Saturday, November 13, 2010

Startup Saturday Hyderabad Nov 13 - Cloud Startups

Startup Saturday Hyderabad once again lived up to its reputation of being an active forum for startups in the city. Today's session was very topical - Cloud Startups. The objective of the session was beautifully articulated by Priyanka in her invitation email: "A peek into Hyderabad Startups dabbling in the cloud. Building solutions in SaaS model, running on the cloud (Amazon/Google App engine/++) and building utilities/tools/infrastructure for the cloud. Innovative solutions on cloud. Addressing key challenges in the biz models for cloud solutions and tech challenges."

Ramesh Loganathan, VP (Products) and Head of Progress Software (India), kick-started the session with a quick round of introduction. C. Chaitanya from Ozonetel introduced his product KooKoo, a cloud-based platform as a service product. KooKoo is an Inbound and Outbound IVR telephony platform that allows users to build and manage their telephony application themselves using web technology of their choice leveraging existing web infrastructure. Learn more about the product.

The speaker of the day was Satish Madhira. Satish has gone through the full startup life cycle. He has earlier founded Yasu Technologies, ran it successfully for 10 years, and then sold it successfully to SAP in 2007. Now he runs ICUMI Technologies Pvt Ltd that operates the Dealivore service. Satish talked about 'Emerging Cloud Business models' with special emphasis on 'Gaming Models in the Cloud.' The participants had a whole lot of questions for Satish, ranging from back-end technologies to front-end expertise to Dealivore's business model.

The next presenter was Ripul Kumar from Kern Communications Pvt Ltd. Ripul presented Kern's latest cloud-based educational technology offering. He described how a "non-technology" company could successfully develop and implement a technology solution leveraging the cloud-based infrastructure. He outlined how cloud-computing was the right solution for a company's quick and agile development needs. Cloud-based solution is cost-effective, highly scalable, and extremely reliable without the burden of maintenance, installation, and managing the back-end. He ended the session with a quick demo of the application. The session closed with a lightening pitch by CitizenSocial. Nirmala Govindan (advisory team member CIE) introduced CitizenSocial currently incubated at IIIT. Unfortunately, I could not attend the last part, thanks to my three-year old who had enough of cloud-startup gyan by now. It will be great if the participants could update us about their pitches here for the benefit of those who missed it.

The best part about Startup Saturday is the opportunity to meet up old friends, ex-colleagues, and build a network within the fraternity.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What are your success criteria?

Recently, I was interacting with a team of budding entrepreneurs as a mentor for the MentorEdge initiative.  I realized that most new entrepreneurs are passionate, enthusiastic and driven. At the same time, for most of them, the measure of success is how large you grow and how much money you make. Also, most seem to believe that you either earn quick money or raise quick money - ultimately, success is access to quick money. Well, quick money is like quicksand, it disappears faster than it comes!

Be it a 500-crore company, a 5-crore company or a 5-lac company, each can be an extremely successful venture depending on its criteria of success. I define success parameters differently.

1) Since I run a consulting company, we are very clear about things we WILL do and things we will NOT do as part of our consulting services. The success factor is to stand by this decision consistently. Often we realize that we are very clear about what NOT to do rather than what to do! But for me a successful business is one that is clear about what it wants to do and even more clear about what it does NOT want to do.

2) A consulting company's success depends on the success of its clients. If my clients are successful, I am successful. Am I adding value to my clients that makes them successful? What is my contribution to the success of my client? Every time a client comes back to say how our service was useful, we earn a success brownie.

3) A consulting company has to have the best people in the trade. For most start-ups, it is a challenge to attract the best talent. But every time good people come on board, it's a huge success for the company. When people "want" to work for you, it is a huge compliment for your brand. On the other hand, when internally people are highly motivated to work and continue to grow with the organization, it is a bigger compliment to the success of an organization.

4) Another success parameter is execution of dream projects. Every organization and every working professional should have its list of dream projects to work on. Each dream project accomplished is a tick on your success parameters. It is another matter that some of these dream projects have a very hard landing, but all the same - you at least have zero regrets about not working on those. And, all the better if you come out of them wiser than before!

