The Curse Of Knowledge

Earlier this month, at the WebEngage office, we hosted iSpirt’s latest roundtable on “product positioning and messaging“. During the course of this meetup, a very interesting term was coined – The Curse Of Knowledge.

This phrase came up during the discussion when founders were trying to explain their offering and highlight the problems they faced w.r.t product positioning. Almost everyone struggled to “position” their product accurately in front of the small audience in that room. The problem was evident – how on earth would the rest of the world get it right, if people in that room struggled?


Our anchor attendee, Shankar Marwuwada, coined the phrase “curse of knowledge” to explain the problem. Though the phrase has been around for a while, it was new to me. Also, Shankar’s explanation of the phrase stuck with me. It will continue to be a part of my thought processes and actions for a long long time. I want you to benefit from it too, hence this post.

What is the curse of knowledge?

In very simple terms, it is our inability to accept that the person in front of us (during a conversation) may not be as informed as ourselves. Too complicated to understand? There you go – that’s my curse! Once I spent some time thinking about the whole thing – it started making sense to me. We spend so much time talking – giving instructions to our domestic helps, assigning tasks to peers, selling and marketing our products, seeking help from others … the list goes on.

Our subconscious drives us to speak in our comfort zones. We tend to make assumptions, without even realizing that we are making them. I remember my early days of selling at WebEngage – I’d start doing tech speak almost everytime in my pitches, without realizing that the guy I am pitching to, doesn’t care less about it.

Is it a founder’s curse?

I wish. For if it were, the problem could easily be solved by “fixing” a couple of folks. Unfortunately, we are all cursed – some more, some less.

As engineers, we are so cursed with our understanding of writing software that even the slightest hint of crossing over that bridge, makes us uncomfortable. We “expect” everybody to understand the language we speak. We know the most, you see.

As designers, we are so cursed with our obsession around design, that we give up. We don’t talk at all, because others don’t “get it”. We are so cursed in our heads, that we cannot simply dumb it down for our engineers and customers.

As salesmen/women, we are so cursed with our (mis)understanding of the product, that we try to fix all the problems that the world has – well, with one single product. And then, it shows in our conversations. We don’t give up, even if our prospect does.

As founders, we expect everybody to start delivering great things – because its so simple. Why is it so hard? If we could do it, why can’t everyone else? Right? Wrong. We are cursed with our larger view that has come through our experiences. How on earth would others even have a clue unless its shared as is? Not knowing that is our curse.

I don’t want to speak for investors. However, if you are one, believe me you are cursed too – with your ideas of “themes”, “hot sectors” and “market size”.

Is there a fix?

It seems, yes. Broadly, these are the two things I am working on, to fix my curse:

Learning how to dumb it down – if your role is that of a doer, this helps. No matter what you do, if you can dumb things down to bare essentials, you have gotten rid of your curse. This is not easy – your curse will come in the way to doing so. Your logic will defy your act of dumbing it down. How can you do dumb things after all? If it helps, do remember that your IQ doesn’t go down by doing that. Instead, you are helping others improve theirs.

Learning how to converse – if talking is what you do for a living, learn how to talk less and listen more. Its counter intuitive, but it does help. Arm yourself with resources while talking – data, samples, anecdotes etc. The world is unfair, it wasn’t waiting for you to change it. If you still wish to change it for good, you have to learn how to tell stories. Stories register. Product features don’t. But then, your curse will come in the way of doing so. Why on earth won’t you quickly get down to business than talking bullshit? Right? Yeah, I know … If it helps, do remember that you live in a world where Nobody Cares.

Thanks for a patient read. I wish you a very happy festive season and a “curse free” 2015. May you win!

– Avlesh

To Sir, With Love …

Those who educate children well are more to be honored than they who produce them; for these only gave them life, those the art of living well.
~ Aristotle

This article is a tribute to my teachers who shaped me into being a socially acceptable human being. I am sharing some anecdotes from my past life – the ones I believe have changed my life. These are instances that influenced my thought process in multiple ways.

To begin with, I wish you and your teachers a very very Happy Teacher’s Day.

