networks, information, and learning

Elementary information theory suggests the most amount of information is in the least probable places (Shannon entropy). As I spent some of my summer talking to new contacts, new friends, and new acquaintances, I realized this simple lesson applies to information in one’s network as well. The most interesting information lies at the edges of my network. A friend Henrik Berglund pointed out on Twitter that social scientists Ron Burt & Mark Granovetter make a similar point with academic rigor. While the central part of my network are trusted, older connections which yield remarkably high fidelity of information; the new connections are the best sources of new (and therefore valuable) information. A good portion of the new contacts other than founders I met for True Ventures or angel investments were True Venture interns. While most of them felt that they learnt a lot by querying me on what I know, I think I learnt more by asking them basic questions about who they were, what they liked doing and what they wanted to do. 

My own interaction with potential founders, employees is centered around three canonical questions:

  • What did you make?
  • What are you making right now?
  • What do you want to make?

This simple set serves as a scaffolding for much of the discussion – software or hardware or even things not technical. Talking to our summer interns, it was clear that I learnt new ways of looking at things and in reminding them of survivorship bias, I got an opportunity to re-examine some of my own affinities and beliefs. Some common observations that stood out:

  • Big companies as they know them today will likely not be around in current form.
  • Experience, design, and marketing matters as much as the technology for startup products.
  • An insightful understanding of day-to-day micro-decisions and micro-conflicts within the startups they worked for.  Most often, these tensions were between technology choices and achievable features/performance.
  • Brilliant commentary on their macro market observations and how it fit or did not fit where they worked.
  • A clear sense of urgency (even after adjusting for their short summer stints) in how fast product was evolving to fit changing market needs.

I am purposefully generalizing these observations as they all involve current startups and people but I was impressed how quickly their observations linked the micro-realities with a larger market understanding.

I wish I was this smart in my 20s. 

A similar learning occurs in listening to founder pitches. Most of my time since October 2012 has been spent looking at seed or early stage pitches. This is a great lens for (re)examining current markets and current successes in the technology industry. In fact, each pitch meeting is a lenslet that adds to a composite framework for learning and examination. Each meeting makes me learn something new and get smarter about more than that specific product and its intended market. Of course I can get a trusted read on the opportunity from the core of my network by asking the partner next to me about their take, but I recognize I would never get ‘new’ and higher entropy information without these new edges of the network. 

So thank you founders and interns who shared their insights and experiences. Your time, your take on your selves and your ideas make me learn smarter, learn faster, learn better.



Seven habits of highly effective tech Product Managers

1. Learn the grammar of your customers (past, current, future) and your engineering team. Your task is not  learning/translating vocabularies, it is translating grammars.

2. Be the repository of context for all decisions.

3. Assign a TTL (Time to Live) to every feature – ensure it is known and understood by your customers and your engineers.

4. Understand how a clutch/transmission works – this is your primary function in this role. Your technology/team is the engine.

5. Claim all failures, own all dependencies of subsequent effects of failures.

6. Build credibility with each engineer without a reporting structure. Do they come to you first when fast-iterating? If not, work on making that happen.

7. Read, understand Carol Dweck‘s work – it is the single most useful tool you will have for your interaction with engineers.

A Venture Partner Apprenticeship

I wrote elsewhere that my successes taught me more although my failures caused me to learn more. Coming off a year of a short-lived attempt at building a data-curated commerce engine, the need to learn more has never been more clear. I am not the kind of person who locks himself up in a room and emerges after a period of learning and/or contemplation. My best thinking is done by engaging with people, not just content.

For me, the best content are people and their insights.

My search for the right place to learn was quickly ended by the remarkably insightful folks at True Ventures. Since their founding in 2006, they have been focused at creating a unique and strong trust-fabric between founders and the firm. In fact, the word ‘firm’ is a bit of a misnomer, True is an intensely collaborative environment where egos haven’t formed silos of operation and partner founder relationships are not transactions.I am honored and excited to have a chance to learn in True’s supportive environment.

In the next one year I will be focusing on engaging with and learning from people. The fastest learners and consequently the best teachers (for me) are founders. The good ones have this uncanny ability to freeze everything and advance the world along a singular axis of their vision of a product, a technology, or a need that has not been found yet by others.

