Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Success Decoded

I am always fascinated by smart people. You get to learn so much from them, it makes work life so much enjoyable.

I have been fortunate enough to work with the best of people in a decade long career. While I landed at Trilogy by chance (I haven't had heard about it before, being the dot com burst era nobody else was really hiring at that time), I had the opportunity to choose my people at my startup. I think we have done a good job - everybody has been awesome.

Observing Top performers out of smart people is fascinating too. At both places, I found some unique qualities in the Top performers:

Some people are good at what they do - it's like they are born to do those things. They have a natural talent to succeed at their job. Think of people like Sachin Tendulkar, Roger Federer and Michael Schumacher. They are quick learners. Having the right abilities definitely is an advantage.

People do unbelievable things when motivation level is high. They convert pain to pleasure to achieve their goals. I have found motivated people do better than the ones having natural talent - they work harder. Talent is meaningless without motivation.

Despite being talented and motivated, many people fail to deliver because they are not following the right "process". Somehow, the mental setup is not right, they just aren't ready.

Talent and motivation take you to only upto certain level. I have seen perfectly capable people underperform when the going gets tough, or when there are just too many different things, or it's a completely new situation. Ability to manage your time, prioritize your tasks, handle context switching, adaption, not burn out are equally valuable skills - the so called mental strength. Top performers deliver day after day. I believe this is the most important quality to be successful - the difference between a Tendulkar and a Sehwag.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

3 Habits That Makes My Life Better

As an entrepreneur, 3 things that I've found very helpful:

  1. Nice, long bath: Helps you plan the rest of the day, streamline your thoughts.
  2. Good breakfast: Owing to meetings and fire-fighting at work, my lunch schedule is quite haphazard. Good breakfast ensures I've energy left!
  3. No laptop at home: May not work for you, but I try not to carry my laptop at home. Not on weekdays, not on weekends. I check my emails on my phone though. Gives me two benefits. One - gives me some time with family. Startup life is hectic.Sometimes I am not able to take calls even from my wife. So, anything that give me some time at home is good. Two - gives me enough time to "think" about my startup, rather than keep "doing" things. My entire day gets spent in doing tons of things and hardly have any time to sit back and ponder over things. This gives me that time.
Been practicing these for some time now and very happy with the results.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Thing called Mental Strength

I am not very happy about my mental performance this year because for moments I didn't believe really 100 percent in victory. That's the big problem. Because when that's happening, you have fewer chances than if you believe. If you believe, you are running more and you are putting one more ball inside. So that's what I'm going try to change.
That's Rafael Nadal, emphasizing the importance of confidence and mental strength. As anybody in a startup will tell you, self-belief is one of the most essential things to succeed. You may have all the talent in the world, but if you don't believe in yourself, you won't reach the top. We have seen so many players ready to take on the world, but somehow are never able to reach the very top.

So, if you want to change the world, believe that you can. Kill those demons in the mind. Be ready to be no. 1.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

What We Did Right

One of my friends is just starting on a startup of his own and he asked me about marketing and other things we did in our early days for

That got me started on what all things we did good in early stages. Here's a list of things I think helped us when we started - tips on starting-up from our own experience. Shortly, I'll also publish a list of things we could have done better.

1. Go full-time

This is perhaps the single best thing we did. My belief is once you have realized you are going to try out an idea, give it your best shot. And if something is as life-altering as a startup, it involves your full-time attention. Anything else just doesn't work.

We realised we all were not in a position to go full-time at once. So, I decided to take the plunge first. Karan and Sanjay joined few months after that.

2. Release early, Release often

Ever since the day we registered our domain, the site has been live every single day. Whatever development we did was visible on the website. We used to upload almost every day, sometimes multiple times a day. Whatever little feature we worked upon, we used to upload without a care in the world if it was perfect or not.

The biggest positive we got was the joy of seeing things live on the web. At that time, we were so small and uncertain that it took some time for the feeling to sink in that we are doing something big. Seeing it live on web and users coming in helped a lot in convincing ourselves.

Another positive side-effect was Google crawler. When your site is small, you keep tweaking the whole back-end architecture and end up making lots of changes. Testing every little change takes hell lot of time. As crazy as it may sound, we relied upon Google to discover errors on our site. This helped us crank up code at lightning speed and not bother about bugs.

Note that this strategy works only when you are small. When you become big and rank somewhere at top in Google for few keywords, every "404 Page Not Found" error costs in Google. We learned it the hard way when our server was dropping requests lately because of increased load.

