Category: Frontiernxt

2017 Review

The year was meant to be one that started with major change that were to happen, but it did not come together in the end. It was the year I felt most disconnected with the domains that I work in (media, healthcare, mobile) and it was also the year where I felt for the first time what it was like to be an old person in the working world. It was also the year where I felt it was absolutely necessary to take a firm stand against the blind use of technology in places where humanity matters a lot. It was the year where I felt that calling technology ‘neutral’ is problematic because all technology is eventually applied into various scenarios and that application is never neutral.
People First
The past decade has been nothing short of revolutionary for the tech industry. Every aspect of it — mobility, data analysis, data consumption — has undergone changes that were unthinkable when the new millennium rolled into view. The scale and quality of what has happened, which was previously only available as an expensive option to the really major companies, has meant how we use, perceive and get impacted by technology has changed.
The downside of this commoditization of high-quality technology at scale is that the rights of the citizens have been left far behind as important factor that governs the use of all of this technology. Everywhere in the world, both companies and governments are racing down the road to use the data generated by all this technology in ways that keep the human factor out of the consideration. 
Without the safeguards that protect the people against data-driven prejudice, we will widen rifts in the society and bring about a scenario where we will further reduce the opportunities available for the poorer parts of the society to move upward. They are, to start with, too poor to generate enough data and the data they generate will, in any case, point to them as not worth any consideration. This will lead to a scenario where the discrimination will compound (often silently & without the affected even being aware of it) and eventually take us back 50-60 years in time where social justice and fairness is concerned.
Algorithmic Apartheid
It was at an excellent Medianama event (#NAMAprivacy: AI, Internet of Things and Consent) that I first heard the idea that algorithms have bias built into them. If my memory serves me right, it was a point made by Beni Chugh that this warrants regulations or guidelines for how algorithms are implemented to ensure that the bias is not discriminatory. My first reaction to the concept was this was preposterous. How can an algorithm be biased by itself?
But, as I thought more about it, it began to make a lot of sense. Algorithms are nearly never written to ensure a level playing field in practice. Almost every implementation of any algorithm is designed to nudge a person into a particular activity channel or it aims to separate the wheat from the chaff. It is nearly never that you will see an algorithm that aims to see everyone as equal. An algorithm by itself is an inert entity. It does nothing. An algorithm that is implemented is no longer inert. 
If you take such an outcome-driven look at algorithms, it is not too difficult to make the shift that the implementation is the algorithm. And the implementations have far-ranging effects beyond missing out on a special discount in real life. When this is rolled out into technology that affects public policy, it affects lives of real people and their ability to live in a decent manner. Algorithmic exclusion and discrimination in our time is a major problem as customized experiences isolate people from having a shared knowledge of what is on offer.
The solutions are not easy for it, especially in the domain of private companies. But I do believe, that at least in the domain of public policy, we should have provisions for anti-discriminatory safeguards built into algorithms. Even though a popular theme these days is that governments should be run like businesses, I believe that is an entirely wrong notion. The goal for a business is to attain profitability and maximize it. For a government, the goals are to serve its citizens well and ensure that they get a fair shot at doing really well in life, while having a safety net for those who are unfortunate enough to not have the means/ability to do better.
Even if you have been living under a rock, the odds are that you would have encountered the crypto currency storm in some format. The speed and scale at which that world has grown continues to amaze both the believers and non-believers alike. There is a lot of truth in saying that the growth is supported by an erosion in faith that people have in the traditional stores of value and manner in which that value is transmitted and exchanged. There is a lot of truth is saying that a lot of the growth is driven by fraud and sheer speculation.
The truth, as ever, is a mix of all that and the fact is that crypto is here to stay, in spite of its numerous problems with slow transactions, high transaction fees and extreme volatility. The technology that powers it is emerging at breakneck speed and it is not easy to grasp at all, and the conceptual frameworks require a fair degree of understanding of cryptography, advanced economic theory advanced computer science and sociology. 
I do not understand it well enough to even wager a prediction about the direction in which crypto will be headed. But it does not need a lot of expertise to predict that unlike previous attempts at something similar this one is here to stay and nobody can ignore it anymore.
Four Decades
With another year to go before I turn 40, it has not been easy finding my place in the natural order of things in the industry. An ill-fated attempt at rejoining the workforce as an employee did not work out too well. It is worth it trying to find the right team/organization to work with as the damage caused by the wrong one is long-lasting and in the end, everyone winds up being really unhappy about it. Thankfully, other than an exception or two, since 2008 I have been lucky to work with good people. The latest exception, though, has put me off working a regular job anymore for good.
So, it is back to a mix of consulting, working on a couple of projects and building products on the side again for me. But it is a puzzling though, that there is a lot I am able to contribute (pure technology, product, business etc.), but I cannot seem to find the right kind of people/projects to work on. Perhaps, it is the fact that over the past few years I have become the consummate outsider in the industry and outsiders do not form part of the network that is so important to be a part of, if you are to surface enough of these opportunities.
After the chaos of 2017, my only plans for 2018 are to keep up a steady pace of work and find interesting projects to work in. The domains are likely to continue as healthcare, mobile and maybe a bit of a poke at crypto. I would love to hear from you if you are doing anything in any of these domains.
The last couple of years have been hard on health, with an older body not taking too well to it being abused as well as the younger version used to. Health has become a worthwhile investment the last 4-5 months and I intend to continue that in the year to come.
2018 will also, hopefully, see more time outside of regular work that I can spend. With age, I do not particularly enjoy the line “I burnt myself out working hard” anymore. Good companies, products and businesses are made working at a steady, sustainable pace. Or at least that is what I want to do than chase hockey sticks. 
Here is wishing you all a lovely 2018.

