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Alok's Posts / Essentials / Startup

The 22.75 strange things I learnt in 2016…

My 2016 was dedicated to learning strange things. Happy to share them with you!

1. Anything sells. There is a buyer for anything

The citizens of the almighty USA appointed this guy to be their PRESIDENT:

This tells me is that there is a buyer for anything. There are some people (in this case a MAJORITY!!) who want a big change in their life and have ‘bought’ the man to do so.

Lesson – Don’t shy away from selling what you are good at or believe in. You have NO CLUE what buyers are looking for. Meta Takeaway – Don’t be embarrassed by anything or anybody.

2. The government harms its citizens more than it does good for them.

Consider the case of the demonetisation of currency in India. Do you think the government anticipated this?

Lesson : DO NOT build a business with the Government as the main buyer; DO NOT believe what they promise (The current govt. has created more obstacles for Startups vs. helping them); DO NOT engage with them beyond requirement. If you think I am a pessimist – just ask yourself : Which Fortune 500 Company was created relying on the Govt?

3. Never under estimate the competition!

Check out what is happening to the business of QSR (Quick serve restaurants) in India:

Guess who is eating up these guys for breakfast?

I had a black coffee (they did not understand “Americano”) at Bikanerwala in Gurgoan recently and was pleasantly surprised at how nice it was.

Lesson – The laggards always catch up. NEVER EVER assume that you are superior. Imbibe the famous mantra of Andy Grove (ex CEO of Intel) “Only the paranoid survive” and make it your personal anthem.

4. Never take people for granted

The blown out fight between Cyrus Mistry and Ratan Tata is beyond decent. It has massacred the holy image of the Tatas and cast serious aspersions on how the Tatas run their Trusts and Companies.

Very early in the fight, I had polled this subject on Twitter and received these responses

A few weeks later, the perception had changed dramatically!

Lesson : Just because Ratan Tata appointed Cyrus Mistry did not give him the right to unceremoniously fire him. People are not puppets or dolls that can be chucked around. The meta lesson is to NOT take people for granted.

5. You can make an elephant dance!

Satya Nadella at Microsoft  is KILLING it. He is transforming Microsoft and making a sloppy, highly egoistical and culturally dated organisation relevant again! He is making an Elephant dance!

His results are spectacular!

When I met him in Oct of 2015, I was stunned by his humility, his curiosity and complete grasp of the complex MS Business

Lesson? Even the most complex problem can be solved. The most impossible task can become possible. Just get together a team of folks who are BETTER THAN YOU and trust them to do their job!

6. A ‘Big Deal’ is what you make of it

We always have concepts of ‘this is the way it’s done’; ‘this is how the world behaves’ or even worse … ‘how can I do this when my expected behaviour is…”.

Bob Dylan shattered this myth when he won the Nobel prize for Literature this year and DID NOT bother about acknowledging the prize, returning calls of the Academy or even showing up for the ceremony.

Was Dylan being cocky and stuck up? OF COURSE HE WAS. But what was the lesson from this?

Lesson – There is no path but the one you make as yours. DO what you have to. BE YOURSELF.

7. Unlearn what you have learnt.

I chanced to meet Narayan Murthy in a flight and in 4 few minutes I ‘unlearnt’ many things that I had stuffed in my head over the years:

I unlearnt

being special
being authoritative
being famous
being noisy

Do read the blog post describing my meeting. It will make you smile.

Lesson : Everything you have learnt can be unlearnt if it does you good. Nothing is ever cast in stone.

8. Scale is not always good

There is a madness in the world about ‘scaling up’. It’s like the most popular rock song that ever existed. Ask any entrepreneur, VC, wannabe businessman on what bothers her and they will be quick to retort “Things are not scaling fast enough”.

But scale is not always good. Consider:

In this an post in the Wall Street Journal, the journalists nail the issue of ‘too much, too fast is too bad…’ They mention:

“Executives and consumers felt burger quality had slipped. McDonald’s burgers came in last in a Consumer Reports taste survey of 21 hamburger chains in 2014. “The world isn’t waiting for another burger from McDonald’s,” a former senior McDonald’s executive said. “It’s waiting for a better burger from McDonald’s.”

In the quest for speed, the company had cut corners in different ways each year beginning in the 1990s that affected quality, according to Larry Light, former marketing chief for McDonald’s. One year the chain stopped toasting the buns, leaving them soggy and chewy, Mr. Light said. Another year it began microwaving burgers, and another it extended the amount of time they could be held in warming cabinets.

