Wow Our Last Post Was From February! But We’re Still Here, Promise.

25 Jul

This is what happens when I can’t think of a better title.  And when you realize that half the company wasn’t even a part of NextDrop when that was posted (which is completely crazy, let me tell you.)

 

Things are fun.  Crazy, awesome, fun.  It’s a great time to be working at NextDrop (and guess what, we’re hiring! And if you’re awesome and you don’t see a matching skillset, we’ll make a job for you anyway- yes, that’s how we roll). ANYway. I digress.  The point is, it’s been awesome times at NextDrop High.  I have to say, one of my proudest moments at NextDrop came last week, when we were presenting to the Chairman of the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (because, yes, we now meet with them on the regular!) and they saw their own data for the first time.  And they started to DO something about it!  In the meeting itself, making plans! YES! Making change! One government utility at a time! It was…incredible.  It was such a rush.  And the best part? They were asking us for MORE STUFF.  More data, more analytics, more predictive models.  When does that happen?  Apparently when you work at NextDrop.  And for the record, they’re a great group of people- they really want to make good things happen.  I love working with them.  Backing up, we actually signed an MOU with them in May to monitor their water supply, and it’s been a wild ride ever since.  If you live in Bangalore, you should be hearing about us soon.  We’re making a push to recruit residents (because actually, the utility itself is asking us to collect citizen feedback- so cool, right?) And if you just want to say hi, or want to re-imagine the Bangalore water supply network, let us know/drop us a line!

Another cool thing happened when I started talking to all the people that work at NextDrop.  I wanted to crowdsource a vision statement for NextDrop- why do we exist? Why does everyone want to work at NextDrop?  And it was crazy how similar the answers were.  And it was pretty enlightening too, because I didn’t think about it before.  But.  The main reasons people love NextDrop are that you basically have the freedom and learning/growth potential of a startup, but the incredible real world impact of a traditional non profit.  They basically said they loved it because it was the best of both the worlds.  The vision for NextDrop was not just an external one, but an internal one as well.  (Not your typical vision statement eh?) Learn something new every day right? Who am I to argue with organic sentiment?

But that made me so, SO happy.  When I quit my job and moved to India about 3 years ago (and wrote this first blog post) I don’t think I could have imagined, in my wildest dreams, what a great group of individuals NextDrop would comprise of.  And now, when we’re working as a unit, I still blows my mind thinking about what the sum of our differences can create. It creates magic.  Pure magic.

And it’s just beginning.  I still feel the same way I did 3 years ago.  Scared. Not sure if I’m doing the right thing.  But I do know one thing now that I didn’t think about then.  That we have an amazing team.  And we’re only going to get better.  We work hard, we make lots of mistakes, but we learn from them, and we get better for it.  We stick by each other in good times and bad, and we help each other out.  It’s such a rush.  I’m so honored to be a part of something great.

And I think that maybe, just maybe, we’re going to put a dent in the universe.

I can feel it.

It’s Time For Another CEO Post (I Should Probably Recap 2013 or Something)

21 Feb

I feel like that’s what all the good CEO’s do.  And who am I to argue with tradition?  Except the problem is that it’s pretty hard to truly capture what it was like at NextDrop in 2013.  Not gonna lie, it was a tough year.  But we survived.  The best way to describe it is to compare it to my first two years in undergrad.  I went to UC Berkeley and did my undergrad in engineering, where your first two years were filled with things called “weeder courses“.  These courses were literally designed to make you fail (or at least try it’s very best to).  To be fair, when I was the graduate student instructor for one of these weeder courses, I finally understood the point- the professors were only trying to create a normally distributed curve, and the test was written to challenge those that were at the top.  But that’s pretty much how I think of the last two years at NextDrop.  The weeder years.  But when you get to upper division courses, it’s still hard, but nowhere as difficult as the first two years.  I don’t really know why, because the material is more challenging, but maybe it’s just because…you’ve survived.  You know you can survive.  I think you’ve also developed the coping mechanisms for working in uncertainty, and stress (pretty much all the time).  You’ve developed the framework for success.  That’s how I feel about where NextDrop is.  I think we’ve paid our dues, and we’re leaving behind our weeder years.  We’re getting to the fun stuff now.

Anyway, I thought I should somehow try to describe what the weeder years at NextDrop felt like.  In December, Quijano asked the Exec team to write down month by month, what was happening at NextDrop in 2013.  This was what mine looked like:

Jan- Meeting Desh, realizing we need money
Feb- Start asking for money
March- Asking for money
April- Begging for money
May- Really frickin desperate for money
June- Please, I will sell my left kidney for money
July- WE GOT MONEY! Moving to Bangalore
August- Trying to get some more money in India
September- Now that we have money, lets use it!
October- Lot of Progress on the utility side
November- Learning more about our customers
December- Customer systems in place, valvemen systems in place, Bangalore office

This was Devin’s

Jan – Reservoir monitoring. Bangalore pilot. Fixing.
Feb – Celery (periodic tasks). Outbound calls. Incoming SMS. Fixing.
March – Missed call! Valveman report. Billing.
April – GeoDjango! Maps! Bhargav!
May – TESTING! YES!
June – South Migrations. Caching. Telephony handling!
July – Valve areas state changes. Pipe damages (leakage squad)!
August – Utility dashboards. Supply Durations.
September – Feedback loop.
October – Supply Schedules. Geocoder!
November – Predictive analytics. Modular Feedback 2.0.
December – DevOps. Backups. Water clock.

