The real use of money is to buy freedom


As the founder of a profitable software company, I happen to make more money than most office-goers of my age. There’s no shame or pride in admitting that. I don’t dislike money. Having quite a bit of it is simply a fact. Though there must be many thousands of people who have enormously more money than me, I consider myself lucky to have more than I need right now.

However, more than the money, what fascinates me is the nature of money, its ubiquity and how our behavior gets unknowingly influenced by it.

The insecurities attached with the money

I have grown up in a typical middle-class household where one is rightly nurtured into not being extravagant. I was taught to value money (which I thoroughly appreciate). Even though, in my childhood, I always got whatever I wanted, the truth is that I never wanted big, expensive toys. That attitude has lingered on to the present day. Now I know what matters and what doesn’t. I firmly believe that material possessions may end up owning my life rather than I owning them. I would certainly be not happier if the entire day I worry about my new scratch-less Porsche, my next investment or whether my portfolio is currently showing positive or negative returns.

A life spent mostly hoarding money and possessions is a wasted life

Keeping the things you own in a good condition and actively managing and cleaning them is one aspect. The other aspect is the constant worry of losing it all.

Isn’t it funny that one first works hard to earn some money, and then worries constantly about not having it anymore? This insecurity keeps even the richest people actively working to make even more money, while they sweat away their only life, working extremely hard while deprioritizing their friends / families (which of course they will regret at their deathbeds). All this hard work is for the future, though. When will this future arrive, they don’t know. With enough money in the bank, they will feel safe. Except that rarely anyone defines “enough” and no body ever is really safe. A bus could run over you tomorrow, and no amount money could save you if you were destined to die.

It’s true that having money is a good thing, and that if you happen to afford good (and probably expensive) medical treatment, chances of you surviving a crash might be higher. However, I can bet that this life-saving amount would be much lesser than what most people aspire for to “save”. And there’s always medical and disability insurance to take care of this scenario.

Then why do we run after money?

I feel there is an irrational attraction which humans have for security. They are inherent afraid of their mortality and subconsciously or otherwise, will do anything that assures them of a meaningful, comfortable existence. Money is perhaps the best proxy for this permanence that we desire. It might also be related to our evolutionary instinct of hoarding food for the rainy days. Better to have more food than less food, right?

Luxury lifestyle and the hedonic adaptation

People who make a lot of money too soon such as entrepreneurs or lottery winners usually end up increasing their standard of living. Consider how going to expensive restaurants, watching movies on a bigger TVs, or moving into a larger home would make you happy only for a while. After that initial rush, it’s back to normal. This is called hedonic adaptation and I’m sure as we reflect, we can see that this adaptation has happened many times with us, yet we keep falling into its trap.

Some might argue that even the initial rush is worth all the money, but there are many unintended side affects of significantly changing your standard of living. You end up not hanging out with your friends that often because they won’t go into that expensive restaurant. You end up spending a lot of time managing whatever things you’ve bought. You end up feeling bad about yourself because now your comparison is with houses much bigger than yours. But worst of all is that you end up feeling out-of-place at all the places that your earlier avatar once considered luxury, say an economy class airline ticket to Europe because now you prefer traveling business class.

Isn’t it ironic that just because you’re used to a better standard of life, you’ve suddenly excluded so many potential joy-bearing experiences? Sadly, some people never experience this non-correlation between money and happiness, and they end up dedicating their lives to making money while they could have had been much more happy chasing experiences. Money in the bank has rarely given anyone any happiness. All it has given is a false sense of security.

Is money such a bad deal?

I’m not saying that money is inherently bad and that we should keep away from it. Even though the swiss are considering giving money to all its citizens who are alive, some amount of money is absolutely required to stay alive. I’m also not parodying all the poor people in the world who simply struggle to make their ends meet. My point is a subtle one:

After a certain, basic amount that is required for a reasonable daily life, unless put to its rightful use, the extra money could end up consuming one’s life and make one actually less happy than before.

Freedom: the only luxury that extra money affords

Freedom is very important to everyone. The freedom to do whatever one wants, wherever one wants (within moral limits, I hope). The only, legitimate use of money is to be able to say no to things you don’t want to do and yes to things which feel out of reach.

For instance, without money, it is not possible to go on an adventure trip to Antarctica. But that trip may not happen if you’re busy making even more money or busy managing your existing stash. And, although it might be true that certain people just get kicks out of making money, science definitely tells us that certain things make us predictably more happy than others. So people who are irrationally attracted to hoard are just victims of uninformed biases.

Yes, I know that life has no real meaning and that worrying about time running out is futile, but happiness is real and being happy is more important than not being happy. If we make a mathematical model containing life expectancy and value of life, each passing moment of our life would seem to be infinitely more valuable. Then, why not prioritize life over money and recognize that the true value of money is in actually letting us design a happier life which consists of varied experiences, many of which (sadly) cannot be had without money. (One of such experiences is helping needy people. Science tells us that it is an easy way to “buy” happiness.)

In nutshell:

We must constantly question what money really is for because, by default, it has some magical properties of animating most of our non-retrievable waking hours. Let money not guide you.

(PS: A note on managing money. It’s odd when I see people sweating over which investments to make. Typical methods of calculating “returns on investment” tend to forget the cost of our anxiety in deciding and the cost of time spent analyzing, managing and maintaining that investment. Is that extra percent of returns really worth it if you couldn’t sleep even for a single day worrying about whether it was the right decision?)

Life as a question with no answers


The meaninglessness grips him by the throat at any moment of the day. Not caring about where he is and with whom is he, like a ferocious, prowling predator, the feeling arrives unannounced, rips apart his flesh and leaves him half-eaten, bleeding with not blood but streams of shameless, naked guilt. The guilt of meaningless existence.

He has been found caught in a swirling pool of this feeling at all sorts of places where the expected state of mind is one of the common moods such as joy, sadness, anticipation, reflection, or tens of others that people keep talking about. Instead, multiple times a day, what he feels is a sharp confusion followed by an invisible, choking paranoia that he’s going to die one day, and nobody really, truly, deeply cares about his existence. And why should they? They have their own lives to bother with.

Of course, he was not born with this feeling. His first memory is a sweet one; it’s about clutching a two-rupee note, while spiritedly darting towards the candy shop in the neighborhood. He distinctly remembers the sky that breezy day to be a little grey, the kind he prefers. And he also remembers his favorite orange candies which were cheap and abundant, and how they were wrapped in a white paper cover making each candy resemble a well-ironed bow tie. In those days, each kid had its hands full of them. A single rupee could fetch ten of such candies. He remembers how sucking on those candies seemed to have given him infinite bliss, as if the sweet liquid gushing out of it was hallucinogenic. At that innocent moment in his past life, he was perhaps in a childish trance. Or so, that is how he prefers to remember it.

