Actionable Insights into the World of Indian Startups

Straight Talk, Real Insights

Building a Kick Ass Team – Part I

with 12 comments

Surround yourself with people smarter than you and see the impossible become possible. Startup founders who have built the biggest baddest companies have lived by this philosophy and proven time and again that it is possible for small groups of people to impact the world. Take the case of Google, Facebook or Twitter and all of them have one thing in common, there are small groups of great people impacting the entire planet in a very profound manner.

In the Indian context, we are just starting to realize that the next generation of leaders will not be the grey haired tenured industry veterans or people that went to cram schools with a roster of degrees and brands like IIT and IIM. The next generation of leaders in India will be young people with a dream that could assemble other young people and go change the world. The US went through this revolution and the Valley is a place where there are so many examples of young people just taking on the world and making the impossible possible. In the valley, people are not measured by their fancy degrees or their age. People are measured by what they can contribute. I love an article written by Paul Graham titled “After Credentials” – if you don’t follow Paul Graham, now would be a nice time to do so (piece of advice – don’t get carried away by his LISP can change the world rant). The article refers to a culture like ours where kids are pressured by parents to go to cram schools to prepare for entrance exams to the esteemed institutions of IIT and IIM, or the so called elite services (Civil services IAS etc) that make up the bureaucracy in India is a culture of credentials. The culture of judging people by their credentials and not by their performance is just broken. We cannot recreate silicon valley in India if we continue down this broken path of hiring people with credentials instead of people that perform into teams. I have several life lessons to share here that have made me a big believer in this theory as well.

My first startup experience after Oracle was a small startup called which made large scale emails servers for the earliest ISPs on the planet and became a dominant force in this market. It had a blazing IPO where I remember our US$0.25 cents options trading at US$225 in the pre-bubble and with a market cap of ~US$8B. The founder John MacFarlane, another role model I try to embody and like Satish was one of the greatest tech startup CEOs I have ever worked with, believed that it was time to bring in a professional executive team to run the company as he was not capable of leading a ~US$16B company (we had merged with – the inventors of WAP to create Openwave which was also a public company with similar valuation of ours). {I will in a later article discuss what happens when the original founders of a startup leave or are forced to leave and the executive team gets replaced by the so called heavy hitters brought on by the board – a very important topic.} John brought in the number 2 guy from Cisco to run Openwave who was the heir apparent to John Chambers back in 2000. This CEO then brought in a creamy layer from Cisco who slowly and steadily filled up the ranks of Openwave’s management team and put Openwave on a trajectory of doom. This e-staff team decided that the young hands running marketing and product management in the company were incapable of running a “large” company like Openwave. They brought in a high powered marketing team of 5-6 individuals with credentials that looked very similar Harvard MBAs with P&G / McKinsey experience. One would expect a pedigreed team like this to propel the company into ranks of glory. Against popular belief the same marketing team created so much chaos in the market that it was obvious the company was doomed forever. Within 18-24 months all of these high powered MBA types were shown the door and after a few quarters the Cisco creamy layer could not manage the expectations of the street and the self propelled hype they created and soon exited through the same revolving doors. They all belonged to a class the US has started to despise called “the empty suits” like the execs from Wall Street Banks and the Automobile Industry.

My next run-in with the so called pedigreed kind was after I moved to India to setup Openwave India. I was hiring technical resources and I saw the resume of an IIT grad who had spent time as a technologist at a very large Indian Telco. He came to the interview 45 minutes late, was not apologetic, was dressed like he was from a slum and wanted a job in an multi-national. I was open and willing to overlook his appearance and demeanor and see if he had the technical acumen to make the cut. He greatly underwhelmed me with his knowledge of the Industry and Technology. He was a CS grad from IIT Kanpur with 3-4 years of experience. After this experience I thought that this was a one off case and was still open to the pedigreed kind.