Personally, I like QJ’s the best (But he stopped in September- apparently life at NextDrop stopped after September for him)

jan – 424 emails!
delivery reports for how many messages were being delivered. believe it or not at one point we weren’t sending messages to landline numbers that didn’t have a 0 before their number
zero customers in areas
presentations for BWSSB
India Water Week submissions
customers who are deactivated but paid

feb – 550 emails!
fund raising – Unitas
emails about tech fixes
will poole teaches us about increasing returns
twitter india
devin forks the nd repository
mapping and sweeping
charging residents in bangalore
experimenting with PPP for company operating system
valveman reminder sms
using data to scheduling areas to bill
QJ aspires to be a hacker
sms receipts
deactivations because we’re sending incorrect messages
experiments with customers using advertising books to refer other customers
reservior level monitoring contract
forbes 30 under 30
creating dashboards to quantify good areas
integration of ODK collect

march – 414 emails!
fund raising – Khosla
accepted to speak at IWW 2013
meeting with Rutvik from Inventus capital on scaling sms products
experiments with kirana shops billing
experiment with advertising in movie theatres
mapping, mapping, mapping – billed all the areas where we launched customers correctly
no more excel for data collection
mannually transfering customers based on geotags
anjana sends out the last ‘customer’s launched email’, the thread had started on 17/9/2012, there were over 3296 customers acquired, and 50 messages on teh conversation and this was the end of the customer service team acquiring customers on hand bills
pronita commits to nextdrop
pitching to the BWSSB
GEODJANGO integration
MISSED CALL customer acquisition systems
april – 480 emails!
fundraising – IAN
reservior monitoring MVP
HD1 center billing partnership
city view map – pretty map
billing getting approvals from valvemen team
talking about websie updates
vagrant
realizing we have customers in unmapped areas!
We got a postcard from a customer saying everything should be in kanada
Bhargav joins!
Madhu shadows utility engineers
Devin starts watching pycon videos
experiments with price sensitivity in bangalore
Anu starts to learn python!

May
fundraising – Venture East
Our first interactions with GSMA
Srikanth and aadhar
time studies on HD1 centers and people paying there
Intro to the World Bank, India
working on Bangalore expansion
Testing the code

June
fundraising – Soc+Cap closed!
valve monitoring emails
experimenting with intern team in Bangalore
e xperimenting with value added service of collecting other bills
first interactions with KUIDFC
nextdrop advertisements on local hubli+dharwad channels
NUWA visit
AngelPrime
hubli interns big push for geotags
paid utility contract from Hubli

July
looking into feedback
progress in NE3
geotagging customer before launching them
bhargav begins developing utility product
Devin and Pronita meet in California
survey on water tanker prices MVP
looking at ez tap
fundraising – mumbai angels nextwrok
coverage report
valveman customer referrals
SalesForce foundation
franchisee opportunities
exit interviews with first set of bangalore interns

august
pronita arrives in India! starts to crack billing
training second set of bangalore interns
trouble shooting geotagging in bangalore
NextDrop GameClock gives us insight to our representative resources
overlapping polygons makes it difficult to recruit customers
missed call for leakages
second application with GSMA for grant
Hubli EE changes and wants to provide the service to the city
integration of supply schedules to our application
meet with some Mumbai angels
finish off geotaggin in Hubli+dharwad
switch over to ZenPayroll
backlog in bangalore customers
entire team meets with AngelPrime
manual send sms to customers
feedback loop mvp

september
Peter Thiel schools NextDrop with CS183
nextdrop_secrets
feedback mvp experiments

I think Pronita and Nishesh decided to do theirs in person when we had our meeting so I don’t have it, but I think you get the idea.