Filed under: Frontiernxt, Technology


Now that I am officially off the gig that I was busy with the last year and a half, I have been pondering what is to come next? There are a couple of ideas that I have been playing with and a few interesting conversations, but I figured it would be a good idea to write down the broad contours of how I would like to work in the years I have left.

  1. Ethics: In the world where growth-at-any-cost is the popular, investor-friendly option, ethics often go for a toss. Doing the correct and decent thing is not often highly rated. I am actively trying to stay out of environments like these. The environment produced by such companies are toxic and it has an adverse impact on everything important to me.
  2. Remote-friendly: We are in an age where we at least the newer companies should actively try to shut down daily commute to the workplace. You need not create a workplace that is purely virtual. You can easily keep an office, but you can require your employees to come in only on select days when everyone is guaranteed to be in the office. Otherwise, build a culture that encourages and thrives on remote work.
    Of course, this is not going to be easy and culturally it is nearly-impossible to retrofit this once a non-remote culture has really set in. But the modern commute really has to die or reduce drastically. It makes our cities crowded, more polluted, adds stress that produces nothing additional and cuts time that can easily be used for more positive things.
  3. Good people: Find smart, good people to work with at all levels. From co-founders to co-workers it is important find the right kind of people to work with. It is worth it investing in both finding and training the right sort of people to form the core of the company. The right ones tend to stay longer with you, work better and keeps everyone happier.
  4. Make it better: For the customers you serve, the employees you work with and the industry you work in. This results in happier people and better output all around.
  5. Work is not everything: Allow people to explore other things when time permits. If times does not permit (for years in a row), you are not planning it right. 
Filed under: Frontiernxt, Misc

Big Move Of The Year: Migrating Team-BHP To E2E Networks

It is always a great feeling to bring together two good organizations together and that has certainly been the case for me with Team-BHP and E2E Networks. Team-BHP is arguably one of the biggest automobile forums on the internet, run by a bunch of really passionate petrolheads, with an audience that even with a restricted membership is massive by any standards. E2E is the spiffy young hosting provider on the block, especially for sites that have a big chunk of their traffic originating from India, run by a bunch of geeks who make everyone’s life much easier by knowing, better than anyone else, what they are talking about when it comes to hosting infrastructure.
The Background
I had already done two projects with Team-BHP, both dealing with custom development of certain new features on the site. They have been one of the best clients I have worked with, being meticulous in what they do and most importantly, they know exactly what they want to do get done, which makes a vendor/consultant’s job a breeze, compared to the usual one-line brief that we often get to work with. The site had been hosted with WiredTree since 2009 and it had largely been a good experience, but things had slipped in recent times with the growing requirements, so they were on the lookout for a new home, which was preferably in India as the majority of the traffic for the site originates from here.
Decisions about infrastructure at this scale is never straight forward. There are numerous factors to be taken into consideration, some of which are:

  1. Level of support (managed or un-managed?)
  2. Cost of bandwidth
  3. Hardware SLAs.
  4. Application-level support.
  5. Traffic mix (is it equally geographically spread or largely local?)
  6. Connectivity at the service provider’s end.