3. SEO

We realised pretty early that Google is going to be main source of users. We started on Search Engine Optimization pretty early. Ever since that day, we had a full person working on it almost regularly. It paid us handsomly as we rose in Google soon for some of the long-ish keywords. 

My suggestion is that if you are going to be a content site, focus on SEO as soon as possible. It takes time to rank in Google and the sooner you start, the better. Also, it is perhaps the most straight-forward of things to do for entrepreneurs. There are plenty of resources that'll help you in this.

4. Stay Focused

When you are small, there's always an urge to get featured in media. Don't bother too much. If you get featured, well and good. If not, move on. Your time is more important. If you are worth it, you'll get featured sooner or later.

When you start growing, lots of people contact you for deals and offers. Don't get distracted. Focus on your core thing. Whenever you get such offer, think if you'd have actively sought it had it not come to you. We got offers early on from biggest of booking sites to become affiliates. We applied the same metric - if they would not have approached us, would we want to become affiliates at this stage? The answer was no. (We started deals with other sites six months after we got the first offer, when we felt we were ready.)

5. No external funding

It was a pretty big, and bold decision. In retrospect, this is the second best thing we did (first was going full-time). Fund raising involves lots of time and effort. From fellow entrepreneurs, we were aware that it easily takes a full time person 6 months to follow up with VCs and close a deal. Moreover, we didn't really had any good contacts in VC circle and all were first time entrepreneurs. So we expected it to take even longer. 

With our team of 3, it meant one-third resources gone, something a new startup can hardly afford. Instead, we focused on raising funds from family and friends which worked out reasonably well; especially since the amount required for a Web 2.0 startup like ours is pretty small for a real VC to be interested in.

6. Focus on Users, not Revenue

As a CEO, it's a daily battle for you to decide what to focus on - users or revenue. Sometime the goals for achieving both are aligned, many a times not. So you have to choose. 

My experience says choose users in the beginning. Revenue will follow if you have the users. Don't put ads on day 1. Don't focus on bookings / conversions / leads in beginning. Focus on usability.

7. Keep Morale High

Working in a startup is tough. Working on your own startup is hell lot tougher. Many people underestimate this. We did too. 

Our personal lives hit new lows in this period. We had financial difficulties. We've had fights in our team over vision and direction. Sometimes, we were simply disappointed because results didn't match our expectations. But we lived to tell the tale. I think it was the conviction that what we are doing is something special that made us sail through. 

Conditions are going to be averse, but believe in your idea. More importantly, do not give up.

8. Always remember you are a small team

This helps you keep focused. Double-check the task if it demands too much of your time. See if it can be approached differently. Can it be done incrementally? 

Value every second of your time. Spend as much time as you can working, maintaining your sanity. Even if you are busy on something else, try to finish some work related task, no matter how small. Forward progress every single day is important. 

Look for efficiency. If you are doing something for the second time, you are probably wasting your time. Automate as much as you can. Some of the key things we did:
  • One click deployment on server. Since you are going to do it hundreds of time a month, have it fully automated.
  • Have all your reports e-mailed to you instead of you logging into multiple places and checking them out. Some of the examples are errors on production server, user activity on your site, server health stats, revenue reports.
  • Don't hesitate to spend little money on something if it saves your time (e.g. SVN repository, powerful laptops).
  • If you need a tool, search hard on google rather than develop in-house. Chances are, somebody else faced the same problem and developed a solution (and posted somewhere on internet!).
  • Skip unimportant events and meetings. If required, have very few members of your team attend it (unless it's super critical like presentation to a VC, or some training which will help entire team).

9. Choose RoR

Even though we were all working in Java all our life, we chose Ruby on Rails for this. Looking back, I think it was a very good decision. Development is very fast in RoR. Had we been doing it in Java, it would have easily taken us much more time.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Quick Tips for Startups and Future Plans

Startups are hard. You go through tough situations, need to take lot of tough decisions. When we are in job at a well-established company, we don’t really realize how much comfortable position we are in.

Many people start out with the dream of making it big. You don’t make big unless you have the willingness to do it. And believe me, startups test all that willingness.

From my interview at

Also, I wanted to let you know that we are working on new look for our site You can take a peek at our testing server. (Since it's a testing server, it's down sometime. Please check later if it is indeed down.)

We are seeking feedback on new UI before we deploy it next weekend. Please send in your comments to (or if you are feeling lazy, just leave a comment below).

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

In search of our own Obama

India woke up to Obama's victory today. He has created history by becoming the first black president of USA. At a personal level, I am felling happy, though not exactly sure why.

