Great talk by Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures.
2. Instant utility.
3. Voice (personality).
4. Less is more.
And this is golden: MARKETING has to be IN the product.
Mobile is an obvious one to Fred's list (he mentions it outside the 10 above).
"We’ve begun testing reusability with something called the Grasshopper Project, which is a Falcon 9 first stage with landing gear that can take off and land vertically," Elon Musk
A couple of weeks ago, I spoke on MOOCs at the CSF - NUEPA media workshop at the IHC, Delhi. Ashish Dhawan (CEO-CSF) ,Sridhar Rajagopalan (CEO-Educational Initiatives), and Rohtin Bhattacharya (EVP- HCL) were the other speakers. The session was chaired by Prof R. Govinda (VC-NUEPA).
Using the core structure of what I presented at the session and additional points, this is a primer on MOOCs in response to several queries on the subject.
What are MOOCs?
Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs is Higher Education at scale through the internet thereby addressing a very large number of students. There is no registration required at the University, no restriction or barrier to entry and it's free of cost.
You can now take an Ivy League course from your living room without paying a dime (and in some cases, even receive a Statement of Accomplishment).
Wasn't MIT OpenCourseWare initiative around for a decade? What's the difference?
In 1999, MIT decided to open up courses for free and started posting them from 2002. What started with 500 courses has now grown to more than 2000 courses online. In this period, MIT's move inspired several other leading universities to follow suit.
However, there are some key differences between the Open Courseware movement and MOOCs:
1: Structure and level of engagement.
The Open Courseware movement was about opening up content with lectures lending themselves to a large content repository with less emphasis on cohesiveness. Posting lectures, notes, and assignments implied a focus on freeing up otherwise closed information within the system and not on running courses. An individual was meant to pick and choose from a large array of information and learn in isolation. Moreover, many did not know the path to take to reach a desired competency, making the process even more difficult. Though one had the choice of great content to select from, this was not easy in practice. The noise-level was far too high for the average learner.
MOOCs, on the other hand, are structured around multi-week courses specifically meant for online learning with scheduled lectures by professors, quizzes with deadlines, assignments with peer grading, a very high level of community engagement through discussion boards, offline meet ups bringing learners together, and in some cases, a final exam leading to some sort of certification; In other words, a University offering created specifically for the online learner and not just a reproduction of content created within the University system.
2: for profit.
Another significant aspect of the MOOC movement is the emergence of for-profit players with millions of dollars in venture funding. While there are not-for-profit MOOCs like the EdX collaboration between Harvard, Berkley and MIT, for-profit players such as Coursera and Udacity have been pioneering the entry of MOOCs into mainstream culture.
Here is a break-up of some of the popular MOOCs:
What are the features of a MOOC?
Explained using the example of the Gamification course from the University of Pennsylvania that I took on Coursera recently:
- Approx 600 minutes of video lectures with in-video quizzes
- Four Homework quizzes in multiple-choice format
- Three Written Assignments cumulatively not to exceed 2300 words
- Peer grading (5 students X 3 assignments = 15 assignments to be graded)
- A final exam in multiple-choice format
Here is a snapshot of my experience:
- The Professor teaching Gamification was among the first in any global business school to teach this course and has just released a book on the subject.
- The learning process is highly engaging - in-video quizzes pop up to check if you have understood what you have been seeing and hearing.
- The quality of assignments given to me for peer grading was in the range of 'good' to 'very good'. Also, the quality of feedback I received for my submissions were constructive and well thought out.
- Discussions forums are highly active. (You might come across an oddball here and there. Don't we have many of those in traditional college settings too?)
- There is quite a bit of engagement that happens outside the platform. Coursera has 1669 meet-up communities.
At the end, only students with an aggregate score >70% get a Statement of Accomplishment.
Of the 81,000 students who signed up for this course, 8280 students received the certificate (~11%).
A brief history of MOOCs.
To understand MOOCs and their future, let's go back four years when Stephen Downes and George Siemens ran the first Massive course on 'Connectivism and Connected Knowledge' giving rise to the term MOOC.
MOOCs started gaining popularity with Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun's and Andrew Ng's experimental courses in 2011. Both went on to found Udacity (launched in Jan 2012) and Coursera (April 2012) respectively.
