An old lesson revisited – share the vision, but sell the reality…

A tragic story that is almost unbelievable but full of lessons (enough to win a page in my diary – UnLearning)

hype or reality

I am so used to reading success stories and biographies of innovators and leaders that this experience of a tragic story (Bad Blood– Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley startup by John Carreyrou) was quite different.

For most part of the book I found it difficult to believe that one could so easily lose sight of all values, morals and ethics, but I cannot deny that somewhere I saw a reflection of a technology startup. We are all guilty of selling grand visions, creating hype(sometimes bordered on science fiction), and carving our journey (gradatim) many a times starting with nothing but vapourware– always living in the eternal hope that reality will soon catch up with the dream. And while the author is generous towards technology startups and says that the worst harm that they can drive is deflated expectations and frustrations, it still is a reminder to stay honest to our dreams and have the courage to do what is right – always! And more importantly it has a cautionary message, that if we are not careful then even our aspirational qualities – voracious ambition, boundless optimism, laser focus, relentless drive – can prove to be our nemesis…

The first part of the book is a narrative of how Elizabeth Holmes came up with the idea of using a drop of blood to run hundreds of tests and set out on the journey to change the world.  Her vision – to revolutionise the medical industry by making it simple (faster & easier) to run a multitude of tests – that too at home and without the dreaded needle – was so compelling that everyone from investors, business leaders, media, technologists, innovators bought into it, recognising the business potential and the gratifying opportunity of social impact – a means to give a full picture of health thru proactive investigations. And Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos emerged as the new star of the Silicon Valley and saw unparalleled growth – not just achieving the coveted unicorn status but contracts with pharmaceutical companies, military and wellness centers in Safeway, Walgreen. Their rise was spectacular (everything we all dream of), but their technology fell short of the grand vision(micro fluids and nanotechnology) and with that started a cycle of over commitments and short cuts… and somewhere in that cycle they lost sight of their real goals and worse still their ethics and values when they started going to extreme lengths to hide the fakery – the duplicityand the subterfugecannot be explained.

The second part of the story covers the investigation that exposed the story in the Wall Street Journal in 2015 and led to an early cataclysmic fall that shocked everyone. It provides an inside view and highlights the hardships that John Carreyrou faced and the effort it took to bring to light the story with support from a few ex-employees who stand out for their unwavering belief to do what is right.

The book reads like a thriller and holds the attention – an incredible achievement especially when the end is a foregone conclusion! As the story unfolds, John Carreyrou introduces many characters and after a while it becomes difficult to keep track of all of them. But each character and the thread still manages to add a dimension to the central story, and most incidents hold a lesson too. Some of the stories – fake results, regulatory hacks, quality oversights, controlled demos, disguised reports – are so ridiculous that it’s hard to believe that it happened that way…even harder to appreciate is the culture of terrorising employees, an obsession with with secrecy and practices of surveillance and monitoring, and its incredible that despite this the company continued to attract talent and experience…

An engaging read… but somewhere I find an undercurrent of gender bias and the subtle hint that the situation was created by the charm and persuasion of its female founder. I disagree and have innumerable references of other smart, charismatic, persuasive founders who are equally adept at storytelling – winning over investors, clients, partners and employees – in their single minded pursuit of the end goal.

Theranos’s journey itself has all the elements to make it into an interesting read but the book stands out for forcing us to reflect, and reminding us to be avoid the trap of oblivion, to stay cognizant of true realities in the midst of bold promises.

I was reminded of an early lesson – a lesson I learnt many years agothe risk of selling what does not exist. I was new to business development and I remember how I got carried away with the sales pitch… for a while I was oblivious to the fact that by repeating the message I had myself started to overlook the reality (that we did not have the functionality), and in the process lost the urgency to build it. Before I knew I was caught in the virtual cycle myself… I lost a customer that day – and that is the day that I promised myself that while I will share the vision, I will always sell only the true reality. And it’s a promise that I have kept for most part.

This article was first published @LinkedIn on March 21, 2019.


[Unlearning] Let the act become the destination…

let act be the destination

Earlier in the year I read Phil Knight’s ‘Shoe Dog: A memoir by the Creator of Nike’… it could not have been better timing for me… it inspired me to live the journey, to continue to believe in my dreams (and of-course believe in me!).

I have always been running after goals – one goal to the next and the next! In the rush to reach the destination, I have sometimes been irritated and often frustrated when faced with a challenge or just about any event that delays the goal – not just missing out on countless opportunities to explore but more simply the pure joy of doing what I started to…

Phil Knight’s journey that led to Nike may not be as well known as Steve Jobs story of Apple but it’s no less an inspiration… Shy, introvert, often insecure – Phil is far off from the bold dashing image of a typical entrepreneur… giving hope to many of us…

The memoir is surprisingly honest… he is so humble… underplays the successes and presents many choices to be accidental – be it the design of the iconic swoosh logo, coining of the name Nike (inspired from the Greek goddess Athena Nike thought to be the bringer of ‘nike’ or victory) or introduction of the innovative air technology…

An amazing story, it’s an honest reminder of what it takes to live your dream… to build a successful business – contrary to perceptions it’s no glamorous journey but years of endless struggles, terrifying risks, crushing setbacks and heartbreaking sacrifices… rewards are few and far from guaranteed… you realise the harsh reality that often just hard work and determination is not enough and luck may decide the outcome… you often wonder why you are doing it but despite all handicaps you still do (!) and its the act that becomes the destination… and it’s only faith – faith in yourself and faith in faith – that in the end matters!

