Why does one start a company? People do it for several reasons - Binoy wanted to create jobs while Jiju wanted to make money and take a stab at the fame associated with technology startups. I wanted to do it for two reasons - one to prove to myself that I have what it takes to start one and second to create my little private universe. While working in modern corporations, I observed a lot of cases where the thoughtful were shunted out in favor of the loud and good people mismanaged to the point of having their spirit broken. I vowed to myself that when I created my own company, I will try to make it a place where people would want to work for the fun of it. A fun workplace does not simply mean one with ping-pong tables and garishly colored offices. Rather it means something deeper - a place where one can learn new things, risk taking is rewarded and decisions are made thoughtfully and not by default. At the same time I wanted to avoid sounding like Obama or a talking head from McKinsey, somebody who only deals in platitudes. My solution was to create a private universe where I can play God and craft the laws.
However starting a company is hard! It requires a lot of time, money and emotional commitment. Almost 80% of them die in the first year. There is thus a high chance that everything you learned will be lost when the company goes under. How does then one preserve this hard earned knowledge? - one idea is to think of your company as the first of many. Even if the first one fails, you salvage all the information gleaned from it and build the next one faster and cheaper. Having a long term view also encourages one to think strategically and spend time building a solid foundation - hiring the right people, creating the right processes, documenting knowledge. You also start thinking in terms of “truck numbers” i.e. how many people can get hit by a truck before your company grinds to halt. Very often your personal truck number is 1 as you represent a critical single point of failure. While it is nice initially to be at the center of your universe, it will start get tiring in no time. By increasing your truck number, you start empowering others to make the important decisions.
www.lastplot.com germinated over a couple of beers on Labor Day, 2013. Binoy had flown in from LA while I had recently moved to Sunnyvale. We were neighbors while growing up in the same housing colony in Aluva. After a couple of beers, we turned nostalgic and were wondering how we could give back to the community we grew up. Binoy had ideas about replicating Amazon in Kerala. I warned him about the sorry state of infrastructure in Kerala and how it had a deep bearing to the success of his idea. My idea was about creating a Kerala version of Redfin, something that I had wrestled with a year ago. I had worked with Redfin while buying my home and was impressed with their service. The plan was to professionalize the real estate market in Kerala by making it data driven. We would digitize publicly available land/transaction records and then use data mining to infer the market price of properties. Customers could then come to our website to find the real value of properties instead of the made up numbers bandied out by sellers and agents.
We looked at a couple of factors to decide between the Amazon and Redfin ideas. One was market size - in terms of potential revenue both e-commerce and real estate looked winners. The next was time to market - we felt that the Amazon idea would require a lot more upfront expenses for setting up supply chains while the real estate idea could be serviced with just a website. Finally we looked at scaling - how will the costs and revenue increase as the number of users start to grow? Since the e-commerce idea involved dealing with the creaking physical infrastructure in India, we felt that it was more challenging to scale as it would require dollops of cash. The real estate website could on the other hand rely on Cloud services to sub-linearly scale in costs. As a result, we ended up choosing to be a Kerala Redfin. We had started our journey into the unknown.
It has been a while since I last blogged. A lot has happened in the past two years. For starters, my old company got acquired and it all went downhill from there. I had heard statistics that 83% of all mergers and acquisitions end up destroying shareholder value and this was no different. Acquiring software companies is always a hit or miss especially since the value is locked not in physical assets but more in intangibles likes processes and peoples' heads. While the top honchoes were paid handsomely, the people who really made things happen were passed over. Before you know it, top talent started leaving the company. Most of us end up working in a company because of primarily three things - our work, our immediate manager and our team members. As people started leaving, the quality of the manager and team members started to deteriorate as well. The trickle soon turned into a torrent.
I was part of the early wave when I bid adieu to OPNET Technologies in the middle of 2013. My career was stagnating primarily because the market that we were serving was drying up. Almost all the value generated by networking companies was being monetized by content providers such as Google, Facebook and Netflix. OPNET was my first job after school and Gordon was my first manager and mentor. He taught me almost everything that I know about software programming, managing people and developing a strong work ethic. So it was with mixed feelings that I announced to my team and manager that I will be leaving OPNET for the competition.
I currently live in the Bay Area and enjoying hiking around the innumerable trails in and around Sunnyvale. My move to Silicon Valley has also given me an opportunity to meet and recruit the right people needed for an "idea factory". More of that in a later post.