I am an entrepreneur. Which company should I start?

An entrepreneur (or a wannabe entrepreneur) typically has a list of ideas and when a million other things align, the entrepreneur has to pick one idea and give it all he/she has. Selecting one idea can be a daunting task and a lot of thinking should be involved before making the plunge. Most entrepreneurs I’ve known have always maintained a prioritized list of all potential startup ideas that came to their mind. Many of them have focused some energies on the top two or top three ideas (build prototype and see market’s/investor’s reactions, before proceeding further). As an investor looking to invest in an idea/startup, typical factors to look for are:

  • compentence of the team
  • size, growth potential and landscape of the market
  • barriers to entry
  • timing (think "riding the wave")
  • and a variation of one of the above (depending on who you talk to)

If you’re reading this blog, you may find it insightfully entertaining to check out and compare the "things we are looking for" – sections on the web sites of popular venture capital firms. Some of the investing philosophies, I’ve enjoyed reading are:

While these investment philosophies (or things that professional investors look for in a venture are the table stakes for any venture and they are non-negotiable in most cases.) I want to talk about something more fundamental that an entrepreneur should consider before making the personal decision in selecting the idea. Some thinking points that have helped me decide are:

  1. What are you most passionate about (and where can you add value)?
  2. Ask Maslow: Which need in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is your idea addressing?
  3. How BIG, HAIRY and AUDACIOUS is your idea?

Each of the following three can be topics for a book and I can keep on writing on and on about each of them. I’ll share more thoughts on each of these three ideas in subsequent posts.

It is very important to know yourself, as to why you are an entrepreneur. You should be/become one to add value, to make a significant socio-economic impact, to solve a hard technical/economic problem and NOT for any other "glamor" reasons. Greats like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sergey Brinn and Larry Page, etc. have been lauded by the popular press as poster-children of immense wealth, power and influence. As a teenager, that’s how I first got into entrepreneurship. It took years of successful and mostly unsuccessful entrepreneurial attempts before, I realized – why am I an entrepreneur? It is important to know that.


Technorati tags: entrepreneur , venture capital , investment philosophy , Which idea should I invest in? , Which company should I start?

this week, I discovered Phulki

Every day, we all find out about new and cool technologies, products, designs, people, music, art…..Some of them are pretty cool and very few of them are just WOW. Every week, I’ll take some time to share the most interesting “thing” I discovered that week as a gesture of appreciation for that “thing” and getting some “karma” points..

Mike Arrington and Scoble do a phenomenal job in sharing cool startups/technologies, engadget does the same for gadgets, mocoloco does the same for designer furniture and the list goes on…I’m a fan of all of them and don’t intend to offer an alternative…It is just my way of showing appreciation for the creators of WOW things.

I learned about a simple search engine for streaming Indian music called Phulki. I love iLike (social music experience), pandora(online radio), last.fm(online radio – social) and imeem (friend’s playlists), but none of them cater to Indian music in particular. Phulki has a very simple UI, a powerful search and a web-based music player. The search returns results from various other online music sites and enables the users to play it on phulki’s ajax-based music player. Phulki also allows users to download the music (I don’t know how legal it is), but aggregating streaming music from various websites and playing them on a simple web-based player is pretty cool.

In the vertical space for online Indian music, several providers have attempted unsuccessfully to offer this simple functionality, but have failed pathetically. Phulki seems to have solved it, and I’ve been enjoying it for four days now, hence it gets this week’s mention.

let’s rock on!


Technorati tags: Indian music , design

PM interview – ten design questions

In response to "How would you design a kitchen?" series, few people had asked me about typical design questions. While the questions may range from designing an object like a cup to designing an ad-serving platform, here are some practice-questions.

1.       Design a web cam

2.       Design an object model and an API for a chat client

3.       Design a photo-viewer application for mobile devices

4.       Design a paint brush (physical paint brush)

5.       Design a washing machine/dryer  for clothes

6.       Design a switch for a sun roof opener in the car

7.       Design notepad (software)

8.       Design a cellphone for a retired person

9.       Design a computer for your grandma

10.   Design the $100 laptop

the list continues…


Technorati tags: Program Manager , Product Manager , design , Microsoft Google, product manager interview

How would you design a kitchen? – cuatro(final)

Continued from tres

After spending the first 12 minutes of a design interview for a program/product manager role in learning more about the user, requirements, constraints and scenarios, as per the design template, you could spend the next 30 mintues in actually designing the prodcut/feature/object.

