Category Archives: business

Product Vs Service Based Businesses

Here’s a post I recently wrote for Shack’s blog.

I’ve been into the business of building web applications for a good part of my professional career. During this period(around 3.5 years) I’ve worked for a MNC, two start-ups and also started two companies on my own. A couple days back while thinking about some business it dawned upon  that there are basically two types of businesses (guess you probably know this already) as far as my view point is concerned (Otherwise trading is also a business). If you are not working for someone else (basically a job) and doing your own thing you are either

  1. Building a product (A website, a facebook app or something else for Ex: Kwippy)
  2. Providing a service ( Social Media Marketing, Website design/development, SEO or something else for ex: Dial-a-Book)
  3. Mix of both (for ex: Shack Companis)

These two kinds of businesses (product and service) have almost equal scope when it comes to growing big, becoming popular etc. However what’s interesting is what it takes to get them to that level. I’ve been on both sides of the line that separates a  product business and a services business. I’ve build a product and am now building a service . Kwippy and Dial-a-Book are as different a business as they can get. While Kwippy was all about building a web product from India that had a global appeal, Dial-a-Book is a over the phone service that’s aimed at the local/domestic market(for now at least).

If you think about it product and service based businesses require way different inputs and take way different life forms once they start to grow. I’ll attempt to explore those differences and what we can do to leverage/optimize them

Product Vs Service Based Businesses:

1) Starting Capital: Product based businesses on an average require more capital to startup than the service based businesses due to the raw material and infrastructure needed. While web products don’t require as much starting capital, services will more often than not be relatively cheaper

2) R&D: Irrespective of the line/domain in which you are building a product, you’ll need to spend considerable amount of time as a team or as an individual to understand what’s been done before, what’s not been done, latest technologies involved, costs, maintenance and other issues. While (most) service based businesses don’t need to think as much(it’s a plus if they do) before starting up.

3) Time to go Live: Product based businesses by their sheer nature will take longer time to go live as compared to almost no-time to launch for a service based business. Essentially a service based business is live from the minute the founder(s) decide to start.

4) Business Development/Marketing: How good a services based business will do depends significantly on the founders interpersonal/selling skills the same gets tough for a product based business. For a product based business you need to have the product right, you need to make it easy to find and spread(viral) and market it in a completely different way.

5) Technology/People Balance: I kinda feel that after a while product based businesses are more dependent on the technology than the people as compared to the service ones. For a company that makes diapers for example, the machines, the processes, raw materials are an important bit and once the basics are taken care of it can run without as much involvement  on the founders part. However for a services based business, say a consultancy service started by 5 guys with a finance background the business depends a lot on the people. Even when the organization grows big it will be known/trusted for the few names of smart/senior guys and once they leave for some other company, the clients might just follow them to their new home.

These are some of the differences I could feel and keeping them in mind I feel one might be (slightly)better of choosing the kind of business they want to do depending on their personality/skill set etc.

Guess you know what I mean, if not drop in a comment and we’ll take the discussion forward.

Link to Shack’s post: http://shackcompanis.com/post/1521371790/service-vs-product-business

Customer Development Design

I’ve been a regular follower of Seth Godin’s blog and like almost all his posts. However there are some posts of Seth that I like way more than others. A couple posts that really caught my attention a few weeks back were on choosing the customer and training your customers respectively.

Posted at an interval of two days these two blog posts taken together offer a nice(different?) perspective of looking at things when it comes to Customer Development. Against the common notion that you should try to attract all kinds of customers Seth suggests that you choose your customers. Yes, you choose your customers for your business by your brand value proposition, pricing, customer experience and other things. All aspects of the way you run your business attracts or repels certain kinds of customers. You might wonder, why is it important to choose your customers?

It is especially important to choose your customers if you have a perspective/vision and you want things to happen according to that and not according to the terms defined by the market. For example sake, consider two product companies, one of which is very choosy when it comes to picking their customers and would rather prefer a smaller set of customers of the kind that they’d like while the other company is not really that choosy and is open to catering to all sorts of customers, the more the merrier. Assuming they both start from the same point, it won’t be difficult to imagine how differently would shape up after an year into the business. Company A which focuses of select customers will emerge out to be almost on the lines of the founder(s)’s vision while Company B which wants to get as much customers as it wants will have significant difficulty living up to the varied expectations and might just give in to the (un)reasonable demands of the majority.

Not only this, Seth suggests that businesses should also train their customers. Yes, training the customers by encouraging certain type of behaviour by rewards etc and discouraging certain type of behaviour. For ex: If you’ve priced your product slightly above the market standard then there’ll be lots of customers complaining about your price and trying to negotiate their way down(in terms of prices). Now there are two ways to go about it, one that you let customers negotiate and other is to don’t bother. Over a period of time if you follow the don’t bother policy you’ll observe how some price sensitive customers will move out and the remaining customers will get used to the higher than market price and stop complaining (This assumes that their is something that the business  offers to offset the high price).