Where do MOOCs go from here?
The biggest promise of MOOCs is impact.
If we discount a large percentage of the humungous enrolments across the top three MOOCs, we still arrive at a mind-boggling number.
Going back to the Gamification example; this is a hot subject being offered for the first time by the Universiy of Pennsylvania. As mentioned earlier, the professor who teaches the course is the co-organizer of the first-ever Gamification module in a business school and the author of a book on the subject. Around 800 students study at UPenn's Wharton school. Assuming all of them sign up for the Gamification course (unlikely), the impact is 800.
Now compare that figure with 8280 students who completed and received the Statement of Accomplishment for Coursera's MOOC offering of the course. That's 10 X. And that's the scale of impact MOOC brings in - another 7000 + students who otherwise would never have had the chance of taking such a course. Even if you look at the casual learners who form the large majority of those who enrolled, there would have some sort of influence or interest created in them about the subject which could potentially manifest in some form or the other later. Again, this would not have happened had such a platform not existed.
In the medium-term, MOOCs give a chance for a very large set of people to participate in a high-quality learning experience without the worry of costs, distance or background offering a level-playing field in terms of access and consumption of learning. As a learner on MOOC platforms, I can vouch for having experienced some of the best learning I ever had and it has truly kindled my curiosity to learn more. I have even started keeping track of my courses to-do list.
However, where MOOCs need to work on (and this could take a long time) is to generate credible social proof, be it through a credits system or offering certifications that have wide acceptance. Till then, MOOCs will be an extremely rich source of learning for learners across the world - for those studying in institutions with poor access to good quality faculty, for those in part-time jobs, for those in part-time courses and for anyone impacted by the cycle of disruptions (and that includes pretty much all of us growing up in this generation) to navigate through multiple careers. (To know why MOOCs and other emerging platforms have seen such rapid growth in recent times, read my take in an earlier post 'Video killed the radio star').
MOOCs today are driven by self-motivated learners and fit straight into the non-formal, high experiential value, low transaction value quadrant of learning. They have entered our lives at a time when the world is seeing changes of the highest order and job uncertainty is at its worst. People need a credible source of skilling themselves and MOOCs fill that gap as a high-quality source.
In the long term though - once Universities start offering transfer credits and employers start recognizing these certificates - we will see an even more tangible intervention. And this does not look far away. Tier 3 colleges are the ones who are likely to be most affected when this happens as students would rather learn from an Ivy League/Top-tier college with a valid certification to boot than spend 20 X on an institution that is not as popular. Another scenario is that of tier 2 and 3 colleges co-opting MOOCs into their system and giving credits so as to lower their cost of operation as well as the cost of education for the students. Progress is being made in this direction as well.
Impact of MOOCs on Schooling.
MOOCs have a potential impact on the school system as well. Here are a few possible outcomes:
The India impact:
Compared to any other form of technology intervention in education, India's acceptance of the MOOC phenomenon has been, well, truly phenomenal. For Coursera, the most popular MOOC platform, India is in the top 3 countries in terms of student enrolments.
For MOOCs to truly become a way of life, the industry needs to solve critical issues such as:
1. High drop-out rate: While MOOC sign-ups range from 10,000 to over 100,000 students for a single course, there is a huge drop-out rate compared to traditional University programmes. There are a large number of casual learners and people who 'drop by' compared to those who actually stick out and finish the full course.
2. Plagiarism: How do you prevent cheating in an online environment?
3. Peer Grading: Are your peers 'qualified' to grade your work? How accurate is it compared to the grade a traditional University Prof gives?
4. Accreditation: Are MOOC certificates valid? Unless it results in some sort of credit transfer with other Universities or are recognized by potential employers, what value does it hold?
Another concern that arises is the question whether this is a substitute for the 'real thing' - Higher Education in a traditional college setting with the trappings of a University environment and other intangibles that come along with it?
MOOCs are not meant to be replacements. They are fuelled by the formal education sector. Without Universities doing research, there are no courses to offer and we need the brick-and-mortar classroom with its other components to fund it. MOOCs for a long time to come are extensions to the University system whereby the latter can leverage these platforms to open access to the world as well as use it as a marketing/promotion tool for attracting high-quality students.
