Startup lessons, part 2 – identifying and building your company’s DNA

After an overwhelming response to part 1 (whatever that means) in this series, it was about time that I came up with part 2. I am sorry for taking such a long break from posting something worthwhile. That said, I am extremely happy that my startup is keeping me busy these days; to the extent of being on toes 24×7 – doing sales and support pretty much all day to a US/UK and India based customer base.

I have been meaning to write this post since long. The post is about this classic dilemma you face when your startup has gotten the initial traction and acceptance – and now you are not sure which way to steer your product and company. As you would know – there are no free lunches, so the gyaan in this post is definitely not coming to you for free. Here comes an advertisement, before you get to the post –

Lemme tell this to you in all honesty – we are gaining momentum with WebEngage. We are at a stage when a product demo is all it takes to sell it. Existing customers (like QVC, Justeat, Scott Dunn etc) and soon to be ones (like Cleartrip, Redbus etc) call it the best tech product they have seen in recent times. While the feedback product has already gained mass acceptance, our much talked about short and targeted surveys are getting its well deserved love from marketers, product managers and webmasters. Lemme show you the power of these surveys (of course via a quick demo) –

  1. Go to this Quora thread –
  2. Click on the WebEngage link in the answer by Ankit Utreja.
  3. Welcome to our WebEngage landing page. Wait for 20 seconds. Please be patient.  Woohoo! Did you notice a survey popping up from the bottom left of this page? Welcome to just another WebEngage survey.
  4. We have generated 37 leads from this survey in the last 5 days and have converted 17 of them. Ain’t that amazing? You can create such hassle free and smart surveys for your product without writing any code – for a change 🙂
  5. Advertisement over!
Who is this post for? And what is it about?
This post is for startups that have spent some time in the arena, worked against all odds and found some early adopters for their product; startups who are trying to figure out which product roadmap(s) to follow; startups who can see multiple ways of generating revenue – but they are not sure which way to go.  In this post I’ll tell you how we faced this classic dilemma. We did a private beta for WebEngage in May, 2011 . 4 months into it and you’d be amazed by the kind of traction we have received. If you read through the “ad” above, you must have seen some big names as customers. But lemme tell you, getting here wasn’t easy. And the road ahead is all the more challenging.
Oh, your product is great, why don’t you build something related for us”? – here’s a fat check!
So, ours is a SaaS based product. And mind you, as sophisticated as it gets. People develop a liking for it when they use it or see it in action. But that brings its own set of problems. There were people willing to cut us a check if we wrote (almost) the same piece of software for them to be used in-house for their product. Did you say “white-labeled” solution? Nope, that’s not what they wanted. They meant it in the context of their application wherein the tool would be use-case driven and tightly knit into their product(s). There’s nothing wrong in them asking. But that had me and team scratching our heads to say a yes or no to such “opportunities”. All of us are here to make money, right?
The DNA – know who you are and what you want to be.
Well, it wasn’t only those _build_me_a_tailor_made_software_requests that clogged our thought processes. There were many more such requests/ideas which came from self-proclaimed “startup babas” and potential customers. Underneath is a sample list –

  1. Embed your surveys in email-marketing campaigns and you can earn upwards of INR 100 per lead. Since your response rates are high (FYI, our avg. response rates for surveys running across sites worldwide is over 10%), you’ll make is large. Big brands will pay you anything for such surveys, and you’d be killing it in sometime.
  2. There are companies who sell “enterprise version of desi Surveymonkey” as bundled software. It is a huge business because everyone needs surveys. You should approach WebEngage surveys from this angle and not the contextual single question survey for websites because the ticket price is too low.
  3. Your feedback part of the offering should exactly be similar to Getsatisfaction or Uservoice because they are “leaders” in the space. Build everything they have, that’s how you’ll get early adopters; be ready to die otherwise.
  4. Well, surveys and feedback is good. We can possibly use those. That said, we have multiple other pain points w.r.t data flow b/w silos of customer tele support and a homegrown CRM. Can you build this thing which plugs into our silos and show as much info as possible to a customer support guy?
  5. You should have a sales team in place. Selling is not an engineers job. You won’t be able to do it.

