What’s lost? What’s gained? - Part II

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By Anurag Agrawal, Tech Leaders Fellow, Class of 2020

Jan 10 — The customer interviews

You remember where we left the last time. All the students had formed their challenge Lab team. So when the fellows came back from the winter break the new term started. The Challenge Lab teams started their customer interviews after deciding the initial hypothesis of the problem statement. But our team was still debating on what idea to work on. What happened was bound to happen.

We were called on stage — asked to present our findings. The only words that rolled out of our mouths were phrases like — “We are working on the problem, yes we are doing it, design thinking approach and data in design.” It felt as if we were speaking Klingon.

The rebuke from Alok Mittal scarred our self-esteem and we went on an interview sprint. We called all our seniors in the design industry to understand the space. Here again, mayhem ensued (it seemed me taking on a project means chaos). We had been taught how to conduct customer interviews and how to record the responses, the usual stuff — empathy map and user persona. But the gap between theory and practice was monumental.

The customer interviews confused us more than assisting us. Someone has rightly said, “Startups don’t starve they drown.” The professors had given us a two-fold approach. First, don’t go into an interview with a certain bias. The interview would not be useful if all you want is a validation of your preconceived notions. The other approach was to form a hypothesis and ask questions that confirm that hypothesis. This is an active way to interview which ensures that you do not come back from the interview not knowing what your biggest takeaway from the interview was. If you want to get better at this do check out “The Mom Test”. The only regret you would have after reading this book would be why didn’t you read it earlier.

20 January — Diverse viewpoints

The teams were instructed to complete at least 15 customer interviews. We interviewed every person who felt relevant to us — from Plaksha’s social media manager to Dr. Ritesh Malik, Founder of Innov8. We went to Innov8 coworking space to interview lots of startups and reached out to our seniors who had their own startup.

The customer interviews resulted in a plethora of suggestions and a sea of viewpoints. In an attempt to not stop the flow of thoughts each team member came back with implementation ideas — design validation tool, social media calendar management, brand guidelines auditor, Canva for India, and A/B testing for designs.

12 Feb — The frequent fallouts

Well, everyone advises having team members with diverse opinions but no one advises on what to do when the clashes happen. I am not sure if you have ever been a party to this but I was introduced to the term “Designer Intuition”. This little term was the reason for innumerable fights between the designers and engineers in our group and the frequent back and forth. Vaibhav and Ribhu Lahiri wanted to follow design principles and the rest of us wanted to build stuff quickly. If I begin to write about all the squabbles we had, it would be a script of “Sarabhai vs Sarabhai” (in case you have not watched it I recommend it). Let’s just say it never came to fistfights and hair-pulling. All else was done.

Meanwhile, our team was receiving a lot of flak. We were extremely unsure about our idea, the customers were not validating one specific problem and our mentors were upset watching us move around like a headless chicken.

One night, when the five of us were sitting in my room doing, researching when Vaibhav nudged me.

“Hey! Did you finish the presentation?” in the usual authoritative tone.

I was already stressed as I was having trouble calculating the market valuation of our startup and his interrogation irritated me

“No! I am still working on the market valuation”.

“What? Are you serious? That’s horrible productivity. You have been at it for 2 hours”, Vaibhav grumbled.

“Well, why don’t you do it then,” I yelled and stormed out of the room. Praveen came running after me. Vaibhav doesn’t know this to date but Praveen and I spent the next 2 hours talking about Vaibhav. We calmed down and finally realized the need for a hard taskmaster, that Vaibhav was, for the success of the project.

What’s your story?

David Law, who taught us Challenge Lab, listened to our pitch deck a week before the D day and asked us just one question — What’s your story?

Our mentors were quite clear from day one that the startup pitch is about selling your idea and the best way to do that was to convey a story. We had neither a protagonist nor a script.

A day before D day all five of us were sitting in a room trying to finish the presentation but were not able to work.

“We will not be able to pull it off tomorrow,” Vaibhav said, keeping his laptop to the side and giving a big sigh. “We have not been able to communicate our ideas for the last three months. What makes you think that we can pull this off tomorrow?”

“How about the attention economy? Do you think that could make a mark”? One of us quipped. There was instant happiness on our faces. Attention Economy has a history of its own in Plaksha which I do not intend to cover but we were sure that the audience will enjoy it.

“That’s brilliant! This is just the introduction we need to build our case for social media posts. With user attention span plummeting to less than 8 seconds it has become imperative for companies to ensure that they are aware of what the user is most interested in and design posts in accordance with the data.”

Praveen, Anshumaan, and Ribhu started typing feverishly on their laptop to complete the codebase while Vaibhav and I decided to take a stroll on the road to complete the story. The discussion went on for more than 2 hours. When both of us returned the team was still looking upbeat.

“Do you have a narrative?” they asked.

“Yup”! We said beaming.

Vaibhav fired up his laptop and started redesigning the deck to suit the narrative while I went out on the terrace to prepare the content for the delivery. We had a night out then.

The next morning felt different. The panel of four investors (Sairee Chahal, Prachi Jain, Niten Malhan, Sunil Goyal) took their seats. Students were arranged in a sort of concentric semicircles and the pitch had to be delivered from the center. Everyone was in their formals, with a tinge of anxiety and touch of excitement.

Our names were announced, we took center stage and I came forward to pitch. There was deadly silence during my pitch. I had not been able to memorize the script due to the paucity of time but the flow was clear with me. Time limit was 5 minutes. Things could have gone south but I saw a couple of my batch mates in the audience smiling and nodding their heads at me. Dare I say, it was all the encouragement I needed.

We were at the top of our game that day. From presenting the deck (which I did) to the taking on questions head-on, it felt flawless. As we finished and joined the audience, we were congratulated on a great presentation. But I felt a sense of disappointment — a feeling of not being true to the role that I had assigned to myself. Vaibhav and Ribhu had always done their part, which was design and the same goes for Anshumaan and Praveen with tech stack. But I could never lay out the vision for the product. I just felt that if we had a complete product to show to the investors we could have had our big break (this was the feedback from the judges too — the individual components look promising, now go build the complete product).

The results were announced and to my surprise, we were in the top 3. All of us had conflicting emotions of agony and ecstasy. We had won the day but lost the game. Frankly, we started with the belief that we will get our product ready and will raise our angel round. We had our pieces ready — the attention heatmap worked so did the font recommendation and design validation but we had not been able to collate a product for MVP. Getting funding was out of the question.

But all was not lost — I had learned a lot during the 3-month saga, which I am utilizing on a project that I am working on. On top of that, we have developed a deep sense of admiration and trust in each other’s forte.

Well, that marked the end of our Challenge Lab course, and we started our respective capstone projects — Anshuman and I, started working on an industrial project at InfoEdge, Vaibhav and Ribhu started their research project with professors from Purdue University while Praveen started his research project at Mfine in Bangalore. We never got a chance to sit together to discuss the future of this project. Maybe this blog would wake us all from our deep slumber.

Even after all the highs and lows, I am pretty sure if you ask them — do you want to do it again, their response would be — “Always”. (Ending copied shamelessly from Kite Runner)

Anurag Agrawal

Anurag Agrawal