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I will enjoy the dive, not just the fish

December 23, 2010

If there was ever a video that I related to … about enjoying the dive, even though there are no fish to be seen, it’s this one.  I was smiling as I went through the two-minute video, watching the divers effortlessly move around, just immersed in the water.  I was grinning when I saw, toward the end,  the diver spread his hands out wide .. almost as if to say “What do you say to THAT?”  And I laughed when I heard the video-taker laugh in her mask.

What I found enthralling was how the divers … in spite of terrible visibility, and in spite of seeing almost nothing around them .. still found the experience of diving so much fun.  Their feelings come out in the video .. look again, and you’ll hear the buddies enjoying themselves laughing (and believe me, its tough to laugh underwater).

Funnily enough, I met with an old friend .. very senior in his organization .. a week ago.  Given that Christmas and New Year were just around the corner, I expected to see him relaxed and in great spirits.  So when I asked him “What’s up?  How’ve you been?”, I didn’t expect him to answer:

“Terrible.  Nothing’s happening”.


I looked around his office … lots of relaxed people, lots of humor and some horseplay, even a tree in the corner (with folks dropping off gifts for each other under the tree!).  All in all, I thought, a great environment.  What was bugging him?  Bad case of the Grinch?

And then it hit me .. my friend was under pressure.  The quarter was ending soon, and with everyone slowing down around him (including his customers), he was tense.  Sure, he had met most of his goals for the quarter in the first two months itself, but the last couple of things he was trying to tie up were taking longer than he had expected.

What was worse was that he was stressing out his own team.  I met with his assistant on the way out, and after cheerfully chatting with her for a couple of minutes, I asked her what was bugging “the boss”.  She grimmaced.  “Ahh … he’s always like that toward the end of the year.  Just ignore him.  He’ll be fine toward the beginning of the next year”.


I went back to my friend, and asked him if he wanted to grab a coffee.  “Why not? Nothing’s happening, anyway”, he said.  And so we got out of the office and went across to the coffee bar outside the building.

“You know, it bugs me that the rest of the team don’t seem to understand that we’ve got to close stuff off cleanly by the end of the quarter”, he said.  “I can’t stand to see these guys horsing around when there’s work to be done”.

“What’s due?” I asked.  “I thought that you guys had wrapped up pretty much everything by the end of November, didn’t you?”

“Reports!  Quarter analysis!  I’ve got to get these off the ground and send it out!  And I can’t seem to get these guys to get serious about it!  There’s at least a couple of days of serious work here!”

“What’d happen if you sent it out by the 3rd, instead of the 31st?” I asked.

“Well … nothing, really, I guess.  Some bonehead at HO would probably rap my knuckles, but … ”

“And don’t you realize that your own team is talking about you the same way you are talking about that “bonehead” in HO?  Don’t you think that your own team is probably thinking “That bonehead boss will probably scream at me, but it doesn’t really matter?”

I guess that hit him.  He went very quiet for a few minutes.  And when we had finished our coffee, I suggested that he better get back to his office.

He grinned. “Hey, its OK.  We can grab another coffee … or its only 15 minutes to lunch?  Want to hang around?  I’ll grab a couple of the others from the office and check with them if they want to go out for lunch, too.  And you can tell us Scuba Sutra stories.  How’s that sound?”

Have a great Christmas and a terrific start to the new year, guys.  And go easy on yourselves .. relax a bit.  The whole world is chilling … be a shame if you stress yourself out at this time.

And as you saw in the video … enjoy the dive.  Don’t worry about the fish.

WTF is Neutral Buoyancy???

September 15, 2010

Phew.  Three weeks of the Scuba Sutras workshop are just getting over.  Interspersed with meeting with over a hundred start-ups  (at the Economic Times Power of Ideas), listening to their plans, helping them fine tune their business …. hectic, hectic, hectic.  But you know what?  One thing comes across in every meeting.

Start-ups are chasing anything that is moving.  And yep … there goes their neutral buoyancy!!

Perfect Neutral Buoyancy

Perfect Neutral Buoyancy

For those who came in late, check back to the Second Sutra … I had plugged in some live stories there.  But  here are some more examples from what I saw the last three weeks.

