>It’s the Team, Stupid!

>Great companies always have a great team behind it.

If you are starting out, make sure you form a strong and well balanced team. Choosing a room mate or a good friend is never good criteria to form a startup team. Evaluate the strengths of each before making the final decision.

Most of us out there believe that having a great product is enough and the team does not matter. It may seem like that for people starting out, but in reality, only those companies go the distance which have an exceptional team behind them. The others just simply fizzle out. Investors understand this phenomenon and therefore, make it a point to always meet up with the team and do a thorough evaluation of individuals behind the idea. They understand the power of a strong team which can even make a mediocre products become sensational.

Employees tend to look at their managers as role models. Having a weak leader would mean dissatisfied employees or even worse creating a culture of under performance. Just like investors, even customers tend to shy away from companies with weak team players. No one likes to do business with companies that may not be strong enough to work with them. Therefore, make sure you do not let the weak linger on for too long. The longer you have them in your team, the more it will hurt you.

Intel, Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, Cisco, Sun Microsystems are just some of the examples of companies with a great team starting out. The stories of their founders are told and retold all over the world, not because they were exceptional individuals, but that they worked together as a great team to deliver on ideas and innovation which were far ahead of their time. All of them had competitors starting out and companies that mimicked their design and philosophy. But decades later, they have survived as market leaders in their areas of expertise while others with mediocre teams have fizzled out.

So when starting out or hiring individuals, make sure you have the right mix of the team. That is one important decision that you will make to lengthen the time of your company. Remember, you are as strong as your weakest member.

>Some Things I Expect From My Team

>I have been asked many times what do I expect from my team. Here is a quick snapshot.

  1. Don’t just work hard, work smart.

  2. Act like a leader not follower.

  3. Don’t just promise, deliver.

  4. Don’t be reactive, be proactive.

  5. Don’t let yourself be ruled by excuses. It’ll get you no where.

  6. Suggest solutions rather than just point out problems.

  7. Make it a point to contribute positively. Too much negativity will cause productivity losses.

  8. Stand up and be counted, especially in times of crisis.

  9. No one will mouth feed you, so get up and and get it done.

  10. If you wake up in the morning and dont feel like coming to work, then it is time to quit. No need to drag yourself around.

  11. Blaming others will get you nowhere. If you see a problem, fix it.

  12. Set goals that you want to achieve and then work like a maniac to achieve them.

  13. Don’t expect others to tell you what to do. Figure it out and do it.

  14. Don’t wait till someone asks you if you have done the task assigned. Just do it and let your superiors know.

  15. Leave your personal issues at home. You are not the only one with personal crisis.

>Startup Insiders in Islamabad on Aug 2

>
PASHA in collaboration with BrightSpyre will be organizing the Startup Insiders in Islamabad on August 2. This is the 9th such session in the series that have been organized this year.

This is an ideal platform for entrepreneurs and young startups to meet and collaborate. I encourage all to come and attend this session. The event will be held during the PASHA career expo at Pearl Continental, Rawalpindi on August 2, 2008.

Date & Time: August 2, 2008 (4-6pm)
Location: Pearl Continental, Rawalpindi

Please visit the event website at http://www.brightspyre.com/pashacareerexpo/

>Entrepreneurs Should Embrace Linux

>

Entrepreneurs should embrace Linux. Now, this may seem like a powerful statement. And it is. I have nothing against Microsoft or Apple or any other operating system out there. However, I do believe that among them all, Linux currently favors the biggest advantage to a budding entrepreneur.

With Microsoft Vista and XP persistently scanning for counterfeit copies of their software (God knows what else) on your hardware, a small time entrepreneur in a developing country like India, Pakistan or Kenya will probably never be able to afford the licensed software. In Pakistan, Microsoft charges upward of PKR 150,000 annual license fee just to use their basic OS for a small enterprise. This price is equivalent of almost 6 months of salary of a fresh IT graduate from a good university in Pakistan. And then, the cost for all other softwares including IDE like Visual Studio or Dreamweaver and database servers can push the entrepreneur close to bankruptcy. This is acutely true due to lack of Venture Capital/Fun of bank financing for IT related companies in developing economies.

