09 May

We did not take vc funding. Was that a right decision?

At Yavvy, we did not make a real attempt to take vc funding. So much so that I hardly ever approached any investor on my own and I answered very few of those “We-would-want-to-know-what-you-are-doing-?” phone call requests.

While my reasons for not taking vc funding will be the subject of another post, this posts discusses whether not seeking funding was the right thing to do?

 Short Answer: I don’t think the decision to not seek funding was wrong. However we started behaving like a funded company when we did not have the maturity or the resources to do so! We did not play to our strength and that did cause us some grief!

Long Answer:

Until Jan 2012, we were reasonably comfortable in our cash flows. While the team wasn’t deriving stellar compensation, we were at 95%tile range of what Infosys and TCS paid. Developers were getting ~25+% YoY hikes and the company would sponsor an occasional lunch for everyone.

We were running Yavvy as a solutions business (instead of a pure product play) and therefore deriving implementation and customisation revenues. It kept us going and growing (albeit very slowly).

Unfortunately, in Jan 2012, we decided to change the model. We realised that implementations and customisations aren’t scalable unless we invest in hiring, training and retaining more resources. Also it did not comply with the SaaS product play that we had in mind. We wanted to aggressively capture market.

All in all, in Jan 2012, we wanted to be a pure-play SaaS product. You signup for a free trial, you use the app, fall in love with it and eventually pay! All of it in a low touch model! We reduced our prices and adjusted it against the competition and we moved from a sales-driven model to a marketing-driven model.

Marketing unfortunately is a capital-intensive activity. You need to spend on advertisements, you need to spend time writing blogs and designing landing pages with clever call-to-actions. You have to A/B-test your messages and ensure that you don’t lose the visitor before he sign-ups.

We were hiring designers, consulting marketers, going to workshops; and reading blogs. And all this time while I was focusing on my marketing funnel, my sales funnel was drying up.

It took us about 6 months to reach a position where our visitor to signup conversions started picking up (about 15%  on organic traffic). We were now getting a good number of signups and it looked like we had made it! This was entirely inbound and our ad-words spends were zero!

Unfortunately we now stumbled upon our next big hurdle – Activation! We needed the self-signed-up user to use our product, fall in love with it so that he’ll be willing to pay! Until then, we weren’t getting any money in our pockets!

Activation is probably even more capital intensive than marketing! This one requires writing user-manuals, creating videos, building wizards, presenting users with analytics and content that keeps them coming back to the application (until they’ve conquered the learning curve) and investing in support-staff who can help them if they gets stuck!

It was in the middle of this phase that we ran out of resources. This is the time when I wanted to hire more resources but did not have enough cash to sustain the growth!

 We were in the thick of the battle and we ran out of ammo! We had to retreat and we ended up losing some of the ground that we had covered!

So here’s my two cents – if you haven’t got vc funding, it’s okay! We were doing pretty well without investments. We were growing slowly but surely! We were entering into deals that made sense! The problem happened when we started imitating a funded startup, started competing with them, on their turf.

Not-funded-is-not-a-bad-thing

Funding is like steroids. It helps you with the stamina and the muscles to slug it out! But if you don’t have steroids, you’ll have to work out, hit the gym, do the extra bench press and keep at it before you are ready to enter the ring!

07 Dec

What is your business – a car, a bike or a hitchhiker

Assume that a human, a car and a bike are standing on a traffic signal with intent of racing. When the signal turns green on an empty road, the human would lead in the first 10 feet, the bike would lead in the first 50 metres and the car thereafter. If its rush hour, the biker would bend and cut across the traffic and stay infront of the car; if the path turns around a park, the human would cross the park and reach the other side quicker than the others.

Using the vehicle as a metaphor for business, it is immensely important to know and understand what is your business, a bike, a car or a pedestrian. Don’t judge it by size; judge it by manoeuvrability and by strength(hp).