Also, I’d like to state, for the record, that just like my weeder years at UC Berkeley, I was probably a horrible person to be around.  I’m really surprised that I still have co-founders and a staff actually (i.e. they didn’t mutiny).  Being a boss is really hard, and I must admit that I did a very poor job last year, in general.  What with the stress and all.  It really hit me when one of my employees gave me feedback- he said hey Anu, it would really help if you just asked how we were doing when you got into the office.  Wow. WOW.  I didn’t realize it, but it had gotten so bad that I wasn’t even treating my own people like regular human beings,  I was so engrossed in my work.  (Thank you SO much Melwyn for bringing it to my attention, I hope I’m doing a better job this year!)  But I think that was my takeaway/learning from last year.  Sometimes, especially during your weeder years, you as a leader forget that you have an entire organization to take care of.  Not just externally, but internally as well.  And at the end of the day, organizations are human.  Very human.  And if you abstract that out, and treat your internal organization like a machine, bad things happen. (I know, that totally sounds like a no brainer, but let me tell you when you’re in the thick of stressful situations, its funny how many things you stop doing…)

So I’d like to apologize to my team and thank them for sticking with me through trying times.  Speaking of team, I should probably write out who works with us now in 2014!  But lets make it fun- this is how I see each of them

Quijano: He’s our Co- founder/COO.  He’s pretty awesome and in undergrad he used to help me with my engineering homework.  He was definitely one of the smartest people I knew at Berkeley, and that’s saying a LOT. The coolest thing about him was that I knew he could be making so much money at other jobs using his brains (read: financial sector), but he turned them down to learn about the water sector (as evidenced by turning down his Amex internship to work with the San Jose water utility).  I think that takes serious guts.  In undergrad I knew I wanted to start a business with him (in the very very unlikely possibility that I would be running a business…)

Nishesh: He’s our Co-Founder/VP of Product Develop.  Nishesh is probably one of the most solid guys I know, and he’s the guy anyone on the team goes to when they’re having issues.  I would even go so far to say he’s the rock at NextDrop.   But besides his internal rock-ness, he’s the go to guy for anything related to governments or utilities.  So all of that, “What, you’re working with governments and utilities?! Not possible!” We have Nishesh to thank for disproving all of that. (Sorry girls, he’s getting married next month :)

Pronita: She’s our Co-Founder/Chief Growth Officer.  Pronita is awesome because I truly admire the way she relates to people.  We used to do dance together in college (that’s how we met) but then we sort of became travel buddies, and then she was also the other person in college I knew (in the very very unlikely possibility that I would start a business) I wanted to work with her too.  She’s an absolute boss when it comes to anything relating to customers, or making NextDrop come alive.  Seriously, some of the stuff she comes up with, I’m just like..whoa.  Yeah- lets do THAT.  She brings the flesh to the NextDrop skeleton

Devin: He’s our Co-Founder/Software Engineer.  Devin is a friend of Quijano, and when we met, Quijano told me that he knew the next Bill Gates.  And then I met Devin. And I was sold.  And then in true startup style, he dropped out of college and started NextDrop with us.  Seriously, look out for this guy.  He’s 20 and he’s a powerhouse.  Devin comes up with stuff, and I just think, holy CRAP.  That’s awesome.  Why are you so smart?

Thej: He’s our Chief Technical Architect.  Thej sort of does a lot of amazing things, but mostly, he is just a really really cool guy.  Did you know you can find his name on the new Mozilla Monument in San Francisco? Yeah.  Enough said.  I love working with him, because every time I leave the conversation knowing so much more than I did before.  And that’s not just work related- about the world, politics, feminism, history, you name it, he knows about it.

Bindu: Bindu runs operations in Bangalore, but that’s really code for doing lots of important things at NextDrop.  She’s pretty much responsible for any progress we’ve made in Bangalore re: utility contracting stuff.  I also really admire her because when I hired her, she told me she doesn’t work weekends, and she holds to that rule because she wants to spend time with her daughter, and her family.  I was like…YES.  Because she gets it done during the week.  And I respect her for that. I’m trying to learn from her actually.

Bhargav: Bhargav develops with Devin and Thej and he’s just pretty awesome.  I know I say that a lot but it’s true.  His attention to detail is amazing.  It’s fun because he hides little details on our dashboards!  He was teaching me front end development stuff recently, and we had a great time going through the D3 documentation to pick out visualizations for our customer service team.  I got to see how he thought about design, and it was really really cool.  Loved pair programming with him- especially on front end stuff.  Keep on being amazing Bhargav!

Kavya: Kavya works on our customer service team, and I love the way she interacts with customers.  She has a way of gleaning information from them without even asking!  It’s the absolute best (I like seeing her customer service entries, she never asked this stuff, but she writes it in there! So Great!).  She also has great ideas on how to improve our customer experience, which I love hearing about!  I think she really has fun with customers, and I think customers really like that! Love having her here!

Madhu: Madhu works on valvemen stuff in Bangalore, but codes on the side (Yeah, I’ve seen your commits to the NextDrop code repository Madhu- go you!)  If you want things done on the valvemen side that you think are impossible, you ask Madhu.  It’s a lot of firefighting, and it’s a difficult job, but Madhu keeps it under control.  It’s great to have him on our team!

Aseem: Aseem also works on the valvemen side, but we hired him as an intern 2 years ago.  He worked at NextDrop through college, and now works here full time.  In a very Nishesh sort of way, he’s just a solid guy.  If I want something done, I have no doubt in my mind that Aseem will do it, and not only that, deliver amazing results.  It’s very rare to have people that you can forget about what you told them because you KNOW they’ll do it and they’ll do it on time- Aseem is one of those people.  Pretty much the best!

