About Me

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Mumbai, India
I run an IT Security consulting firm based out of India. We started off from scratch in 2001 when I was 21, and have offices in Mumbai, Bahrain, and UAE. The idea behind the blog is to share the stories of how we run the business, the deals we make, the deals that break, the heartburn, and the sheer joy.

The Ultimate Startup Guide

The Ultimate Startup Guide is an e-book that provides answers to all your questions related to starting and growing a business in India. Everything you wanted to know about entrepreneurship in India from ideation to registration to marketing to hiring. The book contains a large number of practical examples, anecdotes, interviews, and motivational material to help you get started, and to grow rapidly in a booming Indian economy. If you've got the idea, this book will help you through with the execution and realize your dreams. Here are some of the key questions you will find answered in this book:
  • When starting a business, what are the legal issues involved?
  • What form of incorporation is better suited to which type of business?
  • What tax issues are involved?
  • How do I start a business and what are the pitfalls?
  • How do I market my business in the absence of significant funding?
  • How do I get funded?
  • What are the basic accounting concepts I should be aware of?
  • What is a business plan and how should I build one?
The brief table of contents of the book is as follows:
  1. Getting started
  2. Ideation
  3. Forms of Enterprises
  4. Funding
  5. Basic Accounting and Taxation
  6. Import and Export Licensing
  7. Trademark and Patenting
  8. Rules for NRIs and Foreigners
  9. Building a Business Plan
  10. Marketing on a Shoestring
  11. Website and Branding
  12. Women Entrepreneurs
  13. Templates
To order the Ultimate Startup Guide - email me at kkmookhey@gmail.com.

Details of the book are:
Title: The Ultimate Startup Guide
Author: Kanwal Mookhey
Pages: 150
Additional: Companion CD contains numerous templates for building your business plan, calculating cashflow, preparing profit and loss, and balance sheets, preparing invoices, your resume and profile, marketing material, websites, contracts, and many other useful and motivational material.

Friday, July 28, 2006

What does it take to be an entrepreneur

I often get asked by potential entrepreneurs, what it takes to be an entrepreneur. I don't claim to be an expert on this, but here's what I think would be necessary components:

  1. Gumption. Spunk. The ability to be knocked down on your knees and get up and brush off the dust and get going all over again.
  2. Optimism. Not blind faith. The hope that things will get better. But not blind faith that they'll get better by themselves. No sir, you'll have to do a lot to help things get better. But they surely will. This also involves faith in yourself.
  3. Integrity. Lots of entrepreneurs think its all about the money. It really isn't. It's really about who you are as a person, and how much conviction you have in yourself, not to take those shortcuts, not to pay those bribes, not to shortchange your customers and your people.
  4. Ideation. Innovation. Ingenuity. Your venture is not just about that one big idea. Heck, I've never had one big idea. It's always about a whole host of ideas. You keep trying as many of them as you can, pursue those that work, and discard those that don't. This also entails the willingness to be a lifelong student. To continuously learn and adapt as you go along.
  5. Mentors. I have been lucky in this regard. But then I've also learnt that finding good mentors is really difficult, and you also don't need someone handholding you for every little problem.
  6. The dream. When the chips are down, sometimes what keeps you going is the dream you behold in your mind's eye. What kind of an office will your people work out of one day? What kind of deals will you be closing some day? Maybe it's childish, but that's the kind of dream that has always kept me going.
  7. Ability to move on. Every time you notch up a success, you need to have the ability to celebrate it, but then move on. Don't rest on those laurels. They no longer count, and you got to set your sights higher now. And every time you fail, learn the lesson and then move on as well.
  8. Consideration. Gratefulness. Humility. You're never going to get ahead without being humble enough about how much you've contributed, and how much others have contributed to your success. So acknowledge that and give people their due. Also, if you only listen, your people will come up with some of the greatest ideas. So give that equal consideration, if not more.
  9. Good communication skills. Both verbal and written. If you can't get your point across in a direct, convincing, non-confrontational manner, then it's going to be an uphill climb. So work on those communication skills. With practice and effort you can get really good at them.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Brilliant idea, I say!

For all the buzz about India's economic progress, the fact of the matter is that a large majority of the population lives in poverty. Government policies and schemes in this regard have been outright populist and hardly visionary at all.

