Archive for 2011
All of us chase after success. For majority of us, success means achieving more in life. A better car, a bigger house, a promotion at job or a fancy watch. This particular definition of success pertains to what I call as professional success. Most of the stars, sports people, top shot CEOs and other celebrities that you know are at pinnacle of their professional success. They probably worked very hard to achieve what they have today and are also probably very proud of it. So far, so good.
But, there is another aspect of success. I call it personal success. If you compare two people: one movie star and another middle class office goer, do you really think movie star is more happy than the office goer? Deep inside they both have same happiness scale. In fact, for all the possessions and fame that a movie star has got, he may be actually not as happy as the regular office goer who gets to see his family every day and spend quality time with them. Regular Joe is happy as hell, why should he be ashamed of not being a movie star?
So, personal success is a different ball game altogether. It is completely independent of professional success you have got. In fact, I value personal success much more as compared to professional success. Reason for that is because personal success is much easily achievable. You all have a choice to spend quality time with your friends and family and live a rich and happy life. But, sadly, many of choose to chase professional success like mad people (rats). We work endlessly to achieve the elusive “professional success”, odds of achieving which is very less (just compare number of celebrities out there v/s total population on Earth).
So, given you can be happy with your personal life right now, why would you work non-stop and sacrifice personal life for some professional success. Why should it even matter that you could not become Sachin Tendulkar, Bill Gates, Lady Gaga or Tom Cruise? Just because they are at pinnacle of their professional careers, do you think they more happy than you? I doubt and I am pretty convinced.
I’m probably too young to be writing on this topic but observing countless souls distressed by daily life made me think hard on what is that really matters in life. Undoubtedly, there are happy and sad phases and that’s part-and-parcel of life. But what I’m really bothered about is general, daily bitching about how miserable one’s life has become. You find people complaining about work, commute, relationships, other people’s attitudes & personalities, neighbor’s barking dog, lack of parking space, and, heck, some people also feel stressed about how they are unable to install latest iPhone update. Yes, I’m concerned about those people. Are these things really worth stressing about? Allow me to analyze.
What doesn’t matter in life
Let’s start off by observing what doesn’t matter in life and why. Life would be much better and satisfying if everyone could do away with (or at least de-prioritizes following) two aspects:
- Material possessions: countless sages have professed it and I completely with them that material possessions are source of most of the stress we face in our daily lives. Modern technology (and compulsion to keep up with it) only makes it much worse. Your car radiator broke down, your phone screen got a crack, you are unable to install USB drivers, or your expensive massage chair needs maintenance. Possessions end up taking over your daily life and you don’t even realize that. Wouldn’t you be much happier and free if you need not bother about constant purchasing, maintaining and discarding of possessions? I’m not advocating complete asceticism but my point here is that it is OK to be still using Windows 98. It is OK to travel by bus or taxi, and not having that fancy car. It is even OK if you don’t posses a phone (or if you have poor network provider, like mine — MTNL). It is OK to be like a free bird without any heavy baggage of material possessions.
- Ego: the number 1 stress factor you have in your life is no-one but you. The compulsive drive to prove yourself right (and others wrong), the obsession with (financially) outdoing your peers, neighbors & friends, the depression about how you couldn’t score 100% in math exam, the fights over how the wall is painted with the wrong shade of blue, and anger over how a friend misplaced your favorite book. Source of tension and stress in all these situations is not society or the other person you are fighting with, but it is you. In long run, do these little ego fights really matter? Are you enriching your life by these ego fights where either you or someone else ends up feeling bad? Wouldn’t it be much better for all if you started giving less importance to yourself? Maybe it is hard, but just try living a day making yourself unimportant and your life will be much more satisfying (as you can kick your ego aside and you can focus on what really matters in life — see below).
What matters in life
I have observed that following two aspects enrich one’s life and makes it worth living. What are these two things that matter in life?
- Experiences: seeking out new experiences in life is one of the best ways to be alive. Experiences excite, teach and rejuvenate you. Unlike material possessions, the memories, stories and photographs of these experiences will never fade away and certainly don’t require an upkeep. Have you ever thought of travelling the world? If not, do it! (Budget’s not a constraint). Learn a new language. Go bungee jumping. Do hitch-hiking. Start a new charity organization. Try new, exotic cuisines. There are literally millions of different types of experiences that you can seep in and most don’t take bagful of money. Usually, under false pretense of being busy in daily humdrum, it is your ego that prevents you from exposing yourself to different types of experiences, and hence doesn’t let you mature you as a person and live life to its fullest. The best part about these experiences is that you get to meet many interesting people, some of whom can also become lifelong friends and partners. This brings us to next point.