MOOCs might not be able to solve the USD 1 Trillion education debt. But one thing is clear. Higher Education is not going to be the same again and MOOCs give us a glimpse into what's coming.
This is a table I had made earlier this year comparing two high-profile acquisitions made in April,2012.
This post follows my earlier one on emerging non-formal learning models. Based on my personal experience with some of these platforms, observations on the industry and my background in the education sector, I have attempted to create a framework for the education and learning space.
I would love to hear views and comments to help refine and distil my thoughts further.
At the core, there are two factors that determine our learning choices:
1. Our motivation to learn.
2. The cost involved in learning.
This framework uses two axes: Transactional Value (the cost of exchange) and Experiential Value (the degree of self-direction).
The model divides the various learning models into four categories each with an associated level of Transactional and Experiential Value.
1. Formal Education
2. Non-formal Education
3. Informal Education
4. Supplementary Education
What does this mean?
Formal education (Quadrant One) will be fuelled by new solutions and tools. Breaking into a well-entrenched school system with heterogeneous boards across the world is tough. While solutions such as advanced LMS tools and tablet-based education will help in improving the quality of delivery and learning processes, it might not cause any fundamental disruption and changes in the way K-12 works. One opportunity that I see is in creating a K-12 model with an open-syllabus which can be modified and customized by home-schoolers/communities with an accreditation model built in. Considering it's a lifestyle choice with its own set of unique challenges, home/community-based K-12 schooling has the potential to take a whole new direction leveraging technology and online models.
Non-formal education (Quadrant Two) channels play to the emerging needs of the new world and the path provided by an intersection of the desire for personal and professional development. Education today is not just about a degree, but about building a web of skills and interests. The new education platforms and marketplaces provide people the opportunity to build their lives using these skills and interests at costs, previously unimaginable. Platforms such as MOOCs (Coursera/Udacity) and vertical education providers (Codeacademy) operate in this quadrant. This is why I believe these are businesses which have a high chance of success (as I argued in my earlier post). Accreditation will further drive faster adoption of these platforms as a credible source, though it will be fraught with several issues for some time – like getting the nod from important stakeholders such as the large Accreditation bodies and getting the buy-in from Employers to use these certifications as a proof of ability.
Informal education (Quadrant Three) will be a huge catalyst providing new tools for the Non-formal education (Quadrant Two) platforms to keep improving the delivery experience and lowering costs.
Some players in the Supplementary education (Quadrant Four) will eventually shift to the Non-formal quadrant (example: Continuing Education) with several test-prep providers adopting technology and tools to maximize scale of reach and lower the cost of consumption.
Why a new paradigm in education is good for the world.
Skills don't die. But your career could if you don't acquire new ones. Non-formal education models could potentially re-define learning as we know it. Through this post, I look at the connection between disruptions, opportunities, skill adoption and the need for continuous on-demand learning.
Disruptions create a new wave of skills.
When I graduated, Google was still figuring out how to make money from search, Mark Zuckerberg was not yet in Harvard and Steve Jobs had just gone through his first round of comeback success with the iPod.
I am only talking about a little over 10 years. In that decade, Google went from zero to USD 37 Bn in revenues creating the world's most powerful information ecosystem, Zuckerberg created a new 'continent' with a valuation that peaked at USD 100 Bn and Jobs made iPhone the most successful consumer product to be launched in recent history.
And in the process, through stakeholders of the large Google economy, Facebook innovators riding on its network, and Apple developers behind apps that have crossed the 25 billion download mark, they also created thousands of successful entrepreneurs and millions of jobs riding on the wave of a new set of skills that emerged from these changes.
Skills build upon each other.
“Knowledge and even some skills have a shorter shelf life these days. The traditional 'K12 -> university -> career' linear education model needs to be transformed into a more iterative and on-demand model."
Not only are skills for the new world completely different from what a regular School or University curriculum offers, but they get augmented / updated / replaced with new ones at an alarming pace that the formal education system can never keep up with.
I believe our career-paths are like satellites. Formal education is this set of expensive multi-stage booster rockets that put us in a certain orbit. But the skills that we acquire are the little propulsions required to keep us moving ahead in the current orbit or help us move into new orbits. The moment we stop gathering these skills, we fall off.
Some of these skills could fade away, but they never die. It's only their application and use which becomes transitory.
