Learning to lead a team (Part 1)

As a founder, one of the first questions that popped up in my head was – “What kinda leader should I be?”  Then I started reading about how good leaders talk, behave, do things.  Read quotes about leadership.  Research Steve Jobs, Sir Alex Ferguson, Elon Musk…..the list never ends.  And of course, listen to Ted talks about it as well.  Simon Sanek has multiple 15 min monologues about this.  Some common basic tips are:

  • Hire well.  It’s important to have a good team to be a good leader.
  • Define the vision of the company clearly to everyone.
  • Break down the vision into actionable items.
  • Empower your team.  Actively engage them in team discussions.

Some things I picked up with experience

  • Stay healthy and create more mind space.  Stay away from distractions.
  • Prepare for the week every Sunday.  Have a clear plan of action.
  • Be detailed about everything.  Success is truly in the details
  • Be the hardest working member of the team.  Your team will respond to it.
  • Make it a personal mission to make everyone at work an expert at what they do.

But, one of the biggest takeaway for me is that there is no recipe to be a good leader or a successful leader.  There cannot be.  We all have different personalities.  We are all unique in our background, our experiences and the way we do things.  So, there is an element of personalization that’s unique to you while answering the question – “What kinda leader are you?”

For me, I’d like to know what’s happening with everyone in the team.  I like people taking ownership of discussed responsibilities and most importantly, making sure it’s done.  I take a lot of parallels from football (soccer).  I am a firm believer in everyone doing their bit to make the team successful instead of having a few rockstars in the team.  On a particular day, the opposition/competition can get the better of you but a strong defense can make you win the league.  In our case, a strong defense is having a team with a well structured plan chasing a big vision.

Setting up an Indian subsidiary for US companies and startups

At Agentdesks, we decided it’s in our best financial interest to have our engineering team in Bangalore, India.  As soon as we closed our seed round at Agentdesks, I traveled to Bangalore to recruit and set up our engineering team.  I truly believe it’s a good option for most startups in the Seed / Series A stage to think about setting up an engineering team in India (assuming you already have a good network in India).  I decided to write this blog to make it easier for other startups to do the same


  1.  As a first step, I registered a wholly owned subsidiary of Agentdesks in India.  This involved a bunch of paperwork, which our accountant took care of.  Keep in mind, you should have at least 2 directors to start a subsidiary in India.  So, the second director can own 0.00001% of the company or something that insignificant.  It doesn’t really matter
  2.  We found a co-working space, that’s plug n play in Electronic city, Bangalore.  It just takes a day to shift.  I would advice not to waste time in finding a dedicated office space and furnishing it, etc.
  3. Starting a bank account – Pick a Citibank or any other bank that has Global presence.  We picked up HDFC Bank and struggled for a couple of weeks to get it going.

Recruiting and team management

Now, about setting up a team – Recruiting engineers is the most difficult job anywhere in the world.  It’s as difficult in India as it is anywhere else.  Engineers who join a startup are already taking a big step in their career to stay away from normal.  This means that they need additional assurance before joining your company.

  1. You definitely need a Head of engg, who can code, understand architectures very well and is a proven winner.  Recruit him/her first.  This person should be an experienced engineer who has led teams before, at companies that have scaled up fast.  He/she is your go-to person and an integral part of your co-founding team.
  2. Spend enough time in India explaining the vision of your company and why you are doing what you do.  Everything you believe in is easy for you to understand but it might take a while for everyone else to catch up on.
  3. In India, getting engineers who are really good at their job and want to work for a startup are really rare and expensive. So, interview them really well.  Most of them say they know everything but they really don’t.  As a startup, speed is the most important thing for you. So, take your time in getting the right engineers.  It’s alright to spend a couple of months to get the right engineer.  Don’t be in a hurry and settle for anyone.
  4. For us, I am not sure if this is a rule of thumb, websites like LinkedIn, naukri and a multiple other websites didn’t really work out.  Neither did HR consultancy firms.  All our hires have been through references.  So, as a first task, we really think you should spread the word out through your networks and your team’s networks.  When it comes to joining a team, most engineers make that call based on who the team already has.  If they are comfortable working with someone, the decision becomes easier.
  5. Once you have a good team, it’s very important for both teams (Indian team and your US team) to be on the same page almost every day.  There is definitely a layer of complexity added to the team structure because of the distance between the engineering team and the sales team.  But as a CEO, it’s my responsibility to bridge the gap.  I have a call every day with engineers in India and I keep everyone in San Francisco posted on what’s happening.  Once a week, both teams have a call too.

