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Automatic launched this week

Automatic_RGB_Vertical_Logo.d73eccede466

The startup that I’ve been part of for more than a year has launched this week : Automatic – Your Smart Driving Assistant. It’s a hardware device + mobile app + cloud combination that helps you save money by helping you drive in a more fuel-efficient way, monitor your car engine’s health, automatic call to local authorities/911 in case of a car crash, and will automatically remember where you parked your car (note that the product is currently USA-only).

Watch the video:

Now, go and pre-order it now at www.automatic.com.

So how did I get involved? A couple of years back when I was considering freelancing full-time, Thejo Kote got in touch with me and I got started with NextDrop for which he was one of the co-founders. After some time, I was looking for something more long-term, so I pinged Thejo and he welcomed me to join his new startup.

[Read more…]

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Nostalgia in a startup vs. Anu Aunty book

In a long bus ride, I read How I braved Anu Aunty and made a million-dollar company and I loved the book. The stories in the book are especially familiar to those who have faced the ire of family and sometimes friends at wanting to do a startup.

Anu Aunty Book

In the midst of the book, there is a passionate explanation by Varun Agarwal of why his idea of alumni T-shirts and alumni hoodies are important to people:

… The strangest thing was that my long-forgotten cupboard kept yielding one memory after another. I ran into a lot of my stuff from school that had got lost in the decade gone by. I started thinking of all those wonderful days. And that is when it hit me. That is what Alma Mater was about! It was about bringing those good ol’ days back. It was about taking you down that memory lane that leads to the wonderful times of school and college.

 

… We didn’t have Facebook then but we did have ICQ. One line none of us from that ‘era’ can ever forget is ‘ASL (age/sex/location) please,’ when meeting someone new on ICQ.  We had atrociously funny-sounding email ids – therockrulez@hotmail.com, dude_am@indya.com and the like and even funnier names in the ‘chat rooms.’ You couldn’t Google but had to go to altavista.com or approach Mr Jeeves for any queries and clarifications.

 

You still had to call a girl on her landline and muster all the courage to ask for her. The only place you could hang out at was Wimpy’s or McD and one still stayed away from the solitary Coffee Day on Brigade Road. Galaxy was where all the movies played and one had to stand in a long queue to buy tickets for Mission Impossible 2.

 

TV still played The Wonder Years and The Crystal Maze and the world seemed far smarter minus the Saas-Bahu soaps and the reality shows.

 

You could still find the time to read a book in the evenings  and play cricket in your ‘gully’ on Sundays. ‘Canada Dry’ was the only source to get high and sweet, candy cigarettes were puffed at most of the times.

 

VSNL ensured porn still loaded one byte at a time and VCDs were all the rage. Hulk Hogan was perpetually rank one on all the ‘Trump Cards’ and Cameron Diaz from The Mask was in every puberty-hitting youngters’ dreams. The only operating system we knew of was Windows 98.

 

Anyone with a printer was treated with respect and the World Book Encyclopedia was the only source of information for projects. Hero Pen was the original Chinese nib was still preferred over the brash new ‘Pilot’ pen.

 

Azharuddin was still our captain and Jadeja and Robin Singh were our pinch hitters. Venkatesh Prasad was the only one with the balls to mess with the Pakis and we still lost all the test matches.

 

And I definitely cannot miss out wearing a ‘colour’ dress to school on your birthday and distributing Eclairs to everyone.

 

I could go on and on. but I guess you get the drift.

 

As I cleaned my room, I ran into my long forgotten collection of Tinkle. Gosh, how I used to love those comics.

 

I guess some of us might hate to admit it now but everyone of us have read a Tinkle at some point or the other in our childhood. Even though it would be really un-cool to talk about ‘Suppandi’ now, he was the coolest character we knew in junior school. Before there was cartoon network, before Swat Cats took over, there was Uncle Scrooge on Doordarshan and there was Tinkle.

 

… I guess Tinkle comics have long been forgotten but they will always remain with us in our memories and will always remind us of times when things were simpler, when Bangalore was greener, when one would get up at 7a.m. on Sundays to catch Talespin on DD, when Phantom cigarettes ruled and chakra was more than just wheels. When we wouldn’t worry about deadlines, meetings, Facebook and everything else that our lives have become today. We would only worry about when the next Tinkle comic would be out. Sadly, Uncle Pai, the creator of the series passed away recently. RIP Uncle Pai and thanks for the memories. We owe you way more than one.

