Archive for the ‘startup’ Category

How I hired in India

Saturday, September 28th, 2013

Bangalore Team watching cricket teams sparIn 2010, Bitzer Mobile’s Bangalore R&D centre came to life in a living room in Marathahalli. Ravi (first team member in India) and I wrote much of the first version of Bitzer’s governance console on our respective couches and coffee-tables at Cha Bar in Leela Palace, before we moved into our own office.

In a year, we got a team of kick-ass engineers in place. They built critical parts of the product. However, the first few hires were not easy and was rife with people who kicked tires without joining us. Apart from engineers, QA, office boy, accountant, office manager positions, I also on-boarded an amazing head of engineering which took 12 months!

In 18 months, reviewed close to 2,000 resumes, conducted roughly 400 phone calls and code-jam sessions, followed by approximately 50 on-site interviews, leading to the 15 people we have in Bangalore. I am lucky to work with them.

Here is some gyaan about hiring your first 15 key team members in India:

Always be hiring

Hiring is the other full-time job of a founder, apart from writing code, doing sales and marketing or speaking at events. Most startups start the hiring process, do a few critical hires and then get bureaucratic. I have seen startup founders who start it well and then delegate it to their direct reports or to “managers”. There is a single rule for always-on hiring process–The founders and the first five hires should hire the next 500 and be part of every freaking hiring decision making process.

Use the tools

We started using Recruiterbox from the get-go. I can brag that we were one of the early adopters of this application. We got close to 3,000 resumes in 18 months. Every resume reviewed, annotated and passed around within the application itself.  In the first 12 months, every candidate who submitted a resume and was not a fit got a response. However, we stopped the response due to increased spam and sheer volume, but made a point to respond to anybody with whom we had a call.

Most hiring managers fail at the tools. They continue to rely on e-mail for managing the resume queue. Moreover, there is no context if the resume moves around and gets passed as a solitary reaper. The interviewer has to start all over again! Wastes time and energy.

Go deep beyond the interview

Go beyond the technical “chops”. Discover the person you are hiring — pose him left-handed questions, personally take the candidate out for lunch/dinner, let your team take him out for lunch/dinner, have casual conversations, spend time with the candidate away from office. Get as much facetime as possible before pulling the trigger.

You are a startup, find a right match

Just like there are rules of marriage (some archaic), there are rules for early startup hires. It’s difficult if not impossible to get an engineer from top R&D organizations in India to come and join your founding team.  We were lucky to have applicants from these companies but a match could not be made. These were some amazing engineers, and to my surprise they were ready to take a massive pay cut. However, based on my gut feeling, as an early stage startup, we were not ready for them.

Don’t boss the interview feedback

We lost couple of solid candidates, which the team felt otherwise, whereas I wanted them on-board. The rule was simple, if there is one negative and the argument cannot be one in favour of candidate, then it’s a NO. In one situation, I rescinded a verbal offer, because we jumped the gun as the fifth interviewer went out for a walk and we did not take his feedback into consideration before making a verbal offer. The candidate was shocked that we changed our mind in less than 60 minutes. It was a tough conversation. This one simple thing gave me a solid trust with the team. I lost a few good candidates (well, I still think they were good!) but that built a foundation for the hiring process.

Hiring senior talent–Not everybody can build Adam’s bridge

Head of engineering is one of the toughest position I filled. I had an odd criteria in mind viz. 10 years of experience, hands-on, startup-guy, big company guy, product experience. Combine this that we are an unsexy reasonably funded startup, and that too in India, this made the job of finding the right person even tough. An engineering manager who is responsible for people’s career has to be humble, full of empathy and a kick-ass developer himself. Three things had to be ensured around his happiness and outlook (a) Not a boss (b) Keeps his family happy (c) Still hungry. It took me close to 12 months to fill this position. The CEO still chides me whether I was really hiring for this position or my progress reports were “cooked-up”. A wrong engineering manager is like arsenic, there are no visible bruises, but gnaws the company from inside, slowly. The engineering leader could make or break your company without anybody knowing about it. Compared to a developer, there are no straight-forward objective tests for a engineering manager.

