Startup Madness

(This article is jointly written by Sameer Guglani and Nandini Hirianniah)

In recent days, while working with the MVP portfolio companies and reflecting back on the days of madhouse, we have identified this phenomenon we are calling ‘startup madness’.

It’s visible and present from the time when you start thinking of your million dollar/world changing idea to the steady state point (personal satisfaction, acquisition, IPO or maybe shutdown). Things that you do, don’t make any sense to outsiders and they are like ‘This guy is crazy’ and even when you look back at that period you think “what was I thinking when I did this?”

Looking back at the time when we got the idea to start madhouse, we did not know anything about business, we were just two 27 year old kids (later three of us, with Ankur joining us). We had tried a variety of things in our lives and had managed to do reasonably well in whatever we put our hands into, may be that’s what gave us the stupid confidence. Very importantly we were quite ignorant about ‘real business’ and hence came up with our own take on every business problem we faced.

This streak of startup madness showed at various places:

  • We did not hear NO:  not from vendors, not from people we were trying to hire, not from investors, customers, no one. A NO just meant we had to come back with new ideas and try again.
  • We would never get tired of talking about madhouse and we could talk to any one about it. Most times the other guy did not give a damn :-(,  for him/her it was just a blabber
  • We just worked non-stop for three years , not even a day off (except when forced by illness)
  • Other than work everything else was just plain unimportant : sleeping, eating, meeting friends, attending social functions, family, watching TV, movies, newspaper – all of this had very little place in our lives. We just filled all our day with work with average working day of 16-18 hrs all thru.
  • We worked out of anywhere and everywhere.  Our tools were a Fujitsu laptop and a CDMA phone which could be used like a modem.  Restaurants, inside a car / train / auto rickshaw / bus, out on the road, in the park, bedroom, living room and the loo, locations stopped to matter, every place was work place.
  • We did not need a lot of money to live and we were happier than ever (no purchases of over 1000 for 3 years, eating at economical places, shamelessly staying with friends / relatives / acquaintances in cities we visited on work )
  • ‘The world impossible was missing” – we just did not believe that there was any problem that we could not solve or anything we could not do. Our minds were one track – focus hard, think hard, work hard and just do whatever it takes.
  • We had access to this inhuman energy that allowed us to just keep going – “never get tired” or “never run out of steam”.
  • Each time we met a new person, we were constantly thinking of how this person can help our venture, . Everywhere we went, we explored if there was something there that could benefit our startup. Frankly we were classical ‘opportunity hounds” and quite shamelessly so 🙂
  • We were basically “stuck” in our own world in which we could not fail. While we adapted like crazy, we sort of forced business to work the way we thought it should work, without caring a lot about the outside world.

This madness is the essence of start-ups; it signifies the purity of a startup. It makes the startup tick and makes it successful and enjoyable. The same madness makes you innovate, over perform, challenge your skill set, think out of the box or even out of the world, take 28 hrs out of a 24 hrs a day, it gets you to focus but does not let you  blindly focus!

Its also important to figure out how can you keep re-fueling the desire, the madness, so that it lasts forever, not just for days, weeks or months, start ups that click need to be at it for years. For an individual or team to succeed as a startup, having the startup madness is a must.

If you are an entrepreneur look inside you and make an honest assessment. Do you have the streak?

  • If yes, great.
  • If no. But you think you can build it – nice, go ahead and do it at the highest priority.
  • If you don’t have it and you can’t build it – I am not sure you should continue being an entrepreneur.

On that other hand, if you are not yet an entrepreneur you should also look inside you and make the same honest assessment. Do I have the mad streak?

  • If yes, you fool, leave your job right now – the world of ‘startup madness’ is calling
  • If no, it would best for you to avoid the path of entrepreneurship, until the ‘madness streak’ gets to you 🙂

Starting a new journey…

Friends, its time again to start a new chapter in life and to get out of the comfort zone. I have decided to move on from my current role at Seventymm and try a few new things. I have been thinking about this for some time now and sooner or later I had to give in to my inner desire of being a free bird – an entrepreneur – a traveler. So here I go…..

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My one year stint with seventymm has given me a different perspective on business, a lot of learning, many interesting and challenging projects, a lot of smart people around and I made many good friends, so overall good memories. I will be full time with Seventymm up to end of July-08 and after that will convert to consulting role…

About my next adventure, myself and nandini (my partner from madhouse) are working together on this venture. Basically, the energy that I draw from being an entrepreneur and from working with other entrepreneurs is just amazing, it keeps me going and gives me high unlike anything else. So I figured I should be doing something in that area.

