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.

Focusing on the Core

Announcing Spero Ventures’ latest investment in health & well-being: Core, which promises to make meditation easy and accessible for everyone.

After my fourth cycle of chemo, my anxiety was at an all-time high. Little things I had never noticed before, like the light that beamed out of the top of my television and onto the ceiling, kept me awake for hours. My anxiety got so bad that I started to see a therapist. In one of our first meetings she asked me if I was open to meditation.

Our bodies are complex and interconnected systems. Physical and mental well-being are intrinsically connected. At Spero Ventures, we invest in technology that makes life worth living. Mental well-being is an area we believe is foundational to the health of our communities. And so we are happy to announce our investment in Core.

For decades our society has focused on improving our physical well-being, but until recently, we have largely ignored our mental well-being. Just like we can train our bodies, we can train our minds. And it is important we do so because the state of our mind has a pervasive effect on all parts of our lives.

Meditation is one of the most effective ways to train the mind. The positive side effects of meditation are numerous: It helps reduce stress and anxiety; it increases our attention-spans and enhances our self-awareness; it may reduce age-related memory loss; it can help fight addiction; it can decrease our blood pressure and help reduce pain; and it can even help us sleep better.

More people are beginning to realize the positive effects of meditation. Some 14% of American adults meditated within the past year?—?a threefold increase from 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

So why aren’t all of us meditating? Because it takes real effort. When we want to change the shape of our bodies, it can take months of concerted effort working out, eating better and sleeping well. While we understand those requirements on the physical side, the same effort and focus is required for meditation. But even if people manage to find the time to meditate, focusing on something as ephemeral as the breath is hard for most people.

Core, founded by Sarah McDevitt and Brian Bolze, has developed a unique and immersive meditation experience to make it easier for everyone to meditate. At the center is the Core Meditation Trainer, a beautiful device that gently pulses as you meditate. The tactile signal allows meditators to focus on something tangible and ever-present.

The device is supplemented by a rich app experience that fades into the background as you start meditating. The device tracks your stress levels through heart rate and HRV, and the app shows you the moments when you were thinking about something else, and helps you understand your stress during a meditation session. It can also help you understand how your practice is improving your health over time.

We believe that technology can help address some of the most important problems that we face today. Core exemplifies this. We are excited to work with the expanding team at Core as they bring their vision to life.

A response to the articles on women in tech

The conversations about women in tech are getting crazier. It’s always good to have conversations about important things, but right now all I see is a certain perspective being touted as ultimate truth, wrapped in gross generalizations. Even saying “women in tech” and making generalizations doesn’t make sense since the group is large and very, very heterogeneous.

The tone of these “conversations” is such that I want to distance myself from all these groups. The whining and playing the victim card are really galling to me. The “women want” lines thrown around with such confidence give me a lot of pause. I think some of these conversations are actually hurting the rockstar women in tech rather than helping them. And hence my post.

A woman who enters the technology world can do it any number of ways – in a large company, medium company, small company, as a founder, as a product manager, marketer, strategist, etc. To generalize across all these groups is silly.

A woman has different points of view in each stage of life. And those points of view are also particular to each person. Some may not want kids, some may. Some may want to stay home, some may not. Some may want to stay home initially and go back to work later – things change, life changes, perspective change. To generalize across all these age ranges and individuals is silly.

But the conversations doing are exactly that – generalizations from one point of view based on the poster.

There’s one group that complains that VCs won’t fund women. The solution offered is a woman-only fund. To this group I say – great, if you want a women-specific VC fund, that’s your choice, make it happen. But I never want to be funded because I am a woman. I want to be funded because I have an amazing company/idea (or now, film).

Are there VCs obsessed with the young male 20-something college dropout who is going to be the next big thing? I am sure there are. But do you really want to take money from them if their judgment is so questionable? I know this must be really hard to deal with as a founder, but it is probably best not to take money from such close-minded VCs.

