Teaching machines to learn

“Machine Learning” is no more new. Literally every new kid with even a wee bit of curiosity with technology knows about it. But while programming machines to act intelligent was the earlier approach, teaching machines to learn for themselves is where the world is headed.

With Google and Facebook making substantial investments into the tools needed to make machine learning happen, the trend has only been speeded up. The next fight for these biggies in technology is on whose artificial intelligence tools are going to be used more widely to enable machine learning. At least in the case of Google and Facebook the tools seem open source and available to the world at large.

On its part, Google is providing a free online course through Udacity. The course is going to be led by Vincent Vanhoucke, a principal scientist at Google. I am sure by sharing their knowledge on this toolkit, they will open up the minds of many more engineers beyond Google to experiment and take machine learning forward.

For more information look up these links:

TensorFlow (Google’s latest machine learning system) – http://googleresearch.blogspot.in/2015/11/tensorflow-googles-latest-machine_9.html

http://googleresearch.blogspot.in/2016/01/teach-yourself-deep-learning-with.html

Putting Deep Learning to Work – http://blog.udacity.com/2016/01/putting-deep-learning-to-work.html

Course Link – https://www.udacity.com/course/deep-learning–ud730

I am posting this so that many of my young engineering minds (especially the entrepreneurial ones looking for new opportunities) may pick up such emerging skills. There is so much engineering talent across India, which if can be educated on skills like the above, will startup scalable unicorns.

Startup India by learning how to teach machines how to learn!

Interview with the authors of ‘FOUND: Transforming Your Unlimited Ideas into One Sustainable Business’

Book Title: ‘FOUND: Transforming Your Unlimited Ideas into One Sustainable Business’
Liz&Naveen'sFound

Authors (Photo): Naveen Lakkur (Corporate Innovation Coach) and Dr Liz Alexander (Consulting Co-author and global thought leadership strategist)

To know more about the authors: Naveen (http://www.naveenlakkur.com/about/) and Dr Liz (http://drlizalexander.com/about/).

The book was launched yesterday at Bangalore, India. Since it a book that is aimed at entrepreneurs, a group that I work with closely, I wanted to know more. Though I could not be there in person for the event, I caught up with Naveen for a quick e-chat. An edited version is presented below. I hope this will give you an overview of the book and incite interest to read it. My best wishes to the authors for all success of their book.

Here is the interview:

What gave you the idea to write FOUND: Transforming Your Unlimited Ideas into One Sustainable Business?

The enthusiasm for entrepreneurship is on a rise and, of course, such excitement is an important part of this journey since it takes a huge commitment in time, money and effort to bring an idea to its full reality. We also need more entrepreneurs to build meaningful companies which, in turn, helps to support and sustain the economy. But if you look at the number of startups that survive, the figure is very low. What is needed to successfully build a sustainable business is a sound process and methodology for deciding which of your many ideas you will pick and act on. Our book, FOUND, is all about helping aspiring and seasoned entrepreneurs – as well as those charged with intrapreneurial initiatives within the corporate world – find that one winning idea.

What is your view on entrepreneurship in India currently?

Traditionally in India, entrepreneurship at the grass roots level has been more about family-owned businesses that operate locally. Thanks to technology, the term has been redefined and taken to a new level. One in which entrepreneurs are able to build more scalable, even global solutions. As such, technology has been a catalyst, increasing the number of people interested in entrepreneurship and who wish to create a bigger impact for a larger base of people. That’s especially true in India where there is considerable interest, not just in creating products and apps, but in providing fresh solutions to some of our most pressing social problems. With the opportunity to help change our country and the world, we’ve seen many more first time entrepreneurs stepping forward. The startup dynamic now looks very different to the way it did just a few years ago.

