Aug 24, 2014

How to give life to vague ideas

In the biography of Steve Jobs, I came across an interesting point made by Jonathan Ive, Chief Designer at Apple. He says, "Ideas are very fragile, so you have to be tender when they are in development".

During the course of the day, your mind could be brimming with a lot of ideas. It could be a startup idea you want to explore, an idea for a book you would like to write, a thought process/framework you want to ideate upon based on an article you read recently, a presentation that you plan to give to an audience and many more.

These ideas can be very exciting to begin with but at the same time, are potential areas where we might procrastinate, due to their inherent vagueness.

David Allen, in his book "Getting Things Done" says that we tend to procrastinate on projects where we don't know the next action steps to be taken.

Living in a world of distractions and its inherent busyness, it becomes even more challenging for us to dissipate the vagueness and gain clarity on ideas that inspire us.

"Strike while the iron is hot" - extremely true for ideas. If you feel inspired, take small steps TODAY. Not tomorrow, not the next weekend.

I would like to share 5 tips that always work for me, whenever I need to make progress with my ideas.

1) Capture the idea then and there
Ideas hit us at odd times. So it's very important we capture it in a trusted system immediately. Many innovation experts suggest that we carry a notebook and a pen always. I would like to adopt this but for now, I use Evernote to capture random thoughts and inspirations.

2) Timebox with your idea
Cut down all distractions. Lock yourself if possible. Set a timer for atleast 15 minutes. Jot down all the ways by which you could take the idea forward. Do not judge or analyze whether it is the right thing to do. Focus on getting as many ways as you can to move the needle.

You can also set aside a definite number of action items (say, 25) and brainstorm until you hit this number. Again, do not judge. Be tender, trust your intuition.

3) Step away from your desk
I have experienced this in action multiple times. While doing chores like folding laundry, cutting vegetables or cleaning up my home, my mind keeps mulling over the idea and I get more clarity on the next steps I need to take. Taking a walk is also helpful, provided you could remember and capture your thoughts quickly.

4) Take a shower
This always works like a charm. There is interesting scientific evidence too which I came across in this blogpost. It talks about the power of being relaxed to get creative ideas.

"If you are in a relaxed state of mind, easy to distract and full of dopamine, your brain is most likely to give you your best, most creative ideas."

5) Universe helps
As your mind keeps chewing on an idea, you get answers and help from everywhere. I personally vouch for this amazing phenomenon which was highlighted by Paulo Coelho is his book "The Alchemist"

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

For a presentation that I'm putting together, my mind is constantly thinking about the structure, content and interesting stories to tell. And my social media feeds keep throwing me relevant articles around the same topic. The topic of universal consciousness is something I want to research further.

Hope these 5 tips were useful to give life to your inspirations/ideas. Would love to hear what other ways by which you make progress.

Aug 12, 2014

How to perform a competitive landscape analysis

Much of my work time in July was spent working on a competitive landscape analysis for a client of mine. It was an interesting learning experience, given that the scope was broad and there were many competitors to be analyzed. A step-by-step approach helped me to unravel the various dimensions, analyze competition and identify the underserved areas (or green-fields). Do note that although these perspectives are specific to a B2B product standpoint, the approach can be customized to B2C context as well. Here's my 9-step approach to perform a B2B competitive landscape analysis.

1) Define the scope of your domain
Which verticals fall under this domain? What are the adjacent/dependent areas in the value-chain? What activities fall under this domain?

Let's say, the domain of your interest is "Customer Service".
The verticals relevant to this domain are customer support, sales and account management.
The supporting functions are product development, procurement/shipment (in case of physical delivery), legal, manufacturing etc.
The activities included in the customer service domain are ticketing, call support, call routing, email support, help desk, feedback processing/routing, response tracking, communication etc.

2) For the activities included in the scope, identify prominent players in each space
Identify the leaders in each space and their relative strengths. Your solution/offering may not be targeted towards the entire scope. But this step gives a good understanding of the overall scope of the domain and the market leaders who could potentially expand/pivot to adjacent areas.