A broker or a trader is most likely a pedestrian. He can change his product portfolio comparatively quickly and he makes lots of money by selling somebody else’s stuff (travel far by hitchhiking in a car). A small product company is most likely a bike, cutting across the cluttered market looking for spaces that they can fill up; reaching places where cars can’t reach.

So next time you are driving, observe the cleverest drivers on the roads and learn how you need to run your business!

27 Nov

Of Innocent bystanders and the right directions for the entrepreneur

If you drive in Delhi, you would know that even small distances take a lot of time. This obviously gives you a lot of time to observe this entire “ecosystem” called roads. I had lately started relating it to the business ecosystem and when you do that long enough, you find analogical explanations that fit one and the other.

A driven entrepreneur is a series of blog entries built out of such experiences. I hope you enjoy them.

In the pre-google maps era, I had always relied on asking people for directions to places. Sometimes my friends, sometime my wife and more often than not, the innocent bystander at the friendly neighbourhood bus stop or pan stall. The rules of asking for directions were simple; identify whom you wish to ask; try not to run them over and ask for directions, take a gut feel on accuracy and finally either proceed on the direction or confirm at the next turn.

Business works along in a similar fashion. If you are an entrepreneur, more often than not, you would not be familiar with the path that you must take to reach your goal. Unfortunately we don’t yet have google maps which help you find “$200 Million in revenues” and therefore it is usually a good idea to ask for directions; from friends, from family and from innocent bystanders.

Identifying the right innocent bystanders, the one who can guide you along till the next milestone is critical to how quickly you reach the goal. And what direction you get is entirely dependent upon how well you can define the destination or a milestone.

08 Mar

The Value of Values – Why every business must have a value statement

Opportunity or Distraction

Like all toddlers, my eight month old daughter usually takes anything she can lay her hands on and puts it in her mouth. Be it a grape, or hair-brushes or cell phones or TV remotes, anything she can hold, she tries to eat.

I feel most start-ups function in a similar way, the eating anything a child can grab analogous to jumping on every opportunity a start-up gets. Such temptations are still avoidable during the initial period where the steam is high, but they start looking enticing when funds begin to dwindle and the belief needs reinforcement.

When my daughter puts a grape in her mouth, we let her; when she puts a cherry, we check if the cherry has a seed in it or not; when she puts a cell phone, we don’t let her and things like knives and forks, we keep out of her sight and reach. We, the parents and the grandparents and the family are the ones who are deciding for the child, guiding her, ensuring her safety and well being.

Who plays that role of guiding us, when we are a business? Who ensures that we do not chase something that may bite us later (Let’s call them distraction for simplicity sake), even though it looks tempting right now? In the case of Research Endeavors, time and time again we have looked at our value statement for answers.

Every day, there are new questions that come up, new decisions that need to be made and we do not have the resources or the time to deliberate extensively on them. Moreover, there is a question of consistency, of ensuring that our decisions remain the same even when the same distraction comes disguised as another opportunity. Also, how do we separate the wheat from the chaff – to give those important opportunities their due deliberation?

Our simple parameters are whether the opportunity is consistent with our value statements? If it is not, we simply discard it. No time spent on arguing, no effort consumed in explaining it, no begrudging regret later on. A simple validation to our happily ever after.

No Contradictions

Let me put across a simple example. When we started; we had several chances of picking up outsourcing work. RubyOnRails expertise was in demand, years of Project Management experience in addition to that expertise allowed us per-hour rates that were enticing. We instead decided to put all our resources and energy into building up our products. Why? Because as per the value system on which we have built Research Endeavors, we put long-term benefits over short-term earnings. Similarly, we did not simply stop at building just one product (CRM or ERP), we went to build an entire suite. Why? Because of the same guiding principle – long-term over short-term; because businesses do not want to operate in a piecemeal approach with several disparate systems, they do not want systems which do not talk with each other. Our coming up with non-integrated, do-only-one-thing application would have put us into the same rat race without serving any additional benefit to our customer.

