A decade of emerging market entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurs are irrational optimists, often carrying a lot of confirmation bias. It takes some time & distance from a venture to objectively assess the learnings therein.
Now away from founder life after 12 years & 3 different ventures, it’s a little easier to summarise & synthesize my learnings. Here are some:
- Founders should spend a lot of time on the product hands-on and with early users until some engagement metrics with some of these lead users are there. I was overconfident about our team’s ability to deliver products.
- We hired a sales and business development team too early, even when the product market hadn’t been achieved. This led to early adopters losing confidence in the quality of the product, and product and technology gaps being sometimes misattributed to sales / BD pitch. It takes more effort to sell again who had given up on an earlier version of the product.
- Our product story was complex — requiring interplay of marketplace and SaaS. The product story must be simple — even if the complex interdependencies are on the roadmap. In a less nuanced space, complexity is scary to outsiders — even users, investors, or employees.
- Entrepreneurship is a long journey, there’s always a lot to the done. Esp when the problem is hard, there are no parallels for it, and the business is sales / operationally heavy. A single founder is stretched. Finding co-founders is hard once you have started, esp if you’re not where most of the talent is.
- Some functions scale, like product engineering — and it’s better to invest in them. Good engineers if managed well more than justify the premium. The 10x phenomenon.
- Don’t avoid hard conversations or decisions about people. There does come a point when one has to give up on some people & let them go.
- Don’t take incremental decisions. If something is a norm, don’t expect to take a middle path decision without any major effort investment and still succeed. When we started the marketplace, we didn’t enable full transaction services — even if the entire industry believed marketplaces to require transaction support. Same with setting up a Bangalore office. Multiple offices early in an organization are hard to manage— it gets harder without when the decision is not backed by major effort or investment.
- Be clear about the core value proposition. Implementation will throw up new challenges that may change the roadmap. Be clear about what changes are pivots vs digressions — and stick to it in decision making. I looked at the marketplace as a feature addition — but soon, all of our team and capital for a year went into it. That’s confusing.
- When solving open problems, not all data points exist to make the perfect decisions. Decisions need to be taken on incomplete data, they are right or wrong only in retrospective, and often depending on the conviction and effort on it. Don’t dither — it is better to take a decision even if imperfect, go full out to make it perfect — and then change if it didn’t play out.
- Not all decisions need to be democratic. If critical issues drag on for months, a founder must be willing to take the bull by the horn and take a unilateral call. There’s often only a thin margin for success — even a month’s delay can be fatal for the organization.
- Think through the product and MIS metrics early, and keep tracking them. They define the product and roadmap. Keep your existing investors and stakeholders aligned on them. You’ll likely go through a lot of turbulence on your journey — you need existing investors on your side. Any fundamental change in metrics needs to be thought through.
- Fundraising is a sales job. You may know what you’re building, and the adoption may be great — but the story still needs to be sold. Spend time on the pitch, think through the FAQs, do practice pitches, know the numbers, the story. It’s been a while since I had prepared for any exams or even talks, counting on my knowing my subject well enough to help through. Entrepreneurs are deeply immersed to know all the details, but often the big story/picture required to impress someone in a few mins gets lost in the detail.
- Acknowledge how others, the talent, or investors see the industry or your space, and if you believe differently — prove it with data. If Marketplace SaaS dynamics is hard to sell, pilot it earlier — and get the learnings/adoption from it.
There will always be a lot to do — so carefully pick the important battles to fight.