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17 Things Newly Hired Product Managers Should Do In Their First 90 Days

A friend of mine recently joined a big company as a Sr. Product Manager after heading the product at an early stage startup. He asked me how should he go about joining a big company, which will be very different in culture, pace, processes, and expectations perspective compared to his early stage startup.

I was surprised he asked me that question as he is an experienced product manager himself with 5+ years of relevant product management experience under his belt. In any case, I shared my thoughts with him and then thought I should expand it more and share it with the larger audience so that all newly hired product managers, irrespective of their position, may find this useful too.


Here are few tips (mostly in the order of its priority) on what you should do in your first 30 to 90 days as a newly hired product management professional in your new company —

1. Be excited

First and foremost, you need to be excited about joining this new company and the new possibilities. You’re going to meet new people, work on new products, and solve new problems. So bring your excitement to the office every day. There will be a lot of information overload and at the same time a lack of clarity in the early days. So unless you’re excited and motivated to come to the office every day, it will be hard to navigate through this haziness.

Also, your colleagues will notice your excitement and enthusiasm. They will understand you are there because you’re interested in the problem they’re solving and want to make a difference and not just to earn yet another paycheck.

2. Understand the vision and strategy of the company and your product

Your understanding of what the company is doing and what is their vision will be limited based on just interview conversations with them. So you need to dig deeper and make sure you truly understand their vision and strategy.

Talk to the CEO or VP of Product and understand the vision and strategy at the company level. Also, talk to your manager and peers to understand the vision and strategy at your product level.

Make sure you’re able to connect the dots between your product’s vision and strategy to the company’s vision and strategy. If you’re not able to connect the dots, then discuss in detail with your manager or VP of Product to explain how your product aligns with the company’s vision. That clarity in alignment is absolutely crucial to make sure you will be spending time on the important and required things.

3. Meet 1:1 with as many relevant people as possible

Make sure to meet every single person from your product development team — not just the leads or managers, but every single person.

Identify which other products your product is dependent on. Accordingly, meet other product managers and engineering leaders of those products as well.

The success of a product is not only dependent on the product builders (Development, Design, etc.), but also on the business functions of the product too. So meet with all key cross-functional leaders like — Marketing, Sales, Finance, etc.

The common theme in these meetings should be — introduce yourself, but more importantly, learn about them. When did they join the company, what do they do now, what do they enjoy most, what do they hate most, what do they expect from your product team and specific from you, is there anything you can help them in the short-term, etc.?

4. Write down as much as possible

Take good notes. Everything will be new to you — people, products, processes, acronyms, etc. So take good notes when you’re meeting people 1:1. It will come handy in future as you start executing.

It would also exhibit your disciplined and detail-oriented execution approach to your colleagues.

5. Build relationships

Don’t treat 1:1 meetings as a one-time checklist item. As they say, it’s a people business. Continue to hang out with your teammates at lunch, coffee, or any casual occasions and build the relationships. It will be a lot easier to get things done from people when you’ve good relationship with them.

But make sure you don’t abuse your relationship. Be authentic. Everyone is smart. They can smell your fake or aggressive tactics. It takes months to build a good relationship, but it would take minutes to destroy it.

6. Understand the culture — mend or bend as necessary

While talking with people, learn how do they work —

  • How are decisions made — authoritative or consensus?
  • What gets rewarded — results or efforts?
  • What is preferred — pace or perfection?

This will help you understand what’s the true culture of the company. Culture is not what’s written on the “About Us” page of the corporate website or some posters hung up on the office walls.

Once you understand the culture — decide what you want to mend and when do you want to bend. As a newbie, you will find a lot of things different, inefficient, and broken. But resist the urge to fix everything.

First, try to understand the context and history of why certain decisions were made in a certain way. Accordingly, decide what you absolutely need to mend based on your product goals and vision. Sometimes, some battles are not worth fighting, at least in the early days of your career, so just learn to bend during those situations.

7. Be a power user of your product

Based on what kind of product you’ll be managing — a consumer product or a B2B/Enterprise solution, there will be a different level of easiness to access and play with your product. In either case, setup a demo of your product—and be a power user.

Observe everything — friction points, delightful experiences, wow moments, bugs, lack of documentation, etc. Make notes of these observations and discuss with your design and engineering leads about shortcomings and understand if this is something already known to them, and if it is on their roadmap or is it something by design a particular thing was done in a particular way.

Your goal is to not fix everything. It’s to understand your product in and out — what are its strengths and weaknesses, the reason why it’s designed and engineered that way, etc.

8. Understand the nuts and bolts of your product

Once you become a power user of your product, it’s time to understand the mechanics of your product. Meet with the engineering leaders and architects to understand the basic building blocks of your product —

  • How data flows end to end?
  • How your product interacts with other products in your company?
  • Why was this architecture chosen vs other?
  • Why was a particular tech stack chosen?
  • What are the limitations of a current solution?

At the end of this exercise, you should be able to draw a high-level architecture on a whiteboard.

While understanding the past and current mechanics of a product is a great thing, it will be equally important to understand what will be its future. Make sure you get some inputs on —

  • What new architectures or technologies these engineering leaders are considering to use in the near-term future?
  • How will it help to achieve the desired business outcomes?

9. Understand your product’s metrics

Get access to your analytics system and understand the usage of your product. Understand which metrics are most crucial that defines the success of a product. Don’t just look at the numbers, but ask your manager “why” certain metrics are they way it is. It will help you understand how your customers behave.

If there are certain insights you want to know and if those are not available, then discuss it with your manager and see if can you add it. It will accelerate your learning of the analytics and reporting system inside your company.

10. Get in front of the customers or users

Numbers will tell you “what” is happening — like which product is growing, or which feature is not working. But it will not tell you “why” is it happening — why certain functionality took off or why no one is using a certain feature.

The best way to learn these things is to get in front of the customers or users. You can be a silent listener on meetings scheduled by other colleagues, attend any usability research interviews, listen to customer support calls or read customer support emails/chats. Your goal should be to understand why certain customers are happy vs some are frustrated.

11. Deliver or ship something

Once you understand what’s working well and what’s not and why it is so, look for any low-hanging fruit that can provide high value. Ship and deliver the end to end functionality and announce it to the customers who needed it. Make sure to measure the impact of that functionality and report it to management.