This is an ongoing process of learning for me and I will keep posting blogs about it.  If you are planning to set up a subsidiary in India and have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email at biju@agentdesks.com.  I will try my best to help you out  🙂

Making the best out of a VC meeting

VC Meetings
VC meetings

Over the last 2 months, I have had the opportunity of interacting with multiple VCs in the valley.  If you ask any founder actively fund raising, they will say it’s the most stressful, soul searching exercise with many cycles of ups and downs.  And they are right, it is.  As frustrating as it is, it could be a great way to get better at so many different levels.  All you need to do is listen carefully to every question and every point of feedback they give and get better at the following

  • Investor deck

When you make an investor deck, you are obviously assuming that’s the best deck to explain your business plan.  It’s important you think so because only then can you make a good presentation out of it.  But, also keep in mind, you gotta improve it with every meeting.  Include information that you gave a complete blank look for when some questions were asked.

  • Domain and industry trends 

You obviously know better than anyone else about your industry.  That’s why you have founded this new business of yours.  Right?  Wrong!  We don’t know the previous companies in the last 20 years that have come up in this space and have failed.  The VCs know why because they have invested in this space before or companies similar to yours.  They read monthly / quarterly reports from their investee companies that keeps them updated on industry trends.  So, sometimes it’s good to keep your ears open.  It’s useful information for you whether they invest in you or not.  It’s gonna save you a lot of time not making the mistakes you probably would have made.

  • Defining metrics that matter

This is obvious.  VCs ask you for specific metrics like cohort analysis or WAU/MAU ratio, CAC, etc.  If you dont have it already, make sure you have it in the next meeting.  It’s not just useful for raising funds but also to grow your business week on week.

  • Identifying parallels

Some VCs asked me what other startups in other industries are similar to ours.  I wondered why they ask.  The best that I can come up is because they want to know what other companies they have invested in is comparable to yours.  So that, they can better assess where you are in the growth cycle and what metrics are essential.  But, the most important thing is so that they know what challenges are you likely gonna face and if you have answers to mitigate that.  So, it might be useful to know other startups/companies similar to your in other industries

  • Greater trends and truths in the big financial system you can be part of 

One VC once forwarded one deck that they use internally to understand larger trends in the investment industry.  For example: Changes in human attitude towards technology or what large multi – billion dollar corporates would really pay for today.  What are they missing, etc.  They understand the shift that’s happening in Consumers and Businesses.  Most times, we founders are focused on the smaller 2 year / 3 year goals.  We focus on improving customer stickiness, improving design, adding features but sometimes we lose the larger picture.  These meetings help in understanding that and if you do, puts you in the path of larger success.

How Uber is helping startup founders and they don’t even know about it

that $15 is worth it
that $15 is worth it

I just moved to San Francisco and obviously I am dependent on buses, trains and Uber for the last mile.  Almost every uber driver I have met so far has had a deep understanding of the technology scene in San Francisco.  One of them even told me that they have read about Agentdesks somewhere and was gracious enough to recommend features that we might implement.

Here are some amazing ways in which they help Founders

1)  Recruiting

One driver in the city (his name was Alex) said he meets at least 10 software engineers every day.  When they are going to office in the morning, out for lunch, getting to late night parties.  He just rambled on names of tech giants and how each of these engineers hated working there and are looking for new jobs.  So, I asked him recommend Agentdesks to the next iOS developer who comes in and gave my card.  He said, he will do it.  What if all the drivers were recruiting officers for startups.  Think about it!

2)  Client acquisition

Another driver in San Mateo, has a lot of real estate agent friends.  He took 10 of my business cards so that he can pass it on to his friends.  Perfect, right?  Context – I run Agentdesks.  Agentdesks is a sales application for real estate agents.

3)  Ideas

When you discuss with San Francisco drivers, it’s usually productive.  Some great ideas came out of a conversation I had with a driver this week.  He said, I should think about providing our agents with insurance plans and make that part of their lives easy.  That will create loyalty as well.  And many more ideas!

4)  Fund raising

You pick an uber driver in Menlo park.  Rest assured, he has dropped 2 other founders in the same day at different VCs.  You can expect questions like “what’s your cap?” / “what are your biggest costs?”  /  “who is your target audience” from your driver.  Great practice!  Also, they recommend more VCs that you can meet.

