Learnings from Serial Entrepreneur, Bhavin Turakhia - part 2
30 mins listen

10th Oct, 2019

Salonie: Hi and welcome to Matrix Moments, this is Salonie and in today’s episode we aim to uncover the learnings from serial entrepreneur, Bhavin Turakhia. Bhavin is currently founder & CEO at Flock, co-founder & CEO at Zeta and Founder of Radix Registry. He started out at the age of 17 when he co-founded his first tech venture Directi with his brother Divyank Turakhia. Directi owned brands like BigRock, LogicBoxes, ResellerClub, and Webhosting.info.

Tarun: Very interesting. Okay, I am going switch gears to a topic which I know is very close to your heart. What role has culture played in your companies? And what are some of the initiatives that you have taken to build a strong company culture especially given at various points in time you have been running multiple businesses?

Bhavin: Absolutely. So culture is hugely important. And in fact, we have done multiple exercises and evolved through the different companies I have been a part of in the early days as well as now with Flock, Zeta, and Radix. We have evolved the values that are important to our company. So today if I look at some of the values that we espouse in our organization, it’s hiring the best, being really good at prioritization, speed and urgency, continuous learning and knowledge sharing, humility and niceness, frequent candid feedback and recognition. So these are some of the values that we really look for in individuals that we bring onboard. We look for leaders that we promote as managers. And in general, we espouse and try and adhere to as much as possible.

I have had the good fortune of being part of multiple startups. And the startup space culture sort of culture becomes a bit more easier because there’s fewer people and cultures percolating top down. You end up meeting everybody frequently enough. And both me and many of the individuals that have worked with me from now more than a decade continue to adhere to those values and in fact helped me evolve with them. But I think you tend to reach an inflection point when you grow to sort of 100 - 150 people. And then you grow from 100 - 150 people to like 400 - 500 or 1000 people, we start reaching inflection points where the intake of people is pretty rapid, where you yourself are not going to be able to directly interact as the founder or co-founder with every single individual in the company and so on and so forth.

And so suddenly now what used to happen by default, what you could take for granted which is culture percolation. You now have to put into place actual initiatives on an ongoing basis that would continue to manage culture. The two or three most important aspects and I can’t really say I have solved for all of them either, but the most important aspects, one is try and solve for culture at the gate which means that we want to try and make sure that our hiring processes are such that we bring in individuals who are a culture fit for us.

So humility and niceness for instance is one of our important cultural values. And invariably everybody who is part of this organization because of the people they are, the kind of people they attract and bring in are also the ones who will place others first. Who are nice, possess humility et cetera.

So this notion of hiring the best, the kind of bar that we create. The notion of continuous learning and knowledge sharing so some of these things can be tested for at the timing of interviewing and to the extent that you can at least account for 60 to 80% of your cultural values by testing them at interviewing time. You are already solving for large chunk at the gate.

Tarun: Sorry, go ahead.

Bhavin: Yes, I was going to say the second thing that we participate is a series of initiatives that will ensure that that we maintain this culture. So it’s one on one, town halls, lots of forums and avenues for people to voice stuff. And encouraging people in terms of pointing out culture deviations. Recognizing culture adherence and promoting individuals and putting people in the managerial role if they sort of meet your cultural attributes or helping them through the process of meeting those culture attributes they might no meet and things like that. So that’s kind of second big area.

Tarun: Yes. I will just make one remark and I remember Bhavin, telling you this when I had joined in 2009, I had spent several years at Infosys before that. And Infosys was recognized as one of the best companies in the world as far as it came to knowledge management. And I remember telling you this that I was surprised a very young company like Directi at that time had invested so much in I remember all the Wikis and Jira tools and everything that we used to use internally and like literally every idea, every discussion, every new growth hack, every new product idea everything was sort of there was a Wiki for it that was searchable and editable. And there was a clear track record of who added it, when it was added. People could comment on it. And it was just there for pretty much everyone in the company to see at any point in time.

And I would highlight two things. One is which honestly I thought was very very refreshing, one was just investment in knowledge management. And I remember all the training videos and everything that you all had done to train all the new joinees at scale which very few young companies actually invest in. The second was this culture of transparency, openness. And I remember pretty much every meeting that you did was visible and notes of that meeting were visible for everyone to see in the company. And I think that unique culture where pretty much anyone is privy to any information as long as they are not misusing that. And also aligns people in terms of, hey, here is what is happening at the broader level which I thought was actually very refreshing.