By shipping and delivering a functionality end to end — however small it is — even a bug, you will be exposed to a lot of processes (security reviews, tech support trainings, etc.) and systems (infrastructure, monitoring, etc.) in the company that are required to ship any feature or a product. This will be a much faster way to learn things than reading hundreds of documents.

12. Achieve or exceed your goals

Once you start shipping some features or new product releases, you’ll feel the momentum of day-to-day execution. But make sure you’re not just spending time on checking off the product backlog items. You need to achieve important goals too and show that you’ve moved the needle.

At the beginning of your joining, ask your manager what’re her expectations from you. What 1 or 2 goals you should achieve by the end of 90-days and what should be its success criteria? And then make sure you focus on these 1 or 2 goals and do your best to achieve those. Ideally, you should aim to exceed these, but since there is a lot going on, simply achieving those would also be great. In general, having a goal-driven mindset is more important than simply getting things done.

13. Develop your execution frameworks

Once you learn how your company works, what are the top sources of inputs for feature requests, what is valued more — vision or customer requests, etc., now it’s time to define your own frameworks for execution.

These are frameworks for —

  • How do you prioritize requested features?
  • How do you do quarterly roadmap planning?
  • How do you communicate product updates with the internal team, cross-functional teams and even customers on a regular cadence?
  • How do you run your sprints, retrospectives, and demos?
  • How do you handle any escalation situations, etc.?

The more you’ll have clarity and disciplined approach in handling these things, the more effective you will be in your execution. You’ll be in a driver’s seat rather than just getting driven by everybody.

14. Read market research and industry insights

By this time, you should have a good understanding of your product — what problems it solves, who has these problems, how does it solve it, how well it solves it, etc.

Now it’s time to start looking outward and learn —

  • In which domain your product gets categorized by analysts or customers?
  • What is the landscape for the underlying technology you’re using?
  • What are the key next technology trends or consumer mindset shifts happening?

Subscribe to some of the newsletters, start following few blogs, take any online courses, or buy books and learn as much as you can about your industry and it’s future. You will be able to provide a lot better recommendations in overall product strategy and future roadmap.

15. Develop a point of view

Product managers without a point of view will be just project managers — who will get things done that have been told by the upper management. But if you truly want to drive a product, then you have to have some point of view, unique insight, and some foresight about the market shift and next trends.

90-days is a good period to learn about the market you serve, your product’s strengths and weaknesses, competitive landscape, technology trends, etc. Once you have all this information, your job is to synthesize it and develop your own point of view. You need to able to clearly articulate —

  • What’s your product’s core belief?
  • What will your product stand for? How will you position it?
  • What will you do and not do in your product?
  • How will your product be different compared to competitors?

16. Educate and inspire the broader team

As you start researching about the industry and future technology trends, share interesting and relevant articles with the broader team. This is an opportunity to inspire your team by sharing with them they’re working on something that’s going to be the future of the company and going to improve the lives of many customers.

You can also share articles or podcast episodes about the best product management practices and processes that other companies are following. Be the catalyst to bring good practices in your new company.

17. Have fun

The most important thing — don’t forget to have fun! Enjoy new learning. Celebrate wins and mini-milestones. Embrace mishaps and failures. Make friendships and laugh. If you’re not having fun in what you’re doing, then it would be very hard to give your best.


While this may not be an exhaustive list, I hope I covered most of the key areas. And I hope this will help you make a great impression and build a great rapport with your team in the first 90-days of your new career.

☞ If you enjoyed reading this article, then please tap or click “♥︎” below to share these thoughts with others.

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Why Do Many Smart Engineers Fail To Build A Successful Startup?

Recently, I had a couple of friends reaching out to me to discuss their startups’ progress and get some advice on how to take it to the next level. In all these interactions, there were some common patterns –

  • Most of the founders are smart engineers and some of them have worked with Google, Amazon, eBay, Oracle, etc.
  • They have a B2C (focused on consumer) product, which didn’t have any transactional (i.e. user paying in some form) business model
  • They have been working on it for over a year and have a working product or technology, but are struggling to get users and increase the engagement for their product
  • They are first-time entrepreneurs

What surprised me the most is — while there is so much content available on the internet today about how to start a startup, how to follow a lean methodology, how to do a customer validation, how to build viral hooks in your product, how to implement various growth hacks, etc. but still, these entrepreneurs are making the same mistakes that many entrepreneurs have made 10 years ago.

My hypothesis is —

  1. These entrepreneurs are not investing enough time in learning as much as possible from others’ experiences by reading books, blogs or listening to podcasts and avoid some common mistakes
  2. They are not able to let go who they are and what background they came from (engineering) and grow into a new role (founder), which is required to build a successful product and a company

To build a successful software company, there are 3 skills that are essential in the founding team —

  1. Building a great technology
  2. Building a great product
  3. Growing your users/customers

After talking with these smart engineers I realized— they had largely focussed on #1 but weren’t giving enough attention and importance to #2 and #3.

If you are a great technologist and aspire to build a technology product company, then either you grow from an engineer to a product manager/designer, and eventually into a marketer/sales person based on if it’s a B2C (consumer) or B2B (SaaS or enterprise) product or have someone on the founding team who is specialized in these skills.

As an engineer, the technology innovations you’re doing are really admirable and absolutely essential for a startup. Being a smart engineer is the greatest asset you can have in this startup world. Every other “idea” guy wants you to be on their team to make their idea a reality. So by no means, I’m belittling the value and the need of having strong engineering members on the founding team.

But I want to emphasize the need of having someone with strong product sense and/or great marketing/sales skills as well.

If you don’t prefer to have someone with product design/management in your team, then you will need to play a role of a product manager/designer to truly understand your users/customers and build something they want and solves real problems.

And eventually, you will also need to become a marketer/sales person and reach out your target users/customers, talk to them and convince them to use/buy your product, and eventually know how to do it at scale and do it repeatedly.

Just because you are a great engineer or technologist, don’t assume you can build a great product.

And just because you are a great product manager, don’t assume you can build a viable business.

There is a difference between a technology and a product — most people confuses this. And there is also a difference between product and business.

Typically, technology is an applied science. We build new technologies using some of the breakthroughs in the science world to achieve some objectives — i.e. to make existing things (technologies) faster, cheaper or better (larger, smaller, last longer, etc.)

On the other hand, a product is an applied technology. We build products using multiple technologies to solve specific problems that a user faces or tasks she wants to do.