5)   Uber pool

When you are in the city, always Uber pool.  9/10 you will meet another software engineer.  He/She could be your next engineer.

So, do it.  Uber everywhere.  Don’t buy a car.

Rowing towards that “MVP” island

MVP3So, this is what I have realized in the last couple of months.  I don’t know if it’s true for everyone who have started SaaS products or is it just me.

1)  Customers want something else:  Whenever you think of starting a SaaS Product, your natural tendency is to come up with a list of features which you think is right for your customers and for the product.  Certain features excite you so much that it automatically becomes highest on your priority list.  If you wait to develop all these features to launch your product, you are probably wasting twice the amount of time because your customers probably think otherwise.  They want something else.

Lesson:  It’s best to pick one main feature and launch the product with that one main feature.  Give away a bunch of free trials.  Get feedback.  Sometimes, your customers will be nice about it and most of the times, not so much.  But, listen and note complaints.  If your goal is to come up with a Minimum Viable Product, it’s a long way to that island.

2)  Customers wont pay for your experiments:  When we launched, we launched with a pricing structure.  Looking back, this is the most crazy decision we have made.  Who is going to pay us when they know this product is not fully done.  Luckily, we realized this almost immediately and kept a free trial and extended it whenever necessary.

Lesson:  Don’t come up with pricing even before you know what your customers need.  Pricing is a gradual process.

3)  Design is key but not the way you think:  We learnt this lesson from our previous venture.  We spent lots on exceptional design.  We soon realized that customers, like yourself, get bored very soon.  The more they see in design, more things they can get bored of soon.  Customers will only see what they want to see, how much ever you try to push all your capabilities on them.

Lesson: we believe that design should be simple with less components in each page.  There should only 2-3 main call to action options for every user in every page.

4)  Bless them initial adopters:  There will be a few customers who take extra efforts in letting you know what they really think of the product.  These people are God sent.  Their feedback and suggestions are extremely important and it’s also equally important for you to give them special attention.

Lesson:  Look for these customers.  Make sure you keep them in a separate database.  Talk to them whenever you launch a new feature.  They are as important as your team.  MVP1

5)  Team, Team, Team:  Success of any product boils down to your team.  Initial success boils down to 4 departments: Developers, Support, Testers, BD.  These 4 need to work together and keep each other updated at all times.

Lesson: I realize that this is one of my most important roles in the organization.  Keep everyone updated on the proceedings.

If there are any successful SaaS product leaders reading this post, I would love your thoughts and if you have learnt anything more in your longer journey towards success.

The right amount of Pivot


If you run a company that has n’t made it big yet, I am sure you are wondering if you should change your business plan.  If yes, there must be a ton of questions you ask yourself when you wake up and pretty much for the rest of your day.  How much to change?  What happened to the vision with which you had started?  Is focusing on something else necessarily a good thing?  Does n’t changing business plans signify uncertainty and hence, doesn’t it spoil your branding/reputation?

I have been in this race to nowhere for quite a while now.  I realize now that there is no right or wrong to anything in a business plan.  You just keep travelling.  All you need to be sure of is the final destination.  When you are lost, you ask a bunch of people for feedback and some of them point you towards the direction you want to take and some don’t.  But, the important truth is the road is full of feedback.  If you don’t ask, you won’t ever find out.  In the last few months, I have been meeting a bunch of business experts, analysts and venture capitalists to explain about my business and every single meeting or a telephonic call has helped me figure out narrow down on my execution plan.  And I know it’s got to keep improving with time and turn out great.

Hence:  When it comes to pivoting business plans frequently, it’s expected and fine to make minor tweaks in the process as long as the final goal remains the same.  Just got to keep my ears and eyes open for feedback from investors, VCs, mentors, seniors, customers, industry experts, your team and friends.

6 years of Metroplots


This week has been an excellent week for me.  Metroplots.com completed 6 years since date of registration.  I had a really terrible NDTV interview on one of the property shows (It’s real difficult to face cameras.  I have new found respect for even bad actors now).  And, Manchester United have entered the quarter finals with an excellent victory over Olympiakos.

