What my one & only job interview had taught me about entrepreneurship…

I’ll not be a bozo to lie to you & tell that what I had done in my job interview(2 years ago) was totally preplanned. Most of it just happened. However whatever happened was precisely the way I think now, it should be played. It was my first successful pitch to a company to whom I promised I would definitely leave them in 10-15 years time to go setup my own company… 😉 And now two years after acing the interview & getting that job, I will be now vain enough to tell what I think I had done right then…

Dream Big

This was first on campus job interview I was appearing for, and I was competing against the best minds in my class for the job. On paper I never had a chance, not one in a seventy. My grades werent spectacular and I was a Computer Vision Technology student who was sitting for the recruitment drive of a Database company. I was not even on the outliers factually speaking. But the end result was I made it. The reasons why I think I could is what the remaining part of this post consists of. However, that leaves me one simple conviction. It never hurts to dream big.

Play to your strengths

I always am/was a hardcore C/C++ guy. Java never was my cup of tea. It is now but again I cannot do it with the same raw passion I have for C/C++. But I knew that the recruiting company majorly recruited Java guys, C/C++ ones had almost no chance. I even actually started to prepare reading up on Java and started working on it. It was only after struggling for one full day with a new language and after a peptalk with my friend did I realise the truth: trying to play to the company’s questions was never going to help me.

The only best way to survive was to completely leverage my own strengths. All I did during the interview was to be careful to never let the interviewer step out of my core areas of strength. I made it a point to make him interview him in my areas of expertise(C,C++,Data Structures) and never let him move into a field I had no inkling about. That just about saved my day.

Every startup is in a searing hurry to make its inroads into a specific area and learn about it as much as possible and do work on it. Its not uncommon to find that the founders try to work out of their areas of expertise. And hence a startup with technology guys at its helm will lose its mark if it makes its core area of business as commmodity market or finance, when actually its strength is in providing the technology. Now just imagine how long it would take for a pure finance or pure commodity market startup to come and just kill you? Not long.

Its personal; Not business

Why do you think customers love people that take personal care of them? Why do you think a low cost airline like Paramount Airways with its cost almost twice as its nearest competitor Deccan Airways have good occupancy rates? Its simple, the higher cost is made up by the personal attention given to each and every passenger. As in the Pinko Marketing, they say, Markets are Conversations. Markets are about conversations between sellers and buyers. Any startup that can understand this simple concept has already won half the battle. The ability to be able to make meaningful conversations with your customer, understanding their needs and necessities just about concretizes their survival.

Inspite of it being a job interview, I was carrying on a conversation with my interviewer(s), they never were Q&A sessions… learning about `their` own experiences in the company, `my` role in the structure, et al which actually made the process for each of us much easier and of course brownie points for me for looking like an excellent communicator. yay!

Its not about what you can. Its about who you are

When getting funded VCs dont fund the ideas, they fund the founding team. Have a compelling business plan, amazing revenue projections, virtually virgin market, have a lousy team and 10/10 the team will never get funded. No business plan will ever make up for a brilliant, excellent founding team.

There was never a chance of me succeeding if I looked to my potential employers as just another guy with a skillset. If that was the value I was bringing to the table, I was making a rookie mistake, 30 other guys in that same room could boast of better credos than me on the spot. Instead I presented myself as a self motivated team player with no fear of learning new technologies or skillsets. They were not looking for my skillsets; they were looking for me.

No competitors; No money

Every startup guy dreams of capturing a virgin market virtually unexplored till now. They spend all their savings and considerable amount of time just developing this product in stealth, and finally after 9 gruelling months, they get it out and all they know no one’s interested in this product. Where did they go wrong? Though the product had great IP value, it did not solve any issue the target market had. They frankly never had a chance there; there wasnt no market at all. More startups fear only one thing more than the ‘stealing’ of their ‘world-changing idea’; of having to deal with competitors. They rightfully should be too; but nothing more is gratifying than the the jostling rush of competitors into your market because it validates your one single conviction: you are making a product for a market that exists!