3) Identify an area(s) in the broad scope which you plan to focus on
The criteria for choosing a specific area of interest is based on multiple factors:
- Higher perceived value by your end-customers
- Your own strengths/interests/capabilities in this area
- Relatively less crowded in terms of incumbent players

4) For the chosen area(s), analyze the existing competition
Competitive analysis is much more than a table of feature comparison. Consider the following variables as a template to get an in-depth analysis of competition:
- Customer profile (industry, verticals, customer size, retention, new customers, key customers)
- Revenue and Pricing (annual revenue, number of customers, pricing strategies, product+service offering)
- Funding (stage, total funding, last funding timeline)
- Product Strategy (products offered, positioning and value proposition, releases/rollout)
- Marketing Strategy (inbound channels, social media activity)
- Product overview (demos, screenshots, benefits offered, features)

5) Identify strengths and weaknesses of competition
Based on the analysis in step (4), you will have a fair idea of the strengths and weaknesses of each player. These are based on your own judgment and is dependent on the variables identified above.

6) Analyze competition using positioning maps
In order to draw positioning maps, you will have to identify the key decision factors from an end-customer point of view. You could choose two factors among the following:
- benefits expected by the end-customer (high capabilities, solution completeness)
- pricing
- operational efficiency
- product superiority (innovative, high performance)

Draw a graph with the 2 relevant factors on each axis. Place each of the competitive player in this graph. You could also expand this further by breaking the factors into more specific angles and draw positioning maps accordingly.

7) Identify relevant parameters for the buyer and user(s)
For a typical B2B offering, the buyer and user(s) are different. There will be multiple personas who would be the users of your offering. Identify the parameters that are important to each persona. For the previous example on Customer Service, if your area of interest is HelpDesk, then the parameters that are important to the user would be ease-of-use and speed of response. A supervisor/admin who oversees help desk would want to know the number of issues being raised, responses given, escalations etc. For this persona, the parameters that are important would be summarized insights, a gist of next actions to be taken etc.

8) Rate each competitive player on a scale of 1-5
For the parameters that are important to each persona, rate your competition on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest. This is also based on your own judgment, substantiated with your analysis in step (4)

Average the values of each parameter. Narrow down those parameters with an average of less than 3. These are the areas that are not addressed (or underserved) by existing competition.

For example, in the comparison above, products offered by competition are not simple or easy to use by the help desk service reps. Information shown to supervisors are difficult to interpret. A simple, intuitive solution could be differentiating in this space.

9) Finalize the green-field areas
We have a list of parameters from step (8) that are underserved, which could be your potential green-field areas to create value and differentiation. Before jumping into how to address them effectively, you will have to validate with potential customers to check if these parameters are valuable to them and the price they are willing to pay for an offering differentiated in these areas.

Hope this 9-step approach was helpful. Please do share your comments/questions OR if you want me to elaborate on any specific steps.

Aug 6, 2014

My weekly goals system

I believe in juggling many interests and not focus on ONE single thing the whole day. It might sound contradicting from a productivity standpoint but experience has taught me that this is how I prefer my ideal day to be. While I was working full time, my time was spent in 9-10 hours of work in office and 2-3 hours of commute. I didn't make much time for hobbies/activities/interests except I used to blog occasionally and cook new dishes during the weekends.

Now that I work from home, manage a toddler and the household chores, nurture my new found interests towards baking and healthy eating, keep up with fitness, writing and reading, my mind often gets bombarded with a lot of things to do. I used to practice GTD diligently a while back but have stopped completely. I wanted a simpler system to keep myself sane and ensure I make progress in all my areas of interest every week.

"Necessity is the mother of Invention" - I hacked up a simple weekly goals system and I'm seeing progress in the last 3 months ever since I started it.

Being a big fan of Evernote, my goals system resides there. I have a separate notebook named "Self-Development".

Every Monday morning, I sit down for around 30 minutes, thinking about what I want to accomplish that week. I create a separate "note", listing down the tasks in no specific order. The size of this list used to be around 10 items when I started. Now it has grown to 20.

