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Aligning mindsets toward the ‘Why’ – a successful start-up story

John Molson MBA Q&A series
November 6, 2019
By Chris Wise

John Molson MBA Q&A is a series of interview-style blogposts discussing the John Molson School of Business graduate programs experience from the perspective of current students, faculty and alumni.

This week, Aditya Pendyala, MBA ’12, shares with us the challenges, lessons learned and successes of building up Mnubo, a software technology start-up that was recently acquired by Aspen Tech.

Aditya Pendyala headshot

What is your Mnubo elevator pitch?

We’re a seven-year old start-up that recently got acquired. Mnubo sits at the confluence of three relatively recent phenomena: the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, and Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning and Analytics. We see that the rise in machines is generating a lot of data, which needs to be transformed into some level of intelligence to drive productivity in quality of life and well-being for consumers, as well as productivity and safety for enterprises.

So the elevator pitch for Mnubo is that we help provide software technology platforms that help harness the intelligence from the data generated by IoT or connected objects.

In our name, M stands for machine and ‘nubo’ is a Latin word for ‘cloud’; so it is a machine cloud. The company was to become a cloud infrastructure for all connected machines out there. Our genesis was based on a problem we identified; we realized enterprises were making enormous investments to get their infrastructure and facilities connected, but they were not extracting the full value of the data that these objects and assets and mission-critical systems were generating.

You realize that data has lead the last three decades of waves of technological revolution. One example would be the web revolution, where web data became the cornerstone of what we know as the Internet today. And there is the mobile data revolution, and there is social data revolution. We felt there is an opportunity and a need to do an IoT revolution, and that we would be the spirit of that revolution.

So we weren’t just a generic big data analytics solution; we were very focused on assets, the data that these assets generate, and how you make them perform more efficiently and help them drive more productivity for your business.

Your July 16th LinkedIn post talks about ecosystems and the importance of teamwork.  For you, as you have co-founded this company, what does it mean to be a great team player and what are the best ways of building up your teamwork skills?

When you’re building a start-up, you realize there are three elements that allow you to be successful: People, Process and Product; who you work with (and why you work with them, in some way), how you work with them, and what is the end value. You have to bring all these pieces together.

There is a quote in the book Good to Great, and it is a mission that the co-founders and I live by. It is about putting the right people on the bus and they will tell you where to take the bus. As every start-up grows, there is always this sapling, or seed of culture where, by surrounding yourself with strong individuals, they add to it. There is an organic way the company culture forms. This is why people gravitate towards start-ups; the energy, the culture. The aura and the energy they bring is what forms the engine of a start-up. For me, that part is super important.

Before building Mnubo, had you known that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

I think I had known, but I hadn’t put a label on it as an ‘entrepreneur’. Personally, I relished the opportunity of building things, of creating things, fielding, rebuilding, trying and harmonizing and galvanizing teams around that purpose, which is to build and create. I don’t think that wanting ‘to be my own boss’ is an indication of wanting to be an entrepreneur; wanting to be your own boss, for me, is not the litmus test.  Wanting to create and build and have an impact in that process is the strongest indication, to me, of someone’s entrepreneurial instincts and abilities.

What were the biggest obstacles to taking that leap of becoming an entrepreneur, either for yourself or the company, and how did you overcome them?

I think the biggest obstacle most people face is getting comfortable with the unknowns. The ability to persevere in ambiguity is one of THE most critical qualities in becoming a successful professional. Because, in a world that is rapidly changing, in decisions that are rapidly moving, even in established companies, your ability to persevere and have purpose and clarity of thought in ambiguity and uncertainty is an essential quality in moving forward.

Now for a specific obstacle: it is easier to learn on an individual basis, but how do you learn on a collective basis? Because everyone’s response to risk is different and this is where the notion of defining a common purpose is important. How do you go from a team of five to a team of 20 and still be comfortable that you are moving in the same direction, when everyone has a different perception of risk? It’s bringing them back to the ‘Why’; why are we doing this? What is our common vision?  A constant reminder and reinforcement of the ‘Why’ is important.

I would say the two aspects of risk are aligning internal forces to drive towards a purpose, but also making sure that the ecosystem – from investors to partners to customers to competitors – in a way, they all have to be believers in that purpose too. The risk is not something that is tangible, but is all in the mindset and how you communicate the thought with some degree of confidence and assuredness, despite the unknowns, to make sure that we are all aligning mindsets towards the same cause.

What resources or knowledge did you take from Concordia on your journey?

Pursuing further education, be it an MBA or something else, is a very important decision for one to take because there is an opportunity cost to it.  You are investing time, but the biggest bet one can take is on themselves.  In a world where people are trying to make quick money and short wins, the MBA is a reinforcement that longer-term vision, investment in yourself, is a much more sustainable path to be successful.

In the earlier days when Mnubo was not profitable yet, it was just an idea on the whiteboard, when the founding team was being put together, I realized we had a gap. Of the four cofounders, two were more business- and product-minded, and the other two were more technology-minded. The gap was in a market- and output-facing vision, so I said “I’m going to make an investment in myself to be the person to bridge that gap.”

Mnubo founders

At Concordia, I found the academic frameworks that I learned through the MBA still resonate with me today. I came from an Engineering background, so the notion of a business plan, of financial analysis, organizational behaviour – these are things you can either teach yourself or you can learn.  And this gave me a formal construct to learn inside the MBA program.

The other aspect I felt was the ability to network with like-minded people from multiple disciplines; this is essential. Sometime we get stuck in an echo chamber, where your ideas sound good because people around you think the same way.  It is ok to be like-minded, but make sure you are doing it with different perspectives at the same time.

