The End of 13 Llama Studio – and What I Learnt From It

It has been a year and a half since the transition started, and it just got over around last week.

Prasad’s and my labour of love, 13 Llama Studio, has officially ceased to exist. As you were aware that we had started on our journey of entrepreneurship around five years ago, with an agency named 13 Llama Studio. In the summer of 2016, I decided to end my stint with it, and Prasad decided to pivot to a pure digital marketing agency called 13 Llama Interactive.

Things weren’t looking really rosy for the development part of our business for a few months then. There were a few things we could have and should have done differently. Some time in the spring that year, we took a call that our friendship is more important than a business partnership, and we decided to streamline projects and teams under either of us. Some time around June, I took stock of the situation and realised that I was bleeding at a rate higher than all of our billings combined were able to sustain. If I had deeper pockets, I would have tried to restart everything and take another shot at the kind of company I had dreamt of making.

Sadly, that was not the case. Soon after deciding to shut down the development business, and putting away the name 13 Llama Studio, I was out in the job market looking for openings. Friends were contacted, headhunters I had not spoken in half a decade got calls from me, and resumes on online sites were dusted and preened.

Thanks to many friends, I had interviews soon after, and after converting three of them, I decided to join ICICI Securities Private Wealth Management as the marketing guy. It’s been seventeen months here, and I’m loving every bit of it. The transition was a bit difficult, but owing to the way this place is set up, it wasn’t that difficult. How I have fared here, and what plans I have over here may be the subject of some other post in the future.

Today I would like to share what I learnt from this entrepreneurship stint:

  1. Vision: Every business needs to have clarity of vision — where you want to be in a year, in 5 years, in a decade, and a clear plan of how you plan to get there, not just an industry and a product/service you are going to offer. You can’t wing this.
  2. Being on the same page: No matter how strong your friendship is, your business wouldn’t survive unless all founders/partners agree on the vision and ways of doing business. And constantly communicating with each other about this and whatever you think is important for the business. Skip this step, and you risk your friendship.
  3. Hiring: I had read in the book Ogilvy on Advertising, that if everyone in a company hired people smaller than themselves, it becomes a company of dwarves, while if everyone hired people bigger than themselves, it would become a company of giants. We could not adhere to this principle, despite seeing the merit of it and being awed by the simplicity of it. But to be fair to us, we weren’t spoilt for choice when we first began operations — though I believe that had we acted right back then, it’d have become easier for us progressively.
  4. Hiring the right clients: A small company is eager to survive, to grow, and to thrive. And for each progressive stage, one has to get progressively selective with the kind of projects one onboards and the kind of clientelle one associates with. Through our journey we had a handful of amazing clients, who, no surprises there, are now at the peak of their respective businesses, and are overall happy in life – because they operate out of a sense of fairness and abundance. On the other hand, we had quite a few clients we should have said no to, or should have been careful with while laying down the rules of engagement – these clients operated out of a incessant drive for extracting maximum bang for buck combined with disrespect for what we did for them.
  5. Valuing ourselves: For too long both of us worked at the company with meagre salaries. Either of us still drew more pay than any of the rest of the staff, but that doesn’t say much. This led us to believe for long that we were profitable. We were growing no doubt, in billings, in the size of office we could hire, in getting a coffee machine, and somewhat respectable furniture, but we weren’t valuing ourselves, the founders, at our full cost. The only saving grace was that we began with very little capital, so the return-on-investment seemed respectable optically. But given our backgrounds, and the kind of opportunity costs we both incurred, it was criminal the way we ignored it while doing a health check of the company.

Having run that company we both loved for around three and a half years has left us only wiser. And our friendship remains strong. Whatever we do now is guided by experience and wisdom.

Here’s to the future!

Success

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Just last week 13 Llama Studio went on a team lunch to Jughead’s at Marol. Much eating, drinking, and merrymaking ensued. The team talked, bonded, took selfies, groups selfies, chugged whatever liquids each one pleased, and ravaged through plates and plates of delicious food. In short, we had fun.

But there had to be some serious discussions as well along with the fun.

I have been thinking for the past few days about how I would define success for 13 Llama Studio. And I have finally settled on five metrics that will define if we are doing well.

  1. Volumes: the most obvious metric. Quantum of business. Amount of sales. Top line. Revenues. How much money we were able to extract from all our clients combined within a said period of time.
  2. Community: being known and appreciated in a product/developer community. With Prasad and I speaking at the Mumbai WordCamp, 13 Llama hosting quite a few WordPress meetups at our office, and sponsoring the Pune WordCamp, I think we have made a good beginning here.
  3. Clientelle: by design or by happenstance, we are strong in three verticals: Education, Healthcare, and Media. In September, we were able to say that we are working for a marquee name in each of these three verticals. We’ll expose these relationships later on when the time is right. 🙂
  4. Product Success: our key point of introduction when meeting someone new is that we are a product development studio, or more accurately a product development team for hire. We have tried our hands at projects which had the potential to be great products. Some of these were launched, and some of these could not be, for various reasons. Right now the team is working on three new product ideas, and we are gung-ho about making each of these a success.
  5. A Kick-Ass Team: And finally, the key ingredient that will make each of the above four a possibility. A team which is competent, dedicated, dynamic, always learning, always improving, and always ready for a challenge. I can confidently say that each of our team members has the potential to be a superhero that such teams comprise of, but there is still a journey ahead of each one of us before we can with full honesty say that we are superheroes. Also, the team isn’t complete yet. We are looking for superheroes, or potential superheroes who can take 13 Llama Studio to the heights we have dreamt of. So if you think you are someone who fits the bill and would love to work with us, 13 Llama Studio’s Careers Page.

