Perspectives

“Inspiring” isn’t something you ARE; it’s something you DO

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

During my monthly women’s alumnae circle one of the participants raised the question on how to be an inspirational leader. Her manager was “incredibly inspirational” and she wanted to be seen that way, too.

“Inspirational” seemed to be this nebulous, possibly unattainable characteristic that was floating above us all… hard to achieve and only bestowed on the select few. 

It forced me to think about inspiration. What is it? What does it mean, and is it some “secret skill” that some people are born with? 

When I was young in my career, I, too, thought that inspiration was a sort of “magical power.” But the more I worked with inspirational leaders, the more I realized that it is often much simpler than that. It’s basically the same elements every time.

Whenever someone inspires you, this is what they’re doing:

They conceive of, and communicate, a big vision. They’re also able to articulate what the world will look like when this vision has been accomplished. Often, they are painting with a broad brush and using words that connect with you. By doing that, they show you how the world, or the company, or all of our lives will be better when this vision has been realized.

Then, they can explain why OUR team is the team that can make this happen. It may be hard, but we are the right ones, the capable ones, and goddammit, we will do it.

They break down the journey into digestible, logical chunks that will help the team execute. The BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) is broken down when they show you which stream of work YOU will own. This is where they make it clear you are valued and how your contribution is important to the goal. 

Throughout the process, they motivate you to become the person who can accomplish the goal. You may hit roadblocks, because what we are trying to do is hard, but you are not alone, and they will help you become the person who can accomplish this. 

Doing this well requires a base of trust. In the absence of a personal history together, they can say certain things to establish some kind of trust. Those things are basically:

  • We’re in this together
  • We may fail, but I won’t hang you out to dry if we do
  • You won’t be punished if we don’t get there
  • I’m going to help mitigate the consequences of this risk that we’re all taking

If they succeed in their effort to inspire you, you become a motivated member of their squad. You are excited about the vision. You trust this leader knows how to get shit done, and get you from point A to point B. You also feel motivated to work your ass off to do your part, and if you hit a roadblock, you trust that the leader will help you solve it and support you in your efforts.

Finally, you believe you’ll be better off in the new vision, than in the current state of the world. That’s successful inspirational leadership.

These are the tangible actions that a good leader takes to be inspirational. What’s unsaid is that at the base of all this, the person has to be a good person, who genuinely cares about the people. As Jerry Colonna says, “I believe that better humans make better leaders.”

What if Dieter Rams designed your company?

Last weekend, I watched the Dieter Rams documentary. It’s an incredible film, full of moments that make you pause. But Rams said one thing that really stood out: “Design only works when it really seeks to achieve something for humanity.”

This struck a chord with me because I believe that startup ideas work best when they seek to achieve something for humanity. It’s the underlying thesis for Spero Ventures

This goes beyond product and to the gestalt of the startup itself. As a founder, Dieter Rams’ principles are relevant to designing both your product and your company.

Here are some of the ways Dieter Rams’ principles apply to building companies and not just products.

Good design is innovative

The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.”

You already know that your product should be one that advances the world with your innovation instead of being yet another me-too product in a crowded space. 

The same should be true of your company. While a great product will attract great talent, a company that is innovative, that pushes the boundaries of how work and collaboration happen, that experiments with how culture evolves and permeates, is also important. 

To attract the very best, your company—how you build and run it—should move us toward the world that you want to live in. 

Good design is honest

“It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.”

Your product keeps its promises to your customer. It’s equally important to have that honesty as a company. 

The only thing you have is your reputation, with your customers, your employees, your collaborators, and your board. Hold yourself to the highest standards. Do not do anything nefarious (like collecting data without their permission, misrepresenting facts etc.) Build the honest, exceptional company you want to see in the world.

Good design is long-lasting

It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.”

Values stand the test of time. 

Figure out your values and let them guide your company. What is it going to take to make your company last? Build your company around a core set of values that are everlasting. 

Good design is thorough down to the last detail

Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the user.”

Be particular. You know it will show in your product. It will also show in how you build your company. 

The best founders are fanatical about their culture, who they hire, how they hold their meetings. When the founders take this approach, it permeates the whole company and everyone focuses on the details that will delight1.

Good design is environmentally friendly

Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.”

Climate change will be the defining problem and opportunity of our age. Even if your product doesn’t directly affect climate change and sustainability, your company should. The decisions you make should be driven by a deep care for the only planet we have. It’s a responsibility that every person has, and every leader should embrace. 