I remember a conversation I once had with an IIM Kolkata professor about entrepreneurship. And the talk turned to how the economic changes could be made more broad-based. And he said, I had a very conservative outlook on agriculture, but have come around to the view that the only way out is for the privatisation of agriculture. Given that over 60% of the population still depends on agriculture for its main source of income, any reforms are going to be very narrow unless they begin to address agricultural reform. One of the problems he mentioned was that it was very difficult to privatize farming in the current situation. Even when the government provides subsidies for something as simple as pumps, the fact that landholdings are so small and often non-contiguous means that a farmer cannot even take advantage of a pump, since he may not have the one acre of contiguous arable land that would make the use of a pump feasible. Privatization would mean, collective farming, pooling together of resources, availability of capital, and introduction of modern farming methods.

But after 50 years of Nehruvian socialism, and inspite of the past few years of reform, the idea that agriculture should or can be privatized would create a furore, raising visions of behemoths such as Cargill swallowing land and resources and pumping billions of dollars out of the country.

In such a scenario, comes Mukesh Ambani's refreshing ideas on what his vision for the country is. Read this excellent write up at Newsweek:

"Ambani plans to invest $5 billion by 2011 to put both the farms and the stores on the road to modernity, connect them through a distribution system guided by the latest logistics technology, and create enough of a surplus to generate $20 billion in agricultural exports annually."

Read also, Atanu Dey's comments at the Indian Economy Blog. If Ambani can pull this off, he will cement his place in the Hall of Fame of legendary businessmen, and free up the immense potential in the farming and retail sectors in a potential market of 1 billion people. And hopefully then, India will truly be shining.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

My worst spends

As a once-stumbling, struggling entrepreneur, I made a whole host of really bad decisions. In fact, even now I continue to make a fair number of really horrendous decisions. But at the end of the day, rather at the end of the financial year, if the numbers turn out into a positive sum game, well, it's all in a day's work then. So here's my list of 'did-I-really-do-that?!?' blunders:

1. Print advertising. We were just barely managing to survive in the first few months of our existence, when a friend approached me and said we should put our name out there. So we bought out the first ad in one of the leading computer magazines in the country, and paid a pretty penny for it: Rs. 50,000/- (USD 1200) if I remember correctly. The grand total of leads we got from that was, umm..err..zero. When I mentioned this to my 'friend', he said, well the thing is you got to build your brand. This requires not just one ad, but you got to keep coming out with ads. So the only way to build on your zero response is to come out with another ad. As incredulous as it sounds, we did come out with another ad. This time at a discounted price of Rs. 35,000/- (USD 700). We got one call from that ad. It was from another advertising agency asking if we would like to associate with them for future ads! Well, not only did I lose that friend quickly, I also learnt that ad agencies work on a healthy 17% margin, and are obliged to pass on much of this to clients. That is how we were able to get two similar ads in the same publication at such different rates. The first time, the agency pocketed its commission, and the second time they decided to go easy on me, and pass on some of that discount. From that day onwards, we've never advertised directly in print media.

2. Headhunting channels: When looking for people to come on board we used the classifieds sections in various newspapers. For each ad we took out, I think it cost us in the range of Rs. 10,000/- to Rs. 12,000/-. Over a period of time, this ended up costing us a significant amount. Eventually, signing up with online placement channels such as monster.com proved the best bet. Even better is to locate individual head-hunters who will do the pre-selection for you, and get you a filtered list of candidates.

3. Internet connections: When we started out we fell into the cable/DSL Internet provider's trap who provide "broadband" connections. Broadband, my foot! Here is how it works. When they first enter a commercial or residential complex, they offer extremely economical packages. Once you've installed the DSL or cable modems, and paid them their upfront fees, you pay a monthly rental as per your chosen package. Now, the first 6 months go off great, and more users sign up, thus limiting the bandwidth you used to enjoy. So they come to you with a renewal offer, which if you pay up for the next 6 months in advance will guarantee a specific bandwidth and good service. Naturally, gullible as we were/are, we signed up for it, and as you might guess, the bandwidth got squeezed even more, and their engineers were never there to respond. This is where we should have immediately shopped around for alternate providers, and not kept paying the same provider hoping the service would get back to it's good old former self.