Taking an informed decision about this is often not possible for most organizations as it requires both experience and knowledge that is usually quite specialized and not readily available within organizations. This a the crucial gap bridged by a consultant like me. Moreover, a property that is the size of a Team-BHP would normally have been in operation for at least 4-5 years, meaning the application stack often has a lot of legacy issues and complicated dependencies to handle. They have to be taken into account and best practices have to be rolled out where it is possible, without disrupting existing operations.
The Big Move
After evaluating various options, we decided to go with E2E Networks. They were already doing managed services for some substantial online properties from India and were also hosting some of the properties of the companies I knew personally and the feedback had never been anything short of spectacular. I am also very partial towards top management in infrastructure providers who are reachable on the phone and know what exactly are they doing and Tarun from E2E is a prime example of that. What helped was also the fact that they went out of their way earlier, before signing up with E2E, to fix a major problem that was bringing down the site while on WiredTree. It is not often that you get to see something like that in the industry.
Finally, after much testing and some delays (caused by the rather ill-timed Heartbleed bug and a DNS reflection attack), we started moving the sites late this week and the final piece of the puzzle (the main forum) was moved to E2E today. As things stand they look quite good and stable and hopefully both Team-BHP and E2E Networks will have a long and fruitful association.
Why Not AWS?
An important question in this regard that I often face is, “why not AWS and a CDN?”. For one, AWS is not cheap, especially when you have to get decent, hands-off managed support for it. Insecure public-facing web servers are the bane of the cloud hosting world and unfortunately a staggering number of companies learn about this the wrong (and often costly manner) way in the end. A poorly secured box with multiple cores, 10+ GB of RAM and a 100 Mbit unrestricted port is any hacker’s wet dream. And there are just way too many of them out there.
In the case of a CDN, it is not a panacea for site delivery. The effectiveness of a CDN depends on a variety of factors. For one, other than Akamai and Bitgravity, the other CDNs don’t have POPs in India. Which means that your Indian traffic will be served by routing it out of the country. Secondly, they are quite expensive and don’t make sense till you push incredible amounts of traffic, which not many sites actually do. One of the reasons why we chose E2E was that they had decent peering (via Netmagic) to all the major networks in India, which made it a faster option compared to most CDNs.
Edit: As pointed out by Manu J on Twitter both Cachefly and Cloudfront now have POPs in India.
The Ideal Infrastructure: Seamless Develop, Test & Depoly
In today’s world, most parts of developing, testing and deploying a website can be automated in a cost-effective manner. While the initial process to get this in place can be complicated and time-consuming, the long-term benefits of having this in place will save any organization time and money in the long run. Done right, this can also be aligned well with an organization’s business objectives. While it used to be really costly and difficult to accomplish this seamless process even five years ago, it is no longer that hard or expensive anymore.
If you want to explore rolling this out in your organization, do get in touch and I’d be more than happy to help you out.

Filed under: Clients, Frontiernxt

What Am I Building?

When 2013 rolled into view I had already completed four-years of working on my own. In shifting to a line of work that is more research and strategy-oriented I figured out that there was tremendous duplication of work and numerous switching of contexts to collect, organize and leverage information.
By then I had tried various approaches — using a variety of tools — to address this problem, but each attempt at it only frustrated me more. To explain the problem, think of your brain as a machine with limited volatile memory and processing power. All the tools only act as physical storage. The pitfalls are rather obvious with this approach.
What I’m building is a framework that approaches this problem from a different angle. What is the approach — I will write more in it as I build more of it. As of now, it is just a set of tacky looking pages and interfaces for entering and managing data. The code has already grown into few thousands of lines and I have only started to scratch the surface with it.
It is fascinating to build something for your own consumption. Most of my development work before this has focussed on getting things built for my clients and building something for myself feels so different. The key thing to watch out for is to not to take any shortcuts and build the system properly. The amount of technical debt that can be acquired at this stage is tremendous.
In a build of this kind, where the end result often can be a moving (almost unattainable) target, the ability to focus is key. The good part about various tools to build things for the web is that there are endless options available to get the same thing done. If you don’t keep simple, bite-sized goals and validate it regularly you can easily lose your way and give up.
When building against a moving target, assumptions, algorithms, logic and outcomes will change. If you don’t validate quickly and adapt to changes that is deemed necessary by the results, the product will become lesser and lesser useful over time. At every stage, what the product does has to match the desired outcome to a great degree.
Dual Vision
In the early stages it is very hard to see how the gap between what-is and what-it-has-to-be can be bridged. There will be days when you’ll crank out a complicated feature in a better-than-expected manner in the first go. There will be days when a small simple bug will keep everything held up for a day or days.
Building a product on your own can be both gut-wrenching and unbelievably exhilarating at different times. The key thing is to quickly overcome setbacks and triumphs and keep the longer term goal clearly in mind.