How might the five-part framework in FOUND contribute to the recently-launched Startup India movement?Foundcover copy

Now that Startup India has become a movement, tapping into the aspirations and personal goals of people who want to make a difference in the world, there is the potential for very large number of new entrepreneurs. While something like 4,500 startups were registered last year, we can see that in the coming 5-10 years, that number could be boosted to 100,000 startups—a huge increase compared to what is happening currently. But as we said earlier, the success rates of startups is currently very low. If the number of people attempting to become entrepreneurs grows exponentially, there has to be some support system in order for all those ideas to become sustainable businesses. FOUND is our humble offering that contributes to Startup India by ensuring future entrepreneurs are able to stand up and stand out.

Naveen, you bring considerable experience from corporate life, as well as being a startup founder, startup investor and now a corporate innovation coach. What have you learned most from that blend of experience?

As you say, my experience has come through a variety of different approaches to ideation and startup success and I’ve had a lot of learning along the way. As a result of joining all these dots I was able to develop this proven FOUND methodology and offer it to people who want to come up with a lot of ideas yet find one that can become scalable, even globally impactful. Because I’ve had experience both in the startup space and the corporate world, the intellectual property that came out of that learning has been transformed into the FOUND framework. And the beauty is, it works as an enabler for people aspiring to become entrepreneurs, and for corporates looking to support intrapreneurship in their organisations.

What were some of the challenges you faced in your own entrepreneurial journey?

I’ve always been someone who has found it easy to generate a lot of ideas and can see opportunities in them all. I found that picking one idea and making that a priority was one of my biggest challenges, because it’s very tempting to want to try to take them all to the next level! Which is why I find it easy to empathize with entrepreneurs who face the same hard decisions and why I wanted to write this book!

Also, when I went through my own entrepreneurial journey there was very little in the way of support. There wasn’t the same ecosystem that there is these days. So I had no option other than bootstrapping, which can be a double-edged sword when you are trying to test and validate a lot of ideas to begin with. I certainly made a lot of mistakes and learned the hard way. It’s this learning that we’re sharing with the readers of FOUND so they can build a sustainable, successful business without having to experience too many missteps.

What are your hopes for your book, FOUND?

Both Dr. Liz and I hope that the framework for ideation presented in our book will help launch many sustainable businesses and prove especially helpful for those entrepreneurs who plan to bootstrap and use their resources wisely. What would delight us most is to discover that one day the founders of several unicorn companies – those with billion dollar valuations or more – say that they read this book called FOUND and that its principles and framework helped them create global value-creating brands.

I hope you found the short e-interview interesting. For those who want to find ‘Found’ I am sharing a quick clue: http://www.amazon.in/FOUND-Transforming-Unlimited-Sustainable-Business-ebook/dp/B01AT6XXMQ/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453566290&sr=1-1&keywords=FOUND%3A+Transforming+Your+Unlimited+Ideas+into+One+Sustainable+Business

Startup India starts up in style

When I was in school, I have often watched cricket matches on Television. It was a very comfortable way to enjoy the game with numerous additional benefits. But today was a very different experience. Without a Television, in the comfort of my home, I sat on my laptop and watched the live coverage of the Startup India Standup India event without a hitch. One who has grown up in India during the 1990s cannot imagine watching a webcast of a live government event, on a government website, running without a hitch. Thanks are due to my internet service provider too.

The Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi stole the show as usual. I loved the spirit of his talk – lets stop doing things to allow startups start doing things. The action plan he unveiled at the end of the day was reflective of this philosophy. He pointed out to a few important things in the action plan and I enjoyed listening to them. I kept smiling all the way, as he kept shared what is planned to be stopped:

  • No Labour inspector visits for the first three years
  • No income tax for first three years
  • No capital gains tax if you sell your property and invest in your venture
  • No more prior experience or minimum turnover to apply for public procurement

I loved the initiatives around what they intend to start as well:

  • Fast track patent application processing
  • Government sponsored patent filing support (fully free)
  • Bankruptcy Law
  • 1 Day startup App
  • Strengthening of the incubation system
  • Greater focus on knowledge backed and technology enabled innovations
  • Tinkering labs
  • Pre-incubation support system
  • Seed capital

I especially look forward to seeing the ‘Grand Challenges’ part of the Innovation mission as that is where our much touted Google / Apple could be.