4. Long-distance phone calls: With a large percentage of our business coming in from overseas, we spent a lot of moolah communicating with partners, clients and consultants who were onsite. Setting up Skype or a VoIP solution would have saved us a lot of money. We have Skype now, but most people still need to be reminded to use that instead of the regular phone. In fact, I must admit, I usually prefer to quickly search in my cellphone for whomever I want to speak with, and simply call them up. The sucky Internet bandwidths don't help, but we really need to start using VoIP a lot more.

5. Annual client gifts: We still do this, but I don't think it really achieves much. You know the deal. Diwali or New Years, you go looking for curio sellers and get a thingammy put the company brand name on it, and mass-mail it out to clients. I really don't think it gets us anywhere. For instance, we normally send out about a 150-200 gifts, each priced at roughly Rs. 250/-. This is a healthy Rs. 50,000/- investment, but what does it get you? The client puts up your thingy on his table along with thingies from half a dozen other companies - calendars, pen-holders, card-holders and the like. Yes, you could get innovative and send USB chargers or other cool stuff. What I find more useful is to write hand-written thank you notes to those who really matter, and to those whom we are genuinely grateful for their business and support. I usually add some personal stuff into it as well, and sign off. This ensures it's not a bulk-produced thank-you note, on which I am simply signing.

Here's a nice post by Dharmesh Shah at OnStartups on "Spending money in the right places" - converse post to mine.

*Current conversion is approx Rs. 46 to 1 US$. So Rs. 46,000/- is about US $1000

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Tips for obtaining VC funding

Kamla Bhatt interviews Jay Patel, who is an executive director at IMImobile, a wireless value added services company in Hyderabad, India. He is also a director at NewMedia SPARK, a London-based VC firm. Recently IMImobile received $10 million in Series B funding from Pequot Ventures.

In this podcast interview Jay talks about IMImobile's latest round of funding and shares some tips and ideas for entrepreneurs on how to raise money from VCs.

For those not inclined to listen to the interview, here are the key points:
  1. Usually takes 5-6 months for the funding process to actually bear fruit.
  2. Best to appoint an advisor for the process, who for a fee will take care of your valuation and try to get you the best deal from the VC
  3. NewMedia SPARK is looking at companies looking to internationalize their operations, say in the online publishing sector. So if you have a product or a service and are looking at between $1-5 million for funding, well drop him an email.
  4. Valuations of companies looking for investments are shooting up
  5. All VC's of course look out for the management team, and Jay's seeing a lot of well-trained 25-40 year olds with good skills who may not have the family money, but would be good investment targets.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Shaun Orpen interviews me

Shaun Orpen over at [ For Immediate Release ] interviewed me here. Thanks a million, Shaun!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Power(less) Point(less) Presentations

PowerPoint presentations have become a necessary evil. Any serious presenter or speaker knows that PowerPoint can do as much harm as it can aid a good talk. I came across this brilliant case study by Edward Tufte on what can go wrong with PowerPoint. He highlights a seriously flawed presentation of the analysis done by Boeing of the Columbia space shuttle disaster. Some of the highlights from the study are:

  1. PowerPoint is a highly inadequate tool for scientific and technical work. The attempt to fit single ideas into one slide can result in highly edited, ambiguous and misleading statements. PowerPoint does not do well at displaying scientific notation and units of measurements. All serious and technically detailed work must be presented using formal documentation such as word processing software.
  2. The use of PowerPoint exclusively for reports, proposals and white papers (instead of formal reports) is highly frustrating to the consumer of that information and is to be strongly advised against. This is a good point. I used to think that the ability to present an entire report in PowerPoint, as the big 4 consulting firms often do, was accepted practice. I think Word, and even Excel offers far better reporting capabilities than does PowerPoint.
  3. Information tends to get filtered and presented in relation to the bureaucratic heirarchy of the consumer of the information. For instance, as reports travel from middle to senior management, important information could get filtered. Or it could be pushed lower down PowerPoint's slide and bullet heirarchy to the extent where the original meaning of the message is lost.
  4. It is easy to present contradictory ideas in the same slide. The title of one such slide that Tufte uses to illustrate this point is in almost complete contradiction to the bullet points made lower down in the same slide.
  5. Slide overkill is almost unethical. When you begin making your entire talk into PowerPoint slides, you often lose the essence of what you are trying to say. I don't know which is sadder - presenting a 100+ slide talk or sitting through one. I guess the only exception is training programs, where the slides serve also as study material. In this case also, the best option would be training material as handouts and PowerPoint slides.
It's worth reading through the entire article and the comments that follow.