There is one new rule I followed–Evaluated if the person continues to amaze after the third meeting (maybe a dinner at candidate’s home), fifth meeting (maybe a lunch with my family). Candidates who moved beyond my filter were then interviewed by pretty much everybody whom he is going to work with. Took time–But, I think, I got the best guy on board.

Count the intent (or rather lack of it)

In one situation, with the offer, I had to send our incorporation certificate, proving that we are a real company! In another, a candidate wanted to talk to the CEO, before doing a technical round. None of them joined. Whereas, motivated candidates would pick-up the phone, follow-up, show up on time. The biggest data point I have–from interview to offer, if the candidate has been punctual in taking calls, coming for onsite interviews, turning back the assignments, etc., it’s likely that he would accept the offer. Whereas, candidates who continue to move things around are just plain kicking the tires with you!

There are a lot of tactical things which cannot be disclosed publicly on this blog–without context it would misleading. However, there is only one goal–hire the people who like working with each other and can solve any problem given the right motivation and tools.

Happy hiring!

Bootstrapping a startup via consulting gigs

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Every startup requires cash. It’s not built on thin air as early stage investors think. Money for paying the lawyer, government fees, hiring developers and more importantly paying your rent, food, fuel, etc. An entrepreneur starts with a calculated risk of investing (or burning through) his savings for that 6 months period with an assumption that either a customer would start paying or an investor would bet on it.

In reality, a startup takes longer than the original time frame in most cases. If you planned for 6 months, you’ll take 12 before anything comes out of it. A PPT or a paper napkin plans writes you cheque when you already have money in the bank or sold two startups in the past.

So what do you do? You start doing consulting gigs! Smart entrepreneurs do it all the time. Some short gigs here and there. A lot of entrepreneurs I have known do it to get started after quitting their job. Paul, Bill & Co. did the same in their formative years. The most famous of the consulting stories is how Evan Williams consulted for a year at HP while building Pyra Labs which eventually got acquired by Google. Muziboo is a good example in India where the founders did consulting to bootstrap it.

As an entrepreneur, how do you manage it; where do you draw the line as to not getting distracted completely. There is a chance that consulting gig’s sweet money just takes over your primary passion.

I have compiled a list. Also, including some interesting nuggets from a thread on Hacker News (yeah, I love reading it. More gyaan than a single post anywhere!).

  • Do a high impact consulting where a gig of 3 months can cover you for 9 months. The math is 3x.
  • Try to do a gig at a stretch instead of a 2 days in a week stint. It kills the output of your startup but then when you are done, it is easy to just do a complete switchover rather than continuous context switches
  • If you are doing consulting, treat your own startup like a client, as there may be other people working on this
  • Throttle your rates, depending on the project and desperation for moolah
  • Know your deliverable. Pick up hourly rates or visits per month Remember, you have your venture, you do not want to get caught in fixing a bug for days and goes beyond your original estimate.
  • If you know something and you want to learn more which may help your startup, maybe charge a little less. A counter thesis is that pick up a gig which you are a rockstar at and you can do in your sleep and get paid as well.
  • If you are doing couple of days in a week, then restrict it to only certain days
  • Make sure you show up at client’s desk for the work and not really do the consulting gig from your home or wherever your startup is located. This helps you keep it clean and juggle them well
  • Keep the IP clean. Good idea to let the recruiting manager know that you have other gigs. Of course, sign an NDA as required
  • Do combined gigs with other friends with complimentary skills
  • Keep your other team members informed or at least they know that you are not available certain days in a week
  • It’s easier to do technology consulting than “strategy consulting”

India is a tough place to raise money for your venture — though it gets better by the day; the number of ‘pre-series A’ venture deals are still in double digits every year. Consulting is one way to bootstrap it.

Have you done consulting gig while bootstrapping your startup? What are the things you did to keep it clean? What else?

