My Independence – Growing up

This is part-3 of a series in which I am writing a post every 6-7 months to chronicle my entrepreneurial journey (see first part and second part) and share my roadblocks as well as lessons. It is hard to write connected posts with such a long gap, you tend to get lost in details and what to exclude. Let me try to distill my thoughts and present a short version of my last 7 months (this is still a very long post!).

I left the last post at a point where I had just come out of a pretty depressing phase where nothing seemed to be going for me –called ‘informed pessimism’ in psychology literature – and I had entered ‘informed optimism’ phase. Most of the comments suggested that people thought I was on the verge of giving up, and they tried to encourage me. I have good news for them: I am continuing on the same path, with much more determination and fun. All of your best wishes definitely worked for me!

According to my earlier plan (right before coming to India), I was going to use 2012 as my year of experimentation, and 2013 as year of creation and growth. When I reflect on this now, I clearly underestimated the complexity involved in entrepreneurship. 8 months were never going to be enough for experimentation. I think now I am entering into a phase where experiments are being wound down and a phase of creation is starting. So it took about 15 months instead of 8!

Jan-Feb of this year (2013) were important months for me to make sense of the world around me again – where should I be going, and how to restructure the experiments. I explored many types of go-forward paths and finally decided to close some experiments and start some new ones. This resulted in winding down of my engagement in 2 e-commerce projects – e-commerce gyaan portal and online retail store. This was painful (esp. because they are ventures of my good friends), but this has allowed me to focus more on core of my career management business, so it feels to be a good decision. This provided me with bandwidth to pursue something I had decided to defer last year.

Analysis

I was working in 2012 with 3 goals in mind:

  1. Build good client list: Build a reasonable business in Career Bloom and have many working professionals as clients
  2. Build a brand name: Build a name for Career Bloom

By the end of last year, I was working on 4 things: Sunstone, CareerBloom, RetailBiz (e-commerce knowledge portal) and CrockeryPlanet (online crockery store). Early this year, I started looking at them along 3 dimensions:

  1. Passion: Does it excite me? Am I passionate about it?
  2. Strengths: Am I leveraging my existing strengths?
  3. Goal alignment: Is it aligned with my overall goal of career management?

Good thing was that I could check-off #1 on everything I was doing: I was excited about all these activities and was passionate about these areas (teaching, coaching, writing, e-commerce). That left the other 2 dimensions, and verdict was more troublesome there.

Three trouble spots emerged (the X-Y coordinate of a name in above picture denotes the goal alignment and strength level respectively):

  1. RetailBiz and CrockeryPlanet were not very aligned to my career management vision and goals.
  2. My engagement with Sunstone was great but it had less focus on career coaching and more on placements, so not perfect goal alignment.
  3. CareerBloom was doing less for brand building and more of actual service offering, which meant short term alignment but not long term alignment.
  4. I was mostly around midpoint of my strength scale, which meant I was underutilizing myself.

When I looked at the strengths I was leveraging, I also realized there were some strengths that I was not leveraging at all: my product development and management expertise, and my organization management experience.

Armed with these insights, I was ready to proceed to do some changes in my portfolio of work.

In general, I found this exercise very helpful and I strongly recommend doing this once in a while to any entrepreneur out there who is juggling multiple things. If you are a working professional, treat this as your regular career review exercise that I highly encourage doing.

Reorganizing Portfolio

Here is how my portfolio looks like now:

  1. RetailBiz and CrockeryPlanet have been dropped because they were not aligned with my goals anymore.
  2. CareerBloom has been tweaked so that focus is more on brand-building and group sessions and less on offering career services to individuals. This has improved the alignment.
  3. Sunstone has been tweaked (still in process) so that focus is more on teaching and coaching, and less on placements and other ancillary activities.
  4. Palash (the name for my consulting practice) is up and running which aligns with my organizational and product management strengths, and it aligns very well with my goals
  5. ProductNation has been added to the portfolio where I interview startups and write product reviews and product management articles. This provides brand-building, and leverages my product and writing strength. Connecting to startups is a bonus and very fulfilling. Overall, goal alignment is not very high but this is very high on my strengths.

This change affords me to move my portfolio to the top right quadrant which is the ideal spot. This is still not perfect but it is a big improvement over my 2012 portfolio. Results have been promising with this portfolio.

Focusing on Organizations

One of the biggest change in 2013 has been the shift in focus from individuals to organizations, and it is worth elaborating some more. When I started in 2012, I had to decide whether to put my energy on exploring individual career management (individual as my client) or careers within organizations (organization as my client). In other words, deciding between B2C (business to consumer) and B2B (business to business): B2C has low barrier of entry but low per client revenue while B2B has high barrier of entry but with high per client revenue. Based on some initial explorations and discussions with people I sought advice from, it was clear that reaching to organizations (esp. working through HR) was not going to be easy. ‘Career management’ and ‘Career coaching’ are not in the vocabulary of HR, and it was hard to explain what I really was offering and what value they would get. So I had gone in the direction of setting up CareerBloom and marketing it to individuals. Traction was very low, but it did help me spread the word about what I did and I did get a few interesting clients whom I offered free coaching for a while.