Overall an impressive show. The remaining day was equally interesting and inspiring. I truly wish all of that which is spoken actually sees the light of day.

Though most of the above are potential action items, at least we did not listen to very high level, broad based, no-one-knows-whose-action-it-is type of statements. Having been one associated with the entrepreneurship ecosystem for a decade now, I can tell you for sure – the people who have prepared this document have heard what stakeholders in this ecosystem are saying. Simple. Wondering why it took so many years to hear this. Glad that it has been heard and acted upon.

Very impressed and inspired by the attention my domain of work is gaining in this country. If this trend continues it will not be far when India will regain her glory as the land of opportunities, progress and prosperity.

In a way this program is an exciting pitch. I now want to read that action plan. I now want to  know who is going to implement what. I now want to know where I can participate. This is an example of a great pitch.

This blog is my feeling after listening to an interesting day of inspiring people. I am sure the details will be made available in the public domain soon. I am sure you will look up to it as much as I do.

Startup India. I am sure if you do, we will Standup too.

 

Crowd Funding my way to Jagriti Yatra 2015

Guest Post by: Saurabh Sharma.

This is Saurabh Sharma, a student from Entrepreneurship Development Institute Of India (EDI), Gujarat. Previous year, I applied to the Jagriti Yatra but didn’t make through. This year I was selected for the prestigious Jagriti yatra 2015 (JY2015). But for me it was not easy task to get on board for I found some constraints after selections. As we keep hearing from our childhood, there is nothing like a free lunch in this world; I also faced a similar situation after selection in Jagriti Yatra. The total cost of the program was about Rs 59,000 and they gave me 50% scholarship. So I had to pay Rs 27,000 to be on board. I also had to pay a registration amount of Rs 5000. So in total I needed to pay 32000, if I had to be part of the Jagriti Yatra 2015. There were some financial constraints which stopped me from thinking further but it was my dream to go. I told myself; anyhow I will go to the Yatra. But for me the biggest question was where to find the money for the yatra. I had saved Rs 12000 at that time, so I needed Rs 20000 more to get on the board.

As I was thinking on this, one day I met with Raj Shankar Sir, who is doing his Fellowship Program in Management at EDI. Over lunch he advised me to go for crowd funding. I thought about it, but I didn’t have the confidence because I thought dignity is more important when it comes to asking the money to someone. My confidence level was so low, and almost lost my dream to be on board JY2015. Then magic happened.

Ramkrishna Mistri Sir, who is a visiting faculty of Development Studies course in EDI was teaching us the Fund Raising subject. After the session, I met him and shared my problem. He also suggested the option of crowd funding. But this time, he announced in the class and asked for everybody’s participation for crowd funding my JY2015. Some of my friends drafted the letter, which actually captured my financial problem and also my dream. See the poster by the side. fundraising.jpgWe shared this message across EDI and asked for support. It worked. Some of my friends gave me funding and it helped me reach Rs 6000. But further 14000 was needed to be on Board for JY2015. Then I told to Ramkrishna Mistri sir that I have raised only this much but he kept assuring me that it will all work out.

Then, he shared this message on his social media especially his WhatsApp group where Alumni, Faculty and Ex faculty were also there. The first person who supported this initiative was Dr Dinesh Awasthi, ex-Director of EDI. After that alumni, faculty and ex faculty gave their support and I managed to raise the required amount. So I am now going to live my dream, I am going to JY2015.

Meanwhile another incident also took place. Our senior Sanjay Romala was suffering with a similar problem that I faced. So I told this thing also to Ramkrishna Sir and he helped him as well. All the alumni and senior faculty members also helped him.

So crowd funding works. It helped me get on the Jagriti Yatra 2015. It was a very good and challenging experience and I am sure that this journey will change my insight and give me exposure to understand the practical challenges of the community. I hope to also do something for the community in the future.

I now look forward to boarding the train for JY2015. Thanks to all who made it happen.