Instead of seeking out the pirated editions of these robust softwares, my suggestion for budding entrepreneurs is to embrace Linux. Not just on the server side for launching applications, but also on the desktop where the actual development happens. The cost of ownership for all the software and applications will be zero. Yes zero, provided you stick to open source. In fact, most of the Linux applications are now owned or supported by large corporations including Linux by Red Hat, Oracle etc, MySQL by Sun Micro Systems among others. The development environments (IDE) are also improving including Eclipse, bluefish etc. Besides, chances are you will be using PHP, Java, Apache, MySQL and Sendmail on the server side for publishing your web application. All of them are native to Linux and come pre insalled and totally free. And did I mention, that viruses don’t cause as much havoc in linux as they do on Windows. And an industrial strength firewall software is also included free with the OS.

Another major advantage of Linux OS over others is that it is not a CPU or memory hogger. Yes, my Ubuntu linux desktop uses on average 512MB of memory at any given time, even though I am running MySQL, Apache and a Firewall service on my laptop. This is a far cry from Vista (my laptop is dual boot) which uses a minimum of 1GB of memory for basic OS that does not even include any web or database server. Further, the CPU clock cycles are also consumed less by Linux. Hence, you do not need a top of the line system to do your programming or run a server. In one of the companies that I co-founded, Cogilent Solutions, we routinely run Linux on three year old systems and laptops with little or no glitches or upgrades required. So the cost of ownership of hardware is also lower.

So don’t wait around, embrace linux in your enterprise and start seeking the benefits of the OS that can hold its own in front of Microsoft Vista.

My favorite Linux for desktop and servers is Ubuntu. You can download your free copy today from Ubuntu

>Startup Insider Session #8

>

This 4th of April will be the 8th edition of the Startup Insider Session and 3rd in its series in Islamabad. This brain child of Osama Hashmi (greenwhite.org) in collaboration of PASHA has become the biggest IT social happening of the year. Already the past seven events have attracted sizeable crowds of over 100 people per session. And this time round, it is hoped will be no different.

What is amazing to see the amount of talent out there that is making it happen for the IT industry in Pakistan with little or not support from the government and/or local sources of funding. Most of these startups are a great success not only locally but internationally as well.

What is also amazing is to see such a huge turnout and interest shown by budding entrepreneurs and students. Maybe, one of these sessions will produce the next generation of Pakistani entrepreneurs that will make us all proud.

Time and Date: April 4, 2008 (5:30-9:00pm)
Location: NIIT (www.niit.edu.pk) Campus, Chaklala III, Rawalpindi
Host: NIIT, PASHA and BrightSpyre

Web Link and Online Registration:

http://www.niit.edu.pk/Seminars_workshops/pages/startup/index.php

>A-Players Bring the Best

>

When you have lots of B and C players in your team, chances are your organization is not likely to achieve greatness. It will live out its life in mediocrity.

So what defines an A player and how do the players differentiate themselves from others? Jack Welch and other such leaders have their own opinions, but for young entrepreneurs and startups, it has a very different definition and meaning. Here is what I think are the characteristics of an A player for a startup:

  • Allround Personalities: The top of the class student is usually bookish and probably has avoided any other activity (social and extra curricular) among his/her peers, considering it “waste of time”. Such graduates are great for, may be, large and established enterprises, where work is defined, but are of little value to startups. The startups are better off hiring all round personalities, are street smart and can handle situations that are not pre-defined for them and can make crucial decisions in crunch situations.
  • Should be active on social and club level (extra-curricular activities) on campus: This trait is extremely important. Once a person goes through the grind of managing an event, say, a music concert or running a student body/club, he/she learns things that are usually never taught in class and it better prepares them for the real life. These events create lots of opportunities to hone one’s skills including communication skills, crisis management, people management, time management and relationship management among others. At times, these issues and skills are exactly what one encounters in their job. Therefore, this experience really helps.
  • Should have played some active sport at a competitive level: This will bring out the competitive factor in a person. This really helps if you are competing hard against an established company as you will not wilt under pressure and can deliver the goods against all odds.
  • Good schooling: This is extremely essential. I have hired from the best of the schools and the worst. I have worked alongside Ivy leaguers as well as community college graduates. In the end, I have always found the top schools produce the best students and hence the best colleagues. If you hire someone with mediocre educational background, you will spend more time teaching them the ropes to do things as compared to someone from a better school. In other words, the productivity of the organization would suffer. So hire smartly.
So can the B players deliver? They will, but will not be able to contribute significantly in keeping your organization as the best in class for that industry. A-players have thrived on being the best all their life and will bring the same attitude and mind set into your organization. They know what it takes to be the best.