Now the most amazing bit; we started doing implementation projects now. Integrating our apps with those of clients, maybe consulting him in how can we add value to more of his/her systems. We moved from being a pure product developer to product developer and product implementer. Why? Because the same guiding value does not contradict this decision anymore. We needed more resources while we built and tested our systems but now that most of these applications are already built up, we look for engaging opportunities for our people – let them leverage on their expertise and grow through interactions with more businesses. We remain honest to our desire to see our people grow.

The value systems is constant, our adherence is constant yet our decisions entirely different. Again, No time spent on arguing, no effort consumed in explaining it, no begrudging regret later on.  A simple validation to our happily ever after.

Values at Research Endeavors

  1. Respect
  2. Honesty and Integrity
  3. Chasing the dream  (Persistence)
  4. Long Term benefits over Short Term Gains
  5. Contributing to the Society
02 Mar

User Interface for the Indian Small Business

After we were done with all the tweaking of our UI, we wanted to test it and the solution to that came about through a strange opportunity. One start-up which was implementing JusBill, was also looking for staff in its accounts department. As part of the interview process, we asked each one of them to sit in front of a computer and use jusbill to generate a bill. We would obviously tell them who the consignee was and what the product needed to be sold but nothing more. Out of 25 candidates 11 generated the bill with absolutely no navigational questions; 8 had less than 4 questions and the remaining needed us to tell them how to do it once!

These were people who had never seen JusBill before, never used anything of this sort. These were people with general educational level of around Senior Secondary only. These were people from remote villages around Bulandshahr and Sikandrabad.

What excited us most was that this meant direct employable computer skillset for a huge set of people!  This is the story of how we went about developing the user interface for JusBill.com

The Premise

JusBill.com is a simple invoicing application built for the Small Business staff in India. When we went for our first installation, we took about 20 minutes to explain to the billing staff on how do they use and operate JusBill. The person we were training was not a graduate, he was however intelligent and had invoicing experience using paper and pen. He took 20 minutes of our teaching him how to use JusBill.

20 minutes of personalised training was a huge disappointment.  The fact that the training time included explaining how to connect to the internet and type www.jusbill.com was no consolation either.

The problem

When we dissected the problem, we realised that he was very comfortable with the screen as long as he saw a place holder to fill up stuff. So when he wanted to fill up the vehicle number, he could see a text field with label as Vehicle Number – he could fill it up. Similarly when he wanted to add a consignee, there was a field saying “Load Customer” in his face and he promptly used it.

The place where he faced problem was when he could not find the placeholder. We had hidden the Excise Tax field and it was available only on a click! The reason for hiding Excise tax was that retailers do not have to pay Excise Tax and therefore they do not want to see an additional field which would confuse them.

The problem was tricky simply because part of our customer base wanted the fields to be visible and part of them did not! Not making these fields visible confused one lot and making it visible confused the other.

The Non Solution

The first idea was to build up different forms for different types of customers. So a retailer would never see Excise Tax field but a manufacturer would. The solution was flawed because of several reasons

  1. Govt Regulations keep changing and you never know which all new taxes or changes may come about. Keeping several forms would lead to maintainability issues and sooner or later we would be faced with the same dilemma which we faced today.
  2. There was a class of customers namely dealers and traders who needed both – Excise tax to be visible on certain kind of transactions and not visible on certain others.

Solution – Take 1

We decided to keep one form itself with partially hidden fields. Whatever fields would be automatically hidden or visible is decided by the type of user. User can expand partially hidden fields easily by checking the visible part of these fields.

How is that different from a click, you would ask. When we were using a click it was opening up a drop down box of taxes, excise being one of them. So a customer would need to click thrice on the same link to add Excise and VAT and Additional Duty.

In our solution, we instead put three different checkboxes each with Excise / VAT / Special Additional Duty. Those who want to specify Excise can simply check on that check box and AJAXically the Excise tax is applied.

The one form concept also paid dividends. We would show this form immediately after login. This reduced the number of clicks to reach the most frequented page and gave him/her an added comfort level.