Here’s to a bright and exciting future!

Jargon of the Day: Vendor’s Guilt

It’s been almost three years since I quit the folds of a job with a private limited company, with a regular monthly salary, and almost a year since Prasad and I started off our own firm.

It was the beginning of a new continuum of professionalism, applying whatever we know & understand, making mistakes, learning from them, and trying to turn those experiences into repeatable behaviour.

And amongst all this, we observe each other, learn from each other, and try to correct each other from time to time.

One trait I’ve observed in our behaviour at times is what I’ve started calling Vendor’s Guilt (and Prasad does refer to it in a post a couple of months back).
Here’s what it is.

One of the reasons we wanted us to start on our own was to become a rare type of IT vendor: the kind who gives full value of the client’s money, does not act hostile towards the client or their work, and always has the client’s best interests in mind.

While all this is fine and a noble, the fact of the big bad world out there is that any business would try to hold back in negotiations and payments, and try to extract the most bang for their buck. I’m not sitting in judgment on anyone here — it is because businesses are closest to what we learnt as the rational person during our microeconomics classes — they aim to maximize gain while minimizing expenditure. Of course as people many of us might think it’s a crummy thing to do, but as people managing a business we get rid of the guilt associated with such behaviour, and thus we get the every day client.

Often times a well-meaning vendor (the one who goes by the principles I listed two paragraphs ago) gets carried away with the well-meaningness, and goes into altruistic territory. The classic symptoms of this behaviour are:

  • Relenting during negotiation (they can’t pay more than this, how will they get it done at the prices we quoted?)
  • Starting work without receiving any payments (of course they intend to pay, they can’t NOT pay, right? They are good guys!)
  • Volunteering to give advice not asked for at times which would reduce the size of our engagements (as a partner, shouldn’t I be concerned about saving my clients’ costs?)
  • Getting anxious whenever the client would raise even a small concern (how could we let this happen? how would this affect our relationship, and reputation?)
  • Not chasing clients for pending payments often enough (how would it look? he’s the brand manager, the payments are processed by the accounts guy, they have run out of their monthly budgets already)
  • Continuing work and taking on more pressure despite payments being delayed inordinately (they can’t pay, they don’t have money, and unless we deliver this, how will they earn and pay us?)

Please don’t get me wrong, it’s good to have good intentions for clients and prospects as a service provider. And it’s a bit scary for us to imagine turning into the other vendors we all have burnt our fingers with.

But when these concerns overshadow our own survival, and especially when we are dealing with clients who are bigger in size and turnover than we are, yet somehow they don’t have enough to pay us for our services, out comes this term: Vendor’s Guilt.

How was this affecting us? At times we were feeling the pressure from both ends: work was piling up, but money wasn’t trickling in, often due to the same clients. We would keep debating hours about why we are letting this happen to us. And in those hours of debate, it became clear that we were letting this all happen, and maybe were driving ourselves towards this, because we were striving to set ourselves apart from the run-of-the-mill vendor we hear stories of who shut down servers, or put up a nasty message on the homepage, or overcharges for superfluous services.

How did we manage our way out of it? It was a three-point realisation:

  1. That we really aren’t ‘that’ vendor. When we stepped back and assessed our work and engagements, we realised we were a high-performing considerate vendor, and most of our engagements are really healthy. Most of our clients respect us and our work, pay up on time, and barely haggle. And we have always strived to deliver the full value of what we’re paid. Plus, we have not abandoned on bad terms a single project because of payment or personality issues (touchwood), a problem that I increasingly see is quite common at least in the Indian market.
  2. ‘That’ kind of vendors still exist, and we still keep hearing about them. But there’s another realisation we’ve had: that the vendors aren’t always at fault. There are clients who give vendors a hard time, hold back payments, and misbehave with vendors. And there’s just so much that a business owner can take from a client before protecting their own business interests. I’m not condoning that behaviour, but if we haven’t stepped into their shoes, how can we judge them so harshly?
  3. We are a business, being managed and powered by people, who have bills to pay and dreams to fulfill. And at the end of the day, if we can’t pay the wages all these people are here for, and are struggling with working capital and profitability after working so hard, is it really worth it?

From the point that we’ve had this discussion, we’ve decided to keep a tight check on all engagements, raise flags whenever we realise it’s veering towards exploitation, and take appropriate measures. These measures are nothing more than getting clarity amongst ourselves, meeting with the appropriate people at the client’s end and apprising them of our situation. In all the cases, the other party does appreciate our concerns and our sharing with them.

Meanwhile, we continue to deliver value for all our clients, strive hard to get the best done for the best costs, because that’s what we set out to do and not out of any guilt, but we don’t make ourselves bleed to fill anyone else’s cups.

It’s not that difficult, really.