90% of startups fail in the first 5 years.  In that sense, we have reached a significant milestone.  We are proud to change our direction more than thrice in the last 6 years to stay profitable and afloat irrespective of seasonal factors in the Real Estate industry.   Every year, we have learnt  a few lessons and progressed step by step.  We believe we have a terrific foundation to start growing real fast from this year onwards.

We now have a great team and we will build on this in the future.  We will look for exceptional talents who have made a decision in life to work with challenging responsibilities and are willing to go that extra mile for a good career.   It’s a new year for Metroplots and one of my primary goals this year is to make everyone in the team learn more by either bringing more talent from outside or by training them by pushing them more.  I realize more now, that a company’s growth is a function of how much each employee has improved.


How to make the next whatsapp


First, you need to go to Ukraine.  Then work for Yahoo for a bit and apply for jobs in twitter and hope your application gets rejected.

Kiddin.. NO!  Sorry to break the suspense to you but you can’t make the next whatsapp and you should n’t be thinking in those lines.  I am afraid even the whatsapp founders cannot make the next whatsapp.  This kind of thing just happens.   So, if you are all motivated by the whatsapp acquisition and decided to go all out on making the next whatsapp, I think you should think twice about it.  A dream of an acquisition like this could actually be a deterrent to your growth.

But what you could do is forget about the acquisition, the $19 billion and think about what made whatsapp a success.  It’s plain simple.  Engagement.  Every user of whatsapp was hooked on.  Now think of how you can increase activity in your website/mobile application  or whatever it is that you are building.  Make a list of engagement metrics that you need to track and keep building on it.  Notice how users are using it and see what works and what doesn’t.  In time, you might not create a $19billion company, but you definitely build a business that lasts long.  And that’s what your goal should be.  Build your business!


Startups, internet and India

2013 has been an interesting year for me and for my company Metroplots.com.  For most of you who don’t know of Metroplots, we are a real estate website with a lot of stuff happening and planned.  In the last year,  things that could not have possibly gone wrong has gone wrong.  Murphy at his best, I think.  But, I must say that this is the steep learning curve pundits talk about when they advise people on starting companies.  Here’s a few lessons that I have learnt in running Metroplots so far.  (Some might be specific to an internet startup and some might be problems you will face if you do this in India.  Might not be applicable in other parts of the world.  )

1)  Recruit well.  Go through many rounds before selecting that one person.  Look for skills, passion, ethics, background, intent and the fit he/she will have with your current team.  Make it thorough.

2)  SEO optimization is no joke.  Have it under control.  The rules keep changing and you need to be on top of it.

3)  Raise funds to scale.  Don’t raise funds to experiment.

4)  When you start a company, understand very well that it is your company, your kid.  Not anyone else’s.  Many advices  come from everywhere, sometimes from important people.  But, if you are not convinced, don’t do it.

5)  Never forget your passion.  Sometimes, things like valuation and targets can take you away from your passion.  You might end up making changes to the business model to achieve these superficial goals.  Stay your course.   Stick to your passion.

6)  Raising funds is not the goal.  Making a successful and long lasting company is.  During a bad time, sit down and analyze what’s wrong.  Make a calculated decision to get the business out of the problem.  And 10/10 times, raising funds is not the solution.

7)  Bootstrap…bootstrap…bootstrap.  Spending extra bucks is not good even for a billion dollar company.  Only spend on something that can change the bottomline.  Every 3 months, look at your expenses and see for yourself if you are spending on anything that has absolutely little or no impact on your bottom line.

8)  Know what everyone does.  I read somewhere delegation is a good thing.  In India, so far, I am convinced that delegation is not a good thing.  Consider yourself very lucky if you have a colleague who is as invested in the vision of the company as you are.  It’s very rare.  If you do have them, make sure you discuss company’s next steps with them.  They are special.  Some of the best ideas of successful companies have come from their key employees.

9)  Go mobile.

10) Product management involves 5 phases a)  Detailed planning b) execution/development c) testing and big fixing until everything is fixed d) upload e) Analyse user behavior

11)  Design – keep it simple.  Don’t complicate it.  The more effort you put into design, more problems you will have.  First of all, that cost of designing is unnecessary.  Then, you have loading issues and speed issues because your page has so much design in it.  Just keep it real simple.  Users want clarity.  They don’t want beautiful designs on a website.

12)  Work continuously. Take a break when your mind is cluttered.  Even then, look for inspirations.  You never know what can inspire you. Forget long vacations or leave of absences.

If you follow all this and become a big success, gimme all your money 😛