Fanus: Fanus works on the valvemen side and the thing that I remember about him was being amazed that he learned English just from watching movies! I was just floored.  You really wouldn’t be able to tell.  “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish”- Steve Jobs, I’d say that definitely applies to him.  Wonderful to have him on our team!

Melwyn: Melwyn works on the customer side and like Aseem, worked through college with NextDrop and now works with us full time.  It’s been a joy to see Melwyn grow-  the types of questions he asks now and the level of thought that he has now is leagues above where he was before.  He has so many great ideas- just yesterday he saw my bus ticket from London and he asked- hey Anu, why can’t we just do this in Hubli? See- McDonald’s advertises on the back, and these are the people who would use NextDrop- the public bus users! YES.  He asks the best questions, and gives me good feedback (he’s the one who had the courage to tell me hey Anu, this is how what you do makes me feel, do you think you could change that? So great).  Keep doing your thing Melwyn!

Anjana: Anjana works on the customer side, is pretty much the one who keeps us in check fiscally, and her story is interesting.  I was recruiting at a college where she was working as industry recruitment director, and at the end, I met the kids and I wasn’t really interested in hiring any of them.  She came in, and convinced me to have a coffee and talk to her about how they could improve their system.  By the end of the conversation, I knew that I wanted her to work for us! And..well, the rest is history :)  She is the enforcer who makes sure we abide by the rules and when we’re not, she definitely yells at all of us (and I mean ALL of us- I have not so happy WhattsApp messages from her as well).  Which is awesome.  Keep on keeping us in check Anjana!

Prabhu: Prabhu works on the customer side and his story is pretty interesting as well.  He started off as a part time rep that went door to door to recruit and bill for NextDrop.  I clearly remember that he would come to the office early to pick up phones, and come back late to deliver the phones back to the office. I was really impressed.  And one day, he took the time to get his ideas translated from Kannada to English, and sent us all an email on how we should run marketing campaigns in Hubli.  I was sold.  We hired him full time to work on the customer service team.  Keep on learning and making us get better Prabhu!

Amit: Amit is our newest team member, and he works on both the valvemen side and the customer side.  The thing I remember most is that he asks the most insightful questions.  That’s what got me at the interview too.  It felt like he was thinking 2 steps ahead and asked the right questions.  I hope you keep asking good questions Amit, I love it! (And make sure people are giving you good answers- especially me!)

Ok! Now you know the ENTIRE NextDrop family!  Feel free to drop us a line, or if you’d like to be adopted, I’m sure we could find a job for you too (especially if we think you are cool).

No seriously, that is really how we hire people.

Ok done plugging NextDrop careers.

What do we have planned for 2014?  Well, for one thing, we’re going to try and keep things updated more regularly here on this blog.  But in short, I’m excited because I think this is really where we get to do the cool stuff.  The fun stuff.  The big stuff.  The opportunities are in front of us, now it’s up to us to work our butts off to make it happen.  I think that’s the best possible position to be in.

#GameFace

 

Case of the transferring official

9 Sep

Recently, NextDrop went through the transition phase that every startup/social enterprise that is working with State run entities goes through. Transfer or changing of utility/government officials. All the rapport and trust you built over the past 2 years winked out in a flutter. As it so happens, while I knew this was inevitable eventually, this change of guard in Hubli caught me completely blindsighted. Here I was; happily preparing for my trip to the US, ready to recount to anyone who would listen, that working with government entities in India isn’t fraught with delays, glacial pace and reams of paperwork; content in the knowledge that I had readied everything for my absence for the next three weeks. All the while, though, something was pecking at my brain, telling me I had forgotten something. Something major. And this ‘major’ unleashed itself on me the day before my departure. The new Hubli Water Board Executive Engineer had taken charge and had summoned me to his office.

What ensued was precisely how one should not begin a partnership with the new administator of the state utility. Therefore I decided that the world must learn from my mistakes. Here are the most crucial things to consider when a new administrator assumes charge of government entity you are working with:

1) Prepare during the transition phase – My cardinal sin was to not prepare for the new arrival during the transition phase. Once you find out that your current counterpart is about to leave, there are two things one must do. First, find out what the priorities of the incoming engineer/manager are. Second, ask your current counterpart to introduce your service/work to the newcomer. A bonus would be if they introduce you as well but that is expendable as long as your services are given a proper foreword.

2) Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork – In India, you cannot easily find an exhaustive list of all the documents, permission and letters you need to have before you have an ironclad blessing to operate, especially if you’re working with the municipality or a state run utility. As a result, the paperwork we had, while sufficient for the previous administrator, was found grossly lacking  by the new incumbent.
In my experience, it is best to check with utility staff in charge of budgeting and finances what additional paperwork you need to establish your legitimate right to work with them beyond question. If ever in doubt, best is to preempt and get that paperwork in advance. If you think no one is going to ask for it, trust me, that will be the first document they’ll demand.