What design you come up with will be directly proportional to your imagination, your readings and your curiosity; but it is important to do the following at the very least:

  1. Approach the design in logical steps
  2. Ask for feedback and design iteratively
  3. Recognize key decision-points during the design and decide

Approaching logically: The easiest way to make your answer appear logical is to add a pre-determined structure to your answers. While designing, the simplest way to do so is to divide key design components in three. For instance, there could be three main components to designing a kitchen: cooking area, storing area and cleaning area – or- you may follow a workflow model and start by saying – the key persona (Leona, in our example) will do three key activities (cooking, storing and washing dishes).

Designing iteratively: Once, you’ve stated your three main points, it is critical to get them validated by the interviewer. More than validation, it always helps to involve the interviewer in the design exercise and ask for feedback on your thoughts. You may use the third column on the design template to list down key feedback points on the whiteboard.

Decisions: If someone were to ask me to answer – “What do I do the the most as a Program Manager?”, the obvious answer will be “decide.” Throughout the product cycle, the PM is required to make several decision (small and big) about the product/feature and the rest of the team looks up to the PM to make the final call. It is indispensable to demonstrate this to the interviewer. The key about making decisions is to make them on the basis of a “value system”. Decision-making becomes easier when there are no contradictions in your value system.


In the design template, the value system is represented on the top of the third column by a simple graph with three axes. I typically take three determining criteria for the product and prioritize them. For instance, for any interactive web-based software three factors (represented by each axis) could be a. interaction, b. functionality, c. robustness. After listing these three factors and validating them with the interviewer, you could mark their importance on the graph and connect the dots. For instance, if you’re likely to focus on ‘interaction’ more than performance and ‘robustness’ for that design question, then mark further on the interaction axis than you would for the ‘robustness’ axis.

If you have to choose between two design choices, it would be easier to use simple tables to list down all pros and cons of both options. See the third table in the design template.

It is very important to try to design a comprehensive wireframe/diagram on the board within the remaining 30 minutes. So I would caution you on time. The process and approach described in this series have worked for me and several other people who have used it, but only process won’t help (it would only indicate that you’ve read this blog). It is important to design WOW things. That can be done only through practice. So, I would urge you to develop a design-oriented thought process. Be cognizant about good and bad designs of objects around you. Ask yourself, why your cellphone is designed such? Why your bathroom door-knob is designed such? Why is my blog’s layout designed such?

Let’s design a kitchen!


Technorati tags: Program Manager , Product Manager , design , Microsoft Google, design a kitchen,product manager interview

How would you design a kitchen? – tres

continued from dos..

Once the requirements are gathered, constraints are taken into account and the mental model of the user is understood, you would have laid a solid foundation to start talking about key user-types and the scenarios in which the product/object is likely to be used the most.

It is important to identify key user-types, commonly known as "personas". Jonathan Grudin and John Pruit has written a detailed explanation of participatory design and personas here. My friend from User Research at Microsoft – Lada Gorlenko gave me a quick primer on various types of personas. In her words:

·         Primary personas (by definition) are users for who we are trying to optimize the interface. They are the primary user target and should be completely satisfied by the interface. 

·         Secondary personas are less important target users who can be largely (but not entirely) satisfied by the interface. They may have a few additional needs that we may or may not want or have resources to address. If we are addressing the special needs of secondary personas, we must make sure that these needs do not get in the way of the primary persona. An interface can have zero to two-three secondary personas.

·         Supplementary personas are personas who are not the primary target, but are completely satisfied by the interface anyway: they need a subset of what the interface has to offer or their needs for that particular product are similar to the needs of primary personas. They are kind of personas who are killed by the same stone as the primary ones as by-product J

·         Customer personas are those who choose and buy the product rather than use it.

·         Served personas do not use the product, but are affected by the use, they are “passengers in the car” rather than drivers, if you design a car dashboard. In our world, helpdesks are often server personas; they may not use our products as such, but they troubleshoot them.

·         Negative are personas we specifically do not design for. “Matches are not for small kids” kind of personas J

While following the design template, during PM interviews, it is a good idea to talk about at least three personas – primary, secondary and negative personas. This exercise will give you a comprehensive understanding about various potential users and will help make your design more complete.

For instance, you may say that primary persona for a kitchen on a train is Leona Nordic, who is the main chef in the kitchen and is responsible for deciding the menu as well as cooking. Mentioning full names of the personas help in adding empathy/realism to your statements. Seconday persona would be Peter Jardin, who is a server on the train and negative persona would be Tom Dickens who is a passenger and is less likely to enter the kitchen.

Personas lay a foundation for defining your scenarios, which are core to any design. The key in describing scenarios is to call out two or three most basic and frequent use cases of the product/object in question. For instance, one scenario for kitchen on a train could be – Leona prepares a sandwich and heats water for tea for a customer. High order bit here is to focus on the most basic scenario.

