The arrogance towards self-help books

People who read self help books generally don’t like talking about it. Considering how many people could improve their daily lives by changing themselves, it is a bit strange.

The first time I heard someone talk openly about self-help books was Kishore Biyani – at TiE Mumbai in 2010.

Someone in the audience asked him:

“Sir, how were you able to take so many risks?”

“I keep training my mind. If a normal human being has 10 thoughts, usually 6-8 thoughts are negative. I have trained my mind to have 7 positive thoughts out of 10.”

“How did you do that?”

“I read Anthony Robbins’ book The Power Within which talks about using neuro-linguistic programming to train you mind to think positive thoughts. I would recommend the book to all of you”.


A few years earlier, in the final year at NLS, a senior, self-made lawyer came to speak with us and he, without any self-consciousness, advocated reading a lot of self-help books. It produced cringes among all my classmates. I remembered this because it seemed like to me that I was the only one who could relate to him.


When I was in 11th class, I came across an old copy of Civil Services Chronicle. It was a competition preparation magazine and used to have ads by a dude called “Raj Bapna” who used to sell books on “How to read faster”. I got the book, and found it quite useless. But inside the book I found an excerpt of a letter that Aditya Vikram Birla wrote home when he was in the US. The letter had been excerpted from a book called “Business Maharajas”. It intrigued me and I got the book. Now, this book was something else – it opened my eyes to the world of business. Starting with story of Ambani, it covered other people like Ratan Tata, Aditya Vikram Birla, Bharat Shah (before he was arrested, he was a legit story), Khaitan, and RP Goenka. If I hadn’t brought the Raj Bapna crap, I would have never read that book.

The other books, which I have found useful over the years, are the ones by Dale Carnegie and Steven Covey. They force you to introspect – which is generally quite difficult to do unless you are forced.


Two important things I learned in 2013

In 2013, as we grew our team, my role as a CEO became a lot more challenging. These two posts by Mark Suster really resonate with me – CEO’s job is being a psychologist to the team and all medal winners have coaches, no exceptions. If you haven’t read them, do have a look.

I had read a lot about the benefits of getting a CEO coach, but wasn’t very sure. I have 5-6 mentors whom I deeply respect but a coach’s role is a little different. A mentor might give advice on a situation, but a coach trains you to respond to situations in a certain way. So, one of the things that I tried in 2013 was to get a CEO coach. It felt great to be able to talk to someone openly and get him to share his thoughts in an honest manner.

Here are the two most important things I learnt:

Always be close to the facts

Most of the things that I learned during the coaching were around how a CEO communicates. It didn’t mean that you have to be more sophisticated or polished, but more conscious about how you express yourself. A startup is a roller-coaster and you can go from feeling awesome to depressed in the same hour. Nothing really would have changed in the external world – just chemicals in your brain playing with you. So in this kind of a environment, one of the most important things is for the CEO to express himself/herself in such a way that it expresses the “reality” rather than an underwhelmed or overwhelmed response. This becomes important as you grow because a lot of people take cues from your body language as well.

Statement 1: “Dude, at Akosha we just can’t get design right and finding designers is so frustrating.”

Statement 2: “Dude, at Akosha we have learned a lot about design in the last 3 years. We are nowhere close to a Cleartrip, but with sustained effort and hiring external consultants, we can get there”.

Besides being truthful, the last statement also sets the context for what we could do next.

This all is easier said than done and I have honestly not been as successful at doing it as I would like to be.

Learn how to make an effective request

A lot of times we need other people to do things for us but they don’t get executed despite the intention being there.

Whatever the company does, ultimately it is the CEO’s responsibility – so when work doesn’t get done, it can be very frustrating. However, instead of blaming the other person, I realized that it was actually my fault because I used to rarely make an effective request.

A request is effective if it results in a real commitment from the other person.

An effective request must fulfil all the 6 criteria below:

  1. your request must be specific (you must articulate all expectations or perspective or background to the request)
  2. you need a committed listener (the person should not be distracted)
  3. there should be clear conditions of satisfaction (specify the quality of work needed)
  4. you need to give a specific time line / deadline
  5. the other person must have a choice i.e. they must have the ability to say NO.
  6. you need to check their understanding at the end (to ensure they have understood correctly).

The toughest of all in the Indian context is no. 5 – the ability to say No. People in India don’t like to say no, especially to their “superiors”. They may not have the bandwidth or the ability to do the task but they will never say “No”. So it becomes your job to make it easier for them to be able to say “No”.

Once I understood this, I made sure that the top 8-10 people in the company were following it to. Like any habit, it will take a while to form, but just being conscious about this has made a lot of difference.


Solving problems: Some examples from my past

Of late, I have been very fascinated about how different people solve problems. The approach you choose says a lot about who you are as a person and it is a good indicator of what you might become good or great at.

I’ll take a few examples from my life. I think about them often and they tell me who I am as a person.

Example 1: When I was trying to get into NLS, Bangalore back in 2002, it was a little known college. I didn’t know anyone personally who had prepared for it (let alone gotten in). I went online and joined an online forum (Law School Tutorials) but everyone there was a kid like me. I needed to speak with someone who knew what it took to get in (this is before LinkedIn, Facebook, and even Orkut).