You spoke about the business plan and organizational behaviour. How did you draft your plan and build your strategy for Mnubo?  And, particularly, what tools did you use to develop and follow it?

Part of starting any start-up journey is getting started. People underestimate that. A lot of people – and I am saying this with a tongue-in-cheek comment – are going to spend so much time looking for the name and the brand and the logo and looking at the perfect marketing punchline.

If you draw the concentric circles, you have got to go in the middle, which is the ‘Why’.  And then the ‘What’ and then the ‘How’. The moment you focus on the ‘Why’ and get extremely passionate about the ‘Why’ and you’re able to draw passion from all of the people around the ‘Why’, you’re already there, you’re already on the right path.

I strongly encourage the process of writing a business plan. There is this notion that business plans are ‘a thing of the past’. A business plan forces those unorganized ideas in your head to be put in a way that people around you can align towards. How real can this be? How complete can this be? Can I communicate it correctly to everyone and can everyone understand it the same way I can? And, more importantly, how sustainable can this be? Is it a spark or is it a long-term passion? When you look at the original business plan for Mnubo, the vision hasn’t actually changed. The ‘What’ and the ‘How’ have changed dramatically, but the ‘Why’ is very true to its original inception.

Tools?  Well, first, be a good communicator. Written communication is extremely important. And be a good presenter, because adding a voice behind your words, adding passion behind your words, adding personality behind your words allows you to lead, in a way. I think most leaders have that quality.

Your ability to keep on top of the industry trends out of self-interest is also super important. I think, if you look at Silicon Valley, the reason that a lot of people come from unorthodox backgrounds and become successful entrepreneurs is that they are so informed about what’s happening around them that they are able to write a problem statement better than a ‘techy’ can, and that is what takes them forward.

I think reading books is an important way of understanding experiences and other frameworks. But, for current affairs, there are several sets of articles that are purpose-built for the topic that you are into. So use the books to build the broader framework of how a mind should organize itself, but go deep enough into your area of interest and domain so that you are aware of trends and investments.

Every morning I start by getting a general sense of the news but, in my industry, I like to know what is happening in and around it. So I set up personal alerts and notification, I built that digest to make sure to keep a pulse on what’s happening on the day.

What was the most daunting setback for the company and what did you do to help solve the problem?

We were on the verge of signing a game-changing deal for the company and, minutes to midnight, the enterprise we were signing with got acquired. So their decision making completely changed and the entire deal got put on hold. It was a big setback because the deal would have quickly catapulted us to a much higher level. It took us, to be honest, a few weeks if not a month to recover from this.

Then, we took a step back and looked at what steps we had taken to get to that point with the account, as well as at the macro landscape of what other customers fit that need profile. We were able to replicate it and ensure we were not betting on one horse. So we had this big roadblock, this ‘setback’ or failure, which set up the foundation to, not only leapfrog, but traverse the vertical in a much more interesting way.

On a macro level, another setback as a company is that the mindset that takes you from 0 to 1 is not the same mindset that takes you from 1 to 10, and 10 to 100. When we reached our initial milestones, we felt that we would just do more of the same and go from 1 to 10. That that did not work, it did not scale. So we actually ended up needing to be more organized in the way we communicate to our team, and to organize our team in order to get to that level of scaling. Be cognizant in your maturity as a company, what milestones you hit and what stage you are at, and then organize yourself for the next phase you want to be at. Don’t try to just inject more fuel in the current phase, because that model may not actually scale up.

There are two ways to build a car. The more traditional way would be: I’ll build wheels, I’ll build a chassis, I’ll build an engine, I’ll build a steering wheel and I’ll have a car. But the start-up way of doing it is: first, I’ll build a skateboard, then I’ll build a scooter, then I’ll build a bicycle, right?  And then, eventually, I’ll build the car. And that’s the mode I was talking about; understanding whether you are at the skateboard phase, or at the bicycle phase.

Mnubo and Aspen Tech

It’s been a very good ride for Mnubo so far, but the journey is not over yet. We have moved on from our speedboat to a rocket ship. Aspen Tech, the company that acquired Mnubo, is a phenomenal company that is changing the way more traditional enterprises use technology to digitize their initiatives. And we are going to be a critical part of that transformation.

How do you measure, share and celebrate success?

First, make sure it is clearly communicated and reinforced on a regular basis. If you think that it is said once and that it is engrained in people, it’s not true. You have to reinforce the ‘Why’ and how we measure the ‘Why’, regularly.

Secondly, make it visible to all. Imagine you are running a race and you don’t know where the finish line is. Why does everyone take the last sprint so well? It’s because it is clear where the finish line is. So make it visible to all.

Third, celebrate the steps to success, rather than just celebrating the success. If you have a very clear and measurable goal, you should also have mini goals that are aligned to get you to the end milestone. Celebrate those mini goals because, more often than not, you’ll realize that the path is not straight. It is more up and down. How do make sure you keep the morale and the spirit and motivation up when you’re on the way down, despite the fact that you’re still on the way up? It’s about celebrating those mini milestones. By saying ‘We are already at step 2, we are going to face a challenge going from step 2 to step 3, but let’s celebrate the fact that we are at step 2.”

We have a bell in the hallway, which we ring and we announce it and we acknowledge the people who helped us get to step 2 and say ‘Here is why this person helped and this is why it mattered.’ And sometimes that individual recognition from the collective group, first, validates the person, but also helps create a sense of inspiration. Because there are people in that group who are working on step 3, and they know they are accountable to their peers who brought them to step 2, to take them to step 3. They want to ring that bell as well.

For more information on the John Molson MBA, visit our website. Then connect with a recruiter to arrange a one-to-one meeting or participate in one of our many online information sessions.

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