1) I ensure there is atleast 1-2 tasks covering each area of my interest. This way, I don't feel like I'm spending too much time on one and not giving importance to the other. So the list would have "bake a <x> dish", "read 100 pages of a book <y>", "complete competitive landscape analysis presentation for <z>" and so on.

2) The tasks are quantified or measurable. For e.g., one of my tasks is to "go to the gym for 30 minutes, 2 times this week". The task definition is clear and I either achieve it or not. There is no confusion around what I need to do.

3) I add a couple of small tasks that doesn't take more than 10-15 minutes of my time and that I can check them off easily on Monday morning. It's based on one of the motivation theories, the "endowed progress" effect. It gives the required motivation to progress further in the week. For e.g., I need to call up a specific school to enquire about the timelines of their admission process for my daughter. It took me just 5 min to look up their number and call them.

4) Everyday, I go through my list in the morning and make a mental note of the tasks I want to focus on today.  At the end of the day, I go over the list again and check off a few items (thanks to the "checkbox" feature in Evernote!). Writing this post was one of my tasks for this week and I'm checking it off today!

5) At the end of the week, I look at the number of tasks completed. It was never 100% complete but I'm glad the percentage is increasing week over week

This is a very simple system and it's working for me. Awareness, little planning and thoughtful execution result in sustained progress. How do you plan your day/week? Are you a list maker too? :-)

Aug 1, 2014

Introducing Solids to infants

I felt extremely happy and grateful when one of my friends asked me if I had written a blog post on "Introduction to solids". I'm neither a pediatrician nor a dietitian but I have been sharing my experiences related to child nutrition in the past 2 years. One of my goals is to ensure that every Indian mother has the right information/knowledge about child nutrition and the packaged foods industry wouldn't be able to influence us in the wrong direction. These blogposts are just a fraction of efforts towards that goal.

I started off this series by talking about the importance of breastfeeding your baby in the first six months of his/her life.

This is the second post in this series where I want to talk about how to introduce solids in a phased manner. This is applicable for babies in the 6-8 month range.

"Solids" may not be the appropriate word since you start off with liquids (other than milk) and pureed/mashed foods. For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to them as "baby foods".

How do you know when your baby is ready?
Around the age of 5-6 months, check for the following signs.

  1. Your baby is able to hold her head steadily
  2. She jumps onto you when she sees you eating from your plate
  3. She shows interest in your food

When should you start?
Ideally, after completion of 6 months. But please do check with your pediatrician. If your baby's weight hasn't been increasing steadily, the doctor might ask you to start earlier (around 5 months).

How should you start?
  • Choose a time frame preferably in the morning hours and on a weekday. If your child reacts to any food, it would be easier for you to take her to a doctor.
  • Avoid introducing a new food when your child is extremely hungry OR when your child has just had a milk feed. Choose a time frame between that. Let's say, your child nurses once every 2 hours and had milk at 10 AM. Then 11 - 11:30 AM would be a better time to feed baby foods.
  • Introduce one food at a time. Monitor the reactions for 3 days. 
  • After 15 days, once you see your child is comfortable with certain foods, make the "baby foods' timings into 2 phases - once in the morning and once in the evening. Continue introducing new foods in the morning (remember the 3 day rule). Serve the foods that your child has become comfortable with in the evenings (around 4-5 PM).
Maintain a food log. This is extremely important to track your child's reactions and/or any allergies. I used a spreadsheet in Google Drive and used to update it every night. I religiously followed it until my daughter was a year old.
Note down the following:
  • Date
  • Time
  • Food given
  • Quantity
  • Reaction while eating (did she eat well / spit it out?)
  • Reaction after eating (did she cry in the evening / did she pass stools? / loose stools/constipated?)
  • Other Comments
What should you start?
I started her off with rice gruel water. My daughter's initial reaction was to cry and spit it out. I tried it for 3 consecutive days, same reaction. I felt disappointed and depressed. The only suggestion that came my way was to start her off with Cerelac. I bought a pack and prepared as per instructions. I tasted a little and my reaction was "this tastes like milk payasam and it's so sweet". While I fed it to my daughter, she loved it and ate well. I was happy but very concerned. In the night, she felt uncomfortable and cried a lot. After 2 days, she had loose stools and my pediatrician asked me to stop Cerelac. In retrospect, I'm glad this incident happened or else I might have taken the easy route of feeding her packaged foods on a daily basis. The following days (and nights) were spent reading and noting down home made recipes that would suit her tummy. I had to depend on the Internet to get the "motherly" advice and am glad it didn't disappoint me.

