Why do so many startups fail?

This is the answer I provided on Quora….

I am going to stick my neck out on this one….

Most of the answers provided are brilliant and thought provoking – but I think there is something even more fundamental that we should reflect on.

Let me give an analogy of something not all that hi-tech as one understands the term. I heard this story from John Vamos, who runs a successful business coaching company in Australia.

There was once a baker, let’s call him Bob, who worked for a bakery. He was really an outstanding baker, his cakes were so good that people would queue up outside the bakery to buy his cakes before they got sold out. All the customers knew him personally and knew that it was he who produced those wonderful cakes.

But he was just an employee. He got his monthly salary, some annual bonuses and several pats on the back from the owners. The owners did not really value his services as they should have and did not have a strategy to keep him happy and loyal to the bakery.

One fine day, it dawned on Bob that he deserved better. Was he not the one to whom the business owed its success? Weren’t his cakes the main draw for that bunch of loyal customers?

So he decided to start on his own, something like techies tend to do.

He found a great location, set up the best baking equipment for the kitchen and then, one fine day, he started.

Next day onwards, he was busy doing everything that he was not good at…procurement, HR, Admin, advertising, interior decoration, furniture and fittings, trouble shooting etc…The one thing he did not have time for was baking, his passion.

As with those tech startups, one year later, he was once again working for someone else and had a pile of debt that he needed to settle.

Moral of the story – all my very own conclusion – like a lot of tech geniuses and entrepreneurs out there, who unfortunately contribute to the tech startup failure statistics – HE SHOULD HAVE HAD THE COURAGE TO RECRUIT A BOSS….

A lot of my techie friends do just what the baker did…there is nothing demeaning about being a great technical director in your own company and having to report to a managing director who knows how to run the business. They can still own the business through the shareholding but they should realise and accept that it is perfectly all right to let someone else manage the overall business while they concentrate on what they are good at and come up with great products.

To my mind, that is the Numero Uno reason for tech failures…..

Why do so many startups fail?

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Is it true that a picture is worth a thousand words?

 

In immediate effect, surely. It’s the difference between listening to the commentary of a game (cricket, football, baseball…take your pick) on a radio and watching it live on the idiot box. I will take the TV any time.

If asked to tell an audience what I saw while on a trekking tour, I can sit with a Thesaurus and go all wordy to describe a scene I saw but it would be far easier to just use a digital camera and share a picture instead. My audience would instantly understand and appreciate what I saw.

Descriptions take time. Results are not all that reliable. I could spend ages describing the scene and just pray that the audience has grasped what I described. But there is no guarantee of the result. Whether you understood or not depends entirely on my ability to explain and your ability to grasp. A bunch of variable are at play – language skills, IQ, imagination, ability to communicate and ability to assimilate………..

Digital cameras have brought socialism to descriptions – anyone can take a picture and share it. It is no longer the preserve of the Da Vinci’s and the Picasso’s. You don’t need any language skills – when I travelled to places in China, I just needed a picture book. I pointed at bread and got bread. Except for one instance when I pointed at the picture of a bed and landed at a furniture shop instead of at a hotel, it worked just fine.

Oh yes, pictures are worth a thousand words. Definitely. Particularly if you don’t have the words.

But on certain counts, words score higher. First of all, when it comes to replication, words are easier to replicate than pictures. I need a piece of paper, a pencil and the original text and I can replicate the text word for word and achieve exactly the same impact on a neutral person as the original writing itself. No sweat.

On the other hand, in a non-digital world, you give me an original picture and some canvas, some paints, some brushes and ask me to replicate….At least in my case, it would be a lost cause. Totally hopeless. That’s why people who can produce counterfeits tend to be so rich – it needs talent. There is no socialisation of talent. It continues to be unfair.

Now let us look at another advantage I can think of – retention over time.

Let us take an example. There is a field of Daffodils in full bloom. We have some pictures and some words.

Let’s look at a few pictures.

Picturesque, huh?

Would you honestly be able to retain the picture exactly, say a week from now? A month? A year?

Let us go to words now.

We take a look at how someone describes such a field he saw….

Daffodils

BY WILLIAM WORDSWORTH

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

Interesting, huh? I read this poem when I was around 11 years of age. Now, though decades have passed, I still remember the poem – heck no, I remember the daffodil field Wordsworth saw. “What wealth the show to me had brought”. Indeed.

That, my friends, is retention. No image of a picture can ever be retained for so long.

Different situations, different solutions. Not always. Never.

Is it true that a picture is worth a thousand words?

What’s the weirdest question you’ve been asked when crossing an international border?

I have crossed a few borders!!

What’s the weirdest question you’ve been asked when crossing an international border?

