Hello Tomorrow

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If, in the year 1411, you had been able to circumnavigate the globe, you would probably have been most impressed by the quality of life in Oriental civilizations. The Forbidden City was under construction in Ming Beijing, while work had begun on reopening and improving the Grand Canal; in the Near East, the Ottomans were closing in on Constantinople, which they would finally capture in 1453.

By contrast, Western Europe in 1411 would have struck you as a miserable backwater, recuperating from the ravages of the Black Death – which had reduced population by as much as half as it swept eastwards between 1347 and 1351 – and still plagued by bad sanitation and seemingly incessant war.  The Anglo-French Hundred Years’ War was just about to resume.

Much of what is USA today was wilderness inhabited by the tribes who came to be known as the ‘Indians’.

By the end of your world tour, the notion that the West might come to dominate the Rest for most of the next half-millennium would have come to seem wildly fanciful.

One of the primary reasons this became possible was because of Western Exploration. During the next 300 years, the European explorers set out to explore every corner of the earth and in the process augmented their knowledge. China and the rest of Asia was averse to sea-faring and did not voyage beyond their own domains. Exploration led to great riches and this pushed the western civilisation forward, far ahead of the east.

If we were to look at the equivalent for western exploration in this day and age, it is research. Our knowledge expands as a result of research and application of this research, results in innovation. Innovation that has the potential to change human lives.

Much of the scientific development that humankind has seen has been registered during the past century. One of the main reasons for advances being registered in this century was the World Wars. War brought funding projects such as the Turing Machine that Alan Turing dreamt of; which otherwise would have had no hope of getting funded. But war is not the only way to advance sciences and spur innovation.

Across the river from New York, in New Jersey, there was a facility where some of the brightest mind of the generation worked on complex problems. They collaborated on projects and their collaboration led to some of the defining inventions such as the transistor, which made the digital revolution possible. This place was called the Bell Laboratories. But more than the building, it was the idea. The idea of bringing together extraordinary minds, to enable collaboration, to find a solution to complex problems the world knew not exists.

Hello Tomorrow is an initiative built on that idea. A community to bring together extraordinary minds, who can collaborate with one another. A competition to push these people to achieve things that have not been done before and a conference to enable sharing and development of ideas.

Why drop-outs succeed in business

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Our entire existence in this world hinges on survival. As we survive, we learn.

We pass on what we have learned, in the form of education.

Our education system is structured in a manner where we need to pass tests to prove our proficiency. Unfortunately, it is fairly simple to game the system. In a test all you need is for the examiner to believe that you have learnt.

Since we use examples to teach, we use examples to test. It is rather easy to learn up the examples and ace the test. You do not need to be a genius. (I am not saying that the same questions are used, but the same structures are used)

Coming from the background of having gamed tests, it is only obvious to seek to game the business as well. Take the best example that fits what you seek to do and solve the puzzle in much the same manner. We feel that if we are able to looking at sufficient examples, we would find a solution that fits. In the real world, this does not work.

When your maths teacher puts together the problems, he/she limits the number of variables that you need to deal with. The real world unfortunately has far more variables; some visible and some invisible. When one tries to study another business as an example they figure out the visible variables but for obvious reasons miss out the invisible variable.

This is what they mean when they say – “Don’t look at the success of another person; their story is different from yours”.

Customers seek value for their money. It is far and away the ONLY thing that the customer is seeking. That value may be delivered in the form of a better product, service, packing, feeling, etc. This is where the story of each startup differs from that of the other and gaming the system becomes extremely hard. It is the hardest test to pass.

A customer will not consistently put money in your hands unless he/she feels value delivery is actually taking place. The variables which lead to the perception of value are very complex to understand. Hence, it is dangerous to look at someone else’s success and use that as a template for your own.

There is no gaming the customer here. No examples. No shortcut. No optimum solution (which is part of the reason disruption occurs).

As Paul Graham puts it – The customer is like a shark, there is either meat or there isn’t.

The only gauge is to see, if the customer is happy after having paid for the product or service. That should be the only focus at the initial stages. Do people love using what my business offers? What do they love? What don’t they love? How to improve?

