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Markhor: shoes handcrafted with love

“The only people who can change the world are people who want to. And not everybody does.”  –Hugh MacLeod

These days one doesn’t often read something positive about Pakistan. My country of birth faces a lot of problems – some that have been thrust upon it from the outside, but many that are systemic and endemic. But it is a nation of 180M people, and there is tremendous talent in its people that remains shackled. Every once in a while when such talent combines with deep passion and perseverance, a company like Markhor is born.

Markhor’s founders, Waqas Ali and Sidra Qasim, hail from the historic town of Okara in Pakistan. Growing up they witnessed shoe-makers in their town practice their craft, but were astute enough to realize that the ancient craft of hand-made shoes was dying in Pakistan. They worked diligently for 8 months to launch Markhor - a company that designs, manufactures and sells amazing hand-crafted designer shoes around the world. They didn’t just find a way to sell locally made shoes, they reinvented the craft for the modern customer, and have brought the local shoe-making industry into the 21st century. With each shoe that is sold a little bit of that ancient craft is also preserved.

I met Waqas in my office many months ago. I don’t even remember how we got introduced. He is a slim, young man with a neatly trimmed beard. He speaks fast and he speaks with an accent. He also speaks with determination. He had so many ideas when we met. As he rattled them off to me I felt he may be trying to do too much at the same time. Imagine a young lad who didn’t know what internet was 6-7 years ago was trying to tell me he could design and build better than Italian shoes in Okara, Pakistan and sell to demanding customers around the world. That he would get people like Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg to wear and promote his shoes…and that he wanted to become the biggest shoe company in the world.

As I often do, I took him to the white board and we worked together for a couple of hours to clean up some ideas, organize them into a few big themes, and synthesize a few key milestones for his company. Starting an international e-commerce company in a category that has been dominated for decades by well-heeled (no pun intended) competitors from fancy romantic locations in Western Europe seemed an uphill battle. I wondered if Waqas and his team had any idea how hard this was going to be. I asked him bluntly. I remember him looking into my eyes and saying “We are going to win. I may not know exactly how but I didn’t start this to fail. We will win”. At that point I knew this man was going places…

Waqas and Sidra’s dream, Markhor, is now live on Kickstarter. They are off to an awesome start and I am a customer. They have already reached more than double their kickstarter goal in less than a few days. But their ambitions are so much bigger. As Sidra said to me recently, “[we are] #notstoppingnotsleeping”. Go Sidra, Go Waqas! May you win big!

Check out their kickstarter campaign here:

Lemelson Foundation: Inspiring and enabling the next generation of inventors and invention-based enterprises

What do the following people have in common?

  • William Hewlett & David Packard (founders of HP)
  • Douglas Engelbart (inventor of the computer mouse)
  • Robert Langer (prolific bioscience inventor & entrepreneur)
  • Raymond Damadian (inventor of the MRI machine)
  • Thomas Fogarty (inventor of the embolectomy catheter)
  • Dean Kamen (prolific inventor – Segway and infusion pump for diabetes)
  • James Fergason (inventor of liquid crystal displays)
  • John Rogers (inventor of bendable silicon electronics)
  • Angela Belcher (inventor of bacteria inspired catalysts)

All of the above, and many others, are recipients of the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Prize. It is the largest prize in the US given to an individual inventor. All of the above are inventors, and their inventions have saved lives, changed how society communicates, made our industries more sustainable, and have profoundly impacted lives across the globe.

I first heard about The Lemelson Foundation in the context of their sponsorship of the Lemelson-MIT Prize when I came to MIT in 1998. It was easy to tell even back then that the foundation truly sought out and supported the most inventive people in our society – people whose scientific and technological inventions would impact millions, and perhaps billions, of people around the world and change the course of history. As a scientist researcher, then an inventor who became an entrepreneur, and now an investor in startups built around breakthrough technology innovations, it was a matter of great honor that over this past summer I was asked by the Lemelson Foundation to join their Advisory Committee. I agreed, and will proudly join their Board meeting this week in Portland where the Foundation is headquartered.

The Lemelson Foundation was created by prolific US inventor Jerome Lemelson and his wife Dorothy in 1992. Jerome (Jerry – see brief video biography here) had more than 600 patents to his name (earning more than one patent a month over 40 years), and both he and his wife were strong advocates for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education even before creating the Lemelson Foundation. Jerry’s inventions ranged from industrial robotics and machine vision to medical devices, communications equipment and toys. Jerry has now passed away but Dorothy and the Lemelson family have continued their strong support of invention, innovation and entrepreneurship in the US and in several other parts of the world. As the official statement on the website reads: “The Lemelson Foundation uses the power of invention to improve lives, by inspiring and enabling the next generation of inventors and invention-based enterprises to promote economic growth in the US, and social and economic progress for the poor in developing countries.”

