The fourth edition of NASSCOM Product Conclave drew to a close brimming with hope of a “revolution” of product software technology in India. The fervent ground activity happening among product tech community, which now has close to 3000 startups, is bound to translate into a bigger, better stage in another five years. Now the cycle times are low and one big development can set off a chain reaction (as Suresh Sambandam of OrangeScape told me sometime back in a private chat). For example, if one product technology company gets acquired at a star valuation or if a few companies hit a revenue in the order of millions of dollars. We now have billion dollar earning services companies. Instead of “we will set a revolution” talk until last year, we are now hearing “the revolution is setting in” kind of talks by experts this year.
The breakfast session had Naveen Tiwari of InMobi explaining their market strategy in going global. InMobi’s approach has been to capture markets in developing economies such as Southeast Asia and Africa rather than go after developed markets where competition is a factor to contend with. Once some online customers hit a number, a cofounder would fly to that country to understand the market. Once the market is known and customers acquired, a local person will be hired to oversee operations. Also the session did not lack in humor. When Navin Tiwari was explaining their earlier brand name mKhoj to customers in Western Europe, they would send mails such as Mr. M.K. Oj and Mr. M. Khoj and that forced the brand name change to InMobi. The crucial lesson for product entrepreneurs here is that InMobi first thought it big and is never happy with its current status. It is aiming to do what needs to be done to achieve a 10x growth. This set in motion the rest of the day.
Star Product Manager Talk
Tarkan Maner is a dream product entrepreneur, now a product manager with Dell Wyse (he sold his company for a billion dollars to Dell). His sensing of opportunities and trends in a six by six paradigm (six opportunities, six trends) essentially captured the clarity with which one should approach the market and devise product strategy. What is significant in the Internet era is the social angle to it, with the development of Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Deep Nishar, who heads product managers at LinkedIn, presented seven components of a product bliss. Know thy user; Simple is a feature; Embrace the constraints; Data is your guide; Innovation is not instant; Adapt (aka Pivot); and “Manifest Destiny” success are the seven guiding principles for developing an awesome product. Cramming too many features doesn’t make a product successful; instead focus should be on making features as few and as simple. Google search is one great example of simplistic minimalist design. Another key take away is that innovation is built over time as Nishar said, “bunch of red bullets to give you a silver bullet.” Importantly, you should think as if you are destined for success. Adapt, pivot, and make it a success.
In a conversation with Sanjay Swamy of Angel Prime, Deep Nishar felt that DNA is not a constraint in India. He saw the gap as no great software company emerging in India to inspire others. He said product managers should have brain of an engineer, heart of a designer and speech of a diplomat. He gave instances of how some products are built. Like PostIt, which was conceived out of some other problem 3M was facing. Like Hotmail born out of communication need of two people. He added that users don’t want multiplicity of choices. They just need one great product. He hoarded the product entrepreneurs to go after open white spaces (unexplored opportunities). He also quoted the example of building LinkedIn on mobile. Instead of adapting LinkedIn on the web to LinkedIn on mobile, the Nishar team created a mobile experience for users, understanding how users would want to navigate LinkedIn on mobile.
Successful Entrepreneurs Share their Secrets
Deep Kalra of MakeMyTrip and Amar Goel of Komli Media think success is personal. And both of them agree that achieving something is the motivator and give them a sense of success rather than money. “The first five years are tapasya years,” said Deep, reflecting on the time he needed to negotiate before seeing light at the end of a tunnel. Deep Kalra has two of this beliefs changed over time: a venture needs two cofounders, but he thinks three is politics and one is not enough and keeping enough money is not bad after all. He would earlier say raise money as late as possible and as little as possible, and he founded his company as a single founder. His focus is on people driving success rather than one personality. The important lessons are on the people front for Deep. Amar’s key learning is that you have to be as close to the customer as possible. So he had to get out of India to start his venture. He feels that leadership team should be focused on solving customer problems. Deep Kalra feels that identifying the right market is supercritical for success. Creating an open culture where people have latitude to share opinions is one big contributor to MakeMyTrip’s success. Amar stresses the importance of treating people well. Also important is thinking big and planning big. In a lighter vein, Deep said there is a bias towards hiring men with marital status single in MakeMyTrip, as they don’t have the life-work balance problem. This session was moderated by Shradha Sharma, founder of YourStory, who was uncharacteristically quiet and let the two heroes rule the roost.
Young, successful, arrogant, but tempered over time
Neil Patel took stage towards the end of the evening, giving a sense of what early success means. He failed twice in this ventures but in third he was lucky. He feels that the first venture is a place to learn, the second to just be a success, and the third to give back to society. This means losing money in the first venture, making a profit in the second, and exploding on cash in the third. Neil encouraged entrepreneurs to make a decision as quickly as possible. Importantly, entrepreneurs should avoid ugly baby syndrome, which translates as not keeping hooked to an idea that would not succeed because it is “your” idea. Finding a sweet spot and rapidly scaling is the way to go. You should focus on solving problems and not on beating competitors. He found ingenious ways to make money rather than take up a job like loading a CD with pirated songs and selling it and tapping a cable TV connection to get customers on subscription. He said his arrogant ways when young were fuelled by media partly which patted him on the back and he was lucky to succeed. But he has learnt to be tempered over time.
Sharad Sharma likened the effort of the community in initiatives like the Product Conclave to building a temple or a church or a mosque, which means these are done largely for others to get benefited and not deriving a personal benefit as such but as part of a community, if you build something you too get benefited. Several initiatives to help the product entrepreneur like showcasing nine promising apps to media and the world, getting select experts to listen to entrepreneur pitches and give them candid feedback, and having a reverse pitch to ask investors to tell entrepreneurs what they are looking for have a deep sense of deriving the best out of the community. Product Conclave is a pure volunteer effort and such an effort is unique. The community coming together to develop an ecosystem is perhaps first of its kind in the world.
M. Rangasamy of Sandhill as a co-host of NPC stirred passion out of entrepreneurs and pepped them up with insightful dialogue (on video) with Ram Shriram, of Sherpalo Ventures, a man with the Midas touch. His deep involvement with NPC not only as a co-host but in transferring knowledge of best practices that led to success in the Valley is a significant contribution the community. When I asked him what motivates him to do this, he said, “this is the time I want to pay back to my nation where I grew up for the first 20 years of life.” It is so inspiring to see people of his stature evincing keen interest in making products happen in India.
So, given this vibrant community and initiatives that are just sprouting around from everywhere, product entrepreneurs are poised for exciting times ahead.