What is significant in this case is not just the victory, but the way he mobilized people. Whether he's good for America, and the World, is to be seen in coming years, but what he has done is given people hope. Hope that he will get USA out of the troubled times. Hope that he will resurrect them out of the financial mess. Hope that he will change the way the world sees America. I don't recall any one leader in my lifetime generating so much of craze.

Photo Courtesy: Rediff

This news also makes me wonder if and when will we see an Obama in India. No doubt, this country desperately needs one. Politics in India has reached such low levels that it has stop mattering to the general public. In the last two decades, no party has got a clear majority. No leader after Rajiv Gandhi has had public's trust.

If one calls the current political situation bleak, the future is not bright either. We seem to be going downhill. People are dying on daily basis but nobody seem to be bothered. As if there were not enough differences already, even more are being created by the day and nobody seem to care. I am almost sure that the upcoming elections will go the same way as past so many with no strong government even this time.

We must find our own Obama. Maybe, it'll take us some more years. Till we find one, let's cheer for Americans for what they have. Someday, we'll have our own. Hope is a big thing!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Good Work, Bad Work

I joined my previous company, Trilogy, at an early stage. I guess I was the 22nd employee. One of the benefits was that I got to know half of the people personally. I value people and relationships a lot, and it felt nice to know so many smart people by their first name.

One thing I've realized out of that experience, and in general otherwise, is that smart people complain a lot. They don't get satisfied easily. Call it the curse of smartness!

And guess what was the most common grudge? Good work. Lots of them had the concern that they are not doing "good" work. If you ask them what a "good" work is, you'd hear words like challenging, new product, design, architecture, development, from scratch. On the contrary, "bad" work was synonymous maintaining an existing product, testing, scripting, bug fixing etc.

While getting promotion on the basis of so called good work was always at the back of their mind, the primary concern was of job satisfaction. If you don't like what you are doing, you are not satisfied, intellectually. You need to be doing something that you enjoy, and value. That is the secret of happiness in any job.

Strangely, the world is full of "bad" work. In any job, you end up doing more routine stuff than interesting one. Interesting work comes in patches, and you can't really be sure when you'll get a truly interesting work that you'll enjoy. More often than not, you have to live with the routine work and try to find interesting stuff within that. Software is no different.

I rarely managed to get "good" work in my job. For quite some time after I joined, all I got to do was testing, scripting, bug fixing. The product I was assigned was going into beta immediately after I started. I, being the junior-most guy, was handed all the "dirty" work.

And funnily, I enjoyed that work. Maybe it was the ignorance of a fresher, but I managed to see interesting stuff in my work. I used to like scripting. I liked testing. I liked automating things. Java development was probably what I hated the most. It seemed so straightforward. And boring. Many of the my teammates and juniors were surprised to find I had written almost no product code even though I worked on the same product for more than 5 years.

I found the non-development tasks more engaging. There were unique challenges there, new learnings every day. And I loved innovating in that space. I liked versatility in the tasks. I bet we had the most efficient and best testing process when I was involved.

I always had a different definition of "good" work. For me, any work that allows you to innovate and learn new things is good. Otherwise it's bad.

What matters is the learning of the task at hand, not the task itself. It's very unlikely that you'll get the exact same task in your life again. It's always going to be a variant of that. Similar, never the same. With even a few small parameters changed, you might have to approach the problem from a completely different perspective. That's why, cherish the learnings no matter what the task.

If you are willing to learn, there's lot of scope and opportunity for innovation in the routine tasks. If you stereotype the tasks and block your mind, you are never going to see that opportunity. Just complaining about it hasn't helped anybody. Most of the times, getting a task of your choice is out of your hands. Make the best of the situation and keep learning. That's how you'll grow and gain lessons.

Life in general, and startup life in particular, is full of routine, boring tasks. Until and unless you can see the positives of those tasks, you are not going to enjoy, and by that token, not do a good job at executing it. From a entrepreneur perspective, working on your product is probably going to be the most enjoying of all experiences. But strangely, you end up spending a good chunk of your time on the plumbing tasks. And many a times, these peripheral tasks end up being make-or-break for your company. So you better pay attention to these boring tasks.

That's what separates a good entrepreneur from a good techie. I have this conjecture that unless you can bear with these uninteresting tasks, you are not going to be a successful entrepreneur. The path to creating a successful company is rough, and you have to get used to it. Those who run away from it rarely manage to create a successful startup. Enjoy every task you do, and you'll reap benefits!

