Archive for March, 2008

Startup-bitsian

Here is a startup by a bitsian who is also an Insead alum. Located in Hyderabad.
KENVIRON
The vision of KENVIRON is to deliver world-class, state-of-the-art Executive Development Programmes to the Senior Executives and Managers of Indian Corporates.

We bring together the world’s eminent business thought-leaders, Industry experts and Executive Coaches, through our Global Educator Network, to deliver top-notch Executive Development Programmes to Indian Corporates.
-Adios

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To ponder: Stress

Source: Seth Godin

Like most creatures, people are stressed out. Almost all the time. And when we’re not, we seek out adventures and interactions to make us stressed. We get stressed about money, reputation, safety, relationships and whether we have to move our seat on the plane after we get on.

Stress is an essential part of the human condition. It rises when we’re about to buy something or sell something or interact with someone. We spend money to avoid it and we spend money to embrace it. And we almost never talk about it.

That thing you’re marketing… Does it add to stress or take it away? Is it stressful to talk about it? Buy it? Get rid of it? Is it more stressful not to buy it than it is to go ahead and buy one? Does it promise to reduce stress, but end up causing more?

Worth thinking about.

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Interesting comment

Hmm.. found this here:
(we will never disclose your phone number to anyone, not even your mother!).
BRINGO: Interesting concept.. Helps to remove phone trees and allows to connect to human rather than talking to machine.

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There is something about Brijit

Brijit
Simply, Brijit aggregates the world’s best long-form content and abstracts it in 100 words or less, providing busy, omnivorous, and increasingly mobile readers with rich, qualitative summaries as well as better guideposts for what to read, watch or listen to now.

This idea stemmed from the following thought:
We wish deep down that we were the kind of people who could read the Economist AND the New Yorker cover-to-cover every week, watch the Sunday morning political shows, and never miss an hour of This American Life. But we’re not. And chances are, neither are you. Because who’s got the time? And that’s why we’re building Brijit. Our mission is simple: make it easy for all of us to discover and access the world’s best content, quickly, inexpensively and on our own terms.

This is angel financed. Provides three dot rating. Its coverage is vast.

Where does the name Brijit come from? (i didn’t get this) We like the idea of the ellipsis, the three dots in a row used to eliminate non-essential passages, leaving only salient points behind; that’s what our abstracts are all about. But since Ellipsis didn’t get us there, we started fooling around with the three dots, which led us to the letters ‘iji’ in sequence, which led us to Brijit on April 7, 2006. Added bonus connotations: bridge, abridge, midget, widget, and Bardot.

Once i get some time, i will definitely join Brijit and try this.

Adios Amigos

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US in six words

Interesting competition by Freakanomics.
http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/02/20/vote-now-a-six-word-motto-for-the-us/

My vote goes to “Caution! Experiment in Progress Since 1776” and “Our Worst Critics Prefer to Stay”.

-Raman

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Medical miracle

This is the story of a pregnant man in India.
Read full story here: http://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/story?id=2346476&page=1

“To my surprise and horror, I could shake hands with somebody inside,” he said. “It was a bit shocking for me.”…

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Programmers and Startups

A very interesting and thought provoking article by Paul Graham.
source: http://www.paulgraham.com/articles.html

A few days ago I was sitting in a cafe in Palo Alto and a group of programmers came in on some kind of scavenger hunt. It was obviously one of those corporate “team-building” exercises.

They looked familiar. I spend nearly all my time working with programmers in their twenties and early thirties. But something seemed wrong about these. There was something missing.

And yet the company they worked for is considered a good one, and from what I overheard of their conversation, they seemed smart enough. In fact, they seemed to be from one of the more prestigious groups within the company.

So why did it seem there was something odd about them?

I have a uniquely warped perspective, because nearly all the programmers I know are startup founders. We’ve now funded 80startups with a total of about 200 founders, nearly  all of them programmers. I spend a lot of time with them, and not much with other programmers. So my mental image of a young programmer is a startup founder.

The guys on the scavenger hunt looked like the programmers I wasused to, but they were employees instead of founders. And it was startling how different they seemed.

So what, you may say. So I happen to know a subset of programmers who are especially ambitious. Of course less ambitious people will seem different.. But the difference between the programmers I sawin the cafe and the ones I was used to wasn’t just a difference of degree. Something seemed wrong.

I think it’s not so much that there’s something special about founders as that there’s something missing in the lives of employees.I think startup founders, though statistically outliers, are actually living in a way that’s more natural for humans.

I was in Africa last year and saw a lot of animals in the wild thatI’d only seen in zoos before. It was remarkable how different theyseemed. Particularly lions. Lions in the wild seem about ten times more alive. They’re like different animals. And seeing those guyson their scavenger hunt was like seeing lions in a zoo after spending several years watching them in the wild.

Trees

What’s so unnatural about working for a big company? The root ofthe problem is that humans weren’t meant to work in such largegroups.

