Vacations

I'm currently on a staycation at home, with no plans. I used to take vacations only for certain specific or special purposes like traveling to new places or social events, and there was a certain pressure to make the most of them, so this is a change. 

Thanks to COVID travel restrictions, aging into my 30s, my philosophy on LYWE and peace & joy, I have revisited and expanded my definition of vacations to the following: 

  1. Spending time on self-care and peace-promoting activities. 
  2. Spending time on any joyful activity or hobby.
This expanded definition lets me plan and take time off for a lot more things than to just travel - to write on my blog, think, read, just relax and do nothing, sleep in, catch up on chores, enjoy leisurely coffee, walks, hikes, and hangouts, etc. When I travel, my agenda is more relaxed rather than packed and I even take a day off after travel to do the above. 

Taking time for yourself and doing less or nothing are vastly underrated. It's great for inner peace, reflections, and knowing and doing what you want. Vacations for peace and joy are a step in the right direction. 

Customer retention = Frequency of Need X Fulfillment X Mind share

High customer retention is the holy grail of most businesses. If customers keep coming back to your business, it increases lifetime revenue per customer (LTV) and you earn more per cost and effort of acquisition. 

Customer retention may be hard to execute, but really simple to understand. There are three main factors that impact retention: 

Frequency of Need 

Users use products to satisfy a need. Some needs recur on a daily basis, like the need to eat, sleep, talk to people, hear the news, commute, or shopping. Some needs recur on a monthly or yearly basis, like doctor visits, car maintenance, or vacations. Some needs are episodic and happen a few times per lifetime, like dating, wedding planning, home or car purchase, teeth alignment, or funeral services. 

If you are serving a need that's recurring frequently, you have more potential for retaining customers. If it's less frequent, it's likely that customers will only come back infrequently or just try a different solution next time the need arises. If the need is episodic, then it's likely that the customers never come back. 

It's possible, but very hard to manufacture a need or increase the frequency of a need. So if you are gunning for high retention, serve a frequent need. If you are serving a low-frequency need, then you should charge higher or have a large addressable market. You can try to improve retention by serving more adjacent needs. For e.g. Linkedin's B2C product was serving the need to find jobs, which happens every few years. But they expanded to an adjacent need to learn about the industry and network updates, which is much more frequent. Linkedin also expanded to Sales and Recruiters who have a much more recurring need. Amazon expanded from selling just books to selling everything. 

Fulfillment 

If your business fulfills a customer's need, then they are more likely to come back when the need arises again. There are three dimensions of fulfillment: 

  • Speed: Customers have to experience the fulfillment or "aha" moment as quickly as possible. 
  • Quality: Better the experience compared to their current or any alternative, the more likely customers are to come back
  • Consistency: The need has to be consistently fulfilled every single time. Even better if there's more fulfillment (or lower effort) over time, because customers' expectations only increase over time as they get used to a certain quality of service. 

Mind share

Lastly, you need to stay in touch with customers so they remember to come to you when the need arises again. Dominos advertises new flavors of pizzas not because those flavors sell well, but just to remind customers about pizza. Subscriptions, social media, email newsletters, advertising, notifications, cool launches, seasonal promotions, etc. are all ways of retaining and increasing mindshare. 

Retention is one important aspect of growing your user base and you can read about other aspects of growing your userbase in my previous post

Designing your life for "energized time"

I believe that time is all we have and how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. Well...until someone recently introduced me to the concept of "energized time". 

Let's say you want to create more time for a project. So you reduce family dinner time and sleep time by 30 mins. It works well for a couple of days. But after that initial gain, you start feeling less productive or energized during your project time. I think we all intuitively understand and agree with this. 

So it isn't just time that matters. How we feel during that time matters too. 

So now I believe that "energized time" is all we have. 

Understanding Energized Time

Life is a series of activities - things you think and do, and also how, where, and with who. 

Your energy levels - physical, mental, and emotional -  vary because of the activities. Higher energy levels mean you feel present, lucid, sharp, at ease, happy, and ready to run a mile. There are recharging activities that increase your energy and consuming activities that decrease your energy. For most activities, the marginal effect on energy decreases or even reverses over a prolonged length of time.  For e.g.: socializing for 30 mins can be energizing while doing it for 3 hours can be exhausting. 