 

So, you see, Alma Mater was not just about starting another company. It was about starting a whole new subculture. Of making you feel like you were in school or college again – that wonderfully delicious feeling.

Reading those words flooded my mind with wonderful memories – I could have written those words! I could relate to almost every single word – right from ICQ to funny-sounding email IDs to Wimpy’s to The Crystal Maze to gully cricket to candy cigarettes to Cameron Diaz in The Mask to Windows 98 to World Book to Venkatesh Prasad to Eclairs to Tinkle to Talespin. Phew!

Thank you, Varun Agrawal, for the nostalgia as well as a wonderfully written hilarious story on entrepreneurial struggle vs. Indian family culture. I especially love the way his bargaining skills with the auto rickshaw walla improved as he went further down his entrepreneurial journey!

Go read the book, it’s a perfect Sunday read.

Update: Based on the book’s recommendation, I watched Dead Poets Society, 1989 movie feat. Robin Williams as a teacher, and absolutely loved it – Carpe Diem!

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Apps using simple tricks to simplify usage

I have been recently using the iXpenseIt iPhone app to track cash expenditures[1]. What’s interesting is it uses the “most used” / “most visited” feature (which you may be familiar with in Firefox or other software) to vastly speed up its usage for the individual using it.

Let’s take an example, this is my default “New Expense” screen:

IMG_0487

Notice the entries – default vendor is “Shop”, default category is “Household” and default subcategory is “Supplies.” (my preferences).

Let’s say I had gone out for a Saturday afternoon lunch and I want to quickly enter the food bill. I type ‘Re’ and it quickly shows the best auto-complete option from the list of vendors:

IMG_0488

When I tap the ‘Restaurant’ pop-over, a small neat thing happens – it shows me the frequent categories I used for this particular vendor:

IMG_0489

So I tap on the second option and voila, the correct category and subcategory is chosen. The funny thing is that this simple “most frequently used” gimmick is the sole reason that I’m still using this expense tracking app (after all these days of trying so many of them) because my time to add a new entry goes down 3-5x times over time!

IMG_0490

Another example  – consider my favorite note taking application Evernote – when I go to the ‘Add New Note’ option and the clock happens to be in the middle of a calendar event, the default title of the new note will be “Note from Event Name”:

IMG_0491

Why is this useful? Because that is the most likely thing I’ll be doing – adding a note from the event that I’m attending, and this speeds up the process of me writing the new note.

I wish more applications would do this, for example:

  • I’m currently in Pune where Airtel does not have a 3G circle permission, so I am told to switch to Idea network or Vodafone network to get 3G access, but the hitch is that there are areas where Idea network signal strength is low and I have to manually change the network back to Airtel which has full signal strength. I really wish my smartphone could remember which network I use in each of my frequented locations and automatically switch based on that.
  • I wish my Email application would show frequently emailed contacts when I click on “Mail this link” in my browser.  Apple has a new VIP feature in Mountain Lion but I just wish it could show my “top 5 most emailed contacts in the past month” immediately next to the “To” entry field that I could just click on! (I couldn’t figure out how to use the built-in Mac OS X Automator software to simulate this)

Similar to these examples, what customizations / simple statistics / information usage would you like to see in the apps that you frequently use?

 

[1] I don’t intend to use it for more than a few months, it’s just to get a handle on expenses when living in a new city.

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Book Review : Start-up Nation (story of Israel)

I read the "Start-up Nation" book last week. This book was so engrossing that I read it within 2 days, keeping aside everything else.

After reading this book, I started seeing the patterns about Israel being high tech hotspot, for example consider just two pieces of news in the last 3-4 days: Apple buying Anobit, an Israeli company, for $500 million as well as building a research center in Israel and Cornell won the bid to build a university in New York city… in collaboration with Technion university of Israel.

What is important

This book taught me the importance and inter-play of:

  • Entrepreneurism
  • Venture capital
  • Being committed to own business and country at same time
  • When people are pushed for survival, only then do they show the zeal for entrepreneurism and trade – otherwise nation becomes lazy
  • Size of country does matter
  • Government policies
  • Immigration
  • Technology as future growth
  • Multiple fields learning
  • Defense Forces
  • Liberalization and freedom of speech

To highlight in a bit more detail, I have picked a few quotes and insights from each chapter:

0. Introduction

  • Story of Shimon Peres and Shai Agassi pitching Better Place to auto manufacturers – Better Place is re-thinking electric vehicles by making fuel stations swap out your battery with a charged one instead of pumping petrol or diesel into the car, highly ambitious, executed first in Israel, now in China, etc.