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Dream and Passion

When talking about startups, Dream and Passion are two words used often. Sometimes I wonder how many people truly understand the meaning of these words.

I am following upcoming US elections keenly. Obama is sometimes compared with the great Martin Luther King. I never got a chance to hear any of them personally (unfortunately!), but that got me curious about King and I stumbled upon this video of King's famous "I have a dream" speech delivered on 28th August 1963. Watching him delivering this speech, one gets a feeling of what Dream and Passion actually mean, and I felt I have been almost misusing these words so far!

Truly inspiring stuff.

You can get the full text of this speech at
(scroll down a bit)

Monday, September 01, 2008

Trilogy Connection of Startups

Sometimes I wonder what are the skills one require to "take on the world"? Can there ever be a "school" that can prepare entrepreneurs? Can entrepreneurship be taught? Or is it something that is practiced? Or is it inborn?

Let me try answering these by asking a very different question - why is there a strong connection between (ex)Trilogians and startups? A significant chunk of people leaving Trilogy either join a startup, or start one of their own. There are so many of them now that they can start an OCC of their own!

Since a majority of the folks at Trilogy join straight out of college, this really is their first interaction with the startup world. What is it at Trilogy that inspires so many of them?

Being one of the people who is part of this connection, lemme see if I can unravel this. In some sense, I am the subject of this article too! Pardon me if this seems like a personal rant.

(In case you are wondering, Trilogy is a small enterprise software company started in 1989 in Austin, US. It opened its Bangalore office in 2000. I worked there from 2002 to 2007. Some of the startups started by ex-Trilogians are LifeBlob, Chakpak, ReviewGist, Via, LifeMojo and my own Must See India.)

1. Confidence
Very much like Microsoft and Google, Trilogy encourages its employees to take larger than life roles at a very early age. People grow very fast at Trilogy. You might be surprised to see people as young as 3-4 years of experience taking charge of multi-million dollar accounts. When I went on-site on my first consulting project, my counterpart was surprised to see a 25 yr old manager. In traditional software companies, it takes years to reach to this stage. Not so here.

Handling such a large responsibility so early boosts your confidence. This is one of the first things you'll notice when you talk to any Trilogian - no matter whom you are talking to, person oozes confidence. And this confidence is very vital to make you believe that you can take on the world. The first ingredient of a startup.

2. Learn at your own risk
At Trilogy, there's hardly any hierarchy. There are very few people above you and even less to guide you. Assigning you a task is like throwing somebody to a pool to let him/her learn swimming. That, in my opinion, is the best way anybody can learn the tricks of the trade. It may not be best for the company, sometimes people make mistakes leading to big mess, but a person learns best from experience, especially from their own failures.

Taking risks, making mistakes and learning from them is a crucial part of startup cycle. Only those who are able to embrace this, survive.

3. Master of all trades
Another hallmark of job at Trilogy is that there are no specialists. Every developer is supposed to write their own test cases, be it unit tests, integrated or performance tests. If there's something wrong with the database, go and fix it yourself. You are supposed to write customer documentation on your own for your feature. Everybody knows the full process of a deployment. We actually used to take turns. Every once in a while, we used to assign a person who to checkpointed the source code, fire the build, run all test cases, certify the release, and send release email.

This process produced people who were master at everything and didn't hesitate to get their hands dirty no matter what the task. And this skill is very valuable in startup context. You are your own admin, database specialist, marketing guy, tech guy.

4. Great People, Great Ideas
Trilogy recruitment process was termed as one of the toughest in the industry. In fact, when some of the bigger names (read Amazon, Google) started their operations in India, they used Trilogy as a hunting ground for their recruitment. "Great People" used to be one of the core philosophies at Trilogy.

What this strict recruitment process did was that it created a pool of very smart people. And when you have lots of smart people around you, you learn a lot - even if you are the smartest. Some of the toughest problems in the industry get discussed and ideas flow like water in a river. Solving tough problems becomes a habit. If somebody need any ideas for a startup, get your ears to those corridors.

Also, it was a small company. Revenue per employee at Trilogy was one of the highest in industry. Nobody can afford to sit idle. It had people who got things done - one of the essential traits for anybody involved in a startup.

5. Entrepreneur Spirit
Trilogy had this unique fresher training program called Trilogy University. It was a work-hard-party-hard kind of atmosphere. One of the hallmarks of this was the TU project, where freshers used to come up with ideas around running a new business. They had to think of an idea, pitch it to the CEO, and execute it in 6 weeks time. It was very much like a startup. The whole experience was like a startup school - you learned how to come up with new ideas, evaluate them, pitch it, get customers, make money out of them. Even if many of them didn't went on to become success, you got to learn what works and what not. Now if you pitch your idea to anybody out of this "university", be prepared to answer tough questions!