Like the start-up that wants to offer a concierge service … and is willing to do anything (pick up laundry or groceries, book travel tickets or movie tickets, pay phone and electricity bills … you get the drift).  Wondering how to raise the funding to build all these services.

Or the one that has a strong technology solution in context-based search … and is now building multiple products for multiple domains (Healthcare, Entertainment, Market Research, IT Services … the list goes on).  And struggling with multiple issues across delivery and customer service.

Take the one that wants to use the power of collective buying to drive up bargaining power .. and looking to offer it across “all high value products” (to use their own words) … cars, apartments, LED TVs, Home theater systems, high end phones.  And wondering where to start.

Now, here are a few who have mastered the principle of Neutral Buoyancy.

Like the small architect firm that two years ago was designing and supervising construction of apartments, houses, condos, townships …. anything.  That finally threw up its hands, and decided to offer a single service … that of offering sanction drawings … to builders from out of their own home state.  That grew their business three-fold and their profitability five-fold in two years … after downsizing their team.  And are still growing at break-neck speed.

Or the education company (see Heymath!) that got its act together almost from day one, that today offers its services to hundreds of thousands of students across fifty countries across the world … by deciding to focus on one single area: Math education.

“Hey”, I hear you say: “I understand this.  I know that focus is critical for start-ups.  But you know what?  As a start-up, revenues are important.  I’ve got to chase every deal that comes my way.  Isn’t it better to get the revenue in first, and then once the revenues are in, worry about this ‘focus’ bit later?”

Good point, that … Revenues are important.  But far more important is getting the “right” revenue.

Think about it.  Assume that you are running a services company, for the moment.  Assume that your product or technology is ready, and that you meet customers who like it.  Their only catch … “Can you customize this piece for us”?

So you begin doing that.  And realize that you’ll need to .. perhaps … add a couple of people who understand the customer’s domain to do that.  So sure, you do that.  Deliver on time.  Happy customer, happier you.

Now the next customer pops up … similar story.  “Can you add this little module for us”, they ask. “This is the way its done in our industry”.  So you do that.  Perhaps buy some software licenses to do this.   Deliver on time.  Happy customer, happier you, again.

Third customer … again requests you to modify your product a wee bit.  So this time you bring in external resources … on contract .. to help you do this.  But by now, you’re perhaps beginning to realize that every customer situation is different.  And that they investments you’ve made in people, infrastructure and software are not really helping you any more.  If anything, they have depleted your cash flow quite a bit.

By the time you are ready for the fourth customer … you could be in serious trouble.  You’ve gone splashing after every opportunity that you’ve seen … and are now struggling for resources to deliver.

Get this: Neutral buoyancy is all about multiplying customers many-fold … without having to change your focus from your product or service.  Or investing in additional infrastructure.

Its the equivalent of diving deep in the first few minutes of your dive … and then slowly drifting along, surfacing as you go … enjoying the sights that your dive bring you.

So how do the successful companies and entrepreneurs do it? First, they started by putting some “reasons for diving” in place.  They explained why the company they founded existed.  They dived in deep, and then they drifted along, watching what the sights showed them.

Here are some of the “reasons for diving statements” (oh, btw, the companies themselves called them “focus statements”)  from some of the biggest success the world has seen recently.

“… helping everyone become TV stars …” : Steve Chen, Co-Founder, YouTube

“We’re here to make RECORDED music sound as close to LIVE music as possible”: Ray Dolby, Dolby Labs

” … helping people connect around their sphere of interest so they could do business”: Pierre Omidyar, Founder, eBay

“Our goal is to help people understand what is going on in their world a little better”: Mark Zuckerberg, Co-Founder, Facebook

Do you see the commonality in all these statements?  There is a clear, clear purpose for existence that comes through.

And then, after that, anything that they do is aimed at delivering on that purpose.

Now, ask yourselves this first:  Do you have a clear statement that tells you why your business exists?  Who do you plan to serve?

Next: and this is the toughie … Its easy to say that your product or service services the whole world.  eBay and Facebook do that.