Bhavin: Thanks. Yes, I love implementing the best possible tools for knowledge management. I also always believed that the total value of any company these days especially even more so knowledge era the total value of any company is a sum total of the value of the knowledge that every individual in the company carries. And you can expand and increase that. It’s going to increase the value of the organization.

Tarun: Yes. Okay, coming to another topic which I know is close to your heart, productivity and sort of tools and hacks that you use to keep yourself productive just given how many things you are involved in. I remember reading a blog post that you had put out several years ago which is the my to-do list is my number one productivity tool, right? Or something of that sort. I remember the title was something similar.

I am sure you have learnt personally a lot over time, so talk a little bit about what do you use today to keep yourself productive? What do you use to make sure that you are able to multi-task and sort of keep the house in order? How do you prioritize et cetera?

Bhavin: Sure. So let’s take each of those three things. Prioritization, being productive, and multitasking. I actually believe in fact one of the most important skill I recently put out in another post - small sort of twitter post on this basically that prioritization is actually one of the most important skills that hasn’t been given as much relevance by most people. But a large number of us end up doing a lot of work. I think the difference between really successful companies versus the ones that are averagely successful is that the really successful companies are consistently finding the highest impact initiatives that has the lowest requirement of investment like low effort high impact basically.

In fact the art if you can do that yourself as a founder, awesome. You are obviously spending your time therefore on the most highest value activities. If you can train an entire company of people to constantly to do that, you have a compounding effect in terms of creating exponential value. And I myself have also over time kind of - I used to be a - so it’s kind of interesting how there are some fundamental principles in prioritization that I have learnt. So let me talk about the framework by the way. The simplest framework is it’s not about - creativity a to-do list is very easy. Anybody can create a task list of 50 things. And I am quite certain every individual in every organization can create infinite task list. I think the more important thing is not what you do. In fact, it’s what you leave out actually that becomes more important and how you are okay with leaving out stuff and how you are selecting the stuff that you should focus on.

And so prioritization, the simplest framework is if you have got a list of things to do whether it’s building a product, whether it’s in marketing, whether it’s choosing between functions in your organization and task, you want to be able to train yourself over time to be able to classify these tasks into what’s the amount of effort required. Effort could be resources in terms of people, capital, your own time et cetera, and what’s the impact that this initiative will make and in many cases assumed impact is one possibility or you can validate both the effort and the impact.

And so my typical framework and this is be applied to whether it’s product development, whether it’s go-to market strategies et cetera is that here are the list of strategies initiatives that we could do. And now classify each of them by saying is the impact high, low, or medium. And don’t just make assumptions. Maybe do some validations, some LVP, experiments. Talk to people who have done this before, but figure out what the potential impact could be of this initiative, figure out what the effort could be by talking to the people who are actually going to put in the effort.

And so classify effort into low, medium, high. Classify impact into low, medium, high. And then if you are good at this discovery process, then you will have enough number of initiatives that have high impact and low effort on a constant basis. Everything else can be discarded. Some cases will have to look at sort of high impact, high effort initiatives. But you now want to sort of touch the low impact, low effort initiatives at all like those or the medium ones can be effectively discarded and you keep yourself always in the high impact quadrant basically that kind of the framework.

And this whole notion of prioritization required me personally and this is hard for a lot of entrepreneurs to do because it’s innate in us, it required me personally to shed two things, which is it required me to shed this notion of perfectionism. I used to be such a perfectionist in terms of like everything needs to be perfect. And it’s paradoxically situation because if you want to try for everything be perfect, you will actually end up with everything being mediocre because you have your attention on everything including the low impact stuff and the high impact stuff which means you have to be okay with the low impact stuff being much less than perfect so that the high impact stuff can be at the highest level of perfection because you have limited time.

So shedding perfectionism is one of the things that I have learnt along the way. And parallelly along with comes this notion of especially when you are scaling rapidly, letting certain fires burn. It’s okay. Some things will not go well. As long as they don’t have a significant impact, as long as they are not going to mess your organization up or company up et cetera, you can be okay with letting fires burn knowing that you might be able to pay attention to them at some point in time when it’s right basically.