1. Persistence

  • Story of "Fraud Sciences" company pitching to Paypal to use their fraud detection service – Paypal ended up buying them so that the competition doesn’t get them – idea came from founders who were soldiers in the Israeli army hunting down terrorists – they found hunting frauds easier.
  • Chutzpah
  • Israeli attitude and informality flow also from a cultural tolerance for what some Israelis call "constructive failure" or "intelligent failures." Most local investors believe that without tolerating a large number of failures, it is impossible to achieve true innovation. In the Israeli military, there is a tendency to treat all performance – both successful and unsuccessful – in training and simulations, and sometimes even in battle, as value-neutral. So long as the risk was taken intelligently, and not recklessly, there is something to be learned.
  • Story of how Intel’s chip design vision changed purely because of doggedness of the Israeli Intel office to convince higher-ups and how that eventually saved the company

2. Battlefield Entrepreneurs

  • As usual in the Israeli military, the tactical innovation came from bottom up – from individual tank commanders and their officers. It probably never occurred to these soldiers that they should ask their higher-ups to solve the problem, or that they might not have the authority to act on their own. Nor did they see anything strange in their taking responsibility for inventing, adopting, and disseminating new tactics in real time, on the fly. Yet what these soldiers were doing was strange. If they had been working in a multinational company…
  • Company commander is also the lowest rank that must take responsibility for a territory. As Farhi puts it, "If a terrorist infiltrates that area, there’s a company commander whose name is on it. Tell me how many twenty-three-year-olds elsewhere in the world live with that kind of pressure… How many of their peers in their junior colleges have been tested in such a way? How do you train and mature a twenty-year-old to shoulder such responsibility?
  • In the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), there are even extremely unconventional ways to challenge senior officers. "I was in Israeli army units where we threw out the officers," Oren told us, "where people just got together and voted them out. I witnessed this twice personally. I actually liked the guy, but I was outvoted. They voted out a colonel." When we asked Oren in disbelief how this worked, he explained, "You go and say, ‘We don’t want you. You’re not good.’ I mean, everyone’s ona first-name basis… You go to the person above him and say, ‘That guy’s got to go.’… It’s much more performance-oriented than it is about rank.

3. The People of The Book

  • Almost every Israeli trekker in Bolivia is likely to come through El Lobo (restaurant), but not just to get food that tastes like it’s from home, to speak Hebrew, and to meet other Israelis. They know they will find something else there, something even more valuable: the Book. Though spoken of in singular, the Book is not one book but an amorphous and evolving collection of journals, dispersed throughout some of the most remote locations in the world. Each journal is a handwritten "Bible" of advice from one traveler to another. And while the Book is no longer exclusively Israeli, its authors and readers tend to be from Israel.
  • Israeli wanderlust is not only about seeing the world; its sources are deeper… there is another psychological factor at work – a reaction to the physical and diplomatic isolation. Until recently, Israelis could not travel to a single neighbouring country…
  • For the same reason, it was natural for Israelis to embrace the Internet, software, computer, and telecommunications arenas. In these industries, borders, distances, and shipping costs are practically irrelevant. As Israeli venture capitalist Orna Berry told us, "High-tech telecommunications became a national sport to help us defend against the claustrophobia that is life in a small country surrounded by enemies." … "Today, Israeli companies are firmly integrated into the economies of China, India, and Latin America. Because, as Orna Berry says, telecommunications became an early priority for Israel, every major telephone company in China relies on Israeli telecom equipment and software…

[Read more…]

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Freelancing for Joshua Schachter


joshua schachter

The first person I started freelancing for is Joshua Schachter. Joshua is well known as the founder of del.icio.us, the bookmarking website which made “social filtering”, “tagging” (at the same time as Flickr) and “Web 2.0” common buzzwords.

I stumbled upon his tweet one day that he was looking for remote Python developers for his pet projects, I said “Hey, I’m interested” and next thing I know he is throwing ideas (and he has lots of ideas) and I’m furiously thinking about the fastest way to implement it. Over time, what interested me the most was not the idea itself but rather the evolution of the idea while iterating over prototypes and how Joshua creates this evolution. It has been fascinating to be a “fly on the wall” in this process.