Another good article on PowerPoint presentations is Guy Kawasaki's 30/20/10 rule. One of the best sites of them all on presentation is Garr Reynolds' Presentation Zen.

Mumbai - resilient or passive

I made a brief three day trip back home, and was immediately overwhelmed with the media coverage of the Mumbai blasts and the aftermath. Mumbai was back to work as usual on the day following the blasts. Thankfully, none of the political parties called for a bandh (strike). And the demonstrations and marches were citizen-led and largely peaceful. The raging debates are whether it is really Mumbai's resilience or rather our immense passivity that resulted in not very visible reactions from civil society. That people came forward as everyday heroes during the time of the blasts to help each other out is undeniable. Senior police officials have been taken to task for hinting strongly that some high-level politicians might be involved. I wouldn't be surprised if that were true, though.

One of the news channels had a debate whether Mumbai had now changed, and whether its spirit was now broken. The most important statement I remember from that entire shrill debate came from Shabana Azmi (actress, social activist, and member of parliament), "It is not about one community against the other. It is about the fundamentalist forces in one community against the moderate voices in their own and the other communities".

What is decidedly different this time around is the seething anger of the common man at the bureaucratic and political apathy and greed with which Mumbai is treated. While the city contributes a third of the country's income tax, its infrastructure is crumbling, and the BMC (Mumbai Municipal Commission) Commissioner is a foolish, corrupt man leading us to further misery. There are mass emails and articles appearing suggesting that Mumbaikars should go on strike in a way that only we can - stop paying any taxes. Personally, I am not sure if that makes any sense. My take would be for Mumbai to secede from the larger land mass. Something along the lines of Hong Kong or Singapore, although we'll never probably reach the economic success levels of those cities.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The bastards!

By now, the world's woken up to the shocking tragedy that hit Mumbai yesterday. Seven blasts striking at the city's lifeline - the local trains. One of our people was in one of the trains that were blasted:

"I want to share this experience with you all. I was in the train at Mahim in which the bomb exploded. It was a painful moment, and I had a narrow escape thanks to God. I was fortunately travelling in second class. God knows why, otherwise used to travel daily in first class. I saw people jumping from the train and running helter-skelter. I saw nearly 50 people killed because of the bomb and many more were killed when they tried to jump outside and got killed by a fast train coming in from the other direction. I just couldn't believe what was happening. I saw blood everywhere, people without clothes, half-torn mangled bodies, someone's hand, leg, head. It was very painful and horrifying incident which I will never forget in my life.

I just pray and thank for all my best wishers because of whom I have reached home...but many families would be waiting home for their family members. Just wanted to pray for all those who have lost their lives".

This is the latest, and most horrifying of the terror strikes against the city:
In 1993, we had the first series of blasts that rocked the city's major hubs - its stock market building, banks, cinemas, etc.
In December 2002, there was a blast on a BEST bus near Ghatkopar station. Shortly after that, there was an explosion at a McDonald's outlet at one of the Mumbai Central - biggest train stations in the city.
In March 2003, another bomb exploded in one of the local trains at Mulund railway station.
Then in Aug 2003, two bombs exploded at the Gateway of India - one of the city's main tourist attractions, and Zaveri Bazar - the traditional jeweller's street.

And we still soldier on. Today morning the person I quoted above called me up, with some queries about the audit he's working on. God bless him, and the rest of the city...