And in the end, a business is an applied product. You need to take your product and reach out to your target users/customers and have them use it, which helps you generate a sustainable economic value.


As an engineer, we gravitate towards building great technologies. Making that code run even faster, improving the performance and accuracy of that function, etc. And some engineers are really good at that. And that’s why they get hired at some of these great companies, who have built some of the greatest products for mass consumers. But just because these companies have shipped great products, the engineers who work at these great companies start believing that they can also build great products on their own.

While that’s absolutely possible, it doesn’t come handy without you putting any efforts towards achieving that goal. If you are a smart engineer and eventually want to build a great product too, then your existing technical skills are a great asset but are not sufficient. You will need to invest considerable time to achieve those product and business skills as well.

I would recommend learning these skills –

  • Consumer psychology
  • User experience design
  • Prioritization
  • Communication
  • Business acumen

Let’s dive into each one in detail –

Consumer psychology

If you aspire to build a product that is not only useful (solves a real pain point) and usable (effortless and intuitive to use) but also delightful (that creates happy emotions).

You will need to get into user’s head to understand what specific problem they want to solve and what specific outcome they want to achieve, what effort it takes for them to do that, what emotions they feel after they achieve that outcome, etc.

Once you understand the consumer psychology very well, you will nail the product that will resonate with them very well and chances of them using it actively and recommending it to their friends will increase drastically.

User experience design

As per Wikipedia, user experience design (UXD or UED) is the process of enhancing user satisfaction with a product by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction with the product.

The last part is very important — “interaction with the product”.

This is the most common mistake engineering founders make — they confuse UX Design with UI Design (User Interface Design). UX Design is a more analytical and research oriented, while UI Design is largely about graphic and visual design. While both are crucial, nailing the UX design (usable) is more critical than the UI design (look and feel).

UX role is quite complex and challenging. It involves consumer analysis, competitor analysis, product strategy, content strategy, wireframing, prototyping, usability studies, etc. So I’m not suggesting you do this everything on your own and become an expert in this. But if you understand what each function does and practice some aspects of it, then it will go a long way.

At the minimum, to provide a great user experience, focus on the lifecycle of a consumer who wants to use your product. You need to understand what they do in their life before they use your product and after they use your product. And repeat that exercise few times. This will help you understand your target consumers’ life really well to build a product that fits into their lifecycle.

Prioritization

Another most important skill you will need to learn is — prioritization.

As a technologist, you get sucked into optimizing things that are not required on the day one. You tend to build advanced technologies in-house instead of leveraging off-the-shelf services from the 3rd party providers. You believe that that’s your core IP and needs to be built in-house. You argue that 3rd party providers are generic platforms and won’t be as effective solving your specific use case. While that all is true, it’s still a mistake to optimize for these things before you even have any product-market fit. You can always build advanced technologies in-house as you start scaling.

I recently learned this from DJ Patil’s Twitter update

  • Dream in years
  • Plan in months
  • Evaluate in weeks
  • Ship daily

And –

  • Prototype for 1x
  • Build for 10x
  • Engineer for 100x

And –

  • What’s required to cut down timeline in 1/2?
  • What needs to be done to double the impact?

This is such a great prioritization framework that forces you to focus on delivering maximum value at minimal wastage. You will need to learn to be ruthless in your prioritization for all activities.

Communication

While this may sound very obvious and cliche, but written, verbal, and nonverbal communication skills are actually the most important traits you will need to master to gain credibility as an effective and trustworthy founder.

While you might be great at explaining technical details extremely well to your peers, now you will need to communicate the problem, the value and the benefits of your product to various different stakeholders — potential teammates, advisors, investors, prospects, clients, etc. You will need to wear a different hat every single time based on who is in front of you and communicate effectively in multiple languages — executive, development, strategic, tactical, etc.

Your written and spoken communication is going to be an absolutely crucial skill for your sales or marketing efforts. You will need to communicate what value your product delivers and able to align those benefits to the problems prospects have shared and eventually influence them to use or buy your product.

And don’t forget, you will need to be equally great at “listening”. Sometimes you’ll learn more when you’re actively listening as much as you are speaking or writing.

Business acumen

While this is a broad topic, having business acumen boils down having a minimum level of expertise in strategy, finance, operations, marketing, and sales. You may not need to be the expert in any one of these skills, but while communicating with advisors or investors, you will require some level of fluency and confidence in these business languages.

You will need to understand the basics like —

  • what’s the unit economics — how much it costs you to serve a customer?
  • what’s your business model — transactional, subscription, revenue-share, or ad-based?
  • how much does it cost to acquire a new user/customer (CAC)?
  • what’s the market opportunity — what’s the total available market (TAM) size, what’s the serviceable available market (SAM) size, etc.?

Now you might say, for a smart technologist by profession, learning all these skills means deviating from their core focus. While that may be true, the key question is — do you want to continue to stay only as a technologist or do you want to grow into a founder role?

There is nothing wrong with staying as a technologist throughout your startup, but then make sure you have someone on the founding team who has a great product sense and a strong business acumen.

But if all founders have technology background, then make sure at least you have someone in the founding team who wants to grow into a product manager and eventually into a business operations/marketing/sales role.

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2016 Retrospective and 2017 Goals

I have never written any retrospective blog posts or shared my new year goals on this blog before. So this is a new tradition I’m starting. There are a few reasons why I thought it would be an interesting exercise to do –

1. Get back to blogging

It’s been a few months that I wrote something on my blog and I have been wanting to start writing for many days. And since we’re at the junction of ending of 2016 and beginning of 2017, I decided to get back to writing by doing some retrospective of my life and planning for the next year.

2. Get effective in my life

As a Product Manager by profession, I have been doing Agile Retrospectives with my scrum teams at the end of every sprint. As a part of the process, the whole scrum team reflects on their execution in the sprint and discusses how to become more effective in their execution and adjusts their behavior accordingly. We typically discuss different topics and categorize them in one of the below buckets –

  • what worked well that the team should continue doing
  • what did not work well that the team should stop doing
  • what’s missing that the team should start doing

So I thought it would be very valuable to do a similar exercise for personal life for 2016 and based on that decide what are the plans for 2017.

3. Be accountable to my new year plans

By sharing my new year goals and plans publicly, I will be accountable to achieve these goals and write a similar retrospective post at the end of the next year.