Another interesting effect that this has is that it helps in building a culture among your customers that’s decided to a large extent by your terms and not the markets.

Business: Scratch your own itch or someone elses?

The easiest, most straightforward way to create a great product or service is to make something you want to use. That lets you design what you know—and you’ll figure out immediately whether or not what you’re making is any good. – Jason Fried & DHH in Rework

(Image courtesy: topnews.in)

“Scratching your own itch(SYOI)” is a popular phrase amongst many startup circles. What it essentially means is to build something that solves a problem you face. The case in point cited by many is the fact that when you are solving your own problem you know what exactly the problem is and how it can be addressed while on the other hand if you are scratching someone else’s itch you are sort of taking blind shots at both the problem and the possible solution(s).

Apart from the obvious fact of knowing the problem a bit better what works for SYOI is

  1. Immediate & Direct Feedback: You can directly feel the impact that your solution creates. If for example one builds a product to manage his food expenses, the utility/futility of the product can be judged directly and immediately. One doesn’t need to do a long trial run/demo to see if the product works.
  2. Extra Incentive: You + Customers > Customers. Working on a problem that benefits oneself directly has additional incentive because of the direct personal impact. Not just this, the beauty of this scenario is that one doesn’t need to think about the customers all the time i.e one can be content by just solving his/her problem. Other customers become secondary and this is a good thing because you don’t have to worry about what they might/might not like and just focus on what works for you, simple.
  3. Passion: SYOI also makes one more passionate about the problem they are working on because they can relate a lot more to the problem and the issues that arise because of it. The direct impact of the solution on you also adds to the passion.

However having said all that, Is ‘Scratching your own itch’ the only way out? or Is ‘Scratching your own itch’ better than ‘Scratching someone else’s itch’?

While SYOI might have it’s own benefits, it certainly isn’t the only way out for entrepreneurs and not every invention/business is born out of it. For ex: A closed social networking platform for Chief Executives (CEO’s, CXO’s etc) of Fortune 500 companies built by 24-25 year olds can still work or a dating platform built by a married man is no less likely to work because he’s not scratching his own itch {assuming he’s not interested in finding himself a date through this platform 🙂 }

Also, not all’s good with SYOI and it also has its fair share of negatives

  1. Small Market: What bothers you which might not be bothering others. Thus some SYOI businesses also stand a risk of solving problems for a very small market segment. For ex: A friend of mine hates to wait in queues for getting CNG for his car and is ready to pay someone extra amount to take his car and get CNG filled in it. So if he were to start a service based just on this then it’s quite likely that there might not be a lot of people willing to pay extra money to get CNG/Petrol.
  2. Financial Feasibility/Business Model: SYOI might work great for Open source where all developers are constantly writing/modifying code to meet their needs and in the process helping scores of other fellow developers it might not work that well when it comes to doing a business. Not all personal itches and their solutions can have business models. This is not to be confused with the previous point on Small Market as having a solution for small market can still be monetized but monetizing something that appears to be a problem to you but no one else might see it as a problem can be an issue.
  3. Domain Knowledge or lack thereof: Needless to say, while starting a business it makes a lot of difference if you have enough domain expertise in your team and it might hurt if you are trying to solve your problem without having enough domain knowledge. For ex: I probably won’t land anywhere if I were to try to solve my itch of building a car that flies instead of crawling on Delhi roads. It’s worth noting that lack of domain knowledge is also likely(a bit more?) to hurt when you are trying to scratch someone else’s itch.

S0 are you scratching your itch or someone else’s? How’s it going?


Links:

  1. http://archipreneur.blogspot.com/2010/03/scratch-your-own-itch-rework-by-37.html
  2. http://gettingreal.37signals.com/ch02_Whats_Your_Problem.php
  3. http://www.instigatorblog.com/scratching-your-own-itch/2010/08/12/

Daily Links: 4th July 2010

It’s been like really long since I blogged and despite trying to get myself to write I haven’t been able to. This quick post is a no brainer warm-up post to get me re-started on wordpress.

1) A super interesting read: Why Did So Many Successful Entrepreneurs and Startups Come Out of Paypal: Answered by Insiders

2) Soup Metrics: http://www.horsepigcow.com/2009/04/soup-metrics/

3) Hugh Macleod’s Random Thoughts on Being an Entrepreneur: http://gapingvoid.com/2010/02/28/random-thoughts-on-being-an-entrepreneur-2/

The Curious Case of Customer Service and Missing Personal Touch

Customer Service would easily be one of the most oft used(and abused) words in Business. For some people, customer service means giving their customers the kind of experience they would like to get (as a customer) but for others(majority?) it’s a mere formality, a lip service that you have to offer just for the sake of it.