These principles are design principles, sure. They are also incredibly useful leadership principles that can help with company design. Startups that think through some of these will be better equipped to deliver great product, hire the best people, and create value over the long term. 

They are also life principles.  

Watching the documentary was incredible because these are not just the principles Rams uses to design products, but rather principles he has used to design his own life. He lives by these principles. The documentary allows you to see into his life, his house, his desk, his garden and how he uses his time. 

The style of the documentary reflects the content beautifully. The way the documentary is shot (minimal, sometimes in extreme close up, always with a locked down camera), how it is edited, and presented is very much in keeping with Dieter Rams’ design principles. It’s beautiful, minimal and captivating. 

It is inspiring to see his world. I highly recommend you watch the documentary.


  1. I wrote a post on knowing the details and why it matters. 

We Need a New Resume

Because Actions Speak Louder Than Job Titles

On a film set, every worker is hand-picked to be there. Usually, you get hand-picked because someone on that set knows your work. They recommend you because you are good at what you do and because you are a pleasure to work with. 

The tech/startup world is not too different. As work evolves, I believe that more of the job market will shift toward this tour-of-duty model, in which people come together to solve a specific problem. Increasingly, the future of work will look much more like a film set. 

To reflect this project-based work, we need a new kind of resume. This requires surfacing a different set of data—not just statements by the individual, but validation by the actions of those who work with them.

This requires two key changes to how the world of resumes works:

1. The new resume should capture the fact that great people get picked repeatedly to be on ambitious teams.

If I, as a director, choose to work with a producer or cinematographer repeatedly, it means I respect their capabilities and enjoy working with them. I am vouching for them with my actions. This data is gold1.

Similarly, in the tech world, I might hire the same engineer for multiple startups. By hiring her repeatedly, I’m vouching for her with my actions. Ideally, her resume should highlight the repeat engagements she’s earned, because the biggest validation by any work colleague is “Yes, I would choose to work with you again.” 

When someone is always selected, it’s because they are great. As the world moves to project-based work, this will be the key signal. 

2. The new resume needs to capture the value created, even in a short time. 

While people may only participate for a short period of time (1-2 years, 2-3 months etc.), they may still have an outsized impact on value creation. So, the new resume needs to capture the value that the person created, which is weighed more highly than their tenure. (By the way, we also need a different compensation system for this, but that’s a topic for another post). 

The new resume could make work better for everyone

Here’s how: 

  • Shorter projects lower the bar in a good way: When a team is hiring for a shorter project, it makes it easier to be considered or to break into an industry. Instead of having to be vetted by dozens of people, all you have to do is convince someone to let you onto a project, knowing that if it doesn’t work, you will be let go. 
  • Creating value is what’s valued: Fast learners, those who learn and apply those skills quickly, and hard workers who are collaborative and move things forward, will be rewarded. Impressing the people you work with will ensure you’ll be brought on again. 
  • Flexibility increases: Teams can bring on and let go of people as needed. And people can commit to shorter-term gigs or fire clients that don’t fit what they are looking for. 

Right now, I don’t see a good tech solution for this. If you are working on something like this, or spend your time thinking about this, please do get in touch. 


  1. IMDb, for example, has the data on how many times people have worked together but doesn’t do anything with it 

A Whole Lot Of Not Quitting

On Sunday, Carol Dysinger won the Oscar for her short documentary, Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl).

It’s a delightful film that will make you both laugh and cry, but this post isn’t a film review. It’s about a life lesson that I learned from her.

In 1977, when Dysinger was twenty-two years old, she won the coveted Student Academy Award. Frank Capra, famed director of You Can’t Take it with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, presented the award. It was (and is) a big deal — of all the student films made around the world, only one can win. Everyone, including Dysinger, assumed her career would take off like a rocketship from there.

Of course that stuff only happens in the movies. 

Dysinger’s real story was more of a struggle. She has worked in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, making documentaries that won prizes and grants from top festivals. But nothing compared to her early win.

I met Dysinger in 2009 when I joined a grad film program where she was the editing professor. She was working on a film called One Bullet Afghanistan, which, more than twelve years later, she’s still working on.  

It was during this time that Dysinger was asked to make a film about the girls of Skateistan — a school where underprivileged kids learn basic academics and how to skate. She accepted. Then this film, this side project, just took off.