I was in for a shocking treat when I learnt that every bigwig in my class was shooting for the company. Before them I definitely didnt stand a chance, but then it validated my one simple conviction(to not to appear for two previous companies’ recruitment drive): it was now a job `worth` fighting for.

Exceed Expectations Consistently

For a startup to survive it is extremely important that it exceed expectations consistently everytime. A startup is no place for mediocrity atleast never in its early formative years [after IPO of course its a different story altogether ;)].

My strategy to the interview was simple. To impress my interviewer, I followed only one directive: Prove consistently that I knew my subjects substantially much more than he expected me to. It was a simple strategy, but it worked wonders.

Evangelise your vision/plan/idea

When asked about to tell about myself, I insisted regularly that my aim was to setup my own company 10-15 years from now which was my long term goal and my short team goal was to learn everything i can from the organization. It was baffling to them atleast to listen from a fresh graduate speaking of his own company when he was actually appearing for their job interview. It was a jolt but it was a vision that helped translate positive feelings towards my candidature.

There is no point in having a startup if you yourself dont belive in your idea. Even though evangelising is a tricky business, if you yourself dont evangelise it better shut shop and go back to momma.

Never Give Up / Keep Adapting

In my fifth round of my interview I was asked a question I barely remembered having done 4 years ago. Though I could not get the answer right, I had refused to give up, I used up all possible strategies I knew I could to arrive at a convincing solution. It was a simple answer, but Im vaguely sure the interviewer did notice the fact that I was sticky as gum when it came to leaving the problem and going to next.

A VC loves a startup that never gives up easily in the face of adverse situations. Also every startup that faces difficulties must change its course of strategy as per the new demands of the situation. Only these mercurial startups survive the onslaught of the market.

-Kopos(poorna)

PS

There are a hundred other things that I did right there and of course a million mistakes that I was lucky to not to be thrown out for ;). This definitely is not a post in vanity but just some lessons I thought that can draw on the analogy between two high stake, highly tense situations.

Planning For Success

Why do you think the same five guys make it to the final table of the World Series of Poker EVERY YEAR? What, are they the luckiest guys in Las Vegas? Mike McDermott, Rounders

Can success be planned for? This I guess is a fundamental question every entreprenuer should ask himself/herself(Yeah yeah politcally correct blah blah) and strive to find the answer to. The very notion of success being planned for, or in other words ,the predictability of success for a course of action seems absurd at its best. Are we naive in asking ourselves the question when we know that 9 out of 10 ventures fail? Well I think and hope that we are not. So how should we even attempt to find an answer to this question?

The Genesis
I like many other people used to, and still to some extent take decisions based on gut instinct. There was no formulaic way in which decisions or ideas were approached. Then during the short time I was co-founder of Advetta i met Rajan my antithesis in regard to ‘decision making’. Interaction with Rajan was one of the best things I retained from my stay at Advetta and I learnt a lot from him. He was a guy that played chess(metaphorically of course) all day long. For every step to be taken, we would bring to the table the analysis of all the possible consequences we could think of for that step and Rajan would try to quantify in a mathematical (I know i lost all non geeks here) way how one step was better than another. I am not saying we always made the right decisions or such a process will always lead to the right decision, but atleast we were working within a framework that attempts to reach the best possible decision. Which made me ask myself can’t we extend this to plan success?

Success? Planning? What does it mean?
First lets try to understand what “planning for success” means. The only thing that is certain right at the outset is that success is never certain (Hehehehe pun intended and gotcha!). Success here is not about an absolute certainity but a probability which in English would mean “we don’t need to win or loose we simply need to win more times than we loose“. When we attempt to plan for success we are attempting to create a framework or science which would increase our probability or chances of being successful. With this framework if we fail only 8 out of 10 time we are already more successful than the average Subramaniam/Kumar (the india version of the average joe). So to put it in a nutshell….