Today, this memory – and many other similar ones where only the happy parts are remembered, not the boring ones – evokes two simultaneous, yet diametrically opposite emotions. When he reflects on the memory, he feels immensely proud of having lived through such a wonderful time, of being born as a human capable of having such memories (and not a simple-minded cockroach, leech or a snail), of being lucky enough to be able to afford this memory (and not having perished as a poor, destitute and malnourished kid). This feeling of airy joy fills his lungs and leaves him with a relaxed sigh of being alive, and giddies him up about the capacity of future to gift him many more such times. But before long, his sweet stillness is pierced by the painfully clear thought of his own death in future, and how that certain event would render his entire life (and all its associated memories) meaningless. In fact, he feels that his future death, in a way, renders his life and his actions meaningless today, not some distant tomorrow. It’s because one day his death will surely arrive and that day would be just like any other day. Today could be it. Any day that brings him death would be today on that specific day. Days are never special, he thinks. The only subject that occupies a man on his deathbed is his own death.

At such moments, for the briefest of moments, he catches a glimpse of his own flood of thoughts inside the vast ocean of constantly turbulent mind. Truth be told, it makes him proud and amused that mind is able to accommodate the existence of happiness and dejection at the same time. Isn’t that interesting? Though, sadly, this pride of holding mixed emotions doesn’t help in resolving the unease about the questions that have no answers.

Ironically, what brings him relief from these semi-frequent bouts of dejection about death is the thought that he’s going to die in future. His constant contemplation on death has inevitably made an impression on his intuition, further strengthening his resolve that one’s short life on this planet, even though meaningless, should never be sad. Happiness and exhilaration is what he seeks (and often gets). No doubt, even on a happy day, like everyone else, he would get faint, fleeting feelings of guilt and sadness, but he likes to imagine that unlike others he just carries on with the happy feelings while leaving behind the sad ones to rot. He has no hang ups about the past, and at will, he’s able to erase all negative feelings of guilt, shame, sadness and anxiety. Once he told a friend that the constant awareness of death brings genuine happiness. He also jokingly referred himself to be an Übermensch. His friend didn’t care.

He doesn’t know whether he should qualify it as a sad feeling, but one feeling that he constantly runs away from is that dreaded time when his mind is completely blank and the time around him shamelessly hangs on the wall, refusing to march forward. Yes, he feels boredom quite sharply and the possibility of it makes him tremble from the inside. Why can’t he just relax and enjoy the endless time, you may ask him. Try getting an answer from a depressed, suicidal person and you’ll get your answer on his behalf.

Even though he does not hate life, he would have been perfectly at peace if he were never born. It isn’t as if he prefers not to exist, it’s just that existence doesn’t matter to him. The question of life is moot. Meaningful life is an oxymoron. This indifference might seem cruel or pompous, depending if you love him or not, but that’s what the truth is and he’s unable to change it. Multiple times, he has tried shouting at the sky, demanding the universe some sort of an answer, but he has never got one.

Now, he has given up shouting. He isn’t tired of shouting; only that, now he feels he should be occupied with things that make him happy. Today, he has his memories that he treasures, a life that is a source of happiness and clarity of what life is about and why one must enjoy it at all costs.

Existential drivel


The problem with us humans is that we want everything to happen today. The reason we are so impatient is because tomorrow is really a bet that we’re uncertain to win. Whether we will be alive to see tomorrow unfold or not, we cannot say for sure. That’s why we want all the love, excitement, significance and exhilaration to arrive one after the other without many breaks. In fact, sleep or exhaustion often feels a guilt-ridden letdown to an over-anxious mind. Why sleep when you could be living, for it is uncertain that you will wake up tomorrow.

It’s funny though how this emotional want for right now and the thin sorrow of not being able to make the best out of the limited time we have conflicts directly with the vivid realization that time shouldn’t matter at all precisely because death is a certainty and all these moments that one so desperately wants to capture for the eternity will fade with oneself. The sun will explode, the universe will become a nothing once again.

I guess the only resolution of this irritating, recurrent conflict is constant reiteration of the fact that even though life is meaningless, one has to make the best of it. Or, maybe not! What you make of life really does not matter. But it is certainly unavoidable that life has to be lived and why not! It’s a chance to become a small part of the mysterious phenomena of the universe being there at all without any purpose whatsoever. If the universe doesn’t care about its existence, why should we?

Why do I then care about writing this piece at all? I could have avoided it and my life, the universe and everything else between it would have been as absurd with or without my words.

But if not for vomiting these attention-hogging thoughts of mine, how else would I put my overanxious mind to sleep? It’s all for that sleep, where the absurdity ends but so does the fun too!

On being okay with boredom


Imagine a usual Wednesday evening. A week earlier, there was a similar Wednesday evening, and of course, next week, there will be another Wednesday evening. These Wednesday evenings never stop arriving and all of them look essentially the same. Wednesday evenings are insignificant, boring chunks of time that you cannot avoid.

Finishing his work a little early, he comes home tired, mechanically changes into nightclothes, eats a tasteless dinner, and, on the dinner table, engages in a forced chitchat with his wife. As he opens and closes his mouth to utter careless words, he keenly feels the insignificance of the talk because all the significant conversations have already been done in the past. All that is remaining to talk about is trivial curiosities about food, work, travel and other miscellaneous stuff. He forces himself to think of something interesting, but nothing worthwhile strikes his listless mind. He believes he loves his beautiful wife and usually the same chitchat gives him a warm, fuzzy feeling and makes him happy, but today does not seem to be one such joyful day. Today, he is utterly bored.

He is bored because this Wednesday is an unimportant day. The hate for Monday has subsided and the excitement for a Saturday hasn’t arrived yet. Wednesday is just a large expanse of time that has to be filled with something substantial. He feels the weight of being happy at this particular moment.

The pressure to do something meaningful is immense because any day in the future he might die. He’s scared of death so he wants to feel relevant while he is still alive. He wants his every moment to count for something special. He wants magical, larger-than-life days.

Unfortunately, Wednesday is not magical. It’s dull and he knows that quite vividly. While his wife is cleaning the dining table, he drifts towards his room and realizes that the monotony of this evening is killing him. But he has no energy left to rebel against the dullness that is crawling besides him into the room. He is a silent observer to his own life, watching time swoosh by every second, day-after-day, Wednesday-after-Wednesday, year-after-year, death-after-death. He asks himself: what’s the point of it all. He waits for an answer but all he hears back is some distorted, incoherent echoes.

Because this empty, dejected Wednesday evening makes him aware of the passage of time so vividly, he fears living through it. Time is unnaturally slow today. He desperately wants to run away to somewhere else, but where should he go? He wants to escape, but he also knows that time runs at the same discolored pace everywhere. No matter where he is, he knows that life will always keep pushing such boring, never-ending Wednesdays at him. One day, even if he finds Shangri-La, he knows he will get bored there too. What is he going to do then? Escape again? Escape to where? There really is no running away.