Let's illustrate with a simple day. 

You wake up with higher energy after sleep, feel fresh after a shower and coffee. Then you get to work, and through the 8-hour workday, your energy levels spike up and down but drop on an average. They pick up again after you do a quick workout and enjoy dinner and entertainment with friends or family. 

The output and quality of any activity is a function of the area under its line (energy X time). Your work output is a function of the area under the work line. Your overall output and quality of life experience are a function of your overall energized time, which is the area under the entire line through the course of your life. 

So higher energy levels boost your output and quality of life, which is a great outcome. Now the question is how to influence it.  

Let's say you are in the middle of a tough project with a hard deadline and you decide to sleep only 5 hours instead of your regular 8 and work extra hours. 

Your work time is longer, but your overall energy and therefore your output is similar or even lower. You also end your day with lower energy, which will cascade onto the next day. If you keep this up over multiple days or weeks, you'd probably fall sick or burn out. Skipping or reducing exercise, social activity, entertainment, etc. will also have a similar effect (this is probably a key reason why a lot of us feel more stressed and blah during this pandemic and lockdown). On the flip side, if you sleep or relax too much (say 10 hours instead of 8 hours of sleep), then our energy levels may not increase proportionally or even decrease and we lose time for other energy-boosting or output-producing activities. If you don't do anything productive or purposeful, your energy level will probably drop as well. 

Simple career advice

I have changed my jobs several times and I have struggled with the decision every time. Am I doing the right thing? Should I stay or try something else? Am I growing quickly enough? There’s a lot of career advice out there, but they can be incompatible, overwhelming, and unhelpful. So I have simplified it for myself here.

As with every life question, the answer starts with the big why. Understand life and decide what you want to do and experience. And then follow it. The best life hack is clarity and intent.  My scorecard and purpose in life are to experience peace and joy for myself and for others. 

Career or profession is “what we do for others”. Career is not a separate or siloed-off section of life - it is embedded and entangled in it, ideally harmoniously. 


A career or profession that is harmonious with my life purpose (1) increases peace and joy for others, (2) while doing something that’s joyful and interesting for myself, and also enabling or not disrupting other peaceful & joyful activities.  I don’t want to trade off my peace and joy for increasing others' as I don’t think that’s necessary* or optimal because I feel and do better when I’m enjoying what I do. 


If I want to grow in my career, then I’d either (1) deliver more peace and joy, or (2) more joy in the activity or enabling other activities, or both. But the maximizer approach - seeking the “best impact” and “best joy” - is never-ending, all-consuming, makes us miserable, and compromises my main goal of experiencing peace and joy. You don’t have to grow - you can just maintain if you are happy. Be a satisficer and focus on making directionally correct moves.

I can grow and maintain by (a) changing the problem (more interesting, needed, underinvested, etc.) I work on, or (b) by changing how I work on the problem (more effective - invention, skills, leverage; more fun, more compatible team and setup, etc.), or both.

You don’t always know where to start or how to grow. You will make mistakes, move backward and sideward. Try not to get sucked into pursuing side outcomes like money (beyond a point), what society thinks is hot or impactful as you will lose yourself, fool yourself, and miss the main goal. Keep it simple, clear, and intentional. Define, explore, try, learn, adjust and repeat. 

[1]A potential exception is when I’m losing my peace because I’m struggling with basic needs.

Is it true? Is it kind? Is it useful?

For the first time ever, I learned the same principle in THREE different contexts on the same day! And it was surprisingly relevant for the mood I have been in over the last couple of weeks. So I'm going to memorialize it here.  

In the morning, a friend shared a scene and a quote from the movie Bridge of Spies, where the character is oddly calm when he's on the verge of being sentenced to the death penalty.  

“You don’t seem alarmed.”
“Would it help?”

“Don’t you ever worry?”
“Would it help?”

“You’re not worried.”
Would it help?”


At noon, during lunch, my workplace hosted a fireside chat with Lori Gottlieb, author of "Maybe you should talk to someone." That was thrilling as I'd read and enjoyed the book just a few months back. She said the person we talk most to in our life is not our spouse, kids, nor parents...it is ourselves! We do a lot of self-talk in our heads, which significantly influences how we feel, act, and think. And unfortunately, we are usually not too kind to ourselves. Her advice is to filter all our thoughts through 3 questions - Is it true? Is it kind? Is it useful?. If they aren't, then dump them. 

