E17: Sajith Pai – Foremost thought-leader of India’s Startup Ecosystem

2. Make me Engaged

E17: Sajith Pai – Foremost thought-leader of India’s Startup Ecosystem

I’m thrilled to release the next episode of my podcast with Sajith Pai.

Sajith is a VC at Blume Ventures and arguably the most astute observer and thought-leader on India’s vibrant start-up ecosystem.

I’ve been a fan of Sajith’s writing for several years now. He has the rare gift of being able to discern patterns which are unseen-yet-obvious-in-hindsight. He’s able to then label them appropriately, making them easier to discuss and analyse. For instance he created the Indian consumer stack as 4 parts – India 1 Alpha, India 1, India 2 and India 3, which got a lot of traction.

Sajith is a prolific writer on his blog, on LinkedIn and on Twitter. And over the years as I followed his writings, I almost always found them to be sharing something new and insightful, in an easy-to-understand yet engaging manner.

In short, Sajith is a rare leader – an accomplished business executive turned successful investor, who is also a gifted storyteller.

I’d been wanting to have him on the podcast for a long time… and I must admit – it was not easy getting him. But I persevered and he was patient and receptive to my request.

I’m so glad that I put the fight – this is perhaps the most insightful conversation I’ve been a part of.

There are so many gems Sajith shares across such a wide range of topics:

– Why you should ditch newspapers and instead focus on curated newsletters and podcasts

– How everyone can sharpen their thinking, learn from others and form better connections by doing one simple thing: writing content online

– Why it is critical to choose the right metrics in measuring and rewarding performance and in telling data stories

– How data presentations should be about “lines and not dots”

Across all these ideas, the one common thread that stood out for me is Sajith’s deep empathy and regard for the reader. He’s constantly figuring out how to craft his writing so that the reader understands it with the least time and effort expended.

I also found Sajith to be remarkably open about his thinking and sharing his success mantras.

I hope you learn as much as I did from this fascinating conversation.

Lets dive in.

As always, I’m sharing some some lightly-edited extracts from the conversation – tagged under ‘the 3Ps’ – the Personal, Philosophical and the Practical (all emphasis mine):

(brace yourself – there are a LOT of highlights!)​

1. Personal:

a. Listen to more podcasts 🙂

Sajith (despite his ex-Times Group stint) no longer reads newspapers. Instead his favourite form of content is the podcast.

Sajith: One of my biggest learnings has been to double or triple down on podcast transcripts, because I find that podcast transcripts are the biggest bang for the buck you can get in the world of start-up tech content, because in that world – unlike in business, where someone can write a very definitive piece and publish it in an HBR (Harvard Business Review) or somewhere – it’s very hard for founder to sit and write something. Not every founder does it. So, podcasts become a great way for founders to give their distilled wisdom.

2. The Philosophical:

a. Have deep respect for reader’s time

Sajith: I feel that we advance in business by taking certain concepts, making it automatic (to understand)… These are the reasons why I create these concepts or constructs, because they communicate complex ideas in very simple terms. They come out of a deep respect for the reader’s time. To me, the fact that though my content is free, people pay for it with attention, (matters to me). What I’m now trying to do is to get paid with more and more attention. For example, there was a very senior person (related to) business policy, etc., who wrote to me for (the) Indus Valley (Annual Report). It was a long mail; I said, “Look. This is one of the highest currencies.Nobody has paid (money) for it, but this is the equivalent of getting paid a few lakhs, because that person took out 40 minutes of his time to sit and write that.”

b. For measuring performance, have clarity on your metrics

Especially for early stage organisations, clarity on metrics is super important

Sajith: One of the areas where I worked very closely with my founders is triangulating between the goals, the metrics, and the incentives to align behavior. Obviously, to reach the next level of funding, you need to hit A, B, C goals; be it revenue or GMV (Gross Merchandise Value) goals; customer goals, etc., or AOV (Average Order Value) goals, etc.; How do you measure the success of those (goals)? You need to be very careful (about) what metrics matter. For example, for a media company, if you measure the total number of users and don’t have a metric of the length of user sessions, and the incentives are primarily linked to the number of users, what you end up with is an organization where they are incentivized to bring people for half-a-minute sessions, and not to spend any (extended amounts of) time. It’s very important to determine what your north star metrics are, what the check metrics to your north star metrics are, and more importantly – I always focus on controllable input metrics. (I don’t) even (focus) on the output; the output is clear. Output is revenue. I’m not denying that. But what if you find that the revenue is determined by the number of closures, and the closures are determined by the number of pilots you do? There’s a direct correlation between the number of pilots, number of closures, and revenue booked(/books). The number of pilots is determined by the number of outbound calls you make. So, the controllable input metric is increasing the number of calls.

c. Narratives are lines not dots

I loved this metaphor on narratives:

Sajith: Whether It’s a start-up or not, narrative building is important. I think of it in terms of ‘lines, not dots.’ Whenever you see someone do a great presentation, sell a great story, etc., I don’t feel there’s an overnight success; that person has put in a lot of work to shape something (from nothing). Typically, the people who have (good) narrative skills, (are the people who) are using it all the time. They would have had preliminary communication going out; they would have articulated it; some bit of self-selection of the audience would have happened over time.