There are lots of other characteristics that these individuals should have, but if they have the above background it will really make them stand out from the crowd.

If you are seeking a job or a business relationship with a company then check out its top management closely. See their profiles on Linkedin or google them carefully. If they are not part of the A-team, chances are you are setting yourself for up for disappointment. The top leadership defines the company’s vision, policy and work ethics. If they are mostly B and C players, then the company is not likely to grow beyond a certain point and your career or project will go nowhere anytime soon.

So think wisely and hire smartly.

>Startup Insider Islamabad Session

>
What a wonderful gathering at LMKR for the inaugural Startup Insider, Islamabad Session. At a conservative estimate, I would say at least 100 people showed up at the event including half of them students. Not bad for an event that was only marketed via blogs and email lists. The attendees included successful and budding entrepreneurs running great organizations, there were bloggers and journalists covering the event and professionals not just from the IT sector, but also from the Telecom, Media and Development sector.

The panel included successful entrepreneurs from BrightSpyre (Cogilent Solutions), Scrybe, Trevorsoft (Bentley Systems), Voxel among others. What surprised me the most was the fact that most of the companies on the panel had secured funding through some Venture Capital Fund. In fact, barring one or two, most of them were funded from the Silicon Valley. And quite a few of them were working on cutting edge technologies and beyond.

We had great case studies from the audience as well. We even heard from an enterprising student who had written a highly popular application on Facebook which today has almost a million users. He successfully negotiated and sold it off to another company in the valley from his dorm room in Pakistan! He is now busy launching yet another application on Facebook and already has offers from potential buyers, again from the valley. He asked a simple question from the panel. How can he now secure a bigger place (than his current dorm room) to build these applications in a more professional environment with a bigger team.

Another surprise from the audience was a budding young engineer who had written a wonderful application on the open source platform and had posted it to Sourceforge. And his application was not only being downloaded heavily but people were paying him money to enhance/customize it for them. Hence, he was running a successful one man shop right out of his home in Rawalpindi. And for payment processing, he was using Amaana, another enterprising application coming out of Lahore, which is Pakistan’s answer to Paypal.

Osama Hashmi (Green & White) and Owais Ashraf (Bentley Systems) managed and moderated the whole event quite brilliantly. Thank you LMKR (Atif Khan) for hosting this event and treating us to wonderful coffee/tea and appetizers.

It was really pleasing to see active participation of the students as well. It showed that some of them will probably take up entrepreneurship as a career and will forgo the urge to work for another company. Just one observation. The folks on the panel be requested to provide a detailed personal background (education, work experience and why they chose entrepreneurship over employment) and what is so great about their company. This will further enhance the experience of listening to these success stories and understanding where they are all coming from. Startup Insider Sessions will be held once a month in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

Please check Green & White blogsite for the event details and do attend them if you are in the area.

>Startup Insider Sessions: A must attend event

>



The current economic boom that has gripped Pakistan for the most part of this decade has also had its impact on the IT industry. Many pioneering companies with innovative products and solutions have sprouted all over the country. Among them, BrightSpyre for innovation in introducing online recruitment to Pakistan (a company that I co-founded in 2002). Amaana sort of Pakistan’s version of Paypal, Green & White, our own techcrunch to report all the local happenings,
PixSense, Scrybe, Orgoo, among many many others.

PASHA, the official trade body, finally has a full time staff (almost 20 years after its creation) and with them comes another innovation, Startup Insider Sessions. Connecting local IT talent with brilliant minds who may want to forego their jobs for an entrepreneurial life. As Green & White puts it on their blog,

“A lot of bright, energetic and passionate entrepreneurs have great ideas but want to figure out how to take their brilliant idea and convert it into a business”

I think this sums up what the sessions are all about. So if you are one of them, make sure you are there.