- Relationships: treasuring and maintaing relationships you have with your parents, friends, siblings, spouses, children and even neighbours is one of the most satisfying aspects of life. Humans need other humans in order to stay sane and to derive joy out of life. A loner can easily drive himself crazy. But, unfortunately, due to ego, sometimes we are rash with these relationships and end up hurting people. Even ignoring people can lead to isolation or broken relationships and that’s why it is important to realize that the relationships you have with other people are much more important than yourself (this realization is for your own sake and happiness, since you depend on other people. Try living completely alone!). Doesn’t joy and happiness become real only if you have other people to share it with? Can you be happy all by yourself? Nope! So, leave your ego aside and try to strengthen the relationships you have. When you come back from a trip to Caribbean, make sure you have someone to share your experiences with (and no, I don’t mean your Facebook friends)!
As usual, comments welcome!
I am happy to announce that we got nominated for not one, but two prestigious awards. The first one is Red Herring Asia 100, where they choose 100 companies from all over Asia who have potential to make it big. The other nomination is for NASSCOM Emerge 50 which choses 50 emerging companies from India in the IT field.
Red Herring is a widely recognized brand famous for spotting Microsoft during their infancy. On the other hand, NASSCOM is India’s top association of IT industry and is highly regarded for building India’s brand for IT services. I feel lucky to be nominated for these awards. The whole Wingify team (see below, yes we’re 8 people now) deserves to be recognized:
Please wish us luck for these awards. We have our fingers crossed!
This post is a slight, but important, detour from my usual posts about startups. Today, I watched the documentary Zeitgeist: moving forward. Even though I may not fully agree with the proposed solution, the problems and current flaws of free markets are very real and left a deep impression on me. If you care about the world, do watch the movie once. Here’s what the movie proposes:
Abolishment of money. Collapse of mindless consumption and materialism. End of profit-maximization at nature’s expense.
We humans are too narrow minded to comprehend the fact that the current system isn’t sustainable. The false hope that free markets will eventually take care of us all is a myth. Have they taken care of hungry, dying children in Africa? Have they taken care of species on brink of extinction? Do they really believe Earth’s resources and oil is endless?
But free markets are getting bailed out. Trillions of dollars spent on bailing them out can be spent curing poverty and hunger, but who will do that? Government officials take a narrow view of their 4 or 5 year term.
Who will think ahead and see if the current system of free-markets, consumption and wastage is sustainable till, say, 2050? If we don’t act today to stop the stupidity, who will?
Sadly, there may not be a tomorrow if we don’t act.
3 days ago our company Twitter account @wingify got suspended. See the screenshot below:
It’s sad to see our account being suspended for no good reason (they did not even bother to send us an email). I have gone through their rules and firmly believe we haven’t broken any. We don’t spam, we don’t abuse, we don’t use any bots. We only use Twitter to communicate with our customers and tweet about articles on A/B testing and landing page optimization. Then, why the hell did our account get suspended? The saddest part of the whole episode is that their support hasn’t responded for 3 days. We have emailed, created tickets, tweeted from other accounts but no avail. Beware: Twitter can suspend your legitimate account, not provide any reason and then not respond to your support queries.
What’s embarrassing is that our customers and users are asking what’s up. See this tweet (apparently Twitter is still recommending @wingify as a user to follow):
Now, what could we possibly reply to this? That on Internet, you are at mercy of private organizations?
Many startups face problem of breaking the clutter. Nobody per se cares about your startup. They have their own busy lives and your startup is probably just another website they visited today. Making people notice and care about your product is perhaps the toughest challenge a startup faces. The challenge becomes even more difficult if you are a bootstrapped startup or are unwilling to spend thousands of dollars on press, paid advertising or sponsorships. So, what are the best ways to market your startup without spending any money?
Build a following by producing irresistible content
My primary marketing technique has been producing great content and then simply trying to spread that content. I write extensively about A/B testing and post it at a lot of places and that is what drives a lot of signups for our product. Some of the blockbuster guest posts I did are driving visits and signups even to this day (even months after of originally writing those articles).
Halo effect: how your startup gets marketed along side your content
In the content I produce, I don’t explicitly write about Visual Website Optimizer. People would only come to know about the product if they read the author bio. But that’s the best part: if you write good content, people will be naturally curious to read who wrote it and when they read about that, they will remember your startup. The key is to produce absolutely irresistible content that people cannot help but say “Wow, this is fantastic. Wonder who wrote it“. This is a big challenge but it is imperative that you invest time and effort into coming up with great content.
