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Entrepreneur Journeys:

Paulson
Entrepreneur Journeys, Volume 1
By: Sramana Mitra

Sramana Mitra is an author, strategy consultant and technology entrepreneur who lives and works in Silicon Valley California. She has a master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT and is a columnist with Forbes, Seeking Alpha, Yahoo! Finance, Cadwire & TheStreet.com.

Entrepreneur Journeys begins with a quote in the prologue that sets a tone for the interviews and insights Sramana Mitra shares with her readers; “Entrepreneurship is not a career. It is a way of life.”

I’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with a number of entrepreneurs and small business owners who have put their thoughts to actions for the various needs of an untapped market. While I haven’t had the pleasure to interview CEO’s and owners of global businesses I continue to look to innovators and entrepreneurs for new trends and applications of strategic management both for my consulting work and as an individual investor.

Entrepreneur Journeys is a much different book in the format it is presented to the reader. Sramana presents not only a diverse variety of interviews with various entrepreneurs on topics of technology and innovation, but also her personal thoughts and insights on where technology is moving, areas of growth for industry and opportunities not being fully taken advantage of by well established businesses.

This unique presentation holds the potential to capture a much wider audience of readers; especially those interested in learning about strong business fundamentals. Whether you’re an individual investor, business person or small business owner with little interest in becoming an entrepreneur yourself Entrepreneur Journeys offers important insights into how to recognize, operate and develop a business based on the simple fundamentals of success.

Long time readers of TMWTFS know that I spend a great deal of my time attempting to link important fundamentals of business practices to investor insights in an effort to promote effective and successful strategies. Any business continuously needs to make improvements in their operations that lead to increased customer retention, higher profitability and a more sustainable competitive advantage that protects against other entrants in the same industry. From an investor perspective I want to invest in companies that are innovative and on the leading edge of their industry with respect to consumers, operations and general business practices.

I don’t want to ruin the content of the interviews in Entrepreneur Journeys by revealing information on the unique conversations between Sramana and her guests, but I have decided to instead list of some key concepts I felt were touched on in the book that will help small business owners, investors and entrepreneurs to become more successful in their endeavours. My hope is that the concepts listed will create interest from readers to pick up a copy of the book, give it a read and spend some time reviewing and reflecting on the important lessons offered.

Finisar:

  • Take control of quality
  • Need for a change in cost structure
  • Focus on the customer

Zoho:

  • Simplicity & modesty breed success
  • Go for brains, not just the books
  • Fiscal discipline
  • Never be afraid to redefine your business model
  • Compete on price only when you have the cost advantage
  • A focus on the $1 customer

Kayak:

  • Simple marketing: great product and service
  • Engineering driven business
  • Look for your competitors Achilles heal

SimplyHired:

  • How technology makes the difference
  • Fill the consumer need

Qualys:

  • Acknowledge obstacles
  • Never fear competition; focus on solutions for the customer

Concur:

  • Redefine the business model to move to where the market will be
  • Confront issues within your business immediately
  • Deal with challenges or hide from them
  • On-demand products expands your target market

MercadoLibre:

  • Avoid mass marketing
  • Concentrating on product infrastructure
  • Build your company by building a strong product platform

The interviews in this book are valuable resources for any small business owner; especially those without any formal business education or training. From the perspective of an investor I was very interested in the themes received in the book on Latin America, energy recovery technology, software solutions, education and changing role of technology in life and business. This book reinforced a long held belief I share with clients of my own small business that commerce is more than having the right tools to do the job; sometimes you need to know how to use those tools more effectively in order to be successful.

I had the pleasure of discussing Entrepreneur Journeys with Sramana Mitra in November to ask a few questions about the book.

Can you tell readers a little about yourself and your inspiration for writing Entrepreneur Journeys?

I am a serial entrepreneur, having started 3 companies, plus having built a consulting company. Now I am also tinkering with publishing – blog, books, columns … I love to write, I have always loved to write. And I fundamentally, passionately, believe in entrepreneurship as a solution to the world’s biggest problems. I think, now, more than ever, the world needs entrepreneurs in droves to step up to the plate. But how do you inspire and educate a whole new generation of entrepreneurs? How do you develop a “scalable mentoring device” that can motivate large scale entrepreneurship on a global scale? My belief is that you can only do that by telling people stories of everyday heroes – not Bill Gates and Steve Jobs – but people they can relate with – and showing them that it can be done. “Yes You Can.” My book series is an effort to inculcate entrepreneurial energy at every level – high school, college, university, and professional. Lost a job? Don’t be disheartened. Take your destiny in your hand. Become an entrepreneur.

From a professional perspective can you give readers some insight into how you view the internet changing the global business environment; specifically Web 3.0 that you touch upon in the book?

Personalization is my key thesis for Web 3.0. Healthcare. Education. Commerce. Travel. Job Search. Searching for a mate. Everything changes with Web 3.0. Everything will become personalized and dramatically more efficient. You can have an “assistant” for many functions.

At twenty-seven I grew up with the personal computer, the internet and use both of those on a daily basis. How will the world be different with Web 3.0?

I grew up with servants in India. That’s the parallel. I would like a “web 3.0 servant” for dealing with a lot of repetitive tasks that I perform on the web that reduces my click-level dramatically. I want to be the “master” of technology, not “servant”. I want technology to be “my servant”.

