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“Can you please look at me when I’m talking to you?”
Said Aditi impatiently. We were sitting in the drawing room after having dinner. While having a conversation with her, my thoughts had drifted to a project the team is working on – and the sound of her voice jolted me back. “But I am looking at you!” I protested.
“No you’re not! You’re looking through me… past me… It’s like I am in your peripheral vision!” She complained. She was right… she usually (read “always”) is.
Multiple times each day, Irrespective of where I am, I simply “zone out” – thinking about my new ideas for Zindagi to work on, our current projects, how we can improve our service offering, how to optimise costs, how to lead the team better, how to keep morale up at all times, how to increase cash flow.
At times like these, I’m present in the room physically, but mentally I’m thinking about Zindagi.
I wasn’t always like this – I chose this path for myself. I chose to launch, execute, grow and scale my business. This path demands a lot of research, networking, planning, business strategy, marketing, sales, etc..
My beliefs are:
  • Zindagi, for me – represents something far greater than me and my personal interests. I want us to succeed in becoming the best at what we do!
  • I have to own everything. If a team member makes a mistake, I need to admit it as my failure as a leader, take responsibility and develop a plan to fix it.
  • They say that there are no bad teams, only bad leaders. All responsibility of success and failure starts and ends with me.
  • I can’t afford to be complacent. I need to constantly strive to improve my team by identifying weaknesses and addressing them. Bad performance from any member of my team is unacceptable. I need to train, mentor and groom anyone who isn’t performing.
  • I need to work myself out of my current job. I need to make myself redundant by grooming my team to step up and take greater responsibilities.

Wearing multiple hats

As an entrepreneur, I get to feel a lot of emotions each day. But the one emotion I never felt since I left my job is of feeling bored. I get to wear so many hats each day:
  • A Solutions Architect – Designing solutions for my customers involving large scale ICT networks, data centres, security devices, IOT networks,Wireless and surveillance systems.
  • A Project Manager – I don’t have formal Project Management training – all my project management knowledge comes from what I’ve learnt on the job as a entrepreneur. I intuitively follow the Kanban style project management approach. Trello lends itself beautifully to this.
  • A Team Leader – Jocko Williams, in his book Extreme Leadership stated “It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate”. I have to build a high performance team… and the only way I know how to do that – is to lead by example.
  • An Accountant – There are stories of the brilliant entrepreneurs who had grandiloquent visions for their companies but before they could achieve any of their dreams, they ran out of cash and perished! I don’t want to be that guy! There are no investors in Zindagi. I believe Zindagi will grow much faster if it had a decent corpus to spend. Until the time I reach that stage, I own the company’s bottomline. Aditi and I have monthly expense numbers at my finger tips – and we know exactly how much we need for the next 2 quarters. I raise all invoices myself and do constant followups.
  • A Sales guyI decide how much business I will do this year. I get to set ambitious sales targets. I load and track my leads on Zoho. I decide my quarterly commits and hold myself accountable for them.
  • A Presales guy – When articulating a technical solution’s advantages to a C level exec, I need explain it in a language that they’d understand. I need to be able to juxtapose multiple solutions succinctly so that decisions can be taken. I’ve enjoyed being a Presales guy for large OEMs in the past – It’s a skill that gives you an amazing feeling of confidence!
  • Customer Support guy – I still make calls to my armed forces customers when they experience problems with their networks. My time as an engineer in Cisco TAC gave me a gift that keeps on giving – the art of troubleshooting; the ability to break a large problem into smaller chunks. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!
  • A Technical lead – I honestly feel honoured when my team considers discussing technical issues with me. They’re bright guys and I’ve seen them solve daunting problems on their own. So, if I can help them, when they walk up to me upon hitting a roadblock, It just makes my day a wee bit better and my sleep, a bit more well-deserved :-).
  • Product Manager – Ah, my latest fixation. I’ve just started out on this venture and am using wire framing tools such as Balsamiq and Keynotopia to work on mockups of products I plan to build.