So it’s counter intuitive in some sense, but prioritization I think is the biggest - effective prioritization is the biggest value creator.

Tarun: Absolutely. Completely agree.

Bhavin: This second thing you spoke about is multitasking. I will actually tell you my simple formula out there is which is don’t. The worst thing - the biggest hit on productivity and I say that as somebody who was a prolific multitasker. The unfortunate thing is biologically we are wired to derive a higher degree of short-term pleasure from multitasking because every time we switch attention and get distracted and move to a different task, we get kind of - 

Tarun: The context switch, yes.

Bhavin: So wired and these days devices and gadgets and various things make it very easy to actually multitask. You can pay two minutes of attention on your current task and then get distracted by WhatsApp message and get distracted by a Flock message. You can get distracted by an email. I mean I have read enough number of books to know that our brain is not wired for multitask much like a processor which is not wired to actually do multiple tasks at same time. The moment you switch your context switching, all context switching is a waste of resources.

So I try really really hard and I can tell you it’s still an evolution for me but I try really really hard to focus on one thing at a time. And this dovetails very well into the previous thing that I said which is if you have figured out how to pick the highest priority task to focus on right now, then that task should be getting a 100% of your attention and nothing else. Once you give it adequate justice and get it to a certain level, that’s when you say okay, now I can switch my gear to the next high priority task and give that all my attention.

So yes, multitasking is the biggest, biggest productivity sink and therefore not multitasking is actually the biggest productivity hack I can talk about with anybody. 

Tarun: Yes. No, I think the clarity of thought once you know what is important and I think that’s where most people struggle is actually not prioritizing. And because they don’t know what is important, they don’t know where to put their resources and time. And also they get stuck in the sort of perfection paradox which everything needs to perfect.

Bhavin: Yes, absolutely. And with regards to being productive I mean I am constantly, constantly evolving. I try and - like I have been using now three monitors since ages every single - I have five different office spaces that I work out from. And I have the same identical standing desk, chair, video conference unit. My monitors, my keyboard, my mouse everything is standardized after evolutionary experiments on what works best for me. Lighting conditions, personal tools that are used, practices that I use, document everything.

One of the fundamental philosophies that I follow is that anything that I repeat more than three times must be processified, automated, and delegated in some form so that I am now free to kind of - one, the quantity is ensured of whatever I am repeating and I am free to do other things basically. So I have a huge penchant for productivity and I try and sort of make the maximum out of every single minute that I possibly can. I mean I guess that it’s bucketed into few different buckets. One is try and create an environment that will maximize productivity. So it’s the kind of setup that I have for work everywhere. Even if I spend like 7 to 10 days at a place, I will try and make sure that my assistants kind of setup my systems et cetera there in advance of me landing there or being there in the exact manner that I want them so that the 10 days that I am spending working from that new destination are going to be most effective. So I try and maximize whatever I can from like each minute of time.

Tarun: Everywhere you go, yes.

Bhavin: Knockout all mundane decisions in my life and delegate them to people et cetera so that I don’t have to actually focus on things that are not going to add exponential value that are operational tasks. So that’s my kind of - and it’s again an ongoing evolutionary process.

Tarun: How do you see your personal success has shaped who are today? So you obviously evolved like you mentioned a few times, right? So, if you look back yourself 10 years ago versus today, what is different about you?

Bhavin: I mean I have learnt a lot of lessons through mistakes I have made. I have made mistakes in the area for instance, I said prioritization - perfection versus prioritization is an area where I have had huge evolution. Notion of kind of I still have an extremely high degree of optimism but I have spent a lot of resources rather wasted a lot of resources on building stuff - investing a lot behind building something big without validation based on my personal assumptions.

One of the people in my team has this constant sort of saying that he keeps telling everybody that we are not the user and I am going to tattoo this inside of your eyelids so that you don’t forget that we are not the user. But I have gone through that fallacies so many many many times to a point where after having learnt the lessons the hard way now I am at the opposite.

I am like sure we have a strong hypothesis, but what’s the absolute minimum we can do to validate it to a point of like we have a degree confidence.

Tarun: Confidence, absolutely.