10 Tips for Technology management in startups

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

This piece is for software technology startups (or startups using technology) with 2-5 developers, who are short on money, are on a continuous bouts of brain freeze, etc etc. However, for people who are managing 100 people teams, I’m gonna write one on how not to manage technology, but that’s coming after rebirth.

In my previous stints managing pieces of technology including developers, code base, release cycles, etc. — I was always hunting for tips for better sleep management. Huh, the solution was in managing the technology effectively to get a better sleep.

Here are some of them compiled (some learned after reflecting on mistakes!)

  1. Build Now. Scale later. More often than not we worry about whether this piece of code or even this atomic function will scale or not. Once I was writing a small function to convert time into the now famous “10 minutes/days/years ago” format.  I took the whole fraggin’ day on it. Back in my mind I was trying to optimize a small calendar look up which probably optimized the code by 10 ms for every HTTP request. Big deal — but totally stupid.  Essence: Build what you can build. Do not spend more than 10% extra time worrying about scalability & performance. The objective is to get the customer first within acceptable limits of latency. Also, look at your strengths — if you are a developer never worked on high performance computing but know enough chops about writing good code, then just focus on that.
  2. Release frequently, but not every day! The release early, release often is a myth which leads to disaster many-a-time in increasing code complexity, release cycles, etc. A good discipline is not more than one (yeah, 1) release every week (ideal is release every 2 weeks). Let the customers breathe, the QA breathe and stop wasting the time doing regression on the code. However, apply the exception to hot-fixes, security fixes and show-stopper bugs.
  3. Prevent public bugs. Another myth of release early, release often is a conception that it is okay to have a few bugs on the code. Depends on what kind of bugs. Database connect failures? or weird on the face JS errors. Acceptable public bugs are those which are not seen by more than 10% of your customer base & depends on what stage of maturity your product is in. However, bugs when monetary transactions are taking place are a strict no. Another theory is that the number of public bugs is inversely proportional to the number of users.
  4. Secure your web presence. This is getting complicated as the web matures & hacking is done using scripts instead of deep knowledge of software’s workings. In my previous stints managing technology, I thought & claimed to be ahead only to be humbled later with DDOS attacks. In my theory a 10 hour of Googling followed by 10-15 hours of fixing/implementing can take care of a good percentage of publicly known security holes.
  5. Code Now. Refactor later. This is a personal anti-thesis which goes against the philosophy of designing beforehand; thinking through of the architecture, etc. Why? Startup resources are extremely limited. The objective is to show/deliver products. As a developer/technology manager you want to put your best efforts in delivering code rather worrying about the best possible way to develop a piece of code. However, it is okay to postpone some design issues (not the security ones) and revisit them after hitting some milestones. You don’t use the “refactor later” mantra to avoid the issue; instead being pragmatic about it. Also the exception should be conveyed to the team, the options available, a path chosen; with the reason that this does not become a habit within the organization.
  6. Never outsource, but augment staff. The worst thing a startup could ever do is let someone else develop the technology and that too in someone else’s office! If you can’t hire full-time then hire contractors. Get them to sit with you, together. Have control and visibility.
  7. Production release not tested here! Developers will always make an assumption that if it works on their laptop/private environments, it will always work on the production environment. Do not ignore that — Have a discipline of testing the code after deployment.
  8. Automate everything, except your customer support. You want to automate/script as much as possible. Deployments directly from SVN, automated testing using various frameworks, log monitoring & alerting, server status, linting, database sizing, load, and every mundane tasks with actions like alerts etc. going to the team. However, you do not want to do an auto-reply to an incoming mail. OK to be slow by few hours but acknowledge/respond to each one of them. Put the startup resources to test.
  9. Code all night, but release after noon. Simple. You want to do a production deployment when the hangover from a night of coding is gone. You want to start before the day is ready to end. Never deploy at 5pm or 8pm or early in the morning. Best time to make a release is at least 24 hours after the developers have said “it is ready to go!”
  10. Secretly review a developers code. Highly effective. This is the best way to build opinions about a developers’ coding chops and get an edge in managing them. Find bugs in their codes, show it to them but never demean them publicly. All public code review in startups is actively discouraged.