Disruptions-Opporunities-Skills (D-O-S) cycles require on-demand, learning systems.
Disruptions happen at the intersection of new skills and opportunities as shown through the Disruptions - Opportunities - Skills model below.
Each cycle spawns the next disruption, which in turn creates demand for a new set of skills. Apple's iPhone and the accompanying App Store model set the app development economy in motion. The 'app' as we know it today is a USD 20 Billion business - hard to believe it barely existed five years ago. This cycle is not restricted to any specific industries. New breakthroughs such as Tesla's Supercharger concept will set another economy in motion - one centred around skills in the electric vehicles industry. Successful entrepreneurs and employees are the ones who quickly adapt themselves to these new skills, fill the gap and put them to good use. This additive process will only get faster with people acquiring skills at a very early stage and adding value to the economy of continuous innovation that we see today.
This is where MOOCs like Coursera and Vertical Education providers like Codeacademy come in. These emerging non-formal learning systems help people acquire these skills on-the-fly, at low-costs so that the process becomes a way of life and not an out-of-reach, aspirational, expensive proposition.
Education 2.0 is changing how we look at learning.
All over the world, people are constantly 'thinking' of ways to move ahead. Education 2.0 fills this gap by providing several ready-made platforms to choose from and pushing people towards 'doing' something about it. They provide the sensors that pick up signals from the D-O-S cycle, collate the information and guide us on the skill-matrix path required to stay competitive. They offer us the chance to gain skills on-demand without worrying about costs, and the bureaucracy/walled-gardens of a large, hierarchical formal education system.
From learning HTML5 to Social Media marketing, or doing a course from Stanford to learning a new foreign language, these platforms truly empower people to 'live life in permanent beta' (courtesy Reid Hoffman) by responding with agility and at low risk.
The new environment forces people to learn (in a good way) through available, proven systems and re-skill themselves. In turn, an individual continuously develops a web of new skills accelerating the pace of innovation and the quality of output in terms of better products and services.
The cycle is shifting.
We can visualize this shift in the Learning Cycle from a 'Learning for life' (to survive and get by) to a 'Learners for life' (the only way to survive and evolve) state of mind. Uncertain times, fluid and evolving skill sets and changing passions means that career paths are no longer linear.
For this new system to succeed, it demands a new mind-set for self-directed learning, not one constrained by degrees and diplomas.
The good part? This is already happening.
Non-formal learning is not just about transcending space and time.
It goes far beyond the obvious advantages of huge-scale, high-quality of teachers and being location-agnostic. The key factor driving this democratization is the intrinsic motivation in people to learn. We are beginning to realize that its important to invest in ourselves.
I am a student of Coursera. Well over a million people have signed up on the site within just four months of its launch with thousands of participants attempting quizzes, grown-ups worrying about submitting assignments within the deadline, working professionals taking time out to evaluate peers, young enthusiasts organizing local meet-ups in community halls and coffee shops to help each other - all this, mostly without the promise of a recognized certification.
Going by the early adoption of these platforms, I gained three important insights into non-formal learning and what it means to an individual:
Baseline: people understand the importance in investing in themselves without much external motivation.
This is a win-win model.
Everything adds up. While formal education channels (schools, universities) provide the foundation for thinking and a structure to build upon, the non-formal players take care of our requirements for continuous progress by helping navigate disruptions and opportunities profitably both professionally (developing skills) and personally (pursuing interests). The formal system also empowers a large part of the non-formal education. Be it Coursera hosting 200 courses from 33 schools or EdX hosting courses from MIT, Harvard and Berkley, this is not a competitive, but a co-operative relationship between all stakeholders in the system. It's a win-win for the platform providers and the Universities.
There are several challenges, but none insurmountable.
Controversies about plagiarism, concerns about peer grading and the lack of accreditation are a few, but prominent issues that get reported about non-formal learning platforms. There will be several learnings, changes, burn-outs, pivots and consolidations along the way.
But the day is not far when continuous learning and re-skilling will become a part of consumer behavior on the internet, just as we got used to buying, selling and sharing online.
The goal of all stakeholders in the industry should be to help grow user adoption. As consumers, we should help ourselves move forward leveraging these new platforms and becoming part of new disruption cycles without missing out. This is a skills-driven economy powered by a new form of education and learning experiences. And the start looks very promising.