We had to use a substantial amount of AJAX and Javascript to ensure that he sees things happen the moment he presses the button. All that the UI had to do for him was to reassure him till he grows familiar with it.

jusBill

The Challenge

We had the good fortune that our first user was someone with no experience of internet or internet based applications. He became our model user and forced us to use the simplest possible UI for our application. The subsequent users have been far more technology savvy. The urban backoffice users are at immediate ease with the system.

As we progress further there are newer challenges that come.A recent user from Kerela told us that there is Cess on VAT in Kerela; something that we put up for him in a matter of hours. This functionality is redundant to most other non Kerela customers but since it followed the same principle of partial visibility, none of our existing customers called in or reported anything. Most realised the same only because they saw our mail telling them about it.

Solution – Take II

Improvement of  UI is a continuous process, We keep exploring opportunities where we can make it simpler. But what we keep in mind always is that simplicity is not the absence of complexity; it is the removal of complexity.  A simple user interface does not mean reduced features; it just means a comfortable experience which empathises with the user’s needs.

12 Feb

Of Business Applications and Lord of the Rings

One app for Marketing & Sales to work the leads
Another for finance to manage accounts
a third system for employees to enter their leaves
Recruitment without system and problems abound
Another team to chase these teams and get the scores
and feed it to a yet another system to generate reports
One App to integrate these teams, one app to unite them
One app that connects their work and in the functionality bind them
One System with CRM, HRIS, ERP, eCommerce -  Sysblitz.com

My Precious!

09 Feb

The difference between a good CRM and a bad CRM

When you go to a bank, you may meet a pleasant person on the counter who goes out of his/her way to get things done for you; or you may meet somebody who simply brushes you off, redirects you to numerous other counters and then begrudgingly completes your work.

Where is the difference? It’s in the interaction. The same task is done, the same service is achieved yet one interaction leaves you happy and smiling and the other leaves you dismayed to say the least.

That is the difference between a good CRM and a bad CRM.

CRM by architecture is not a very difficult system. Most systems available these days offer more or less the same functionality. The rocket science however is how do they offer that functionality; how easily does your CRM gets your work done. Even the extra features that a CRM may offer is simply that – an added level of ease and comfort in getting something done.

So next time when you are out deciding which CRM is good, you can’t find that out from the number of ticks in the features list, or the beautiful screenshots or what the CRM Experts are saying. Those may tell you which CRM is bad, but if you really want to know what a good CRM is all about – just take the free trial demo and simply dive in.

“You’re not perfect, sport, and let me save you the suspense: this girl you’ve met, she’s not perfect either. But the question is whether or not you’re perfect for each other.” Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting

07 Feb

The Birth of an ERP

If you must know, before we started off the company, the product that we had in mind was “IDrona”. There weren’t any plans of making a SaaS based suite of Business applications, let alone any research or market sizing about the need of such a suite. The only reason jusbill.com was born was because we really really wanted to make IDrona.

I belong to a business family running a small manufacturing unit. A small factory with limited resources – legal, people, marketing or financial. This small business runs like most other small businesses, which is, in a fire-fighting mode. Hence while there was always finance & sales & operations to take care of, the focus of my daily actions was that activity which was on fire. There were systems in place, accounting & production & regulatory but those systems were not helping.

Jusbill was born out of the top floor of this factory, built by a team of people who understood programming & software and business and the usual problems of a small business. It was built with an intuitive user-interface because the office-staff wasn’t computer savvy; it was built online because the business is 24X7 and operational from everywhere – home, office, car, client’s office, restaurant, port; it was built to handle most aspects so that activities can be managed quickly, efficiently, automatically and in an error free fashion; it was built to be secure and with roles and workflows built into it.

Jusbill benefits from the knowledge of these nuances, those intricacies and that insider information. It benefits from being tested in that actual environment and being able to deliver in that actual environment.

IDrona, by the way is still in development and should see the light soon!