“The cumulative impact was very negative,” he said. “There was continuous degradation.” McDonald’s started trying to reverse the changes to improve quality in 2003, he said.”

Read the complete article here (you may hit a paywall / free article)

Lesson : Scale is great if it IMPROVES the business and it’s economics and NOT deteriorates it (like the e-com guys). Say NO to “Scaling Up” just because it sounds sexy or some moron investor wants to hear silly words from your mouth.

9. There is always another way to build a business:

As kids we dream of castles and fairies. As entrepreneurs we dream of that ‘ideal’ silicon valley set up where ideas sail in the air and money is to be found in coffee shops sitting next to windows. The more ‘valley stories’ we read, the more vivid our fantasies become!

Then comes an amazing Company (ever so often) that challenges EVERYTHING that is a ‘formula’ and does things in its own unique style and way.

Mailchimp (My favorite example of what User Interface and User experience should be like) has built a spectacular business on its own terms

Read about their spectacular story here (New York Times) on how Mailchimp stayed in Atlanta, built the business brick by brick, did not get swayed by VCs and advisors and just did what they intuitively felt was right for business.

“Every time we sat down with potential investors, they never seemed to understand small business,” Mr. Chestnut (Mailchimp’s Co-Founder) said. Venture capitalists always wanted MailChimp to serve “enterprise companies,” large businesses with thousands of employees and, potentially, thousands to spend.

“Everybody we talked to said, ‘You’re sitting on a gold mine, and if you pivot to enterprise, you could be huge,’” Mr. Chestnut said. “But something in our gut always said that didn’t feel right.”

Lesson : Don’t follow Pied Piper. He may just lead you to ruin. Just, be your own rat.

10. If you wanna make quick money, you will be doomed

For months and then years, “QNET” folks kept harassing me to buy, sell and just join the brigade. One woman called me from Dubai and spoke to me for 1 hour claiming how she knew my soul and of my spiritual journey and what was going to happen to me in my afterlife. At the end of the call she wanted me to invest in QNET.

First I ignored these folks and then began to pay attention. When I posted ugly posts on their business model, (check The Qnet Scam) I got brickbats. On Quora, the QNET folks actually lodged a false complain about my post being plagiarised and got it pulled down under the DMCA provision!!!

I gave up on trying to educate people on why should avoid QNET and stay as far away from it as possible

And then it all began to blow up…

Lesson : If you know things are wrong, why pursue them? Why get misled by quick (dirty) money and ruin your life? Just be normal. Money takes a lifetime to earn. Stand in line and start waiting!

11. Read – Read – Read : It’s the only way to Salvation

For the past 20+ years I have read almost ever issue of The Economist. In the past 5 years I’ve added the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times to my ‘must read daily’ list. It’s an expensive habit for sure but I now realise that the benefits far outweigh the costs and time. As a small startup entrepreneur, reading has bought the world, its norms, nuances, cultures and way of life into my world.

Check what the big shots say about reading:

The mightiest of mightiest –  Warren Buffet & Gang do this:

Lesson : Start reading as much as you can and make it a daily habit. It’s one sure shot way of assuring your super success

12. Help people. It’s the highway to heaven:

Mother Teresa was canonized in 2016. It finally happened!

Unfortunately, local politically motivated hooligans took over social media and vomited some nasty things about her to gain stupid political mileage. What they said disappeared like mist, but what Mother Teresa remains etched in my mind forever.

I was so fortunate to have read Navi Chawla’s classic book on Mother Teresa (pictured above, which I would IMPLORE you to read)

Some magical paras from the book:

“She said ‘Thank God a lot. Not in a religious sense, but a kind of punctuation mark ‘It’s a Hot Day, Thank God'”.

When I asked her if poverty was her her strength, she replied that poverty was her freedom.

When a hospital refused to take in adding woman for want of space, she sat obstinately at its entrance until the Hospital relented. Gradually, they learnt not just to say Yes to her but also send their ambulance when she asked for it.

I once asked Mother Teresa if there were any place she had not reached. She replied with a laugh, “If there are poor on the moon, we shall go there too..”

Mother Teresa quoted telling Prince Michael of Greece in 1996 “The other day I dreamed that I was at the gates of heaven. And St. Peter said, ‘Go back to Earth, there are no slums up here.”

I believe that there is magic that happens when you dedicate yourself to helping people. For instance, I personally know a gentleman (my sister’s father in law) who was a chain smoker for decades. He happened to sit next to Mother Teresa in a plane and she gently caressed his hands for no reason. He has never smoked again.

