Friday, September 5, 2008

Start-Ups vs. Up-Starts

So for many people who know me, they are privy to certain reasons why I moved on from my previous life to a new one. Without saying too much, some things happened that forced me to move on and start again.

A lot has happened over the last two years, some of which was captured in photographs over the course of 2006/2007 but for the most part, I believe a majority of my avid readers have floated on since I managed to keep such a fantastically dry blog. One of my favorite readers, who celebrated her birthday the same day as myself is no where to be found and so my incentive to keep writing has gone from 0 to 100 in order to regain what I had once towered over.

My sense of humor may have changed, but then that is for the audience to decide. No, it has nothing to do with getting married. Quite frankly, I have definitely become more of the person I would want to be after getting married (make sure the wife is reading this one), but my desire to conquer the world, one low-income family at a time is still under progress.

Somehow, I find myself in start-up companies and I think whether I like it or not, my forte is now officially working in early stage start-ups that have some slight mandate towards affecting people's lives. With that said, each mandate may or may not be driven by profit-bearing incentives.

However, I have also come to realize that start-ups are not all they are made out to be. One must remember that the inherent risk of working with a start-up is failure due to poor management. While working with Acumen, among the many essential business tools I acquired, the one that holds the roots together is water-tight management. The product can be the most inspirational, the most useful and needed, the coolest or even just some modification of an existing product/service. Regardless, it's not the product, it's the realistic strategy taken by the management that drives the business.

The agri-business venture in Sindh has recently been invested in by Acumen and that to me is a success story. I can sleep so much better knowing that the hard work I invested in building the company, the team and working together to build the tracks for the train is all worth something more than theory. The investment readi-ness stage from 0 to 100 took a total of just under 2 years.

On the other hand, a recent venture dealing with mobile payments, has taken an opposite direction. After nearly 5 years of flip flopping with business objectives and revenue streams, while others such as Obopay have successfully raised nearly US$70 Million, Pakistan's version has barely touched US$ 1 Million in just about the same amount of time. One of the key requirements to working towards success, especially in a market as difficult as Pakistan is to make a decision, work towards it and stick it through with everything provided you have everyone's vote (everynone = board directors). The second, yet more tangible requirement, is a financial manager. This is pretty easy to find since Chartered Accountants are a dime a dozen in Pakistan and finding one who is good with financial forecasting and financial management is their key job. If you don't, you can fiddle about with budget sheets and hire a basic accountant and sink your business and the hard work everyone put into to get it up on it's feet.

The signficant difference between Agri-Business and Mobile payments are:
1. Agri products are more expensive to import, warehouse, install and sell
2. Agri industry players are cutthroat, highly experienced and very wealthy so competition is always on the high side
3. Agri-Business target market is dependent upon seasonal income which is hard to come by in regions of little or no rain fall so income is scarce
4. The telecom industry is booming so any value-added product has a 100% success factor if its managed and market correctly, especially if it's free!
5. Getting an investment from a partner is not difficult unless the requirements are rigorous as they are with all of Acumen's investments
6. Consistency with your message to the public is essential. If you change your strategy like one does underwear, there is something already wrong

Please note that I recognize agriculture and IT have little to do with one another, but from a business management perspective, although the caliber of the professionals required to run the business are different, the basic premise of running a business remains the same; to sell, you must first identify a target audience and market your presence and product(s), then ensure you have water-tight management in place for close budgeting and financial control - the most essential part of running a business, especially at an early stage.

I believe that Obopay succeeded primarily because they launched in a market that is conducive to out-there financial solutions. The FED is tough with companies and there are lots of banks willing to work with mobile financial solutions thanks to the precedent set by Paypal. When trust is an enormous issue, one must look to the avenues where you can establish the product and business before taking head-first risks that have very few mitigants, if any.

In principle, if you want to succeed with a start-up, try launching it with a simple approach and push hard but also be ready to cut your losses when you know you are sinking faster than you are floating. For your crew to stick through the storm depends upon how you treat them and how driven they are to succeed. The days of fuedal land lords or bunya seths where one man runs the show are over and it's time to look at models that work.
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