The Lemelson Foundation today sponsors multiple programs to support STEM education, inspire invention and promote entrepreneurship. During time I recently spent with Carol Dahl, its Executive Director who came to the foundation via Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I learned about their focus on the following:

Education –> Invention –> Innovation –> Entrepreneurship

The above totally resonates with me as it leads to new technologies that advance humanity, save lives, protect our fragile environment & earth’s ecosystem, create jobs and improve livelihoods across the globe. Lemelson’s programs inspire youth to identify interesting problems and solve them via inventions, they provide tools to young inventors to help invent, and help college student entrepreneurs in the launch of invention-based enterprises. In doing so, the Foundation is able to maintain its vision of strengthening the US economy and helping the poorest of the poor in developing countries. 

Over the past 10-15 years I have been fortunate to participate in some of the kinds of activities that The Lemelson Foundation promotes at a much bigger scale. I am proud of the effort some friends and I put into launching the first science and engineering research university in Pakistan (LUMS SBASSE), StartLabs, an organization focused on engineer founders at MIT that I helped start, will be holding their annual Startup Bootcamp next week, and Roughdraft.vc, a student venture fund I co-founded in 2012 has now funded nearly 25 student startups, some of whom have gone on to raise much larger venture financings. Now as a partner at Lux Capital, I am fortunate to be able to spend all of my time meeting amazing inventors, entrepreneurs, and people who wish to change the world for the better. My partner Larry Bock - founder of several companies including Illumina, leading company in genomic sequencing – subsequently founded the National US Science and Engineering Festival, and several other partners are themselves PhDs and inventors on multiple patents. All of them are equally strong supporters of The Lemelson Foundation’s mission.

I very much look forward to learning and contributing to the mission of The Lemelson Foundation. My primary responsibility will be to advise the executive leadership of the Foundation in their planning, execution and assessment of the programs. As such I will be on the lookout for new ideas and feedback. So please do share any thoughts that I can pass on to the Foundation.

Time for sensors, networked devices, automation and IoT to come to our offices.

Our homes are increasingly internet connected. Of course our computers, mobile phones and tablets are, but quickly our TVs, stereos, thermostats, doorlocks, fire-alarms. lightbulbs, and baby-cams are also internet connected. There are nifty services like IFTTT, Revolv, SmartThings etc to help us automate our lives. We can practically control a lot of things in our home via our mobile devices, and they can sort of ‘speak to each other to build an intelligent connected community of their own. While I do believe that IoT needs a new interface, there is another problem that is bugging me today: Where is the IoT for my office?

I assume many of us spend quite a bit of time in our offices. We work, meet a lot of people, move from room to room, utilize communication tools regularly, take a lot of notes, store a lot of information,  eat, stretch, rest, and even sleep in our offices. But as I look around my office, I realize that ‘under-connected’ it really is. I do have my laptop/mobile phone/tablet in the office that are internet connected – they share information across apps and devices, and sync with the cloud. And my calendar app has an unfair influence on my day….but that seems to be about it.

My desk has no clue what piles of information rest on it, my chair is comfortable but doesn’t measure, monitor or adjust as my back starts to tire towards the end of the day, our office thermostat is not internet connected, windows don’t change colors to optimize energy usage, and there is no system to automatically detect, identify and utilize info on who is coming and going out of the office. The coffee-maker gets used 10-times more than at anyone’s home but it doesn’t know and cannot predict my taste, the refrigerator needs to be re-stocked regularly but it doesn’t order refills of popular drinks and snacks on its own, the videoconferencing system elicits a collective ugh! practically every day, and the whiteboards where amazing ideas are sketched by visiting entrepreneurs stand there like a dumb white wall, only for the information to be either photographed with a mobile phone or deleted with a dumb eraser. We do have a networked printer and security system though.

Why has IoT not invaded our offices as yet? I would think office managers would jump at the opportunity to increase productivity, provide comfort for workers, and make economically sound decisions around saving time, energy and hassle. Is this a sector that largely remains ignored by entrepreneurs or are there structural issues like who owns vs leases an office building space? I think there is tremendous opportunity here that could be exploited by startups. A lot of office equipment is leased anyways, and hence it may also not be so difficult to replace and upgrade existing equipment without significant capital budget allocations by companies. Offices regularly lease printers, coffee-makers, water-dispensers, vending machines and such…All of them should become intelligent so they are able to understand usage patterns and preferences better, can customize offering as needed, order repairs, refills or replacements as needed, and move towards an overall efficient process while providing a better service. I am not asking for Rosie the robot to serve me coffee (though that future is not that far away as well), but certainly lots can be improved upon…and in a world where instant gratification companies are abound, its time entrepreneurs paid attention to the office as well.

I am in a people and relationships business

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I wake up every morning thankful for how fortunate I am to be doing something for a living that I truly enjoy doing. The most interesting and important part of my life as a VC is interacting with the fascinating people that constitute the startup ecosystem. I am fortunate that some of the smartest, most bold and creative people share their time and attention with me, allow me an opportunity to get to know them, and give me a chance to share in their successes.

People who don’t work in/around startups sometimes think I am in the finance industry. I take time to explain  that I don’t spend a lot of my time developing financial spread sheets, creating powerpoint decks, or editing legal docs. I build networks and participate in them. I open doors and ask others to open doors for me. I work hard to earn people’s trust, evaluate and invest in opportunities, and then work hard on their behalf. I am in a people and relationships business.