My solution: I made a website on Yahoo Geocities – it was a page appealing people to advice me, and a call to collaborate and prepare together for people who might be preparing in Chandigarh. It was an odd idea – without much chance of succeeding. But I was desperate. As it turned out, a guy at NLS Bangalore was searching for something on Altavista and he came across the website and was kind enough to write to me. Once that happened, I ensured that I got to know everything from him to be able to get in.

Example 2: Coming from Chandigarh (where my general behaviour, after studying in government schools, was one of complete disrespect for authority i.e. teachers and most things academic), NLS was a very different place. Everyone was academically oriented and we were expected to engage with the research materials and write 4 academic papers every 3 months. During the first month, the seniors take you through a detailed tour of the vast library with arcane academic journals from across the world. The tour is meant to familiarise newcomers with the library, so that they would be able to research easily.

My solution: Something in me told me that knowing the library well would help me in excel and do better than my peers. I then decided to make my own map of the library which had clear markings of which books/journals were kept where (I was 18 then). Of course, this was a complete disaster because the problem wasn’t knowing where the academic books/journals were kept, but actually reading them (which I never liked doing).

I often think about how my brain wanted to solve the higher “academic achievement” problem by making a map of the library. It is very scary for me – that my brain thought that it was a solution. I mostly struggled through the academic part of my time in college and mostly liked doing things outside the classroom.

Example 3: As a low CGPA lazy bugger, I used to miss the first class in the morning invariably (because I would be watching movies the previous night). Attendance requirements were strictly followed (if you went below 75%, you’d lose a year). I had an attendance shortage in the last trimester, which kind of blew up into a large issue (I had spoken in public against the Undergraduate Council chairperson, and come up two classes short in the same trimester. She made sure that I felt the pain. Ultimately, I got off because there was someone else with a much higher attendance shortage whom they could not have flunked).

Now, in the following trimester as well, I was again short of attendance in a course (because it used to be the first class in the morning). Towards the middle of the trimester, I realised that even if I attended all the classes for that course from then on, I would still fall short of 75%.

My solution: I went to my professor and begged him to hold two extra classes (2/2 would have made me cross above 75%). After much cajoling, he relented because I told him that we could hold the two extra classes as a movie screening and I would spread the word about the extra classes. That way, he wouldn’t have to teach extra, my classmates didn’t mind the 2 extra sessions because it was a movie screening and I got the required attendance to help me pass. I got through that year.

However, looking back at these 3 examples, I find it difficult to draw any general conclusions, but I find it interesting to think about.


Last 4 years have been only about problem solving. So it has become an unconscious blur in terms of how many problems got solved and re-solved.

Now I find that there are 3 kinds of problems:

Problems that others have solved before me: Let’s say I’m facing a problem X. Instead of looking for solutions to X, I just look for people who have solved X before. In 90% of the cases, speaking with someone who has solved X before is the easiest way to learn how to solve that problem.

Problems which can be solved with creativity: These are problems where there are no obvious solutions but if you think differently, you can solve things. You need to take a break, relax, keep thinking about these problems and then the answer might or might not come in the shower.

Problems which don’t have solutions: Of course, there are tons of problems where there are no ready-made solutions (like e.g. finding a technical co-founder), and all it requires is to keep at it and wait for the solution to present itself (this has been the most difficult to learn and deal with). Most of the tough problems have a huge element of things which are not in your control – therefore, one feels frustrated, when it is just a question of patience.

Building Akosha has involved a lot of problems which fell in the first and the last category.

Two things that work:

– I’ve found parallel processing several parts of the solution to the same problem to be very useful. If you need to do 10 things to solve a problem, I usually find it better to try all 10 in parallel rather than serially.

– Some problem-solving frameworks really help. You should see a McKinsey hand apply the Peter Drucker Five Forces framework to the most obvious thing and see him/her come up with such non-obvious solutions. In the start up context, there is the customer development process, the lean methodology, the growth hacking etc. All of them are useful to think through problems, but it is typically difficult to apply them with a lot of discipline. There is no McKinsey for startups where you are taught a specific way of solving problems.


On subsidy

I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s What The Dog Saw and Other Adventures and a chapter in it called “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?” made a great point – for great art, you need patrons. Renaissance wouldn’t have happened without patronage or subsidy.

Now, I believe that for all good things to happen, there has to be some kind of a subsidy.

Your parents, your spouse, your siblings, your in-laws, your mentors, investors, employees etc. – all subsidise your efforts. Subsidy can be in the form of money, encouragement, trust, faith etc.

It is a subsidy even if it benefits them in some way or they give it reluctantly or for lack of choice.

When I was in college, I used to think that I would never take money from my parents after I graduate. It was the principle of it – to stand on your own two feet without help or subsidy from anyone (also, such subsidy is meant for the rich spoiled kids and not for middle class folks like me).

As I’ve grown older, I’ve realised that if you want to do anything out of the ordinary, you must understand the nature of this subsidy and why it is good for you and why you should be grateful that it exists.

It would have been easier to keep saving money in a fancy job thinking that one day I would quit when I have “enough money” to do it totally on my own. But it would have been a mistake.


HLS lawyers, 10 years on.