In my next post, I attempt to put forward a framework for understanding education and learning models.
Below: Remember this video and it's story?
Tinfo Mobile was the first company I co-founded (with Anupam Varghese). Tinfo Mobile had a prolific growth winning industry awards for its thoughtfully-crafted products and the chutzpah for trying new things. We shut shop in 2008. I hope this post gives a perspective of why we had to do it. This is my eulogy for what was arguably, Kerala's first start-up in the new mobile internet economy.
I graduated from B-school in 2001, and returned to Trivandrum to join my family business Tandem, and to continue my work at Tinfo, a software development outfit I founded during my sophomore year as an undergrad.
Around the same time, I got a call from Anupam, my long-time best buddy from school and a geek with a rebellious streak. We used to front-end as vocalists in the school rock-band, Excalibur (a fact my wife still refuses to believe). Our conversation went something like this (we used to talk rarely and were speaking to each other after a year or so; one of those relationships that runs successfully with few words spoken):
A: Hey, its Anupam.
J: Dude, what's up? Long time.
A: I am in Bangalore now. I got an offer to join PCS.
J: Cool. When are you joining?
A: Not joining.
A: The employment agreement they sent had far too many pages.
J: Uh...ok. Did you read it? Is there anything that offends you?
A: No, I did not read it. Its too thick and I put it away. I am not joining.
J: Any other plans?
J: Ok, why don't you come down to Trivandrum and help me with my software stuff?
Anupam reached in a few days and started working with Tinfo helping us with a cyber cafe management product. During those days, we used to take up any meaningful work that came our way. Anyone who has run a services outfit will understand how this works. At one point in time we had grown to about 40 employees. We needed to keep revenues rolling to meet payroll. This wasn't easy, to put it mildly.
I used to split my time running my family business (in education, and other businesses; something I have seen and grown up with) and Tinfo. I had no social life ( and sadly was in my early 20s) and clocked 14 hour days on an average. I was an obsessive workaholic and used to drive our team up the wall. (I am sorry folks; I have gotten better, marriage and fatherhood have mellowed me).
Our dream was to create a truly world-class products company from Kerala. The world's top tourist destination, highest literacy rate in the country (in hindsight, this does not have much relevance), and a place so beautiful that one wonders how could anyone possibly leave this State to pursue 'greener' pastures abroad (pun intended). Kerala still remains India's top exporter of human resources – skilled and unskilled – and is a bit of an anomaly, although perceived as one of the most progressive states in India with HDIs similar to Scandinavian countries. You can find a Malayali (the term for the Kerala native) just about anywhere.
Well, I am digressing.So, we decided on this vision of creating a really great company from Kerala sitting out of Trivandrum, a city which isn't exactly the hub of entrepreneurship and start-ups.
In 2002, we bagged a project from a European company to develop mobile games, courtesy an employee who joined us after a stint in Europe. I need to step back now and elaborate a little. Game development is a highly specialized field. At that time, there were a couple of companies (Indiagames, Dhruva) in game development from India. Within gaming, mobile was at its most nascent stage with a handful of developers across the world. Colour phones were a novelty and in a market like India, phones were mainly Black and White (back then, we used to categorize it as B & W and Colour). So, here we are – no background in game development; no training to turn to; a medium totally new to everyone; not much of online resources to pick up from; no devices (that's what we call phones in industry lingo) available locally and the best part – a brand new platform for mobile gaming called Mophun from Europe (not the now-so-familiar J2ME or used-to-be-popular Symbian).
We took up the project. I managed to get a device from the UK through my brother-in-law and got working. Having someone like Anupam who likes challenges is a huge asset. Learning from scratch, we delivered the project successfully.
Without losing any time, we started figuring out this space. Along the way, we developed an in-house game development methodology, a process called QuirkPort that reduces time taking for porting and started rallying the team around this. We had some awesome people working with us and they were able to get going without much difficulty.
We rebranded ourselves as Tinfo Mobile and agreed that our mission will be to make solutions using the mobile phone as a medium to increase the quality of life. Grand as that sounds, we stuck to our vision.