So, what should he do now?

He tries to distract himself by watching silly kitten videos followed by dejected scan on Facebook where everyone else has an awesome life. These trivial activities fail to lift his mood. His room is dark, he is laying on his stomach with his nose plunged inside the pillow. With his body numb, mouth dry, and eyes unfocused, he probably just wants to sleep early.

Most people grasp the true meaninglessness of who they are and what the universe is up to on a day like this Wednesday evening. When boredom strikes, the desperation to end it is immense. Since his boredom is so deep and real, he cannot hope to escape it with shallow distractions. Half amused, half depressed, he thinks he has no choice but to either kill himself or learn to be comfortable inside his own skin, while fully being aware of the absurdity of being so. Really, he has to be either distracted and happy, or bored and real. He cannot expect to be real and happy at the same time. It’s logically impossible.

***

Interestingly enough, boredom never lingers on. A magical Saturday evening appears once again and he is happy as a duck once again, totally forgetting how dreadful that Wednesday evening was. Thank god he’s human.

What is freedom?


Nonlinearity rules our world, and human minds are often too simplistic and shortsighted to comprehend it fully. People in general will agree that happiness is a (if not the) goal in their lives. However it is ironical that in spite of aspiring for happiness, they still wouldn’t be honest with themselves to pursue that goal single-mindedly. Why honesty and authenticity is important in life? Well, that’s a different post altogether, but briefly speaking, in the face of our inherently meaningless lives, why will anyone prefer a dishonest life over an honest one is beyond me. At least, one should be honest with oneself, if not with the entire world.

An example of such dishonesty is the utter ignorance of what freedom is and why happiness cannot be ensured without freedom.

What really is freedom anyway? I’m talking about freedom in a very broad sense. Doing work for someone else, having a job or loving someone has nothing to do with freedom. Freedom is NOT doing whatever the heart desires right now. Freedom is the possibility of doing whatever the heart desires right now. Freedom is the possibility of breaking free, if and when needed. Freedom is the confidence of not being chained in an unhappy state. Pursuit of freedom is to continuously ensure that one is not relenting control of life to any person or any sort of circumstances.

No one but you has any right on your life.

What limits freedom?

Inherently, everyone is free. Slowly, society and its associated conditioning creeps in and binds one to behave in certain paradigms. For example, freedom is easily limited by the following:

Moral commitments about the future. If you promise someone about something, you ought to stick to it, even if it means restriction of your freedom. Why morality and future commitments take precedence over freedom is an important topic and it deserve a fuller treatment in an another post. Briefly speaking, in order to maximize happiness for everyone (hence to maximize your own happiness, averaged over a lifespan), expectation of reciprocity is what should drive our world. If I deviate from my commitments, I should not expect other people to stick to their commitments. However, if other people’s commitments and honesty is important to my happiness, I cannot and should not renege on my commitments.

This means that one should be careful about the future. Promising someone about something far in future is not a good idea because closer to the present a commitment is, more confidence you have to fulfill it without impacting much of your happiness. Who knows which commitments of yours conflict with your future. When such a conflict appears, at that point you don’t want to run away from your commitments just because you didn’t have foresight not to promise things you can’t fulfill.

Government, state and the law. Perhaps the gravest limitation on your freedom is from the laws your don’t agree with. Due to facticity, this is especially interesting because you don’t choose the country you are born in. You are simply thrown into a set of laws that you are required to obey. Your only hope is that in the country you are born in, freedom is a value that is vigorously defended. For example, if you happen to be born in Indonesia and you don’t believe in God, you’re in big trouble because being an atheist is a punishable crime there. In such case, what do you do? Do you lie about your beliefs? I say no, you should NEVER lie if you uphold authenticity in life as a key value. So, there are really two actions you could take: a) Don’t speak up and refuse to talk about your beliefs (apparently, even that is not possible in Indonesia. You have to choose among one of the five state “sanctioned” religions.), or b) fight for your freedom, even at the extent of getting executed for blasphemy and other such nonsense.


Photo by Peter Szabo

States and governments have infinite more power as compared to the individual, so if one’s freedom conflicts with their rules, his only option is to defend his freedom and absorb a lot of discomfort that arises from this conflict. As long as one goes down fighting for his ideal, I think it is honorable and totally worth it.

This is also why we should promote and talk about freedom as much as possible. Governments should understand the concept freedom better than anything else, otherwise they don’t deserve to remain in power.

Respect and love trumping rationale and logic. I’m sure many of us have been in situations where our own happiness and freedom conflicts with people we love and respect. But sacrificing one’s freedom and feeling unhappy about it, simply to avoid a conflict with people we love is just very wrong. Nobody but the individual himself/herself has the right on his/her life and freedom. That’s why I say disrespecting parents is the mark of a thinking man, and one should be ready to ditch relationships (if one hasn’t committed unconditionally), and why we should not have heros in life.

I’m not saying that we should not love or respect other people. We should be as kind hearted and full of love as we can. However, we should have a very clear awareness that we love ourselves more than anyone else, and if others intrude on our freedom, we should be ready to break ties and let go without many emotional hangups. Whenever there is conflict, we should listen to arguments that others put up, but if we don’t agree with their rationale and logic, just out of respect or love, we should NEVER do something that restricts our freedom.

Ego combined with shortsightedness. Freedom dissolves entirely when someone else sets the rules of the game and one follows him/her blindly, out of ego or peer-pressure. Such confused actions do not constitute freedom. That’s slavery to the universe. A simple example is probably related to money and work. If your friends are pursuing an MBA and you do the same just because you think you might get left out if you don’t enroll in an MBA program as well, and you fear that your friends may start making more money than you in that case. So out of fear induced by your friends’ actions, you do something you never wanted to do. Would you call it a free choice? Your friends are setting the rules, and you are just following those rules unquestionably.

In business context, same is with competition. In my startup, the reason I consciously avoid looking at the competition and then do things they are doing is because I do not want someone else to dictate how I run a business. Even if I don’t act on what I observe, the mere act of knowing what the competition is up to creates a subconscious bias. If competition raises funding, does that mean out of fear we raise funding too? If raising funding was an independent decision, I’d be happy but if it were done in response to some events you I don’t control, that is simply relenting my life and freedom to others.

Why people are happy if they make poor choices related to their freedom?