And then finally, in the afternoon, at my workplace onboarding, we were discussing a principle of "being super transparent, but also be kind." Let's take this hypothetical situation - a colleague's been rude and annoying to everyone lately, and their manager asks you for feedback. You can lay it all out in the spirit of transparency, or you can simply tell them it has been difficult, but you will rather talk to the colleague first, which is the kind thing to do. Just transparency - saying anything we think to anyone - isn't a virtue. It needs to be kind, true, and useful too. 

10 failure modes

It's sometimes easier to think of what will make you fail at something than what will make you succeed. That's why I like the technique of "inversion" - instead of trying to be successful, just avoid the things that cause failure and you will succeed. I also like the practice of doing "pre-mortems" before starting on any project or team - imagine you failed, think of all the reasons why, and then prioritize and mitigate them. 

Here are some common failure modes that you can try to avoid when you are pursuing anything - personal, career, business, relationships, etc.

1. No burning curiosity, desire, intent, or conviction. Most hard-to-achieve things take a long time and a ton of effort. So if aren't really emotionally, rationally, and intellectually drawn to a pursuit or excited about the process, just pursue something else you actually are drawn to. Seriously, why pursue things you don't want or need?!

2. Lack of deep understanding (and failure to keep learning) of the problem, solutions, and space. You don't have to know everything when you get started. But learning and research is a good place to start. And continue to have a beginner's mind and never stop learning. A good mentor or coach can accelerate your understanding quicker than most books or courses.  

3. Misguided (or missing) strategy or principles. Goal without a strategy or a plan is just a wish. You should have a strategy that includes clear goals, levers to achieve the goal, current position, strengths, weaknesses, threats, etc.

4. Poor planning. Without comprehensive, specific, and actionable plans, strategy is just a theoretical and intellectual exercise. Plans should identify specific whats and hows - metrics, requirements, processes, milestones, resources needed, owners, and timelines. 

5. Poor execution.  This could happen because of a whole bunch of reasons. Not having the right level of skills, standards, effort, or attitude, not being consistent, not working well with a team or having a wrong team, not paying attention to details, doing too many things, etc.  

Mostly peaceful, often joyful, and sometimes upset

An ongoing exploration of my goals and purpose. Inspired by the Naval, Buddha, and Seinfeld.

Background



"How was the first person born? Who will bury the last dead person?"

I was six years old, and out of the blue, I had posed child versions of existential questions to my amused and proud mother. I don't remember any answers, and if there was one, it probably went over my little head.

I grew up in a middle-class family in Chennai, a bustling metropolis in India. My ambitions were driven by my culture's obsession and a necessity for meritocracy. In my world, academic achievement, prestigious jobs, and wealth were universally celebrated and recognized as marks of success. The lack of those was pitifully shunned or quickly shamed as failures. With strong support, encouragement, and occasional chiding from family, teachers, peers, and scorecards, I pursued that purpose with vigor.

The pursuit was an emotional roller coaster. Celebratory milestones and fun activities punctuated blocks of struggles - feeling anxious about failures like when I agonized about my preparations before exams, interviews, or performance reviews; feeling defeated at the troughs like when I didn't land the opportunities I wanted, struggled, or made mistakes; Or feeling hollow at the peaks like when I ranked among the top ten students in the country in a national exam and realized that the elation subsided in days, or when my moves to new places for good jobs made me feel lonely or unfulfilled.

At various points, I revisited similar questions of "Why?" in different ways, sometimes pondering, reading, or discussing it obsessively for weeks. I had no satisfactory answers, but the original programming's strong pull always prevailed and kept me busy on the roller coaster.

Now, at 33, 27 years have passed since I originally posed those questions to my mom. I have achieved academic success, jobs at world-renowned companies, and sufficient wealth. Through the journey, I had also met several close friends, fallen in love and gotten married, traveled and lived around the world, experienced different cultures and schools of thought, and learned a lot about myself, people, and the world at large. I have checked off the original boxes of purpose - academic and career success by most measures.