The first project was ClueDB, a “tips and tricks” website, or a “lifehacker, by the people” as I like to call it. Built using MongoDB, Flask, my flask-boilerplate project, HTML5 Boilerplate, jQuery, jQueryUI, Twitter/OAuth integration, and Fabric. Standard stuff.

cluedb.com

Joshua started with a simple answers / tricks site and slowly hacked on features. For example, he said “let there be tags” but there was a twist. The tagging would not be done by the submitter of the clue him/herself but by other people visiting the site. “It would be less spammy this way” he said. Boy, was that an eye-opener to me on how a simple social “tweak” could make a big change to the content and hence the trustworthiness of a site.

The second aha moment for me was when he said “let there be votes” :

cluedb voting scheme

This was a very interesting scheme of voting where we ask for the direct action by the user and not a simple plus/minus counter which doesn’t say anything about the usefulness of a clue (as opposed to popularity).

Things were going along, and then Joshua said “let there be user profiles” and things were going along again.. and then Joshua said “let there be a page listing all the clues that the user has voted ‘Plan to try it’” and we created such a page. The beauty of this was that now there was a single page that a user can use as a bookmark, homepage or share it with friends – voila, viral and useful at the same time.

Similar aha moments was creating a link called “random clue you haven’t voted” which would encourage the user to both explore more content as well as encourage to vote at the same time, and so on.

The latest project is StackParts.com – a simple catalog of parts for a web stack so that developers can weigh in their options and discover new ones for their next webapp. Built using Tornado, Python, Fabric and YAML files as the NoSQL database ;-).

This project was again interesting for the use of tags to organize the projects and the relationships between them, which you can see in action when you visit any project page on stackparts.com.

stackparts.com

There was a good discussion on HN about StackParts and was featured on O’Reilly Radar, and if Wayne Seguin likes it, there must be some value in it.

(As an aside, the site is also a testament to my total lack of design skills.)

And all the while, Joshua is busy with his own startup!

In summary, it’s been a fascinating experience where Joshua is doing the product management and I’m doing the coding.

My two favorite lessons from this experience are:

“You can’t reason about products – great products are emotional.”

and:

joshua startupquote idea log

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Freelancing

I’ve been a long-time reader of Ramit Sethi – I love his irreverent approach to money which has influenced me positively. About a year and a half ago, he launched the Earn1K program and I was immediately curious about it. Having failed to run a business once, I thought this was a great way to “hack my brain” to learn about business.

Eventually, I signed up for it. Of course, I have never mentioned this before to anybody other than a handful of friends because most people would balk that I paid so much for an online course and consider me an idiot. I guess I’m just not the latte saving kind of guy – I don’t earn a lot and I don’t spend a lot, but I do want to spend on the things that I really want. I’m mentioning this today because I have results to show from having gone through just half of the course.

A few months ago after I left my last job, most people expected me to jump into a startup again:


@vijayanands


@satpalparmar

Having the spent last 3 years in startup land, I learned a few things which have made me wary and weary of startups. It had gotten me to think of what it is that I was actually seeking.

It turns out to be simple – “I like coding. I like building interesting and meaningful projects. I like working with good people. I like getting paid well.” That’s it ;-). After all these years, I still love coding, so I kept thinking of ways to focus on just that and stay far away from the business and management side of things. “At least, let me indulge in coding till I have the enthusiasm for it” was my refrain. But how to achieve that?

That was when my lessons from Earn1K kicked in.

Today, my full-time freelancing is going better than I had anticipated a couple of months ago.

There was one more reason why freelancing seemed like a great option to me:

To be happy, your work must fulfill three universal psychological needs:

  1. Autonomy – control over how you fill your time.
  2. Competence – mastering unambiguously useful things
  3. Relatedness – feeling of connection to others

This was what I came across in Cal Newport’s blog whom I pay attention to.

As you can imagine, freelancing has given me an opportunity to further each of the above three points – I get to choose the projects I work on, I get to choose projects that improves my skills and I get to choose to work on projects that I want to be a part of. I am not bound by a company’s roadmap at all.

There are other pluses such as not having to commute, not having to take phone screens and face-to-face interviews, no meetings, not having to worry about sales and product roadmap (my clients take care of that), not having to worry about the competition (my clients take care of that), etc.

There are minuses, of course, such as not having a team to interact and learn from, not having the opportunity to meet wonderful colleagues, no paid holidays, and so on. Thankfully, Pomodoro and GTD help me stay focused and productive and the other minuses haven’t bitten me strongly yet.