5) Dream clients are next on my criteria of success. For a consulting company, it is the list of clients that makes a difference. If you have an enviable client's list, you have a blank check. Clients lead to more clients, and more clients lead to more business - simple equation. Well, on after thoughts - it is not that simple. A lot of hard work goes into earning client loyalty. And that by itself is a huge benchmark of success.

Size of the company and volume of business are just the visible outcome; they are poor determinants of success. So what are your success criteria?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Startup Saturday - Hyderabad July 10

I spent an interesting Saturday with the Hyderabad Startup Group. The theme was Mobile. Apart from Farhan Azhar and Shiva the guest speakers, there were a couple of lightning speeches as well. It was good to hear Farhan speak. Farhan is a successful serial entrepreneur from Hyderabad. It will be good if someone can update Farhan's entrepreneurship ventures.

Farhan's talk was interesting and insightful. He highlighted the key points about building products especially those that are self-funded. The key takeaways:
a. Simplicity: The product should be simple
b. Small team: Usually have a team size of less than 4 people. An ideal composition should be an usability expert, a programmer (and not a geek) who understands business and human need, a marketing person who can communicate in English and someone to have a tight control over the finances.

He rightly pointed out the 3 things that really work for mobile-based technology:
1. Voice
2. SMS
3. Mobile web
Out of these 1 & 2 are the most universal. Therefore, content should be delivered in either of these modes.

In response to queries and discussions around mobile phone apps, Farhan shared the research findings about what drives mobile phone apps. They should be:
- Bursty (like an sms or an alert that draws your attention)
- Obsessive (addictive - so that people have sufficient motivation to adopt the apps - eg twitter)
- Leisure (when people are relatively free to engage with their phones)

Shiva from shared his experience in growing Apalya and the future plans. Apalya are the pioneers of video technology on mobile phone and are now the leading providers of mobile television.

The lightening pitches by Abhishek Sinha and Chakri prompted interesting discussions among the group. Abhishek spoke about a topic that is close to my heart - education. He rightly pointed out some of the big concerns that parents today have about the 'right' kind of education for children. Abhishek is a consultant working is the area of improving the processes in schools as well as educating the parents about demanding quality education. He presented his ideas about how technological interventions in the educational processes of a school/institute can address concerns such as quality of teachers, feedback to teachers, quality of education, school environment and so on.

Chakri presented an interesting idea of how to use social networking for business. He has developed a site called It is a social networking site connecting like people with similarities. The unique feature of the site is a compatibility calculator!

While the organizers certainly have an unenviable task of organizing and promoting these meets. The quality of these meets could be certainly improved so as to inspire more participation. Compared to the startup meets in Bangalore and Mumbai, the meet in Hyd lacked structure, rigor, and seemed ad hoc. Certainly, participants have a big role to play in energizing these meets. My thoughts on how to make the meet more meaningful:

1) Invite participation at least 2 weeks in advance - give presenters time to plan and prepare well
2) Maintain strict time lines - lightening pitches or elevator pitches must be lightening - done in 2 mins
3) Many meets share some guidelines that work well - I can share a format with the group
4) Participants should register in advance, share their introductory details with the group online
5) If there are more participants/presenters, make it an unconference. Time is precious, esp a Saturday morning! Let people choose to attend any presentation they like, we all have laptops and datacards, should not be a big deal to present in small groups! Welcome your thoughts.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

LMS dialogs

LMS vs. Learners

LMS vs. Learning - ROI

LMS vs. Deewaar

For all those Deewaar fans! Couldn't resist this one. And, apologies to non-Hindi speaking audience. The translation will not do any justice to the strip.

Sometimes, LMS can also make us smile. :)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Thinking of Setting Up an Advisory Panel?