I came across this article – “Who’s killing the Great Lawyers of Harvard?” a few days ago and read it eagerly to find out how it turned out for law grads of the premium Harvard Law School. In a lot of ways it resonated with my experience at NLS Bangalore and afterwards. 5 years is perhaps too early to judge but a lot of the things mentioned in the article will probably come true for my contemporaries as well.

But the article made me ponder whether there was something wrong with law students, the law firms, the litigation system or whether all graduates from all spheres are equally unhappy. From my limited experience, it seems to me that the average young engineer or doctor probably cribs less than his legal counterpart – maybe that has to do with the inherent nature of the work, or maybe it’s just that lawyers have a higher sense of purpose (a rather lofty sense of self) and their impact on the world (as makers of laws, fighters for justice, earners of big money) – which is in turned probably fuelled by liberal arts education (which usually precedes legal courses) and studying legal philosophy, constitutional law, human rights etc. Thus the common refrain – “I didn’t do law to help one evil corporation to screw another evil corporation”. There’s an inherent condescension in that sentence.

Here is an excerpt from an article on Peter Thiel (a lawyer turned technology entrepreneur – he founded Paypal, invested in Facebook etc.). The highlighted part caught my eye.

It’s easy to criticize higher education for burdening students with years of debt, which can force them into careers, like law and finance, that they otherwise might not have embraced. And a university degree has become an unquestioned prerequisite in an increasingly stratified society. But Thiel goes much further: he dislikes the whole idea of using college to find an intellectual focus. Majoring in the humanities strikes him as particularly unwise, since it so often leads to the default choice of law school. The academic sciences are nearly as dubious—timid and narrow, driven by turf battles rather than by the quest for breakthroughs. Above all, a college education teaches nothing about entrepreneurship. Thiel thinks that young people—especially the most talented ones—should establish a plan for their lives early, and he favors one plan in particular: starting a technology company.

Or it could be just that people from elite institutions generally crib more. So take HLS, or HBS or HMS (medical school) (or NLS, IIMs, or AIIMs), and maybe all their alumni are equally dissatisfied with how their lives turned out. It would make for a fascinating study.

Or it could be that just like intelligent people are more likely to be atheist, they are also more likely to be unhappy. So which field or institution you are from does not matter, if you are intelligent, chances are you’d be dissatisfied with how your life turned out (because you are intelligent enough to figure out a) how the world works; b) that you amount to nothing).

Or it could be that it is not intelligence but ambition which makes us unhappy. Ambition could make us unhappy in only two ways – when we are not able to chase it at all (working at a law firm when you’d rather be an author), or despite chasing it, not being able to achieve what you set out to. The latter rarely creates as much unhappiness as the former.

Hmm. I’m unable to draw any conclusions. Maybe life will bring more clarity in the future.

In the meantime, it makes me feel good that so many people I know from my days at NLS have ended up writing books in the last couple of years. There’s Shishir Vaytadden who wrote about Takeover Code, Amit Agrawal who wrote about SEBI Act, Aditya Sudarshan who’s written two novels, and several stunning plays (one of which won the Hindu prize), Satyajit Sarna who’s written the best-seller The Angel’s Share and Madhav Khosla’s OUP Introduction to the Indian Constitution.

I’m sure there’s a lot more to come.



How I made the most of 4 months of The Morpheus program

I had written this as an email to Batch 6 of The Morpheus. For those who don’t know, Morpheus is a startup accellerator which gives entrepreneurs some money and lots of mentoring to help them succeed.

I had applied for their 4 month program and made it in Batch 5. Since currently they are looking for the next set of startups, it seems a good time to share this list with others who are considering applying. It will hopefully give you some idea of what the program is like.

The Morpheus founders, portfolio entrepreneurs and limited partners are called the “gang”.
Hi All,

A warm welcome to the new gangsters. I thought it might be helpful for me to mention some of the things I did to make the most of the 4 months of The Morpheus (TM) program.

Other gangsters – do chip in with your thoughts.

1. The onus is on ME: Getting the most amount of value from TM is MY problem, not theirs. Don’t worry, they are very professional and involved, but I ALWAYS treated things like theonus lies on me to get the most out of these 4 months. That means I have more emails to Sameer/Nandini than to anyone else in my inbox in the last 6 months, that means I kept them updated on whatever I was doing, shared other stuff happening in my industry with them to bring them to the same page about my thinking. I won’t disclose how frequently I would call them.

2. Bad shit comes first – If anything went wrong, no point in hiding/postponing it – no shit is too big really, in retrospect.

3. Nothing is too trivial – Even if the matter is too small in my thinking, I would speak about it – and suddenly two good thoughts would change that as well and we would be on to something better. You can ask them for help on each and every thing. Copy them on emails – keep them on their toes – they should know where your business is whenever you talk to them. Over-communicate – even overload them – its their problem, not yours. :)<

4. I ignored the non-believers. Here is the thing: when I went out initially and told people I had given up x% for 5lakh + advice, people would politely call me stupid/dumb/foolish. It didn’t feel good to have to defend your stance – bootstrapping is bad, what value they bring? what contacts they have? what successful exits have they made etc? It would cause you to doubt stuff. Fuck that shit – honestly, if you do number 1 well, you’ll get more than the worth of your equity. So I stopped worrying and started focusing on my business.