Brand or Business – which one first?

During a recent conversation with an entrepreneur in the food sector – I was intrigued by the entrepreneur’s firm belief in what he was trying to do. Just like all other entrepreneurs he seemed to have his undeniable logic in place. Here is the essence of it.

Food businesses probably experience the largest failure rate. While all of them had a strong economic sense underlying the business, most did not build a brand. He felt that this could be a primary reason for failure. If people don’t recognise the brand and return to enjoy the food, there can be no business. Hence economics of making surplus should come only after having established a trusted brand. He felt that this was important. So, he has gone about building the brand first – a fairly well recognized name in the local market. He is about two years in the business and is approaching break-even only now. But because his brand is fairly well recognised and has a high return rate amongst customers – he feels its only a question of time before he starts reaping the fruits of his efforts and belief. In fact he is almost on the verge of raising money as well. He hopes to use the money to expand his small but well recognised brand.

While his logic seemed in place, what got me thinking was his strong message that food businesses must build a brand before building the business. Is this really true? What did he mean by the brand? He said – a promise. He said – consistent delivery of services. He said – trust. He said – great experience. I think they are all right. His logic therefore seems very well placed. He said, ‘If I can win customers first and keep them coming back for my food, it is fairly easy to start making money. But if I focus on making profits and breaking even quickly – sustaining the food business seems an unsurmountable challenge.’

The reason for sharing this message here is because many times when we teach entrepreneurship in class, we attempt to make building enterprises a rational process. Probably this is yet another example of why it may not be true. But the entrepreneur was also humble enough to accept that learning the tools and techniques from books and classes is what gave him the confidence and kept him sane through the tough times. His key to sustaining and thriving is – read one hour everyday.

Knowledge is important. How you acquire it is immaterial. Isn’t that wisdom?

Happy Thinking!

The elusive ‘Focus’

As a perpetual student and researcher (now doctoral scholar) I always look for ways to learn about focus. As a teacher I talk a lot about focus to my students. As an advisor / consultant, I try to help my clients bring focus to their initiatives.

‘Focus’ seems to be a magical tool to maximise output. But most often it is elusive and misses our grip. The price we pay for losing focus is large, especially over a lifetime. This is one thing I hear from every successful scholar I interact with. It is the same secret shared by every entrepreneur I meet. Today I want to share with you an excellent episode that I observed over the past week which is an example of what ‘focus’ means.

Background: Becoming a doctoral student has enabled me do what I love most – be with books and read them voraciously. I spend all the time I can in the wonderful library of my institute. With thousands of books, magazines, journals, handbooks, encyclopaedias, research reports, online databases, information banks, audio-visuals, etc., the collection humbles me every time I enter this temple.

Episode: Recently, there was a young boy who had joined one of the courses offered by the institute. He over the past few days routinely visited the library every evening after classes. He spent about two hours every day at the same place. He used to come in with his laptop, settle near the section containing CDs/DVDs (movies, talks, etc) and systematically download information on to his laptop. It almost became a ritual. Without any distraction from people moving around, he continued with his task. It seemed in about a week, he had accomplished copying all the data available on CD/DVD form in the library. He simply disappeared after that.

Learning: Develop ‘focus’ by developing: Goal + Ritual + Repetition.

1. Goal: Set a clear goal. (He wanted to copy only CD/DVD movies onto his laptop)

2. Ritual: Set a time everyday to do the activity. (He sat every day after class at the same time)

3. Repetition: Persevering till goal is reached. (He kept coming till the act was completed)

While the episode might seem funny to some, it clearly has lessons for life in it. If one can set clear goals, all other aspects / distractions can be easily / naturally ignored. Once a time slot is allocated for an action (however mundane), it enables progress. Because of clear goal and time allocation, perseverance is possible (measuring your way to completion).

Though the episode is not important, just try to apply the same to your most important task. While copying movies from CD/DVD was probably that young boy’s goal then, what is your’s now?