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Good investment avenue - real estate mutual funds

According to this Economic Times report, SEBI has cleared the way to allow real estate mutual funds to be set up in India. India's propery market is very narrowly concentrated to the main cities, and even within the cities to specific localities. There's a huge potential for development of real estate. Allowing these mutual funds to be setup would enable a larger number of people to indirectly invest in real estate, without needing to put up very large sums of money, or go through the procedural hassles of home loans. I'd focus on those funds that invest in the secondary real estate markets and also have a strong percentage of revenues from rental income. As the economy grows the need for good quality office space and homes is only going to go up. So this should be a good option for the serious investor. Now, one thing you got to watch out for. Real estate markets always follow a Bell curve. So get in early, and exit in the medium term - 2-3 years max. Don't stay invested for longer than that, or you'll be holding the remains of a bubble.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

How to start a business in 2 lakhs

My statcounter showed that someone put that search term into Google and landed up on my site. Since I did start my business with exactly that capital (approx USD 4500) 5 years ago, I can claim to be some sort of an authority on how to start and grow a business with that low an amount. So here goes:

  1. Keep your capital expenditure low. This one is easy. You're going to end up spending upfront on some items - deposit for your office, company registration, computer equipment, etc. Well, keep these expenses the very minimum possible. In Hindi, we call it jugadbandi.
  2. Thrash around. You know when someone throws you into the deep end of the pool, you either thrash around as wildly as you can, or you drown, or someone comes and saves your sorry ass. Well, don't just sit there. Think! Where can you get the money to pay next month's rent. During our penurious days we did whatever we could to simply survive. We didn't bother about core competencies and such like. If there was a project to be done, and we could do it, we did it. One of our butt-saving projects required us to crack into an encrypted database file, and export all that data into Excel. That had little or nothing to do with information security. But what the heck. It helped paid the bills.
  3. Image doesn't matter. Hey, forget about having an office in a prime locality, or having a really good letterhead. Or laser printers. Get going with whatever's absolutely necessary for you to get the job done. You can always splurge when you've got money in the bank.
  4. Evangelize and network. You obviously cannot spend on advertising with that kind of a capital. You probably won't be able to get a professional brochure designed or printed either. And you simply won't be able to hire a marketing guy. So how do you get the word out there that you're now in business. Well don't just sit by the phone. Pick it up and start talking. Don't worry if people question your decision, or say they can't help you out. There're lots of people out there who'll want to help you along. And don't just ask them if they can give you business. Ask them if they know people who can give you business. Be persistent, but not desperate. Follow up with one phone call and one email.
  5. Be inspired. You're going to feel terribly low every now and then. That kind of money doesn't take long to run out. Read stories of other entrepreneurs. Talk to other entrepreneurs you know. If nothing works, send me an email!
  6. Pray. Really hard! Seriously, it's crazy enough starting your own business. Doing it with such less capital is really nuts. But that's what I did, and you could do it too. Unfortunately, I am an atheist, so this is advice I didn't follow. But yes, I hoped really hard that things would work out. That next month's checks wouldn't bounce.
So good luck, and soldier on!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Disinvestment stopped

The mess of coalition politics is once again very evident. The DMK, a constituent of the ruling UPA (United Progressive Alliance) has threatened to pull out of the coalition if the goverment goes ahead with its plan for privatizing Nevyeli Lignite. So the DMK's got the government by its short and curlies, and the Prime Minister has announced the decision to put all disinvestments on hold!

Which may not be such a bad thing after all. Disinvestment and privatization in India has usually been ad-hoc, and often without rational economic justification. That government should get out of business is a great idea, but the way and pace in which this is done is pretty crucial. When workers get laid off, people lose livelihoods and social upheavals invariably occur. The controversies over profitable public sector companies having been sold for basement-bargain prices only fuels suspicion of who's actually benefitting from the sales.

On the other hand, the opposition to privatization is also largely based on votebank politics rather than rational economic analyses. The DMK arose to the "evils" of privatization only when it threatened to strike home. The Left is a weak shadow of itself, and its opposition is sometimes ludicrously lame - recollect how the protests against airport privatization fizzled out.

In all this, the media once again portrays the interests of big business without trying to really explore the complex mass of underlying issues. The entire disinvestment issue is presented as a big business vs. worker rights issue. While that is indeed one aspect of the issue, there's usually a lot more, and the press never seems to get around to discussing threadbare all the issues involved. Now, "experts" are saying that this decision will negatively affect stock market sentiment. So why the hell should anyone care? We're guaranteed to be in a bubble economic phase whenever the stock market indices begin to influence economic policy decisions. In any case, the market's been acting inebriatedly lunatic since the past couple of months.