3) Be the host, not a supplicant – If you have received a good foreword and favorable reviews from citizens and users of your service, then you are well set for a productive first meeting. However, you should make first contact. What I should have done is to call on the new engineer and ask for a meeting. Even if he did not acknowledge it right away, I would have marked my presence in the register. When he finally gives you an appointment, invite him to see your office and learn about the work you have been doing successfully for the past x number of years. This is especially significant if you are doing anything related to technology.
Most administrators view technology as a daunting opportunity. While it sounds oxymoronic – it is anything but. Even the most ‘luddite’ utility managers see technology as the great emancipator. A pill to kill all ills. However, they may be extremely wary of it since it obscures their operations within a black box with a fancy looking User Interface. The closer they are to on the ground operations, the more wary they are. As a result, being transparent about how your technology does what it does in layman’s tongue, will go a long way in increasing their comfort level both with you and your services.

4) Get educated – first hand – By educated, I mean internalize his vision, priorities and motivations for the office. During your initial discussions, try and gauge if there is a fit between your services and his goals and mandate. That will define your focus area and further opportunities to support his targets. You can be the instrument for his and ultimately the utility’s improved performance.

5) Establish your credibility – At the beginning, any administrator will have a lot of questions about your company. What are your motivations behind doing this work, where is the funding coming from and most importantly how much money you are making. These are especially pertinent for startups/social enterprises. His skepticism is completely understandable. In countries like India, there are throngs of peddling salesmen trying to sell junk to the government. So the administrator’s first instinct is honed to be extremely skeptical. In order to establish your credibility, you must be willing to answer his questions honestly. Some of these might be beyond the boundaries of standard due diligence but that is the price of his trust. For example, I had to pretty much lay out my balance sheet and details of my marginal costs in front of him. The rewards, however, for such transparency are also commensurate. Once you have his trust, he’ll start to incorporate you in his vision. And that is the place you want to be!

My Most Memorable Day at NextDrop (yet!)

24 Jun

We had our first customer town hall yesterday at the NextDrop offices in Hubli. Completely unexpected and unplanned, it turned out to be the most memorable day in my not entirely uneventful life at NextDrop. First things first. The premise: Under the aegis of the Hubli Dharwad Water Board, NextDrop has been shortlisted for the National Urban Water Awards. A committee from the Administrative Staff College of India was slated to conduct a field visit on the 22nd of June. As it was eagerly awaited, we had prepared in all earnestness for the visit.
We thought it would be good to invite a few customers to the office. Going to the field and trying to locate houses of customers can be quite tiring despite geotags. So, I asked Anjana to call about 10 customers and organize lunch for them. As Anjana started calling – we should have realized then. It was fairly easy to get them to agree to come to the office at 1 pm on Saturday. Feeling well prepared, I left for Bangalore for a day. When I returned, QJ told me that they had sent the last 100 people, who had paid a NextDrop bill, an SMS inviting them for lunch at the office and asking them to confirm by giving us a ‘missed call’. Watch out eventbrite, that’s how future events will receive RSVPs. In the first 15 minutes of the message being sent, about 15 people confirmed.
Thus, the appointed day arrived. The plan – first a presentation at the Water Board office, then we bring the committee to the office to see operations, meet the valvemen and customers. As we entered the office, the committee and the utlity engineers in tow, we were welcomed by the sight of 6 customers already waiting for us. It was 1.05 pm. I have never seen this kind of punctuality from indian customers before.
The committee introduced themselves and explained to the group that they were here to check whether a service like NextDrop even existed, if it did, was it accurate and finally how did the customers benefit from it. Even before he finished, one of the customers spoke. “I receive messages late. Sometimes I receive water at 7 and the message at 8. That should not be, right?” My heart sank. May be they are all here to complain how they have not been receiving good service. “Do you always receive incorrect messages?” The utility engineer asked. “No No. Only sometimes. I find the service extremely useful. It is of great benefit to us.”
Meanwhile, about 5 more customers had arrived, some along with their spouses. What followed was a chorus of resounding thumbs up for the service. One customer said, “This is a very good service. I can’t believe it is only Rs. 10 a month. I would subscribe to the service even if they raised prices.” Several other customers agreed. One of them was in Bangalore when he received a message that his water supply was about to commence. He immediately called his neighbour to shut off his tap. Others said they used to the service to conserve water as well. Now, they didn’t have to leave their taps on. As the discussion started to move into high gear, more customers showed up. By 1.30 pm, we had about 17-20 customers in the office.
Enter valvemen – 3 of Hubli’s finest. They took stage and gave a detailed answer on how they receive far less number of calls inquiring about water supply since they started sending notifications to NextDrop and how they use the IVR system. Upon proding, they even introduced themselves and were rewarded with a big round of applause from the customers as well as their Water Board bosses.
After hearing just the first few remarks from customers, the committee was convinced that the service was of incredible help to citizens. I think they saw how strongly customers felt for the service. In fact, soon discussion turned to the issues of 24×7 water supply being piloted in 10% of the city. Customers debated whether the system was really required. One couple noted that if they were supplied water even for an hour reliably with a decent pressure, they wouldn’t want 24×7 supply. The committee members enumerated some benefits of continuous water supply to a rapt audience. It was incredible to see how deeply citizens thought and cared about water issues in the city. They were very well informed about the current state of affairs and wanted more information from the utility.