During my research about how to set up an advisory board, I came across some useful information. Hope this comes in handy for new entrepreneurs and startups looking for advisors who am sure have questions galore about how to go about this arduous task. I remember attending a Webinar last year conducted by TiE Mumbai where Madan Padaki spoke about how he set up his advisory board. Summarizing some of the key points from Madan's session as well as from Mark Suster, Jordan Cooper, and others' blogs:

Why look for advisors?
The reasons why companies look for advisors may vary. Some look for advisors for pure "gyan" and mentoring support during their maiden entrepreneurship venture. For others, a good advisory board can help create the right kind of impression and impact when looking for business. Most people seek prominent industry experts, luminaries, highly networked individuals, or people in highly influential positions etc as part of their advisory board. The agenda for most are either or all of these:
a) Provide valuable gyan or mentoring support
b) Be the company's brand ambassador/mouthpiece
c) Help get business contacts

Whatever be the objective, it is ideal to have an advisory panel of 3 or more advisors. This will help get the right combination of advisors to make a difference.

Where/How to look for advisors?
Your first choice should be to find an expert from your own domain or from your own industry. This will ensure that you get enough wisdom from someone who knows your industry well and has had similar experiences facing the challenges that you encounter to be able to provide you advice on the same. You could begin with known people in your circle, acquaintances, senior ex-colleagues etc.

The next choice could be to look for someone who can be your brand ambassador. Someone who has the right reach to help you reach out to the world. The person could be an existing client, somebody from the media, academia or a public figure well-respected in the industry circles. It is always interesting to have an advisor from academia for various reasons. a. They would typically have more time to spend with you compared to advisors who have a hectic corporate or public life. b. Academic advisors can bring in a lot of credibility while looking for business. c. Advising is almost an occupational hazard for them, so you can always depend upon their gyan and advice.

Some tips from Madan about how to approach potential advisors:
- Clearly define what you need and who you need
- Seek and shortlist
- Don't ask (send a request)
- Sell your dream - they should sense your passion
- Be upfront about what you can give - though advisors typically are not looking for your money
- Tone down your expectations on their contributions (after all they are doing this to help you)

What to expect from advisors?
This is a particularly interesting question. While we all may have our own reasons for setting up an advisory board, how can we ensure that advisory boards really add value to us as well as to our business? I came across an interesting post by Mark Suster "Should Your Startup Have an Advisory Board?". He specifies some advisory board problems in great detail. Here's a quick recap:
- Not enough time
- Not enough wisdom
- Too much effort
- Expensive

How to make the most of your advisory board?
Apart from the useful tips by Mark Suster, Madan also specifies some points that can help you make the most of your advisory board.
- Send them updates (made a calendar of events) informed them, posted updates, involved them in all significant achievements of the company, involve them
- If your advisory panel is a very diverse group, avoid getting them together. If the common topics between them are very different, it will be difficult to bind them into a common theme. On the contrary, group interactions can also be good for your advisors when they get to meet other influencers and benefit from the association.
- Be transparent about crisis etc with them - it is critical to build a relationship of trust with them.
- Get about 1 or 2 hrs of their time over a 2-3 months period, with every meeting, try to increase their mind share about your company. Over time, their involvement will increase.

What should you offer them?
Here, I came across a lot of information about what to offer the advisors. The point that came out very clearly is that mentors/advisors are not interested in 'your' money. They are typically successful people who have been there, done that and seen it all. They are passionate about growing a small start up to a successful company. The reasons why they've said a yes could be many. They may have found your idea exciting, liked your dream, or liked you :) !

While advisors typically are not looking for monetary gains or a remuneration, an acceptable return for services rendered could be a stake of about 0.1% (not exceeding 2%) depending on the state of the startup. Jordan Cooper sheds some light on paying advisors with equity in his post 'Founder Beware: True "Advisors" Don't Ask for Free Equity.' You can also read through some discussions about how much equity to hand out to advisor or mentor. On the other hand, Madan had mentioned that you could offer them a remuneration - a monthly honorarium for the services rendered - once your business starts flowing smoothly.

Some informative reads, please add to the list if you come across more:

Friday, May 21, 2010

Celebrating learning and development professionals and their initiatives

Having run a training and learning consulting company for the last 6 years and having worked with clients, vendors, and fellow learning professionals; I realize that the world is divided into two parts - those who provide training (vendors) and those who need training (clients).

