Category Archives: Start-ups

Leadership Lessons From The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

In my last blog I talked about new normal and how things have changed in post-COVID era.  The following blog para-phrases key leadership lessons I picked from the movie about William Kamkwamba The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind .

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a movie based on William Kamkwamba’s life in Africa and how he saved his village. After just barely being able to go to school, the dry season hits, leaving his parents poor and their farm dead. Even though he technically still isn’t supposed to be at school, William sneaks in after the morning assembly as to go by unnoticed. He did this because he was inspired by the dynamo on his teacher’s bike. Eventually, he was discovered and kicked out of the school, but since his sister was secretly dating his teacher, William essentially blackmailed him into letting him use the library. Later, he makes a model windmill, and after a lot of persuasion, he got his father to sacrifice his bike so that he could make a larger windmill. This windmill fuels a well and keeps his family farm out of the dry season all year.

Once you give this movie a watch , there are aspects of leadership and execution William exhibits which are noteworthy in these testing times of pandemic and beyond.

Iterative approach to problem solving

William’s approach of solving the problem was iterative – a quality which was essential for him to be what he is today a – Malawian inventor . When you iterate & build prototypes then you get a sense of what you are working on and how it can be scaled. From paper to reality , do not forget to iterate else one never knows what is missing in the puzzle to solve the problem. William started from a book which inspired him to make the windmill , proved that it works to his friends and then took the moon-shot for to build the real windmill. In current pandemic vaccines will come through by doing more test and trial , one needs to keep iterating through it at a fast pace and collaborate globally.

Creativity In Frugality

Current pandemic crisis has shown that one does not have luxury of options and if you are not going to be creative , then it will be struggle from sustaining your meals , work & personal life. You can quickly go out of control & whether it is a drought in Malawi which forced William to think about a solution or current pandemic , it has same forbearance of the impact it has on humans. William is known to have constructed a wind turbine from scavenged parts.  You might be used to seeing something fancy but here is the image of William’s windmill. 

330px-William_Kamkwambas_new_windmill

Lead By Example

It is always important to do lead by example . One can have a idea but it is not relevant unless you prove it and show it that is a workable idea with some more effort. In William’s case, he researched how dynamos and windmills work before he tried to get hands on with them. Had he not done that, he would have been at risk of breaking the dynamo. It is important to be confident about your plan and how you intend to get it through with others. In current pandemic situation leaders in any capacity do not have to just be bearer of information but will have to embrace it themselves more than ever.

Team Is Important

When William Kamkwamba decided that it was time to get things to work, he had to make his friends understand that without them, he would be damned. You need a team that is on the same page as you are. It doesn’t matter if it’s only one person on the team! We have to have a team and work as a team for an effective response to the pandemic. Any kind of of discord will not help cure , save and protect lives !

Need To Be On The Problem

Persistence is important part of problem solving , if you loose heart then you will not be able to solve the problem. Iterations will bring heart-breaks and failures but one cannot put them in front of solving the real issue at hand. One needs to persuade different people at different levels in order to meet with a successful outcome. If William didn’t have the skill of persuasion, his father would never have let him use his bike. And he would have never persuaded his sister to convince his teacher to give him the dynamo.  In current crisis one needs to communicate broadly and effectively. It is also important to remain on top of the problem and organize the teams to deliver towards a successful outcome.

I hope these reflections are useful to my readers who are trying to tackle various types of issues at different levels. If you have any thoughts to share , please do not hesitate to write back to me or post a comment!

Lessons From France v/s Argentina Game

Being a week-end it was easy to catch-up on FIFA World Cup games and what more than to see France and Argentina fight out. It was an outstanding game where team dynamics accompanied with individual caliber led to France edging Argentina out.  While it sounds sad and a heart-break for many Argentinian fans , one has to respect the game dynamics which led to this. Football is truly a team sport that reflects on how team dynamics can impact the outcome.

While having a objective is important for a team to deliver but it is not enough to make the team move. Here are some picks from my side while watching the game on how it could have meant a totally different result.