Then in 2006 when I setup Zimbra in India and the IIT community caught wind of our operation I had a flood of resumes of IIT grads who were graduating from various IITs who were looking for Jobs with Zimbra. I was delighted and talked to Satish about how I thought we could hire these talented young guys and create a kick ass engineering team. Then we put these guys through the paces of our recruitment process whose first gate was to write a piece of software in 12 hours in Java to test their coding skills. Not one IIT grad passed the first gate :-) I am not trying to generalize here and I dont live in an illusionary world. There are clear examples of great leaders from IIT in the past in our industry. However, I feel that somewhere along the way IITs have just lost the quality didactic capabilities of the past. What they are churning out today is an underwhelming set of people not hirable by startups and high-tech software companies. I think the current breed of IITs is being molded for an Infosys or a TCS job. The kick ass engineers in Zimbra India came from a team I cherry picked from Zoho famous for hiring hungry young engineers from the so called Tier-2 engineering schools in India and training them on the latest technologies. Each every one of these hires I would hire again in my next startup :-) Young, hungry, motivated, committed and most importantly humble…… these are the qualities I look for and not credentials.

More interesting reading on this topic here:

IIT Grad == Excellent Programmer?

How the IITs can suck less

1. Hire the absolute best – Talent acquisition in India SUCKS! I have tried to work with a number of talent/recruiting agencies in India including the big names and each and every one underwhelmed me. Unlike the Valley where some of the top recruiters understand how to source top notch talent due to their sheer experience working with startups and product companies, the recruiting firms we have in India have ZERO capability to hire quality talent. All recruiting companies simply go and search the popular job boards for resumes and do a simple key word search extracted for the Job Description you provided them and then the only level of filter is a casual conversation with the candidates on their requirements. I remember getting a flood of resumes that were totally unqualified from each and every recruiter we were using. Imagine the effort you spend in screening this mountain of resumes to find the needle in the haystack. It actually got worse when we became a part of Yahoo. You would imagine someone like Yahoo having the best talent acquisition teams in India. What we got back from Yahoo’s TA team was worse than what we were getting from our recruiters. It really seems like talent acquisition in India is designed for the volume hiring that the IT services firms do. My advice to startup entrepreneurs is to network like crazy with groups where a lot of tech savvy entrepreneurs get together (barcamps, tweetups and the like), troll linkedin and network individually, find companies that are doing good related work but don’t have the right environment to motivate and retain employees and cherry pick their best and brightest (this worked beautifully for me. I was successful in hiring the 5 top guys from Zimbra’s then perceived competitor Zoho. This may sound unethical but hey we all live in a competitive world where only the best must win). Most of the young entrepreneurs I have met also believe that the only requirement when hiring technology people is technical knowledge and coding skills. While this is a given that you need to hire the best coders, you also need to be absolutely sure that the person has the right drive, motivation, energy, ethics and capability to work in a team. People make all the difference between a successful tech startup and a Loser. Hire the best and see the results for yourself.

2. Raise the bar with each hire – To vote them on to the island the candidate that is hired has to be better than our existing standards (which has to be the best in the world) – when you are hiring key resources into your enterprise, imagine you are stranded on an island with 10 candidates and a lifeboat lands from the heaven for 2 people. You now have to choose one out of the 10 that will ensure your safe passage back to mainland. For this not only do you need someone who is the strongest that can help you row the boat back to mainland but you need someone with the highest level of integrity – someone who will not push you out of the boat so he / she can have a safe passage easily. At Zimbra we were known to have set the highest level of recruiting standards for our Engineers. So high was the standard that my guys would receive calls from Google India recruiters trying to hire them away regularly. The culture at Zimbra was so strong that the Engineers never even felt like talking to the Google recruiters. They would walk into my office with the email and laugh about how lame the Google recruiters were and then discuss the latest 8 hour outage of Gmail and how even Google cannot build the best email system in the world. This confidence that the Zimbra Engineers exuded was passed down all the way from Satish and really helped us kick Gmail and Microsoft Exchange in the back side :)

3. Filter out the faint of heart – One strategy that worked for me was to set stringent filters for hiring. I then enforced these filters with all of my recruiters where the penalty was getting fired for sending me one resume that slipped through the filter. My filter was very simple:

if candidate has worked in {ibm|infosys|tcs|satyam|patni……….any services firm in India} then move to Trash