My prediction: when the right "incentives" have been shown to the decision makers at DMK, Nevyeli Lignite will be sold off. Probably before the year is over. But then, I am a conspiracy theorist in any case!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Workaholic? Me? No way!

This article on workaholism describes the following characteristics of a workaholic:

  1. Do you carry your work home? Yes!
  2. Do you prefer working alone, cannot delegate tasks and have a habit of talking fast and interrupting people? Not, really. Can't get along without delegation.
  3. Your happiness is in only your work? Pretty much so.
  4. Work takes over all your leisure time and even comes before family and friends? You have no social life outside of work? Umm...yes...
  5. You do not take vacations and when you do, you carry your work? Yes also...
  6. You get upset when people suggest you cut down on your work? No, not really.
  7. Work is on your mind all the time and you are stressed - both mentally and physically - because of work? Well, work is on my mind, but I am not stressed...I think?
Ok, so fine, I am a workaholic. But I love the work that I do, and I simply cannot imagine doing anything else...

When things are so far gone...

There are days when nothing seems to go right. On any front, on any project. Now, one might get stressed and might fret and try and push against the tide. Or one might just kick up one's feet, put on some Bach, smoke some Sheesha, and finally figure out what the following Zen Koan means:

Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other, "The flag is moving."
The other replied, "The wind is moving."
Huineng overheard this. He said, "Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving."

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Mumbai drenched, soaked, and drained once again

The monsoons are here, and in a scary reminder of last year's disaster, this time around as well Mumbai has come to an almost complete standstill as local trains, roads, and airports have been severely affected.

Although, last year was a freak of nature, this year it's just the same old lessons which politicians and bureaucrats refuse to pay heed to. And this, after contributing over a third of the national tax. The loss to productivity is just mind-boggling! No matter how much I love this city, I'd rather avoid being there during the monsoons.

New book from George Soros

One of the world's most well-known billionaires - George Soros - is at it again. His latest book "The Age of Fallibility - Consequences of the War on Terror" is out now, and the Forbes' review of the book states that "...Soros lays out the intellectual method taught to him by philosopher Karl Popper. It all begins by admitting that human knowledge of reality is imperfect." The review concludes with "This is a book about how we think, and it's worth consideration by all sides."

Soros supports and funds a number of charities, and is also a critic of laissez-faire capitalism and certain aspects of globalization. The main crux of the book is that we must accept that there are limitations to our knowledge and understanding of how the world works. And this is what needs to drive our humility when analyzing problems. This directly results in strong criticism of the Iraq war and much of Bush's foreign policy post 9-11.

Lacunae in Indian privacy laws hit business

Recent events of data theft at high profile BPO's (HSBC and Mphasis BFL come to mind) have resulted in two biggies - Apple and Powergen - pulling their back office operations out of India. I remember NDTV did a scoop where they found mobile phone call information could be found out for less than Rs. 5000 (USD 100) for any given person.

I have commented elsewhere about the lacunae in India's Information Technology Act 2000, the only piece of legislation that directly deals with cybercrime. Unfortunately, it does not contain much on methods for investigation and forensics and guarantees little by way of data privacy.

Here's what I think is lacking in the Act:

  1. Does not mandate the forensics procedure to be adopted for the evidence to be admissible in court.
  2. Is too Draconian in some respects, especially sections related to Offences by companies, Confiscation, Hacking, and Publishing of Obscene information
  3. Setting up of the Cyber Appellate Tribunal or posting of the adjudicating officer as mandated in section 46 and 57
  4. Too much of a focus on digital signatures, digital certificates and certifying authorities - very few sections deal with actual cyber crimes
  5. Data privacy is not addressed in either the Indian IT Act or anywhere else.
  6. Does not address practical issues of actually implementing the measures it lists out
  7. Although, cyber security cells have been set up in the major cities around the country, they’re often under-staffed and under-equipped
Although, there is an initiative by the Ministry of Information Technology to accept revisions and suggestions for the Act, nothing has come of it. NASSCOM for all it's statements about cyber-security as well as the launch of the Indo-US Cyber Security Forum have achieved naught.