(Big thank you to eLearningArt for the useful stock images!)

Most of my folks are on this side of the table (those who provide training). Being on this side of the table, I get to see and hear a lot of their anger, frustration, challenges, brilliance, and happiness in dealing with clients, executing projects, or finding resources. The angst is equal on the other side as well. L&D heads and HR managers have a tough time dealing with difficult or incompetent vendors, identifying talent, coaching and mentoring truckloads of people, and managing ever increasing demands of the organization.

Increasingly, a training professional's role is becoming more holistic. It is moving away from just tactical interventions (instructional design and delivery) to more strategic ones like identifying competency gaps, planning training curriculum, co-creating training calendars along with clients etc.

Often our worlds are so polarized that we either create villains out of each other or completely ignore each others contribution to the ultimate goal of "learning, talent development, and skill enhancement.”

LionSher is an initiative to bridge this gap. It has a flavor of "learning activism" that helps us overcome the cynicism attached to each role and celebrate the efforts and achievements of folks on either side of the table.

At LionSher, we want to feature HR managers, T&D managers and L&D heads who have been digging away diligently in their organizations - sometimes bearing the tag of being "cost centers" for their companies. We also want to highlight the contributions of learning designers, learning design companies, and trainers as they share their experiences, pet peeves, and unforgettable moments.

The first interview on LionSher features Mathew Kuruvilla, Head of Talent & Development, South Asia Deutsche Bank AG. Mathew, who has spent a decade and half in the industry, shares his concerns, experiences, and his vision of the way ahead for L&D professionals.

I'd like to invite you all to share your thoughts and give back to the community in your own way. As I see it, these transitions are not in isolation. I can clearly see a new breed of training professionals emerging... (food for thought for my next blog!)

Kudos to our LionSher team! They have put together an elegant platform to publish the articles. Do check out the first interview on LionSher and leave your valuable comments and feedback.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

How to facilitate synchronous learning for real and virtual learners using technology?

The other day I had interesting discussions with Geetha Krishnan about possible ways of using technology to facilitate synchronous learning for remote learners.

Let's explore a scenario. An institute wants to deliver a training program to a global audience not only for its on-campus learners but also for remote learners. The faculty uses various tools and approaches to facilitate discussion, sharing, and participation in the class.

The challenge for the institute is - Can you facilitate a 7-day program for a client such that 10 of their top managers are present in the institute campus while 10 others join in from a remote campus?

What are the program objectives?

- Conduct the program successfully for both real and virtual teams.

- Client should derive the same value from the virtual program as they have derived from the real one.

- There should not be significant change in content delivery and design.

What are the challenges?

- Motivation of real and virtual teams can vary significantly

- Faculty needs to explore and improvise to make the program participative for both teams (real and virtual)

- Online learners should enjoy all benefits - discussions, debates, hands-on activities, and impromptu sharing

- Make the program run beyond the physical constraints of the classroom and yet retain the flavor of a face-to-face session.

This kind of delivery has 2 challenges if both the programs happen synchronously:

The campus participants will have to interact with the remote participants.

The faculty will have to deliver to both the real and virtual participants. This means all instructional activities must be designed to support this.

Let's explore some alternatives/suggestions

1) Webcast classroom proceedings live

This is a good approach if the duration of delivery is not more than one hour. However, beyond an hour, the virtual participants will be restless and lose attention. In addition, unless there is sufficient interactivity between real and virtual learners, the class will be dull, boring, and passive. In such a scenario, the faculty will have additional responsibility of delivering lectures as well as creating activities that are inclusive and participative for both sets of learners.

2) Has to be a blend of synchronous and asynchronous events

Have you watched a cricket match live in a stadium? Am sure many of us have watched a cricket match synchronously on television as well. What are the ingredients that make both versions entertaining with both parties having their share of fun? Live viewing on the cricket field has the audience engaged in on-field match as well as the stadium activities. The crowd bonds and participates together in sharing the fun on the field. Each hit or a wicket draws out reactions from the spectators as they experience the excitement together.

