The real meaning of ‘riding-a-wave’ as a startup: Lessons from a gruesome year

It is strange that 2017 was one of the worst year for many people around me. I can understand that it was bad for many businesses due to impact of de-monetization and GST rollout. However it was also bad on personal front for many. The only explanation seems to be that since it was one of the worst years for me professionally, hence I’m noticing many people around me in similar situation. Me and my colleagues worked our ass off and I was under immense stress most of the year. However retrospectively as I look back I realize that it has been a year of immense learning. The lessons have made me a better businessman and perhaps also a better person. I could spend very limited time with my wife and kid, but I think it made me a better father. Strange, no?

Here is what I learned this year:

Discovering a new market is not a startup’s task: I learned the hard way that discovering a market takes time and money. No matter how good your product is, it takes time to change usage habit and more importantly purchase habit.

Market as a concept became clearer to me, it sounds novice now, but I realized that I didn’t understand it all that well. Tooth-paste was not a market sometime back but then humans developed this habit of brushing teeth every morning and voilà a new market got discovered overnight in about 20 years. Ceiling fan is a big market in India, but its not a big market in Texas. Its not that Texas is not hot and they don’t need ceiling fans, however most Texans don’t have habit of using and purchasing ceiling fan.

I read few books like Crossing the chasm, Four steps to the epiphany, The power of Habit, Influence & Tipping Point. These books and marketing experiments helped me understand the concept of market.

I feel Four steps to epiphany by Steve Blank is a particularly great book though it is badly written. I had to read it again and again to understand the thought process of the writer.

Now I feel that there is always the way to modify any new technology product so that it competes in an existing market. There are many tasks that startup can do better than anyone else however discovering a new market is not one of them. It is a task better done by large established companies with healthy balance sheet.

Break things and move fast is a luxury : Yes mistakes happen, and in time we realize that its a mistake. Its possible to break it, remove it and move forward quickly. However that usually involves spending more money or loosing short term revenue.

In early stage one thing that is more important than moving fast is ensuring that you survive. Odds are stacked against your survival. So breaking things and moving fast is good, but first you have to get in a situation to deserve this luxury. Move slow or move fast but most important is to keep moving. Building a company is like building a good ODI inning, avoid losing wickets in the beginning so that you can go for a blitzkrieg in slog overs.

Difference between sales and marketing : Getting a lead in your sales funnel is Marketing and converting that lead to customer is Sales. Usually sales involves a person to follow up on the lead. Digital commerce has made it a complicated concept, since a website does the job of a salesman. It is surprising that no one explains this difference clearly hence took me time to come to this simple realization. Once I understood this difference, then all the blogs and books on the topic started making sense. Sales is obviously more important in early stages of a startup. However scale-able model for Marketing also needs to be developed. It was tough for me in the beginning since boundary between the two was fuzzy.

In the end everybody wants a hit movie : Anurag Kashyap can create an artistic movie with a low budget. Karan Johar can create a high budget movie with little content. I’ve realized that this really doesn’t matter, they will win only when they create a movie with blockbuster box office collection.

Being good with money and having sound financial prudence will not guarantee success, however if you are not Yash Johar’s son than it will increase your chances of making your own Gangs of Wasseypur.

Customer centric is only way to build a startup : Support from friends, family, investors and colleagues helped me immensely in getting over this tough year. It was an year of reckoning. We also got cosmic support with Amazon launching Echo in Indian market. However most important was continued support from our customers. Like a gurukul teacher a customer minutely monitors all your moves, scolds you whenever you make a mistake and may give you an appreciative pat when you do something good. Our customers kept supporting us by giving words of appreciation and telling us how important our product is becoming in their life. They also shouted the loudest whenever we faltered, whether it was due to technical glitch or delivery delay or for many other such things. We keep getting suggestions on what they want us to do, sometime politely, sometime aggressively but always lovingly. They told us how proud they are us of to slog it out and make our products in India. They kept us busy moving in the right direction.

Its not about riding a wave : There is this famous and wonderful blog by Marc Andreessen in which he explains that good market is only thing which ensures the success of a startup, nothing else matters. I interpreted it in a way that a giant wave will come and whoever is there in the right place at the right time will be able to ride the wave. As I was teaching my son surfing last week, I realized that my interpretation was not accurate. There is not just one big wave, in the ocean the waves keep coming and a good entrepreneur is like a pro-surfer who can comfortably ride these waves.

There was not just one big e-commerce wave, which Amazon rode. There was first a wave of selling books online. Even before that there was a wave of selling esoteric books. Even before that, Jeff Bezos as an investor spent many years simply watching the waves and betting on other surfers to ride them. Now of course they can not only ride the biggest waves, they also know which are the best surfing beaches across the world at what time of year. They can even discover new unexplored beaches.

In fact we are currently surfing on a voice assistant beach discovered by Amazon. As the weather is warming up and wind is picking up, this beach is becoming better to surf with larger waves. We are mastering our skill of watching the horizon to predict the wave coming at right height, quickly board the surf, maintain the balance, paddle hard, do cobra, stand on board to ride the wave and then quickly paddle back to catch the next wave. Nothing to worry if a large wave is missed, remember the ocean never sleeps.

The sun, the beach, the sand, the salty water, the physical exhaustion, the mental challenge, the exhilaration, is there somewhere else you rather be?

Cheers to life!

[Shishir is the founder / CEO of oakter.com]

1 Comment

  • You guys have got very interesting products (good set of use cases for Alexa).