I continue to ponder the existential question. To a large extent, I feel grateful and pleased with my life and where the winding path has led me. But the original purpose and success that I pursued are even less meaningful now than they were before. They caused avoidable despair, insecurity and focused too much on extrinsic outcomes like status and wealth, which aren't fulfilling beyond a point. Maybe they were necessary to climb up the lower rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy and maybe I had to play and win the game to get over the craving. But it’s clear to me now that they aren't defensible first-order principles or durable and satisfying answers. The original questions of - Why? Am I doing this right? What next? - remain relevant and unanswered. With a quarter-life of experiences, introspection, learning, and the luxury of checked boxes and safety nets, I have made more progress in defining an answer.

This is You

This is you. 

You are the front part of the brain. When you ask yourself "Who am I?", that's the part of the brain that's speaking. When you are feeling lucid, clear-headed, "conscious" or "present", it is this part at work. What you perceive as life, every moment of your reality, is basically the neurons firing in the pre-frontal cortex. Your self-image, memories, personality, emotions, ambitions, and desires are all formed, stored, and derived from the neural circuitry here. 

With regular practice, you will have some degree of control over how these neurons fire and shape the circuitry; a concept scientists refer to as neuroplasticity, and self-help coaches refer to as manifestation, positive thinking, or focusing on your locus of control. That's a big deal because if you can shape your perception, you can shape your life and reality. You can as easily be shaped by many other forces around you, but if you are strong, you can be a gatekeeper and transformer to those forces, and only allow what you want. 

You are a relatively new part of the brain. The rest of the brain, primarily the "reptilian brain", does a bunch of other important and automatic functions like walking or breathing, and flight/fight response. It's incredibly capable and you wouldn't be alive without it. But it is also a worrier - imagining the worst and trying to prolong your life. When you are "lost in thoughts", feeling stressed, or anxious, it's likely because this part of the brain, also called the "default mode network", is firing. This part of the brain quietens when you kick into "presence" and observe it, as you do with meditation. It can be muted even more when you understand and detach from the underlying anxieties and desires. 

The brain is connected to the body. The body is useful. It has mechanical functions to move around and interact with the environment. It has a variety of sensors - audio, visual, thermal, smell, etc. - to get signals from the environment to the brain.  It also sends signals when the body is damaged or in pain.  It can repair itself in some cases and reproduce. With these capabilities, it finds food, extracts nutrients, and feeds and preserves the brain and body. The brain controls some of the body; the body parts also have their own local intelligence. By guiding the body to the right nutrition, training, and environment, you can preserve and strengthen your body. 



The interactions with the outside world, both non-living and living, have an effect on you. A nutrient-rich, supportive, and engaging environment and interactions can enrich the body and brain. You can find, shape, or create an environment where you can thrive. These interactions, in turn, shape you. Many of our pursuits - to learn, discover, cooperate, motivate, create, fight - are all to this end of thriving. Some pursuits are pretty absurd, and some can cause pain and craving.

Over time, the body and brain organically degrade, become less functional, and eventually non-operational. Do you exist after that? Biologically and based on this model, no. The circuit stops firing and you power off. The concept of ceasing to exist may sound sad or scary, but it's okay because you won't even know it. Focus on the living. 

So, this is you. That's also everyone else around you, including your parents, friends, bosses, Obama, Einstein, and Lady Gaga. Why all this exists is still a mystery. But it does. The joy (and pain) of human imagination is that we make it a lot more colorful and dramatic. Don't take it too seriously. Stay present, curious, thoughtful, optimistic, cheerful, healthy, and generous. All of that is in your control to a large extent. Choose and shape your environment and interactions wisely. Filter out the noise. Enjoy the signals. 

Safe writing vs Ninja writing


Safe writing is clear, easy to read, and conveys the message. Typically, it follows a simple structure like introduction, body, and conclusion, or situation, problem, and solution. 

Ninja writing does what safe writing does, but is also more engaging and memorable. It reaches both the heart and the brain. It is fun, playful, surprising, and interesting. While Safe writing is explicit, Ninja writing is a bit more abstract and lets the reader connect the dots. 

Safe writing is closer to prose and science; Ninja writing is more poetry and art. Safe writing is more appropriate in serious situations where clarity and efficiency are paramount, like in a medical report or a supervisor's instructions. In most other situations, Ninja writing works better.  