These sessions also points to another level of maturity that the industry has achieved. We now have our own local stars and entrepreneurs in enough numbers who have ably demonstrated through successful startups that have made it big not only nationally and but also internationally. And interacting with these people will definitely provide the inspiration among many potential young minds to start it on their own rather than seek a job. Maybe, through these sessions, we may find some wonderful new ideas that further fuel innovation within the country.

Startup Insider sessions are organized by Green & White in collaboration with PASHA. All hats off to them for their wonderful effort.

For more information, please visit Green & White blogsite.

>Lessons for Budding Project Managers

>

Over the past many years, I have worked with numerous project managers and team leads. Some of them were really great and I learned a lot from them. However, others suffer from what I call, “Jaldi kya hay” syndrome and usually are below par at their performance. They tend to make the most common mistakes one can think of and yet do not see anything wrong in doing so.

So for all those budding project managers, I have put together a list of things to be mindful of. Use it as a guide and as your rule in your organizations.

Martial your solders: Have the whole team involved during any major project, especially during the critical days before the release of any software product. And if you find someone sitting idle and not doing any task, assign them something to do. For example, let them do research on a particular topic. It is better than doing nothing.

Delegate Responsibility: The bulk of the work should be done by the team members hired to do the job. Many managers think they are better software engineers than their team members, therefore end up doing last minute work themselves by pulling all nighters. If the manager is doing it, then what is the purpose of the rest of the team? It cannot be emphasized enough that this is not your job description to code, rather you are expected to manage and coordinate with the team and get them to deliver the tasks at hand. If you believe that the current team members cannot deliver, then you must also consider the fact that you have hired the wrong people. Therefore, learn to delegate or let them go.

Plan ahead: There could be a time, when certain team members take short leave or call in sick at the critical juncture of the project. Unfortunately for you, the client does not care about that. Therefore, plan ahead and let the team know that they must be present to meet the deadline. Send them a car (or a taxi) to pick them up if they cannot come to the office for some odd reason, treat them to a lunch/dinner if they sit late or come over the weekend or whatever in your power to keep them motivated enough to get the work done on schedule. Otherwise, it is your neck on the line, not some junior programmer’s. Also make sure that the team knows the deadline schedule clearly. Post it on their notice/electronic board or send them an email reminder. Just make sure that they know it that they cannot miss the deadline and it should definitely not be something they find out at the last minute. Learn to plan ahead and monitor the progress.

Learn the art of transitioning: There will be times when certain team members are moving out (quiting the team) or moving into the team (joining the team). Make sure you have a plan to manage this transition, especially during a major launch phase. All assignments have to be done before such a transition can take place. And if that is not possible, then make sure that there is ample time spent by the outgoing person with the new team member (replacing him/her) in passing on the knowledge. Creating an excuse for not doing work because you did not have the right resources will not win any sympathy from anyone. Not even your boss let alone the client. Therefore, learn to transition between players especially during tight deadlines.

Manage time: Do not schedule any unwarranted meetings when you have a major launch pending. If you cannot allocate time for the most critical project that you are managing, certainly, your team will never make time for it either. Use project management softwares and other similar tools more diligently. If you are not going to use them to assign and manage tasks, the team will never use them either to manage their tasks.

Be Stern and Strict: There is no free lunch, especially in a deadline oriented software company. The whole team should be there taking it as seriously as you are. It is not really worth the effort if two people out of twenty work while the rest take it easy. Learn to be stern and strict but gentle at the same time.

Grade with a Teacher’s eye: The work performed by the team needs to be graded, bullet by bullet and point by point as defined and agreed when assigning tasks. As a manager, you should focus on making sure that the team does what it is assigned and does not do what it wants and when it wants.

Do one thing, but do it right: In a typical software house, one will find the team doing a lot of work. However, if the manager is not careful, then the team will do work in a disjointed fashion, using different servers/platforms, messed up coding techniques and half hearted attempt at meeting client requirements which they poorly understand or visualize. There is no point in showing the client 500 hours of work that makes no sense and nothing seems to be totally complete or working properly. Five hours of focused work that meets all requirements for a particular sub task is much much better and appreciated by everyone. Make your team start one thing/task and make them finish it properly before they move to the next task. Learn to focus on the task at hand, and your results will improve dramatically.