Imagine you sitting in front of a potential customer who throws question #4 to you. This is someone ready to pay you dollars for the product you have already built. Imagine “advisers” and startup baba’s throwing #1, #2, #3 and #5 at you. Difficult, right? Yes, it indeed is. And having gone through these questions I can surely tell you that end of the day there is no right/wrong answer to any of these. We realized that, for the business to succeed, it is our instincts and strengths we should count upon. This is where I use the term DNA. Its there in you – in your founding team. You know what you are best at. We are a team of all engineers who love to build and sell. As a company we have a tech DNA. Answer to #1 was easy – chasing brands to make big bucks? Not happening because it doesn’t come naturally to us. For question #2, Surveymonkey is a great product. If we had to build one, we’ll take them heads on and beat them in the game. That said, we come w/ consumer centric approach to our internet product. For all you know, our product cannot (and should not) suck on a third party site. We just cannot live w/o affecting an end-users life on internet (the DNA, I tell you ..). Answer to #3 was easy – we are NOT copycats, sir. We’ll beat these “leaders” in their own battlefield. So, we differentiated our offering in terms of the product – automatic screengrab of the page a user submits feedback on, custom categories for feedback and custom fields in the feedback form. We have a list of sites who switched from Getsatisfaction and Uservoice in search for a better product. Ah, did I tell you about the super optimized less than 8kb of JS code to make it all happen? I run into question #4 and similar kinds very often, pretty much w/ all big Indian players. I have learned to politely say a “no”. I managed to still sell our product to some of these. Answer to #5 is the easiest – I show my middle-finger, fart in front of this guy and move on.

Last piece of advice to  startups – save yourself from the “usability syndrome”.
Disclaimer: I am, in no way, demeaning the importance of UI/UX for an internet product. Please don’t shoot me in the head for the following lines. I keep talking to startups and their founders on a regular basis. Consumer internet startups are worst affected by, what I call, the usability syndrome. Most of the times their entire product is built w/ a philosophy of acquiring (stealing) users based on better UI/UX, pleasing them w/ nice interfaces and tonnes of messaging … and then what? For a startup to graduate to a business, someone needs to pay the bills. The sooner you find an answer to this, the better. My point is simple – solve a real problem instead of building just another product with a better UI/UX. We have done a 180 degree turn trying to build one product before shifting focus to another. I can tell you a lot more over beers.
By saying whatever I did in the paragraphs above, I am NOT advocating arrogance and ignorance. These are lesson learned the hard way. Your product, startup and DNA are different than mine. Feel free to disagree. Would love to hear from you.
Thanks for reading. Coming soon with another boring post.

Latest Comments

  1. Nischal Shetty says:

    I need to learn more from you… Hope to catch up over beers in a few months 😀

  2. Siddhant says:

    You continue to inspire sir. Please keep posting often.

  3. Dayson Pais (@dayson) says:

    That’s one more strongly opinionated person on the Indian web-space. I’m glad to read!

    Haha. It’s tough to say no to a “Oh, your product is great, why don’t you build something related for us”? – here’s a fat check! – But I guess striking a balance and drawing the line is only thing you can do there.

    I’d disagree with the last bit on UI/UX. You may not oppose it, but you definitely undermine it. It’s one of the factors that go into making great products. And great products go a long way without marketing themselves, they just sell.

    1. It’s one of the major reasons why users prefer Gmail over Hotmail/Yahoo.

    2. Why do you think this guy is a flipkart lover? –!/4eo/status/71077577414017025

    3. I would also go to the extent of saying that Facebook had nothing but Orkut done in a better way + the photo tag feature in the early days.

    4. Why do I see myself and my former Yatra/MakeMyTrip friends using Cleartrip? Why do I hate IRCTC?

    5. What would you categorize Tumblr’s login form and blogging experience as? Not UI/UX driven? They disabled comments and yet achieve extreme loyalty and mileage.

    Usability can go a long way in being a differentiating factor. Agree, it’s not what you build a business or idea on, but if you don’t have it, it’s only a matter of time until someone executes it better. Yes, Dropbox did that to YouSendIt. Mailchimp did that to a lot more.

    In all the above cases, it might be a small audience, but it’s mileage. It’s the mileage of garnering users who will NEVER switch back to what they came from.

  4. Krutika Mehra says:

    There is no better way to start my day. You rock Avlesh. I second your take on UI/UX. Your experience reflects in the way you write. I am a huge fan. Subscribed to your blog 🙂

  5. Peeyush says:

    A nice followup with a many learnings! There is much which we’ve personally experienced and/or is applicable with us including the UI/UX thing 🙂

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