Someone wisely said, "If you try Ninja moves when you are not a Ninja, you may chop off your own head." That is a good example of Ninja writing. I remember that after many years and it brings a smile each time. The safe version of this is "Ninja writing is more powerful than safe writing, but it is also riskier and requires more advanced skills."  

Safe writing is powered by clear thinking, whereas Ninja writing also needs creativity. My approach is to master Safe writing but to also keep dabbling in Ninja writing to build those creativity muscles, and to eventually fully graduate to Ninja writing. 

Safe and Ninja styles don't apply just to writing. It applies to speaking, product development, sports, or nearly any skill. The highest level of any skill or craft is art. 

The Royal Illusion

Why the hell is there a Queen in a democracy?


Clearly, a lot of people wonder about that too, even more so than the pain in the back of their body parts. I try to avoid opining on topics I barely know about. But the Oprah, Harry, and Meghan interview is juicy drama and there are a couple of interesting societal and psychological concepts here. 

The monarchy has some history to it (duh). I know a bit that I just read on Wikipedia. The very short and probably inaccurate history goes like this. Before the republic, there was a monarchy. The power of monarchy slowly faded, but some king made a deal to keep the titles, palace, and stipend around. A better deal than what the French kings got. It made the entire transition more peaceful and less awkward. 

I think the British Monarchy today is like the steak in the movie Matrix. 


It is elaborate make-believe and a long-running, high production, global reality show. Who doesn't like to be awed by a royal wedding or fawn over a new baby princess? The royal family is the Kim Kardashians of Britain. And like their healthcare, it's publicly funded.  It is good entertainment. a welcome distraction from the tough realities or boredom of day-to-day. 

The monarch is also a brand investment for the British government. It isn't very different from one of those Nike commercials that show famous sportspeople doing sports stuff, but only barely show the shoes. The Royal Family is like Nike's "Just do it" swoosh and America's bald eagle.  It fosters a sense of pride and identity, and love by association, without being all in your face about it. I naively assumed it's an expensive way to keep entertained, but seems like royalty tourism more than covers the costs. Queen Elizabeth runs a cashflow positive institution.  


The allegations of close-mindedness and racism within the institution that surfaced in the Oprah interview are disappointing, but not surprising. The monarchy is a 1000-year-old institution with a history of colonization and which still believes in inherited status - how woke do you expect them to be?! When an organization's main role is preserving a broad public illusion and identity, it is at the mercy of public opinion and historic nonsense rules. Their role is to keep everyone feeling good about themselves and the national identity, not about being a woke social justice warrior who questions or upsets the status quo. They have to take neutral stances, be careful not to ruffle any feathers, and stay conservatively within the Overton window.   If enough people are loudly upset with the organization and continue to be so for a long enough time, then the Overton window shifts and the monarchy follows. That's how change happens. 

I think Harry also raised a fair point that he inherited the risk because of the system and therefore the system should fund his security for the rest of the life. But his statement about how he, his dad, and his brother are "trapped" didn't seem very different from how all of us are trapped into the lives we are born into. It's a different kind of trap and not very foolproof as he seems to have gotten out of it. 

Anyway, that's my tabloid piece for the day. 

Building a Brand

I'm no branding expert or fanboy. Growing up, I preferred the cheaper no-name alternatives and thought the brand loyalists were suckers for paying a premium. As I have grown older, busier, and slightly wealthier, I have gotten to enjoy and appreciate a few brands for their craft, reliability, and familiarity. Apple, Trader Joe's, Starbucks, Costco, Uniqlo, Amazon are my top ones. I'm also a fan of a few "personal brands" like Elon Musk and Naval Ravikant, for what they represent and do.  

As a product professional and an individual creator, I see the immense value and art in building brands.  Here's a very high-level breakdown of brand building. 

3 Levels of Brand 


Level 1. Name recognition: People know who you are and roughly what you do. You can earn name recognition if you are around for long enough, have a large enough customer base, and have a memorable name.  

Level 2. Quality & Trust: People love and trust your products, and are enthusiastic ambassadors. Amazon, Google, Costco, and Starbucks are some good examples. 

Level 3. Inspiration: This is the highest level of brand. This goes beyond business, your product, or other offerings. People understand and are inspired by what you stand for, your purpose, and your values. Very few people or companies reach this level. Nike stands for "Everyone with a body is an athlete" and honors great athletes. Apple stands for creativity and "think different". Elon Musk is one of the rare humans whose life mission is well known and inspiring to millions.

