The man behind the “Solopreneur”

A product leader and technologist with 25+ years experience building B2B and B2C products, Tathagat Varma has played significant technical and leadership roles, including VP for Strategic Process Innovations at 24[7] Innovation Labs. He is a highly sought-after public speaker, accomplished thought leader, agile transformation leader, published author and startup mentor. He has trained over 5000+ professionals, delivered 200+ public talks and conference papers, published 150+ blogs and articles, mentored over 100+ startups, and published a book "Agile Product Development” in 2015.

The Creativity Explosion

Q: Mentor, Coach, Trainer. This is the TV everyone knows of. Tell us something about TV that is not known to anybody.

TV: I love reading. In fact, I love reading so much that I end up reading close to a 100 books every year. These are all kinds of books - management, culture, technical, history, neuroscience - literally every genre except, perhaps, fiction. I believe this eclectic collection of ideas from across such wide disciplines gives me the ability to think differently and build upon ideas creatively.

Q: What has your entrepreneurial journey been like so far? What are the challenges that you had to face on the way? Any interesting situations that you would like to share with us?

TV: When I started my entrepreneurial journey in 2014, I decided that I am going to spend my time in three of "one-thirds" - one-third of my time doing professional work (i.e., make money, or take care of the "belly"), one-third of my time pursuing my passion (i.e., mentor the startups, review papers for various conferences, deliver close to 30 talks each year, teaching at IPL, etc., or take care of the "heart"), and the final one-third for upgrading my learning (i.e., reading those 100 books, blogging, writing books, creating new ideas, etc., or take care of the "brain"). So, I pretty much sorted out my time between these three key activities. In the last three years, I count myself extremely lucky that I was largely able to manage my time in these three buckets. On one hand, I got a chance to work with the largest of the companies, as well as mentor some really cool and crazy startups. I was able to pursue my love of teaching as well as managed to publish my book with a NY-based publisher. So, I feel blessed that I was able to continue my journey that I set out with. Of course, I make it sound simple...

Life as an entrepreneur is like living and dying several times a day! You are always one phone call away from your best moment and then another email away from your worst! Quite often, you have no control over either of them. And life as a solopreneur engaged in knowledge-based management consulting is even more challenging because you are the product - there is no other product to offer. So, you need to keep polishing yourself. All the time! I was lucky that I came with a lot of professional credibility that could help me open the doors. But then of course, that has no bearing on what the client finally decides! I mostly had very pleasant interactions, and wherever things didn't work out, I was happy to sit out rather than compromise on my values and vision. Overall, happy to have taken the plunge, satisfied with what I delivered, and content with what I accomplished.

Q: You quit a flourishing career in the IT to become an entrepreneur. What was the defining moment in your life that made you take that plunge?

TV: As we speak, I am actually in the process of again making a switch back to corporate, and this time, it is once again something totally new. So, in my career, all jobs have also been highly entrepreneurial. In fact, almost throughout my career, I always joined the company for a role where I was pretty much the first person in that newly created job. I have always joined jobs for the "discomfort factor", and always left the jobs whenever they job grew very comfortable. Overall, it has worked very well.

My decision was not a single-event trigger. Back in ~2005, I started blogging, and then in ~2007, I started teaching EMBA students. During the last 10 years, I started delivering talks and papers at conferences and corporates. I delivered almost 30 such talks each year and discovered that I not only had the passion to teach, but was also very well-received by my audiences - whether students or executives. Each of these presentations was then shared to my professional network via SlideShare, LinkedIn and Twitter. All this helped me build the presence and referability of my thought process and my work. By 2014, large corporates were asking me if I could help them - when I was not even thinking of any such thing. Till date, all my work has come from past work and word-of-mouth. So, I would recommend that anyone thinking of being in a thought leadership business to first focus on building their professional credibility and the work will follow automatically.

Q: You’ve mentored many startups in their journeys. What, according to you, is needed most for a startup to survive and pass the test of competition in the market?

TV: Like most mentors, I have seen more startups flounder than I would possibly care to see. However, such is life! Most techie startups continue to build tech solutions without really validating the problem statement. I call them "solution in search of problem" and they invariably end up nowhere. Then sadly, there is a plethora of "me-too" startups. I call them "yet another app to sell diapers online". The irony is that most of those founders have never changed a diaper in their lives - both literally and figuratively speaking - and they simply want to follow the herd and see if they can get some funding. Then, there are those lofty ones who still believe in the grand old theory of startups that was so prevalent during the dotcom - go stealth for 18 months and build the next big shiny product. Such startups have the arrogance to assume that they know everything when what they need is the humility to learn from their customers or users! And then finally, there are those startups where raising funding itself is the business model! The list goes on...