In 2003, Reliance entered the market with a bang. Thinking of it now, the situation reminisces of the time Reliance went public; this was a mad-market rush to do something in telecom with the big-daddies and nobody wanted to miss it. Obviously, we did not want to miss it either. We applied for the Reliance Developer Programme (BTW, they were the first to start a dedicated Developer programme in India) and I shot off an email to the Head of the programme asking for an appointment.
At Mumbai, I made a strong pitch about mobile games and how Reliance should not miss the opportunity. I also made a strong point about how we are well-entrenched to do this for them considering our headstart and being one among the few development houses in the world.
After my presentation, the gentleman whipped out a sample Reliance device and asked me to take a good look at it. For those who are not from that generation, this is how it looked.
He then proceeded to talk about how constrained these handsets are in terms of memory and screen-size, that it's not just about making games work, but even running applications on these phones could be a challenge. Suggesting that we wait for higher memory, better phones (there were no smartphones then) to be introduced, we parted ways. However I managed to carry some developer phones back with me.
Back in Trivandrum, we hatched a plan to ship our maiden game production – Ramson's Quest – without any compromise on features on the same Reliance phones. Ramson's Quest was a full-fledged platform game. That's no easy task (please have a look at the picture above once again to understand why).
We did this in around a week's time and presented it to Reliance. Following this, we ported the game to all their colour handsets with sound and vibration effects – the first team to do so and a big thing in those times. Cracking Reliance's repertoire of low-end handsets and making these games work without shaving off any features was a big deal. It spoke volumes about Tinfo Mobile's technical capabilities. Ramson's Quest and Tinfo Mobile were profiled in detail in the inaugural edition of Reliance's Developer newsletter.
From that point onwards, we started making a lot of inroads working with other telcos, content aggregators and publishers globally creating an impressive array of Tinfo Mobile game titles and applications that was deployed across networks.
I am going to make the story shorter now. From 2003 to 2007, Tinfo Mobile had a series of big wins:
Lesson number One: A start-up is a full-time job. Takes a lot to be Jack Dorsey.
Lesson number Two: Location is important when it comes to business development. Face time with customers is important.
I would summarize as follows: If I had spent my full-time with Tinfo Mobile without any other commitments; if I had moved out of Trivandrum at the start of the game itself; if I had focused a little more on people; if I had raised money at the right time and done all the above; maybe, just maybe, Tinfo Mobile would have been a million-dollar baby with some more amazing products. I was spending probably as much time as I could with Tinfo Mobile as I did with Tandem, but time was not the only matter at stake here; rather the new degree of direction it required and which I could not do so by making some critical moves like saying "Hey you know what, maybe I should just focus only on Tinfo and the payoff from that could be much higher than all the other businesses put together". But there were too many things to deal with during that period.
Before I conclude, I should probably talk a little about the two interesting products (ignore the funny sounding names, they were not finalized) we were working on during our last few months.
In January 2008, a month before we shut down, we almost got acquired by an American company. We gave a drop-dead date for the deal to happen. Unfortunately, the other company was taking too much time and crossed the deadline we had set for ourselves. On that day, we did not even discuss closing down or reconsidering it. We just did it without any remorse.
Lesson number Six: Know when to stop. We could have continued persevering. But its important to look at the big picture and see if that fits in with your situation at that point in time.
At Tinfo Mobile, I was the products guy and the hustler. And Anupam, the technologist and the man who put these products together.
My strength was in looking at products from a customer's standpoint and getting obsessed about it – maybe a tad too much than warranted - and selling it. I was fanatic about chasing new alliances, meeting customers, religiously following up and making sure we explored everything possible. I would not let a deal go by unless I heard 'no' quite a few times. Anupam's strength lied in creating beautiful products and adapting to new technologies. We were both obsessed with design, aesthetics and about not becoming a 'me-too'.
It was a dalliance of two friends who grew up together. A co-founder is almost like your life-partner. When you run a start-up, the crap you will go through is tremendous and if you don't have a sort of 'muted' understanding of each other running through all the while, things will hit a standstill much earlier than in normal circumstances. This doesn't mean you will not have your share of differences, there will be several ugly ones too. But it will not stem from ego. And that makes the difference between make or break. Fortunately, we had that muted understanding and stuck to it through all our ups and downs.