Another thing you notice when you see animals in the wild is thateach species thrives in groups of a certain size. A herd of impalasmight have 100 adults; baboons maybe 20; lions rarely 10. Humansalso seem designed to work in groups, and what I’ve read abouthunter- gatherers accords with research on organizations and my ownexperience to suggest roughly what the ideal size is: groups of 8work well; by 20 they’re getting hard to manage; and a group of 50is really unwieldy.[1]

Whatever the upper limit is, we are clearly not meant to work ingroups of several hundred. And yet—for reasons having moreto do with technology than human nature—a great many peoplework for companies with hundreds or thousands of employees.

Companies know groups that large wouldn’t work, so they dividethemselves into units small enough to work together. But tocoordinate these they have to introduce something new: bosses.

These smaller groups are always arranged in a tree structure. Yourboss is the point where your group attaches to the tree. But whenyou use this trick for dividing a large group into smaller ones,something strange happens that I’ve never heard anyone mentionexplicitly. In the group one level up from yours, your bossrepresents your entire group. A group of 10 managers is not merelya group of 10 people working together in the usual way. It’s reallya group of groups. Which means for a group of 10 managers to worktogether as if they were simply a group of 10 individuals, the groupworking for each manager would have to work as if they were a singleperson—the workers and manager would each share only oneperson’s worth of freedom between them.

In practice a group of people never manage to act as if they wereone person. But in a large organization divided into groups inthis way, the pressure is always in that direction. Each grouptries its best to work as if it were the small group of individualsthat humans were designed to work in. That was the point of creatingit. And when you propagate that constraint, the result is thateach person gets freedom of action in inverse proportion to thesize of the entire tree.[2]

Anyone who’s worked for a large organization has felt this. Youcan feel the difference between working for a company with 100employees and one with 10,000, even if your group has only 10 people.

Corn Syrup

A group of 10 people within a large organization is a kind of faketribe. The number of people you interact with is about right. Butsomething is missing: individual initiative. Tribes of hunter-gatherershav e more freedom. The leaders have a little more power than othermembers of the tribe, but they don’t generally tell them what todo and when the way a boss can.

It’s not your boss’s fault. The real problem is that in the groupabove you in the hierarchy, your entire group is one virtual person.Your boss is just the way that constraint is imparted to you.

So working in a group of 10 people within a large organization feelsboth right and wrong at the same time. On the surface it feelslike the kind of group you’re meant to work in, but something majoris missing. A job at a big company is like high fructose cornsyrup: it has some of the qualities of things you’re meant to like,but is disastrously lacking in others.

Indeed, food is an excellent metaphor to explain what’s wrong withthe usual sort of job.

For example, working for a big company is the default thing to do,at least for programmers. How bad could it be? Well, food showsthat pretty clearly. If you were dropped at a random point inAmerica today, nearly all the food around you would be bad for you.Humans were not designed to eat white flour, refined sugar, highfructose corn syrup, and hydrogenated vegetable oil. And yet ifyou analyzed the contents of the average grocery store you’d probablyfind these four ingredients accounted for most of the calories.”Normal” food is terribly bad for you. The only people who eatwhat humans were actually designed to eat are a few Birkenstock- wearingweirdos in Berkeley.

If “normal” food is so bad for us, why is it so common? There aretwo main reasons. One is that it has more immediate appeal. Youmay feel lousy an hour after eating that pizza, but eating the firstcouple bites feels great. The other is economies of scale.Producing junk food scales; producing fresh vegetables doesn’t.Which means (a) junk food can be very cheap, and (b) it’s worthspending a lot to market it.

If people have to choose between something that’s cheap, heavilymarketed, and appealing in the short term, and something that’sexpensive, obscure, and appealing in the long term, which do youthink most will choose?

It’s the same with work. The average MIT graduate wants to workat Google or Microsoft, because it’s a recognized brand, it’s safe,and they’ll get paid a good salary right away. It’s the jobequivalent of the pizza they had for lunch. The drawbacks willonly become apparent later, and then only in a vague sense ofmalaise.

And founders and early employees of startups, meanwhile, are likethe Birkenstock- wearing weirdos of Berkeley: though a tiny minorityof the population, they’re the ones living as humans are meant to.In an artificial world, only extremists live naturally.

Programmers

The restrictiveness of big company jobs is particularly hard onprogrammers, because the essence of programming is to build newthings. Sales people make much the same pitches every day; supportpeople answer much the same questions; but once you’ve written apiece of code you don’t need to write it again. So a programmerworking as programmers are meant to is always making new things.And when you’re part of an organization whose structure gives eachperson freedom in inverse proportion to the size of the tree, you’regoing to face resistance when you do something new.