At some arbitrary point in time in the future, I’ll do a personal review of how things stand, especially if I have a reasonably steady income. If all is well, then I’ll probably continue freelancing, otherwise there is always the option to jump back into a regular job. Until then, my new life experiment is in progress and so far, so good.

P.S. I’ll talk about my current projects in subsequent posts.


“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”

Nassim Taleb

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Leaving Infibeam

Today is my last day at Infibeam.

I’m going to miss working in this environment because I learned a lot about ecommerce and online buying in India. For example, I was surprised to know how much sales go up during Diwali (in hindsight, not so surprising, of course) and was surprised at the amount of online buying that happens from Tier II cities. Then there was the learning on the huge amount of logistics that happens – the part where the customer visits the website and clicks on the Buy button is just 1% of the total stuff that happens behind-the-scenes.

I am also thankful to Ajay and Infibeam for getting me into the Rails wagon, I’m finally starting to see the light. Learning a new language and framework from scratch to delivering a full ecommerce platform in 4–5 months was a fascinating experience. And soon, anyone can set up their own online store on top of Infibeam’s infrastructure.

Infibeam has done many things right, has many things to improve, and rumors say they may face many challenges in the future. All in all, that’s a good thing. Infibeam launched at the right time and is helping to grow ecommerce in India, and it will continue to do so.

But alas, it’s time for me to move on. I can haz plans.


Listening to Stand Up by The Prodigy

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Everyday reminder about Impact

Everyday I get emails from readers of my books that makes me wonder: Am I continuing to make an impact everyday? Can I have the same impact again through my work? Maybe, let’s see.

But still, it’s difficult to top this:

I’m a 16-year-old boy from Guangxi,China.

Thanks for the book named A Byte of Python of yours.I learnt lots of things from it.

And this:

Dear Sir,

I have never been able to program before but with your byte of python I actually managed to not only write the small programs but even understand. For me this is good because I am 57 years old and I always gave up any programming I attempted to learn before no matter how desirable a goal it seemed. The real problem I run into is what the words mean. I consider myself fairly literate but when I run into a special word I do not know the meaning of, it frustrates me, especially when I cannot find a definition, and there goes the understanding. Also, there are gradients of knowledge that are skipped. One minute you’re riding along nicely and the next minute you’re behind the 8 ball. Along the way, one quits. You, on the other hand, seem to have undercut this better than anyone I have encountered before. Your explanations are clear and concise and you define words well so I understood more of python than I have of any other language including Basic which I tried and gave up on years ago and the understanding flows very well. And you’re giving hope to an older person who really wants to learn to program!

Thanks so much

These emails are enormously humbling and reminds me to continue to focus on the impact of what I do.

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isbn.net.in open-sourced

I have been getting many emails regarding isbn.net.in since I put it out 9 months ago. For example:

Hi Swaroop,
I am following your blog for last year.
I have visited and used ur isbn.net.in service. It is a good idea.

To easy of mobile phone buyers, I wanna create a application like isbn.net.in for the mobile phone availability and comparison.

Can i do this as a Final year project? Is it take that much work?
To create that what should I know!

I have knowledge in Open source softwares, LAMP and basic python (From A Byte of Python).

and this:

Hi Swaroop,

Love your site isbn.net.in!

I am planning to start an online bookstore to sell used books. I need help to acquire book info like title, author etc. based on ISBN. Will you be able to help? Do you have an API that I can use? I see that you use Amazon. I was not sure if Amazon would have the details for books published in India. Please let me know your thoughts. Appreciate your help.

I actually wrote isbn.net.in as a means of learning Ruby, so I had written some hacked-up code using Sinatra. As it was my first Ruby project, the code was very amateurish and was not something I wanted to share.

Since so many people have been asking how it works, I decided it would be easier to just open source it. I took this opportunity to rewrite it using Rails 3 and try out Heroku as well. So, voila, Rails 3, Heroku and using MongoDB for tracking background jobs (to do the screen scraping) means a brand new isbn.net.in that is now live.

And the source code is now at https://github.com/swaroopch/isbnnetin (Note that this software requires Memcached and MongoDB to run).

The code is under an Apache license, so use it as you please.