Filed under: Frontiernxt, Start-ups

2012 Review

One of the main reasons why I do these reviews (have to force myself a bit at times) is that it gives me a good reference point to go back and look at how far I have come (or not). The 2010 review makes for interesting reading. At that point I thought I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do, but looking back, it is clear that I had only a clear idea of what I did not want to do. It has taken a good two-years since that time to figure out what do I want to do – to build the best digital consulting firm in India. Nothing more, nothing less.
I don’t ever remember a year passing by as quickly as 2012, but it has been a good year. The main agenda for the year was to stop dealing hands-on with technology and build an offering around strategy for products, people, processes and technology. The critical part of this plan was to transition the clients who stood by me since 2009 and other than for one client that part has been completed. Revenue was good, even though I did not hit the outlandish target I had set for myself, I managed to take the first watchful steps into the domains I wanted to get into a year-ago.
In the rest of this post ‘ll try to summarize some of the learnings and changes from this year:
Traditional Industries/SMEs
I had taken a swipe at this in 2009, but failed miserably in trying to approach it with a ‘know-it-all’ attitude. Backed by better experience, in 2012, I revisited this domain and instead of trying to re-architect entire organizations, a low-friction approach using minimal disruption was used. This approach seems to deliver better results and a deeper understanding of the domain being addressed has also changed my perspective of what a solution would look like for an SME client. The  opportunity to add value here using mostly commonsense and decent tooling is immense and I hope to do much more business here.
If you know any vendors or start-ups who have the Indian SME/SMB space as their focus please point me in their direction. I am not looking at accounting products, I’m looking more in the direction of CRM and Business Intelligence for Indian SMEs. You may laugh at how realistic is to roll out a solution for the traditional ‘laala companies’, but look at their numbers and you’ll understand that it is a massive sector.
This was a blind spot for me and there’s no hiding that fact. 2011 changed a lot of that in trying to put together a mobile ad network for a client, 2012 brought in a lot more of understanding and perspective. The mobile ecosystem is a different and unique beast compared to either traditional web or television. The execution opportunity (becoming a success by bettering what’s already being done) is immense here, but sustaining a leadership position and growing a global audience is a significant challenge. In the Indian market the gaps are gapingly huge at every part of the ecosystem and only the extremely foolish will take anything for granted. If you are foolish in the domain, you’ll always stay hungry. And I don’t mean that in a nice way.
Another interesting aspect for me is the fact that I’m still using the same phone I bought in 2010, but with the latest build of Android. The phone still does 100% of what I would want a brand new top-of-the line phone to do for me, with more than acceptable levels of lag. My secondary phone is a sub Rs 7000 Android phone that does 90% of what I want it to do, albeit somewhat sluggishly. There are new phones in the market that cost around Rs 10000, which can give some of the flagship phones of both iOS and Android a run for their money. It is incredible how quickly this market has matured since 2010 and in the process decimated some of the big players.
The tablet revolution still does not find me as a consumer in 2012. This has little to do with how good the products are on both iOS and Android these days and it has more to do with my growing gadget-aversion. It is hard these days to travel anywhere without resembling a human bomb with wires sticking out from everywhere. Chargers, connectors, cases, storage media, USB hubs — the list is endless of the things I need to carry on me these days and I don’t like it one bit. I had resisted the touchscreen revolution till late 2010 (in fact, I was more or less forced into it) and I find the same happening for me with tablets. They don’t make my life easier yet, when they do I’ll sign up for one.
This was somewhat a lesser blind spot for me, but I have managed to cover most gaps in understanding the domain in 2012. Ideally, this is the real first wave of e-commerce in India, even though we have had various forms of it online since 1999 in India. In 1999, e-commerce was a solution looking for a problem, in 2012 it is a solution that actually addresses a problem. There are many fundamental issues with the domain, but that’s to be expected when you are growing markets that are very change-averse. The next 2-years will see both operations and customers mature a lot and it is then the real fun will begin. The biggest change for me here is the gradual demise of transaction starvation and the growth of the market. Second biggest change is the commoditization of the nuts-and-bolts parts of selling online.
Ideally, I should say more marketing than social. Social is just another channel for marketeers. Having set aside a lot of the traditional hype related to anything social, it was an interesting concept for me to attempt to measure social at par with various other business metrics. It is still a work in progress and my opinion of the domain has undergone a drastic change because of that.
2013 will be a big year. The years since 2008 has been a slow buildup towards this year, everything else along the way has been a process of trying to learn just about enough to understand what I really want to do. It will call for changes that are very much out of my comfort zone. It will call for an ability to learn and adapt at a pace that is far beyond what I have ever done so far. If I were to say that there is no fear in plunging into all that, setting aside what is now an extremely comfortable position, I’d be lying. I’m scared, but I’m not apprehensive and I am fairly certain that I can accomplish what I have set out to do.
Meanwhile, here’s wishing all of you a great and successful 2013.