Happy Teacher's Day

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Turning off the “shy button” …
I was a very shy guy in my high school. I would never appear on stage, won’t participate in events and won’t talk to folks outside of a closed gang of 4-5 people. And this is how it changed ..

There was an inter-school debate competition – the usual war of “Houses” and the campus was abuzz with activity. My job was simple – like most others, be a part of the milling crowd. A day before the finals, one of the members in our team fell ill, got hospitalized and his family informed to my house master (our teacher) that he cannot speak on the D-day.

I have no idea what made my sir believe that I can be a replacement. He gave me a 750 word article and asked me to rote it in 5 hours and be ready for rehearsals on the eve of finals. Given the kind of subjects we have to “study” (Sanskrit, Geography, History etc to name a few) to get good marks, I had trained myself into being a rote champ. So, that job was easy. However, there was a lot of humiliation to follow. I kept forgetting those words while rehearsing in front of team/teachers. When I tried to do it alone, I did fine.

My house master turned up and said, “I know your problem. It is easy to solve”. He pointed at the tiny audience during rehearsals and said, “Look at these people. They are not human beings. They are vegetables. He is a potato. She is a ladyfinger .. What are you afraid of? Veggies? Come on. They are not living beings. Go ahead and speak your mind!” It sounds silly. Right? Yeah, I know. But that changed me for my life. I learned to express myself, unhindered. I did well on the final day – spoke too fast though :-) .. We didn’t win the competition. But, I was a changed person ..

Thank you Sukhdeo Sir.

Knowledge gives you wisdom (and wings)
I used to hate Physics in my +2. Mostly because of the teacher who taught us the subject. His idea of Physics was simple – find a formula, fit the variables somehow and match the answer in your index. Woohoo! Thankfully, this was set to change.

During the course of preparation for IIT-JEE, I started visiting Professor Abhay Singh. His classes were a refreshing change. Physics became Mathematics. And everything started making sense to me. I managed to (just) clear the JEE. However, the long lasting impressions those lectures have had on me, go beyond Physics tutorials. I started daring myself to Olympiad problems – something that I never had the confidence to do before.

And then, I realized confidence only comes from knowledge. Which in turn comes by exploring beyond the obvious. Before I joined ISM-Dhanbad, I helped Abhay Sir co-author the fourth edition of his undergraduate book Problems in Physics.

Thank you Abhay Sir, I am glad to have met you – I would have never understood the meaning of “no depth in knowledge is deep enough. there’s always room for more“.

When on a mission, insulate yourself from rest of the world
For me college days were mostly about being a retard and an arrogant asshole – the guy that  people love and hate at the same time. But you know what, there’s this one thing that I was truly in love with – those mean machines that were used in mineral processing and metallurgy. Their sheer scale and size used to fascinate me.

My Professor Bhattacharya Sir saw that in me and prompted me to take one of his long pending ideas further. Since it involved physical modeling, I jumped in. Well that was the start of an agonizing journey. I got so much into it, that I skipped classes, sat for hours creating programs and models – some friends thought I was faking it while others thought I had lost it! Irrespective, I got my work done.

To get a patent on the idea, we had to create a prototype and prove our model with data. Given the minuscule R&D budgets that colleges in our country have, we had to run throughout India seeking support from industry.

We failed to raise money. But I won – in many ways. I learned how to insulate myself from the surroundings when I am on a mission. Thank you Bhattacharya Sir.

Sirs, some day, I’ll make each one of you proud. I promise. I am on it.

– Avlesh

We, The People

Its been over 2 months since I last posted. I am trying hard to overcome the laziness, that comes with age, for all things “unproductive” – like writing. Also, it gets a bit difficult to take time out these days from my work schedule :-(

We, at WebEngage, are fast growing on all counts – revenues, reach and people. This post is to share my experiences with one of the most important pieces in the growth puzzle – People.

