My Interview with a Master Storyteller: Shekhar Chandra, Founder, YouLead.net
Shekhar Chandra is an IIT Delhi alumnus with over a decade experience in starting companies and leading teams to success. He started his career with a bang. Fresh out of college, he worked on designing desktop search algorithms for a startup called Stata Labs, which was later acquired by Yahoo. He quit Yahoo to start Tensor Technologies and came very close to getting his search and recommendation engine acquired by Google. This led him to start T6 Ventures where Shekhar consults in technology and business to big businesses and early stage startups. What is he working on these days? I recently caught up with him after a long time and the result is this interview. There are lessons for everyone from someone who has mastered the craft of story telling.
The Early Days of Starting Up at IIT Delhi
Abhishek: Hi Shekhar, welcome to Blogacious.com! I have known you for more than 10 years now and sure you have come a long way from your startup days at IIT Delhi! Let’s start off by listening to a quick summary of the life you have lived so far
Shekhar: Thanks Abhishek, yes 10 years is a long time but you know it seems like yesterday!
YouLEAD, which I’m spearheading right now is culmination of my learning about Innovation and Leadership that started 10 years ago.
I was early to start my entrepreneurial journey after a brief stint of working with Yahoo! Working on the Personalized Search-engine Technology, getting incubated at IIT Delhi, interacting with Google’s of the world, wooing the top investors in the likes of KPCB, Sequoia etc was a wonderful experience. I was fortunate to see different sides of the battle by switching space and work in the area of Education, Health. I got to an insightful understanding that the basics of Disruptive-Innovation are THE key for entrepreneurial success in the modern era. YouLEAD is an endeavor to let curious and interested people set their basics right and help them leverage the science behind Art of Entrepreneurial Success!
What Really is Disruption?
Abhishek: IIT Delhi and Yahoo, that’s some impressive pedigree. And you were involved in several startups after that too. Let’s start with what does disruption really mean? And, how can, say an average guy with smarts but not any technical knowledge or money can go about doing disruption today?
Shekhar: You are right. We need to demystify the word “disruption” for clear understanding and action. Dr. Clayton Christensen coined the term “Disruptive Innovations”. Let us understand it with example to understand it better. To put it simply it’s about a new offering, a new value to a NEW USER which was not possible before your offering. It’s as simple as that.
In the startup days we become ecstatic with our solution to a perceived problem, and as that solution is concrete we start pushing for it, be it for sales or for investment and mostly it does not fly! So instead of finding a problem, solving it, and selling the solution, what most startups end up doing is: Building a solution (to their perceived problem), finding the PROBLEM (which others also believe exists) and then trying to sell it to users or pitch it for investment. And usually they run out of gas either pre-funding or post-funding.
Now the point is Disruption Innovation is all about to “Find the RIGHT Problem to SOLVE” as soon as possible. Sooner the better!
Let us understand the disruption with the example of Uber. Uber did not provide cheaper or faster or better cabs to the existing set of taxi users and drivers. In a sense Uber model sounds a bit unattractive to Uber drivers. Luckily Uber stumbled upon a solution for a NON-consumer of taxi service in the pre-Uber era to start using TAXI. As more and more non-users start using it, Uber drivers start making extra money and thus they embraced it and Uber demonstrated that how more Uber drivers will let more non-taxi users use taxis. Very soon Uber was being used by mainstream users and Uber became a verb! That’s some disruption. So in nutshell, Disruptive innovation is all about finding and catering to newer market segment which was earlier aspiring to, but could not avail the benefits of such solutions AND your offering just made it possible. Can you think of some more examples like this?
Abhishek: Sure, would you say that Magento was a disruption? It is a free open source software that is used to power some of the busiest e-commerce websites in the world, including our homegrown Flipkart. When it was released more than 10 years ago, getting into e-commerce was hard and expensive and then it suddenly became easy and cheap. I guess an important characteristic of a disruption is that even if the big enemy incumbent knows you, it cannot do anything cause you are so small and your target market is insignificant in the beginning. Eventually, your market grows and the incumbent is caught entrenched in it’s old world. Would you say I am talking sense?