Learning to Skateboard was nominated at major festivals and won at Tribeca and the BAFTAs before winning the Oscar for Documentary Short Subject. 

43 years after Carol Dysinger won the student academy award, she won the grown-up version. 

When I was her student, Dysinger’s favorite piece of advice was that becoming a filmmaker would take “a whole lot of not quitting” — a phrase she repeated during her acceptance speech. 

A whole lot of not quitting. That’s great advice for pretty much anything. Everything takes much, much longer than we think it will. We get frustrated, upset and dejected. After six years or ten, we give up. 

Sometimes quitting is the right choice. But often, those who reach the pinnacle do so not with shortcuts or luck, but because of a whole lot of not quitting. For decades.  

I’m thrilled to see one of the good ones succeed — four long decades after her first taste of success.

What we leave behind

Photo credit: My Father

Like many fathers, mine had a list of aphorisms he’d repeat. One of his favorites was “You come with nothing and you go with nothing.” 

Last year, I got the middle of the night phone call every immigrant fears. It was too late to say goodbye. Landing in Chennai, coming home, and seeing him, so alone and still, the memory of his words resonated strongly. 

This week, I’m in India again to mark the first anniversary of my father’s passing. One of the unavoidable side effects of this trip is being forced to think about life and purpose.

My father will be remembered for starting a company that focused on innovation and excellence, establishing environmental and worker safety standards much ahead of its time. More importantly, he’ll be remembered by employees for recognizing their contribution as vital to the organization. When the company was awarded the Deming Prize, my father took top management and union leaders to Japan so they could all accept the prize together. 

He’ll be remembered for his creativity and love for tinkering, creating a go-kart from scratch while a student at IIT, Madras. And for taking apart the Nano, one of India’s new generation of small cars, slicing through the body and putting it back together to make it even smaller (and fully functional). More importantly, people will remember his infectious joy at solving a challenge he set for himself, his curiosity, his unwillingness to give up, and, despite his deep appreciation for the effort that created the ideal car for the country, his delight at having bettered something hundreds of engineers had worked on.

He’ll be remembered for his obsession with photography. For the incredible images that captured the scale and devotion of religious festivals of Madurai (as in the photo above),  and the detailed and intricate ones that captured the delicate beauty of flowers. More importantly, he will be remembered by the people he taught to be photographers and by the people he impacted with his photography. 

In a world where leaders are criticized for putting profit above all else, he will be remembered for how he lived with complete integrity. 

My Father

What we leave behind are not just the things we create, but the enduring impact of how we do our work and pursue our passions.

It’s something I have thought a lot about this past year and that I will continue to think about in the years to come.

My father took nothing with him. But between the coming and the going, he left a lot behind. 

Lessons for entrepreneurs from India’s pickle queen

Photo credit: Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

A few days ago, The New York Times published an article about Usha Prabakaran — AKA the “pickle queen” of India. She wrote and self-published a niche, cult classic book with 1,000 pickle recipes from around India. I really enjoyed the article as it combined my love for pickles, my hometown of Chennai, and impressive women.

It’s also an article about an entrepreneur, and there are a number of useful lessons for those of us in the business of building businesses:

1. Bootstrapping to product-market fit is a great path to follow

But over the next two decades, “Usha’s Pickle Digest,” self-published by an unknown author, with a first print run of just 1,000, became a cult classic in India and its diaspora — praised for its precision and scope, celebrated on blogs and podcasts and hunted down in shops, where it sold out.

2. Be disciplined about product scope and get it out there; avoid feature creep.

In her book, Ms. Prabakaran limited herself to 1,000 recipes. When I finally got my own print-on-demand copy of “Usha’s Pickle Digest,” through Amazon, I was dazzled.

3. Focus on the goal. Learn what you need about other industries in order to accomplish the goal.

Ms. Prabakaran, now 64, became known as India’s “pickle queen,”but she wasn’t interested in monetizing that title. “I know nothing about publishing, and I was never interested in selling books,” she said at her home in Chennai. “My job is to keep the past alive.”

4. Sustainability is important.

A straightforward “anti-waste” chapter includes recipes for plantain skins, jackfruit seeds, ridge-gourd peels and lime leaves, which often end up in the compost heap. While restaurant chefs make headlines now for cooking less wastefully, pickling has always been about saving the scraps, developing flavor and texture with ingenious frugality.