Image

As the flow ebbed for a second, I took my opportunity and asked the question that has been haunting me for a while. “What would it take for you to recommend the service to your friends and family.” After such a comprehensive vote of confidence to our services, I thought this would be easy. They would tell me, we are already doing that or we would be happy to. And here is where I was laughably wrong. There was a pause and I noticed several heads shaking. Then one of them stated conclusively, “That is not our job.” “Yes, that is your job, you go door to door and tell people about the service. We are not going to do this.” another agreed. Taken aback, I wondered why not? “For 2 reasons, one, as soon as I recommend the service, people are going to wonder what is in it for me; and two, if for some reason they don’t get good service, they will bite my head off.” “However, if you send your people, or organize a similar event in my neighbourhood, I would be happy to testify about the quality and usefulness of the service”. In one fell swoop, my customers had told me that they are extremely hardnosed but they love the service.
Finally, as lunch was being served, customers asked us how many customers we had. 5000. That is not nearly enough to sustain yourself. We want the service to go on. You should raise your prices, one suggested. Another went as far as saying it should be made compulsory for everyone in the city. Have you expanded to the entire city yet? May be the Water Board should pay you for this service, one said looking more at the utility engineer than us.
The feedback of the day came from a lady (most probably a housewife) who remarked, ” Now I am free to go anywhere I like!” It took me a moment to absorb what she meant. There it was. Proof beyond an iota of doubt – we had made an impact. NOTHING, has made me happier than hearing that being said. The fact that we have been able to eliminate this uncertainty from the lives of people is the ultimate validation that what we do, matters. What other 10 rupee service would elicit such passionate feedback from you, that you would spend half your Saturday with the company, that you would brainstorm with them – ideas to stay afloat and expand! Our customers love our service and they want us to expand and improve, to succeed. Enough said. 

 

Bada Bing, Bada Boom: CEO Post Time

18 Jun

I bet everyone is just really excited that it’s not just me posting on this thing (finally!) right?  Yeah, our team is pretty awesome, and have really amazing insights that I thought should be shared with the world at large (or at least internet-dom for starters). I thought it was time for a post from me though, mostly because I was getting a bit nostalgic since it’s been a little over two years since I officially became CEO of NextDrop.

Good News: Company has not been run into the ground yet.

I digress though.  What did I want to talk about today?  I wanted to talk about company culture, because I think it’s probably one of the most important factors for startup success.  Why do I think this?  Greatest influences on my business life thus far: books like Good to Great, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, and learnings/slideshares/conversations with people who have actually done stuff that I want to do, like Chamath Palihapitiya and Fred Destin.

How have they influenced NextDrop?  In a few ways.

Everyone Learns Python.  Yeah, Even You, Civil Engineer

I remember around January, Quijano approached me and Nishesh after a team meeting and basically said that we would suck as a company if we all didn’t learn Python. (Ok maybe not his actual word choice, but that was my takeaway).  Of course Nishesh and I were terrified because…well..IT’S PROGRAMMING.  I am a CIVIL ENGINEER.  That was WHY I chose civil engineering, and not..Computer Science or something.  Same with Nishesh- Water Engineer and POLICY.   Totally not what we signed up for.  We tried to push back, but Quijano was adamant.  Luckily we both secretly (but not so secretly) sort of think Quijano is a genius, so we decided to just go with it and…learn Python.  Best decision EVER.  Why?  Think about what we’re actually doing at NextDrop.  We’re using simple technology to solve complex social problems.   The hardest part is understanding what problems need to be solved, and how we can solve them.  But the other really important part is knowing what technological solutions are available in your arsenal to solve these problems.  Without an intimate understanding of your system, there is no way you can accomplish this.  Also, it saves a TON of money on development, because in this early stage, most of what is going to hold you back is programming.  So if you have all key people focusing on the biggest barrier to moving forward, then you make the most progress.  I know I know, you’ll probably argue that everyone should be focused on what they do best. Sure, in an ideal world yes.  But in that ideal world, we would also have all the technology we want developed in an instant and we would have all the data we need at our fingertips.  Without data, we have nothing.  Plain and simple.  And speaking from experience, let me tell you this is what makes or breaks you as a company.

Again, I would encourage everyone to adopt this policy.  I’m currently working on a program that more accurately breaks down/visualizes our valvemen data so that we can make more informed decisions around our valvemen incentive program.  Really stoked about it actually!