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As founder(s), do you have growth in your DNA?
Its a tough question to answer. For the world outside, companies are viewed in a top-down formation.  A company’s culture code trickles from the top. Are you transparent enough? Can you articulate your thoughts? Do you review your own performance? Do you question your own decisions? Most importantly, do you ever think you were an idiot on certain instances? It takes a lot to answer “Yes” to all of the above. Let’s pick one of these traits – say, transparency. The very fact that you are transparent, makes you vulnerable. You will be asked questions that is unacceptable for others, but since you are the flag bearer of transparency in your organisation, you are supposed to respond. You’ll discover that there’s a natural tendency of people around you to piggyback and hide their inefficiencies behind your otherwise seemingly beautiful quality. And in all likelihood, you’ll give up that trait. That’s what differentiates good from great. That’s what DNA means. When they use terms like “vision”, this is what they mean. The ability to stick to your great qualities. The ability believe in what you stand for. Once. Forever. Back to the original question – please ask yourself, “do I have it in me?”. Your growth depends on your answer to that question …

Why people matter?
My work life spans across a 9 year window – of which, 8 long years have gone into building startups. Most of the prior startups that I worked for, unfortunately, could not grow into becoming large organisations. Why? Well, when drunk, we’d blame it on lack of money or market. But, whenever I used to contemplate, the reasons appeared to be way more simpler – People. We were just not cut for it. We thought way too small all the time. Growth is a mindset. All startups that grew early had just one thing in common – they had people who were hungry for growth. And for that one simple reason, people matter.

Building and maintaining the company’s culture code
This is one of the most difficult things to do as you grow. I am experiencing it first hand. A good chunk of my time goes into resolving people issues these days. When you are small, it is easy to control the flow of information and communication. You can simply stand up, wave your hands, get the other guys attention and speak up. With a slightly bigger team, by doing the same thing you are unnecessarily distracting several others. Small things like these create an impact on people’s minds in terms of what’s acceptable in the culture versus what’s not. It, ultimately, boils down to being clear about what’s not acceptable. Wanna know what’s not acceptable at WebEngage? There you go:

  1. Don’t command respect, earn it.
  2. Don’t lose your patience, ever.
  3. Don’t encourage mediocrity, negativity and arrogance. Find it, kill it.
  4. Don’t be gut driven, have data/logic to back your thoughts and actions.
  5. Don’t hire a person who doesn’t understand the meaning and importance of all of the above.

Did you ask what has any of the above has got to do with growth? Hmm. Its not an easy thing to explain my friend. But here’s what growth is – a disciplined execution of an otherwise set of arduous and monotonous tasks that you have to do everyday. Our core belief is that people who believe in all of the above are the right people to build a well oiled execution machine called WebEngage.

And, in the end …

Know what your priorities are
Here’s something I have never said before in a public forum - We are an employee first company. Customers come in second. Everyone else is a distant third. This pretty much drives all the decision making in the company. Happy people create great products that gets us happy customers. I work everyday to find people who we’d love to keep happy. People who love to challenge the status quo. People who love to deliver more than what is expected of them. People who want to be a part of the next product onslaught. People who can imagine the unknown … Rings a bell? Come, join us – we are looking for you.

I hope to have made some sense in this post. I’d love to know if your idea of people versus growth is any different.

The WebEngage Story

After a few months of “downtime”, I am opening up. All over again!

When I finished my engineering in 2005, I had a dream – a small one. I wanted to learn how to run a large scale “website” end-to-end. It was a good enough dream to give me the much needed push to join a lesser known startup (Onyomo, IIT-D incubation center).

When I joined Burrp in 2006 as the first employee, I had another dream – a slightly bigger one. I wanted to build an amazing consumer product and a kickass engineering team. While the former was a no-brainer, the latter had a hidden agenda. I was sick of the so-called “engineering talent pool” that this country has to offer. Finding the right team, was a HUGE challenge.

When I and Ankit (my co-founder) started sowing the seeds of WebEngage in 2011, we dreamt once more – this one was BIG. We wanted to build a global brand. More importantly, we wanted to create a space – a market that didn’t exist. We wanted to democratize how on-site marketing is done. Look how far we have come – with a little over $500K in funding and 30 months since launch, we have achieved a feat which is definitely not ordinary. From far east to far west, we have over 21,000 websites using us – everyday, every minute. We influence close to 20% of all online sales on the e-commerce sites we work with. That’s our impact!

