Raj's Lab

Strategy and Entrepreneurship


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!


3 Habits to sharpen the writer in you

I recently came across a short paragraph summarising three succinct pieces of advice for writers by Madeleine L’Engle. I presume it will be useful to writers of any kind / genre. The three pieces of advice is not new but is a strong reinforcement of the advice we normally hear:

1. Keep an honest, unpublished journal which only you (writer) reads

2. Read. Read. Read. No writer became one without reading.

3. Write everyday, however little.

I cannot tell you how important these simple and direct messages are. Though they seem so obvious, anyone who has written anything will acknowledge how easy it is to lose these messages from our mind. I was so happy to have come across this short blurb – http://explore.noodle.com/post/96582787828/i-have-advice-for-people-who-want-to-write-i

If you want to write, remind these rules to yourself often. It will enable you be a good one and more importantly, a happy one!

Think about it!

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Ideating on ‘wearables’ as an opportunity in class

When we teach entrepreneurship one of the topics that is truly difficult to cover is ideation and opportunity identification. Most teachers find it difficult because students seem to be more aware about trends than teachers, and rightly so. But what teachers should do is enable students look deeply into trends and changes taking place in the society. One such trend is – wearables.

Google Glass has inspired enough individuals to try their hands at wearable devices. People are now wearing more smart devices than ever before. While I was teaching entrepreneurship to a group of textile engineering students, I was amazed at the number of innovations students could come out with in something as simple as clothes. I decided to push them further and hence divided the class into smaller groups and asked them to come up with what individuals would like of their clothes and if clothes could respond to them. Each of them amazed the entire group by coming up with so many innovative ideas, from simple temperature handling clothes, to color changing clothes, to mood enhancing clothes. My God! I wondered if I would ever buy a shirt that will adjust the temperature on the inside based on the temperature outside. But the truth is, we completed the course with much more technology enhanced solutions to clothes than just changing the fabric and designs. One even designed a dry washer for these smart clothes.

If you are wondering if all this sounds like science fiction, believe me, it is not going to be for long. Could you have imagined what Skype is doing to our lives? Could you have imagined how ‘Uber’ and ‘Airbnb’ have changed the way we travel and find hotels? Like all new technology changes, they are bound to have their teething troubles, but it will all be ironed out. So, if you are a teacher of entrepreneurship, you would do well to bring changes taking place in the environment and dissect them in the class for opportunities. You will be amazed by what you see as output from your students. They only need direction – they have the speed, agility and creativity, to come up with innovative business ideas. We need a lot more of them. Let us (all educators) inspire and create the next set of technology driven entrepreneurs.

Try it in class and please do share your experiences! Let us all improve the way we teach entrepreneurship, together.

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Students, Colleges and Start-ups

Recently I was invited to lead a bootcamp for entrepreneurs. I truly enjoy these sessions as it is a clear view into what the future holds for us. Students of today are not like the previous generation! How many of us went to school with an iPad? How many of us had access to so many open source courses at school? How many of us even thought about starting a company when we were students?

Students are turning entrepreneurs and kickstarting enterprises on campuses. It is on the rise. Does it matter if it is a fad / trend / megatrend? Whatever you may think, the fact is that it is happening, at a larger scale than what we have seen even last year. Having been involved (for over a decade) in teaching and mentoring students to take up entrepreneurship, I can see the great change in perception amongst the student community towards such a career. This is largely visible amongst the engineering colleges, and more in the tier-2 and tier-3 colleges. Students now have access to information on their phones, laptops and iPads. They can easily reach out to people via Twitter, FB and Linkedin. They can quickly share their ideas out to mentors, incubators, angels and VCs. Slowly the environment is opening up. But the society (social and cultural environment) has to change its mindset. We have to encourage students to live their dreams. We need to stop pushing them into beaten paths. We need to make them experiment more with their lives.