Multi-pronged approach: occupy mindshare of your market through multiple channels
Your prospective customers usually hang out at similar places, they read similar blogs and they talk with each other online or offline. in fact, people that share common needs and talk with each other regarding that is the definition of a market.
When you initially produce a piece of content, some people notice your startup. If you produce some more content and push it via a different channel and some more people notice (and among them some of them are the ones who noticed you previously). If you do this enough number of times, eventually you start occupying a mindshare of your target customer base and people start remembering your startup as one of the key solutions in the market. And lo and behold, you have successfully occupied a slice of your market’s collective mindshare. That’s what marketing does and you did that without investing any money (or at least not a lot of money in direct terms).
As a bootstrapped founder, you have time but not money. If you use that time writing and spreading good content, that will be one of the best early stage investments you can make.
The key is to keep reminding your market that you are alive and kicking by constantly publishing great content from various different channels. These channels can be:
- Twitter and Facebook: share relevant industry updates and re-tweet most interesting articles (relevant to your industry). Become an indespensible source of information.
- Blog: use blog not to promote your product but to talk about industry and teach best-practices, publish customer case studies, etc. In short, use blog to teach your readers something that they didn’t know.
- Guest Blogging: seek widely read sources in your industry and contribute good content. (Don’t talk about your product or your guest posts won’t get accepted)
How to produce good content?
Now, that is the hardest part as it depends a lot on creativity. However, to give you a few broad themes on what has worked for us, here’s a short list:
- Writing in-depth articles (with lots of images) such as this and this
- Posting interviews and guest posts on our blog (from industry experts)
- Releasing free tools (such as A/B testing duration calculator)
- Doing a webinar with a complementary startup in same industry
- Making an infographic (we are yet to explore this tactic, but it works wonderfully)
- Crunching/compiling statistics and releasing them (people LOVE reading about statistics)
As a new startup, how do you promote your great content?
Producing great content is not the only thing you need to do; you need to promote that content too. Initially, when you have no readership, no followers or no fans — how do you get your content out to millions of eyeballs? For promoting Visual Website Optimizer, there are various methods I used, some of them are below:
- Reach out to industry influencers and ask them what they think of your article (they will tweet it, if they find it useful)
- Promote it on industry specific forums and communities (every industry has lots of forums online. You should go there and promote your content)
- Promote it on general social communities where influencers may hang out (such as Hacker News, Reddit, etc.)
Contacting people and asking them to promote your content if they like it is perhaps the easiest way to seed your initial readership. People are generally very nice. Just try emailing 10 industry experts today with a link to one of your contents and see how many of them reply.
Slowly, once you achieve a sizable number of readership, every new piece of content that you publish will be guaranteed to be seen by a number of individuals (who will share that content with their own readers/followers). So, it snowballs and your readership increases over time (given you keep producing great content, which is a hard job in itself). Each additional eyeball becomes easier to acquire. That’s the beauty of building a following.
Summary: produce great content, build a following and your startup gets promoted as a side-effect
I would love to hear about which tactics have worked for your startup so that I can update my list above. Please leave a comment below on what you think about this post or if you have anything to add.
Yesterday, my startup hit a significant milestone: 10,000 total accounts (trial + paid). And last month marked one year anniversary of launching paid plans for Visual Website Optimizer. I think it is a good time to reflect what it means to me and the business.
Needless to say, I am very happy that we can boast of a small, smart team and big brand customers like Microsoft, Groupon and AMD. However, when I think about it — I was much more excited (and happier) about first 10 paying customers than 10 new paying customers now. Back then when I was launching it, there was an unknown territory to explore and I was a warrior ready to battle the unknown.
Questions and Euphoria
Whether it would work? Or, whether I would need to get a job? I still distinctly remember getting the first paid order and delirium it had caused. Even though I had read almost all essays of Paul Graham and absorbed myself into startup world (perhaps) bit too much, the realization that someone was ready to pay for my hacks was an incredible feeling. Then, within first month of launching paid plans, when the revenue surpassed four times my previous market salary, I was ecstatic. Who could have guessed that? The coverage on blogs, feedback from customers, demoing and closing Fortune 500 customers like Microsoft, 10% revenue growth every month, scaling beyond one 512 MB VPS (now we have 30 servers!). It was all new for me; it was exciting! I loved it.
It can be done!
Since then, inside me, a thought has been taking life of its own. The thought is an incredibly powerful one; the main essence is: it can be done! Today scaling servers, coverage on a major blog, additional customers and many other aspects doesn’t give the same kick like they used to give me. And, I guess, that’s because the question that I set on to answer via a startup has been answered (to a certain extent — of course, I know tomorrow is unknown). Paul Graham’s essays were theory to me, but Visual Website Optimizer is a practical. The initial euphoria of a startup was because it was a sudden transformation for me: from having a regular job to making (unpredictable and scalable) amount of money even while I am sleeping. Now, I guess, the theoretical question has been answered: it can be done! (And, apparently, it can be done by anyone — no special skills needed.)