I was catching up on email earlier and saw notes from a least three people who were generously connecting back and offering ways in which they could be helpful to me. Two of them were candidates I interviewed for senior roles at portfolio companies and one was an entrepreneur that I had recently passed on as an investment. I was not able to do business with them in the context in which we met, or were introduced, but they ‘paid forward’ to reach back out and shared their desire to continue our relationship, friendship and ability to support each other.

Just this Monday I was trying to evaluate a new investment opportunity with a short fuse, and some extremely busy and senior investors and an entrepreneur took phone calls on literally a few hours notice and provided feedback. They were generous not only with their time but also with their honest opinion and feedback on the opportunity. We were able to decide before sun set that same evening.

It is the generosity of startups founders, investors and others that makes the startup community so resilient and thriving, despite the known fact that most startups eventually fail. There is something about this culture of ‘paying forward’ and ‘pulling the other person up’ that is special. I am definitely a beneficiary of this, and hope to be able to contribute to the same in many more ways going forward.

Advisors vs Mentors and Coaches. Every founder should have them.

I was fortunate to be invited to the MIT Media Lab this week, to speak to and spend time with, a group of students, entrepreneurs and senior executives working in advanced imaging areas. It was a fantastic event and I met some very interesting new people + ideas. There was so much learning for everyone. People pitching new ideas, new mathematics in imaging, new applications of imaging in connectivity, productivity, health, and everyone open to discussing how to succeed at the nexus of technology, design, and business.

After my talk on startup activity in the imaging space, and why it was not an easy space to build companies in, somebody asked about the role of advisors in a startup. And who should be asked to join as advisors to help entrepreneurs from falling into familiar traps. A lively discussion ensued as clearly it was a topic on a lot of people’s mind.

We discussed that young startups, and especially first-time entrepreneurs, should be very careful in choosing advisors. This is not an opportunity to list all your favorite people on a PowerPoint slide. Most advisors unfortunately don’t contextualize their advice, and others carry hammers where everything looks like a nail to them. An advisor’s advice is one person’s opinion, often heavily influenced by their own (limited) experiences. Some advice can be outright dangerous. That said, the right advisors at the right time can be super helpful.

I shared two other thoughts that often come to my mind when I think of advice for less experienced entrepreneurs:

(1) Many startups list lots of advisors to artificially demonstrate credibility in front of investors and customers. Be careful not to overpopulate such lists, or add frivolous people. Not only are people familiar with this tactic and hence it could backfire, it can also create a clusterfuck of ideas in your mind if everyone’s POV is considered. For every advisor, there should be at least one topic that you consider critical to success of your company that you would really want advice from them. If you cannot assign at least one such topic to each advisor, you are doing it wrong.

(2) Rather than generalist advisors, founders should ideas look for and recruit mentors. Advisors can be dime-a-dozen, mentors are not. People sometimes easily agree to being called an advisor to an early stage company (without really contributing much in that role) but they tend to be more guarded and thoughtful before accepting to be a mentor. Mentorship involves building of significant trust, it’s a personal relationship, and it involves a much more significant investment of time/effort and over an extended period of time. I believe everyone should have a mentor…and it’s a relationship that helps one be introspective, grow, and build over time.

Two additional int’g sub-topics came up as we discussed mentors for early stage founders:

(1) several people I spoke to at the MIT Media Lab were senior executives at companies. Some of them mentioned that they feel having a ‘mentor’ vs an ‘advisor’ could signify to others a level of inferiority or lack of seniority in the team. I tried to explain my POV that I wasn’t concerned about semantics…my point was to highlight a difference in relationship. Advisors can give passer-by advice…they sometimes do, and sometimes don’t, contextualize advice to your startup, your personality, and your personal struggles as a founder. Advisors tend to share best practices, but I wish there was a recipe cook book on how to deal with startup challenges. There isn’t. A mentor on the other hand invests time in understanding you. He/she believes in you and wants you to succeed, irrespective of the particular startup you are with at that time. Mentors share their experience but also spend energy trying to understand how your experiences might be shaping the struggles you are facing personally or professionally. I think simply stated, mentors care more than advisors, and I like people who care more about founders.

(2) I found myself mixing the words mentors and coaches when I spoke and realized later there is a big difference. And I think founders need both. Mentors are people founders look up to as role models. Mentors are often in a position to say “if I was in your shoes, this is what I may have done”, because often they have been in such situations before. Mentors can sort of stand in your shoes. Coaches on the other hand are not that. They are smart, thoughtful, high IQ and EQ people who help you figure out your own strengths and weaknesses, and find your own particular solution to the problem you share with them. They are like the basketball coaches of NBA players (who are often much shorter than the players) who have never stood in such big shoes but they help players find the best in them to compete at the highest levels. Coaches are professionals. And one may not look up to the coach, but a good coach is deeply deeply respected.

I am deeply thankful for all the people who have given me advice in the past, and continue to do so. I am also thankful to all the people who hVe provided advice to my portfolio companies, their founders and CEOs. And I am thankful for the few that have agreed to be my mentors and coaches because it would be really hard to learn to be better without you.