If you can do the above well, then you can definitely sleep more using the 10 foolproof tips for better sleep management 🙂

5 Things investors are looking for in seed/idea stage ventures

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

Presented the embedded slides to the students of IFIM, Bangalore at their final business plan presentation on 28th 29th Sept, 2009.

Morpheus Venture Partners, the new batch of 10 & my official onboarding

Saturday, August 15th, 2009

Visitation rights is a term used when a mom/dad gets the right to see his/her child on a fixed interval basis. Most of the times, visitation rights & monetary support are also intermingled.

This is what is my observation of funded startups in general in India. They raise money — the investors come & “visit” them time to time — Best, you send weekly reports and harness few contacts in their rolodex. Question to ask; are they helping you in building your business?

Entrepreneurial ecosystem is in it’s infancy in India — resources are not available, event platforms are sparse, celebarations of success barely exist, peer support is meagre, etc. What we need is hand holding, support, building of business and not just money & remote supervision. Of course, money helps to reduce the friction of starting up — but it’s not the only lubricant required.

Comes Morpheus Venture Partners, a Business Accelarator out of India which I joined as a Partner few months ago. Our vision is to reduce the friction of starting up & provide end-to-end support ranging from building your pricing model to finding the right technology stack for a startup. Of course, we want to provide money too, which we are working on.

Less than 24 hours ago we announced our latest batch of 10 startups — each one of them is envisioning to bring a change using their model for people of India. Being a deep technologist, I always thought that the next big thing can only come out of technology and maybe the next Google is going to be from India. That’s very much a possibility but it’s hard to sustain a viable business when less than 40 million users are online (a large % of which use the net only once a week!).  

So who are these guys? What’s the new batch of 10 upto? I totally resonate the way Nandini Hirianniah (Founding Partner at MVP) summarized these 10 heavy-hitters:

Adscoot’s Suyash, stands for hours in the major junctions at mumbai to learn traffic patterns and measure footfalls!

EasySquareFeet’s Ashu & Snehesh are the most positive people i’ve seen! I can see their smiles through the phone when i talk to them (serious!)

Viv & Hari of InterviewStreet are two rockstar techies who are consciously & fast learning other skills to take their product to market. They have the passion & drive to make things work!

Shashank & Abhinav started on Naabo right out of college – the freshness in approach & the passion they bring with them is infectious.

Arjun of Picsean is an engineer, but his passion towards photography is amazing! He’s a good friend & i’ve seen his focus and smart work in his past ventures. His attitude to learn is commendable!

Robin of ReachTax is a star CA, but i love his humility and the motivational skill he has to make his entire team perform month after month!

Pankaj & Gaurav quit their fancy paying jobs to work on Retail Vector. Focus, quick work and frugality of life is what they are committed towards as they scale this venture!

The first thing that stood out when i met Abheek first was such an young guy and such maturity & humility. (Often age and humility dont go too well). This guy was 7 years old when he started putting Lego pieces into perfect ensemble & several years later, he’s using them at RobotsAlive!

I loved their designs and the quality of tees – Rahul & Mohit of Scopial have their focus completely on “Quality” “Design” “Niche”! They sell tees one could die for! Check a sample out here

I read about these guys in a print article & the next time we were in Mumbai, we met Jayesh & Karthik of VeriCAR. Two guys crazily passionate about automobiles!

Thanks to the startups for choosing us their ‘limited co-founders’, I’m sure this association is going to go a long way. Now, for the next 4 months, we spend dozens of hours every week with the founders poring over the details of their business and helping iron out every possible kink.

Agreed, we can’t change how users would percieve their offerings and how big they could possibly get — Yes, we can influence the positive outcome to a great extent.

Update: Added VeriCAR’s sound bytes from Nandini’s post