You may summarize the scenarios to define the core mission/vision statement for your design problem, before digging in the actual design. Defining the personas and scenarios should take about four to five minutes during the interview.

Let’s design for people!


Technorati tags: Program Manager , Product Manager , design , Microsoft Google, design a kitchen,product manager interview , personas

How would you design a kitchen? – dos

Continued from uno..

I’ll attempt to describe the notions of “mental model” and “affordances” in this quick post. Our mind constantly picks up pre-conceived notions and expectations about certain things. Mind assumes certain object to have a particular set of characteristics and if it finds out otherwise, it has a tendancy to judge the object as poorly designed.

A simplest example in digital terms could be: A button control on a web form, needs to be clickable at the very least. Our mind expects a button to be clickable and expects something to happen to the form once the button is clicked. If that basic ‘clickability’ is missing, the mind would judge the button or the form as “poorly” designed. Coming back to our example of designing a kitchen – no matter who the kitchen is for, human mind expects the kitchen to have to do something with food – ideally cooking/preparing/storing.  This set of characteristics and expectations that human mind has for every object is referred to as the mental model.

While following the design template, it is important to acknowledge the mental model for the object that is being designed and write it down. Some people also refer to it as affordance. For instance,

  • To be round is an affordance of a ball
  • To deal with food is an affordance of a kitchen
  • To be clickable is an affordnace of a button
  • To send and receive messages is an affordance of a chat/mail client
  • To add friends is an affordance of a social network

If your design lacks to acknowledge that, it may be easy to miss out on some fundamental points.

Let’s design the obvious!


Technorati tags: Program Manager , Product Manager , design , Microsoft Google, design a kitchen,product manager interview,mental models

How would you design a kitchen? – uno

I’ve received a few mails from friends asking me to explain my template for answering a design question in further detail, so let’s use one of the cliche interview questions to walk through my approach of answering design questions in Product/Program manager interviews.

“How would you design a kitchen?” is tantamount to “How would you move Mt. Fuji?”. Several PM interviewers are known to have asked this (in fact I was asked this twice – once in my campus interviews long time ago and then during a full-day interview – again several years ago.) As an interviewee, the key is to know that the “question” really does not matter. The approach does and the same approach can be successfully applied to ansewering a technical question like – “How would you design an object model for an instant messaging client?”

Before we start answering the question, let me share as to why I believe this template and more importantly “writing/scribbling/drawing your answer on the whiteboard” works. There are three strategic advantages of using the whiteboard in answering any design questions. The whiteboard helps in:

1. Taking notes and not having to worry about remembering them: As you’ll see, the key in answering such questions to the interviewer’s satisfaction is to ensure that you ask about every requirement and constraint before starting to answer the question – more the merrier. Writing down all requirements on the whiteboard and having them available during later stage in the interview can be really helpful.

2. Keeping track of the content, structure and timeliness of your answer: I’m a visual thinker and visual cues have always helped me in communicating my ideas more succinctly as well as comprehensively. Using the whiteboard (as shown in the template) is likely to make the interviewer notice your structured approach. Having your approach and answers visually available on the whiteboard allows the interviewer to provide immediate iterative feedback to a particular section of your answer, as opposed to a comprehensive feedback at the end. Iterative approach is the key to a successful design and having all iterations available visually will help the interviewer see the progressive design.

3. Snapshot of your answer for the next interviewer: Typically most interview loops include four to six people interviewing a candidate on the same day. It is customary for an interviewer to share his/her feedback on the candidate to the next interviewer, so that the next interviewer can structure the interview accordingly. Having a visual snapshot of your entire interview/answer makes it easier for an interviewer to share it with the next interviewer and is helpful in writing interview feedback at a later point.

If the interviewer does not have a whiteboard, request to use paper, but never attempt to answer such questions just verbally. The cardinal sin in answering any design question is to start answering it without asking any questions to the interviewer. Ideally, you should spend at least five to seven minutes in understanding the question, the requirements, the primary and secondary users and the constraints. The high order bit is to ask the right questions in right order.

For instance, one way to start answering – “How would you design a kitchen?” would be as follows:

Candidate: What is a kitchen?
Interviewer: A kitchen is a place to cook, store and server food as well as to clean utensils.
Candidate: Why do we need to design a kitchen? Are we designing from scratch or re-designing an existing kitchen? What are the flaws in the existing kitchen, if we are re-designing it?
Interviewer: We are designing it from scratch.
Candidate: Where is the kitchen going to be located? In a home, in a restaurant, some place else?
Interviewer: In a train
Candidate: That’s great. Are we just redesigning the kitchen or the entire train is also being redesigned by someone else? Is this kitchen going to be designed for a particular train or is it going to be mass-produced?
Interviewer: Only the kitchen is being re-designed. The kitchen is primarily designed for one particular train, but can be re-used in other trains, if the design is successful.
Candidate: Why are we redesigning it? Is it a passenger train or a cargo train? How many passengers does the train transport? Typically which cities does the train connect. How long is the longest journey?
Interviewer: Current kitchen only allows storage of cooked meals. We now want the ability to cook snacks and make beverages. We also want more storage. The longest distance is 1200 miles from Washington to California.