But you know what?  They started from a really, really small base.  eBay started because Pierre wanted to set up a site that would help his wife sell kewpie dolls.  Facebook started because Mark wanted to connect his Harvard college pals  to each other.

You see?

So here’s the next question: Where do you want to start?  Who is that customer who is waiting for you to come along?

Get these two answers in place … and you’ll be well on your way to enjoy the dive.  Have fun!

Finding good buddies

August 30, 2010

When my wife and I used to go on diving holidays earlier, we invariably used to dive together as a buddy pair.  When we had our children, the situation changed.  These days, we alternate: one of us stays on land with the kids, and the other goes diving.

Diving at Netrani: I'm on the left, Nalini is on the right.

Hopefully, this will change soon: our daughter, Sunayana will be ten soon … the age when she can get certified as a diver.  And then we’ll probably alternate taking Sunayana on dives, while the other stays on land with our son, Udayan (who’s too young to go diving 🙂 …. yet).

But even today, when we go diving, we are fortunate that on **most** dives, we are able to find, and pair up with, good buddies.  I’ve dived with people from all around the world : Americans, British nationals, Japanese, Germans, Israelis, Frenchmen, Italians, Scandinavians … and of course, Indian nationals.  What constantly amazes me is the way diving unites people.  Two people who probably can’t begin to speak each other’s language out of water are able to work so well together, under water!

When I look back at the photos that I’ve taken while diving, I can’t help linking it back to the buddy who I was with at that time .. who helped me spot that elusive fish.  Gordon Parr, who spotted the squid on that night dive ..

Squid .. Night dive.  Thanks, Gordon!

Squid .. Night dive. Thanks, Gordon!

or Noa, who was amazing at spotting the micro-stuff like Nudiebranchs.

Nudiebranch .. Thanks, Noa!

Nudiebranch .. Thanks, Noa!

At the same time, we’ve also had these incredibly bad buddies that we’ve been paired up with on dives.   Like the American who was considerate enough to kick me in the face every time he darted forward to grab a look at a lion fish, or the Japanese guy who was so aloof that it almost felt like I was diving alone.

In business, too, we often get buddies who are “external” to the core founding team … but who are great at helping us “enjoy the dive”.  And sometimes, we are partnered with “buddies” whose sole task seems to be to throw every obstacle in our path.

Take, for example: your chartered accountant.  Now I can hear you say “Ah, ah! Hang on there!  A chartered accountant? As a buddy?  You’ve got to be kidding!”

Do you want to hear about the CA for the start-up who took three months to get the company registration completed,  because he had so many large customers that he couldn’t be bothered with this fledgling company?  And almost cost this start-up its first customer, because the company wasn’t registered?  What about the CA who delayed tax filings for this other startup (he was busy with his other accounts, he said!) … and almost sunk it because of the penalties that piled up?  And this other CA who never bothered to give any prudent financial advise to this startup, but yet landed up faithfully every month to collect his fee?

For a start-up company, the critical “external” buddy is the Chartered Accountant.  Given that most start-ups are founded by people who understand as much financial accounting as they understand complex fast fourier transforms, a good CA is worth his or her weight in gold.  He or she can make the business … just as easily as a bad CA can break the business.

So how do you select a good CA?  Asking other startups is a good first step.  How long have they had this CA?  What has he or she done for the company … apart from managing the books?  Is he (or she) proactive?  How long does the CA firm take to respond to questions?  How do they react to questions?

Next: meet the CA.  Is he actively interested in what your organization is doing?  Does he show his interest by asking insightful questions?  Can he partner with you … help you control your costs while you can focus on building your business?  Is his team experienced enough to help you plan your cash flows and your taxes well?  Can they actively advise you … rather than passively maintain your books?

Finally … and this will take a couple of visits … how well do you relate to each other?  Is your CA willing to make time for you and your questions?  Or does he look at you as just another account that he barely acknowledges?

If you’ve selected your CA wisely … you’ve just doubled your chances of success.  At the very least.

And just as a good dive buddy makes your dive enjoyable, a good CA will ensure that you enjoy your entrepreneurship.