On the other hand, for the audience, viewing the match on television, has other attractions. They not only watch the on-field activities and proceedings, they get to listen to some entertaining commentaries about the match. They get to listen to analysis from experts, watch statistics on the screen, and watch action replay of critical moments. Added to that there are visuals, graphics, and a lot of trivia to sustain their interest and engage them completely. What they miss out in terms of live on-field experience they more than make up for it from the multi-pronged information sources directed at them through the tele. The only significant exception is that both sets of audience do not need to interact with each other.

This can be clubbed with other asynchronous activities such as team projects, recommended readings, research, lab activities, and preparations.

3) Some interesting information about virtual classroom and do's, and don'ts about technology to be used

a. An interesting presentation on Streaming Theater in a virtual classroom:

b. Innovations Showcase: Virtual classroom in a Web 2.0 world

c. An interesting analysis of Web2.0 tools for learning Are Web 2.0 tools designed to support learning?

d. Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age - A longish video (watch it with a large mug of coffee)

4) What's the team like?

a. Technology team: Quite obviously, the tech team needs to set up a lab to webcast the proceedings and not just a front view footage of the faculty talking. They must cover interesting happenings, reactions, and discussions. Need special application of hardware, software and network technologies to auto generate j-i-t content based on inputs from participants and faculty.

b. Graphics team: There must be a team of graphic designers who can create interesting templates for analysis of events unfolding in the class. They must be ready to provide interesting visual interpretation and visual summary of events as and when needed.

c. Instructional Design team: The team of IDs should collaborate with the faculty well in advance to plan the learning activities (classroom as well as offline). They should be prepared with the content analysis, attention grabbers, trivia, de-briefs of case studies or discussions, provide data on the fly to the graphic design and technology team.

5) What are the ID challenges?

a. In short, the ID team should orchestrate the session in close collaboration with the faculty, the technology team, the graphic design team and all the while keep their focus on the learners, their needs, and the content to be delivered.

b. Design activities for virtual learners and facilitate sharing across barriers.

c. Synchronize these activities such that there is no time lag and activity time is well utilized.

d. Use a delivery platform that will make the sharing synchronous and real time; almost like a video conferencing tool where participants can actually talk to each other.

e. Interaction has to be one to one and one to many.

f. Activities have to be a combination of individual and group; online and offline (synchronous and asynchronous)

g. Use social networking tool like yammer for discussion n exchange of ideas. However, exercise caution with social networking tools. While you may have an evolved set of learners but they may not necessarily be tech savvy.

I would like to ask my fellow Instructional Designers, educationists, and bloggers to share their experience with virtual and real collaboration; the kind of technology they have used; the possible pitfalls and the possible improvements.

On a lighter note, if what you see below was possible in 1977, anything is possible in 2010!

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Idiot’s Guide to Storyboarding!

(Warning and Disclaimer: Those who have not watched the movie 3 Idiots may find it difficult to relate to the 3 I references. No attempts to lay claims on the box office proceeds from the movie. ;)

I enjoyed watching 3 Idiots so did 200 odd people sitting in the theater. The movie achieved its goal – entertain the audience, engage them, and connect with them. I began to watch closely and have listed the first 5 storyboarding lessons from 3 Idiots. Shouldn't our learning courses also engage our learners, connect with them, and motivate them to learn?

1) Creating a Persona

Look at persona creation of VIRUS. When you build a persona it has to be well rounded - the personality or characterization has to be consistent across situations and events from the beginning to the end. Although the focus is on another idea or a thought, the characters stay true to the persona and consistently exhibit the characteristics.

Let's extrapolate this lesson to an eLearning storyboard. We often use characters such as experts, learners, wanna-be learners who follow the expert, secondary personae and/or influencer-personae (for example a team member, a client, or a negative character). These characters should ideally play a critical role in learning.