Why brand matters 

1. Love and support: It feels good to be appreciated. It is powerful to be supported by others in your mission. 

2. Preference: People trust, listen to what you have to say, and choose you, and continue to be long-term users. You stand above the competition, have pricing power, and enjoy higher revenues and market cap.  

3. Growth: Your customers and fans become voluntary ambassadors. Employees want to join you and organizations want to partner with you. New product lines also gain quick traction because of your brand. 

Your level of return and investment in brand depends on your situation and what you are optimizing for. If your goal is to run a small, medium, or commodity business, then just name recognition and trust may be sufficient. Most companies or people don't need to be a world-wide brand either - you can aim to be loved by your niche community or target market. A small group of superfans is usually better than a large group of lukewarm supporters. 

How to build a brand

Curiosity -> Learning & Effort -> Impact -> Outcomes & Reward

Jeff Bezos' shared this wisdom on focusing on inputs in his 2009 shareholder letter: "Senior leaders that are new to Amazon are often surprised by how little time we spend discussing actual financial results or debating projected financial outputs. To be clear, we take these financial outputs seriously, but we believe that focusing our energy on the controllable inputs to our business is the most effective way to maximize financial outputs over time."

This advice applies to both business and personal life. 

Most people are obsessed with rewards and outcomes. They obsess over a higher salary or promotions, an amazing social life, good health, etc. But that's an ineffective approach.  Outcomes & rewards can give you goalposts of what matters to you and can be used as an occasional progress tracker, but they don't help you actually get there.  Outcomes are lagging indicators and consequences of actions. Focusing on outcomes typically makes people unhappy or anxious as outcomes are out of your control - you can do everything right, but may not see results because it takes time, or because of bad luck. 

Instead of obsessing about rewards, you have to obsess about your inputs, process, capabilities, and impact. Follow curiosities and be deeply curious so you have the energy and enthusiasm. Then focus on smart learning, efforts, and developing your abilities. Then focus on the impact you are creating. 

Focus on becoming better and doing good. Rewards will follow. 

3 Layers of Successful Products

When I started building products, I only cared about "cool ideas". In college, I built a movie player app, GPSFilm, that'd play scenes of the movie based on where you are (shot as flashback so sequence didn't matter). Later, I built an app, Friend Central, to quiz you on friends through attributes like college, likes, location, etc. I built browser extensions to show your lifetime left and another, Nuggets, to record and remember things you learn based on spaced repetition. 

Creating is an incredibly fun and engaging activity. I would spend days and nights working on products, engrossed in a flow state, and excitedly show it off to friends and family. Having end-to-end control, from idea to shipping, gave me a broad scope and satisfaction. It exposed me to way more product development experience and learning than university or in my day job as a software engineer. 

However, when I "launched" these products, usually announcing on my FB profile or on online forums, very few people signed up, very few of those people continued to use the app, and there were no significant financial outcomes. So I learned the importance and concepts of the 3 layers - product, distribution, and business model in a tough but enduring way - by building blindly and failing to get traction multiple times. 

You become better at product development and as a business leader when you think and execute creatively and effectively across these different layers. 

1) Product

There are 3 parts to this: 

  • What is the problem? Who is the target customer segment? Is this an aspirin or a vitamin? What is the TAM?
  • What are the current solutions? Why is your solution better? What is your secret sauce?
  • What is the MVP version of your solution? How will your solution get better and more defensible over time? What are the network effects, loops, building blocks, and moats? How will you expand to adjacent problems and/or user segments?
The most common mistake I see product managers and founders make is being very vague about the problem and customers and jumping to the most expensive part too quickly - developing a solution. More senior product people make the mistake of only being incremental with their solution and not taking creative and big swings. 

2) Distribution 

Build it and they will come is a good joke. No, they won't if you don't thoughtfully execute on the distribution and growth as well. 

  • How are you going to sign up new users from your target segment? How will you get your first 10, 100, 1000, 10000 users? Which channels will you start with and expand to?
  • What's the sign-up flow? What's the 'aha' moment?
  • How will you engage and retain users and/or convert them to paying?
  • How does your product integrate with the rest of the ecosystem and customer lifecycle?
  • Is there a viable path for the long-term value (LTV) to be higher than customer acquisition cost (CAC)? Is there a chance that your channel partners can commoditize you?