I know this may sound too out in the left field but trust me this was the best thing I ever did from a HR standpoint. The Services Industry was great in taking India to the Digital Age. It created the new economy and provided many jobs and bettered peoples lives. However, the same industry is caught in its own rut. This is an industry that has not evolved or created a single innovation that the world can point to as exemplary. They continue to induct 1000s of people into software factories where these employees are made to work on fairly automated software processes on projects that were considered non core by US companies and offloaded to a lower cost model. Why has Infosys – “the so called Microsoft of India” not come up with a single innovation or product that the world can point to and say “hmmm. that is cool!”? For more on this topic read Om Malik’s article written in 2007 - Troubling Signs for Indian Tech Outsourcers. If I were to gaze into the crystal ball, I can only see two outcomes for the Tech Outsourcing Industry in India – they reinvent themselves and start creating IP and products and push India into a new era of greatness (or) the Bangalore IT Outsourcing industry goes down in the history books as an Industry that could not stay competitive and die like the auto industry in Detroit. Something tells me that the latter is the most likely scenario for India’s tech outsourcing industry.

The other issue with the software Industry is that intense competition led to artificial escalation in wages at a totally unsustainable rate. The Indian IT industry is one of a kind in the world where wages increased in double digits year over year for a long period of time. I am a big believer in paying highly skilled and high performance individuals well over the industry and I am also known to have doubled my best resources salary 2 times in a single year. Most of the services industry folks do not fit the description of a high performance or highly skilled engineer but have expectations that are just unreasonable. This is an important message to many startup founders. Hire people that are hungry and willing to work for low salaries and higher equity initially. If you find that they exceed your expectations quickly raise their salaries to a level that it becomes a non issue for the employee for a long time.

Some other filters early stage startup founders may want to consider at the early stage are the following:

if {MBA | product analyst | business development type| project manager……….} then make sure you are absolutely sure that they are not empty suits.

So, who is this breed known as empty suits…….. it is mostly people who:

1. don’t have a deep understanding and more importantly INSIGHTS of technology, markets or have the inclination or drive to learn it.
2. when asked if you follow, techcrunch, gigaom, allthingsd,, respond with a “ummm… I dunno, what is that?”
3. have never ever coded in their lives
4. believe that the MBA type is a higher class than the hacker type
5. believe their role is to tell the engineers what to do – I love this one!
6. don’t understand the social phenomenon of the Internet – linkedin, twitter, fb etc
7. seemed to have walked the proven path and never broken rank (IIT, IIM, Management Consulting or Services type of career path)
8. hide behind powerpoints and throw mba jargon when they cannot understand technology issues
9. believe that impressing engineers is by writing a long list of un-prioritized features with no justification on why they matter
10. don’t understand the terms seo, sem, social marketing, blogging etc

and the list goes on which you are probably getting a hang off now.

Let us all face it the only people who matter in a technology startup is people who build stuff and people who can sell stuff. The rest are overhead. Hire overhead carefully and only if you need it in-house. Most overhead skills can be outsourced. Even when Zimbra grew to 40 in India, we had one overhead – an office manager whose primary role I had defined was to keep the office entertained (dragging people out to parties, making sure they were well fed etc). The office manager was the one that coordinated with all our outsourced vendors for accounting, payroll etc.

Read Building a Kick Ass Team – Part II

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Written by Abinash Tripathy

June 24, 2009 at 3:29 pm

Posted in culture, hiring, IIT, team

12 Responses

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  1. Nice one Abinash! Having interacted closely with your team for more than a year, I guess makes me qualified to comment on your team. Your team was one of the most kick-ass (as you put it) for sure across Engg/TS/Support – and the best part is the mutual trust and respect everybody has for each other. Also, the way you have groomed people in your team is a great way to build a team for the future.

    Well, you are quite true about why people from the India's mighty "Middle Class" lack ambition but I would also put it to a lack of examples before them. Most Engg/MBA grads simply don't have examples whom they can emulate. By the time they realize, it is generally quite late. Another factor is that our culture kind of promotes mediocrity everywhere. You are better off being average than being an exception. When a hardworking student is slogging his ass off, his friends run him down. I could go on and on cribbing about such stuff but I feel a change is just round the corner.