Bhavin: I will do that now for everything by creating kind of internal pitch documents. We have a format for creating an internal pitch document for any initiative. And the goal of that pitch document is to essentially showcase two things. One, this initiative that you are pitching so we call it pitch document because at the end of the day you as a resource like a person in the marketing team, a person in the product team are asking the organization to dedicate your time and the other people’s time behind an initiative you think will move the needle.

So well, first off, you are going tell us what needle you are trying to move. Is that important to the organization? Are you focusing on revenue or profit or user base or engagement or whatever it is? The sum number that you are moving so that number itself is important.

Second is what’s the kind of impact you are looking at making and prove to us that you will make that impact like it validate it through some experiments et cetera. And then we compare multiple pitch documents to decide which initiative should actually bubble up to the top and get people’s attention.

And so that whole process it takes more time. But, it ends up resulting in us doing fewer things with things that actually matter than doing 20 things but all of them resulting in a half-baked results.

Tarun: Have you become more patient as a person through this whole sort of journey of self discovery and evolution?

Bhavin: I can tell you patience is something I am still working on honestly. It actually a personal challenge. In fact, perfectionism was a huge challenge.

Tarun: Yes, I know.

Bhavin: And I have made a significant progress on it. Same for patience. I think it’s still a journey. And I still have some ways to go there, but I have definitely evolved on both of those points to a significant degree.

Tarun: I think just two quick takeaways for people listening in I think as investors we look for this in founders when we are looking to invest. One is inside out versus outside in, right? And you mentioned about this is my hypothesis but what have I really done to validate that from people who are actually going to be using this product or service. And I think most companies sort of failed to achieve PMF because a lot of what they do is basis inside out thinking, and very little outside in validation of what they are looking to build, so number one.

Number two is I think a lot of us if I take a 2 x 2 metrics of what is known versus unknown, you can have the known knowns. You can have the known unknowns and then there is the domain of what is unknown. And I think a lot of us end up spending a lot of our time in basically just discussing known knowns, right?

Bhavin: Yes.

Tarun: And a very few people want to go into the zone of discomfort which is “hey, but what are the things that I don’t know?” And are there things that I can do today to basically know a little bit more about that area or that user or that product idea or whatever it may be. And I think known unknowns one can de-risk as a founder by listing those things down and saying hey, what can I do de-risk myself from these known unknowns today. Unknown unknowns are hard like these are like just sort of things that are most often beyond your control. And, while one can attempt to do something about it, almost always it’s hard. But even the known unknowns I think most people just try to avoid thinking about them. And I think that’s one area where I have seen some of the best companies that are being built by founders very very outside in, very very focused on solving for known unknowns and unknown unknowns also very often.

Bhavin: I mean absolutely. I think some of the biggest opportunities lie in the unknown unknowns. The hardest to capitalize on, but some of the biggest opportunities lie in that zone.

Tarun: Correct, absolutely. Okay, and my final question because I think we are going to be out of time soon, what advice would you give yourself or your younger self maybe if you were starting up today and fast-forward back to 15 years ago when you were starting up, what is the advice that you could give your younger self today? What are maybe top three sort of takeaways if you were to crystalize sort of everything you have learnt? And I know it’s hard but maybe top three things that you would advice yourself.

Bhavin: Sure. Again, I could talk about hundreds of things, but top three automatically forces me to prioritize. So, that’s a good lesson by itself but reiterate it. I guess I will talk about three messages. Again these are all crystalized over many many years.

One is I have always focused on - I mean started calling it use an acronym TAP with three ingredients that I think have been very important for success that I now see is talent, alignment, and prioritization. So that’s the first piece of advice I can talk about is if you can solve for these three in your organization, you have already got the ingredient for success. Which is if you have the best talent, if all of them are aligned towards the one goal or metric or process or objective that you want to achieve - and by the way the most powerful tool that I have used the second piece alignment is OKRs.

We actually very very strictly follow kind of an OKR planning process quarterly and annually across all my companies. But it’s been extremely useful if done well. I actually have videos by the way on my YouTube channel on OKR that we use for all internal training.

Tarun: Sure, we will post the link in the transcript for this one.

Bhavin: Yes, I will send them to you. So that’s talent alignment and third is what we already spoke about is prioritization. You can all be aligned. You can have a thousand people team that’s all aligned towards the same objectives and OKRs. But to achieve a specific KR, to achieve your objectives, what the initiatives that you as an organization are spending your people and time and capital and resources behind, if they are the highest priority ones, then you have got a formula for success.