Two incidents:

Incident 1:

My wife paints stones and on a recent trip to Malaysia, she collected a few – no, make that “quite a few”, to paint.

This is how they look after she is done with them:

I put all those stones (yet in raw form, of course) in the boot of the car.

When we crossed the border to enter Singapore, the boot was opened by the customs officer to check for dutiable goods. The customs officers know which boots to check since the car with the loaded boot tilts differently when getting over the humps.

He saw that small pile of stones + pebbles and just stood there with his mouth open and his eyebrows merged with his hairline. What are these guys smuggling? For what? He looks at me with inquiry written all over his face, but no words uttered.

Me: “It’s my wife, she paints stones..”

He just shook his head, gave me a sympathetic look and asked me to drive on.

Incident 2:

At Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris. After the usual questions, out of the blue, and in a French accent:

Do you know Amitabh Bachhan?

Yes, I do. But he doesn’t know me…. trust me, it’s entirely his fault.

He waved me on.

What’s the weirdest question you’ve been asked when crossing an international border?

What is something crazy that your neighbor has done?

Based on my actual experience during my stay in New Delhi..

My crazy neighbour in Delhi was a rich guy. No, make that a very rich guy.

I had rented a duplex apartment on the 2nd and 3rd floors of a building and it had a garage on the ground floor. It was a usual sort of a garage, a rectangular space with a rolling shutter. A bulb with a 25W bulb was the only electrical ‘thing’ inside. No automated door needing electricity or anything remotely tech.

There was a meter to measure how much power had been consumed and I was expecting my electricity bill to read 25W into 5 minutes per day into 20 days = “Not worth the administrative effort of billing, printing and payment.” and the payment terms to read “Please don’t create work for us by paying every month. Twice a year will suffice.”

I’m kidding, of course.

Imagine my shock when the very first bill I received was huge. Since Quora has an international readership, I won’t give Indian Rupee numbers and have everyone scrambling for exchange rates. Putting it simply, the amount on the bill was 3,500 times what it should have been.

My crazy neighbour lived on the ground floor, right next to where my garage was. I told him the whole story and he said, just ignore the problem, the electricity company would make some fuss and after some time, the problem would go away. Since I was new to town, he would help me.

The electric company did oodles of follow up for payment. Of course I refused to pay. The electricity company threatened to cut off the electricity to my garage and I responded politely by saying, “Please go ahead”. There were phone calls and letters printed in red – I didn’t notice skull and bones, but wouldn’t rule it out – and I remained firm, no bloody way I am paying and please go ahead and cut the electric supply.

I would buy a flashlight for the garage. Or a dozen.

Then D-Day arrived. The electric company guy asked me if I had any last wishes. Like any guy on the electric chair, I said, Get over with it. I accompanied him down to where the electric control panel was. And my friendly neighbour joins us and starts pleading with the electric company guy not to be so mean, and let the connection remain, these guys (=me!) are from out of town and “we” should be lenient with such newcomers etc. And said the Electric Man to join him in his office, so they could resolve the matter. And gave me a shout saying, “Don’t worry, I will resolve this problem.” I said there was no problem at all to resolve and whatever the solution I would not pay but they went into their huddle nevertheless.

I had also asked another electrician to join me since I wanted my wires to be properly tagged and organised with cable ties etc. He started with his work and tugged at the outgoing cable and finds it stuck behind the panel. He searches to find what is blocking it and finds a splice/joint there. Says the electricity is going some else too, not just to the garage.

I ask him to remove the splice, first taking care to switch the current off and he proceeds to do just that.

Immediately, I hear a shout. The company man and my neighbour came running out of their huddle – you see, we had just shut off the electricity supply to their entire air-conditioning system! The airconditioning in my neighbour’s house was running on my electricity meter!!

Disgusted by what I had seen, I just walked away and went back home. I honestly did not care what happened since I had already settled in my mind for a light-free garage, so nothing that happened below was going to affect me anyway.

Postscript:

The neighbourly neighbour came to my house in the evening with a few bottles of beer. He was a very witty, charming fellow and had always enjoyed interacting with him. This time, I was a little wary because of what I had seen.

He explained that he had been having a problem with electric supply for his air-conditioning since months and just last month, around the time I moved into the apartment, he had called in an expert technician to fix the problem. He said that the expert had fixed the problem and he was happy that the aircons were working fine after that fix but he had no idea whatsoever how the problem had been resolved. Plausible story. I was feeling a little bit guilty for what I had thought about him.

His next question actually set my mind free – Why were you so bothered about the bill? I thought your company paid for it?

What is something crazy that your neighbor has done?

What is the best one-liner you have heard from your physician?

I am hopeful that some doctors will enjoy my brand of humour! “What is the best one-liner you have heard from your physician?”