What has Google missed that so many niche companies are now focusing on? You touched on Google’s Achilles heel: the verticalization in e-commerce that’s coming to search; how serious is that threat for them over the long-term?

I think, over the next decade, the threat of vertical search and vertical personalization is very serious for Google as emerging brands develop for each of the verticals. It’s the Walmart versus Saks Fifth Avenue model. The latter is a much better user experience. Google is like Walmart.

One thought that kept coming up as I read the book was that I felt as if you missed an opportunity to capture a wider audience for Entrepreneur Journeys. The businesses and entrepreneurs featured in the book are very technical and the content at times would be difficult to grasp if you didn’t have a basic understanding of this market niche. In hindsight would you take a more broad approach for your interviews in the future for Entrepreneur Journeys Volume 2?

My expertise is in technology, so I wanted to really drill down into something where I have tremendous value to add. Also, I think technology entrepreneurship is the need of the hour – in healthcare, in education, in energy, in rural development, in curing poverty … you name it. In Volume 2, I will be focusing on Bootstrapping, and it includes stories of journalists who’ve created very nice small businesses, for example, but still by using the Internet. In Volume 3, I will focus on Positioning. That volume draws from my extensive consulting background and numerous engagements through which I have developed a rather sophisticated understanding of Positioning. It’s a very important aspect of building a successful company. And of raising money.

One intriguing theme that you kept revisiting was one of the small business and how a focus on fundamentals of operating that business gave certain entrepreneurs an advantage over much larger competition. Do you think that the niche focus is something that many entrepreneurs disregard initially because of the scale of competition rather than just pursing a need that isn’t being serviced?

Niche is really key for start-ups to be successful. The resource constraint is acute, so you cannot ever afford to bite off more than you can chew, and then swallow. Most entrepreneurs fail by becoming defocused. And then they’re not successful in anything they try. Better to focus and be successful in one area, and then move to another.

From the book what do you feel is the one dominant theme that an independent investor can concentrate on for the future?

Stock market pov (point of view)? Look at the big masses of untapped market opportunities. MELI and Latin America. SaaS and small businesses – Concur, Qualys, Zoho. Base of the Pyramid. Focus on “Markets” above all.

The theme of entrepreneurs addressing unmet needs with new business ideas was something that captured my attention immediately as an avid student of strategic management. When I look at the role for technology moving forward I often feel that many small businesses don’t take full advantage of their opportunities. Do entrepreneurs simply think differently or is their view of the world different?

You will see the technology democratization change dramatically. Small business will become avid consumers of technology going forward. SaaS, iPhone – there is much going on that will drive the cost of technology ownership down by orders of magnitude. Usability is also a big focus. New generations are tech-savvy to start with. Technology democratization is a big theme to watch, as we not only move to rolling out computers to the Next Billion, but also to the Last Billion.

What can a small business owner or investor learn from entrepreneurs to better meet the undressed needs of their target market?

Understand the inefficiencies and the problems of the players and users in the market. Then design a solution that fits without requiring changes in human behaviour. Changing human behaviour is expensive. I would say, almost impossible. But if you create a solution that allows users to achieve something efficiently that they already want to do, then market penetration becomes smoother.

I was hoping you could provide readers with two definitions that I think are a core focus of these interviews: a strategic roadmap and value proposition articulation. What are the most frequent mistakes that a small business owner or inexperienced entrepreneur faces when attempting to conduct either?

You need to look at “Strategy” as a complex exercise. Not just a knee-jerk reaction. Here are a couple of worksheets (I & II) that address both topics you ask about.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast” was a quote that I couldn’t resist writing down from your interview with Jerry Rawls of Finisar; do you agree? (and why).

No, I don’t agree. I think both are intertwined and equally important. Great culture, coupled with a stupid strategy, results in the same kind of disaster that the opposite creates. I think Jerry is extremely biased in his comment, but I am open to divergent points of views. For Finisar, what worked in the last downturn will not work this time around. They need a different strategy, and culture alone will not save them. I would go so far as to suggest that this time round, Jerry may develop more respect for Strategy and Consultants, because the job ahead is not an operational re-engineering, but a strategic re-engineering of his business.

When I was reading your interview with Carol Realini from Obopay the thought of mobile banking (via a phone) in countries that lack adequate infrastructure brought about so many applications in many emerging markets that companies could utilize. With the world becoming so interconnected globally do you see innovation lagging here in North America because of our ability to not think outside of the box?

I think America has shown tremendous ability to think outside the box, and will continue to do so. However, it has to shed the erstwhile acceptable position of “big brother” and get used to being one of the 3-4 major economies. Innovation will flow, if this more open, more collaborative cultural shift happens over the next decade. We’re now in a “balance of power” era, no longer an America-dominated age. Carol Realini, for example, will need to watch her competitor Sanjay Swamy of mChek carefully!

Entrepreneur Journeys, Volume I can be purchased online via Amazon and would be a great gift during the holiday season for any individual with the spirit of an entrepreneur.
For more information on Sramana Mitra visit her website.

(Disclosure: I was not paid or compensated in any form for this review)

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