With continued low traction on Career Bloom and in an effort to change my portfolio, I decided to re-focus on organizations. Some of the things which made it easier this time around:

  1. CEO-first approach: One of the lessons I learned from talking to HR is that it is going to be hard to compete against service providers for Training & Development needs of HR community. This is a well-understood space and HR is comfortable budgeting for these activities, adding a new vocabulary was going to be hard. Also, my core value proposition was never a typical seminar/workshop around career, it was always a deeper engagement with engineering teams to help drive business value. So CEOs and business heads were actually in a better position to understand and judge my offering. So I started meeting with a few CEOs to understand what their organizations needs might be and how I might help. This helped a lot.
  2. ProductNation connect: ProductNation association has provided me with some good connections and credibility. Both came handy when I started engaging on the organizations front.
  3. Sunstone credibility: It has been a year now since I started with Sunstone and I have now done many different things with Sunstone – core courses, open courses, career coaching, placements, etc. In addition to refining my thought process around Careers, this has helped me build my credibility as a course director and it helps open doors when I mention that I am a faculty at Sunstone.

Time to ask a few questions about this change.

Do I have tons of consulting engagement now to show for this?

Not really. I think what has been very heartening for me is the learning as I went through this exercise of engaging organizations. The response has been very encouraging, I have felt connected with issues we discussed, and it feels good to be back working in the context of organizations! J

Would it have been better if I had started with this rather than individual career management?

It is hard to say. I think it was beneficial to focus a year on individual career management. It gave me lots of insights about Indian IT professionals and students, which helps build my case when I talk to organizations. So maybe this is the right sequence. I did get some specific feedback about starting individual first because it would give me some success stories to talk about which in turn will help when I talk to HR about my offering. This hasn’t materialized – I don’t have enough success stories. So maybe I should have dug deeper into analyzing the likely traction of Career Bloom in 12 months and maybe outcome would have been different. Changing focus from HR to CEO during that time also might have yielded a different prioritization.

Should I have started with both individual and organization focus and not indulged myself in e-commerce related projects?

Maybe. I think this is really about deciding whether you listen to your heart and be happy in the moment, or you just focus on the end and optimize your life for that. I chose those e-commerce projects because I am interested in writing, because I have expertise in that area, and because they made me feel good about myself. I guess I made these choices listening to my heart and

Mindshare vs. Timeshare

One last point about a lesson I learned this year. When I started dividing my time among multiple projects, I realized some types of time distribution were easier than others. The weeks where I had Sunstone classes to teach, I would fail miserably in managing my multi-project schedule for example. After a while, and discussing with a few close friends, I finally realized what was going on. I was working on different types of projects – some required me to give time and deliver value by being physically present, others required me to think about them even when I was not actively engaged in working. Latter were much harder to manage than former. I realized that latter required mindshare as well as timeshare, while former required only timeshare. Of course, this is gross simplification and most work will require both, but the point is that some work is mind-share heavy while another could be timeshare heavy. It is much easier to multi-task across timeshare-heavy tasks than across mindshare-heavy ones. Of course, there are ways to convert part of mind-share to time-share (by not checking mails all the time, work locally rather than remotely, allocate time of day/week to specific projects, etc.) but overall it helps when projects can be categorized and managed in this way. This has helped me a lot where I am trying to cut down on work that requires too much mindshare.

Predicting 2014

It is hard to believe, but it will soon be 2 years since I left US and full-time job. While I have stopped predicting future, I know a big decision is coming up which will be the theme for 2014. It seems I will reach my personal capacity to multi-task and support multiple clients. I need to take a call and choose one (or more) of the following paths:

  1. Continue to stay 1-person army and try to become high-end (thereby increasing my per-hour revenue)
  2. Hire and grow Palash into a consulting practice
  3. Rejig my portfolio by moving from people-intensive offering to technology-intensive offering

Good thing is that the time hasn’t come yet, so I have time to think about it. Your inputs are most welcome and much appreciated. When I write next post in 6 months or so, hopefully I will have more to say about this.

Thank you for reading such a long post! Hopefully you feel good about my future. I definitely feel that way, for now J. As I mentioned in prior posts, this has been an enjoyable journey even though it has had its ups and downs. I have no doubt in my mind that my experience so far has enriched me considerably, and while financial gains may have been modest, non-financial gains have been immense. I highly recommend taking a plunge and enjoy this roller-coster mind-game called entrepreneurship!

3 Replies to “My Independence – Growing up”

  1. Hello Kumar,

    It is good to read your blog again.

    I’m not an expert in career management services but basically I see to several trends:
    – the CEO route is a High margin business but the people are picky and they look for brand, esp. your target segment are people that can afford the services. The entry barrier is high, esp. their organization structure would inherently make them more conservative, in terms of choosing third party HR services.
    – the more interesting is the CEO in SMB. But then, their need would not be exact career development, but organization skills or just setting up management/review structure etc. This crosscuts with the HR area (and you essentially become a HR shop), but could be a viable option
    – the (tech) start-up plays to the strength in product. career development is not exactly the priority. Product review are what they need (but they can’t exactly pay a lot for these).
    – career development as a seminar. I haven’t heard what is your experience in this area but I imagine that your demography would be interested in a disciplined approach (e.g. 7 habits of highly effective people, crucial conversation etc.) Love to hear your thought on that.

    1. Thanks Isaac for your detailed comments, good points around various options available to me. I have done a few career development seminars, not the 7 habits.. types, but more on generic topics. That doesn’t seem to be a viable business on its own (unless I can hire a bunch of trainers and scale it like any other training company), but it is a good add-on value to other consulting services. Seminars on specific topics (‘how to handle performance reviews and get the raise you deserve?’ type) may attract more crowd, haven’t tried them, I guess they are worth trying.

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