Lesson: Stop sucking at task management

Have you seen the Bradley Cooper movie “Limitless”? It’s a movie where the protagonist consumes a designer Pharma drug called NZT which makes him laser focused about what he wants to do.
There are days where I become like that… without consuming any drug. There’s so much I accomplish those days! I close more deals; I get more milestone completion certificates signed; I get more creative in designing, etc. I wish everyday were like that.
I am increasingly using Trello for all my task management. There’s a Trello board for Zindagi Team, one for each project, one called “Hum Don0” which Aditi and I use for delegating tasks to each other and then there’s my own board – which has the following lists:
  • Ideapad – Any ideas I have about products that I want to make one day.
  • Inbox – Which has all the action items / to dos that require my attention.
  • Someday list – A list of items that don’t require immediate attention.
  • In Progress – Which has all items I plan to complete TODAY!
  • Next Up – what item I’m working on RIGHT NOW.
  • Blocked / Waiting – A list of all items that are pending on someone else.
  • Done – Everything I’ve completed goes here.
  • Watch List – Stuff that I need to watch – for example, a useful youtube video that showed up in my inbox, or a Udemy course that I bought when it went on sale (coz we all know how RARELY they go on sale), etc.
  • Reading List – A list of books I plan to read. Also contains a list of all interesting articles I stumbled upon.
  • <Topic Name> Learning Plan – Any topic that I pick up, I research a few hours to make a “learning plan” for myself – which consists of URLs of relevant articles, videos and slides. Current lists include SD-WAN, SIEM and SOCs, VA/PT, How to become a product manager.
Here are some points I picked up from Tim Ferris’s book “4-hour workweek”. There’s a printout of these points next to my desk and my bed to remind me to become better at time and task management:
  • “What you do” is more important than how you do it. Focus on being effective than efficient!
  • Three times each day at scheduled times ask yourself – are you being productive or just active?
  • Are you inventing things to do, to avoid the important?
  • If you had a heart attack and had to work only two hours per day – would you be doing what you’re doing right now?
  • If you had a second heart attack and could only work 2 hours a week? What work would you focus on then?
  • What if you had a gun to your head and HAD to remove 4/5th of different time consuming activities, what would you remove?
  • What are the top three activities that I use to fill time to feel as though i have been productive?
  • Learn to ask: “If this is the only thing I accomplish today, will I be satisfied with my day?”
  • Do not multitask! Your brain is incapable of multitasking!
  • Parkinson’s law at a macro level: Attempt to take Monday and Friday off. Also leave work at 4 PM
  • Parkinson’s law at a micro level : Limit the number of items on your to-do list. Use impossibly short deadlines to force immediate action. Use the online stopwatch or use

Lesson: People don’t like to let go of their money

I run a services company – which means, that for every project Zindagi embarks upon – I set clear, definable milestones for the tasks my team undertakes. These milestones are based on customer success factors and have well defined entry and exit criteria.
Once a milestone completes, I raise a NET-XX invoice; where XX represents the agreed-upon number of days after which the customer will pay me.
Typically these milestones are:
  • Project Kickoff / Requirements Gathering Workshop
  • High Level Design Signoff
  • Low Level Design Signoff
  • SATP Execution
  • User Acceptance Testing
  • As-Built document submission
Hardly ever would you get paid on time after raising an invoice. The work done by you will need to be reviewed by multiple entities in the customer organisation. Thereafter, the projects team will give a go ahead to their finance teams to release the payment. The Finance team will, in turn have their own payment cycles; which, if you’re unlucky, could be one day prior to the day when Finance got the go-ahead.
My suggestions to people starting out a services business:
  • Plan your quarterly budget to keep a buffer for processes
  • Invest in a invoicing system that generates automatic reminders when the due date has reached and keeps sending repeated reminders until the payment is made.
  • NEVER work without a PO. You’ll never get paid. Do not, I repeat – do NOT start work until you have a PO in your hand.
  • There’s nothing wrong in asking for an ADVANCE payment. As a bootstrapped startup, we only have enough cash in hand to handle operating expenditure. Any project related expenses are handled through an advance payout. Besides, an advance payment is a mutual commitment between the customer and me for the execution and delivery of the project.
“Abey… De dunga tere laakh rupey agle mahine!”
I was told this 3 months after raising the invoice and multiple followups. He never paid.
There’ll always be customers who just won’t pay you for the work you completed – no matter how much you follow up. My suggestion – take this as a bitter pill and move on. You’ll always find professional organisations who value your talent and share your values. Give your everything to make such organisations succeed.
“You’ll get what you want, if you help other people get what they want” – Zig Ziglar

Lesson: Treat your employees as pure gold!

I have realised that as a services company, my most valuable asset is my team. It’s because of their capabilities to deliver that i get confidence to get more business into Zindagi. It’s because of their efforts that we achieve the most difficult of projects in the most stringent of deadlines. They drive the customer satisfaction and represent the face of the company and its abilities to our customers.
My employees are my first customers!
I treat my team members the way I’d expect to be treated by my employer – with trust, dignity and respect. I don’t expect them to work on weekends – and if for some reason I have to ask them to work on a designated off, I request them, apologise for having them take time away from their families, and demand that they take a compensatory off at their earliest. I constantly seek feedback whenever I implement a new policy or a new tool – I will never force my opinion on my team – instead, I always take a consultative approach.
My team responds in kind – they treat our customers with respect, they solve problems faster, they perform effectively and uphold esprit de corps at all times!
This is my “secret” – this is what gives me a competitive edge over my competition – making sure that my team members are respected, trusted, empowered and appreciated. The fact that my team demonstrate our values consistently is what sets us apart from the competition.
“Above all, keep in mind that a business is a collection of people,” Branson says. “If your people are not happy and healthy, they your enterprise’s prognosis isn’t good enough. But if you make sure they have the time and support they need, you’ll set them and your company up for success in the long term.” – Richard Branson
Part 4…
Abhijit Anand

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