Below are the key activities that I pursued in 2016 and for each activity, I categorized it if I want to continue doing it in 2017 or stop doing it in 2017 and if there is anything new that I want to start doing in 2017.

Health

My most important goal for 2016 was to become physically fit. And it wasn’t about just doing 10,000 steps/day to achieve a Fitbit badge, but really push my physical limits and get stronger. So I started doing the P90X3 routine. If you’re not aware of it, it’s 30 minutes a day all body workout routine for 90 days.

When I started it for the first time, I could only do it for 30 days, and then something happened and I couldn’t continue. Then I again started it for the second time and I could do it for 60 days. Then again something happened and I couldn’t finish. Then finally, in the second half of 2016, I started it again for the 3rd time, and I could finish all 90 days.

I think collectively in the entire 2016, I must have exercised 7 months. Ideally, this should have been 9–10 months. But I’m still happy with the strength and fitness I’ve achieved so far. By no means, I’m a very strong person yet, so the ultimate goal is still not achieved.

So I will continue to do P90X3 in 2017 as well and my goal would be to exercise at least 10 months in the entire year.

Reading

When 2016 started, my goal was to read a book a month. It wasn’t a very hard goal, but somehow I still couldn’t achieve it. I barely completed reading only 3 books and 2 books are still in progress. I never prioritized reading books and didn’t allocate any dedicated time every day. Instead, I read a lot of articles shared on the web whenever I used to find some leisure time in between different activities.

Books read:

Books in progress:

Obviously, I will continue to read in 2017 and my goal would be still same — to read a book per month.

Blogging

I didn’t have any specific goal for Blogging when 2016 started, but I knew I wanted blog actively. Unfortunately, I wrote only 7 posts in the entire year. I definitely failed in showing consistent discipline for blogging.

For 2017, I will continue to blog and my goal would be — at least a post per week.

Podcasts

In 2016, I got addicted to podcasts. I probably listened to 200+ episodes from different hosts in the entire year. I learned a lot about different people, various topics, sometimes inspirational stories and sometimes tactical advice.

I have already shared which podcasts I’ve been listening to.

I will continue to listen to podcasts in 2017 as I absolutely love them and my goal for 2017 would be to listen to any podcast for at least 20-30 minutes/day while commuting.

Sleep

In 2016, I wanted to sleep well every day — at least 7 hours a day. Overall I believe I achieved that goal, and it definitely helped me to have fewer health issues and have better focus and energy during work days.

I will continue to have good sleep as a priority in 2017 as well. Even though I’ve more ambitious plans for 2017 in general, I’m making a mental note to not compromise on this activity.

Programming

As I started my professional Product Management career since last 4 years, I pretty much stopped programming. That was a big mistake. I should not have stopped programming altogether. While I don’t need programming skills for day-to-day work, but I’m a builder at heart and enjoy software development. In 2016, I thought I will start coding again and will build some software for fun, but I couldn’t prioritize it. I barely started coding a little bit at the tail end of 2016.

So I will continue to start programming in 2017 and my goal would be to build a meaningful software application by the end of 2017.

Music

I wanted to learn guitar since my college days. I tried learning it a couple of times, but have never been consistent in continuing it. In 2016, I was inspired by my nephews and decided to start learning guitar again using self-learning process. I started watching videos on YouTube, used few iPhone apps and started learning and practicing playing guitar. I did that for a few weeks but very quickly realized that I have other important priorities on my plate and I was running too thin on commitment on different activities. So I decided to stop learning guitar and put it on the backlog.

Unfortunately, in 2017 as well, since I have other important priorities, I will have to stop learning guitar and put it on the backlog.

Outsourcing

One of biggest mistakes in 2016 was outsourcing my old part-time software project. Since this project has paying customers and there were a lot of bugs reported and new feature requests asked, I outsourced the development of this project to an offshore development provider in India. But overall it was a very bad experience.

Partly it was my mistake. Since I did not have a lot of time, I did not give detailed attention to those developers. At the same time, those developers took advantage of that, which ended up in longer development cycles, unethical behavior, and extremely poor quality software. I wasted significant money and was completely dissatisfied with the outcome. The short-term benefit in the cost savings with a cheap labor turned out to be an expensive mistake in the long term.

I will definitely stop outsourcing anything in 2017, especially when I don’t have time to micro-manage them. Either I will learn to do things myself, or hire quality resource locally or just say “no” to any such activity which requires outsourcing.

Startup Venture

In 2016, I did not have any goal to start my own startup. So there is nothing much to retrospect here.

But for 2017, my goal is to start a new venture. The thoughts are still in early stages, so I still need some time to get more clarity. I will be spending some time in early 2017 to learn new technologies, explore few domains, meet few people, and tinker few concepts. I’m personally interested in exploring artificial intelligence domain, but if I’ll find a meaningful problem to solve in that domain is a different question, which I will continue to explore.


While this may sound a lot of goals, if I want to prioritize only top 3 goals or focus areas for 2017, then they would be –

  1. Family
  2. Health (Exercise + Sleep)
  3. Startup (Venture + Programming)

These are the “big rocks” for me. The rest activities like Reading, Blogging, Podcasting, etc. are the “pebbles”. (Learn more about Big Rocks, Pebbles and Sand).


If you’ve read until this point, then I would request if you have any suggestions for me to improve my thinking, or help achieve my goals, then please free to comment or send me an email at aditya dot kothadiya at gmail dot com.

Also, if you haven’t already done any retrospective for your 2016 and planned your 2017, then I would highly encourage you take a moment and think about it and write down what worked well and what didn’t in 2016 and what are your plans for 2017 — if not publicly, but at least for your own benefit.


Wishing you all a very happy and prosperous new year 2017. Hope you all crush your 2017 goals! Fight on!

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The most important attribute to become a leader

A couple of days ago, a senior leader at my company gave me really good feedback on what I need to do to make sure other people continue to look up to me as a leader. I took his feedback positively and started following it right away in my day to day routine and instantly saw the difference between my actions and results. So I thought I should share his advice with a larger audience as it might help people who want to become a leader too.

Before I share the advice, let’s understand the context.

I was in a sandwich situation — on one hand, I was managing one of our strategic client’s stringent requirements and on the other hand, I was dealing with the constraints provided by one of our big technology partners. We had reached some deadlock situation on 3–4 items where the client wanted specific functionalities that the partner was not agreeing to support.