Students want to do all of this. They have the passion, abilities and access too. Colleges have to use this to their advantage. They should encourage their students to be job creators than job seekers. Colleges need to make their environments display this quality. It is not about vision and mission, but about action. If there is anyway India is going to experience the real potential she possesses, it is through large scale entrepreneurship among her students and youth. The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) should start looking at policy level measures along these lines. If the ministry can usher in a mindset change amongst the college level education ecosystem – the results can be mind-blowing. When we unleash our students, we are bound to see their real potential. We can start this by loosening our educational environment. Historically India has been known for her liberal nature with education. The time has come to make this happen again. The government can and should bring about a change, a small but firm change regarding liberal education. This is urgently needed amongst the engineering students. This one change can make them look at the world differently. It will open them to possibilities. This will be the beginning of the high potential entrepreneurship that all of us envision for India.

What I saw in the bootcamp was a glimpse of the possibility, that too with all the current constraints of the ecosystem. If colleges turn liberal and become places where students rush to each morning, start-ups are a natural outcome.

Think about it!

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Entrepreneurs – Don’t like College?

Think again! Are you asking yourself the right question?

Do students like being in college? If you think the answer is ‘no’, sorry you got it wrong. The answer is a big ‘yes’. Almost every student wants to be in college and almost every alumni misses those lovely days. Then what is it that makes most of the students detest college, its not college but the classes. If you ask students if they like being in classes – most often the answer is a big ‘no’. Now I know I am taking a big risk by writing this blog, especially as a teacher myself. But I have always wondered how the world will be if we allowed students to stay on campus but drop out of classes! If this itself was too much, here is an interesting list of people (many whom you will know through their ventures) who decided to drop out of college itself.


This list I am sure will run into hundreds if not thousands, if we really try to search out the entrepreneur lists. But will it work for those who don’t want to become entrepreneurs? I am sure everyone will benefit by having the courage to live a life that they feel inspires them. But it is not necessary to drop out of college to feel inspired all the time. No, that’s not what I am recommending here. All I am suggesting here is for every one of us to look at the colleges and their systems, the courses offered, the requirements, the faculty and the culture of the university, before taking a decision to register for a course. And if after joining the course if you feel you have made a wrong choice with respect to your goals, why not take a step back and make the bold change. May be the courage will be the lesson you have learnt from the experience. And may be the whole world will benefit from your courageous decision.

These thoughts are not for students to take impulsive calls and use it as a reason to not study. It is to enable you think through your style of learning and find your own way to acquire the knowledge / skill required to live your life fully!

Think about it!


What do teachers deserve to get?

Though I am not a full time professor at a University, I spend a fair amount of my work time ‘teaching’. I loved ‘teachers’, ‘teaching’ and I am so glad that I am able to practice it today. I conduct workshops across India for entrepreneurs and owners of businesses. They range from start-ups to mid-sized emerging corporations. The only common thing amongst all of my audience is their entrepreneurial inclinations. This gives me a chance to learn a lot from conducting these sessions.

In recent times, after the publication of my book “Entrepreneurship: Theory and Practice” (https://rajshankar.wordpress.com/books/), I have had the opportunity to spend time ‘teaching teachers’ across undergraduate, graduate and post graduate colleges and universities. I teach them how to teach entrepreneurship and make their classes more effective. During the process of interacting with thousands of teachers from arts, commerce, science, engineering, medicine and pharmacy – I have found that invariably one of the topics that they discuss at length is salary. Since they do not normally get to meet peers from so many institutions, workshops are a good place for them to seek greener pastures.

While improving remuneration seemed to be what many of them felt could be their biggest motivation – none of them felt the need for more feedback. Many felt that if the jobs were made more attractive with exciting packages, their teaching would improve. I felt saddened but that is the reality today. I asked myself this – “But don’t we have to earn the pay by deserving it first”. How do we know what a teacher deserves?
Before we decide what the right salary for teachers is, we also need to make their professional lives more interesting by giving them ‘feedback’. If we don’t get feedback, how are we going to improve? So when I heard this TED talk of Bill Gates (http://www.gatesnotes.com/Education/TED-Talk-Giving-Teachers-What-They-Deserve) this week, I was reminded of what many of the teachers missed asking for – ‘feedback’. If we could get feedback and we could get some time to review and internalize it, maybe we will have many more ‘super star teachers’. If one becomes a super star teacher, do they even have to ask for larger remuneration? It will go through the roof.