5. Be laser focused on what actually matters. And you get to decide what matters.

Ms. Prabakaran is small-framed, with a wicked sense of humor and a big, throaty laugh. Her forehead is dimpled where the tumor was removed, close to the hairline, and she has no interest in reconstructive surgery. 

“People care too much about looks,” she said with a shrug. “If I have any spare time, I want to work on my books.”

6. Don’t rest on your laurels. Move onto the next release, next product.

Ms. Prabakaran is at work on a second book, turning her attention to Indian rasam, a kind of soup.

7. Leave your customer feeling intense joy

The pickle did what all great pickles do: It revived me with a ripple of salt and acidity. The grainy oil tickled with chiles and citrus. It had the effect, with every breath, of filling my lungs with more air so I could breathe more deeply. And it made everything on the plate taste bigger, stronger, hotter, better.

“Isn’t it absolutely dynamite?” she asked. The question was rhetorical. She was grinning.

8. Founder-market fit is important. Do the work to know your space.

Ms. Prabakaran was hooked. She apprenticed herself, learning to turn jars in the sun so the fruit dried evenly, and to combine new and old tamarinds to balance out their acidity levels. She made so many pickles that she often gave jars away to friends and family, who begged her to write down a few recipes and share them. As she tried to standardize the recipes, her project became increasingly more ambitious.

 9. Be unstoppable and don’t take no for an answer.

She spoke with publishers, and when none were interested in her idea, Ms. Prabakaran decided to do it herself.

10. Mission matters. Find the “why” that is bigger than yourself.

Ms. Prabakaran worried that without documentation, the gradual loss of this knowledge was inevitable — that more and more people would make fewer and fewer pickle varieties, until eventually, the expertise was lost.

“The reason for writing the book was to ensure that the vast culinary heritage of this land stays on the map,” she said.

11. Be resourceful to get what you need.
12. Focus intensely on the product your customers will see. You need to know it in extreme detail.

“My friends called me a crafty devil, because I could wriggle a pickle recipe out of anyone,” Ms. Prabakaran said. After she narrowed the recipes down from a catalog of 5,000, she tested each one in her home kitchen three times — a more thorough process than is used for many glossy cookbooks from big publishers.

13. Ignore the doubters, they may sometimes be friends or allies.

Friends who had supported her pickle book were skeptical — was there really so much variation when it came to rasam? Would she even be able to find 1,000 recipes this time around? And why devote a whole book to something so ordinary?

14. Be willing to do the hard, unglamorous work to make something great.

Ms. Prabakaran was undeterred. She sat down to write a love letter to rasam as a genre, extolling its value and declaring it worthy of celebration. Then she spent 10 years researching it, gathering and testing recipes, documenting patterns and anomalies.

15. Ignore the gatekeepers, work around them.

Ms. Prabakaran plans to self-publish the book in March. She wants to make it easy for cooks to find, right from the start, even if that means giving it away for free.

Entrepreneurs come in many forms. Ms. Prabakaran has displayed so many of the traits that make an entrepreneur successful. I recommend you read the article yourself. In addition to new lessons you may find, you will get a peek into a fascinating world. 

I now own the pickle book (thanks, Amazon) and I’ll be on the lookout for the book on rasam. I’m not a great cook, but I always want to support the entrepreneurs who inspire.

We + me

David Brooks wrote about his efforts to improve social isolation with his project, Weave:

The first core idea was that social isolation is the problem underlying a lot of our other problems. The second idea was that this problem is being solved by people around the country, at the local level, who are building community and weaving the social fabric. How can we learn from their example and nationalize their effect?

Brooks found these “weavers” all across the nation. When you can connect people around shared interests, common goals and mutually-experienced problems rather than the things that separate and divide them, you build communities.

This is something we think about since one of our key investment areas is human connection. So how can we use tech to do this better? Technology scales and can cross local/geographic boundaries. And it can be used to form deep relationships (remember Twitter in the early days when you formed friendships?). How can tech recreate the feeling of presence and attention? The feeling of a small group intimacy? If we can do this, we open up such interesting ways to make people feel less alone.

The only tweak I’d make to Brooks’ article is his statement that “We precedes me.” Relationships and compassion can live side by side with the idea of self-interest and self-expression. It’s should be in my own self-interest to want my community to thrive and be healthy because I live here. One does not have to precede the other and when we realize that we are all inter-connected and have to coexist is when there will be balance.