You get the idea…The precision question-answers can continue, but the key is to ask as many questions as you can to get the following requirements and constraints in the first five-seven minutes of the conversation, described in the first column of the template:

  • What needs to be designed?
  • Who is it for?
  • Why are we designing it?
  • What are time and cost constraints?
  • How are we expected to build it?
  • Who else besides the primary uses are likely to use it?
  • What are the core requirements in terms of functionality?

When I was first asked this question during a campus interview, I started describing high-tech futuristic solutions, with refrigerators connected with the web with auto-ordering system (for instance, milk, eggs, etc. will be automatically ordered from an online grocery service, based on weight sensors in the refrigerator). Although the answers were creative, they would have been incorrect (if the kitchen was not to be designed for the home).

Let’s be curious and ask the right questions!


Technorati tags: Program Manager , Product Manager , design , Microsoft Google, design a kitchen,product manager interview

How to become a Program Manager (at Microsoft or anywhere) – dos

“How would you design a kitchen?” – asked the campus recruiter, during my first on-campus screen. I completely flunked that question during the interview, due to mistakes that seem obvious now, but were way beyond my understanding of the role. During interviews, the interviewer is not judging a candidate’s creativity in a 30-minute conversation about designing a kitchen. The intent is to rather observe the approach and validate certain basic things – whether the candidate cares about the customer’s/user’s requirements or just goes ballastic on designing the kitchen, is the process iterative, etc.

To us engineers, it is tempting to start designing (read drawing screenshots/diagrams on the whiteboard) right away, but I would urge to pause and spend as much time as you can on understanding the user, the user’s intent, the constraints, the affordance, etc. before even starting to design. Over the years, I’ve developed a personal template for answering any design questions during an interview for a PM position and it has worked for most of my friends. Below is a quick snapshot of what you could write on the whiteboard (typically, most interviewers will ask you to use the whiteboard in asnwering such questions).


Divide the board in three vertical sections and start with the first section (top -> down). Discuss the requirements and constraints, and use the white board to take notes. Follow the template (top -> down, left -> right)

Let’s design great things!


Technorati tags: Program Manager , Product Manager , design , Microsoft

How to become a Program Manager (at Microsoft or anywhere) – uno

Three years ago, I asked myself and several of my mentors within and outside of Microsoft – "What’s the closest thing to entrepreneurship at Microsoft?" The unanimous answer was – "Become a Program Manager on a product that’s about to grow/explode!!" I took the leap of faith and it worked. I’ve enjoyed every bit of it and would recommend it to anyone, who’s passionate about technology, entrepreneurship and design.

Several folks have asked me a gamut of questions aboutthe role of a program manager, but the most common threads of conversations have been around "becoming a program manager at Microsoft."

While the role is called Program Manager, it is similar to the role of a product manager at most other companies including Google, Facebook, startups, etc. At Microsoft, Product Manager is a marketing role. Much has been written about the role by my mentors and people who are much more experienced, so I won’t delve into it. Three of my favorite blog posts (although some posts are dated) on the topic have been:

I’ll share some thinking points and more importantly, resources that I’ve found useful.

1. What do you look for in a PM candidate?
In an interview, we look for the following:

  • Design aptitude
  • Technical depth
  • Raw smarts
  • Customer empathy
  • Project management
  • Raw passion
  • Ability to get things done

So, if you are interviewing for a position, you’re bound to be asked the obvious question  – Why do you want to become a PM?

Ensure that your answers convey that your aspirations, motivations and experiences till date have instilled the qualities listed above.

2, Where to start?

If you’ve decided to become a PM, start by approaching your current activities like a successful PM. I’ve enjoyed reading the following books:

  • The Art of Project Management by Scott Berkun
  • About Face 2.0 (first 50 pages)
  • Design of everyday things
  • Design of things to come

Typically, I’ve seen some of my friends not focusing enough on design, as they’ve not learned it in school. If you feel the same way, then I’ll suggest focusing heavily on design (architecture design, user experience design, etc.)

I’ll follow up with a post which focuses on answering design questions during an interview.


Technorati tags: Program Manager , Product Manager , Microsoft