I couldn’t resolve that deadlock situation, so I bought some additional time. I then scheduled an internal meeting with few executives to get their advice. In that meeting, one of the leaders listened to all pending items and instantly shared his point of view and gave his final decisions on how to resolve these situations. Everybody in the meeting agreed with his decisions, so the meeting got wrapped up quickly.

After the meeting was over, he asked me to wait. He said he was surprised to see that we had to schedule a meeting for this, especially when I was handling this situation. He mentioned that he had normally seen me handling these kinds of situations on my own, but was surprised to see why I failed at it that time.

And then he shared some insights with me –

People will start looking up to you as a leader when you take a decision and own that decision.

It doesn’t matter if the decision taken is right or wrong as long as you take the decision. Generally, management expects you take more right decisions as you get more experienced, but it’s completely acceptable if you take a few wrong decisions too. What’s not acceptable from leaders is — not taking any decisions.

His feedback was spot on to me. Normally I’m good at it, but for that instance, I had missed it. I didn’t need management’s advice or permission. I could have just taken the decision and informed the management about it later on. And if they would have thought I took the wrong approach, then I would have sought for the forgiveness.

After that meeting, I already faced with new situations where I had to take decisions. My default urge was to go and ask upper management’s feedback on what is the right thing to do. But then I paused every single time thinking about — what decision I would take if I’m the ultimate decision maker in the company. So I started taking the decisions and owning it. This had helped me tremendously in last few days to make faster progress.

Again, if you’re a leader, there are a lot more other attributes you will have practice in your day to day life. But if you are getting started and want other people to start looking up to you as a leader, then the first thing you’ll need to do is to start taking the decisions and own them. It is the most important attribute you will have to practice to become a leader.

Seek for forgiveness, not for permission.


Originally published at aditya.kothadiya.com on June 5, 2016.

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Startup & Entrepreneurship podcasts I’ve been listening to


I try to read a lot — mostly blog articles, books, and even e-books. There is no doubt that reading helps you get smarter, improve your vocabulary, explore new ideas, etc. I mostly read about topics which are relevant to my personal and professional development and articles that add positive impact in my life, stories that inspire and motivate me to do something great. I avoid reading daily news about politics, entertainment, etc. unless it’s a really critical news. But since last year or two, in addition to reading, I’ve been addicted to listening podcasts too for my personal and professional development.

Podcasts are mainstream now

While podcasts have been around for about a decade, I personally experienced that they’re getting mainstream since last few years since they’re getting extremely convenient to consume. Podcasts are to the radio industry as blogs are to the mainstream media. Anyone who is expert and passionate about any topic can create a regularly updated content and publish a podcast. You can find thousands of podcasts which are well produced, inspirational, educational, and entertaining.

Unlike reading blog posts or watching videos, which require someone’s full attention, podcasts give listeners a flexibility of multi-tasking. Listeners can subscribe to specific podcasts, auto-download new episodes, and listen whenever it’s convenient for them on their smartphones while doing some other mundane chores. Every day, I listen to somewhere between 30–90 minutes podcasts while commuting to the office (25–35 minutes each way) and exercising (30–40 minutes).

The one overarching reason I listen to podcasts is I learn stuff. As they say, we’re influenced by what we see and hear. It’s a way of exposing myself to the influences of people who are smart and successful. I’ve found them highly inspirational and educational. I’ve learned how to form healthy habits, how to be more productive and efficient, how to start, run and grow a business, how to manage relationships, how to write better content, etc.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying podcasts are a substitute for reading books or blogs. It’s just a different mode of consumption for a different kind of content. Podcasts don’t give visually rich experience if you want to put the faces in front of names, or see things in picture or action. So there are some things which I still prefer to read at my desk while some things which are better to consume while I’m driving.

Podcasts I listen to

So here are few podcasts that I listen to actively. These are my interests of topics, which are skewed to Entrepreneurship, Startups, Product Management, Part-time Businesses, etc. But you will find podcasts on pretty much any topic that interests you.

Entrepreneurship


Mixergy

Andrew Warner’s mission is to introduce you to doers and thinkers whose ideas and stories are so powerful that it will inspire you to build something on your own.


Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders

Weekly podcasts from Stanford University regarding entrepreneurship — hear straight from entrepreneurs and innovators share their stories.


Dorm Room Tycoon

Hosted by William Channer, a British designer, founder and journalist, this podcast is a show that interviews the world’s most influential innovators in business, design, and technology.

Startups


This Week in Startups

Hosted by Jason Calacanis, an entrepreneur turned investor interviews some of the most influential names in the entrepreneur and startup communities in order to provide inspiration and advice for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to grow their startup.


The Rocketship

Every week this podcast chats with successful entrepreneurs on how to grow a startup — topics include self-funding, raising capital, product development, and customer acquisition. These podcasts are packed with informative content that every startup founder needs.


The Startup Chat

Unfiltered insights and actionable advice straight from the trenches of startup and business life. The show hosts, Steli Efti and Hiten Shah, are both serial entrepreneurs who have founded multi-million dollar SaaS startups.


How To Start A Startup

Sam Altman and the folks from Y Combinator offer up an amazing course in “How To Start A Startup” at Stanford. This isn’t typical ongoing podcast, but a one-time course.

Ecommerce & Part-time Businesses


My Wife Quit Her Job

Steve Chou interviews successful e-commerce entrepreneurs that all bootstrapped their businesses and most of them in part-time while working at their day jobs.


The Side Hustle Show

Hosted by Nick Loper, this podcast is for part-time entrepreneurs who are looking for business ideas, actionable tips to start a business, and killer strategies on how to turn their side hustle dreams into a growing business.

Product Management


Inside Intercom

On the Inside Intercom podcast, you will hear the team from Intercom interview makers and do-ers from the worlds of product management, design, startups, and marketing.

I hope you will find this resource useful.

Of course, I’ll continue to add more podcasts to my list as I discover interesting podcasts. If you have been listening to any great podcasts recently, and would like to recommend to me or my audience, then please share it in the comments area.


Originally published at aditya.kothadiya.com on March 20, 2016.