Lesson? Give back. Help people. It will redeem YOU not others.

13. Never think a pole position lasts forever

Just look at the way Amazon has crept up on Flipkart in India and is ready to usurp the lead Flipkart had for years!

In this deep, number centric post I detailed how Amazon has used the might of its cloud business and the cash flow it generates (AWS Cloud) to beat its competitors to pulp.

Lesson?  In entrepreneurship and startups, there is no ‘lead’. The race is run daily. If you don’t run today, you will lose tomorrow.

14. The real returns are in Equity

For all of you who keep thinking of where to park your money and how to trade and juggle you extra finances, rest your mind. The best returns are undeniably in Equities.

Further, just chill and do nothing except investing in Mutual Funds. DO NOT try and smart ass trade yourself. A few years later, you will be laughing your way to the bank.

Lesson : If the world’s wealth has been created by Corporations, you should be invested in them. And to do that you have Corporations 🙂

15. You gotta know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em and know when to run

How I wish the owners of Yahoo & Merissa Mayer had heard my favoritist Kenny Rogers song ‘The Gambler’. PLEASE spend a few minutes listening to the song here

Did you catch the Key Lines??

I was so shattered by the fire sale throw away sale of Yahoo to Verizon, all because the owners, stakeholders and managers running Yahoo could just not exit on time!

There were 4 critical lessons to learn from the yahoo sale as chronicled by me here

Lesson : When you are done, you are DONE. Get out. Don’t wait for Kingdom come. It will be Doomsday done.

16. Magic happens [after waiting]

Need I say more?

Lesson : You have to invest 10+ years of your life in understanding something and then another 10 years in mastering that something. Then let the Universe reward you the way it wants to.

17. Be bold & do something to change people

Can you do something to change people? Of course change is tough and people don’t listen. But, do you give up?

I tried something bold in 2016 and offered to meet & consult anyone for 1 free hour if they gave up smoking for 1 week. My belief was that 1 week would make these people realise how much their lives had improved and that would encourage them to stop smoking all together!

Results? Check out!

Lesson? You need to sacrifice just a little bit for people to reciprocate! DO SOMETHING! Step out of your comfort zone and MAKE A DIFFERENCE to the world!

18. Startups are never easy:

Check out the stories that began to emerge in 2016

Lesson ? Starting up is the worst thing you could do in your life. And then, its one best thing you could do in millions of lifetimes.

19. The end of innocence

First it was the busting of the GMV balloon:

Then came the end of the ‘mobile app only nonsense’

Finally came the takeover of operations by investors (Flipkart, Zivame, and more to come)

I wrote a rather scathing note on this:

Why are investors taking over running startups? My quick points:

– money runs thicker than emotion.
– startup founders don’t make the best CEOs
– the agenda changes. From proving a point to making money
– cold unconnected CEOs can make ruthless decisions (firing, slashing etc)
– new money wants new faces.
– for wild mergers and acquisitions (a la putting all the rotting vegetables in a brew to ‘hopefully’ make paav bhaji), having pesky, nosey founders is a bad idea. (This is why relatives are not wanted in operation rooms.)

Lesson? The TRUTH always prevails. You cannot mock what is. Don’t pretend. Don’t insult reality. Save your innocence for your childhood.

20. So what if you are from IIT?

After the scam (and I may also like to call it a scandal going by how the promoter completely insulted the business of investors and VCs), IIT MANIA got killed.  IIT’ians were embarrassed by the stupidness of their peers and VCs began thinking 100 x times harder to blindly fund arrogant pimpled mathematicians who did not understand what the P in a P&L stood for.

I was inspired to create this cartoon!


Lesson : Who cares where you come from? How can a degree make you special? Humility comes from understanding that great people and things happen. They are not born.

21. Spend some time in Japan

When I read this, I decided that spending time in Japan is a must for any entrepreneur.

Lesson? The world can teach you so many things. Yes, Japan can teach you double those things 🙂

22. Sare Jahan se Acha Hindustan Hamara

This was the best roundup to the end of 2016

Lesson : We are in the greatest county and greatest opportunity on earth. If you are entrepreneur enough, you will make it 100 times here. BEST OF LUCK

22.75 – Also remember, seasons will come and seasons will go, but

I hope you liked this blog post! Please like, share, comment and give me feedback!


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  1. Does reading this article makes up for “Read, read read”? I hope so. 😀

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