The Gray Hair Speaketh

Advice that is largely Unsolicited..

Startup Founders: Better Alike or Different??

I spent a few hours at the recent Enterprising India Summit, organized by the Mumbai Chapter of TiE.

In the short time that I was there, I happened to catch a talk by Sachin Bansal, founder of Flipkart. As a part of his presentation, he talked about himself and his co-founder, and about how they were so alike that they could virtually replace each other. Well, at least on the work front. And of course, he was making it look like a great advantage that he had, in having two founders, with very similar backgrounds and skills.

I have wondered about this, though. Of course, not for Flipkart in particular, but for any entrepreneurial venture, in general.

It is an easier route often, for two (or more) classmates or good friends (with similar mindsets) to think about getting together, and starting an entrepreneurial venture. And quite likely, they may have the same background, skills, aptitude, approach etc.  And maybe due to this factor, there is a fundamental comfort, as they may end up agreeing more than disagreeing. This may also make for good chemistry.

But is this good for the venture?

Think about it from these perspectives:

1. A startup is usually a lean organization. Each person of the startup team is contributing in his / her own way, so as to make the whole. There is usually no room for buffer and no room for redundancy. Then, having two (or more) very crucial members of the team, viz. the co-founders, to have similar backgrounds, is it not an expensive redundancy for the startup?

2. We have also read stories of the so-well-constructed founding team of Mindtree where they were absolutely clear of the kind of skills that were necessary to build Mindtree as a company, and how they looked for, and found and lured people in, to be a part of that founding team. Recent events have put a question mark on the company, but that apart, the effort at the time of founding, and the process, was exemplary. Is that a better way to go about it? Identify key skills that will be necessary for your mission, and then look for partners who can be co-founders in your venture??

3. When things are going fine, it is good to have people who ‘get along well’ and have a similar mindset. However at the first signs of challenge, what if the co-founders all, only think in one common way? What if there is no counter point of view? There is no challenge to the proposal? While different mindsets can sometimes cause potentially, the ship to go in different directions (however, that happens when there is a lack of maturity in the team), on the positive side, different mindsets or approaches give you multiple perspectives on the same issue. And at different times, there may be value and relevance of a different approach. In that respect, non-uniformity of thought, a certain diversity in fact, is a great asset to have, at the founding team level.

So I do wonder on the best approach here? I think startups need a mix, at the founding team level. Success of Flipkart may not be because the founders are so-alike, but in spite of it! Sometimes, we look at success and try to draw all inspiration from it. Try to ape the entire model. Flipkart may not have succeeded because the partners are so alike, but because of managing to do many other things right.

Also it may be appreciated that two or more people, going to the same college or the same program, do not necessarily make for identical people. Yes, their educational background would be same (and if technical skills are crucial, then this may again be a challenge – that all founders know only the one same thing!), but in terms of aptitude or creativity or other characteristics, they could easily be chalk and cheese.

So that is the crucial element. Have the chemistry to work together well, the maturity to respect each other’s points of view and take decisions only and only, in the interest of the venture, but yet be different enough, to bring variety of skills and approaches to the table, for the venture to get the best value!

What is your opinion on this? Are you a part of a co-founders team? What kind of mix you have in your founding team? Would love to know about his.

** This post is also cross posted in my personal blog, Random Musings. **



March 15, 2011 Posted by | Startup | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why One More of the Same Thing?

I come across startups at variety of forums, like TiE, Mentor Edge, and also directly, when people reach out to me.

And it beats me as to how many times, I keep coming across the same (well, similar) business idea!

I am not referring to two entrepreneurs, coincidentally working on the same brilliant idea. I am referring to entrepreneurs working on an idea, where there are multiple dominant players already in place.

Like the 35th Group Buying business.

Ok, irrespective of my personal feelings about Group Buying (and which you can read in this blog, across more than one posts), assuming that it will be a successful model, what is the different thing you want to do, where as a 35th entrant, you still expect to come out successful / leader??

In the world, there may be examples to prove ANY theory.

So one would try and justify their entry by saying that wasn’t Google a late entrant in the search engine market, and did it still not come out on top?

Just the same way, people like to quote Apple as an example in many different arguments (“Apple does not do much of its own Social Media – the users create the buzz for it. Can we also expect that?” for example).

It needs to be understood that Google or Apple or their business models or their marketing strategies have been exceptions rather than the rule. Also that, fundamentally, both (and others of their kind) have a phenomenal product behind them, and even if they were to not do anything, maybe people would queue up outside their doors, with their cheque books open, looking to purchase!

So first of all, every entrepreneur must not think that he is a Google in the making. Without trying to reduce any ambition or aspiration of the entrepreneur, it is necessary to have feet on the ground, while planning the business strategy, and the positioning.

So while I have seen a bunch of Group Buying plans that did not differentiate from the many existing ones (at least in my mind), recently I came across another business model, that was similar to at least 4 other existing players. All 4 are reasonably well established, and this was the 5th one, entering the same space.

Basically a content vertical, largely ad dependent for revenues, significantly demanding to maintain (at least for good quality). The entrepreneur was trying to show me the differences that he had made in his model, vs the other prevalent ones. Even though he may be right, in pointing those out, to me (and I’d be like a typical consumer for his content), I could not spot those differences, without his explanation. And for a content heavy site,  a typical user is not going to run over it, with a microscope to see those differences.

Why then, would a consumer change habit and come and read content here, instead of the others which he was familiar with? I was not able to see it. And I told the entrepreneur in as less discouraging a tone, as I possibly could.

Of course, entrepreneurs are optimistic, if anything. All of us are. We want to give it our best shot, we feel we have the way to make this happen, we reckon that all things being the same, WE are that difference! So I am sure he is going on with it, and my best wishes to him too. And in a few years, he could have gone past the incumbents and emerged number 1. Again, I would only wish the best for him.

But my point is for one who is planning a business. Where do you start? Do you look for existing successes, and want to try and do one of the same kind? Or you come up with something entirely new, something different, something that the world has not seen just yet?? But which you recognize, would have value?

It is often easier to look at existing successes, and which is perhaps the reason why we see more me-toos, than original ideas. It takes a different vision, a certain imagination, creativity, and then a significant dare, to get into path breaking new thoughts, new ideas, new businesses. And which is why these are rare.

I urge entrepreneurs to look to being different, being unique. More than being clones.

Especially in an online business.

In an offline business, due to various factors, including geographical relevance, many brands of the same business model, can survive. Perhaps be successful too.

Online, everyone’s just a click away. There is no compelling reason (like geography) that a user will land to your site, even when there is a better site, more known, more popular, already around! Have we found a serious second auction site, after Ebay? NO!! Because Ebay is a click away. Why would anyone go anywhere else?!

Think about it.. being different can be more challenging, but can also be more rewarding!


March 13, 2011 Posted by | Business Model, Startup | , , | Leave a comment