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For startups, development is easy, distribution is hard


In the last few months, I have had many friends reached out to me to share their interest of starting a software startup or getting specific feedback on the app they’re building. Every single time I ended up asking them less about their product or app, but more about how they plan to reach out to their customers. Very rarely I see people have thought about it well, so I ended up emphasizing to focus on that activity a lot more than getting too excited about amazing things their product or app can do.

After sharing similar feedback a couple of times, finally I decided to jot down my thoughts. Most of these thoughts are pretty obvious for second-time founders, and most of the first-time founders must have also read these thoughts somewhere else, but I still think it’s critical to emphasize it again.

Trends in software product development

Over the past 5 years that I’ve been building software products, I have seen these two trends –

The speed of building a software product is getting faster and the cost of building it is getting cheaper.

And by a software product, I mean — an iPhone or Android mobile app, or any SaaS or consumer web app, etc.

Development is easy

  1. The availability of languages and frameworks has sped up the development and made it easy for non-technical folks to learn how to code. The advent of step-by-step tutorials, video courses make it even easier to just follow these courses every day and make concrete progress in building a real software.
  2. The cost of hosting is going down. You no longer need to purchase any servers. You can leverage managed hosting services like AWS and Digital Ocean, and spin up few instances of different services as you go. All you need is a development machine.
  3. The cost of building core technology is going down. You no longer need to build every single functionality required for your product in-house from scratch. You can leverage platform services who provide sophisticated APIs for pretty much any kind of functionality — starting from Payments, Email, Telecommunication, Analytics to Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing, etc. There is even a term for this — The No Stack Startup.
  4. Processes like agile coupled with continuous integration and deployment have reduced iteration cycles, encouraging to ship smaller features on an incremental basis.

In a very generic sense, it is getting a lot easier to build a software product. All you need is an idea to solve a problem, a laptop to build the software and willingness to build it.

While this is all true, during the same time, building a business around your product has become harder. And by building a business, I mean — marketing, sales, support, etc. And by harder I don’t mean the “discouraging” harder, but “noisy” harder.

The hardest part nowadays is getting an attention of your target customers for your software.

Distribution is hard

  1. Simply put there are a lot of products out there, which create a lot of noise in the market. In order for people to find your product, you have to have a clear value proposition and find the right channels to broadcast the message of what you do!
  2. Now broadcasting your message has become easier with the advent of Social Media tools, but in general, Marketing has become very noisy. There is a plethora of marketing techniques including SEO, Content Marketing, SMM, etc. Everybody is creating so much of content every day to increase their SEO, drive leads to their marketing pages, etc., it’s getting harder to make your voice stand out.
  3. While Marketing has become harder, on the other hand, selling has become comparatively easier with the advent of so many CRM, inside-Sales tools, cold emailing softwares and techniques. Now that’s a good news for you, but then that’s a good news for your competitor too. So it’s getting comparatively harder to make your cold email compelling to act compared to your competitor’s cold email. So in the end, even selling seems become harder.

Product and distribution need to go hand in hand

To build a truly successful company, either you build a remarkable product that sells itself or have a good enough product with remarkable distribution channels. But if you’re starting a company for the first time, then the odds of having a remarkable product hit are quite low. On the other hand, it’s lot easier to build a good enough product as explained above, but without great distribution channels, it wouldn’t matter.

It’s very critical to have a strong focus on distribution channels from the day one of your execution. The way you keep getting excited about your product every day, you need someone in your team who gets equally excited about different distribution channels and need to come up with lots of ideas to get your product in your target customer’s hands.


Originally published at aditya.kothadiya.com on October 11, 2015.

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The biggest lie startup founders tell about marketing

Recently I watched an interview of a small but growing and profitable startup, where the interviewer asked the Co-founder about how they have achieved this growth so far and what are their future plans? To that, he replied — “We haven’t spent anything on the marketing yet, and we’ll continue to not do so for a long time.”

The biggest lie startup founders tell to the world is — “We haven’t spent anything on the marketing yet!”.

Of course, I wouldn’t share the name of this company as I admire what they’ve accomplished so far with a small team. But this post is not about that company only. I’ve seen many startup founders tell this lie during their interviews and their startup’s PR outreach.

The reason why everyone is so tempted to tell this lie is — they want to tell the world that how awesome their product is and how fast they are growing, and that too all “organically”.

Are these founders mistaking Google AdWords or Facebook Ads as the only form of marketing?

If that’s the case, then the correct statement would be — “We haven’t spent anything on Paid Advertising yet.” And I can buy that argument as it may be true for many early stage companies.

The key mistake these founders do is — they’re not accounting the time they are investing on all other marketing channels apart from these paid advertising channels.

Sure, you’re getting a lot of SEO traffic from Google for free, but haven’t you also invested your development time in building SEOable pages, URLs, etc. solely for marketing reasons?

Sure, you’re getting a lot of traffic from Facebook for free, but haven’t you also invested your time in building those viral features and gaming mechanics in your product for marketing reasons?

Sure, you’re getting a lot of word of mouth traffic, but haven’t you spent time in building that Dropbox like two-sided incentive referral program for marketing reasons?

Sure, you’re getting a lot of conversions from your site’s landing page, but haven’t you spent lot of energy in that content marketing blog post and having a kick-ass product demo video on your site?

I can go on and on, but you got the point.

Next time when you hear someone says they are not spending anything on marketing, simply ignore that bullshit and make sure to not repeat that mistake.


Originally published at aditya.kothadiya.com.

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Here is how we sold our startup — Shopalize

As mentioned previously, I was on a hiatus for more than two years and didn’t update the world what I was up to in that period. A week ago, I met my school friends after a long time and they also didn’t know about my whereabouts. I shared some of the details with them but thought I should share it with the larger audience — specifically not only what happened but also how it happened and what lessons I learned from that experience.

Two years ago, in March 2013, my co-founder Manish and I sold our two years old startup Shopalize, Inc to [24]7 Inc. It took four months to sell a two people company with a series of activities like talking on hour-long phone calls with advisors and lawyers, writing carefully worded emails, passing technical due-diligence hurdles, and negotiating tedious legal terms.

The tl;dr

Every time someone learns that we sold our startup, the first question they ask is — “how did that happen?”. And most of the times, my answer is — “I got lucky!”.

The beginning

Shopalize was started four years ago as a Social Marketing platform for eCommerce retailers. For the first year, I self-financed the company using my savings and working out of my home. I didn’t have the proper experience of building Web software applications, so learned it on the go while building it. Few friends helped me in the part-time, but it took me almost 9 months to launch the beta version of the product. My plan was to launch it in 6 months.