Further reading:
  1. What's wrong with our cyber laws
  2. IT Act languishes thanks to government negligence
  3. Loopholes in IT Act nag Indian corporates

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The consulting chicken-and-egg situation

As a consultant, a recurring situation is one where you have a lead for a new project, but the specific work is not something you have done before. For instance, we might get called in to do an audit of a network which has Open VMS systems. Not having worked with these specific systems always poses a hurdle when trying to convince the client that they should go with us. Or the project might require us to provide consulting on GPRS security. Now, projects like these are of greater value simply because they expand our repertoire, and can be used immediately to pitch the same service to other clients. So here are some tips to get out of the chicken-and-egg situation, and convince the client that you can actually provide the right consulting expertise:

  1. Get access to the technology: Typically, when we've not had the experience on a technology, but we do know enough about it, we try to get our hands on the technology first. In some cases, this simply means downloading the trial software from the Internet and loading it up in our lab. In other cases, it means figuring out an existing client who has the same technology and may extend a favor and give us access to the test systems they have.
  2. Ask around: However, there are some cases - especially those that involve high-end technology - where it is simply not possible to get access to the technology. In this case, the best course of action is to check within your list of contacts (clients, partners, ex-employees) who may have worked on that technology or domain and would be willing to help you out.
  3. Write an article: If at this stage, you feel you know sufficiently enough about the technology, it is always worthwhile to write an article on that subject. This could either address the work you have been asked to do directly, or it could be about some other aspect of that subject, but in a way it would still help establish your credibility. A lot of publications related to your field of work are always looking out for good writers, and might carry your article. Some of them even pay a decent amount for your submission. Even if the article is not accepted by a publication, you could always upload it to your website.
  4. Deliver a talk at a forum:Look around within your region and determine professional bodies that are related to your area of work. Most of these bodies or societies convene at least once a month, and are always on the lookout for good speakers. If you can swing an invitation to present at these seminars or meetings you might win potential clients on the related subject. Another positive outcome is that after the talk you can upload the Powerpoint presentation to the "Resources" section of your website and sooner or later it will get indexed by search engines. Potential clients searching for consultants on the subject will land up on your website and call you up.
  5. Submit a concept note: In order to get the client to buy into your idea, prepare a 2-3 page concept note on the subject. This note's main focus is not to directly tell the client why they should hire you, but rather to demonstrate your knowledge of the subject. So it should be opinionated and it should take into consideration the client's specific requirements. Mention regulatory guidelines, related studies, and expert opinions to back up your points of view. Be careful not to give away everything in the concept note. Also avoid arriving at any definite conclusions, since that's what the actual consulting assignment would involve.
  6. Hold a topical workshop: Often the main buyer at the client's end may not be the only decision-maker. There may be other people involved, who may similarly need to be convinced about your abilities and skillsets. Suggest to the client that you could hold a 1-2 hour workshop to get the others to buy in to the idea, and more importantly get their viewpoints on board. If they feel you are sincerely interested in what they have to say, they will reciprocate that when it's decision-making time.
  7. Leverage other related work: As your consulting experience and domain knowledge expands, with every new requirement there is always some or the other past work that you can bring up to convince a client. For instance, if it is GPRS security, you could bring up work that you might have done for a telco, which might have involved just a wee bit of work on their GPRS systems. Or you could bring into play work you have done on similar technology where the same concepts were involved.
  8. Tap into external expertise. If none of this seems to be working, you could always outsource specific parts of the work to a domain expert. Of course, this means lower margins for you, but at least the client will not feel short-changed. You provide the overall approach and quality assurance, while the outsourced consultant would provide the domain expertise. We have done this on numerous occasions, and even more often we have had work outsourced to us because we had the edge in terms of domain knowledge. It helps a lot to maintain a database of external consultants and their areas of expertise, which you can then tap into as soon as the lead warms up.
Most of these strategies become easier as you progress in your consulting career. I remember when we started out and had to struggle to convince clients about our skillsets regarding the very basics of information security consulting. Recently, we won a technology-intense project simply because we had done work for the same client in other areas, and they were convinced more of our problem-solving and analytical abilities than our technical know-how. And that was all that was needed to overcome any internal objections to us getting the project.