Typically, when IDs think of characters in storyboards, the characters emerge as props, rarely are they key to the delivery of the message. Whether we like it or not, we keep emphasizing the content and do not focus on the message. The outcome is that we create screens of content using fancy graphics, pictures, tabs etc. And, the characters simply fill spaces between content. We lose the opportunity of using them effectively to deliver the message.

Some interesting examples where characters aid the learning process:

(Courtesy: (Courtesy:

Am sure learners can identify the on-screen characters and relate them with the message easily!

2) Flow and transition

What distinguishes a good storyboard from a poor one? It is the flow and transition between scenes. The 3I storyboard exhibits this in great detail and at several instances. In fact, transition between scenes is the hallmark of good cinematography as well. You will find this common across all great movies that you've seen till date, think about it.

In the 3 Idiots storyboard, transition is used effectively to move seamlessly across time - from past to the present. Many filmmakers use this tactic to connect scenes from the past and the present, to connect thoughts and actions, actions and reactions, and to bridge distances - resulting in tighter and smarter story lines!

3) Minimal jazz

Apart from the regular dose of song and dance, the movie did not spend on expensive foreign locales and action effects. Most scenes have a clear connect to the objective of the story that goes a long way in holding audience attention.

In the context of an eLearning storyboard, avoid jazz if it does not add value to the story. Avoid all these extravagant effects such as a "spinning logo" or an unwanted animation of how board meeting is in progress or a video of the floor of the bank that have zero or minimal impact on learning. Stick to a tightly woven storyboard and add effects "only" where necessary.

Below is an example of a storyboard with a simple yet effective layout.

(Courtesy: (Courtesy: The above is a visual treat but may not have a great impact on learning.

4) Abundant examples

What stands out in the 3I storyboard is the abundant use of examples. The design goal seems to be "do not preach" "demonstrate". Every scene is actually an example or a combination of examples. This makes it so easy for the audience to relate and absorb the message without it being forced down their throat. The movie is full of examples that describe Rancho's unconventional wisdom - the ragging scene, the scenes where he demonstrates to Kareena the futility of marrying a "price tag", or the many scenes where he interacts with his professors in an unconventional manner.

We all know that examples make it easier for learners to relate to the content or the message. But it is also important to ensure that examples are relevant, interesting and humorous.

5) Voice-over narration

If you notice, in movies like 3I, Lage Raho Munnabhai, and Rang De Basanti (and other popular Bollywood hits), the voice over narration is lively, interesting, witty, and funny. It perfectly complements the on-screen scene. In 3I, the voice over narrative acts as a transition between scenes. It introduces the scene and then lets the characters play out the scene. This brings a perfect balance between the voice-over narrative and the on-screen scenes.

This is something that IDs must remember while storyboarding. Audio has always been a controversial element in eLearning. The easy way out of this controversy has been "add audio" on all screens so that a course has audio consistently. Therefore, audio, which is otherwise a powerful element of design typically ends up being a redundant verbal instruction or narration of what we see on the screen. During numerous learner testing, we have seen learners turn-off the audio because it hinders thought process in self-paced learning. However, if the audio is interesting, informative, and adds value to on-screen information, then learners will have sufficient motivation to listen to the audio.

A good eLearning should be a complete package. The storyboard, character selection, dialogs, music, cinematography, and editing must blend well to form a great learning material. Another critical element used abundantly is humor. It easily connects with the audience and establishes a rapport with them. This helps establish trust and get the audience involved at a cognitive level. Drama, pathos, surprise etc are all handled with a touch of humor. The description of the "poor" and "poverty stricken" family has a touch of humor that drives the point yet does not make the audience uncomfortable.

Why can’t our storyboards be more human and less digital? During one of the conferences I had attended last year, one of the speakers questioned - "Why can't eLearning be exciting and entertaining like cricket and Bollywood?" Many other speakers jumped at him saying "eLearning is about learning while cricket and Bollywood are for entertainment." And the debate can go on... But the point is why can't we make learning more interesting and entertaining? This can definitely solve the big problem of motivation for learners!

I guess we need to consider digital learning less literally and design for real learners. What are your thoughts - should our storyboards be as entertaining as our Bollywood flicks?