  • Lesson from fourth Goal : Check out the video
    • Planning : Mbappe was left unchecked , when he had already scored earlier in the game. The sheer agility at which this individual was making through defense lines was amazing and the ease with which he played it out! There was no struggle on his face , but he was left unmarked or almost given a free run. What happens on the field needs to be constantly analyzed to course correct and respond to changes around you. Initiatives if constantly not monitored , planned and observed can never meet desired outcomes. 
  • Lessons from being a star performer
    • Being a star performer comes with lot of burden. The constant limelight just kills it. People look upon you for being a role model , leader , planner & strategist .. almost everything. I think so at the end of the day it was too much for Messi. I guess somewhere the man was made to look bigger than mission. You can never be bigger than the mission itself , because then the focus on mission goes away. Yes you can be important to mission but portrayed or deemed bigger than mission for an initiative is not positive signs for success. 
  • Playing in decentralized approach
    • You got to do the best on what you do. A lot was seen from what the French side was trying to achieve. Players like Pogba , Mbappe were living the game with their own stride , doing what they knew best for the game and orchestrating a run through Argentinian defense.
  • French Teams fitness level
    • The speed and agility showed by the French made them look ready for the mission. They were making runs within 15 minutes at speed which Argentinians could not match with their skill or talent. When getting into an initiative you need to be very critical whom you pick for it as that can make or break your ability to succeed. You also need toe ensure that skill alone will not play it out , one has to be make it work !

Reflections By Steven Sinofsky

I chanced to read following article Steven Sinofsky on Building Your Product Team  published on the MixPanel blog. It had some great insights  which , I  have captured for my readers and fellow companions who cross their path with product management.

From the above blog

Steven Sinofsky is known as one of product management’s earliest champions. In fact, he was at Microsoft when the company invented “v. 1.0” of the product manager career path.”

While I read through the article , I made this story come out more as my questions in mind as reflections followed by relevant portions from the blog as excerpts.

Why did product manager came into existence?

What is the world beyond developers , testers and marketers? , do they make the whole picture…The answers to that is “no” . We need people who can act as “Pivot” & iterate on the product instead of the marketers , who in turn should worry about demand generation.

Steven states that “Microsoft needed a role that helped making changes further upstream. That way, there would be people who could facilitate changing the code, and minimise big fights”

What value product managers add?

Product managers help achieve intersection between customer feedback and how it impacts the codebase. The role demands ability to glean data and generate focus to mobilise the group towards most high value generating activity.

Steven reflects as “product leadership to be deeply personal, something that must scale within the product manager as the product scales”

What can make a product manager successful?

It is very necessary for a product manager to have deep understanding of the product & more so if the product is a software , then technical acumen becomes very important. In addition to this having ability to manage people and channelise their thought process is a very relevant soft skill that they need to possess.

Steven mentions in the blog that “knowledge helps facilitate a discussion. It makes one run through higher-level strategic thinking. It is important to understand the argument being made and then have a healthy way to address that.”

In Steven’s words “Skills in technology, user experience, and empathy (with internal team members and customers) are prerequisites that can be honed and trained. While building your expertise as a PM requires a mastery of all three areas, it’s important to remember that you’re never “done” building your skill set”

“There can be millions of debates that need to be addressed but sensing the meta-level information about the conversation – is the best entry point for problem solving.”

I think that is what makes a transaction based mind-set differentiate from a strategic outlook.

Startup Culture or something else …

We have & continue to observe numerous articles as well inspirational content on how one should have start-up culture , mindset or spirit. All in different dimension & context.

Irrespective of maturity business model & age of enterprise , it has become a fad to call oneself having a start-up mindset or calling the enterprise itself a startup. You might have seen in lot of interviews we do talk about this to prospective candidates  & as well the candidate would ask ” Are you a successful startup ”  ! Well if in first place it was successful then would it now be an enterprise that carries different set of goal & vision ? images

Bunch of like minded people come together , they put an idea into action and try to solve a problem. That is start-up. Passion drives them to solve the problem whilst they figure out other aspects that drive stability & security. For them to guarantee anything beyond themselves is very hard and in fact even for self , it is a challenged science. Over  a period of time they may be successful or may pivot to do something else.

The journey changes on being successful , problem statements change and there are other things to worry about but not the the core business model as such. They would have figured out how to make money , it is like a child growing and going through phases of life. Startups upon success grow to be enterprise and diversify in the way they operate finding niche in successful business model.

So how does then one address the question of passion in enterprise..according to me that has to do with three things ..Autonomous way of thinking creatively and executing in agile manner to discover edge in your business. 

Start-up to enterprise is a journey from survival to sustainability. Therefore it is only a stage in a journey taken up by individuals or bunch of passionate people.Subtle but important difference that can change your approach on how you tackle business problems.