5. Talk to other gangsters – the gang keeps getting bigger and bigger and has some really high quality entrepreneurs with long term thinking. Use them. Instead of Sameer and Nandini, I would sometimes call them directly for help and tips (great for recommendations for outsourcing various things, how they built their team, getting PR contacts etc.)

6. Use the gang mailing list – check out grexit shared infobase and if doesn’t have the required info, just email. I think overall I could have done this better – crowdsourced help from various gangsters.

7. Feel free to call Sameer/Nandini when you are down. Lows will come for everyone. I would try to get to speak to them – helped keep things in perspective.

8. Meet them in person whenever they are in town – these guys keep travelling – try not to miss catching up with them in person. Always helps. When a retreat is happening (the last one happened in Goa) do make sure that you attend.

9. Use their networks – I can’t count how many intros I got through them. I would simply pick up the LinkedIn profile of someone I wanted to connect to and ask Sameer/Nandini to do an intro for me. Sometimes Sameer would add unknown people and they would come round to talking to me. If you know someone a little bit or are meeting people outside, have a chat – useful to get their perspective on people in the industry. There are too many red-herrings in startup world – bad tech companies/ex employees, fake mentors/angels/VCs etc. – why make the mistake which they or someone else in the portfolio has made. But I take it all with a pinch of salt – I am the entrepreneur and ultimately it is my responsibility to make my business succeed.

10. Pivoting is fine – let go a little bit.

All these points become all the more important since you’ll be competing with 10 more startups for their attention. So, go ahead and eat their heads out.

BONUS point – Do try to reach out to Sameer, Nandini, other gangsters etc. and offer help, share knowledge, interesting articles, and your connections with them, participate in gangemails. If you’ve come this far, you’d know the strong network effect of 60+ entrepreneurs is one of the key strengths of TM. Do try to contribute as much as possible.

If I or any other gangsters can be of help to you, just shoot me/them a email.


As usual, we shared this mail on the gang mailing list and some additional points came out.

These points were made by Jay at @sutralite

*dont be afraid to disagree with them both, if you’re sure about your point. Try your luck, nothing wrong in it. Prove them wrong OR see their words come true and acknowledge it.

*take full advantage of the gang by using them as trial users of your product/service, esp during pre-launch phases.

*Whenever possible, do include a discount for gang members – as long as you can afford it. :)—————-


Hope this is useful. If you want to get more perspective, or discuss any aspect of the Morpheus program, leave a comment below.

Best of luck to all those who are applying.

You can follow me on Twitter – @singlaank

You can read other entrepreneurship related posts here.


Email to a key guy leaving Akosha

This hiring saga continues (see previous posts – 1 and 2). If you think I am pathetic at building a team, it seems I’m not alone. I was in Goa a few weeks back with over 80 entrepreneurs on a fully sponsored The Morpheus retreat (one more reason to join them!). All smart men and women I find easy to admire for their passion, intelligence and perseverance. However, it seems each of them  is facing difficulties in finding the right person to join their team.

I had found the right person to join but could not retain him. Since it so tough to find the right guy, when you have to see him go, it can be quite painful.

Here is an email I wrote to this guy asking him to stay.

He still left.

Background – smart guy, had founded a startup before joining Akosha, really down to earth and chilled out guy.

I’m publishing it here as it might be useful for others in thinking through their decision of working in a startup.


February 2011

Hi __________,

I don’t know if you have already made your decision but I thought I’d share my thoughts with you and maybe it can make a difference to your decision.

I will try to assess the situation from your view point.

You want to do work in a startup environment but the scars of the last startup makes you think twice. What if Akosha fails – if it does (which you will only be able to know in another six months), you will be left 2.5 years work-ex which could potentially be disregarded by a future employer. Not to take into account all the burden that would come with seeing your second startup fail. Is this is a problem? Yes of course it is. Honestly, from a conventional viewpoint, it would be the “correct” thing for you to go seek a job.

Working for a bigger company

When you start working for a bigger company, for two months (yeah that’s it) you will enjoy the stress free life and the money hitting your bank account at the end of the month and your parents being happy and you being able to tell other people that you work for “IBM”. What happens post those two months? I have been there so I can tell you from experience. For a guy who is cut out for startups, you will start looking down upon the people around you – they will be mediocre, without an original thought in their head. The work you do will not test you at all and you will not wake up in the morning feeling like going to work. You might try to get some freelancing work to keep yourself busy – but it won’t really cut it because you wouldn’t want to build a services brand long term. Trust me – that life is shit, and during all dark hours of my startup life, the biggest motivator has been not going back to the corporate world.

Now you need to assess the alternative – doing Akosha or another startup. I don’t know if you are excited about any other idea at the moment, so I can only talk about Akosha.

How do you assess Akosha?

The way to assess any startup is –

–  Does the idea solve a real pain point?

–  Can it scale?

–  Are people willing to pay money for it?

–  Does the team have the theoretical ability to make it big?

–  Do they have mentors/well wishers?

–  Are you guys “lucky”?