Success happens when there’s a fit between the audience, the product, and the content…

Anyone seeking to use narratives to get something through, like a proposal or a certain view, has to do a lot of work leading into the meeting, to set the context; to set the agenda. You can’t leave it (for) the meeting. You need to have a clearer understanding of the context. You need to understand what assumptions are important, and you need to communicate why A, B, C assumptions matter more than C, B, A assumptions. You need to do a lot of buy-in, etc., so that when everyone comes, you can say, “Since A, B, C are so important…”; everything is very logical. It’s a line, not a dot.

d. Your narrative should dovetail into your audience’s narrative

And this is great advice for your next critical stakeholder presentation

Ravi: If somebody has a crucial meeting the next day and they’ve got all the data, what would you suggest to them to be able to find that narrative, to build it so that they have a better chance of making an impact in that meeting?

Sajith: It’s very important to find common ground and drive alignment. Like I said, you need to have respect for the reader. The person (you present to) is like a reader for the narrative you are building – but more critical, (they’re a) decision maker. You need to understand how you dovetail your narrative into that person’s narrative. Everyone has a narrative, it may be articulated and apparent, or it may not be. Your job is to find out, “Okay. I’m meeting X person. (What narrative are they likely to have?)”

For example, a start-up is pitching to a large company. (The start-up now) needs to understand, “Why does the large company need my product?”, “My product helps to get simplified insights from data. And this company is now unable to get insights, and they suddenly have a lot of data so I need to help them.”

(If) There’s a critical meeting tomorrow, and it’s a mid-level person presenting to a CEO, do everything you can to find out what the larger person’s narrative is – spoken, or unspoken – and how you can link it to that. The first sentence you make should be, “Sir – or madam – you are trying to do this. To achieve this, let me tell you how this project can help.”

3. The Practical

a. Start writing online

Sajith started writing online many years before he entered the VC world. He believes it offers several advantages to everyone.

For one, it helps you think clearer and learn better.

Sajith: Writing is my medium for thinking aloud. It is hard to think, it is painful; there’s a lot of cognitive energy required and writing makes it simpler. Because writing, or any creative form allows for engagement and feedback, you also begin to take intellectual risks in public. To me, taking intellectual risks in public is actually the fastest way to learn something.

It takes time to build a brand, but you should start off!

Sajith: Anyone looking to create should keep in mind that sometimes it’s not necessarily publicity (that you should aim for), but even creating smaller pieces – what sustained me in the first 6 or 7 years of my writing, was the latter two aspects. None of (my works) were really very popular. I struggled on Twitter too. The first 6 or 7 years, I barely had 1,000 followers. It takes a long time to build that up and then it just accelerates.

I would say that helping me think aloud and even the 50-100 people who gave me feedback, and it’s not like they discovered me but I would send this to them, I would send (my work) out to 50 of them, and from that maybe 2 (people) would reply. But, the feedback from those 2 people was interesting. I would say that these two actually help you in your career, to create something. For example, it could be someone who is a salesperson, selling to large institutions. They may say that “these are the three principles of negotiation that I’ve used. I negotiate every day; I negotiate crores worth. These are the three things I’ve learnt.” And that is great wisdom, (from) someone who’s been doing (this) for the last 10 years.

Someone who’s on the other side may reach out and say, “Hey, thanks, Mr. X, for writing this. Add one more point to it”, or “this doesn’t work in this industry.”

This is the broad advice I’d give, that it’s never too late. Start off.

You don’t have to create a blog – just start off with LinkedIn!

Sajith: I would also say that LinkedIn is a great place to start (creating distribution of your work). Writing on LinkedIn should be the first place for anyone to start because if you’re 35-37 years old, and have been working for the last 12-14 years – even if you have been taking breaks, say for Maternity or so, you’ve still been working for 8-10 years; you would have at least 500 people who know you. You’d get automatic distribution amongst those 500 people. And writing is the easiest way to begin.