Murphy’s Law: During a major release, what can go wrong will go wrong. There is no question about it. The server will crash, the software versions will be incompatible, the libraries will be missing on the deployment machines, the code will not run on deployment server and so on and so forth. Therefore, anticipate ahead and expect the unexpected to happen. Test everything in advance, try things out differently and have a fully functional version running on a mirror machine somewhere. The client will not care about new issues that popped up right there and then. They only care about work done on time and on schedule. So no amount of excuses will get their confidence back.

It is not done, till it is actually done: Never claim that it can be done in a few hours without first analyzing the problem at hand based on the available resources. Sometimes, working on a few simple pages could take dozens of hours to code. It could be the complexity of the problem, or the team could be stuck on some software bug. Therefore, never commit or claim it is complete or you can do it in so many hours/days till you have thoroughly discussed the problem with the team and your client.

Communications 101: This cannot be emphasized enough. Sometimes, managers are shy of speaking to their customers or even communicating with their team members. At other times, they simply never inform anyone, including their bosses, the issues they are facing or progress they are not making. It could be lack of resources, or even lack of time to solve a certain problem. In short, inability to share information and keeping everyone abreast of the latest development could mean disaster. When everything is honky dory, no one notices and all is well, but when things begin to go bad, then everyone starts pointing fingers. And when something does go wrong seriously, and the client and your boss find out the hard way (missed deadlines, angry client, etc) your neck will be on the line. So make sure that any news, especially bad, that comes out regarding the project, comes from your mouth.

>Successful Strategy

>

Good strategy is the key to success of any enterprise. Failing to create or execute one could mean disaster, regardless of the size of the company or the qualifications of the people leading it.

Tips to Formulating a Good Strategy

  • Primary Focus: A well formed question as to what is the strategy of the company. For example, how do we expand nation-wide in the next 6 months? How do we increase our revenue by 30% in the next year? How do we make our new product number 1 in the market by 2009?
  • Understanding Current Situation: One must know what is going on around the enterprise. For example, know what the competitors are doing. Are there any new players in the market. Has anyone become more aggressive in the market? Where the market is heading. Is it moving to on line purchases from stores? Is it slowing down as compared to last year? Customers. Are they satisfied with the services or are considering choosing others.
  • Timeline and Targets: Must be clear of what you want to achieve in which steps in a fixed amount of time. There is no point in having an open ended strategy with no targets. Every target and strategy should be absolutely time bound. The goals should clearly be defined. For example, that the six billboards for our new product shall be up in the city by the end of February 2008. Similarly, the new product release shall hit the shelves of retailers before the Christmas shopping season begins.
  • Understanding the Future: Must know where the market, customers, suppliers (and other critical factors like economy, political scenario etc) will be when the strategy is executed successfully. Say, if we are going to launch a new desktop software in 2 years that is slated to capture a niche market. But will the penetration of Internet based products eliminate the desktop software market? Would Google or Microsoft also get into this market with their cheap or free web based products? Will the political instability cause an economic shakeup?
  • Measuring the Performance: Must gouge and measure your strategy every step of the way. For example, have the revenues increased significantly in the past two quarters to show that we shall achieve the targets by the end of the year? Is the product development meeting the milestones on schedule so that we can achieve our target of launching the new release by Christmas?


Factors to failure

  • Lack of Communications within the team: Communications within the various departments in the enterprise. One of the most common reasons for failure in strategy is breakdown in communications and not sharing and seeking critical information from each other.
  • Being reactive rather than proactive: Spending too much time in firefighting, resolving issues, following up on opportunities and not allocating and spending time on strategic thinking.
  • Thinking short term, rather than long term: Most of the time, we think of a few months ahead and not worry about where we will be in the long term. Short term is usually reactive, focuses on doing and is customer driven. The long term is where you want to see your company and what you would like to achieve by that time. It also sets a clear direction and vision for the company.