Shekhar: Yeah absolutely, you got it right!
Starting up in the rich Pompom Island of the Akuba Tribe
Abhishek: Now, could you give a smaller example of disruption (not as big as Facebook or Google)? Some story which will further drive the point home?
Shekhar: Postman comes to my mind. Zoho is disrupting the CRM industry. They are doing to Salesforce what Salesforce did to Oracle. If you want to see a Chinese example that has worked in India, I can think of Xiomi, they actually have filled the place of the “Android wala Apple”.
To further understand, imagine a rich island called Pompom populated by the Akuba tribe. Only few shops do business on Pompom Island and they have set their business territory in equilibrium. It is impossible for others to get into the island and do business.
Now you want to start a business on Island Pompom. So what do you do?
Option 1: Woo people of the Akuba tribe with a cheaper or faster or better product. You face extreme competition, lower margins, waning innovation edge and sluggish business. In the best case, you find new islands that might like your innovation and sell them. Eventually your business will die.
Option 2: You realize there is a nearby unnamed island where people of the Bazooka tribe live. They are rather poor and want to migrate to the rich Pompom Island. Can you help them? So you help the Bazooka people move to Pompom Island. Now you can sell whatever you want to these new arrivals on the island. Of course, it has to be cheap because these immigrants are not rich yet.
Later on your offerings will get better and the Azuka people will take notice. Some of them may try your product and as the Bazooka people thrive in their new home, your gospel spreads. The established shops in Pompom will initially ignore the poor immigrants. By the time they realize, it will be too late. Even those who recognize the threat will not be able to compete with your cheaper product.
Business is like gravity, you might not like it but doesn’t care about your innovation. Instead of fighting this gravity try to harmonize with it and fly. And that’s how you’ll win and keep winning until …
And beware there is always someone, purposely or accidentally getting the newly discovered Chazum tribe to Pompom Island. That’s the reason it’s good to disrupt yourself else if you get disrupted by others … the island will slip away from beneath your feet!
Starting up, Search Engines and Google
Abhishek: I could not have asked for a better explanation! Moving on, tell us something interesting from your startup days.
Shekhar: Well, when we hear a story of a startup or an idea, it’s like a love story. The usual suspects will do the usual … SUSPECT! They will not take your leap of faith and even when they do, they will be following your followers. It is damn hard to get the first followers who buy into your vision.
So I had my startup, blossomed out of my love at first sight kind of thing with Search Engine tech. Fielded the right rookies to get it nailed, IIT prof, IITian co-founder, incubated in IIT, and a big name IITian investor as a Board Advisor and several world class advisors. It was like being an A-list hollywood celeb!
Then we had our usual share of problems and at one point we were lucky to choose from the two grand option, One: a term sheet to get funded (quarter a million dollar for quarter equity) and Two: Push hard to get acquired by the big daddy Google. We decided to go for Option Two.
Guess what, we were unaware of NIH syndrome. So in a sense, my would be brother-in-law thought his brother-in-law stands a better chance than me for his princess sis. And lo behold the big daddy said NO! Option Two gone, we got back to our safety net option One, oops, that’s vanished too. It was a real oops! I learnt something about leap of faith, if it’s not trained well it hurts. Cause they mostly see the value but not through their eyes but through big daddy’s eyes. So better big daddy say “Yes” or you’re fried!
A decade later when I recount this, it was like, I went to the biggest shark guy on that Pompom island and said take this zimbo and it’ll make you better. I was trying to work for Google rather than solving any real problem for people. I had a solution, looking for a problem. So there was a value, it should have been concretised in a specific domain for a better demonstration. Welcome to the real world. You learn better in hindsight.
Love is a foolish thing but you let yourself fall for it once as it teaches you a lot more that what books teach you about love. So New Endeavors, New Mistakes, New Love!