Once I had the beta version to show to people, I started getting more interest from potential co-founders, advisors, potential customers, etc. As they say — a picture is worth a thousand words, and a prototype is worth a thousand pictures. With the beta version ready, I was still searching for co-founders who could join me full-time. I met Kris (now a friend) in a startup meetup, who joined me full-time as a co-founder to help on the sales side. He helped to get the first customer and taught me how to run sales operations. With that first customer, we were officially launched.

Post launch, we got a dozen customers in the first couple months, but we still had not proved the product actually works and delivers the value as promised. The product lacked many things from the functionality, stability, and capability perspective. In fact, it was broken for a large set of users. There were many incidents where I was embarrassed as I didn’t know how to fix those issues and had to figure it out on the go.

Then almost a year into the business, Manish joined us as a third co-founder to accelerate the product development efforts so that Kris can focus on sales activities and I can focus on both customer success and product development activities.

The grind

With the team of 3 people, product in the beta stage, and few customers on board, we decided to raise an angel round. Our advisors invested some money and kicked off our fundraising. With that little financial help, we hired few contractors in India to help us accelerate the product development efforts.

Over the next few months, the product started getting better, we started showing results and ROI to our customers, and we started getting confidence in our product. Kris and I started closing more partnership opportunities, Sales leads, and overall we started seeing our customer base was growing. We had started making some revenue to cover our operations and contractors costs, but we were still not paying ourselves.

Meanwhile, we started seeing many competitors popped up in that space with seed funding raised. We were worried about growing competition and were struggling to get good attention for our fundraising efforts. We believed in what we were doing, but we didn’t have strong growth or product market fit yet, or substantial revenue to prove that we were onto something big that was in high demand.

We discussed other options and decided to halt the fundraising efforts and continue building the business by being scrappy and nimble. We decided to grow monthly revenue to $10K-$15K before raising a seed round. We knew that achieving that kind of revenue with small size customers was a long grind, so we decided to focus on mid-sized enterprises with the bigger deal size. We started getting good interest from few mid-size companies. We thought if we could get few such customers then we could bootstrap our business and could survive for some time.

But selling to mid-large enterprises means you have to invest more in product and technology from functionality, scalability, stability, and security perspective. We thought it was the right thing to do and worked even harder to make our product and platform better. On the other hand, it was taking a lot longer to close the enterprise deals and we were getting impatient as we were running out of money.

Meanwhile, Kris decided to pursue some other opportunity. It was a big loss both mentally and physically. We struggled for some time but eventually managed to get back on the track. I took the responsibility for sales and Manish took the responsibility for product development.

The introduction

Sometime in November 2012, I received an email from our legal counsel that he wanted to meet me. He tried to understand what our business do in detail and then he suggested to introduce me to a CEO of [24]7 Inc to discuss some strategic opportunity. Apparently our legal counsel was also a legal counsel of [24]7 as well and he thought we could be a good fit into [24]7’s vision.

In general strategic opportunity always sounds exciting as it could be an acquisition offer or a partnership opportunity. But since I had not heard about this company before, I wasn’t sure what to expect out of this meeting. I looked at their website, read press releases and tried to understand what they do. I did not think that it could be an acquisition opportunity so ruled out that option. Now for partnership opportunities, in theory, a successful partnership with a larger company could help your company get more customers, but in reality, partnerships are rarely a real thing as either large company is buying your technology to sell to their customers or you are buying their distribution channel. But more importantly, in early days of startup, these things eat up your time and energy. So I wasn’t really sure what would be the outcome of that meeting, but I was looking forward to meeting and learning.

The offer

I met with the CEO and after quick initial introductions, the first thing he asked me was — “Do you know <one of our competitor’s name>?”. I said — “Yes”. Then he asked me — “How are you different?”. Normally, if this would have been a potential customer, I would have answered with my typical differentiation points, but I somehow I didn’t think this was about them buying our solution for their usage, so I responded — “Product wise, we’ve pretty much very similar offering. Company wise, they’re much larger, and we’re just 2 people company.”. He responded — “Ok, if you have a similar offering, then we would like to acquire you.”.

I was shocked. I wasn’t prepared for him to let the cat out of the bag so quickly. He hadn’t even looked at our product demo. On the other hand, I was impressed with the fact that he didn’t waste anytime in any irrelevant discussions and jumped on the main point straight away. He asked if we would be interested in selling the company. I said we would be open to offers but weren’t not actively looking to sell the company. Given that we were just getting started with the enterprise customers, we thought we had a revenue making potential ahead of us and there was no need to sell.

But I tried to understand in detail why they wanted to acquire us, what exactly they wanted to do with our product & technology, how did they see we fit into their company, etc. He explained everything and I was impressed with their vision and plans for using our technology. He also asked me about our future product plans, fundraising plans, etc. and asked us to demo the product to their larger team in the following week.

The demo

We were invited to demo our product to key execs from Product, Engineering, and Data Sciences departments. By this time in our business, I had given many product demos to potential customers, but this time though, it wasn’t only about selling the product, but it was also about selling the company, the people, the vision — pretty much everything.

Meanwhile, our advisors and investors coached and mentored me on how to present, what to emphasize, how to connect with executives, etc. It was a huge help. This shows the importance of having the right advisors on your board.

When we walked into the room, there were around 10 execs to hear it. A 30-minute demo turned into an hour or two hours discussion. During discussion, I kept questioning myself why the heck a 500+ people company wanted to acquire a 2 people company, and why they couldn’t build what we built in-house.

But based on their questions during the product demo, I realized that we were experts in our domain. We had data about our product, our customer engagement, what had worked, why it had worked, etc. They didn’t know all of that. And they didn’t want to waste their time in learning that from scratch.

In the end, I thought they were impressed with our product, our knowledge, and realized that we were also impressed with what they do and were excited about the future.

The negotiation

Post successful demo, I was invited in a following week to hear the financial details of an offer. The first offer was extremely low, so I pretty much declined right there without taking it to discuss with my advisors or co-founder. I had a certain range in my mind, so was not ready to sell Shopalize anything below that range.

After a few days, we got another revised offer, but it still wasn’t in the expected range, plus it also had some clauses. After few back and forth negotiations, we agreed on the financial terms and signed what’s known as a term sheet with the intent to purchase. Once a term sheet is signed, a deal is happening unless something horrible happens during due diligence.