Now that the source code is out there, there are some contributions that can make the site better:

  • Detection of ‘out of stock’ / delivery time
  • Detection of extra shipping charges / other hidden charges
  • Mobile version
  • Any improvements to the web design at all (I suck at UI design)

I would love any help on the above. If you’re interested, please fork away and when you’re ready, send me a pull request on GitHub :-)

Still Spreading

I am surprised to still see the response to isbn.net.in, mainly because I do zero marketing, and yet I still get 1-2 emails per day about it. That is amazing considering that the site has been there for nearly nine months and I didn’t do much other than write a blog post about it. I don’t tweet it or facebook it and all that jazz. I guess it’s a case of “Build it and they will come”?

For example, it was featured in startup articles, it was even mentioned in interviews of new online ecommerce stores that are coming up.

My favorite part is that people are using it as a bookmark URL (which was a use case that I had in mind), see @xrivatsan, @PurpleFoodie and @Shalin10

And I get emails and tweets when the site used to go down for even a few hours!

Oh, and thanks for all the feedback:

Shashank ND says:

“isbn.net.in saves a ton of time when trying to buy books online. Indian e commerce needs more of them. Thank you @swaroopch.””isbn.net.in saves a ton of time when trying to buy books online. Indian e commerce needs more of them. Thank you @swaroopch.”

Swaroop Hegde says:

“Been searching for Kochan’s Objective-C book for a day now but hitting out of stock everywhere. And oh, Kudos to @SwaroopCH’s isbn.net.in”

Nandan Dubey says:

http://isbn.net.in/ best site to compare price of the books visit it once before buying any online books”

Vinay says:

isbn.net.in is one simple and great site which is give you the best prices online. Great service for book lovers

The greatest flattery, though, is when it has inspired many other book price comparison websites.

For example, take the story behind mySmartPrice:

I chanced upon a book price search engine by Swaroop through a post on Flipkart. I will always remain thankful for that since I have gained a lot of insight by going through his blog. If you intend to ever start your startup then do subscribe to his blog.

A lot of users of Swaroop’s project liked the product. However many of them were asking for a way to start with the title of the book instead of the isbn number. I guess Swaroop has not made the changes since it was not his idea to start with and he might be busy with his new job at Infibeam. Coincidentally I am on the exit mode from my job to get into the startup phase.

One of the biggest inspirations for working on this project has been my own desire to prove to myself that I continue to be a geek even 5 years after I stopped coding to go to IIM Bangalore. There are many improvements that are required even now and I will talk about them in future posts. However I am already proud of the product that I have.

I will close this post by wishing myself and MySmartPrice luck and by thanking Tapas for introducing me to the wonderful blog of Swaroop and Swaroop for providing me such a nice homework to bring out the coder in me

There have been other sites such as MyDiscountBay that also seem to have taken inspiration from isbn.net.in. Update: confirmed via twitter.

And we seem to be spawning many more.

The irony is that I myself was inspired by isbn.nu. We all stand on the shoulders of giants :-)

Oh, and isbn.net.in is certainly just a side project, definitely not meant as a competition to these startups.

The single biggest crib that I hear is that one needs to know the ISBN number to use isbn.net.in – it seems that most people forget that I have a bookmarklet which solves that problem, sigh. I really don’t see the need to make a completely new search engine when all these ecommerce sites are already putting in effort to make a great search engine. But I guess people want everything online and don’t want to even use a browser feature, such is the Net effect! (If you do have an idea in mind how to solve this, as I mentioned before, fork away ;-))

This was my list of updates about isbn.net.in. Feedback welcome!

Update: Someone has written a Flipkart to isbn.net.in link greasemonkey script. Nice to see people building on top of isbn.net.in! On the same note, if you ever want to get the prices from isbn.net.in, just append .json to the URLs, example http://isbn.net.in/0142000280.json for the JSON data of the prices.

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The real reasons why Indian startups struggle to hire

The last article on difficulty of hiring for startups in India generated a lot of discussion (also see the HackerStreet.India discussion about this article). I was surprised to see so much response within 24 hours. I guess it shows how much of a pain point it actually is:

Ramjee says: “Bang on, This problem is very severe.”

Gowri says: “oh you could not have hit the nail on the head better!! We are a small, serious high technology company and find it really hard to get good people. First many don’t want to talk to no-brand-name companies. Even when we get to make offers, we end up losing so many because TCS or Wipro or IBM or Accenture gave them 20k more for a maintenance project where they will end up modifying 50 lines of code every 3 months. I feel like crying for them!”