At True Founder Camp I had an opportunity to meet and talk to many True founders. I’d love to engage further and be of service wherever I can. My time is yours.

There are three parts to this apprenticeship: a) working for current founders in the early stage of startup formation,  b) working for founders scaling teams and operations towards a profitable company, and c) finding/developing new founders-to-be.

My areas of interest are anchored by innovations in infrastructure or novel applications of such infrastructure especially mobility, network/cloud computing including hardware systems, and data intelligence. Startup teams applying novel data manipulation and machine learning to new industry verticals, building sentient hardware that is responsive to its environment and peers, and delivering software infrastructure services to developers are of high degree of interest. If you are building software, hardware, or protocols that you intend to sell to data centers, service providers, or enterprise to solve meaningful problems for these customers, I would love to figure out a way to be helpful. A particular focus of mine with early stage teams is assessing if you are taking sufficient risk or are taking the right risks as early as possible in order to solve the right problems for your users/customers.

In this period of learning, I need to revisit what I knew, fertilize it with what I learnt, and gear up for the next decade.

I serve as an apprentice in order to learn the craft of venture beyond a journeyman level – from founders and investors alike. And I welcome your suggestions and advice – @rohit_x_ or


Startup culture and org charts

For startups in their first phase of building product to find the market fit, organization design is a unique challenge. Typically between two and ten employees, the organization in this phase is evolving fast and often (mostly) there isn’t a structure stable enough to be expressed in an org chart. For the founders, it is important to understand that in this early phase your org is a form to embody and express your culture. Saying “we have a flat org” is a cultural statement but may not convey much useful information to your early employees trying to find the boundaries of their work and decision making flow.

Culture in this early phase is an expression of founder DNA melded together with the DNA of early employees and undergoing evolution as a response to its environment. In fact, evolution is a very useful analogy to understand startup orgs. Startups are not products of creationism by a single supremely gifted founder or investor.  They evolve continuously influenced by the source DNA but are not limited by it if they build the right culture and communications as they add employee DNA to the mix. Added to this starter set of conditions is the DNA of all other key employees. This organism responds to market conditions, competition, technology, and is trying to find a way to survive and thrive and grow.
Culture = Founder DNA + Employee DNA + Environment + Adaptation
A critical factor in early org design is the requirement that the founder(s) understand their own skillset – in a brutally honest way and then recruit + surround themselves with people skilled in everything the founder(s) are not. Doing so also ensures that hierarchical structure and thinking does not set in early. The right hierarchy in organization is required at some point but likely not when a startup has less than ten employees. As I have written elsewhere, there are four canonical horsemen of successful startups:

The eternal optimists (usually the founders) – these folks have an uncanny ability to freeze everything except their vision of the product in a future time.
Grumpy ass kickers (usually the early employees) – bound  to create reality, they crave reality and making things vs. dreaming them up, and
Intuitive humanists (sometimes the founders, usually later employees) – they care about the human emotional needs of employees and the collective org. They will build links where none exist and are a much needed part of care and feeding of startup employees.
Chameleons (sometimes tech-founders) – these are the folks that can play whichever roles are required (dev, production, design, …) for a short duration to get-stuff-done. Finding a stable, long-term role for them in a large startup on its way to becoming a company is typically quite hard. Chameleons love startups and will hop to another one vs. scaling/changing with a single startup.

Org charts are also a proxy for communications in a startup. Silos of information appear when the charts are not heavily interconnected. An early sign of such dysfunction is the onset of process in a startup. Process != communications and when used as an excuse for not communicating usually leads to an early demise for the startup. In addition to communicating product, technology, mission, and their vision for a startup, the founders must also ensure that everyone understands the ephemeral nature of their organization and org-charts. They need to have everyone understand that:

  • The org is going to change.
  • The org is going to be flat with identified decision flows. Information must flow everywhere.
  • If you cannot look back and say what you did last week, something is not right.
  • Responsibilities assigned to everyone enables them to operate out of their comfort zone – you, the founder is likely already out of your comfort zone.
  • The org chart helps delineate responsibilities – especially for decisions.

Does your startup have an org-chart? Do you think you need one? Help me think more about this topic – @rohit_x_