The answers are: Yes / we don’t know yet / Yes / Yes / Yes/ Yes. By lucky I mean, work really hard, talk to everyone possible, and be patient for the magic to happen. I started in June beginning and you came on board in November. In the last 6-7 months, we got into Morpheus (6 out of 100+ startups), we have been covered by the media several times, got two brands on board without a product in our hands, we are not repeating our earlier mistakes, we made real sales of ** complaints to ** different people this month. There is progress, but is there enough? I don’t know so we have to ask other people if they think so. Some people like ******** we met, think we are doomed to fail. Some people like ******** and ******* think we should keep working – something good might happen.

What is in it for me?

You could look for 3 things – picking up skills, enjoying the work, and creating wealth for yourself.

Picking up skills – in the last 3 months, if you look objectively, without being dismissive of what you have done, you have picked up the innards of a complex CMS, picked up rudimentary PHP, and worked your way through a support management system, learned about SEO, analytics, content strategies. All this in less than 3 months. If you think you haven’t done that much, that is not correct.  Coming from a Java background, you did something completely different. Tomorrow we might develop our app in RoR, Python or even on a PaaS – all of them will involve steep learning. How long can this happen? You would be surprised – a good product with just a single guy working on it will give you insane skills (imagine you are software architect, product manager, coder, analytics guy, SEO guy – all rolled into one – don’t miss the significance of this!).

Enjoying the work – the work should be challenging, and you should getting along with the people you work with. This is for you to judge – I have a good time working with you, I regard your tech skills and integrity highly and I try to work hard myself and be professional with you.

Creating wealth – this is a hard one. If Akosha fails, you and I are in the same boat, except I will have burned a lot of personal cash on it. If it succeeds, and in 3 years we make an exit of Rs.** crores (which is if we are a mediocre success and don’t raise bigger rounds), and you own **% of the company after dilution on subsequent rounds (Morpheus has **% right now, if we raise another ** lakhs, we’ll give up another **% which will leave about **% for the two of us), you could end up creating wealth of about Rs.** lakhs in ** years. That is like a package of Rs.** lakhs per annum of out which you are saving ** lakhs every year! If you can think about Akosha failing, and you call yourself a startup guy, you’ve got to think about Akosha being a mediocre success at the least. What are the chances that this will happen? Go back to the assessment of Akosha.

Worst case scenario – let us say Akosha is not going anywhere till the end of 2011 – you quit and join a corporate. What are the plusses? You know you gave it a good shot (trust me, this is a fucking big thing), you will have learned shit loads about internet startups, you will get a much better job because of your skill set (in any case, I think a VC-funded startup with gives a good salary of 8-10 lakhs would be a good fit for you then), and you will know what works and what doesn’t. This is valuable stuff – not more than 2000 people in India would have gone through what you have.

Here and now – you need the mental strength (which you will need to find from inside you), you need more cash (we can think of ways of doing that – I don’t really mind you taking a higher salary) and you need more equity – again as I said, someone like you who is smart and honest, is an asset and I would love to share equity. What I would ask in return would be insane levels of commitment, hard work, belief in Akosha and a positive attitude. Startups are tough – they are supposed to be man.
It’s your call. Hope this helps clear some thoughts. If there are things that you would like me to change, you should say them.





Feedback on my hiring ways: Stuff you’d never pay attention to

As a startup founder, you are in your own world where you cut out the noise, don’t worry about irrelevant things like wearing formals, cut through the BS in a conversation, try to paint a vision in the midst of nothing (your office of 1-2 people). As such hiring is difficult for all companies (ask any CEO), when you are an early stage founder, you don’t have a boss to tell you where you are screwing up, you don’t have an HR person who knows exactly what it takes to get people to say YES.

So in this situation, getting some kind of feedback is really important. The problem is that most candidates who you passionately sell the idea to and who seem to be interested, but do not join, will never share honest feedback with you. Telling me that “I didn’t join because you are a startup” does not help but we are a startup.


I got a little lucky recently in that I got someone to get feedback from a candidate whom I interviewed.

1. This person had been recommended.

2. I had a 45 minute phone interview – he/she said all the right things and I asked him/her to come in for a face to face interview in my SOHO.

3. We had 1.5 hour face to face interview where we chatted about everything. It ended on a great note – I was supposed to intro her to one or two more people so that she got to know more about us.

But she never replied to my emails, or returned my calls.

Here is the feedback I managed to get:

She was not interested due to the following reasons:

  1. Risk Factor (New establishment)
  2. Transport (manage on her own)
  3. Office infrastructure
  4. She said that Ankur has potential but she did not like his dress code as he was wearing T-Shirt. J
  5. Compensation (She was advised that these details will be furnished post confirmation with the finance guy; no range was communicated to her)
  6. Ankur explained each bit about his establishment (It was extra dose for her)
  7. She had an hour and half long interview without any break (she was bored).
  8. She was been asked to switch off her mobile phone due to which she was not able to coordinate her pick-up and missed the cab and her parents were also worried.

This is the kind of stuff that typically doesn’t flow back to you. Saying she was never the startup-kind of person does not result in any learning.

Here’s my take on each of the points:

1. Can’t change the risk factor but can highlight the traction and find other soothing factors (how many others are planning to join).

2. No cash to match a big company’s perk of transport.

3. We work out of a small office in a residential area. It looks like a nice place to me (it has a Big Chill type ambience with a few movie posters). Can work harder on this.

