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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!”.
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.
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.
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 7 Inc to discuss some strategic opportunity. Apparently our legal counsel was also a legal counsel of 7 as well and he thought we could be a good fit into 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.
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.
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.
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
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 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, 7’s team was satisfied with our asks and we were satisfied with the terms of the deal and their plans post-acquisition.
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 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 7 as a Director of Engineering and I joined as a Director of Product Management.
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.
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.
As a startup founder, I observed that there are really 4 core resources that I work with every single day –
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”.
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.
I was discussing with one of my friends about our temptation about starting a startup in hot markets. Here are my brief thoughts on it –
In my opinion, at any given time, there are always more than 1 hot markets. “Real-time web” is one, so is “social-gaming”, and so is “iPhone apps”, and so there are many. The key is — you pick one market, and keep pushing your idea in that market. It’s easy to get distracted by other hot markets all the time. It’s very tempting to switch to other hot market just because few others became successful in that market. But when we notice such successes, and realize that it’s a hot market, there are many others who also notice it and realize that it’s a hot market. Also, after we switch to that market and before we really start making our impression into that market, it might be over competitive and too late, unless we’ve that kind of expertise and speed of execution.
I think the key to win based on hot market approach is — we need to be pioneers or early adopters of that market. We can’t be too late in the game. I think 2–3 years is late. But just being pioneers or early adopters of any hot market does not guarantee any success. It’s our relentless belief and persistence to stick into that market until people start believing that market might make us successful. We can’t just hop-around to hot markets before we really execute for long and well in one market.
On the other hand, I’m not saying we should completely ignore the trends of hot markets. The best strategy might be to see how can we leverage those trends for our existing idea and market. We need to see what we can learn from other hot markets, and how can we bring similar experience to current ideas. There would be more innovative opportunities on the intersection of two or more hot markets.