Filed under: Frontiernxt

Rewiring, retooling

As the year quickly winds itself up, the work to switch over Frontiernxt to a different, mostly non-technical solutions provider grinds on. It is one thing to have clarity at a high level that the focus is now on strategy than technology, it is an entirely different kettle fish to actually go about doing it. From tooling to methodology, everything has to be rethought and rewired and digital is such unknown territory that there are often no rules and you make them up as you go along.
When I normally research technical offerings and options, the context is not that important. In such a scenario, browser bookmarks are more than sufficient to capture almost everything that I need. But, in the case of strategy bookmarks provide nearly zero context. Broad classifications don’t do anything other than a cataloguing mechanism to capture information. In strategy, classification is only the beginning of the journey and to complete the rest of it, I’m having to find other options and approaches.

Filed under: Business, Frontiernxt

Four Years And Still Figuring It Out

It is hard to believe that it has been almost four-years since I left my last regular job and started this little gig. The story since has been one of many false starts, some promising starts and a whole lot of learning and frustration along the way. I quit my job at Network18 towards the fag end of 2008 in a lot of anger, anchored by the rather outlandish idea that, given a chance, I could do everything so much better. And this was to be my chance to do that and set everything right.
Four years down the road, I stand humbled and have become a less-angry and a much-happier person. I guess four-years is where most people give up the dream when they don’t get anywhere. For me, four-years is what it has taken to believe, without any doubt, that this is how I want to live the rest of my life. More importantly, four-years is what it has taken to for me to get a bit of a clue.
I still remember the early meetings with many who mattered in the industry and sitting across the table from them, trying to sell them something. I was not sure what exactly was it that I was trying to sell. It sounded grand, but it made no sense. My personal folders are still littered with product and service ideas, half-done code, architecture diagrams and other plans for world domination.
There were some promising starts too along the way, but they mostly fizzled out. Sometimes, for reasons that had everything to do with me, other times for reasons that had nothing to do with me. Thankfully, a couple of clients who I started with in 2008 stuck it out with me and kept me going. I mostly did technical work, writing well over 20K lines of code to manage a fairly complicated gated private social network. Somewhere along the way, I also managed to keep a few big WordPress MU installations going that were not full of cat pics, but were full of information that is still helping small nondescript organizations and locations around the country to have a digital foothold.
And to think that I am not even a programmer or a sysadmin.
Looking at it by the normal start-up metrics, my four years outside the corporate loop has been an utter failure. The total strength of my little company is well, one, which is me. I never launched a product. I never managed to raise any money. I have done some bit of useful work, but I have done nothing that would be deemed to have created any kind of an impact anywhere.
The truth is that in 2008 I thought I was the cat’s whiskers. As the years rolled on, I realized how little I knew. I could visualize and build out a product, but I knew nothing about running a business, marketing, pricing and a million other things. It is not that these things are incredibly difficult, much like how cycling or walking is pretty easy once you learn how to do it. It was that I did not realize that I did not know most of these things and made the mistake of assuming that being passionate would cover for all such shortcomings of mine.
I’ll be the first to admit that it has been a struggle at times. It is not easy to see your peers who stuck around in the normal corporate world climb up the ladders and do well while you meander along wondering if you should kick your tail back between your legs and sheepishly go back to that world. The temptation to do that was strong at least through most of last year.
On the other hand, these fours years have been the most fruitful of my life. I have travelled a lot (mostly not on work). I have had the time to sit and reflect on things personal and professional and work on myself. I am the healthiest I have ever been in a long time and pretty fit too. I can afford to sit back, take half of the day off and have a pretty flexible schedule, unlike how it would have been in the corporate world. I treasure that more than anything else and would never want to give it up if I can help it.
That said, I also feel that it is time to make a firm commitment and get started on something more substantial than doing just enough to keep going by myself. I have planned similar things many times, but always backed out and never followed it through. Most of this was because I was never sure, till now, about what I really wanted to do. Since I did not have that certainty myself, it did not feel right to pull anyone along on this ride, only to cut them loose a few weeks down the line.
So, I am ending the year letting go of the oldest clients I have had. I love what I created with them (including the warts and all), but I don’t feel that excited by pure-play techincal work anymore. I feel that I can contribute value elsewhere in the ecosystem, mostly in the strategic domain. It is going to be a hard one to crack. Nobody pays you, unless you happen to be a McKinsey, for strategy in India. But I don’t want to die wondering.
This, though, is my personal experience. I would not recommend either doing your own thing or staying in the corporate world. Each has its own benefits and the corresponding downsides attached to it. We all live different lives and realities and have to make choices with only one end in mind – to do exactly what makes us happy. Success, failure, riches and poverty will all come and go, but if you are not happy about what you’re doing in life, what you have with you won’t make an iota of a difference.
So, choose wisely, live well. You can’t go much wrong with that even when you have nothing with you.