4. Two ways to look at this – she was always going to be the wrong hire, no matter what. The better way to look at it is – the world outside the entrepreneurial world is not looking for the same thing. If wearing a shirt and sounding more straight-laced worked, maybe its worth trying out.

5. Good point. Easy thing to change for the future.

6. Wow (I’m a passionate about my business and can keep talking about it – need to know when to stop). People also think that you might have too much time on your hands. I don’t really know – this is some tricky psychology at work.

7. Bored in an interview! No comments.

8. 🙂 I could be more chilled out.

Hope this helps. Would be great if you could share your thoughts/learnings below.

I tweet at @singlaank – follow me here.


7 developer maaf*: A single, non technical founder’s search for a good tech guy

*not be taken seriously. It’s a play on Saat Khoon Maaf, a recent movie.

Warning – long post. Read general thoughts and the conclusion at the end, if you are in a hurry.

I started my entrepreneurial journey on June 1 2009 – I had no clue what was in store for me. It’s been a heck of a ride since then and I’m writing this post for all those people who have domain expertise and need tech help. This is an account of how I kept looking for technical cofounder / CTO / tech guy to make what I had thought of doing (six months back we pivoted to helping consumers resolve their complaints against brands).

I’m talking from a bootstrapped perspective – when money is in short supply, the problem gets compounded. This is a HUGE factor (if you are funded getting the first 1-2 guys should be much easier).

I made many mistakes and hope that this post will help you avoid some.

Some general thoughts:

  1. You are the sucker here. Good tech guys don’t need you, you need them badly. So, the odds are set against you. (this generation, the previous one and the next one – all belong to the tech guys – from Bill Gates to Zuckerberg – they can dream and create).
  2. Get your hands dirty – there is no way out of this. Start getting comfortable with technology (right from setting up a basic WordPress website to start getting leads, to understanding what LAMP stack means, and what a DB schema is). Always helps to not come across as a n00b.
  3. Don’t give up, ever – there are good, solid tech guys out there who will give you a chance, someday.
  4. I kept going from trying to hire the right guy (and keep waiting) and trying get the work done quickly by outsourcing it. After 2 years, I think it is better for non-technical founders to not delay and outsource and get the work done quickly. Really good tech guys mostly get attracted later when either you have traction or you have been angel/VC-funded. Speed is of the essence in a startup. In any case, the chances of your idea surviving the first brush with customers are not that high – so get the product out asap.
  5. The insanely good tech guys (1%) want to do their own startup. The average/below average tech guys (which makes up 90%) is what you DON’T want for your startup. Since you don’t know tech, you can’t teach an average/below average guy and get good work out of him, you are always hunting for those 9% tech guys (or you can outsource).
  6. Don’t be too harsh on yourself, brace up for a long fight unless you have Baba Ramdev-like charisma or were born lucky.
  7. A network is extremely important to be able to hire a tech guy. I didn’t go to engineering school, I didn’t have engineer friends. So go back and look up your 10th class friends who went became techies.
  8. Indian job portals suck for startup hiring. Don’t bother with them (unless you like shifting through BS). In most cases, those sent by recruitment consultants aren’t great either (a good tech guy already has a job).
  9. People will agree to join and not show up. This is true across the spectrum and not just technology. And they won’t inform you. Chill out – not much can be done.
  10. Don’t fall for the CV – some local college tech guys are as awesome as some IIT guys, MCAs can be better than BEs etc.

Here goes:

Developer No.1 (DU MCA, awesome guy, solid knowledge of tech, total stay – 4 months)

There is something called beginner’s luck. I posted an ad on in August 2009 (it used to be really active in those days). A Delhi University MCA guy expressed interest and we spoke and met and things were looking good. Then he backed out because of his financial circumstances but recommended another classmate who ended up joining.

His friend joined and we started coding. I absorbed as much about tech as I could (schema, thinking of different use cases, why front end and backend validations are important etc.). He coded a basic site in 3 months. At the time of doing the frontend HTML, CSS, and Jquery work, this guy said he won’t be able to do that. Another issue that cropped up was that I was paying him market salary for a 1 yr experience PHP guy and had promised him some equity (which had been left undecided). When we finally had a chat 3 months down the line, his expectations and mine were totally different. I was talking in the range of 10%-15% while he was thinking about 50% – at the same time, his parents were pestering him to move to a bigger company. It didn’t work out and he went and joined a large company (at Rs.8 lakhs p.a.). We are still really good friends and talk often, but it wasn’t ideal to see him go.

Beginner’s luck had by now run out.

My learning:

  • If you are doing some kind of equity arrangement, ALWAYS share a bracket and maybe you can fix the exact % after seeing his/her work.
  • It is my duty as the business/domain guy to explain to the technology guy exactly how the whole equity + salary thing works (Rocket Singh approach to dividing the equity doesn’t work).
  • Try to communicate to the guy why it is important to do stuff that he doesn’t know (HTML, CSS, Jquery is easier than most other things he’d do).