Yesterday, I received a call from a senior during college days. Of the 15 minutes that we spoke, a large part was dedicated to WebEngage and how he thought I was smart to make certain moves. When he hung up, I went into contemplation mode. I realized that the world’s perception of who you are is primarily based on what they see today. And then, people connect those dots by themselves to weave a story. This post stems from that thought, because I want to tell you our story. The real story.

How it began?
Simply put, from our past experiences of building consumer products as engineers. We realized how difficult it was for marketing teams to push promotional messages on their own website and measure the impact. Development teams and deployment cycles were always the bottleneck. This made us think that the problem is huge. We thought it was time someone democratized on-site communication. So we did.

How it evolved?
Well, in the last 30 months, we have evolved from being a “for the engineer, by the engineer” product to a super sophisticated realtime customer engagement engine for thousands of our customers globally. How? Simple – we never gave up our focus on the product; also, we didn’t cease to grow – be it countless number of rejections or our ability to walk past cynics. Our head and heart has always been in the right place. Underneath is a quick timeline of what we have achieved so far:

Oct, 2011 First version launch (team of 3)
Mar, 2012 1000 websites were actively using WebEngage
Jun, 2012 Notification product launched (team of 5)
Jul, 2012 We raised our seed round of capital
Dec, 2012 Custom Targeting introduced – our innovative solution towards handling issues like cart abandonment
Dec, 2012 5000 websites were actively using WebEngage
Mar, 2013 WebEngage goes Enterprise, introduces Custom Data to facilitate deeper enterprise integrations
Jun, 2013 Our first BIG milestone – 10,000 websites were actively using WebEngage!
Jul, 2013 Our pricing model revised, we become 3 times expensive
Aug, 2013 We go beyond e-commerce; find customers in BFSI, Brands, Education etc
Oct, 2013 WebEngage turns 2!
Nov, 2013 Leave Intent Targeting introduced
Feb, 2014 17,000 websites were actively using WebEngage; integrations for all major platforms
Apr, 2014 WebEngage is now a team of 18. We’ll be 40+ by end of July, 14!
Team WebEngagewk-team[1]Team – Apr, 2014Team – Oct, 2011

Looking back …

  • If not for the skills acquired while fulfilling my first dream, nothing like WebEngage would have ever taken shape – technology is this company’s core DNA and strength.
  • If not for the team built while building Burrp, WebEngage would have never seen light of the day – a bulk of our team today comprises folks that we hired and loved at Burrp.
  • If not for the obsession of building a brand, we wouldn’t have come this far – powering customer engagement on 21K websites globally (and counting) without any paid marketing is NO joke.

What’s happening right now?
Wish I could summarize! :-) .. there’s so much happening, on all fronts – product, team, growth, sales etc. In the last 3/4 months, we received a flurry of inbound interests from VC’s. We pursued with the one’s we liked. And hold your breath, we got two soft offers too! But, the valuation at which money was offered became a deal-breaker. We had to let go. As they say, the common wisdom in fundraise is “take money when its available“. Given the idiots we are, we chose not to follow common wisdom. Why? Well, if I had chosen common wisdom, you’d have never experienced WebEngage in the first place. I have great regards for most of these VC’s, and I am sure, soon they’ll understand why we were rigid on a few things, including valuation. We have believed in creating more value for our customers and stakeholders. We have believed in building an enviable product. Everything else is secondary.

As the team continues to grow, retaining this company’s culture code while keeping its growth engine intact is one of the bigger lessons that I am learning on the job. In short, right now is THE time to be a part of this onslaught called WebEngage. If you have ever had a hidden desire to work for this company, talk to us.