Hire People You’d Want To Hang Out With

It’s pretty simple actually.  You’re going to spend most of your waking hours with these people.  If you wouldn’t even want to be friends with them, chances are, you wouldn’t want to work with them. No matter what their resume says.  This goes even beyond work though.  I think it also self selects for people who believe in your vision and mission.  Chances are you hang out with like minded people.  At least for me, I hang out with all sorts of people, from different walks of life.  But the thing they all have in common, is that they think what I do at NextDrop is pretty neat.  They get it.  They may not want to do it themselves, but they get the vision.  The most important thing I can do is make sure I populate NextDrop with people who jive with the vision, and are working at NextDrop to build a new reality- one that doesn’t exist today.  And have a really good time along the way of course.  As long as that is your motivation, I’ll probably want to hang out with you and we can hire you at NextDrop.

Fail Fast, Fail Often, Learn As Much As Possible

The Hacker mentality and the Lean Startup.  Let me tell you, another thing that really influenced my personal life greatly, and all of us at NextDrop, was the essay, How To Be A Hacker along with Eric Reis’s book, The Lean Startup.  In short, the life of your company is determined by the number of experiments you run, and the number of learnings you can acquire within the lifetime (i.e. burn rate) of your startup.  You’re probably going to be wrong, so just be nimble, and as soon as you know you are incorrect, pivot.  Putting ego aside, just look at the facts and do what needs to be done to achieve our goals.  Pivot or persevere.  It doesn’t matter, as long as we know we are headed in the right direction.

Those are the 3 major takeaways regarding culture I wanted to share/learned along the way.  Personally, it’s been an incredible journey, and in addition to just being really thankful that I get to work on solving really interesting problems, with the smartest people I know, I’d have to say I’m a pretty lucky person.

I also wanted to say thank you to everyone out there, reading this post.  It’s been two years, and with all of your support, we’re still alive and kicking.  We wouldn’t be where we are without you, and I wanted to make sure everyone knows how much we appreciate it all.

So thanks, from all of us here at NextDrop.

Whose in it for some incentives – Part II?

6 May

Sometimes I wish I were R. Daneel Olivaw, able to adjust anyone’s emotions for the greater good of mankind (Of course following the Zeroth Law). However until then, I have to rely on its poorer ancestor – behavioral economics. I have been a fan of the field ever since I heard Dan Ariely’s talk ‘predictably irrational’.

Since the last time we spoke of incentives, we have tried a few experiments- one successful, one marginal and have recently introduced some new ideas. As one who loves listening to his own voice, let me talk about the success.

Framing
Professor John List at the University of Chicago has conducted some pioneering field experiments using behavioral economics. We borrowed from his field experiment, “The Behavioralist Visits the Factory: Increasing Productivity Using Simple Framing Manipulations” in which he raised the productivity of workers in a Chinese factory by simply ‘framing’ the incentives differently.

In his study, List has used the risk averse nature of humans, i.e., we try to avoid losing much more than trying to gain something. Instead of earning an incentive as the month progresses, he provided the same incentives at the beginning of the month. He then deducted these incentives if required performance standards were not met during the month. In the former case, workers would just not earn something they could have if they didn’t hit required standards. In the latter, they now lost something they had already earned. Here, their innate risk aversion came into play and they worked harder to protect what they had already earned and hence there was a small but significant increase in productivity with no cost to the company.

Using the same principle we started giving all incentives in advance at the beginning of the month. Their instructions were simple – they would receive all their incentives in advance. However, every time they missed a supply notification,  points would be deducted from his account. At the end of the month, we would provide them a paper receipt that would show them how many points they lost out of the total they had received in advance that month.

I’ll be honest. I couldn’t contain my excitement the day we introduced this new initiative. Even before we started receiving any results, I was in self congratulatory mode. I thought how amazing I was, to apply state of the art research that would surely accomplish miracles.

So, what would you expect? Like all predictable twists, after the end of the first month – it achieved nothing. What’s more, the valvemen didn’t even notice. I’d ask my colleague, Aseem, did you explain the “Points Lost” receipt to them and he’d say yes. What was the response – they said. “Meh! Ok.”

If the initiative didn’t improve anything, may be I would have understood, but to not even create a stir amid our test group, that was inexcusable. I started to hunt for reasons. Why? Why don’t they care? It made me question the entire program itself. What was the point if they just didn’t care at all!

The next month was marginally better in that the valvemen only asked if they could spend all these newly minted advanced points, well, in advance! A tiny flicker of hope – I allowed it. But now, they used all the points at the beginning of the month so they had nothing to lose during the month. So we introduced a requirement of a minimal account balance to be able to use points in advance.
Finally, one day, by chance, I told Aseem to create the “points lost” receipt in Kannada and told him that we should keep that standard practice from now on.