    June 26, 2009 at 10:55 am

  2. Thanks Animesh! I truly enjoyed working with you as well. Keep your ears tuned…. I am working on something cooool……


    June 26, 2009 at 6:29 pm

  3. Good one Abinash….! Thanks for opening up on the art of setting up a start-up !

    I'm going thru other posts of urs as well…I'm gonna be glued to this blog !!! :)

    Amit Shinde

    June 27, 2009 at 2:05 pm

  4. Having been mentored by you at Zimbra, especially in building the Support team, I can endorse that every word you write here is what you religiously follow when building the team and just works! This is truly why the Zimbra team in India was and continues to be one of the top ones in the industry.

    Thanks for posting this!

    Chintan Zaveri

    June 28, 2009 at 7:46 am

  5. [...] should read some of his recent writings, specially the likes of — Building a Kickass Team, where he talked about the talent or rather the lack of it in [...]

  6. Great post! So true!


    June 29, 2009 at 6:06 pm

  7. Nice post … recently found your blog and finding it very interesting :)

    Rohit Arondekar

    July 9, 2009 at 7:38 am

  8. [...] Read Building a Kick Ass Team – Part I Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Slow Learner, Fast LearnerBuild It and They Will ComeWhy I will be going to bed early tonightAutoline on Autoblog with John McElroy [...]

  9. [...] college who think starting a company is a good idea.   As discussed in my previous writing about Building Kick Ass Teams founders who have demonstrated that they have built high powered teams before are the most [...]

  10. Well…., People tend to build sculptures with bricks and then wonder why they cant get it right. They don’t know that you need stones and patience to build sculptures.


    August 10, 2009 at 1:41 am

  11. Hi Abinash,
    Good to see experienced person like you sharing their experience with us. But I have some problems with your assumptions. I should not have taken pain to comment on this, if you have not put the article on HN.
    1:- “the next generation of leaders will not be people that went to cram schools with a roster of degrees and brands like IIT and IIM.”
    Perhaps you are not in touch with the reality, a good number of startups have been built by IIT and IIM alumni and many are getting built as well. IIT and IIM grads are still doing a great job as leaders in many corporate houses. Leadership does not mean starting a company, right? I do agree that being an IIT or IIM alumnus does not make you great leader or programmer, but IITs and IIMs do have people who can and will become great leaders or programmers. On the negative side, if you are an IIT or IIM grad, then the expectations from family and friends work as a burden for people who want to do something of their own. Unlike the US, Indian parents do not like their children leaving a cool job offer to start a company.
    2:- “if candidate has worked in {ibm|infosys|tcs|satyam|patni……….any services firm in India} then move to Trash”
    I think you need to think about this point again. You are undoubtedly losing some of the bright minds. In India, the current scenario is like the following. If you are from any elite institution, then in the worst case you will opt for the services companies. If you are from any tier-2 or tier-3 colleges, then you will opt for service based companies, even if you are a great developer (in the absence of any other alternatives).
    3:- You need to change the title to building a kick ass team for a high tech product startup company as your techniques won’t apply to building any startups. Startups are built and sustained by people with attitude, dedication, intelligence and passion.
    4:- It would be great if you take a course on English writing. Using proper paragraphs, bold fonts and structure would have made the article reader friendly. I know I am sounding a bit harsh, but you being a reader of Paul Graham can compare your writing style to Paul’s. Good programmers are often good writers.
    5:- As of putting the blame on any services companies for not doing innovation, we need to be a bit pragmatic. Off course Indian service based companies are at fault for not leveraging their current advantage to create innovative products. But simultaneously we need to take the blame as well. Product development requires higher skill and creativity than providing services. We Indians are used to rote learning which makes us awesome in mastering .NET or Java and coding a piece as asked by the clients. But when it comes to thinking about the market, finding the need of a product, conceptualizing an idea, building a product from scratch, we fail. We lack the skills. Off course the managers at services based companies are not opting to build products. But the people working at these services based companies are not coming up with their ideas and starting companies. If we look at our performance in coding competitions, we suck. If we look at other areas like publishing papers or filing patents we suck. We are not making world class engineers, innovators, researchers.

    soubhagya nayak

    March 13, 2010 at 8:34 pm

  12. “I think you need to think about this point again. You are undoubtedly losing some of the bright minds.”

    @soubhagya – why search for needle in the haystack when the kind of people one would look for are found elsewhere in greater probability – open source, local user groups, tech meet-ups, events, even mailing lists & github. etc

    ideamonk (@ideamonk)

    September 6, 2012 at 6:34 pm

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