So talent, alignment, prioritization, this is the first kind of piece of advice I would talk about. The second thing that I would say is focus on value not valuation. This is something that I think is in many ways being again critical and instrumental for our success.

And, I see some really large unicorns and big companies that - fair that they have done really well and I have respect for these entrepreneurs, but even today are constantly focused on x amount of valuation. And some companies I sometimes even wonder the size and scale, they are global. They have vast majority of the market share, and they are still not profitable. And to me that just seems to feel like, okay, they are not adding meaningful substantial value as yet because if they were doing that - because I can see the scenario where you are spending money for growth at the comprise of profit, that’s okay. But if you have already grown to a point where now future growth is marginal and you are still not profitable, then that’s clearly a problem with the value equation.

And to me, I think a business is something that can generate positive value for its customers. And in turn, be able to therefore command back revenue and profits by providing that value. And if as an entrepreneur you focus on creating value, you will automatically build a successful business. And valuation is a side effect of that. So I that’s the kind of second piece of advice.

The third thing that I will tell you which I have had some failures in the past. Flock prior to pivot and in some sense even after pivot, it took us a while to sort of take this to heart, which is talk to customers as early and as often as you can. And I think this is an advice especially relevant for let’s younger me or startup founders in fact given that actually in the first few years of your company is when you will have the most time even be able to dedicate to talking to customers. And you will be closest to them. The bigger our company grows, the more department it has, the more people it has, you will be so far removed from your customers, you will never get that opportunity back. So earlier stage you are at, use that opportunity and time that you have, talk to as many customers as you can, validate stuff through those conversations as often as you can. And so, yes, those are the three pieces I think of as high priority.

Tarun: I think these are excellent. Thank you so much. And I will just add one point on the second one. Incidentally, I was talking to somebody else. He is another investor in the ecosystem and we were talking earlier this morning about on your point of value versus valuation, right? We were talking about especially where we are today, the gap between what we are seeing in the real economy and sort of everyday hearing slowdown across sectors. We are hearing about potential sort of recession and all sorts of stuff global slowdown et cetera. But when it comes to startups and ecosystem it’s never been more buoyant, right? And it’s actually now getting to a point where it’s scarcely so. And so we were talking about how young founders I think one of the biggest favors they can do to themselves is to actually educate themselves on how their companies would be valued if they were to go public. And, you can keep fooling yourself about, hey, here’s my last round valuation, but not knowing what kind of multiples you will actually get when you go public, is one of the things that I think people just drink the Kool Aid for way to long.

And today, it’s very easy for companies that are burning even at the contribution level, let alone company level profitabilities, a lot of these companies get 10, 20, 30 times revenue multiples. But this all just like on paper. And unfortunately, this doesn’t last really long. And at some point companies need to take a down round. Worse, they figure out that the money that raised is the last money they have gotten. And that’s when unfortunately they need to go through the difficult journey of letting go people, cutting scale, finding a way to somehow become profitable. And that never ends nicely, right. And so I think point on really really okay, fine, you have got a great valuation. You have got some investor who really believes in sort of the future growth of your company, but that shouldn’t let you fool yourself for a minute on what is the actual value that has been created.

Bhavin: Absolutely. I mean because of the fact that I bootstrapped my first company. Div bootstrapped Media.net in its entirety. I kind of self funded Radix, Flock et cetera. In some sense the dearth of capital has actually allowed me to not get distracted by valuation rounds and instead focus on creating true value.

Tarun: Correct. No, absolutely. Great, Bhavin. This has indeed been a pleasure. I think a lot of the stuff that you have spoken about is just super relevant for anyone listening in just in terms of A) How do you go about picking your businesses. Your early childhood days. Sort of how think about building company culture, talk about getting validation from users very early. Talk about I love the framework of TAP by the way which I haven’t heard earlier, but I think it’s super important that one implement this very early in their company. So thank you so much. I have enjoyed this a lot and I am sure people listening in are going to take away a lot from this episode. So thank you so much for doing this.

Bhavin: Thanks. Thanks Tarun. Thanks Salonie. Thanks everybody. It’s a really pleasure talking to you guys.

Tarun: Thank you again.