The reaction was immediate. No sooner that the first of these Kannada receipts were distributed, valvemen started inquiring why they had so many points deducted. When we would show them each instance of a missed notification in the performance reports they would resort to haggling and bargaining. Eventually, they started to comprehend their cost of each missed notification. Talk about importance of using local language!

Even so, this framing of incentives has not been the raging success I had hoped it to be. However, it has certainly played a part in improving valvemen performance. One of the major gains from the initiative has been establishing the action and consequence loop for performance. If you miss notifications you will lose points. This simple rule has been established in their minds and no one now tries to question or bargain for points.

The program commenced in February and we started receiving reactions from the valvemen in March. At the beginning of March we had 28 consistent valvemen providing correct notifications to 115 areas o the city. This number increased to 35 and 158 respectively at the beginning of May (See chart).

blogpart2

During this period the only other new incentive introduced was a “Valveman of the Quarter” contest which rewarded the best 2 valvemen from each tank with a one time cash award. Significantly, the winners of the contest were performing well since January. While I have not done any rigorous testing yet (I intend to write a paper with David Argente, who suggested using List’s research ) the program seems to have been successful in raising the threshold of performance across all tanks.

Finally, it has primed the valvemen for my next ace ‘in the hole’. We have just introduced what we like to call the “Smiley System”. But I am not going to reveal what it is just yet. For that you will have to “watch this space”. (Hint: SMS, emoticons and behavioral econ).

Dream World

9 Apr

What’s been going on since my last broadcast?

The monsoon season has long past and the dry season is upon us. The reservoir is low and water supply timings have changed from once every 3 days to once every 4 days. Scheduled power outages and the number of tankers on the street have increased.

Our team has been tinkering away developing minor innovation improvements and executing them as soon as we can.

A few weeks ago there were local city elections. A large flux of people. An opportunity for us to market. We had recently developed some new tech to allow text messages to update our database. It gave us more control and visibility over our operations. And it was cool, this hack was updating our database so Melwyn didn’t have to do data entry anymore, this was in real time. The format was something like this:

“nd bill 9095242885 30″

Three days before the election we sat down and were interested to know how many people would reach out and tell us they want the NextDrop service. Initially, our experiment was to see how many people would text into our number something like, “nd new”. At this point we believed that people would tell us they wanted the service. They were telling us in other ways, referrals from other NextDrop users, catching our representatives while they were billing in their neighborhood. They just didn’t have an easy way to communicate with us.

The day before the election, I remember getting a call from Nishesh.

     “Hey man, so we were discussing what’s going on tomorrow. Instead of the customers sending a text message, Anjana suggests we give a missed call.”

     “That sounds great, let’s do it.”

     “Do you want to talk to Devin about the tech?”

     “No, he can handle it.”

Within 24 hours we had a missed call number and if you’ve never called the number before it would log you into our system and then send you a demo SMS immediately. The demo looks something like this:

“Demo: Water will arrive in your area in 30 to 60 minutes.”

We pushed marketing hard for those two days. Fliers, people on the field, and we were persistent when they told us we couldn’t be on the streets. The first positive feedbacks were people taking the fliers home and calling from their landlines. On those two days we had 14 people on the field pushing out this phone number and 80 people called in. Over the weekend, we had no one on the field. Five people called into our missed call number.

Major Innovation.

With additional marketing, this number has grown. Around 8 to 10 people call into the number daily, and we see spikes over the weekend, around 30 to 40. It completely changed how we acquire customers. Not everyone who calls in signs up for the service, they’ll say things like “What, I didn’t give a missed call? My children must have.” Some will not be interested after they find out it costs 10 Rs per month, but almost half provide their address information without hesitation.

This actually helped us out a lot, we were able to focus all of our time on delivery good content to people that would pay for the service.

As more and more people called in, some of them were calling from areas we didn’t provide service to. For the first time in Hubli, there was one single phone number residents could call into and consistently find out when they would receive clean drinking water. Each phone call questioned how well do we understand water in this specific area. We can tell you this this and this or we can’t tell you that. The market has spoken and we need to know water so well that we can tell you an hour before it’ll arrive and we need to know every time it comes. This is the future.

It’s an interesting exercise to think about if there was one phone number in the world to call if you needed to know when you’d get water. It’d be revealing to find out where people would call from. Now imagine a place where no one needs to call into this number. This is easy. Most suburbs and major cities in the United States, no one would call into this number. But for every place else, you’d probably get at least a few phone calls.

How did this all happen? How do you manage innovation? If its a process, then can it be observed, studied, stimulated and replicated? I don’t have a concise answer to these questions, I wish I did, and there isn’t a whole lot of documentation on the topic. But here is what we’ve found helpful so far.

  • Focus on the largest opportunity at hand.
  • Develop a culture engaged in knowledge work.
  • Use the Customer Development Methodology.
  • Learn Python.
  • Read a lot.
  • Exchange problems and solutions with other people doing similar work.
  • Share your knowledge.
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