With thousands of successful students reaching back to you and sharing their success stories – your desires for monetary requirements will simply drop. We will also have truly happy, motivated, inspiring teachers walking on our streets (corridors).

Truly every student needs such inspired teachers to learn from!

If you have thoughts and ideas on this topic of how we can improve the teaching profession – do share it here so that we can keep the learning going!


A Day Out with Young Indians of Coimbatore

Last week I was invited to lead a day long workshop with about 50 Young Indians (YI Group of CII). Young Indians are a sub group of Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). They have chapters around the country and I was happy to be invited to spend a day with such an inspired group at Coimbatore. The fact that it was Coimbatore made it even more exciting for me. Having grown up in Tamil Nadu and heard about the entrepreneurial activities of the Coimbatore-Tirupur belt and the success they have enjoyed over the last few decades, I always look to interactions from this place.

This time the topic was ‘Getting to Market’ and the entire audience comprised of entrepreneurs who seemed to be developing interesting and new businesses. Some were 2nd / 3rd generation entrepreneurs who wanted to fork out of the foundation that their parents / grandparents had already created. They had come to learn how to look at taking a start-up to market.

We discussed the importance of looking at the question of marketing differently. We looked for ways to reach markets. We acknowledged the limitations within which start-ups function and looked for ways to effectively find customers, reach markets, inform potential buyers and convince them to try the products / services. As in most of my earlier workshops I had people getting excited at the worksheets and asking a whole lot of questions. All our class discussions were based on the cases of entrepreneurs in class. It provided the much needed debates, critical analysis and divergent inputs, so as to look at problems differently. Overall the participants went back happy, having spent a day thinking about their marketing and also with a bunch of homework to be done. They also exposed themselves to the tool called SME Toolkit that IBM has created and is maintaining. The tool has a variety of resources to enable the small business ecosystem to sustain and grow. I will write about it in a separate post but for the time being, you may have a look at it here: www.smetoolkit.org

I learned from them a lot of new questions. They asked me how they should price, how they should seek fresh channels, how they can groom their sales and marketing staff, how they can make their messaging creative, how they can improve their packaging, how they can create experiences even in mundane products, and so on. I came away rich – with a repository of questions. Interestingly I also came away with many of them asking me to come back for a review when I visit Coimbatore in about 10 days. I now sit with these questions and with the hope that I will be able to go back and give them more useful pointers to finding answers. As I always let my entrepreneurs and mentees know, the answers are for them to find. My job is to refine their questions and also provide them different views to look at their challenges. After all they are entrepreneurs – isn’t it? They can go well beyond where we can take them. So let us not limit them in any way.

Young Indians in Coimbatore is an exciting group and an energized group. They are all young, interesting, energetic, inspired and motivated. They have ideas, a supportive ecosystem and fair amount of resources. But they need to be inspired to think about their businesses more. They need to be fed with fresh tools and frameworks to re-look at their business, the Indian way. I hope to keep going back and see if I can enable the growth of these young enterprises, which have potential and promise.

In my attempt to create indigenous frameworks for entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial firms, ‘Getting to Market’ frameworks and tools have been my first area. I have created and shared my finding and creation with close to 200 entrepreneurs so far and the results have been encouraging. A few have already seen direction for their enterprises, some have changed their target markets and many of them have already changed their go to market plans. I have received a few enterprises see results in less than 90 days and they are in the right direction. I will attempt to share these ideas a lot more of the entrepreneur ecosystem in India soon. Look forward to share some more results and developments as I work with such enterprising groups across India.

Thanks to NEN, IBM, YI and CII for making such a day possible. Thanks to all the attendees for making sure we had a lovely day together, professionally. I look forward to meet more of them and their growing enterprises soon.


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