And given that there aren’t that many women founders, I worry that a woman-only fund would actually be a bad idea for LPs. Doing things that are bad for other constituents with the purported goal of helping women actually ends up hurting women much, much more.

One very tangible way to help women (single, married, divorced, parents, grandparents) in tech is for the current women in tech to just execute and execute brilliantly. Prove yourself, earn a seat at the table – that is a step forward for all women.

So much time, effort and whining about women not having the exact same opportunities? Who has the time if one has a full time job in tech? When I was in product, I could barely go to the dentist every 18 months much less participate on blogs1. I was having lunch a month ago with an *awesome* woman in tech. We couldn’t fathom how people with line responsibility spend so much time blogging and commenting on blogs. This woman could raise $ any day of the week, from any VC, if her idea was solid.

I bet Paul Graham would fund a mother with  young children if she fits the other criteria and if she can execute. Y-Cominbator is one fund with a certain set of criteria – you either fit or you don’t. If Y-Combinator doesn’t work for you, it’s either your loss or their loss, I don’t know, but get over it. Go to the next person who is interested and who’s criteria you fulfill. This happens in *every* industry. Sundance labs requires participants attend on location. I don’t see anyone saying – well, that’s just unfair to women. It is how it is. Deal with it, work around it, make things happen.

And yes,  biologically women have to have the children. Figure out a way to make it work. Is it harder? Yes, but whining never got anyone anywhere. If you are the CEO, go home, get the kids in bed and then get back to work. Women do it in tech *all* the time – I’ve seen them do it, I’ve worked with them, I’ve had them on my teams, I’ve been amazed by them. I can’t believe a VC won’t fund you because of that.

If you have a good idea and  you know how to execute, you *will* get funded. As I posted on Fred’s blog

I know lots of women in their thirties who are leading startups – some chose to get angel funding, some did not. None of them faced the issue that they were women. And yes, some are mothers. But all of these women worked in the tech industry and learned the ropes. They know how to make stuff work.

If you are a man or a woman and don’t know how to build a tech company – whether code or product, it’s going to be hard to get funded.

It is only now that the over-40-women-in-tech crowd is reaching the numbers where it is statistically significant. I have a feeling that this issue is one of timing rather than gender bias. Let’s see what happens in the next 10 years with this “class”.

At the end of the day, the problem has to be solved earlier than the funding stage. More women need to be comfortable with math and science and encouraged by their parents as children2. More women need to think about tech as an option. Unlike consulting or banking, there isn’t a real “career path” in technology. It more amorphous and it can seem scarier from the outside. This may also deter women (or men) – but once you understand tech and fall in love with it and are good at it, the lack of a real career path is actually to your advantage.

I’m not in tech anymore. If possible I’m in an industry where it is even harder for women than tech. But blogging about how terrible it is will get me nowhere.

Now, to the group that says women don’t do startups because they want to have kids – yes, some women want this and it’s their choice. It’s personal. It’s great for them. Some women though, will want children and will want to come back to the work force. And some women may not want kids.

If you are talking about your perspective, fabulous. But please, let’s make it clear that’s what it is.

What I’ve seen in tech is that if you work your ass off and are good at what you do, you get the respect. Maybe women have to work harder, but then.. work harder. If you think of yourself as an awesome product manager, ceo, marketer, fill-in-the-blank, you’re much better off and much more likely to succeed than thinking of yourself as an awesome woman product manager. If the world sees you as an awesome product manager instead of an awesome woman product manager, by that alone, you are helping women in tech.

Maybe I’m too pragmatic and therefore won’t change the world… but I think it’s better to earn respect by what you do. Not because of who you are.


Thanks to Emily Hickey for reading a draft of this and sharing her thoughts.

  1. It’s true that the online world has evolved a bit and one’s social presence is much more important now, but still… 

  2. I have to add here, however, that I know lots of women in tech who are not engineers or CS majors. To be in product or marketing you need to understand things and not fear it, but you don’t have to be able to code. And product people make great founders.