“a good plan for success should ensure a higher statistical probability of success”

Is this too much to ask for? Can there be no scientific (systematic) way in which we can approach this problem and attempt a solution. To the casual observer this might indeed seem so, these are the people that feel its a game of chance and that most successes are just a result of pure dumb luck. Yet what they fail to realize is that many people consistently make a killing at stuff that to the layman seems like gambling. “Consistent success” is the key factor to consider here. At this point lets indulge in little logical rambling shall we….

  • Consistent Success means success at higher probability than the norm
  • Probability that this consistent success is because of luck – Is very very low (decreases as consistency increases)
  • Probability that this consistent success is a result of a system that works(atleast for the time) – Very Very High

So a person who is consistently successful in a high risk market is advertently or inadvertently using a broad system or a broad set of rules to do it. Now that we have established that consistent success in a high risk environment is more the result of a good framework or system than luck let us look at one such scenario.

The `Stock Market’

Speculation in the stock market is the crucible for our assumptions that success can be planned for. There is probably no better or easier way to demonstrate that in the long run luck won’t get you anywhere and even simple well formulated ways of building and maintaining a stock portfolio can result in enormous returns. In fact speculation in the stock market has given rise to computer software that can consistently make profits given the appropriate statistical data regarding the stock market and external factors. In essence…

Statistical Data => System => profit

So a system working on certain assumptions and real world data can consistently generate profits. Another important lesson from stock speculation is “Dont put all your eggs in one basket” aka Diversification. Spread your risk, diversify your investments on many levels. Such a strategy would more often than not give you better downside protection.

Coming to the high risk world of Technological entrepreneurship, can we come up with some sort of a broad system to build ventures which would more often than not succeed? Well that is our hope at this point, we can’t say wether we or anyone else can come up with one such system, but we intend to attempt to find the solution as scientifically as possible. Here unlike the stock market there are hardly any precedents and they keep changing fast. But how can one build or discover such a system not just for startups but any other field where a systematic approach to success is possible. Following is a broad list of guidelines we intend to follow to arrive at such a system. Note that this is not a list on how to achieve at success but how to build a plan that delivers success at a high probability.
1. Define goals the plan or system tries to achieve

You can’t reach your destination if you don’t know what your destination is. Think what you are planning to achieve. If you are not too sure about the specifics define broad goals(hehehehe that is what we are doing), you can fill in the specifics later. For example my goal could be “My plan or framework should achieve 80% leads to sales conversion.”

2. Trial and error

Try and avoid error part of this as much as possible
– Learn from other peoples mistakes and successes.
– What works, why it works…
And trial and error is as necessary to arrive at a comprehensive plan for success if you are not committing errors you have luckily stumbled upon one possible path to while all other paths are closed. Only through friction can the true nature of the system be perceived.

3. DATA, DATA, DATA, DATA, DATA, DATA…

Oh and have i mentioned data. The crux of any scientific study is based on data and lots of it. Collect data from every angle possible, on everything possible. Once the data is collected and observed an inference or a hypothesis can be reached that tries to arrive at the end result from the given data. This at the very highest level is an attempt to discover how the system produces observed results for done actions.

And now the above paragraph in english. Imagine you own a chain of restaurants and you notice one day that the profits in winter are low. You don’t understand why? Now you go back to all the detailed data you have been collecting regarding your chain. You see that your sales in colder regions of the country are falling off drastically when compared to your partners only in the cold parts of the country while your sales in the warmer parts of the country are more or less the same. Once we have things in this perspective we can reach one of several conclusions…
Your chefs suck in winter – low probability
Customers in cold places are crazy – low probability
Your supply chain is not sourcing fresh ingredients in winter – High probability
Once again data saves the day!

At the end of all this, what we hope to have is a comprehensive system that delivers success with a higher probability. So begins our journey into the abyss of the unknown, unheard and unseen (A bit of melodrama for our female readers just so they know we may be smart but we are also sensitive and caring(who cares girls always seem to go for the jerks with a high probability (that should be your “scientific” plan for bagging a girl, be a jerk(wow too many brackets))).

-Suman