9 tips for founders from founders — Deep Kalra, Kamakshi Sivaramakrishnan, Beerud Sheth
Every entrepreneur’s journey is not only a lonely one but also unique. They try to grasp and imbibe from others that have walked the way before them. At Ankur Capital, we follow a capital plus approach and work with our founders in strategic and tactical ways to help them in this journey. We understand that no one gets a starter kit for being an entrepreneur but we can always learn from others. Last month, we invited Deep Kalra, Kamakshi Sivaramakrishnan and Beerud Sheth to our annual Founders Meet. Here are the 9 nuggets of wisdom they shared by drawing parallels with their own exciting rides -
a) Embrace your uniqueness — When Kamakshi, a scientist at the core, made her entry into Silicon Valley, she found that her peers were glib talkers and natural salesmen. While initially and the founder of Drawbridge, spoke about tech like a pro to her audience. This held her apart from her Silicon Valley Her Indian accent just lent it more credibility, she feels. But she wasn’t this comfortable in her skin as she is now — she learnt to embrace her uniqueness, turned her (so called) weaknesses into strengths and stayed true to her mission of understanding how a person purchased online.
b) Developing a Mamba Mentality — A pivotal differentiator of more evolved human beings is their constant quest for self improvement to reach their highest potential. Kobe Bryant R.I.P called it the Mamba mentality — his strong work ethic even though he was the most valued player evokes the deepest admiration. Being a CEO/Founder is a lonely journey and we encourage people to have a network of like-minded founders and entrepreneurs who you can rely on for honest feedback. Beerud, the founder of Elance now known as Upwork, has many personal growth hacks including listening to podcasts while commuting, Deep reads voraciously and Kamakshi refined her sales pitches in front of the mirror.
c) Reading rooms and communicating deliberately — Perhaps one of the biggest learning curves for first time founders is their metamorphosis from professional to entrepreneur. A central pillar of any founder’s success is communicating effectively and reading the room to understand how the audience is receiving your message. This ties into an early stage startup’s marketing strategy where founders are the face of the company and have to be super effective communicators and salespeople. To develop this skill, we believe that founders have to constantly strive to increase one’s EQ, train empathy like a muscle and really connect with human beings. The power of observation is as critical as verbal advice for one to be a successful founder.
d) On hiring and evaluating people as binary pieces — Talent management is the largest challenge that companies face cause human beings are the most complex piece of the puzzle. To attract and retain a star team, founders should hire a diligent recruiter, think of fishing in different ponds (small, big, near, far depends on particular cases), not take churn personally and have a maximum of 5 reportees under them who they align with on the vision level. That said, Deep insists that no matter how stellar an employee, a company should rarely compromise on its 4 year vesting policy. Here, it is also important to hire for diversity and not a whole bunch of mini mes who feed our ego.
e) Build your culture consciously — As investors for close to a decade, we can say with a certain degree of certitude that the customer experience is inherently tied to employee experience. If you are a puritan product company such as Google or WhatsApp, then only can you scale without building an army. In all other cases, best to formalize a culture, over communicate the strategy, nip bad behaviour in the bud.
We encourage founders to come up with a roadmap for building a cultural identity that will deliver long term benefits across the company. An empowering, open, vibrant, dynamic culture that recognizes human potential is not an accident.
f) Win on the home turf for advantage — It is highly recommended that companies entrench themselves in one geography first, whether it is their home market or a market they choose because the product lends to it better. To get the GTM right for the first market, expect to iterate the product several times. Focus on the problem and not the solution. Here, depending on the nature of the product, one can apply a land and expand strategy — grab an initial set of customers with a base product and layer it, hypothesize it using A/B testing.
If you are a puritan product company such as Google or WhatsApp, then you can scale without building a rocket ship.
g) Unit economics is the holy grail — Growing by throwing money at a problem is not sustainable. Deep Kalra, who needs no introduction as the founder of Make My Trip, overspent on marketing to acquire customers only to suffer for it later. The fundamental question you have to keep asking yourself is — do your customers find value in what you are building. Can I cross sell and convert more customers with less? While the market rewards growth and profitability at almost any costs, entrepreneurs need to be wary of the fact that they have to return institutional money.
h) Fail fast, Fail small — Failure is a bigger teacher than success — this is well known. And we want many amazing teachers who kick our behind, shape us into action, cause us to self reflect and dig deeper within us for more. Deep, Kamakshi and Beerud encourage founders to take a lot of risks — on people, on markets, on product, on everything. If you succeed, good on you. If you fail, even better. You get to write an exciting piece of your story and how you pivoted from it. The idea is also to balance between sunk and opportunity costs; and not get stuck on sunk cost. All 3 of our Ankur GRO speakers in 2020 at first failed to understand the idiosyncrasies of different markets, failed at hiring effectively, failed to tolerate mediocrity and even tanked at sales pitches. But when you choose to fail fast, you fail in a low cost environment, in a controllable boundary. Which makes all the difference in top dollar terms later.
i) Keep calm and marathon on — Crisis will come at you from many directions when you choose to start up. Some will be existential and some more visceral. We are at our creative best when we think coolly. Give up later than sooner, you will thank yourself for it. Sounds uber cliched but entrepreneurship is a marathon — you have to pace yourself, be super resilient and just keep at it. And if you can, with a smile on your face like Kipchoge.
If you are an entrepreneur innovating for the next billion, write to us about your journey at email@example.com. We would love to hear from you, help where possible and back your enterprise if it matches our thesis.