Friday, August 22, 2008

Ideas and Partners

Yesterday I had a great conversation with an old friend Jason Knight. We worked together at Kendara and recently he was the founder and CEO of . I told him about my plans for as an incubator modeled loosely around the YCombinator concepts.

He was super supportive and as our conversation developed he talked at some length about some of the opportunities he sees in software for the retail segment based on his experience helping his wife run a chain of woman's clothing stores called Sway. While he has some vision for how a business in this direction could unfold, how it would develop a sales channel, who potential partners could be, and what the product might look like, this isn't a business he is interested in running. Jane and Jason recently had a second son and between family and helping with Sway his plate is full. Still, if I was incubating a company in this space he might be able to provide investment and advice.

This is indicative of many successful founders I've met who have more ideas than time. It kills them not to be able to express the creativity they feel, and often these are exactly the people you would want involved in a startup were you to do something in their field of interest. It could be a good niche for me to fill with upStart - matchmaking between successful time constrained entrepreneurs on the west coast and teams of eager young entrepreneurs in India excited about the same ideas.

While there's enough magnetic potential between these two populations to make the effort worth while, there are some serious risks. The primary one deals with the concept of entrepreneurship. Jason is clear that he doesn't want to run a company. He has lots of opinions: how the software should look, how the business model would look, what partners to go after..., but these are just opinions, an entrepreneur needs to validate them and ultimately come up with opinions of her own.

So, that seems to be the trick. We know we want to do something in a specific area. We have some vision for how it might look. But really, we need to find entrepreneurs who have similar vision and are willing to dedicate themselves to it. This is the difference between upStart and oDesk. Identifying these kinds of teams and structuring these deals will be a large part of the work I do with upStart.

I guess this isn't so unique. Paul Graham recently posted a long list of ideas he would like to fund.

Soon after I sold Kendara I went to Jon Feiber at MDV with the idea of starting an incubator. His point was that if he was interested in a space X he wouldn't start a company, he would go find an expert in the field of X and back him to start a company.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Incubation Centers & Academic Institutions

This morning I met with a business school in Pune to discuss the incubation center they are planning. I attended and talked at a workshop at SINE IITB a couple months ago. The sentiments I expressed on both occasions were similar, so I thought I'd share them here.

Hire a Professional.
By definition incubation involves working with less experienced entrepreneurs who need more non-financial guidance and support than business people who have successfully built and sold businesses before. By involving an experienced entrepreneur the incubator can provide this kind of support. I don't know if there's another way.

Focus on the exit.
After having a number of investments hang out in the 'living dead' category, I am totally convinced investors need to have some vision for how they are going to exit their investments before going in. This seems obvious, but its easy to ignore
since its much easier to find an entrepreneur with an idea and a need for money, than a corporate development executive who's willing to spend significant cash for that entrepreneur, his idea and the code he was able to produce with the investor's help. My feeling is this is one of many factors which skews the industry towards "professionals". Professionals can afford to develop relationships with those organizations that have the wherewithal to make these kinds of acquisitions, individual first time entrepreneurs and small time angels don't. An incubation center can develop these relationships, but it takes effort, and most don't even try.

Make it up in volume
India seems to have a variety of funding sources and financial incentives available to academic institutions who set up incubators. The funding doesn't appear to be tied to the number of companies incubated or their success. From an academic point of view having a smaller number of companies occupy the available offices for a longer period of time is the easiest way to fill the requirements. Its also possibly the worst algorithm for have Google type successes. In contract the YCombinator works a large number of companies for a very finite about of time ~4 months, and then everybody 'graduates' some fail, some succeed, and the YCombinator focuses on finding another group of companies to work with. Its indicative of a 'fail fast' mentality which is more prevalent in the Silicon Valley and needs to take root here in India if the culture of technical innovation is to thrive.

Encourage Inter-Department Dating
Most of the entrepreneurial teams I've seen so far consist entirely of engineers. Occasionally I meet business students who have aspirations of starting their own companies. These groups don't seem to have any social overlap. I would include marketing people and designers in this mix as well. We know a successful startup will have elements from all these groups, but the petri dish we're coming out of appears very segregated at this stage. Its one reason startup 'mixers' are so
important. Its a place where potential founders from varied backgrounds can meet. Facilitating these interactions and events can be an important role for an incubation center. The trick is how to make it interesting for a wide range of people whose only commonality is a desire to start a business.

Critical Mass
There seems to be a pervasive desire in B-Schools to imbibe a sense of entrepreneurship in their student populations. In Palo Alto in the late 90s it seemed everyone you met had start-up aspirations, and at some point it just wasn't hip to cool your heals in a big company indefinitely. My sense is to get the same culture established at a b-school, you might need to import entrepreneurs so that you could make sure the start-up perspective was being represented and defended in the cafeteria and at parties. Co-hosting an incubation center at the university could do this, but there would need to be an openness to accepting outsiders. Manifesting a cultural shift with people from within will be difficult.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


Markha Valley Pics
Leh Pics

A couple days after finishing the Markha Valley trek in Ladakh I boarded a bus with a bunch of other travelers and headed out to a remote meditation center in Tamisgame 4 hours from Leh.

