Barrels and ammunition

Keith Rabois’ analogy on building a fast-moving startup team is tremendously useful, and something I always adhere to.

“If you think about people, there are two categories of high-quality people: there is the ammunition, and then there are the barrels. You can add all the ammunition you want, but if you have only five barrels in your company, you can literally do only five things simultaneously. If you add one more barrel, you can now do six things simultaneously. If you add another one, you can do seven, and so on.  Finding those barrels that you can shoot through — someone who can take an idea from conception to live and it’s almost perfect — are incredibly difficult to find. This kind of person can pull people with them. They can charge up the hill. They can motivate their team, and they can edit themselves autonomously. Whenever you find a barrel, you should hire them instantly, regardless of whether you have money for them or whether you have a role for them. Just close them.”

Looking back at 2013: A year of clarity

Through several ups and downs, our Nairobi family has come a long long way. Strangers have become family and we’ve found comfort in this incredibly diverse collective. A collective that holds through the most difficult of times.

2013 was a year of clarity. A year of saying ‘no’ more often and fervently chasing the ‘yes’.

Startup life, as the cliché goes, is a roller coaster ride and Kopo Kopo in 2013 was exhibit A. We went through all the classical pains – sleepless nights, rapid scale, difficult market conditions and some political risks that are unique to frontier markets. Our fundraising process deserves a book in itself and experiencing it from close quarters was education for me.

In the deep trenches of our world, it’s easy to be swamped by the sheer number of opportunities available on platter. It is perhaps truer of startup life.

In these trenches, I’m fortunate and thankful to have found a branch to hold on to. Constantly building things with the heart of a motorcycle mechanic and the mind of a surgeon, while total disregard to getting fingers in grease or blood. It’s an exciting tension to manage and I hope to carry the same excitement to each new relationship – professional and personal – in 2014.

2014 will be a massive, albeit different, leap of faith for Kopo Kopo and its extended family. 

To another year of building good things with great people. Amen!

Thanks for reading!

Competition as a proxy for value.

Too often in the race to compete, we learn to confuse what is hard with what is valuable. Intense competition makes things hard because you just beat heads with other people. The intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value. But value is a different question entirely. And to the extent it’s not there, you’re competing just for the sake of competition. Henry Kissinger’s anti-academic line aptly describes the conflation of difficulty and value: in academia at least, the battles are so fierce because the stakes are so small.

That seems true, but it also seems odd. If the stakes are so small, why don’t people stop fighting so hard and do something else instead? We can only speculate. Maybe those people just don’t know how to tell what’s valuable. Maybe all they can understand is the difficulty proxy. Maybe they’ve bought into the romanticization of competition. But it’s important to ask at what point it makes sense to get away from competition and shift your life trajectory towards monopoly. 

Source: Peter Thiel’s Startup Class: Chapter 4

Why Indian Universities should abolish ‘placements’.

It should be obvious, but it isn’t. Placements are killing Indian education.
Every year, families, friends, neighbours and marriage bureaus go frantic about the size of ‘packages’ in Indian universities. 

What do we lose?

  • Work and fun become disjoint – It was Noel Coward who said, “Work is more than fun”. Thanks to the perceived safety blanket of mass recruitment we produce millions of engineers graduates who work at a bad job five days a week, just to have ‘fun’ on weekends. Beyond the indignity of labor, it signals a complete commoditization of a nation’s talent – like toothpaste or detergent. 
  • A throttled campus experience – Right from day 0 of college, there’s an inclination to do things that supposedly ‘help your profile’. While that is a good goal in itself, it loses meaning when all activities on campus are somehow meant to score brownie points for placements. In the process, most of us lose curiosity towards truly remarkable things. Undergraduate education, perhaps the best place to experiment and fail at things, becomes a throttled assembly line.
  • Contagious to management education – A bunch of extremely talented students pivot to CAT – entrance test for India’s prestigious institutes of management. For the most part, it is merely a great way to defer placements by two years. With lucrative salaries at offer, it makes intuitive sense for almost everyone. That compromises however, our ability as a nation to push frontiers of thinking. I’d argue that there are far, far better ways to leverage such talent than placements.

Imagine a world without mass recruitment

  • More serendipity, better jobs – Without the safety blanket, undergraduates will be pushed to pursue opportunities right from their sophomore year. In the process, they will build relationships with interesting people across industries. They will understand their true likes and dislikes. A job that is not determined by a 3 hour interview. A job where you are irreplaceable. A job that goes beyond a standard employer-employee pact.
  • Relaxed teenagers –  Somehow, all of this placement paranoia starts after high school. Subconsciously, parents are investing in an insurance policy that yields returns after college. With this insurance policy removed, teenagers will deeply engage with their ‘hobbies’. We won’t be a nation full of teenagers whose passions never go beyond being ‘hobbies’ at footnote of resumes.
  • Attack bigger problems – India’s IT services revolution is what Foxconn is to China. Not of all us are BPO workers, but the minuscule number of new solutions emerging out of India is alarming. Do we really want to be a nation with 1.3 billion people writing code at the lowest price for rest of the world? Can it be the only way to achieve 10% GDP growth?

    The argument isn’t against jobs, it’s against mass recruitment. It’s about finding our true aspirations beyond a salary cushion. Humanity’s greatest leaps are made by people who had only two choices – to succeed or die. How many of us are deliberately willing to position ourselves?