Developers No. 2 (outsourced to Bangalore, total time – 2 months)

I outsourced the frontend work to a firm in Bangalore and had a really bad experience. They missed the deadlines by a long margin, kept writing really buggy code and were charging me a quite a lot. And then the most expected things like – “this was out of scope” – happened. It was my fault – I had never done a specifications document before and I assumed that a lot of things were obvious. But I think they were also up to no good – they had written a form where the tab-index skipped a field. When we pointed that out, they said “but, tab-index is out of scope of work”! (for laymen, tab-index decides where the cursor goes next when someone presses tab on the keyboard).

My learning:

  • Spend a lot of time on the specification document.
  • Look for the right attitude in the outsourcing partner.
  • Have the total deliverable broken up into parts, with linked payments, with options to stop payments if deadlines are not met or the deliverables are not up to the mark.
  • Negotiate hard and try to speak to their existing clients.
  • Don’t fall for fancily designed websites of outsourced providers.

Developer no. 3 (very intelligent guy, fast worker, but a fresher, total stay – 3 months)

Since Developer no. 1 had left and Developer no. 2 had made a mess of the website with their buggy code, I needed another guy. By this time, I was put off by outsourcing and needed a guy who could do both front-end and back-end. This time again, worked and we hired a guy who had graduated from college a few months back. He started working, was really good at his work, but kept having health issues (kept missing work), was distracted at work (too much FB/gtalk chatting), wanted to code at night but the productivity wasn’t high. He finally came and said that he would have to leave.

My learning:

  • Being totally professional with the employee is not a good idea I think (I could have done a lot more to make him happier and more comfortable – I didn’t know in those days how difficult such guys were to find). So if you get a good guy, try REALLY hard to keep him.
  • Don’t expect everyone to be as insanely motivated as you. I was keeping long hours, no distractions, thinking about business 24*7 and it would irritate me that he was always on FB. : ) I’ve learned to chill out a bit about this.

Developer no. 4 (15 year old hacker, outsourced)

So, once again I began looking for a technology guy (burnt by outsourcing, I had thought I would never do it again). But the website kept getting delayed and I finally decided to try out a 15 year old hacker in Chandigarh. He was quite competent, worked closely on the product and was able to help us launch the first version of However, he had other projects on his mind and was not in a position to really contribute to Akosha in the long term.

Developer no. 5 (insanely great hacker, ex-Cleartrip guy, one of the few LISP hackers in India, passionately into Python – total stay 1 month).

So I was again without a coder. So I decided to send an email to the following Google groups telling people about the opportunity.

  • php_mysql_jobs
  • headstart
  • it_group
  • occ
  • occ delhi
  • hydstartups
  • punestartups
  • osscamp, delhi
  • indian IT jobs didn’t exist in those days (now I’m guessing, it might be a good place).

These groups are by far the best way to get the word out about your hacker requirement. Through these groups, I found an awesome coder who was working at a tech company in Bangalore but wanted to do the work in the evenings. He was super efficient and everything was awesome. The deal with this guy was that we would work on an outsourcing model for a few months and if we got traction, he would quit his job and join me full time (though he hated Delhi, and north-Indians a bit – I don’t blame him too much :D).

In the meanwhile, another great tech guy approached me because he loved the Akosha idea. He said that he would be happy to volunteer his time over the weekends for free and contribute to Akosha. I said – wonderful. I told my Developer No. 5 but he didn’t take this well. From where I sat, anyone willing to contribute to Akosha is great + it was for free! But our man didn’t like that and said that I should have asked him before saying yes. Fair point – I had managed to screw up once again! (I felt like crap in those days).

My learning

  • Communicate + over-communicate with your team. I lost a really good guy over a stupid thing.

Period of self learning

Learnt Drupal: By now, I was like – “I might as well learn this stuff myself, otherwise I’ll do mad”. Since content was really important to our strategy, I joined Noparrots – a Drupal training place run by an awesome guy called Sidharth Kshatriya. I learned lots and got pretty comfortable with managing the content side of the site.

Read a book on hiring: I also started thinking that maybe there is some kind of magic to hiring coders. So I bought and read Joel Spolsky’s Smart and Gets Things Done (with a title like that, I thought I had found the Bible. But Spolsky’s suggestions aren’t great for a bootstrapped, non-technical founder, Indian startup – give it a skip).

Python flirtation: I also downloaded A Byte of Python by Swaroop CH (met him when I was in Bangalore as well) and started learning Python – but realized that it was foolish. It would take too long for me to get to the point where I could accomplish exactly what I wanted.

Developer No. 6 (again, extremely competent, great attitude – total stay – 3.5 months)

So by now, the content side of my website was up and running but we still needed a lot of other technology work done. We were writing really good content and people were noticing us. But the pace of execution kept getting hampered.

I went and made a passionate presentation at Startup Saturday, New Delhi on 16 October 2010. I met a lot of people, told them I was looking for a techie, hustled and hustled. Finally, light shone and a guy agreed to join my dream full time. However, he had had a really bad experience in his previous startup and his parents weren’t happy with the whole startup nonsense (can’t blame them either). So, even though, we were seeing traction and doing really good work (we had gotten through The Morpheus program as well), he told me one day that he is going to quit. I was quite devastated (to be honest, this post was supposed to be published at that time – I thought I had cracked how to find AND keep a passionate tech guy with me – I had been proven wrong, once again).