Start-Up Operations…What Works

While I was sitting back and enjoying a cup of coffee , I thought to reflect back on some of the exciting things that I have done in my previous roles…objective was to try and come up with common elements running across these experiences that enabled me to deliver successfully.

success-and-failure

Generally I have worked for start-up operations under flexible governance structure. Somewhere in between tried hands on two failed start-up concepts…one was a rock solid product but lacked marketing whilst other was a services idea , which lacked commitment of time from partners ( including me ) , anyway some of the other successful things which I did were in domain of start-up operations where I made strategy win with execution…

Broad themes of my start-up operations experience were / are linked to ( many more to come 🙂 ) :

  • Working on product architecture to take windows based software to web
  • Setting up IT services for a leading online company’s customer care software
  • Taking back control of new product development unit
  • Reviving a dead product roadmap and executing development strategy
  • Moving into new markets

My idea is not to get into specifics what I did in these but bring out what worked:

  • Be quick to list your customers ( internal / external ). Creating a business flow and pegging customers are various points , will allow you to identify your goals.
  • Create team structures relevant to that goal. Hiring and structuring a team is very important aspect of making a start-up operations successful.
  • Hire smart and few people to start with. Early in game you don’t know how things will pan out. Go for candidates that can adapt to change and multitask. Keep the team lean so that agility is not lost , even if the unit has to stretch in early days.
  • Goals will keep changing , but solve for it by reducing their time horizon. Start with weekly , moving to monthly , quarterly as things pan out. Keep it very closely knit with business goals and then pan it out as a balance between personal / business goals for individuals.
  • Focus is very important. At all times maintain focus at your level as well at team’s level. There will be distractions but , focus will allow one to beat the distractions and keep marching in forward direction.
  • Continuously Build – Measure – Learn , to allow for quick changes in system , people and process.

Lean Management

When things start to grow in start-ups and they groom themselves as organization , it becomes very important for top management to quickly change their lens of how they view or get involved with the complicated layers of business.

If one can view through three simple lenses of strategy , process & operations , businesses can manage collaboration with collective development of strategy along with the senior management but always vest the right with owner of business to take final call.

One looses agility or tends to , as things grow across functions and expansion is non-linear. Counter this with process which focuses on culture and management style aimed at implementing lean management which will reduce complexity of decision making process and allow senior management to take calls in larger interest of business.

Some of these may ruffle feather with rest of the organization but then exercising final call and empowering help you retain your start-up spirit and still be able to grow into complex business operations. Delegate responsibility of day-to-day operations through your senior management and let your ‘A’ team execute by getting out of their way.

Social Entrepreneurship

Given how fast the world moves , this is an old article , which I picked up in Mumbai Mirror…At a discussion hosted by FICCI’s women cell , Chairperson Parvathy Ramaswamy was presiding over & in that session three women from Dharavi narrated rousing story on how they pawned their mangala sutras to build savouries business. These ladies received standing ovation from the 200 strong audience in that function.

It is a reflection of the fact that we have so many people who are striving to make it big and it goes beyond doubt that from nothing these women have been able to build business and as well support their families. Such causes find many more vocal voices of financial support in India in current times , which allows them to foster. It is true that every body is still not benefiting but on the other hand , it is also hearty to know that there are some who do get the required flip. I use a similar channel to support such causes , although my contribution is not large but still I am trying to make some headway to support through on-line platform of Rang De.

Ant And Start-ups

I am sure many of us would have come across this saying ; “Man must go back to nature for information.” – Thomas Paine . If not , then today , you would :)…

On my lazy vacation last week , I was observing an ant carry past a load more than what it could. We all know by our basic teachings that ant do have that ability. Read more here for details…

When I casually read through some of the details in the article , i caught following points as striking and emulative…

  • The real strength of an ant, or any insect for that matter, lies in its diminutive size. Generally speaking, the smaller the critter, the stronger it will be. It’s physics, plain and simple.
  • Larger animals have a greater disparity between mass and strength. When a large animal needs to lift an object, its muscles must also move a greater volume, or mass, of its own body.
  • An ant need only lift a small measure of its own weight relative to the strength of its muscles.

If you focus on points which I have mentioned above , you would realize that a visual skeleton starts to sketch in your mind of how large organizations behave today and try to remain nimble every day as compared to start-ups that enjoy characteristics of ant. Organizations traverse through a life-cycle of business and transform themselves from being ants to equivalent of animals that try to manage their own strength against the volume of mass ( equate to business ) they want to move.Being nimble is easier said than done.

What If organizations tried to behave like a community with different tribes(business units) and let the tribes behave more closely as nature manages that relationships…the anthropology would may be more in favor of running many start-ups ( goal oriented units ) within a large corporate structure…?