This is interesting. Actually, the relationship between freedom and happiness is probabilistic. You could be chained, yet the point of unhappiness may never appear. Many chains of love, respect and commitments in fact usually cause a lot of happiness. However, when things go worse, only then such chains are noticed and cause extreme amounts of unhappiness because one wants to break free yet one cannot do so without being dishonest to oneself and to the world. And dishonesty and inconsistency of one’s value system is what causes incurable unhappiness. In other words, if things are going good, freedom takes a backseat. However, we should always be concerned about absolutely the worst case to ensure in those dark and trying times that we have always chased freedom, so we have been authentic to ourselves, it is just that now circumstances have gone sour. This thought alone gives a lot of happiness and confidence in the worst of periods in life.

How to ensure freedom?

One ensures freedom by taking decisions that ensure if at any moment in future one decides to do whatever the hell one wants to do, one is able to do that without being dishonest and without failing at any past commitments. So, commitment becomes an expensive currency that should be thoughtfully used, if at all. For example, following situations ensure freedom:

  • If you are working for someone, this means being ready to quit at any moment without any notice or with a minimal notice (if you have committed to that)
  • Future is as uncertain as it can get, so this means not signing up for something that won’t let you change direction if that seems to be the most appropriate one in future
  • Having courage to even stake your life if freedom is intruded by state or others. Many freedom fighters such as Bhagat Singh understood the concept of freedom very clearly and, even though they died in the process, they were actually free within themselves while others lived (probabilistically) unhappily or happily, but forever chained. And those chains could any time cause immense amount of unhappiness. Is a chained life really worth living?

What does freedom ensure? Why is it a value worth dying for?

What freedom ensures is that you, and only you get to decide about your happiness. It detaches you from external, could-have-been-controlled factors that cause most amount of regret. Freedom ensures you a regretless life, which gives confidence to be happy even in the worst of circumstances. Freedom lets you become an individual capable of conquering the world, all by himself.

Freedom is self-confidence in the face of complex present and uncertain future.

Actually, anyone can be free by saying any time fuck-it-I-don’t-care without doing any deep thinking about future commitments. However, that is not moral. Morality is a higher ideal as compared to freedom. Morality is a given.

Many decisions that relate to freedom ultimately end up being counter-intuitive to what society expects. For example, striving for freedom means probably failing at trying to do a startup than taking up a nice, cozy job. It also means disagreeing with people you love and respect, even at the expense of leaving them. It means maximizing possibility of future freedom (remaining bootstrapped) by letting go of short-term happiness and comfort (raising VC funding). However, being able to say fuck-it-I-don’t-care while still remaining true to your commitments, value system and morality is the greatest source of joy!

Since the effect of freedom on happiness is probabilistic, all we can hope for is to maximize it and leave the rest to uncertain and complex turn of future events. Future may bring happiness or unhappiness. However, we will always have the comfort of having made the right decision of ensuring we are free and hoping it leads to happiness.

Everydayness and the longing for the magical


It’s interesting how poets, writers, artists and philosophers have to go through their daily ablutions. They have to eat, drink, defecate and clean their bodies every now and then, actually, in fact on a regular basis. A writer may sit in a café for a few hours, churn out some of his best work and feel like he has been transported into a universe where words come alive and his characters are real, but as soon as his coffee finishes and the waiter presents the cheque, he is jolted into the same world he inhabited a couple of hours ago, a world that is very much his. The same world where he was born. The same world he started despising for its endless boredom and repetitious chores that drearily inhabit it.

However, that world is the only true reality he has got. The longing to step away from our everyday lives and get transported into a magical land is so strong that many of us give up little beauties blossoming all around us to chase a scene that doesn’t exist. We read a character sketch truly engrossing, or we watch a movie where lovers are kissing with the Eiffel tower at the backdrop and soft jazz playing melodically through the gentle cool breeze and we sigh and say, gosh this is lovely. Why is that scene lovely and why you watching a sitcom all alone, eating popcorn on a regular Wednesday evening not lovely?

I presume it’s because we’re overly familiar with ourselves. We are bored of being with ourselves. We are bored of our homes. We are bored of our offices. Our own life appears humdrum. But consider this. Imagine your very own life being cast into a movie, a beautiful, magical movie. A frame shows you arriving home, tired and jaded, and you meet your lovely life and instantly the frame zooms into that little glass trinket you have on your dining table, and guess what, the trinket is shining, cutting white light into millions of colors onto the table and the frame then shows the sun setting in the backdrop and probably a Beatles song is illuminating the whole scene. Won’t you find that magical? I do.

We usually miss a lot in our life. The longing to be somewhere else, to be with someone else, and to become someone wrenches our souls so much that we forget that we are someone else for someone out there. What we find as boring might be the most fascinating thing ever. Someone out there might be envying us right now.

The longing for the magical never ends. The longing never culminates. It’s temporary and constantly changing, but our very own world is permanent. Once you force yourself to come to terms with the reality that engulfs your life, our very own world becomes magical.

You are the lead character in a movie, the protagonist in a novel, the subject of an art piece, and you are immortal in your own life. Stay happy, spread bliss and enjoy the fuck out of your every day life!

I love you.

Please don’t let yourself get stereotyped. You’re infinite. You’re beautiful.


Expectations are interesting in forming one’s identity. As the CEO of an A/B testing software startup, I am expected to behave in a certain way. I am expected to be on Twitter (@paraschopra), constantly devouring and commenting on funding news on TechCrunch, participate in lean startup discussions, track and gossip on movements of Apple stock and debate on how India can have interesting startups as well. If I’m a cool CEO, I will be expected to hang out at places like Hacker News and Reddit. Within local startup community, I’m expected to frequent startup events and chat about latest and upcoming startups and things like what can be done to improve the “ecosystem”. All in all, the mere label of ‘CEO, software startup’ describes majority of who I am and how I spend my time.

Now, add an additional label like ‘A/B testing‘ or ‘marketing’ and you’d end up describing the remaining modicum amount of my identity. Most people defined by labels of similar fashion. Someone is an MBA grad from Harvard, and you’d guess what sort of person s/he must be. Someone is into fashion? Ah, s/he must be attending fancy parties. Someone is a journalist? Oh, must be an interesting person to talk to. Did you graduate from a design school? OK, so Where’s your portfolio?

I find it immensely demeaning to label people, and I consciously work hard not to judge people from such labels. So what if someone is a doctor, can’t s/he be playing in a death metal band during free time and weekends? Can’t startup CEOs have interest in Nihilism, digital evolution and comics, all at once? People can, and should, be much more than a few labels they get associated to.

Human identity is infinitely complex and fluid. I say complex because (even though most are afraid to do so) people can behave in unpredictable ways. I say fluid because the self can be changed at any point of time. A religious person can become an atheist once given the right exposure. (And I have seen people change drastically). In spite of this essentially indefinable human nature, we all use labels that conveniently abstract and compress information about people.