Drop-outs are usually not burdened with the baggage of learning how to ace the test. They respond to the movement of the market, they are more flexible and look to solve problems in their own way. They do not seek to do the things that others did to be successful, they just do their own thing. They do not know how to study examples, they only know how to respond to a given situation.

They trust their intuition, spend a lot of time understanding their customers and do the best that they can; which is the best way to run any business.

What makes a business, a ‘Startup’?

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All too often I come across young entrepreneurs, who are just starting a business through which they intend to hawk their skills. Starting a business does not necessarily make it a startup. It makes you an entrepreneur certainly, but not a startup.

Anybody, who engages in any kind of business is an entrepreneur but only a few among them can be deemed startups. I can’t go around saying, I have a startup just because I setup a Dhaba on NH7!

Unless… the business meets certain conditions; I shall list them below.

 

Attack a problem that has not already been solved

When you attack a problem that has not already been solved, you are creating a market for yourself. The kind of solution that you offer cannot be bought off the shelf and hence it makes the offering compelling.

I know web development and hence I started a web development company. Well, sure you did! But the problem with that is, you are not solving anything new, you are invariably going to compete with the many thousands of web development agencies that are out there already. You lack experience and most certainly the manpower that some of the more established peers have. From that point forward, it is an uphill climb. Besides, since this is a well-worn path, many entrepreneurs have tested and tried all kinds of permutations and combinations of selling the product or service. I do not deem such a business a startup.

Unless… you have found a way of doing the business differently.

 

Building a business model which breaks convention

Take a company like Uber; it is able to get into a business that is as old as the motor vehicle and able to find scale like no other business has been able to, till date. Many companies have tried  running a taxi business. Invariably the biggest problem with running the business successfully has been that the incentive of the owners and the drivers has been misaligned. This has meant that there is no global taxi business; until, Uber.

Uber used a mix of technology coupled with a business model, which is unlike any that existed till then. Most importantly, the company does not own any inventory of vehicles unlike every other cab business prior to it. They own the platform through which they are able to generate demand and they manage to match that with individual taxi owners who are able to deliver a standard product quality.

Uber is just one of the examples of how an old world business has found a new avatar through an innovative business model.

Examples of such companies include Airbnb, HotelsTonight, Google, Spotify, Pandora

The success of each of these businesses hinges on the fact that they did things differently. They changed the way the business was done in the past. Before Google, all search engines used to push the sponsored listing up on the search results without informing the users; precisely why the ‘Don’t be evil’ motto was coined. Spotify and Pandora changed how music was consumed and thereby changed how users pay for them as well. Airbnb changed the ad-hoc renting market forever; not only for home-owners who wished to rent out their houses/rooms as holiday accommodation but also for travellers who seek for cheaper stay options. Each of them have been able to change the way business used to be done, which brought them leadership role in the market and helped them get recognised.

 

Ability to grow across geographies and scale, providing exponential returns

Most of the businesses established prior to the onset of computers usually consisted of certain assets, which cost a lot to replicate across countries, which in turn slowed down the growth of the business. In the case of most startups, one of the defining features is that they are easy to replicate in different geographies and hence lead to rapid expansion across not only domestic but also international geographies. [Caveat: Certain problems are country specific and therefore cannot be scaled in a similar manner internationally]

In all of the cases mentioned above the companies were able to quickly spread the same model across boundaries and ensure rapid growth of their businesses. The increase in scale means exponential returns for any investment that has been made in such businesses.

Despite being restricted by copyrights, companies like Spotify and Pandora have been able to expand to tens of countries resulting in very high turnovers for them.

Scale is by far the greatest defining attribute of a startup. Companies that can cater to a relatively large market can scale continuously and therefore generate greater value for the investors in the long run by unlocking value in untapped markets. Squeezing more money out of the same set of customers often proves challenging and also results in companies acting in a manner which is seem to be contrary to the interests of the consumer.

 

These three attributes are by far, the most important for the business to be classified as a startup.