Another very important lesson I learnt from my Tinfo Mobile days is about focus. I have mentioned this earlier in the post. Towards the end, we had built up quite a bit of IP and we had a thousand ideas of what to do with it, but very few resources to work on them. Nevertheless, we pursued multiple projects which was a poor decision. At one point, we were developing a Tourism App prototype, mobile advergames for brands, mobile interactive brochures, and partnering with another company to develop an advertisement-supported SMS service (think Google Adwords + SMS). This was wrong especially if you are trying to become a products company. We should have spent time and effort in creating our rockstar, not several rockstars.
In the end, I would liken Tinfo’s experience to an Indie film; fantastic stuff, but limited commercial success.
What was exciting for us was about creating a start-up from Kerala with its vastly different attitude towards entrepreneurship and with absolutely no connection to the ecosystem we were in at that time. In fact, there was one interview that I had given in 2006 talking about how location is not a constraint in the business. This was the biggest driver for us - making something happen out of Kerala. I would now rather try and play each location to its own advantage. But, Kerala is just a dream waiting to happen and I wish the team at Startup Village the very best for the truly, amazing work they are doing.
One last point: we had no mentors to tell us if what we were doing was right or wrong. Neither did we actively seek out any nor was there any such concept in 2002. But it was so much fun figuring out many of these things on your own and I can't explain enough how much these experiences add up to making us who we are and our world-view.
I was back full-time in my family business (well, 'back' is a wrong word, I was never out of it). In 2009, a year later, I was able to front-end the sale of Tandem to the Manipal K-12 group. I spent three years with them (during which the business got acquired by Pearson). I was with the group till July 2012 and am now on to my next gig.
As for Anupam, he went on to join Eko, a mobile banking start-up.
There are several employees who have played a significant part in Tinfo/Tinfo Mobile's growth. Thank you all, once again, for your fantastic work and efforts.
In case you are interested knowing a little more about Tinfo Mobile, this was our interview on CNBC.
(Incidentally, we were the first start-up from Kerala to be featured on the show.)
I had requested Anupam to share his two cents on this post. Thanks buddy (and also for the old team caricature at the top of the post!).
Jayadev has pretty much covered everything pretty well. My 2 cents exactly:
Cent 1. Should have learnt something about business
I had no clue on how a business was run (not that I know much even now! ;-p), only a passion for creating something that was not created before. This was perhaps a misplaced priority or, a priority that needed serious tempering. Maybe I should have gotten more into the 'business' part of it as well and we would have done something to sustain us through the inflection curve.
Cent 2. You can only survive one marriage at a time.
This is a controversial one. I have blogged about this earlier as well. Just reiterating because it is important. A startup is a marriage, nothing less. It requires a jealously disproportionate amount of pampering and attention. Until it gets to a size when it can sustain and support you, it is a dangerous proposition to get into a real-life marriage. Marriage is a commitment to a person and a relationship. It cannot be a partial commitment, by design. In 2005 I got married and had to take decisions based on this commitment as well. I could not for instance, live on just Maggi Noodles anymore ;), we needed real money for real needs. While it is foolish to 'aim' (I'm no hermit) to live on the bare minimum, its easy to jump off the cliff if you know no one is waiting for you to come back- just in case ;).
Unless one is the superman or Jack Dorsey or has a self-cloning machine in the garage, most mortals can only take one marriage at a time (and have an intent to be successful at it). Need to give one relationship some time to mature before jumping into another one.
Just shared a movie of snapshots taken we had moved to our 'new' office :) Thanks to some ingenious design interventions, this was a bare-bones office set up in record time and at a record cost (compared to what it costs to set up an office space nowadays). The first mobile startup office out of Kerala perhaps? ;)
The 'old' office(s) were either some office space squirreled out of Tandem or Jayadev's relative's residences converted into work-spaces :). Fun!
As Jayadev mentioned, initiatives like Startup Village is great and kudos to the team behind it. Despite having been unable to to continue after having started up, I guess we did sow a seed somewhere and manifested a hidden potential for the state.
Looking forward to a thousand more failures and hundreds of successes out there!
(Late) Prof. Ramachander at B-school used to take this module on New Product Development. It was a fantastic course that focused on a very simple premise: Insight - Idea - Innovation. That's it.