While customer service in itself is a big subject comprising numerous things including principles,  processes and much more, there’s a particular thing that I feel is amiss especially when it comes to online businesses, i.e. Personal Touch.

Personal Touch in customer service for online businesses is according to me a great value add given the fact that unlike offline businesses the customers are not talking to a company rep face to face or they can’t talk at length(or decide to wait in the company’s office) till their issue gets resolved. In fact Customer Service, especially over email, which is the most prominent way of offering Customer Service/Support is by design(asynchronous) a customer-unfriendly method. Given the fact that instead of talking to someone in person or over phone you are literally talking to a computer and unless the guys at other end make some real effort to add some personal elements things are bound to not be smooth.Adding Personal Touch to any non-verbal communication not only helps build credibility/trust but also ensures smooth resolution of any issues that a customer might have.

Over the last few months I’ve run into(online) customer service reps of various services including E-commerce and Mobile operators and almost NONE of them have what one can say Personal Touch in their customer service. As expected, almost all of them just work on a few standard templates which their customer service reps copy and paste. What further intrigues me is the fact that contrary to being Personal some of these online businesses try to be the opposite i.e. being as impersonal as they can be.

While this reply Personal Touch - Kinda Personal

is still acceptable, these ones

Personal Touch - Company Name and Address

Personal Touch - Site Name

are completely unacceptable.
I completely fail to understand what is the ingenious thought behind hiding the identity of the person who is responding to these emails. Could it be the CEO/CTO/CFO himself?

Not only is the case of missing identity a big barrier in building any sort of rapport with the business it also complicates things as the customer never gets to know who was the person whom they last spoke to(over mail), who are they talking to now and how much do they already know about their issue.

It’s not Rocket Science that small things like how your customer service team addresses their customers (Dear Customer Vs Dear Mr Dhingra), the tone/format in which they talk or type emails(Pre-decided formats or customized replies), how they sign off their emails(Customer Service, XYZ.com or Shantanu, Post Sales Support, XYZ.com, Email:-, Ph:-) matter a lot. They especially matter a lot when you are an online business and even more so when you are just starting up.  BTW Dell India is an exception in this regard(at least)

Personal Touch- Dell

Isn’t it great to actually see the “Full Name”(unlike just the first name) of the person who just mailed you back?
Isn’t it re-assuring to know that you also have their professional email id, telephone number and even extension in their email signature?

Besides other things, businesses should realize that by adding “Personal Touch” in their customer service, not only can they solve customer vows more quickly and efficiently, they can expect to get more/repeat business from them.

So having said all that, does your Customer Service have enough Personal Touch?

Lessons in Business from Bala Balachandran

About a couple weeks back I happened to come to know about Mr Bala Balachandran from a friend of mine who also shared with me the printouts of an article titled “I firmly believe that all customers are not equal” that  appeared in Business Standard on 24th December 2002(couldn’t manage to find a link). It’s not often that one comes across this much business wisdom in a 4 page printout.

After giving that article a re-read yesterday, I searched a bit on Mr Bala Balachandran and amongst other things I stumbled upon this series of fantastic videos on everything from Cost Management to Customer Astonishment. This would by far be the best material on business I’ve come across in 2010 and the fact that these gems are hidden from the world is reflected in the fact that these videos had been viewed 2-5 times at max. It’s only now after repeated views from me that these numbers have jumped up :). Also, Balachandran not only shares his business wisdom, he does so in a nice and funny manner. At 72, he has contagious energy and passion.

Only if someone could stitch these  small 2-3 minute videos together would they make into an amazing video.

To treat or not to treat different customers differently is the question

This is a classic dilemma that many entrepreneurs(especially the offline one’s) are likely to run into. Customers as we all know come in all shapes and sizes(and mindsets). While there will be some customers who will talk nicely to you and your employees, pay their bills on time and offer you a piece of advice or feedback whenever needed, there’s also a bunch of customers that’ll act as if they are doing you a big favor by using your product or services, they’ll negotiate endlessly on the price and keep getting into endless debates about the most minute(and irrelevant) issues possible.

As an entrepreneur and consultant both I too have run into the thought of segmenting customers into good,bad and ugly but I am not completely convinced if that’s such a good idea. I mean on one hand there’s a thought of optimizing the whole thing for a better ROI on other hand there’s this idealistic thought that customers/clients should be treated fairly and equally irrespective of their spending powers and other behaviors. I for sure would like to get a fair/equal treatment in all the products and services that I use irrespective of the segment I belong to.
If you are committed to offering a delightful customer service the non-segmentation of your customers is highly likely to come in your way. As pointed by Seth Godin here

If you’re going to be obsessed with delighting customers, it’s a lot more efficient to focus on customers that are able to be delighted.