Well, what’ s next best logical step for my startup? Of course, team will grow, product development wil keep happening (in fact, we are launching a new interface next week) and we may even introduce new products (have exciting ideas – wink, wink). But the theoretical question has been answered and a certain level of satisfaction has set in. What can be the next level of kick for my sweet-little startup? Perhaps doing something that requires another leap of faith and pushes us into the unknown.
We had a horrible experience with Airtel, our Internet provider, today. Our Internet line hasn’t been working since morning, I registered a complaint and was promised it would be fixed by 6:30 pm in the evening. The time passed and when I checked the complaint status, it was marked closed. Asked for an explanation, a customer service representative put me on hold for — drumroll, please — full 15 minutes before I gave up. Their IVRS system is impossible to navigate and you are actually asked to dial a gazzilion numbers before. Internet is full of complaints about Airtel and they recently ranked as worst customer service company in India. I’m surprised how the highly paid bosses don’t realize this or don’t do anything to do this. Baffled, surprised and makes me punch myself.
Sadly, Airtel is not an exception. Many large companies have impossible customer service processes. What’s even more sad is that this poor customer service experience has become a norm and there are even funny (but true) comics based on this reality. Why can’t be world full of Zappos like companies who believe in delighting the customers?
Customer service is not cost of sales
I think the primary reason for endemic poor customer service is because management typically includes it under the cost of sales head. Unfortunately, cost of sales is something organizations see as an unwelcome item on their balance sheet. They want to reduce it or better still eliminate it completely. Having more staff in customer service centers means more cost, so they come up with (unintelligent and ultimately frustrating) ways to automate the customer service. They fail at this automation miserably and end up annoying the customers. All this is because customer service is seen as cost of sales, which is wrong in my opinion.
Customer service is marketing expense
Ironically, just because poor customer service is endemic, a company can get huge competitive advantage just by having a good customer service. Each customer service interaction leads to either a happy-and-satisfied customer or a frustrated-and-angry customer. Research shows that buying decisions are heavily influenced by peers, friends and family. Advertisements and marketing just creates awareness. It’s ultimately the recommendations that cause people to purchase stuff. And guess what drives recommendations? Product quality and features is one part. The other big part is customer service. No frustrated customer will EVER recommend a service, no matter how many features you cram into it or no matter if you run never ending national TV advertisements.
The right way to look at customer service is to see it as a form of marketing expense. If every customer service interaction creates a happy customer, it should be seen as an alternative to advertising or marketing. In fact, even if most organizations spend even 10% of their billions of dollars of advertisement budget on customer service, world will be a much better place.
Humble plea: if any of the big bosses are reading this post, please do your bit to make the organization embrace customer service!
- Raises VC or angel capital
- Aggressive hockey-stick like growth
- Laser focused on an “exit-event” (acquisition, IPO, etc.)
- Focus on revenue (not profits) or other growth metrics
- Bootstrapped of Self-funded
- Slow growth or no growth at all
- No exit strategy per se as the business is part of founders’ lifestyles
- Focus on profits at all times (as they don’t have external capital)
With Visual Website Optimizer, many people have asked me to clarify whether it’s a growth business or a lifestyle business. I’m always baffled with this question because these two categories seem narrow and I don’t see my startup getting pigeon-holed into one of them. It is true that we haven’t yet raised any VC or angel funding. But does it really disqualify us from being a growth business? What if I tell you that our revenues (and profits) have been growing by 10-15% every month. We are actively hiring but we’re not in a rush to expand the team aggressively (sacrificing quality). We’re happy with the slow but quality growth in team and product features. Does it make us a lifestyle business?
Why should there be a difference at all?
Why can’t a business qualify both categories: lifestyle and growth? Growth businesses typically take years before an exit event happens (if at all). What does the founding team do during that time? Raise multiple rounds of funding to stay afloat hoping to find the elusive exit event. Wouldn’t it be much better if a business has profit mindset of a lifestyle business but an ambition to become a large company like a growth business?
I don’t see any incompatibility between these two ambitions and in fact most great non-Internet businesses had started that way (McDonald’s, Walmart, etc). These companies became behemoths not in 5-10 years but over course of many years while always keeping profitability in mind. You wouldn’t call McDonald’s as a lifestyle business, would you? With most Internet and technology startups, there is such a rush to grow big at expense of profitability. Why can’t it be a slow but steady growth over a period of many years?