Answer by Ravi Thatté:

I was living in Indonesia at that time. That’s a country blessed with beautiful outdoors, which are not yet destroyed by “progress”.

During one of those outings, I must have been bitten by some insect and must have scratched the bites. It developed into some sort of ailment that refused to go away with the usual OTC potions and lotions.

I went to see the skin doctor at the nearest SOS clinic in Jakarta. For some reason, he wasn’t available at the appointment time.

Another doctor stepped in to talk to me. Within minutes he had me laughing heartily; he would have been a huge success as a stand-up comedian. Even before he looked at my problem, he had put me in a great mood.

He then examined the problem and said in a very mournful voice – “This is not a skin ailment. Apply this cream and take these tablets and it will go away within a week.”

Then he explained why he was feeling so sad. He said “We prefer having patients with skin problems. They never call you in the middle of the night to disturb your sleep with emergencies. They never die by that illness and they never get cured, so we get a lifelong source of income.”

The laughter that followed cured me. Totally.

What is the best one-liner you have heard from your physician?

What is the most German thing ever?

My answer to What is the most German thing ever?

Answer by Ravi Thatté:

This happened to me very long ago, in a small town in Germany.

I was there on a 7 month assignment in a factory there, during the early 1980’s. After staying in a Pension for one week, I was desperately looking around for accommodation; I certainly could not afford to spend DM 25–35 per day for meals on my daily outstation allowance and badly needed a place where I could cook for myself.

Did I mention it was a small town? And that, it was in the early 80’s? There were only 2 Indians in this township of about 8,000 and the other Indian gentleman was a German citizen, living there since decades.

Rooms were hard to find, and people were not used to dealing with foreigners.

Then a family agreed to rent me a fully furnished apartment within their house. The house was located on a slope and my apartment was in the basement when seen from the front and on the ground floor when seen from the back. It was a terrific place from my point-of-view and the family soon ‘adopted’ me as one of their own. They helped me settle down, aligned their shopping with mine so that I did not have to handcarry my groceries up the hill, helped me with the laundry and introduced me to ways of saving money.

I joined their weekend Wanderungen, I helped mow the lawns or clear the snow, I helped around in the house as best as I could. I helped to keep the Heizung going. I shared sometimes my Indian food with them (which they ate with tears running down their cheeks – and that had nothing to do with emotions.) I was often invited upstairs for breakfast on weekends or an evening Kaffee und Kuchen.

Then one day, Hermann decided that some parts of the house needed a fresh layer of paint. I hadn’t ever done that, so I became his willing assistant, handing out brushes and cans of paint et cetera while he did the painting.

We were soon done and Hermann went upstairs to take one last look at his handiwork before we washed up and feasted on Maria’s cakes.

And it was here that I learnt one of the most valuable lessons in life. And why German products and services are still considered the best in the world.

Hermann called out to me and when I looked up, he was standing in one of the verandahs we had painted earlier. It was clear that he had missed some part on the exterior of the verandah and wanted me to join him upstairs with the cans of paint and the brushes, which I dutifully did.

Now picture this. That spot was not easy to reach – Hermann was leaning over the balustrade and trying to paint over a piece of railing that he had missed and which spot was visible only from that verandah. The verandah was hardly in use – nobody had been to it, at least not during the time I had lived there. Hermann’s face was red with the effort and he still could not reach the spot. He said we would have to get the ladder again and finish the job.

I wanted to see for myself this huge problem that Hermann was so agitated about. So we traded places and I leaned over to see what the problem was. After a bit of struggle, I finally detected it. It was a spot measuring an immense 1 sq. cm and visible only from one spot in the verandah with some effort and that too when doing gymnastics leaning over the balustrade. Definitely not visible from the ground.

So I asked Hermann why he was making a fuss over such a small thing.

“Who can ever see that patch, Hermann?”, I asked.

“I can”, he replied.

Discussion over. There was nothing further to be said.

I was taller than he was and gifted with really long arms. I took the brush from him, leaned over and by stretching, I was able to paint over that 1 sq. cm.

He checked, was happy at the result and the matter was closed.

For me, this fastidiousness about quality is the most German thing ever.

What is the most German thing ever?

Blogging for the second time

Image

This is actually the second occasion I am trying to blog.

On the earlier instance, I wrote what was acknowledged to be a good write but I forgot to publicize it and inform people about it, so no one actually went there to take a look! How would they? Even I had difficulty retrieving it later…

Perhaps I will do a better job this time around. I do believe I have a lot of interesting things to share, perhaps 52 things a year, so I will try to do this every week!

That’s enough for now till I figure out how to manage this blog!

Postscript 2 April 2017: I never did write. But I intend to start – tomorrow!!