What’s next?
We created a market for “on-site customer engagement”. We are now defining the rules for it. In another 3/4 weeks, WebEngage will become your de-facto analytics and conversion engine for all things real-time on your website. We are building GOALS into our product. Your goals could be reducing cart abandonment, increasing sales in certain categories, increasing the number of registrations on your site, generating more leads, increasing the count of your Twitter/FB followers, optimizing conversion funnel for SEM spends etc. Each of these goals will have a set of solutions that you can use out of the box. Each solution will then generate real-time stats on how we helped you achieve your goal. Basically, we’ll demonstrate where you were without WebEngage and how we impacted your conversions on each of these goals! Sounds cool? We are taking beta customers for this pilot. If you are keen to try this out, lemme know – avlesh[at]webengage]dot[com.

This is it for now. I won’t write this story the next year. Why? Because I believe it would be compelling enough that you’d love to tell it instead, rather than hear from me :-) We are unstoppable, because for each one us here at WebEngage, growth is a mindset.

The Billion Dollar Indian Dilemma

Let’s go invent tomorrow instead of worrying about what happened yesterday.
~ Steve Jobs

Of late, a lot of people have been discussing about how long would it be before Indian startups hit the billion dollar club more often. More importantly, can India actually deliver billion dollar companies? I am glad that Indian startups have atleast become worthy enough for suits to discuss topics like these. Mainstream media writes about startups often now, startup events look more like mela these days, accelerators continue to show up at an accelerating pace – all these are great signs.

But you know what is more exciting? Seeing the Flipkart delivery boy everyday in my building, without fail.

Innovation creates BIG opportunities, not cash flows
Of course, we want billion dollar companies. And, I want mine to be one of them. Let’s face it though – do we have it in us to create such businesses? Billion dollar businesses are not created by companies that keep themselves busy with cash flows and targets based on a 5 year revenue projection plan. Instead, these are companies that innovate – every day, every minute. These are companies that thrive for perfection in what they do. That takes balls of steel, and a lot of time in a country like ours.

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Who sets the tone for billion dollar companies? Founders, and then, Investors
For internet businesses, it take 10+ years in this country to go public. Leave it to the founders, and they will continue to create value – we have seen that in the past and we continue too see it in the current breed too. But, who creates disproportionate valuations? Investors. A typical valley based startup will “graduate” into the billion dollar club within 4-5 years. Can Indian VC’s spot and take early winners into that club? I don’t think so. We are waiting for some “success stories”. Who will create them in the first place? It takes us a Tiger (Flipkart) and Softbank (InMobi) to propel companies in that league. Indian VC’s were busy worrying about cash-flows, profitability and a bunch of other “sane concerns” when these companies were approaching them. When was the last time somebody sane innovated something? For now, let’s keep cutting tiny cheques at meager valuations and wait for companies to innovate. I wish it were simple to understand that starvation doesn’t lead to innovation. Well, valuation doesn’t lead to that either – but it creates room for it, for teams that are really worth it.

Founders, consumers and everyone else around us need to make this work
Before I put the blame on anybody else – I’ll put myself in the dock. Along with gazillion other cynics, I had the same viewpoint on Flipkart, as most others. Where are the profits? They kept saying look at my warehouses. But, we kept asking the same thing – where are the profits? Does it matter? No. They know how to win. That’s what matters. They were just a bit ahead of time, while they were doing (in)sane things that we could not understand. I am glad that some of us have matured. But, mind you friend, we are still a minority. And, unless that shift happens – good luck! Post Burrp, I lost faith in Indian consumer internet stories. Silly me, every single founder (working on a consumer product) who approached me for advice, got only one – run for cover and find a b2b angle in your idea. I pledge not to do that anymore. Also, thanks Sequoia for taking that leap of faith in Zomato.

Is it end of the road? Hell, NO! We WILL create billion dollar companies
More importantly, we will create stories – far more impactful than our global counterparts. Why? Because our heart is where it should be – in the right place. It takes time to build large companies. It takes a lot of courage and conviction to disrupt existing businesses. Atleast the new breed has that resolve. Time will tell how many of us will get there, but we are surely not giving up. We will push ourselves to the limit. Some have already started to shine –

I can see a change already. A lot more needs to happen though. I have chosen not to wait for it. How about you? I say, let’s build valuable companies – together.