For us who have grown up loving and admiring Nike, it is unimaginable to believe that a major part of the journey saw them living with the daily fear of failure… it makes it all the more admirable that they emerged into such a strong brand despite the humble beginnings and decades of struggles… but it’s a real example of the power of shared dreams… and what can be achieved if you keep going… if you don’t give up… if you live every moment of the journey fully… it’s a reminder to us all to live our dream, for the alternative is ‘not-to-live’!

This article is a page from my diary – UnLearning, which records all those random thoughts (ideas and fears…) that make me live day-by-day.

When I paid the price for forgetting that the first 5 minutes of user journey is more important than all the cool features…

user journey

I love technology and of-course I thrive on building cool features – nothing compares to the excitement of implementing highly complex algorithms or finding new ways of using the technology to solve a problem.

But many hard experiences have taught me that technology (alone) does not sell and I have over-the-years learnt to first focus on user experience and always keep the technology hidden.

So, when I started to write down the product specifications for my new startup idea, I did everything right – there was not a single word on technology and I captured the product definition through 5 stages of user journey.

[5 Minutes] captured the 1st Experience: AWARENESS

[5 Hours] focused on the 1st Use: ORIENTATION

[5 Days] looked at making it work for the user and lead to Participation: PERSONALISATION

[5 Weeks] looked at making it work for the larger group and added elements of Induction: INFLUENCE

[Ongoing] introduced capabilities to sustain the momentum: CULTURE

It was the right way to do it. We ran the user journeys with many clients and fed the inputs and preferences back. After 4 months of market validation we decided we were ready to start development.

And that’s when the problem inadvertently occurred (of-course, I never realised it at that time). As we drew out the release plan we ran through the normal cycle of chopping features and prioritised to define the feature-set for the first beta version. I believe that is when my latent love for technology overtook my experience and I selected the base feature set to include functions that demonstrated the algorithms (justifying it all by saying that these complex contextualization algorithms were our differentiator and critical for illustrating the value to the user). Nothing comes for free – to balance time and resources we decided to take a shortcut for our initial sign-up and login process. At that stage it seemed the perfect thing to do – after all its something a user does only once or at best a few times – and even if its a few extra steps or a little painful – it will still work!

Of-course it worked. But only for those true early-adopters who had the motivation to take that extra initiative and accept a few painful interactions. As our user base grew, a lot many users attempted to sign-up but never managed to get onboard. Its amazing how often it happened – and believe me that the interaction wasn’t anything demanding – it simply required them to copy an access code (sent separately) and input it as part of the sign-up. In those days, we lost a few users and for many others our client engagement teams had to invest time and run after them (and often hand-hold) to complete the process. If only we had stuck to our original definition of keeping the 1st 5 minutes interaction simple and seamless, we would not just have got a lot more people on-boarded, but also ensured that their first touch point was fail-safe.

In hindsight, it seems a blunder – how could we have ignored the fact that users had to onboard first before they could experience the cool contextual and personalisation features? There was no technical complexity to the desired sign-up process and I do not even know if we really saved that many development hours and resources. It’s more like we were avoiding working on a task that had virtually no challenges for us to fix…

What hurts me even more is that its something that I, as a Product Manager, always knew and even apportioned the right value to it at the time of conceptualisation. And yet, somewhere I still lost control on the road from concept to delivery.

This article was first published on Medium on October 27, 2015 and LinkedIn on November 21, 2015.

Reducing attention span – how I started to exploit it in today’s asynchronous world…

Less is More

I can no longer focus on a thought for long – can you? Is a short attention span really as bad as often suggested…? I don’t think so. Maybe working professionals can adapt to exploit this emerging behaviour pattern?

My attention span has fallen over the last few years. It’s a fact. Earlier I could focus and concentrate at length, now I struggle. With so much happening in today’s multi-media, always-on world if something fails to catch my attention in the first few seconds, I just drop it and jump to the next – and even then I end up with so much that I still can’t find time to look at. Some research puts the blame on our growing use of smartphones and connected networks, others on the never-ending information overload. Whatever the cause, the effect can’t be ignored.

An article some months back created excitement by announcing that a goldfish (at 9 sec) has a higher attention span than a human…

While I have found little medical validation to support this claim and hence decided that it’s premature to give up on my digitally-connected lifestyle, it certainly opened my mind to accept that I am now doing many things differently. And since the verdict is out on whether it’s good or bad, my actions are contradictory. At one extreme, I am using yoga and meditation to build concentration; on the other I am developing new operating patterns that fit better with a shorter attention span.