Successful People, not just Successful Company
In my small career, I got to work in only one company. I never got a reason to change. I loved my life back there, it was so much fun. And perhaps this is one of the reasons it took me so much time to come out and start something of my own! I am glad I did both - got skills that prepared me for my next assignment.

I am sure there are other companies out there which have similar environment. There are more startups coming out of India and they have equally good ideas around making people successful, not just the company. After all, a company can be successful only when its people are successful.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The "Coolness" of Beta Websites

Many people ask me why MSI is an invite based site and not open for registration. After all, being a startup, shouldn't increasing user base be one of the goals?

Even more people mistake it as planned marketing strategy, citing Gmail as an example. The concept being that an invite only registration adds to the "mystery", making people curious and wanting for more.

While this concept worked for Gmail, with people auctioning the invites on eBay, I doubt it was meant to be this way. As a marketing strategy, I guess it's quite a risky one - you are trying to increase your user base by limiting it! Moreover, this concept can work only for a few products, products that are extremely good that can create a hugely positive word of mouth publicity. In that case, I am not sure why would any company whose product is that good would resort to this strategy. If it's good, it would anyway become popular. Also, after a few companies this out, the whole concept itself loses the novelty - quite a number of things look good only the first few time.

People tend to forget that the concept of beta is older than Gmail, or Google itself. And so is the concept of invites. I remember Netscape and Windows inviting people to try out their products before the final release. While Google is the one who made betas "cool", they are also the one who most misused the concept with betas running for years (Gmail is still in beta, after more than 4 years!)

So why are products invite only (or in beta)? While I can talk only about my startup, I think these concepts apply to others as well.

The main concept behind a closed beta is that the product is still in early stages and not ready for a full release. There can be bugs. Maybe the feature list is not complete for a good user experience. Perhaps the UI is not as nice as for a production ready product.

But if it's not ready, why release it at all? Why not wait a little longer for product to finish? Because for any product to be successful, you need feedback, from actual users for whom it is meant for. However, not all users are forgiving. If your product is not ready, they may get turned off. Worse, write a bad blog turning off even more users. So you release it to a limited set of users. You can always find a few users who are more tolerable. They can ignore a few blips here and there if they like the idea and see the potential. They are ready to invest their precious time to try and help you in your initiative.

When should you open up? Well, short answer is when it's ready. And readiness varies from product to product.

In case of MSI, I define readiness as user getting excited enough to "use" our site. When a user joins our site, we have an expectation as to the level of activity. We certainly do not expect users to log in daily - we are a travel portal and people don't think about travel everyday. But we do expect users to add their past trips, upload photographs, maybe write a review or two, send out mails to a few friends. When our users do that regularly, I would call ourselves successful and would signify time to open up. Till that time, we'll prefer to stay as beta and keep improving.

Where are we on that goal now? Not quite there. One of the feedbacks we got while we sent out the last few invites was that entering old trips was long process. Clicking "Enter past trip" button for each trip was not the easiest thing to do. We resolved that by upgrading Travel Map so that you can just click on the destinations you've been to and a trip would automatically get created thereby significantly reducing the time to load your past trips. And new users would automatically be sent to this page as part of registration. We'll observe user's behavior on this feature and see how it's going. If you are one of the users of our site, do let me know if it helped.

One another important thing that we are set out to do as part of beta is to encourage people to write about their travel experiences. While there are ways to do it currently, I feel they are not appropriate for a number of travelers. Not everybody wants to maintain a blog for writing travel experiences. Maintaining a blog is very intimidating and many people give up after a post or two. Travel is supposed to be fun and writing about it should not come with burden of maintaining a blog. We want to provide a comfortable setup for people to share experiences. While this is a long-term goal, I am happy to say that we have been seeing some success with it. Two of our users (Anshul and Shobhit) not really known for their writing in past have written about their experiences, for the first time - here and here. If we can do that on regular basis, it would be a great success for our site.

These are some of the tweaking we are doing to achieve the goals we have set out for ourselves to open up.

These days beta is synonymous of "cool". But one should be wary of misusing it. It should not be used as an excuse for inferior product. It is easy to get complacent on the beta tag. The earlier you get out of it, the better. You should set goals for your product to come out of the beta tag. That is best not only for your product but for your users as well.