During last year I have been working as mentor/adviser with many different startups. In some cases it became an ongoing engagement (Instablogs, commonfloor, food@home etc) and in some cases it was just a couple of interactions e-mail, phone ,face to face etc. But each time I interacted with a bunch of very energetic, intelligent and passionate people – who have decided to venture out and create something on their own. Each venture is in a different domain and each team is trying to solve a unique problem – which means I get to learn about a new domain and new problem from a new set of smart people at every interaction with a startup team. In the process few the companies I have worked with have moved on to next stages, some have raised professional funding, some have become profitable etc.

I find this whole thing very exciting and have been working on creating a company which we will basically work with teams of entrepreneurs and help them realize their dreams of achieving the impossible, of changing the world or just getting rich.

The new company is called morpheus venture partners (morpheus is the Greek god of Dreams) and will remind you of a very successful initiative in US; Y Combinator. While working on morpheus we studied similar companies in others parts of the world and came across Y Combinator. They are doing a very good job and offer many good practices, which can be studied and adapted to the Indian environment.

I will be sharing more information with you as things evolve in coming months, meanwhile if you come across a team of young entrepreneurs who would like to work with us please drop me a line at sameer AT morpheusventure DOT com

Also check out nandini’s post here

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Note: The pictures were taken by my friend Harish Shanthikumar @ lovely lalbagh garden in Bangaluru. More pictures from Harish can be seen at Greenroutes

Startup Essentials: Rockstar programmers

I recently answered a set of questions for Charu Bahri, for her column called eVoice in IT magazine (www.itmagz.com) published by EFY India. All these answers are in the context of early stage, young startups, not well funded, less than 1 year old, less than 10 people.

Is it tough for tech startups to find very skilled tech manpower? If so, why?

It can be tough or easy for a startup to get good tech guys depending on the approach of the founders. With the right approach it can be done fairly easily.

The way startups are done has changed these days, the most well known web products; ranging from Youtube, Facebook, Twitter have been built with small teams of few rock star programmers.

The best option is to have tech co-founders, who will develop the initial version of the product themselves and not depend upon hiring programmers. It’s essential for the founders to build the product and create initial traction around the product. Along side they need to continue to look for the rock star programmers, guys who will be truly interested in joining a startup and doing real meaty work and come on board for lesser money along with equity.

Places to look for are the startup conferences, thru references (spread the word), have your own blog and write about exciting work company is doing, write about the open positions, put job posts on popular startup blogs (for India: venturewoods, pluggd.in, startup dunia etc), also look at getting people form your college. Post to yahoo/google group mailing list from good colleges like IITs etc.

The conventional ways of hiring will not work because over there you will find folks who are looking for safety, salary and cushy jobs. Some of them may be curious about startups, but will back out at some point or the other. No point wasting your time.

What novel remuneration means may be offered to tech specialists?

For right people remuneration wont be the deciding factor, these are people who are passionate about working on exciting things, people who have a desire to learn and to “upwind”, who may themselves want to start a venture down the line.

Quoting form Paul graham, the founder of Y combinator

“In an essay I wrote for high school students, I said a good rule of thumb was to stay upwind– to work on things that maximize your future options. The principle applies for adults too, though perhaps it has to be modified to: stay upwind for as long as you can, then cash in the potential energy you’ve accumulated when you need to pay for kids.

I don’t think people consciously realize this, but one reason downwind jobs like churning out Java for a bank pay so well is precisely that they are downwind. The market price for that kind of work is higher because it gives you fewer options for the future. A job that lets you work on exciting new stuff will tend to pay less, because part of the compensation is in the form of the new skills you’ll learn.

Grad school is the other end of the spectrum from a coding job at a big company: the pay’s low but you spend most of your time working on new stuff. And of course, it’s called “school,” which makes that clear to everyone, though in fact all jobs are some percentage school.”

Is there a possibility of retaining tech specialists to work as and when needed, that is, paying only a retainership (and thus, avoid paying them a full salary)?

I have not come across programmers who are available on retainer-ship, only option is to use a Tech services company, which will surely be very expensive.

Another way to do this is to find folks who are available to work part time in the evenings and weekends. But this approach brings uncertainty into the project, because these programmers have high chance to treat part-time work as low priority in case there is an increase in working hours at their full time work place. Also this option may work for building prototypes and demos. The moment you have to build the real stuff you will need full time programmers.

What sources/routes could tech start-ups use to find the right manpower – job portals, executive search firms, campus interviews?

None of the above works for startups. See answer to the first question

I’d especially appreciate any example you can share with me that showcases how your company was able to recruit the right tech talent and the kind of remuneration agreement you proposed for the talented staff.

At madhouse, after approx 1 year of operations, we found a great tech co-founder (Ankur Agrawal), who single handedly build a lot of parts of the product and since he was a co-founder there was no salary to be paid, until we got funded.