People don’t have to be something

We tend to label people because it is very convenient for us. If we see a person dressed in leather jacket and having pointy hair, we’d immediately call him or her a “Punk Rocker” and associate many other attributes automatically. However, this is demeaning to the individual being judged because s/he could be anything s/he wants to. S/he could be a punk rocker who is majoring in neuroscience. It’s OK to have incompatible tastes in life. That’s the fun of being a human.

You are actually a constantly evolving mix of numerous attributes. Your ideas, your aesthetic sense, your dressing style, your take on worldly issues, your interest in metaphysics, your liking for movies (and many other elements that compose you) are to be defined by you, and not a label. What society likes to do is to take one of your (major) attributes and simply extrapolate it to the other ones. It’s easier for them to see (or worse, expect) you behave in a specific sense. Would anyone care to hold megabits of information about you? They want an easy to understand label that fits their mental models so they could sleep well at night knowing that the world will behave in an orderly way, they way they expect it to behave.

But you don’t have to care. Don’t help the society stereotype yourself!

The proper functioning of the world is none of the business, especially if it comes at an expense of your freedom and your definition of your identity. However, interestingly, part of the problem of this stereotyping lies within us. And that’s because probably we’re the first ones to stereotype ourselves.

Many people in search for their identity end up hopeless and anxious, feeling they don’t know who they are and where they are placed in this universe. That moment of uncertainty is precisely when people fall into the trap of stereotyping themselves. They take a hard look at their (randomly stumbled) professions or passions and try to construct their identities around the way they’re expected to behave in such professions or passions.

Take for example an accountant who likes soccer. He has friends who are accountants who like soccer. He reads blogs and articles on accountants and their lives. Best practices. Tips. Tricks. And articles like 5 best vacations for accountants. He dresses formally in the morning, goes to office at 9 am, does minor chitchat with fellow accountant colleagues on lunch, comes to home at 5:30pm. On the weekends, he likes to watch soccer or go for movies. Life is easy, fun, simple but eventually the accountant gets bored and jaded and he wants to try something new and interesting (hey, sculpture sounds fun!), but unfortunately now it’s too late. He’s fully convinced that he’s an accountant and that means he’s not supposed to indulge in art.

As long as the accountant is happy with his life, I’m fine with the stereotype (after all, what else does one need from life if not happiness). However, I have major problem if this stereotype starts impacting the well-being of the person, once it starts crushing the freedom and potential of the person who merely happens to keep books for a company. The complex feedback loop of the society trying to stereotype the people who want to be stereotyped is quite apparent, but it need not be that way. If you’re an accountant (or an MBA grad or an investment banker or an artist), you don’t have to be necessarily defined by that label. You can be anything you want want and you need not take anyone’s approval to nicely fit into labels the society tries to apply to you.

Shock the goddamned society!

One easy way to not fall into trap of stereotyping is to actually keep people guessing who you are. In fact, by constantly changing and exhibiting varied interests and behaviors, you would actually be send a very clear message that you cannot be defined. (A fact that is essentially true for all humans.)

Go for scuba jumping when you’re 80. Have an obsession for human skulls. Love black lipsticks. Become a hipster, or don’t become one. Fantasize about working at a sweatshop, barely able to survive. Write boring poems. Admire villains. Be devoutly religious and research on particle physics (or, actually, maybe not). Do whatever the hell you like to do and do it often as society doesn’t take a lot of time to form opinions. Always push the boundaries of people’s expectations. If they think you’re normal, become weird. Once they start thinking you are weird, suddenly become normal. Shock the hell out of people and do it regularly! If for nothing else, please do it for the lulz (since nothing matters, all we want from life is a constant dose of lulz).

The point, of course, is not to be a contrarian for the coolness sake alone. Well, if you’re happy that way, fine. But it’s not cool to be a contrarian knowing you’re faking it and actually feel unhappy/pressured to keep up with that contrarian label that is now you. The point, however, is to be whatever you want to be, believe in whatever ideas you want to believe in and be as incompatible as you want to be without caring what the world thinks and how people may judge you.

As long as you’re happy, moral and indefinable, it should be fine.

So, do you promise to do at least one activity that is completely unexpected of you? I promise that the entire episode would be super enriching, maximally fun and you’d definitely thank me for hat! Did I just write hat? Which hat? Maybe I meant that. Or, maybe I didn’t.

Why time is not running out


I have a friend who thinks time is running out for her. I’m sure she’s not alone, a lot of people share that feeling; I definitely was one of those people who constantly worried that life isn’t moving ahead at a pace that I’d be proud of. Everyday before sleeping, I’d look back and wonder: ‘Gosh! Did I just create a presentation today? How would it help my career?‘. Then I’d have nagging thoughts such as these: ‘Oh god, I’m 25 and I haven’t experienced Sky Diving yet and I haven’t even learnt how to play a guitar.‘ Then when I read about revolutionaries, artists, writers, philosophers and scientists, I couldn’t help but think if I’m wasting my youth chasing money and creating software while I could be a guerrilla artist instead.

Is the clock ticking?

The what-I-could-be-doing-instead syndrome

Having a list of interests, goals and wishes is by no means bad. In fact, I have a list of things I’d want to do by the time I turn 30. However, such list merely serves as a gentle reminder of what I like to do rather than what I should be doing. If the only role your goals (or such lists) perform is to constantly make you feel worthless or unaccomplished, what’s the point of having such a list?

Why passage of time makes one worried?

On this fine Saturday late morning, for the past one hour, I have been sitting idle while drinking a cup of milk and listening to some dubstep and classic rock mix. Yes, I know, instead of this I could be making plans, pitching to a new customer, watching guitar lessons on Youtube, refining my book’s manuscript or doing a number of other activities to make “progress” in life. But here look at me, all I am doing is listening to some pretty good music, scribbling a few random thoughts and in general feeling immense joy. Should I feel guilty of not doing something worthwhile? Am I really “wasting” my time or is this life in its core essence?

Expensive watch, but still worried!

Eons ago I thought that one should feel guilty of not solving world’s greatest problems (Having re-read my post, I think I was — and, to a large extent, still am — inclined towards solving great problems because of the challenge and fun, but not because of any inherent value contained in solving such problems). Now I have come to believe that the passage of time makes one worried when an individual expects to do something great in her life but by sheer odds finds herself to be leading a pretty ordinary life. In fact, since the definition of great is always changing as one keeps achieving greatness, no matter what one does, there’s always something more to be done in life. So what if one is an accountant engaged in a standard 9-5 job? Isn’t it personal greatness as compared to millions who have to struggle daily to put food on their tables, let alone affording the luxury of going to school and graduating as an accountant?