Figuring out and executing a distribution strategy can take time, influence the direction of your product or even deem it unviable. A common mistake PMs and founders make is not thinking about distribution or partnering closely with marketing early on. Even at large companies, when developing a product or feature, distribution is still a key consideration as you have to figure out how to promote to existing users and acquire new ones. 

Coursera S-1

As you grow more senior in your career or become an entrepreneur, you transition from functional leadership to business leadership, where you need to deeply understand and execute on the broad business. Reading S-1s is a great way to develop that understanding. Companies reveal significant details of their inner workings, strategies, and financials through their S-1s filings. 

Here I'm using Coursera's S-1 to understand their business, and also general business and accounting concepts. Coursera has both consumer and enterprise customers, so their S-1 gives exposure to both those business models. 

Coursera's Business



Coursera is a two-sided education marketplace. They enable universities to provide and monetize courses and credentials to learners and organizations digitally. For learners, Coursera serves the edtech job to be done of upskilling/promotions, reskilling or earning credentials to get a job, and satiating curiosity and desire to learn. For organizations, they serve the job of upskilling, retaining, and attracting employees.  For universities, I assume the attraction is a new and high-margin stream of revenue, wider reach - more geographies and professionals, and brand-building to attract students to their programs. I personally love their mission to "provide universal access to world-class learning so that anyone, anywhere has the power to transform their lives through learning." I think what Coursera does is close to "unambiguously good", which is rare as most businesses have some negative tensions or externalities. 


Their course catalog includes multiple formats of courses: Guided projects, Courses, Specializations, Certificates, and Bachelor's and Master's degrees. The content and credentials are provided by reputed universities and professors. The quality and authority of creators is its main differentiation from other online learning websites like Udemy or Linkedin Learning. 

Main business Levers 


Coursera has a nice flywheel and network effects, similar to most marketplaces. More and better course content leads to more students, which leads to more paid registrants, which attracts more content creators. The growing user-base of students and universities leads to strong network and brand effects, that create a moat, enable some differentiated learning experiences (peer groups, q&a, etc.), and reduces the cost of acquisition and delivery.  

The main levers to strengthen this flywheel and business are: 
  • Engaged course creators and high-quality, in-demand course catalog and learning experience. 
  • Growing active and paying user-base through acquisition, retention, conversions and win backs to paid courses. 
  • Growing enterprise and subscription sales. 
  • Margin improvements through reducing content cost and through offering higher value and price courses.  

Financial statements 

COVID

I feel like I have been playing a very long game of tag. I had successfully avoided being tagged for nearly a year. But just when the game is about to end and the winners declared, I got tagged. Ah bummer!

I'm talking about the COVID pandemic. I got it in Feb 2021, the 11th(?) month since the official start of the pandemic in the USA. 

I'm young and was in good shape when I got it. I'm alive and over the hump now. But the in-between two weeks of COVID was no joke. 

"Stay home and protect your grandma", they said. But ironically, we got it from our grandma. To be fair, we weren't airtight otherwise - there were a few other ways and occasions when we could have gotten it. Grandma just happened to be the one.

I remember the Sunday morning. We woke up to some loud and frantic conversations from downstairs. I went down to investigate and get my cup of coffee. Grandma, who had stayed at one of our aunts' place, was running a fever. Aunt was also running a fever. We suspected it had to be the thing that was going around. 

Grandma's test came out positive. Later, we found out that aunt's test had also come out positive a day or two earlier. There is some social awkwardness - a mix of guilt, embarrassment, uncertainty, fear, ego, status - around sharing a COVID exposure. We'd go through that too. 

That's when the freak-out started. All of us had close contact with grandma over the last two days. We had some textbook high-risk people - my two sisters-in-law were pregnant and my parents-in-law were over 60 and diabetic. Luckily, both my grandparents and my father-in-law had received their first dose of the vaccine. I believe that's what saved them from a severe illness. 

Grandma and grandpa got dropped at our house after the test. Whaaat! What's the protocol here? How do we protect ourselves and one another? Should we wear masks in the house?