This seems an inevitable consequence of bigness. It’s true evenin the smartest companies. I was talking recently to a founder whoconsidered starting a startup right out of college, but went towork for Google instead because he thought he’d learn more there.He didn’t learn as much as he expected. Programmers learn by doing,and most of the things he wanted to do, he couldn’t—sometimesbecause the company wouldn’t let him, but often because the company’scode wouldn’t let him. Between the drag of legacy code, the overheadof doing development in such a large organization, and the restrictionsimposed by interfaces owned by other groups, he could only try afraction of the things he would have liked to. He said he haslearned much more in his own startup, despite the fact that he hasto do all the company’s errands as well as programming, because atleast when he’s programming he can do whatever he wants.

An obstacle downstream propagates upstream. If you’re not allowedto implement new ideas, you stop having them. And vice versa: whenyou can do whatever you want, you have more ideas about what to do.So working for yourself makes your brain more powerful in the sameway a low-restriction exhaust system makes an engine more powerful.

Working for yourself doesn’t have to mean starting a startup, ofcourse. But a programmer deciding between a regular job at a bigcompany and their own startup is probably going to learn more doingthe startup.

You can adjust the amount of freedom you get by scaling the sizeof company you work for. If you start the company, you’ll have themost freedom. If you become one of the first 10 employees you’llhave almost as much freedom as the founders. Even a company with100 people will feel different from one with 1000.

Working for a small company doesn’t ensure freedom. The treestructure of large organizations sets an upper bound on freedom,not a lower bound. The head of a small company may still chooseto be a tyrant. The point is that a large organization is compelledby its structure to be one.

Consequences

That has real consequences for both organizations and individuals. One is that companies will inevitably slow down as they grow larger,no matter how hard they try to keep their startup mojo. It’s aconsequence of the tree structure that every large organization isforced to adopt.

Or rather, a large organization could only avoid slowing down ifthey avoided tree structure. And since human nature limits thesize of group that can work together, the only way I can imaginefor larger groups to avoid tree structure would be to have nostructure: to have each group actually be independent, and to worktogether the way components of a market economy do.

That might be worth exploring. I suspect there are already somehighly partitionable businesses that lean this way. But I don’tknow any technology companies that have done it.

There is one thing companies can do short of structuring themselvesas sponges: they can stay small. If I’m right, then it reallypays to keep a company as small as it can be at every stage.Particularly a technology company. Which means it’s doubly importantto hire the best people. Mediocre hires hurt you twice: they getless done, but they also make you big, because you need more ofthem to solve a given problem.

For individuals the upshot is the same: aim small. It will alwayssuck to work for large organizations, and the larger the organization, the more it will suck.

In an essay I wrote a couple years ago I advised graduating seniorsto work for a couple years for another company before starting theirown. I’d modify that now. Work for another company if you wantto, but only for a small one, and if you want to start your ownstartup, go ahead.

The reason I suggested college graduates not start startups immediatelywas that I felt most would fail. And they will. But ambitiousprogrammer s are better off doing their own thing and failing thangoing to work a big company. Certainly they’ll learn more. Theymight even be better off financially. A lot of people in theirearly twenties get into debt, because their expenses grow evenfaster than the salary that seemed so high when they left school.At least if you start a startup and fail your net worth will bezero rather than negative. [3]

We’ve now funded so many different types of founders that we haveenough data to see patterns, and there seems to be no benefit fromworking for a big company. The people who’ve worked for a few yearsdo seem better than the ones straight out of college, but onlybecause they’re that much older.

The people who come to us from big companies often seem kind ofconservative. It’s hard to say how much is because big companiesmade them that way, and how much is the natural conservatism thatmade them work for the big companies in the first place. Butcertainly a large part of it is learned. I know because I’ve seenit burn off.

Having seen that happen so many times is one of the things thatconvinces me that working for oneself, or at least for a smallgroup, is the natural way for programmers to live. Founders arrivingat Y Combinator often have the downtrodden air of refugees. Threemonths later they’re transformed: they have so much more confidencethat they seem as if they’ve grown several inches taller. [4]Strange as this sounds, they seem both more worried and happier at the sametime. Which is exactly how I’d describe the way lions seem in thewild.

Watching employees get transformed into founders makes it clearthat the difference between the two is due mostly to environment—andin particular that the environment in big companies is toxic toprogrammers. In the first couple weeks of working on their ownstartup they seem to come to life, because finally they’re workingthe way people are meant to.

Notes

[1]When I talk about humans being meant or designed to live acertain way, I mean by evolution.

[2]It’s not only the leaves who suffer. The constraint propagatesup as well as down. So managers are constrained too; instead ofjust doing things, they have to act through subordinates.

[3]Do not finance your startup with credit cards. Financing astartup with debt is usually a stupid move, and credit card debtstupidest of all. Credit card debt is a bad idea, period. It isa trap set by evil companies for the desperate and the foolish.

[4]The founders we fund used to be younger (initially we encouragedundergrad s to apply), and the first couple times I saw this I usedto wonder if they were actually getting physically taller.

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