Should I be mistaken, let me clarify my position. I’m all enthusiastic for great goals such as “one day I will travel the world or write a book or do my own startup or will take my startup to an IPO”. But if you feel worthless right now for not having made sufficient progress, consider that even after achieving these goals, you will keep on feeling like shit because by then your goals would have changed to something even greater. Once published, a mere book with your name as the author won’t satisfy. Now you would need to write a bestseller book! What if your book debuts as #2 on New York Times list but you still feel it isn’t as great as it could have been? Only if you had put in some more effort, it could have been #1. Or if your startup does IPO eventually, there’s always a company in the competition that is doing better than you! Isn’t it true?

You have to choose to be happy in spite of non-achievement (or achievement) of goals.

And since no matter what you do, there’s will always be something else you could be doing, key is to relax, go easy on yourself and just enjoy the phenomenon called life. (But don’t let this pressure to be happy actually make you unhappy! It’s OK if you are not happy today, there’s always a tomorrow.)

Life is awesome!

Why we actually have an infinite amount of time in life

Like myself, if you subscribe to the philosophy of Nihilism and consider that life is inherently meaningless, you should find this worry about time passing away dissolve pretty easily. Consider this truism that you didn’t exist before you were born and you will of course not exist after you die. You don’t observe time when you are non-existant. So, essentially, for you, whatever time you spend living is all the time available in the universe. To clarify, for example, if were unable to complete your assignment today and (god forbid), you die tomorrow, you won’t be there to notice the tomorrow and then of course the non-completion of your assignment wouldn’t bother you. Similar is the case with all of the life’s great goals. It’s nice if you achieve them but it’s totally fine if you were unable to do so as it really doesn’t matter after you die. Regrets people have on their death beds don’t matter to them once they die! They (and everyone else) should go easy with their lives because: a) they never really had much freedom to influence their lives; b) as long as they are happy now, the past doesn’t really matter and future won’t matter after their death.

Clocks and anxiety

In spite of all such rationalization, looking at a clock does make one anxious. At least for me, clocks generate anxiety to act. When I look at a clock and see that the time is 3 am, I immediately ask myself if I should be sleeping? Or, if it’s 9pm on a Saturday, shouldn’t I be out partying? Why am I wasting my life doing things? What else could I be doing right now that is best optimized for the current hour and day?

Run, clock, run!

It used to be like this until one fine day I decided to remove clocks from my home and disabled time on my MacBook Pro. If only my iPhone would let me disable showing time on homescreen, god knows I would do that in a jiffy. Instead of push-based time where photons reflecting from the clock constantly reminding me of passage of time, what I want time to be is pull-based. For example, if I’m bored, I type ‘time‘ into Google and know what time and day it is. I realize that running a software business with such idiosyncrasies doesn’t take one far but I rely on reminders to tell me if I have a meeting or a commitment rather than regularly looking at time and then wondering if I have a meeting. Pull-based methods let one be in control of time rather than time controlling one’s life and activities.

Conclusion: it all boils down to happiness (as always!)

I believe that the only thing a person can reasonably aim for is to be happy. If you buy that theory, it makes absolutely no difference to what you are doing as long as it makes you happy (ideally, while staying within the bounds of morality and not impinging on others). So the feeling of time running out is nonsense because it relies on an assumption that future will be happier than the present, but ironically the only people who worry about time running out are the well-to-do ones (have you ever stumbled across a poor chap who’s worried about this?) and for them happiness does always remain in future! (Side note: I really like a phrase and it goes something like this: “Future is the source of all worries!”)

LOL :)

Don’t complain, relax, listen to some french jazz and maybe sip a glass of wine too. Trust me, there’s nothing better you could be doing right now!

Free will, facticity and their (not-so) surprising consequences


Most of us tend to take our world and its inhabitants for granted and we tend not to put a lot of thought into what is what. For example, while growing up as a child, as soon as we become aware of the world and our surroundings, we are told that people are either good or bad. In our adolescence, our categories become a little more well defined. Depending on our inclination (and here’s the key, as you will see later) we may either regard children who do well at studies as good kids, or we may instead idolize cool kids who bunk classes and have fun all the time. So early in our life, what makes us fall into one group and not the other?

this way, that way

Growing still more, we may happen to find ourselves good at a specific activity. Some can tell extremely funny jokes, others can play piano, some excel at tennis, while others may score fantastic grades and secure admission at a top-notch university. Fast-forward a few years, and we stumble across something called career. Then it suddenly dawns to us that people we grew up with would end up with so much different lives and careers. How did this happen?

If you are an investment banker earning a million dollars a year while your kindergarten buddy is now a carpenter, should you feel pride? Or should you feel wonderment about what’s so special about you that you deserve making a million bucks? Wait, do you really deserve it?

What is facticity?

Quoting Wikipedia’s article on facticity:

In the works of Sartre and de Beauvoir, facticity signifies all of the concrete details against the background of which human freedom exists and is limited.

And here’s an alternative definition:

Heidegger discusses facticity as the thrownness (Geworfenheit) of individual existence, which is to say we are “thrown into the world.”

The way I like to see facticity is the influence our world exerts on us without our consent. There are multiple ways to analyze this effect. An obvious one is congenital or genetic influences and disorders. For example, if a person happens to have born blind, that condition is a fact and it is something he hasn’t chosen for himself. He just happened to find himself blind. What this also means is that people with normal vision should not feel superior or pride over blind people (but of course feel extremely lucky) because normal vision at birth is not something they have chosen. They were simply given this trait. The same goes for other attributes of body like beauty or fairness. As a beautiful person, one may get privileged treatment at work or in society (thank you, evolution!), but it would be a silly mistake to think you deserve all that. Or even worse, the assumption that other mediocre looking (and hideous) people are inferior in some sense. They’re not since they happened to find themselves with a particular face.

Unexpected meeting

Facticity goes even further than mere influences at birth. Do you remember how you become friends with that particular person you call now your best friend? Chances are that you just happened to sit with him or her on your first day at school or college. You didn’t survey all the people in your class or college or locality before zeroing into your best friend. As they say, it just happened. Again, there’s nothing to be proud about having that particular person as your best friend.

Influence of genetics

Intelligence, personality, predisposition to commit murder, love for a particular genre in art and literature and (heck!) even preferences for financial investment schemes have been demonstrated to have genetic influences. The field of behavioral genetics is littered with examples of how much influence our genes exert on our behavior. And fortunately (or unfortunately) our genes is not something we choose — we just happen to find ourselves with a particular set of genes.

Genetics

This of course does not mean that genes dictate our behavior. Genes merely predispose us to certain types of behavior. How we eventually turn out is a curious mix of our genetic predispositions and facticity (influence of independent events happening around us).

What all does this have to do with free will?

Given who we are is solely determined by our genetic predispositions and our historic interaction with the environment we happened to find ourselves in, we must admit that free will as we know it does not exist. Sam Harris has written an excellent book justifying my stance (it is just 96 pages, so go read it!), but allow me to put forward a simple scenario showing why I agree with him.