If you are a researcher / scholar – are you clear about what you should read and complete by when? are you sure when (every day) you are going to do just that and nothing else?  are you persevering to get back to the act everyday?

If you are an entrepreneur – are you clear about what your current experiment is? Are you sure about what actions you should engage in everyday (sales/product development)? Are you repeating the action every day at an appointed time? Are you measuring yourself against some set goal and persevering to reach it?

Developing focus is not easy. If it was, every one of us would have been manifesting our talent’s maximum. But sadly, focus differentiates the successful over the crowd. Being entrepreneurs or entrepreneurial academics is almost the same thing – both require focus – focus on what one wants to achieve in the immediate term, medium term and long term. Set a specific time every day to engage in the act. Measure and persevere to get back to the act at the appointed time.

I do not know who this boy is. I probably will not recognise him the next time I see him. But I thank him from the bottom of my heart for he clearly taught me through his actions, what focus meant, how it can be achieved and what to do when it is done. Just disappear from here to the next!

FORMULA: Goal + Ritual + Repetition = Focus 

Think about it!

Knowing NITI Aayog for entrepreneurs

I am currently attending a course titled ‘Doing business with government’. Does the title of the course not sound cool enough to attend, especially in India? I am enjoying the course. Yesterday’s session was on NITI Aayog. The speaker was one who had recently retired from the planning commission. Hence expectations were high.

He started by bringing out the differences between the planning commission and the NITI Aayog. Fundamental differences of why the change was brought about, is it just a name change, and so many other questions were clarified during the short interaction. I thought of sharing a little from that session in today’s blog. After attending the session, I agree with the speaker that we Indians need to know more about the government and its functioning. Once we expose ourselves to the information that is shared by the government, we will be able to see opportunities. We may (probably) also stop complaining that we do not have enough information in India to make any fact based decisions.

What does NITI stand for?

National Institution for Transforming India (NITI)

NITI Aayog is a national level think-tank that replaces the ‘Planning Commission’. Is it just ‘old wine in a new bottle’? Does not seem like. While the planning commission thought for India as a whole, the whole activity was centralised. This means the assessing of resources nationally was done centrally. This activity will be continued by the NITI Aayog as well. The Planning Commission also did the tough job of allocating resources to both central and state level programs. Now this created a large power centre in the planning commission. It had the power to allocate – but this seems to have been stripped off the new think-tank, the NITI Aayog. With this, the NITI Aayog becomes a purely advisory body, a think-tank. There is now greater decentralisation of the planning mechanism with larger representation of states.

We were given to understand that the primary change between the Planning Commission and the NITI Aayog is the reduction of power to allocate resources. Other differences include: While the Planning Commission was more ‘top-down’ in its approach to planning and allocation, the NITI Aayog has been structured to be more ‘bottom-up’ in its planning, without any allocation powers. The powers to allocate is said to rest now with the Finance Ministry.

One of the big take aways from this course (i’m still mid way through the course) is that any Government is a different type of complex organisation with conflicting priorities which requires a tough balancing act. This makes governance very difficult, especially in a country as large and diverse as India. But as citizens of the country it is our responsibility, not to just vote every 5 years, but make an effort to visit the website of the government, read the various documents placed for public viewing and share thoughts. While doing this we may come across number of schemes, plans, programs and projects that the Government has approved for socio-economic development. We may also find opportunities to participate in the various development projects of the Government.

Doing Business with the Government is a wonderful course for entrepreneurs – I only hope that aspiring entrepreneurs realise this and make the maximum use of the interactions. For those who want to know more about the NITI Aayog, you may please read these links:

http://planningcommission.nic.in

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NITI_Aayog

Though the NITI Aayog is yet to have its own website, I am sure it will come up soon. I hope that the intent of the institution is implemented and India realises her true potential. Look forward to learning more about working with government and public sector institutions through this course.

If any of you have any questions and inputs on this topic, please do share! India is today the land of opportunities and the government promises to offer a few of them. Let us see if we can participate and play our part as entrepreneurs.