I rode on the roof of the bus with a few locals most of the way. It is by far the most fun way to travel. Apricots are in season and we grabbed large handfuls of them from low hanging branches we drove under. The local guys on the roof with me had some kind of repoire with everyone we drove past, and a couple of girls threw a big bucket of water at us.

fun fun.

I'd been nervous about the course because my knees start to hurt sitting still for even one hour and I had always thought that in 10 hours of seated meditation I would irreparably damage them.

In Varanasi I had a couple occasions to sit cross legged for long periods listening to a yogi expound on the tantric wisdom of the universe. During the discourses my knees hurt, but I got clear that it was more of a muscle thing than a joint thing, and somehow that made me feel better about it.

The meditation center just up valley from the Maha Bodhi School in Tamisgame was simple and gorgeous. Boys and Girls dorms were on opposite sides of the valley. The kitchen was at the bottom and the meditation hall at the top. Towering Himalayan mountains surrounded us on all sides.

The meditation vibe was more relaxed than I had anticipated. For the first few days there were no strong instructions keeping us from changing our sitting position, so whenever we were uncomphortable we shifted. Easy. Some of the meditations were longer than I expected from 4:30 - 6:30 am all in one go. The other sessions were 3 and 4 hours in total, but 5 - 15 minute breaks were given every 60 - 90 minutes.

On the fourth day the concept of 'Strong Determination' was introduced with which we were instructed to make every effort to sit completely still and not change position for the 3 one hour "group" sittings. I found that I could handle 1 hour ok. A few times I tried to remain absolutely still for the 90 minute sits, but I found that my knees ached significantly after.

A large part of the technique deals with observing sensations and learning how to deal with them without instantly reacting. There's an aspect to this that I really appreciate. When I'm working I feel I frequently lose focus by following some small sensation 'I'm thirsty, I have to pee, I'd like to take a walk ...' where I feel some benefit to simply observing the thought / sensation and then getting back to work.

There was (for me) a slightly strange emphasis on not doing other exercises. Particularly forbidden were yoga and Tai Chi. The point seemed to be to concentrate on the Vipassana technique and not cloud it with other practices. For me, I felt that my yoga practice enabled me to gain the confidence to sit still for long periods of time. And I was desperate to stretch during the 10 day course simply to alleviate the aches in my legs and back. As it was I sorta sheepishly stretched without doing 'assana' but felt I was neither completely obeying the spirit of what was being asked for or completely caring for my body the way I would have liked.

That said, I felt very healthy for the whole time. The aches were relatively minor. The food was good. I didn't miss having a real dinner, and waking up at 4am proved a non issue. While there are only 3 longish breaks during the day, I took naps during them, so didn't feel short on sleep at all.

On the eighth day around lunch I felt some sort of epiphany along the lines of:
"I don't need to think at all, just be aware of my body and whats going on around me"
Shortly after that my ability to meditate took a strong turn for the worse, and I struggled through the remaining day having difficulty focusing.

The kinds of thoughts I had surprised me. I had the expected thoughts about the future, getting an incubator going and different things I could do to help that process forward. The other types of thoughts were tended towards obsessing about stupid things I did when I was a kid I feel guilty about.

Unlike more 'spiritual' traditions Vipassana doesn't really address sin and forgiveness. Its more about observing whatever sensations you have and realizing that it will pass.

Talking later with an Israeli girl I mentioned that a large part of the Christian tradition is based on dealing with issues of guilt "Christ died for your sins"
Buddha clearly had other issues. "There is suffering, There is a way out of suffering" definitely a different vibe.

All together it was a good experience. While on day 8 my mind felt very clear, by the last day my mind felt cluttered again. Some benefits appear lasting tho. Previously I had rarely been able to sit on my own more than a few minutes before getting distracted. Now sitting is easier. I see the distractions come up, but its easier for me not to immediately react to them.

I also notice an increased tendency to pause and look into how I'm feeling when I'm feeling stressed or unhappy.

The crew doing the course was solid, and we had a good time chatting afterwards. A major storm blew thru the last few days and washed out a bridge. So we had a bit more of an adventure getting back into Leh. The last wisps of that storm canceled my flight back to Pune thereby postponing some meetings and changing my plans for returning to the states.

Anitcha, everything is changing.

Murray Freeman

Recently I got a random email from someone
who had (almost) the same name as me
and happened to be visiting pune

Yesterday I had tea with Murray Freeman
and his friend Rishi. Turns out
they're deep wifi geeks and that Rishi has also been involved in a
number of social project around Pune including at the Vigyan Ashram
where I have also spent considerable time.

Incidently, order matters in Google search results.
The top 5 hits on "Freeman Murray" are of me, while
my new friend Murray Freeman gets the top spot for
searches for "Murray Freeman"