Let’s imagine you are given a very simple choice:

There are two pills that taste the same but differ in color. One is red colored, and the other one is blue colored. You can only pick one candy, which one would you pick?

Not exactly candies, but whatever!

OK, so my question is just another way of asking what’s your favorite color but it is nevertheless an important question on the subject of free will. Imagine you pick the red candy and I ask you why did you pick the red candy. Here are all possible responses you could give:

  • I just picked a color at random, and it happened to be red
  • I like red color (or alternatively, I hate blue color)

There are two levels of apparent free will here. First you decided whether you will choose to prefer one color over the other. If so, you decided which color you prefer. The first choice between picking at random v/s picking preferred color really depends on whether you have a preferred color or not.

If you never cared about colors, that could be due to several reasons:

  • You are blind, or
  • You are red-blue color blind, or
  • You genuinely don’t care about colors or your preferences of them

The first two cases are easily explained and it is obvious how physical conditions limit the exercise of free will. But the third case of indifference is interesting. Why would anyone be indifferent towards colors? The same question is actually applicable to choice of a particular color: What is the basis of choosing any color at random v/s choosing red v/s choosing blue?

xkcd-pill

There could be several answers to this question:

  • I like blue color because it soothes and pleases me. This effect is not something you have chosen, the blue color just happens to create a calming effect for you, and that’s that. If you can calm yourself by free will, why do you need blue color? There may be a genetic predisposition for you to like blue color.
  • I like red color because I like sunsets or my whole neighborhood is full of red buildings and I have caught fancy of the color. . Again, this effect is not something you have chosen by free will, rather you happen to live in an environment which led to you to like red color. (There is definitely a genetic predisposition here too)
  • I just don’t care about the color because I’m depressed and this trivial exercise interests me the least. The mental state of mind is not something you choose. If you are depressed, you are depressed because of factors outside your control (genetic and environmental). Again no free will here.

If the only difficult answer to tackle seems to be I chose XYZ because I like it and I’m free to exercise my free will. If you think carefully, this answer is superficial. When asked to justify the choice, the buck stops at irrational preferences. No matter how vacuous, I-just-like-this answer does seem to hint at presence of free will. But science disagrees with this viewpoint. Assuming the I here is the I you feel conscious about, research shows that our brain makes a decision hundreds of milliseconds before we become conscious of it. Our brain then plays a neat trick of convincing us that it was a decision made out of free will. (Why it creates that illusion is probably due to evolutionary survival reasons, or it is a result of evolution of consciousness).

The famous Libet experiment

scumbag-brain

Benjamin Libet did the pioneering experiment in this field (neuroscience of free will) where “he asked each subject to choose a random moment to flick their wrist while he measured the associated activity in their brain”. And what Libet found was that “the unconscious brain activity leading up to the conscious decision by the subject to flick his or her wrist began approximately half a second before the subject consciously felt that she had decided to move.” What this means is simple: even though we feel we have made a decision out of free will, it has already been made on our behalf by our brain.

Important conclusion: free will is nothing but an illusion.

But does this mean our lives are pre-determined?

No. Even though free will does not exist, people, ideas and thoughts do exist and change our lives in a very real sense. Due to involvement of seemingly infinite variables in our environment, our future is largely un deterministic. (At atomic level, I don’t know if universe is deterministic or not, but at human level it definitely is not). I have previously blogged about this in my post titled Luck, Randomness and Success. However , recently I have realized there’s a nice metaphor about how I think about our lives and choices we make. Here is how it goes:

I like to see everyone’s life as a unique trajectory in the space-time. When a person is born, he or she is put on a unique trajectory (because of his or her unique genetic, economic, societal and cultural conditions). Unknown to the person, every passing second, his or her trajectory is changed every time s/he encounters a new person or an idea. He or she changes other people’s trajectories by his/her thoughts and actions, and other people change his/her trajectories by their actions. It’s a complex interaction that makes lives non-deterministic, but without involvement of any sort of free will. Some trajectories are pleasing (an individual is happy, moral, etc.), some trajectories are not pleasing (unhappy, poor, criminal) but since nobody chooses a particular trajectory, nobody should be appreciated or blamed for having a particular trajectory in life.

calvin-fatalism

This very post is trying to change your trajectory in life and I cannot claim to have written the post out of free will. I happened to have read books on science, then neuroscience, then philosophy and I happened to have a father who is interested in all this and probably passed his “rationalism-preference” genes and has definitely passed his books to me. One thing led to the other and I happened to hold these particular set of beliefs on free will. Most importantly, I happened to find a block of time on a very fine Sunday evening to write about it and was not in a mood to watch a movie or TV. It just happened, but that’s not to say the idea of free will not existing is not potent. The idea has real power to change your views and ideas. That’s how potent it is, and that’s why I’m writing about it.

Consequences of (lack of) free will and facticity

If we accept lack of free will, we must stop (serious) attribution of consequences of actions to individual people. Yes, that is a radical statement but that is what it is if we accept the obvious conclusions. While doing a certain act, if the person couldn’t have done any different, why would you attribute any consequences of that act to him or her? I’m all game for spreading happiness and pleasure in the world, but when it comes to punishing, berating, or generally bad-mouthing particular people or particular types of people, we must remember that the physical or emotional pain is felt by an individual who happens to be like that and there’s nothing they could have done about it. Pain is felt for real, and it hurts.

dilbert-free-will

The lack of free will also brings about other interesting consequences:

  • The word pride or achievement is vacuous, and should perhaps not be used. If you happen to be an investment banker earning a million dollars annually and you feel you deserve it because you were born in a poor family and even then you paid yourself throughout college by waiting tables, you must remember that it is because of the unique trajectory you happened to find yourself on. Maybe you decided to enter the university because your neighborhood kid made it to a good college despite similar economic background? And then maybe your rational decision to mimic that neighborhood kid is due to your previous experiences of mimicking the right things and achieving rewards? I can go on and on and on ad infinitum but the key point is that you shouldn’t feel proud. In hindsight, you couldn’t have done otherwise.
  • Attack ideas not individuals. A common mistake that atheists make is that they criticize religious people. Remember that there’s no point attributing choice of religion or adoption of God to a person. Rather, our aim should be to expose religious people to rational ideas that prove there is no God. Why criticize religious fundamentalists? Attack their ideas instead.
  • Capital punishment, really? As I hinted above, any sort of punishment to an individual is wrong. The pain felt by that individual is real and it’s terrible especially when the individual couldn’t have committed a crime out of free will (because it does not exist). If a murderer does it due to lack of morals or due to economic pressures, it is not his or her fault. And if an individual does crime for pleasure or if his/her brain is wired that way, again that is not something he has chosen. I do see the point of punishment as an idea that deflects people from trajectories of crime, but the pain accompanied with punishment of any sort by society or state to an individual is simply cruel. There must be better ideas of fixing crime. Maybe create a moral society, cure mental disorders or just have a better economy?