Filed under: Frontiernxt

Looking Back At 2011

This year easily qualifies as one of the toughest I have had after 2007. Almost everything that was planned and attempted for this year has either not worked out or not done well at all. The good part is that I have learned much, the bad part is that the entire year is almost a complete write off. It is back to the drawing board for 2012. Meanwhile, here’s wishing everyone a wonderful 2012.

Filed under: Frontiernxt

Progress Report Q2, 2011 And Early Stage Adventures In India

It has been a while since I did a progress report, the last one was in February of this year and I guess this is a good time to get back into the habit and also add a few points on the general experience of trying to find my way in the early-stage ecosystem in India.

A quick reading of the report card would find that I have given myself a good grade in making a living on my own terms outside the confines of a big company. In making the model scale, it is a sub-par grade and in making worthwhile inroads into the early-stage ecosystem in India I’ll have to fail myself. The net result of the report card is that I have been forced to review everything that I do and make an attempt to find a different way of going about it. The key takeaways from these are that you can’t realize the big Indian opportunity without big spends and that big spends without a product experience that does not have an actual resonance with the masses won’t go too well here. On the investor’s front, you can’t make things work purely on effort (where I have failed), nor can you make things work by throwing only money at it (where most traditional investors seem to fail).

The early-stage ecosystem requires the investors to contribute in at least one of the following means:

1. Effort: Help a new set-up with code, administering technical infrastructure, increase the effectiveness of marketing efforts through your personal network. There are no limits to what all you can do for an early-stage company, but there is certainly a limit in terms of how much you can do.

2. Capital: It is the lifeblood of all companies and there is simply nothing out there that you can replace it with. Everything else is an add-on on top the capital you can deploy as an investor. Advice and mentoring is easy to do, but putting your money where your mouth is, is much harder.

3. Connections: Shorter lead time is a major competitive advantage for any early-stage company. Even if you can effectively brandish the other supreme weapons of an early-stage company — pricing and execution advantage — extended lead times can kill even the best priced and executed products.

Since cash-flow is king, every deal that closes sooner, than later, makes it that much easier for an early-stage company to survive. If, as an investor, you have the connections in place, conversations on a sale can start at middle management or at the senior management level than start from the board number listed on the company website.

4. Clarity: A lot of early-stage success is related to being able to see the larger opportunity and being able so say “no” to a lot of things. Larger, more established companies have the ability to absorb leakages and distractions due to failed projects a lot better, but for an early-stage company these are blows that are hard to recover from. When you are strapped for cash and are living on a month-to-month basis it is so very tempting to do side projects that bring in much-needed revenue. The ability to see through clearly in such circumstances is invaluable.