A case in point being if a particular bunch of customers is impossible or way too difficult to delight/please why waste your resources on them when you could focus ’em on some other set of customers that are more likely to be delighted by what you are offering?

A few things I could think of that one needs to keep in mind if such a situation arises are

  1. Is the customer bad or your offering?
    A situation like this can also be a opportunity to give your offering another in-depth look. Maybe the customer is right and there’s indeed a scope for offering a better solution at the same or reduced price or maybe the customer service offered isn’t up to the mark. So before branding a customer as a bad apple, give a second thought to their feedback and see if there’s a genuine problem there.
  2. How would it affect the Word of Mouth?
    While not giving the same time, attention etc to a not so good customer might be a good utilization for your resources it might have a spill over effect. In cases like these it is also pragmatic to ensure that your segmented behaviour will not spiral into a bad WOM loop. To avoid that ensure that this bunch/segment are not influencers/thought leaders or highly connected individuals from your target segment. For ex: If you are targeting a product or service aimed at doctors and for some reason you decide to segment them, try to ensure that your segmentation policy will not spill over to other doctors and doctors as a community tend to be highly connected to each other
  3. Customer Segmentation != Spending power segmentation
    While you’ll find plenty of real life instances in which retailers/suppliers and many more tend to treat customers with high spending powers differently, it’s not the most wise thing to do. When I started this discussion though I included “paying bills on time”  and negotiation I never mentioned spending power as the deciding factor. I strongly feel segmenting your customers based on just their spending power isn’t such a good idea
  4. Do not do unto others as you would expect they should do unto you
    One should always keep “The Golden Rule” in mind before taking any call on customer segmentation. This will most certainly save you from some bad decisions

What do you think about treating different customers differently?

The Cost of Learning

A while back I happened to share with a dear friend a small mistake I made and as expected I wasn’t particularly happy about it. It was then that he succinctly told me

Mayank, when you are doing something new/different you incur a “cost of learning”

If you think about it, it’s indeed true. When you start doing something new or different be it a business or some other activity, you make mistakes in form of bad investment, incompatible partners, unreliable suppliers, wrong decisions and more. So if you happen to make a mistake in something new that you are doing, don’t feel bad and simply think of it as a “Cost of Learning”, but having said that, always try to keep your “Cost of Learning” to the minimum 🙂

Why Web Startups Need To Think small

I’ve been a fan of 37signals ever since I first used Basecamp during my stint at Slideshare in 2007 and later while working on Kwippy. What’s also special about 37signals is that not only they build great products that make money, they are also doing a fabulous job at sharing their experiences and learnings with the community using Social Media long before it was a buzz word. If you haven’t done it already, you should checkout their blog where they talk about design, business and other things.

Sometime back I happened to listen to this talk given by DHH on ‘Making money online’. Despite a cheesy sounding title the talk is a great primer for web entrepreneurs  starting up or thinking of starting up. DHH touches upon a great point when he says

The odds of you in here making the next Facebook or YouTube or MySpace are tiny, the odds of you just actually just creating a product that few people will like and pay more for, not that shabby.

It’s kinda like reverse terror alerts, the probability of something like this happening, like the probability of you being crashed in the plane, tiny, but the fear you have of it or the desire you have to be the next Facebook, Huge, because it’s been broadcasted over and over again, you are being brainwashed

DHH further goes down to put forward the maths behind making a million dollars in an year by having  2000 customers and charging them 40$/month. Adding decent  conversion rate(5%) to the equation it would take about 40,000 signed up users to get 2000 paid customers. Taking it down one more level to make 200,000$ a year you would need just 400 customers at 40$/month.

The number of problems/niches one can attack trying to get this many customers are a lot, but not surprisingly we still find most web start-ups aiming at building the next Facebook or YouTube. Its not uncommon to find entrepreneurs by the dozen running after VCs and Angels to raise money for the next big thing on the internet despite the fact that most of them can get their venture started without too much money. One of the primary reason for this is the fact that raising million dollars for building(or the mere thought of) a global product that might be used by millions is SEXY however building a web product that’s being used by a few hundred or thousand users while making you some money isn’t.
This frenzy is fueled by media and consumers alike and the entrepreneurs(esp first timers) get unknowingly drawn into this trap and the next thing you know is everyone trying to make it big without even trying to taste success in building a smaller yet useful product.

While I won’t discourage anyone from taking big shots right from the start, I strongly feel its a lot better(and practical) to solve a small problem first before going for the bigger one.