How to Tell Better Stories
Abhishek: This is a compelling story! And thanks for owning your mistakes instead of sugar coating it. I can clearly see a book here. You have always been a fascinating story teller. Today, more than ever, we live in information clutter. How would you say someone should go about telling her story and get heard?
Shekhar: Primo: Less is MORE. Secendo:: Think from the others perspective. Be in the other shoes.
Storytelling is a firstmost technology invented by humans to pass on their thoughts with less and less distortion. Imagine you hum a song and ask me to guess. Now because you know your thoughts, it becomes tougher for you to communicate with me as you’re quickly able to fill the humming (communication) gap with the lyrics in your mind whereas I’m lost! So the basic idea is to simplify things in terms of ACTION (a dance step) so that i can imagine it faster give me subtle hints (key points) so that I can weave a clear story in my head. So storytelling is about how well and fast the other guy can weave a story in his head and you stand understood! That’s it.
So what’s heard is more important than what’s said. So think through a 3 yr old kid brain, don’t dumb it down but simplify, Key benefits. Not your smart features. At the last- Less is MORE. Always!
The Mystery that the Human Brain is
Abhishek: You are a champion of understanding and applying brain science in communication. In your YouLEAD workshop, that I attended, you explained how brain science can be usefully applied to everything from designing to copy writing. Why do you think this is so important, especially for an entrepreneur?
Shekhar: See Brain Science is a lethal mix of NeuroScience, Psychology, and Behavioural Economics. In a nutshell the underlying principles make the world move and it pays a great dividend to know a few and use them well. An Entrepreneur has to wear several hats from sales to product design to recruiting and what not. A few underlying principles like, “LESS is MORE” and “The END lingers for Long” help to design better experiences, make more meaningful conversations, and let and as Paul Graham says help you “Make something people WANT”
Abhishek: Where do you see the YouLEAD program going and making a real impact?
Shekhar: YouLEAD helps you lead, helps you innovate, and helps you Grow. On organization level it’s important and the underlying principles of economy is changing. Older businesses have to learn new techniques to compete with younger businesses they find themselves disrupted in oblivion. The biggest example is Blackberry, from a complete domination to a pure 0.0% market share. And that just within a span of 10 year!
So businesses and their leaders need to learn these things which unfortunately is not in the textbooks and they read Brain Science journals. And they need YouLEAD and the likes of it to help them harness the brain science to create new growth opportunities and create more meaningfulness, more mindfulness!
Can Shekhar SolveitNOW?
SolveitNOW App connects you to Problem Solvers
Abhishek: You are working on a new education app! So, what’s the story on this one? Tell us all about it.
Shekhar: The Education App that we’re working on is called SolveitNOW. I met a 12th student kid who couldn’t make it through the IIT JEE exam. So I suggested him to buck up and go for one more round. He responded, “Well I’m up, but what for the doubts that’ll come to me and how will I sustain for one more year”. Join a coaching, I quipped. Then he said “I have done that and not very useful”. To keep the kid’s enthusiasm I agreed to help him on weekends. The guy was indeed gritty and use to come with a stack of doubts on weekends and it started bothering me. So instead of live doubt clearing sessions I opted to try out an asynchronous one through whatsapp, that he will send me his doubts and I’ll resolve them as and when I get time.
Now this whatsapp approach really worked out well, so I thought why not make a dedicated app for the same. In this app, for easy doubts, kids can send challenges to each other and discuss solutions. And for complex doubts a network of solvers like me and my friends and their friends can give some of their time to solve problems asynchronously. And I tell you it’s fun!
Abhishek: What is your take on a startup taking external funding vs not ?
Shekhar: External funding has its own merits. The demerit is only of Time not Money. A lot of money ahead of time may force you go wrong way. Less money will have constraints and thus force you to be creative. Just see to it that constraint should not become strangulation.
Normally one should not give or you’ll not get money prior to a product-people fit. If you’re lucky you get it earlier, use it wisely!