There is another model which has worked for Instablogs (I am an advisor to Instablogs). Ankit (founder of Instablogs) developed the initial version of product, got the traction and later started hiring bright freshers from not so popular colleges. They created a very good training program using which they are able to create very good programmers out of the fresh engineers in record time. For pulling this off Instablogs had to move from Delhi to Shimla, where they were able to find good fresher engineers, who were eager to take a job, learn and do well.

A question relating to the Instablogs example you shared. There is a possibility of the fresh engineers moving off to greener pastures after being trained. What measures did Instablogs take to prevent
that?

I disagree with definition you have indicated for Greener pastures.

  • Green pastured != higher salaries.
  • A job = salary + learning + challenges + working at a place which gives you happyness.

That’s exactly what Instablogs has done, they provide the people with

  • Constant learning and fast growth in knowledge
  • Opportunity to work on cutting edge technologies
  • A place to work where they are allowed to make mistakes, have fun and enjoy life
  • Opportunity to create from scratch

These programmers obviously have friends who work in other tech companies on higher salaries etc, but they realize that their knowledge is far superior as compared to those guys who are getting paid more but are doing UNINTERESTING and NON GROWTH work. Basically at Instablogs people are upwinding and others are essentially downwinding.

There was a recent case of one guy who left for higher salary and came back with couple of weeks saying that he just did not enjoy working at his new job and this has become a live example of all other guys in the team.

Also read: Joining a pre-VC startup

Attending: Open Coffee Club @Bangalore

I will be at “Open Coffee Club @ Bangalore” this Sunday (17 feb), you can read more about the OCC event here.

Would love to catch up, in case your planning to be there.

about OCC (From OCC Blog)

OCC is just the forum you were looking for, if you want to know the A-Z of entrepreneurship, more so , if you wish to hear it from people who made it.

read more

Joining a pre-VC startup

Madhouse is talking to a number of exceptionally talented individuals for senior/middle management positions. Some of them have expressed apprehensions around joining at lower than market salaries and the risk of being associated with a company at a startup mode.Here are some of the thoughts I have been sharing with them. I would love hear some experiences, thoughts from the community.

Joining a pre-VC startup is not only a job or a career choice; it’s a lifestyle choice. This is truer for folks who join in early and join as part of the early management team (senior/middle). It is an opportunity for the brave, for the fighters and for a select few.

It offers an amazing opportunity to make significant contribution towards building of an organization in its formative period. The job responsibility is extremely demanding and challenging with relatively less support systems; a lot of untouched, challenging problems to solve; some of the most talented people to work with; a lot of energy in the air; a culture which believes it is fine to make mistakes. It offers an opportunity to rise fast, faster than most of your peers, provided you perform and live up to the challenges of the startup lifestyle, culture and speed at which things move.

People who can make a difference at this stage will be people, who believe in the success of the venture, the opportunity, the team, the philosophy of the organization. These are the people who will form the DNA of the company. People who will be hired or will join at this stage will not do so for the current financial benefits. That’s not the key decision making criteria. They know that they will be more than compensated financially, with the salary revisions and the stock options.

Along with all that comes career growth, various kind of learning, experience to go through the grueling startup pains and coming out a winner; a fighter.

Later on, when the company gets VC financing , though the challenges still remain the tone; the color; the intensity of the challenges change. The pace of evolution of the culture of the organization slows down. The number of ESOPs for similar positions reduces substantially. The opportunity to lay the founding blocks may no longer be there.

Who am I?

I am Sameer Guglani. I have interests in movies, books, music, travel, blogs, technology, starting businesses, users, customers and a whole load of areas. I started madhouse about two years ago in Aug, 2004, along with Nandini (my wife) and soon our Co-founder Ankur joined us on board. Madhouse is a media and entertainment company.

I am an alumnus of Thapar Institute, India, completed my B.E. in Electrical Engineering in 98. Before starting madhouse I worked for 6-7 years in wireless telecom industry. I spent about 5 years working for a couple of wonderful startups; sonim and telephia . My theory is that once you have fun working for a startup, there are two things you can do

* Work for another startup
* Do a startup of your own

Madhouse was started 25 months ago and these months of my life have been very enriching, full of learning, loads of fun, so many new friends, I have had a ball. It feels like I have used each and everything I had learned so far in my life, during these formative years of madhouse. At the same time it also feels that I have learnt more in these two years, as compared to what I learnt in 27 years of my life before starting madhouse.

Along the way we have received immense encouragement & support from whole lot of people, those whom I knew and those whom i did not. I thank all of them. I plan to share my thoughts, experiences, learnings and musings via this blog and would like to connect with people around the globe, who would wander onto this blog.