Slowly, I started her off with fruits and vegetable purees. Sharing a few simple recipes below:

Recipes for 6-7 months

Carrot juice:
Wash the carrots. Peel them. Chop into pieces and boil them in pressure cooker for 3 whistles, cool, puree and strain it.
Same procedure for apple / pear juice.

Carrot Puree:
Once she accepts the juice form, try giving the puree without straining. Ensure it's really smooth and doesn't have any lumps.
Follow the same procedure for potatoes and sweet potatoes.

Banana Puree:
Chop banana and puree them in a mixer into a smooth puree. You can add some water if required.
Same procedure for muskmelon.

Rice porridge (kanji):
Clean the rice for 3-4 times. Drain the water, spread it on a plate and dry it under fan for 2 hours.
Powder this rice in a mixer finely
Store this powder in a air-tight container and keep it in the fridge. Can use upto a week.
While preparing kanji, take a tsp of this rice powder in a bowl.
Add 1/4 cup of water and mix well.
Boil this mixture till it thickens and the rice powder is well cooked.
It has to be runny and in liquid form.

If your baby drinks formula milk, you can add a few drops of it to the prepared porridge. If not, you can add few drops of breast milk.

No need to add salt or sugar. Doctors advise that sugar must be avoided until 1 year of age. Salt can be introduced in very little quantities after 8-9 months.

Recipes for 7-8 months

Yellow pumpkin / Beans / Peas puree:
same procedure as given above for carrot puree.

Mango puree:
Peel and cut the ripe mango into cubes. Puree and serve.

Moong dal water:
Cook yellow moong dal for 4-5 whistles in a pressure cooker.
Strain and give the dal water
Once adjusted to the taste of dal water, puree the dal and give

Simple kichdi:
Cook 2 tsp of rice and 1 tsp of moong dal in a pressure cooker for 4 whistles.
Let it cool.
Puree and serve with a drop of ghee.

Veg kichdi:
Cook 2 tsp of rice, 1 tsp of moong dal, a few pieces of carrots+potatoes+beans in a pressure cooker for 4 whistles.
Let it cool.
Puree and serve with a drop of ghee.

Mixed veg soup:
Pressure cook 1 baby potato, 1/2 carrot, 2-3 beans for 4 whistles.
Let it cool.
Puree and give.

Ragi malt:
Clean ragi grains, soak overnight.
Place the soaked ragi in a casserole or a sprouts maker.
The grains will sprout in 2 days.
Dry roast the ragi sprouts in a thick bottomed vessel in medium flame. Make sure it doesn't get burnt.
Once it's roasted well, it gives a nice aroma.
Let it cool.
Powder it in mixer.
Store this powder in a air-tight container and keep it in the fridge. Can use upto 2 weeks.

While preparing kanji, take a tsp of this ragi powder in a bowl.
Add 1/4 cup of water and mix well.
Boil this mixture till it thickens and the ragi powder is well cooked.
It has to be runny and in liquid form.

If your baby drinks formula milk, you can add a few drops of it to the prepared porridge. If not, you can add few drops of breast milk.

Idli soaked in dal water / apple puree:
Mash idli nicely and then add dal water / apple puree to make it a little gooey.

As you notice the recipes above, these are extremely simple, easy and quick to prepare. Just a little planning can ensure your child eats safe, home-cooked food that's healthy and nutritious.
Backup option
When we were traveling for a short distance or when my daughter wasn't eating much during the day, I used to give her Nestum plain rice cereal. Compared to Cerelac, I found this to be very mild, less sweet and doesn't taste artificial.

Hope these pointers were helpful. Please do share any other ideas/recipes/questions/comments below.

In the third post of this series, I will talk about introducing spices, textures and how to eventually transition your child to regular foods by the time he/she turns one.

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