Summary

calvin-free-will

Free will does not exist and if there’s a summary to the whole post, it is this: do not attribute consequences of actions to an individual, but by all means attribute them to ideas and thoughts because they influence individuals.

Edit: corrected the spelling of facticity. Thanks Hacker News.

For startups: how to deal with large enterprise customers


When I started Visual Website Optimizer, my sole focus was on selling to small to medium businesses (SMB). However, since last two years, we started getting interest from a lot of enterprise prospects. Of course, if a Fortune 500 company contacts your fledgling startup showing interest to purchase your product, you will be very excited about this mini-validation of your product. However, dealing with large enterprises is a different beast altogether. They don’t work like your rest of your customers and selling them is very different ballgame. So, before opening the champagne bottle to celebrate, you should keep some key points in mind.

How big boys make a purchasing decision

Hell yeah, I'm enterprise!

The single most important point is that most enterprises take ages to make a purchasing decision. They will contact you today, you will happily reply asking if they want a demo/meeting and then they will become radio silent. After days or weeks, they will reply and probably schedule for a call to discuss your product. Sometimes this call is scheduled for the same week but sometimes those big boys can schedule a call 3-6 months ahead (yep, this has happened to us!). The key point to note is that enterprises can be slow in responding (even after showing initial interest) but that shouldn’t make you give up. Use a CRM, follow up regularly and you should be fine.

Assuming you finally get a time for the initial meeting and they are impressed, they will probably ask for a trial or pilot. But, again, no matter how much effort you put into putting together this pilot project proposal, they will remain radio silent for a while until they suddenly get back to you asking for another meeting with their IT team.

Enter the IT team: why and how?

Sorry, you are screwed

You must remember that in enterprises it is never an individual that makes a purchase decision (especially if the deal size is >$1000/month). There are committees, managers and bureaucracies that you need to overcome. Once a specific group (say marketing department, in our case) shows interest and agrees to proceed with the trial/pilot, the IT department gets involved to ascertain everything is okay with your technology and it won’t conflict with their environment. Usually this phase is the quickest but sometimes IT department can raise some special requirements that your generic product may not be able to satisfy. (For example, one such requirement for us was the restriction on number of cookies we can set.). These special requirements may sometimes become a deal-breaker because if the IT says no to a pilot, it doesn’t happen, no matter how motivated other departments are. If you sell sales automation and the sales department is super-excited about it, the deal can still fall through if the IT says no.

However, assuming your product is indeed good, in most cases you will sail through these barrage of questions from IT. This will lead you to a live trial/pilot implementation.

Step towards success: implementing a trial / pilot for the enterprise customer

Hope it flies

Whatever time you budget, the trial takes twice as much time. Big enterprise always have that unknown contingency lurking in the dark. Sometimes their systems aren’t ready, or they don’t have approvals, or the key people are on vacations. Since large enterprises treat trials and pilots as seriously as final implementations, you would need to make a significant investment of your time and effort to get it done. Just like in sales, where you should always be closing, during the trial too, you should always keep trying to get the customer start using it. By themselves, enterprises may get really, really slow at implementing or using pilots/trials.

Procurement: why do they exist?

Puhleez?

Once your trial is completed, and the target customer (which may be an individual or a specific department within the big enterprise) wants to go ahead with your product, there are two ways the final purchase that can happen. If the sale price is low, say less than $1000, an individual generally can make the purchase on his/her personal card and later claim it as an expense from the company. However, if the sale price is high, individuals or departments do not have budgets for it and they have to involve a special kind of department with a very boring name called Procurement Department.

I imagine people working in the procurement departments have a funny job because things they are asked to purchase is not the things they end up using themselves. So you would find that the final stage of selling to an enterprise involves procurement department asking you for a quote and scope of services. Most procurement departments also innocently ask for discount, as if it is a requirement to do the sale. Under no circumstances you should offer any kind of discount to the procurement department because they have absolutely no influence on the purchasing decision. They are just there to facilitate the purchase. So simply tell them that you are not offering any discount, and if they ask for reasons tell them that it is a company policy.

Lawyers and Terms & Conditions

Lawyers, the cute kind

If the procurement department okays your big ticket purchase, don’t get impatient and still don’t open the champagne bottle. When lawyers get involved, the whole initiative can get derailed because of that one specific word you have in your terms. For SaaS and software products, the terms and conditions are generally standard for all the customers. (For example, terms and privacy policy for Visual Website Optimizer is public). However, some large enterprises would have their own “vendor terms” which would be completely different from your standard terms. Now, should you sign a custom terms document with each of the big enterprise customers? Unless you are prepared, I wouldn’t recommend that as it can become a big hassle in the long term. Even if the sale price is high enough to justify detailed negotiations on the terms and conditions, you should always get your lawyer involved. Don’t try to negotiate the legalese yourself because remember you are startup, and the other company is an enterprise. They have a large army of lawyers, you have.. well, only yourself. (Also remember that if your startup raises funding or gets involved in an acquisition, all the documents get scrutinized at the due diligence stage. So don’t sign the “standard” vendor terms document supplied by the enterprise just because it looks harmless)

Closing Thoughts

Sales promises haunt eventually

Selling to enterprises can be fun and for a young company, it is definitely a big achievement. However, following miscellaneous points should still be noted:

  • SLAs (service level agreements): even if you do not guarantee anything to majority of your customers, enterprises would typically demand very specific SLAs for customer support and software uptime. Before promising, make sure you have resources and capabilities to honor that. Do not commit to an SLA just because the sale price is high.
  • Phone Support: enterprises also typically demand phone support. If you are a small startup and founders do support, make sure you are capable of providing phone support even when you are in a meeting, having lunch or partying outside. Phone support is a big commitment, so only make it if you are ready to handle regular calls (because enterprises do love to call for even the tiniest of issues).
  • Discounts: do not give discounts to enterprises. They value the solutions they use and cost is almost always a secondary factor for them. (This is also a big reason to have flexible pricing for enterprises so that a Fortune 500 company pays in thousands of dollars, not $15 that is your standard plan.)
  • Ask for their logo or case study: if you must provide a discount or an additional feature or service, ask them if you can use them as a case study or at least put their logo on your customers page or get a testimonial from them. Always do barter, never provide discounts for free.

Hope you liked this short primer I wrote (based on my experience of selling Visual Website Optimizer to large enterprise customers such as Microsoft, AMD, Economist, GE, etc.) In case you have any specific questions about enterprise selling, please leave a comment. I will be happy to help!

Good luck with your first thousand dollar sale (: