to come. On one hand, it is not fair to get that much of equity from a product and at the same time, it is going to make the entrepreneur far less interested in actually making it work with that kind of a split. As VCs or Angels, they would be better off getting 10X or 20X over a 5-year period than trying to get 100X over a 2-year period. If we nurture the ecosystem and good exits happen, they will get the 100X they are expecting over within the very short time span. The ratio is about 1:10, even in Silicon Valley. The one that makes it covers for the rest of the other 9 losses. That is how it works everywhere.

The real issue is that there aren’t that many angels or VCs in Sri Lanka that have had the startup experience. The startup entrepreneurs turned VCs do this well and the best example is I met the folks in Singapore some time ago and they nailed it (I have a different perspective on Daily Deals businesses and that’s a separate discussion). They can, because they understand the startup culture. Currently, in Sri Lanka, most VCs and angels seem to be coming from a corporate background, consulting background or traditional ‘brick and motor’ type of businesses and don’t seem to have any startup experience. The startup experience is brutal. If you have not had to pawn your wife’s jewelleries, you have not been in a proper startup situation. Unless you have gone through that experience previously, it is difficult to understand the startup mind-set and the real needs of the startup entrepreneurs. It is just brutal, even if you are well funded!

This is what seems to distinct the startup crowd from SLASSCOM as well. Everyone understands that startups can make money, so it’s a good bet. Everyone has heard of the $1B exits like Instagram, so everyone wants see if it works for them. If $$ is the primary motivation, then you are in it for the wrong reasons. All these startupers could have made so much more money than most of the corporate folks you see by working at a corporate environment. They have decided to go on a startup route mostly for the impact, because they love it! Making money is not their primary motivation. Until everyone understands this, it is not going to work out for either one.

VCs and Angels here in Sri Lanka are often in the look for currently profitable businesses to put more money in. In many pitch competitions I have seen, the primary question they often ask is, “How do you plan to make money?” or “How much do you make now?” I can’t think of a single startup that really made it big and was started with a projected income plan for the next 5 years. Their primary goal was to solve a problem in a very detailed way. If you nailed that down, there will be a revenue model somewhere. Examples? Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tesla and every other major success story out there! Harsha (Purasinghe) once told me, “If you are going to build something here, focus on what you can sell right away! If you are going for a world changing idea, move somewhere where you have the ecosystem ready!” He was absolutely right. Spot on!

We really need folks like Dr. Sanjiva and Harsha P to come forward with small angel investments here and there. That will not only kickstart the engine, it will start to create a culture that has never been seen before!

Generally, funding comes with a lot of other goodies. VCs or angels should not be putting money in if the business is not in their domain of expertise. The founders should not be raising money if the angel or the VC cannot add any value or give constructive feedback to the product and the vision of the founder. Our founders are so desperate that they will try to raise money from anyone who comes across. That is so destructive later down the road. I once told an angel that if I am going to raise money in Sri Lanka, it will only be you and no one else and I never even spoke to anyone else, because none of them matched the criteria of the angel I wanted to have. At times, you might be better off not raising any money than raising money from the wrong person/s.



Collaboration is the key to any successful ecosystem. Unfortunately, we Sri Lankans don’t collaborate and share. We are in need of a co-working space so badly. I wanted several premier politicians to help us with putting a coworking space together, but unfortunately nothing got materialized. They just did not get it. There’s a difference between renting out office spaces and coworking spaces. We need a place where folks like Chandika and Aloka can organize events like Refresh Colombo. There are so many PHP meetups, hackathons, etc, but meeting places for entrepreneurs are far more important than PHP meetups if we really want the ecosystem to work. It is indeed sad that events like Refresh Colombo weren’t able to do their work in an on-going basis, because no one funded them. Folks like Google, Microsoft, Virtusa should actually be sponsoring these events completely. Again the real issue is that, decisions makers there aren’t really coming from a startup background. The reason Google does this in NY, SV, London is that, there are folks there who have run startups.

SLIIT at Malabe has office spaces and they call it the first incubator. It is really renting of office spaces, nothing more than that.

We need some good affordable coffee shops around Colombo. Usually the VCs and successful entrepreneurs meet at places like Coffee bean. It might be ok for me, but no student with an idea or a prototype is going to be able to spend 750 bucks on a coffee. Let alone, they might not even know what different types of coffees are. Experienced entrepreneurs have to come together and make it possible for the students and the new comers to hang out. This has to be in the affordable range. Co-working memberships can be around 3000 to 5000 a month for hot seats and dedicated seats can be a bit more. The folks with real capital have to study Singapore and Bangkok startup scene very well to make this happen.



Academia currently plays a next to nothing role at making this happen. There have been some events that had happen every now and then, but that’s pretty much it! The universities have to include startups and entrepreneurship in their curriculum and they need to be taught by folks who have done startups. That is very important. I just completed my MBA (Of cause for other reasons, not that I learnt very much from it) and the entrepreneurship class was the worst thing I have ever seen in my life. Entrepreneurship in schools should not be taught by corporate consultants or folks with a corporate background in their entire lives. It should be done by startupers. In startups, you challenge the status quo, not live by it de-risking every possible thing. I was talking to a VC (Vice Chancellor) of University of Moratuwa few years back along with Shamal Ranasinghe back in the day and nothing good came out of it. The team, lead by the VC had absolutely no idea what the hell we were talking about.

Universities can get a 5 to 10% equity from startups can provide them with office spaces, Internet and coffee. There’s enough space at Moratuwa, Colombo and Japura. Peradeniya can be like Chang Mai, Thailand. Can focus on a different branding. Once they start doing that, it will create sub cultures around campuses and that will help tremendously. NUS does this in Singapore and it has been working great! Again the real issue is that, corporates who have the money are the ones who are friends with the ministers and they don’t understand the startups. We really can’t blame politics completely, because they are not expected to know everything. Although, they have the responsibility of learning these. It is our job to make them aware and make it happen. This is where our experienced, well-funded entrepreneurs need to come in.

Finally, seminars funded by ICTA, SLASSCOM are not going to cut it. This is a different game. If we look at the startup ecosystem from a consulting perspective, it is not going to work. Once these basic things are in order, people like Shamal Ransinghe, Chamath Palihapitiya will come and actively be involved in the community. I hope ministers like Eran Wickramaratne, Harsha De Silva will understand the importance of this. It is irrelevant how much money is pumped if the basic underlying principals of a startup ecosystem is not there, it is going to fail.

ICTA, the government body that is supposed to be looking after this has to have the right people in place. Hopefully, after the recent changes in the board and a new CEO at ICTA, we will see if that is going to be any different. I still have hope, because the current CEO is an entrepreneur and a product guy! We don’t want $5K grants being distributed to people, because that is simply not going to do any good. Instead of 100 $5K grants, we will be better off with 20 $25K grants that will actually be enough to put a fundable MVP together. $5K will give an entrepreneur 4 months of runway, just to pay his bills and live in Colombo. Further, we need a concrete plan from ICTA to help the startupers. A gentleman at ICTA once told me, “don’t come to meetings looking like a Steve Jobs wannabe!” That is just sick! I wear black T shirts often, because I like the color black. Not going to talk about it anymore than that. They should really focus on what creates a startup ecosystem than looking at what people are wearing.

I finally hope that the relevant parties mentioned here are not going to be defensive and hence, take these comments positively. One person said, “Brace for onslaught!” and I am expecting.

Geopolitics in Asia: The truth that everyone knows, but no one talks about!

Sri Lanka

It is inevitable that Asia will have the most economic opportunities, while the US and the European markets are slowly being saturated in many different industries. South and South East Asia, home to over half of the world’s population, has slowly become an industrial and an economic powerhouse. Whether you like to admit it or not, both the US-led West and the China are in a power struggle to gain access to resources and maritime access in Asia. The more these players are involved, the more the strategic Asia will split along the ideological lines. We, Sri Lankans are indeed caught in between these two ideologies.

The game of politics

US-led West toppled many democratically elected governments in South America, Africa and the Middle East. If I were to recall these incidents: Guatemala, Ecuador, Panama, Bolivia, Libya, Iraq and the list goes on. Whether which kind of democracy is right for a country or if it is right at all is a whole another discussion. The toppling strategy mainly had 3 different stages. First, the leaders would be bribed into play their tune, allowing the powerhouses to have access to the countries resources. CIA had hired external contractors that negotiated these deals. They were called ‘Economic Hit Men.’ John Hopkins, who used to be an economic hit man back in the day, talks about his experiences in these incidents in his book, ‘Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.’ If these negotiations didn’t work, the next stage was to assassinate the leader. A classic example is Omar Torrijos, the maximum leader of the Panamanian revolution. Saddam Hussein’s security was very tight that the US was not able to assassinate him, which took the toppling strategy a different kind of a route. There comes the tagline, “Good Governance.” Good governance was used in overthrowing many different governments/regimes. The two most recent examples are Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadaffi.

The Chinese approach to this is far different. What post-Mao Chinese government launched as the great ‘socialist modernization’ has transformed into what we see today. Big bucks that were collected from all over the world were invested back in the US, Africa, Europe and the Asia, allowing them to have access to the resources in these countries.

Sri Lanka

China’s desire to takeover under-utilized, under-exploited markets in Asia has stressed out the US and India. Naval routes, resources and strategic geo-location of Sri Lanka have always been the key interest of anyone who had been involved with Sri Lanka in the history. Due to the close proximity, Sri Lanka has the ability to make a huge impact on India’s strategic security, which makes it a key interest to both China and the US.

Who’s game should we be playing?

That is a tough choice. It is very difficult to say who’s game, yet it should more be our own game to survive in this space. We should neither be anti-US nor anti-Chinese. They both will have pros and cons in its own style. Some of the recent success stories like Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong played neither of these two tunes. They crafted their own style of political strategies to deal with US-led West and the China. We, as Sri Lankans, should probably have a policy and a strategy, which will not change, irrespective of which government stays in power.


Rise of the “Good Governance”: An Insider’s View of the Presidential Election 2015


I wanted to write about this a long ago, but I waited. I waited because a lot of people were very emotional about whatever the political belief they had and many of SLFP supporters were emotional about the ex-president’s departure. There’s so much I want to write here, but I would rather wait for a little longer. Let me break it down, what I can, at least!

Good Governance: What a great tagline! and of course we needed good governance badly as well. During the Arab Spring, ‘good governance’ was the key discussion. Some of the most powerful regimes had to leave. There were no exceptions. In every place it was well indicated that ‘people’ factor was the most powerful thing out there. President MR government did not for a second think that the catchy ‘good governance’ effect will snowball until the government itself is toppled.

Although I was never really a fan of the economic policies and the monetary pressure that was put down to people, I was a loyalist to the president Rajapaksa from day one. I actually wanted to see a hybrid government where President Rajapaksa is still the president and Hon. Ranil Wickramasinghe be the prime minister. Whatever said and done President Rajapaksa is a charismatic leader. He had the ability to talk to people. On the other other hand, Prime Minister Wickramasinghe is a brainy-act! He has the ability to fix the foreign policies and the economy.

Rise of the President Rajapaksa: When I first met him, he was at the President’s House. He was wearing a Sarom and did not even have a shirt on. I don’t remember which year it was, but it was soon after he became the president. I was with Namal and a few other folks in his room at the PH. We were spending the night there. The way he talked, moved, everything about him really struck me. He was sort of a father-like figure. I started thinking to myself, ‘Well, he’s just like any of us!’ In early years of the government, we had no idea if the government was even going to last. We did not know if the budget was going to be defeated. One thing was certain is that, we all wanted to finish what was started, the war! We all were very emotionally attached to the whole thing. A lot of people were suspicious about what was going on. Everyone was doubting if the war was actually going on or if the whole thing was an act, but after a while, a lot of genuine people started helping. We risked so many things, which I cannot even mention here. The end result was great and we were able to finish what many other governments could not. Namal on the other hand, did the best he could. visiting camps, arranging any necessities or whatever it may be. The whole first term was a very hectic, yet an interesting time.

Election: Soon after I heard there’s going to be an election, I knew it was not going to be easy. The frustration had built up to a level where people could care less what President Rajapaksa did during his first term. We would be lying to ourselves if we think that everything was so glorious during the second term. People were. suffering. bad. really bad!

The moment I heard about the election, I emailed Namal. I told him we would need the ‘old team‘ back to run the campaign! His response was quick. He said “Thanks! we are working on it, will inform you..” He has had this habit of not answering the phone anymore so everything is either text, email, facebook or Whats App. I knew this time it is going to be difficult so we would need to have folks we could trust. After 2010, may be towards early 2011, most of the folks who were close to Namal were gone. He too was very distracted, because its one person over another, coming in, every. single. day.. (I am keeping everything short and sweet to avoid any confusions! 🙂 ) He too did not think it was going to be this difficult. What really happened was that the defeat came from within. There were so many who pretended to work so hard for the election, but they did not. A lot wanted the government to lose; Well, President Rajapaksa to lose. A lot of regional politicians were playing both sides of the coin. While they showed a pretty face to Namal and the president, they were technically telling everyone to vote against.

Attention to details: I knew very well a long before that the hype was building. In a detailed document, I analyzed past elections against a survey allegedly ran by Mr. Ruwan Ferdinendez (not sure who it was really. We think it’s Ruwan who ran it). The stats were not looking good at all. In a detailed document, I specifically told Namal that what we are going to be losing is educated, youth votes, in the range of 18 to 35 within sinhala buddhist areas, primarily. But no one was worried, no one thought it even had any effect at all. In that document I told there’s about 1 to 1.5M undecided votes that has to be talked to, backup by facts. Again, no one listened! Then on the other hand, opposition was segmenting each and every section and catering very targeted effective marketing campaigns. It was working!

Miscommunication: The election manifesto was “Lowa Dinana Maga.” which translates to “how to win the world” and the campaign slogan was national security. That did not match. People didn’t even remember there was  a war. It’s long gone. What people wanted to see was how their lives can be better and what opportunities will a available within the next few years and you can’t blame them. Specially the youth were comparing themselves with the countries they have been to. I guess the campaign slogan was put there at the end to hype the ‘fear of the unknown’ factor.

Until the election night, I don’t think anyone thought that the Rajapaksa government was going to lose. To some of them, they just did not care. They could careless if the government was toppled, because it was not moving them forward.

If anyone says the SLFP government lost because of the northern and eastern votes, you are either a racist, or really bad at math or a mental retard. What the government lost were educated young votes in sinhala buddhist areas. I was very specific about that and too bad no one thought it would be like that.

A lot of money was wasted for non targeted marketing campaigns that was purely aimed at mud slinging than provide people with a mature, fact-based campaign. The fact of the matter is, there was no one trust worthy around to advise, guide and show the right picture. This election was a classic example of how things can go wrong by taking things so lightly.

Note: This article does not need to or mean to discuss any allegations towards the ex-government and I do not even intend to be a part of that discussion. Let’s leave that to those who investigate those issues.


Crowdsourcing Tuition and James Altucher on the new startup idea


I opened up a GoFundMe campaign to see how it would help to raise the money for the PhD. I actually want to see how it would work. Of course if it works, it will certainly help! After setting it up, I felt cheap to share it on Facebook. I was skeptical as to what people would think. Would they think that I am begging for money and I am dead broke? Would they think ‘what the heck is wrong with this guy?’ So I started asking a few folks around.

First I asked a friend of mine, a serial entrepreneur who had a very good exit. I asked him what he thinks of the GoFundMe campaign. He waited a while and said “my immediate reaction is that your education is what you should pay for. most people aren’t denied education because of funds.” He has a point in a way. It is true that most people aren’t denied education because of funds. It is the cases in States, people are denied education for parents pure stupidity, laziness and many other things. This is mainly in the western world. In certain parts of the world, people are denied education for many other factors such as religion, poverty, lack of opportunity within the system and many other things. So there’s definitely two sides to this argument.

Then I asked another friend, James Altucher. James is known for several of his very successful exits, podcasts, talk shows and of cause the books. He wrote several NYT best sellers. I had a short but a very interesting chat with him. I thought I would share some of it, because it may help fellow entrepreneurs. I, again, asked him what he thought of the GoFundMe for the tuition. I asked, “Does it look cheap to crowdsource the first year’s PhD tuition?” and his immediate reaction was “No! you should try it and see what happens!“. I kinda felt relaxed. After getting that out of the way, I told him what I was working on. Below is the conversation after that. He points out several key things.

SP: yeah, thats what I thought too. Chamath just funded an exact copy of ******* product I was working on and now I am working on a different one. A platform that will enable startuper to take an academic (PHD) route. My thesis is going to be on that too.

JA: neat!

SP: Startupers have a lot of research knowledge, why don’t they get a PHD for it as well. That will also enable universities to build a great portfolio as well..

JA: yes, some schools are starting to do that. like Georgia Tech here in the US and schools often take a piece of any tech that is developed on campus like I bet Stanford got a piece of google for instance

SP: exactly! People here think Im crazy when I say this.

JA: you should get all the data together. show how much money each university has made in the past 2 decades of spinning off startups. CMU made hundreds of millions on Lycos for instance

SP: Yeah, I am working on collecting the data. I need to figure out a way to keep things running to work on this full time. Its very difficult to juggle too many balls at the same time

JA: No it isn’t. don’t tell yourself that. the only way to succeed is to juggle more than you think you can juggle. Else, everyone would do that! the average multimillionaire, for instance, has over 7 different sources of income

SP: mmh.

JA: when I look at what I’m doing: I do books, blogs, podcasts, i’m on the board of 2 companies with billions in revs, and I’m an investor in over 20 cos that i keep active in. i’m not bragging when i say that. that’s all just simply what i do. and i have to do it because that’s where everything i have done before has led me. Today i had to put on at least 5 different hats just to keep up with things. or, rather, to stay ahead

SP: So you think the idea is worth pursuing?

JA: not as a PhD, no, unless you want to be an academic. But, perhaps there is a better way to do it. you collect all the data and then help universities set up their own incubators

SP: I was thinking, if I get in an academic setting, it might be easier to get the word out.

JA: yes, but a PhD will take you 5 years or more. The world will be different then.

He makes several key points. Pursuing a startup in an academic setting, specially for a PhD might not work, but launching of the startup can really be done in a few months. Most of the research would have to be focused towards getting the academics and universities within the framework we would build, not to mention the endless amount of work that will be involved in building a framework PhDers would follow to create a startup.

As for the GoFundMe campaign, I asked several others and they had mixed responses. Most of them were ok with it and said should give it a try! I am going to leave it up and see what happens.

Binding the PHDs with Startups

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

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!

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

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

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.


#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!