Interviews & Columns startup lessons

Published on September 5th, 2012 | by Saurabh Pandey

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9 Startup Learnings You Should Not Miss!

Harbinder Narula is an online and mobile VAS specialist who has served at various senior levels with companies like Google, Times Group, Buongiorno and Aryty. He was the first business development hire for Google India where he initiated the GOOG short code on mobile and then went on to lead Content Partnerships for Google in India. His aggressive partnership approach set the launch pad for an early launch of YouTube India. Prior to that he also launched the Indiatimes Voice service across various telecom operators in India. In his last corporate role he was the Head of Operator Business for a VAS company called Buongiorno. About two years ago he started his first venture which he recently re-structured and exited. While he is recovering from his entrepreneurial stint and awaits his next corporate move, he is spending time mentoring start up entrepreneurs, consulting with companies looking at doing business online and authoring a book.

“I left my cushy job about two years ago to become a full time entrepreneur. After working with companies of varied sizes and nature, I took time off to pursue my dream of setting up my own enterprise. This has been one of the most humbling experiences in my life till now and this short journey has taught me a more than what I had learnt in my past career of 15 years.

I thought it would be a good to list an account of my learning based on my first entrepreneurial journey. I am listing my learning as my suggestions to anyone who intends to start a business.

Don’t waste your time in creating that “perfect” offering: I am not saying that you should not aim at achieving perfection or don’t focus on quality, but it just delays your launch and the opportunity may be high-jacked by someone else in the market. Also, we try to perfect the product / service based on our own assumptions of what the user wants. Get your product out and market response will help you perfect your product / service.

Grab that space: If you are launching an innovative product / service, grab that space. Announce your entry. Try and position yourself with the market leader and focus on the innovation. Try spending time with the journalists and bloggers who focus on that industry domain. Give demos and share your thoughts and passion. Note: Please remember that your innovation or offering should be news worthy. PR is something that you cannot go wrong with.

Don’t overstaff: One of common problem with people who leave their well paying jobs during mid career is that they assume certain things as granted. One of the most dangerous things is to start hiring people reporting to you to do things for you. This action stems out of the fact that we start taking our self worth for granted on the basis our last job. We start assuming our self image / value and start believing that certain things are not worth our time. We assume that our necessity to do things ourselves is low and we start hiring a support team. This is one big cause of increased cost and depletion of funds.

You don’t necessarily need a proven team: We tend to believe that proven teams comprise people who have worked with large corporate and brands for the last couple of years. Some of these guys could have been pure lucky. Believe me, it is a different ball game when you are playing with someone else’s money while your own income is secured. Proven teams to me are people who are self-starters not backed by brands, but most of these guys are busy with their own ventures. While building my next business, I would rather go with young, inexpensive people who are hungry to achieve results. Larry & Sergey did not have a proven team when they started Google. Don’t get into the trap of “hiring” a proven team just because it appears be the important thing for attracting VC money. Believe me; VC looks at a proven team that has skin in the game, so for them it is the Founder and Co-Founder(s) that comprises the proven team. I would even go a step further and say that your product (even if it is a proto-type) and the go-to-market plan must showcase the “skill” of the team rather than large brand names mentioned on a piece of paper next to their names.

Do not ask everyone for advice: Select the people whose advice matters to you and stick to it. Don’t ask just anyone or everyone for advice on what you should be doing. Each one has his/her own experience basis which they will guide you, while your circumstances and nature could be very different. They do not know your business better than you and sometimes it is just difficult to share your vision in the manner that they will understand. Also, you cannot trust everyone with your business plan. I would think it is better to carefully select a mentor and one or two advisors with whom you can discuss your business. Ensure there is no conflict of interest. I would also think it is wise to share some small token stake. People work more willingly for their own interest.

Don’t insist on a VC fund to sign a NDA: Venture Capitalists are approached with various business plans each day. Some of these could be similar in nature to your business. It is unfair to believe that no one else could think the way you think and VC should not meet anyone else because they have met you. When I joined Google, I was bustling with ideas, till such time that I saw many of my, so called “unique” ideas, had been in the development stage, if not already developed and scrapped ;-) by others.

Focus on cash flow: Nothing is more important in a start up than having enough money to pay your bills. This means that you structure your business and deals with short business cycle and payment terms. It may take time for you to get profitability but in short term, having cash to keep the operations live is important. Keep the costs low. It is important that the founders take just the lifestyle fee instead of their market salary till such time that the business attracts funding that is enough to be able to afford that. While I say this, I also believe that founders must pay themselves first. You are the only indispensable employee of your company till it has grown and has investments from third parties. Also, how can someone focus on business while his biggest worry is to pay his rent and provide for food on the plate for his family?

Set realistic & measurable goals: While it is good to plan for the Rs. 100 crore milestones, it is equally important (if not more) that you focus on how to achieve that first Rs. 1 crore. I have seen that when we keep our ambitions very high, we tend to spend as if we have already achieved that target and alienate ourselves from the reality. Break your large ambitions into small and short time milestones and track them.

Focus on sales: A person like me who have the passion for creating new products and taking them to the market, get carried away with the picture of creating that “perfect product” that we keep delaying the sales process. Nothing is more important than bringing in revenues. So keep your focus on sales and your product can keep getting refined and evolved, in fact even better with continuous customer feedback.

One last piece of advice for budding entrepreneurs is that if you have a dream then live your dream and do not operate from the fear of failure. It is more fulfilling to live with a business which has not taken off than to live with regrets of not trying. Your business does not fail, it’s the way you do it that fails.”

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