  • Family (parents) and peers can exert a lot of influence over the candidate. It is best to recognize this and find ways of mitigating it (everyone may not have the same risk tolerance or courage of conviction).
  • Sometimes it’s not your fault. There is something called “fck-all luck”.

Developer No. 7 (15years experience, great attitude, works harder than me, total stay – 2 months and counting!)

I again started looking. I never give up. I went to Startup Weekend, Delhi. Sameer introduced me to my current developer/tech guy/CTO/comrade-in-arms. Sold my idea and vision to him, he liked it, and decided to start working with me on a hybrid model – he would build a tech team out of his office, get a small amount of equity and a monthly retainer for the amount of time spent by his team. This is working really well and we recently re-launched

My learning:

Keep looking – maybe you’ll get lucky. I won’t say too much right now – don’t want to jinx things and have to write another post about this. 😀


I can conclude with the following:

  1. The point of startup is not to struggle but to execute fast and make money – so an outsourced model with a good partner (and maybe some equity) is the best way forward in the first 1 year.
  2. Once you get funded or start generating cash, it will be easier to build the team. Till then, the priority is to actually put your idea out there and test if there is any demand for it.
  3. Network really hard – hustle hustle hustle.
  4. Learn to take some attitude from tech guys – you need them, they don’t need you.
  5. For some reason I never tried websites like rentacoder or – might be worth trying it out – but most of those people want to work on US projects and don’t like stingy Indian clients.
  6. Don’t ever compromise on quality.
  7. Once you find them, do everything you can to keep them happy.

Do you have any tips or strategies to this issue? Please leave a comment below. Or join the Hackerstreet discussion here.

I tweet at @singlaank – follow me here.


London to Edinburgh and back – part 1

I spent close to year and a half in London but never sat behind the wheel of a car. From what I understood of the UK rules, an Indian passport holder could drive in UK (without an international driving license or any permission from any UK authorities) anytime within the first one year of his/her arrival in UK. After the one year lapsed, you have to go get a UK license to be able to drive (yeah, the law is a bit silly – it allows someone who’s just landed in UK to hire a car, but not someone who’s lived there for more than a year and might be more familiar – some lawyer was trying to balance car rentals’ and travelers/pedestrians’ interests). Anyway, the one year period lapsed in my case and I never ended up driving a car in the UK – something that I really wanted to do. But there was a loophole – if I left UK (for good) and came back on a visit, I could drive (and more importantly for me, my girlfriend couldn’t since she was continuously in the UK – I like driving and am a bit possessive about it).

So, in first week of June 2010, we (me and my girlfriend), decided to do a road trip across the UK – from London to Edinburgh up north – going through the Lake District. We decided to take it easy and decided to do the 650 kms journey (UK is really small like approx from Chandigarh to Jaipur) over 3-4 days. We went to London City Airport and got ourselves a car – a grey Ford Fusion (I am prejudiced against Fords but this was the only car available) – in retrospect, it was good solid car with good grip on the road (it rained once or twice, as you can expect in the UK).

Some random things that I remember:

1. UK road rules can be a bit scary in the beginning – there are so many of them to observe. But you pick them up as you go along – like in India, they drive on the “right” side of the road. The most important rule to observe was giving way to those on your right. Turns out of roundabouts are called “exits” and are well marked.

2. The expressways (equivalent of our National Highways) are called Motorways. The smaller roads (maybe = to our State Highways) are called A roads. We made our way up on the M1. Once on the Ms, you can really speed up – speed limit is 70mph (roughly – 110kmph). Lane discipline is strictly observed, the right-most left lane left empty for overtaking. Now, the good thing is that they clearly warn you before the speed cameras come – so what ends up happening is that most people keep speeding and slow down when they see these signs. So I got to drive at 90mph (roughly – 140kmph). If you get “caught”, the speed camera automatically clicks a pic and sends you the “challan” – the rental company deducts it from your credit card. Neat. We had to refuel ourselves once – that was actually more confusing than driving. While petrol to fill and where to bill. Girlfriend, who is indeed smarter, figured out.

3. UK is beautiful. Here is how we planned our journey:

Day 1 – London to Matlock (Matlock is a small pretty town in the countryside). We went dumped our luggage at a B&B – run (quite often) by a charming, socialable English couple. This B&B is the best I have stayed in. And we left for Chatsworth House – you can see some pics and information here – I’m really bad at remembering historical details. We walked around, took a tour and took in the scene – green moors dotted with sheep, the weather sunny but not hot, and the obligatory stream. The lunch was English (not so good) but the scones with clotted cream was good. For dinner, we ate at Maazi – an Indian restaurant which serves Indian food for the English (and is therefore bound to be crap – and it was). The redeeming factor was that the chap who was serving us was from Delhi and knew good English and generally did a good job.

Day 2 – Matlock to Ambleside, Winderemere – we left for Lake District – that part of the UK which is blessed with lakes, hills, and some poets with the ability to romanticize them well. It was cold, we felt like finding a good pub in the city, but also take the cruise on the Lake Windereme. The lake is bigger than your usual lakes in India and surprisingly still – as the sunset, you could be lost in your own thoughts and what you were doing in this world and that there are so many things that you haven’t seen (and will probably never end up seeing) and that money is needed to do all those things.

more later…