Start with doing something very simple. A lot of people don’t realize that they may know something about an industry which is actually interesting to the outside world. Let’s say you find that you’re working in a very boring industry, but there’ll be two or three interesting things that no one knows. You can always start by sharing that, etc.

b. For getting better ideas – let your mind wander…

Ravi: I’ll tell you a couple of places (that help me think of ideas) – of course, the shower is a favourite. It always generates ideas and (in fact) I got a question for today’s podcast in today’s morning shower. But one small way by which I try to engineer (ideas) is that earlier, I used to go for walks. Let me tell a bit of my journey here…for me a walk meant a podcast. Walking can be so boring and podcasts became my way to enjoy my walk. (But) Sometimes, I would walk without a podcast just to let my mind wander…

And some time back, I moved from walking to cycling. Often, I go cycling with a problem in mind, like “I’m stuck on this article,” “I’m stuck on this project,” and often – not always – something will come (to mind).

Similarly, do you have any way to engineer ideas?

Sajith: I think you said something very interesting there, about letting your mind wander. There’s one practical takeaway from this – please create conditions where you can be alone, without doing anything. For example, why do we get our best ideas in the shower? Because that’s the only place where your mind can wander…

Create conditions where for 30-50 minutes, you can let your mind wander and you will end up having ideas in each of those sessions. It’s not very important to write it down either, because if it’s an important idea then it keeps coming back to you two or three times.

… and also discuss with others

Sajith: I find that my ideas for writing come from conversations. For example, when I have sparring conversations with my founders, etc., it comes from there. Sometimes, it comes from reading; sometimes it comes from the contradictions that I spot – if I see a contradiction, (I ask) why is this the way it is? Etc.

I also find that saying/explaining something to someone, and then people saying, “This is very good. You should actually write this down sometime” are all ways in which I get my ideas. I feel that the best thing you can do is to actually do nothing; to let our mind wander. It’s the hardest thing to do today. In the guise of productivity, we find that have to fill every single minute with something. I’m guilty of that as well.

c. Create connections between sentences, paras and sections

This is really practical yet simple advice

Ravi: You mentioned one piece of advice from your WAC (Written Analysis and Communication, a course at IIM-A) days that stuck with you, which was each sentence should connect with the next one, and so on. So you need to build upon the other. That triggered a thought; it was around that time that I was talking to my dad, who reads a lot of stuff about spirituality, religion, and culture. There’s a style in Tamil poetry called Anthadhi. It’s anta and adhi, and follows that (meaning) to a T, wherein the last word or phrase of one sentence becomes the first word or phrase of the next one. It builds upon that. The most famous example of an Anthadhi is the Abhirami Anthadhi. I should learn Tamil and read some of these gems in our literature. It’s interesting how some of these techniques have been around with us all the time, and how we use it (even today). Do you try and deliberately use them when you’re crafting sentences?

Sajith: Absolutely. And thank you for (telling me) this Anthadhi example. I’m going to Google it as soon as we are done with this (podcast).

(getting back to the question,) Absolutely. Writing – I’ll repeat – is about reducing the intellectual burden; ensuring that the intellectual energy consumption of the reader is minimal. And the best writing narrative is when you take the reader, get that person’s attention, and then don’t deviate from it till you reach (the end). It’s almost like Google Maps: I take you from point A to B. And through that, I show you what’s on the sides, on left and right. I get you to B.

While doing that, the idea is that every (point) should lead naturally. A should lead to B should lead to C, D, E, F, so on. I find that it’s not that you can’t have breaks or segues, or sections – then you just do section breaks, and explain why the section break is there.

And those were some highlights of my podcast episode with Sajith Pai, VC investor and extraordinary thought-leader of the Indian startup ecosystem.

A few things which stood out for me in the conversation:

– The importance of careful curation of your content sources (and listening to more podcasts!)

– Keeping at the writing game – success takes time.

– Choosing the right metrics to optimise, especially for early stage companies

– Narratives are lines not dots. A lot of preparation for success in a critical meeting should happen before the event itself.

– Most importantly, the need to have deep regard and empathy for the reader’s time and effort

You can enjoy my conversation with Sajith at your favourite podcast location:


Podcast apps: ​Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | Podcast Addict | Pocket Casts

Happy listening!

If you find the content valuable, please rate and review this podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen to them (links above). It’ll help others like you discover these insights!

This podcast was hosted by me, Ravishankar Iyer. Audio editing by Kartik Rajan. Transcript editing by Amisha Jha and all-round support by Sanket Aalegaonkar.

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