The due diligence

[24]7’s team sent over a list of hundreds of technical, legal, and business questions that we needed to answer for the deal to go through. What type of technology, libraries, database had we used? Had we used any open source softwares? Did we have IP assignments from every contractor who touched our code? How did our billing system work? How did we make money?

Tracking down document after document was really tedious work. And during this time, we had to keep our business running as normal, and keep the whole thing a secret from our contractors, friends, etc.

On the technology due diligence side, we had to integrate our product with their technology stack to prove that it could be easily integrated and deployed to their clients as it is with minimal changes once we come onboard. So we had to make quite a few changes on our side to make that happen. Luckily, we were smart enough to do only changes that we thought were anyways needed for us to make our product ready for the enterprise-grade customers, and we pushed back on all the changes that we thought were custom requirements for [24]7’s specific environment.

On the legal due diligence side, we had to do lot of negotiations on various different clauses, but after series of negotiations, heated exchanges, and counters, [24]7’s team was satisfied with our asks and we were satisfied with the terms of the deal and their plans post-acquisition.

The closing

In the end, our lawyers conferred with their lawyers. It was agreed that after months of due diligence, we had signed all required documents and all closing conditions had finally been met. Then money was officially transferred to our accounts and we were part of [24]7 Inc.

Overall, it was actually a great outcome for all of us involved in Shopalize. Specially for my co-founder and me it was a life-changing event. The financial rewards were great, and if I ever want to start another company, every piece of that process will be easier. Also, we had received a jump in our professional career in terms of roles and responsibilities. If we would have continued the same employment path instead of taking the leap in entrepreneurial journey, we would have never achieved what we’ve achieved today. My co-founder joined [24]7 as a Director of Engineering and I joined as a Director of Product Management.

The thanking

Post acquisition, the one thing that I’d been planning for more than few weeks was how to announce the acquisition on Facebook with my friends and family members. I wanted to share with them that there is a hope in taking this crazy entrepreneurship route if you work hard (and get lucky), you can make your mark in the Silicon Valley’s startup stories. While writing it, more than announcing the outcome, I ended up thanking every single person who helped me in this journey starting from wife, co-founder, part-time helpers, advisors, etc. Without their support, guidance and trust, we would have not accomplished this outcome.

The hope

By no means, we had the greatest outcome compared to other Silicon Valley’s success stories. But my hope in sharing this story is that at least people who know me and follow my blog can relate themselves with me personally, and can believe that if I can do this, then they certainly can. With that belief, I hope more people will take the leap of faith to start more great companies and in the process they’ll become great leaders.


Originally published at aditya.kothadiya.com on March 1, 2015.

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Startup resource management


As a startup founder, I observed that there are really 4 core resources that I work with every single day –

  1. People
  2. Time
  3. Money
  4. Knowledge

Each one has different level of importance and value at different stage of the company. All these resources are associated with each other in some way. Sometimes one is dependent on the other, and sometimes they’re exclusive to each other. Here are few examples how they’re associated with each other –

  • You may spend more money to save time, or you spend more time to save money.
  • You spend more money to get more people, or you have less people since you can’t spend money.
  • You get more people to do things in less time, or you take more time to do things due to shortage of people.
  • You can do more things in less time if you’re knowledgeable about it, or you need more time to do things as you don’t have prior knowledge about it.
  • You need to spend time to acquire knowledge, or you don’t acquire knowledge since you don’t have time.

You got the idea.

The point is — you’re constantly making decisions between these 4 resources and trying to figure out which one is more important than the other at that given instance. Sometimes you take rational decisions, and sometimes you take it based on your gut. But as a founder, you need to master the art of prioritizing these resources and understanding the importance of each resource at the different stage of your company — and that’s what they call — “execution”.


Originally published at aditya.kothadiya.com on July 2, 2012.

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How to provide the best customer service


I’m sure you’ll find hundreds of articles if you Google how to provide the best customer service. Those articles will be full of tips and tactics, disciplines to follow, software tools to use, etc. This post is not about tips or tactics. It’s about a simple philosophy. Ok, I’ll not stretch too long, but here is a simple secret to provide the best customer service –

Treat your customers the way you want to be treated by other businesses, and you’ll be naturally providing the best customer service.

That’s it. Ok, I understand you might ask why do I believe this simple philosophy works. Let me share my recent experiences with you. In last month, we released monthly subscription plans to our appointment reminder software product. After launching these plans, I started getting more emails from customers regarding feature requests, pricing concerns, issues they’re facing, etc. Since that product is still majorly operated by me, I answer all of these customer support emails. And I follow one simple philosophy — put myself in the shoes of the customer and answer emails or treat them the way I want someone to treat me. That means writing detailed emails on how to solve the issue they are facing, or giving them extra free credits when inconvenience is caused, or refunding their money if they’re not happy.

Here are some of the testimonials we received in last 2 weeks –

“P.S. You provide excellent customer service. Thought you would like to know that.”

Here is one more –

“This definitely calls for me “advertising” for this app on my Facebook and twitter sites. That’s about 320 friends right there. And I can convince many of them that you guys have a price range for them, as u have many plans! so hopefully I can bring you more business. You deserve it PLUS I will be sure to let everyone know that you’re ALWAYS HERE for us with your first-class customer support. I know everyone appreciates that! ;)”

So far so good…but you might say that how this will work when your organization gets bigger…and you’ve to hire customer support professionals. Same thing. Just give your customer support professionals freedom and sense of ownership of your company. Just tell them that treat your customers the way they want to get treated by other businesses. Ask them to use common sense more often that some rule book.

Recently I experienced horrible customer service experience from American Express, ICICI Bank and a local Thai restaurant. At all these places, the customer support representative was just following the corporate guidelines, was thinking their profit, and was not really concerned about how customer was feeling. They had limited authorities to resolve my issues, and had common answer that they don’t have permission to fix certain things even though they thought it was right thing to do. They had to involve their supervisors, who also weren’t much of any help. Their apologies were also very fake and scripted.

It’s very valuable to get a new customer, but it’s extremely important to satisfy existing customers and make them your loyal fans. And the only way to do that is to be authentic and treat your customers the way you want to be treated.


Originally published at aditya.kothadiya.com on January 10, 2012.