For me, the attempt at getting into the early-stage ecosystem from an investment/incubation point of view was always going to be a great learning experience. The contribution on effort was the greatest, capital was second best. Connections worked out a bit better, but it deserves a fail. But the most spectacular failure was on clarity. Probably, the most damning of the failures is something that can’t be addressed in the points laid out above, I will attempt to address that now.

When you do start engaging with an early-stage set-up you should be very clear about what exactly is the scope of your engagement. You can be in it as an investor/mentor or you can be a part of it as one of the founders, as a part of the core team. The two choices mean two distinctly different roles and in mixing them up I made what is the most fundamental of mistakes. You can be a doctor or you can be a patient, but you can’t be a good doctor to yourself when you are the patient.

The immediate plan is to fix the problem with the lack of bifurcation and try to become an enabler instead of a stumbling block. The difference between the two can be missed quite easily. The longer term plan requires capital to be raised. It is hard to operate in the Indian market without money if we are looking for scale since a lot of the work often involves creating a market in the first place. This means that what the valley leans on a lot, network effects, is almost impossible to taken as a factor here. Excellent products can die a quiet death due to this factor. It is unfortunate, but it is very true too.

Effort is also not a major factor in India. There is no oversupply of ideas or products and money is often seen chasing good ideas that are hard to find. Effort deployed as a filtering mechanism works well only when there is oversupply, thus creating a premium on filtering-driven efficiency. We just don’t have that in India.

That said, raising capital either for a venture or to invest is much easier said than done and more importantly, it requires you to be well connected in the right places, which is not exactly my forte. But, there seems to be no other way forward than to give some form of this a shot. Hopefully, before the year ends, I should have something in place in this direction.

Filed under: Frontiernxt, Start-ups

Progress Report: January, February

2011 has been good so far for the company. I did accomplish much of what the surge towards the end of December was meant to accomplish, but it also saw the failure of a very promising alliance that could have taken it in a different direction. The sliver lining in the failure was that I did stick to processes that had been put in place to prevent us from chasing down rabbit holes, even though the fact that the scenario for its use did materialize is saddening. But we survived that phase, got over the disappointment and managed to chart out a future course that is stronger and steadier, even though it may take a bit longer.

We also managed to release MarketVision. The product still has many rough edges. It is a case of naked product development, where you are developing the product in full public view. For someone with nearly a decade's experience in building online products, the website we have is not probably the best advertisement of that fact. But it is just a first step in some major plans we have for the company and the platform. The degree of finesse and flourish the site deserves has to wait for a bit longer while we sort out some other critical parts of the business. We won't keep everyone waiting for too long for the presentation to match the fine quality of the content.

The first quarter of this for me has been all about realigning the company's revenue stream to the changed priorities. A consulting-based organization has a tougher time bringing in recurring revenue and in doing a great job every time you always walk that fine line that empowers clients to work on their own (reducing their dependency on you), while hoping that the transformation you bring about is worthy enough to attract other potential clients. The going has been good so far, but the targets are also stiff, for this is also the year (around June) when I want to reduce the complete dependency on me to keep the show going and bring more hands on deck.

Of course, it is not possible to do only consulting to realize that end. At times we do wind up doing things that I have sworn not to get into. The important thing, though, is to now accomplish the next threshold in escape velocity. By now I don't have any doubts about being able to sustain this, comfortably, as a one man operation. The next target, as mentioned earlier, is to scale it by introducing more bandwidth and remove the equivalence of the company to me. In all this, timing and choices are critical. If you don't have a clear enough picture, it is easy to lose sight of what you are trying to accomplish.

Lastly, I think I am slowly moving out fully into the 'build' part of the entire early stage ecosystem. When I started out, I wanted Frontiernxt to be a major enabler in it, now I really doubt that I have the stomach for it mainly due to two reasons: 1) I don't know and understand enough about a lot of the required things to be able to guide and help others effectively. 2) The ecosystem itself is quite murky and translucent at best. It is tough to get a handle on real value of anything here unless the hype and the cooked books are taken out of the way. One of the best things my father ever taught me was to never run your wheels into a pothole full of water, for you never know what depth it actually hides underneath the surface. And these waters are really murky.

Instead, I will try and do my part to ensure that in whatever we do and companies that we consult with, we will try and promote and suggest Indian start-ups if they have a product that is worth pushing. It may not be the most amazing of things to do, but I think that is the best value I can provide in that chain at the moment. And, most importantly, I am promoting a value proposition that is known to me.

Filed under: Frontiernxt