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Growth Is A Mindset

Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.
~ Benjamin Franklin

Along with my co-founder Ankit, I have been running the show at WebEngage for 2 years now. We have seen a lot in these two years – lack of capital, lack of people, lack of processes, lack of goodwill, lack of PR … the list is endless. But you know what, one thing has remained constant – our resolve to grow. As we continue to evolve, things have changed drastically. This post is for my fellow entrepreneurs and their teams, based on my learnings of how we manage to keep our growth engine intact despite limited resources at our disposal.

Growth is a mindset
I met a few founders recently at an event where I was speaking on “virtues of being shameless“. Most of these were running companies for over 4/5 years. Some pivoted, some tweaked their business model, some acquired a few marquee customers and some were even profitable businesses. But, everyone I met had one thing in common – they ceased to grow. And in most cases, the entrepreneur wasn’t aware of it. The realization to grow has to happen before actual growth, its a mindset – and NOT a hack. Growth comes in much later, the conviction to grow comes way before that.

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Growth is about pushing the envelope further. Everyday
When we raised our tiny angel round, we just had one goal – build out a product that we envision. When we raised our follow on seed round, we had another goal – to run this business profitably. Now that both these objectives have been met, I have a choice – sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. Being human, it comes naturally to us. Who wants to slog his/her ass when the going is good? Companies that have outgrown are different. They grew because they didn’t stop setting bigger goals for themselves. They grew because they didn’t get complacent upon seeing early signs of success. They grew because they pushed themselves to the limit.

Growth is the resolve to grow, tirelessly
Growth is painful – it needs people, processes, investment and resources – things that you won’t have most of the times. But all these are just means to grow. Companies like Atlassian or Github could grow to insane scale without any external capital. Each company and its team has a different DNA. Those who grew, had one thing in common – the resolve to create a BIG impact. It shows in every aspect of the business – your product, your communication, your sales methodology/process, your general outlook and vision. Growth comes by doing things, a lot of things – some rational and most irrational. To grow, just keep at it.

Growth is knowing when you are not growing
In case you didn’t know, WebEngage is our second product. We earlier tried and failed with a product called Webklipper. We shelved that idea in 9 months flat. Why? Because I didn’t want to hear from anybody else that we stopped growing. I wanted me and my team to be the first one’s to realize that. And when you do, there’s no point in being emotionally attached to an idea or a dream. It is important to understand that as entrepreneurs, our goal is to create value for customers and wealth for stakeholders in the business. If you are not doing both of these simultaneously, you are not growing.

As this year comes to a close and we are about to embrace the new, I wish my team, and yours, a growth mindset. Go, grow. Grow like a weed. Also, accept my heartfelt wishes for a wonderful 2014 – for yourself, your family and your loved ones.

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WebEngage turns 2

Its 13th Oct, 2013 and I have a news to share with you. WebEngage turns 2 today! Happy b’day baby.

birthday_cake[1]A lot of other things turn 2 today – our passion in building this company, our unshakeable product vision, our belief that the world needs this product, our perseverance while going through painful enterprise sales cycles, our child like enthusiasm and promptness in delivering customer support … the list is endless.

What started as a humble idea in a garage like office 2 years ago is now a real-time conversion engine powering customer engagement on over 13,000 websites worldwide – including the likes of Flipkart, Avaya, Intuit, Snapdeal, SEOMoz, MakeMyTrip, Udemy, Homeshop18, Gumtree, IDFC Mutual Fund etc. A picture is worth a thousand words, here’s one –

WebEngage Customer List

I am happy. Infact, I am very happy. To the extent that I am falling short of words to express my emotions (those who know me well would know that this is so unlike me ;-)). Here’s another picture worth a thousand words – my super cool team that makes it happen. Silently. Everyday –

Team WebEngagewk-team[1]Team 2013Team 2011

A sincere thanks to all our customers and investors (IAN, GTI Capital & Blume Ventures) for getting us this far. I’d also like to thank my family (especially my wife, Nupur) for keeping faith.

This occasion marks the coming of age of that cool next door startup. We are unstoppable now. Please continue to be the awesome evangelist, that you have been thus far. Your love and support counts.

Onwards and upwards.

– Avlesh

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