One important change that I am exploring is to drive a culture where information is broken into bite-sized chunks. Obvious, as it may be, believe me that it indeed is a step change. We all suffer overflowing inboxes, overly-descriptive documents and hours of conference calls. To break away from this overload and start communicating in bite-sized chunks makes us edgy… Will data be missed? Can all the facts be captured succinctly? With more pages/slides comes more extensive preparation. And so on…

But, if we stop for a moment – we all know (deep down) that hardly anyone reads big communications diligently and much of what is said is often ignored… We also know that if the key message is clear then we can ‘capture’ it simply. It’s only when we lack clarity that we waffle… and we have all seen that structuring information into multiple, easier-to-digest, pieces helps present the big picture much better.

Let’s say we succeed in getting the information broken down. Smaller pieces work well with our reduced attention spans. We don’t have to wait to free-up time; instead we can pick up chunks to fill in time-windows. We can cover a lot more in a shorter time. We can start by focusing on the key highlights – and only delve into details for areas that really deserve attention. And we can always create time for that. We can become better at filtering and prioritising – and hence act more effectively.

The shift is to move from quantity to QUALITY.

The shift is to move from activity to RESULTS.

The shift is to move from management to OWNERSHIP.

Through our innovative use of structured mobile-video, we at humanLearning have pioneered this change. Our platform ‘WinSight’ organises professionals to craft clear messages – quickly & easily – in short (30-60sec. max.), segmented, templated videos. We can now exploit small time-windows – we have tried to capture our messages as we walk out of a client meeting to the parked car, sometimes as we wait for our turn in a queue, sometimes as we travel in the train or the underground, but quite often as we walk the busy the streets. All our communication has become near real-time and yet is available asynchronously… it gives us all the independence of un-interrupted work-flows and flexibility from time-zones but still keeps us connected – more than we have ever been before!

Our belief in ‘Less is More’ may seem counter-intuitive in the age of BigData but it can evolve into the natural way of future communication – a more human way to interface & interact.

It will take time to move all the interactions to this new mantra. However, we should get started now. After all, it’s not just about survival anymore but an opportunity for working professionals to simplify their work-life by creating new, easier, quicker, more effective – asynchronous – ways of working.

This article was first published on LinkedIn on October 18, 2015  [ref.] and GrowthHackers on November 2 2015 [ref.]

I recently concluded that I learn more from Success than Failure… and yet, isn’t it ironic that we are still obsessed with learning from failure?

right or wrong

It is popular belief – especially in the startup eco-system – that failure is a stepping-stone to success. I cannot deny that this gave me a lot of confidence (and comfort) when I co-founded a technology startup, as I believed that the worst outcome (for me) would be all the great learning that I will acquire, even if we faltered on the way.

Now, after many years of living the startup journey, I have lots of learning – both good and bad. But, being true to the spirit of learning from failure, I always diligently record everything that doesn’t work. I even look at it often, analyse it sometimes, and consciously try not to follow the same approach again. But then everything changed one day…

It was just one of those days when I was flustered – I was looking for answers and I was getting irritated as I realised that for every previous effort that had failed, I only knew what did not work. But I still had no clue of what would work? I asked myself – how effective is that learning – if I still have to go back to the drawing board and continue the search for answers on how to make it work? I was not very upbeat as I had gone through the process once and failed to find the answer, and what was the guarantee that the second search would be any more fruitful?

In that state of exasperation, I happened to come across an interesting neuroscience research that suggested that brain cells only learn from experience when we do something right and not when we fail. I was intrigued.

I wondered if I could correlate it with my own personal experience – so I tried to test the theory on the problem at hand. Our mobile-video based service for sharing experiences, stories and insights is deployed across 25+ countries in Europe. Most groups are very actively engaged, but few still require constant nudges. All our discussion around driving adoption in the low-activity groups has always focused on what wasn’t working for these groups. That day we changed our outlook – we instead discussed everything that was working for the high-activity groups. We uncovered simple observations and found interesting patterns. We realised that we just had never bothered to re-apply this successful learning back into the groups that required external stimuli.

That was the day I realised, that my obsession with learning from failure meant that I was simply – taking for granted – everything that was working for us. Here was an opportunity for us to focus on the success and build upon it – I knew what worked and I could make it happen again, maybe even do it much better. And yet I was spending more of my time in learning from failures. Why? It made no sense.

I am now a convert. I now track our successes as much as (if not more) than the failed attempts. Of-course I know that I need to be cautious and ensure that I am not blinded by success. More importantly I am cognisant that I need to continuously strive to do better than the last success. And, of-course it also does not mean that I overlook failures – but I now look at them in the right context.

Learn from success is my new mantra! I realise that the need is not to glorify success – but to recognize core strengths and convert them into strategic assets. Just as it is important to manage our weaknesses, we also need to diligently work on developing our strengths. And believe me – it is harder to focus on strengths, far much easier to lapse into failures, regrets, emotions.

This article was first published on LinkedIn on September 13, 2015 [ref.]

Arti is the co-founder of humanLearning – a fast growing UK-based technology startup – setup with an earnest desire to make the life of busy professionals simpler and more effective. humanLearning is disrupting business work-flows thru WinSight – a mobile-video based platform that empowers ‘every’ professional to benefit from each other’s experiences & insights in the easiest, fastest and most impactful way.