Like many others, I too am blessed to learn from all such commonsensical but oft-repeated mistakes. Over time, I have distilled my learnings to just 3-4 questions. If a startup can answer these questions honestly, they will have better chances compared to those that don't have them:

- What is the real pain point? I continue to be amazed that most startups still don't quite know the answer to this. So many of them are happy to offer their version of users’ pain points without ever talking to the "real human being", which is my shorthand for the real users

- Who has the pain point? Whom are we solving the problem for? Most often, there are several actors involved in a customer journey and unless we truly understand whose pain we are solving, we might have a great product but directed at the wrong audience.

- What are customers doing today? Obviously, they are surviving without your product (which is really an idea right now, or a hypothesis at best). So, they must have figured out some way to deal with those problems. Surely, you are not the first smart person who has thought of this unique solution. Maybe you have. But then, better to err on the side of commision than on the side of omission!

- What would consumers like to have? Don't simply treat yourself as a Henry Ford or a Steve Jobs - that you are almighty product visionary. Customers are almost always smart, and the best strategy is to leverage their knowledge and experience to turn them into "co-creators" rather than simply treat them as passive consumers. They will invariably blow holes in your most-decorated plans and theories with a generous dose of reality!

- What would users pay for it? Every great customer understands that it takes time, effort and money to create an awesome solution. Why not ask them what's the fair price they would be willing to pay for such-and-such solution for a so-and-so problem? One individual customer might skew the the results with his bias, but hundreds of them could lead you to some insights that you might never stumble upon by yourself.

In my experience, unless you have spoken face-to-face with some hundred-plus "customers" you are not likely to come up with those answers. And no, SurveyMonkey won't get you such rich and credible data, nor would outsourcing it to a marketing agency, and certainly not anyone else's secondary research data! So, from my point of view, if you are the founder, it is all about you and your shoe leather!

These are the most common questions and if you look, the most successful startups have an unequivocal answer to each of these questions. As the startup matures, there would be further questions on unit economics, on creating a "monopoly" (i.e., rendering the competition irrelevant by creasing an "unfair" and sustainable competitive advantage), the ability to create non-linearity i.e., using technology for the growth engine rather than hiring people alone, and so on. But those would be more applicable post the product-market fit when we are working on growth. At the start, it would be great to just pursue the questions I mentioned above.

Q: A product manager is a bundle of many things put together. What do you think is the most important attribute of a successful product manager?

TV: In my view, a product manager is like having a customer on your team, who is helping you understand the point of view of end-users - their problems, their aspirations, their expectations, their challenges, and so on. She can bring the outside-in perspective that quite often is ignored in strong techie teams and even in marketing-driven teams. So, to be an effective product manager, first and foremost, one should have a great understanding of human behavior in general, and user behavior, in particular (i.e., for the product you intend to create).

User experience, and by extension, design is only a physical manifestation of such deep understanding. And hence, a product manager should be a student of anthropology and a master of ethnography - she must first learn to understand people. Then comes the product requirements. Always remember, people don't pay for features - they pay for solutions. Most often, we fall in love with product features and requirements that we forget what part of the problem they are solving. We must remember that features are at best means to the ends, which is really all about solving a problem. A great product manager works actively to understand what would create those "aha" moments without particularly caring for a PRD or a product backlog, per se. Thirdly, a product manager must understand economic costs of her decisions - what does it take to deliver a given solution, and what is the perceived ROI of that decision. Finally, a product manager must be a great leader of influence - she must be able to rally the teams (as well as decision makers and other key stakeholders) around her product vision and align their ideas and conflicts to deliver the best possible customer experiences. I would rate these four among the top attributes for a great product manager.

Q: How has your experience been as a faculty member at the Institute of Product Management (IPL). What stands out at the institute, according to you? A piece of advice for all the cohorts at IPL?

TV: It has been an incredible experience. Starting with the fact that we are all working professionals who are "teaching" - so none of us is teaching any grand lofty ideas but stuff that we all use in daily work - to the awesome faculty network, it is great learning experience for the faculty too! The fact that our "students" all come with such rich professional experience challenges a faculty to raise his/her level and deliver new ideas is a great opportunity. Finally, the entire operations team IPL is awesome - they deal with all kinds of last-minute changes (I know I am guilty of it more than once!).

For the IPLites, I would suggest, as always, not to worry too much about grades, but more on doing stuff hands-on and experiential and experimental learning. Do sit in the class to know what is a given topic all about. But the real "learning" doesn't happen by mugging it and answering the questions in an exam, but in solving a real-world problems. So, go out and search problems - it might be your colleagues, your project team, your manager, your neighborhood, ....anything where you can apply some of the ideas from your classroom and "create your own learning". To me, that is the only learning that matters.

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