Abhaya says: “Next time we meet, remind me to buy you a drink. I sometimes wish all the people in Startup ecosystem will stop exhorting people to start their own companies and instead join one of the several hundred around as a first step!”

Abdul Qabiz says: “We have been working hard, for last two years, to build a small team, with not much success. Also, hiring is relatively harder for startups in third-tier cities because good ones move to metros.”

These comments are actually the best part of writing a blog – getting to hear from other people knowledgeable on the subject and who are actually in the trenches. The various thoughts added by the community was so good that I thought it was best to summarize it in a new post for my own cognition:

Startups are not promising, yet

We all agree that hiring is an issue. But why is it so? I think the best articulation on the subject was by Manu J (summarized here, please read the original comment for his full thoughts):

  1. Stock options have made money for people in Silicon Valley startups. What about in India? “How many makemytrip employees made it big? How many rediff employees?”

  2. “Startups do nothing to differentiate themselves from the big corps. If you are offering just a market salary why would a good engineer work with you rather than a big corp which offers that and more?”

  3. “Uninspiring work. Not to knock on any startups but some time back facebook clones were all the rage. Now it is groupon clones.”

  4. “Lack of technical leadership: Lot of US startups and techies actively participate in the tech community. They usually have a tech blog where they write about scaling challenges, best practices, new products tested out etc. I have learned a lot from these type of posts. I have never found an indian startup which has a good tech blog. (Couple of indian startups do have people in them who are well known and contributed back for ex: you ) but as a company I’ve never seen an indian startup which contributes back to the tech community”

Regarding Point No. 2, Syamant adds:

“Perhaps you should consider non traditional working models as well as talent from outside bangalore who could work remotely. Also consider people who are experienced and have opted to not work fixed hours.”

And Anirudh adds:

“If someone’s good at what they do, they are most likely selling their skills to the highest bidder – namely google, microsoft, amazon, etc. The ones who are trying to work independently (like me) do it because of many reasons – one of them is that you get utmost power, control and authority. Working for a small startup offers neither.”

Regarding Point No. 4, Harish Mallipeddi adds:

“Great technical work & leadership – do not build yet another PHP/MySQL site. Is at least one of the founders, technically well accomplished and smart? If you built Google News and you quit Google to work on your next big idea, then I’m sure that would instill a lot of confidence about you in the minds of potential hires. But if you are completely unaccomplished yourself, then it’s going to be a hard sell”

As far as I know, Manu hits the nail here on the real problems – startups need to do a way better job of making the job look attractive on the strengths of a startup (technical leadership, technical growth, long-term pay-offs, flexibility of timings) rather than trying to compete with big companies on the strengths of big companies (salary, facilities, etc.)

Even things like liberal work-from-home options or double the number of leaves of a regular job can make startups more attractive, like Harish Mallipeddi said:

“Different work space/work culture – you could try renting some cheap office space near a beach in Goa. I’ve worked for Yahoo and I’ve seen Google’s offices – they all have swanky office spaces with free cafeterias. You cannot compete with them by renting out a third-grade office space in crowded Bangalore. Try something different. If you look at all the Valley startups, they don’t just sell you a job – they sell you a work lifestyle – ‘come work for us; this is the kind of work culture we have’ is always their pitch.”

Good Founders are rare, most are stingy

Pranay says:

I am an early career engineer, and I have seen many of my friends leave startup jobs to get into well-established company. Mostly because the startups seldom live up to the exciting work culture image they generally promise. Also, many of the founders are very stingy in terms of giving away equity. The general view is that, its not fun to be in a startup, unless you are the founders/co-founders.

Anirudh says:

“In India, developers are generally treated like crap. I’ve got tons of offers from ‘business’ guys who have a stupid idea and a little spare cash. They don’t understand technology – and more importantly – it’s limitations. Anyone with a little field experience will automatically be wary of such people.”

Maybe the situation could be different if the founders mentor the employees, as Ayush Jain puts it:

People who do join startups are mostly the ones who are interested in entrepreneurship or starting up themselves. These people do it for the ownership, respect and the appreciation of being entrepreneurs. The biggest mistake founders do is to treat them like employees. Consider talking to people you wish to hire about stock options as they join, or give them some reason to feel proud as an entrepreneur. This would also add to their ownership of the work they do and you would see a visible difference in their attitude towards work. But most entrepreneurs find it difficult to share the ownership of the company with them and thats why they find themselves struggling.”