Our studies were built on this model. We will be given a case and asked to draw these three aspects out of the business. It might look simple at the outset. But when you get down to defining what is that unique customer insight that got translated into a multi-billion dollar business, it's not as easy as it sounds.
The case study which stands out vividly in my mind is the (very popular) Southwest Airlines one, the only airline to have been profitable ever since its launch. So what differentiated SW from the rest? What was their unique insight? The answer might look like something to do with giving seats cheap. Sure, but how does that make you profitable?
(SW's unique insight was to compete with cars or rather ground transportation. Click here to read a case study on SW I discovered recently)
We used to dissect a bunch of businesses and arrive at the Insight-Idea-Innovation matrices. Finally, we had to do this project on creating a new product from scratch. My project partner Smitha and I worked on this idea (it was her insight) of using heat generated from refrigerators to be used for warming up food. We did a neat job by speaking to housewives, meeting consumer durable manufacturers and dealers. Many thought we are a little 'off', but hey who was observing the wasted heat that your fridge produced. The project was a success.
I still use the 3i matrix when I work on new ideas and projects. You should try it too.
Insight: that deep unique knowledge you have about a consumer.
(music on the go, simple to use)
Idea: the concept that you can translate this innovation into.
(a music player that fits your pocket)
Innovation: using the concept to convert the idea into an innovative product.
(an easy to use, mp3 player that can store up to 1000 songs)
Today, if you have a new product in mind, there are multiple ways you can take it to market.
Apart from Kickstarter, Quirky is an interesting disruption in the NPD market. It's simple - submit your idea, get voted and if Quirky selects it for manufacturing, you get royalties for life. You should check it out.
From an early age, I started reading business magazines and bios of entrepreneurs I could get my hands on. It was a little weird. I didn't like or play sports much. But I could tell a thing or two about the businesses I read about (this skill doesn't necessarily help you make money, FYI). At one point in time I even thought of starting a business called BB (short for Business Books; very subtle, I know). BB is like a birchbox of business books. I would have loved such a service if it existed. Business books ain't cheap and we don't typically read it more than once. (Anyone interested? Give me a shout.)
My earliest tryst with entrepreneurship involved bicycles. Except for my first, I upgraded to new ones mostly by selling the old one to other kids taking only the little incremental amount needed from my parents. I loved doing this and hustled the trade, negotiated and closed it all on my own. I started doing this in grade 4 and the last cycle trade I made was in grade 11.
Coming to think of it, my earliest stint at business was not with cycles. I started this in-'house' (literally) magazine service where I reported the 'local' news and sold a hand-written magazine to all co-habitants for Re 1 a pop. It was ridiculous, but I took it very seriously and thankfully my folks bought it from me during the days I created them. Obviously, this did not last too long especially with my controversial reports on my siblings playing during study time not finding favouring and my parents could not go through this torture of sorting out our differences anymore. But I enjoyed it.
Maybe if you are young college student, or a kid, there are easier ways to start a business now without having to resort to the stuff I did. Trust me, there's never been a better time to be an entrepreneur. Here are some easier ways to get you started.
Weebly lets you create great-looking, fully-functional websites using a drag-and-drop interface (no coding required, whatsoever). I made this site completely free of cost on weebly and I love them.
And speaking of coding, in case you wanted to learn it, Codeacademy lets you do just that, in a simple, as easy as 1-2-3 manner. In fact, I am doing a course on codeacademy as we speak and its awesome. Edit: Check out Learnstreet and Treehouse as well.
An online store? Start one with Shopify. I have helped some not-so-IT-savvy folks set up a store online recently using this service.
For those not going the internet route and starting a brick-and-mortar store/company, use Square to convert your phone/tablet into a credit-card reader. Start selling. You're good to go. Edit: The Indian equivalent that's come out recently is Ezetap.
If you are doing a good job online (or offline), advertising is free, and it seems to work too.
Want to expand, grow your network, partner, find co-founders, make connections, you already know this works very well too.
And if you are really serious about the whole thing, Docracy opens up access to standard, legal documents required to start a company, manage and run it, contributed and vetted by the community.
Isn’t it just awesome to be an entrepreneur now?
See this video of Steve Blank speaking about 'The Democratization of Entrepreneurship'