As “Have to be anonymous” says:

“The founders of the startups are in the attitude of “giving life and supporting a family” for a few people than “taking help from a techie” mindset. Even if they know an employee is not a beggar who has joined his company to help him succeed in a venture, the employer’s behavior seldom reflects they have acknowledged this fact. This could be seen right from giving appointment orders till making the employee cry for relieving letters. And it would be funny to note the same employer read about “brands”. Would they know customers are of two types, internal and external?

“Yes, I was working in startups, and have now finally decided settle down for the “big fish nets”. I am now one of the so called tier 1 company employees. Afterall, if the current project is over, the company would actively search in full swing to depute me on another project. I wont get a pink slip as fast as I would get in a “get-the-job-done-and-go-home” startups.”

Good Startup Hires are Rare

As Rams says:

“There are not that many startup-type techies out there. That’s the simple truth. I am going through my 3rd startup and the reality couldn’t be starker. No, they are not hiding under a rock.”

As Upasana says:

“I am going to have to disagree with several people – Ayush, Ashish (Pocha), etc. above stating founders are stingy. I know at least a dozen including myself willing to give away 10-20% equity + decent monthly cash for a solid hacker. From architects in Yahoo and Amazon, to 1-person IT consulting guys to 3-4 years experienced guys in IT Services company to guys working in a 6 year old American startup’s Indian devcenter – tried them all. You know what? They just cant take the risk! So I dont think badgering Founders for not being open to dole out equity is a good enough reason.

“We got some early employees using a fair equation where some wanted more monthly cash + low equity, others wanted low cash + high equity. The decision was left to them on which package they wanted. We found that one of the guys after working 2-3 months and finding out the real revenue/margin numbers himself wanted to reduce his salary for a higher equity.

“I think smart hackers should know their self worth and also the worth of what they are building. If what they are making is exciting and hard for them may be its worth a pay cut for 2 years with a possible equity upside potential? After all last few months are showing indications of a bright M&A future.”

Ecosystem

Let’s face it – our ecosystem and family mindsets are not ready yet, we know this one and I think these are the “growing pains” of any startup culture. As Gowri puts it:

“These people talk nicely about wanting challenging jobs and new technology and all that, but get lured by ‘social status’ of branded companies and few thousands more.

“I even had one guy who left our company because his future father-in-law did not like that he didn’t work for one the ‘large’ companies!

“One guy resigned because he could not get a good bank loan since the banks were looking for branded or large company employees.”

Geek Out

When I had mentioned that I wish there was a ‘geeks grooming culture’, then the irreverent Pramode C E pointed out that that was exactly his latest venture – and he seems to have had great results in just a month since he started:

I began my new venture of mentoring B.Tech completed students on August 25. The ideas was to take in motivated students, build up their FOSS skills by making them write code/solve problems full-time, and try to use whatever contacts I have with friends and former students in the FOSS community/industry to get them placed with companies who need capable programmers.

Learn more about this on the IC Software website.

The lack of skilled people is an open secret. As Rohit says:

“At a general level, what we see is a clear lack of skills fulfilling each role, be it engg, sales, marketing etc.

“For eg: when we look for an engg. to write features, we only seem to get folks who know to write code. Customer acquisition strategies which many speak about are mostly traditional and nothing innovative. Forget about finding folks who help us scale, there are probably handful of them in India who are already picked up Yahoos and the Googles or now Facebook.”

Let’s hope that Kiran Jonnalagadda and HasGeek can indeed bring these skilled people together and breed a culture of such skills.

Hiring Strategies

Regarding, good hiring strategies for startups, Sameer Guglani has written extensively on this subject on his blog – Hiring method that works, What to look for in startup interviews? and Early employees – Salary & Equity.

Bottom Line

Startups need to pitch why they are better than big companies, it is the same whether it is about the product or about hiring!

As Saurabh Narula puts it:

“As you point out in your statement, hiring for a startup is a lot different than hiring for big companies – attacking the different problem with same mindset often misleads people in the hiring process.”

This has been an enlightening discussion for me, thanks to all of those whom I’ve quoted here (and many whom I’ve not quoted for reasons of length of this article) for their thoughts on this subject :-)

Update: More great insights by Manu J in the comments.

Update 2: See Ravi Mohan’s take on the same.

Update 3: See Stalk Ninja, a unique initiative to whet good students and get them involved with startups.